Sermons from Grace/BethelJul 08, 2019
Matthew 20:1–16 A Story of Perplexing Generosity
Give a single bag of M&Ms to two four-year-olds and tell them to share. You will witness counting done with accountant-like precision. Each child will get an equal amount of candy because that is fair. Human beings have an incredibly strong sense of fairness. That is why it can be so perplexing when we see how God dispenses blessing and grace. We see people who mock God, who are more prosperous than believers. We see people who convert on their deathbeds, and Scripture tells us they obtain the same salvation as someone who has been Christian all his life. How is that fair? Through a simple story, Jesus teaches us a profound truth. We need to stop expecting God to be fair. God is not fair. He does not give us what we deserve, and that’s called mercy. In fact, he gives us what we don’t deserve, and that’s called grace. No, God is not fair. He is breathtakingly generous.
Genesis 50:15-21 A Church That’s Quick To Forgive
“Pay it forward.” That phrase means that when someone does something for you, instead of paying that person back directly, you pass along kindness to another person instead. Doing something kind for someone else is a way of thanking the person who originally did something kind for you. Today, God applies that concept to forgiveness. God forgave our countless sins. He was willing to pay an incomprehensible price—the death of his Son. Obviously, we will never have the occasion to do the same for God. We will never have to forgive God because everything he does for us shows perfect love and care. God never wrongs us. But others may do us wrong. Others may cause us pain. And when we are quick to forgive, it is one way we thank God for being so quick to forgive us. This is what God wants in his Church—people who, like him, are quick to forgive.
Galatians 2:11-16 A Church Willing To Say Hard Things
Imagine, late one night, you notice the house across the street is on fire. You see no activity inside. You say to yourself, “Pounding on the door in the middle of the night might scare the family. I’m sure they’ll realize what’s going on eventually.” Ridiculous! You would never do that! To let a family sleep while flames surround them would be cruel. Your inaction would make you a killer. The truth is you would pound on their door at 3:00 AM, screaming. You would throw a brick through their front window if that was what it took to warn them. You would not care if it startled the family. This is a matter of life and death! Love compels you to do whatever it takes. God wants the people of his church to be willing to say hard things to people when that is what is necessary to save them from an even worse type of fire. Warning against sin is not easy. It upsets people, even offends them. But saying hard things is the loving thing to do when it is a matter of eternal life and death.
Matthew 16:21–26 A Church That Takes Up Its Crosses
Some churches teach that if one follows God, God responds by granting prosperity and peace. Today Jesus teaches that is nonsense. The Son of God tells us that if we are his disciples, if we are part of his Church, we will have to bear crosses. Believers will suffer in this world, oftentimes for no other reason than they are believers. It is painful to struggle against the temptations and priorities of this world. It can be agonizing to face the same scorn and ridicule Jesus faced. Why bother? We carry our crosses in gratitude for Jesus carrying his cross, one too heavy for us to bear because it was weighted down with our sins. We carry our crosses because we know that in those moments of struggle, we are forced to turn to Christ and rely on his strength. The church takes up its crosses, because this is the Christian path, the one Jesus himself walked: first the cross, then the crown.
Exodus 34:5-9 A Church That Really Knows Jesus
Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Make no mistake. That is the most important question in the world. And it is a question every human must answer. A complimentary answer can still be dead wrong. Some in Jesus’ day thought he was John the Baptist or the prophet Elijah come back from the dead. Complimentary, but dead wrong. Today plenty of people believe Jesus existed. They believe he was a wise teacher or a role model for love. Complimentary, but dead wrong if missing the main point. Jesus is both Lord and Savior, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. This truth is the core of saving faith. It is the central message God has called our church to proclaim. What does God want in a church? He wants a church that really knows Jesus.
Matthew 15:21-28 A Church for All People
“All are welcome!” Is that true at our church? Historically, it rarely is true. In the gospels, the average Jewish person would have thought it odd, even offensive, if someone who wasn’t an Israelite walked into their place of worship. Taking it a step further, some of the Jewish religious leaders would imply that church was meant for those who zealously followed religious customs and traditions. Those were “good church folk.” So church was meant for people of the right heritage and who behaved the right way. What about us? Is it conceivable that a stranger could walk into our church, and for some reason, you would ask yourself, “What is someone like that doing here?” Or, just perhaps, you are asking that question about yourself? “There are some seemingly godly people here. I’m not like them. Do I really belong?” Today, Jesus shows us that God wants church to be for all people. All of us—regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, or social status—have the same problem of sin. And we all have the same Savior. Therefore, anyone who comes to Christ’s Church and cries out, “Lord, have mercy!” is more than welcome.
Romans 8:28-39 The Christian Answers Doubt with Faith
Wherever faith clings to the promises of God, doubt is always lingering in the back of our mind, constantly asking the serpent’s garden question, “Did God really say?” How striking to think that one must have faith in God before it is even possible to doubt him! It is not uncommon that, in times of adversity, doubt rears its ugly head—doubts about God’s care, God’s promises, God’s providence. In those times, the true answer to doubt is not found in some great miracle that removes adversity but in the still small voice of our Savior God whispering to us in his Word. Through that Word, Christ reaches out to us with nail-scarred hands, proof of his great love. Jesus gently says, “Why did you doubt?” Our faith is restored. The Christian answers doubt with faith because Jesus makes it so.
