The 2 Most Important Words in the Bible

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!easter angel

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my goal today is to convince you that the 2 most important words in the Bible are found in the Gospel reading for today.

In fact, in confirmation class, when I teach on the New Testament, I ask my students to guess what those two most important words might be, and if they can guess it, they will win a prize. Now the rule is that they have to be successive words in the Bible. They can’t just be two words pulled out of different books or chapters, like “grace” and “Jesus.” They usually come up with some pretty good guesses. Inevitably, “Jesus wept” is guessed because of its familiarity. But that’s not it. I had one student guess “By grace,” and that was probably one of the best guesses. It’s hard to top that.

But I believe that there are two words that do top it, and I always do a big reveal in class, but for you, I have already given the answer away. Not only did I say that the words are found in the Gospel reading for today, but they are in fact the title of my sermon- “And Peter.” And Peter? Yes, and Peter from Mark 16:7 “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.”

Transition: The big question obviously is: “Why are these the two most important words in the Bible?” Now I’ve got to make my case.

Consider what happened just a few days before Jesus’ resurrection.

Let’s start on Thursday evening after the Last Supper. Jesus and his disciples were on their way to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. This is from Mark 14. And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” 30 And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same.

Fast forward now to verse 43 in Mark 14. And immediately, while Jesus was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. 45 And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 46 And they laid hands on him and seized him. 47 But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 48 And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” 50 And they all left him and fled. The first part of Jesus’ prediction comes true. Peter and the other disciples fall away.

Fast forward once again to verses 66-72. And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, 67 and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” 68 But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. 69 And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” 72 And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

peter roosterPeter denies Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times. He doesn’t just deny following Jesus. He denies even knowing Jesus. And the rooster crows. Despair and dread fills Peter as he realizes that he has done exactly what Jesus predicted, exactly what he had emphatically promised would not happen.

Despite his best efforts, despite his promises and convictions, despite his well-meaning words, when His Lord needed him the most, he denied that he even knew him. He had let Jesus down and now Jesus was going to die. He had let fear overcome his convictions.

Fast forward to Easter morning. “Jesus is risen. He is not here.” The angel announces to the women. “Now go and tell his disciples and Peter to meet him in Galilee just as he said that night in the Garden.”

I want you to imagine the scene in the Upper Room before the resurrection announcement. The disciples are hiding in fear and in sorrow. I picture Peter sitting by himself in a corner- still despairing and mourning, not just about Jesus’ death but about his denial.

Suddenly the women burst through the door with amazing, unbelievable news! Jesus is risen! And he want his disciples and Peter to meet him in Galilee.

Now imagine if both the angels and the women had merely said “the disciples” without the additional “and Peter.” How do you think Peter would have reacted to their announcement? It would have been easy for him to conclude that he was not included in the invitation, that he no longer deserved to be called a disciple. Sure, the other disciples had run away from Jesus too, but only Peter had denied Jesus three times. The announcement that Jesus is alive might not be heard as good news to Peter. “Jesus is alive? Oh no! He was right all along. He truly is the Son of God, and I denied him. I rejected him. He won’t want me anymore.”

Instead though, imagine Peter sitting in that corner by themselves listening in as the women tell the story of the empty tomb and the angel. And the angel said, “He is risen. He is not here. Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going to Galilee.”

And Peter? Did Peter hear that right? Did you just say “and Peter?” Jesus wants me? Even though I denied him three times? Even thought I let fear and doubt overcome my faith and conviction? Jesus, the Lord of all, still wants me to be his disciple?

In that moment, the power of God’s forgiveness became very real to Peter. In John’s Gospel, he records that Peter, upon hearing the women, races to the tomb to see it for himself. Could it be true? Jesus is alive? And he still loves his disciples and Peter? Me?

Do you see now why these two words are the most important words in the Bible? Do you see how this is Good News, the greatest news, no matter what your name is?

After all, how many of you can identify with Peter’s fear and denial? I’m going to venture a guess that all of you have acted like Peter many times over, and I’m including myself in that.

We have all denied our Lord Jesus over and over again in our thoughts, words, and actions.

In our Rite of Confirmation, we ask our confirmands some tough questions.

“Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?”

“Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, even to death?”

“Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?”

How many of you have stood in this church and promised to continue steadfast in your church attendance, in your godly living, in your confession of faith, rather than fall away from it? Maybe you didn’t quite have the passion of Peter, but you promised, “I do so intend by the grace of God!”

How many times have you also made promises to God privately? You resolve to do better in your Christian life. I am going to read God’s Word regularly. I am going to go to church more often. I am going to quit that habitual sin. I am going to stand up for what I believe and even witness to my friends and neighbors. I can’t even remember all the promises I have made to God, and like Peter, had every intention of following through on.

broken promisesAnd then I failed. Over and over again. I failed to keep my promises and convictions. I failed to follow Jesus and walk in his ways and live according to God’s Word. I failed to read God’s Word and pray according to the schedule I made. I chickened out and didn’t share God’s Word to someone who desperately needed to hear it. I am Peter.

