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13 July 2014 - Isaiah 55:10–13

God’s Powerful Word

Sunday, 13 July 2014 - Isaiah 55:10–13

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


Once a little girl and little boy were at day care and the girl came up to the boy and said, “Hey Tommy, want to play house?”  “Sure!” said Tommy “How do you do that?”  “Well,” the girl replied, “I want you to communicate your feelings.”  “Communicate my feelings?” said a bewildered little Tommy.  “I have no idea what that means.”  The little girl smiled and said “Perfect, you can be the husband.”

That humorous story reminds us that we guys sometimes have a difficult time communicating but that never seems to be a problem for God. Our Heavenly Father sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to communicate to us all His great love and mercy and compassion and He did so perfectly, not only by telling us he loves us, but by dying and rising again for our salvation.  And best of all, God still continues to communicate His limitless love for us in His Holy Word the Bible, just like our children sing in Sunday School: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”

This is the very same thought behind our Old Testament lesson for today, where God says to us:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And what is the purpose of God’s word? Jesus explains it to us quite clearly in His parable of the sower and the seed in our Gospel reading this morning. Like any good farmer, he wants a crop and people are the crop that he wants. He wants us all to believe in Him and be saved. In the end, He wants to gather us all into His barn which is heaven. St. John says it more succinctly near the end of His Gospel where he writes:

“but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

This is what Isaiah is pointing to in this text, which is really a beautiful statement of the providence that God offers to everyone in His Holy Word. The only problem, however, is that most people, including us sometimes, aren’t convinced that they really need it.  Ever since the fall into sin it seems as though we like to keep a safe distance from God’s Word.  After all, we don’t want it to change our lives too much.  We kind of like things the way they are – nice and comfortable.  We enjoy our old sinful habits, maybe we prefer to be around people who don’t ever talk about God’s Word that much and the uncomfortable topics found in it like the need for repentance, or sin, or death, or hell. No, if the truth be told, if life were a waterpark most people would much prefer to just float along the lazy river of life without God’s Word than to be challenged by, the steep, breathtaking slide that the Word of God provides. What a shame! They don’t know what they are missing.

At any rate, it is important that we daily have contact with God’s Word, because it gives us life. In our text, this morning God says that His Word is like the rain and snow that fall down from heaven.  It waters the earth and makes it fruitful and then vaporizes or flows to the sea, where it then evaporates and returns again to its place of origin.  And that’s what God’s Word is designed to do, He gives it to moisten the parched and hard soil of our hearts, and refresh our faith, so that we are enabled to produce the fruit of righteousness in our daily living. 

As a matter of fact, in our text the Hebrew word for ‘water’ in our text literally means: ‘to saturate.’  The only way God’s Word can help us is if we let it saturate our lives, which is why we need to read and study it not just on Sundays but on every day of the week. We also need to mull it over in our minds, meditating on it throughout the day and praying that the Holy Spirit will enlighten us and help us understand it.  We need to discuss it with our family and friends, so that it impacts them and us, and so they and we can apply it to our lives.  It’s especially helpful to memorize and to speak it aloud to fight off the daily attacks of the evil one who would destroy our faith in Jesus Christ our Savior. That’s how we are to be saturated with God’s Word!

For that reason, God gave us not just one kind of word, but three kinds of word; not only His written Word found in the Bible, but also the visible Word found in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, in which we also receive remission of our sins and nourishment for our faith. But both of those, point us to God’s Ultimate Word; the Word Incanate, Jesus Christ, as St. John Wrote in His Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men…

And then he concludes a few verses later:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jesus, then, is the physical Word of God, sent straight from the mouth of God the Father to bring us the gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation.  He was like the heat-seeking missile of God’s love that targeted our sins and obliterated them forever.  Better still, He is that gentle rain from heaven that washes away all our guilt and shame, so that our dirty hearts are made as white as snow.  And the way that He did it was through His death on Calvary’s cross.

By His death Jesus has caused our sins themselves to dry up and shrivel away for good and by His resurrection He raises us up to a life of faith in Him.  That was the purpose for which God sent Him as the Word Incarnate – to save our souls -- and, like our text says, He has achieved that purpose, for by faith in Him, by faith in Jesus we really are forgiven and redeemed. 

My friends, we can know that with absolute certainty for if God’s Word does not return to heaven until it achieves its purpose, and because Jesus has ascended into heaven we know that He achieved His purpose of saving us.  In fact, in our text the Hebrew word ‘achieve’ actually means:  ‘to cleave through something,’ as with an axe.  And that is just what Jesus has done to our sins.  He has split them wide open and destroyed them for good!  And that’s how we know that we are forgiven and free – by the promise of His Holy Word!

That is how Isaiah can make the beautiful promise that he does in verses 12 and 13 of our text:

For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

What a beautiful description of what our lives are now like through faith in Jesus Christ.  What joy and peace is ours because we are loved by God and forgiven all our sins. As I was thinking about this I could not help but think of a recent face book posting by our Synodical President, Dr. Matthew Harrison as he related the account of his visit with Pastor Klemet Preus, the man whom God used to bring me to faith in Jesus Christ. Here it is:

“Flew from Vancouver to Minneapolis day before yesterday.  Kathy (President Harrison’s wife) flew from St. Louis. We spent the day with Rev. Klemet Preus and Janet (his wife) at the hospice where Klemet is spending his last days on this earth. I have never been so encouraged and strengthened as I was spending that day with Klemet. He is singularly focused on Christ and the gift of eternal life. He is focused on sharing Christ and his hope with others. He is physically incapacitated having suffered a debilitating stroke. His right shoulder is fractured due to the weakening caused by cancer. He cannot move, yet he is a source of constant joy, encouragement and love to all those around him.