1 Kings 17:1-6 The Christian Trusts God to Provide
The hardest times to trust in God are the times we need him most. It’s easy to trust God when your job is great, your health is fine, your relationships are strong, and your family is well. It’s easy to trust God when the sun is shining, but what happens when your life is suddenly overshadowed by dark days? When tragedy or conflict affects us, we may wonder if God continues to care and provide for us. At those times the Christian focuses on certain foundational facts. The Christian was chosen, predestined, and adopted as God’s dear child. God has provided the Christian with innumerable spiritual blessings and promises the Christian an eternity of glory, peace, and joy. If we look at those spiritual blessings God provides to us, how could we doubt that he will, at the right time, give us everything we truly need? The Christian trusts God to provide.
Matthew 13:44–52 The Christian Seeks Spiritual Wealth
What do you consider your life’s priorities? If you made a list, what would be near the top? Faith, family, and friends would probably head the lists of many. Financial security and health would be right up there. Reputation and recreation would likely make the cut. But perhaps a more interesting question than “What do you consider your life’s priorities?” is “Which of the items on that list would you be willing to sacrifice to save your top priority?” What if you had to give up the whole list—family, friends, finances, health, reputation, recreation—to save just one priority: faith? This week we are given an honest assessment of what really matters in life. The kingdom is worth everything. Worldly wealth can buy the things of this world, the type of things that rust and decay, things that will not last. True wealth is spiritual wealth. It can be found only in God and his eternal blessings for us in Christ. The Christian seeks spiritual wealth first and will sacrifice anything to obtain it.
Romans 1:18–25 The Christian Lives As Wheat Among Weeds
The wheat that grows in the Middle East is a variety that looks much like wild grass or weeds. It is difficult to tell wheat and weeds apart until shortly before harvest time when the wheat stalks develop a head containing the kernels of grain. Try and pull the weeds out of a wheat field, and you will likely pull up a fair amount of wheat accidentally. So you need to wait for the harvest to separate wheat from weeds. This week Jesus uses that image to illustrate life on this side of heaven. Christians are pictured as wheat planted by the Lord. Evil and unbelieving evildoers are pictured as weeds. We might want God to take care of evil now—to pull up all the weeds. But he tells us to wait for the harvest. God is going to fix the problem of evil in this world, but it might not be today or even tomorrow. What does God want us to do while we wait? He wants us to live like wheat among weeds, serving the purpose for which he planted us. That means being faithful, fruitful, and mindful of the coming harvest.
Matthew 13:1–9,18–23 The Christian Is Planted By The Word
Planting seeds by hand can seem magical. In your hand, the seed looks insignificant and lifeless. Yet you put the seed into the soil, and the natural process of life begins. All by itself, the seed germinates and sprouts and reaches to the sun. Except when it doesn’t! Plant multiple seeds, and often only some, perhaps just a small amount, will sprout. As these few sprouts grow, birds, pests, weeds, and weather attack. The reality is that once the seed leaves your hand, you are at the mercy of forces beyond your control. Today, God uses that experience from nature to explain the supernatural process by which God calls humans to faith through the gospel. The Christian is planted by the Word. The Christian can plant the seed of the gospel into the soil of another’s heart. What happens after that is completely beyond our control. Yet God promises us that his Word always accomplishes his good purposes. God’s Word is powerful, all on its own, without our help.
Matthew 11:25–30 The Christian Finds Rest in Jesus
Without rest, we suffer. Studies show that after 36 hours without sleep, most people will experience extreme fatigue and hormonal imbalances, resulting in decreased attention, poor decisions, and even speech impairment. Other studies show that if someone takes no breaks during their workday, their productivity is lower than those who take periodic breaks. We need rest. Christians know they need more than sleep or breaks. We need more than physical rest. We need spiritual rest. The Christian knows that the only place to find that type of rest is Jesus. Jesus provides more than a pause in work, more than enjoyable recreation. Jesus provides the removal of our sins, the cleansing of our guilty conscience, and a gentle new yoke of discipleship. In Jesus, the Christian finds rest from his burdens, rest from his battles, and rest forever in heaven.
Matthew 10:34–42 The Christian Loves God Above All
Not all love is good. It is self-destructive to love bad things. However, it is just as harmful to love good things in a bad order. For example, it would seem to be a good thing that a man loves his dog. But if he loves his dog more than he loves his wife, his “love” for both is disordered. That is not in the best interests of the man, his wife, or even his dog. For love to be healthy, it needs to be properly ordered. The Christian loves God above all things. For the Christian understands that everything in this present world is transitory. Relationships fail. Empires fall. Accomplishments are quickly forgotten. But nothing about God is transitory. God’s love is eternal. He promises the Christian everlasting life. And so the Christian struggles not simply to avoid loving bad things. The Christian struggles to love God above all other good things too. Because the Christian understands that God is of ultimate value.
