Politicians are elected to serve the interests of a group of people. So, this group of people expect their elected official to bring unique community needs before a larger assembly, and then together, with other politicians, craft laws for their benefit. That is expected.
Expectations can bring frustration. Your needs might not always be met. Your congressman might vote impeaching the President (of the United States), but you do not want that. Maybe you did want the President impeached and your congressman did not. Your representative may fight for a gas tax that you did not want. Perhaps you did want a gas tax, but your representative did not push for it. A senator could endorse universal health care, but you do not want higher taxes. Perhaps you do want healthcare for all, but your senator does not. Politicians promise advocating for you. They guarantee taking your concerns and suggestions and putting them into law. Yet, that does not always happen. A politician might chase his own self-interests. She may act for her constituents, but your interests are not the majority’s concerns. The reality that your individually unique needs are not always addressed can ignite frustration. When you feel ignored, you feel insignificant. That fuels the pressure to rely on yourself.
That’s what makes Christmas Day special. God Most High, King of the universe, leaves his majestic throne room in heaven and comes to earth to be with us. God does not ignore your greatest need; he works for your interest in order to be with you forever. So rejoice! Because God Is With Us! How do you know? His name assures us. Can you be sure? Yes! His actions prove it.
Listen to God’s assurance in Matthew 1:22-23. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
There it is! A guarantee that God will keep your interests on his mind. God says he will be ‘with you.’ He will stand in flesh (with a body!) and experiences the same troubles of flesh! He will grieve at a funeral (John 11:35). He will see crippled limbs and heart-wrenching disease. He will observe fear in the eyes of the poor. He will watch the mighty abuse power. Yet, your God does not isolate himself from the world’s problems behind the ivory towers of a King’s mansion. He lives in the world and deals with the world. He will identify fear and handle it. He will understand anxiety and end it. He will recognize struggles and fix them. God promises to be with you!
What a promise that is! God will make all things well and whole! God will restore a bond of love! For hundreds of years people longed to see what you see, to celebrate what you celebrate! God had the prophet Isaiah share this promise seven-hundred years before the first Christmas! (That is three-times longer than the existence of our nation!) Millions of Christians over hundreds of years look ahead to that moment, but never see it. So many left wondering if God would make his intention happen.
You are [probably] not that anxious. We live on the other side of that promise. We can point at the record of God keeping his Word. [W]hen the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons (Galatians 4:4-5). Christmas reveals that God did what he said he would do.
When you think about it, a promise really has no value. It simply exists as mere words strung together— words that may or may not bring an action into reality. That can make it difficult to rely on those words. You are not sure what you will receive. (1) God promises to be with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20). Still, life hurts. Grandpa dies; that’s not fun. A friend manipulates you, abuses your kindness. Where was God to stop that? Is he really with you? (2) God promises to deliver you from trouble, so rely on him! (Psalm 50:15) Yet, a loved one only grows sicker and weaker. The marriage is not improving. Recovery is slow. Is God listening? Is really here? (3) God promises to will make your path straight, so trust him—in good and in bad! (Proverbs 3:5-6) Yet, you found the perfect job opening, and with your skill-set, you should get it. You make plans and they seem pretty definite. Right now, life feels fine, you are content. Where does God fit in when life feels under your control?
Promises do not always fill us with comforting peace. A promise should be a guarantee of future action, but so often promises are so often changed, forgotten, or broken— and we cannot rely on them. Even though God promises to be ‘with us,’ we may struggle with feelings of fear and anxiety. How does that happen? Our humans drag God down to a human level. We hear his promises, but receive them as equal to promises from faulty human mouths. We can treat God like some politician who does not always have our interests in mind. A politician who serves the interests of others. Really, our human heart can call God a ‘liar.’
That’s why God does Christmas. Christmas Day took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” Do you realize how awesome that is?! The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans worshipped a plethora of deities— and not one [so-called] god cared for his people. If enemies invaded the land, you frantically bargained for their attention. Sacrifice money, animals, people— and hope that was enough. Then there always remained the heart-stopping possibility that the gods simply did not care.
God does not send another prophet. He does not send a king. He sends himself. ‘Immanuel’ is a Hebrew word; it means: IM= with. MANU= us. EL= God. ‘God with us!’ That little baby Mary cradles in her arms, the little baby locking eyes with you, that little baby by his simple presence alone is ‘Immanuel,’ God-with-us!
Do you wonder if God truly cares about your needs? Do you worry that God might have more pressing matters on his mind? Do you think that with over 7-billion people in the world, God cannot possibly deal with your [seemingly] insignificant fear? End that anxiety here. God Is With Us. How do you know? His name assures us. Even more, His actions prove it.
You realize that behind certain names lie certain responsibilities. A politician carries more than just a title. A ‘President’ must lead or a ‘congressman’ crafts bills. ‘Immanuel,’ God-with-us, is not simply the name of God on earth. ‘Immanuel’ does work!
In that little baby lies the might to do what we cannot. He grows up and stands up against every attractive temptation. The devil, who so often leads us into doubt, cannot get Jesus to doubt God’s providing care. Those fears which tug on us to question God’s reasoning cannot get Jesus to challenge God. Self-reliance leads us to think we are God, life’s ultimate handler. Yet, Jesus bows under God’s control. Jesus does what we cannot. He withstands temptation. He stumbles not once. In him is life.
Jesus, Immanuel, is with us as he brings every single promise of God to complete fulfillment. The Son of David is pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). The Son of God towers over death by his own resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4). What does this have to do with you? Everything Jesus does on earth is done to bring you into God’s favor. At your baptism, God said: I have summoned you by name; you are mine (Isaiah 43:1). God binds himself to you. God Is With Us.
God Is With Us to this very day. The first Christmas occurred over 2,000 years ago. Jesus ascends into heaven a little under 2,000 years ago. Although off the earth, God remains with us for our comfort. I mean, what accusations can Satan launch at you? He will call you ‘not perfect,’ not good enough for God. He will point out your wickedness and negligence. He will claim that that one secret sin is unforgiveable. How do you remove guilt and shame? Jesus steps up to you and covers you in his innocent life. God does not see filth, he sees purity. God Is With Us to silence those accusations. God is With Us and we can stand before him without fear.
Even more God Is With Us in his Word. If I sent you a letter, you receive my thoughts and my intentions. (You might even hear my voice in your head.) When you read the Bible you see God’s heart and hear what’s on his mind. He makes it pretty clear: [N]either death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). How do you know that? Jesus came to connect you to God; his actions prove that God Is With Us! The troubles you face will only make you stronger because you do not rely on your abilities, you rely God’s powerful might. The funerals you attend will only reinforce the splendid truth that heaven is life’s ultimate home. The good times you enjoy only lead you to thank God for that rest and enjoyment. God’s Word shapes our response to life in this world. We know God Is With Us because his actions prove it.
That’s what makes Christmas Day special. God Most High, King of the universe, leaves his majestic throne room in heaven and comes to earth to be with us. Yet, God is not an elected politician serving the interests of some, or working only for the majority. He does not make promises that are broken or changed. God works for your interest in order to be with you forever. So rejoice! Because God Is With Us! How do you know? His name assures us. Can you be sure? Yes! His actions prove it.
‘Chuck’ is not his real name, but I met ‘Chuck’ at his lakehouse. Now, when Chuck was younger, his family spent weekends up north. Those were good times. Times soaking in the sun’s warmth. Times mindlessly staring into a crackling fire. Times single-mindedly focused on jumping and splashing and floating in the lake. Times with no stomach-churning anxiety. Times with no tightening vice-grip of stress. Times with no fear that the life you cobbled together could possibly crumble down.
Good memories brought Chuck back to the area— because much of his adult life was anything but good. His first marriage lasted about 20-years. By the time he reached out for counseling, the divorce papers were already in the mail. The second marriage fizzled out in months and so did half of his bank account. His two sons basically grew up without him. One sometimes visits, the other wants no contact. Chuck found himself retired, a two-time ex-husband still fighting alimony claims, with only one child who does not make much time for him. So, enter the lakehouse. Chuck moved to the old family vacation-grounds hoping that he can bring back the peaceful life he once had.
If that sounds foolish, then recall how companies have spent all month bombarding you with images of peace. Commercials showcase cheery, gleeful families gathering together. Gifts under the tree promise real fulfillment. Even food companies paint cozy cottages and warm fires with their products in hand. You (and I) might not buy a lakehouse, but do you buy into the notion that with the right items in the right settings under the right circumstances, you will finally live satisfied?
For just a moment look behind the Christmas decorations. Look behind the lights, the trees, the greenery, the white snow and cozy fires. Look behind the presents, behind the preparations, behind the smiles and hugs. What do you see? Because if you are like me, you realize life is far from perfect. No one wants to sit in a chair in the hospital room beside a loved one. She hurts, but you cannot take away the hurt. He groans, but you cannot provide comfort. Lungs gasp and seize, and very soon he will be ripped out of your life— and you cannot stop it. Can presents under the tree really fill the void that comes from knowing you cannot control health? You plan enjoying the family Christmas, but you hesitate a little. You know it will only be a matter of time before your sister stirs up some needless drama or your parents criticize your efforts or your brother makes it clear that he would rather be somewhere else. Does that smiling and dancing commercial-family even come remotely close to identifying with your family? Can a Christmas tree actually give you the strength and health of a twenty-year-old? Can snow actually hide your fears about moving out on your own? Do you think dressing up and singing Christmas carols will strengthen your marriage and end tensions with your child or repair the bond with your dad? Will politicians work together just because you ate ham? Of course not! We would never expect that (even though we might wish it were true).
Maybe that’s what is so captivating about these festive images. That perhaps at least for just a day, we can travel back to a simpler time. A time before a spouse’s death. A time before the family broke down. A time before worrying if you will have enough money for the future. A time before hearing politicians bickering, a time before needless violence. A time before age slowed you down. A time before children disappointing you or parents bearing down on you. A time when life felt happy and carefree.
