‘Chuck’ is not his real name, but I met ‘Chuck’ at his lakehouse. Now, when Chuck was younger, his family spent weekends up north. Those were good times. Times soaking in the sun’s warmth. Times mindlessly staring into a crackling fire. Times single-mindedly focused on jumping and splashing and floating in the lake. Times with no stomach-churning anxiety. Times with no tightening vice-grip of stress. Times with no fear that the life you cobbled together could possibly crumble down.
Good memories brought Chuck back to the area— because much of his adult life was anything but good. His first marriage lasted about 20-years. By the time he reached out for counseling, the divorce papers were already in the mail. The second marriage fizzled out in months and so did half of his bank account. His two sons basically grew up without him. One sometimes visits, the other wants no contact. Chuck found himself retired, a two-time ex-husband still fighting alimony claims, with only one child who does not make much time for him. So, enter the lakehouse. Chuck moved to the old family vacation-grounds hoping that he can bring back the peaceful life he once had.
If that sounds foolish, then recall how companies have spent all month bombarding you with images of peace. Commercials showcase cheery, gleeful families gathering together. Gifts under the tree promise real fulfillment. Even food companies paint cozy cottages and warm fires with their products in hand. You (and I) might not buy a lakehouse, but do you buy into the notion that with the right items in the right settings under the right circumstances, you will finally live satisfied?
For just a moment look behind the Christmas decorations. Look behind the lights, the trees, the greenery, the white snow and cozy fires. Look behind the presents, behind the preparations, behind the smiles and hugs. What do you see? Because if you are like me, you realize life is far from perfect. No one wants to sit in a chair in the hospital room beside a loved one. She hurts, but you cannot take away the hurt. He groans, but you cannot provide comfort. Lungs gasp and seize, and very soon he will be ripped out of your life— and you cannot stop it. Can presents under the tree really fill the void that comes from knowing you cannot control health? You plan enjoying the family Christmas, but you hesitate a little. You know it will only be a matter of time before your sister stirs up some needless drama or your parents criticize your efforts or your brother makes it clear that he would rather be somewhere else. Does that smiling and dancing commercial-family even come remotely close to identifying with your family? Can a Christmas tree actually give you the strength and health of a twenty-year-old? Can snow actually hide your fears about moving out on your own? Do you think dressing up and singing Christmas carols will strengthen your marriage and end tensions with your child or repair the bond with your dad? Will politicians work together just because you ate ham? Of course not! We would never expect that (even though we might wish it were true).
Maybe that’s what is so captivating about these festive images. That perhaps at least for just a day, we can travel back to a simpler time. A time before a spouse’s death. A time before the family broke down. A time before worrying if you will have enough money for the future. A time before hearing politicians bickering, a time before needless violence. A time before age slowed you down. A time before children disappointing you or parents bearing down on you. A time when life felt happy and carefree.
Perhaps Chuck truly realizes that a lakehouse can never turn back the hands of time, but it’s not supposed to. Maybe he just wants this lakehouse to cover up a pain-riddled past.
Call it is mask, if you wish. A mask tries to cover up the real issue. A mask tries to sidestep the real issue. Chuck’s problems do not stem from his ex-wives only; he admits that he is the problem too. His sons do not prioritize him because he did not prioritize them. Plugging ears to reality or ignoring trouble does not make it go away. Relationships involve two people; tension is not the fault of one person only. Shattered dreams do not happen by chance. Emptiness and frustration are not feelings that you must expect. Cover up your troubles with a mask if you wish; sidestep the real problem at hand. Still you will not find peace. The real reason life can feel so unsatisfying is that we are not perfect.
Admitting that is not really something we want to do. By nature we want to boast of our perfection and everyone else’s imperfection. So, God has to make it clear: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned… He pictures you and me every single person in the world living as though the sun (and household lights) never existed! It’s dark! You cannot see the hand in front of your face. You cannot find a safe path on which to walk. You cannot see your stubbornness fueling bitterness. You cannot see your selfishness fraying relationships. You cannot see your ambitions stripping away real hope. Even worse, you cannot see that life was never meant without God.
So, God has to shine that light. God makes clear the realization of the only place where true peace is found. He sets a Light in this little town of Bethlehem. The Child in the manger is no ordinary child who will grow up to please his parents and (sometimes) disappoint his parents. He will not get a job, make money, save money, spend money, and then die. No. [T]o us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. This Child comes down from heaven and holds final say over all things in the world!
You see, God does not ignore the troubles in our lives; he does not plug his ears to them. He deals with them. In the manger lies God’s complete seriousness to give you peace. Two parents and shepherds see it. Tonight we hear their testimony. Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor. He exposes the pain we try to cover up and the heartache we try to avoid. Still, as Mighty God he can powerfully remove that shame. As a perfect father he has unending compassion on us. Just like that, haunting failures erased. Regrets over arguments pardoned. The lack of peace which comes by our own hands has not been hidden, it has been eliminated.
This evening you do not hear some Christmas-time story created to numb pain. We do not spend the night putting off the troubles that will come back in a few days. Instead, you hear words about a King who brings real peace to your heart. How? Because, of course, this world is far from perfect. You may expect to attend future funerals. You may expect arguments. You may expect others to disappoint you and you to disappoint them. You may expect doctors to scare you. You may expect teachers to frustrate you. That will not bring much peace. You will feel angry, frustrated, unhappy. Here’s what does give you peace: Jesus addresses those matters.
Jesus is born to purge away my selfishness. He is born to tell of peace between God and I. He is born so that I turn to him in every frustration, every fear, every trouble. He is born so that I might take his guiding Word to heart— a Word that shapes my words with others, a Word that strengthens me to forgive others, a Word that increases my reliance in his ability. Jesus is not one option among many. He remains the only place in this world where you will discover real peace.
I am certain ‘Chuck’ will form new memories in his lakehouse. Presents around the tree, family gatherings, festivities will offer peace. Yet, I guarantee, all the pleasantries will end. I guarantee that by the end of this month you will confront stress that leaves you frustrated. So, God sends peace. Peace meant for the world, but peace meant especially for you. A place for your heart to find rest. A place for anxieties to dissipate. A place for you to live under the words and actions of your capable God. The Prince of Peace Is Your Peace.
Speaking as a former child, do you know the kind of Christmas gift a kid is not too excited to receive? Jeans. I’m not talking the designer jeans with fancy labels or shiny sequins. I’m talking straight-legged, plain blue jeans. What kid gets excited over that? I mean, no child goes to school and shows off the brand new basic pair of pants he just got. Blue jeans do not stoke the imagination like video games do. Blue jeans are not coddled like Barbie dolls are. Blue jeans are not actively on your mind like household gadgets can be. Those types of gifts make us thrilled and excited and happy. Blue jeans don’t.
Now, a child might want presents that touch emotions, but what would happen if he did not have jeans? In winter he would freeze. At the very least, he would be terribly underdressed! So, which gift is more beneficial: video games or blue jeans?
If you only focus on the object received, you can completely look past the reason for the gift given. The more you appreciate the purpose for the gift received, the more you cherish that gift. As the days leading up to Christmas quickly tick down, let’s focus on this awesome gift: Our Reliable God Keeps His Reliable Word. He brings grace through Jesus. He gives peace through Jesus.
The man from our New Testament reading, Paul, treasures those truths. Paul is a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God… Maybe those job titles ‘servant’ and ‘apostle’ sound pretty basic. After all, if Paul is a Christian, then you almost expect a willingness to share Jesus. Yet, do you remember Paul’s previous career? ‘Persecutor of Christians.’
Paul hunts down people who worship Jesus. Just like a bounty-hunter, he receives warrants, tracks people down, arrests them, and turns them in to the authorities. So, your wife would be ripped away, never seen again; the marriage ended. Soldiers snatch away dad, and the next time you see him is stretched out on a cross naked, groaning, sobbing, dying. Grandma and grandpa grabbed and thrown into a lion pit; lions eat them. Paul literally destroys lives for a living — and he enjoys it! He even watches a Christian stoned to death— people throw rocks at this man until he dies— and Paul just stands there, approving! (Acts 7:54-60) And what job does Paul have? A ‘servant’ and ‘apostle’— of Christ!
He works for the group he once attacked! Even by today’s standards, you do not hire an enemy. If you capture Osama bin Laden, you do not appoint him as general over the United States Army, right? If you catch an enemy, you execute justice; you dole out what he deserves. God does not give Paul what he deserves. He gives the opposite! He makes Paul a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures…
Paul scribbles these words down with such excitement. You realize, he’s not writing a testimonial about himself. He pointing you to a truth that will impact your life far greater than just knowing Paul’s previous job. He pointing you (and me) to the gospel.
Do you remember what ‘gospel’ means? ‘Good news.’ In just a few days you will hear the ‘good’-est news that has rung across the face of the earth. While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7) God turns a promise a reality! That’s what Paul holds before our eyes! The centuries-old promise of Jesus finally reaches its opening into the world!
Still, those words can resonate much like a pair of blue jeans, can’t they? Plain. Dull. Boring. If your [grand]kids are like mine (or like I was as a child), Christmas centers mostly on presents, on figuring out what lies underneath the paper! If you are like me (today), those words warm the heart, but not always because of the content. Instead, they transport me back in time to this romanticized view of church and children and spouse, carols and candles, innocence and simplicity. I find myself worshipping past memories instead of the newborn Christ.
While I might not say it openly, that ‘good news’ just does not sound so exciting. Maybe it’s because the world always keeps pushing ‘new’ before me. Perhaps it’s because my attention wants stimulating entertainment. Yet, one thing I am certain of: My heart does not think I’m really that all wicked. What happens is that it downgrades this ‘good’-est news to just ‘good’ news. It treats Jesus like my buddy who shrugs off my foolishness and ignores my criticizing. It views Jesus arriving to make sure I have enough money to get through the month. Or that Jesus shows up so that I am never sad. Or that he comes to make others finally treat me with respect. If all we see in Jesus is a warm, kind Christmas-time miracle, then we will not appreciate what God really gives.
