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

 

 

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Obscure Bible Characters: Eutychus

A sermon based on Acts 20:7-12 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.

Grace and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I listen better with my eyes closed, I promise!

I listen better with my eyes closed, I promise!

I’m just going to take an informal poll this morning. If you have ever fallen asleep during church, please keep your hands down by your sides. That’s what I thought. Either you are being honest today, or some of you are asleep already! Just remember, we pastors can see everything you’re doing from up here. Consider that a warning. And if that is not warning enough, consider the story of poor Eutychus, our obscure Bible character for today.

How many of you have heard the story of Eutychus before? It’s just tucked away toward the end of Acts, a short account in the middle of Paul’s missionary journeys. This has always been one of my favorite Bible stories. Eutychus is the patron saint of all those who have fallen asleep in church. Thankfully, the story of Eutychus has a happy ending despite his great fall. I cannot make the same guarantee for any of you who fall asleep, especially anyone who chooses the balcony. They stopped teaching “Raising the Dead” classes at the seminary, mostly because they had a hard time getting any volunteers for demonstrations. So stay awake as we look at this story!

Once again, before we dig in to the text, I will remind you of one of the most important questions to ask in order to understand a Bible passage or story. How does this point to Jesus? All of Scripture is ultimately about Jesus and points us to his death and resurrection for us. So how do get from Eutychus to Jesus?

This vivid story is clearly an eyewitness account from the author of the book of Acts, Dr. Luke, who was with Paul on this particular journey. This is also one of the first accounts we have of what a Christian worship service was like. On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. They were worshipping on a Sunday. They were gathered together to break bread, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Paul preached a sermon. Paul and his companions were planning on leaving the next day, so Paul got a little long-winded. He wanted to fit everything in because he did not know when he would be back. Paul preached until midnight. I don’t want any of you to ever complain about the length of a sermon again.

To be fair to Paul, it’s not like he started early in the morning. All of this happened at night. That is probably because it was only at night, when the day’s work was done, that the laborers could come to the Christian fellowship.

eutychusThis also helps explain the case of Eutychus. It was dark. In the low upper room it was hot. The many lamps made the air oppressive. Eutychus, no doubt, had done a hard day’s work before he came and his body was tired. Perhaps he was sitting on the floor and started to nod off. He got up and thought he would get some fresh air by the window. He perched himself there and tried to listen to Paul again. But the tired Eutychus, overpowered by the stuffy atmosphere and by a hard day’s work, succumbed to sleep and fell to the courtyard below.

No doubt this would have caused quite a commotion in the Upper Room. Eutychus very likely had family members in attendance. The service was interrupted as people rushed down the stairs to check on Eutychus. But there was nothing they could do. Eutychus was dead. Now I am not nearly the man St. Paul was, but at least I can say this. My preaching, as far as I know, has never killed anyone.

But of course, I have never done what Paul does next either. He shows concern for this young man as well, making his way down the stairs and toward Eutychus. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” Ummm, ok, Paul. Are you sure you are not just avoiding sharing any guilt here. How about we get Dr. Luke over here because Paul clearly doesn’t know what he is talking about. These people knew when a person was dead. But when Paul announced that Eutychus’ life was in him, he was not contradicting his death. He was expressing the assurance that the young man would be brought back to life.

The next thing we are told, however, is that Paul is back upstairs, and this is my favorite part, he resumes his sermon. “Let’s see, where was I?” Paul conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. It’s not until the next verse that we are told the fate of Eutychus. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.

Eutychus is alive! Paul had revived him, not in the sense of simply gaining consciousness, but in the sense of receiving his life back again. Eutychus was resurrected! It reminds me of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Jesus walks in as people are mourning and crying and says, “She is only sleeping.” They laugh at him, but he knows something they don’t know. With the power of God, Jesus revives Jairus’ daughter. He brings her back to life with the power of His Word.

So what can we learn from this story today? Well, I would like to use Eutychus as an example of what I see happening in the church today. I see a lot of Christians, even members of our family at St. John, falling out of windows. Let me explain. (Yes, fellow pastors, I am going to allegorize this story. Please forgive me.)

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that church attendance in the United States has dropped considerably in the last number of years. Many people still claim to be Christian, but fewer and fewer are actually going to church. St. John Lutheran Church is not immune to this trend. Every quarter, Pastor Luhring and I receive an attendance report for the whole congregation, and the number of 0%ers is troubling. We have good-sized confirmation classes every year, but rarely see any of them 10-15 years later. We have faithful church members who all of a sudden just stop coming. We have church members who haven’t been in church for years.

