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Hide n' Go Seek - Pastor Gless 6/10/18

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

Throughout the last few years of parenting, I have played a fair amount of games of Hide ‘n’ Go Seek. It is a simple game for most. There is one who is responsible for seeking. That person counts to an agreed upon number, while the others go and hide. After counting, the seeker goes and tries to find all of the others. As I said, it is a simple game for most. But not if you are as big as I am. My children find the greatest spots, under the bed, in a cupboard, in the laundry hamper. Great spots! But look at me, does it look like I would ever be that difficult to find?

So it was for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as they attempted to play Hide ‘n’ Go Seek with God. We all know the story. Satan entered the serpent and dangled the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil before Eve’s eyes. And when Satan told her she wouldn’t die if she ate it, and it would make her wise like God, she didn’t hesitate to take a bite and offer it to her husband Adam who took a bite as well. But then they realized they were naked and sewed fig leaves together to make loincloths for themselves.

It is a tragic story that unfortunately affects every one of us today. Because of this disobedience of God’s command, every human being thereafter has been conceived and born into sin. It is what we call original sin. Your parents passed it on to you. You pass it on to your offspring. It is a rotten deal, I know. Since that day, humanity’s relationship with God has been damaged by sin. Because as we know, it didn’t just stop with that one sin. There have been actual sins committed ever since that original fall.

Our text makes that very clear when it says, And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden (Genesis 3:8).

They heard God and they hid. Like you could really play Hide ‘n’ Go Seek with God. Yet, here we see human nature at its finest. They knew that they were guilty, and so they hid. They were ashamed and exposed. They felt their separation from God in their newfound nakedness. So they literally tried to cover up the evidence of their guilt with fig leaf loincloths.

But isn’t that what we all try and do when we know that we are guilty? We try to cover up the evidence of our guilt. We clean up the mess from the broken plate. We erase the internet history on the computer. We delete emails and text messages. And it’s all done in the hopes that we won’t get caught and have to face the consequences. After all, no one likes consequences, so we convince ourselves that if we clean up and cover up enough that no one will notice. No one will notice and the problem will just go away.

But that just isn’t the case. It is as the book of Proverbs says, Whoever covers his sins will not prosper (Proverbs 28:13, NKJV). No matter how hard we try, the sin doesn’t go away. Unfortunately, in today’s day and age, we try new ways to cover sin up, to mask it in some way in hopes that it won’t be as big of a deal.

It is as one chaplain put it, “We have endorsed homosexuality and called it an alternative lifestyle, we have promoted love of money and called it lottery, we have killed our unborn and called it choice, we have broken marriage vows and called it personal freedom, we have coveted our neighbor’s possessions and called it ambition, we have polluted the air with profanity and nudity and called it freedom of expression, we have ridiculed time-honored values of the Ten Commandments and called it enlightenment.”

Our game of Hide ‘n’ Go Seek with God may not include hiding behind bushes wearing fig leaves, but we are still trying to hide the sin. We just simply hide by a new set of terms so we think it pleases the palate a little bit better. We hide by failing to call sin a sin, but in no way does that remove the sin. Nor does it remove the consequence for sin, which is death. Let’s never downplay the effect of our sins or hide behind any sort of terminology to try and soften them. Sin kills. Period.

That’s why God joins in the game of Hide ‘n’ Go Seek with Adam and Eve. He knows what they have done. He knows that they are hiding. So, he goes seeking for them.

Now we might expect God to be fuming with anger or bent on condemning His hiding creation, but no. He approaches them with a series of rhetorical questions giving them every opportunity to confess. He doesn’t ask these questions for His own benefit. He doesn’t need any information. He is God. He knows everything already. No, these questions are for Adam and Eve’s good. To lead them to see the depravity of their sin and their desperate need for a Savior.

But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself (Genesis 3:9-10).

I always think of my son Will when he was younger when God asks this question. When I would play Hide ‘n’ Go Seek with him, I would ask the same question, and he would jump right up and say, “Here I am!”

Well, it wasn’t quite that way with Adam and Eve. There was no jumping up of any kind. Instead he says that he hid because he was afraid. How sad that is. Here he and Eve had just sinned, and instead of turning to God to apologize and ask for forgiveness, they hide from him in fear.

But that’s what happens isn’t it? When we sin, either the devil with all of his deception convinces us that our sin is not that big of a deal or that it is just too big. Either way, we flee from God. We flee thinking we don’t need forgiveness or we flee thinking there is no forgiveness for us. So, we flee from worship, we flee from confession, we flee from the Lord’s Supper. We flee and we hide in whatever way we can try and cover up the reality of our sin. But it’s no use.

Nor is making excuses and blaming others for our sin like Adam and Eve attempted to do when God questioned them further. God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat? The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:11:-13).

Here we see that the line, “It’s not my fault” started all the way back in the Garden of Eden. When we are hiding in our sin, we will try any excuse possible before admitting our fault. After all, no one likes to say, “I was wrong.” How easy does it roll off of your tongue? None of us likes to take accountability for our actions. We think it is much easier to point a finger at someone else. But as I have told you before, when we point a finger at someone, we point three back at ourselves.

That’s why the other half of that verse from Proverbs is so crucial. Whoever covers his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy (Proverbs 28:13, NKJV).

God doesn’t come to the Garden of Eden seeking to condemn. He came seeking to lead His creation to confess their sins and to deliver mercy to them. He knew that if He didn’t intervene they were doomed to remain hiding in their sin to their own eternal condemnation. It is as the evangelist Billy Sunday once said: “Sinners can’t find God for the same reason criminals can’t find policeman: they aren’t looking for them.”

 That’s why when we sin, we need God to come and seek us out. Which is the good news found within this tragic story of creation’s fall. Our God who is rich in love and mercy calls out to His most beloved creatures with His Word. We ought never lose sight of the fact that the first question in the Bible after Adam and Eve sinned is “Where are you?” God seeks the sinner. He seeks the sinner out so that they may hear that it is they who are the ones separating themselves in hiding. And He seeks them so that they may be comforted in knowing that they have a God who loves them enough to come to them to deliver good news to them.

That good news for Adam and Eve and for us starts with the curse of Satan and putting him in his place, and it continues with a promise of a Savior. The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heal (Genesis 3:14-15).

All the way back in Genesis, God made a promise that what began at a tree in the Garden of Eden would be finished once and for all at a tree on Calvary. Where Adam and Eve once hid to cover their nakedness and shame, God’s Son Jesus would be sent to endure nakedness and shame as He would bleed and die to save the entire world. Where Adam and Eve feared the consequences for their sinful action, God promised to send Jesus to endure the consequences of all of humanity’s sins. Where Adam and Eve tried to cover their sins in hiding behind bushes and fig leaves; where we have tried to cover our sins by failing to call sin a sin in a myriad of ways, Jesus was sent to cover our sins with His own precious blood to wash them away for good once and for all.

