Sunday, July 18, 2004

Isaiah 66:10-14 - “At This Very Moment in Manitowoc County…Jerusalem is Here”

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Year C - LCMS Readings)
Thursday, July 15, and Sunday, July 18, 2004

We took Susan’s brother to the Milwaukee airport on Tuesday; he was returning home after being here to visit his new nephew. We were driving back, and I saw a couple of those billboards advertising Manitowoc. The slogan is: “At This Very Moment in Manitowoc.” The pictures on the billboards are different—someone biking along the Mariner’s Trail, two people playing golf with the sun setting behind them. At this very moment in Manitowoc, there’s these wonderful things going on, making it a great destination.

Thinking of today’s Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah, I decided that there should be one more of these billboards with an expanded slogan. You’ve got my proposed slogan on the insert in today’s bulletin: “At this very moment in Manitowoc County. . .Jerusalem is here.”

Now looking at the county map, I may not have known that the Francis Creek section is the Kossuth section, but I didn’t actually think that there’s a section of the county or some small village that’s called Jerusalem. But I do think Jerusalem is here in this county.

Flip the insert page over. Looking at the Manitowoc County seal, there’s no symbol for Jerusalem in the seal. There’s a barn, a ship, a submarine, the carferry, a plane, a factory, but no Jerusalem. Despite what the county seal shows, I do think Jerusalem is here in this county.

Check out the logo for Manitowoc County’s PGA promotion. “Come for the golf…stay for the experience!” I believe that Jerusalem is here in this county, and to me it would make sense to for the PGA slogan to be: “Manitowoc County. Come for the golf…stay in Jerusalem!”

How can I talk about Jerusalem—a city in Israel, a city halfway around the world, a city of great importance, a holy city, a city that is so far away from our little corner of Wisconsin—how can I talk about Jerusalem being here in this county in this place?

Because God in Jesus Christ completely changed our idea of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the City of God, the place where His temple was, the place where He dwelt among His people. Now that Jesus has come, God’s presence is wherever Jesus is. And now Jerusalem is no longer one specific location on the map, one specific point in the GPS grid. Jerusalem is wherever Jesus is, wherever God’s people gather around Jesus.

You are God’s people through faith in Him. You are gathered here around Jesus and His Word. Therefore, the words from Hebrews chapter 12 speak about Manitowoc County: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” At this very moment in Manitowoc County, Jerusalem is here. People can come for the golf, come for the PGA Championship, but they can stay in Jerusalem, they can stay to experience God, they can come among us and find the holy city, find God dwelling among us through His Word.

What a great tourism promotion! What a great fact about Manitowoc County! Do you see what I mean about wanting another billboard along I-43? “At this very moment in Manitowoc County,” and instead of biking or golfing, there’s a picture of Jesus walking in downtown Manitowoc or on Washington Avenue in Two Rivers. Jesus is here in Manitowoc County. Jerusalem is here.

Of course, before we get ahead of ourselves in promoting our claim that Jerusalem, the holy city, is in Manitowoc County, let’s remember that Manitowoc County doesn’t have a corner on Jesus. We’re not the only ones who can claim that Jerusalem is in their county; we’re not the only ones who can say that Jesus lives among us. Anywhere God’s Word is heard, Jesus is working in that place. Anywhere where believers gather, Jesus lives there among them. Every county, every state, every country where there are believers in Jesus Christ, well, they can all say, “At this very moment, Jerusalem is here.”

But how, how did this happen that Jerusalem is wherever Jesus is? Why isn’t Jerusalem still just in Jerusalem in Israel? Because when Jerusalem rejected Jesus, when the leaders of the Jews condemned Jesus and sent Him to the cross, they lost the honor and privilege of being the place where God would fulfill His promises. The earthly city of Jerusalem, the specific location on the map, the city led by the Jewish leaders would no longer be the one location where God’s Spirit would dwell.

In the days leading up to the crucifixion, we see Jesus weeping for Jerusalem. On your bulletin insert you have a section from Luke’s Gospel, the 19th chapter, “And when [Jesus] drew near and saw [Jerusalem], he wept over it, [42] saying, "Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. [43] For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side [44] and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

I recently heard that sense of shock at how Jesus was rejected in a song called “Jerusalem” by a rather obscure folk-rock singer from the 1960s named Simon Finn. With great passion, Finn sings, “And I’m yelling all I can/can’t you see He’s the Christ? Oh, no, no./And they don’t understand a single word I say/But I’m crying just the same/Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, oh, no, no.”