Now for those of you who are here today- it is easy to simply look down on those people and pat yourself on the back for being here. But I believe our reaction should instead be one of concern and care. In fact, I want you to imagine every single one of your inactive fellow church members as Eutychus, the young man who fell asleep and fell to his death during a worship service. Immediately after he fell, his church family rushed down to help him and try to save him.

Do you know Eutychus?

Do you know Eutychus?

We have brothers and sisters in Christ who are falling away from the faith and are in danger of dying, not physically but spiritually. They have cut themselves off from God’s Word for some reason or another. And this should not surprise us. Satan is hard at work to distract and destroy the faith of every single Christian.

I want you to see yourself in Eutychus as well. We are all in danger of falling asleep and falling away from the faith. Jesus constantly warns his disciples to stay awake and be alert. Be ready at all times, he says, because you do not know when he will return, and you do not want him to find you asleep. 1 Peter puts it in very vivid terms. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

Satan wants to cut you off from God’s Word. Think of the parable of the sower and the seed. The Word takes root in some people’s lives, but Satan sows thorns in their lives and they grow up and choke the Word. Jesus calls those the cares and distractions of this life. So how does Satan do it? He might make you incredibly busy, give you a full schedule, fill your life full of distractions, and exhaust you so that you just don’t have the time or energy to come and hear the Word of God. He might convince you that you don’t really need to gather with the body of Christ in worship and hear God’s Word and receive the Lord’s Supper. You can be a Christian without those things. Don’t even worry about it. He could tell you that you are mostly a good person. What do you need church for? Or he might fill you full of guilt so that you feel ashamed to show your face in church because you are worried about what other people might be thinking about you. He might heap all sorts of struggles and burdens on you and convince you that God doesn’t really care about you since he is allowing all of this trouble in your life. He might tempt you to hold a grudge against a church member who has sinned against you instead of forgiving them.

Before you know it, you are getting comfortable in your life away from church and don’t even realize that you are falling to your death. This has happened to countless Christians, and it can happen to you as well. Eutychus certainly did not intend to fall out of a window. It’s not like he jumped out. He was trying to stay awake. But you know how hard it is to stay awake once those eyelids get heavy. Before he knew it, Eutychus was dead on the ground.

Many members of our own family are in danger of the same fate. Are we going to stay inside our four walls and continue as is, or are we going to be like the church family in Acts who rushed down to see if they could help? Are we going to be like Paul who knew that Eutychus could live again and revived him through the power of God?

Now you might be asking, “Well, what can I do? How can I revive someone’s faith?” And you certainly cannot do that yourself. Only the Holy Spirit through the Word of God can do that. But someone needs to speak that Word to them. As Paul says in Romans 10, “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” And how can they hear unless someone speaks that word to them? And can how you speak unless you first care about them and recognize that God can still revive them and restore them to faith?

I have been hammering home these last few weeks how all of Scripture points to Christ and his death and resurrection for the whole world. As Christians, our whole lives should point to Christ and to his salvation as well. We carry the name “Christian” with us wherever we go. You were baptized into that name, and Christ has been united to you. The Holy Spirit dwells within you. The Word of God is your weapon in the fight against Satan. But you do not fight alone. As the family of God, we need to share the life-giving and reviving Word of God with our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the faith. They need to hear God’s words of grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ just as much as you do.

words of eternal lifeDuring Jesus’ ministry, some of his followers began to leave him because of his difficult words and way of life. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” Jesus is the Word made flesh that the whole world needs to hear about!

Where is Jesus in this story? He is everywhere really. He is there in the gathering of his body, the Church, for worship. He is present in the words of Paul’s sermon as he proclaims Jesus’ death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. He is there in the breaking of the bread, his very body and blood given and shed. He is there in those who have compassion for Eutychus and his fate. He is there as Eutychus is raised from the dead, for Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life for all who believe. Jesus is the true and greater Eutychus. Jesus willingly went to his death on the cross and rose from the dead three days later to give you the gift of resurrection and eternal life.

Just as Jesus was present in Acts, he is here with us now as we gather together and hear his Word. He is here every time that His Word is proclaimed. He is here when one of your pastors proclaims that your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is here every time that we break bread together to forgive your sins and strengthen your faith. He is there every time you reach out to one of your fellow brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the faith. He has the power to raise them to new life just as he does for you day after day, week after week. And one day, he will be here on earth once again to do for you what he did for Eutychus. He will physically resurrect you from the dead and give you the gift of eternal life so that you can be in his presence and in the presence of our whole family forever.