In so doing, He would bruise the head of Satan. The better translation here is “He will crush your head.” I love that image. Crushing Satan’s head. When I teach on this, I always give a good stomp with my feet. In fact, if you ever look closely at the seal of our seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, you will see under the cross, a snake. In fact, what is right under the cross is the snake’s head, reminding us of the victory Jesus has won over Satan. Jesus has defeated Satan once and for all. Satan’s ability to keep us in fear and shame in the presence of God is done for.

As sinners who hear God’s call to repentance through His Word, we can approach the cross of Christ in the confidence knowing that we will always be forgiven. We have no need to play Hide ‘n’ Go Seek with God. We don’t need to fear his wrath and condemnation. In fact, it is as the Psalmist writes: You are a ‘hiding’ place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me shouts of deliverance (Psalm 32:7).

So, no matter the sin we have committed, no matter how big it is in our mind, there is always forgiveness for us. The promised offspring of Eve, Jesus Christ, was sent to endure it all in our place. Remember, God seeks the sinner. That’s why He sent His Son…to save sinners like us. It is as the hymn that we just sang goes: “He sent forth Jesus, My dear redeemer, He sent forth Jesus, and set me free. Therefore I’ll say again: God loves me dearly, God loves me dearly, loves even me.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.

          The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

"What about Suffering?" Pastor Woodford 6/3/18

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What About Suffering?

11For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

Suffering is a heavy subject, which means (just to prepare you) a sermon on suffering can be rather heavy. So consider yourself warned. I’m asking you do some intense thinking today.

How do we make sense of suffering in this world? What meaning could there possibly be in pain and suffering? Headaches and heartaches, addictions and accidents, diseases and death—there’re all around you, they’re afflicting you, and they’re in you. It can be overwhelming and debilitating.

            When your body hurts, life becomes difficult. When your emotions are in turmoil, life becomes heavy. Suffering brings with it all kinds of questions. And if we were to boil them all down we could probably fit them all into one word, “Why?”

            Why does your body have to hurt so much and so often? Why does cancer strike so randomly? Why did it have to be to you? Why does it have to be your loved one? Why does a broken foot have to lead to a dangerous blood clot in the lungs? Why does a routine heart surgery have to send someone into a coma for a month clinging to life? Why does an infant have be permanently debilitated by cerebral palsy and epilepsy, leaving his parents regularly wondering if he’ll be able to take another breathe? Why does a young women fall into drug use, take her life, and leave a husband behind? All are questions that have confronted the people of our congregation and community as of late. 

It’s was Job’s proverbial unanswered question, “Why?” Even Jesus Himself asks it in the midst of His suffering on the cross, “My God, Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Jesus’ question is ours too: Why? Why must I suffer when others don’t? Why do I hurt, why am I in distress and filled with so many anxious thoughts? If God is God, and He is good, why doesn’t He do anything about it?”

The anguish of suffering, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, is relentless and ruthless. If you are in the midst of it, (and right now I know many of you are), you’re looking for a little hope. You’re longing for some kind of solace to ease the pain, to lighten the load, and to bring you relief. In fact, when the pain is bad enough, just a glimmer will do—you want something to make you believe that you can get through it.

I’m here to tell you that Jesus Christ gives you this hope! Whatever your suffering might be on this day Jesus brings to you a powerful solace. He is the Lord of all Lords and the King of all Kings. He is the resurrection and the life. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Jesus gives a powerful solace. But maybe not in the way you think.

You see, sometimes the pain of suffering can only be undone and relieved by one who suffers with you. Undoubtedly, your own suffering makes you wish that you were one of the many in the crowds who received Jesus’ healing touch during His earthly ministry.

He was even known to heal on the Sabbath day, which to the Pharisees was a scandal. They held that not even works of compassion were to be done on the Sabbath Day. But as Jesus points out in the reading for today, the Sabbath was created so that humankind would be given a day’s rest from the labors and burdens of life, not as one more rule they were to rigidly keep. That’s why the disciples could pick grain to eat and Jesus could heal even if it was on a Sabbath.  

In any case, Jesus’ great compassion and healing shows us all something important. As much as God’s silence in the face of your suffering may make you wonder; God does not want to assault you and torment you. He desires to love you and wrap His arms of love and mercy around you.

But be assured, the Devil wants to assault you and torment you. Like a raging tempest and a roaring lion, he brings assaults and ailments of all kinds upon your conscience, into your body, onto your life, and into your family. In fact, he is by nature so malicious and venomous that he cannot stand to see something beautiful or endure anything good.

“It irks him that an apple should be growing on a tree” or a flower growing a garden; “it pains him that you have a sound finger,” a healthy knee, or a vibrant life. “If he were able, he would tear everything apart and put it all out of joint.” (Luther). He wants you to curse God, turn from His Word, abandon your faith, and fall into despair on account of your suffering. The devil is a malicious and devious enemy. We dare never take him or his temptations lightly.

So what does God do about the devil? What does he do about your suffering? We would have Him take it all away. Just remove it altogether and make everything right with a snap of His fingers. But instead, He does something extraordinarily unique for the God of all space and time. He sends His Son into space and time—into the flesh—into your flesh and blood where He too is oppressed by the Devil and afflicted by the frailties of life. Then, of all things, God sends Him into the utter depths of unbearable pain and horrendous suffering to bear your pain ahead of you.

To us it would seem simpler just to take all the suffering, all the misery, and all the evil of the world away. But sin had to be paid for; God’s wrath had to be appeased. The wages of sin is death—that’s the insufferable penalty against us. So in order to remove evil and suffering, sin first has to be dealt with. Thus God sends His Son not only to pay for your sins, but to suffer for your sins, and in so doing, to give meaning to your suffering because He sanctified it by His most holy touch.

The Holy One of God has endured suffering. He has touched it. He has felt it. And He came through it! You and I both know that there is something powerful about someone who knows your suffering—someone who knows the depths of your sorrow and the anguish of your affliction. When somebody like that comes alongside you in your suffering, there is an intimate connection through the bond of shared pain.

            Pain is the great leveler. When you are in it, you claw and cling for hope and solace. You want someone, anyone, who can understand your pain and relate to your affliction. There is someone like that; His name is Jesus and He knows your suffering intimately well.