He knows hundreds of hymns by heart. Daily his brother in law visits him in the morning to sing matins. After Steve read the text for the day, he said, "Klemet, you've preached on this text many times haven't you?" "Yes I have," came the response. "What did you preach?" Then Klemet gave a five minute homily on the beautiful surety of Christ's word in the Holy Scriptures and the place where the word of forgiveness is delivered in Church on Sunday.

I was floored and humbled. Klemet woke at one point later in the day saying, "Jan! Thank God for LIFE! Thank God for life! Get the wine Jan. Everyone gets two glasses. Thank God for LIFE! We're paying for it Jan. Two glasses for everyone. The kids can have one glass. Thank God for life! Tell Christian and Cindy [brother and sister in law] let's get this party started. Thank God for Life!" Hundreds of bible passages from friends all over the country have been printed and taped to the walls of his hospice room.”  Harrison concludes, “What a blessing!”

My former pastor, my friend, Klemet went to his eternal home to be with our Savior this past week.  And he did so in peace and in joy, because he knew the Word: the Word of forgiveness found in the Gospel he so faithfully preached and the sacraments which he so faithfully administered and most especially in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who is God’s love showered down upon us like a gentle rain from heaven, which never returns to Him empty, but achieves the saving purpose for which He sent it.  May God grant that His Word would ever saturate our hearts and minds, as well and fill our hearts and minds with that same joy and peace in Jesus’ name. Amen.


 

1 June 2014 - John 17:1-11

The Purpose of Life

Sunday, 1 June 2014 - John 17:1-11

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


Whenever I read this text, which is a portion of what the early church fathers called Jesus High Priestly Prayer, I am immediately struck by the majesty and the profundity of it.  What we have here is nothing less that God speaking to himself. Jesus Christ the second person of the Holy Trinity is talking to God the Father the first person of the Holy Trinity and in it we see the great mercy and love of God.  We see the stated purpose for Jesus life, death and resurrection. He came into this world for one reason and one reason only and that was to glorify God the Father by doing His will, and His will was and still is to save us and all of sinful humanity.

I don’t know about you, but when I look at the perfection and holiness of Jesus’ life, His thoughts, his words and his deeds as they are related to us in Scripture, and I look at my own thoughts words and deeds, I cannot help but feel very small. Jesus knew the exact meaning and exact purpose of his life and he carried it all out to perfection. He kept the whole of the law and he did the whole will of God perfectly.  He left nothing undone or unfinished.

How different he was and is from us, for if we take an honest look at ourselves and the people around us, it is easy to see a lot of purposelessness or meaninglessness.  For instance, how many people do you know who just seem to be drifting through life without any real objective or goal to what they are doing?  I don’t know about you, but I have met quite a few people just like that. They are just living for the moment with really no thought about what the point or the purpose or the meaning of their life is. They are like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s  book,  Alice in Wonderland, who came to a fork in the road and stopped then she saw the Cheshire cat up in a tree nearby. “Which road do I take?” She asked. “Where do you want to go?”  was his response.  “I don't know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it doesn't matter which road you take.”

I would submit that anyone who is living their lives in such a manner is living a tragedy, because we are not here by accident.  Contrary to what the evolutionists and atheists teach, and what many of our societies elite and effete believe, we are not just poor creatures of chance. We are not just an accidental collection of atoms in a pointless and chaotic universe. We are immortal souls, placed here in these bodies, in this world, in this time for a divinely appointed purpose and that purpose is believe in, worship, and live for God.

That, beloved, should not only be our goal in life it should be our all consuming desire, just like it was for Jesus, but the sad fact of the matter is that even we as believers often fall short.  Ever since the fall into sin, people have not sought to live for God, but for themselves.  Instead of thinking how we might please God we selfishly think only of ourselves. St. Paul prophesies about these days in his second letter to his friend Timothy:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in these last days.  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power.

Beloved I must warn you, that the Scriptures clearly say that the only outcome of such a purposeless life is eternity in hell.  So where do we go?  To whom do we turn?

You know the answer.  The only way we can live for God is by believing in Him and the One whom He has sent and that is Jesus Christ, fully God and at the same time fully man.  Jesus alone glorified God perfectly.  Everything He said, everything He did was in accordance with the will of His father, even to the point of offering himself up as a sacrifice upon a cross, so that by his shed blood our sins might be wiped out forever.

He also glorified God by rising from the dead to show that his victory over sin, death and the devil was complete and he ascended into heaven, he returned to where he came from, to show his disciples and us that he is now at the right hand of God interceding in our behalf.  And because Jesus has so glorified God His Father, God his Father has glorified him, and given Him the name above all names that at his name every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess him Lord to the Glory of God the Father.