And if you are honest with yourself, you will admit that you, too, are Peter. Probably more often than you want to admit. You are, like Peter, a denier of Jesus. You see, every temptation to sin is, at its root, a temptation to disbelieve the Gospel. John Calvin once said, “Christian are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief.” We sin when we are dissatisfied with the all-satisfying Christ, when we do not fear, love and trust in him above all things. Every time we sin, we deny Jesus the rightful place in our life.

Peter denied Jesus out of fear of the consequences of following Jesus, that he might be treated just like Jesus was and put to death. He doubted Jesus’ words of promise that he would rise again and that he is Resurrection and the Life for all who believe in him. When he was confronted with his sin and disobedience and unfaithfulness, he broke down and wept bitterly. He had failed. What hope was there for him? What hope is there for us?

Then came the Good News declared by the angels that changed Peter’s life and changes your life too. The Good News that is not just for those had not denied Jesus. It is Good News for them, and Peter, and you.

Despite his denial, his unbelief, his sin and failure, Jesus loved Peter and wanted him as a disciple. He forgave and restored him. Jesus died and rose again for Peter. That Good News was delivered to him personally. And Peter. There was no doubt. The Good News of forgiveness through Jesus’ death and resurrection was for him! His very name was spoken.

You have that same confidence. The same Good News delivered to Peter is also delivered to you personally.

Fittingly, it is delivered by Peter in Acts 2. Upon receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter preaches a sermon. He concludes with this, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

You crucified Jesus. Your sins put him on the cross. Peter knew that his sins had put Jesus on the cross. And like Peter, the crowd, upon realizing their sin, were cut to the heart and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter got to deliver the same Good News that was delivered to him on Easter morning. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” For you! For me? A denier? A promise breaker? A sinner? Yes, for you!

baptism called by nameAnd in Holy Baptism, God spoke your name and washed your sins away. I have called you by name. You are mine. You were buried into death with Jesus and raised to a new life in him and became his disciple. In the Lord’s Supper, you hear the words of Jesus repeated, “This is my body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” For me? Yes, you, as often as you need it, forgiveness is yours. Take and eat. Take and drink. Be forgiven. Be strengthened by my death and resurrection for you.

Have I convinced you? The two most important words in the Bible are “and Peter” because you can insert your own name in Peter’s place and have the confidence that Jesus died for you and rose from the dead for you. He comes to meet you in His Word, in baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper to declare that he loves you and forgives you and that he can still use you as his disciple no matter what. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! For you. For me. And Peter. Alleluia! Amen.

Apparently there is a Skit Guys sketch on this very topic that I was unaware of until my sister was actually able to guess the two words because she had seen their video. They do a great job of highlighting God’s grace as well. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhoFEuw2GPA

 

 

When God Seems Far Away

Today is the day of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as recorded in Acts 1:6-11.

ascension disciplesSo when (the disciples) had come together, they asked (Jesus), “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

I recently had someone tell me that God seemed far away. They have really been through a lot in the last couple of years, struggling constantly with medical issues. It has been one thing after the other. Understandably, this person was discouraged. They wondered if God was really listening to their prayers. They wondered if God really cared. I was reminded of David’s words in Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

2 How long must I take counsel in my soul

and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

It can seem that Jesus is absent from your life. In fact, that is exactly what Satan wants you to think. “Jesus left this earth! He left you behind! He doesn’t care. He isn’t with you always like he promised!” Yet I was reminded today by Martin Luther that Jesus has not abandoned us. He is very near, and we know where to find him. He doesn’t tell us to look in our hearts to find him or feel him. He points us to visible signs of his grace and presence. I’ll let Martin Luther take it the rest of the way, and I pray that you will be strengthened by Christ’s very real presence on this Day of Ascension.

God has given us Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, and absolution to bring Christ very close to us, so that we can have Him not only in our heart but also on our tongue, so that we can feel Him, grasp Him, and touch Him. God did all this for the sake of those shameful spirits who seek God according to their own pleasure, with their reason and their own ideas and dreams. To make it possible for us to recognize Him, God presents Himself to us perceptively and clearly in signs.

But we do not accept these; nor are we concerned about the divine Word, although Christ the Lord Himself says: “The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own authority, but the Father who dwells in Me does His works” (John 14:10); again: “He who hears you hears Me” (Luke 10:16); and again: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation; he who believes the Word of God and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:15-16).