            When you look at your suffering from the perspective of the cross, you can see your suffering in a new light and find a new and powerful hope. There on the cross Jesus sanctified your suffering because He suffered first for you. On the cross, He sanctified agony, as painful as it is. So now when you carry around pain, you are carrying with you your Lord Jesus Christ and the pain He bore in His own body. As Paul said in our Epistle reading:

8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4)

            You see, in the suffering of Jesus He not only rescues you from sin, death, and the devil, but He also paves the way for you to follow Him through suffering. In other words, amid all of your misery and hurt, amid the confounded anguish and blasted pain in your life, you are able to recognize how you are being crucified along with Christ.

Now, no one wants to suffer. No one in their right mind wakes up and says, “I can’t wait to suffer today!” So it’s only natural to seek to avoid suffering. Yet as some philosophers remind us, without suffering one can never really know the fullness of its opposite. In other words, we could never truly know joy apart from suffering. Without pain, they say, we could never know the fullness of contentment. And without sorrow, we could never know the fullness of love.

So in the midst of all of this, there is Jesus who calls each of you to take up your cross and follow Him. And that most assuredly means suffering. That was the whole design of the cross after all. To make one who bears it to suffer. Here too, we ask why. But Jesus simply responds with, “Follow me.” The call to obey is all the more difficult in the face of suffering.

Of course, your suffering or my suffering can never earn anything toward our salvation. However, by it you become all the more aware of how Jesus is drawing you more and more into Himself; that by your suffering, as ugly, painful, and miserable as it is, you are being emptied of everything that prevents you from clinging only to Jesus, and through it you are being united to your Savior in the most intimate of ways, through the pain of suffering. Here our questions of why can begin to see an answer, unsatisfying as it may be.

            This is no easy pill to swallow. Yet, as one who has endured multiple tragedies and suffers from a painful disease, I speak from experience. Like many of you, I am acquainted with suffering. At times, such suffering is intolerable. We cry out and ask Jesus to take it all away. And were it not for the grace of God there would be no way to endure such misery.

This is where faith is truly tested and tried. This is where the flames of suffering either consume us to the point of despair, or they forge a deeper faith that cuts through that suffering as it looks to our Savior. In Jesus, there is one who understands. In Jesus, there is one who knows the pain, who knows your suffering, and who suffers with you because He’s been there ahead of you. Jesus is your solace and safety.

In your very pain—whatever that affliction may be—you are being drawn closer and closer to Him; more and more into Him; and being more and more conformed into His image. Not simply for sufferings sake, but as it was for Jesus, so that you will enter into the eternal honor and glory that comes at the end of all suffering.

We live by faith, come what may. No, it’s not easy! But Jesus never said it would be. I realize some prefer sermons to be lighter, happier, and full of only the brighter side of life. But ignoring suffering would be to cheat you of the richness and fullness of faith for every aspect of life. To live by faith is to believe what the Scriptures say, even about suffering.

So you want some good news about suffering? The Apostle Paul, one who was quite familiar with suffering Himself, was given a divine glimpse of the grandeur and glory of what comes after this life of suffering, and he passed that on to us with these words: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18). The hope of what is to come carries us through our suffering.

You see, your suffering does not get the final say. Jesus has the final say. He has defeated the Devil. He has sanctified suffering. He has destroyed death. Jesus is risen from the grave, lives and reigns to all eternity as one who has suffered and come through it as the Lord of all Lords!

This same Lord claims you as His very own. Jesus has embraced your suffering and hallowed it by His holy touch. He is with you in your pain. He promises never to leave you nor forsake you, come what may. Jesus is your solace.

We may never fully know why we or those we love must suffer. But we do know who will end all suffering. His name is Jesus. Until then, we walk by faith, knowing that: 8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. Amen.

"Truly, Truly, I Say To You" Pastor Gless 5/27/18

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It is good to be back with you all here in the Unites States. On behalf of both of our teams that served in Kenya, I want to thank you for all of your prayers and support. The work that is being done through our congregation is helping to prepare men to serve as pastors throughout the continent of Africa. And who knows, maybe one day, they will come to America to share the Gospel with us. Please stay tuned as we will be presenting on both servant events in the near future, and Pastor May and his family will be here on furlough in the middle of July.

While in Kenya, our team had the privilege of meeting a twenty-six year old man by the name of Abai. Abai was very intentional about getting to know each of us through conversation. He spoke English quite well, which made conversation much easier. Our Swahili is still a bit rough.

Abai is from Ethiopia. However, fourteen years ago, his country’s government decided for whatever reason to eliminate his tribe by way of genocide. Abai, along with his family fled to Kenya to a refugee camp. He has lived in the refugee camp for the past fourteen years.

While in Kenya, we witnessed two momentous occasions in Abai’s life. On Sunday, May 13, we were privileged to attend the Divine Service with all twenty-eight students studying at the Lutheran School of Theology, along with the congregation that Pastor May serves. In all, there were probably about 70 people in attendance. The worship service began with us all gathered outside the church in a circle around the baptismal font. Pastor May, Abai, his life Lucy, and their son Ngathe stood by the font as Ngathe was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

We then entered into the church for the worship service which went on for about two hours. During that worship service, Abai, along with six other students were welcomed forward to go through the Rite of Confirmation. They had learned the six chief parts of the Catechism, and they were now prepared to receive the Lord’s Supper as they were confirmed.

So on the same day that Abai publicly affirmed the faith given to him in his baptism at his confirmation, he also witnessed the baptism of his son Ngathe. It was quite a day for us to be present to witness. And how appropriate was it that Ngathe, in their native tongue, means ‘faith.’ And what gift is given in the waters of Holy Baptism? The gift of faith.

In our Gospel reading for today, we hear about the importance of baptism from the very lips of Jesus as he speaks with Nicodemus. The text tells us that Nicodemus is a man of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews who comes by way of the night to speak to Jesus. But Jesus, who ‘knows what is in man’ (John 2:25), knows exactly why he comes. So, in His infinite wisdom, Jesus directs him to none other than the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Throughout the dialogue, each of Jesus’ responses begins with a common phrase that He is known for using throughout the book of John. “Truly, truly, I say to you.” It is a phrase that he uses to confront those who do not understand who He is or they doubt His message. In our Gospel reading for today in His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses the phrase three times. “Truly, truly, I say to you.”

Truly, truly, Jesus has a word of truth for this man that comes to address him in the darkness of the night. And he certainly needs a word of truth. You see, Nicodemus has a problem. Even, though Jesus is standing right next to him, Nicodemus fails to see Him for who He truly is. Though he is willing to confess that Jesus is obviously from God and God is with Him, he is not able to confess that Jesus is God.

Listen again, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

You have heard the saying before: “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Well, Nicodemus is so close to understanding who Jesus is, and yet so far away.