May you stand firm in God’s Word and in the power of the Holy Spirit despite the distractions of the devil and may you show care and compassion to those who are falling asleep in their faith and give them the words of eternal life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sunday School Stories: David and Goliath

In my post on Cain and Abel, I forgot what helped make my sermon series so popular. I started off each sermon by showing a video of congregation members trying to answer the questions I asked about the Sunday School story I was preaching on. It was fun to see both young and old, male and female, racking their brains to come up with the names of Noah’s 3 sons or trying to recall how Absalom died. So as I continue this series on my blog, I am going to start out by giving a little quiz. The answers will be at the bottom. No peeking!

The Old Testament story I am going to cover in this post is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible: David and Goliath. What do you remember about this story?

1) How many sons did Jesse have?

2) Why was David in the Israelite camp?

3) How many stones did David get from the brook for his sling?

4) Fill in the blank- When Goliath saw David come out to fight him, Goliath said, “Am I a ____ that you come at me with sticks?”

5) T/F After Goliath fell, David took Saul’s sword and cut off Goliath’s head.

How did you do? The answers are at the end of the post. Let’s get into the story from 1 Samuel 17. Remember, the point of these posts is to start at these Old Testament stories and finish with Jesus. In other words, how does the story of David and Goliath point us to Christ? For Jesus Himself said that everything written in the Old Testament is really about him and his life, death and resurrection.

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. 2 And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered, and encamped in the Valley of Elah, and drew up in line of battle against the Philistines. 3 And the Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. 4 And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. 5 He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. 6 And he had bronze armor on his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. 7 The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron. And his shield-bearer went before him. 8 He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” 10 And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.” 11 When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

Goliath the Philistine was a giant man. He was challenging the Israelites to a game of one-on-one. If Goliath killed the Israelite champion, the Philistines would win the battle and rule over the Israelites. If the Israelite champion won, the Philistines would become the servants of Israel. There would be no battle other than the Philistine champion, Goliath, and the Israelite champion, to be determined. One person represented the entire nation. That is important to remember as we try to connect this story to Jesus.

Now David was the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah, named Jesse, who had eight sons. In the days of Saul the man was already old and advanced in years.13 The three oldest sons of Jesse had followed Saul to the battle. And the names of his three sons who went to the battle were Eliab the firstborn, and next to him Abinadab, and the third Shammah. 14 David was the youngest. The three eldest followed Saul, 15 but David went back and forth from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem. 16 For forty days the Philistine came forward and took his stand, morning and evening.

17 And Jesse said to David his son, “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers. 18 Also take these ten cheeses to the commander of their thousand. See if your brothers are well, and bring some token from them.”

19 Now Saul and they and all the men of Israel were in the Valley of Elah, fighting with the Philistines. 20 And David rose early in the morning and left the sheep with a keeper and took the provisions and went, as Jesse had commanded him. And he came to the encampment as the host was going out to the battle line, shouting the war cry. 21 And Israel and the Philistines drew up for battle, army against army. 22 And David left the things in charge of the keeper of the baggage and ran to the ranks and went and greeted his brothers. 23 As he talked with them, behold, the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him.

24 All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him and were much afraid. 25 And the men of Israel said, “Have you seen this man who has come up? Surely he has come up to defy Israel. And the king will enrich the man who kills him with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father’s house free in Israel.” 26 And David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” 27 And the people answered him in the same way, “So shall it be done to the man who kills him.”

28 Now Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spoke to the men. And Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.” 29 And David said, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word?” 30 And he turned away from him toward another, and spoke in the same way, and the people answered him again as before.

31 When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul, and he sent for him. 32 And David said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33 And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. 36 Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37 And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!”

David was not in the army of the Israelites at this time. He was still tending sheep for his father, Jesse. Jesse sent him to camp to give food to his brothers. While he was there, he heard Goliath challenge someone from Israel to fight him. David could not believe that the army of Israel would allow Goliath to blaspheme God. “Who is this guy?” David asks “That defiles the army of the living God? I will go fight him!” David was the only one to remember God’s gracious promises to Israel. The one who went out to fight Israel’s enemies would not be alone. God would be with him to protect and deliver his chosen people. So after a discussion with King Saul, David receives his blessing and goes out to fight Goliath.

Then Saul clothed David with his armor. He put a helmet of bronze on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail, 39 and David strapped his sword over his armor. And he tried in vain to go, for he had not tested them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.” So David put them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine.

41 And the Philistine moved forward and came near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42 And when the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was but a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. 43 And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” 45 Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47 and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.”

48 When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49 And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.

50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. There was no sword in the hand of David. 51 Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. 52 And the men of Israel and Judah rose with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron. 53 And the people of Israel came back from chasing the Philistines, and they plundered their camp. 54 And David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put his armor in his tent.