Christmas shows The Reliable God Keep his Reliable Word. Pay attention to that! Jesus does not come because he bored. He comes because I do need him. Because God keeps another word: The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Death. Separation from life. Separation from family and friends. Separation from God. The instant you are conceived, you start dying— and you. cannot. stop. it. You (and I) die because we sin. We earn the wage: ‘death.’ That is not ‘good news.’
That is why God sends the ‘good’-est news into the world. He sends his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh… See Jesus and you see skin and bones, blood and muscle, brain and organs, thought and speech, motion and speaking. More than that, you watch someone held to God’s high standard. Do not hate, do not insult. Do not let your mind drift during worship. Do not make excuses to stay out of worship. Do not set your selfish wants ahead of your family needs. Every single commandment God has set on your shoulders, he sets on Jesus.
Still, Jesus is declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead…The Holy Scriptures paint a silhouette of God’s Son and Jesus fits it perfectly. His miracles prove him someone divine. God the Holy Spirit descends as a dove onto Jesus. God the Father points at Jesus and says, ‘This One is my Son! Listen to him!’ (Matthew 3:16-17) This innocent, fault-free, God-approved Jesus is qualified to put down his life for your debt (and mine). God peels life from his Son, and tosses Jesus’ lifeless body into the grave. Then— in order to make it clear that this Bethlehem baby is God-approved, in order to make clear that this God-and-Man pleases God— he raises Jesus.
The Reliable God Keeps his Reliable Word. He brings grace through Jesus. ‘Grace’ is love undeserved. God does not treat Paul as a persecutor, but as one forgiven! That is ‘grace.’ That is love undeserved. Now, Paul gets to share what he received. [Through] Jesus Christ our Lord… we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…You (and I) are those who live under this umbrella of God’s forgiving love. That love will produce an effect.
Again, God says: To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. What do you receive? Love and therefore, peace.
Peace is more than silence or no anxiety. Peace is the absence of hostility. No anger. No division. No unrest. Jesus comes so that you do not need to make up fantasies as to what happens when a person dies. Jesus comes so that you do not need to saddled by your guilty past. Jesus comes so that you do not need to think that God gives you bad days because you made him angry. Jesus comes to give you peace.
God targets his righteous anger for our wrongs at Jesus—and he absorbs it all! Where sin has been forgiven, there is no wrath. Hostility no longer exists between God and us! What remains is delight! Ease of mind! Cheer! What remains is peace.
You have three days until Christmas Day. Two days to finish shopping. Two days to contact friends and family, study the schedules, and finalize the plans. Two days to wrap the remaining presents and bake the cookies. If ‘stressed’ is the word most on your mind, then you need to refocus. Your heart is telling you that Christmas festivities is not the peace you need.
Focus on the manger. Gift-giving is wonderful; it shows affectionate love. Still, remember the affectionate love God handed you. A [grand]child might get super-excited for Santa Claus. While fun, remind that child the greater One who arrives on Christmas. The family might plan gatherings. Great! But do not sacrifice the time you have to be with God in his Word. Use these occasions to be a witness to the real purpose of Christmas. Instead of allowing festivities take priority, make Christ the priority and the festivities secondary. Worship Christmas Eve. Spend just that one brief hour (one!) praising God Christmas Day. See The Reliable God Keep his Reliable Word He sends Jesus for those who do deserve it. He makes clear that Jesus is the Savior so that you might have real peace.
Which is a more exciting gift than jeans. Although… if you ever crawled out of bed on a cold morning and you felt that brisk, chilly air, you sense a need for jeans. If you had thin pants (or shorts!) then you appreciate the warmth jeans give. You appreciate the thought behind the gift. Yes, you could have received some cool gadget and that would entertain you for a few days— but in jeans you receive something truly needed, something that protects health and life.
God could have sent a morality teacher who sets a high standard of slavish rules impossible to reach. He could have sent down a person to perfectly pattern life after. He could have looked down from heaven and said, ‘I created Eden for you and you did not want that. Why should I take the effort and give you something like that again?’— but he does not. He does not give you (and I) what we deserve. Instead, He gives grace through Jesus. Not because we earned it, but because God wants to give you peace. That, dear friends, is something the world can never give. The Reliable God Keeps his Reliable Word. He gives grace through Jesus. He gives peace through Jesus.
The best word to describe the scene? ‘Sudden.’ A small car had raced past me as I drove through the rolling slopes of Rochester, Minnesota. Thought nothing of it until I saw those drivers again. This time, instead of driving, they stood on shoulder of the freeway. Their car had slid off the road and down a fifty-foot slope. My eyes turned from that sight to the sight of a car from the other side of the freeway careening through the median and wiping out the van twenty-feet in front of me. Thank God no one got hurt.
In a matter of seconds freezing drizzle coated the entire freeway. I stepped out of my car to look back and saw half-dozen cars in ditches, first-responder lights flashing. I helped the driver push his little car off the road. I will not forget what he said. ‘I should have gotten new tires.’ The tires on his car were bald, no traction whatsoever. It begged the question: ‘If he knew tires were a problem, why didn’t he fix it?’ He was completely unprepared for the weather— the same snowy weather that strikes Minnesota every single year.
That driver felt no pressing need to prepare for what comes each year. When the weather grew bad and his car was wrecked, it was too late to prepare. His laziness cost him. God does not want laziness costing you. He makes so clearly known this truth: The Son of Man is Coming! So, prepare! Get ready so that you may step into that day with joy! Keep Watch! The Son of Man is Coming! (1) Stay alert against indifference and (2) Warn against carelessness.
Jesus made it no secret that after his resurrection, he would enter heaven. He would not live there forever and ever. He has every intention of returning (Matthew 24:2-3).
When? No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Let’s get that straight. Jesus does not suggest someone could possibly pinpoint ‘that day’ …if only a Pastor adds up numbers in the Bible together… or if a teacher studies the alignment of stars and planets. Jesus makes clear: No one knows and there will never be a person who holds the precise moment of Jesus’ coming. The angels standing before God in heaven do not have the date. Even Jesus does not have specific information about his coming. Only the Father knows.
I know, that’s not a very satisfying answer. Curiosity wants to know when Jesus will come. Yet, pinpointing the world’s final nanosecond does not prepare you for Jesus’ coming. For example, knowing when your tire will go flat does not help; you are still stranded. Having tools for a flat tire does help you. So Jesus tells you what is important: Jesus will return! So, Keep Watch!
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away… Jesus’ return will be sudden, just like floodwaters suddenly swallowed earth. Yet, ‘sudden’ does not mean ‘a never-before-expected-surprise.’ The truth is, people in Noah’s time did know something big was happening. Noah’s ark is roughly the size of Jay’s Sporting Goods and General Jim’s Surplus. If you drove by that lot (before Jay’s was built), you saw lumber and metal and builders; you know something was happening. (1) You could not miss such a large structure going up. (2) That largeness would press you to ask the owners or workers or neighbors the reason for this construction.
People walked past piles of lumber and pitch; the work-site sticks out! Noah does not work in a shipyard. He does build on these massive hydraulic lifts that will launch the ark into a river. He builds an enormous barge that holds more than his eight-member family, in the middle of a field, in a somewhat flood-free area. For 120-years people watch this mysterious construction, but no one cares about the purpose for this ship-building. Husbands and wives planned families, built homes, ate dinner, saved money, fixated on work— just like they had done for decades. Everyone woke up, assuming the sun would rise each morning and set each night. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Just like people in Noah’s time had no concern for the future, so also many will have no concern for the future even though Jesus can return in a moment.
You have heard that before, right? ‘Jesus can return at any moment!’— but he has not returned yet. Maybe you (and I) have not verbalized that doubt, but what do your actions say?
Do you allow worry to choke out trust in God? Do you think humanity alone holds supreme power over your happiness? Only the government provides wealth? Only military keeps you safe? Have you forgotten God the Almighty?
Are life’s goals blinding you from life’s true purpose? Do you think life is about making money, stashing money, spending money? Do you worship the kids, thinking that providing them with sports and clubs gives real purpose? Do you just assume you will always have a ‘tomorrow?’
Has the world’s view of pleasure polluted your heart? Do you forget that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit? (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) Do you forget God calls you to live sober-minded? (Ephesians 5:15-20). Do you forget God does care what you believe? (John 3:16). Do you think you are spiritually safe because you belong to a church?
Do you know the real problem at Noah’s time? Indifference. A lack of concern. Even if Noah preached how God hated disobedience, the people felt they could change wickedness later. Even though Jesus says: ‘No one knows the day or hour,’ even our hearts are tempted to say, ‘Well, I know you’re not coming soon! I will always have time to clean up my spiritual life!’ Those in Noah’s day woke up, ate breakfast, went to school, went to work, completed those every-day tasks when torrents ripped out of the earth. Waterfalls gushed from the heavens. Oceans swallowed up homes and farms and toys and scenery and people. Noah and his family floated higher and higher into safety. So many sunk lower and lower into death. No do-overs. No second chances. Time ran out. They never stood in God’s favor (2 Peter 2:4-10). Spiritual indifference brought hellish consequences.
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. For thousands of years God spoke through his prophets the good news of a Savior. While many looked forward to Jesus, very few expected him. In fact, Gabriel had to inform Mary that her Lord would come in nine months. Angels had to inform shepherds that their Lord had come. God put a star in the sky to inform wise men that their Lord had come.
Jesus came once before— and he makes sure we know that. He makes sure so that you (and I) know he is the Almighty Lord. Yes, the devil uses hunger, hoping for Jesus to curse God. He throws wealth and power at Jesus. He even asks Jesus if God really keeps his promises. Each sneaky attack is meant to draw Jesus further away from the Word, a little more into a ungodly life, a little further away from God. Yet, Jesus stands alert against each devilish temptation. He lets nothing sidetrack him from reaching his goal to be your Lord. To be the One who has a completely whole spiritual life. To be the One who reaches down to pull you (and I) out of spiritual death. To be the One who rises— and raises us above death forever! That is for whom we keep watch! Jesus our Lord! The One who has rescued us from indifference and shows the purpose of life is meant for heaven.
