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
http://www.tlcsd.org

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
http://www.tlcsd.org

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
http://www.tlcsd.org

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
http://www.tlcsd.org

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
http://www.tlcsd.org

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
http://www.tlcsd.org

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
http://www.tlcsd.org


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!

It IS Well With My Soul

September 14th, 2014

Rev. Brian Henderson, Pastor-Trinity Lutheran Church
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego 92114
http://www.tlcsd.org
Pentecost 14A, September 14, 2014
Click here for audio of this message

“Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?  As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” [Genesis 50:19, 20]

These words from our Old Testament reading are the words of a Kingdom builder; they’re the Words of Jesus, the Lord of the Kingdom of God, which are simply being spoken by a subject of the King.  They are Words of restoration and peace; they are Words of forgiveness.  They are Words that make all things well with our souls!  With all of this being true, then why do we find it so hard to speak them?  Why is it such a battle to say, “I forgive you”?

Surely we have reasons, good reasons not to trust some people.  I would not put a convicted embezzler in charge of our church bank account, would you?  Would you want a convicted child molester teaching Sunday school?  Of course not, but does that also mean that we should withhold forgiveness, love, and restoration from them?

In our Old Testament lesson (Genesis 50:15-21) we encounter Joseph, a man who had every reason to be bitter, hold a grudge and get revenge.  His own brothers threw him in a well in the middle of the desert and then sold him  to slave dealers.  But Joseph experienced something that changed him forever; he experienced God’s presence and God’s protection.  In the home he was a slave, but he eventually became the head slave and had complete freedom to run the entire home and its business.  But trouble always seems to follow people who know they worship a merciful and loving God and Joseph was no exception.  Very soon he was falsely accused by the wife of the lord of the very home he was serving in.  Bam!  Joseph’s life was turned upside down.  Once again he was falsely imprisoned, but this time it wasn’t in a well but in a real prison!  But Joseph knew that like the well earlier, he wasn’t in that prison alone; he knew that the God of mercy was with Him and where ever God is, all is well with the soul of a child of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Once more God would prove to Joseph that He was a God who makes a way out of no way; He would prove that He was a God who never leaves or forsakes His little ones who serve in His Kingdom; Joseph was given the keys to the prison and allowed to run it!  But that’s not all is it?  No, eventually it became known to Pharro that Joseph was a man of God who could interpret dreams.  So as a result of one meeting with Joseph who spoke the Word of God truthfully, Joseph was made second in command of all of Egypt.

And now before him stands his brothers who did unthinkable evil against him; they were standing before the second most powerful person in the world.  So this was Joseph’s chance to make things right; to right the wrongs that were done to him.  And what does he do?  He makes things right; right in the Kingdom of God!  He offers forgiveness and restoration.  But why… how?  Because that is how the Kingdom of God operates!  You see, the Kingdom of God makes a way out of no way.  In an earthly kingdom where only death and punishment reign supreme, God’s Kingdom brings life and forgiveness. Out of fear and danger God assures His child that all is indeed well with his soul!

Do you think that Joseph had questions about the sincerity of his brother’s confession of sin?  Sure, but having questions, having doubts isn’t what is important here, it’s where you take those questions and doubts.  As a citizen of the Kingdom of God, Joseph immediately gave these things to God and He forgave all of them.  It’s as if he was saying to them, “If God’s forgiven you, who am I to do anything differently?  Don’t you see that what you meant for evil against me, God in His wonderful counsel has turned into something marvelous in our sight.  He’s not only frustrated your evil plan, but He’s used it to bring abundant life and blessing for both me and you!”  And that is always how things work in the Kingdom of God.  You see, as citizens of God’s Kingdom of grace, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” [Romans 8:28]

So we see, in this way God causes good to result from evil, not that He wants us to do evil, but in His goodness He can take even our great wickedness and turn it into good.  It’s God’s nature to forgive a fearful and sobbing sinner who is begging Him for mercy.  And this is the very lesson that Jesus was trying to get Peter to understand; it’s the lesson He wants each of us to go home with this morning.