God used David to deliver the Israelites. David was mocked by Goliath, yet he prevailed in the end because the Lord was with him. One person, Israel’s champion, David, represented the entire nation and won the victory over their enemy.

Don’t get me wrong. You will need God’s help with your teenagers.

So how does this story point to Jesus? When this story is preached on or taught in many Christian churches, the emphasis is often placed on how you and I can be like David. You too can overcome the giant obstacles in your life with God’s help. Who or what is your Goliath? Is it debt? Is it that annoying co-worker? Is it your rebellious teenage daughter? Well, with God’s help, you can take down your Goliath and chop off its head! (Not to be applied literally to your co-worker or daughter)

But is that the best application of this story? I don’t think so. Jesus didn’t seem to think so either when he was teaching his disciples about what the Old Testament means. “It’s about me!” Jesus says.

Instead of putting ourselves in David’s shoes, let’s try putting Jesus in the place of David. Jesus, the Son of David, and so also, the Son of Jesse, came to be in the midst of His people, much like David came to the Israelite army. Jesus also came to feed His people with the bread of life, His very words, the Word of God.

But Jesus came to do more than teach. He came to fight. He knew that mankind was facing a giant enemy that it could not defeat on its own. Sin, death and the devil are mankind’s biggest enemies, (not debt or teenagers) and they, like Goliath, like to taunt us. “Try and defeat us!” They crow, knowing that we are powerless to do anything against them, that we are already under their rule and control.

So along comes Jesus who would no longer allow the people that God created to be treated in this way. He became man and stepped out alone to take on our enemies. And like David, Jesus didn’t look all that impressive when He went out to fight. He didn’t have any armor on. In fact, Jesus allowed Himself to be stripped down. He allowed Himself to be beaten and tortured. He didn’t carry any weapon; rather, He wore a crown of thorns on His head. Like David, He was mocked and laughed at by His enemies.

Here’s where many of the similarities between David and Jesus end though. Unlike David, Jesus didn’t come out swinging. He allowed Himself to put on a cross. He didn’t use His strength to suddenly come down. He died. It looked like Goliath had won.

But three days later, Jesus did hurl a stone which knocked sin, death and devil to the ground. The stone to the tomb in which Jesus was laid was rolled away, and Jesus walked out of there alive! He had won the victory! Like David’s, this victory was completely unexpected but totally decisive. Jesus knocked down our giant enemies and cut off their heads. They were done for!

Jesus is our champion. Jesus is the true and better David who stood in the place of all mankind, one man representing an entire people, and defeated our true giant enemy and freed us from their rule.

 

Here are the answers to the quiz above: 1) 8 2) To give food to his brothers 3) 5 4) dog 5) False, it was Goliath’s own sword

Sunday School Stories: Daniel and the Lions’ Den

This is the first sermon in a series I am doing in the month of July.

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

For the next 4 weeks, I’m going to be preaching on stories in the Old Testament that you probably remember learning about in Sunday School and reading about in children’s books. But we don’t talk about them in church very often. These stories don’t show up in our regular Old Testament readings. So unless you are an avid and faithful Bible reader, you have not thought about many of these Old Testament characters and stories very often. You probably know the structure and basic plot points, but you might not really think that it has any meaning or significance for your life today. Well, I hope to change that idea. As Paul tells young Timothy, All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)

When you do read the Old Testament, there is one concept to keep in mind as you try to figure out what it means. This is a principle for interpreting the Bible. It is a rule given by Jesus Himself in Luke 24. Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection and says to them: “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 what is the principle for reading the Old Testament? Everything in the Bible is primarily about Jesus. We have this tendency to put ourselves in those Old Testament stories and make them about us. And certainly there are things we can learn and apply to our lives from the great examples of faith found in the Old Testament. However, first and foremost, everything and everyone in the Old Testament points to Jesus: his life, death and resurrection. So that’s the principle we will work with the next 4 weeks. These stories ultimately point to Jesus. And because everything Jesus did, he did for you, these stories in the Old Testament do have great meaning and significance in your life.

So let’s look at our first Sunday School story: Daniel in the Lions’ Den from Daniel 6. We need to set up the story to begin with. At this time in history, many of God’s chosen people are in exile from the Promised Land. You have to remember that the nation of Israel was split into two kingdoms years ago after the reign of Solomon. Israel was the northern kingdom and had fallen to the Assyrians already. The southern kingdom was called Judah, and the city of Jerusalem with the temple, was located there. The people of Judah had been warned by prophets for many years to repent and turn from their idolatry. But they did not. They continued to rebel against the one true God despite the predictions of doom on the horizon if they continued in their evil ways. Finally, the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar, began to attack Jerusalem. They were, at first, partially successful and took many captives back to Babylon. One of the captives, or exiles, was Daniel. (Eventually, the Babylonians would conquer and destroy Jerusalem.)