So, Keep Watch! The Son of Man is Coming! Stay alert against indifference. In these final days, warn against carelessness.
[U]nderstand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. Normally we do not call the thief and ask for his schedule. Just because we do not expect a thief, it does not mean we are unprepared for a thief. This house-owner does not prepare. He failed to lock his doors and windows. He failed to set the alarm and turn on the outside lights. He did not stay in the house with the phone nearby. All that preparation was laid aside. He lost everything.
So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. The funeral home across the street tells me that. Forty-year olds leave life suddenly. Just a month ago, an 18-year-old died in a car crash. The elderly enter the hospital for routine care, but never wake up. You do not know when you will leave life. The time to deal with spiritual matters is not later, but now. If your heart is drifting a little too close to love of stuff, then refuel you love in Jesus. If you place self-worth in parenting, then put worth back into Jesus. If you would not be proud to tell me about your actions last night, then remember your calling as members of Christ. Warn against carelessness.
Keep warning in these days leading up to Christmas. You may have a child who does not worship often. Still he says, ‘I believe in God.’ I am not sure what that phrase means. Do you realize the devil believes in God? (James 2:19) He believes God exists. He believes that God is divine, all-powerful, all-perfect. He believes all of that— but the one thing he does not believe: That his rebellion deserves hell and a Savior must rescue him. The child who claims a belief in God would wants to cherish their Savior. Since Jesus can return anytime, take the time to warn against spiritual carelessness.
You may have grandchildren who do not go to church because their parents do not bring them. What can you do? Speak the importance of your faith with the parents. ‘One day I will leave this world and stand before God. Jesus makes me ready for that day.’ Carve out extra time in the morning to pick that grandchild up for worship. If those grandkids are grand‘adults,’ then share your wisdom with them. Your special connection with them may present an opportunity where they will be more honest with you than a parent (or a pastor). You may have the chance to discuss the impact God has on life. Keep warning against carelessness.
The Son of Man is Coming! Just in case that sounds cliché, remember this: Companies are pouring in huge sums of money to ‘warn’ you about Christmas. Television commercials list ‘hot items’ for sale. Society is literally warning people for Christmas day so that people are not caught unprepared.
God does not want you caught unprepared either. He clearly says: The Son of Man is Coming! So, prepare! You have. You are prepared because you know Jesus died and rose to forgive you. That day of his coming will be one of joy. We look forward to that great moment. Keep Watch! The Son of Man is Coming! (1) Stay alert against indifference and (2) Warn against carelessness.
Thick, dense fog drops visibility to only 20-feet, which sounds pretty insignificant—except your airplane barrels towards the runway at 150 miles-per-hour. The automatic pilot counts down the distance from the ground. 50…40… 30…20…10… One pilot chimes in: “I’m sure it’s down there somewhere.” As for you, you see nothing. What do you do? How do you land? Where do you fly? How do you arrive safely? So much is unknown. (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2851968/Now-s-flying-blind-Terrifying-footage-shows-pilots-approaching-Dublin-airport-fog-t-runway-moments-landing.html).
Much like our topic today, right? Talk about life and death, heaven and hell, resurrection and paradise seems so unknown. Everyone seems to have opinions. Few seem certain. What about you? Can you know what to expect about life with God?
Let’s return to 2 Thessalonians 2:13. It reads: But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits (a better translation is ‘from the beginning’) to be saved… Long before God spoke the universe into existence, God knew you. He knew the precise moment of your birth. He knew every city and every home in which you would live. He knew where you would work. He knew who you would marry and the family you would have. He knew you would be sitting here, in this church located in [Harrison] Clare, Michigan. In fact, God did more than ‘know’ information, he chose you.
His ‘choosing’ had a purpose: To save you. Here in these verses God zeroes in on you— not other people, but you— and he makes it clear: Your life has a goal. That goal is not to spend decades building an empire and stashing away cash, growing popular and sitting on a mountain of respect and then die. Earthly status is not your ultimate goal. Before the sun started marking time, God had the goal of escorting you from this life into life in his kingdom.
How did God reach that goal? God chose you through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. Now, that word ‘sanctification’ means ‘to make holy,’ ‘to make morally pure.’ Notice, you did not do the work, your name does not appear in this verse. Which name does? The Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit does the ‘making-holy’ work. When you heard God’s impact on life, the Holy Spirit went to work. He buried those words into your heart, not you. He created faith so that you stand convinced of this tremendous truth: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). To this— this magnificent reality of never-ending paradise— [God] called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain (so that you may join in this) the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In those opening words God reveals something great. That word ‘sanctification’ is where we get our word ‘saint.’ According to the Bible a ‘saint’ is not a special charity-worker who helped the poor, fed the hungry, and freed the oppressed and is a far superior Christian than you. According to the Bible a ‘saint’ is a ‘holy person.’ How does a person become ‘holy?’ [T]hrough sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. Simply put, God has made you a ‘saint.’
Maybe you half-laugh at that thought. You— a saint? You hate what you see in the mirror. How could God ever forgive your past? …after hurting the kids? …after your arrest? …after the foolish nights? How can you be a saint when you have done so much evil? You lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, flipping through a mental list of sorts: Sunday School teacher, wife and mother, community volunteer, kind neighbor, frequent worshipper. You did so many kind acts, but you feel that it is just not enough. Does God really love you? You stand in front of the tombstone. Carved in granite is a date of death. Is she really in heaven? Does God really love him? Will I be in heaven too? Stare at our hearts and we do not look like saints, do we?
The reason we struggle with that thought of being a ‘saint,’ the reason questions about life and death, heaven and hell torment us is because we are looking for certainty in all the wrong places. We tremble at the thought of heaven and hell because we realize that we are not as good as we should be. We cannot rely on our social status to get us through the gates of heaven. We do not have the power to control our eternity. So why look at yourself?! When you (and I) want self-assurance that all is well, we will never find it. We have are turning away from Jesus, the only One who has saved you!
That is why verse 15 says: So then, brothers [and sisters], stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. Do not stand firm on your own emotions, your own thoughts. Stand firm, cling tightly to God’s truth. In fact, standing firm is not an action you do. Your determination, your willpower does not strengthen faith. God does the strengthening. When attention steps off of that Word, grip weakens. When we go back to the Word, faith automatically grips God’s promises.
You open the Bible, it says: [God] called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. You read those words, faith grabs them. What can you expect from God? To bring you where Jesus is. Why do you believe that? Because God has kept his Word. God promises Adam and Eve a Savior (Genesis 3:15). Isaiah says a virgin will give birth to a son (Isaiah 7:14). Micah says the Savior will arrive in Bethlehem Ephrathah (Micah 5:2). Lo and behold! The virgin Mary gives birth to a Son in Bethlehem! God promises to paint Jesus with our guilt, our shame, our evil. He will crush him to death(Isaiah 53:5-7). The Holy One will lie in a grave, but not see decay (Psalm 16:10-11). He will rise as Lord with the enemy of death under his feet! (Psalm 110:1) Lo and behold! Wicked men crucify Jesus, friends bury him, he rises and steps into eternal glory! God has always done as promised. In that same Word God makes clear: You are the people Jesus scrubbed and washed and cleaned. You are the people that Jesus stands before the Father. You are the people God calls ‘saints.’ Yes, I know, so much in this world tries to convince us that we are unlovable, that God does not (and cannot) love us, that we can never be sure of entering heaven. The truth is, it does not matter what you feel! God gives his Word so that we may point to it and say, ‘My Savior paid the debt I owe and for me was smitten; Within the Book of Life I know, my name has now been written!’
The Lord chose you and reached his goal using the Word. The Holy Spirit has changed your eternity from death into life. God does not keep this a secret. God tells you now so that you live at ease and joy. Stand Firm in Your Calling as Saints. You can, because The Lord strengthens you through the Word.
Yes, the same Word God used to create faith is the same Word that protects faith. You live in a world where not everyone has faith. That means you will hear things about death that might frighten you. You will hear things about death that do not line up with what God teaches. Sometimes people’s thoughts sound reasonable, they might sound good, but they are not true. The Sadducees claimed no resurrection, that dead remains dead— in the ground, buried, forever (Luke 20:27-38). I worked with a lady who knew I was a Christian. One day (for some reason) she had to tell me: ‘There is no life after death. You die, get buried, and become dust, ashes, and energy. That’s it.’ A family member of mine called ‘grandma’ an angel. That sounds lovely— floating on clouds in brilliant white light strumming a harp. As beautiful as the image is, it’s not true. You and I, grandma, do not become angels in heaven; the Bible does not teach that. Just last week, someone told me that heaven is whatever makes you happy. [In his words]: ‘If sitting at McDonald’s makes you happy, then that is your heaven.’ What’s the point of saying this? Not to criticize, not to sound superior. The point is this: Not all have faith. Some think death is permanent. Others make up strange stories. We may not know what to believe and that can trouble us. When we do not rely on what God reveals, we lose comfort. We get scared. We do not stand firm.
But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. The Bible tells you the truth about life and death. Since God tells you the straight truth, it strengthens you. You can be sure that you have the right information!
In the Bible, God gives you a glimpse of reality. Your Christian spouse who died from cancer is in heaven. How do you know? Because Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’ (John 11:25-26). Your elderly, now-deceased Christian friend is in heaven— perfectly well, perfectly healthy. How do you know? Because, Jesus Christ, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:21). Glorious— meaning, not getting older, getting achier, going to the hospital again, and dying. Glorious means without disease, without age, without defect. That’s the body our powerful Jesus gives every believer. Grandma sings in heaven— but not as an angel. How do you know? Well, Jesus says ‘We are like the angels’— but do not transform into angels (Luke 20:35-36). In fact, God says angels are ministering spirits sent to serve you (Hebrews 1:14). Angels are heaven’s butlers and you will have a higher rank in heaven! You are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple… and the Lamb at the center of the throne will be [your] Shepherd, he will lead [you] to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes” (Revelation 7:14-17). God steers your heart into confidence with his Word. You can Stand Firm in Your Calling as Saints because The Lord strengthens you through the Word.