Romans 4:18-25 The Holy Ministry Demonstrates Compassion for God’s People
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them” (Matthew 9:36). The Greek word translated “compassion” refers to a type of love that almost overwhelms one’s emotions. Imagine a father looking at his little girl lying in a hospital bed near death. The father’s heart aches. That father would allow the surgeon to cut any organ out of him, without anesthesia, and transplant it into his daughter, if that’s what it took to save his little girl’s life. That’s the idea behind the Greek word for “compassion.” Jesus looks at the people and is willing to do anything for them—to make any sacrifice, even the ultimate one at the cross. In that same compassion, the Lord of the Church raises up ministers. As those ministers share his grace and mercy, Christ saves eternal lives. More, he fills those ministers with his Spirit, so that they also feel compassion for God’s people.
2 Timothy 4:1–8 The Holy Ministry Preaches Christ Despite Persecution
From its birth, the New Testament Church has been persecuted. The religious leaders in Jerusalem tried to stamp it out, but they only succeeded in spreading Christianity throughout Judea and Samaria. The Roman Empire persecuted Christians with stakes and lions, yet God’s Church exploded with growth in those early centuries. In Martin Luther’s day, both the pope and the emperor sought to stop the gospel movement that was spreading from Germany. But God was a mighty fortress for the Church. Still today, the Church is persecuted. Every day thirteen Christians worldwide are killed because of their faith. Another twelve are arrested or imprisoned simply because they profess faith in Christ Jesus. In the U.S., we have freedom of religion enshrined as a constitutional right, but that is no guarantee for a life free of persecution. Until Judgment Day, some will attempt to shout down the truth of Christ. We will be persecuted. That won’t stop us. The holy ministry preaches Christ despite persecution. Christ never promised his Church that ministry would operate unopposed. But he did promise to give courage to his witnesses.
Exodus 3:1–15 The Holy Ministry Is Filled with Sinners Called By God
They never forgot their past. Moses never forgot how, in a fit of anger, he killed a man. Paul never forgot how he had savaged the Church of God, overseeing the persecution and execution of Christians around Jerusalem. Matthew never forgot how, as a tax collector for the Roman Empire, he was disdained as a swindler and traitor to his people. These men never forgot their past. But God did. God forgave them all their sins and called them into the gospel ministry. The holy ministry is not filled with perfect people. The holy ministry is filled with sinners whom God has called out of his boundless mercy. The holy ministry is God’s gift to the Church. But it is also God’s gift to ministers, who certainly do not deserve the privilege of being God’s public servants. God calls sinful and weak individuals into the ministry so that as his kingdom advances, we give credit where credit is due—to the Holy Spirit.
2 Corinthians 13:11–14 God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity
In the first half of the Church Year (Advent through Pentecost), we look at the life of Christ—his birth, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. In the second half of the year, we look at the teachings of Christ. We begin by looking at one of the most mind-blowing truths: that God is triune. Already in the very first chapter of the Bible, we read, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image…” (Genesis 1:26). Note the singular “God” and the plural “us.” Scripture teaches us that there is only one God but that he exists as three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is triune (three-in-one). This teaching is not some logical exercise or philosophical excursion. The doctrine of the Trinity is central to our salvation. The triune God is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Lose this doctrine, and as the Athanasian Creed says, you lose it all. A Jesus who is less than God is also less than a Savior. So often, when life gets hard, we get frustrated. We don’t understand how God is always working for our good. But the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us we cannot even comprehend God’s existence. How, then, could we ever comprehend all his workings? On this Holy Trinity Sunday, let it be enough to know that all three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—love us with everlasting love.
Acts 2:1–21 He Lives to Pour Out His Spirit
Fifty days after the Passover, God’s Old Testament people celebrated Pentecost (Greek for “fifty”). Pentecost commemorated the gathering of the harvest and was also used to remember the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, the start of the Church of Israel. Christ chose Pentecost to be the birthday of his New Testament Church too. By pouring out his Holy Spirit, Christ empowered the Church to gather in the great harvest of souls won by the Son. Pentecost is the third great festival of the Church, along with the Nativity and the Resurrection. The early church fathers mention the Festival of Pentecost often enough to lead many to believe it was celebrated annually already at the time of the apostles. Pentecost closes the fifty-day period after Easter and ends the festival half of the church year. The Church dresses in red this day to remind us of the tongues of fire that marked the Spirit’s gift, as well as the blood of the martyrs, which was the seed of the Church.
John 17:1–11 He Lives to Give Me Eager Expectation of Glory
The Church waits. The Church in Jerusalem waited for ten days between Christ’s ascension and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Church today waits through the millennia between Pentecost and Christ’s second coming. We are waiting for the gifts that Jesus promised. We live in eager expectation of glory! That glory is not dimmed by early suffering. Rather, our current sufferings only remind us of the glory that awaits us. We are simply following in Christ’s footsteps. First comes the cross, and then comes the crown. Knowing what is coming lets us view our current troubles as light and momentary. They cannot mute the joy of living in eager expectation of glory. While we wait in the time between Christ’s ascension and return, we live knowing that we will suffer persecution for our faith in Christ, but God will work it for glory.
Acts 17:22–31 He Lives and Calls Me to Live for Him
“The LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die’” (Genesis 2:16,17). In giving that command, God showed love to man by making it clear that it is lethal to live contrary to God’s will. In giving that command, God provided man with the ability to demonstrate love for God—through obedience. True love involves obedience. Jesus did not simply say he loved his heavenly Father. He proved it by obeying his Father, even when that obedience meant dying on the cross for our sake. Love for God, who lives in us, leads us to a life of obedience. The God who lives in us calls us to live for him. It is as simple as that. Love for our risen Lord means obedience to his commands.