But we utterly disregard such words of the Gospel as well as absolution. Thus we perceive God not only with our hearts but also with our eyes and our hands, for He gives us a tangible and visible sign of Himself. At all times Good has so governed His people that He could also be recognized visibly by them, lest they say: If it were possible to find God, we would roam to the ends of the earth in search of him.” If you had ears to hear, it would be needless to wander far in search of God. For He wants to come to you, plant Himself before your very eyes, press Himself into your hands, and say: “Just listen to Me and take hold of Me, give Me eye and ear; there you have Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar. Open your mouth, let Me place My hand on your head. I give you this water which I sprinkle over your head.” – Martin Luther

Where is Jesus? Right here

Where is Jesus? Right here

Sunday School Stories: Noah’s Ark

This is the last sermon in my series on Old Testament stories. Thanks for reading!

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

This is the last sermon in this series on Sunday School stories- those stories you learned about in Sunday School or in children’s books, but you’ve probably forgotten a lot about them. Let’s begin the same way I’ve started every sermon in this series- by reminding you how to interpret the Bible. The Bible and the stories contained within it are not primarily about you. The Bible is not chiefly a collection of “how-to’s” or a manual for living. The Bible, even the Old Testament is primarily about Jesus- his life, death and resurrection for you. I came across a great line just this week. Every word of Scripture carries with it Christ. How do we know this? Jesus himself gives us this principle of interpretation in Luke 24 as he appears to his disciples after his resurrection. These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.

So let’s see how the story of Noah and the world wide flood points to Jesus. We begin in Genesis 6.

Mankind was beginning to multiply on the earth. But their wickedness was also increasing greatly.The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” So the wickedness of man was so great that God decides to blot out mankind even though it grieved him to do so.

Before we lose all hope though, we are introduced to Noah. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.

For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.

Noah believes God’s Word and obeys it. He builds the ark, gathers the animals and prepares for the flood. Eventually, God tells him to get inside. The rain is coming!

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark, they and every beast, according to its kin. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life And the Lord shut him in.The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark.

Eventually, the waters began to recede, and the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. Noah sent out a raven at first to find dry land. Then later he sent out a dove. He sent out the dove a second time, and it returned with a freshly plucked olive leaf. Noah then waited a week, sent out the dove, and it did not return this time.

In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. And Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out.Then God said to Noah, “Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. Every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out by families from the ark.

The first thing Noah did was offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God for their deliverance which was pleasing to the Lord. And then just like he once told Adam and Eve, God told Noah’s 3 sons to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Then we get to our Old Testament reading for today which is God establishing his covenant with Noah and really with the whole world that never again will there be a flood to destroy the whole earth. And God put a rainbow in the sky as a   sign of the covenant and promise.

This ends one of the most well known stories in the history of the world. We all know the story of Noah and the ark. Out of the 4 sermons I’ve done on Old Testament stories, I am sure that this is the one you remembered the most about. We read this story to our children. We decorate their rooms with images of Noah and the animals floating on the water in the ark. But what can this story teach us today? And how does it point to Jesus?

We tend to focus our attention on what we have turned into the cutesy, Precious Moments picture of Noah’s Ark. We smile as we imagine all the animals filing in two by two. We even sing fun children’s songs about it. The Lord said to Noah, “You’re gonna build an arky, arky!”

We completely gloss over the death and complete destruction of every living thing on the earth besides those on the boat. We prefer not to think about the lives that this flood swept away. The world was so evil and wicked that God felt that he needed to start over. This was no natural catastrophe. This flood was God’s wrath poured out on sinful mankind. It says that God blotted out every living thing on the face of the earth. This story should horrify us and frighten us at first. When you read, you can’t help but realize with absolute certainty that God takes sin seriously. And the punishment for sin is death.

Yes, God took the sin of those wicked people very seriously and wiped them out. And so it stands to reason that God takes your sin very seriously as well. Back in Noah’s day, it says that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was evil continually. Well, that describes your own sinful nature. Psalm 51:5 reminds us: Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. You are a wicked sinner from the moment you were conceived. You can do no good according to your flesh. The intentions of the thoughts of your heart are not pure. They are evil continually. And so because of your sin, you deserve to be blotted out from the face of the earth.

The flood of Noah’s day did not wipe out sin. In fact, the very next story after the flood records Noah’s sin of drunkenness. Evil continued to reign on the earth after the flood all the way to the New Testament up until today. The whole earth continues to rebel against its Creator. And we know that God does not take our sin and rebellion lightly. He is completely holy and pure and cannot stand the slightest imperfection.

So what’s to stop God from destroying the whole world again? Sure, he said he wouldn’t send a flood again, but what about a worldwide epidemic that kills everybody? How about God just sets fire to the whole earth? God isn’t limited to floods. He could use all sorts of means to pour out his wrath against sin. And in fact, Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 that a day of judgment is coming, just like in the day of Noah. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus is going to return one day, and there will be a great judgment, and God will pour out his wrath on all sinners, and they will be swept away to eternal punishment.