Nicodemus, like all of us, needs some help. As a Pharisee, he is blinded by his own sinful arrogance. You see, Pharisees thought that they were saved by their works. They were great at pointing out the sins of others, but thought of themselves as those who followed the law perfectly. They couldn’t see that they were sinners. Therefore, they couldn’t see a need for a Savior. And like Nicodemus, he couldn’t see that the Savior, the very Son of God, was standing right in front of him.

Jesus knew all of this. So Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Truly, truly, Jesus points his evening companion to baptism in order for him to see the kingdom of God. Unfortunately, Nicodemus fails to understand, and thinks that he has to literally be born of his mother once again. We can just imagine the baffled look on his face as he tries to figure out how being born again of his mother is even possible.

But instead of letting Nicodemus’ mind explode, Jesus elaborates on His Word of truth. Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6).

Truly, truly, Jesus is taking Nicodemus to a higher truth. A truth that is beyond the ways of his own earthly understanding. He can see that Nicodemus is stuck trying to figure this all out like it was some sort of mathematical equation. But what Jesus makes clear is that this is not some equation that has an earthly method that can be applied to figure it all out. This isn’t algebra. The ways of God are far beyond the ways of man. Man is limited to the flesh, and flesh dies. But God who is Spirit works beyond the realm of flesh and death.

But alas, Nicodemus remains dumbfounded. “How can these things be?” he asks. And at this point Jesus takes over the conversation. You might have noticed that taking place all along. In the beginning, Nicodemus speaks twenty-six words to Jesus. At the end, Nicodemus only has a five word question before he silences altogether and just sits back and listens.

Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:11-17).

Truly, truly, Jesus kindly takes Nicodemus back to what he knows. He helps him to recall the Israelites when they were in the wilderness getting bitten by all those snakes. He points him to what they had to look at in order to be saved from death…that bronze serpent on a pole. Then he connects the dots for Nicodemus. Just as it was for that serpent so it is for the Son of Man. He has to be lifted up on a cross if Nicodemus is going to be saved…if he is going to have eternal life.

Not by his own reason or strength could Nicodemus understand what Jesus was talking about. He needed help. He needed the help of the Holy Spirit given in baptism so that he could see that he was just like those Israelites who were doomed to die in the wilderness in need of being saved. He was a sinner in need of a Savior.

So it is with all of us. Not by our own reason or strength can we understand or believe the words of Jesus. Like Nicodemus, we are blinded by our own sinful self-righteousness. We think far too much of ourselves. Like a Pharisee, we would rather delight in pointing out the sins of others. We carry ourselves around as if we are better than others. We think we are pretty good people. There are no doubt times we even think it is by our works that we are saved. We justify that we are just fine on our own, and all too often we conclude that we don’t need what Jesus gives in order to be forgiven and saved. We fail to see that we are sinners in need of a Savior.

That's what makes baptism so vital. Baptism is where God gives us His Spirit so that we are able confess Jesus as our Savior. Without baptism, we would never realize this to be true. We would never see our need for a Savior. But as baptized children of God, the Triune God has literally joined Himself in love to us. Through water and the Word, He has made clear that He wants nothing to sever the tie He has with His greatest creation. That's why the Father sent His Son. Truly, truly He loves us beyond all human comprehension. Nicodemus may not have understood it all. Nor do we. But when we consider the doctrine of the Trinity here on Trinity Sunday, we can't help but see how much our God loves us as He pours it out upon us in Baptism.

When I think back when Ngathe was baptized that day, I can't help but think about how filled with joy his father Abai was. Then again, I was the same way when my children were baptized. To think that as much as I love them, I could never save them. Only God can do that. And thanks be to God, He sent His Son and gave His Spirit to do just that. Amen.

          The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

The Helper-Pastor Woodford

“The Helper”

“Dad, who do you love the most?” Toddlers have curious minds. They ask questions, and lots of them! Some are silly. Others show the depths of their growing minds. “Dad, who’s your favorite? Who do you love the most?” As my family grows, so does the number of times that question is asked. They want to know if mom and dad have enough love to go around.

To be sure, Becca and I assure our kids we love each of them deeply and intensely—but we do let them know we’re open to bribes for the title of “favorite child.” (Kidding!) The colors and sounds of our love may vary from child to child, but it remains equally deep for each one.

Whom do you love the most? Let me pose that question to you. Who do you love the most—the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit? Who do you like the best? Or even more challenging: Who is the most important person (of the Trinity)—the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit? Some of you have heard me ask that question before. It’s a curious thought experiment.

Of course, there is no one more important person of the Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are miraculously and mysteriously three distinct and coequal persons of the one true God. However, if it were possible, which it is not, but if it were possible, whom would you think it would be? 

Would it be God the Father? After all He created us and loved us so much that He sent Jesus to be our Savior. But what about Jesus? He was the one who suffered in your place, died for your sins, and rose to give you the hope of eternal life. Or how about the little known, and little remembered, Holy Spirit? Just what exactly does He do anyway?

Today is Pentecost, the celebration of the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples. So you might guess where I’m going with this. I contend that if it were possible, which it is not, but if it were possible, the Holy Spirit is the most important. Why? Without the Holy Spirit you and I would never be able to believe in Jesus Christ. We’d never trust that God the Father loves us so much that He sent Jesus to be our Savior.

Jesus Himself testifies to the work of the Holy Spirit: “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). This verse is packed with precision and saturated with salvation.

The Holy Spirit is identified as the Helper. You and I both love helpers. Good help is tough to find. [Graduates you’ve had ample help along the way from teachers, parents, and friends.] But do you know who likes to help? Toddlers! They love to “help” with things like baking, the dishes, or even the laundry.

It’s really more of a mixture of all three of them at once, and usually when you’re not looking. After all, surprise “help” is always the best kind. Perhaps you know this “help?”

Your toddler diligently pushes her chair up to the counter. Then carefully stirs all the ingredients together in the mixing bowl, adding an extra cup of flour and extra egg (shell and all) for good measure. Then she proceeds to masterfully pour all those ingredients into the cake pan, onto the counter, her pants, the silverware drawer, and the floor. Of course, wanting to be thoughtful, she proceeds to use your best dishtowels, along with her shirt and socks, to wipe up where she “accidently” spilled. And voila! Your toddler has “helped” you with the baking, the dishes, and the laundry all in one fell swoop.

Perhaps that’s not quite the helper Jesus meant. The Holy Spirit is called the “Helper” because He helps you throughout the mess we call life. He’s the one who works faith in you. He’s no ordinary being, after all. He’s God the Holy Spirit. He proceeds from the Father from all eternity, is sent into time, into this world, into words and into Water, and then into your heart.

Jesus is clear about the Holy Spirit. He’s the “Spirit of truth” who “testifies” to Jesus. His job is simple. He shows you Jesus. He gives you Jesus, and wraps you in His love. And like a parent who deeply loves each of his children with varying colors and sounds, the Holy Spirit lavishes you with the specific care and affection He knows you desperately need.

