Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Romans 8:35-39 - “We Will Not Be Cut Off”

New Year’s Eve
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

I’ve been thinking a lot about the people in Bam, Iran, this week, as the count of those killed in the earthquake continues to rise. Last estimates put the figure near 50,000 people dead, out of a city of 80,000.

I did a little research into whether there were Christians in Bam, and I found that about ½ a percent of the population of the country of Iran is Christian. Lutheran World Relief is coordinating their efforts with congregations in Iran. I did not find out if there was a congregation in Bam, but we know that there is a small number of brothers and sisters in Christ in Iran, trying to maintain their faith in a Shiite Muslim country.

So I do not know for a fact that there are Iranian Christians in Bam, but if there are, Paul’s words from Romans chapter 8 speak words of comfort, strength, and truth for their situation: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, for I am convinced that nothing will separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The earthquake in Bam caused telephone lines to be cut off. Electricity, water, heat, have been cut off. Routes into the city were cut off, destroyed by the upheaval of the earth. Those trapped underneath the rubble were cut off from daylight, from rescue. The thousands killed in Bam were cut off from life.

But those who believe in Christ will never be cut off from the love of God in Christ. Communication, power, water, transportation may all be cut off. Life may be cut short, but these things will not, cannot separate the believers from the love of God in Christ.

God’s love doesn’t need power lines or pipes to get to the people. God’s love doesn’t need roads. God’s love doesn’t need a clear path. It doesn’t even needs bulldozers to clear the rubble. God’s love cannot be stopped by the tragedies of this world. God’s love cannot be kept from reaching out to His people, from gathering those who have died in the faith.

So even now after thousands have died in Bam, we can confidently say that that earthquake didn’t keep any believers in Christ from receiving eternal life. Those who died in the faith in the earthquake will receive life after death through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And even now when Lutheran World Relief workers and many other Christian agencies enter Iran to help the people of Bam, even now God’s love will not be stopped. As those relief workers give medical help, food, clothes, and shelter to the survivors, may God’s love be shared through their actions. The government of Iran has made it extremely difficult for Christians to share the message of Good News, but the Christians have found ways to share Christ anyway. There has been active churches in Iran. The government could not cut off God’s love from His people.

And now in the midst of tragedy, God is again showing that His love will not be cut off; the people will not be separated from God’s love. God is reaching out through Christian relief agencies to show once again that He is love, that He brings salvation, that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. May the survivors hear the Good News of Jesus even in the midst of tragedy. May they know the words of Paul that nothing is able to separate them from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

But we have suffered our own earthquakes this year. Maybe nothing so incredible, so newsworthy, so massive as the earthquake in Iran, but we suffer our own earthquakes, our own tragedies, our own difficulties each day. Paul quotes Psalm 44 saying, “We face death all day long.” Indeed, as we reflect on 2003, as the New Year approaches tonight, you know what earthquakes you have suffered, earthquakes of all sizes, earthquakes and the aftershocks.

Sickness. Not doing so well in school. Injuries. Asthma. Damage from a thunderstorm. Losing your job. Accidents. Fight with a friend. Fight with a family member. Fire. Seeing someone go off to war. Divorce. Abuse. Alcoholism. Drug use. Death of a loved one.

Yet, what is true for the Christians in Iran is true for us: nothing is able to cut us off from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. All of these difficulties and troubles may lay at your feet like rubble. You may still feel trapped underneath the weight of it all, but these things will not cut you off from the love of God.

(start unrolling a string that is attached to the altar to be stretched down the aisle)
I’m here to tell you tonight: we will not be cut off from God’s love. We’re here tonight to be reminded: we will not be cut off from God’s love. We have received God’s love through His Word. We receive God’s love through the Lord’s Supper.

Thinking of the altar as God’s presence among us, then tonight remember that God’s love stretches out to you. We will not be separated from God’s love. We will not be cut off. No matter how many tragedies and disasters and life’s rubble gets dumped on us, God’s love will not be stopped.

(pieces of paper with words, drop on string, fall off)
The difficulties of life are not strong enough to break God’s love, to stop God’s love. Trouble—falls right off. Hardship—not hard enough. Persecution—can’t crush this love. Famine—won’t starve God’s love; He is the Bread of life. Nakedness—can’t change the fact that we’re clothed with Christ. Danger—there is no danger within the mighty fortress of our God. Sword—an earthly sword may stab and kill, but we have the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, which brings His Truth and His love to us.

All of these things that stand in our way, all of these things that make our lives so desperate, so difficult, so sad, so lonely, all of these things are like feathers when it comes to God’s love (throw papers into the air). To us any one of these things can feel like a 2-ton truck sitting on our shoulders, trouble or danger or hardship, but they are light as a feather when it comes to trying to crush God’s love. They fall right off. They might seem like wrecking balls to us, but they cannot bring down God’s love. Nothing can cut off God’s love. Nothing can stop God’s love from getting through.

That’s not to say you’re suppose to feel like the difficulties of 2003 were light as a feather. God knows that certain things have brought you low, have made you feel sunken inside, made you feel burdened. That’s not to say in the future that your troubles and hardships will feel less painful. The message for you who are heavy burdened today is that even when you’re broken down at the side of the road, even when you’re standing all alone, even when you’re stuck in bed and can’t get up, even when you’re trapped beneath the difficulties of this world, God’s love is more than strong enough to reach you.

Christ doesn’t make our lives easy and painless; this is a sinful world, and we suffer the consequences. But Christ’s love can’t be stopped by this sinful world. When you’re crawling underneath your pain, God’s love is not affected. When you feel like there’s no way that anyone can help you, God’s love still gets through. Above all the things that may happen to you in this life, God’s love has got a hold on you. God’s love will not fail you when you’re trapped in the earthquakes of life. We will not be cut off from God’s love. He remains strong even while we are weak, sick, troubled, and dying. He remains strong and stretches out His love to give you comfort, strength, hope, and faith, stretches out His love to give you life after death through Jesus Christ.

I want you to know that you are connected, you are not separated; you are attached, you are not cut off. I want you to know that God’s love is with you no matter what has happened in your life in 2003 and no matter what happens in 2004. Please stand. I want you to move into the center aisle so that the people on the aisles can gently hold onto the string, and then join hands. In this way, I want you to know that you are connected, you are attached to the love of God.

And now as you hold hands and hold this string, as you realize that God’s love has found you and has a hold on you, I want you to again hear the words of Paul: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, for we are convinced that neither death nor life, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

Relief for Iranian Earthquake Victims

Lutheran World Relief is working to provide assistance to survivors of the earthquake in Iran and asking for donations toward relief efforts from supporters in the U.S. When disaster strikes, in addition to prayer, the greatest immediate need is cash so that our local partners can quickly and efficiently provide needed assistance.

To contribute online or find out more, go to

You may also call 1-800-LWR-LWR2

Or mail a check or money order to:
Lutheran World Relief - Iran
PO Box 17061
Baltimore, MD 21298-9832

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Luke 2:22-40 - “Simeon Sang, Anna Gave Thanks”

First Sunday after Christmas (Year C - LCMS Revised Readings)
Sunday, December 28, 2003

That hymn (click to see hymn) is based on the song of Simeon from today’s Gospel reading from Luke. Simeon’s song is a song of waiting. Simeon had been told by God’s Holy Spirit that he would see the Christ, the Messiah, God’s Promised Savior. So Simeon was waiting, waiting for the consolation of Israel. His song is a song of waiting, waiting that is finally over as Simeon sees the baby Jesus, sees the One who would save God’s people from their sin.

This is a song on the lips of Simeon, but it is also a song for all who were waiting for the Lord’s Savior. Simeon waited for the consolation of Israel, the comfort of Israel. Isaiah the prophet had spoken of that comfort 700 years earlier, “comfort for those who mourn,” he says (61:2). God’s faithful people knew that God would send a Savior to help His people. Simeon sings, rejoicing to see Christ, the Christ that generation after generation of faithful people had waited to see, the Christ that was born to us on Christmas Day. Simeon’s song is our song as we turn to Christ for comfort and consolation.