John 14:1–11 He Lives to be the Only Way to Heaven
The gospel is the most inclusive message in the world. The benefits of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are meant for every man, woman, and child who ever lived. The gospel is also the most exclusive message in the world, for it maintains that salvation can only be found in one place—the person of Jesus Christ. Just listen to how Jesus speaks: “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus doesn’t say, “I will show you the true way to eternal life.” The prophets and apostles could say that. But Jesus says, “I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life you crave.” And note that definite article: “the,” not “a”! Jesus is not a way into heaven. He is the way. There is no other way than through faith in the One who died and rose again. The unbelieving world finds this claim—that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven—to be the most offensive teaching in all of Scripture. Yet this is the very truth upon which Christ builds his Church.
John 10:1–10 He Lives to be My Good Shepherd
Every culture has the concept of an ideal citizen, someone who typifies its values. For much of the United States’ history, the ideal citizen was the American farmer: hardworking, innovative, vital to our collective well-being. Even some of our first presidents were farmers. For the people of Israel, the farmer wasn’t their ideal citizen. It was the shepherd. Sheep were an invaluable source of clothing and food. But they were hard to keep in the Judean countryside. Its sparse grasslands are intermixed with desert. For sheep, food is sparse, but predators are plenteous. The survival of sheep was dependent on their shepherd. There he is. Weather-beaten. Sleepless. Armed. In the dusk, he scans the land, counting his sheep, making sure they are all accounted for, every one of them on his heart. You see why Jesus chose the shepherd to illustrate how he cares for us. He feeds us with his Word. He protects us from that roaring lion, Satan. Jesus is leading us into the green pasture of eternal life. For centuries, the Church has observed this Fourth Sunday of Easter to celebrate that he lives to be our Good Shepherd.
Luke 24:13–35 He Lives to Restore My Hope
Imagine someone you love is near death. Their only hope of survival is risky brain surgery, one so complicated that only one surgeon in the state will attempt it. The surgery is scheduled. But as that doctor drives to the hospital, he is killed in a car accident. Any hope you had for your loved one’s salvation died along with that surgeon. That is how Jesus’ disciples felt after his death. “We hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” they said (Luke 24:19). Their hope for a better life died along with Jesus. They had let their personal wants and expectations cloud their view of Scripture which said that the Messiah’s death and resurrection were actually the source of all hope! So, the living Lord appeared to his disciples. He explained. He opened their minds to the truth of God’s Word. And in doing so, he restored their hope. There is little worse than a feeling of hopelessness. Christ’s disciples have victory over that feeling. He died, but he is dead no longer. The one who can heal us and give us life to the full lives! He lives to restore our hope.
1 Peter 1:3–9 He Lives to Give Me Proof and Peace
Thomas had been taught and trained by Christ himself. He heard Jesus predict his death and resurrection. Yet, even after hearing the eyewitness testimony of friends, who all saw the resurrected Jesus, Thomas had doubts: "Rising from the dead. That can’t be possible!" Today is a day of great comfort for any follower of Jesus who wrestles with doubt concerning Christ’s promises or doubts about God’s Word. Jesus does not come to rebuke Thomas’ weak faith. Jesus comes to strengthen Thomas’ faith, giving him proof of the mind-bending reality of the resurrection—to let him feel it, touch it, explore it. Jesus didn’t reject Thomas. Jesus engaged Thomas and gave him peace. Still today, Jesus comes to his disciples in Word and sacrament. The living Lord speaks to us. He lets us partake of his true body and blood. When we show weakness of faith, he does not reject us. Just as he did with Thomas, Jesus engages us, giving us proof and peace.
Matthew 28:1–10 He Lives to Take Me from Death to Life
A dead Jesus would do no one any good. But a resurrected Jesus? That would change everything; that would make Easter the most important event that has ever happened. Today God wants us to know with certainty that Jesus lives. Because if Jesus lives, then so will his believers. God had told his Church what was going to happen. Jesus told his disciples what would transpire in Jerusalem. The disciples were slow to believe the Easter truth. But God ensured that his people had witnesses to proclaim that Jesus lives again. He suffered and died according to Scripture (Second Reading), he fulfilled the sign of Jonah (First Reading), and it was attested to by angels (Gospel). Christ is risen indeed! Mankind is redeemed! Jesus has removed the fear of eternal death. Jesus has transformed physical death. It is not punitive. For the believer, it is the pathway into Paradise. Jesus has made us spiritually alive by giving us faith in his resurrection. Jesus lives! So, in every possible way, Jesus takes us from death to life.
