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11/26/14 - Remembering God - Deut. 8:1-14

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado ☩ www.hclchr.org


Three older gentlemen were having coffee together at one of their homes and they chatted about a number of things, until one of them said, “You know, I’ve been getting awful forgetful lately. Why just this morning I was standing at the top of the stairs, and I couldn’t remember whether I had just come up or was about to go down.”

The second fellow said, “You think that’s bad? The other day, I was sitting on the edge of my bed and I couldn’t remember whether I was just going to sleep or I had just woken up.

The third fellow smiled smugly, “Well, I have no problem in that area at all.  I have a memory like a steel trap, knock on wood.” he said as he rapped the table with his knuckles.  Then a startled look crossed his face as he turned and looked at the front door and yelled, “Who’s there?” 

Okay I’ll admit it’s a groaner, but we have all forgotten or will forget something at some point in our lives.  Such lapses in memory are inconvenient and often embarrassing, but when it comes to forgetfulness about spiritual matters it can be a very grave matter, very grave matter indeed.   In fact one theologian I have read defines sin as “forgetting God,” which is not a bad definition, because when we sin it is as though we forget that it is God who has created us and who saves us. Everything good thing we have and are we owe to Him and Him alone. Yet, sometimes we delude ourselves into thinking that we have somehow done it all on our own and are not accountable to God or anyone else for anything.

A perfect example would be the ancient Israelites to whom God is speaking in this text through servant Moses.  They were preparing to go into the promised land and Moses is taking one last opportunity to remind them of whose they are, where they had come from, what had been done for them, and also what God expected of them

Moses repeats the law for them again, which is what the name of this book:  “Deuteronomy” means. It means ‘repetition of the Law’ or ‘the law a second time.’  But did they remember God?  After the Israelites took the Promised Land back did they remember that they were the people of God?  Did they remember how He delivered them out of slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand? Did they remember how he had sustained them in a desert, a wasteland for 40 years with manna or bread from heaven and water from the rock?  Did they remember how He set them apart as His own people unique among all the nations of the earth?  Did they remember His Holy Law given to them at Mt Sinai?  The answer is sadly, “No.” No, they did not remember.  As we see in the book of Judges chapter two: After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord, nor what He had done for Israel.  Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals.

Oh how easy it is to point our fingers at them and say shame, shame on them, how could they have been so ungrateful? How could they have let all those luxuries, all those nice houses, all those nice cities and all the peace and freedom they enjoyed take their eyes off the Lord?  How could they forget they were his special covenant people?  How could they forget his law, which he gave to them? Well, like my father says, whenever you point your finger, there are always three pointing back at you.

Might not future generations look back at us and say the same thing about us.  They could say, “Look at the abundance God gave them. In the history of mankind, there was never a people who were better fed, better clothed, and better housed than those Americans. There was never anyone who enjoyed more freedom that anyone at anytime ever on the face of the earth including the freedom to proclaim the Gospel without fear of persecution.”

Beloved, is there any doubt about that? Is there any doubt that all that we have is from the gracious hand of our Almighty God?  There was no such doubt in the minds of the founding fathers, who although they were not all strong Christians, all recognized the importance of Christianity and its accompanying morality found in the Bible, without which they knew there could be no real freedom.  George Washington, in his inaugural address said: No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of Men more than the people of the United States.  Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency

In one of his first official acts he issued a thanksgiving proclamation which reads:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly implore his protection and favor... and it goes on to call the nation to thankfulness to God.

How about a quote from Lincoln who proclaimed a national day of fasting, humiliation and prayer during the height of the Civil war:

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven.  We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity.  We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God.  We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.  Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, to proud to pray to the God that made us!  It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the Offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

Beloved that might well have been written to us, for like those ancient Israelites to whom our O.T. reading was first addressed, we too are inclined to forget about God. We too have fallen into serving the Baals of our own convenience, lust, perversion, and greed for way too many years.  We too need to fall to our knees in humble contrition and repentance, asking God to forgive us and renew us. And the good news is that he has and he will. For just as He delivered His people Israel out of their bondage in Egypt so He has delivered us out of a greater bondage, the bondage of sin and death, by offering up His Son, Jesus Christ, as a perfect sacrifice on the cross on Calvary and then by raising him from the dead three days later.  Yes, even though we often forget about God, he did not and still does not forget about us.

And that, beloved, is truly something worth remembering, not only on Thanksgiving, but every day of our lives.  So as we gather together in His presence this day and also as we enjoy the company of our families and friends, and all the good things God has given to us, let us remember who gave it all to us.  We enjoy them all because God is good and He would have us remember Him so that we would not die eternally, but have our sins forgiven by faith in Jesus Christ, and dwell with Him in His kingdom forever.

How could we ever forget about Jesus and all he has done for us?  How could we ever forget to offer him our thanks?  We cannot and we must not.  It must be as we sing in our hymn, We Praise You, O God: We worship you God of our Fathers, we bless you;

Through trial and tempest our guide you have been.

When perils o’rtake us, you will not forsake us,

And with your help, O Lord our struggles we win.

Indeed God does help us in all our struggles, all our trials and temptations, all the difficulties we face in our lives. He is our help and our stay, but it is interesting to note the way that he helps us is often with other people. He asks us as His people to love and help one another.

I read an interesting story, a while ago, a true story of a college sociology professor who gave his students the task of going into the slums of Baltimore, Md. and gathering the case histories of 200 boys.  After they had done this he asked his students to predict what would happen to each boy in the future.  In almost every case the answer was the same, “He hasn’t got a chance, because of his environment, his family, and his economic situation, he’ll never amount to much of anything.”

25 years later the same professor was going through his files and stumbled upon the earlier project and he had his class do a follow-up study on what had become of the subjects.  With the exception of 20 boys who had either moved away or died, the students learned that 176 of the remaining 180 achieved extraordinary success as lawyers, doctors and businessmen.  The professor was astounded and decided to pursue the matter further.  Since most of the men were still in the area he was able to ask each one “How do you account for your success?” And in each case the reply was “There was this one teacher that I had who made a big difference.”