Exile was a terrible punishment for these people. They were taken out of the Promised Land that God gave them because they broke the covenant. They were cut off from the temple where God had promised to dwell. They were in a foreign land with foreign customs and foreign gods. This was a challenging time for the chosen people of God as they were confronted by the drastic consequences of their unfaithfulness and sin.

Yet many of these exiles continued to love and serve Yahweh, the God of Israel. Daniel is a wonderful example of how God can turn any bad situation into something good. Daniel distinguished himself among no only the Jews but also the Babylonians. He was wise and discerning, and God gave him the ability to interpret the dreams of the king of Babylon which put Daniel in a place of high favor and authority.

By the time we get to Daniel 6, we have already gone through a couple of Babylonian kings. Nebuchadnezzar is gone as is a king named Belshazzar. King Darius is on the throne. So let’s look at the text of Daniel 6. 

It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom 120 princes, to be throughout the whole kingdom; 2 and over them three high officials, of whom Daniel was one, to whom these princes should give account, so that the king might suffer no loss. 3 Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other high officials, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. 4 Then the high officials sought to find a ground for complaint against Daniel with regard to the kingdom, but they could find no ground for complaint or any fault, because he was faithful, and no error or fault was found in him. 5 Then these men said, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God.”

Daniel was going to be a powerful man. This sparked some jealousy among the Babylonians, who no doubt were not happy that foreigner, a captive, was in this position of power over them. They knew Daniel continued to worship his god, so they wanted to use that against him. So they go to King Darius to set Daniel up.

Then these high officials and princes came by agreement to the king and said to him, “O King Darius, live forever! 7 All the high officials of the kingdom are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an injunction, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions. 8 Now, O king, establish the injunction and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed.”  Therefore King Darius signed the document and injunction.

What does Daniel do? Verse 10: When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel does not fear the lions’ den. He fears his God more and gives him the honor that he is due despite what the consequences might be. Sure enough, Daniel’s enemies are spying on him. They go to King Darius and tell him that Daniel is breaking the law that he instituted. Darius is very upset by this because he is very fond of Daniel. He realizes he has been tricked, but his hands are tied. The law is the law. We continue with verse 16.

Then the king commanded, and Daniel was brought and cast into the den of lions. The king declared to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!” 17 And a stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel. 18 Then the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no diversions were brought to him, and sleep fled from him. 19 Then, at break of day, the king arose and went in haste to the den of lions. 20 As he came near to the den where Daniel was, he cried out in a tone of anguish. The king declared to Daniel, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions?” 21 Then Daniel said to the king, “O king, live forever! 22 My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.” 23 Then the king was exceedingly glad, and commanded that Daniel be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. 24 And the king commanded, and those men who had maliciously accused Daniel were brought and cast into the den of lions—they, their children, and their wives. And before they reached the bottom of the den, the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.

God delivered Daniel from death and destroyed his enemies instead. Even in exile, God still cares for and protects his chosen people.

Now that we have reviewed this story, what does Daniel in the Lions’ Den have to say to us today? And also, how does it point to Christ?

As the people of God today, chosen by God to inherit the Promised Land and eternal life, set apart by our baptism into Christ in order to be a light to the nations, what are we to do with the great Old Testament story of Daniel and the Lions’ Den? Can we look to the person of Daniel as an example of great faith? Can we point to him and say, “That is what a Christian should look like!”? Certainly we can- as long as we admit that we fall well short of Daniel’s example of courage and faith.

You see, one thing I have learned from this story is that a Christian should expect to be in the lions’ den. Not only should we expect it, we should rejoice in it and embrace it. You heard me correctly. We get a reminder of this in 2 Corinthians 12.Paul writes, For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. In other words, I am content… in the lions’ den! How many times does Paul say he rejoices in his sufferings? Remember when he and Silas were thrown into prison for preaching the Gospel? What did they do? They sang praises to God! I can imagine Daniel doing the same thing in the lions’ den.

How many of you would do the same thing in these types of situations? Well, I believe that you have plenty of opportunities. Like the Babylonian leaders who sought to get rid of Daniel, we should expect the world to scheme against us, to try to destroy us, to put out the light of the Gospel, and to keep us from praying and worshiping the one true God. This world will insult you, laugh at you, tell you that you’re a hateful bigot for your faith. We should expect all of this. For the devil prowls around like roaring lion looking for someone, like you, to devour.