In our gospel lesson (Matthew 18:21-35) Peter asked Jesus how many times he should keep forgiving someone for something they do against him over and over.  Now, the Jewish teachers said that three times is enough to satisfy the mercy of God, so that the justice of God could take over.  So Peter took that number and multiplied it by 2 and threw in one more for good measure and answered his own question with a question: “Seven times?”  Now don’t be too hard on Peter, because from a human standpoint, a flawed and sinful standpoint Peter did pretty well.  Even our own society today would call that excessive and a bit naïve.  You know the old saying, “Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me!”

So now learn the lesson about how things work in God’s Kingdom.  “Jesus said to (Peter), “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”  Now that’s excessive!  But the number isn’t the point of Jesus teaching, it’s the attitude or the spirit.  Jesus is teaching us that the new nature of a baptized child of God is the type of nature that doesn’t keep count.  Even if you did count how many times someone kept sinning against you, isn’t it true that you would lose count long before you got to 490?  So the nature of a citizen in God’s Kingdom simply does as Joseph did, He gives it to God and trusts that all things will work together for the good that God has determined.

Joseph learned to trust God and so did Peter.  They learned that even when it seems that things are at their worse, God is still present and in control!  Each of us must learn this as well, and God has made sure that we can do this very thing.  He did it by breaking into our existence, into our history through one event that has rendered everyone subject to One Judge… Jesus Christ Himself!  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has led not only the past, but it shapes the present, just as it will shape the future.  Joseph trusted in the coming Savior along with every other citizen of Heaven that came before and after Him.  And when the Son of God took on our flesh and broke into our present and our future, the words of Joseph become the Words of Jesus: “As for you and your sinful ways, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Through my suffering and death your sins have been wiped clean.  My death brought you life!  Will you rest in this gift or reject it?)”

Today friends, we who are baptized into Christ Jesus can confidently say “I am a citizen of heaven.  I was saved by Christ’s death on the cross, and through that work of the cross, forgiveness of sins was given to me in my baptism! I haven’t refused that forgiveness and I pray for it every day.  Daily through the power of God’s Word, I continue to see the sin that is still within me, but through that same Word I am given the promise of forgiveness and the ability to fight and destroy that sin, as I turn to Jesus and His cross for forgiveness!  Every day I see the unthankful forgiven sinner within me holding grudges and planning revenge against my brother who sins against me, but I take this nature and I drown it in the waters of my baptism; I crucify it upon the cross of Jesus!  Every day I fight to allow God to love my brothers and sisters through me even when they sin against me.  I do this not because they deserve it but because God has done and always will do this very thing for me!”  This dear friends is the life of a child who lives in the Kingdom of God.

Now I could end here and we would have a wonderful message about forgiving our brothers and sisters, but then you wouldn’t have God’s entire message.  In order to complete our message, we must import one more bit of scripture.  In Matthew, chapter 5, Jesus has one more group of people that we must learn to love and forgive… our enemies!  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” [Matthew 5:43-45]

Now this can be a hard lesson for all of us to accept, especially right after the thirteenth year anniversary of the September 11th attack against our nation by Muslim terrorists; right after Islamist warriors have decapitated three journalists, two of them Americans, and yet God is asking us to not only accept His will but to fulfill it!  Here the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ gives us a command; we must love those who hate us and attack us.  We must pray for the ability to forgive them and also pray that they would turn to Jesus for forgiveness and restoration.  This kind of love can exist only in the Kingdom of God; indeed it is the very thing that separates it from all other kingdoms.

Now don’t misunderstand, God isn’t asking you to put your arm around your enemy; He knows that we have reason not to trust them or like them.  But He is asking you to be filled with the love of Jesus and let Him do His work within you!  This is a higher form of love that can only come from God.  It’s the kind of love that says “I know that I will never like a murderous terrorist, or a criminal who may have robbed me or threatened my life; I can’t like a false and lying, slanderous person who has attacked my character over and over again; but I can by the grace of Jesus Christ love them all; I can see what’s wrong with them and follow God’s Spirit within me and work to do them good.  I can pray that God will free them from their vicious ways just as He has done and is doing for me!”