The airline pilots had to rely on a word. Thick fog blocked out all sight of this runway. The plane raced down. Yet, the plane’s instruments identified the goal and steered the plane towards its goal. Word kept the pilots on track.
God’s Word keeps you (and me) on track. Talk about life and death, heaven and hell, resurrection and paradise seems so unknown. Many have opinions, but God reveals truth. God reveals truth for your comfort. The One who created heaven, descended from heaven, and re-ascended into heaven clearly tells you that he chose you through the Word. Do you grasp what God has done? He changed your future forever. He did the work. He saved you. The purpose for telling you this is to put you at ease. With that same Word, God steers our hearts and minds towards our heavenly goal. He removes fear with forgiveness. He removes doubt with truth. He answer questions by telling you what to expect. The Lord strengthens you through the Word.
Friends, when thoughts of death trouble you, look to the Word. Find peace here. Look forward with joy to the best that is to come. Stand Firm in Your Calling as Saints.
Scott Schmidt had to kill his wife. He had no other choice. In fact, Scott even blamed his wife for her own murder. You see, the couple’s marriage had been disintegrating. Months of couples counseling healed nothing. The two had actually separated. So, on April 17, 2009, Scott went to his estranged wife’s house to retrieve some belongings. While there, an argument broke out. Emotions intensified and so did the violence. Now, Scott claims his wife knew about his rash temper. On April 17th she [supposedly] started taunting him, hurling out names like: ‘lazy,’ ‘good-for-nothing,’ ‘deadbeat,’ knowing full well that her words pierced him. [Supposedly] she deliberately ignited his anger; she forced him to grab his gun and unload. Don’t you see? She knew the risks! She provoked him! She was to blame for her own murder! Scott Schmidt committed no crime!...... Do you believe that?
Probably not. Neither did the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. Nor the Dodge County Correction Facility prison warden. Nor did the roomful of pastors listening to Scott’s outlandish claims. Nor did the judge who sentenced Scott to life in prison. Create all the excuses you want, but nothing pieces together a broken law.
So, what could possibly possess Scott to insist on his innocence? You realize that Scott does not deny standing at the scene of the crime. He does not deny discharging his weapon. He does not deny harming his wife. In fact, he even accepts the detective’s account of what happened. The evidence piles ever-higher against his favor and Scott still tries to persuade the judge that he committed no wrong. Why? Because Scott did do something wrong— and in his heart of hearts, he knew that.
Scott knew tucked away in the pages of Wisconsin State law is the mandate: You cannot murder. He knew his violent behavior clearly violated that law. He knew breaking the law brings consequences— and he did not want consequences. He did not want to spend the rest of his life locked behind bars. He wanted freedom!
So there it is! Why does Scott maintain his innocence? Because Scott wants to commit crime and live free. In order to reach his wish, Scott reframed his actions. To this day Scott still calls the events of April 17th ‘an act of extreme passion’— because passion is not a crime. The hope is that if he can redefine his action, then maybe the judge would no longer classify his violence as ‘murder.’ Then Scott could be set free.
Maybe you sit there, half-laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of that logic. Look at that behavior again. Scott commits on a far larger scale what every heart fights to do. The human hearts fights to defend its own wickedness at any cost. In 2 Thessalonians 1:8 God says: He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Many drive past this church building; many admit that it is a religious center and still they do not enter. Some treasure time outside in campers and boats. Others cherish personal opinion about life-matters. Still others worship the god their ‘feelings’ and ‘thoughts’ create. Many call label themselves ‘spiritual,’ but take no time learning, studying, believing the God of the universe. Such people do not know God. Yes, those hearts will try to define their wrong; hearts will create the excuse: “God, I did not know!” Yet, the truth is, they had a chance to know. They just chose not to take it.
Yet, tucked in verse 8 is another group, a group that speaks to us. [God] will punish those (1) who do not know God and (2) [those who] do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. The ‘gospel’ is the ‘good news’ that Jesus Christ alone cleared your record and brought you into a peaceful state with God. ‘Obeying the gospel’ means that your heart cherishes this truth. That you live as one who has been rescued from hell.
Do you? When you stand in front of the mirror of God’s Ten Commandments, what do you see? Do you love making time for God? Do you watch the words coming out of your mouth? Do you keep your anger in check and apologize when you are clearly in the wrong? Do you support others? What does God see? Does see a life that has been rescued from hell? Do you obey the gospel?
If you’re like me, you discover a heart that fights to defend its own wickedness at any cost. You may feel right sitting in your circle of friends, griping about your husband’s laziness. You may think it’s the government’s fault that you criticize its work. You can point at parents and claim that their failed marriage is the reason not to get married. You may blame work for keeping you out of church. You can say that you don’t worship because ‘the Pastor just doesn’t understand you’ or that you are just too angry at someone there. When God’s Word convicts behavior as ‘wrong,’ the heart creates every excuse as to why what you do is ‘right.’
Do you see what excuses really claim? That you have done nothing wrong. That it is completely acceptable if your view of sex and marriage do not agree with God’s definition. That you have committed no wrong by disobeying God’s representatives. That you are without sin for skipping church because you worship other priorities. Excuses insist that you have committed no crime and therefore have no need for a Savior.
You (and I) will always feel the urge to look innocent. We may even think we will get away with it! Yet, there is one matter you (and I) cannot control: One day you will leave this world and you do not have a say when. It could be decades from now or months, tomorrow or today— but you lack the ability to walk out of this life on your terms. You (and I) do not have that authority to control life. God does. God, who has the authority to take you out of this world, has the same power to stand you before his throne. He will open a record of your entire life and compare it to his law. What will he find? What can you possibly say to redefine your crimes? What excuses will he buy? God is not fooled. God is just. He is ‘fair.’ He will compare every single heart according to his law. Those who trudge through life with armfuls of petty excuses will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified[.]
Friends, God is not looking for excuses. God is not accepting excuses. God expects perfection. Nothing we say, nothing we do to appear morally better will remove the fact that failure is still failure. That is why God says in verse 8: He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. That ‘gospel’ reveals the freedom Jesus has won for you. Your Savior-God wrapped himself in human flesh. Mary sets newborn Jesus in a manger and God sets Ten Commandments on Jesus (Galatians 4:4-5). Understand, Jesus is expected to keep the same expectations expected of you. Jesus could roll around in a bank vault and mumble the excuse: ‘But I am God, I deserve wealth.’ He could say: ‘Why go to church? I wrote the Bible.’ He could lay aside the commandments and say: ‘I do not want that commandment controlling my words. I will say whatever I want.’ Instead, Jesus gladly embraces and conforms to God’s every single command. In fact, [Jesus] has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
God could look at Jesus, drop his gavel, and cry out: ‘Innocent! Live free!’ Instead, God sets our flimsy excuses on Jesus one-by-one. He covers Jesus with all of our cover-ups and watches those excuses drag him down into death. God, the Just Judge, Judges Justly by condemning crimes to death. God, the Just Judge, Judges Justly by declaring Jesus innocent! He opens the grave’s door, leads Jesus out by the hand—alive! He dresses him in brilliant robes. He sets a glistening crown on his head. He seats him at his right hand, with all powerful authority to study every heart.
God does not look for excuses, God looks for justice. He looks for hearts that do not need to call ‘wrong’ ‘right.’ Instead, he looks for hearts wrapped in Jesus’ righteousness. He looks for a heart, like the one he put in you at baptism. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Galatians 3:26-27).
That is the joy of God’s ‘gospel.’ You (and I) hold the ‘good news’ that because Jesus suffered our penalty, God has dropped the charges against us! Now, you carry a different sentence. God is just: because Jesus wraps you in his innocence He gives relief to you. You have ‘peace.’ When you leave this world and stand before the throne of God, Jesus will stand beside you, look at his Father, and say, “See my life on him? See her wearing my innocence? Father, they belong to us!” The Just Judge Judges Justly as he gives rest to you, his holy people.
No excuses needed. Instead, a heart that admits ‘wrong’ as ‘wrong’ and finds rest in the Savior. Yet, one final word. Look around. The empty seats means that many still think they will smooth-talk their way into God’s favor. Maybe a child thinks simply having his name in a church book pleases God. Maybe a daughter-in-law relies on worshipping God in nature (except, she does not even do that). Maybe a grandson thinks everyone in the world enters heaven regardless of belief. Friends, God makes it clear: He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power. God makes this explicitly clear so that no one perishes, but that all may have life (1 Timothy 2:3-4). We have work to do. Seize the opportunity to remind those hoping for the best that real peace is found here. That here The Just Judge Judges Justly as he gives rest to his holy people.
The greatest crime Scott Schmidt committed was not the crime itself. Rather, it is fact that Scott Schmidt thinks Scott Schmidt committed no crime. He will spend the rest of his life locked away both on earth and in hell.
You have been set free. What joy, what peace, what comfort we have knowing that God does not search for excuses. What joy, what peace, what comfort we have knowing that God removes our excuses through Jesus. Look forward to life with God because of the message of the gospel. The Just Judge will Judge Justly. He locks away all who oppose him. He gives rest to his holy people.
Four years ago, a camera team roamed around Michigan State University, asking random students one question: ‘Do you think you’re going to heaven?’ The video posted 15 responses. Here’s a few:
Do you think those students sound confident? No, not really. Upon what did everyone place their hope? Every single response mentioned: ‘doing good,’ ‘church membership,’ and ‘being a good guy.’ Did those answers provide much comfort? By my count, the words: ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I think,’ ‘I hope,’ appear 23-times. So, upon what do these students place their hope for heaven? (1) Individual effort and (2) personal opinion— and neither provide any comfort!