Now you might be saying to yourself that’s fine, but what does that have to do with me and the answer is, “everything.” It has everything to do with you and me because it is by faith in Jesus Christ and him alone we are told in the Scriptures that we will one day be glorified as well. As St. Paul writes in Romans 8:

And we know that all in things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.  What the, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us who can be against us? He who spared not his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

Wow, what a powerful assurance of the grace of God, what a wonderful statement of the purpose and the value of our lives as Christians in this sin fallen world.  God has a plan.  It is a plan of salvation that He is working out to our eternal good and eventual glory as well.  And it all can be seen in the person and the work of Jesus Christ, especially His work upon the cross, where we see God’s love for us most clearly. And this brings up the great irony of the high priestly prayer of Jesus, which is that he prayed it right before he went to the cross, that is where He would glorify God the Father.

Now the reason why I point this out is because it is important for us to remember that we glorify God not when things are going well and our life is a cakewalk, but when we are under the greatest trials, temptations, and tribulations.  It is at times like those when by the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts we resist sin and overcome adversity that God gets the most glory.

As I thought of this I couldn’t help but think of a woman named Monica.  Monica’s life was a difficult one She was a Christian woman married to a pagan husband, but her pride and joy was her son whom she loved very much.  She went to great trouble to raise him as a Christian, but when the boy grew to manhood he rejected her faith and went out into the world seeking after other gods and other ways to live.

Now many mothers might have given up on such a thankless son, but not Monica.  She prayed and prayed for her son.  Even when it looked hopeless and her son kept going astray, she steadfastly offered her supplications and intercessory prayers on his behalf, until after 30 years, one day by the grace of Almighty God, her son’s stony heart and rebellious spirit was broken by the Holy Spirit and he became a believer again, and not only a believer, but a pastor, and not only a pastor, but a doctor of the church.  Her son’s name was Augustine, whom you might know as St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine wrote some of the most powerful defending the Christian faith of all time and it was his writings that centuries later impacted a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, which led to an event called the Reformation.

But it all started with a poor afflicted Christian mother on her knees, praying steadfastly and unceasingly, for her wayward son.  Just as her Lord God’s Son prayed and still prays, still intercedes before His Father’s throne for steadfastly and unceasingly for us.

So what else can we but continue to live our lives unto Him, fighting the good fight of faith, resisting the devil and seeking to do what is good and pleasing in His sight, giving Christ the glory, because he deserves it all, and knowing that in the end he will glorify us in heaven.  What greater purpose, what more profound meaning, could our lives ever have than that?  So to him to our God, the only true God: Father, Son and H.S be all the glory, honor, power and might now and forevermore. Amen.


 

18 May 2014 - 1 Peter 2:2-10

Living Stones

Sunday, 18 May 2014 - 1 Peter 2:2-10

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


Legend has it that the King of Sparta was always boasting about the magnificent walls of his city.  Well, one day a neighboring ruler came to visit, and as they were touring the city the king kept bragging about how insurmountable and impregnable the walls were.  But the visiting ruler was a little bit puzzled, because as he looked around he could see no trace of walls anywhere.  And so he asked the King where these tremendous walls were located.  The King replied:  “Why, they’re right in front of you.”  The visiting ruler shook his head and said:  “I don’t see any walls.”  Then the King pointed to his soldiers who were standing nearby and answered:  “These are the walls of Sparta – every man is a brick!”

Whether or not that tale is true, it comes surprisingly close to the message that St. Peter was writing about in our Epistle lesson for today.  He, too, was talking about how Christians are like bricks or stones.  He says that each individual believer in Christ is a living stone.  And when you put all of these ‘living stones’ together they form, not a wall, but a temple, a beautiful temple, in which the Spirit of God dwells.

In a picturesque way, then, Peter was writing about the Church.  You see, the Church is not a physical building, but a spiritual one.  It is the communion of all those who have faith in Jesus Christ.  We are all joined together to make a spiritual house built upon Christ who is the cornerstone.  We are His and members of God’s own family, just as little Jane was made earlier this morning in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. She is now a living stone added to God temple a chip off the old block if you will. And as such she like we are called to strengthen and support one another.

But the question comes, “Do we really do that?”  When was the last time we prayed for someone else’s needs?  When was the last time we volunteered our time and abilities to serve on a board of the congregation, or to lend a helping hand with some needed project?  Have we done enough to help build up God’s house here at Holy Cross?  That is what St. Peter is getting at here in our text.

It reminds me of the story of a little girl who got lost in a corn field many years ago.  Rescuers searched for her for hours, but to no avail.  Finally, someone suggested that the group hold hands and walk through the field systematically.  After doing this a short time, they found the little girl, safe and sound, and her father, his eyes filled with tears of joy asked, “Why didn’t we join hands sooner?!”

My dear friends in Christ, that is a very pertinent question.  As members of our Lord’s church, why don’t we join hands?  If there is someone who has hurt you, don’t hold a grudge against them, instead forgive them as you have been forgiven.  Don’t raise up your hand in anger, but reach out your hand in friendship.  If there is some problem between you and a brother or sister in Christ, don’t keep it bottled up inside, talk it over with them today and work it out in love. 