Is living in the Kingdom of God easy?  No, of course not!  It requires the same things that Joseph had and that Peter received.  It requires faith and trust in a God who promises that all things will work together for the good for those who love Him and trust in His calling and purpose!  Will you struggle with this command to forgive?  Yes!  Will you fail sometimes and fall back into a spirit and mindset of the world, probably so!  But remember, its God’s presence and mercy; it’s His forgiveness for you that will carry you through until the end and deliver you safely into His Kingdom!

If  we will remember that we are “children of our Heavenly Father” not because of a decision but because we are reborn by grace through faith in the Son of God, we will not only be able to love and forgive our brothers and sisters, but even our enemies because that is how our Heavenly Father loves them.  As we struggle every day to remember this, we keep turning to Jesus; we keep running to His cross, and we can truly say, “It is well with my soul!”  In Jesus name… AMEN!

AN EXPOSITION OF SAINT MATTHEW 18:1-22

September 7th, 2014

Rev. Brian Henderson, Pastor-Trinity Lutheran Church
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego 92114
http://www.tlcsd.org
Pentecost 13A, September 7, 2014

Click here for audio of this message.

INTRODUCTION: This morning we will discuss a topic near and dear to me, and it is my prayer in Christ’s name that by the end of this message, it will be near and dear to you as well.  Specifically, we will be discussing the application of Matthew 18 in our lives and in the life of our parish.  Have any of you ever heard me speak of Matthew 18 in say the last 2 years?  Well now, with the leading of the Holy Spirit you will understand completely what I meant before and what Jesus desires you to learn today.  And it is also my prayer that these words will bring new life and love to this parish, which IS Christ’s church.

This morning, Jesus declares, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 18:3]

I. Why did Jesus say those words to His own apostles, the ones who were closest to Him, and by default, likely the most spiritually mature of all of the disciples?  Because in fact they were not spiritually mature.  They were trying to understand the coming of God’s kingdom in terms of how the world thinks as oppose to how God thinks.  They had a false idea of what it meant to be the greatest and the best.  To them, to be the greatest meant to be the most powerful, second to Jesus of course.  But that is not how God’s Kingdom operates; His way is the opposite of man’s way.  So Jesus addressing the twelve, calls a small toddler to come to Him, probably motioning to it with open arms, and then He most likely picks up the child who comes quickly and easily, and says… “If you want to be someone important in heaven, then REPENT, that is turn to me in love and trust just as this child did.”

Small children trust so easy and they forgive even easier.  This child most likely had never known Jesus before, but it was attracted by Christ’s love; by His soothing voice and the welcoming gesture.  So it came to Jesus quickly.  And once in Jesus’ embrace, it did not think, “I am such a wise child.  I must be great to be welcomed so easy by this gentle man.”  Little children do not think like that; they simply trust and obey, and the reward from Jesus is more love!

TRANSITION: So, do you want to be someone important in heaven; maybe you want to be a big shot around here?  Good then humble yourself in both the sight of the Lord and your church family here, and Jesus Himself will pick you up. [James 4:10]  But maybe you say that you have already tried that years ago and now you are already mature and in a position of leadership here in Christ’s church.  Ok, then welcome others who are still struggling with pride, fear, and doubts.  Welcome those who are still rough around the edges and difficult to get along with.  Repent, again and again, and hear these words of Christ fresh and new every day: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” [Vs. 5, 6]

I trust that our Lord has your attention now?  Good, then what He says next will definitely move your heart to cry out for His mercy.  Listen…

II. “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!  And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”

Now, I have preached and taught this portion of Matthew 18 many times and each time it is brought up, it causes some fear and confusion within your hearts.  I seem to have to repeat the teaching of this portion more than any other.  Now this morning I will say briefly and concisely that these words are meant to teach you that it is impossible for you to please God by being good!  You cannot earn a place in heaven by trying to be sinless.  If that was the case, then you should, by all means cut off your offending body parts, and keep cutting and cutting until there is NOTHING left of you, but perfection!  But that is not God’s way of grace.  Christ has the better way; He gives to us the way of the cross, which is the way of baptism.  Repent, turn to Jesus and become nothing so that He becomes everything.  Repent from your desire to be Mr. or Mrs. Big Shot, and become humble like a child, like your Savior.  In this way of the cross, repentance not only brings forgiveness of all sins, but it also brings to you a new ability to welcome, value, and protect those who are by nature and spiritual stature, weaker and less mature than you.