Do you think you’re going to heaven? That question might weigh heavy on your mind, and maybe you worry that your response is not good enough. Chase away worry by grasping a sure Word. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that every effort fails to obtain God’s favor. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that Jesus freely gives us God’s righteousness.
Let’s gain certainty from Romans chapter 3. Starting with verse 19, we read: Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law… Stop there for just a moment. Remember God’s ‘law?’ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-39). God etched those commands onto two tablets of stone (Exodus 20:1-17). He even took that law and carved it on every single heart— yours and mine included (Romans 2:14-15). That means, you, I, the entire world are obligated to obey and conform to those commands.
Have you? If God replayed your entire life on a big-screen, what would find? What would he see you do at the bar? What would God discover on your browser history? What would God learn from you about his gift of marriage? Do you want to repeat the words you use to describe the leaders he has placed in authority over you? (read Romans 13:1) Would you be proud standing before God, looking him straight in the eye, and declaring: ‘God, I loved you so much that my life is perfect picture of your law!’ No. That searing guilt, the restless shame that keeps you (and me) awake at night, the stomach-churning regrets only showcase our blemished hearts.
No wonder people have difficulty answering that question: ‘Do you think you’re going to heaven?’ Because that shameful filth clings to us; it never leaves! And you hear that haunting reality in every response. Those students make up and try to enforce rules about a heaven they do not own! If you own heaven, then you can create the standards for entering heaven. (For example, if you own a restaurant, you can make a dress code. You can exclude those who do not meet the dress code.) But you (and I) do not own heaven. That means we must meet the standards of the One who does. When the standard is: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48) we fail.
God’s expectations do not make you (and me) look good, they expose our wickedness before God! Every mouth is stopped… you (and I) have no acceptable excuse. [T]he whole world [is] held accountable to God.
For by works of the law no human being will be justified [that is, ‘be acquitted,’ ‘be declared innocent’] in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. That means, scrounging for comfort in your own self-made rules only leads to a dead-end! (If arcades still exist), you play games, make the right moves, win tickets, and turn those tickets in for prizes. You get something for your effort. You cannot step up to God, hold up your life, and say, “Here you go, God! That should get me something!” God clearly says that his righteous verdict does not come from obtaining enough tickets. For by works of the law no human being will be justified. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that every effort fails to obtain God’s favor.
How does that make you feel? Probably not too comfortable. That’s the point. God crushes the heart so that you might cry out, ‘Oh no! Now what?’ Because God wants you (and me) to stop looking at our hearts. To stop looking at our faulty actions. To stop digging through our flawed thinking. God wants you (and me) to stop looking at you (and me).
When you cry out, ‘Oh no! Now what?’ do not look at your flawed word, look at God’s Word. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that every effort fails to obtain God’s favor. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that Jesus freely gives us God’s righteousness.
Listen again to verse 21: But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it… There it is! God’s ‘righteousness’— that precious announcement of innocence! Where does God tell you how to obtain it? He does not point at your opinions or feelings or wishes or expectations. God reveals his righteous verdict in the Bible.
There, in the Bible, God clearly says: [T]he righteousness of God [comes] through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. God sets his righteous verdict on you through faith. Think about that for a moment. That ‘faith’ (God speaks of) is ‘trust in Jesus as Savior.’ God the Holy Spirit put into your heart the conviction, the certainty that Jesus has completely satisfied God’s anger. That’s why you call Jesus ‘Savior.’ You did not save your life, you did not help even one bit. Jesus alone rescued you from consequences.
God wrote this down in the Bible for you to confront. For there is no distinction, all (you! me! the world!) have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and [you and I] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God declares you (and me) ‘not guilty’ in his sight free of charge. No strings attached. No repayment expected. God drops the charges against you.
You know that, but can you be sure? Is God really serious? That you owe nothing? Sounds too good to be true! It’s not! God’s not asking what you think about his actions, he is telling his actions. You see that God did not ignore your offenses, he actually punishes them. God put [Jesus] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. That word, ‘propitiation’ means: ‘atonement.’ God used Jesus to make you ‘at-one’ with God.
This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins… God did not sentence you (or me) or Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, or anyone immediately to hell. Even though we fell short of reaching God’s high standard, even though we stood under God’s judgment, God patiently waited. Yes, he still held people accountable, but transferred the consequence from you (and me) onto Jesus. Because God is just. He cannot let evil go by unpunished. That would be unjust, corrupt. So, a just, fair God punishes Jesus for your failures (and mine). He holds Jesus accountable for our crimes. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Since Jesus made the payment for our crimes, God is fair to declare us ‘innocent,’ ‘not guilty.’ That means God justifies you— you who are still haunted by your harsh words and overbearing presence. God penalized Jesus for your past. That means God declares you ‘not guilty’ — you who still struggle keeping your life free from drunken nights, indecent thoughts, and drugs. God sentenced Jesus to death in your place. That means God declares you ‘innocent’— you who feel ashamed that you hurt mom, that you yelled at dad, that your greedy, grubby fingers love stuff more than loving to help people. God made Jesus suffer shame. Then, God raised Jesus on Easter because Jesus is more than enough to serve and complete our death-sentence! (Romans 4:25).
Dear friends, God’s Word Makes Us Sure that Jesus freely gives us God’s righteousness. This word does not come from my mind. It does not come from your opinion. It comes straight from the mouth of God. If Jesus wins for you what you could never merit, why look at yourself? If your past haunts you, if you feel so undeserving of heaven, if you are not sure if you will enter heaven, look to Jesus. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Can you be sure? Well, how do you know if your spouse loves you? How do you know if your children love you (or your parents love you)? How do you know if your heart is healthy? How do you know what the weather will be like tomorrow? Do you wait for a disembodied voice to whisper in your ear: “Your spouse and children love you?” Do you sit on the edge of your hospital bed waiting for a warm sensation in your chest— a feeling confirming that your heart is indeed healthy? Will you drive home, hop out of your car, rake your yard, prune your bushes, trim the trees, supposing that your actions will produce a warm, sunny day tomorrow? Of course not! That would be absurd! When you want a sure answer, you look to a qualified source. You listen and understand the plain meaning of their words. You see actions reinforcing those words.
Your spouse and your children are qualified people to say: “I love you” and then show their love in their action. A heart specialist is qualified to read your heart tests and say: “You are healthy.” The meteorologist, who reads weather patterns for a living, can point at the picture of a sun over your city (on your television screen) and say: “It will be sunny tomorrow!” These qualified people can give you sure answers. They can give you assurance.
So, ‘Do you think you’re going to heaven?’ It really does not matter what ‘I think.’ It matters what God says. And God’s sure Word reveals his sure announcement: ‘You are forgiven!’ Chase away worry by grasping a sure Word. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that every effort fails to obtain God’s favor. God’s Word Makes Us Sure that Jesus freely gives us God’s righteousness.
Todd lacked nothing his entire life. Growing up, mom and dad met every need. New clothes replaced old, outgrown ones. Spring break took the family to Hawaii, Cancun, Miami, New Orleans. On his 16th birthday, Todd received a new car. His parents covered most college expenses. When he graduated, his parents even offered him part of the family business.
So of course, Todd gladly took that offer. On the first day of work, dad says: “I want you to start in the warehouse and understand our shipping and receiving.”
Todd thought for moment. “No thanks, dad. Warehouse is pretty dirty work.”
“Alright then. Why don’t you join the sales team? See how we gain new business and keep accounts.”
“Nah, it’s too hard forging new partnerships.”
“What about accounting?”
“Too many numbers.”
“Then manage our network.”
“Eh… that’s takes too much time.”
Dad rattles off areas for Todd to contribute and Todd turns down each one. Finally, dad asks: “What would you like to do?” Todd stopped, mulled the question over for moment, stared straight at dad “Why don’t you buy me out?” (taken from: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/7279494/ns/business-us_business/t/when-kids-feel-entitled-family-business/).
Todd’s parents built this company from their poverty. They worked the long hours. They drove to make new clients. They took reduced salaries. It took decades for the business to become self-supporting. Todd’s wealth came from their effort. Yet, Todd fails to appreciate that hard work. Because he does not value their achievements, he feels entitled, he feels automatically worthy of deserving good things.
Forget the past and you will not value the present. That is why God repeats the past. The book of Deuteronomy repeats much of what is found in the book of Exodus. Here’s the reason why: God’s love is scorned if you do not understand why he loves you in the first place. So, go back. See your heart’s dire condition. See God’s undeserving affection. Then you clearly grasp how Grace Drives the Christian Life.
That’s why Moses, the long-serving Israelite leader, says: And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? Before you being taking mental notes, thinking: “Alright, here’s what I need to do to love God better…” stop. Look at the first two words of verse 12: ‘And now…’ Those words do not present an order of events. (For example: (1) I woke up, then (2) I got dressed, and now (3) I am eating.) No, those words point back to an earlier event and then give cause for the present action.
So, what happened earlier? Well, Israel worshipped a golden cow. (Visit Deuteronomy 9:7-29 and Exodus 32:1-35) Understand, they are not praising a barnyard animal. Instead, they believed another god-like being existed and this being’s true image is a cow. Israel credits this made-up god with rescuing them out of Egypt, feeding them, and leading them. God looks down absolutely mystified. He unleashed ten powerful plagues. He held back the walls of the Red Sea. He literally led this group— a cloud by day and fire by night. He did not hide from them; everyone witnessed these events. His mighty power clearly revealed his mighty love. God has every right to wipe these ungrateful brats off the face of the earth. He could abandon them in this desolate desert, crying out to a god that does not exist. God does none of that. Instead, he forgives. That [event] is what happened forty years ago. Israel could look back and see life spared; they did not receive the punishment they deserved.