When temptation afflicts you, He exposes the darkness of Satan’s lies. When uncertainty confronts you, He encourages you with the Father’s Word of promise. When shame haunts you, His holiness covers you. And when hearts stop beating and lungs stop breathing, He comforts you with the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

And just to be clear, toddlers aren’t the only ones who make messes in life. They aren’t the only ones who worry about being loved. Teenagers bear up under the constant anxiety of approval. You try to navigate the chaos of raging hormones, the pressure to fit in, and parents who you feel, “just don’t get it.” Relationship messes, the length of girls’ dresses, and all the peer pressured “yeses,” make life as a teenager chaotic and neurotic.

Adults also certainly know the messes of life and long for love just the same. We know the cruelty of this fallen creation and all too often experience the frailty of our flesh. But then there are the bad decisions and betrayals, lost tempers and lonely times, behavior that’s selfish and life that feels hellish—they ail and afflict child and adult alike.

So Jesus sends the Helper—God the Holy Spirit—full of grace and truth, He comes among you, not by the blowing of the wind, the swelling of your emotions, or the power of your intellect, but through the very Word of God.

Where this world looks to blockbuster super heroes, with X-men super powers and Hulk smashing strength, the Holy Spirit comes among you through the still small voice of the Gospel. He grabs your imagination and captivates your inclination with the power of God’s Word. Through that very Word He creates faith, shapes beauty, and forms truth.

Through parables and propositions, through Psalms and through sacraments, the Holy Spirit rushes among you to bring you Jesus. He comforts your heart, He heals your hurts, and He delivers life-giving hope. That’s the power of the Gospel!

When you hear God’s Word, the Holy Spirit is there. He’s eternally fixed to the Word of truth so that you can know right from wrong, good from evil, and blessing from curse.

He’s sent into this world, baptized into your life, to “help” you, to love you, and to guard you from the Evil one. Every time you pray the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed, the Holy Spirit is there, bringing you the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.     

He is God the Holy Spirit and He points you to Jesus. He gives you Jesus. He sanctifies the mess you call life and loves you like no other. And just in case you wanted to compare messes, let your imagination explore the almighty mess that Jesus endured for you.

Betrayed by His friend, abused by the church, branded a liar, abandoned by His disciples, His flesh was torn open while His mouth He kept shut. The cup of God’s wrath was poured out on Him while his friends ran out on Him. Crucified, dead, and buried, this was a bloody mess.

Then, three days later the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon His body, breathed life into his lungs, put a pulse back into His heart, and He walked out of the tomb! The mess of sin and death was cleansed and cleaned once, for all—by the Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit.

There is no mess too ugly and no sin too big to stop Him from loving you fully and completely. Whether graduate, grandparent, or grieving, God the Holy Spirit calls you into the Holy Christian Church. He brings you into the communion of saints. Here He forgives your sins, brings the resurrection of the body, and gives you life everlasting. Here is where He keeps you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Father in Heaven - Pastor Woodford

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“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer…”(Acts 1:14). Jesus had just ascended into Heaven. His followers had witnessed it. They had returned to Jerusalem, and “with one accord they were devoting themselves to prayer…”

But why? Weren’t they just with Jesus? Wouldn’t he know what they wanted? Why pray? It’s an interesting question for all of us, especially when many observe that public prayer is decreasing while at the same time various types of “spirituality” are increasing.

So what is prayer? It becomes even more interesting question when we note that Jesus regularly prayed. The Gospel lesson is just one example. In this case, we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying for His disciples.

But why? Think about it. Why was it necessary for the Son of God—the Creator of the World, who existed with the Father from all eternity—to pray?

            Prayer is an intimate part the Christian faith. It’s not simply a way ask for things we want, but like a child speaking to her father, it’s how we talk to God our Heavenly Father. Yet fascinatingly, even Atheists admit to the act of praying.

But what is it that compels people who don’t even believe in any god, of any kind, to pray? Perhaps it has something to do with how God created us. It seems humans have the instinctive desire to communicate with their creator, particularly when life gets tough. 

It’s interesting that Jesus himself prayed quite frequently. Note how he prayed in the Gospel lesson: He begins by saying, “11Holy Father…14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:14-17).

Jesus reveals the heart and soul of prayer—the Word of God. It’s the basis for all spiritual life. Prayer flows from the promises of God’s Word of truth. God gives us His Word not only to tell us of our Lord Jesus, but also to open out lips in prayer; to use His very Word to shape our prayers.

Yet, people often wonder, “How should I pray? What should I pray about? Am I doing it right?” For some, prayer becomes intimidating and overwhelming, like a spell that has to be spoken in just the right order for it to work. But that’s not the nature of prayer.

Jesus reminds us that prayer is relational communication. He begins, “Holy Father…” elsewhere, in his most recognized prayer he begins, “Our Father who art in Heaven…” A Father is a powerful image. “Our Father” with these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true Children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear Father. (Small Catechism)

I realize this is no small irony to be talking about the Heavenly Father on our National holiday of “Mother’s Day.” This is by no means meant to take away from the incredible blessing and gift mothers are to each of us and to our children. Jesus Himself had a mother!

Yet, even as we celebrate mother’s day we must also remember the many women who have longed to be mothers, but for whatever the reason, have not been able to do so. Certainly, many have called out to God begging Him to allow that to happen, but for one reason or another they have only been met by the heartache and pain of an empty womb. Here, the will to continue praying is tested amid great anguish. Does unanswered prayer mean we are to give up on prayer?

In a world filled with so much hurt, heartache, and hate, the Heavenly Father invites you to come to Him as His dear children. This means prayer is not about your effort to pester God until He listens. Rather, prayer is meant to be a solace, a balm, a safe haven, designed to help you navigate your problems, your troubles, and your stubborn ways, by focusing on God, His Word, and His will for you despite life’s unfair circumstances and our seeming unanswered prayers.

In short, you pray in order to receive the gifts that God has for you through prayer. So never give up on praying! In fact, prayer itself is a gift! But then why is it so hard for us to pray?

Do you ever feel this way? Life is busy. It’s complicated. You get worn out. You’re tired. You’re angry from work. The kids are screaming. You just don’t feel up for praying. It takes too much energy. It seems like it’s just another demand. And besides, sometimes it just feels like God isn’t listening.

Why is it that something so beneficial is so incredibly hard to do? The devastation of sin is most evident in the difficulty that we have with prayer. Sin keeps you turned inward. The Devil wants you focused on yourself. Not on God. Not on Christ, and especially not on His desire to love you. Rather, Satan wants you focused on your independence and your self-sufficiency—to have life on your terms.

