Rejoice, Pray, and Give Thanks!

December 14th, 2014

Third Sunday in Advent-B, December 14, 2014

Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114

Click here for audio of this message.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Isaiah 61:1]

You dear Christians know these Words well, don’t you?  Of course you do; it was your Lord who read them in the synagogue and added these additional gospel Words: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” [Luke 4:21]  In other Words, Jesus is telling us that this prophecy spoken first by Isaiah is ultimately fulfilled by the work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  But do not diminish the importance of the prophet Isaiah, all other prophets, John the Baptist, the holy Apostles, and all faithful preachers and proclaimers of God’s Word, including this humble preacher who stands before you.

My earnest prayer is that God would train each of our hearts to hear His Word when faithfully proclaimed and know by faith that the preacher’s Words are really in fact God’s Word, and that the man addressing you is to be received as a scholar from God.  Speaking through the mouth of the preacher is not simply the voice of a thousand angels but Christ Himself declaring that God is present to bring into your hearts a message of true and lasting forgiveness of sins.  He is speaking to repair hearts that have been broken by other’s sin, to free you from the condemnation of the Law of God, and to free you from the accusations of guilt that come from your own conscience.  In other Words, this is your season of blessing and good favor from God Himself!

Isn’t this the one message that we sinners long to hear?  Isn’t it true that with out the work of Christ that sets us free from our sin and guilt, we in fact remain imprisoned by our own passions and lust for something that never seems to  complete us or fulfill us?  Don’t we all really just yearn to hear God say, “Your sins are forgiven”?  And this dear friends is exactly the message that God is bringing to you this morning.  You are forgiven!  If you will receive this message and work of Christ, then you will find that your ashes of failure have been replaced with the oil of gladness instead of mourning.  And instead of walking around like old “Sad Sack” in your dark and lonely attire, God has in fact clothed you in Christ’s own robe of righteousness, which for you is to be a garment of praise unto your God and Savior.

Now you may be wondering if all of this is true for you, and if so how it can be true.  And simply put, your answer is this: “It is the Lord Jesus work and it is marvelous in our sight!”  In your baptism, Christ planted you within His garden, within His kingdom to be a mighty oak of praise unto your God.  All who see you are to acknowledge you as the very offspring of God, a child who is highly favored and blessed.

You are here to rejoice in the Lord so that others will also be drawn into His year of favor and Kingdom of Grace.  But how?  The answer is in our Epistle reading (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24).

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.”

Now, at first this might sound like just another demand of the Law of God; a demand that like all others is outside of our ability to complete.  You might hear it like this: Rejoice, don’t ever stop praying… ever, and don’t ever forget to say “thank you” to the Lord, or else!  But remember, God has sent me this morning to proclaim good news and to set you free from your fears of failure to measure up.  He has sent me to point out to you this part of the reading: “For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Do you hear that?  It is God’s will, His desire that you be in a continuous spirit of prayer, that you offer up praise and rejoice in His presence, and that you be thankful in all things, and because it is His will for you He will make sure that you are able.  This morning it is my duty and privilege to proclaim to you that it is “He who began the good work in you  (who) will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” [Philippians 1:6]

Do you understand dear saints that it is not your responsibility to complete you in God’s holiness, but instead, it is the Lord’s work that completes you?  It is the work of the Holy Spirit, which since your baptism has dwelt in you richly in order to complete what was begun in your baptism.  And it is also the Holy Spirit’s work to ensure that you are in fact bearing the fruit of Christ’s cross.

From Christ’s passion upon the cross, your heart has been taken to the Font where you received that holy cleansing of the water and the Word, and from the Font, your hearts have been given the faith necessary to receive the Word of God as it comes directly from His heart and into yours.  And as this Word continues to sanctify, that is preserve you in faith and eternal life, you experience the work of the Holy Spirit, which gives you a spirit of joy.

Rejoicing in the Lord is a natural and consistent expression of one who has been forgiven much through Christ.  And because it is a work of the Holy Spirit, and not your own, it causes you to be filled with joy, a glad confidence in knowing that all things will work together for your good.  But the ugliness of this sinful world does its best to take our eyes of faith off of God’s own goodness through Christ, and for this reason, God has commanded you to call out to Him in prayer.

Prayer, that is the ability to speak directly to God at any given time, is a privilege given only to those who see a need for a Savior.   Those who scoff at the infant lowly, born in a manger and crucified upon the cross for the sins of the world, obviously see no need for a Savior; they have neither God’s ear nor heart when they pray.  Why?  Because prayer is a privilege given only to those who know that without Jesus, they are helpless and hopeless.  You see it is your ability to call out to God in prayer knowing that in Christ, you are never helpless and vulnerable, which empowers you to naturally produce another trait that God wills we Christians to have… a spirit of thankfulness.

Be thankful in all circumstances.  In other words be thankful in all things.  This does not mean that we are to be thankful for all things, because as we all no there is much evil in this world, but in the midst of the evil, we can be thankful that in Christ, all of God is right there with us. (Cancer, Illness, Addiction?)

One of the most difficult things that God’s Word asks us to do is to adjust to the many changes that happen in our lives.  But it becomes so much easier when we remember that He is right there with us in the midst of those changes.  And this is another reason why we must gather often to hear His Word proclaimed; we must be reminded constantly that because the God who delivered me from my sins through Christ is ever and always at work throughout life’s changes, then at the very least I can by faith be thankful to Him for the work He is doing to preserve me in the one true faith.

Thanksgiving, prayer, and rejoicing are God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  These three crisp words jump out at us not as a command, but as a description of the desire of God’s heart.  They are gifts of the Holy Spirit, that keep our hearts centered on the work of Christ’s cross and the promise of the resurrection, which is proclaimed through Christ’s empty tomb.  We must remind each other that because we are adopted children of God through Christ, we have been enable by God to live out holy lives and embrace the fullness of live that is ours by grace.  But even this too is a work of God, performed so that we might never quench the work of the Holy Spirit that sanctifies us until the day of Jesus Christ.

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; that is may no nook or cranny of your life be left without the peace of God.  May He reign undisturbed in every portion of your being, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it, and it can be done in no other way.  AMEN!

Words of Comfort and Warning

December 7th, 2014

Second Sunday in Advent-B, December 7, 2014

Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114

Click here for audio of this message.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” [Isaiah 40:1]

Comfort… the consolation and reassurance of those who are in distress, anxiety or need. This kind of comfort is an essential part of being human, of living within a community. Scripture declares and reassures us that God is continually comforting His people in times of distress.  And so He does through our message this morning.

Have you heard the story about an old farmer who had been in the habit of plowing his field with an ox and a mule together?  One morning, the ox said to the mule, “Let’s play sick today and rest a little while.” But the old mule said, “No, we need to get the work done, for the season is short.”  But the ox played sick, and the farmer brought him fresh hay and corn and made him comfortable. When the mule came in from plowing, the ox asked how he made out. “We didn’t get as much done, but we made it all right,” answered the mule. Then the ox asked, “What did the old man say about me?” “Nothing,” said the mule.  The next day the ox, thinking he had a good thing going, played sick again. When the mule came in again very tired, the ox asked, “How did it go?” The mule said, “All right, I guess, but we didn’t get much done.” Then the ox also asked, “What did the old man say about me?” “Nothing to me,” was the reply, “but he did stop and have a long talk with the butcher.” The moral of the story?  Be careful, or your idea of comfort may in fact be the beginning of your demise!

This morning God speaks to us real words of comfort, and they come directly from His heart. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” [Isaiah 40:1, 2]

Not just once, “Comfort”, but twice, “Comfort, comfort.” So the Lord begins with a single repeated command. The command flows from the heart of God, and God himself directs this message to be proclaimed  by His messengers, who will announce the good news of his undying love. God wants everyone to hear these words of comfort. He calls us, “my people.” After all of our unfaithfulness, all our rebellion, all our sins, we are still his people! God is still our God, and more than that, He is faithful and gracious, as he promised to be long ago: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” [Exodus 34:6, 7]

Here is a truth that many forget as they mistakenly proclaim their version of comfort: The church through the equipping and power of the Holy Spirit has been entrusted with a new and different kind of teaching, which is the proclamation of the Gospel.

But go to many churches today, and you will hear nothing but the Law; nothing but a confusing message of self-improvement. But that is not God’s heart; He desires that a new message be proclaimed.  He desires that we the church proclaim a sweet, comforting, and joyful message, the Gospel.

This morning God calls you His people. You dear saints are a people, which He will never forsake.  But we are not God’s people by natural birth, but like those born unnaturally.  We are a people who have been crushed and humbled, plagued by turmoil, and who call upon God in the day of trouble. There are other people who trust in their own way, works, and riches, but they are not the people of God. They don’t need comfort, because they have not gone through real sadness for their sins, tribulation over the fate of their sins, and turmoil over the solution to their sins.  They will not receive comfort because their cup is full and there isn’t any room for comfort and consolation.

But you dear Christians hear these words of comfort from your God and you long for it.  Your are not afraid, because you know God as a friend.  You call out to Him, “Dear Father make me holy and pleasing.”  And God speaks back to you, “I have and will continue to make you holy through Christ.  I have brought an end to your terror and fear; I have brought you a double portion of forgiveness for all of your sins.”

And This is how God makes you holy. “A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” [Isaiah 40:3-9]

Seven hundred years after Isaiah wrote these words, John the Baptist appeared. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that he came preaching, and all three cite this passage, identifying John the Baptist as the voice who calls. But John the Baptist was not the only voice that fulfilled this prophecy. All preachers have a similar calling to announce the good news of God’s love for all the world. Finally, all believers respond to the Lord’s call when they give voice to the gospel and live out the freedom of the gospel as a witness to others.