Brothers and sisters, if you don’t feel like you’re in the lions’ den being attacked on all sides, perhaps you should ask yourself, why not? After all, that’s part of the packaged deal you get when you follow Christ.If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. Come into the lions’ den, Jesus invites you. But no, you don’t want to go there.

I’m reminded of a story of a young man who just graduated high school. He grew up in a strong Christian home and went to church every week. He was going to spend his whole summer away from home working in a logging camp. Well, his father knew what type of men worked at the logging camp, so before his son left, he sat him down and said, “Son, I’m excited for this opportunity you have this summer. But I want to warn you that when these men find out that you are a Christian, they will not make life easy for you. They will probably laugh at you and make fun of you and try to destroy your faith. They might treat as an outcast because you are a Christian.” So the boy went off for the summer, and when he returned he was much stronger and more mature and had many stories to tell. He was telling his dad about his experiences and then says to him, “Oh, and Dad, you never had to worry about me being persecuted by my co-workers. They never even find out that I was a Christian!”

Like that boy, you want to avoid the lions’ den at all cost. You will bow down and worship the one true God when it is convenient for you- like right now for example. But the rest of the week? Well, you don’t want to cause any trouble by standing up for the truth of God. When the world tells you to keep your mouth shut about the Gospel, you listen and obey. When it tells you to worship at the altar of self interest and individualism, you gladly comply. You’ve got to look out for yourself after all. You want a Christianity without the hardships, the persecutions, the calamities that Paul talks about. Brothers and sisters, you are no Daniel.

Thanks be to God that someone greater than Daniel has come along! Remember that we are operating on Jesus’ own principle that everything in the Scriptures, including the book of Daniel, points to Jesus- his life, death and resurrection. So what does Daniel in the Lions’ Den have to do with Jesus? And how does it impact you?

First of all, Jesus willingly went into exile. Jesus left the comforts of heaven to become fully human and live on this earth. He came not because he had rebelled. He came for those who had rebelled. He came for you.

Second of all, Jesus was also plotted against in secret by his enemies who sought to destroy him. Jesus made quite a few enemies while on earth. But he never backed down from proclaiming God’s Word. He continued to speak the truth about the kingdom of God in love. And he did it for you. But human hearts are opposed to the things of God, and by nature we hate them. Jesus’ words and actions planted faith in the hearts of many, but many were turned off by his message.

Third, Jesus was sentenced to death. Like Daniel’s enemies, Jesus’ conspirators were successful in their plot. Jesus was betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He was given an unfair trial. He was mocked and laughed at. He was beaten and flogged. He was led to his lions’ den, the cross. And unlike Daniel, Jesus did die on the cross. God the Father did not save him from death. He forsook him. Jesus did all of this for you.

Fourth, Jesus is the true and greater Daniel because he rose from the dead and defeated his enemies and your enemies. I mentioned before that Daniel 6 doesn’t come up in our regular Scripture readings. In fact, Daniel 6 is scheduled to be read every year for the Easter Vigil service. What’s that? It is the service that many churches have on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday. It is the day between Good Friday and Easter. Why read Daniel 6 on this day? Because Daniel in the Lions’ Den foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection.

Think about it. Daniel was put into the lions’ den to die. A stone was rolled over what was supposed to be his grave, and the king’s signet sealed his tomb. But the next day, the stone was rolled away, and Daniel was alive. He was found blameless in God’s eyes, and so God shut the mouths of the lions. Then his enemies were thrown into the lions’ den instead and were killed.

In Jesus’ case, he was already dead when he was placed into his tomb. And they made the tomb secure by sealing it and placing guards around it. Three days later, the stone was rolled away, and Jesus was found alive! God the Father also found Jesus blameless and raised him from the dead. Through his resurrection, Jesus’ enemies and your enemies were put to death and defeated! Sin, death and the devil were the ones who were ultimately destroyed.

Daniels in the Lions’ Den points us forward to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a preview of God’s ultimate triumph over all the forces of evil. It is a preview of your triumph one day as a follower of Jesus when the grave, the lions’ den, will not hold you down. You too will emerge from the lions’ den victorious over sin, death and the devil when Christ returns on the Last Day.

Jesus went into the lions’ den for you so that you would have nothing to fear. The devil, that roaring lion, means deadly woe, but you tremble not! For Christ is your protector and Savior! When you suffer in the lions’ den for the sake of Christ, you suffer with Daniel, with the disciples, with Paul, and with all the Christians who have suffered throughout the ages. Most of all, you suffer with Christ who took your sins and suffering upon himself that you might be forgiven and granted the promise of resurrection and eternal life. And so, with Daniel and with Paul and with all Christians, let us say confidently together the words of Philippians 3:7-10. Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ,—10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. In Jesus’ name, amen.