Perhaps Chuck truly realizes that a lakehouse can never turn back the hands of time, but it’s not supposed to. Maybe he just wants this lakehouse to cover up a pain-riddled past.
Call it is mask, if you wish. A mask tries to cover up the real issue. A mask tries to sidestep the real issue. Chuck’s problems do not stem from his ex-wives only; he admits that he is the problem too. His sons do not prioritize him because he did not prioritize them. Plugging ears to reality or ignoring trouble does not make it go away. Relationships involve two people; tension is not the fault of one person only. Shattered dreams do not happen by chance. Emptiness and frustration are not feelings that you must expect. Cover up your troubles with a mask if you wish; sidestep the real problem at hand. Still you will not find peace. The real reason life can feel so unsatisfying is that we are not perfect.
Admitting that is not really something we want to do. By nature we want to boast of our perfection and everyone else’s imperfection. So, God has to make it clear: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned… He pictures you and me every single person in the world living as though the sun (and household lights) never existed! It’s dark! You cannot see the hand in front of your face. You cannot find a safe path on which to walk. You cannot see your stubbornness fueling bitterness. You cannot see your selfishness fraying relationships. You cannot see your ambitions stripping away real hope. Even worse, you cannot see that life was never meant without God.
So, God has to shine that light. God makes clear the realization of the only place where true peace is found. He sets a Light in this little town of Bethlehem. The Child in the manger is no ordinary child who will grow up to please his parents and (sometimes) disappoint his parents. He will not get a job, make money, save money, spend money, and then die. No. [T]o us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. This Child comes down from heaven and holds final say over all things in the world!
You see, God does not ignore the troubles in our lives; he does not plug his ears to them. He deals with them. In the manger lies God’s complete seriousness to give you peace. Two parents and shepherds see it. Tonight we hear their testimony. Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor. He exposes the pain we try to cover up and the heartache we try to avoid. Still, as Mighty God he can powerfully remove that shame. As a perfect father he has unending compassion on us. Just like that, haunting failures erased. Regrets over arguments pardoned. The lack of peace which comes by our own hands has not been hidden, it has been eliminated.
This evening you do not hear some Christmas-time story created to numb pain. We do not spend the night putting off the troubles that will come back in a few days. Instead, you hear words about a King who brings real peace to your heart. How? Because, of course, this world is far from perfect. You may expect to attend future funerals. You may expect arguments. You may expect others to disappoint you and you to disappoint them. You may expect doctors to scare you. You may expect teachers to frustrate you. That will not bring much peace. You will feel angry, frustrated, unhappy. Here’s what does give you peace: Jesus addresses those matters.
Jesus is born to purge away my selfishness. He is born to tell of peace between God and I. He is born so that I turn to him in every frustration, every fear, every trouble. He is born so that I might take his guiding Word to heart— a Word that shapes my words with others, a Word that strengthens me to forgive others, a Word that increases my reliance in his ability. Jesus is not one option among many. He remains the only place in this world where you will discover real peace.
I am certain ‘Chuck’ will form new memories in his lakehouse. Presents around the tree, family gatherings, festivities will offer peace. Yet, I guarantee, all the pleasantries will end. I guarantee that by the end of this month you will confront stress that leaves you frustrated. So, God sends peace. Peace meant for the world, but peace meant especially for you. A place for your heart to find rest. A place for anxieties to dissipate. A place for you to live under the words and actions of your capable God. The Prince of Peace Is Your Peace.
Speaking as a former child, do you know the kind of Christmas gift a kid is not too excited to receive? Jeans. I’m not talking the designer jeans with fancy labels or shiny sequins. I’m talking straight-legged, plain blue jeans. What kid gets excited over that? I mean, no child goes to school and shows off the brand new basic pair of pants he just got. Blue jeans do not stoke the imagination like video games do. Blue jeans are not coddled like Barbie dolls are. Blue jeans are not actively on your mind like household gadgets can be. Those types of gifts make us thrilled and excited and happy. Blue jeans don’t.
Now, a child might want presents that touch emotions, but what would happen if he did not have jeans? In winter he would freeze. At the very least, he would be terribly underdressed! So, which gift is more beneficial: video games or blue jeans?
If you only focus on the object received, you can completely look past the reason for the gift given. The more you appreciate the purpose for the gift received, the more you cherish that gift. As the days leading up to Christmas quickly tick down, let’s focus on this awesome gift: Our Reliable God Keeps His Reliable Word. He brings grace through Jesus. He gives peace through Jesus.
The man from our New Testament reading, Paul, treasures those truths. Paul is a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God… Maybe those job titles ‘servant’ and ‘apostle’ sound pretty basic. After all, if Paul is a Christian, then you almost expect a willingness to share Jesus. Yet, do you remember Paul’s previous career? ‘Persecutor of Christians.’
Paul hunts down people who worship Jesus. Just like a bounty-hunter, he receives warrants, tracks people down, arrests them, and turns them in to the authorities. So, your wife would be ripped away, never seen again; the marriage ended. Soldiers snatch away dad, and the next time you see him is stretched out on a cross naked, groaning, sobbing, dying. Grandma and grandpa grabbed and thrown into a lion pit; lions eat them. Paul literally destroys lives for a living — and he enjoys it! He even watches a Christian stoned to death— people throw rocks at this man until he dies— and Paul just stands there, approving! (Acts 7:54-60) And what job does Paul have? A ‘servant’ and ‘apostle’— of Christ!
He works for the group he once attacked! Even by today’s standards, you do not hire an enemy. If you capture Osama bin Laden, you do not appoint him as general over the United States Army, right? If you catch an enemy, you execute justice; you dole out what he deserves. God does not give Paul what he deserves. He gives the opposite! He makes Paul a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures…
Paul scribbles these words down with such excitement. You realize, he’s not writing a testimonial about himself. He pointing you to a truth that will impact your life far greater than just knowing Paul’s previous job. He pointing you (and me) to the gospel.
Do you remember what ‘gospel’ means? ‘Good news.’ In just a few days you will hear the ‘good’-est news that has rung across the face of the earth. While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7) God turns a promise a reality! That’s what Paul holds before our eyes! The centuries-old promise of Jesus finally reaches its opening into the world!
Still, those words can resonate much like a pair of blue jeans, can’t they? Plain. Dull. Boring. If your [grand]kids are like mine (or like I was as a child), Christmas centers mostly on presents, on figuring out what lies underneath the paper! If you are like me (today), those words warm the heart, but not always because of the content. Instead, they transport me back in time to this romanticized view of church and children and spouse, carols and candles, innocence and simplicity. I find myself worshipping past memories instead of the newborn Christ.
While I might not say it openly, that ‘good news’ just does not sound so exciting. Maybe it’s because the world always keeps pushing ‘new’ before me. Perhaps it’s because my attention wants stimulating entertainment. Yet, one thing I am certain of: My heart does not think I’m really that all wicked. What happens is that it downgrades this ‘good’-est news to just ‘good’ news. It treats Jesus like my buddy who shrugs off my foolishness and ignores my criticizing. It views Jesus arriving to make sure I have enough money to get through the month. Or that Jesus shows up so that I am never sad. Or that he comes to make others finally treat me with respect. If all we see in Jesus is a warm, kind Christmas-time miracle, then we will not appreciate what God really gives.
Christmas shows The Reliable God Keep his Reliable Word. Pay attention to that! Jesus does not come because he bored. He comes because I do need him. Because God keeps another word: The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Death. Separation from life. Separation from family and friends. Separation from God. The instant you are conceived, you start dying— and you. cannot. stop. it. You (and I) die because we sin. We earn the wage: ‘death.’ That is not ‘good news.’
That is why God sends the ‘good’-est news into the world. He sends his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh… See Jesus and you see skin and bones, blood and muscle, brain and organs, thought and speech, motion and speaking. More than that, you watch someone held to God’s high standard. Do not hate, do not insult. Do not let your mind drift during worship. Do not make excuses to stay out of worship. Do not set your selfish wants ahead of your family needs. Every single commandment God has set on your shoulders, he sets on Jesus.
Still, Jesus is declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead…The Holy Scriptures paint a silhouette of God’s Son and Jesus fits it perfectly. His miracles prove him someone divine. God the Holy Spirit descends as a dove onto Jesus. God the Father points at Jesus and says, ‘This One is my Son! Listen to him!’ (Matthew 3:16-17) This innocent, fault-free, God-approved Jesus is qualified to put down his life for your debt (and mine). God peels life from his Son, and tosses Jesus’ lifeless body into the grave. Then— in order to make it clear that this Bethlehem baby is God-approved, in order to make clear that this God-and-Man pleases God— he raises Jesus.
The Reliable God Keeps his Reliable Word. He brings grace through Jesus. ‘Grace’ is love undeserved. God does not treat Paul as a persecutor, but as one forgiven! That is ‘grace.’ That is love undeserved. Now, Paul gets to share what he received. [Through] Jesus Christ our Lord… we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…You (and I) are those who live under this umbrella of God’s forgiving love. That love will produce an effect.
Again, God says: To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. What do you receive? Love and therefore, peace.
Peace is more than silence or no anxiety. Peace is the absence of hostility. No anger. No division. No unrest. Jesus comes so that you do not need to make up fantasies as to what happens when a person dies. Jesus comes so that you do not need to saddled by your guilty past. Jesus comes so that you do not need to think that God gives you bad days because you made him angry. Jesus comes to give you peace.
God targets his righteous anger for our wrongs at Jesus—and he absorbs it all! Where sin has been forgiven, there is no wrath. Hostility no longer exists between God and us! What remains is delight! Ease of mind! Cheer! What remains is peace.
You have three days until Christmas Day. Two days to finish shopping. Two days to contact friends and family, study the schedules, and finalize the plans. Two days to wrap the remaining presents and bake the cookies. If ‘stressed’ is the word most on your mind, then you need to refocus. Your heart is telling you that Christmas festivities is not the peace you need.