Beloved this is what we are called to do as Christians. That is what it means to be living stones, in Christ’s church.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that we don’t always do that.  We don’t always join hands together.  And the reason we don’t , of course, is because we are sinners.  Because of our sinful nature, we are more like a run-down shack than a glorious temple of God.  And the Law of God states that the penalty for our sin is quite severe.  Namely, that if we persist in it God will tear us down, demolish us stone by stone and relegate us to that pile of rubble called hell. Indeed, that is what you and I deserve for our selfishness and loveless sin.

But St. Peter has a delightfully different twist on that message.  He says that instead of destroying us, God has made us His ‘chosen race.’  In fact, in the Greek text the word chosen actually means:  ‘to call out’ and that’s exactly what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.  Our text tells us that He has:  “called you out of darkness & into his marvelous light.”

You see, at one time you and I were in darkness – the darkness of sin.  We were trapped as it were in the cold, clammy, confining darkness of a tomb – a tomb of our own making, fashioned by our own iniquity.  But thanks to the glorious Easter Gospel, the good news of Jesus resurrection from the dead, God has brought us out of that darkness and into the light.

In John 5:28 Jesus told His disciples:  “For an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [the voice of the Son of Man] and come out…” Jesus was of course pointing to the final resurrection of the dead at the end of time, but in a sense for you and me as believers, this has already begun.  When Jesus rose from the grave, He was granted the power to call us out from our graves.  And He is what he has done and is doing.  He has called us out of the dark tomb of our sin and iniquity and brought us into the marvelous light of His love and forgiveness.

In other words, instead of tearing us down and demolishing us, He is building us up and restoring us with life and salvation.  That’s why Peter calls us, “God’s chosen people.”  For by faith in Jesus we have been chose for something better.  All our sins are erased and we have a chosen spot in God’s heavenly kingdom.

It reminds me about the story of a man who was very much interested in old books.  One day he ran into a friend of his, who had just thrown away an old Bible, which had been stored in his attic.  The friend happened to mention that somebody named “Guten-something-or-other” had printed it.  “Oh no,” groaned the man, “not Guttenberg.  You fool!  You’ve just thrown away one of the first books ever printed.  A copy like that recently sold at an auction for more than a half a million dollars.”  But his friend was unmoved.  “Nah, my copy wouldn’t have been worth a dime,” he said.  “How do you know,” asked the man.  “Because,” said the friend, “some guy named Martin Luther scribbled all over it.”

Okay that was a groaner, but you get the point, under normal circumstances, an ordinary item like a book, even a Bible, is worth very little monetarily.  But under the right circumstances, when it belongs to someone famous, it can be priceless.  So it is with you and me.  We are priceless to God. We are His own chosen possession.  Jesus poured out his life’s blood to purchase us for heaven, to redeem us and obtain for us all the treasures of forgiveness and salvation.

And what should be our response to that?  Very simply, to share it with others.  As Peter says in our text we are to:  “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Simply put, we are to witness the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible. That’s why Peter calls us God’s royal priests.  We know that in the Old Testament, the priest served two important functions:  to intercede for the people and to tell them God’s Word.  My friends, that is our job as well.  We are to pray not only for one another, but for unbelievers as well.  We should pray for and support the spread of the Gospel, through our pastors and missionaries. We should also pray for those who don’t know Christ, that they might hear the Good News and be saved.  On top of all that, we need to personally look for opportunities to witness and pass the Gospel along, for that is how we serve as God’s royal priests.  That is how we are living stones, being built up in the cornerstone who is Jesus Christ.

Whenever I read this text I cannot help but think of all the beautiful cathedrals in Europe that I have seen pictures of and someday hope to visit.  I always am struck by the fact that the people who laid the foundations of those magnificent buildings, knew they would never live to see them completed, but they began building in faith, in faith that God, in His good providence, would see to it that those structures would be completed and their children would worship in them one day.  

Beloved, whether we understand it or not, we are doing the same thing today. Whether it is with our structures or our service, or with our families and our relationships, as Christians we always build in faith, knowing that we will not see much of what we have done come to fruition in our lifetimes, but trusting that God will bring it all to the good. As the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews states it so eloquently in the eleventh chapter of his epistle when he speaks of the saints of the Old Testament:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

Beloved so it is with us. We too are just passing through as strangers in a strange land, headed toward the promised land, the promised city, the new Jerusalem, to live in God’s house, which is built with us as living stones, as bricks in the marvelous wall of His Holy Temple, with Christ as our cornerstone. And temple like God’s steadfast love, will endure forever. In Jesus Name. Amen.


 

11 May 2014 - John 10:1-10

The Door of the Sheep

Sunday, 11 May 2014 - John 10:1-10

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


The text for this morning’s meditation is the gospel lesson appointed for today. I would specifically point to verses 7-10:

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.  All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.  I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

In order to understand what our Lord is getting at here it is important to understand a little about how shepherds tended their sheep in Israel at that time.  In order to assure that the sheep would be kept safe at night it was customary in some places to pen the sheep of several shepherds together in a pen.  A pen was essentially stone coral with a wall about 3 ft. high and a large area in the middle usually big enough to hold a large number of sheep. The only opening to the sheep pen was a narrow gap or doorway in the wall about 2 to 2 ½ ft. wide where a board would be slid in to secure the animals at night.  In the morning, the shepherds would pull out the board straddle the opening and call to their sheep.  Since the sheep would recognize the voice of their shepherd they would come to him and he would boost them out between his legs through the opening.  If any other sheep came, he would shoo them away, until he finally had all his sheep, then he would take them out to pasture.  When he put them back in, he would do the same thing, counting them as he put them back in to make sure they were all there. So you see, in a very real way, the shepherd was the door or the gate because the sheep would go in and come out through him. 