Simeon’s song is the song of all who wait for the Lord. While Simeon sang and rejoiced to see Jesus, the elderly prophetess Anna gave thanks. She had been looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem, the day when One would come to pay the ransom that kept God’s people in chains, the day when One would come to release the Lord’s people from judgment. Simeon’s song is Anna’s song who looked forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. Simeon’s song is our song as we turn to Christ to be released, set free, from judgment and death.

Simeon’s song is the song of all who wait for the Lord. 33 years after Simeon saw the infant Jesus, a man named Joseph of Arimathea gave up his tomb for the body of the crucified Jesus. Joseph was waiting, we are told by Luke, waiting for the Kingdom of God. For those brief 3 days, the consolation of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, was in Joseph’s tomb before He burst forth in victory. Simeon’s song is Joseph’s song who waited for the Kingdom of God. Simeon’s song is our song as we wait for Christ to bring His Kingdom and victory one final time.

Simeon’s song is the song of all who wait for the Lord. Simeon, Anna, and Joseph waited for the Lord, but the ancient prophets waited too. The prophet who wrote Lamentations upon seeing the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 587 BC said,

I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD (3:24-26).

The prophet says the Lord is his portion, his treasured possession, his share of the land. There isn’t something better than the Lord’s salvation; therefore, the prophet will wait for the Lord, wait for the best. Simeon’s song is the song of the prophet who lamented over Jerusalem but still waited for the Lord. Simeon’s song is our song as we wait for the Lord, ignoring other offers, knowing that the salvation of Christ is a most treasured possession.

Simeon’s song is the song of all who wait for the Lord. The ancient prophet Micah waited too. Despite the misery of Micah’s life, despite seeing the Northern Kingdom of Israel fall into enemy hands, Micah said,

But as for me, I watch in hope for the LORD,
I wait for God my Savior;
my God will hear me (7:7).

Many had deserted the Lord. They were no longer waiting for Him; they were trying to find hope elsewhere. But Micah remained steadfast, keeping his eyes focused on God. Simeon’s song is Micah’s song who watched in hope for God’s salvation. Simeon’s song is our song as we focus on Christ, even when others look for help in other places.

Simeon’s song is the song of all who wait for the Lord. The ancient prophets of the Old Testament waited for the Lord, but the followers of Jesus also wait, as we see in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul rejoices that God has given the Christians in Corinth so many spiritual gifts, and then he says,

Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful (Chapter 1).

The believers eagerly wait for Christ to return. Even as Simeon waited on the steps of the temple, waited and anticipated seeing the Savior, so too the believers eagerly wait for Christ to come again, come to bring His people to eternal life. And Paul encourages the believers saying that God is faithful, God will keep them strong to the end. The song of Simeon will be the song of the believers when they see Christ return. The song of Simeon will be our song when the wait is over and Christ has come back again.

Simeon’s song is the song of all who wait for the Lord. God’s people wait for Him even now in the throne room of God. The believers who have gone before us into death are gathered underneath the altar of God in heaven, as we are told in the book of Revelation. The believers cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (6:10). Those believers who have gone before us into death are waiting, waiting for the day when Christ will return and bring this world to an end, waiting for the resurrection of the body, waiting for the new life on a new earth, waiting for Christ to come again. Simeon’s song will be the song of the believers who will rejoice to see God’s salvation. Simeon’s song is our song as we wait for Christ to come again and bring new life, eternal life.

Simeon’s song is the song of all who wait for the Lord. And those who wait have received great news. The Lord has come! The Lord is here! The Lord was born to Mary, born to set us free. That is what the ancient prophets waited to hear, wanted to hear, that the Savior had come into the world. That is what Simeon had been told he would see, and indeed, on that day when Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus came to the temple, that day Simeon’s wait was over.

So Simeon’s song is our song, because the wait is over. The Savior has been revealed to us too. Jesus has been revealed as God’s Christ, the Messiah, the Promised One, the Anointed One, and this Good News has been passed down to us in the Word of God. So we sing this hymn, Simeon’s song today.

And yet, the believers continue to wait. There will come a day when the believers will sing Simeon’s song again, and the wait will truly be over. We celebrate the birth of Christ with Simeon. More than Simeon, we can celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, but even so, Simeon’s song will only truly be fulfilled when Christ returns again, when Christ raises all believers from the dead, when Christ creates a new world for the new eternal life that He will give to His people. Then, and only then, will we truly see the salvation that has been prepared by the Lord in the sight of everyone.

Yet, even as Simeon could say that he departed in peace, so we may now go with great peace and joy. Simeon walked away from the temple that day, he went forth into his daily life, knowing that the Savior had come. Simeon knew he could depart, he could die in peace knowing that God would save Him. So too we can sing Simeon’s song. We go forth in our daily lives, rejoicing in God our Savior, and we go forth, depart, die in peace, knowing there is life after death.

Waiting for the Lord is waiting for God to fulfill His promises. Waiting for the Lord is trusting His promises. The ancient prophets trusted those promises. Simeon trusted those promises. Anna trusted those promises. Paul and the believers with him trusted those promises. The believers underneath the altar of God trust the Lord’s promises. When we sing Simeon’s song, we declare that we are waiting and trusting in God’s promises.

We rejoice that God has kept His Word, kept His promise, and sent His salvation into the world. God has revealed His plan of salvation to the whole world. Jesus has come. Jesus has been proclaimed. We have heard the news. Christ has opened salvation to the whole world. Simeon’s song is our song as we sing with great joy.

We sing with Simeon: Christ has come! We give thanks with Anna: Christ has come! We rejoice to see God’s salvation that has come into the world at Christmas.

And yet we still wait, wait with the believers, wait with those who have gone before us, we wait saying: Christ will come again! And when He comes we will gather again and we will sing Simeon’s song with full gusto and celebration, going forth into eternal life with great peace and joy, His Word will be fulfilled and is a promise true!

When we sing Simeon’s song, we celebrate with Simeon: the wait is over, Christ is here, we have salvation. And yet we also sing Simeon’s song knowing we still wait for Christ to come again and truly set us free in eternal life. Let us sing stanza 1 again of Simeon’s song, celebrating and waiting.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Hymn: Lord, Let Your Servant Now Go (Song of Simeon)

Lord, let Your servant now
Go with great peace and joy;
Your Word has been fulfilled and is a promise true;
Lord, now let us, Let us depart with peace and joy, oh, Set us free!

My own eyes have now seen
Salvation here for me;
Prepared by You, Lord, in the sight of everyone;

A light reveals You now
To all the world’s nations;
The glory of Your chosen people Israel;

Praise to our Father God,
And glory to the Son,
And glory to the Spirit, Now and evermore;

Text: SQUIRES, BENJAMIN (2003) adapted from Lutheran Worship pp. 268-289 (Luke 2:29-32)

Thursday, December 25, 2003

John 1:10-14 - "I'll Be Home for Christmas"

Christmas Day (Year C - LCMS Revised Readings)
Thursday, December 25, 2003

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me

That’s what Jesus says: I’ll be home for Christmas. John’s Gospel describes Jesus coming into the world and says, “Jesus came to that which was His own.” Another way of saying this is, “He came home.” When Jesus came into the world, born of a virgin, born as child of a woman, born as a human, taking on our nature, at Christmas, Jesus came home.

Jesus came to the world He had made. This isn’t some foreign place that Jesus had never heard of; this is the world that God the Father made through the Son. As Paul declares in His letter to the Colossians, “By Christ all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him.”

Jesus came to the world He had made. God the Father promised to send a Savior into the world, and Jesus promised, “I’ll be home for Christmas/You can count on me.” And indeed, on Christmas, Jesus came into the world, came to the world He made, came home.

And He came to His homefolk; He came to the people of Israel, the chosen people. God the Father had long ago promised that the Savior would come to the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And so indeed, Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph, people of Israel, born into the family of the great King David. Jesus came home to His homefolk, but when He arrived, He found that not everyone was excited about His homecoming.