Matthew 21:1–11 A Greater Type of King
Pick any head of state: the president, a prime minister, a king. Hopefully, they care about the people over whom they have authority. But even if they care, they live and operate above the people. The British royals live in a palace, not a three-bedroom ranch. The President does not fly coach. He sits in a recliner on Air Force One. There’s nothing wrong with this. Those offices are worthy of high respect. The point is these rulers live and operate above us. If a thief is breaking into your home, call 911 and see if your governor shows up. Your governor doesn’t even know your name! But, cut him some slack. He is only human. Jesus is not. Jesus is the King of kings, God and man in one person. He knows you intimately. More! He is willing to do absolutely anything necessary to serve and protect you. We see that this Holy Week. It begins with Jesus riding a donkey colt into Jerusalem—as the prophet foretold. As this week nears its end, Jesus is given a crown of thorns. He carries a cross out of Jerusalem and is nailed to it. Placed on his cross was this sign: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The sign was partially right. Jesus is a king, just not of the Jews. He’s our King, infinitely mightier than any ruler in history, while also being infinitely humbler. King Jesus has come to save us. Those other heads of state can serve as blessings. But this is the greater type of king that we need most.
2 Kings 4:17–37 Life For the Dead
The author and poet George Eliot once wrote, “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” The Roman philosopher Cicero said much the same. He wrote, “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” What second rate comfort! But that is the best the unbelieving world can offer—the sappy sentiment that our dead loved ones somehow “live on” in our memories. It is a sad way to attempt to cope as you walk through the cemetery. Jesus provides a better solution to death. He promises life. One day Jesus will give your faithful dead back to you—to love and to laugh and to hug and to dance. Body and soul, living and walking in the new heaven and the new earth. How do we know Jesus can and will keep that promise? Because the Son of God descended into the darkness of death himself and emerged on Easter Sunday as the first fruit of the resurrection of all God’s people. In the creed we confess, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Yet again, Jesus satisfies our greatest needs.
John 9:1–7, 13–17, 34–39 Sight for the Blind
We know that unbelief will have consequences in the future—eternal separation from God. But unbelief also has consequences now. It makes you blind, in a sense. The unbeliever is unable to see the world as it really is. That which is harmful the unbeliever considers good; that which is good he considers meaningless. The unbeliever cannot see the danger that lurks behind temptation. He cannot see the blessing contained in God’s Word. The unbeliever cannot see the tragic fate that lies in his future, and he certainly cannot see the Savior. The Old Testament said that restoration of sight to the blind was one of the works of the Messiah. In his ministry, Jesus healed those who were physically blind. But even if our eyes work just fine, we still need Jesus to give us spiritual vision. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” Christ comes to shine his light into our darkened eyes that we might see him and live. Jesus meets our greatest needs. He provides sight for the spiritually blind.
Exodus 17:1–7 Water for the Thirsty
A person can survive between one and two months without food. But a person can survive only two to three days without water. Water is one of our greatest needs. Research shows that even slight dehydration will adversely affect your mood, memory, and motor coordination. Become seriously dehydrated, and life ends quickly. This helps us understand what Scripture means when it says things like, “My soul thirsts for God” (Psalm 42:2). If one is separated from God, he is adversely affected. If he remains separated from God, he will die an agonizing eternal death. Not all admit it; yet it remains true for all. Everyone has a deep spiritual thirst. In our heart of hearts, we all long for everlasting life. Unbelievers try to satisfy that deep thirst with worldly things, a strategy doomed for failure. Believers look to the One who has promised, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” Jesus meets our greatest needs. He alone possesses the water that satisfies those who are spiritually parched. He alone grants eternal life.
Romans 4:1–5,13–17 A Gift for the World
When assessing the seriousness of need, one factor is how widespread that need is. A homeless individual needs food. During a famine, an entire nation needs food. It is substantially easier to meet the needs of the former than the latter! The more widespread a need, the greater the need. When Jesus said, “No one can enter the kingdom of God,” he declared that the need for salvation is universal. He rightly condemned humanity as a whole. There is no one on the face of the earth who can make the case that they deserve God’s blessing. Yet, ages ago, God declared that all nations would be blessed. God declared his love for the world and promised he would save the world. God’s gift of salvation is meant for all people. Some interpret this to mean that all people will be saved in the end. This is not true. The gift of salvation is meant for the world; however, it is received by faith. “Whoever believes in him…” the Gospel says. However, the good news is that faith is also God’s gift, imparted through that gospel.
Matthew 4:1–11 A Champion for the Defeated
Our modern English word “champion” comes from an old English word that meant “warrior.” In ancient times, when two armies gathered to fight, sometimes as a prelude to the battle—and sometimes in place of the battle—each army would pick a mighty soldier, and these two men would fight each other. These elite warriors, these champions, would represent their people in battle. They would meet in the middle of the field. With everyone watching, they would fight to the death. Today we are reminded of an ancient war that began in Eden. The perfect peace and prosperity of Paradise were lost when a fallen angel convinced mankind to follow the demons in rebelling against their Creator. When Adam fell, he condemned the world to darkness and death. The enemy of God claimed that the children of men now belonged to him. God was having none of it. He promised he would send forth his champion, his Son. And so, today, we see a battle of champions. The demons send forth their strongest warrior—Satan. God sends forth the best of men, Jesus Christ. Jesus does what Adam and we could not. In crushing the devil, Jesus meets one of our greatest needs.