The teacher they named had retired, but she was still alive and living in the area so the professor sought her out and asked the elderly, but spritely, lady what she did to help the boys she taught to lift themselves out of the poverty and crime ridden environment in which they lived.  The teacher’s eyes sparkled and she smiled and said, “It’s really very simple, I just loved them.”

Beloved in the Lord, in the end, it really is just that simple and it should be especially simple for us as Christians, as we remember God’s grace and mercy shown to us in Jesus Christ, and give thanks for all that He has done for us. And then in faith granted to us by God, the Holy Spirit through the means of grace, show that same love toward our neighbors, that they too may remember and give thanks to our God, ( Father, the Son and Holy Spirit) now and forever.  Amen. 


 

11/23/14 - Sheep and Goats - Matt. 25:31-46

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado ☩ www.hclchr.org


Some time back, I heard a story about a man who lived in Florida several years ago in the days before the weather channel. He had ordered a very expensive barometer that he wanted to place on a post just outside his window so he could have a better idea what the weather might be for the coming day.  Well, the expensive instrument arrived at his home, but when he went to put it on a post outside his window, he was disappointed to find that the indicator needle seemed to be stuck pointing to the sector marked 'Hurricane'.  After shaking the barometer vigorously and banging it on the post with no change in results, he wrote a scathing letter to the company from which he had purchased the barometer and the next day he mailed the missive as he went to a nearby city on some other business.  But that night when he returned to find that that not only was his new barometer was missing, but his house was also.  It had been swept away by a hurricane. 

Ignoring danger signals is, unfortunately an all too common occurrence. Like a man who feels pain in his chest, but refuses to go to the doctor and then dies of a heart-attack.  Or the woman who fails to read the prescription on her medicine bottle and takes an accidental overdose.  Or the child who sees that the pedestrian walk light is red, but runs out in the street anyway and gets hit by a car.  Yet, as sad as those scenarios are, there is an even more tragic occurrence and that is when people disregard the warning signals found in God's Holy Word and die without faith in Jesus Christ.

It was for that reason, that Jesus in His great mercy spent much time in the days before his crucifixion talking to His disciples about the end of time and the judgment.  And today’s gospel lesson, which relates Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, is a prime example of this. There is no doubt it is a stern warning and a strong declaration of God's Law, which shows His fierce anger against sin, which should move all people (including us) to repent of it immediately!  But there is also a gentle reminder of the Gospel, Jesus unconditional saving love for sinners, which promises that whoever believes in Him will not perish eternally in hell, but will live forever in heaven.  With those two thoughts in mind, let us take a closer look at this parable of our Lord.

We begin by noting that the sheep are believers in Jesus Christ, while the goats are unbelievers.  This is not the first time this metaphor is used in the Scriptures. God’s people are often called His ‘sheep’ in the O.T. particularly by David in his Psalms.  But it is the Prophet Ezekiel, who compares the heathen nations to goats, because goats were basically viewed as being worthless animals because they were stubborn, belligerent and destructive.  According to ancient shepherding practices, which are still used in use in some places today, sheep and goats are allowed to mingle together in rugged pasturelands, grazing on scarce grasses.  But at night shepherds call their sheep home to the security of the fold, while the goats do not respond.  They ignore the call, while the sheep follow it, because they know and listen to the shepherd's voice. Jesus uses this metaphor also in the gospel of St. John chapter ten where he says:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Then a little later John writes:

So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”  Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.

With these words and others we can see quite clearly who the Lord’s sheep are. They are those people who follow Jesus and who know His voice.  That means they accept His free gift of salvation in humble faith.  They read His Word hungrily, digesting it daily in private devotions and weekly in Bible Study and they submit themselves to His teachings and keep them.  On the other hand, those who are not Jesus' followers, do not and will not listen to Him. They turn a deaf ear to His calls.  Not only do they not study His Word, they openly reject it and His gracious call to them in the Gospel, like stubborn, belligerent goats they think they can do whatever they want believing that they are in complete control of their own destiny.  And that, beloved, is a good summary of where most Americans are at in their thinking today, which is why our nation is dying and rotting away before our very eyes. 

That is also why Jesus, at His Second Coming, when He appears in glory, accompanied by His harvesting angels, He will divide the world into two distinct groups:  Christians -- believers whom He will station at His right hand in the place of honor, and non-Christians or non-believers whom He will be herded to His left hand in the place of disgrace.  And then will come the Judgment.

Now at first glance that may seem confusing.  We might ask: Why do Christians need to be judged?  Since they're believers, aren't they going to be saved rather than judged?  Not only that, but doesn't judgment take place at death?  Because when you die you go straight to heaven or hell right? Well, that is true!  But in any court of law, where there is judgment taking place, there are actually two things that occurr:  (1) the verdict and (2) the sentence.

So it is with the judgment that takes place in Scripture.  In John 3:18 we read:

Whoever believes in God's Son is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's One and Only Son!

Again in John 5:24 Jesus says

I tell you the truth, whoever hears My Word and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life and will not be condemned; from he has crossed over from death into life.

In other words, the verdict has already been handed down.  Those who believe in Jesus are innocent; those who don't are guilty.  And that goes into effect, for our souls, the moment we die.  However, the sentencing itself doesn't take place until Judgment Day, after the resurrection of all flesh, when our bodies are raised up and reunited with our souls.  Then Jesus will judge believers to be saved, and unbelievers to be damned.