What if you came back home for this Christmas, came back to the house where you used to live, came back to see your family, but they told you to turn around and go back to where you came from? What if the door was slammed in your face? What if they locked the front gate? What if they blocked the driveway? What if they called the cops? Here you come, arriving with gifts for everyone, ready to embrace everyone with your love, and your homefolk turn you away.

There was no room in the inn. King Herod sent out death squads to kill the young children, trying to kill the new baby who was born to be King of the Jews. The people weren’t looking for a Savior. Many people were confident, like they didn’t need forgiveness for their sins. Leaders denied Him. People said He was a blasphemer, saying that He told lies about God. Jesus came home, came to His hometown of Nazareth after He had started His ministry, and His homefolk tried to throw Him off a cliff.

Jesus said, “I’ll be home for Christmas/You can count on me,” and the world did not recognize Him. His homefolk did not receive Him. In our sinfulness, we reject Jesus. Our hearts are not turned towards Him. Our sinful hearts are like crowded inns and death squads looking to keep out the new king. Our hearts are like locked doors, locked gates, barricaded driveways. In our sinfulness, we have turned Jesus away even when He came home to be with us.

Ah, but that’s exactly why Jesus came home, because He knew there was trouble at home. He wouldn’t be turned away so easily. Crowded inns, stinky stable, Herod’s death squads, Nazareth’s mobs, these things were not going to stop Jesus from coming home, coming to His homefolk, coming to save His people. And so, even though your heart may react in sinfulness, even though you may slam the door in the face of Jesus, Jesus will not walk away. He has come with forgiveness and healing for you; He has come to remove your sins so that you can approach God the Father without fear. He has come to bring you back into the family.

Hear today’s announcement of forgiveness and hope:
“You’ll be home for Christmas,
You can count on Him”

In your sin, you are guilty of rejecting Jesus. Jesus came home, came to you and found that your heart rejected Him. But Jesus comes anyway, comes to change your heart, comes to change your future, so that you will be home for Christmas, so that you will be home with Him for eternal life.

Yes, your sins separate you from God. Yes, your sins deserve eternal judgment. Yes, because you are sinful, you do not deserve anything but damnation. But “You’ll be home for Christmas/You can count on Him.” You will be home with God for eternity; you will have life after death; you will receive a new life of peace and joy. You can count Jesus. You can count on Him, trust in Him. You can count on the cross, rely on the forgiveness and salvation that Jesus won for you on the cross.

Jesus came home, came on Christmas, to bring His salvation into the world. Jesus came home on Christmas to bring us home, to bring us back into the family. As John’s Gospel declares, “To all who received Him, to those who believed in His Name, He gave the right to become children of God.” Jesus has worked in your heart to create faith, worked in your heart so that you can receive God and His promise of salvation. Jesus has worked in your heart to open doors, turn on the front porch lights, open the gate, remove the barricades on the driveway. Jesus has worked in your heart, so that you will receive Him, believe in Him, trust in Him, count on Him. And then Jesus welcomes you into His home.

He has given you the right, the ability, the capability, the possibility of being children of God, of being back in God’s family, of being welcomed in the God’s eternal home. As Jesus said, “There are many rooms in my Father’s house” (John 14:2). And so I sing to you, “You’ll be home for Christmas/You can count on Him.” Christmas is about Jesus coming home, but Christmas is also about you coming home, you coming to eternal life.

“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” Jesus took on flesh and blood, became like us, even though He didn’t have to. Jesus came and lived in this world, came home, came to His homefolk. Jesus knew the risks, knew the costs, knew the outcome, that He’d be rejected at home, His homefolk wouldn’t receive Him. He knew He was coming to His people that had fallen away, that were turned away, but Jesus came home anyway. Jesus came in love and mercy and forgiveness, came to make it possible for the barriers to fall away, make it possible for our hearts to believe, make it possible for us to truly come home to live with Him for eternity.

But even as we wait for that day, for the day when Christ takes us to be with Him for eternity, even as we wait for that new life, a life without pain or sadness or fear, even as we wait to go home to be with God, we celebrate today.

“He is here for Christmas
Full of grace and truth”

Christ is here with us. Christ has revealed His glory to us, revealed it in His Word which declares how glorious He is, what a Savior He is. Christ is here with us this day, full of grace and truth. He comes with His grace, accepting us just as we are, giving us the gift of faith as a true gift. There are no strings attached when it comes to Jesus. The gift of salvation is a gift. There are no hidden fees or costs. Christ is here with the gift, the grace, of salvation.

Christ is here with us, full of grace and truth. He comes with His truth, and while on the one hand He reveals the harsh truth about us, the truth that we are sinful and turned away from God and are God’s enemies, on the other hand, He also reveals the most amazing truth: He loves us despite our sins. He loves us and came home, came home for Christmas, came so that He could take us home, take us back into the family.

This isn’t something I’ve seen in any other teaching about spiritual things. The truth that we have in Jesus is special, different than any other teaching. Jesus is loving and gracious and merciful. Jesus came to save us and doesn’t expect that we could do this on our own. Jesus came to save us knowing that we’d reject Him. Jesus came to us and gives us faith to receive Him. Jesus comes at Christmas knowing how sinful we are, but Jesus continues to give us His truth, His Word, His hope, His promise. Every time we lock the door, slam the gate, build the barricade, every time we tell Jesus that there’s no room for Him, that we’re so angry at Him that we’d like to kill Him, every time we reject Jesus—He unlocks the door, opens the gate, climbs over the barricades, sleeps out back in the shed, and reminds us that even the devil couldn’t kill Him on the cross. Every time we reject Jesus, we hear Him singing: “I’ll be home for Christmas/You can count on me.”

Every time you feel like there is no way that Jesus would ever accept you again, I will tell you, “You’ll be home for Christmas/You can count on Him.”

And every time that we celebrate the birth of our Savior, we can sing, “He is here for Christmas/Full of grace and truth.”

He is here; He is here to take you home.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Romans 8:22-27 - “Groans (and the Sounds of Hope)”

Advent Midweek
Wednesday, December 10, 2003

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth,” Paul says in Romans. I saw Creation groan while camping. Despite being in the wilderness, two squirrels had gotten used to finding bits of food around that campsite, and so when my group arrived, the squirrels began to boldly approach our packs looking for food, handouts, scraps. Our group leader tried to scare them off by throwing rocks in their direction. Brave and brazen, the squirrels continued to approach our packs. A rock connected, instantly killing the squirrel. My leader never meant to hurt the squirrel; he only wanted them to break a bad habit. When the other squirrel saw that its companion had been killed, it chattered and chattered back in the brush, until it finally crept up to the dead body, shook it with its front paws, and then dragged the body away back into the brush. The squirrel was mourning; we had never seen anything like that. That was the groaning of Creation.

Just before our reading tonight, Paul says in verses 19-21, “The creation waits in eager expectation. . .to be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” The Earth, the entire Creation, is groaning, because it is suffering the ill effects of the sinfulness of mankind. The Earth does not work in harmony and peace and beauty, because sin entered the world, and with sin came disease, decay, death. And so the whole creation groans, waiting for the day when Christ will return, bring this sinful world to an end, and make everything new.

The Creation groans. You can hear the groans when the storms and winds come, the trees creaking and groaning under the strain. You can hear the groans when the birds around your feeder squawk and carry on because there’s a hawk around, a hawk that will kill. Animals once got along, not harming one another, in God’s original Creation, but sin came into the world, bringing the food chain, predators, and fear into the animals. You can hear the groans of Creation in the cry of a wolf trying to maintain his territory, in the whinnying of a horse terrified by some loud noise. You can hear the groans of Creation in the humpf of a deer, scared away from its grazing in the woods.

But what is the hope that still sings? Creation still waits with hope, hope for God to bring peace and newness into the world, to restore His Creation, restore order and life. You can hear the hope in the spring songs of the birds. We can hear the hope in the gentle breezes—as the leaves of the trees gently flutter, the waves on the lake gently lap the shore. You can hear the hope in the sounds of wolf cubs playing, in a horse that neighs after a good run. You can hear the hope in the quiet sound of deer munching in the woods.