Focus on the manger. Gift-giving is wonderful; it shows affectionate love. Still, remember the affectionate love God handed you. A [grand]child might get super-excited for Santa Claus. While fun, remind that child the greater One who arrives on Christmas. The family might plan gatherings. Great! But do not sacrifice the time you have to be with God in his Word. Use these occasions to be a witness to the real purpose of Christmas. Instead of allowing festivities take priority, make Christ the priority and the festivities secondary. Worship Christmas Eve. Spend just that one brief hour (one!) praising God Christmas Day. See The Reliable God Keep his Reliable Word He sends Jesus for those who do deserve it. He makes clear that Jesus is the Savior so that you might have real peace.
Which is a more exciting gift than jeans. Although… if you ever crawled out of bed on a cold morning and you felt that brisk, chilly air, you sense a need for jeans. If you had thin pants (or shorts!) then you appreciate the warmth jeans give. You appreciate the thought behind the gift. Yes, you could have received some cool gadget and that would entertain you for a few days— but in jeans you receive something truly needed, something that protects health and life.
God could have sent a morality teacher who sets a high standard of slavish rules impossible to reach. He could have sent down a person to perfectly pattern life after. He could have looked down from heaven and said, ‘I created Eden for you and you did not want that. Why should I take the effort and give you something like that again?’— but he does not. He does not give you (and I) what we deserve. Instead, He gives grace through Jesus. Not because we earned it, but because God wants to give you peace. That, dear friends, is something the world can never give. The Reliable God Keeps his Reliable Word. He gives grace through Jesus. He gives peace through Jesus.
Her frizzy hair made it look as though she had just rolled out of bed. Her plain tan dress blended into the background. The lack of makeup, her yellowed teeth, her unrefined speech suggested a lack of education. This middle-aged, past-her-prime-woman from a cluster of tiny villages stood on the stage of Britain’s largest talent show and shared her dream of becoming a professional singer (compared to the likes of Celine Dion).
Laughter exploded from the audience. Judges rolled their eyes, preparing to expose the silliness of her pipe dream. The hosts stood backstage, mockingly mimicking her hand-waving, her confidence, her mannerisms. Many expected her to last no more than ten seconds before getting laughed off stage.
Very soon, a stringed orchestra started playing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from the famous musical Les Miserales. She took a breath and opened her mouth— and instantly everyone’s eyes opened. Judges raised eyebrows. Clapping erupted from the audience. The hosts stood frozen, attentions locked on her. This frizzy-haired, unspectacular middle-aged woman from the middle of nowhere unleashed a voice that sat at the top of the 2009 Music Billboards and later created the top-selling album of 2009. Susan Boyle looked so unassumingly plain, but revealed a spectacular ability. Appearances can be deceiving. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jca_p_3FcWA)
The prophet Isaiah holds up another image that can be deceiving. He touches on life in this world, but presents two very contrasting features: a desert and oasis. In a world that appears only to hand us unending frustrations, The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life. He overwhelms every withering fear. He crowns every heart with joy.
Just like God intended. For just a moment, picture the Eden God created (Genesis 1). What do you see? What do you hear? Songbirds tweeting sweet melodies from lush, leafy bushes. Water trickles from a babbling brook, thriving trees offer ripe fruit. Cows graze while wolves harmlessly trot by. No sweltering heat, no stifling humidity; the climate holds just right. What paradise! You do not see animals growling and snarling, fighting and killing. You do not see trees falling and rotting, plants withering and dying. You do not see conflict, resentment, criticism. You see wholeness, completeness— absolute contentment in your relationships and in your desires.
Where does Isaiah take you? A desert. A dry, arid landscape stuffed with heaping piles of dust so starved of water that no plant can grow. Bone-white trees stick out of the ground like toothpicks; scraggly, prickly bushes offer no drink, no shade. Parched riverbeds crack open. The scorching sun bakes you dry. You see no strength. You see no relief. You see no life.
Isaiah holds up two contrasting worlds. A paradise promising no pain and a desert sucking away all fulfilling satisfaction. Which picture best describes your world?
Honestly, we want complete soul-satisfying pleasure, but so often encounter shattered promises. We plan pleasant futures. You crave the perfect, conflict-free family gathering, but somehow that one touchy topic forces people into corners. Sides are taken, tension mounts, arguments erupt, family divides. You map out goals, but money sifts through your fingers, an accident pushes back the timeframe, a spouse dies— and those goals fizzle out, leaving you sullen. Half-empty churches have you wondering if you are doing something wrong or if the community simply finds no need for God. No matter how hard we try to line up life just right, someone (or something) interferes and brings those lofty expectations crashing down. Then what about those expectations you carry? You promise self-control, you want to change, but then you stumble— again. And you feel so disgusted that you are too weak to choose the right. Terrible, self-centered choices hurt those you love most and nothing you do today can change the past. You must always drag around that shameful regret. Then that guilt presses you: ‘Have you sinned one too many times?’ ‘Will God really forgive you? …. even after you come to him again for the umpteenth-millionth time?’ ‘Can God really forgive someone like you for the hidden wickedness he sees?’ No wonder Isaiah sets you (and me) in this wilderness! This is life cut off from God! You see the paradise God creates; he never intended us to find purpose without him. He creates Eden for us to live with him— in his presence, in open communication, in the complete satisfaction of finding delight in obeying his Word.
This wasteland breaks out because we brought it into the world. This wilderness exists because of sin, because of turning away from what God expects. So we battle conflicts because our hearts find no satisfaction in taking God’s guiding Word to heart. Goals crumble because we try to find joy in this world rather than joy in God the Giver. We carry regret by no fault of God, but because we deliberately disobey in the hope of finding real pleasure. Isaiah shows you (and I) what we have earned for ourselves. Life that turns from God is dry, fruitless, dead.
So, God steps into our wilderness— and Isaiah sees it. Isaiah stares 700-years into the future and sees God come with a vengeance, with divine retribution; He comes and saves you. He saves you by hanging Jesus on a cross and steamrolling him with his vengeance. The One who opened the eyes of the blind is the One struck for our spiritual blindness that refused to see God as God. The One who cleanses filthy skin is the One covered in our filthy crimes. The One who raises the dead is the One struck dead because that is the punishment we deserved.
Jesus steps into this wilderness, a wilderness separated from God— and endures the full brunt of that way of life. On the cross his life dries up. He is tossed into the dust of death, left lifeless— and saves you. In Jesus is life. Not just any life, but that perfect Eden-life. A life that does not remain dead. A life that rises! A life that goes on and on. A life he puts on you.
The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life by overwhelming every withering fear. Because Jesus came, your guilt has been removed. Because Jesus came, God no longer remembers your regrets. Because Jesus came, you hold the certain announcement of sin forgiven. Your God has come with a vengeance (as promised!) and saved you.
That will impact life. Isaiah holds up that desert image, but you do not see a dry desert, do you? You see a former picture revitalized into a gushing oasis. [A] highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness… Living in central Michigan, you have experienced both shoddy roads and reconstructed roads. After all the roadwork completed this summer, you have safe, trouble-free access to destinations. God keeps his sleeves rolled up and paves a highway— a straight, smooth path.
[T]he unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; wicked fools will not wander onto it. Did you grasp the sheer wonder of those words? God reveals who can walk this road. You probably realize that it’s you. Yet, do you see the words used to describe you? ‘Not unclean.’ ‘Not a fool.’ God sees you as you truly are: forgiven, fault-free, innocent. I know, you may laugh at that thought, but God does not. God does not ask if you emotionally *feel* forgiven; he tells you that you are. Baptism washed you and gave you second birth into a new life— a life connected to God (Titus 3:4-7). The Lord’s Supper assures you that the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purifies you from all uncleanness (1 John 1:7-9). God reveals you as you truly are: People made to belong on that road to heaven.
Appearances can be deceiving. That is why God has to tell you (and me) the way things truly are. Life might feel as though you walk in a grueling desert. Yet, Jesus has linked you to that perfect paradise. That ‘Way of Holiness’ leads somewhere. The ransomed of the Lord (again, that’s you!) shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Just like God intended; the Garden of Eden recreated. No growling and snarling, fighting and killing. No rotting and decaying, withering and dying. No conflict, resentment, criticism. You see wholeness, completeness— absolute contentment in your relationships and your desires. You walk towards Zion, God’s name for heaven.
You live another day closer to that destination and you remain safe through this wilderness. Be sure, you (and I) will confront ravenous troubles. Still God promises to protect you. He does that with his Word. You might still be recovering from that flu-bug and patience is running thin. The recovery from surgery might be a little slower than expected. Still, God protects your faith, your trust in him as God. His Word teaches you to rely on him. His Word teaches that he provides the ability to get up each day. He allows family and friends to cheer you. He allows you to cheer family and friends. Life’s ailments are seen in a different light! Or, there might be an empty seat at home for Christmas; the first Christmas without that loved one. Yet, that spouse already walked into Zion. God’s Word tells you that. You see that perfect paradise and are comforted. Since you walk there too, soon there will be a joyful reunion. Or, arguments will always beg you to choose a side, and you may feel as though you stand against someone you like. Yet, God’s Word teaches patient love— a patient love you can show to others.
So much in this life can drag us down. So much can feel fruitless or pointless. That’s why Christmas teaches: The Coming Christ Revitalizes Life. He crowns every heart with joy.
Appearances can be deceiving, can’t they? Susan Boyle appeared to be nothing more than a frizzy-haired, unspectacular middle-aged woman from nowhere with nothing to offer. Now she is seen differently. Although still plain-looking, people see her voice.
The world in which we live is broken. Poor choices can haunt us. Pain lingers. You (and I) can feel completely hopeless. Yet, appearances are deceiving. Look at life through Christ. See what he accomplishes. The coming Christ overwhelms our greatest fears. He ends death. He nullifies guilt. He makes you clean. All the fears we face are overwhelmed by him. He revitalizes life. That means, we live with true hope, true peace, true joy. God does not keep it a secret as to how he sees you. He sets you on the path leading to life. He sets you on a path that sees life.