The message of John the Baptist and every messenger of God remains, a message of repentance. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. The prophecy pictures the Lord coming to his people from the wilderness. In preparation for his coming, the people are to prepare his way by removing all obstacles to his coming. The mountains, rough ground, and rugged places represent the natural condition of the hearts of the people; by nature all human hearts are hard as rock. The call of the gospel empowers human hearts to believe. Repentance is a turning away from sin and a trusting in the forgiveness God offers. That was John’s message in the wilderness and the message of every believer who gives voice to the hope within. Through the words of the gospel, God knocks on the door of an impenitent, unbelieving heart and creates faith. The obstacles disappear when the Holy Spirit creates faith.

And now for a Word of warning. “A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. [Isaiah 40:6-10]

The voice of the church, of every faithful pastor and proclaimer of the gospel always cries out two messages.  The first is repent, that is turn to God’s mercy because your many sins that define you, are proof that you will die in those sins with no promise of real comfort without God’s solution.  And the second part of the message shows you God’s solution… they show you your Savior Jesus Christ and declare, “Behold your God!”

Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world… even your sins.”  But the sinful world will not receive a Savior born in a manger and put to death upon a cross.  This idea of God is ridiculous to them.  They can not admit that their existence without this Lamb is exactly like the grass and flowers; they can not admit that without faith in Jesus, they too will one day simply wither away and pass into the eternal judgment of this very same unattractive God!

And God’s solution to this is simply for the preacher to go up onto the high places, lift up their voices with strength and… and… proclaim the message again and again.  “The Lord has come and you are free.  The Lord will come again and you will either behold and receive His reward or you will receive your eternal punishment.”

And now for a Word of encouragement for you the church as we wait for Christ’s second advent. “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; He will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” [Isaiah 40:11]

Dear saints, you have been prepared for the coming of your Lord Jesus.  You are prepared because by faith you see that He first came as a baby, the Son of God born in a manger, and that He left this world as a Conqueror and Savior when He defeated sin, death, and the devil upon the cross and through the truth of the empty tomb.  You have been prepared for that great day when Christ will come again and provide for each of you a resurrected body like His, to live forever within His eternal reign of the new heaven and earth.  But as you wait for His return, you do not wait alone.  Hasn’t He promised that He is with you always, even until the end of this present sinful age?  And because He is with you, you rest within His very heart as He leads you.  But leads you where?  Out, out, forever out into the darkness of this sinful world demonstrating His love to those who are lost, through the very lives that you live.  When you the baptized devote yourselves to the very lives He has equipped you to live, those in darkness who will not acknowledge the Lamb of God, take notice of you and how you live!  As you perform sacrificial acts of kindness such as offering forgiveness freely, caring for the poor, obeying the laws and authorities, helping strangers and neighbors alike in time of need, people notice; people who need a Savior.  And when they notice and they comment, you may simply point them to both the source of your comfort and the divine power that gives it.  You point them to Jesus Christ.

Dear friends, as you live your lives within God’s comfort may He bless your efforts to lead others to the source of that comfort, even to this little church we call Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church.  In Jesus name… AMEN!

Are You Ready For The Rending?

November 30th, 2014

First Sunday in Advent-B, November 30, 2014

Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114

Click here for audio of this message.

“Time Enough at Last” became one of the most famous episodes of the original Twilight Zone, and has been frequently parodied since. It is “the story of a man who seeks salvation in the rubble of a ruined world” and tells of Henry Bemis, played by Burgess Meredith, who loves books, yet is surrounded by those who would prevent him from reading them. The narration of the episode begins with these words: “Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself…without anyone.”

Bank teller and avid bookworm Henry Bemis is at work at his tellers window, while reading David Copperfield, and because of the distraction of the book, he shortchanges a customer who becomes annoyed. Bemis’s angry boss, and later his wife, both complain to him that he wastes far too much time reading books.

The next day, as usual, Bemis takes his lunch break in the bank’s vault, where his reading will not be disturbed. Moments later he sees a newspaper headline, which reads “H-Bomb Capable of Total Destruction”, and just then, an enormous explosion outside the bank violently shakes the vault, knocking Bemis unconscious. After regaining consciousness and finding his thick glasses that he needs to see, Bemis emerges from the vault to find the bank demolished and everyone in it dead. Leaving the bank, he sees that the entire city has also been destroyed, and realizes that a nuclear war has devastated the Earth, but because he was in the vault, he was spared.

Finding himself totally alone in a shattered world with food to last him a lifetime, but no one to share it with, Bemis begins to be overcome with despair, but in the distance, Bemis sees the ruins of the public library. Investigating, he finds that the books are still intact and readable; all the books he could ever hope for are his for the reading, and (as he gazes upon a huge fallen face of a clock) he realizes that he has all the time in the world to read them without interruption.

His despair gone, Bemis contentedly sorted through the books he looked forward to reading for years to come. Just as he bent down to pick up the first book, he stumbled, and his glasses fell off and shattered. In shock, he picked up the broken remains of the glasses that are now useless, leaving him virtually blind, and he says, “That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was all the time I wanted…! That’s not fair!”, as he burst into tears, surrounded by books he now can never read.

Mr. Bemis was not ready for the rending of the heavens and the final judgment day; he was not ready to discover that it is God alone who defines what is fair and what is not.  He was not ready for God to come in power, are you?  Can you truly agree with the prophet Isaiah and say…

“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, and the nations might tremble at your presence!  When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for Him.  You meet Him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” [Isaiah 64:1-5]

God has come down and “rended” the heavens in the past; He came to meet sinful yet faithful men and women as they were.  He answered the prayers of His people when they were in bondage in Egypt and caused great plagues to strike the land and its people until mighty Pharaoh let His people go!  He parted the Red Sea so that they could escape on dry land, but then allowed the waters to recede and destroy the pursuing Egyptian army.  He listened to the faithful prayer of King Hezekiah, and thwarted the Assyrian army that had amassed itself around Jerusalem by striking down tens of thousands of Assyrian soldiers in their camp while they slept.”

Faith, which is a gift of God turns to the Lord in prayer.  Even when God seems shut away and silent in heaven, faith prays.  The message that God desires us to take with us this morning is that even in ominous times, God wants His children of faith to call out to Him in prayer.  He wants us to call out to Him, “Our Father, our Redeemer from of old” (Isaiah 63:16), “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence!” These are the words of a believer—a child of faith who is facing difficult times, but still clinging to God’s promises of power and grace.  For those who cry out like this, everything may seem to be “out of whack” in this world; evil may seem to be over powering good, and the devil may seem to be stopping even God’s will, but faith still prays.

In times like those, when God’s enemies seem to be defying His rule and authority, the prophet Isaiah encourages all believers to call out to God and ask that He step in and correct this apparent imbalance.  “O Lord, come quickly.  Assert your power; protect and deliver your people.  Destroy your enemies and the enemies of your people.”

But there is just one little problem.  If we are honest, we too are many times found to be acting as if we are faithless; we too because of our sins, have been and will be again the enemies of God.  We remember the God of old and His mighty deeds, and we are afraid.  We are afraid because we know that we too fall short of the qualification of joyfully working towards righteousness.

“Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?  We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.  We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  (This is why) There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses Himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” [Isaiah 65:5-7]

So what is the solution to our apparent inability to call out to God, to see and hear God in a righteous way?  How can we possibly rid ourselves of so many and so vile of a list of sins, sins which soak into our very being making us in God’s eyes simply a bunch of filthy rags?  (Filthy rags which are like those discarded by a woman during her menstrual period.). The answer is that we can do nothing to rid ourselves of this curse of sin, but God can!  He alone must work once again in a way that this sinful world would never expect.  He must do what we can not.  He must come quickly to be our defender and our Savior.

No one could have foretold of the mighty deeds God did in Egypt to free His people; no one could have foretold that God would rend the heavens and shake the mountains as He met Moses on the mountain top and spoke with Him.  No one could have foretold that God would save Jerusalem by striking down the Assyrian army as they surrounded the remnant of Israel.  And no one would have guessed that all of this was leading up to God’s greatest miracle for sinful men and women such as us.  Sinful men and women who since the fall of Adam and Eve, have been held in the cruel bondage of sin.  We could never love God and our neighbor as God’s perfect law demands… it is beyond us.  But God made a way out of no way.

Who could ever have imagined that God would bring us back to Him by grace through faith, by sacrificing His own Son upon a wooden cross at Calvary?  What human mind could have anticipated the empty tomb?  Could anyone have anticipated that by faith in God’s Son and Servant Jesus Christ, a man or woman could become an adopted child of God?  But this is always how our mighty God acts; He reveals His truths to humanity… in a way that all of creation must simply stand in awe and receive His gift of presence with thanksgiving and praise.

The wisdom of God’s gracious and powerful plan lies completely outside of our realm of understanding.  If any man or woman is to understand and receive God’s work of redemption they must first be given the ability to believe and receive it through the faith giving power of the Holy Spirit that comes to them through His proclaimed and fulfilled Word of promises.  In other words, they must hear and receive the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In our Old Testament lesson, which is simply a prayer of the prophet Isaiah, we are drawn to God’s loving heart along with the prophet to call out to God in prayer and then hold fast to a principle which teaches, that God always acts on behalf of those who wait for Him.  But He only acts for those who know Him as Father and Savior.  He acts for those who know that He is the potter and they are His clay; they are His creation.

“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.  Behold, please look, we are all your people. [Isaiah 64:8, 9]

Why should God even listen to our prayers, let alone respond to them?  Because we are the clay, and He molds us after His will.  We are the work of His hands; His mighty hands, the hands of Jesus, which were pierced for our transgressions.