The hope looks to God the Father, the hope looks forward to a day when the Creation will not be at war with itself, when there will be no need for death of animals and people. The creation groans, waiting for Jesus to return, and liberate the entire Creation from the affects of sin. Jesus came at Christmas, because He heard the groans of Creation and wanted there to be sounds of hope.

“We ourselves groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies,” Paul says. I saw a Christian groaning. My Grandpa died in the night 3 years ago yesterday. My parents got the call, and so we went over to my Grandma’s to tell her in her person. We let ourselves into the house, it was still 6:00 in the morning, and she was asleep. As soon as my mom woke her up, my Grandma knew why we were there. She just said, “Oh, no, oh no.” My groaned that day. We all groaned and grieved and cried. The pains of this world took us by storm that day, the pain of death and sadness.

The Christians groan. We groan when we pray for the sick and mourning and those going through difficulties. We groan when we talk about our hurts, how we’ve been rejected or ignored or made fun of for what we believe. We groan when we realize that our sinfulness causes us to be unkind, unforgiving, and unmerciful to people around us. We groan when we see the bad choices that our loved ones make, choosing things that are addictive or dangerous or lead them away from God. We groan when we know that once again there is hidden resentment among people in the congregation.

But what is the hope that still sings? We as Christians still wait with hope, hope for God to bring peace and newness into the world, to restore His people. We hear that hope when there is healing and help for those in difficulties. We hear that hope when we remind each other that our loved ones who have died in Christ will also have new life in Christ. We hear that hope when someone doesn’t reject us for our faith but rather is eager to learn more, God using us to share His love with someone else. We hear that hope when we realize that we’ve set aside our anger or pettiness, and instead God has given us the strength to speak kind words to someone who has hurt us. We hear that hope when we talk about God’s forgiveness and love, a forgiveness that comes for all people and flows through our lives.

The hope looks to God the Father, the hope looks forward to a day when people will not be at war with each, when there will be no need for death of people. Christians groan, waiting for Jesus to return, and liberate the entire Creation from the affects of sin. Jesus came at Christmas, because He heard our groans and wanted us to have the sounds of hope.

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express,” Paul says in Romans. Words cannot express what the Spirit groans, because the Spirit knows what we need, what we desire, what is missing from our lives. Words cannot express what the Spirit groans, because the Spirit knows so much more about us than we know ourselves, and the Spirit knows the mind and heart of God. So the Spirit groans without words, the Spirit groans when we don’t even realize that we are crying out for God’s help. The Spirit groans without words, and yet, how do we know what Spirit desires and hopes for us? God gives us a glimpse in His Word. The Spirit says even more than this, but God’s Word teaches us to know that His heart desires love and forgiveness and mercy. Hear the Word of God and the groaning of the Spirit in

Psalm 6:1-4,6,8-9
O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in anguish.
How long, O LORD, how long?
Turn, O LORD, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
I am worn out from groaning;
all night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the LORD has heard my weeping.
The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
the LORD accepts my prayer.

The Spirit is groaning on our behalf, because we are suffering the ill effects of the sinfulness of mankind. The Earth does not work in harmony and peace and beauty, because sin entered the world, and with sin came disease, decay, death. And so the Spirit groans, waiting for the day when Christ will return.

The Spirit groans. He groans in sadness over sin. He groans about the terror and destruction in Creation. He groans over how we turn away from God and ignore Him. He groans over how Christians suffer at the hands of evil. He groans because we are like sheep without a shepherd. He groans because the Good Shepherd, Jesus, has come into the world and yet, many do not follow Him. The Spirit groans with all of the sorrow of God, the sorrow we glimpse in His Word.

But what is the hope that still sings? The Spirit still waits with hope, hope for God to restore the world. You can hear the hope in the promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation in God’s Word. You can hear the hope in remembering your baptism, the day when God put His Holy Spirit in you, a Spirit that groans in sadness, yes, but a Spirit that also restores your soul, renews your mind, and gives you faith in Christ. You can hear the hope in every reminder of God’s promise—every time you sing a hymn, every time you tell someone the meaning of Christmas, every time you say the Name of Christ, that is the sound of hope, that is the sound the Spirit brings into the world, the sound of hope against all hope, the sound of hope that we cannot see, the sound of hope, a hope not found in this world, a hope that only comes from God Himself. The Holy Spirit sings of this hope and also makes our hearts sing with this hope.

The creation groans, the Christians groan, the Holy Spirit groans, all waiting for Jesus to return, and liberate the entire Creation from the affects of sin. Jesus hears our groans. Jesus came at Christmas, because He heard our groans. Jesus came at Christmas to make sure we had the sounds of hope, even while we wait for a new world, new life, eternal life.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Malachi 3:1-7b - Separate the Clothes from the Dirt

Additional text: Luke 3:1-9,15-18
Second Sunday in Advent (Year C – LCMS Revised Readings)
Saturday, December 6, and Sunday, December 7, 2003

Today we’re going to look at the imagery that Malachi and John the Baptist use when talking about judgment and salvation, about Jesus coming to condemn sin, about the Lord coming to save His people. If you would, pull out the yellow insert in today’s bulletin. We’re going to compare 4 different ways of talking about judgment and salvation. By understanding this imagery, we’ll better understand God’s plan of salvation, God’s will for our lives, we’ll better understand Christmas and the Second Coming of Christ.

To begin then, Malachi 3 verse 2 says, “But who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a launderer’s soap.” In other words, He will be like a strong soap that gets out all of the stains. So looking at your worksheet, the tool here is soap, hence the little picture. The goal of using soap is to separate the clothes from the dirt, to get rid of the dirt so that you just have the clothes. With this image, the picture of God’s judgment is this: scrub away the dirt. God’s judgment comes to scrub away the dirt. The picture of salvation, then, is: clothes as white as snow.

Now after we look at all four images, we’re going to put all of this together, talk about what these images tell us about our spiritual lives, but just to give you a hint along the way, or maybe confirm what you’re already thinking: the dirt is sin, and forgiveness is being made clean. Each of these images shows how God condemns or judges or takes care of sin, so that God can save His people.

So soap separates the clothes from the dirt. Judgment is scrubbing away the dirt; salvation is having clothes as white as snow.

The next image comes from Malachi 3 verses 2-3, “For He will be like a refiner’s fire. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” The tool here is a refiner’s fire. You need fire to separate the gold or silver from the dross, the other metals mixed with the precious metal. By heating up the metal, you can separate the gold and silver and leave the dross behind. So the picture of judgment is to burn away the dross. The picture of salvation is pure gold, pure silver.

I hope that as we go here you’re starting to see the process that God takes us through, the process of continually burning away the dross in our lives, helping us to get rid of the sin that is a part of our lives, leaving us with more pure gold, more good works in His sight.

So the refiner’s fire separates the gold and silver from the dross. Judgment is burning away the dross; salvation is the pure gold, pure silver.

Now we turn to John the Baptist in the Gospel reading from Luke. John also uses imagery to talk about judgment and salvation. In verse 9, John says, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” The tool is the ax. The ax is ready to go through the orchard and separate the fruitful trees from the unfruitful ones. This is the judgment: burn up those trees not producing fruit; those trees just become firewood, but then salvation looks like a tree that is filled with fruit.

God carrying His ax going through the orchard looking for those trees that aren’t producing fruit should remind us of Judgment Day, the day when Jesus will return and will judge those who do not believe, who don’t have faith which produces repentance, humility, and trust in God for salvation. But those who do have faith are the trees that are filled with fruits produced by the Holy Spirit working in our lives.

So the ax separates the fruitful trees from the unfruitful ones. Judgment burns up those unfruitful trees, but salvation is a tree filled with fruit.