Look past the seen and see life as it truly is. See every withering fear overwhelm by Christ. See every heart crowned with joy by Christ. See The Coming Christ Revitalize Life.
Scott Schmidt had to kill his wife. He had no other choice. In fact, Scott even blamed his wife for her own murder. You see, the couple’s marriage had been disintegrating. Months of couples counseling healed nothing. The two had actually separated. So, on April 17, 2009, Scott went to his estranged wife’s house to retrieve some belongings. While there, an argument broke out. Emotions intensified and so did the violence. Now, Scott claims his wife knew about his rash temper. On April 17th she [supposedly] started taunting him, hurling out names like: ‘lazy,’ ‘good-for-nothing,’ ‘deadbeat,’ knowing full well that her words pierced him. [Supposedly] she deliberately ignited his anger; she forced him to grab his gun and unload. Don’t you see? She knew the risks! She provoked him! She was to blame for her own murder! Scott Schmidt committed no crime!...... Do you believe that?
Probably not. Neither did the Wisconsin State Supreme Court. Nor the Dodge County Correction Facility prison warden. Nor did the roomful of pastors listening to Scott’s outlandish claims. Nor did the judge who sentenced Scott to life in prison. Create all the excuses you want, but nothing pieces together a broken law.
So, what could possibly possess Scott to insist on his innocence? You realize that Scott does not deny standing at the scene of the crime. He does not deny discharging his weapon. He does not deny harming his wife. In fact, he even accepts the detective’s account of what happened. The evidence piles ever-higher against his favor and Scott still tries to persuade the judge that he committed no wrong. Why? Because Scott did do something wrong— and in his heart of hearts, he knew that.
Scott knew tucked away in the pages of Wisconsin State law is the mandate: You cannot murder. He knew his violent behavior clearly violated that law. He knew breaking the law brings consequences— and he did not want consequences. He did not want to spend the rest of his life locked behind bars. He wanted freedom!
So there it is! Why does Scott maintain his innocence? Because Scott wants to commit crime and live free. In order to reach his wish, Scott reframed his actions. To this day Scott still calls the events of April 17th ‘an act of extreme passion’— because passion is not a crime. The hope is that if he can redefine his action, then maybe the judge would no longer classify his violence as ‘murder.’ Then Scott could be set free.
Maybe you sit there, half-laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of that logic. Look at that behavior again. Scott commits on a far larger scale what every heart fights to do. The human hearts fights to defend its own wickedness at any cost. In 2 Thessalonians 1:8 God says: He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Many drive past this church building; many admit that it is a religious center and still they do not enter. Some treasure time outside in campers and boats. Others cherish personal opinion about life-matters. Still others worship the god their ‘feelings’ and ‘thoughts’ create. Many call label themselves ‘spiritual,’ but take no time learning, studying, believing the God of the universe. Such people do not know God. Yes, those hearts will try to define their wrong; hearts will create the excuse: “God, I did not know!” Yet, the truth is, they had a chance to know. They just chose not to take it.
Yet, tucked in verse 8 is another group, a group that speaks to us. [God] will punish those (1) who do not know God and (2) [those who] do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. The ‘gospel’ is the ‘good news’ that Jesus Christ alone cleared your record and brought you into a peaceful state with God. ‘Obeying the gospel’ means that your heart cherishes this truth. That you live as one who has been rescued from hell.
Do you? When you stand in front of the mirror of God’s Ten Commandments, what do you see? Do you love making time for God? Do you watch the words coming out of your mouth? Do you keep your anger in check and apologize when you are clearly in the wrong? Do you support others? What does God see? Does see a life that has been rescued from hell? Do you obey the gospel?
If you’re like me, you discover a heart that fights to defend its own wickedness at any cost. You may feel right sitting in your circle of friends, griping about your husband’s laziness. You may think it’s the government’s fault that you criticize its work. You can point at parents and claim that their failed marriage is the reason not to get married. You may blame work for keeping you out of church. You can say that you don’t worship because ‘the Pastor just doesn’t understand you’ or that you are just too angry at someone there. When God’s Word convicts behavior as ‘wrong,’ the heart creates every excuse as to why what you do is ‘right.’
Do you see what excuses really claim? That you have done nothing wrong. That it is completely acceptable if your view of sex and marriage do not agree with God’s definition. That you have committed no wrong by disobeying God’s representatives. That you are without sin for skipping church because you worship other priorities. Excuses insist that you have committed no crime and therefore have no need for a Savior.
You (and I) will always feel the urge to look innocent. We may even think we will get away with it! Yet, there is one matter you (and I) cannot control: One day you will leave this world and you do not have a say when. It could be decades from now or months, tomorrow or today— but you lack the ability to walk out of this life on your terms. You (and I) do not have that authority to control life. God does. God, who has the authority to take you out of this world, has the same power to stand you before his throne. He will open a record of your entire life and compare it to his law. What will he find? What can you possibly say to redefine your crimes? What excuses will he buy? God is not fooled. God is just. He is ‘fair.’ He will compare every single heart according to his law. Those who trudge through life with armfuls of petty excuses will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified[.]
Friends, God is not looking for excuses. God is not accepting excuses. God expects perfection. Nothing we say, nothing we do to appear morally better will remove the fact that failure is still failure. That is why God says in verse 8: He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. That ‘gospel’ reveals the freedom Jesus has won for you. Your Savior-God wrapped himself in human flesh. Mary sets newborn Jesus in a manger and God sets Ten Commandments on Jesus (Galatians 4:4-5). Understand, Jesus is expected to keep the same expectations expected of you. Jesus could roll around in a bank vault and mumble the excuse: ‘But I am God, I deserve wealth.’ He could say: ‘Why go to church? I wrote the Bible.’ He could lay aside the commandments and say: ‘I do not want that commandment controlling my words. I will say whatever I want.’ Instead, Jesus gladly embraces and conforms to God’s every single command. In fact, [Jesus] has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
God could look at Jesus, drop his gavel, and cry out: ‘Innocent! Live free!’ Instead, God sets our flimsy excuses on Jesus one-by-one. He covers Jesus with all of our cover-ups and watches those excuses drag him down into death. God, the Just Judge, Judges Justly by condemning crimes to death. God, the Just Judge, Judges Justly by declaring Jesus innocent! He opens the grave’s door, leads Jesus out by the hand—alive! He dresses him in brilliant robes. He sets a glistening crown on his head. He seats him at his right hand, with all powerful authority to study every heart.
God does not look for excuses, God looks for justice. He looks for hearts that do not need to call ‘wrong’ ‘right.’ Instead, he looks for hearts wrapped in Jesus’ righteousness. He looks for a heart, like the one he put in you at baptism. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Galatians 3:26-27).
That is the joy of God’s ‘gospel.’ You (and I) hold the ‘good news’ that because Jesus suffered our penalty, God has dropped the charges against us! Now, you carry a different sentence. God is just: because Jesus wraps you in his innocence He gives relief to you. You have ‘peace.’ When you leave this world and stand before the throne of God, Jesus will stand beside you, look at his Father, and say, “See my life on him? See her wearing my innocence? Father, they belong to us!” The Just Judge Judges Justly as he gives rest to you, his holy people.
No excuses needed. Instead, a heart that admits ‘wrong’ as ‘wrong’ and finds rest in the Savior. Yet, one final word. Look around. The empty seats means that many still think they will smooth-talk their way into God’s favor. Maybe a child thinks simply having his name in a church book pleases God. Maybe a daughter-in-law relies on worshipping God in nature (except, she does not even do that). Maybe a grandson thinks everyone in the world enters heaven regardless of belief. Friends, God makes it clear: He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power. God makes this explicitly clear so that no one perishes, but that all may have life (1 Timothy 2:3-4). We have work to do. Seize the opportunity to remind those hoping for the best that real peace is found here. That here The Just Judge Judges Justly as he gives rest to his holy people.
The greatest crime Scott Schmidt committed was not the crime itself. Rather, it is fact that Scott Schmidt thinks Scott Schmidt committed no crime. He will spend the rest of his life locked away both on earth and in hell.
You have been set free. What joy, what peace, what comfort we have knowing that God does not search for excuses. What joy, what peace, what comfort we have knowing that God removes our excuses through Jesus. Look forward to life with God because of the message of the gospel. The Just Judge will Judge Justly. He locks away all who oppose him. He gives rest to his holy people.
Where are you in the ‘Parable of the Lost Sheep’? I mean, did you feel pulled into the story? Try to place yourself into the setting of sheep and Shepherd, lost and found? The parable really wants you to choose a side, doesn’t it?
It’s important that you do. Jesus does not speak these words to first-century Jews only. The point of his parable carries eternal implications for all people of all time. That is why it is important for you to answer: Where are you in the ‘Parable of the Lost Sheep’?
Go back to our gospel lesson and you find two distinct groups, right? In Group #1, you have ninety-nine ‘found’ sheep. In Group #2, you have one ‘lost’ sheep. Those groups even have characteristics. In verse 7 Jesus says: I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Who are those people? More importantly, where are you?
Well, look at verses 1 and 2. Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” No one likes the tax-man. He takes your hard-earned money and ships it off. None of your money goes towards improving your city. Instead, your taxes pay for extravagant projects done some 2,000-miles away in Rome! Yet, a bigger problem exists: The tax collector is a Jew! One of you! Your high-school classmate! Your next-door neighbor! Your brother-in-law! Someone who lives in your community and sees your struggles and hears your frustrations and knows for a fact that Rome cheats you— and still participate in this injustice! As if that was not bad enough, that Jewish traitor can deliberately overcharge you! If you owe $100, he could bill you for $200. He sends $100 to Rome (it keeps Rome happy) and then he pockets the other $100. You can do nothing about that because Rome’s own soldiers protect their man.