But just like He did in the day of Noah, God will preserve a remnant of people who will avoid that eternal punishment. Noah was saved because He found favor with God. He was found blameless in God’s eyes. Why was Noah found blameless? Not because Noah was a better person than everybody else. He found favor with God because he had faith.Noah believed in Jesus. “How can that be?” You might ask. “Jesus hadn’t come to earth yet!” But in fact, all those people in the Old Testament who were found righteous in God’s eyes were saved because of their faith in the Messiah- the one that God promised to send to save them from their sins. That Messiah is Jesus.

Instead of sending another disaster upon the whole earth to take care of sin, God sent His Son, Jesus, to the earth. And Jesus, who did have completely pure intentions in his heart and who lived a perfect life, went to the cross as the sinless Son of God. And on that cross, Jesus took the sins of all mankind- all the evils committed, every sin from Adam and Eve to your own, to the sins of future generations- Jesus took them all on himself. And God then poured out all of his wrath, he unleashed a flood of punishment, on His own Son. Jesus bore the brunt of God’s wrath, and it killed him. Jesus took your place. God will not pour out his wrath now or eternally on all mankind because Jesus has satisfied God’s wrath through his sacrificial death on the cross. And on the cross, Jesus reached back in time to forgive the sins of Noah and all the Old Testament saints just as he reaches forward to forgive your sins.

So for those who in faith believe in what Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection, God promises that you will not be punished eternally for your sins. God will save a remnant of people from eternal destruction, just like he saved the remnant of Noah and his family from the flood. God has rescued you and placed in the ark of His Church.You see, throughout history, Christians have referred to the one, true Church as the ark of God which carries all believers and saves them from destruction.

How do you enter the ark that is the Church? How do you know that you will be spared eternal wrath for your sins? We can make connections to Noah and the flood again. God delivers His people through water. The flood points us to baptism. The apostle Peter makes this connection in his first letter. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  1 Peter 3:18-21

Plain as day right there. Baptism, which corresponds to Noah and the flood, now saves you. In your baptism, your sins and wickedness were drowned and put to death and the benefits of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were given to you. Baptism cleanses you and raises you to new life. Martin Luther says, “Baptism is by far a greater flood than was that of Noah…Baptism drowns all sorts of men throughout the world, from the birth of Christ until the Day of Judgment…Noah’s flood was a flood of wrath. This is a flood of grace.”

The story of Noah’s Ark and the flood is full of great significance for your life today. The story first points out your own sin and wickedness and your helplessness to save yourself from the punishment of death. This story reminds us that the Day of Judgment is coming. The flood itself then points you to Jesus’ death when all of God’s wrath against your sin was poured out on His own Son. The ark, the boat itself, which preserved Noah and his family, points you to the holy, Christian Church where God preserves His people and sustains you in this life through Word and Sacrament. And the story of Noah’s ark serves to remind you of your baptism where your sinful nature was drowned, and you were given new life in Jesus, a life to offer up as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. Your sins are swept away through the water poured out on you. God’s wrath is satisfied. Baptism now saves you. And when you see a rainbow, it can remind you not only that God will never send a worldwide flood again, but also that you have been saved from eternal punishment through Jesus. In his name, amen.

Let us pray: Lord God, we thank you for delivering us from our sin and from your eternal wrath through your Son Jesus Christ and through the waters of Holy Baptism. Flood our lives with your love and mercy that we would offer our lives to You as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Preserve us and keep us from evil this day and every day. Amen.

Burn Notice

In this post, I have to brag about one of the elders at St. John in Defiance where I serve. My last couple of posts have been about Cross Connections, recognizing Christian themes in book, TV shows, movies, and everyday life. A Christian theme is not simply teaching

My 1-year-old son loves Clifford almost as much as I do

good morals and habits. Clifford does that. My son and I recently watched an episode of Clifford where we learned that it is good to play games fairly and not cheat. I got a lot out of it. But Christian themes are specifically about Christ and His work for us. This includes themes of forgiveness, redemption, sacrifice, second chances, sin, good vs. evil, and so on.

At our elders’ meeting last week, the elder who had the opening devotion made a great Cross Connection. (I’m going to keep capitalizing Cross Connection because I’m hoping to trademark it. Look for the book soon. Just kidding. But seriously) He began by talking about some of the TV series he has been watching on Netflix. One of the shows he has gotten into is called Burn Notice and is on USA network.

Are there ever any ugly spies?

I have not seen this show, but this is the general premise. A burn notice is issued by intelligence agencies to discredit or announce the dismissal of agents or sources who are considered to have become unreliable. When spies are burned, their connection to an espionage organization is terminated, leaving them without access to cash or influence. According to the narration during the opening credits, the burned spy has no prior work history, no money, no support network – in essence, no identity.The show follows a former spy named Michael Westen who has received a burn notice and is trying to figure out who issued it. In order to make some money, he works as a private investigator on the side.