However, the question brought to mind by this text is by what criterion will we all be judged?  A casual look at this text seems to imply that we will be judged by our works, whatever we do or don't do for the least of these, Christ's brethren.  However, the good works that are spoken of here are only mentioned as an evidence of faith.  This is supported by several facts in our text:

  1. Works aren't even brought up until after the separation takes place.  In other words, the reward of glory is first bestowed and then the works are viewed.  It's a reminder that good works are not the cause of our salvation but rather a natural outpouring of it.  As Luther used to say: they are the fruit of faith.  
  2. It is important to note the attitude of the sheep and the goats is quite different.  The sheep are filled with humility:  “Lord, when did we do all these things?” they ask. For in humble repentance they realize that nothing good dwells in them; it is only by God’s grace through faith that they are able to do anything that is good.  That's why Jesus says that they are  “Blessed by His Father.”  As Christians we all know this to be true.  The goats, on the other hand, are so blinded by their own pride, that they cannot even see their sin, particularly their sins of omission.  They must have Jesus show it to them: “Lord, when didn't we do all these things?” they arrogantly ask.  In their pride and unbelief they fail to repent and so are rightly condemned.
  3. And finally, you'll notice that the believers have only good things spoken about them; while the unbelievers have only bad things spoken about them.  Why is that?  Is it because once you become a Christian you're no longer a sinner?  Of course not.  The Bible plainly teaches that we're as sinful as the rest of the world.  Rather, it's a sign of God's mercy and compassion. Because we believe in Jesus, the Judge buries all our failures in forgiving silence and remembers our guilt no more.  Or as the noted Lutheran theologian Edward Koehler so beautifully put it:

For the believers the sentence of condemnation is suspended and changed into a sentence of pardon and justification, because by faith they have appropriated to themselves the saving merits of Christ.  Their sins are not investigated and published; they are not even mentioned.  The Judge does not look at the filthy rags of their sins, but sees only the perfect garment of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which He offered them in the Gospel, and which they put on by faith !'  Therefore, the criterion by which all people will be judged is their faith in Jesus Christ, or the lack thereof.  For as Romans 2:16 states:  'On that Day, God will judge the secrets of men according to the Gospel, through Christ Jesus !'

As I was thinking about this I couldn’t help but recall the story about one of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expeditions to the Antarctic.  Once he was once compelled to leave some of his men on Elephant Island, with the intention of returning for them later and carrying them back to England.  But he was unavoidably delayed, and by the time he could go for them he found to his dismay that the sea had frozen over and his men were cut off.  Three times he tried to reach them, but his efforts ended in failure.  Finally, on his fourth and last attempt, he discovered a narrow channel through the ice.  Guiding his small ship back to the island, he was delighted to find his men not only alive and well, but all were fully packed and prepared to get right on board.  After the excitement of the homecoming died down, Sir Ernest inquired how it was that they were ready to leaven so promptly.  His men told him that every morning their leader rolled up his sleeping bag, and said:  'Get your things ready, boys, because the boss may come back today !'

How much more important it is for us then to always be ready, because our Great Leader Jesus may be coming back today.  May God help us then to be prepared for His coming, whether it be in death or at his second coming; to be waiting for our Shepherd, listening to His voice in his Word & heeding with the full assurance of faith, unto life everlasting.  Amen.      


 

11/16/14 - God’s Investment - Matt. 25:14-30

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado ☩ www.hclchr.org


Before we explore this parable in depth, it is important to know two things:  First, who Jesus is speaking to and second what exactly he is speaking about.  Misunderstanding one or both of these items will lead us down the wrong path and into error for certain.  So let me answer both of the questions for you:  First, this parable of our Lord like the one previous to it (the parable of the wise and foolish virgins) that I preached upon last week, is spoken to us that is to Christians. We are, or at we least claim to be, the Lord’s servants while most of the rest of the world makes no such claim. And even if unbelievers did try to please God they would fall woefully short as it says in Hebrew 11:6:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

The second important thing to know when we examine this parable is that Jesus is not speaking directly here about salvation or justification by grace through faith in him.  No, he is instead addressing the need for sanctification or how we as his servants ought to live.  You and I already know that we are purchased people, as Martin Luther pointed out in his explanation of the second article of the Apostle’s Creed where he stated:

He [Christ] has redeemed me a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sin and the power of the devil not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.

Yes, it is quite clear to us that Jesus, the Son of God, paid a heavy price for us, and He is entitled to what He bought.  And that is what this Parable of the Talents is all about. It begs the question, “What has God gotten for His investment in us?”  Indeed, each and every day is a good time for us as Christians to take inventory of Jesus investment in us, for He has poured out His toil and love, His patience and pain, yes even his very life.  What sort of bargain did He get? What are his returns on two thousand years of investment? These are questions we forced to ask as He holds before us the Parable of the Talents, so that we might give Him our answer and have a renewed sense of His wondrous grace and joyfully spend ourselves in His service.

It is solely by His incredible grace that God has asked you and me, without any merit or worthiness on our part, to join in the greatest enterprise in the history of the world. Yes, I know the church is not a business, but suppose for a moment it was. It would be a corporation whose assets are the largest in history, whose powers are the greatest, whose area for business is unlimited, and whose holdings are beyond all precedent.  It is into such an organization that we have been called, or in the words of our text:  For the kingdom of heaven will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property

The Scriptures tell us that “the cattle on a thousand hills” are God's, as are all forests and fields, rivers and seas, silver and gold. Our mission statement is straightforward: "Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations.”  As God’s agents—his servants, if you please, we are sent to represent His interests according to the abilities given us. Jesus Christ is the royal Heir and Owner of this business and, wonder of wonders, He has chosen us, yes miserable sinners like us  to become co-heirs with Him of His vast wealth and riches. Into our hands He has put the possessions of the universe, dividing to each one of us that portion which we are capable of handling.

Now, stop and think about that for a moment. What a risk God is taking in placing the Kingdom into such hands as ours. Yet he does as Jesus points out in this parable—giving to one five talents, another two, and to another one talent. In His wise providence, God has made us all talented, but we are not all equal in talents. Think of it like building a church, a magnificent cathedral. One draws up the plans, another compose music for its organ, another carves its stone, still others lay brick, carry hod or mortar, and some build the road leading to its door.  All have some talent. Without the services of each there would either be no building or else it would be incomplete.