That remains a vitally important truth to remember. We— people called ‘Christian,’ literally identifying with ‘Christ’— receive what we do not deserve. Do you remember that? Your God lays out his high, holy commandments not only for these Israelites, but also for you (and me) to keep without fault. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matthew 22:37). Love God by wanting to be here, not complaining how inconvenient worship is today. Love God by giving him your honest offering without holding back because you love what money can buy. Love God by doing what he says because it is right. God desires absolute obedience from every fiber of your being every waking second.
We have not done that, have we? In fact, we usually admit quite quickly: ‘Well, no one’s perfect.’ That carries consequences! Forget that and we think God owes us good things! Of course, we would never come out and say that, but we embrace the thought. The heart likes to think that God will give you a good week because you’re in church. I mean, those not in church, well, they’ll probably get hurt or receive bad news. It makes sense that God rewards you for being here. You earned it! You deserve God giving you good because you did good. Your arm might get tired patting you on the back. You gave some groceries to the needy next-door neighbor. You waited at the bank entrance a little longer and held the door open. You complimented the cashier even when it took her 15-minutes to complete your order. No one else acts like that! God must see your outstanding behavior! So, you deserve God giving you good because you did good. Or, if you want to know if you are saved, just stare at you. You went to Sunday School. You memorized Bible teachings. You live sincerely devoted to God. Why would you not go to heaven? You behave good. You may even think you chose good. You deserve God giving you good because you did good.
Do you know what God would say to that? “You forgot the past.” To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. God Almighty created every single organism on earth, even brought you (and me) into this world. If God expects you (and me) to serve, to fear, to love him above all things, why would he reward you for doing what is expected? What does God owe you? Honestly, nothing. Just in case our hearts take issue with that, in case we want to point fingers and cry out: “God, I’m so much better than those skipping and driving around right now!” God says: the Lord set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you… God makes it explicitly clear: You did not choose him. You do not earn perks because of how you live. You are not entitled to heaven! Even this Israelite nation is not entitled to be God people.
So, why does God choose them? Because God chooses to. Yes, the heart argues: “Well, that does not make sense. Surely, they did something!” God says, “No. I chose them. I chose you. That is grace— love not deserved.”
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. God does not want your best, he wants your ‘perfect.’ He wants hearts that obey not out of necessity, but out of desire. He wants hearts that find him to be life’s happiest joy! He wants a heart like that of Jesus. A heart that worships, not to fulfill an obligation, but because the heart delights in hearing God speak. A heart that gives offering, a heart that gives healing, a heart that gives away food because that heart does not consider earth to be real treasure. A heart that loves God by correcting wrong because it is wrong.
Inside of Jesus beats a heart that fears, loves, and trusts in God above all things every waking moment. No wonder God looks at Jesus and cries out: “With you I am well-pleased!” (Matthew 3:17) No wonder God takes that innocent life and wraps it around your (and my) rebellious heart.
Dear friends, God’s command to love him above all things is certainly meant for us to obey. When we fail and guilt crushes us, look at Jesus, our Substitute, the One who obeyed for your (and my) benefit. Because Grace Drives Christian Living.
That is the reason Moses says what he does. He is not challenging the Israelites to be ‘real’ Christians. No, he points back to God’s undeserving love. See God hand you the forgiveness not deserved. See how he chose you first (John 15:16), meaning, faith does not depend on your behavior. God cannot love you more than he already does!
So, what do you do? Nothing! There is nothing you need to do to make God love you more. Maybe question instead is: How, then, do I gives thanks?
To that, Moses says: Fear the Lord your God and serve him. (Now, that word ‘fear’ does not mean ‘be afraid, be terrified, be scared of God.’ No. To ‘fear’ means ‘to respect.’ Give God respect, treat him with dignity, honor, and trust.) How do you treat with respect? Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. Live unafraid because you can. Jesus promises, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me… And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:18,20). Live unafraid because God invites you to approach him in need. Call on me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you, and you will honor me (Psalm 50:15). He is your praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes. Gather in worship, thank God for his love. Gather in worship, take in hearing of God’s love—and delight in that. See the baptismal font where he made you his child (Galatians 3:26-27). Approach the altar and take his forgiveness (Matthew 26:26-28). Leave here at peace with God. He will not condemn you. He will not forsake you. He will clothe you (Matthew 6:24-35). He will give strength in sickness (Psalm 103:1-3). He will turn troubles into blessings, he will increase your trust in him through challenges (Romans 8:28). What do you do? Nothing. You (and I) owe God nothing! What joy to simply look up at a God who loves us. What a privilege to have that love sink in and Motivate Christian Living!
Forget the past and you will not value the present. That’s why Todd felt entitled. He failed to appreciate his parent’s that hard work. Because he does not value their achievement, he feels automatically worthy of deserving good things. That led him to be ungrateful of what he received. That is why God repeats the past. Deuteronomy repeats much of what is found in Exodus. Here’s the reason why: God’s love is scorned if you do not understand why he loves you in the first place. So, go back. See your heart’s dire condition. See God’s undeserving affection. Then you clearly grasp how Grace Drives the Christian Life.
Where are you in the ‘Parable of the Lost Sheep’? I mean, did you feel pulled into the story? Try to place yourself into the setting of sheep and Shepherd, lost and found? The parable really wants you to choose a side, doesn’t it?
It’s important that you do. Jesus does not speak these words to first-century Jews only. The point of his parable carries eternal implications for all people of all time. That is why it is important for you to answer: Where are you in the ‘Parable of the Lost Sheep’?
Go back to our gospel lesson and you find two distinct groups, right? In Group #1, you have ninety-nine ‘found’ sheep. In Group #2, you have one ‘lost’ sheep. Those groups even have characteristics. In verse 7 Jesus says: I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Who are those people? More importantly, where are you?
Well, look at verses 1 and 2. Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” No one likes the tax-man. He takes your hard-earned money and ships it off. None of your money goes towards improving your city. Instead, your taxes pay for extravagant projects done some 2,000-miles away in Rome! Yet, a bigger problem exists: The tax collector is a Jew! One of you! Your high-school classmate! Your next-door neighbor! Your brother-in-law! Someone who lives in your community and sees your struggles and hears your frustrations and knows for a fact that Rome cheats you— and still participate in this injustice! As if that was not bad enough, that Jewish traitor can deliberately overcharge you! If you owe $100, he could bill you for $200. He sends $100 to Rome (it keeps Rome happy) and then he pockets the other $100. You can do nothing about that because Rome’s own soldiers protect their man.
So, the Pharisees have marked this tax-collecting group as ‘beyond hope,’ ‘not-going-to-heaven.’ You know what? They would be right! Those tax collectors will never enter heaven without Jesus! So, Jesus sits with them. He exposes a heart that worships money more than God, a heart that deserves hell. Yet, Jesus does not stop teaching there. He points to himself; he reveals that his obedient life cures them.
In our parable, the tax collectors are the spiritually lost found by Jesus. That makes the Pharisees the ninety-nine who see no need to repent. Why would they? The Pharisees have already set themselves in the column: ‘loved-by-God.’ They go to ‘church’ and give big offerings. They dress in fancy clothes. They have respectable wives and well-behaved children. They commit no crimes and carry no moral baggage. The Pharisee feels God must welcome him into heaven because his life is superior.
That feeling of superiority has an effect. The Pharisee sees no need for Jesus because of their action. Then, the Pharisees resent the Word of Christ reaching a group deemed ‘undesirable.’ Just look at those messy lives! It might appear that certain groups are undeserving of a good thing like God’s love.
That attitude did not only exist years ago. It still erupts today. Our congregation recently collected money for a Pastor-Training Institute in Vietnam. Now Vietnamese pastors will receive better training to share God’s Word with the Vietnamese. Still, after the history of violence, crimes, and torture the Vietnamese inflicted on Americans, you might not wish to help them. Maybe those foreigners deserve hell— or, at the very least, maybe they do not deserve my support. Last Wednesday, you relived horrific terrorist attacks. Innocent thousands died and even more still suffer! It might have been difficult to think anything good of the Middle East— without even considering that those people without Christ will go to hell. Still, maybe you think: “Good riddance!”
We could bring our thoughts closer to home. Many in your community behave far different than you (and I). You may even realize those lives inflict negative consequences. The meth-house does not really seem deserving of Jesus; it seems more deserving of punishment! The scruffy guy always walking around town, well, he looks lazy. That laziness does not deserve free forgiveness! That stranger who walks into church at the last minute— frazzled and disruptive and acts weird— well, what is she doing here?
We could bring thoughts even closer home. You know people who have different values and priorities. Your child has not been in worship for a long time. Your brother, your sister may worship the lake. Your neighbor treats travel teams like God. So many other things take priority! Maybe you think: ‘That’s fine. God will have mercy on them. They are good people. They cannot possibly go to hell.’
How do we reach these conclusions? By my own standard. I pull out my behavior, my home life, my worship attendance and expect the world to be what I am. If that person fails to match up, then just leave them lost. Just like those Pharisees, my own heart can rank people as ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ of Jesus. It boils down to me saying: “Well, I deserve forgiveness.” And Jesus says: “You have no idea how lost you are.”
So, Jesus searches. Isn’t that an astounding fact in this parable? Out of ninety-nine fluffy white bodies, Jesus actually notices one is missing— and he looks for it. He leaves heaven’s safety and puts on human flesh. He literally walks to hearts wandering in greed. He literally walks to hearts absolutely oblivious as to what happens after death. He literally walks to those who resist hearing a desperate need for the Savior. Jesus walked all over earth to rescue you. He walked into the death you earned and rescued you. He returns from death— alive! Alive, holding you alive in his hands.
Hearts can think only a select few deserve Jesus. Yet, this parable makes clear: The Lost Means the World to Jesus. That is why he searches for all. He wants all saved. We could put it this way: The Lost Means IS the ‘World’ to Jesus. He rejoices over the found.
[W]hen he has found [the lost], he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Do you see where you are? On the shoulders of Jesus!