When Jesus says, “I wish you would have known on this day the things that make for peace,” Jesus is amazed at them for their rejection, their lack of faith. When Jerusalem rejected Jesus, they were rejecting God’s true peace. This connects up with the Old Testament reading from Isaiah chapter 66. God had said, “I will extend peace to Jerusalem like a river, and I will give them the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream.” God had promised to send peace to His people, but when that peace came, when the people heard Jesus saying that He was the Savior, the One bringing God’s peace, the people rejected that idea.

God talks about His peace being like a river. Rejecting that peace that so clearly came in Jesus, well, that’d be like us denying that there’s rivers in Manitowoc. It would be like saying, “Nope, no rivers in our county,” even though the Manitowoc River and the Twin Rivers flow right through our cities. That’s what amazed Jesus. God was bringing His peace to His people, to Jerusalem, and it was as clear as a river flowing through the city—but they wouldn’t recognize it. So God said that His peace, His salvation would come to the New Jerusalem, the city of believers, wherever people gathered around His Son.

All of the promises about Jerusalem are true for Manitowoc County. Everything God says will come to Jerusalem, all of the blessings, are now blessings for Manitowoc County, for any county, state, country, or remote island, anyplace where believers live.

Besides peace like a river, what are the other blessings that God spells out in Isaiah chapter 66, the blessings that come to us through Jesus? Verse 11 uses the image of a nursing baby being fed by his mother. God is saying that through Jerusalem, through His holy city, through the gathering of believers gathered around His Word, we will be fed spiritually, nourished and filled, given what we need to continue and grow in the faith.

Verse 13 talks about being comforted by your mother, and here the reference is to when you are older. Even when we become adults, many of us still find comfort from our mothers when we are stressed or worried or going through difficulties. That kind of comfort is the comfort that we find in God. God invites us to come to Jerusalem, and He will offer us His comfort. He will listen to our prayers and give us hope when the days look dark.

In fact, in looking at the blessings that come to us as believers in Christ, the common theme is hope. Verse 10 is about hope when it says, “Rejoice with Jerusalem in joy, all you who mourn over her.” God invites His people to rejoice for Jerusalem, even though many of them have been mourning, have been crying and saddened by all of idolatry and false worship and the ways the people had deserted their faith in God. Yet, God invites them to rejoice, to celebrate Jerusalem, a city that looks like it is completely abandoning the faith. God is inviting the people to have hope.

It’s like Pastor Miller said in last week’s sermon about Elijah: Elijah who felt like he was the only faithful one left, and then God said that there were 7000 other believers still left. Here God is saying the same thing: rejoice, even though you are mourning for the unbelievers around you, rejoice, because I am still going to bring peace and comfort and salvation. God is asking them to hope—in other words, believe in something that you cannot see, that you are not experiencing, something that is still to come in the future.

In his poem “Love, Hope, Desire, and Fear,” the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Then Hope approached, she who can borrow/For poor to-day, from rich tomorrow.” Borrow from tomorrow’s riches for today’s poverty. That’s exactly what hope is—borrowing from the riches of tomorrow, the grand peace and salvation to come in the future, hope borrows from that to give something to today’s poverty, borrows light for the darkness of today’s world. In other words, God says that one day His Son will return to bring us all to live forever in the New Jerusalem where there is no more pain or fear or death. Hope takes out a mortgage on that future, takes out a loan on the future, giving us just a little taste right now of what we will own someday.

Right now, we just have a mortgage on the blessings that God speaks about in Isaiah chapter 66. He has told us that we are Jerusalem, that we have His comfort and peace, that we have salvation, but really, we only have a small portion of that comfort, peace, and salvation. We don’t own the house yet; we haven’t truly arrived in the New Jerusalem yet. When we gather together as believers, when we declare that we are in Jerusalem because Jesus is here, we are looking forward in hope to when all of these blessings will fully be ours.

In Isaiah’s day, God’s faithful followers needed to have hope, a hope for the future, because they mourned as they saw how faithless the people were, how they had forgotten their God. Many of us may feel that same way when we look at the Church today. This week has been the convention of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and people have been talking about wanting there to be an end to fighting and divisions in our denomination. While I think that many of those disagreements have to happen in order for people to truly come to an agreement about what teach and believe, I too mourn when our denomination and when our congregation is fighting and divided. Like Jerusalem rejecting Jesus, we too are always in the danger of rejecting the Word of Christ, in danger of ignoring the peace that flows like a river through the county.

When we mourn for the Church’s errors, that’s when we need the hope of blessings to come. Yet, that fighting, that rejection of God, the errors we make in the Church, those are our errors, our sins. They do not change God, who He is, or the truth of His promises. Jerusalem is here in Manitowoc County, not because Redeemer Lutheran Church is without sin; Jerusalem is here because Jesus is here.