The architect with his brilliant plans and the simple hod carrier with his common service are bondservants whose services have been purchased by the Owner who desires a temple where He can dwell. We may be architects or hod carriers; we may have five or two or only one talent. But He uses our talents to build His kingdom and to save people who will in turn serve Him in endless joy. If all were architects, no building would ever get built; if all were hod carriers, there would be only a shapeless mound of cement hardened into uselessness.  Likewise we all must use the talent or talents God has entrusted to us or nothing will be accomplished. 

Returning to our parable, the talents Jesus speaks of are not actual the talents that we think of, but sums of money and in each case, it is a considerable sum. Originally, a talent was a unit of weight, but later became a monetary unit much like the British pound, which was once equivalent to the value of a pound of silver. In Jesus day, a silver talent was worth about 7,300 denarii and a denarius was a day’s wage.  So a silver talent it was about 20 years wages or what a typical person living back then would have earned after working for their entire lifetime. A talent of gold was worth thirty times that. In either case Jesus was not talking about chump change, but large sums of money.

Likewise, God has gifted us more than we will ever know. In fact, I would challenge you today to look for an area of service here at church that you might never have thought of doing before.  Take for example the choir.  I remember joining the choir many years ago when I was a new Christian and I had hardly any experience singing at all.  Yet, with practice and with time on task I became proficient (I can’t say I was ever really good), but it was something that I came to enjoy very much, and it was appreciated by other members.  May God never hear any of us saying: "There is nothing I can do." Just look around there is something we all can do whether it is serving on the Altar guild, being an usher, teaching a Sunday School or Bible class, leading a youth group, or something as simple as coming and helping out on a church clean-up day. God has given us talents that can be used to advance His kingdom.

That is why it is not unfair to ask what return is God getting from His investment in you? Someone once said that there are three kinds of workers in the church today—the tired, the retired, and the tireless. While there are many who are glad to ride on Jesus train of salvation, glad for the ticket away from sin and hell, a ticket printed with the ink of His blood and punched with the nails and thorns and spear of His cross, glad that He so graciously forgives and accepts them for so marvelous a destination as the mansions of heaven, and yet far too many people are riding in the sleeper car.

Such was the one-talented servant whom our Lord judged as "wicked." Yet, you will notice that he doesn’t do anything overtly evil. He didn't squander his talent in riotous living like the Prodigal Son. He didn't embezzle the master's funds as did the Unmerciful Servant. He didn't even handle his lord's affairs so poorly as to force him almost into bankruptcy, as did the Unjust Steward. No, he just buried what God gave him and let it go unused. In so doing he showed that he was thinking only of himself and separated his personal interests from those of his Lord.  He only wanted to be left alone—and so he was in the end, in outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Oh he had his excuses. "He was afraid." He lacked the faith to venture for his Lord, to hazard the untried road, for he didn't believe anything good could be accomplished. He didn't believe that there is a kind and gracious God who knows how to bless and prosper those who love Him. Rather, he thought of God, his master, as he knew himself to be: hard-hearted and grasping, unjustly looking for returns where he hadn't labored. And the just result verdict is given in our text:

So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.  For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast that worthless servant into the outer darkness.

Beloved, God is serious. The lives that He gives to us in this world are not toys to be played with for our amusement. His investment in us was not lightly made. This parable speaks mainly about the one-talented man, for there are many more one- and two-talented people in the world than five-talented. The St. Paul’s, the St. Augustine’s, and the Martin Luther’s, —these men who made history and contributed so much to life, these brilliant stars in God's planet of humanity — make us look like dim and far-off pinpoints.  And so the temptation comes to us one-talented people: "What can I do? With my poor equipment, God surely won't expect anything much of me." Sometimes we may go so far as to even blame God that we are short-changed over against the more brilliant five talented stars. Beloved don’t fall for it, for that the devil's whisper, who seeks to have us bury our talent in the graveyard of our own sinful selfishness. When that spirit wins out, then the work of the Kingdom lags, few souls are won, and even the faithful become discouraged, and there is always the danger that if do not use what we have, we shall lose even that.

My friends God created us and endowed us with our inborn talents. He believed that we were worth redeeming from our evil and a wretched eternity even though it cost Him His Son on Calvary. He even now sends us His Holy Spirit to work within us through His Word and Sacraments, to give us the gifts of faith, pardon, peace, true wisdom and spiritual understanding, as well as the hope of heaven. How can we forget that He purchased and won us from sin, from death, and the devil, that we might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him both here in this life and forever in the life to come?

I remember reading a story once about an Arab sultan who kindly fed a beggar who sat at the gate of his palace each and every day. One day the Sultan was in extreme difficulty and needed someone to run an errand for him immediately. So he summoned the beggar and asked him to do this service, but the beggar drew himself up to his full height and said: "Sultan, I beg alms; I do not run errands." How true that is of so many people! They are so quick to ask alms of Christ, ask for His mercy, His power, His presence, and a million other gifts, but will they run His errands?  Never.

Beloved, we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but we are saved for a purpose.

We were saved unto good works; for salvation has as its end the service of God and His kingdom.  For you see many times God’s investment pays off.  Look at how the two faithful servants warmed their master’s heart!  It mattered not that one had five talents or two talents, for while they were unequal in wealth, they were equal in spirit. No sooner had they received their goods, when they immediately went to work. They had faith, faith that their labor for him in his household would not be in vain, faith in his promises, knowing him as the good and trustworthy lord and master that he was.  They loved him and so they put on the work clothes of service with the result that they returned to him one hundred percent on his investment. Their faithful service so delighted their master, that although they were unequal in wealth, they shared equally in his joy as their Master said: "Well done, good and faithful servant."  