And until you’re desperate and have reached the end of your rope, you’d rather not ask God for help. I know, because I’ve been there too. We prefer to manage by ourselves.

But then life gets tough. You lose your job. False accusations are made. Your marriage falls apart. Tragedy strikes. Then we use prayer as our lifeline and expect God should listen and get us out of this jam. To be sure, God will listen. But is that all He is there for?

Here our view of God becomes very small. God is there for more than the tough parts of life. God is there for more than the emergencies we may have. He is there for the physical and spiritual needs of daily life. All along He’s inviting us to come to Him as our Heavenly Father.

That’s why for your own good God allows you to fail when you go it alone. What else can He do? Blow some magical pixie dust on you so that life is just peachy? That would only mask your sinfulness all the more.

Nonetheless, there’s the misbelief that says, “If God is really a loving God, He’ll never let anything bad happen to me.” It’s not only demanding life on your terms, it’s demanding God on your terms. It’s making Him in your image and ignoring the reality of the devil, the world, and your own sinful nature and the devastating effect they have upon your life.  

But going it alone, leaving God behind, toughing it out by yourself, they all inevitably lead to a giant emptiness that drags you down—a void that leaves you hopeless and alone.

It’s very scary to be left alone in the depths of your pain. It’s terrifying to be left alone in the darkness of your sin. Here, life is a burden. Happiness is fleeting. Hope is a distant memory.

It’s just where the “evil one” wants you—alone, isolated, and full of despair. If he can make you feel abandoned, maybe you’ll turn your back on God? Maybe you’ll indulge in your sin all the more? After all, “you’re entitled to it” he whispers. “You deserve it!” he lies.

Prayer is too dangerous for Satan. He will do whatever he can to thwart it. He doesn’t want you to talking to your Heavenly Father. He doesn’t want you to feel His embrace, to rest in His love, or to feel His compassion. So the devil attacks your desire to pray.

 Jesus, however, is an expert in prayer. I say this not to shame you, but to give you hope. He’s in the upper room just hours before he’s about to endure a horrific death and He’s praying for His disciples. He wants them protected from “the evil one.” Listen again: 15I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”

            The evil one seeks to destroy your faith. He wants to undo everything that Christ has done. But he can’t, so he scours the land looking for people to devour. He wants you to give up. Admit that life is too hard. Shake your fist at its unfairness, curse God, and die.

            That’s where he wants you—dead in your trespasses and sins—alone, abandoned, and afraid; Never again willing to trust in the goodness of God.

            But prayer thwarts his evil plan. Prayer founded on God’s Word destroys Satan’s lies. God’s Word declares His unconditional love. It proclaims His forgiveness is a free gift of grace. It sheds light on your claustrophobic heart. It breathes life into your suffocating soul. Prayer that flows from Jesus Christ and His cross gives you life. As John said it the Epistle lesson, Whoever has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12.)

            Its life that we live here and now; amid all the trials and temptations; in the midst of hurts and heartaches; whether you’re graduating from kindergarten or college, going on to high school or retirement. You have life because Jesus gives you life.   

“But how do I pray when I don’t feel like it? What do I do when life feels numb?”    Generally speaking, most people fall into one of three groups. First, there are verbal people who are good at abstract thinking. They speak to themselves as they reflect on something and so meditate and pray best by listening. If this is you, you would most readily meditate on the Gospel story by reading it and then thinking about what it says. 

Second, there are visual people who picture what they reflect on and so meditate and pray best by imagining. If this is you, you would readily meditate on a Gospel story by reading it and then envisaging what happened in it. 

Third, there are practical people, who work things out physically and so mediate and pray best by doing. If this is you, you would most readily meditate on a Gospel story by enacting it in some way or by reliving it as you perform some kind of ritual enactment.

The key is to deliberately practice prayer and meditation with a method that fits your personality amid the challenges and temptations of life. It is through temptation and affliction that we learn to seek help from God in meditation and prayer.

Here, we walk with Christ on the way of the cross. No, we don’t experience the glorious splendor of union with our Lord (at least not yet), for now we share in His suffering and pain. 

Through the attacks of “the evil one” we are drawn further out of ourselves and deeper into Christ. Such afflictions make us hunger and thirst for the body and blood of Christ, to taste and see the Lord is good. For Whoever has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12.)

            No, Jesus doesn’t offer us superhuman life. He doesn’t turn us into supermen and superwomen with extraordinary physical and mental powers. Instead, He swaps places with us.  He joins us in our human life on earth so that we can join Him in His life with God the Father. 

Exercising your faith through prayer and meditation involves the constant interplay between the Word of God and your experience of life. What God has to say to you each day (through His Word) and what happens to you each day, are a part of your spiritual life. These two belong together; they interpret each other.

As we come before Him with empty hands and hearts, ready to receive whatever He wishes to give us, we discover that He does not withhold Himself from us. Our Heavenly Father speaks to us through His Son. He assures us that He is with us, even when we don’t hear Him speaking or notice Him acting. He opens our ears so that we hear His voice and delight in His Word.

            Then little by little, we begin to notice the hand of Christ everywhere and in everything.  “Our Father who art in heaven” begins to more readily flow from your lips and you find yourself devoted to Christ and a life of prayer with your Heavenly Father. Let us pray: Heavenly Father, grant that we, your children, may be daily renewed by your Holy Spirit and your Word of Truth, and daily find solace in our talking with you, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Joy in the Lord - John 15:9-17 Pastor Woodford

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Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

            If there is one thing that this world needs more of it is joy. More times than not the news is depressing; money gets tight so you start obsessing; and our culture is going down the drain so you are distressing.

Yes, joy seems hard to come by these days. It’s easy to become disheartened and worried. We ask, “Where has all the joy gone?” Far too many and far too often we are walking around with glum faces, seeing only the dark and dreary places.  It’s like the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow titled The Rainy Day:

 

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary; 

It rains, and the wind is never weary;

The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,

But at every gust the dead leaves fall,

And the day is dark and dreary.

 

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;

It rains, and the wind is never weary;

My thoughts still cling to the mouldering past,

But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,

And the days are dark and dreary.

           

Perhaps the words of this poem are fitting for you. You know or have known what it is to wake up each day saying, My life is cold, and dark, and dreary. Of course, you would rather it not be, but unrest returns day after day. You are heartbroken by the harshness of life, and lament the unfairness it brings, not to mention the inevitable and impending death of your mortal body. It leaves you looking for some hope and longing for some joy.