III. The way of the cross will also help prevent you from looking down on other folks.  Or rather, it will help you understand what Jesus means when He says: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?  And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” [Vs. 10-14]

Being humble, being as a child forever running into the arms of Jesus can be a wonderful life, if you will simply embrace it with the faith that God provides, but it can also be a trying and difficult life as well.  What do you do when one of the little immature ones is wandering away from the faith?  What do you do when they are behaving badly, and embracing the way of the world more than the way of the Kingdom of Heaven?  Well, you could look at all of the work involved in helping them come back to the Kingdom way of life and say, “Forget it!  Let someone else worry about So and So.” Or, you yourself, can become like a child, run to Jesus and then follow the real Good Shepherd as He leads you out to find and bring back your lost brother or sister.  You could do that if you truly desire to be humble and willing to be led yourself.

TRANSITION: But don’t some people deserve to be lost and punished for their sins.  Isn’t there a time when we just let some people go to the devil to be tormented and perhaps scared back into the fold?  Well remember now, we are talking about little ones, helpless children in the eyes of God.  If you saw a toddler separated from it’s mother wandering along a dangerous highway, would you say, “Let him go.  If he doesn’t get killed, maybe his fear of this danger will teach him to make better choices next time.”

By now, some of you are catching on to what Christ is teaching us, and some of you are having trouble letting go of your idea of justice.  And perhaps you are thinking, “But pastor, there are times when someone has committed a gross sin, and they simply will not repent.  Are you saying that Christ wants us to ignore that?”  Certainly not!  He wants you to be jared by it like a slap in the face, and then He wants you to do something about it.  He wants you to do everything within the power and abilities that He has given you, to bring that little sinning child back to a forgiven relationship with God; back to a state of grace within Christ’s church.  He does not want you to stop pursuing your brother or sister until they are safe once again within the heart of Christ, within the bosom of His church.  Listen to Christ’s way, the way of the cross…

IV. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.  But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” [Vs. 15-17]

A common theme of frustration, which I hear over and over again from dear saints who believe they are following this portion of Matthew 18 is this: “Pastor I have already tried that.  They will not listen to me.”  And my answer, which is also Christ’s answer is, “Try again.”  And the response I get is, “I didn’t read that in Matthew 18!”  And to that response I counter with, “Oh but when Peter asked in verse 21, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered him in verse 22, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”  In other words there is not an assigned number of times where you simply give up on one of Christ’s little ones.

But at some point, you will begin to become discouraged and even tired of the tension that your brother’s sinful state is causing both to you and others.  At this point, you should look for both strength and wisdom in the presence of others.  Proverbs 15:22 teaches us that “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”  When you share your burden for your lost brother or sister, you are admitting that you are small and incapable of finding a way of changing the lost ones heart, so you naturally reach out to others who are also aware of the lost one’s state, so that they may assist you in your rescue mission.  And the first thing that you must do as a group is pray to the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and then allow the Holy Spirit to formulate a plan that will lead you towards recovering your erring brother or sister.  But I warn you, the others may tell you something you may not want to hear; they may tell you that you are making a much bigger deal out of the behavior of the one you have labeled lost; they may tell you truthfully that what you are experiencing is not sin, but a portion of the other person’s personality that is still immature, but open to growth and change.  In other words, they may tell you that you are making a mountain out of a mole hill.

But if, within the multitude of counselors, there is common agreement that your brother or sister has committed a gross sin against you or Christ’s heart, the church, then you will approach that little one, in love for the purpose of helping that person turn back to Christ and away from the sin that has trapped them.  Again, there is no assigned number of attempts; you simply keep trying until once again, you are exhausted.  When you reach that point, and only that point, are you free to make that lost brother or sister’s sin public, and you do that by telling it to the church.