According to the elder who watches the show, the burn notice also means that he is a target for execution. Other people in the intelligence agency have the freedom to take him out. Somebody wants Michael Westen dead. So much of the shows involves him trying to avoid his burn notice and also put an end to it.

Then the elder made the Cross Connection. He said that all people everywhere have a burn notice. Because of our sin, which we have had since conception, we are all destined to die and to burn eternally. That is our fate.Our connection to God has been terminated.

Many people’s lives are consumed with trying to avoid our burn notice. What are some of the ways we try it? Some try to convince themselves that their is no burn notice. It is a made up thing. Nothing happens to us when we die. Sin does not exist. So they decide to “live it up” now because there is nothing to worry about. Ignorance is bliss.

Others try to avoid their burn notice by attempting to make up for their sin. They are “generally a good person,” so God would certainly not allow them to be burned. They believe that they can work hard enough to eventually get rid of that burn notice. But try as they might, the burn notice remains.

For the Christian, however, we can honestly say that our burn notice has been taken away. But we didn’t have anything to do with it. We aren’t the ones who battled Satan so that we would not be burned. Instead, Jesus took our burn notice to the cross with him. He suffered the death we were supposed to die from our burn notice. He suffered the disconnection to His own heavenly Father. He suffered the very pangs of hell on that cross so that we would not have to. Our burn notice has been avoided because of Jesus.

Now, instead of a burn notice, we have a baptism certificate. In our baptism, our burn notice was torn up and thrown away. Whenever we have doubts about our eternal destination, we can look to our baptism where God spoke our name and said “You are mine.” We don’t have to nervously look over our shoulder and wonder if sin or the devil is coming to take us out. We can live without fear of death.

Many thanks to the elder who pointed out this Cross Connection. I hope this encourages you to keep looking for Christ wherever you are. You never know what opportunity you might have to witness to an unbeliever who still has their burn notice about what Jesus has done for them. Happy Cross Connecting!

 

Easter Sermon- A Cinderella Story

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is risen indeed! Amen!

Easter is my favorite holiday. In my opinion, no holiday can match the joy and celebration of Easter Sunday. Sure, Christmas is definitely more popular. That probably has something to do with all those gifts we give and receive. Christmas in our culture has a lot more pomp and circumstance. Christmas is typically considered the biggest holiday of the year. And the birth of Jesus is certainly a noteworthy celebration. But Christmas is nothing without Easter. Easter is the height, the climax, of the church year. Everything in Jesus’ life and in your own life is building up to Easter, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. To summarize St. Paul, “If Christ has not been raised from the dead, our faith is worthless and pointless.” For sure, Holy Week for me means a lot of extra time and work, but it is totally worth because of the celebration of Easter. As the theologian N.T. Wright has put it: “”We should be taking steps to celebrate Easter in creative new ways: in art, literature, children’s games, poetry, music, dance, festivals, bells, special concerts, anything that comes to mind. This is our greatest festival. Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else. Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity… This is our greatest day.”

One of my other favorite times of the year just ended last week. Monday night was the culmination of March Madness, the men’s college basketball tournament. I have always loved March Madness. In elementary and high school, I was so eager to get home for those first round afternoon games. I would plop down in front of the TV with my bracket and consume college basketball. In college, since I had a little more freedom in my choices, I admittedly would skip any classes that interfered with March Madness. A guy’s got to have priorities, right?

Even mild basketball fans often get caught up in the excitement of March Madness. They will fill out brackets and predict a winner for the office pool and even try to watch some of the games, especially those first round games. I believe the reason for this is the anticipation of a Cinderella story. It seems we cannot get enough of Cinderella. We love to root for the upset, the David versus the Goliath, the tiny school against the tradition-rich, larger superpower. We get caught up in the classic tale of rags to riches.

This year, of course, the super-powers won out in the end. There weren’t too many extended Cinderella stories. But we did have a few upsets, a couple of Davids taking down Goliath. Who didn’t find themselves pulling for little Lehigh University against the giant everyone loves to hate- the Duke Blue Devils? We also had Norfolk St. (who had ever heard of that school before) taking down one of the best teams in the tournament in Missouri. Those Cinderellas had their moment of glory. We remember with fondness their rags to riches journey.

What is so compelling about a Cinderella story? I think it is the element of surprise. The victory is completely unexpected. We love to root for the underdog, but we don’t expect them to win. If they were expected to win, they wouldn’t be an underdog and it wouldn’t be an upset. The Cinderella team always gets to claim, “Nobody believes in us!” They use that thought as motivation. “No one thought we could pull it off!” No one believed David could beat Goliath, especially since he wasn’t wearing any armor and was armed with a few rocks and a sling. They were busy planning his funeral. Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and sisters never thought she could get a handsome prince to fall in love with her. When the slipper fit, they were stunned. A couple of years ago, no one believed that Butler, a small university in Indiana, could make it all the way to the national championship game and almost win the March Madness tournament. They shocked the nation. And we loved them for it.