John the Baptist has one other image to add to our list and that is verse 17, “His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” The tool is the winnowing fork, and they used it to throw the gathered grain up into the air, helping to separate the wheat kernels from the light pieces of chaff, broken stems and dust and other things that are unwanted. So again it separates the wheat from the chaff. The picture of judgment is burning up the chaff; it isn’t good for anything but to be thrown into the fire. The picture of salvation is the wheat in the barn, to be gathered up, stored up, to be considered the precious harvest.

This image should remind us of how many people we know who do not have faith in Christ, who are chaff ready to be thrown into the fire, unless they find out about Jesus and will be saved and stored up in God’s wheat barn.

So the winnowing fork separates the wheat from the chaff. Judgment is burning up the chaff; salvation is the wheat in the barn.

On the one hand, these four images describe the First Advent of our Lord. That brings us to the next section of the worksheet. Advent means “coming” or “arrival.” The First Advent of our Lord is Christmas, the birth of Christ, when our Lord came into the world, took on flesh, to be our Savior. So if we take these images from Malachi and John the Baptist, what do they tell us about the First Advent?

Jesus came in the First Advent, came at Christmas, to separate the person from the sin. You are the clothes, the gold, the silver, the fruitful trees, the wheat, that Jesus wanted to separate from the dirt, the dross, the unfruitful trees, the chaff. Jesus came to separate you from the sin that entangles you, the dirt that clings to you, the stuff that would make you destined to be burned up in the fire of judgment. So in the First Advent, the picture of judgment is condemnation of sin, death, and the devil. Jesus dies on the cross to condemn the devil, to conquer sin and death—Jesus scrubs away that dirt, burns up the chaff. That gives us the picture of salvation: forgiveness and eternal life. Jesus makes us as white as snow, gathers us like precious wheat into His barn.

Now these images can also describe the Second Advent, the Second Coming of our Lord. This season leading up to Christmas is called Advent, because we wait to celebrate the First Advent, wait to celebrate Christmas, but it is also a season that turns our attention toward the Second Coming, the Last Day, the Day of Judgment when Christ will return to save His people and judge the unbelievers.

Jesus will come in the Second Advent to separate the believers from the unbelievers. So in the Second Advent the picture of judgment is unbelievers suffering eternal wrath. Unbelievers will burn in God’s wrath like dross, like chaff, like trees that don’t produce fruit. The picture of salvation is believers receiving eternal life. Because of Jesus, believers will be made into pure gold, pure silver, will be trees that produce fruit, will be gathered into God’s barn.

Now that we know how these images of Malachi and John the Baptist describe judgment and salvation, listen to how this describes you, those who have received the gift of faith in Jesus. As you prepare to celebrate the First Advent, you can celebrate that Christ comes like a launderer’s soap, He comes to make you clean, to separate the clothes from the dirt. He comes to scrub away all of that sin, and He will make you as white as snow. Jesus came, was born a child, lived, died, and rose again, so that you can have forgiveness and eternal life, so that you can be clothes free of dirt, so that you can be clean and holy in God’s sight.

As you look to the Second Coming, as you wait for Jesus to return and bring this world to an end, you wait for His refiner’s fire that will separate the gold and silver from the dross. You wait until that day when Jesus will take His precious believers and separate them from the enemies of God, the unbelievers, those who attack the Church. Jesus will burn away the dross, will condemn His enemies to suffer eternal wrath, but look up, because on that Last Day when Jesus returns, He will see you as pure gold, as pure silver, He will see your faith in Him and will save you from the coming wrath and destruction.

As you continue to live each day, listen to the words of John the Baptist, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” As much as Jesus makes you clean, makes you to be pure gold in His sight, you continue to struggle between sinfulness and holy living. As you come to God in repentance, with sorrow for your sin and a desire to change, God works His Holy Spirit in you so that you become a tree that bears fruit. God works His Spirit in your heart, so that you will do good works, do things that show your faith. He prunes away the dead branches, burns up those things in your lives that are dead and don’t produce fruit. He tends to you like someone keeping an orchard, making sure that you grow to be strong, healthy, sanctified, made holy in His sight.

Finally, as you celebrate the First Advent, as you wait for the Second Coming, as you see God working to lead you to do good works, may you also call others to turn away from their sin. Jesus comes with that winnowing fork, separating the wheat and the chaff. Our mission as God’s people is to call others in, to call them into the barn, to tell them about Christ, so that they can be the precious wheat in His barn. Let us tell others so that they can be saved from the fire, so that aren’t thrown out like chaff. The only thing that makes us wheat is faith in Christ; the only thing that can save us from the fire of God’s wrath is by believing in Jesus Christ. May we gather in others, store them up like wheat in God’s barn, so that they can have eternal life.

So then as we go through this Advent season, as we approach Christmas, may these images remind us of God’s Word. The doctors keep saying the only way to really beat the flu and colds is too wash your hands frequently—and use soap. Each time you wash your hands the soap reminds you that you are clean, God’s made you clean, and given you the white robe of salvation. Yet, you need God to keep scrubbing, to get rid of the sin still in your life. And there are people around you who need to be washed by God, need the promise of forgiveness.

As you gather around the fireplace, “chestnuts roasting over an open fire,” the fire reminds you that you’ve been refined by God’s fire, made pure by His Holy Spirit. Yet, you need God to keep burning away the sin. And there are people around who need to be refined, need to be made holy and pure by God’s promise in Jesus.

If you have fire, you need firewood, cut with an ax. The ax reminds you that the dead limbs, the unfruitful have been cut away, leaving you holy in God’s sight. Yet, you need God to keep pruning away the sin, so that you can produce fruit, good works according to God’s Word. And there are people around you who need to be pruned, need the sin removed so that they can be fruitful, producing fruit in keeping with repentance.

Finally, as you prepare to do your holiday baking, when you pull out the flour, remember how that wheat was separated from the chaff, the parts of the plant that aren’t food. The flour reminds you that your soul has been separated from the chaff of sin. Your soul has been separated, ready to be in God’s big barn of eternal life. Yet, you need God to keep sifting away the sin that’s still there. And there are people around you who need sifting, who need the sin removed so that they too can be the wheat in God’s barn.

You are clean and white. You are pure and precious. You are fruitful and alive. You are a crop worth storing up. God has separated you, His people, separated you from your sin, so that on that Last Day, He will gather you into eternal life. This promise comes to you through Jesus Christ, who came as a child, who will come again. Today, through the eyes of Christ, we can look at the floor and the dirt where it has fallen away, the dross, the dead branches, the chaff, and then we can look at each other and see people, people of God, holy and pure and having the gift of eternal life. Look at each other and celebrate because of Christ.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

1 Kings 19:1-8 - “The Root Beer Man”

9th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B - LCMS Revised Readings)
Thursday, August 7, and Sunday, August 10, 2003

Well, I can’t go away on vacation without coming back with one good story. At the end of July, Susan and I participated in an organized bike ride across Iowa. 460 miles, 7 days, camping overnight in small Iowa towns with 8000 other people. This is the nation’s largest organized bicycle ride. Each day, as far as you can see on the route, there are people on bikes. It’s quite amazing to see.

This was the 31st year of the ride, and there are many traditions. One of those traditions are the food vendors that are somewhere out on the route each day. There’s Mama Rapahel’s Breakfast Burritos and Chris Cakes and Mr. Pancake and Tender Tom’s Turkey and Mr. Pork Chop who find a farmhouse somewhere, set up their grills, and serve food to the weary bikers. Many people ride over tough hills and through the heat, they ride knowing that it is only 3 more miles to Mr. Pork Chop.

Well, of all of those vendors, the one that I always looked for, the one that kept me going towards the end of each day, is the Root Beer Man. The Root Beer Man parks his truck about 5-10 miles from the end town for the day, and the Root Beer Man serves 1919 Root Beer, cold, straight from the tap. I keep a list of the top root beers, and 1919 is probably #2, if not #1 in my book.

So as the hills grew longer, as my legs grew tired, each day I’d look for the Root Beer Man. His last name is Paige, and along the way, he was nicknamed Satchell, Satchell Page after the baseball player. For me, seeing Satchell, asking him for a 1919 root beer, for me, that like the angel saying to Elijah, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” It’s like Satch was saying, “Here, have a root beer, for the bike ride is too much for you.” And that 1919 Root Beer, well, it was a great energy drink, helping me to pedal into the last town for the day.