Now when Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep…”  He wants his audience to know that he’s making a particular point, in much the same way we might begin a statement by saying, “Now listen to this…” or, “Let me be honest with you…”  It’s not to imply that the you weren’t already listening or that we’re not being honest the rest of the time, but it is a way of saying, I want you to be absolutely clear about what I’m going to tell you.  To further stress his intention, he also uses a particular pronoun “I” in the Greek, which is used when a person wanted to make a very emphatic point.  In other words he’s being quite adamant about this.  Jesus wants the hearer to understand that he’s saying, “I alone am the door or the gate, not anyone else.”

We live in a society, of course, where it’s not very politically correct to make such statements, or even to claim you believe such statements.  Most people want to believe that there are many doors and that all of them are equally valid.   But that is not what the Bible says, which is why

Jesus also mentions that there are also thieves and robbers who like to steal, kill and destroy sheep. Sheep thieves generally would not go to the gate, because it was guarded and even if they did go to the door the sheep wouldn’t come to them, because even though sheep aren’t the brightest animals in the world, they do recognize the voice of their shepherd and so they wouldn’t come to a stranger.  So the robbers would have to have to resort to jumping over the wall and grabbing an animal or two, or else use some sort of trickery to get them to follow.

Well, beloved the bad news is that we live in a world full of thieves and robbers, who sound very appealing, very appealing indeed. Like the sirens of the ancient Greek mythology who were said to have lured ancient seafarers with their beautiful voices causing them to wreck their ships on the rocks, these spiritual thieves also would call us to our deaths.

They sing to us from our televisions, computers, and smartphones.  They appeal to us with airbrushed, computer enhanced and altered images of seemingly perfect people who never have a single blemish or hair out of place. Their message is always the same. They say they will make us happy and fulfilled, if we just use their product or vote for their candidate. We will have sex appeal.  We will be cool or rich, if we just buy what they are selling. In the end, their promises are always empty, because they do not point us to God, but to this world, which is as we are accurately told in the Word of God, is perishing in sin and unbelief.

Other voices are more, subtle and come from unexpected quarters, like our friends or peers, who offer us booze or drugs or illicit sex.  “You want to fit in don’t you?  Come on everybody’s doing it.  Don’t be a nerd or a goody two shoes.  Just go along with the crowd.” Yes, those voices can be quite convincing, but not as convincing as that subtle thief who smiles back at you from the mirror and whispers in your ear that you are the only one who really matters.  Your desires, your wants, your needs, you interests, are all that are important, so do what you’ve got to do to satisfy them; to satisfy yourself.

In the end, of course, it all plays into the hands of the biggest thief, robber, and liar of all, that enemy of God and man, Satan. Satan who disguises himself, as St. Paul writes in 2 Cor. 11: “as an angel of light.” The devil doesn’t show himself with hooves or horns or a pitchfork, no he always appears as the good guy, the guy who just wants to help you, in fact he appears to many to be the Good Shepherd himself, he presents himself as their Savior, only instead of giving life, he and those who work for him only bring death.  Temporal and eternal death.  He has an insatiable appetite you see, a large pile of sheep bones next to him that gets bigger every day.

That is why my fellow sheep we must not listen to any voice other than that of the one and only True Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who also just happens to be the door or the gate for the sheep.  He is the only way to salvation because he, the Son of the Living God, became a sheep for us, a lamb without spot or blemish, and rather than allowing us to be destroyed he allowed himself to be slaughtered in our place, on a cross. He died for our sins, so that we would not perish eternally, but so that we could have life, not only today, but forever, through faith in Him. He is the one who makes us to lie down in green pastures and leads us beside the still waters, as he made us his own through the waters of Baptism where he washed and still washes all our sins away as the prophet Isaiah said:  “Though your sin are as scarlet they will be as white as snow, though they are as crimson they shall be like wool.”

And He also nourishes our souls as we dine on his body and blood with the bread and the wine for the forgiveness of all of our sins and the strengthening of our faith in Him.  And our Good Shepherd also nourishes us with the rich delicious grass of His Holy precious Word, which is filled with the more love and more gracious promises than we could ever hope for or dream of.  His word where he tells us that he came not only that, “we might have life, but that we might have it abundantly.” Other translations, put it “have it to the full.”

If you do even a brief word study of the Greek word for “life” as St. John uses it in His writings you’ll notice that he uses different Greek words in different situations.  In this instance he’s making a definite statement, about something that goes beyond the mere state of physical existence.  This life that Jesus comes to give to his sheep has vitality and fullness.  It’s genuine and involved, complete and whole.  Above all it is spiritual, as in eternal life, life above and beyond mere earthly existence, merely breathing and eating and doing stuff.  Jesus Christ and he alone can give us that life. In fact, the Bible tells us that apart from him you cannot find it, because without him and his resurrection everything is tainted by death and the fear of death.