In one part of God’s Word, we discover that our disgusting sins are all that is needed to separate us from God’s love, but in another part of God’s Word, the gospel, faith tells us of another way; it tells us that through His Son, Christ Jesus, we may turn to Him by faith and trust in His gracious promises to both redeem and save us, and to remake us into the image of His Son.

Many of you have been taught since your were children to both begin your prayers “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and to always pray “in Jesus’ name.”  Why do you suppose that is?  It is because God has no reason to listen to any of us outside of the miraculous work of His Son Jesus!  We come to Him in the name of Jesus, who has shed His blood to wash away our sins and cover us with His robe of righteousness.  When we call upon and trust in the name of Jesus, God invites us to pray to Him as dear children and to ask their dear Father for those things that we need.  We can pray with confidence and boldness because, in Jesus, God IS our dear Father.

As we enter into the season of Advent, it is my prayer that the peace of God will allow your heart to boldly call out to God, asking Him to come again through His Son and rend the heavens and make all things right and well for each of you, as you are transferred from the Kingdom of grace into the Kingdom of glory and power.  I ask this in Jesus name… AMEN!

Lambs Don’t Shove?

November 23rd, 2014

Last Sunday of the Church Year-November 23, 2014

Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114

Click here for audio of this message.

Yes, you are Jesus little lamb and further He gives you every reason to be glad at heart as He leads you through life as a gentle shepherd.  And as you follow, you are assured by faith that He knows your every need and that He provides for those needs in your life.  Since all of this is true, then why do you sometimes act as though it isn’t true?  Why do we as people seem to have this insatiable desire to be first and best, even at the expense of other little lambs around us?  Why is it that we never seem to have a shortage of good ideas in our minds on how to do things better, but we seldom are willing to offer our own efforts in order to accomplish those ideas?

I submit to you that the reason is very simple, and it looks back at us every day in the mirror.  While we may indeed be Jesus little lambs, we live our lives as if we are Jesus mighty and powerful rams, pushing and shoving trying to be the shot caller, trying to get the best seat, the best place in line, and the most important position available.  And while we congratulate ourselves for living as a strong sheep and not some helpless little lamb, Jesus warns us in our gospel lesson (Matthew 25:31-46) that we are acting more like a goat.

Now, we should be clear from the outset that this kind of sinful behavior is nothing new; God had to deal with this same issue years ago through the prophets, and this morning in our Old Testament lesson (Ezekiel 34:11-24) we hear him speak about this very issue through the prophet Ezekiel.  Listen: “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats.  Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture, and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet.  And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?” (Vs. 17-19)

This morning God is speaking to us just as He did the Jews who were in exile in Babylon.  He is speaking in a way that calls attention to the sinful practices that He observed in the lives of His people then, and in the lives of His children of faith today.  He sees Christians acting like the godless goats and beasts around them and not like sheep.  And he isn’t just talking about how we act in church, but how we act in our families and within our communities.  He is warning us that if we insist on being someone of importance, that is a leader and not a follower then He will hold us to a much higher degree of accountability.

This morning, you may find yourself thinking that you are more equipped to lead the church, your family, or community than others, and because your superior abilities have been underused or gone unappreciated, you find yourself pushing and shoving others so that you can be heard and recognized.  God sees, and He is not impressed.  And what He sees is that through your pushing and shoving, you are teaching through your actions an incorrect faith or false teaching; you are teaching that your way is better than God’s way; you are muddying the waters of true doctrine, and you will answer for what you are doing.  Every time you exert your personality over another sheep, in church, at home, or within our community, and you take away their ability to enjoy God’s provisions for joy and peace in their lives, you are going to pay; Jesus says you will be judged as a goat and not a sheep; you will be cast out into darkness, never more knowing the care of your good shepherd.  In other words, “If you want to act like a goat and not a sheep, then go for it.  You are a goat; so go to the place of goats!”

This morning, God promises to do two things: First He will personally remove the false shepherds who push, shove, and take advantage of the flock, and second, He will personally provide for the needs of His sheep.  He will seek out His sheep who are lost in the church, in the family, and in the community, and bring them back into the fold.  How will he do this?  By reminding us that…

We are His little lambs. We are not mighty rams or wild goats.  We are his little ones that so badly need His care; we need His Son, Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, because without Him, we will become lost; lost in our communities, lost in our families, and even lost within our church.

Dear friends, this is a truth that each of us must hear, whether we are in leadership or simply part of the flock.  We are all being led by only one Good Shepherd, and the voice of another we must not listen to.

In a world in which it is increasingly difficult to find Christian leaders in any area of life, isn’t it comforting to know that the Lord has promised to become personally involved in caring for the needs of his people, even when those who should be providing leadership aren’t doing their jobs. When you think about it, that’s much better anyway, isn’t it?

Jesus is a faithful Shepherd. It is more comforting to put yourself in His care than in anybody else’s.  Jesus is the only Shepherd who has not only laid down His life for His sheep, but He took it back up again when He rose from the dead.  Jesus is your good shepherd who suffered as you suffer, but even more His sufferings were for you; not only for your eternal salvation, but also so that you might have joy and peace right now, even though you see people in positions of authority over you abusing their high callings of leadership.

Now to those of us who are in positions of authority or desire those positions, God has this Word for us: If we fail to be Christian shepherds in our families, in our community, in our congregation, we can expect those under our leadership, to start trampling the pasture, muddying the water, and shoving and taking advantage of the weak. Sinful human beings do such things if they are not constantly pointed to the Lord Jesus, our true Good Shepherd and his way.

So how do we correct our sinful tendency to push and shove others at the expense of cutting them off from the peace and joy that Jesus provides?  By remembering that we too are only Jesus little lambs.

When we remember that we are Jesus’ little lambs and not some big shot ram or wild goat, we will also remember that we follow our Good Shepherd.  “For He grew up… like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him.”  He was born in the humblest of births, born in a manger.  Even though He was the eternal Son of God, He was known simply as the son of Mary, and the son of a blue-collar carpenter.  “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.  Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But He was pierced (upon the cross) for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.”

“(And) All we like sheep have gone astray (like lost little lambs who think they are powerful rams or wild goats, we are lost in our families, our communities, and even within our church); we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on (Jesus) the iniquity (the sin) of us all.”

(And as they took your precious Jesus, the Good Shepherd away to the cross to die for your sins, He modeled the life of a little lamb; a trusting sheep who follows its shepherd.  “He was oppressed and He was afflicted (for you), yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.” [Isaiah 53:2-7]  And neither did He push nor shove, but instead He simply trusted His God and Father.  And just before His final moment of life upon the cross, He experienced something so horrible that it troubled His soul and caused Him to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But that was His human flesh crying out only; you see Jesus, the begotten and eternal Son of God knew why He must be forsaken at the ninth hour; He was forsaken so that His little lambs could trust that He would never forsake or leave them.  He suffered in their place so that each of us would know for certain that nothing and no one can ever pluck us from His hand nor the hand of His father.  For we rest as sheep in His pasture.

So how do we remain sheep within God’s flock?  How can we be protected from the ambitions of being a ram or the irresponsible living of a goat?  By remembering that not only are we sheep in God’s flock, but even smaller than sheep, we are simply little lambs who know nothing of the dangers ahead nor how to avoid them.  And as little lambs, we simply follow the voice of our Good Shepherd trusting in His guiding way.  He guides us with His rod and His staff, which are His Word and His sacraments.  His law warns us when we are wandering astray, and His gospel seeks us out, cleans us up, and nuzzles us back into the fold as one who was once lost but now is found, nestled safely in the love of Christ, back in the fold.  He has cleansed us in Holy Baptism, and He nourishes us through the sacrament of the Altar.  And together with the other sheep, we sing in peace and joy these true words: “Who so happy as I am, even now the Shepherd’s lamb?  And when my short life is ended, by His angel host attended, He shall fold me to His breast, there within His arms to rest.”  AMEN!

Can You Be Sure?

November 9th, 2014

Pentecost 22A, November 9, 2014

Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114

Click here for audio of this message.

“If you were to die tonight, are you sure you would go to heaven?  If so, why?  Can you be sure?”  Those were some of the introductory question behind a program called “The Evangelism Explosion” created by Dr. D James Kennedy in the 1960’s that became popular with many Lutheran congregations in the 1980’s and 90’s.  The questions in and of themselves are pertinent, but the conversations that they sparked, very rarely ended with a sense of security, in fact in my opinion, those questions left both the interviewer and the one being interviewed with a deep sense of hope (I hope I’m saved), and also a feeling of fear (what if I’m not saved?).  This is why the “Evangelism Explosion” kind of fizzled out within our denomination.

What many of us discovered was that faith is not something you can logically present to someone, rather it comes when a person encounters the crucified and resurrected Jesus through the Word of God within real life contexts.  But like I said, the questions in and of themselves are worth considering, so let me ask the question in a different way; “Can you be sure you are saved?

In our Old Testament lesson (Amos 5:18-24), God through the prophet Amos was talking to a bunch of people who just knew that they were saved.  After all, they were the children of Abraham, a chosen and unique people.  There was no need to ask them if they were saved, or if they were afraid of the day of judgment, because each of them would have answered quickly, “Of course I’m saved, and why would I be afraid, I’m a son of Abraham!”  But God did not send Amos to ask thought provoking questions; instead He sent Amos to deliver some very bad news, listen: “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord?  It is darkness and not light”.  This is a blunt warning from God that their eternal security is not nearly secure as they thought it was.  Within these words, God was telling them that if they continue in their insincerity of faith, the Lord’s coming on the last day will mean trouble worse than any they have ever experienced or would experience on this earth.