The church is not the pastor, but he is part of the church.  The church is not the Board of Elders, but they are part of the church.  The church is not only the body of Christ, but it is the place where you find His very heart; it is His bosom of love, where each of us through baptism are brought to nestle safely within.  When you tell it to the church, the church does not respond as the judge, jury, and executioner, but instead they respond as the heart of Christ; they respond in love.

TRANSITION: The church gathered together listens to the perceived danger of the lost little one, and then, and then…

V. And then they pray!  “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” [VS. 18-20]

Binding and loosening is serious business; it has eternal consequences both here and in heaven.  We are talking about either granting forgiveness of sins or withholding it.  This is a matter of heaven or hell.  So the church must pray; we must intercede for our lost brother or sister, but then at the time appointed by God and displayed with the peace of the Holy Spirit’s presence, we must finally confront our lost brother or sister.  “Do you repent of this gross and public sin or do you not?  Do you desire to be part of Christ’s body, protected within His sacred heart or do you not.  Do you repent?”

When this question is asked let the entire church give into their trembling and weak legs and fall onto their faces before God, interceding before His thrown of grace, asking that He please move the heart of their lost brother or sister, so that they will see their sin and return to Christ and His church.  And if they will not repent…

CONCLUSION: Oh, my… how sad.  My heart is broken because resting in the heart of my Lord, I know that His heart is broken too.  If they will not repent, then we have lost our brother; we have lost our sister.  But perhaps there is still hope?  Doesn’t our Lord promise that “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”?  And so we never give up; even if our brother or sister has chosen to be like one apart from Christ, we still wait, hope, and pray that one day they too will return, repent like us; become like a humble child and rest safely and securely in Christ’s Kingdom of grace.

So I ask you now, have you really followed Matthew 18 in the past?  May each of us be moved to follow our Lord’s Words recorded here for the rest of our lives, by the power and love of Christ that compels us… AMEN!

The Cross Is Love

August 31st, 2014

Rev. Brian Henderson, Pastor-Trinity Lutheran Church
7210 Lisbon Street, San Diego 92114
http://www.tlcsd.org
Pentecost 12A, August 31, 2014

Click here for audio of this message

NOTE: The congregation has just listened to this little ditty from Hee-Haw: Gloom, Despair, and Agony On Me!  Click here to listen.

Many of you here this morning most likely immediately recognized the song we just heard as one of the many ditties made famous from the 1970’s Variety Show, Hee-Haw!  And in your minds eye, you probably saw 5 or 6 men sitting down together in bib over-halls, wearing straw hats, with moon shine jugs in their hands, complaining about how terrible their lives are.  Now as funny as that idea is to us, it also is steeped in historical truth in our own lives and the lives of faithful men and women who went before us.

In our Old Testament lesson [Jeremiah 15:15–21], we find the prophet Jeremiah caught in the middle of a funk; a pity party so to speak.  And if we are honest, if we allow God to teach us this morning, we can see both our individual lives within that conversation between Jeremiah and God, an indeed our congregation.  Let me show you what I mean by that.

“Oh LORD, you know; remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors.  In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach.” Yes, of course He knows you, but do you truly understand what that means?  He knows all about you, both the good and the bad.  And as long as we’re talking about good, didn’t our Lord teach us that there is no one good except God?  So isn’t it fair to say that what ever goodness is in you, it is God’s goodness?  Well, I think you know where I am leading you with that thought, so for now let’s just agree to say, “Let’s not go there” ok?  Good, so let’s move on.

You have asked God to remember you and visit you, right?  Well that is a statement that operates under the false assumption that God has left you, or forgotten you; He has not!  Doesn’t His own Word assure you that He will never leave nor forsake you? So, if you can’t find God’s presence in your life, then granted someone moved out, but I assure you that it was not God!