Of course, the difference between Satchell and the angel is that the angel’s food kept Elijah going for 40 days.

But why is Elijah running? We read today about Elijah, running, and getting strength from the food angels gave him. There’s a connection between the Root Beer Man and the angels, but first, why is Elijah running?

Well, the answer is there in verse 2: Jezebel has put a death threat on Elijah. Jezebel was the wife of the king of Judah, King Ahab, but Jezebel served Baal, a false god. And God had just shown that Baal was a false god. Elijah served the true God, who has true power. And then Elijah had the priests of Baal, the ones who had led people astray, he had them put to death. So Jezebel was upset. And Jezebel said she’d kill Elijah.

Even so, why was Elijah running, trying to hide? I mean, Elijah had just seen God’s power, how God’s power was real. Elijah was a servant of the true God; Jezebel wasn’t. Why was Elijah running?

Some people think that Elijah was depressed or scared to lose his life or that he lost his faith in God or that he was worn out/burnt out. Emotions can do that to a person, take you from confidence and faith and bring you right down to fear and sadness. Elijah had hit a spiritual high seeing God’s real power, but then he hit rock bottom, got scared, depressed, ran for his life. Emotions have a way of robbing you of the confidence you had just a moment ago.

For instance, I’ll probably hit a spiritual low after this week. This week is a spiritual high, seeing God’s Word being taught every day, almost 150 people here each day helping to teach and learn about Jesus, but then next week, the place will be empty and quiet and it will be hard to remember if we’re doing God’s mission.

The students, your children, may hit a spiritual low after this week. This week they’ve been spending each day learning about God, but then next week, they’re on their own, they’re less connected, God might be a little less clear.

Families, you may hit a spiritual low after this week. This week you could see your family learning about God, being a part of the church, being connected, but then next week, it’s back to the routine of things, and it’s hard again to make church a priority.

Teachers, you go from teaching and being connected to God’s Word each day to regular life where you might be less aware of serving God.

And this congregation goes from its busiest week, the week when probably the most people are in and out of our doors, to a very quiet week, and emotions can trick us at that moment, emotions can get us feeling really low after we had this spiritual high.

But when we hit that spiritual low, then there’s the Root Beer Man. There’s Satchell at the side of the road, ringing his bell, yelling, “Root Beer.”

Then there’s God sending his angel to Elijah, giving Elijah food and rest to help him be ready for his journey.

And when you hit a spiritual low, then there’s God ready to give you strength for your journey, giving you what you need to keep going down the road of faith.

But notice how God doesn’t force Elijah out of his funk, but He also doesn’t let Elijah off the hook. God cares for Elijah in such a caring, tender way. Again, God is like the Root Beer Man. Satchell is a welcome sight, providing refreshment and conversation. Satchell knows that many of us by the time we get to him, many of us are tired of riding. He doesn’t tell us we’re wimps, and yell at us to keep going. He invites us to stop, drink that 1919 Root Beer, but he doesn’t have a tent up for shade, he doesn’t have chairs out. He’s not going to let us stop, give up riding. He’ll let us be tired, but he’s encouraging us to keep going. So, too, God gives you strength for your spiritual journey, not forcing you out of that low, not forcing you to be in church and participate and read the Bible, not forcing you, but then again, God is there, lovingly, gently guiding you to keep going.

But you know, I had to admit that I needed the Root Beer Man. I had to stop and get that tremendous refreshment. Same with Elijah. The angel brought him food, but Elijah had to admit that he needed to eat. Same with our spiritual lives. We have to admit that we need God’s encouragement on the road of life, on the journey of faith.

Many of you may think of pastors as the Root Beer Man, and that’s OK. We’re supposed to be providing God’s encouragement along the way, but even pastors need the Root Beer Man. I need the Root Beer Man in my spiritual life.

I’ll admit that I get like Elijah—depressed, discouraged, feeling like running away. And in those times, I need the Root Beer Man, I need God to encourage me in my spiritual life. And God does encourage me, and in fact, God uses many of you to encourage me. I hope those of you who have helped me, have encouraged me, I hope you realize that God has used you to encourage me to keep going.

Sometimes you need a Root Beer Man in your life; sometimes you are the Root Beer Man in someone else’s life.

But when you admit that you need God’s encouragement, when you admit this, what do you need? What do you need when you are a discouraged servant of God? How does God encourage you? He encourages you in so many ways.

God encourages you through His Word—through hearing about God’s love and God’s plan to save us from death and Jesus who died on the cross and rose again. God’s Word gives us strength for the journey.

God encourages you through worship with others, through seeing the faith of other people as they praise God and hear His Word and sing to Him.

God encourages you through seeing Christ work in someone else, work to bring someone else to faith, work to bring someone back to church. When you can see that God is doing great things in people’s lives, as many of us have seen this week, then that’s God’s encouragement to us.

God encourages you through service to others. The RYMS, our youth, have this motto: serving God by serving the world. When you realize that God uses you to share His love with others, you feel God’s strength for the task.

God encourages us through a community of believers. I had a discussion with one person this week about being an individual or being in a community, and I said being an individual is great, but we also need community, we need others, and God puts us here together in a community of believers to encourage one another.

God encourages us through volunteer vacations. Maybe we don’t emphasize this enough, but as you’re serving God in the church and in the community, there are times when you need to deliberately take time off, take a vacation from your volunteer commitments. Then God gives you rest, helps you be ready for your next time of service.

On the flip side, God also encourages you through leadership positions, getting involved. Taking part in doing the work of the church is a way that God helps you down the journey of faith.

Finally, God encourages you through the words of someone else. God uses other people, their kind words, their encouraging words, to help you know that you have gifts, you are being used by God.

God will give you strength for the journey, and He will send you on a journey. He does have a mission for your life.

I don’t know what the specifics of your mission, the specific things that God has in my mind for you to do, but I know the basics. Our Vacation Bible School students learned about the basics this week. First, God gives us faith in Jesus. We believe that Jesus died and rose again to give us life after death. God gives us this faith, and then sends us out, sends us out to live our lives in such a way so that others may know Christ. It is God’s mission to use you to help others know about Jesus, know about life after death.

That’s your mission. I don’t know how that will actually happen, but I know that God wants to use you for that mission. And as you go, you’ll hit spiritual highs, weeks like Vacation Bible School when you know you’re a part of teaching others about Jesus, but you’ll also hit spiritual lows, times when you’re depressed, discouraged, beaten down by this world, and you may feel like running away.

When you hit those spiritual lows, trust God. Beneath everything else you’re feeling, trust God, trust that He will provide strength for the journey. He’ll be alongside of the road, He’ll be the Root Beer Man. God will give you strength for your faith; He will lovingly, gently guide you in your spiritual journey.

And to help you remember that God gives you strength for your faith, pick up a root beer barrel from the cookie table tonight. In fact, take 2—but give the second one to someone who has encouraged you in your faith in Jesus. Give that person the root beer barrel, and thank them that they have helped you in your Christian faith.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Psalm 22:1-11 - “I Am a Worm. . .Who Trusts in God”

Good Friday (Year B - LCMS Revised Readings)
Friday, April 18, 2003

I am—yet what I am, none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivion’s host,
Like shadows in love, frenzied stifled throes—
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I love the best
Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept—
There to abide with my Creator God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below—above, the vaulted sky.

This poem was written by John Clare, a poet who lived in the mid-1800’s. The poem resonates with sadness, grief, depression, which could all lead to despair, to a lack of hope. When I remembered this poem this past week, it seemed to be written to echo all the feelings of this dark Friday, all the feelings of Jesus on the cross.

The people have turned their backs on Jesus. No one seems to understand who He truly was or why He was doing this. His friends had forsaken Him, the disciples scattering and denying Him at the time of His arrest. They have become strangers to Him. All of His hopes for being the Savior of the people seem to be like a shipwreck as He is nailed to the cross. Now, all He hopes for is to be in heaven with God the Father, a place of sweet bliss.