Amos said that the Israelites were like a man who runs away from a roaring lion (which represented their current troubles), only to be met by a more dangerous bear (which symbolized the day of the Lord, or judgment day).  And if that analogy didn’t get their attention, He gave them another one: It will be like someone who reaches home safely (the day of judgment and rest in heaven), only to lean against the wall in your home and have a snake jump out of a whole near your hand and bite you.  That bite is God’s judgment and it would take the people by surprise.

But why wouldn’t they receive the promised salvation that they thought was theirs?  Because they broke their covenant with God.  So for them, the day of the Lord would be as dark as midnight on a country road.  So what happened?  How did those who were once so close to God’s love and mercy fall so far away?

Well God answered that question in the rest of our reading, listen: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offering and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offering of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them.  Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

What God was telling the people then and us today is that just going through the motions of worship without faith can’t save you; their hearts were not devoted to God, but instead they embraced the ways of the world around them.  They trusted in the things that life brought and not in the things that God gives.  They thought that being a faithful child of God meant following a set worship formula, which would please God and assure them of His favor and eternal peace.  In their opinion, going to God’s sanctuary for festivals and assemblies was a way of appeasing God and staying on His good side, even while they disobeyed His commandments and broke His covenantal laws during the week.

But what about we Christians today?  Is God pleased with our worship and our liturgies that we practice today?  And the answer is the same now as it was then: Only when our worship comes from penitent faith-filled hearts.  That is hearts that painfully agree with God that they are sinful and unclean and can only be changed and saved by God alone.

The danger for us today is the same danger that had consumed the people of Amos’ time.  We too, run the risk of losing our security if we think that our Sunday worship centered around liturgies, hymns, and offerings are a way to stay on God’s good side, and then when the worship is over, we live a life that cares nothing about God’s will for us as we live out our lives at home, at work, and at play.  In other words, if we are using Sunday worship to excuse our misconduct during the week, we are in for a very rude awakening.

So here we find that religion offers no guarantee that God will be pleased with us on the Day of Judgment.  So then, what about those who say they love God, claim Jesus as their Lord, try to live a decent life before God and their neighbor, but see no need for faithful church attendance?  Where do they stand?

In our gospel lesson (Matthew 25:1-13), Jesus in His story about the ten virgins, let’s the non-religious people know where they stand as well.  I think that the story is meant to answer a simple question that was hidden inside the heart of the sincere Jews who were listening to and following Jesus, and that question is this: “What shall we do while we are waiting for the day of the Lord to come?”  And what is Jesus answer?  “Make sure you have plenty of oil in your lamps!”  So what does the oil represent?

Martin Luther and many others felt that the oil represented faith.  I like that explanation, but like the questions used in the Evangelism Explosion, simply saying “have faith,” can be received more like the law than the gospel, depending on what you think faith is.

Some Christian scholars will tell you that the oil represents good works that are done because of faith.  But again, how is the individual Christian to define works of faith, and when has the individual done enough works so that God is pleased?  No, I am afraid if the oil has anything to do with what we do, then this is the law, and the law demands that all of our works must be done perfectly and unceasingly, which I’m sure you would agree is impossible for sinners such as us?

But let me steer your sinful hearts away from you and your abilities and point your eyes to another way to define the oil.  What if the oil is simply the source of our faith and the power within us that produces good works.  What if the oil is simply your relationship with God, who is the source and power behind all that is good in our lives and in this world?  If this is what the oil in our lamps represents, then we can also see who the two different classes of virgins are.  The five that had their lamps lit with an ample supply of oil are those who remained close to God and His gifts of grace.  And the five who ran out of oil would be those who had become distant to God and His gifts of mercy and forgiving love.

You see, each of us in our baptisms were cleansed of all sin.  We were as St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “presented (to the Lord) as a pure virgin.”  That is, through the work of God we were made pure and holy and acquired by Him to be His own children, and the bride of His Son, Jesus the Christ.  By remaining in this state; within this relationship, our virginity, or if you prefer our purity is protected.  But when we turn from this work of God and from His means of grace that keep us pure, or when we find fulfillment in other things above God’s gifts, well then what St. Paul says next to the Corinthians applies to us as well: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” [2 Corinthians 11:2-3]

So how can you know that you are truly save?  By knowing that you are known by God; by seeking out His presence and allowing Him to keep you there.

When the five foolish virgins returned and found the door shut, they called out, “Lord, Lord open to us (the door).  The response from within was chilling, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”  And to that, what can you say?  Wait I know, you could say, “But Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?”  But even to those proclamations of good works, Jesus declares, “I never knew you; go away from me you workers of lawlessness.” [Matthew 7:21-23]

So what we see then, is that being right with God is more than just doing the right thing.  It’s more than just saying, “I know Jesus.”  But what can be more important than knowing Jesus?  Well, being know by Jesus of course!

Does the Lord know you?  If you come to His church regularly to receive His Divine Service and His gifts with a heart that knows God’s Son is the only way for you to have peace about your eternal salvation, well then certainly you are known by Jesus.  If you end each night with a prayer of confession and seek God’s grace and forgiveness through Christ alone, I would say that you are know by Jesus.  If each Sunday as God’s Divine Service begins in our midst, you find yourself coming before God with a broken spirit as you confess your sins, and then as you hear the sweet words of absolution spoken you find your burdened removed, well then I would say that you are known by Jesus!

You see friends, to know God and to be known by Him through His Son is the only way you can be sure of your salvation.  When you know God and are know by Him through Christ, well then you are assured that His Word, which you listen to here in this house of worship is indeed good news for you.  In His Word, He reminds you everyday that on the day of your baptism, His righteousness along with His grace did in fact roll down upon you like an ever flowing-life giving and sustaining stream.  And in that same Word, when you approach His Holy altar to receive the Sacrament of the Altar, you are pulled even deeper into a relationship of faith and love with these Words, “Given and shed for you!”

How can you be sure?  Because God gave His Son unto death for you.  Upon the cross, Jesus took all of the darkness and gloom upon Himself.  There at the cross, the darkness of the day of judgment came upon Jesus so it would not come upon you. [Mark 16:33]

How can you be sure?  Because God’s Word promises that for you who trust in Christ alone, who hunger for God’s Divine Service and the gifts that He so freely dispenses to His church, even here in this place we call Trinity Lutheran Church, for you is given only the promise of eternal day.  The eternal day when you will in fact be welcomed into your mansion prepared for you by Jesus, within the city of Zion, the New Jerusalem.  “And (that) city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb (of God, Jesus Christ).  By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.” [Revelation 21:23-25]

How can you be sure?  Only by faith alone, grace alone, and scripture alone, and all of this comes to you here in this place through Christ alone!  So come to His holy house, and come often and be filled with His perfect peace, which surpasses all understanding… AMEN!

This Is For All The Lonely People

November 2nd, 2014

All Saints Sunday A, November 1, 2014
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114

Click here for audio of this message.

That song by America, “Lonely People”, which you just heard also brings us both the title and the theme of our message this morning: This is for all the  lonely people.  What is?  The message, God’s message, which proclaims that very soon, God Himself will comfort you; He will dry every tear and you will  finally be home in that place that He has prepared for you; a place where you will never again know disappointment, pain, illness, suffering, nor disease.   But you will also never again feel grief.

Isn’t it true that we all grieve for someone, or perhaps for several someones; people who made a mark in our lives; modeled the Christian faith and taught us  what it means to fight the good fight of faith?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just sit down with them for 20 minutes and just listen to them once  again, or feel the warmth of their embrace?  Well our message, in a sense allows us a glimpse of them as it gives us a certain hope in God’s certainty that one day, perhaps sooner than we think, we will join them for eternity.

In our lesson from the book of Revelation (Revelation 7:2-17), God gives to John and through John us, a dual vision which are separate yet one vision.  It is a  vision of two simultaneous realities; one is in our time and the other is set in eternity.  It is the picture of the church carrying out it’s mission, which we will  call the church militant, and the church at rest with its mission accomplished, which we will call the church triumphant.

In verse 2 through 8, we are given a vision of a multitude of persons numbered at 144,000 who have been sealed by God; marked as His very own.  What  shall we make of this 144,000 and the seal that is placed upon their foreheads?  Much has been made of both this seal and the number over the years, and  most of it has only caused confusion and sometimes fear in the hearts of Jesus little lambs.  And that fear is not in keeping with the Gospel of our Lord, a  message of Good News, which is meant both to take away fear and create faith and a clean heart within Jesus little lambs.  Didn’t our Lord say this very thing with these Words: “Have no fear little flock.  For the Father has chosen to give you the Kingdom”?  In other words, God Himself through the work of Jesus Christ has both sealed you as His very own and marked you as one of the 144,000.

The Seal. St. Paul speaks this very message in this way, “The firm foundation of God stands, having this seal: the Lord knows those who are His.” [2 Timothy 2:19]  And, “the foundation of God” is certain because it has this “seal: the Lord knows those who belong to Him.  That is, you dear Christians can be absolutely certain and sure of his salvation and faith because it rests on the truth of God’s Word and God’s seal within that Word: “the Lord knows those who are his.” So, it is through his Word that God seals his people, assures them by his Spirit that they belong to him and that he will protect them in their faith. Paul says that Christians are “sealed” by the Holy Spirit, given to them as God’s “pledge” or “guarantee” of the inheritance that He has promised. [Ephesians 1:13–14; 2 Corinthians 1:22]

In the ministry of the holy Apostles as in our ministry of the church today, the proclamation of the gospel is accompanied by “sign(s)”—or perceivable activities of the Spirit—activities which confirmed that their ministry of preaching the Gospel (Acts 2:14–35), baptizing (Acts 2:38, 41), and the breaking of the bread (Acts 2:42) was of God.  The Church today still administers these Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as visible signs with tangible elements (water, bread and wine) empowered by the Word of God, as God’s means of forgiving sin and strengthening faith. [Matthew 26:28; Acts 2:38] Through these means of grace, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Spirit still works sealing God’s people and confirming to them that they are indeed his people.  So, the Spirit of God, in his gracious activity through God’s Word and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, seals you little flock, so that you may know that you belong to God and that He will protect you through faith, even in the middle of the worst of tribulations.