Matthew 17:1-9 The Glory of the Lord
Throughout his ministry, Jesus said astounding things and did astounding things. Yet, he looked like a normal man. The prophet said, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). This would all change one day atop a high mountain. There, Jesus gave his disciples—gave his Church—a glimpse of the glory he set aside to be our Savior. And the voice of the Father thundered from the heavens, just as it did at Jesus’ baptism, announcing Jesus’ true identity to the world—the glorious Son of God. And so the Transfiguration of our Lord serves as a one-week bridge between the season of Epiphany, where Jesus is revealed as the true Son of God, and the season of Lent, where we witness what the Son of God came to do. On the Mount of Glory, St. Peter declared, “It is good for us to be here.” Indeed! For here we see the God of Majestic Glory, who became a man to suffer and die for us, just as Moses and the Prophets had foretold. Oh, how much this glorious God loves us!
Matthew 5:21–37 Live A Holy Life
The word “holy” comes from an Old English word, “halig” which means “whole” or “healthy.” We have a holy God. He wants us to live a holy life, one that is wholly dedicated to him, one that is spiritually and emotionally healthy for us. So, as Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount, he makes a crucial point that not all his followers (including present day followers) understand well. Jesus came to free us from sin. He did not come to free us to sin. God commands that we live a holy life. He provides dire warnings to remind us just how holy he wants us to be. Today we face a rapid decline in public morals and private piety. Yet, Jesus calls his followers to be different. He urges personal purity. After examining our lives, we can only despair over our lack of holiness. So, the Gospel Acclamation reminds us to flee to Christ, who loves us despite our failures and who sacrificed himself for unholy people. Secure in his grace and empowered by the Holy Spirit, each day, we strive to live the holy lives to which we have been called.
Mark 5:1-20 Many Voices, One Savior
There are many voices in this world that lead us to believe we can’t do the work of evangelism. These are the same voices that can tempt us to fall into sin and believe that God would never love a sinner like us. But God’s Word silences all of these voices. As we see in our Gospel reading for today, there were thousands of demons possessing a man, but they couldn’t stand up to the single voice of Jesus. His voice cuts through all of the evil influences of this world. Because of this everyone can proclaim the one true Savior! As we go out into the world, we aren’t carrying an empty message, but the powerful Word of God. This Word has the power to cut through unbelief and create faith in the hearts of those who hear it. So, with our many voices, we can go and point others to the one true Savior.
Matthew 5:1–12 Trust in God’s Strength
Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with a series of blessings. “Blessed are…” Jesus says, again and again. In the Latin Vulgate, these all begin with the word “beati” which translates as “blessed” or “happy.” Thus, this portion of the sermon is often called “The Beatitudes.” It had to give Jesus’ listeners pause. For what Jesus calls blessed, the world never would. The world praises the strong and the self-sufficient. Jesus calls blessed what others would see as weak or stupid. But, like any good preacher, Jesus is trying to drive home one crucial point. The weaker you are, the more ready you are to rely on God’s strength. The more difficult your present circumstances, the likelier you are to yearn for future reward. All the readings for today teach this truth. We have no real strength or wisdom of our own. But we don’t need it. Because God’s strength is enough to give the kingdom of heaven to the humble and poor in spirit.
1 John 2:3–11 Jesus Appears as the Light in the Darkness
The prophet Isaiah vividly described humanity as “people walking in darkness.” We are completely enveloped by sin and suffering and death. Worse, when we honestly assess the content of our minds and hearts, we find darkness there too. However, the prophet also foretold that within this deep darkness, a light would shine. The light would be so brilliant that it would be impossible to miss. As Jesus began his teaching and preaching ministry, that prophecy was fulfilled. Today Jesus continues to shine his light by preaching repentance and the good news of the nearing kingdom. He invites us to live a life that is illuminated by him. He calls us to walk in the light of love for God and for the brothers and sisters around us. Our Savior is the Light of the world, and so we shine his reflected light onto everyone around us.
Isaiah 49:1–6 Jesus Appears as the Lamb of God
For centuries the priests of Israel offered sacrifices to God for sin. Over and over blood flowed, testifying that the penalty of sin was death. But over and over a substitute stood in the place of the sinner. Countless animals died under the priestly knife as generations of the faithful brought lamb after lamb to the temple. This week we see the Lamb that God himself was bringing to the temple. This was the Lamb that God himself would sacrifice. In the great act that would remove our condemnation, the Messiah took our sins, stood in our place, and died as the substitute for sinful mankind. This was the fulfillment of the entire sacrificial system. Every lamb and goat and bird pointed to God’s Lamb who takes away our sin. The heart that sees his Savior willingly becoming the Lamb cannot help but take this news of salvation to the ends of the earth.
Matthew 3:13–17 Jesus Appears as the Anointed One
“Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, of course. It is a title. The Greek word “Christ” and the Hebrew word “Messiah” both mean the same thing—“The Anointed One.” Anointing was the practice of pouring liquid (typically oil) over the head of someone to signify selection for some special task. However, when the Lord anointed heroes to do his saving work, what he poured over them was his Spirit. For centuries people of faith had patiently waited for the promised Messiah, the servant of God who would bring the salvation we so desperately need. The time had come for Jesus to be revealed as the fulfillment of that divine promise. So, Christ our Lord came to the Jordan River to be baptized, that he might be recognized by John and revealed to Israel. At his baptism Jesus was anointed—marked as God's special servant and empowered by the Spirit of the Lord.