When people tell me that they are angry with the church, I mourn with them for the sins that we have committed. However, I mourn all the more when the sins of the congregation have caused people to even wonder if God is real, if salvation is true. The Jerusalem we have today, the gathering of believers we have in this place, the Church of God on earth will never be without sin, without error, without mistakes, without our own stupid ideas. Yet, that doesn’t change anything about God. God is still the One who will bring peace, comfort, love, and salvation.

We come together in Jesus to rejoice now for the joy that we will have in eternal life. I hope we have never said that all of the joy, all of the peace, all of the comfort, all of the holiness is here in the Church today. No, we’ve just got a loan on those future blessings. Of course, you’re going to come to church and still find things in disrepair, still find things are a mess. This ain’t the new house yet. We haven’t moved yet. Christ hasn’t come back yet.

We come together to see the picture of the house that we will have; we come together to see a glimpse of our spiritual future, our future in Christ. At this very moment, Jerusalem is here—partially. We are citizens of God’s holy city—but we haven’t moved there yet. Through faith in Christ, you’re already a citizen of Jerusalem, but we’re still waiting to move to the New Jerusalem.

So like a home mortgage where you begin to own a portion of the house right now, but it is years before you fully own the house, so too with our salvation in Christ. The promises have been made, the deal has been signed, but we can’t move in yet. We are waiting for Christ to return, waiting for Him to pull up with moving van so that we can move to His Father’s house, to the New Jerusalem, to the heavenly city. For now, we wait in hope, we wait knowing all of this will be ours, we borrow from the future to have a taste of God’s blessings today.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Luke 9:18-24 - "Take Up Your Electric Chair"

5th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C - LCMS Readings)
Thursday, July 1, and Sunday, July 4, 2004

Can you see this from where you are? It’s a nice cross-stitched cross bookmark attached to this satiny blue material. It’s nice. . .but besides the shape, it has nothing to do with Jesus saying in today’s Gospel reading, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” Jesus isn’t talking about some nice pastel, soft, light-as-a-feather cross. This bookmark might be OK when we’re talking about the peace that comes through the cross, the peace that we have in Jesus, but when we’re talking about “taking up our crosses,” this is the wrong idea.

When Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” the cross we should picture isn’t some pretty thing; it is the heavy wooden beams, the long spikes, the instrument of torture and death, the place of execution. If you, like me, have just gotten too used to seeing the cross and thinking of it like a trademark or symbol for Jesus, then it is time for us to pause and really remember what Jesus meant when He called on His followers, you and me, to take up our crosses.

As a congregation, we come together to call each other to greater discipleship. Being a disciple means to be a follower of Jesus. We urge each other, cheer each other on to follow Jesus with our lives. Jesus is making us realize that being a disciple isn’t just about carrying around a pastel, cross-stitched bookmark; being a disciple is about carrying around an instrument of death, being prepared to die for our faith in Jesus.

In the time of Jesus, crucifixion, being killed on a cross, was considered an “utterly vile death,” or as one author put it, “the most shameful, humiliating, and repulsive fate imaginable.” Maybe we’ve forgotten that over the years; maybe we need to realize again that Jesus is calling us to be ready to be executed for Him.

In one language, the word for cross literally means “killing pole.” Another language uses a word that means “nailing pole.” If we want to follow Jesus, we must take up our crosses, take up our killing poles.

Take up your electric chair. That’s a form of execution; that’s an utterly vile death; that’s what Jesus is talking about with the cross. Think through history of all of the ways humans have thought to punish and kill criminals. Any other time in history, and Jesus would’ve been killed a different way. Yet, He would still be calling us to the same kind of discipleship, a willingness to set aside our lives for the sake of His Name, for the sake of the true faith.

If Jesus had died at sea, forced to walk the plank, He would’ve said, “Take up your plank.” If He had been burned at the stake, He would’ve said, “Take up your stake.” If He had been sent to the guillotine, He would’ve said, “Take up your basket,” the basket that catches the head when it is cut off. If He had to face a shooting squad, He would’ve said, “Take up your blindfold.” If He was hanged, He would’ve said, “Take up your noose.”

It sounds sacrilegious to say those things, “Take up your basket,” “Take up your noose,” but maybe it sounds wrong because we’ve made the cross into this holy symbol forgetting what it really was—a bloody, gory, gruesome death. And that’s what Jesus is asking us to do: deny ourselves, take up our electric chair, and follow Him. Surrender our will in loyalty to Jesus, take up the possibility of a bloody, gory, gruesome death, and live our lives for Jesus.