So, the Pharisees have marked this tax-collecting group as ‘beyond hope,’ ‘not-going-to-heaven.’ You know what? They would be right! Those tax collectors will never enter heaven without Jesus! So, Jesus sits with them. He exposes a heart that worships money more than God, a heart that deserves hell. Yet, Jesus does not stop teaching there. He points to himself; he reveals that his obedient life cures them.
In our parable, the tax collectors are the spiritually lost found by Jesus. That makes the Pharisees the ninety-nine who see no need to repent. Why would they? The Pharisees have already set themselves in the column: ‘loved-by-God.’ They go to ‘church’ and give big offerings. They dress in fancy clothes. They have respectable wives and well-behaved children. They commit no crimes and carry no moral baggage. The Pharisee feels God must welcome him into heaven because his life is superior.
That feeling of superiority has an effect. The Pharisee sees no need for Jesus because of their action. Then, the Pharisees resent the Word of Christ reaching a group deemed ‘undesirable.’ Just look at those messy lives! It might appear that certain groups are undeserving of a good thing like God’s love.
That attitude did not only exist years ago. It still erupts today. Our congregation recently collected money for a Pastor-Training Institute in Vietnam. Now Vietnamese pastors will receive better training to share God’s Word with the Vietnamese. Still, after the history of violence, crimes, and torture the Vietnamese inflicted on Americans, you might not wish to help them. Maybe those foreigners deserve hell— or, at the very least, maybe they do not deserve my support. Last Wednesday, you relived horrific terrorist attacks. Innocent thousands died and even more still suffer! It might have been difficult to think anything good of the Middle East— without even considering that those people without Christ will go to hell. Still, maybe you think: “Good riddance!”
We could bring our thoughts closer to home. Many in your community behave far different than you (and I). You may even realize those lives inflict negative consequences. The meth-house does not really seem deserving of Jesus; it seems more deserving of punishment! The scruffy guy always walking around town, well, he looks lazy. That laziness does not deserve free forgiveness! That stranger who walks into church at the last minute— frazzled and disruptive and acts weird— well, what is she doing here?
We could bring thoughts even closer home. You know people who have different values and priorities. Your child has not been in worship for a long time. Your brother, your sister may worship the lake. Your neighbor treats travel teams like God. So many other things take priority! Maybe you think: ‘That’s fine. God will have mercy on them. They are good people. They cannot possibly go to hell.’
How do we reach these conclusions? By my own standard. I pull out my behavior, my home life, my worship attendance and expect the world to be what I am. If that person fails to match up, then just leave them lost. Just like those Pharisees, my own heart can rank people as ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ of Jesus. It boils down to me saying: “Well, I deserve forgiveness.” And Jesus says: “You have no idea how lost you are.”
So, Jesus searches. Isn’t that an astounding fact in this parable? Out of ninety-nine fluffy white bodies, Jesus actually notices one is missing— and he looks for it. He leaves heaven’s safety and puts on human flesh. He literally walks to hearts wandering in greed. He literally walks to hearts absolutely oblivious as to what happens after death. He literally walks to those who resist hearing a desperate need for the Savior. Jesus walked all over earth to rescue you. He walked into the death you earned and rescued you. He returns from death— alive! Alive, holding you alive in his hands.
Hearts can think only a select few deserve Jesus. Yet, this parable makes clear: The Lost Means the World to Jesus. That is why he searches for all. He wants all saved. We could put it this way: The Lost Means IS the ‘World’ to Jesus. He rejoices over the found.
[W]hen he has found [the lost], he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Do you see where you are? On the shoulders of Jesus!
When did that happen? Because maybe you don’t feel saved. Can you be sure that lie on Christ? Yes! [Y]ou who were baptized into Christ and have clothed yourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:27). In baptism God attached his Word to water. So, when you were baptized, he said, you carry the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Yes, baptism has washed pride out of your (and my) heart. God does not recall your past. He does not lay out criteria you must meet before he will ever re-love you. Nope. He lays you on his shoulders and rejoices. He carries you into the family of believers with hop-in-step. It’s like he’s holding back from breaking out in a sprint! The Lost Means the World to Jesus. He rejoices over the found.
Yet, God is not the only one rejoicing. Neighbors and friends rejoice. They so desperately want the lost found, and so they rejoice as another lost is found! Those neighbors and friends are you.
Did you know that on an average Sunday, about half of our fellow believers do not worship? You know those faces. You watched them baptized. You heard them, on their Confirmation Day, promise to regularly hear the Word and receive the Lord’s Supper. They confessed their faults, heard God’s forgiveness, listened to the same messages you do. They are not here! Some worship only Christmas and Easter. Others barely come at all. Does that bother you?
Dear friend, those who love Christ love hearing his Word. Love for Christ does not make up excuses to be out of church. Love for Christ does not pack weekends with camping and fishing. Love for Christ does not brag that they already know everything about the Bible (and so they do not need to hear anymore). No, love for Christ finds reasons to be with God (read Hebrews 10:25 and John 8:31). Step back for a moment and see to whom Jesus speaks. You have Pharisees and tax collectors, the curious and the disciples. Understand, it is not only the Pastor’s job to go and reach the drifting. It is our job— together.
We gain motivation when we go back to these words and see where we stand in this parable. You are that once lost, now found sheep. You did not deserve rescue, you needed rescue. So, Jesus made you his priority and he rejoices over that!
Those drifting are worth our time. Each soul is worth our effort of hearing the gospel. Maybe your daughter who has not been in worship for a while. She’s just ‘taking a break from church,’ as she puts it. Maybe your friend is completely oblivious to anything ‘God.’ He just feels that everything will be alright in the end. Maybe you recognize a few faces you have not seen for a while. You really just do not know where they are. It is incredibly easy to say nothing, but then again, someone shared Jesus with you.
As able, take the opportunity to seek the stray. Use your own words and tell your child why you find worship important. Share your experience. Share your comfort. Share what you gain. Invite your neighbor to church— but do more than that. Tell them why you want them in church. Tell them about heaven after death. Tell them that you stand absolutely certain of heaven because of Jesus. Pray for the wandering. Pray that someone brings news of Jesus to the meth-house. Pray that violent nations find peace in Jesus. Pray for courage to welcome those walking by your church into church.
The Lost Means the World to Jesus. The world. Everyone. Seeing how Jesus gave up the world for you, you rejoice that Jesus gave all for the world.
The ‘Parable of the Lost Sheep’ pulls you into its story. It puts you in the setting of sheep and Shepherd, lost and found. It does that because Jesus in not speaking to first-century Jews only. He speaks to you.
The point of his parable carries eternal implications. You, once lost, now stand found. How humbling to see how undeserving we were! How amazing to see how rich we are! Now found, you, like Jesus, seek the lost because The Lost Means the World to Jesus.
Do you grasp the full implication of what Jesus teaches in our gospel lesson? “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading… There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth. (Luke 13:24-28) Jesus makes it clear: hell exists. More than that, you, I, the entire world, have only one lifetime to make it through that narrow door of heaven. “Do-overs” do not exist. “Second chances” do not exist. A warning like this is meant for us to respond today.
Yet, many choose not. A particular church body teaches that hell does not exist. Those who reject Jesus will merely cease to be. (https://www.adventist.org/fileadmin/adventist.org/files/articles/official-statements/28Beliefs-Web.pdf). The president of the largest Lutheran church body in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] (a liberal branch of Lutherans) went on record to say: If hell exists, I think it’s empty. (https://chicago.suntimes.com/chicago-politics/elizabeth-eaton-presiding-bishop-evangelical-lutheran-church-in-america-chicago-if-hell-exists-i-think-its-empty-face-to-faith-podcast/) Even the pope questioned the existence of hell! (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/03/29/did-pope-francis-say-there-no-hell-not-quite-vatican-insists/470442002/)
What is it that leads people (including churches!) to deny what Jesus so clearly says? Why do many stay out of church, content to be in the fishing boats and campers, to be in home or out with friends? Why may we(!) grow cold about the full implication of what Jesus says?
The reality of life apart from God in hell weaves throughout all of Scripture. You find in Hebrews (a New Testament book written about 30-years after Jesus entered heaven) whisking you into the Old Testament and dropping you at Mount Sinai. This is not some setting among the pines and crystal-clear waters of a Rocky Mountain getaway. No. Gray, overcast skies blot out sunlight. Billowing smoke pours from heaven, engulfing the mountain. A dreadful, moaning trumpet blares its eerie wail across the desert floor. Audible tones, as if God’s thunderous voice thumps: ‘More.’ ‘Better.’ ‘Try harder.’ Animals snort and tug on ropes. Children shriek. You carry this haunting feeling that whatever is about to happen is serious. The Israelites begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
Even though trembling, God commands Moses to hike up Sinai. There, etched into two stony tablets, are God’s expectations. You shall have no other gods… You shall not misuse God’s name… You shall make time for me… You shall… You shall… You shall… (Exodus 20:1-21) Understand, what makes this scene terrifying is not the fact that God appears. What makes this sight blood-draining horrifying is that a holy God comes to people who are not holy— and God knows that and they know that. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere run.
Who can stand? God demands: “Be holy, just as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) and then threatens: “The soul who sins is the soul who will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). Do you grasp just how serious God is? Still, there may be a little part inside us that considers this nothing more than a bluff. Fake. Not real. After all, you have not seen hell; it’s not on map or YouTube videos. It also just sounds so harsh. I mean, Sinai feels like God is like an angry parent venting, but will eventually simmer down.