I remember reading a story about an Army veteran who had been wounded in Vietnam and was on permanent disability and receiving benefits from the government.  One day, out of the blue, he received an official notification from the government of his own death.  Naturally, this came as quite a shock.  To clear the matter up he wrote the government a letter stating that he was indeed very much alive and explaining the necessity of continuing to receive his benefits.  When the letter did no good he tried calling the government.  Now, I’ve never had to call the government myself, but based on what little experience I’ve had with civil service person-to-person interaction I can imagine this was a true test of the man’s persistence and patience.  But the phone calls didn't change the situation either.  Finally, as a last resort, the veteran contacted a local television station, which ran a human-interest story about his situation.  During the interview the reporter asked him, "How do you feel about this whole ordeal?"  To which the veteran chuckled and said, "Well, I feel a little frustrated by it.  After all, have you ever tried to prove that you're alive?”

Well, beloved, the good news is we are alive. We are alive and we will live forever, because Jesus Christ our Good Shepherd has removed our sins by His death on the cross and He has risen from the dead so that we might live abundantly here and now, and hereafter which is why the Bible calls us: Children of the most high God, branches of the one true vine, the salt of the earth, the light of the earth, heirs of heaven, temples of the Holy Spirit, citizens of heaven, members of the very body of Christ, saints or his Holy ones.

And last but certainly not least we are his sheep.  We are loved and cared for by an Almighty Good Shepherd, who says later on in this chapter:  My sheep listen to my voice I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish: no one can snatch them out of my hand.

My friends what can we do, but by the power of God the Holy Spirit, heed His voice as He speaks to us through His Holy Word, and enter through him, he who is the door of the sheep, living in His promises and trusting in his salvation, so that as David wrote, “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  May God grant it in Jesus Name. Amen.


 

4 May 2014 - 1 Peter 1:17-25

Strangers in this World

Sunday, 4 May 2014 - 1 Peter 1:17-25 

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


Once a man and his wife were taking a trip on a cruise ship and as they were out on the deck, leaning on the rail, romantically gazing out at the ocean.  All of a sudden they noticed a thin bearded man on a small desert island they were passing, who was shouting and jumping up and down desperately waving his hands.  Noticing the captain was walking nearby, they pointed out they man to him and asked:  “Who is that man?”  “I have no idea,” the captain replied.  “But every year when we pass, he just goes crazy.”

That poor man.  There he was a castaway stranded on a desert island, far away from home.  He was like a stranger in a strange land, with no one to rescue him.  In a way, as Christians we, too, are like strangers in a strange land, far away from our True Home in Heaven.  And like that man, we may not always want to be here – especially when we encounter hardship, pain and failure.  The big difference is that we know for a fact that someone is going to rescue us.  We know that one day our Savior, Jesus Christ, is going to come and rescue us from this sin-fallen world.  But until that day comes, St. Peter has some advice for us, and he reminds us of it in our Epistle lesson for today.  Instead of going crazy, he encourages us to, “conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.”

But what does that mean for us as Christians? Well, the term that Peter uses means: ‘to take up temporary residence.’  It was used to describe someone who had not been granted the rights of citizenship – like an immigrant or alien.  Essentially, it means that they have another Fatherland, another place that they call home.  And that’s exactly how it is for you and me.  In Philippians 3:20 St. Paul writes:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In other words, you and I are actually citizens of heaven, not of earth which means that even though we must dwell here for a time, like exiles or refugees, this is not our true home. That is why it is so important that we never forget who we are, and more importantly whose we are.  We are God’s people who are just passing through on our way to our eternal home.

My friends, that kind of witness is just as important today, if not more so, than it was in St. Peter’s day and age.  The Christians who lived in that ancient Roman culture encountered sexual immorality wherever they turned. Chastity was all but forgotten as can be clearly seen in their writings.  Martial writes of a woman who had married her tenth husband.  Juvenal talks about a woman who had eight husbands in five years.  And Jerome tells us that in Rome there was a famous woman who was married to her twenty-third husband, she herself being his twenty-first wife.  In both ancient Greece and Rome deviant sexual practices were so commonplace that they came to be looked upon as completely natural or normal.  Yes indeed, the aim in that ancient pagan world was to find ever new and wild ways to gratify one’s lusts and desires.  Does that sounds familiar?  It should, because it is exactly the way more and more people think in our own society today.  Any suggestion that anyone should curb their lust or control their behavior is met with scorn and derision. “Who do you think you are? You can’t tell me what to do!”  They proclaim like spoiled children.  I like the way one neighboring pastor put it when I was serving a congregation in New York, “They are having fun to death and you had better not get in their way.”  

The Bible and even the non-biblical historical record is quite clear on what happens to societies that jettison their morality.  They are destroyed.  Sometimes they are conquered by a powerful enemy from without, but more often they just rot and collapse under the weight of their own iniquity, as St. Peter paraphrases Isaiah 40:6-8:

All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass.

The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.

The temptation for us is to let our witness become clouded and compromised, or even forgotten altogether.  We also do not live the godly lives we should or clearly speak the Gospel as God calls us to do and that’s because we are contaminated with the same sinful nature as the unbelieving world.  We too, struggle with lust in all its various forms, whether it’s lust for power and wealth, or for pleasure and popularity.  Our sinful natures make us strangers to God and aliens to His will and as such we deserve no place in His kingdom.  Our rightful inheritance as sinners is not heaven but hell.