Now, it’s what you say next that amazes me; you asked God to not only return to you but to take vengeance for you, against those you have named as “your” enemies; do I have that right?  But right after that you ask for His “forbearance” or rather, you ask for mercy for yourself.  Now, do you understand the duplicity in that request?  You are asking God to give you grace, an unconditional pardon for your sin, but for those who stand against you, you want Him to wipe out!  And as long as we are being honest here, if you have truly been serving God and not your own interests, and if you are experiencing turmoil in your life simply because you are a “good” Christian, aren’t your supposed enemies really attacking God and His expressed will through His Word; a Word that you are only repeating and living out?  Well, let’s move on…

Next you rightly state that His Words were found by you, and you ate them, and that His Words became a joy for you, in fact, how did you put it, oh yes, you said that they were the delight of your heart. Something strikes me as odd here.  Why are you talking in the past tense?  Am I to assume that the scripture, which states clearly that faith comes by hearing the Word of God, no longer is true for you.  Am I to understand that not only do you find God’s Word ineffective in your life, but in fact you no longer need the gift of faith that comes through that Word?  Now I am only asking because right after that, you said with a degree of pride I might add, that you are called by God’s name.

You say you are a Christian, right?  Because if that is true, then I will go back to the truth that I pointed out a moment ago, you are talking in the past tense; as if eating, drinking, and living out God’s Word is what you use to do.  Now, if you have given up your reliance on God’s Word, to claim that you are still a Christian is quite frankly a lie.  You see, God did not call you into faith out of the thin air and neither does He sustain faith that way, but instead He uses the means, or actual methods that He chooses, which exist in this world that we live in.  And His Chief Means of Grace is His Word.  It is called the chief means of grace because the other two are totally dependent on His Word.  Baptism is also His means of grace, but without HIS Word, it is just a washing.  The Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, but without His Word it is just a snack.

Let me sum everything up for you. You didn’t sit in the company of blatant and public sinners and join in with them, because God’s Word was protecting you from the final result that comes from living under those things.  You weren’t ever voted most popular by that group, because God’s Word led you to live a life separate from their blatant sinful life style. You see don’t you, that God was using you for a higher purpose, right?  Ok, if you can see that then what you say next, or rather what you ask next, simply baffles me.  How did you put it?  Oh yes, “Why is my pain unceasing (and) my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” Do you hear yourself?  My pain.  My wound.  So, is this all about you now?  What happened to your belief and allegiance to your favorite Bible verse, John 3:16?  “What does that have to do with it?” you ask.  Good question.  Well, if  you believe that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” is true, then maybe this pain you feel, this wound you perceive has very little to do with you, but it is in fact something bigger, something very much beyond you?  Now we’ll flesh out that idea in just a moment, but there is one last thing you said that must be addressed by God Himself.

You said, and I quote, “Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” And to that God’s Word violently slaps you across the face and says… REPENT!  Turn away from your inward thinking, because it is not about you, and it never has been; it is about saving the world… every sinner that will turn to God’s only means of salvation.  If you turn to this one thing needful, then God will restore you; you will stand before HIM comforted and strengthened.  If you truly do consume His Word and allow it and only it to fill you, you will be able to speak precious promises of faith and not this kind of dribble, which in the end is worthless.  If you allow God to strengthen you, then all of these trials and tribulations that you have allowed to consume you and snatch your faith and joy away from you, will be of no threat to your relationship with the God who called you out of darkness into His light.  And that now takes us to the pain you feel and the wound that you say is incurable; it takes us to God’s only means of salvation for the world, and for you.  And that of course is…

The Cross of Jesus Christ. [Matthew 16:21–28]  God does indeed love this world of sinners very much, and that includes you.  He loves us all so much that He did the unthinkable, He sent His Son to live among us and die for us.  The Father gave His Son upon the cross; the cross of pain and unspeakable suffering.  Peter and the apostles didn’t understand, and I am afraid we still don’t understand the necessity of Christ’s death.  You see the incurable wound and unspeakable pain that we along with the prophet Jeremiah see as our own, are really those of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Through His Word you have been unexplainably intertwined with Him in a way, that His own identity becomes your identity.  By His stripes you have been healed.  Through His painful and atoning death upon the cross you have been saved.  By the washing of the water and His Word you have been cleansed through recreation.  Through His holy supper, at His table, you are refreshed and strengthened by His very body and blood.