Maybe you have not actually said those words, you may not have thought them, but what does your behavior say? Do you stuff God’s mouth with your words? “God, I’m skipping worship today. That’s acceptable because I said so.” “God, I can break my marriage vows because it feels right… God, I can live committed without marriage because nothing bad happens…” “God, I deliberately disobeyed my teacher… my police officer… my township supervisor because I do not like what they say.” How often we take God’s commands and apply them only when we determine it convenient! Or, what does your behavior say about care for the souls of others? Perhaps your daughter promised to God before the congregation on her Confirmation Day: “I will be faithful in the use of Word and sacrament as long as I live”— but she is not here. In fact, she never worships, but still calls herself a Christian. Does that spiritual laziness alarm you? You worship every Sunday; your neighbor has no church. He watches you pull out of the driveway and you wave back. Have you ever offered him to join you? Or, do your actions somehow suggest that only you need to be connected to Christ— that this is only important for you personally, but is not necessary for everyone? Maybe it’s your friend who is battling cancer. She says, “I have faith”— but faith in what? Faith that the chemo will work? Faith that even if she dies the family will be fine? Or, the faith that Jesus Christ wiped clean her spiritual illness? Do you ask in what that faith is placed?
On Mount Sinai God booms: “Be holy, just as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). That applies not just to you (and me), but also to the other 7-billion people on earth! Do you (and I) treat this threatening expectation something less than God makes it? I wonder if sometimes we try to soften God’s commands because no one measures up. So, we create reasons for God to love us, and think by painting this scene as different, it becomes different in reality.
Yet, right now, you can wish to be in perfect health— pain-free, ache-free, cancer-free—but that does not actually cure ailments. Thinking differently of Sinai does not change God’s expectations. It just makes you the fool for believing something not true.
If Sinai makes your heart tremble, then look down and see where you stand. Only One Mountain Brings Life. Do not stand on Sinai because no one can ever measure up. Instead, Keep standing on Zion.
Mount Zion rests [in the city of] Jerusalem. God’s temple stood there. People could bring offerings and praise to God; God came to his people with his Old Testament words, with the forgiveness spoken through the priest, and with messages sent through his prophets. Yet, when God says: [Y]ou have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God… he does not suggest hiking up this mountain. No. God calls heaven ‘Mount Zion,’ the place where God is with believers. Notice how verse 22 begins: [Y]ou have come to Mount Zion; you already stand in God’s presence. That did not happen because you changed God’s expectations; it happened because Jesus removed the terror of Sinai.
Jesus is born to walk up Mount Sinai— to receive those same Ten Commandments God has set on us (Galatians 4:4-5). Throughout his entire life he locks his sight on the one thing God demands: Love for God (Matthew 22:37-39). That means, Jesus never lowers God’s standards. He keeps them. He worships every single week— not as a rule, but because he wants to. He preaches to the masses, not suggesting that a Christian God is one of many different ways to the same place, but clearly teaching eternal life comes only through God’s forgiveness (Acts 4:12). He even deals with those crushed by regret and shame— and does not tell them to fix their wrong, but rather says: “Trust that my life will make God happy with you” (John 14:6). Yes, Jesus not only obeys God’s commandments for himself, but also obeys in our place.
He walks down Mount Sinai without fear, without trembling because he is guiltless— and he walks up another mount, Mount Calvary. That Good Friday scene echoes an awful sound: ‘Death for sin.’ God’s wrath consumes his only Son. It swarms him. It engulfs him— and Jesus absorbs it all. Three days later, Jesus steps foot onto Easter morning’s peaceful dew. He freely walks out of his grave— alive and without fear. He immediately finds his disciples, the women, and says, “Peace to you!” (John 20:19).
Peace to you! Jesus has taken his innocence and set it next to your name. When you were baptized, the Holy Spirit took you by the hand and brought you to God, saying, “Here’s another one! Take this one too!” And God the Father says, “Yes. I have written down your name.” You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect… You stand before God, the Judge of the universe, not to hear condemnation, but rather a favorable judgment: ‘You are righteous. Jesus made you perfect, completely forgave you.’
Dear friends, you stand now on Zion— at peace with God. [You have come] to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and [are] sprinkled [with the] blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. You are walking through that narrow door into heaven because Jesus is mediator. You get “in” because Jesus covered your with his perfection and that perfection is far better than anything you, like Abel, could offer.
You know that and so we live that. [Grand]Parents, God has handed you the responsibility of raising your child to know Jesus. To see Jesus in the Bible stories at Sunday School. To learn God’s complete love in catechism class and in Bible class. To gather in worship, admit wickedness, and bask in God’s forgiveness. Maybe you watch over children now; maybe your children no longer live under your watch. Whatever the case might be, still live concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of your child. Your child will not enter heaven because his name is in a church book. Your child will not enter heaven because she got ‘checkmarks’ beside her name: (1) Baptized? Check. (2) Confirmed? Check. God wants the heart. Specifically, what is their view towards Jesus? Your neighbor may stand on Sinai— completely unsure of what God wants. Point him to Jesus. Invite her to worship. Share what you know about the Bible. Faith needs an object. The only faith that saves is a ‘trust in Jesus as Savior.’ We who stand on Zion stand in a position to care. We stand in a position to lead others to the Only Mountain that Brings Life.
You do not need to fear what Jesus so clearly says in our gospel lesson: Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to (Luke 13:24). You do not need to somehow remove the teaching of hell in order to avoid it. You do not need to change God’s expectations in order to soften it. You need do nothing— because Jesus removes all fear of death forever.
Do not stand on Sinai. Do not try to carry the crushing burden of guilt alone. Instead, Keep standing on Zion. Keep clinging to Jesus, the One who removes the weight of death and puts you on that narrow path! Keep pointing others to this splendid mountain! Only One Mountain Brings Life. Do not stand on Sinai. Keep standing on Zion.
You can detect a rip-current by spotting four characteristics. (1) Look for deep, dark-colored water at the shoreline. (2) Watch the waves roll in, but keep alert for areas with few waves— especially areas where the waves do not break. (3) Search for patches of water with a rippled surface, surrounded by smooth water. (4) Pay attention to sticks and leaves or foam washing out to sea. Four characteristics for detecting a rip-current— and that’s beneficial to know whether you head off to the ocean on spring break or dip your toes in one of the Great Lakes. Rip-currents can pull water out to sea at 8-feet-per-second. Ankle-deep water, moving fast enough, can sweep you off your feet and drag you hundreds of yards out into deep water. Rip-currents are powerful. Rip-currents are deceptive. Rip-currents are deadly.
So, no wonder Paul says: Keep Walking in Christ! Pay attention to what you take in spiritually. Opinions, advice, and behavior from so many around you leave an impact. Yet, Beware of deceptive philosophies. Expose and stay away from of destructive teachings. Rise anew in the results of baptism.
That is God’s passionate plea. Keep Walking in Christ because God joined you to Christ. Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds… But now he has reconciled you (Colossians 1:21-22). You (and I) entered life as sworn enemies of God— but that has all changed! God reconciled you (and me). He fumed against Jesus, but turns to us in peace! Today you stand on God’s side, on the side of people loved by God. Colossians 2:6 highlights that key point: Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord… as you stand on the side of Jesus …walk in him[.]
To be clear, that word ‘walk’ means: “To behave/conduct yourself in a certain manner.” As someone God reconciled and as someone who loves God, evaluate your behavior— and this is how. Keep Walking in Christ …rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. Understand, faith remains something constant. You either believe Jesus impacted your life or you do not; there is no middle ground or some partial-faith. Here, God points to your baptism and says: “Baptism attached you to Jesus’ payment for sin.” God points to the Word and says: “The Bible planted you into the conviction that Jesus is your Savior.” God’s Word, together with baptism, created faith.
Since this is where you stand, build. As a seedling, grow into a mighty tree. Or, like a tiny house set on a firm foundation, add addition after addition. Keep learning and rereading the miracles of Jesus you learned in Sunday School. Then add Bible teachings to those Bible accounts as you study in Catechism class. Then add more teachings, more understanding, more knowledge in Bible Class, in devotion time, in Bible reading. As you do, your trust in God grows, a desire to pray flourishes, trust in God’s power expands, and appreciation for God’s infinite love thrives. You grow closer to God from the firm foundation on which you already stand! So, Keep Walking in Christ.
Keep growing— not only by feeding faith, but also by protecting faith. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. Rip-currents are deceptive, powerful, and deadly. In the same way, what appears so acceptable and innocent in society can be spiritually devastating. In fact, this ‘philosophy’ is so common that you watch it on television commercials, in grocery stores, in your conversations— and you may never notice it. Start your favorite television show, and how many characters are sleeping together, living together, having one-night stands? God makes clear: “Honor the marriage bed for God will judge the adulterer and sexually immoral” (Hebrews 13:4). The world’s philosophy claims a right to use your body and shape your relationships however you want. With whom do you walk? The world which lives apart from God? Or, does love for God compel you to aim for marriage? FoxNews, CNN, MSNBC drum up a belief that you need the right President, the right Senate, the right Congress, and the right people who do the right things in order to save humanity. Worldly philosophy fears that America will teeter on the verge of collapse and the entire world will implode. Yet, your God says: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes” (Psalm 118:8-9). With whom do you walk? Do you live in constant fear because you set all your trust in worldly princes? Or, do you rely on God to be your help in both good and bad? Even churches in your area can become like this Colossian church. The pastor promotes himself to be the real guy to follow—the guy who will make the Bible more ‘relevant’ and promise life-changing challenges and unlock new meaning and new potential in life. The world in which we live is saturated with manmade philosophy and empty deceit. All these ways of life promise something of substance— a stronger faith or a tighter relationship or a closer walk with God, but they cannot deliver the promise! They promise much, but deliver nothing. All godless advice fails to provide real satisfaction because that advice does not come from God!
Dear friends, if the Bible speaks against your behavior, then listen! Recognize drifting from Christ. If you have to say, “I know God’s teachings on marriage, but it’s not convenient now,” then human philosophy is seizing you. If you think, “Well, only people can keep the world spinning,” then human philosophy is seizing you. If you muse, “Does baptism really matter?” then you are being deceived. That deceptive philosophy will seize you and rip you further and further away from Scripture to the point where your life no longer conforms to God’s teaching. And you will find yourself drifting without Christ. Just like a sneaky rip-current, that sneaky teaching will destroy you.