The Law of God shows us that.  It shows it quite clearly and there is absolutely nothing we ourselves can do to change that! It’s a little bit like the man, who received an expensive parking ticket and testified in court that a uniformed policeman had given his OK for the man to park there.  The judge asked the man if he would recognize the officer if he ever saw him again, and the man replied that he would.  The judge then said, “Good.  When you see the Officer again, tell him he owes you 50 dollars.  Next case...”

No matter what excuse he gave, the man could not escape the fact that he was guilty – guilty as charged.  And the same is true of you and me.  Our sins make us guilty before God.  And no amount of haggling with the Judge will get us off the hook.  None of our excuses will work to save us.  There is no way we can save ourselves.  But thankfully the Judge Himself, our gracious God, came up with a way.  And that way was His only Son, Jesus Christ, our defense attorney.  You know, Jesus came up with the perfect defense strategy.  He claimed that He committed the crime.  And then He took our place and served our time for us, suffered our punishment, when He died on the cross to release us from our bondage to sin, death and hell, which means that nothing can be held against us anymore, because Jesus already paid the penalty.

In a way, it’s like double jeopardy.  Once you’ve paid for a crime, you can’t be convicted for it again, because you’ve already paid the price.  And that’s what Jesus did for you and me.  He paid the price with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, so that you and I might be set free.  As Peter says in our text:  you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.

The last part of that verse is a clear reference to the Passover Lamb.  The Book of Exodus tells us that the lamb had to be a year-old male, without any spots or flaws.  That’s because only a perfect sacrifice was sufficient to pay the price for sin and cancel out the debt of guilt.  Here, Peter tells us that on the cross Jesus gave Himself as the perfect final sacrifice.   For by His perfect life lived on our behalf and His perfect death in our place, He made full atone for all our sins.  He covered them up completely.  With the end result, that by faith in Him, all the spots of our guilt and the blemishes of our iniquity have been erased.  All our flaws and defects have been made right again through  Jesus’ blood.

And what proof do we have that all of this is true?  As Peter wrote in verse 21 of our text:

through him [you] are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is our proof that we are forgiven.  The fact that God raised and glorified His Son is solid evidence that He is pleased with what Jesus did to save us.  And when we believe in Jesus, then God is pleased with us too.  So pleased that someday He will raise us up and glorify us as well, which is what he planned all along as Peter writes:

He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you…

It is interesting that that is very same thing St. Paul writes about in the beautiful eighth chapter of his epistle to the Romans:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

It reminds me about the story of the pastor was waiting in line to have his car filled with gas before a long holiday weekend. The attendant worked quickly, but there were so many cars that it took him a long time to get to the pastor. Finally, the attendant motioned him toward a vacant pump.  “Sorry about the delay, Reverend” said the young man.  “But it seems as if everyone waits until the last minute to get ready for a long trip.”   The minister chuckled, “I know what you mean. It’s the same in my business.”

Beloved, we too need to be ready for Jesus coming, which can happen at any time. So what can we do but, heed St. Peter’s advice and stay ready is by living our lives in reverent fear here, as exiles and strangers in this world, looking ahead in faith and in trust in our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. To Him be all glory, honor, power, and might now and forever.  Amen. 


 

20 Apr. 2014 - Matt. 28:1-10

The King Raised

Easter Sunday, 20 April 2014.  

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


nullP: Christ is risen!    C: He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

On the Sixth Day of Creation, God made for Himself a king. From the dust of the ground He brought forth His king and placed him in a garden made just for him and for his queen whom God would create later that day. This king wasn’t just someone for an all-powerful God to boss around like a slave or control like a robot; no, he was intended to be God’s representative on earth. This king was not created to lollygag around the garden all day; no, God made him with feet and hands, for he had to get around and do the work God had in mind for him to do. Chiefly, he was to have dominion over or be a good steward of God’s magnificent creation.

But Adam blew it. He blew it big time. A preacher from hell, an angel disguised as a serpent, came into the garden. He was beautiful on the outside, but a liar and a murderer in his heart and Adam let him in. And he went to Eve spewing his poisonous lies about God. Adam should have taken those feet God gave him and planted them right between his wife and the serpent and said, “Eve, don’t listen to him, he’s a liar.” But the snake was a very convincing, smooth-talking and slick, though he spoke with a forked tongue. No doubt we would have been mesmerized by him too, and if the truth be told we often still are.

At any rate, God had told Adam of the tree in the mist of the garden, “the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.” yet, instead of standing up to the serpent and wringing his lying neck, he was caught flat-footed and did nothing. He let Eve eat the forbidden fruit and then, when he saw that nothing visibly happened to her, he ate too, and they both died. No, they did not a physical death right away, but in their disobedience to God they did die spiritually. In their sin and rebellion against God they died right then and there, just as all their children have been been sinning and dying ever since.

Almost all kings leave some kind of legacy, something they are remembered for. King David was the great warrior king, who purchased the land for construction of God’s temple. Solomon is remembered for his wisdom and for building the temple. But King Adam built nothing. His legacy was and is only death. His work brought tombs and graves into the world, funeral homes and obituaries, hospises and hosptials, sickness and disease, and fear, a lot of fear. Before the fall, Adam and Eve revered God with a holy fear. Now they were not only scared of Him, but everything else. Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, the world would now be filled with fear.