Hollywood certainly knows that the rags to riches story is compelling. From Rocky hanging with Apollo Creed to a slumdog from India winning a million dollars, we eat these stories up. Even shows like American Idol are based on the premise that an unknown talent who never had a shot at making it to the big time finally has a chance to prove themselves. Why do you think thousands of people show up for those auditions? They all want their own Cinderella story. They want to beat the odds, to take down Goliath, to shock the world. You see, that’s another reason why we love the Cinderella story because it gives us hope. We think, “That could be me someday.” We could have our own rags to riches journey. We could be that average person toiling away, waiting for that big break, and we just hope that it comes. The Cinderella story is deeply personal.

I mentioned before that Easter is my favorite holiday. Why is Easter such a great celebration? Maybe because it is the greatest Cinderella story ever told. 

Think about it. It has all the classic elements that make a Cinderella story. After all, it was completely unexpected. The story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is more unexpected than Cinderella marrying a prince, Rocky beating Apollo Creed or David taking down Goliath. Why? Because dead people don’t come back to life! We all know that! All those other people had to overcome some pretty great odds. None of them died however. The chances of someone coming back to life after they have died are 0%. Dead is dead. There is no coming back from that.

A few years ago, a bunch of brilliant minds got together to have a discussion about the Easter story. They had a press conference to present their conclusions, and they announced that the resurrection didn’t happen because it couldn’t. It was impossible. They even took with them a local young woman who worked at the morgue so that she could bear witness, in case anyone was in any doubt, that normally when people died, they stayed dead.

And yet today, we are gathered together to hear the story about the women who came to the tomb expecting to find the very much dead body of Jesus. Instead they found a stone rolled away and an angel sitting inside the tomb who announced to them, “Jesus is not here. He is risen!” What was their response? “Oh yeah, that’s what we thought would happen.” No! They were shocked. Mark says that trembling and astonishment seized them. They were terrified. They didn’t know what to think! This was completely unexpected. What does the angel mean “He is risen?”

But later on, they see Jesus with their own eyes. Paul says that over 500 witnesses saw the risen Jesus with their own eyes and could confirm his Cinderella story. But this isn’t simply a rags to riches tale. This was a death to life event. This wasn’t just a small boy taking down a giant. This was a dead person taking down the greatest giant of all time- death.

Just think about this. As a human race, we have been able to overcome all sorts of obstacles and opposition using our reason and intellect. But one enemy we have not been able to beat is death. Sure, we’ve been able to delay death for a little bit longer thanks to medicine and technology, but sooner or later, death is not going to be denied. It’s going to win. But Jesus beat it.

Jesus could even claim that no one believed in him. He told the disciples three separate times that he was going to suffer and die but then rise again. They didn’t get it. He told the Jewish leaders that he was going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. He was talking about his body. They said, “Sure you will.” Again, no one expected Jesus to defeat death by rising from the dead- not even the devil himself. Easter is the greatest Cinderella story ever.

Yes, Easter is my favorite holiday, but not just because of the great Cinderella story of Jesus’ resurrection. What makes Jesus’ Cinderella story even greater is what it means for you and me.

Remember when I said that one of the most compelling aspects of a Cinderella story is that it makes us think “That could be me someday!”? It gives us hope for our own Cinderella experience. Well, Easter means that you and I have our own Cinderella story. Jesus’ death and resurrection, his rags to riches journey, was done for you and for me. Jesus’ unexpected victory becomes our unexpected victory. It means that Jesus has also taken you from rags to riches and from death to life.

You see, you were once dead in your trespasses and sins. That’s how God’s Word describes you before conversion. You were dressed in filthy rags, stained by sin. You were powerless to save yourself. It was impossible. But through the waters of Holy Baptism, you have passed from death to life. As Romans 6:4 puts it: “We were buried therefore with Jesus by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Jesus’ victory has been given to you. He has clothed you in the rich robes of his own righteousness. You were dead in sins, and now you are alive in Christ. You were clothed in dirty rags, and now you are dressed in a  pure, white robe of righteousness.

A real Cinderella story has taken place in your life. The giants of sin, death and the devil have been defeated, not by you, but by Christ for you. And you can relive your Cinderella story every single day as you confess your sins to God, and then remember your baptism where God forgave you and washed your sins away and promised you the riches of eternal life. You have won the victory through Jesus. All this is because of Easter. If it were not for Jesus’ Cinderella story from death to life, Paul says your faith is futile and you would still be in your sins. Easter is the greatest celebration for a Christian- so far.