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, hearing those words should be our most earnest desire. And  God holds out the same promises to you and me: "Give, and it shall be given unto you, a good measure, pressed down, and running over. . . . He that soweth bountifully shall also reap bountifully. . . The plowman shall overtake the reaper. . . . He that loses his life for My sake shall find it."

It’s like a pastor of mine once told me, “With God the dice are always loaded.” Whatever you do for Him never fails, for your faith and devotion and service are guarded by the faithfulness of His love. His purpose will always come out on top in the end, His will, will be done, His kingdom will come. But He is serious in having our service, for His claim check on our lives is the cross and the empty tomb. May God grant that we never forget it, in Jesus Name. Amen.


 

11/09/14 - Oil in Your Lamp, Matt 25:1-13

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado ☩ www.hclchr.org


Does part of what Jesus describes in this parable sound familiar?  Perhaps, it was going to be your first day on your new job, or you had an important meeting scheduled, and for one reason or another you went to bed a little later than you expected.  The next morning as you rolled over and opened your bleary eyes and focused your gaze upon your nice AM, FM, stereo radio alarm clock, and you noticed that you had neglected to use the one feature for which you purchased it, the alarm. 

The covers exploded off your bed and what took place next looked like an episode off a TV situation comedy.  You tried to do every thing at once.  If you are a man you were probably trying to brush your teeth, tie your neck tie and find a pair of socks that matched all at the same time.  If you are woman you were undoubtedly grappling with your hose, while simultaneously trying to curl your hair, apply lipstick and select an outfit appropriate for the occasion.  After several minutes of pandemonium you grabbed your keys, flew to the closet ripped your coat off the hanger and jumped into the garage, but just as you were getting into your car however, you noticed a large dark puddle beneath it.  You reached down and touched it with you finger, and it felt slippery, and even with your limited automotive knowledge you knew that it was oil and you understood that without oil, you were not going anywhere.

Well, maybe you haven’t had a morning quite as bad as that, but all of us have experience with unexpected events, so it is not completely impossible for us to relate to this parable of our Lord, even if we are not familiar with the ancient Jewish wedding custom of the bridegroom and his attendants going to the house of his intended bride and her attendants in the middle of the night in order to catch the young ladies dozing and eliciting the kind of hilarious activity I have just described.

Interestingly, this is how Jesus our Lord describes the last day when He comes again to earth to raise up and judge the living and the dead. That is the event he is pointing to in this parable. It is the same event he so vividly describes in the previous chapter, chapter 24 of St. Matthew’s gospel, where he states that he will appear quite suddenly in the sky, like a flash of lightening, riding on clouds, and attended by his harvesting angels. And He says in Matthew 24:30 that on that day the nations of the earth will mourn.

  Why?  Because most people will be taken by surprise, they will be caught, in essence, with their pants down.  They will be like the wicked servant whom Jesus describes at the end of chapter 24, just before today’s parable, who said to himself that his master would be gone a long time, so he chose to spend his time eating, drinking and making merry by beating up his fellow servants. Our Lord warns us that He, the master, will come on a day when that servant does not expect him and that he will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But, before we go on, I would like to point out that there is a difference between that parable, and many of the other parables that our Lord tells relating to the end of time and this parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The virgins or the bride and her attendants are a specific people.  They are those who await the bridegroom and would be members of his wedding feast.  They are what is called in our Lutheran Confessions the “visible church on Earth”, the church that we see with our eyes, the church that contains both believers and hypocrites, those who love the Lord and seek after the truth, and those who do not, those who are wise and have adequate oil in their lamps and those who are foolish and unprepared and have none. 

This parable makes it quite clear that the church, as well as the world, will be judged and divided into two groups when our Lord comes again.  He will take unto himself what we Lutherans call the “invisible” or “hidden” church. We call it the “invisible” or “hidden” church because we cannot see it with our eyes, yet we confess our belief in it in the words of the Nicene Creed as the “one, holy, Christian and Apostolic church” because God Word tells us it will remain until the end of the world.    It is that group of people who are the wise virgins, the ones with oil in their lamps.

So now the question comes, “What is this precious oil without which we may not attend the wedding feast?”  It is faith, faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, faith given to us as a gift by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. It is nothing more, and certainly, certainly, nothing less.  And I ask you now, what greater tragedy could there be, than on the last day when our Lord returns or I might add, on anyone’s last day, the day that they die, which often comes just as unexpectedly, that there will be some who have been baptized, and who have heard the Gospel faithfully preached, and who had partaken of the Lord’s Supper, who will not go in to the wedding feast. Using the same metaphor as our Lord, it would be as if they had literally waded in oil in their lifetime and then at the end were found to have none.

"So, what is the problem," you might ask, "I believe, I have faith, I have plenty of oil." To that I respond, good, you have been blessed but, you must also understand that while we live in this sin-fallen flesh, we are always in danger of an oil shortage.  You see there is this terrorist and despot whose greatest desire is to cut off our oil supply and sabotage the oil we already posses.

No, I am not talking about some wild-eyed Islamist nut job like Osama bin Ladin, but a much more deadly enemy, one who is as old as the world itself.  His name is Satan and he has been busy since the very beginning, since our first parents dwelt in the garden of Eden, seek to cut people off from the grace of God.  And even today he continues his dirty work, and he would like nothing more than to stop the preaching of the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ altogether.

And do you want to know what his best weapon is?  Do you want to know how he will take so many in the visible church with him to hell on the last day?  He doesn’t do it with bombs or guns, no he uses this little pin called apathy and he pokes an ever so tiny hole in our lamps, so that if we do not replenish our supply constantly, if we do not attend worship, if we do not spend time in Bible study and prayer, when the bridegroom comes, we will trim our lamps and go to light them and find that they will not light because there is nothing left in them.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I beg you do not become complacent in your faith, do not take God’s grace for granted, for what greater horror could there ever be that to hear those awful words through a closed door, "Truly, truly I say, I never knew you."