Matthew 2:13–23 A Savior Is Born to Be the True Son
Christmas holidays mean family time. Extended family travel and visits. Meals are prepared, gifts given, memories are made. The memories might not all be good. Sometimes, Christmas dinners end in fights. Sometimes, hurt feelings keep family from coming together during the holidays. The painful reality is that we sinners fail our families, and our families fail us. God knows what that’s like. He, too, wanted his children to be everything he hoped for them to be. But he was sorely disappointed. That’s why he made a plan. God the Father sent Jesus to be the son that he always wanted—reciprocal in love, perfect in obedience, unwavering in devotion. Jesus came to be everything that God wanted from us. By coming to be the true Son of the Father, Jesus gives us rights to be redeemed sons and daughters—sons just like Jesus with the rights, the relationship, and the privileges of heirs.
John 1:1–14 A Savior Is Born to Dwell Among Us
For centuries on Christmas Day the Church has read chapter one of St. John’s Gospel. There, in just a few simple words, Scripture describes the indescribable: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The word God had spoken in the Garden, promising to send a Savior who was part of mankind, came true. God himself became flesh and blood—to be born under law, to suffer, and to die that he might redeem us. The Greek word translated “made his dwelling” can also be translated “pitched his tent.” That word describes a temporary dwelling place. God came into our broken world to dwell for a time, so that one day we might go to God’s perfect home and dwell for all eternity. Unlike those Christmas Eve shepherds, we cannot see Christ with our eyes. Yet still he dwells among us. For he is the Word made flesh. As we listen to the Word today, we truly are hearing the voice of Christ. As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we partake of his true body and blood. In Word and sacrament, still today, our Savior dwells among us, feeding our faith, preparing us for our true home.
Isaiah 7:10–14 Come, Lord Jesus! – As Immanuel
This time of year, it is so easy to get caught up in the beautiful trappings of Christmas and forget why this birth had to take place. Mankind fell into sin. Sin brings an awful burden. Hatred and oppression. Suffering and pain. Guilt and shame. The devastation of death. These are all natural consequences of sin. And what can we do about any of it? Nothing of substance. We can numb ourselves to pain, but we cannot avoid it. We can fill our lives with distractions in an attempt to forget about our guilt. But our conscience is always nagging. And death… no one avoids that. Man can do nothing to shake off the burden of sin. Therefore, the Church prays that God would come in power to remove that burden for us. Since the Garden, there has been only one plan to do that: God would take on flesh and blood. To do what mankind could not do—remove all the burdens of sin—God became man. When you look into the manger, what do you see? A baby? Yes. But, more. That is Immanuel, “God-with-us.” The Son of God became Mary’s son, so that he could do for us what we could not do for ourselves
Matthew 11:2–11 Come, Lord Jesus! – As Messiah
Humanity wants a made-to-order Messiah. We want the Savior we want. The Jews wanted a political Messiah who would remove Roman oppression and reestablish the kingdom of Israel. The generic Christian of today wants a Messiah who is a good teacher and an inspiration for brotherly love. Even faithful Christians face the temptation of a made-to-order Messiah. We want a Messiah who isn’t bothered by the sin that keeps cropping up in our life, who doesn’t call for total dedication but is fine if we only want a relaxed association with him. We want a Messiah who dispenses blessings liberally, to ensure that our life is blessed, as we would like to define it. That is not the Messiah who came. Jesus defies the expectations of Israel, the world, and us. Jesus reminds us that “blessed” is a term that he defines, and it begins with not rejecting the Messiah because he fails to meet our expectations. One proof that Jesus is the Messiah is that he fulfilled every prophecy. Therefore, blessed people respond to adverse circumstances with patient waiting and confidence that, at just the right time, their Messiah will fix all that is broken in their lives.
Romans 15:4–13 Come, Lord Jesus! – As Judge
When Jesus comes back as judge, everyone will face a binary outcome. Either they will be judged righteous and experience the peace and joys of Paradise. Or they will be judged wicked and suffer unquenchable fire (Matthew 3). John the Baptist’s job was to point to the only way to prepare for a judgment, one where the stakes are that high. Repent! And look to the Lord Jesus. For when Jesus came into our world the first time, it was not as judge, but as Savior. All those whose faith is in Christ have already been judged righteous. Please, take these words to heart: the reign of God draws near, and his judgment is inevitable. As John the Baptist once said, “All people will see God’s salvation.” The only question is if one sees Christ’s second coming with joy or regret. For those who fail to repent, the coming of the Judge brings certain doom. But his people will see that Judge like a banner on the hilltop, rallying us to his glorious side.
Matthew 24:36–44 Come, Lord Jesus! – Christ’s Second Coming
Why would the Church Year begin by speaking about Christ’s second coming, which will usher in the end of the age? While it seems odd, it makes sense when we realize that this is the focus of the plan of salvation. The reason Christ came in the first place was to win salvation and he will come again to bring all of his believers to be with him in heaven. While no one knows the day or hour, it is a certainty that this day will come, and so we begin the church year with a reminder to keep watch so that we are prepared.