We Are All Witnesses

Acts 1:8-9 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.

Happy Ascension Day! It has been 40 days since Easter, and during those 40 days, Jesus made many appearances to his disciples. But on Ascension Day, Jesus gives them his last set of instructions and ascends into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty until he returns to judge the living and the dead.

Today, I want to focus on Jesus’ words “You will be my witnesses.” If you were to travel through downtown Cleveland a few years ago, you would have seen a huge poster on the side of skyscraper. This big, black poster had one, simple phrase on it as well as a picture of Cleveland’s former “king,” Lebron James. (I’m pretty sure it isn’t there anymore, but I’m not going to do any fact-checking.) What message is this poster sending? Nike’s simple slogan for Lebron- We Are All Witnesses- is meant to point people to Lebron’s accomplishments. We are supposed to stand in awe at his greatness and his basketball prowess. We are encouraged to see him in person so that we can testify to others about his thunderous dunks and amazing shot blocks. Witness. It’s a simple slogan. But it really does say a lot because it implies that Lebron is someone worth witnessing. And even casual basketball fan would agree that he certainly is.

Lebron certainly has an impressive list of accomplishments and jaw-dropping plays that millions of people have witnessed. And they talk about it. Many people are extremely passionate about him, and they use strong adjectives to describe him. But moving on from Lebron, what events or people have you witnessed that you were just in awe of? What have you seen? What have you heard?

Jesus’ disciples were witnesses to some pretty amazing events. And when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to them on that day of Pentecost, they began to share what they had heard and seen. In his Pentecost sermon, Peter began to proclaim the events of Jesus’ life and death. He builds up an argument that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah. Remember, Peter is speaking exclusively to Jews right now, and he knows his audience. He brings in King David, the greatest king of Israel. King David was the Lebron James of the Jews. He was bigger than life, and yet Peter points out that King David has indeed died. All the Jews knew exactly where he was buried. But David in one of his Psalms spoke of the resurrection of Christ. Psalm 16:9-10, “Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.”

Peter concludes, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and ahs poured out what you now see and hear…Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Peter and the rest of the disciples were first-hand witnesses to the resurrected Jesus.

The formal definition of a witness is one who has personal knowledge of something or someone who can testify to an event having taken place. Again, Jesus told his followers right before he ascended into heaven, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The disciples had personal knowledge of Jesus’ amazing accomplishments. They could testify that his death and resurrection took place. And they began to be his witnesses, starting in Jerusalem just as Jesus said.

But the message didn’t stop there. In Acts chapters 3 and 5, the disciples got in trouble with the Jewish leaders for their message, but they remained faithful witnesses to Jesus. 3:15- “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” In Acts chapter 10, Peter is told to take the Gospel of Jesus to Gentiles which was unheard of, but Peter faithfully proclaimed to them, “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.” And in Acts 26 when Paul appears before the Roman courts after he has been arrested, he tells the story of his conversion to the Romans. The voice of Jesus told Paul, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I am sending you to the Jews and Gentiles to open their eyes and turn them darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

The earliest witnesses of Jesus made it to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria and even to Rome, but they did not make it to the ends of the earth. Yet the Gospel of Jesus continued to spread through more witnesses. The word of God has gone to the ends of the world. It has come to us today. And now we are God’s witnesses.

How can that be? We didn’t see Jesus die on a cross or rise from the dead. We didn’t witness him ascending into heaven. None of us had a vision like Paul did. How can we be Jesus’ witnesses? Let’s go back to that definition of a witness. A witness is someone who has personal knowledge of something. I think that counts us in as witnesses to Jesus. We have been directly and personally affected by Jesus’ death and resurrection. We ourselves have experienced our own death and resurrection through Jesus.  Romans chapter 6  expresses the personal connection we have with Jesus–

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him…. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him… The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

You are witnesses of Jesus Christ and what he has done because what he did on the cross, he did for you. In your baptism, you died to your sinful self and were raised to new life in Christ. The old spiritual song “Were You There” asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord”, and “Were you there when God raised him from the tomb.” These questions expect us to answer, “Yes! I was there! I am a witness to what Jesus has done!” The forgiveness of sins, life and salvation that Jesus won on the cross has been given to you. You are alive in Christ. His death was your death. His life is your life. You can’t get a more personal experience or witness than that!