So then what are we to make of the 144,000? Well, the best and most historic answer is that the number is symbolic, and it represents the full number of saints who are continuously being drawn out of the church militant, that is the church that is on mission to seek and save the lost.  But why is the number made up of 12,000 from each of the Old Testament Tribes of Israel?  Well, it is not uncommon for the writings of the New Testament to refer to the church of Jesus Christ, both Jews and Gentiles, in Old Testament language. Didn’t Jesus promise His disciples that they would “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:28–30)? Paul says that the believers in Jesus, Jews and Gentiles, are in fact the true Israel of God and the true sons of Abraham. In James 1:1, the introductory statement makes it clear that the epistle is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the diaspora”, that is, those Christians who are scattered throughout the Graeco-Roman world. Since the very beginning, the New Testament church has quite naturally assumed the continuation of the twelve tribes, because that was part of the assignment given to the Messiah, [Jeremiah 3:18; Ezekiel 37:19–24] and Christians recognized themselves as the true heirs of the Jewish faith (Romans 4; Galatians 4:21–31; Phil. 3:3).”

So since we have established that “every tribe of the sons of Israel” is to be understood as a description of all the followers of Jesus Christ, what does the number 144,000 mean?  Well, the number is simply a multiple of twelve: twelve times twelve thousand. It suggests a total completeness. It gives a numerical picture of God’s people on earth in perfect marching order, in perfect step. It suggests that God’s Israel, the church of Jesus Christ, as it advances to battle in the mission given it, is a perfect and complete army, fully equipped and ready to do God’s work.  But what is most important for you this morning, is the fact that the number includes YOU!  You have been sealed and are being sealed every time you are in the Word, every time you come to church and receive God’s gift of forgiving love through His means of grace!

Now we have another scene or vision to look at before we close our message this morning, and this is the very vision that is meant for those of us who are lonely because of the loss of loved ones who have died sealed in the faith of Jesus Christ.  In contrast to the smaller crowd of saints on earth still fulfilling their mission, the crowd shown to us in Heaven is vast and uncountable.  This host of saints in Heaven stand before the throne of God and they are at rest and in peace, celebrating the results of the mission of the church on earth.  Just as we, as part of the 144,000 stand ready to be launched out into a world of sin and suffering to accomplish our mission, so too, the vast array of saints have been utilized in that way before us.  But they, who make up the church triumphant, are at rest and at peace awaiting the final act of God’s sealing protection, which is the end of days and the time of judgment and reward.  They who make up that vast host will never again experience tribulation and persecution.  For them, Paul’s promise in Romans has been fulfilled by God, “I reckon that the sufferings of this preset time cannot be compared to the glory that shall be revealed to us.” [Romans 8:18]

This vast crowd that is called countless, reminds us of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that their descendants would be beyond counting—as numerous as the sand of the seashore and as the stars in the heavens.  And this crowd we are told is not only from the ethnic people who made up the 12 tribes of Israel, but from every ethnicity found upon the face of the earth.  And this entire vast host of people is arrayed in white robes.  Their white robes symbolize a reality that we within the church militant hold onto by faith here on earth: We have been washed through the water and the word, cleansed with the blood of Jesus, and through Christ we are pure and righteous because of His blood!

So what does all of this mean for us below who are still clinging to Jesus and being built up in the gift of faith? It means we are not alone… we are part of the vast array of saints that have gone before us, Saints that will very soon be joining in the feast of victory for our God.  But perhaps the most amazing truth that God would like you to receive from His perspective and the perspective of those who have gone before us is this: You have already taken your place next to them before His throne and at His table and the feast of victory.

Just as they are before God’s throne of Victory, so too, you are before His throne of grace.  Just as they serve God day and night, so too, you serve Him as you live your life of faith in Him and service to His church and to your neighbor.  Just as God’s divine service shelters them from harm so too, His divine service here in our church shelters you from anything that could separate you from the love of God and His seal, which is yours through Christ Jesus.

As a vast heavenly chorus, the saints who have gone before us, including your loved ones that you miss, agree with Jesus when He calls you blessed!  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

If that vast host could call out to us this morning, they would probably repeat the promise of Jesus to us in this way.  “Amen, yes Amen!  Rejoice and be glad little ones.  You are as we were and always shall be… you are blessed.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so we too were maintained by God’s means of grace, and now we are sheltered by His eternal presence, standing before His very throne, never again to know hunger nor thirst, sickness nor disease, violence nor war.  For the lamb in the midst of us, Jesus the crucified, resurrected, and now ascended Son of God is our Good Shepherd and He will guide you as He guides us, to springs of living water, and one day soon, He will do for you what He has done for us; He WILL wipe away every tear from your eyes.

As we prepare to approach God’s table of mercy, by faith allow Him to assure you that your loved ones are there as well.  See in your mind’s eye that they too, are seated across from you on the other side of the communion rail.  Therefore with angels and archangels and with the vast array of saints in glory we can not help but laud and magnify God’s glorious name, evermore praising Him and saying: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabbath adored, Heaven and earth will full acclaim shout the glory of Your name.  Sing hosanna in the highest, sing hosanna to the Lord; truly blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!  AMEN!

Come Into The Fortress (and Stay There)!

October 26th, 2014

Twentieth Sunday in Pentecost A, October 26, 2014

Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114

Click here for audio of this message.

Matthew 22:34-46

In 1505, a young but brilliant German law student named Martin Luther found himself caught in an open field, on foot during a violent thunder  storm.  As lightening struck the ground all around him, Luther in fear for his life threw himself on the ground, and with his face in the mud, he  begged God to have mercy on him and spare his life.  He entered into “negotiations” with God by stating that while he knew he was a sinner, if  God would spare his life, he would then dedicate his life to Him and become a monk.

Luther did survive, and true to his word he became an Augustinian monk.  During his time in a monastery, Luther tried to work out his salvation  and become closer to God through study of the Psalms, prayer, fasting, meditation and hard work.  But no matter how hard he tried, he could  not seem to find peace for his troubled soul.  Nothing seemed to shake his feeling that he was a helpless sinner caught in the grasp of an angry  and vengeful God.

In 1507, Luther was ordained to the priesthood and licensed to preach and study Theology at the University of Wittenberg.  Luther’s superiors  soon discovered that God had gifted him with a brilliant mind, but yet he seemed to be held back by his now obvious feelings of guilt.  The  solution?  Luther must make the pilgrimage to Rome, where church tradition taught that the journey itself would earn merit with God and bring  the pilgrim closer to salvation.  Luther was also told that he could purchase certificates of forgiveness called indulgences, which were published by the Pope himself.  These indulgences guaranteed the purchaser of even more favor and love from God.  Well, Luther, ever the obedient monk did as he was told, but he found no peace in the pilgrimage or the possession of indulgences.

All of us, like Martin Luther hunger to be closer to God; we desire to do the things that please Him, but no matter how hard we try to do those good thing, sin, our sin is always there pulling us away from God.  This is the hard lesson Luther learned.  It was not until God, through His Word provided Luther with a faith to trust in Christ alone that Luther was finally freed from his guilt and his bondage to sin.  What does scripture say about faith?  Faith comes from hearing the Word of God, which is the Word of Jesus Christ. [Romans 10:17] Martin Luther discovered this one evening while studying God’s Word in the privacy of his own room.  Through his devotional reading of the Book of Romans, Luther received peace with God through God’s gift of faith.  Listen to the words that jumped out at Luther, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” [Rom. 3:21-24]

By those Words, Luther discovered that God is not angrily staying far away from us and we do not have to try hard to reach Him or please Him.  In fact, the opposite is true.  You and I though born sinful and distant from God are not lost at all, for God Himself through Jesus Christ, has come to us so that we who were once lost are now found and released from the bondage of sin.  Through Christ’s work alone upon the cross, and through the gift of new life given to you within the holy waters of your baptism, you are now right with God!  Now while this is certainly Good News, it is not new news, but rather it is the consistent and old gospel message of grace, which has been handed down from the very beginning; it had simply been overlaid and hidden by the traditions of men.

Luther discovered that God’s grace is like a fortress, a Mighty Fortress, the likes of which the devil Himself can not breech, nor overcome.  Lets look at our Gospel lesson (Matthew 22:34-46) and maybe we too can learn how to not just enter the Mighty Fortress we sang about, but stay in it for life!

Our gospel lesson starts out with the question of a seeker; one who wants to be close to God, but on his own terms. We know this is true, because he starts out on the wrong foot immediately.  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Another way to ask this is, “Which commandment should I consistently fulfill in order to please God?” Or yet another way to ask this is, “What must I do to be saved from my sin?”  Like Martin Luther, this young lawyer, a Pharisee was trapped by his inability to keep all of the commandments of God perfectly, and so he desired to know which commandment out of all of the others would buy favor with God if he can keep that one.

“And (Jesus) said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the greatest commandment.”  Uh oh… the young lawyer and all of the other Pharisees knew Jesus was right of course, but they also knew that each of them failed miserably in keeping this first great commandment.  You see, they knew something most of us know as well, but also like them we conveniently ignore.  The kind of love that Jesus is talking about is not a warm fussy feeling, but a commitment.  This kind of love that Jesus speaks of is the kind of love that God promises to those who love His law and meditate on it day and night.  God promises that no matter what happens, He will never leave nor forsake His child who likewise is committed to Him.  And there is the rub isn’t it?