That’s right. So far. Because a better day is coming. You will be part of another Cinderella story someday because of Jesus. One day, you are going to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and rise from the dead.

One day, you will die. Death is not completely done away with yet. You will die and your body will remain here on earth, subject to decay and rot. Your spirit will be with God in heaven. But that’s not the Cinderella story. That’s not the end. Jesus is coming back to this earth someday and when he does he will raise all people from the dead. You will experience resurrection. You will go from death to life. Jesus will take the rags of your decaying body and give it new life so that you will have a new, glorious body that will never die again. And Jesus will take the rags of this earth, and he will remake it into a new creation for us to live on forever. Now that is a Cinderella story to look forward to. Just as Jesus defied the odds and defeated the giant enemy of death by rising from the dead to eternal life, you too will rise from the dead when death is completely finished off on the Last Day. And we will live happily ever after.

Let us pray: Lord God, we praise you on this most special and holy day! Christ is risen! Alleluia! You have changed the whole course of human history by raising your Son, Jesus Christ, from the dead so that those who believe in him would not perish but have eternal life. Help us to continue to trust your promise that because Jesus lives, we too shall live. Fill our whole lives with the joy and the hope of Easter victory, our Cinderella story from the rags of sin to the riches of your grace. Amen.

Seeing Stars

Matthew 2:1-2 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Happy Epiphany! Many of us relate the story of the magi, or wise men, from the east to Epiphany. You may be surprised to learn that this is a relatively new tradition. From The Treasury of Daily Prayer:

The feast of the Ephiphany of Our Lord commemorates no event but presents an idea that assumes concrete form only through the facts of our Lord’s life. The idea of Epiphany is that the Christ who was born in Bethlehem is recognized by the world as God. At Christmas, God appears as man, and at Epiphany, this man appears before the world as God. That Christ became man needed no proof. But that this man, this helpless child, is God needed proof. The manifestations of the Trinity, the signs and wonders performed by this man, and all His miracles have the purpose of proving to men that Jesus is God. Lately, especially in the Western Church, the story of the Magi has been associated with this feast day. As Gentiles who were brought to faith in Jesus Christ, the Magi represent all believers from the Gentile world.

Now that you’ve had a quick primer on Epiphany, I do want to talk about the magi and the star that arose which allowed them to find Jesus. What a miracle that God used a star to lead these Gentiles to Jesus so that they could worship him! It might make us wonder what miraculous way God will lead us to Jesus. What is your star? What sign is God going to show to you personally?

We see this kind of thinking in Christianity quite frequently; this idea that God is going to reveal himself to you in a special way and lead you on your own path to Jesus. Your star might be a powerful, mountaintop worship experience. Your star might be an inner voice that seems to be directing you where God wants you to go. Your star might be a form of obedience: through fasting, through meditation, through not drinking or not eating meat, through following a specific to-do list. Your star might be acquiring knowledge. Your star might be a vision which you believe to be from God. The key in this teaching is that God is going to speak to you and come to you in a new, completely personal way.

My friends, this is is dangerous thinking. First of all, it is completely subjective. Since these are all personal experiences, how are you to know that this is truly God speaking to you? Because you feel that it is? Are you going to place your confidence in your own subjective feelings?

Second of all, God does not work in this way. Notice that I say that God cannot work in this way. God certainly did use a star to guide the wise men. But that is a descriptive story. We cannot take that story and apply it to our lives by saying, “Just like God used a star to lead the wise men to Jesus, He is also going to use a ‘star’ (a personal sign) to lead me to Jesus and guide me in my Christian life.” God certainly is able to show himself to you and give you a personal sign. But how are you to know that it is truly God? Perhaps it is the devil masquerading as an angel of light.

Hebrews 1:1-2a “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” You see, God does give us stars, or signs, to lead us to Jesus. But these are not personal, subjective experiences. God works through means to deliver Jesus to us. Specifically, He uses the means of grace: the Word of God and the Sacraments. These are the “stars” that we can point to and say with confidence “There is Jesus.” We find Jesus in the proclaimed Word of God. We can say with confidence that Jesus has saved us and washed us from our sins because we can point to the sign and seal of Baptism which has the promise of Jesus attached to it. Jesus never said, “Make sure you pay attention because I might whisper some pretty important stuff to you sometime during your life.” But he does say, “This is my body. This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus Himself has promised that we will find him in God’s Word, in Baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper.

And we know that these promises are for all people because God led the wise men, who were not part of Israel, God’s chosen nation, to Jesus. So once again, happy Epiphany! Jesus is true God and true Man and is revealed as our only hope for salvation. We know exactly where to find Him: in the means of grace.