But, enough talk of the devil and his work, let us instead procure oil, which is right here in our midst this day as it is in every church where the pure and holy Gospel is faithfully preached and taught.  It’s like the gushers in those old black and white movies that erupt and spew oil everywhere, spraying oil over us all and running in a river down the center aisle and out into the street.

There is the derrick, front and center, the cross, through which God our Father pours out immeasurable blessings upon us though the shed blood of his Son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have the forgiveness of all our sins, peace and reconciliation with our heavenly Father, as well as love and joy and strength and hope in our hearts. 

How can we not avail ourselves of the blessed Gospel, the Good News that Jesus has rescued us from eternal death through his atoning death on Calvary?  How can we not rejoice in the blessed hope that we all have in his glorious resurrection from the dead, which is a foretaste of our own resurrection on the last day? How can we not have our lamps filled to the brim by God the Holy Spirit who not only creates, but sustains our faith in Jesus just as He does in the hearts of all believers?

You know, it is no coincidence that when prophets, priests, and kings were anointed in the O.T. it was always with oil. An example of this is the 133rd Psalm:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron,

running down on the collar of his robes!

It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!

For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.

That is a wonderful word picture of Aaron the great high priest of God, being anointed wearing the breastplate containing the 12 precious stones representing Israel, (God’s people) and the oil poured over him running down his hair and beard and flowing over onto the breastplate and making them one.

What a beautiful symbol of what God the Holy Spirit does with us in His Holy Word and Sacraments. He makes us all one in faith in Jesus Christ. And it is solely by that gift of faith, that we will be and are now counted among the wise virgins who have the oil and it is solely by the grace of God that we have trimmed our lamps and are ready to go. So, what can we do, beloved, but give thanks and praise to God, and live out our lives in this most holy faith, until our long-awaited bridegroom comes and takes us to that high wedding feast in His kingdom Where we will rejoice forever.  To him, to Jesus, be all the glory power, honor and might, now and forever.  Amen. 


 

11/06/14 - Adoption into God’s Family - 1 Jn 3:1-3

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado ☩ www.hclchr.org


When I was a kid growing up we used to love to tell jokes about names,  for instance.

What do you call a guy:

hanging on a wall?  - Art                            laying on your doorstep? - Matt

in your hot tub? - Stu                        in your fireplace? - Bernie        

in your mailbox? - Bill                       under a bed? - Dusty     

struck by lightning? - Rod                 in a pile of leaves? - Russel

We did the same with girls. What do you call a girl:

on the grill? - Patty                  blowing in the wind? - Gail

in a pond? - Lily                      on a fence? – Barb

in a vase? - Rose                     on a tennis court? – Annette

Well, even though we sometimes like to joke about names they have tremendous importance.  For instance, you need a name to get a driver’s license or a credit card.  You need a name to make reservations at your favorite restaurant.  You need a name to apply for a job.  And you need a name in order to receive mail, whether by the US Postal service or by e-mail on your computer.  In short, you need a name so that you can function in this world of ours.

Well, from the standpoint of our text, you and I have a very special name  -  a name that not only helps us function, but a name that literally gives us life.  Verse one of our text says:  “HOW GREAT IS THE LOVE THAT FATHER HAS LAVISHED ON US, THAT WE SHOULD BE CALLED THE CHILDREN OF GOD!”  To be called the Children of God is the Biblical way of saying that we have been given the name of God.  It’s like when a man and woman get married.  Usually the woman gives up her last name and take’s on the man’s surname.  And any children born to that couple receive the same surname, to identify them as belonging to that family. 

In a sense, that is what St. John is talking about in our text.  You and I have been given God’s name to identify us as belonging to His family.  There are instances of this in the Old Testament.  Take for example, Abraham.  Originally he was called Abram.  But then the letters ‘A’ and ‘H’  - taken from the word Yahweh, which is the Hebrew name for God  -  those letters were added to his name and he became Abraham.  That new name identified him as belonging to God.  As a matter of fact, James 2:23 tells us that Abraham was known as God’s best friend!

My friends, like Abraham, we too are God’s best friends.  We too have received God’s name, for we are called Christians  -  we belong to Christ’s family.  And as we noted earlier, because we share that name, we now have life.  You see, to the ancient Hebrews a name meant existence.  If you did not have a name, you did not exist.  A name equals life.  In our case, the name we’ve been given  -  the name Christian  -  means eternal life.  Because we have been given the gift of faith in Jesus, that name is our guarantee that we will receive everlasting life.  In fact, without that name we would be kicked out of the kingdom of heaven.  That name is our ticket to paradise!  For as God promised us in Isaiah 56:5, “TO THOSE WHO HOLD FAST MY COVENANT, I WILL GIVE A NAME BETTER THAN THAT OF SONS AND DAUGHTERS.  I WILL GIVE THEM AN EVERLASTING NAME WHICH WILL NOT BE CUT OFF.”  In Biblical terms, ‘to cut off’ someone’s name means to erase them out of existence.  But God’s promise is that by faith in Him, our name will never be cut off.  We will live forever, never to be uprooted from His family.  That’s what John meant, when he said: “HOW GREAT IS THE LOVE THAT FATHER HAS LAVISHED ON US, THAT WE SHOULD BE CALLED THE CHILDREN OF GOD!” 