From our perspective, looking back from today into yesterday, we can intellectually say a hardy amen to Christ passion and death upon the cross for us sinners.  Peter did not have our perspective.  He couldn’t see how a suffering Savior would help them in their time of need.  He wanted a Savior who would ride into Jerusalem as a conqueror and punish all the wrong doers right then and there. But that was not the mission that the Father Sent His Son to complete.  So when Peter had his heart set on a bloodless and “cross-less” way of salvation, Jesus responded to him in the same way He responded to Satan who tempted Him with the same offer in the desert, “Get behind me Satan.”  That is, “Get out of my presence with that talk of glory.”  Repent.

This morning, God’s Word calls each of us to turn to His cross, the place where He made atonement for the sins of the world.  It is there at the cross where we find not only Christ’s passion, suffering, and death, but we are also reminded in His Word, which recreated us within the waters of our baptism, that on the third day, He rose from the dead and ascended into His glory!  So…

If you wish to follow Christ into eternal life, He says to you this morning, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  Do you hear the answer to your song of “gloom, despair, and agony?”  You must deny yourself completely; not just a part of yourself, some fault, some problem habit or desire, or some outward practice, but all of yourself.  You must die to your natural sinful tendency to protect your self-interests, which are things of this world and not the things of God.  A great illustration of this self-centered life style can be found in how Peter later disowned Jesus by saying, “I never knew the man (Jesus)!” But we are called to do the opposite; we are called by God to declare that we disown ourselves, completely. Now we aren’t talking about a self-denial in a self-righteous sense of the word but instead, a true conversion, a complete recreation of ourselves, the very thing that God declares was done for you in your baptism.

Your baptized new nature sees all the sin within you and all of the damnation and the death bound up in that sin and it instinctively turns away from it crying out to God for rescue and salvation through Jesus Christ alone. So, by a work of God alone through His Word, your sinful nature is cast out by you every day, and Christ has entered into your heart and stays as your eternal Lord and Savior.

So now, through the work of the cross and the washing of your own baptism, you live in this world, not for yourself, but for  Christ who died for you.  And the life you now live as one who has been crucified with Christ, is a resurrected life that daily dies to those old self-centered desires and rises up in new life to live to follow Christ where ever He leads, for His glory.

And as we follow Christ, everyday we are called to “take up our cross.”  And the cross that we bear, are those sufferings we experience because of our faithful connection to Christ. And what we find is that each of us as Christ’s disciples will have our share of suffering.

In our minds eye we see Christ, carrying his cross, leading the way with all of us disciples following behind Him, each bearing our own cross, like men and women being led away to be crucified.

But our journey does not end with suffering and death, just as that was not the end for Jesus Christ the Son of God.  Where He goes we follow; we follow through the suffering and like Him, our final destination ends in glory; it ends in God’s love for redeemed sinners.

Dear friends, even great men of faith like Jeremiah fall prey to doubt and despair. They are examples for us. If they fear, if they doubt, if they need encouragement, if they need admonition, if they need help, if they need the preaching of the law and the repeated assurance of the promises of God, how much more do we!

We may all expect to drink some of the same bitter cup as did the prophet Jeremiah. We all will need to be shocked out of our sinful stupor by God’s call to repentance. But with the Lord’s help we will find our way back to him, as did Jeremiah. From these experiences, both Jeremiah’s and ours, we are made more ready to be shining lights to others who also drift into the fog of gloom, despair, and agony. We have been there and have returned, so we may be able to help them return to God through Christ’s cross of love too.

The gospel promises of peace, comfort, and glory are not allusive nor is God’s Word a deceptive brook, as Jeremiah believed in the middle of fear and dark worry.  But rather, it is a glory that awaits each of you saints as you trod along following the footsteps of your Savior.  For sure there will be good times and bad times in this life.  But in the end, on the day we leave this veil of tears in a Christian death, we will discover the truth and certainty of Christ’s promise that was given to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with Me in paradise!”  AMEN!

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  AMEN!