We are all witnesses. Another definition of a witness given by a pastor is this “Someone who by explanation and demonstration gives audible and visible evidence of what they have seen and heard without being deterred by the consequences of their actions.” You can give evidence of what Jesus did for you by your own words and actions. You don’t have to speak in tongues or travel to a foreign country. You can be a witness wherever you are in life. “We are all witnesses” of Jesus Christ. It’s a simple yet powerful slogan because it implies to everyone else that Jesus is someone worth witnessing and experiencing.

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.

Should a Christian Celebrate Halloween?

Honestly, this really wasn’t on my mind until I read a great blog post about it. Here is the link to the original post, but I have also copied it below. Just know that I am not actually taking credit for this, but rather I owe it all to Higher Things: Dare To Be Lutheran. Consider this an attempt to push back my next original blog post that I am still working on.

Witches, wizards, skeletons, devils, and superheroes? Never mind that. Let’s get to the candy! As Halloween approaches, many calling themselves Christians will get all worked up about this supposedly satanic holiday. With emphases on witches and devils and violent horror, these folks get upset and say that Christians have no business observing this holiday and ought to do something better, something more godly and pious. Thus all over “Halloween” celebrations are replaced with “Fall Festivals.” There’s even a group who invented a new holiday on October 31 called “Jesus Ween.” (Does anyone else think that just sounds odd and creepy all at once?) So can you be a Christian and celebrate Halloween? Can you dress up and go to a party? Go trick-or-treating? Have fun? The fact is, a Christian CAN celebrate and enjoy Halloween. Read on to find out why.

First, a little bit of history. Halloween is taken from the old English “All Hallows Eve.” “All Hallows” refers to “All Saints” which is the festival on November 1 on which the church remembers all her baptized saints and especially those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. Since Christian festivals begin at sundown on the day before, October 31 is the Eve of All Saints (just like December 24 is Christmas Eve) or All Hallows Eve, shortened and smushed together over time to “Halloween.” So, at its root, Halloween was just the Eve of the day when all Christian saints were remembered. And when we’re talking about saints, we’re talking baptism! And how can a day which reminds us of our baptism be bad?

On Good Friday, Jesus destroyed the power of the devil. He died for the sins of the world. He died for your sins. St. Paul writes that on the cross, Jesus disarmed the powers of hell (Colossians 2:15). That means when Halloween rolls around and little ghosts and goblins are running around they’re nothing more than jokes and mockeries of the devil. He has no power. He can’t harm you. The devil has no claim on those who have been buried and raised with Jesus and clothed with Christ in their baptism. Those upon whom the blood of the Lamb of God has been sprinkled cannot be snatched out of their Father’s hand! That means when we go out on Halloween, costume or not, we look like Jesus. That’s what your heavenly Father sees when He looks at you. You may be a ghoul or a superhero for trick-or-treating or a party but to your Father in heaven you’ll always look like His Son, dearly beloved and precious.

But isn’t October 31st also a traditional time for pagans to do their thing? Sure. That’s because whenever the church has a holy day, the devil tries to copy it and mock it and lead others astray. So the end of October has long been a time when pagan religions carried on rituals and other weird practices. But let’s face it. Halloween in America has become nothing more than a day to have some fun. Go and get loads of candy. Go to a party and bob for apples. Dress up and act a bit silly. As Christians, we’re so free, having been rescued by Christ from sin and death, that we can laugh at inflatable tombstones and dress like zombies. Perhaps, in some small way, Halloween is the world’s way of trying to pretend death is something to laugh at. But for those who are in Christ, we know that’s all death is. Something to be laughed at. Mocked. Because death has been defeated by Jesus. Your death has been overcome. We know we don’t come back as vampires or zombies. Rather on the Last Day, Jesus will come again and raise us up and there will be no more death.

So live on Halloween the way you live every other day. Make the sign of the cross in the morning to remember that you are a child of God, marked by the Lord has His own child. Go and enjoy your day and eat your candy with a clean conscience, knowing that your robe of righteousness is no dress-up but true clothing whereby you have been covered in Jesus. Serve your neighbor and avoid anything that will harm or be a bother to them. (Not EVERY Halloween activity is a good idea!) And at the end of the day, make the sign of the cross again and know that you are still the Lord’s because of Jesus. And dare to be Lutheran too, remembering that October 31 is also the day that the Reformation began, the time when Martin Luther reminded the church that Christ was the big deal and that superstitions, even if they’re in the church, are still silly and useless. And who needs to be afraid of such things when we have such a Savior who has redeemed us, purchased and won us from all sin, death and the power of the devil? So Happy Halloween! Happy because you are a baptized saint in Jesus.