Yet, in what way have we received our new name?  Obviously we did not start out with it.  When we were born we were not close to God.  Rather, we were as far away from Him as possible.  We were born as the fallen children of God’s archenemy, Satan.  As Ephesians 2:3 puts it:  “WE TOO FORMERLY LIVED IN THE LUSTS OF OUR FLESH, INDULGING THE DESIRES OF THE FLESH AND OF THE MIND, AND WERE BY NATURE CHILDREN OF WRATH.”  Simply put, because of our sinful nature we behaved like spoiled brats, thus bringing God’s wrath and condemnation upon us.  Indeed, sometimes even now we slip back into those old behavioral patterns hurting other people and our relationship with God by our lies and curses, ignoring Him in our pride and selfishness, alienating Him with our lust and greed! How, then, do we switch over from being children of wrath to being children of God?  How do we transfer from the family of Satan to the family of God?  Well, in the words of Ephesians 1:5, “GOD PREDESTINED US TO ADOPTION AS SONS, TRHOUGH JESUS CHRIST, UNTO HIMSELF!”  Adoption  -  that is how we receive our new name and are transferred into God’s family. 

In Roman practice, adoption was a very moving experience.  You see, the Romans had a custom known as the patria potestas  -  the power of the father.  Roman law held that no matter how old a person was, as long as his dad was still alive, that child was under the absolute control and possession of his father.  Cassius, the Roman historian, tells us:  “The law of the Romans gives a father absolute authority over his son for the son’s entire life.  It gives him authority, if he so chooses, to imprison him, to scourge him, to make him work on his estate as a slave in fetters, even to kill him!”  Such was the patria potestas  -  the extreme power that a Roman father has over his children.

Therefore, in order for a child to be transferred from one family and adopted into another, the patria potestas had to be broken.  The power of the child’s birth father had to be abolished, so that he could come under the power of his new adopted father.  This was done during the adoption proceedings, by having the adopted father symbolically purchase the child from its birth father, using precious copper coins.  However, the birth father would act as if he did not want to give up the child and would offer money to keep him.  We can envision it like an auction, where the two fathers are trying to outbid one another for the right to have the child.  In the end, the adopted father would offer the highest bid and the adoption would be complete.  The patria potestas  was now broken and the child had a new father, a new family!

Such is the type of struggle that God went through to make us His own.  Only it was not symbolic; it was real!  We were born under the patria potestas of Satan, under his power.  And he used that power to imprison us, scourge us, enslave us in fetters and even kill us.  He imprisoned us with guilt and shame; scourged us with accusations; enslaved to himself and our own sin-fallen natures.  But God our loving heavenly Father broke Satan’s patria potestas and abolished the evil one’s dominion over us by outbidding him.  God gave the highest offer, for He bid His only-begotten Son.  He did not use copper coins. He used the precious blood of Jesus Christ, poured out on the cross to erase our guilt and sin.  In fact, that’s what we celebrate today -- All Saints Day -- is all about.  We are reminded that God chose us to be His saints, His holy ones adopted by grace, redeemed, restored and forgiven, through the death of His son. That is the high price, the unsurpassed bid that God the Father offered to purchase you and me as His children, to bring us under the shelter of His House, and make us His adopted children.

It reminds me of the cute story about a man who needed surgery.  When he checked into St. Mary’s hospital the nun who was doing the paper work said:  “I notice here that you don’t have any insurance.  How do you plan to pay for this operation?”  The man said:  “I don’t know.  I don’t have the money for it, but I really need this surgery.”    “Well,” said the nun, “do you have any family that could pay for it.”    “Not really,” replied the man.  “I only have one sister,  in fact she’s a spinster, a nun, like you.”   “Now, wait a second,”  said the nun,  “We are not spinsters. We are called the Bride of Christ!”  The man thought for a moment and replied:  “Well, then why don’t you bill it to my Brother-in-law!”

In a way, the man was right on the mark.  We do bill it to our brother-in-law, Jesus Christ.  All our debts of sin and guilt were billed to Him.  And He paid the bill in full, when He died on the cross.  He paid the full price to adopt us into God’s family.  And God proved that the price was sufficient, when He raised Jesus from the dead.  That is our assurance that we have all the rights and privileges as God’s adopted children.  In fact, in Roman legal terms the most astounding right and privilege that an adopted child received, was that his former life was snuffed out.  All records of what he had done were burned.  If he owed someone money, he was no longer obligated to pay them.  If he had committed a crime, he could no longer be tried for it.  Well, that is just what God’s grace has obtained for us through faith in Jesus Christ.  From the moment of our adoption, when we were baptized into God’s family, our debt of sin was wiped out.  Jesus took care of  it all.  We are fully absolved of all our wrongs!

Now the question comes what ought we to do with this glorious freedom that we have through our adoption by grace? God’s answer is clear. We are to tell others this good news. That is not only what evangelism is all about, but it is also what all Christian stewardship is about. We give of our time, talent, and treasure so that other people would be adopted into God’s family by grace through faith in Jesus Christ,  so that more names will be written in God’s Book of Life and the family would be enlarged.  May God ever grant us the will to thus live as his children to His glory and honor, in Jesus Name. Amen.


 

10/26/14 - The Truth Will Set You Free, Jn 8:31-36

The text for our meditation today is the gospel lesson appointed for this Festival of the Reformation: So Jesus said to the Jew who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

Truth and freedom, now there are two of the most beautiful words ever spoken, two of the most wonderful blessing ever bestowed upon sin-fallen mankind by a loving God and yet, like a precious gem or a masterpiece work of art, both are very rare and seldom possessed by most people. It is indeed as the old saying that goes “truth is forever on the gallows and error forever on the throne”.  It was true in Jesus day when the chief priests and teachers of the law, those who were to have been bearers of the truth and guardians of freedom instead sought to rub them out by pointing people to their own works or keeping of the law, telling them that that was the way to salvation.  And then along came this troublemaker, this truth teller and freedom giver named Jesus.

The same was true in Luther’s day when after witnessing abuse after abuse by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, which pointed people to their own works instead of to the grace of God in Jesus Christ, Luther was compelled to nail his 95 theses to the Wittenburg church door, completely unaware that as he did so he was starting the Reformation, a stunning movement back to the truth.  He was yet another bothersome truth-teller.

