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"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.

         

Talking Points with Pastor - May 2018

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“The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.” Matthew 28:5-6

 

The snow is finally melting, the ice is thawing, the grass is showing and the days are growing warmer. The anticipation of spring finally arriving has been building for some time given this long winter. “Spring is here! Spring is here!” We chant every day those remaining snow piles grown smaller. We are tired of being contained by winter’s long and dark grip.

With spring, there comes a change in mood and energy, especially after a long cold winter like this past year. The days are now longer, the sun is warmer, people begin emerging from their winter hibernation and taking walks outside. We look forward to the change that is coming with eager anticipation. 

The church year can often feel similar at time. The season of Lent kept us contained in the period of repentance and self denial. But now that Easter arrived we are able to burst forth with the resurrection joy given by our powerful Lord Jesus Christ. To be sure, it is no small thing to have a Savior who can walk through death back to life! 

As spring is a welcome relief from the bitter cold and darkness of winter, so the resurrection message of Jesus Christ is a welcome relief from the darkness of the sins that afflict us and the devil who oppresses us. As the stone was rolled away from the tomb and the darkness gave way to the light of life, we too can now live in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. 

We have a Savior who was raised from the dead! Contemplate the power of this Savior and the might of this miracle worker for a moment. If He can suffer, die, be buried in a tomb for three days, and then walk out alive, imagine the power He has dwelling within Him.  

            As He rose from the dead, so He promises to raise all believe in Him! Even more, if He can rise from the dead, and promises to raise all believers back to life, do we believe He can raise dead relationships, dead marriages, and dead end lives? Or are we suffering from a spiritual winter that keeps us in the cold of unbelief and sin?  

The truth is, if Jesus is able to give sight to the blind, heal the sick, give hope to the lost, and raise the dead, He can most certainly work mightily in our lives right here and right now. With spring there comes new life and growth. With spring there also comes Easter. And with Easter there comes new life and growth because we have the resurrected Jesus Christ breaking out of the tomb and wrapping us in His almighty resurrection power. 

So rejoice in the season that it is! Rejoice in the power of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Pastor Lucas

Catechesis Corner May 2018

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Distractions. They are everywhere. Television can be a distraction, the radio can be a distraction, even people who interrupt can be a distraction. But what would seem to be at the forefront of the distraction empire is the smartphone.

          Smartphones have this way of demanding our attention like no other piece of technology created before it. From its beeps to its buzzes, to its blinking lights and its beckoning apps calling our names, there just seems to be no end to it all.

          In a recent article attached to the Mustang Memo at our school, it shared that smartphones are ‘a constant distraction paving the way to academic mediocrity.’ In that same article, it shared smartphones impair sleep as they cause ‘restlessness because of the anticipation of receiving text and social media messages.’ What’s more, smartphones are addictive, ‘like slot machines constantly persuading the user to crave more.’

          The sad reality is that as our cravings for using our smartphones increases, our ability to be still, think, and meditate suffers. This is especially true when it comes to God’s Word. When was the last time any of us took a set amount of time apart from our smartphone to open our Bible and truly meditate upon it and let it wash over us like river flowing over rocks in a river? When was the last time we read a passage in God’s Word and really thought about what God was saying to us and allowed that Word to form our prayers?

          In Psalm 1, the Psalmist writes: Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers (Psalm 1:1-3).

          The delight of this man who writes this Psalm is to meditate on God’s law day and night. The commandments of God literally serve as his nourishment as they show him his sinfulness and his need for a Savior. It leads him to know what to confess before his Lord so that he may be forgiven. The result is a peacefulness that is likened to a thriving tree that has no lack for water as it is fed by the stream by which it is planted.

          It is a beautiful image for us to consider and take to heart. For all the distractions that rob of us our time, be it our smartphone or otherwise, may this Biblical text and meditation provide a renewed craving to ponder anew God’s Word in our lives. It is truly the sustenance that we as Christians need so that we may yield the fruit of our Savior and prosper in this life He has graciously given to us.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable

in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer (Psalm 19:14).

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