Little boys would be afraid of the dark. Teenage girls would live in fear of not being thin or pretty enough. Women would fear the judgment of other women more than the judgment of God. Men would fear conflict in a world where they need to have courage and a willingness to oppose evil, as Reverend Charles F. Aked wrote:

“for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.”

And then there’s man’s conscience. There’s a saying that says that death and conscience make cowards of us all. And so man even feared telling the truth and being honest about himself. Instead he re-labels his sins. “I’m not stingy or greedy. I’m good with money.” or “It isn’t stealing if the other guy’s got more than he needs.” or “Fill in the blank sin isn’t sin if enough people agree that it is not.” Yes indeed, death and conscience now make cowards of us all.

So God drove His king out of the garden and placed some security guard angels at the door. Angels that stood at attention with flaming swords in their hands, to keep the man and his wife from the tree of life in the garden. The garden was no longer their home. Adam made mankind’s bed and it was a grave, and he would have to lie in it too.

But strangly, God still loved Adam, the king that blew it and He promised one day to send another king. A Seed of the woman. A royal Seed who would be His only-begotten Son, God in the flesh, God with feet and hands. And His feet and hands would not be the feet and hands of a coward, but of a champion, who would restore all that King Adam had ruined. He would crush the head of that false preacher who deceived Adam and filled the world with fear. But this King, who is none other than our our Lord, Jesus Christ, was not caught by the enemy flat-footed. He used His holy feet to be just where He needed to be to help fallen sinners like us. He used his hands to heal the sick, the blind, deaf, and the lame. His hands fed the hungry and his feet walked right into a funeral procession to raise a widow’s son, and to a synagogue ruler’s house to raise his little daughter, and to a graveyard to raise his friend Lazarus.

And not only did Jesus use his hands and feet, but He used his mouth as well. Oh, how he used his mouth. Not only did he instruct the ignorant, but he preached the truth without fear, the truth about a gracious and loving God and his kingdom. A Kingdom that we could never earn or merit, but that God would give to us soley by grace. A Kingdom that He would bestow freely to everyone who would believe in Him.

This King was just the right king. And His feet were just the right feet and his hands were just the right hands that were needed to save us. To open up the entrance to the garden paradise that Adam closed up, this king would have to have nails driven through his hands and feet. He would have to have the courage to bleed, suffer, and die, for rebels like Adam and Eve and us.

Was he tempted like Adam? You better believe he was. That preacher from hell was there to let him know that he could take the easy road.

Just bend the knee to me Jesus, just kneel down to me and it will all be yours, I’ll give it to you without the cross. Why take the hard road Jesus, why do it God’s way, when my way is so much easier, and let the world be damned.”

 But, thanks be to God, Jesus didn’t blow it.  His royal feet willingly staggered to the cross as his royal hands carried it with our sins all the way up Calvary.  And then, when he died, those royal hands and feet were wrapped in a shroud and he was placed in a borrowed tomb. 

“But,” we might ask, “what good is a dead king?”  “What good are the feet and hands of a king if they can’t move?” “How can a dead king give out gifts, give out a share in his kingdom, give glory and honor to his subjects?”  “How can a dead king share his royal feast of feasts?”

“What good is a Crucified King, if that king is not raised to show His wounds and bring peace to our fearful hearts and guilty consciences?”  The answer is, “He would be no good at all.” Which is why God raised Jesus Christ from the dead to be our Ever-living, Everlasting Lord.

The Crucified King was raised from the dead so that we might live and reign with Him forever. And so that we might see that we are no longer in our sins. And so that we might fear no more, because with His resurrection, he shows us that he has defeated death and that it no longer has any power over us. Now, that false preacher Satan’s head is crushed and the teeth in his accusing are mouth kicked in.

Our King was raised on this holy day and what wonderful things our ears hear in the Gospel. We see the sad and scared Marys, a picture of God’s sad and scared church, filled with joy and gladness at the holy angel’s preaching. We see the stone rolled back and in the empty tomb, catching a glimpse of our own future unoccupied graves.

And do you remember how those angels stood and guarded the entrance to the garden of paradise? How different things are on this morning. We see the angel in white. He has no sword. He is not imposing. He has no scowl on his face. He’s not even standing on his feet. He is simply sitting in a garden graveyard and preaches a short but magnificent sermon. “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, as He said.” No need for fear in this fear-filled world, says the preacher from heaven. The King on the cross has dealt with and conquered all that could ever make you afraid.

See how Mary Magdalene and the other Mary take hold of those blessed feet of Jesus, the Second Adam, as He comes to them and preaches the same sermon. “Don’t be afraid.” They grasp and worship at the feet of their Savior and King who took the bed that Adam had made for man, laid in it for three days, and then arose emptying it of its dread and power.

How great was that sixth day when God made Himself a king with feet and hands. But how much greater is what happened on this day, the eighth day, the first day of a new creation, when God placed His King back on His pierced feet, so that he could stetch out his pierced hand and say, “Welcome, my beloved, come to me all you who are heavy laiden and I will give you rest.” And what can we do, but can we do but rejoice and say. “Christ is Risen!”

C: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

P: Amen.


 

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