What you need is some Good News. In fact, you need some pure unadulterated 200 proof Gospel Good News! In the Gospel there is a compelling story that brings mountains of joy and oceans of hope: Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

The heart of Christian astonishment is the mind-boggling goodness of the Good News. It’s the understanding that joy in life comes from Christ’s presence in your life. This means joy is far more than the fleeting and arbitrary moments of happiness. Happiness is nice, but happiness comes and goes. Joy, however, is lasting and capable of being present when you are anything but happy. Even in suffering, as miserable as it can be, (and believe you me I know it can get pretty miserable), joy can still be found.

So amid all of the days that are cold, and dark, and dreary, you and I want some JOY. We want something that when you hear it you can’t but help respond with exuberant jubilation. So lets test this thought. You want joy? You want hope? You want astonishment? Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

            There is something utterly invigorating about the joy of the resurrected Christ. No, He doesn’t promise you a rose garden, but there is something immensely powerful about a Savior who walks through death, comes back to life, walks right to up to you, baptizes you in his name, wraps the arms of His Holy Spirit around you and says, “I know you. I know you inside and out. I’ve laid down my life for you. These things I’ve said to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full.”

            Yes, the resurrected Jesus is on the loose, running wild, pouring out His Holy Spirit, speaking His Word of grace, baptizing babies and adults, forgiving sins, speaking hope, bringing joy, and feeding the spiritually hungry with His presence under bread and wine. And He’s come for you today.

That’s the Gospel! It’s the Good News. Jesus loves you day in and day out. Amid every failure, flop, and fault of your life, you live under a banner that says, “It is Finished!” Christ has conquered. He shed His blood. He’s paid your price. He forgives your sins.

So look to Jesus, say the scriptures, look to Jesus the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the JOY set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2).

Where has all the joy gone? It’s in Christ and He brings it to you this day. He invites you to revel in His love and rest in His affection. This is the astonishing goodness of the Gospel. It renews your mind. It restores your soul! Amen? Amen!

“Amen!” We say it often and regularly. But have we paused to take in what it means? Amen is a word of solemn assent given to the words spoken in a congregation. It puts the exclamation point on our prayers and gives closure to our praises. Amen closes the doxology. It frames the liturgy—beginning and end. It’s often the joy bursting out of the mouth at the sound of God’s goodness and the hope of Christ’s forgiveness.

True, LCMS Lutherans usually just smile as loud as we can rather than let the joy of an “Amen” fill the air. Nonetheless, we do say our Amens. The Small Catechism reminds us that when we say “Amen” we are saying, yes, yes, it shall be so! Thus, the Amen is the bold concluding affirmation of God’s promise that in Christ it shall be so!

In fact, Jesus Himself uses the word. He uses “Amen” to vest a statement with special authority. “Amen, Amen I say unto you…”  “Truly, truly I say to you…” He actually says it just before the Gospel text for today in John 14.

Yet, “Amen” is often said with difficulty, in tears, and amid hardship. But even so, it still carries with it the recognition that, come what may, be it darkness, disease, or death, joy is there in the middle of that mess by the power and presence of the living Christ. So when you hear the Good News, and your soul stirs inside because the pure unadulterated 200 proof goodness of Jesus Christ just washed over you, you can’t help but say “Amen!”

Most of the time we just say it internally because saying it out loud might distract the preacher or draw attention to yourself. As I have said before, don’t you know you can’t interrupt a preacher when you say “Amen!” It’s merely the affirmation that the Good News is the Good News; that there is JOY to be had in it! No preacher is going to stop that. 

Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” If you are looking for joy, look to Jesus. Stop looking in mirrors, walking the mall, or counting your money to find JOY. If you want joy, look to Jesus. He puts joy in your soul so that your joy may be full; that your cup runs over; and your spirit takes flight.

            The third and final stanza of that poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a helpful reminder of the hope that still lies behind those dreary and weary days:

 

Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;

Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;

Thy fate is the common fate of all,

Into each life some rain must fall,

Some days must be dark and dreary.

 

Jesus knows this. He experienced it. The darkness of Good Friday was especially thick and heavy for Him. Yet, that’s why He’s your Savior. He bore the cross and shed His blood for you in the darkness of that day. But then He walked out of the tomb alive to come and get you.

Behind the darkness of your days the Son (of God) is still shinning. He’s the one who made you, redeems you, saves you and stops at nothing to love you wholly and completely.

You see, Jesus is enduringly strong. He’s entirely sincere. He’s eternally steadfast. He’s immortally graceful. He’s imperially powerful. He’s impartially merciful. And He’s come for you today. Where has all the joy gone? It’s in Jesus. Look to Him!

Jesus is the best friend you’ll ever have. He won’t back down. He won’t give up. He’s the greatest phenomenon that’s ever crossed the horizon of this world.

He’s God's Son. He’s the sinner’s Savior. He’s the centerpiece of civilization. He stands second to none. Amen? Amen!

He’s unparalleled. He’s unprecedented. He is the loftiest idea in literature. He’s the highest personality in philosophy. He is the supreme problem for skeptics. He’s the fundamental doctrine of true theology. (S.M. Lockridge).

He’s the miracle of the age. He is the superlative of everything good you choose to call Him; And today He’s come for you!

You want JOY? Jesus gives it! He’s the only one qualified to be an all-sufficient Savior. He supplies strength for the weak. He’s available for the tempted. He stands by the tried. He shines light into your dark days and He’s come for you today!

He forgives sinners and He discharges debtors. He sympathizes and He saves. He strengthens and He sustains. He guards and He guides. Jesus brings JOY!

 He defends the feeble. He blesses the young. He heals the sick. He serves the unfortunate. He regards the aged. He beautifies the meek. And He’s come for you today.

            You want joy? Jesus brings it. He’s incomprehensible. He’s invincible. He’s irresistible. You can’t get Him out of your mind. You can’t stop His love. You can’t out live Him, and you can’t live without Him. Even on the rainy days there is JOY in Jesus, and He brings it to you!

The Pharisees couldn’t stand Him, but they found out they couldn’t stop Him.

Pilate couldn’t find any fault in Him. Herod couldn’t kill Him. Death couldn't handle Him, and the grave couldn’t hold Him. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

            Where has all the joy gone? Jesus Christ brings it in abundance! “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”

This JOY He gives to you here and now. It will remain forever. In fact, it will be forever and ever—in His kingdom, in His glory, forever and ever. And when you get through with all the “forevers”—just as Jesus teaches in the Lord’s prayer, “for Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever—then comes, AMEN!

Stay Connected to Christ

nullJesus said: I am the vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. Every branch that does not bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me (John 15:1-4).

          My fellow branches, stay connected to the Vine. Stay connected to Christ. I do not say that as some overbearing demand to be placed upon you. I say that as your pastor who loves and cares for you in the name of Jesus.