Keep Walking in Christ! Beware of deceptive philosophies. Recognize the spiritual danger. See such empty ideas as the garbage they are. Keep Walking in Christ as you Rise anew in the results of baptism.
The God who reconciled you has provided all you need for life and has handed real life to you. Listen to verses 9 and 10: For in him [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. God provides real satisfaction in relationships. He provides real trust for the future. He provides all you need in Scripture because God gives you Jesus.
See Jesus and you see true God and true man (at the same time)! As man, Jesus taught the Jews that no additional knowledge or rules are needed for heaven. Jesus, as true God, is enough to open heaven. As man, he lifted up worried eyes and said, “Trust in me.” As true God, Jesus has authority over wind and wave, over riots, over disease, over death. As man, Jesus sat with women who slept around and forgave them. As true God, he points back to Scripture and teaches a marriage God created at the beginning of the world. Your Jesus keeps you close.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ… Just like circumcision removes flesh, God removed flesh from you, but not physical flesh. Jesus removed the sinful desires of the heart. That did not happen in an operating room; we do perform strange procedures in the lower level of the church. This all occurred at one moment, at one place, at one font. [You] hav[e] been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. At your baptism, God peeled off that old sinful self and he pulled you out of those waters spiritually alive. God has created in you a new desire— a desire that wants to shape life around the Word. Just as Jesus was buried, but rose again alive—never again to die, you also were buried under water, but rose again alive—never again to die.
Baptism has brought you into a different side. It has yanked you out of empty deception and hollow philosophies. [Y]ou, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. Your baptism worked tremendous results. Satan cannot accuse the you of earning hell. Temptation cannot convince the you to follow it. The sinful nature cannot persuade you wallow in filth. You belong to the side of God.
Since this is what you are today, this moment, realize that you will stand out as different. Innocent-looking philosophies will always remain a part of our world. Each one will snatch at you in the hopes of taking you captive. Peer pressure to conform to an unbelieving world will squeeze you. Yet, stand firm. Resist. Do not budge. Do not conform. Remember who are and rise anew in the results of baptism.
If you find yourself entangled in a worldly philosophy, turn to the Word. Let God’s Word, his commands and his instructions, work in you the desire and ability to correct what is wrong. Let your love for Christ aim for God-pleasing marriage. Let your trust in Christ fuel an increased trust in him and increased prayer for world leaders. Let your love for Christ work in you contentment to set your heart on the same Word of God. Remember who are and rise anew in the results of baptism. Keep Walking in Christ. rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.
(1) Deep, dark-colored water at the shoreline. (2) Waves that do not break. (3) Patches of water with a rippled surface, surrounded by smooth water. (4) Sticks and leaves or foam washing out to sea. Four characteristics for detecting a rip-current— and that’s good to keep in mind. Rip-currents are powerful. Rip-currents are deceptive. Rip-currents are deadly.
So, no wonder Paul says: Keep Walking in Christ! Pay attention to what you take in spiritually. Opinions, advice, and behavior from so many around you leave an impact. So, Beware of deceptive philosophies. Expose and stay away from of destructive teachings. Stay away—because you are different. Because Christ has canceled your debt, peeled away ungodliness, and has forgiven all our trespasses. Rise anew in those results of baptism. Do so, as you Keep Walking in Christ!
The alarm clock never went off. So, when she did wake up, she was already ten minutes late for her shift. She jumped out of bed and dashed to the closet— but the clothes did not go on fast enough. One shirt had a stain, the other just was not ‘right.’ She grabbed a button-up, but it took forever to button. She could not find her keys. Her boss called. She was now an hour late with no hope of arriving soon. The thought just consumed her mind: ‘This is happening because I skipped church.’
He tried planting. But it rained for three. days. Eventually, the fields were alright— soggy, but manageable. So, he loaded the planter and hopped on the tractor, but it did not start. A pin broke— and of course it was stuck. So, he pounded. He heated it. He drilled. Two hours later, he got it replaced. The tractor roared to life and he sped off to make up for lost time— but he sped too much. He sunk right into a lowspot, like buried the tractor. So, he ran the quarter-mile back to the barn, brought out the chains, hopped on another tractor, sputtered out, hooked up the chains, tugged and pulled oh-so-gently, until everything was free. That took all afternoon. Soon, darkness came. Rain was forecast for the next four days. He could not plant and he was already behind. He kept wondering: ‘Did I break down because God is angry with me?’
The results? Broken ankle. It should have never happened; she walked to the garden just like she did every day. Today, she stepped on the dogbone hidden in the grass. Of course, her foot twisted cockeyed. She heard the snap. She felt the searing pain. Now her ankle is broken and she is laid up for eight weeks. She cannot shake the guilt. ‘Did this happen because of the argument I had with my sister?’
Do you ever feel that God afflicts you because you failed him? …You did not obey him enough? …You do not love him perfect-lier? We may link bad events to our bad behavior. Yet, we could not be more wrong. As God’s child, he does not come at you in revenge. Instead, God comes with blessing. This morning God speaks in order to silence once-and-for-all every single fear we might have about his view of us. Receive the Triple Blessing of Your Triune God. The Father keeps you. The Son shines on you. The Spirit gives you peace.
In the book of Numbers, The Lord [speaks] to Moses. God speaks! Do you grasp the significance of that simple phrase? What follows is not my interpretation (which may or may not be wrong). What follows certainly are not your unfounded opinions about God’s actions. No, God speaks for the same reason we do: to clearly communicate intentions.
The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites.’ ” To ‘bless’ means to ‘give the power to prosper,’ to ‘give good.’ God wants his people (that includes you and me!) to know him as the Giver of good! Again, God has to say these words because he knows our human hearts will doubt that he says such kind things. So, here, in Numbers, you can point and say, “God tells me what he is doing.”
He tells some very well-known words. The Lord bless you and keep you… Your God ‘blesses’ you, he gives you ‘good’— and the ‘good’ he gives is ‘keeping’ you. Imagine the little child who just caught a lightning bug. His curled fingers hold this bug in his hand. His eyes tracks its movements. He does not squish the bug; he keeps it safe and alive. Your heavenly Father keeps you. He holds you. He wraps his powerful fingers safely around you.
That is ‘good.’ Farmers might struggle during this wet planting season, but your Providing Father says: I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit (Leviticus 26:4). Even in this slow start, you’re not worried about your next meal; we do not have food rations. Your heavenly Father has made sure to feed you. He still provides farmers with income; even in tough seasons you have not seen farmers shrivel up, starve, and die. Your Father in heaven keeps you. He provides for your stomach and health, your bank accounts and life— and so much he does even without your asking!
That is not always easy to see, is it? Many times the troubles we face block that image from our minds and hearts. We either forget to turn to God because there is nothing to remind us of his presence. We even wonder if the troubles we encounter come because of something we have done wrong.
That’s why, in the midst of trouble, in the frustrations of schedules, in the aching pain, we do well to turn to God’s Word. In this ancient blessing God plainly tells you: ‘I, the Father, keep you.’ He makes that clear in order to drive away fears. In order to wipe out self-trust. In order to see him as he is: The Father who keeps you.
Receive That Blessing of Your Triune God: A Father who keeps you. As if that was not enough, your God attaches still another gift. (1) The Lord bless you and keep you. (2) The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
That might be a strange phrase: The Lord make his face shine on you. Yet, picture it literally. If someone is looking at you, that is good. Attention is set on your wellbeing. That person will respond appropriately to your needs. You are not ignored. Your God turns his face to you; he looks at you. Not just that, his face shines. That describes a cheerful face, a smile. A face that ‘lights up’ because it sees what it likes. The Lord likes looking at you because of the work of God the Son.
On the cross, God the Father gave Jesus no good. In fact, he took good away. He took away respect. He took away health. He took away life. The Father did not randomly do this. No! Jesus endures the fearful, frightening wrath of God Almighty because you (and I) doubt really cares for us, that he really gives good for life. Your God makes explicitly clear: The reason you see a cross is because this is what was needed to save you.
Dear friends, the sight of the cross means The Son shines on you. Yes, you might have skipped worship. You know you could have come, you know you did wrong. That does not mean God fills your day with trouble. No. The Son shines on you. He has bleached out that lazy-stain forever. Yes, the fields might be soggy. That does not mean God is getting revenge for something you did. Holy Scripture plainly says: The Son shines on you.
Yes, you (and I) do not deserve good things. Yet, God is gracious to us. He gives us good even though we do not deserve it. Yes, accidents stop life. God did not hide a dogbone in the grass because of a selfish argument. Even though you stood completely out of line, God has erased the record of that conversation. He will never bring it up again. He will not dust off your past when you stand at heaven’s gates. The Son shines on you.
You can be absolutely sure because your God attaches yet another blessing: the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. (Or, as you have heard it: ‘May the Lord look on you with favor and give you peace.’) God looks at you because he has accepted you. Imagine sitting on a bench at a playground. Children swarm this jungle-gym. You hear screams and shouts, crying and laughing. You see children your face literally turns to them, but you do not know them. Yet, one voice stands out from all the rest. One sight makes your heart leap with joy. Your eyes see your child. Your mind zeroes in on your child. Your heart loves your child. God blesses you, he gives ‘good,’ by promising: ‘You belong to me.’ He made that promise at your baptism.
When you were baptized, you were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). That little word ‘in’ teaches a spatial concept, like painting a big circle on the ground and you standing inside it. When you were baptized, God took you out of the billions of people and put you in this special circle. All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Galatians 3:27). You became God’s child at baptism.
That is the Holy Spirit’s work: he makes you God’s child. Because you are God’s child, you have peace. Understand, God’s peace is different from the world’s peace (John 14:27). The world’s definition of peace means: no problems, no violence, no tensions; the absence of trouble. God’s peace means: unhindered relationship.