Luke 23:35–43 A King Unlike Any Other
Theme: How could a man with no official authority, no military might, and no loyal allies possibly be a king? Yet this is what Jesus claimed to be. And for this bold statement, the religious “leaders” at that time roused the people against Jesus to the point that they called for his crucifixion. But in the unlikeliest of ways, this is how Jesus would show himself to be the king he truly is. Because in going to the cross, he would suffer the punishment for the sins of the world and win paradise in heaven for all who believe in him. For the thief on the cross and us, we see Jesus as the king who is now at God’s right hand, ruling over all things.
2 Thessalonians 1:5–10 A Day of Terror For All Those Who Troubled God’s People
Our world is full of victims of abuse, violence, and oppression. In many cases, this evil goes unnoticed or unpunished. Injustice can drive victims in two possible directions. They can be filled with despair over the unfairness of the situation. Or they can be filled with hatred and a desire for revenge. While Christians wait for Christ’s return on the Last Day, they are by no means the only ones who suffer at the hands of others. They are, however, often included among them. Believers have always faced opposition from a world who rejects the one we believe in. When we suffer, what are our options? Do we throw up our hands in despair? Do we take matters into our own hands and seek vengeance? The certainty of that Last Day gives us a better option. We can leave justice up to the Judge. We can be confident that on the Last Day every wrong will be righted. We can look forward to the Last Day—also known as Judgment Day—because we are confident of where we stand with God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Revelation 21:1–6 We Feebly Struggle; They in Glory Shine
We believe in “the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints” (Apostles’ Creed). All with saving faith in Jesus as their Savior are holy. (Saint comes from the Latin word sanctus which means holy.) God grants the status of saint to all believers. Since sainthood is achieved through faith in Christ, we refer to believers as the invisible Church. Members are unknown to us since only God can see the heart. Furthermore, even if we knew the identity of each saint on earth, they would not look all that different from the rest of mankind. Believers still struggle with trials, temptations, and sin. Nor does membership in the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints make life easier. In some ways it makes life more difficult as we struggle against a world that is hostile towards Christ. However, some members of the communion of saints no longer struggle with trial and sin. They are not oppressed by an anti-Christian world. These are all the saints who, through their Christian death, have triumphed over all these things. The blessedness of being God’s saint is no longer invisible for them. They live in the glory of Christ’s light. This week, we thank God for those members of the communion of saints who have gone before us and now enjoy everlasting life. We feebly struggle, just as they once did. But now, thanks to Christ, they in glory shine. Their example encourages us as we patiently wait to join them.
John 8:31–36 The Truth Will Set You Free
We value freedom and strive to protect freedoms. But do we truly understand freedom? Freedom for many means doing what you want without control or coercion. Jesus helps us to understand true freedom: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Gospel). Jesus says that you will never be free by living however you want. Take that attitude towards life and you'll be a slave. You'll only be free—spiritually, emotionally, eternally—“If you hold to my teaching” and therefore “know the truth.” A key principle Martin Luther established through the Reformation is sola scriptura, Scripture alone. Luther thought it was the answer to all of life’s fundamental questions. On what basis is a belief or practice justified of rejected? Scripture alone. Who or what is the final arbiter of truth? Scripture alone. Heirs of the Reformation still bind themselves to Scripture. Does restricting ourselves in this manner curtail freedom? Just the opposite is true. God’s divinely inspired truth brings freedom. It frees us from slavery to sinful delusions, the burden of guilt, and any earthly power. This week we see that when we willingly bind ourselves to truth, Jesus keeps his promise. The truth sets us free.
Luke 18:18–30 Faith Demonstrated Through Total Dependence
Last week we heard Jesus ask, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). As we consider Jesus’ question, it might be easy to assume that any decrease in faith we observe in the world corresponds with an increase in secularism and disdain for God’s Word. That type of unbelief certainly can be observed in our world. However, today we see there is another type of unbelief, a type that looks upright and moral. The absence of the faith Jesus seeks isn’t always complete and total rejection of God or the Bible or even Jesus. It is possible for someone to have respect for Scripture and Christ, yet ultimately trust in his own goodness when it comes to his relationship with God. It is natural for us to want to believe that our relationship with God revolves around our obedience to his commands. We desperately desire to believe that, if we just apply the right spiritual advice and effort, we can earn God’s approval and eternal inheritance. This, too, is unbelief, just as much as paganism or secularism. This week Jesus uses God’s law for its chief purpose: to expose sin and crush our natural pride. In Christ’s hands God’s law is a powerful tool used to shape in us the faith he seeks—one totally dependent on God to do what only he can do.
1 John 5:13–15 Faith Demonstrated Through Persistent Prayer
Disciples of Jesus need to learn how to pray. We need Jesus to teach us to ask for those things which our Father in heaven promises us. We need to learn to claim in prayer what he wants for us more than what we want from him. However, learning to pray is not like many of the other things we learn to do in our lives. Once we know how to write our name, tie our shoes, or ride a bike, the learning is done. There is virtually no danger we will forget how to do those things. Not so with prayer. Prayer is not something we learn to do once and then know how to do correctly for the rest of our lives. Learning to pray consists of a lifetime of persistence and struggle. But when we struggle with God in prayer, it is not an indication that something is wrong but that everything is right. Struggle is part of the very nature of prayer and at the heart of the blessings it brings in our lives of faith.