The Centerpiece

This Thanksgiving, at your dinner table, will you use a centerpiece? The centerpiece on a table is an adornment meant to attract attention. Many times a centerpiece will have a theme. You would not use the same centerpiece for a Thanksgiving dinner that you would for a wedding reception. (Unless you got married on Thanksgiving, I suppose.) Now a centerpiece on a table is merely used as decoration. We call it a centerpiece because it occupies a central position. However, a centerpiece can also mean something that is of central importance or interest in a larger whole. The centerpiece of an argument means its core or essence. The centerpiece is something that you are going to highlight.

At St. John Lutheran Church, our sanctuary has recently been renovated. The inside of our church desperately needed a makeover. So the walls were repaired and painted, the carpeting was replaced and lights were added among other things. (Next step: air conditioning!) One other change made was the position of the baptismal font. The baptismal font is now the centerpiece of our sanctuary.

This makes for a beautiful centerpiece in our sanctuary. But the baptismal font is more than just a physical centerpiece. It does more than just occupy a central space. Baptism is also the centerpiece of our Christian life and our Lutheran theology.

In his Great Commission, Jesus tells us to make disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When a person is baptized, they become a disciple. They become a child of God. They enter into a life of faith. Their sinful nature is drowned in the water, and the individual arises with a new life in Christ. 1 Peter 3:21 is quite clear when it says, “Baptism…now saves you.” Baptism is a gift to us in which God acts to rescue from sin, death and the devil. The gift of Baptism is for all people: infants, teenagers, adults, senior citizens. Peter also tells us in Acts 2: 38-39, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off.

A person only needs to be baptized once, but this does not mean that baptism loses its place as the centerpiece of our faith. A Christian should daily be reminded of their baptism. When we repent of our sins, we return to our baptism where we receive the assurance of the forgiveness of sins. Baptism is not only the event in which we enter into God’s family, it is also where we return over and over again as we confess our sins and receive forgiveness. When we are broken by the Law of God and in need of God’s mercy, we need to be reminded of our baptism. When Satan tries to condemn you and convince you that God could never love you or forgive you, you can reply to his attacks by confidently saying, “Hold it right there, Satan! I have been baptized. I am a child of God. There is no condemnation for those who have been washed by water and the Word of God!”

When a Christian dies, the most important date to remember is not the day that they were born, but rather, the day that they were born again by water and the Spirit. (John 3:3-5) In a Christian funeral, we pastors do not preach on that person’s good works or nice personality for assurance of their salvation. We say with confidence that a person who has died in in heaven with God because they were given faith through Baptism. The Holy Spirit sustained them in that faith throughout their life. They died with the same promise they received from God at their baptism, “I have called you by name. You are mine.” Now at funerals at St. John, the casket with the deceased person is placed behind the baptismal font right in front of the steps leading up to the altar. It provides some beautiful imagery for those sitting in the pews. They see that person through the baptismal font. It is the same way that God sees all those who have been baptized. Through our baptism, God sees us washed clean. He sees us clothed in Christ’s righteousness. He sees us as His beloved children.

From the beginning to the middle to the end of our Christian life, baptism is the centerpiece. Now some people might challenge me and argue that Jesus is the centerpiece of our Christian life. That is true. But here’s the thing: you cannot separate Jesus from baptism. In baptism, Jesus is delivered to you. The benefits and promises of his life, death and resurrection are yours through baptism. So when I say that baptism is the centerpiece of Christian life, I mean that Jesus is the centerpiece. The connection between Jesus and baptism is found in Titus 3:3-7.

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

In conclusion, I want to share this wonderful baptismal hymn found in Lutheran Service Book (594) It does a great job of describing the Christian life and how baptism is the centerpiece.

God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It

Stanza 1

God’s own child, I gladly say it: I am baptized into Christ!

He, because I could not pay it, gave my full redemption price.

Do I need earth’s treasures many?  I have one worth more than any

That brought me salvation free, Lasting to eternity!

Stanza 2

Sin, disturb my soul no longer: I am baptized into Christ!

I have comfort even stronger: Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice.

Should a guilty conscience seize me, since my baptism did release me

In a dear forgiving flood, sprinkling me with Jesus’ blood?

Stanza 3

Satan, hear this proclamation: I am baptized into Christ!

Drop your ugly accusation; I am not so soon enticed.

Now that to the font I’ve traveled, all your might has come unraveled,

And, against your tyranny, God, my Lord, unites with me!

Stanza 4

Death, you cannot end my gladness: I am baptized into Christ!

When I die, I leave all sadness to inherit paradise!

Though I lie in dust and ashes faith’s assurance brightly flashes:

Baptism has the strength divine to make life immortal mine.

Stanza 5

There is nothing worth comparing to this lifelong comfort sure!

Open-eyed my grave is staring: Even there I’ll sleep secure.

Though my flesh awaits its raising, still my soul continues praising:

I am baptized into Christ; I’m a child of paradise!