The poem echoes all of these thoughts that Christ may have had, but most importantly, the poem expresses hope. Christ in being on the cross knew the feeling of being separated from God, felt the agony of eternal separation from His loving Father, but we see that He also speaks of His hope.

This poem by John Clare isn’t that much different from Psalm 22, which Jesus spoke on the cross. Jesus spoke the first line of Psalm 22, and we are probably meant to think of the whole psalm. This psalm talks about how hopeless the situation seemed to be, but it also speaks about hope like Clare’s poem.

My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?
Why are You so far from saving me,
So far from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry out by day, but You do not answer,
By night, and am not silent.

Yet, You are enthroned as the Holy One;
You are the praise of Israel.
In You our fathers put their trust;
They trusted and You delivered them.
They cried to You and were saved;
In You they trusted and were not disappointed.

But I am a worm and not a man,
Scorned by men and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
They hurl insults, shaking their heads:
“He trusts in the Lord;
Let the Lord rescue him.
Let God deliver him,
Since he delights in God.”

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
You made me trust in You
Even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast upon You;
From my mother’s womb You have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
For trouble is near
And there is no one to help.

Christ in speaking this psalm is voicing His true feelings of sadness, grief, feelings of abandonment, but He is also speaking those stanzas of hope, those lines which declare that His trust is in God, and in God is victory. He on the one hand says, “I am a worm.” In other words, He is the lowest of the low, He is beneath everything else, He is associated with filth and dirt and decay. He feels as if He is a worm and not a man.

But He is a worm that trusts in God. He feels as if He has been tramped down into the mud, but His eyes remained fixed on God. He feels as if He is a worm left out on a rock drying out in the sun, but His heart still clings to the hope in the Lord. He trusts in God even though His face has been pressed down into the muck of life.

I see this same movement in Clare’s poem. I am a worm who trusts in God. Clare voices all of those feelings of depression, but then he comes back and voices his trust and hope that he will one day be in a place of bliss, in heaven with God. Christ and Clare give us words for this most tragic day, the day when our Savior was put to death, but they are words which will remind us of our hope so that this dark Friday becomes Good Friday. Christ knew that God would take this terrible situation and use it for His divine plan of love.

Of course, that did not keep Jesus from voicing His utter terror at what He was going through. We too can voice our feelings when at times we feel as if there is no hope. We too can say, “I am a worm.” We cannot ignore those feelings, and in many cases, those feelings are not sinful in themselves. We can voice those feelings to God and to each other, but all the while, we need to remember the Truth—that there is hope, that God does care for us, that He is with us every step of the way. I am a worm who trusts in God.

Yet, Satan wants us to cash in all of our hope and exchange it for despair. He’d love to fill us up with despair. He sneaks up on us when we’re already prepped, already feeling quite low. He then wants to take our honest feelings and add to them a lie, the lie that there is no hope. He would love for us to forget the last stanza of Clare’s poem. He’d love for us to say, “I am just a worm, nothing more.” He would love for us to sing those Lenten hymns without mention of that last stanza about the Easter victory.

That’s the temptation Satan puts before us. To throw all hope away. To join him in his defeated march. To give up on God completely. To give up and not stay around long enough to hear the conclusion. To leave the church today and not come back on Easter morning.

However, when we read Clare’s poem, when we read Psalm 22, when we are reminded of the hope that we do have, it pulls us out of that downward spiral. Satan has been tripped up. Today looks like the end of hope, the end of salvation, the death of our God, but there’s still another stanza to go, there’s still a new morning coming on Sunday, there is victory over death. Even in this moment of darkness and sadness and death and despair, there is hope: Christ will rise again.

John Clare’s poem may look like the last poem we should read today when we’re so aware of our sinfulness and separation from God, it’ll just drag us down, but it does exactly what we need: it voices our feelings and it reminds us of our hope of eternal life.

I am—yet what I am, none cares or knows;
I long for scenes where man hath never trod,
A place where woman never smiled or wept—
There to abide with my Creator God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling, and untroubled where I lie,
The grass below—above, the vaulted sky.

Psalm 22 may look like the last psalm that Jesus should be speaking from the cross, it’ll just drag Him down, but it does exactly what Christ needed and it does exactly what we need when we look at the Good Friday scene: it voices our feelings and it reminds us of our hope.

My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?
Why are You so far from saving me,
So far from the words of my groaning?
Yet you brought me out of the womb;
From my mother’s womb You have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
For trouble is near.

As you look at the cross today, as you see the cost of your sinfulness, as you see how much separates us from God, Psalm 22 voices those feelings and then it also reminds you of the hope. God reminds us through His Word that He gave us life, He has been our God since we were in the womb, He will not be far off, He will be our strength, He will come quickly to help us when trouble is near, He will come to take us to the vaulted sky where we will untroubled lie.

Yes, today we may feel as if no one truly cares about us, but read the rest of John Clare’s poem and trust that you will abide with your Creator God. Yes, today we know the cry of Christ, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” but read the rest of Psalm 22 and trust that God will not be far off in the day of trouble. Yes, today we sing the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” but sing also the last stanza, “Love so amazing, so divine.” Yes, today we say, “I am a worm,” but indeed, we also say, “I am a worm who trusts in God.”

Sunday, March 09, 2003

Job 1:6-12,2:1-10 - "OK, Job Didn’t Sin, But What’s God Doing?”

First Sunday in Lent (Year B - LCMS Revised Readings)
Saturday, March 8, and Sunday, March 9, 2003

OK, so Job didn’t sin, but what’s God doing? Job didn’t sin and cause God’s judgment and punishment. I mean, God Himself says, “There is no one on earth like Job; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” But despite God’s glowing report about Job, despite the fact that Job seems to be an innocent man, God still allows Satan to take away his family members, to take away his wealth, and eventually to torment Job with a hideous disease. If Job didn’t sin, if Job didn’t do something to deserve God’s wrath, then what is God doing? Why does God cause Job to suffer?

We can’t say that Job deserved this. Read the rest of the book of Job and Job’s friends try that theory. They figure that if Job is suffering this much, he must have some sin that he needed to repent of. But that’s not case. God Himself rejects that. Job didn’t do something to cause God to punish him with this suffering.

Now, Job is no different from you and me. Job was born a sinner, he wasn’t completely innocent in God’s eyes, Job needed God’s forgiveness, love, and mercy. However, in this instance, you can’t say that Job did something to directly cause his own suffering. This suffering isn’t about forcing Job to repent, to confess some sin. That’s not what this is about, and that’s what makes it so hard to understand. If Job didn’t sin, if Job didn’t do something to directly deserve this suffering, then what is God doing?

Believe me, I wrestled a long time with that question this week. I read books about Job. I read books about suffering. I spent a good part of the week with Michael Johnson, the speaker who was in our area schools to talk about AIDS and sex. Michael was brought here by the Manitowoc County Abstinence Coalition, of which I am part representing this congregation. I spent time with Michael driving from school to school. I saw him suffering from AIDS. He couldn’t speak on Wednesday because he couldn’t get out of bed. He had to cancel his presentations on Friday because his doctor wanted him to immediately come back to Madison to go through tests. The disease is advancing. Michael is so close to death from AIDS that it is amazing that he is even alive anymore.

I read about suffering this week. I saw suffering this week. And still I was struggling to accept what I was learning from the book of Job. The scholars say that God was testing Job’s faith, that God brought on suffering to strengthen Job’s faith. I didn’t like that answer. I’ve been clinging to other passages in Scripture that say that God’s heart is a heart of love, that He doesn’t want us to experience the pains of this life. I didn’t like to think that God causes suffering in order to test us. I didn’t like that answer, and then I heard Michael Johnson himself say the same thing about his suffering.