And the same could be said of us in our own day as we make our stand for the truth of God’s Holy Word, in a society, where for the most part, objective truth is denied.  All truth is seen as being entirely subjective or merely a matter of one’s own opinion.  I have my truth, you have your truth, the Roman Catholic Church has its truth, the Mormons have their truth, the Moslems have their truth and so on and so on.  In fact, it seem that the only great error left in our politically correct world, the only unforgivable sin, is to have the audacity to point out that there is in fact only one truth and one God and only one way to be saved by that God. 

I am reminded of the story of the two men who were watching a football game on television together and a political ad came on. After watching it one of the men exclaimed, “You know I really agree with that candidate. I am going to vote for him!” A little while later a political ad came on for the opposing candidate saying just the opposite and the same man said, “You know I like what she says, I am going to vote for her.”  This prompted his friend to get up and say, “Now, wait just a minute.  You can’t do that, you must decide which candidate best represents your views and then vote accordingly.” The first man was silent for a moment and then responded, “You know I agree with everything you just said, have you ever thought about running for office?”

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, just as we have only one vote in an election, so we have only one vote for eternity and it will be cast for either the truth or for a lie.  The truth is this, that we all desperately need a savior, a savior who will rescue us from the slavery of sin as Jesus speaks of in our text. But the sad fact of the matter is that most people believe the same lie that many of the people listening to Jesus that day believed, which was that they were doing just fine on their own.  Yes, most of the people listening to Jesus preach believed that they would be saved by their keeping of the Law of God and they were simply wrong.  They were wrong because the Scriptures are very clear in pointing out that no one can be saved, by their keeping of the Law since no one can keep the Law of God as perfectly as he demands.  No one could then and no one can today either just as we sing in the great reformation hymn: Salvation Unto Us Has Come. Please turn Hymn #555. Let me read verses 2 & 3:

What God did in His Law demand and none to Him could render

Caused wrath and woe on every hand for man, the vile offender

Our flesh has not those pure desires that the spirit of the law requires

and lost is our condition.

It was a false, misleading dream that God His law had given

That sinners could themselves redeem and by their works gain heaven

The law is but a mirror bright to bring the in-bred sin to light

that lurks within our nature

There is the first part of the truth. The law cannot save us. It was designed primarily to show us our sin and how far we are from the moral perfection demanded by God.  Now for the second part of the truth in verses 6&9:

Since Christ has full atonement made and brought to us salvation,

Each Christian therefore may be glad and build on this foundation.

Your grace alone dear Lord I plead, your death is now my life indeed,

for you have paid my ransom.

Faith clings to Jesus cross alone and rests in him unceasing;

And by it fruits true faith is known, with love and hope increasing.

For faith alone can justify; works serve our neighbor and supply

the proof that faith is living.

There is the second half of the truth, the Gospel, the good news that we are set free from our bondage to sin by faith in Jesus Christ the Son of the living Go;  faith given to us all as a gracious gift by God through the working of God the H.S. through the Word and Sacraments. It is this same Spirit that empowers us to then do good work and to live God-pleasing lives.

What a beautiful sung sermon. It is this Gospel truth that our beloved Dr. Martin Luther discovered as he searched the Scriptures seeking the truth, the truth that would comfort his terror filled heart. Before he found it, he knew God only as a wrathful, vengeful God, a God of the Law, a God who demanded perfection, a God whom he could never reach. But then, by the grace of Almighty God, Luther re-discovered the Gospel. He found a God of mercy and salvation, a God who gave up his very own Son so that he might be justified or declared righteous by faith in him.  And once Luther found that truth he never let it go.  In the face of excommunication, in the face of persecution, under threat of death, he clung to the truth as a drowning man would cling to a life preserver, because that was it was to him, his very life.

Luther clung to this truth, because he had found the freedom that the Lord promised in the Gospel. He would be a slave to sin and fear no longer.  My dear friends, that same truth and freedom is ours as well, it was given to us in our Baptism when our sins were washed away and the devil was kicked out and the Holy Spirit entered in.  This truth and freedom is also nourished in us whenever we come to the sacrament of the Altar and receive Christ’s body and blood with the bread and wine.  And it is received anew each time we read God’s Word and are convinced that it is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ that we are justified, we are made right with God or as Jesus says in our text:  “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.” 

As I was thinking about this I couldn’t help but recall a story I read a number of years ago about a young man who responded to an ad for an opening at a telegraph office as a telegraph operator, to get the job the ad said, the applicant had to know Morse code. Well, the young man entered the large, noisy office.  In the background a telegraph clacked away.  A sign on the receptionist’s counter instructed job applicants to fill out a form and wait until they were summoned to enter the inner office.  The young man completed his form and sat down to wait with seven other applicants who had arrived earlier.  After a few minutes, the young man stood up, opened the door to the inner office and walked right in.  Naturally the other applicants perked up, wondering what was going on.  Why had this young man been so bold?  They had heard no summons.  They took more than a little satisfaction, assuming that he would be reprimanded for his presumption and disqualified for the job.  Imagine their surprise, when the manager came out a few minutes later and said:  “Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming, but the job has been filled by this young man.”  The other applicants began to grumble and one of them spoke up:  “Wait a minute.  This guy was the last one to come in, and we never even got a chance to be interviewed.  Yet, he got the job.  That’s not fair.”  To which the manager replied:  “All the time you’ve been sitting here, the telegraph has been ticking out the following message in Morse code – ‘If you understand this message, then come right in.  The job is yours.’  None of you heard it or understood it.  This young man did, so the job is his.”

Whether or not that story is true, I don’t know.  But this much is true – every day God’s Word ticks out the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, loud and clear. And all those how hear it and receive it in faith are set free. And if you want know what to do with your freedom, how about this: go tell, go tell others the truth of your living, loving Savior who died and rose again for you and for all people, and that everyone who believes in Him, is freed from the power of sin and death forever.  For as Luther discovered, there is after all no better way to live, or die than in He who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”   To him be all glory honor power and might, now and forever. Amen.


 

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