Like the young lawyer, we too say that we love God, that we are committed to Him but then we do things, we say things… we think things that demonstrate something completely different.  Yes, the truth is we are far more often committed to ourselves than we are committed to God and His Word.  But Jesus is not quite done yet; He still has a little more to say about what we must do to be saved: “And a second (commandment) is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  In other words, Jesus is telling all of us, that if we want to impress God, if we want to be right with Him through our own work, we must love as He loves.

Here’s a little ditty that communicates the enormity of this task of loving like God: “To live above with saints I love, that will be pure heavenly glory, but to live below with saints I know… well that’s a different story!”

Friends, God’s love is a commitment to us to never stop loving us even when we are unlovable.  And in His commandments, He calls us; no He demands that we do the same.  That is the nature of God’s law, it demonstrates perfection in how God acts and then it demands that we do the same without giving any help to “do” that thing.  Now if this was all that God’s Word informed us, we would be no different than any other religion; in essence we would be in big trouble.  But that is not all that God’s Word says, is it?  No, God offers us another way… the way of the gospel; a way that becomes a Mighty Fortress that we must enter and stay in, and that way is Jesus Christ, both the son of David and the Son of God!  And this is the very truth that Jesus must now steer the hearts and minds of both the young lawyer and ourselves to this morning, and He does it with a question of His own.

““What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ’? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

How sad.  Not only couldn’t they answer His question, but they never bothered to ask Him any follow up questions.  They would not, because they could not; their pride in their own righteousness just would not let them precede any further.  Yes, that is sad, because standing right in front of them was not just a son of David, but the very Son of God.  This is why David called his own descendant Adonai, or Lord, God.  So sad.  They had just heard the little children and thousands of people on Palm Sunday proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah, with the word “Hosanna”, but they could not join in, because they were in bondage to their sinful wills and refused to submit to the will of God.  They could not agree with God the Father that Jesus, the son of  Mary, a simple carpenter was in fact the very Son of God.  But Jesus tried to open their eyes.  He tried to take their eyes off of the law of God as their source of salvation, and instead turn their hearts to God’s one and only means of salvation… Jesus the Christ, the very Son of God.

In a few short days, Jesus would demonstrate God’s final solution for bringing sinful men and women back to Him in a relationship of love and faith.  Jesus would prove His Father’s love for sinful men and women, by allowing Himself to be hung upon the cross.  Jesus would prove that He is in fact both the son of man and the Son of God, by dying as all men die and then taking His life back from the tomb, thus defeating death itself.  But Jesus did not die and come back to life to prove a point; that would simply be a demonstration of God’s wrath.  No, Jesus died and took His life back again so that we would know that God still loves us and that He has provided a way back to Him; a way that is greater than our mortal enemies, which are sin, death, and the devil.

In Jesus death and resurrection, He not only shows a way back to God, but by faith He takes us on that way.  Jesus shows us that it is He alone who can fulfill the commandments of God perfectly, by perfectly demonstrating God’s own love for us.  I doubt that Jesus had warm fuzzy feelings for any of us as He was whipped within an inch of His life, and then as He hung dying upon the cross was insulted and challenged.  While the Son of God may not have felt feelings of warmth He did demonstrate commitment to fulfill His promise of salvation, and that dear friends is divine love!  “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” [1 John 4:10]  And “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” [Romans 5:8]

The way of the Cross is the way to enter the Fortress and the way to stay within it. By that I mean to say along with the ancient church and the sainted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther that by grace you are saved through faith, and that this faith comes by scripture (God’s Holy Word, both the Law and the gospel) alone.  Christ’s death and resurrection is a fact that scripture proclaims, but it is a fact that you must both receive and believe.  But you cannot do this on your own; it must be received from God as a gift.  It is a gift that comes from the very heart of God the Father, and it is given through the sacrifice of His Son, but your heart must be taught to both desire and trust this gift of God, and that work is done through the power of the Holy Spirit through scripture alone.

It is Holy Scripture that teaches us the difference between God’s Law and His Gospel.  We are saved by the gospel, God’s work for us sinful men, but we are sustained and led by His Law, which teaches and moves us to love God and our neighbor just as Jesus loves.  The law and gospel work together though in different an opposite ways. (1) The Law teaches us the knowledge of sin, but the Gospel gives us forgiveness of sin; (2) the Law teaches what good works are, but the gospel produces true joy and both and desire and zeal to do those good works; (3) the Law checks our outward sinful behavior, and increases our inward secret sins, but the Gospel destroys both our outward sin and our inward sin.  So the difference between these two works of God can be explained this way, “The law tells us what we must do to be saved and the Gospel does that work for us and through us.”  Or another way to say this is that “The law kills the sinner, but not sin; the gospel kills sin, but not the sinner.”

This morning, you have been gathered together as a ragtag bunch of ragamuffins who have been saved by grace, through faith, which comes to you in God’s Word through the Law and Gospel.  You have been gathered into the Mighty Fortress of God.  And now you are called to both rest within this Mighty Fortress and to live, breath, and find your identity within it.  And our identity is shaped by a few central thoughts.  The first one is this, God does not need your love, He desires it; He wants you to be in a relationship of love with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ.  And the second thought is like the first, in that God does not need your good works, your fulfillment of His law, but your neighbor does!  Your neighbor needs you to help them, and you help them when you keep the law of God; when you do your very best unto the Lord.  You see friends; God wants you to allow His love to overtake you so that you will willingly commit yourself to Him and your neighbor.

Who is your neighbor?  Your neighbor is your spouse, your children, your friends and family, even those people that you are afraid of, or those who have hurt you in the past.  But your neighbors are also here within this church, the very place that God gives His gifts to sinners; the very place that becomes the Mighty Fortress of forgiving love for them as well.  Your neighbor needs your love and so does your church.  We all need you to be committed to this place and its people, so that together, we will continue to be a place of refuge, forgiveness, peace, and love.  We need your love so that together we can continue reaching out to the lost and help them both enter and stay within the Mighty Fortress, which is our God and the body of Christ… His Church.

I pray that God will fill you with faith and His mighty love as together we do these very things through the power of God… in Jesus name… AMEN!

Life On the Edge!

October 12th, 2014

Eighteenth Sunday in Pentecost A, October 12, 2011

Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114

Click here for audio of this message.

Matthew 22:1-14

Following Jesus is, well it’s… wonderful, amazing, fulfilling, exciting, and peaceful, but it isn’t easy.  It isn’t easy because it requires faith, and faith requires you to release control of your life and your decisions to God’s direction.  Faith is the substance of things that we hope for, but as of yet unseen!  To live a life following Jesus requires living by faith and not by sight!

This is the message that our gospel reading leads us to this morning; it was the message that Jesus was speaking to the Jewish leaders and others that were listening to Him teach, and it is the message that He is giving to us this morning.  This morning, Jesus speaks this message to all of us who are baptized: live a life of faith by living on the edge!  But as I said, this kind of life isn’t easy; it never has been.

Throughout the history of the Kingdom of God here on earth, we have seen a picture of disappointment, fear, doubt; we see sin becoming stronger, while the joy, courage, and faith of those who live in and proclaim the kingdom seems to be getting progressively weaker.  Jesus story about a King who invited many to his son’s wedding banquet is told to illustrate this very point.  Like His story, the history of the Jews and even our history displays sinful people refusing God’s offer of grace.  Within the ranks of these sinful men are a mixture of open and defiant sinners and those who seem like real believers, but secretly they’re posers, unbelievers; Jesus says that the time is coming when they’ll be unmasked!  Within His story, Jesus has wonderfully compressed all of the New Testament time and even our time, into one story.

What we need to remember throughout the story is that the wedding and the invitations to attend it pictures God’s grace; His undeserved mercy, forgiveness, and love for all of sinful mankind.  But this grace can only come through Jesus Christ, the living Son of God!  The banquet table and the feast that’s being served on it represents the feast of victory for our God; a victory that celebrates first the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and then the very same thing that’s promised to each and every person who is seated at the feast of victory.  Well almost every person.  You see in Jesus’ story, there is one person who doesn’t belong there.  There’s one person who isn’t wearing the robe provided by God!  That one person represents a vast number of people who refuse to turn to Jesus as their Savior, Lord, and King.  And the change of clothes they refuse to be fitted with represents the new identity that each of us is offered and given in our baptisms.

Throughout the life of every person ever created, there are God-created opportunities to receive this new identity, to put it on if you will, to walk around in it and become comfortable in it.  But God in His wisdom allows each of us to reject this new identity and that is what causes tension; it’s what makes us feel like we’re living on the edge of joy and disappointment; the edge of courage and fear; and the edge between faith and doubt!

Living on the edge means living between joy and disappointment.  Have you heard about the family that moved into the neighborhood of a local congregation?  Well the good saints of that church decided to reach out to that family when they heard that they had 12 kids and were for the most part poor. They invited the family to divine service and even brought a package of wonderful suits and dresses to them and said, “We want you to know” they said, “that you and your entire family are welcome at our church anytime. We have bought you these gifts and we want you to feel comfortable and at ease in our congregation. We hope you can use them” and they left. Well Sunday came and the congregation waited for the family, but they never showed. Wondering what could have possibly happened, some members of the board of elders returned to the home and found the family just getting back, all dressed in their new clothes.  “We don’t mean to be nosey but we would like to know what happened. We had hoped to see you this morning in church,” the head elder said.  The father answered, “Well, we got up this morning intending to come. And we sure do appreciate your invitation. But after we showered, shaved, and dressed, why we looked so good we wanted to show off our new look to the folks of my wife’s old church.”

Now that’s a funny way of talking about a serious problem. Invitations are sent to many to come to church but so few people respond. It’s frustrating. Many of you have reached out to neighbors or friends and asked them to come to church and you know all too well the disappointment, how few respond.