He wakes up in the morning with different pains, with different weaknesses, and it’s another test. Michael says God’s testing his faith. God’s testing his resolve to use every bit of his life that he’s got left, use that life to tell people the truth about AIDS. I heard Michael say that his difficult struggles were a test from God. I didn’t want to agree. I didn’t want to think that God was doing something like that. But there was Michael saying it about himself. And there was God saying it in His Word, in the book of Job. And that’s when a phrase clicked in my head: “It’s just God’s way.”

It’s a phrase from a song by Wes Cunningham. Wes isn’t a Christian, but he’s got a song that to me really captures the reason behind why God allows us to suffer. So I decided to share a bit of Wes Cunningham’s song with you. You’ve got the lyrics on your sermon note sheet. Take a listen to a little bit of this song.

“Letter to McKay (God’s Way)” by Wes Cunningham
from the album, 12 Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking

I hope this letter finds you in good spirits and you’re feeling alive
Me, I’ve had some better days but I’m still trying to get by
And I would like to join the club
And lose myself in love
But just now I’m not doing so well

I can’t tell you if I’m seeing clearly when I’m in this state
Or if my perspective filter is too muddy to relate
And I’m embarrassed to say that my love has gone away
And just now I’m not doing so well

But it’s just God’s way,
Of breaking me down and tearing me out of the world
It’s just God’s way, God’s way
Of breaking me down and tearing me out of the world

Wes says, “It’s just God’s way of tearing me out of the world.” In other words, God uses suffering to help us realize that there is something more to this life. God uses suffering to test our faith. I remembered this song by Wes Cunningham; I remembered that I had even used this song on our radio devotions on WOMT, used the song to teach that very idea, that God disrupts our life so that we’ll see that we need Him. I remembered that song, and I started to hear what God is trying to teach us through His Word in Job.

The song spoke to me, because in it, I heard God’s Word, I heard the truth. God did say that he’d use suffering in order to test us, to strengthen our faith. He puts bumps in the road, he derails us from the path of life, so that we’ll realize that there’s more than this life, that we need Him.

That’s what happened for Job. God takes Satan’s evil plan, and God uses it for His own purpose. God turns Satan’s plan on its head, and God ends up using that suffering in order to make Job even stronger in his faith.

Every morning Michael Johnson wakes up weak from AIDS, an evil disease running rampant in Michael’s body, running rampant in the world. Yet, every morning Michael trusts that God still has a mission for him. Michael still needs to share his message with more teens, more parents, more adults. And so, through the suffering, Michael’s faith is strengthened.

I’m convinced of this message in Job now. I’m convinced that suffering in our lives will test our faith, will be used by God to strengthen our trust in Him. I’m convinced of this, but shouldn’t we cry out to God against suffering that has no direct cause? As I said, I’ve been mainly holding onto the portions of God’s Word where I see the writers complaining to God about suffering, clinging to God’s promises of love and mercy. I’ve been holding onto the psalms and other places where the writer says, “Why are you doing this? How long will I have to suffer?” I’ve been emphasizing those sections of Scripture in Bible class and in sermons. I’ve been holding onto those sections of God’s Word ever since my Grandpa died 2 years ago, and even more since Susan and I found out we can’t have biological children. I’ve been asking God why; I’ve been telling God that I’m holding Him to His promises of love and mercy. And I’ve been doing that according to Scripture. It’s OK to complain to God about suffering; it’s OK to cry out in pain; we should stand like Moses on Sinai and cry out to God to stop His judgment, to have mercy. There’s been nothing wrong about my reaction to suffering, but this week I’m finally listening to another portion of Scripture, I’m finally ready to hear that God uses suffering for good.

But before I speak about what we can accept about suffering, there are two things that we should reject about suffering. Sorting out these two things made it a lot easier for me to accept that God causes suffering to test us. First of all, while we can agree that God uses suffering for good, we shouldn’t accept suffering to the point of never trying to stop it. We are not fatalists. Even though we might learn something from suffering, we don’t just act like there’s nothing to do; that it’s fate; that it’s already been decided. No, we still rally against suffering. We still look for ways to relieve suffering in the world.

Secondly, another idea that we should reject about suffering is the idea that every pain in life has a specific message from God. I’ve seen too many Christians come to the conclusion that every pain, every trouble that they go through has a specific message from God. It’s not that direct. Yes, God uses suffering to bring us closer to Him, but just because you have a sore foot today doesn’t mean that God is trying to tell you something about what color of shoe to wear. If we start looking for specific messages behind every ache and pain, we’ll be looking for God to speak where He hasn’t promised to speak. God has told us to find His message in the Scriptures. That’s where we find life and salvation. That’s where we find comfort. That’s where we find direction.

So don’t look for a specific message in each pain, and don’t become fatalistic about suffering. Now that we’ve separated those two misconceptions, we’re ready to talk about what we can accept about suffering.

First of all, it’s as I’ve been saying, God uses suffering to draw us closer to Him. In those moments of suffering, the Spirit strengthens our faith. When the world seems dark, we recall that God has promised to rescue us from this veil of tears, that He has promised us life after death. The suffering itself isn’t good! Suffering and pain are evil, products of evil, plans of Satan to trip us up. Suffering itself isn’t good. But we find the good in suffering, and the good is God, the One who brings us through the trials. We look to the gracious God, we trust all the more in Jesus Christ to bring us to life everlasting.

Secondly, we should also remember that God will never give us more than we can bear. It is much easier to read Job’s story if we remember that God put limits on Satan. God didn’t let Satan do whatever he wanted. The first round, God told him that he could do anything to Job’s family and possessions, but Satan couldn’t touch Job. The second round, Satan could torment Job’s body but could not kill him. God puts limits on how much suffering He allows. God will not give us more than we can bear. It’s hard to remember this when you’re in the midst of some difficulty, I know, but it helps us remember that God’s not some sadistic freak up there. God allows suffering to continue, using it to draws us closer to Him, but He puts limits on it. And He walks with us through every dark valley.

Finally, how do we speak this message to others? How do we tell people that suffering is God’s way of testing our faith? First of all, it’s all about timing. I think I’ve been hammering away in Bible studies and sermons about how God doesn’t want us to suffer, that we should cling to God’s promises, that we should cry out with those who are suffering, I’ve been hammering away at this, because a lot of times we can speak the truth but speak it at the worst times. When someone has just learned about the death of a loved one, when someone is overwhelmed with despair or depression, when someone is experiencing extreme pain, that might not be the best time to say, “Well, God uses suffering to test our faith.” That’s not a conclusion we can normally come to grips with when we’re in the middle of pain and suffering. It’s all about timing. Later, when someone is really ready to talk about why there is suffering, what does that mean, then yes, we should talk about this. But right when they found out that they’re dying from AIDS? No, then you cry out with them, you yell at God with them, you say “why” and “how long.” So watch you’re timing. It’s true that God uses suffering to test us, but that might not be the first thing to tell someone in the midst of suffering.

The other thing to remember when speaking this message to other people is to show, don’t tell. Don’t just tell someone that God is using suffering for their good, to strengthen them. Don’t just tell them about God. Show them God’s heart. Show them God’s heart through your actions. Through your actions, through your love and care, you can show someone God’s love. You can walk with them through the difficult days. You can listen as they tell you about their pain. That’s what totally took me by surprise the other night while driving Michael Johnson back to his hotel. He said that I was enacting the Gospel, that by my actions I was showing Him the love of Christ. What was I doing? Listening. Supporting. Asking questions. Telling him that I cared. What was I doing? Walking with him. By those simple actions, by being with him, I was showing God’s love. When someone is suffering, don’t tell them about God’s love; show them God’s love.

There you have it, my journey with Job, my journey with Michael Johnson, my journey with Wes Cunningham. There you have it, my journey with God through the difficulty of suffering in this world. I still will cry out to God, I will still tell Him that He needs to remember His promise of love and mercy, but now I am also ready to accept the fact that God uses suffering in our lives to test our faith, to strengthen our faith, to bring us closer to Him, to build our trust in Him. He breaks us down, tears us out of this world, in order to help us to see that there’s more to this life, that there’s life after death, that we need a Savior, and Jesus Christ came to save us.