When did that happen? Because maybe you don’t feel saved. Can you be sure that lie on Christ? Yes! [Y]ou who were baptized into Christ and have clothed yourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:27). In baptism God attached his Word to water. So, when you were baptized, he said, you carry the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Yes, baptism has washed pride out of your (and my) heart. God does not recall your past. He does not lay out criteria you must meet before he will ever re-love you. Nope. He lays you on his shoulders and rejoices. He carries you into the family of believers with hop-in-step. It’s like he’s holding back from breaking out in a sprint! The Lost Means the World to Jesus. He rejoices over the found.
Yet, God is not the only one rejoicing. Neighbors and friends rejoice. They so desperately want the lost found, and so they rejoice as another lost is found! Those neighbors and friends are you.
Did you know that on an average Sunday, about half of our fellow believers do not worship? You know those faces. You watched them baptized. You heard them, on their Confirmation Day, promise to regularly hear the Word and receive the Lord’s Supper. They confessed their faults, heard God’s forgiveness, listened to the same messages you do. They are not here! Some worship only Christmas and Easter. Others barely come at all. Does that bother you?
Dear friend, those who love Christ love hearing his Word. Love for Christ does not make up excuses to be out of church. Love for Christ does not pack weekends with camping and fishing. Love for Christ does not brag that they already know everything about the Bible (and so they do not need to hear anymore). No, love for Christ finds reasons to be with God (read Hebrews 10:25 and John 8:31). Step back for a moment and see to whom Jesus speaks. You have Pharisees and tax collectors, the curious and the disciples. Understand, it is not only the Pastor’s job to go and reach the drifting. It is our job— together.
We gain motivation when we go back to these words and see where we stand in this parable. You are that once lost, now found sheep. You did not deserve rescue, you needed rescue. So, Jesus made you his priority and he rejoices over that!
Those drifting are worth our time. Each soul is worth our effort of hearing the gospel. Maybe your daughter who has not been in worship for a while. She’s just ‘taking a break from church,’ as she puts it. Maybe your friend is completely oblivious to anything ‘God.’ He just feels that everything will be alright in the end. Maybe you recognize a few faces you have not seen for a while. You really just do not know where they are. It is incredibly easy to say nothing, but then again, someone shared Jesus with you.
As able, take the opportunity to seek the stray. Use your own words and tell your child why you find worship important. Share your experience. Share your comfort. Share what you gain. Invite your neighbor to church— but do more than that. Tell them why you want them in church. Tell them about heaven after death. Tell them that you stand absolutely certain of heaven because of Jesus. Pray for the wandering. Pray that someone brings news of Jesus to the meth-house. Pray that violent nations find peace in Jesus. Pray for courage to welcome those walking by your church into church.
The Lost Means the World to Jesus. The world. Everyone. Seeing how Jesus gave up the world for you, you rejoice that Jesus gave all for the world.
The ‘Parable of the Lost Sheep’ pulls you into its story. It puts you in the setting of sheep and Shepherd, lost and found. It does that because Jesus in not speaking to first-century Jews only. He speaks to you.
The point of his parable carries eternal implications. You, once lost, now stand found. How humbling to see how undeserving we were! How amazing to see how rich we are! Now found, you, like Jesus, seek the lost because The Lost Means the World to Jesus.
There is probably no greater blessing/curse than the forward facing camera on a smartphone. Yes, this tiny invention paved the way for the “selfie.” (Now, to have a common definition, a ‘selfie’ is a ‘self-photograph,’ a picture you take of yourself.) You can include yourself in a picture of friends. You can show an outfit instead of describing what you wore. You can insert yourself in front of mountains and monuments without having to find someone to take your picture. Selfies unlock opportunities for uniquely different memories.
… But then you have that disturbing news report from a few years ago… A surveillance camera in downtown Pittsburgh captured a woman assaulted and left unconscious. The attack happened in public; witnesses instantly swarm this victim— but things got strange from there. A group whips out their phones, but they do not dial 911. They stand there and record videos. One man even marches right up to this woman, kneels down, and records a close up. Then, another guy lies down right next to her and takes a selfie! No one helps! Not a single person calls 911! This woman lies motionless until she regains consciousness. (https://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2017/10/26/get-marty-beechview-woman-knocked-out-video/)
How terrible! Maybe more terrifying is the gnawing, never-satisfied hunger for more attention. The human heart indulges in such selfish attention-seeking just to puff up pride. God dismantles even our selfish, self-centered cravings with one simple question: What More Do You Need?
Just think about that. What has God done for you? These closing chapters of Hebrews string together this unbroken, flowing truth: Jesus Christ is all you need! Only Jesus completely cancelled out God’s anger over what you (and I) have done wrong. Because of Jesus, you now stand before the Judge of all things without fear. You have the assurance of eternal life in heaven! You have the assurance that God hears you, cares for you, provides for you! From that point of view, you must admit: There is really nothing more you need. It does not matter how many ‘likes’ your Facebook post gets or how many friends you have. It does not matter how much money you make. It does not matter your job title— if you are the mayor or a manager or general labor. None of that matters because the only thing you can take out of this life is trust in Jesus as Savior. What More Do You Need? Only Jesus provides real value.
Lose sight of that and then you begin sinking into the world’s standard of value. A standard continuously snatching for more attention, more praise, more respect. Care for your brother? Only when convenient! Only when people can see you and praise your leadership and praise your talents. Only when you gain a sense of feeling good after giving to charity or sacrificing time. Only when your Christian friend is nice to you first. How selfish! To serve only when your ego stands to benefit! Be hospitable? Warm and friendly? That means caring for each other just as you care for your family. That means giving up time talking with friends and welcoming someone (in church) who looks lost and unsure. That means paying attention to the physical limitations of that elderly lady. That takes effort! That takes time! You are too busy! You have to focus on yourself! Hospitality sounds pretty inconvenient. Our selfish hearts can even label God’s commandments ‘Inconvenient.’ Honor marriage? That command does not satisfy pleasures; it does not make you feel happy. In fact, that command makes you stand out, and then people call you names and that does not feel great. So, you lay aside God’s unbreakable command for the sake ego. For the sake of pride. For the sake of convenience. That’s dangerous.
A selfish heart thinks it has the right to strut up to the King of the Universe and explain how you will live and then expects God to accept it. That is a form of insubordination! That is a form of rebellion against God— and God will not put up with it. Those who think so highly of themselves and live convinced that God must accept your pride, will be forever humbled.
Really, What More Do You Need? Right in the middle of our reading God zeroes in on the one thing needed. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have… Yes, God specifically addresses greed, but he teaches something broader: Contentment. Contentment with your finances. Contentment with your status. Contentment with your time, your achievements, your relationships, your identity as God’s child. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have… Why? because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.
God cannot stress that promise enough. (Remember, the New Testament is written in Greek. The Greek translation uses five negatives in one sentence. Our English language does not do that!) God literally says: ‘I will never ever desert you [it is impossible to do so], nor will I ever forsake you [it is impossible to do that].’ Jesus will never leave you in eternal shame; it is impossible. For proof of that just look at the cross.
You (and I) stand empty-handed before God, holding nothing that he wants. Yet, Jesus purges pride and fills your (and my) empty heart with his undivided love and loyalty to God. This is what Jesus accomplished for you (and me). The cross has forever linked him to you. What More Do You Need? Really, if you have Jesus, What More Do You Need? Because Only Jesus provides real value.
That changes perspective. We can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Humanity can do nothing! Yes, your paycheck might be short some dollars, but that’s alright! Your bank account means nothing in the grand scheme of eternity! Yes, your sister’s drama might never stop, but that’s alright! Getting the last word, looking smug means nothing in the grand scheme of eternity! Yes, the world might look at you weird for saying, “Wait until marriage,” but that’s alright! Your god is not popularity, opinions mean nothing in the grand scheme of eternity! Humanity cannot forever shame you because Jesus has forever exalted you!
Jesus laid aside attention, praise, and respect in order to make you eternally rich! That means you, as someone connected to God, are not out gaining more attention, praise, and respect. You already have it all! It means you live opposite the world: giving attention, praise, and respect.
Stop for a moment and consider those who gave. Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you… Think how your Sunday School teacher gave up Saturday night preparing Bible lessons and gave up her Sunday morning in order to bring Jesus to you. Consider the Pastor who wanted to teach you God’s love even though you, as a teenager, maybe did not want to listen— and still he patiently taught! Recall that kind grandmotherly-lady who could have huddled with friends her age, but instead went out of the way to talk to you. Remember that Christian friend who addressed your sinful living. He risked friendship; he did not seek pride. He wanted to keep you close to God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Remember those who gave so that you have! Consider that you may be the Sunday School teacher with an already-busy-schedule. You might be that teenager who really does not want to be in catechism class. You might be that grandparently-person. Just as your leaders laid aside ego in order to touch you with God’s love, you may now be those leaders to benefit others!
Continue keeping in center focus the love Christ has for you, the love which moved others to love you. Only Jesus stimulates willing service.
A willing service like loving each other as brothers… That is what you are: brothers and sisters. God looks past your family tree and points at the one thing we all have in common: faith in Jesus as Savior. Since you are connected to Christ …and you are connected to Christ …and you are (and so on…) Keep on loving each other as brothers. Maybe you get called names when you approach a child about returning to worship. Maybe no one praises you for a generous offering or hours of volunteering. Maybe your abilities are not needed at this moment. That’s fine! Your motivation for service is not about what you can gain. Jesus, who gave you his all, motivates you to give all.
Do not forget to entertain strangers… People move often— away from classmates, away from familiar communities, away from family support. That means, a group of believers quickly becomes a family. Even though you belong to this ‘family’ now, be willing to include more. Lean over and ask the person next to you how the week went. Welcome a new face. Ask where he lives; that always creates discussion. Simply acknowledging presence makes a person feel welcome.
Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners… because prisoners are out of sight— and can fall out of mind. Pray for those in prison, pray they may know Jesus, the One who freed them from the shackles of hell. Yet, pray also for Christians around the world, those who have done no wrong, but languish in prison simply because they worship Christ. Pray that God sends people to comfort them. Pray that God uses government to free them. Pray that God strengthens their resolve to rely on him more.
Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure… Yes, today’s society considers marriage something ‘good’ and ‘harmful,’ something ‘beneficial’ and ‘not needed.’ Yet, God created marriage to be a blessing, something that fills you with satisfaction, commitment, and companionship. If those you do not see those blessings, it does not come through any fault of God. (So do not blame him!) Instead, those tensions come from proud hearts refusing to love the other. Have the awkward conversations; point your children, siblings, friends to the joys God gives in marriage. Aim to serve them spiritually, leading them out from under God’s wrath.
Dear friends, What More Do You Need? If you already have faith, then you already have life’s real treasure! You have no greater status to grab after. Instead, you realize you have much to give. Jesus stimulates willing service.
That will stand out in the world. It appears so many live infatuated with themselves. Taking selfies for more attention. Fixating on popularity. Reaching for more social standing. The human heart indulges in such selfish attention-seeking just to puff up pride— a pride that considers you ‘God.’
God dismantles selfish, self-centered cravings with one simple question: What More Do You Need? Really. Only Jesus provides real value— and fills you with a treasure that lasts forever. You already have everything needed. Because you do, Jesus stimulates us for willing service.
Do you grasp the full implication of what Jesus teaches in our gospel lesson? “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading… There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth. (Luke 13:24-28) Jesus makes it clear: hell exists. More than that, you, I, the entire world, have only one lifetime to make it through that narrow door of heaven. “Do-overs” do not exist. “Second chances” do not exist. A warning like this is meant for us to respond today.
Yet, many choose not. A particular church body teaches that hell does not exist. Those who reject Jesus will merely cease to be. (https://www.adventist.org/fileadmin/adventist.org/files/articles/official-statements/28Beliefs-Web.pdf). The president of the largest Lutheran church body in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] (a liberal branch of Lutherans) went on record to say: If hell exists, I think it’s empty. (https://chicago.suntimes.com/chicago-politics/elizabeth-eaton-presiding-bishop-evangelical-lutheran-church-in-america-chicago-if-hell-exists-i-think-its-empty-face-to-faith-podcast/) Even the pope questioned the existence of hell! (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/03/29/did-pope-francis-say-there-no-hell-not-quite-vatican-insists/470442002/)
What is it that leads people (including churches!) to deny what Jesus so clearly says? Why do many stay out of church, content to be in the fishing boats and campers, to be in home or out with friends? Why may we(!) grow cold about the full implication of what Jesus says?
The reality of life apart from God in hell weaves throughout all of Scripture. You find in Hebrews (a New Testament book written about 30-years after Jesus entered heaven) whisking you into the Old Testament and dropping you at Mount Sinai. This is not some setting among the pines and crystal-clear waters of a Rocky Mountain getaway. No. Gray, overcast skies blot out sunlight. Billowing smoke pours from heaven, engulfing the mountain. A dreadful, moaning trumpet blares its eerie wail across the desert floor. Audible tones, as if God’s thunderous voice thumps: ‘More.’ ‘Better.’ ‘Try harder.’ Animals snort and tug on ropes. Children shriek. You carry this haunting feeling that whatever is about to happen is serious. The Israelites begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
Even though trembling, God commands Moses to hike up Sinai. There, etched into two stony tablets, are God’s expectations. You shall have no other gods… You shall not misuse God’s name… You shall make time for me… You shall… You shall… You shall… (Exodus 20:1-21) Understand, what makes this scene terrifying is not the fact that God appears. What makes this sight blood-draining horrifying is that a holy God comes to people who are not holy— and God knows that and they know that. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere run.
Who can stand? God demands: “Be holy, just as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) and then threatens: “The soul who sins is the soul who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). Do you grasp just how serious God is? Still, there may be a little part inside us that considers this nothing more than a bluff. Fake. Not real. After all, you have not seen hell; it’s not on map or YouTube videos. It also just sounds so harsh. I mean, Sinai feels like God is like an angry parent venting, but will eventually simmer down.
Maybe you have not actually said those words, you may not have thought them, but what does your behavior say? Do you stuff God’s mouth with your words? “God, I’m skipping worship today. That’s acceptable because I said so.” “God, I can break my marriage vows because it feels right… God, I can live committed without marriage because nothing bad happens…” “God, I deliberately disobeyed my teacher… my police officer… my township supervisor because I do not like what they say.” How often we take God’s commands and apply them only when we determine it convenient! Or, what does your behavior say about care for the souls of others? Perhaps your daughter promised to God before the congregation on her Confirmation Day: “I will be faithful in the use of Word and sacrament as long as I live”— but she is not here. In fact, she never worships, but still calls herself a Christian. Does that spiritual laziness alarm you? You worship every Sunday; your neighbor has no church. He watches you pull out of the driveway and you wave back. Have you ever offered him to join you? Or, do your actions somehow suggest that only you need to be connected to Christ— that this is only important for you personally, but is not necessary for everyone? Maybe it’s your friend who is battling cancer. She says, “I have faith”— but faith in what? Faith that the chemo will work? Faith that even if she dies the family will be fine? Or, the faith that Jesus Christ wiped clean her spiritual illness? Do you ask in what that faith is placed?
On Mount Sinai God booms: “Be holy, just as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). That applies not just to you (and me), but also to the other 7-billion people on earth! Do you (and I) treat this threatening expectation something less than God makes it? I wonder if sometimes we try to soften God’s commands because no one measures up. So, we create reasons for God to love us, and think by painting this scene as different, it becomes different in reality.
Yet, right now, you can wish to be in perfect health— pain-free, ache-free, cancer-free—but that does not actually cure ailments. Thinking differently of Sinai does not change God’s expectations. It just makes you the fool for believing something not true.
If Sinai makes your heart tremble, then look down and see where you stand. Only One Mountain Brings Life. Do not stand on Sinai because no one can ever measure up. Instead, Keep standing on Zion.
Mount Zion rests [in the city of] Jerusalem. God’s temple stood there. People could bring offerings and praise to God; God came to his people with his Old Testament words, with the forgiveness spoken through the priest, and with messages sent through his prophets. Yet, when God says: [Y]ou have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God… he does not suggest hiking up this mountain. No. God calls heaven ‘Mount Zion,’ the place where God is with believers. Notice how verse 22 begins: [Y]ou have come to Mount Zion; you already stand in God’s presence. That did not happen because you changed God’s expectations; it happened because Jesus removed the terror of Sinai.
Jesus is born to walk up Mount Sinai— to receive those same Ten Commandments God has set on us (Galatians 4:4-5). Throughout his entire life he locks his sight on the one thing God demands: Love for God (Matthew 22:37-39). That means, Jesus never lowers God’s standards. He keeps them. He worships every single week— not as a rule, but because he wants to. He preaches to the masses, not suggesting that a Christian God is one of many different ways to the same place, but clearly teaching eternal life comes only through God’s forgiveness (Acts 4:12). He even deals with those crushed by regret and shame— and does not tell them to fix their wrong, but rather says: “Trust that my life will make God happy with you” (John 14:6). Yes, Jesus not only obeys God’s commandments for himself, but also obeys in our place.
He walks down Mount Sinai without fear, without trembling because he is guiltless— and he walks up another mount, Mount Calvary. That Good Friday scene echoes an awful sound: ‘Death for sin.’ God’s wrath consumes his only Son. It swarms him. It engulfs him— and Jesus absorbs it all. Three days later, Jesus steps foot onto Easter morning’s peaceful dew. He freely walks out of his grave— alive and without fear. He immediately finds his disciples, the women, and says, “Peace to you!” (John 20:19).
Peace to you! Jesus has taken his innocence and set it next to your name. When you were baptized, the Holy Spirit took you by the hand and brought you to God, saying, “Here’s another one! Take this one too!” And God the Father says, “Yes. I have written down your name.” You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect… You stand before God, the Judge of the universe, not to hear condemnation, but rather a favorable judgment: ‘You are righteous. Jesus made you perfect, completely forgave you.’
Dear friends, you stand now on Zion— at peace with God. [You have come] to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and [are] sprinkled [with the] blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. You are walking through that narrow door into heaven because Jesus is mediator. You get “in” because Jesus covered your with his perfection and that perfection is far better than anything you, like Abel, could offer.
You know that and so we live that. [Grand]Parents, God has handed you the responsibility of raising your child to know Jesus. To see Jesus in the Bible stories at Sunday School. To learn God’s complete love in catechism class and in Bible class. To gather in worship, admit wickedness, and bask in God’s forgiveness. Maybe you watch over children now; maybe your children no longer live under your watch. Whatever the case might be, still live concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of your child. Your child will not enter heaven because his name is in a church book. Your child will not enter heaven because she got ‘checkmarks’ beside her name: (1) Baptized? Check. (2) Confirmed? Check. God wants the heart. Specifically, what is their view towards Jesus? Your neighbor may stand on Sinai— completely unsure of what God wants. Point him to Jesus. Invite her to worship. Share what you know about the Bible. Faith needs an object. The only faith that saves is a ‘trust in Jesus as Savior.’ We who stand on Zion stand in a position to care. We stand in a position to lead others to the Only Mountain that Brings Life.
You do not need to fear what Jesus so clearly says in our gospel lesson: Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to (Luke 13:24). You do not need to somehow remove the teaching of hell in order to avoid it. You do not need to change God’s expectations in order to soften it. You need do nothing— because Jesus removes all fear of death forever.
Do not stand on Sinai. Do not try to carry the crushing burden of guilt alone. Instead, Keep standing on Zion. Keep clinging to Jesus, the One who removes the weight of death and puts you on that narrow path! Keep pointing others to this splendid mountain! Only One Mountain Brings Life. Do not stand on Sinai. Keep standing on Zion.