Maybe that is why we find this morning’s parable so familiar. But we must remember that Jesus has told us that the Kingdom of God has always been like this; it’s like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son and many would not come. They are just too busy to respond.  But not you… here you sit at the table!  You got in, so put aside your disappointment and receive the joy of the Lord.

Living on the edge means living between courage and fear.  In Jesus story the royalty, which represented the Jewish nation were the first ones invited to the feast!  As a group, they would not come, so they were destroyed.  In the year 70 AD the nation of Israel, the city of Jerusalem and more importantly their temple, their way of life and worship was destroyed, all because they would not come to a new Holy City, the Kingdom of God which can only be entered through the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  But their empty seats will not even be noticed because God is no longer inviting a nation of people, but all people from every nation, tribe, and tongue; that means He is inviting you!

Now for some people this can cause fear; even fear that can paralyze them.  They see how God punished the nation of Israel for the way they mistreated their invitation, and so they see God as an angry and punishing God.  But if they see Him in this way, as if He has dark storm clouds draped across His face, they aren’t seeing Him correctly!  The very fact that He has invited you first in the waters of your baptism, and the fact that you are seated here right now hearing about His mercy and forgiveness proves that He is a God of love!  And because He loves you, He says to you this morning, “Take courage, put on your new baptismal identity and rest at my table of peace!”

Well finally, living on the edge means living between faith and doubt.  In Jesus’ story, the king invited everyone to the feast. Many have responded, and the dining hall is filled with guests, but there’s a problem. The king sees a man who isn’t wearing the appropriate wedding attire. He is wearing an old, perhaps tattered robe, obviously the garb that he wore in everyday life, his street clothes. “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe,” the king asks. The man was speechless, so the king had him bound and tossed into a place called outer darkness. Jesus concludes the parable with these solemn words: “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

What we learn from Jesus story is that everyone is invited into the Kingdom of God, but not everyone will respond to that invitation.  But we also discover that even if you get in you’re not really in unless the King chooses you to stay!  And here is where doubt can creep in; here is where we begin to ask what does it take to really get in?

Well it all depends on what you are wearing!  In your baptism you have been clothed with Christ’s righteousness; in essence, you’ve put on Jesus’ robe of righteousness.  No work or accomplishment of your own can be included.  Naked you came into this world and naked you must leave, accept for the righteous robe of Christ.  Remember, when we’ve done all that we can we are still worthless servants, because we’ve only done that which was our duty to do. [Luke 17:10]

If our garment isn’t the good life we live on this earth for Jesus, then what is it?  It’s faith in what Jesus has done for us!  Theologians call this the imputed righteousness of Jesus which becomes our hope and the object of our faith.  Because faith is the garment that is put on us, all we can do then is rest in it or wear it.  Another way to think of this is to say that our faith is like a cup, it simply holds God’s free gift of righteousness.  In your baptism you can say that, “God has clothed me with His garments of salvation, and He has covered me with the robes of righteousness.”

And here you have the close of Jesus parable.  Oh wait, there is another little matter to address isn’t there?  If the banquet table represents the Kingdom of God, then how did that unbeliever get in there?  Isn’t there a great divided between heaven and hell so that none may cross?  Yes there is, so that means that the banquet table isn’t necessarily the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is the Kingdom of God!  Is there a difference?  Yes and no!  What we need to remember is that the Kingdom of God is where God’s people gather around His gifts.  What are His gifts?  Well they are His means of grace, or His means of faith!  Chief of all of these gifts is His Word, Holy Scripture, which is not just your invitation to the banquet but the very Son of the living God, Jesus Christ.  Within God’s Word you are given the gift of faith to believe that you really belong in God’s Kingdom, both here on earth and in heaven.  So what is the Kingdom of God here on earth?  It is the church, the very bride of Jesus Christ, which receives not just His Word but His Sacraments.  In your baptism, you have been ushered into the Kingdom and at His Table, the Holy Communion, you feast as royalty!  As each of us receive these gifts, we are reminded that we are living a life of dependence on God, a life of faith that’s filled with tension between heaven and hell.  But Jesus assures us that because we are resting in Him and receiving His gifts we will one day join Him at His eternal table of feasting where there will be no more suffering, pain, disappointment, fear, or doubt, and this is the gospel, the good news that gives us peace and joy.  But there are some here, in Christ’s church who will not put on this new baptismal identity.  There are some who are simply posers, mere impostors.  They refuse to be changed and they will not respond!  They already have the reward of living in God’s Kingdom, His Church, but they will not be allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and eternally find their seat at His banquet table.

For these poor souls, there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth in a dark place where they will be forever bound and kept.  All because they would not receive the Word of God; all because they would not keep fighting to retain their baptismal identity; all because they would not confess their sinfulness and be fed their Lord’s meal of forgiveness!

Yes, living the life of faith is living on the edge, but if you are resting in the gifts of God through Jesus Christ you have been assured that even if you experience disappointment, fear, and doubt, one day very soon you will only know joy, love, and peace, all because you walked by faith and not by sight!

Now may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen!

Living in the Promised Land

October 5th, 2014

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (A), September 28, 2014

Rev. Brian Henderson-Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church,
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114

Click here for audio of this message

“Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” [Isaiah 5:1]

And let the church say Amen!  Amen to the reign of our beloved Lord, Jesus Christ.  Amen to life in His vineyard, the church.  But most of us south of Temecula don’t really understand the nature of a vineyard, do we?  I understand that producing grapes is a lot of work, and yet it is completely foreign to me.  So, let’s talk about gardens instead.

Gardening, for many of you is a very satisfying and relaxing endeavor.  Your efforts are rewarded with beautiful flowers, plants, and produce.  But gardening is also a lot of work.  Many of us who worked these last two months to finish the rose garden on the east side of the sanctuary and the Polynesian garden on the west side of the garden can attest to that truth.  Many of us men have had sore backs days after working in those gardens.  We would almost swear to the truth that we perspired gallons of sweat and developed blisters larger than any we have ever had.  And yet, there outside of the windows of our sanctuary are the beautiful gardens, and they will be even more beautiful next year, God willing.

But sometimes you plant something that just doesn’t turn out to be what you expected it to be; it either never takes root or it grows in a wild way that you did not desire, and you know that if you don’t do something about it, it will ruin the entire garden.  So with those kinds of disasters, what is a gardener to do?  You uproot it and start over!

Yes, gardening is a lot of work, but God warned our first parents, Adam and Eve of this sad truth after they fell to sin.  Listen:  “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” [Genesis 3:17-9]  But God promised the faithful descendants of Adam and Eve, that one day He would send a Savior, who would first deliver them from their sins, and then He would also, through this coming Savior bring them back to Eden, the real “Promised Land!”

And that is the situation that the prophet Isaiah speaking for God, is describing in our Old Testament lesson (Isaiah 5:1-7) this morning.

The children of Israel, descendants of faithful Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had been resting in God’s vineyard, the promised land for many long years now.  And when they first arrived there, they were told that it would be a land of milk and honey; in other words, God would provide all that they needed to live right and peaceably with Him, each other, and within the land itself.  All that they needed to do was trust in the promise of the coming Savior and then follow God’s commandments, which were to be a hedge of protection for them, and a wall that would separate them from the godless nations that surrounded them.  But…

They began to develop a national pride that caused them to not only look down on other nations but they also forgot about their God who actually planted them there.  There God was the One who prepared the Promised Land for them; He was the One who dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted them there as His choice vines.  He set up the watchtower, which was their form of worship of the One True God, and He was the One through the use of the Law and Gospel, worked within them to put to death their old sinful nature, and bring to life their new circumcised nature, a faithful nature, which waited patiently for the coming Savior.

And as they continued to live as if God did not matter, God took notice.  He sent many prophets and judges who spoke Words of warning and Words of encouragement, so that the people would remember the true God and then see their sinful need for a Savior.  But they would not take notice; they would not yield!

So now O church, judge between God and His vineyard.  What more was there for Him to do for His vineyard?  He looked for a yield of grapes, that is works produced by faith in the coming Savior and the promised return to Eden, but He found only wild grapes, works that glorified man and not their God.  Well there was one more thing that God would do; He would send His Son!

In our Gospel reading (Matthew 21:33-46), Jesus tells another story about a vineyard.  It is a story told to the same sort of religious leaders that Isaiah was speaking to in our Old Testament lesson.  A man planted a garden and rented it out to tenants. But when the owner sent servants (prophets of God) to collect the rent, the tenants killed the servants. In exasperation, he sent his son (His Only begotten Son), and they killed him. Jesus asked his hearers what the owner would do, and the crowd answered, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” (21:41). Looking for grapes, precious grapes, the owner instead got wild grapes, and on top of that, they killed his son too.

You see friends, this morning’s readings aren’t really about vineyards or gardening at all, instead they’re about the people of God, ancient Israel and you and me today.  It’s a warning that we must not become wild in our nature, but remain people of faith; faith in the Savior promised long ago who has come, and faith that one day very soon, He will come again to bring us once and for all back to Eden, the true Promised Land.

We may be tempted to ask God why He chose to place those disobedient people into His vineyard, knowing that they would be wild grapes and produce only bloodshed and outcries, but then we would have to ask Him also, why he brought us into His new vineyard, Christ’s church.  You see, today you and I are supposed to be God’s pleasant planting; we too are suppose to produce fruits, good works of righteousness, but many times we don’t; instead we produce wild grapes.  So why does God plant?  Because He loves His vineyard, His garden; God loves you!