          You see, on the night when Jesus was betrayed, He looked in love upon His disciples. He knew it would not be long and He would not be there with them. So, in love for them, with His Word, He painted a picture to tell them to stay connected to Him and they would live and bear fruit.

          Staying connected to Christ sounds so simple. Simply listen to Him. Listen to the Words that He has spoken. That’s all He asks. Listen to what He has to say to you, for as Scripture says, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). So, how are your listening ears doing when it comes to hearing God’s Word?

          I can’t help but think about a little boy and his mother when it comes to the topic of listening. Whenever she opens the car door to get her son out, what is the first thing she says to him: “Stay right next to me. There are cars on this road and I don’t want you to get hurt, so I want you to hold my hand.” Yet, for some reason, it is as if that simple message of the mother goes in one ear and out the other. Before you know it, that little boy is doing laps around the car as if he were a horse at the Kentucky Derby instead of doing what he was told.

          Listening. How many of us are like this little boy when it comes to listening? How many of us have selective listening and only hear what we want to hear? So it must have been for that little boy. Little did he know that his mother was telling him to stay connected to her by holding her hand so that he would be kept safe from getting hurt.

          As Jesus looked at His disciples, He wanted the same thing for them. He wanted them to stay connected to him by listening to him so that they would be kept safe. In a matter of hours, one of His friends would betray Him over to die. On the very next day, a mob of people would call for His death. Then, shortly thereafter, He would be facing thirty-nine lashes with a whip at the hands of Roman soldiers. Bleeding profusely, He would have to carry His own cross to which they would nail him to die.

          Jesus knew all of this. He knew it was going to happen. What’s more, He knew He would be leaving them. There would be the joy of Easter as we are celebrating now, but it wouldn’t be long after that and He would be ascending into heaven. It wouldn’t be long and they too would be facing suffering like His. And He knew there would be only one way that they would endure it all.

          And that is by staying connected to Christ. Christ is the Vine. He is the source of life, eternal life. His roots are firmly planted, and from Him comes all that is needed, all the sustenance and the nourishment to be able to face all the obstacles that they would have to face. If they would stay connected to Him, they would have all that they needed to bear fruit for His kingdom and make the good confession in the face of any persecution. But without Him, they would be doomed…and so would we.

          Jesus said: I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned (John 15:5-6).

          It sounds so simple to our ears. Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. If the branch doesn’t stay connected to the vine, it will die, and because it is dead it won’t bear fruit. It is almost the type of message that demands a “Duh” at the end of it. “Well, come on Jesus, everyone knows that a branch can’t survive or produce fruit if it isn’t connected to the vine. Couldn’t you have come up with a better illustration for your disciples?” I am sure that He could have. But He didn’t need to. Because what seems so simple is all but that, when it comes to our living it out.

          Abiding in the vine and staying connected to Christ is not so simple for us. Listening to Him is not so simple for us. How often do we just think we have better things to do with our time? How many of us are regularly tempted to skip our daily devotions, our time of prayer, even Sunday worship? How many of us have laid there on a Sunday morning and come up with a myriad of other things to do? How many of us have been tempted to disconnect from Christ who is the Vine?

          At times of temptation like these, we ought to give careful consideration to this: Have we ever really thought about the implications and risks of disconnecting from Christ? Have we really thought about how slippery the slope is to disconnecting ourselves from the Vine? Then, have we ever really thought about that branch all on its own, wilting, drying out, baking in the hot, hot sun, only to get picked up in a pile of other dried out branches and thrown into the fire? It’s a harsh image to consider, which is why we so often choose to suppress it for our own convenience.

           We don’t like to think about all the things we prioritize in our lives that take us away from hearing His Word. Be it our excessive smartphone usage or sports and extracurricular activities, our excessive work schedules as we pursue more money and more things for the garage, or even our vacation time where we are tempted to think it should also be a time for vacation from the worship of God.

          We don’t like to think about it because we would rather justify that a little disconnect from time to time is alright. Be it for us or for our kids or both. We tell ourselves that we can always reconnect next week. And that’s just how easy it is to take for granted what God gives in weekly worship in His Word and Sacrament. Since it is offered every week, it is such a slippery slope to justify skipping one or two services here and there. But then before one knows it, there is the risk that it becomes more than one or two. Before one knows it, they might only be coming to church one or two times a year…say Christmas and Easter? We may tell ourselves, oh that will never happen. No doubt that’s what such Christmas and Easter only attendees probably told themselves as well. (Pause)

          My fellow branches, I have good news for you. In your baptism, the True Vine connected Himself to you. He saw you as a branch that was dead in your trespasses and sins. He joined you in your death by taking it upon Himself, and He raised you up it. It’s what the Easter season is all about. It’s what Jesus is all about. The resurrection from the dead and the life everlasting. Just as the Father raised His Son from death, so He has raised you also, and He has grafted you into the Vine so that you may have life everlasting. And in no way does He ever want you to disconnect from Him. He loves you far too much!

Stay connected to Christ, my fellow branches. Jesus said: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples (John 15:7-8).

So like the disciples were encouraged to do, let us stay connected to Him by praying without ceasing and constantly hear His Word. Let’s listen to His Word in worship, study it in Bible Class, learn it and mark it in daily devotions, and inwardly digest it as if our life depended upon it…because it does. Like a plant needs water and sun to survive, so you and I need what the Vine gives in order to survive. So, let’s listen to what He has to say.

          For in a matter of moments He is going to say through the pastor: “Take and eat. Take and drink.” So take it, and eat of the fruit of the Vine for the forgiveness of your sins. In doing so, you will have the resurrected Son of God coursing through you, cleansing you of all the times you disconnected from Him. You will have the life of the Vine pumping through you, literally gushing through you. You will have the resurrected Christ flowing through you so intensely that in no way will you be able to contain it.

          Like it says in the 23rd Psalm; “your cup will be running over.” You will produce fruit, beautiful abundant fruit that will be an absolute delight to the eyes of your heavenly Father.

Yes, your heavenly Father delights in what you do as you listen to His Word and live in the vocations He has placed you in. I know some of us are leaving for Africa tomorrow. But you don’t have to go to Africa to produce the fruit the Father delights in. He delights in the farmer tending their land. He delights in the accountant filing taxes. He delights in a mother caring for a sick child. He delights in a teacher instructing their class of students. He delights in a child obeying their parents. He delights in all that you do according to His Word that He has ‘spoken to you.’

          That’s the joy of being a branch. Thanks to the Vine, we get to bring glory to God by producing the fruit of the Father. In no way do we deserve it, but such is the privilege of being a branch connected to the vine. We get the perk of producing the fruit. It doesn’t get any better than that! So, let’s stay connected to the Vine, my fellow branches… Let’s stay connected to Christ. In His name. Amen.

          The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

         

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