God’s definition is best because you will have trouble in this world (John 16:33). Even though storms rage around you, you have peace. So much of the news is meant to stir emotional reactions of fear and dread. The world’s only hope for comfort is prevent World War 3. Yet, even if World War 3 ended life tomorrow, you lose nothing. You will be in heaven. That is not scary. That is comforting.
Bad things do not happen because God afflicts you. Your spouse did not die because you were unkind. Even though you were not ready, God called your spouse into heaven. That is ‘good.’ In loss, God points you to Jesus who died for you, to the Spirit who carries forgiveness into your heart, to the heaven the Father prepared for you. So, even in sadness, you have peace because God makes eternity perfect.
You have peace even in injury. If you are a child of God, then it means God is your Father. As your Father, he uses doctors to heal you. Still, injury demonstrates how little control we have over life— and that purges self-reliance. Our trust in the One who holds control over all things only grows stronger. As you rely on him, you worry less about your own limitations. You have peace.
When you (and I) take our eyes off of this clear blessing, we will wallow in fear. You may think God afflicts you because you failed him. That you did not obey him enough. That you must love him better. Yet, we could not be more wrong.
God does not come at you in revenge. Your Triune God makes clear: ‘I have put my name on you.’ He has brought you into his ownership. God the Son paid the penalty for guilt. God the Holy Spirit took that payment and applied to you, personally, at your baptism. God the Father reached into those waters and pulled you up as his adopted child. Receive the Triple Blessing of Your Triune God. The Father keeps you. The Son shines on you. The Spirit gives you peace.
The fate of the free world depended on one man. Yes, one man. Supreme Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, planned ferrying over 350,000 Allied troops across the English Channel and onto the heavily armed beaches of Normandy. He needed a day. So, chief meteorologist, Captain James Stagg had one job: get the weather forecast right.
The margin for error was zero. Stormy seas would sink ships, swallow tanks, and drown thousands. Postpone the invasion and you give communist Russia a chance to control all Europe. Pass on calm weather and Nazi Germany would discover the invasion. Yet, selecting a day was difficult. In Michigan, we gage weather as it moves across the country; we see what approaches. To the west of the English Channel is nothing but open, unpredictable Atlantic Ocean; you had no records. On top of that, Eisenhower had already selected a date: June 5, 1944. Captain Stagg advised against it. So, Eisenhower faced a decision: trust your meteorologist or trust your own instincts? Who do you trust? (https://www.usatoday.com/amp/9914207)
In our day of redacted Mueller reports and exposed church abuse, it feels impossible to trust anyone. So many promises lie broken— and with them lie shattered dreams, deflated hope, and painful heartache. It just seems best to rely on yourself.
So, who do you trust? Easter gives us the only answer. The events of this day have changed the course of life forever. Because of Easter you find A Word that does as promised. A Word that gives life. So, Cheer Up! You have God’s Word!
That is where you find cheer. Look again at our gospel reading. Verse 1 says: [O]n the first day of the week, at early dawn, the [women] went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. It is Easter, but you discover a cheerless scene. Yes, the first Easter morning is a funeral procession. How could it not be? This group of women watched Jesus die! They saw him buried here! Inside this tomb lies a dear Friend, a beloved Teacher, a trusted Preacher. That is an unwanted reality. They cannot restart the heart. They cannot force the brain to function. They cannot make lungs breathe. Jesus is gone and they cannot fix it. They stand absolutely powerless to create cheer in life.
When they reach the tomb, they found the stone rolled away[,] but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus… How much worse can it get? The body is missing! Again, this unwanted reality just crushes them! They were not there to stop the robbers. They did not install security systems. They cannot investigate and hunt down the criminals. These women not only lack the power to raise the dead, but they also cannot control the one thing they could control: make final preparations! They cannot fix it! They cannot do what they want! They are powerless to find cheer in life.
While they were perplexed about this, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. [T]hey were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground… Now this! Two men— two angels— who live in heaven, who stand beside the Holy God, now have a message from the Almighty. How can you not tremble? Because whatever comes out of the mouth comes from God. That message may not be good— and the women would be completely powerless to stop what God will do.
That first Easter is loaded with strange emotions. Those women stand mortified, they are stressed, they are anxious for the exact same reason I so often am: Because I rely on myself!
Why the self-reliance? Because I know ‘me’ better than anyone else knows ‘me.’ ‘I’ know my weaknesses. ‘I’ know my goals. ‘I’ know my needs. No one else knows my desires better than ‘I’ do. No one else thinks about them more than ‘I’ do. Yes, the police officer protects me, but he’s watching over thousands of others. He cannot be everywhere at once. Yes, the teacher cares for me, but she has other students in the classroom. Yes, I know my family is there for me, but each one cares for his own needs first. So, I take it upon myself to find cheer in this life. If I trust myself, then maybe I will be satisfied. Except, like the women, I confront many insurmountable obstacles. I want to prevent sickness, but I cannot stop cancer from entering my body— and I cannot wish it away. I want peace in my family, but I cannot stop my sibling from ruining my plans; I cannot control personalities. I want to reach my goals and dreams, but I fall into addiction again, I stumble into old habits, I foil my own plans. Trusting myself does not bring the peace I so desperately crave.
Studying these women only reminds me of the purpose for Easter. This day happens because of us. Those women think self-reliance will help them. In reality, self-reliance caused their sadness. That is why Jesus came in the first place: because each one of us consider ourselves more reliable than a reliable God. In short, self-reliance calls God a liar. Now where does that self-reliance leave the women? The women stare at death and cannot fix it. I stare at death and realize I cannot stop my own grief, I cannot stop my own death, I cannot stand before the throne of God and live! Nothing I can do will erase that awful truth. What good self-reliance does!
Thank God he sends angels. Yes, angels. Messengers. If God never did this, then I would still be scratching my head at the empty tomb.
Do you realize where the angels point the women? To a promise God made. The angels said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” “Well, what did you see? You witnessed sinful men beat him. You saw him suffer and die. You watched him buried. Since everything happened as he said, what do you think will happen next?”
Can you see the light turn on? And they remembered his words… People make promises and break them, change them, forget them. God is not another person. God intentionally made a promise and God deliberately kept his promise. Just like that, fear gives way to joy, assumptions crumble, self-reliance vanishes; trust in the promises of God swells!
God did what he said he would do. He hung your (and my) self-reliance on Jesus and crushed it. He leaves him to die by wicked men. Leaves him to be crucified. Leaves him dead. Then, he raised him— body and soul, alive from the grave.
Dear friends, Cheer Up! You have God’s Word! Easter proves that God’s own Word does as promised. He not only makes promises, but keeps his Word—which means, God is completely reliable. Because of that, God’s Word gives you life.
Yes, life. The resurrection of Jesus is not just one single promise kept long ago. No, the resurrection carries some very long-term results. Imagine setting up a row of dominoes. Tap the first domino and it falls into another, which falls into another, and another and another, and so on. One domino causes many other dominoes to move.
Here, God raises Jesus to life. Sounds simple, except that centuries earlier God had promised to raise his Son (Psalm 16:10-11). On Easter, God reached down and raise this one Person to life. Therefore, this one Person is not just another man, but God’s promised Son! (Romans 1:4). One promise kept.
Remember, Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus hung on the cross— and God loaded him with my self-reliance and crushed him. He makes him pay my crime. Now, Jesus lives—again! The Bible says: Jesus died because of my sin and was raised to declare us ‘Not Guilty!” (Romans 4:25). That means God has accepted his payment on your behalf! That means Jesus removed condemnation. That means guilt no longer damns you. Another promise made and kept.
If Jesus wipes your spiritual record clean, it means God sees you as innocent— which means God kept another promise: Jesus destroyed the devil’s work (1 John 3:8). If the devil cannot convince God to lock you in hell, then it means you will not go to hell. Jesus keeps another promise! Because Jesus lives, you also will live (John 14:19). If you will live, then it means Jesus is keeping another promise: You will live in heaven! (John 14:2-3). Another promise falls complete: Because Jesus lives—no one holds authority over him, no one tells him what to do or how to behave (Exodus 15:1-11).
Do you see how Easter changes life? You live by the promises of God— because those promises are not empty wishes, but guarantees of what God will do next!
Those promises carry you through every situation. God promises life is not the end for the Christian; life continues in heaven! That means your loved one is not forever forgotten. No, she stands in the throne-room of God. He weeps and mourns no more! (Isaiah 65:19-20). Your body may not do the things it once did. You cannot build muscle, you cannot spark energy, you cannot stop cancer from spreading. Yet, your God promises: I am with you. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10). Regret may relentlessly shame you. You feel so unworthy to be around friends, parents, children, God. Yet, God points to Jesus and promises: Because he suffered your penalty, your lawless acts I remember no more (Hebrews 10:17). Where do you find peace like that? Never in yourself, but in the only One who does as promised.
A new day dawns Easter. A new day that reveals God is absolutely serious about saving you …about loving you …about being your strength. That removes self-reliance. That lifts you from stressful anxiety. That puts your trust in a God who never fails you. Cheer Up! You have God’s Word! A Word that gives you life.
A word like Captain Staggs’. Eisenhower selected June 5, 1944 for D-Day. Captain Stagg advised against it. So, who do you trust: your meteorologist or trust your own instincts?
Eisenhower could not see the future, but he trusted the word of his meteorologist. Sure enough, June 5th proved stormy. Waves chopped. Rain pelted. Winds whipped. The mission would have failed. Yet, June 6, 1944, brought the calm weather predicted. The Allies invaded, stormed Europe, and destroyed Nazi resistance. That victory brought new life throughout the world.
Easter brings new life for you. In our day of redacted Mueller reports and exposed church abuse, it may feel impossible to trust anyone. So many promises lie broken— and with them lie shattered dreams, deflated hope, and painful heartache. It may feel best to rely on yourself.
Yet, Easter reveals life! Life in heaven! Life lived with God on earth! Because of Easter you find A Word that does as promised. A Word that gives life. Yes, the events of Easter have changed the course of life forever. So, Cheer Up! You have God’s Word!