The church, which for now is our promised land, is God’s planting, His vineyard.  It is easy to forget that this isn’t our church, but His.  And it is even easier to forget that it is God who does the real work within us and through us.  Like preparing a vineyard or garden, He plants us in Holy Baptism and then lovingly tends to our growth through His means of grace; His teaching, preaching, and Holy Supper.  It is His work within us that shapes us and prunes us into the very image of His Son, who was killed by the former tenants so that He would rise from that death and fulfill the promise of the coming Savior who would bring us one day back to the final promised land, the Kingdom of Heaven, which is Eden restored!

You see friends, this pleasant planting of the Lord we call the church is for now, as we wait, our promised land; it is where God provides for our needs, and prunes and tends to our growth.  All of this work of God is centered in His beloved Son, Jesus Christ who died, rose, and gives us His Holy Spirit.  Jesus assures us of this when He says, “I an the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.  Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” [John 15: 1, 5]

And here we are abiding; simultaneously resting and working within the promised land we call the church, and knowing full well that by God’s grace we will one day enter the final Promised Land.  And as we wait, we have two missions to fulfill.  The first is to grow in faith everyday as we are planted in the church, and the second is to seek out and bring other wild grapes into God’s vineyard through His Son Jesus Christ.

Today is LWML Sunday.  It is a day that we celebrate a very fruitful portion of God’s vineyard; a portion that continues over and over again to bear much fruit.  Through the collection of mites and their faithful service in mission, these faithful ladies not only wait for the return of their Lord, but they serve Him in their waiting with gladness and zeal.  They freely recognize that all of the hard work that they perform throughout the world is possible only because it is their Savior Jesus Christ, who is working in them and through them.

This morning, we recognize the ladies of the LWML because they are living proof that God still does marvelous things within His vineyard.  Where the ladies serve with gladness, the oil of gladness begins to impact those parts of the vine that they are attached to.  Where once a congregation may have been wild or shriveled and old lacking fruit, when the LWML is revived within that congregation, a new spirit of service, as a result of the Spirit of Christ begins to reshape that congregation.  This is why we celebrate the LWML this morning.  We are not celebrating the ladies who serve, but the Savior God within them that proves to all of us that God is still doing great and marvelous things around us, and that He wishes to call each of us into that mission so that He can do great and marvelous things within us and through us!

While I understand that many who love gardening believe that they are closest to God when they are in their garden, I believe, no I know that we are really closest to God, nearest to His heart, when we are in His church.  His presence among us through His means of grace moves our hearts to be thankful beyond words because He has made us a part of His pleasant planting through Jesus Christ.  It is then that each of us will be moved to serve the Lord with gladness!  AMEN!

Is Salvation a Work of God Or Not?

September 28th, 2014

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A), September 28, 2014
Rev. Brian Henderson-Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego, CA 92114

Click here for audio of this message

“What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?” [Ezekiel 18:2]

Another way of saying that is, “How dare you say that God is not a just God.”  Have you ever found yourself questioning God; accusing Him of allowing things to happen that were not fair towards you or your family?  That was the situation that surrounded Our Old Testament lesson (Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32), which is essentially a conversation between God and His children of faith, the nation Judah, through the prophet Ezekiel.  They were the last remnant of Israel, and they were being led out to Babylon and into captivity.  And as they were saying goodbye to their old lives, they were accusing God of punishing them for the sins of their Fathers; the national sins of the past.  In essence, the people were accusing God of being unfair. Behind their complaint was the idea they were not as guilty as their fathers had been and didn’t deserve being exiled into Babylon. By quoting that proverb, they meant to say: “Our fathers sinned and the children have to suffer the consequences.”

So, in the words of Michael Turko (an investigative TV reporter in San Diego, CA), “It ain’t right!”  But God will not let this accusation of being unjust or unfair, go unanswered.  Listen…

“As I live, declares the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.” [Vs. 3,4]

I think we tend to forget that the wages or payment for sin is death.  But we like to measure and quantify sins don’t we?  Don’t we like to think that a little sin is not as bad as a lot of sin?  You know how we think: There’s big sins and then there’s my sins!  Don’t we like to think that our sins aren’t nearly as bad as say the sins of an extremist group like ISIS?  Ok, that’s a little extreme so let me give you a somewhat easier example of how we play with this idea of grading sins, and how we affix blame to other people’s sins.

On December 11, 2008, Bernard Madoff was arrested by FBI agents and charged with one of the most devastating violations of Security Fraud ever committed against numerous financial agencies; it left thousands of investors broke, and it was the beginning of the great recession, which we are still in today.  In a kind of ripple effect, bad mortgage loans have been foreclosed and are still being foreclosed today and home loans are harder to come by, thus restricting access to the American middle class dream of home ownership.  So, in a sense, our teeth are set at edged because of the sins of Bernie Madoff.  We don’t have a problem with Bernie paying for his sin, but it doesn’t seem fair that nearly ten years latter, we are still paying for his and other peoples greed.

Did God allow Bernie Madoff to commit that great crime?  Yes.  Did God cause Bernie Madoff or anyone else who commits a crime, to sin?  No, but God does punish sin.  That punishment will come in eternity and there is no reprieve once it has been instituted.  But while sinners wait for that eternal penalty, or judgment of sin, we all suffer the temporary repercussions of that sin within the world that we live in.  Scripture makes it clear that these temporary discomforts caused by our sin or other peoples sins are nothing in comparison to the eternal punishment that awaits all sinners!

So what is the solution?  Is there a way out of this mess we call sin, or are we bound to it and it’s inevitable conclusion, like the collision of a train plowing through a vehicle stuck on the tracks?  Well, in verses 30 through 32, God gives us not only hope, but a solution to our sin problem.  Listen…

“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.  Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” [Vs. 30-32]

Now O Christians you stand before a righteous judge; the Judge who knows your every sin; nothing is hidden from Him.  He has shown you that by your sin, every sin you are guilty of breaking the very first commandment.  You love yourself more than you love God.  You have made your own desires master of your soul.  And our Righteous God, our Creator judges you guilty and worthy of an eternal sentence of suffering and death.  How do you plea?  You must be honest if you hope for any leniency!  If you plead guilty, then listen to your only hope.  “Repent O Christian.  God does not desire the death of anyone, let alone one who has been purchased by the lifeblood of His Only Begotten Son!”

You see friends, Christianity is not a movement, an organization, or an attitude. It is a relationship between God and an individual person, and it’s  based on your faith in God’s only provision of mercy, Jesus Christ the Savior from sin. God is asking each of you to respond to what the Lord has given you in Christ, and then daily ask the Lord to help you live a life that reflects the righteousness that Jesus has given you. And so It becomes true, the righteous man “lives,” that is, he exists and will continue to do so under the blessings of God.

To attempt to base our relationships with God on ourselves without Jesus is to tell God that we think Christ’s work is neither necessary nor beneficial. Such a misguided life can take about any track it wants, but it is always headed away from the Lord and his blessings and waiting for the inevitable collision with eternal judgment. But there is a solution to this sinful life style, and it is one of repentance and baptism.

How you live out this new baptismal life will depend on how you answer this next question.  Is baptism a work of God or man?  Is salvation a gift from God or is it something you earn?

This is in essence the question that was set before the Pharisees in our Gospel lesson (Matthew 21:23-32) and it is the question set before every Christian today.  How you answer this question will not only affect how you live your life today but even how you spend your eternity.  Let me ask that question in another way, “Do you want to risk your eternity on your own efforts, trying to outweigh your sins with your own “good deeds”, like some kind of ponzie scheme, or do you want to take God’s promises by faith and rest in and trust them alone?

You see friends, Baptism isn’t simply a custom of the church, but rather its a divine ordinance, the only way that God has provided so that sinners can be saved from their sins, and it is in force until the Last Day.  It is for all people no matter how early or late in life they embrace this wonderful means of grace. It is equal to the preaching of the Gospel and the teaching of God’s Word. Jesus made them equal in force and power with His command: “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world!” [Matt. 28:19–20)

As God’s solution to sin and His means of allowing us to stand before Him and be pardoned and given a new life in Christ, He has protected this holy washing of water and His Word and ensured that Christ’s church would continue this sacrament, which Jesus instituted before He ascended into heaven.  Since the day of Pentecost, we hear of this Holy Sacrament being offered to sinners who desired to be saved from their sins.  Listen to Peter’s proclaimed solution to the people's sin: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38).

Dear Christian friends, above all else that you hear today, please remember this, Baptism is a means of grace.  It is God’s means of removing your old sinful identity and replacing it with the perfect identity of His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.  It creates faith in God who comes to you with His solution to your sin, which is the suffering and death of His Son upon the cross for the sins of the world.  In other words, Baptism is God’s means of making you sinless and exempt from the punishment for your many sins.  Or as the Apostle Peter declared “Baptism… now saves you also.” [1 Peter 3:2]

In your baptism, God put your sinful nature to death, by joining it in Baptism to Christ’s death. He buried that old nature in Christ’s tomb, the only place where He no longer looks. And then, miracle of miracles, He raises you up to a new life as his child. Your old self is crucified in Baptism by God’s Word, and in this death that Christ shares with you, you die to sin every day as you continue to hear that same Word, and are set free from the punishment of your many sins. So, through your baptismal death and resurrection, you have been given new life. [Rom. 8:17]

So I ask you, is God fair?  Do you prefer His means of grace, His way of dealing with the sins of the world, even your sins, or do you prefer that He punish all people according to their sins?  If you prefer the way of His grace, then can you see baptism as His means of grace?  Do you see it as a mystery or sacrament of His love for sinners or do you prefer to earn your forgiveness and work for your salvation?  In essence, “Is Baptism a work of God or a work of man?”  May God give you faith to see the answer clearly as you ponder the mystery and work of His Son Jesus Christ within His church and indeed, within your very life… AMEN!