If you’re twisting in your seat, if you’re not sure that you like this idea, if you’re feeling like I’m exaggerating, then pay attention. Looking at the words of Jesus here in Luke chapter 9, where is the wiggle room? If you’re uncomfortable knowing that Jesus is asking you to be willing to die for Him, don’t blame me for the difficulty of following Jesus. These are the words of Jesus, and by remembering that the cross is an instrument of execution, that the cross is like the electric chair, then you have to realize Jesus is calling on you to make a true sacrifice in order to be His disciple.

What happens, though, if you are killed with Christ? You receive life, new life, life after death, life forever. Jesus says, “Whoever loses their life for my sake will save their life.” Jesus calls you to take up your electric chair, to remain His disciple no matter what the cost, because He brings true life. Jesus isn’t saying, “Well, they’ve got our backs to the wall. Doesn’t look like there’s any way out of this. We might as well die together.” No, when Jesus asks you to take up your cross, to take up your noose, he’s not admitting defeat. He’s saying that death in this life cannot defeat us. Through Jesus, we have salvation, we will be saved from death.

Our instinct is to fight against death, to do anything we can to avoid being killed. Jesus is asking us to put aside that instinct, to surrender our lives to Him, so that even if we could stop someone from killing us by denying Jesus, we wouldn’t. We would not reject Jesus. Jesus asks us to do this, because He brings true life, life after death, life with Him forever where there is no more death. Jesus asks us to deny ourselves and take up our plank, because He has eyes to see what we truly need, eyes to see the spiritual dimension, eyes to know God’s will. Jesus can see that death in this life will not mean defeat forever; Jesus can see that we will be raised again through Him; Jesus can see that we can take up our crosses with all confidence that death will not separate us from the love of God.

There’s been a lot of interest in a book and church program called The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. I know some of you have asked me about this, and I hope at some point to do a short Bible study about the book. I think the book is popular, because so many of us are asking, what is God’s purpose for my life? What does God want me to do with my life?

Looking at Luke chapter 9, it is clear how Jesus answered that question. Jesus was completely committed to God’s purpose for His life. Jesus states the purpose clearly when He says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Jesus had a purpose-driven life, a life driven by God’s purpose, which was to allow His Son to die on the cross in order to pay the price for the sins of the world.

When Jesus says, “Take up your cross,” He is giving us our purpose for life. As His disciples, we should expect no less than to suffer and die for the faith. Our purpose in life is to remain committed to Christ, to set aside our own desires in order to follow Christ, and to tell others about being disciples.

I’m afraid that sometimes when people get excited about The Purpose-Driven Life it’s because they have grandiose ideas about what God wants them to do. We get it in our heads that God intends for us to be successful, popular, wealthy, important, famous, perfect, but when Jesus tells us that our purpose is to take up the electric chair, to take our place on death row, to be ready to be executed, He’s telling us to check our glorified visions of ourselves at the door.

Watch how quickly He shuts down the inflated egos of the disciples. In verse 20, Peter has just spoken for the Twelve Disciples, saying that they believe that Jesus is the Christ of God, the Messiah, the Promised, Anointed King that God sent. You’ve got to think that Peter and the disciples were feeling pretty good about this. After all, if Jesus was the Messiah, the King sent by God to save His people, then that meant the disciples were the King’s Boys, His royal court, as it were. That’s a pretty good place to be. They’re in the right place at the right time.

Meanwhile, Jesus goes on to say that He as the Messiah King will suffer, be killed and raised again. They, the disciples, the King’s Boys must also be prepared to be killed. After Jesus said, “Take up your cross,” I think the King’s Boys probably stopped patting each other on the back, congratulating themselves for being in the royal court. If you follow the conversation, Jesus just asked them to die. When He said, “Take up your cross,” He meant, “Be killed with me.” Not the kind of royal court those guys were expecting.

But you’ve got to ask again: what do you gain from dying with Christ, from taking up your cross, from going to the electric chair with Him, what do you gain? The King’s Boys, the disciples, all who follow Jesus will truly be in His royal court. That’s what we gain. It isn’t a royal court that the world recognizes; there’s no palace and jewels and riches for you right now. But when death comes and when Jesus raises you from the dead, you will live with Him for eternity in the royal court of God the Father. God will give you His kingdom. So when Jesus says, “Be killed with me,” He calls us to do this, because our suffering and death right now are nothing compared to the gift of eternal life we will receive at the end.

Before we go any further, we have to remember that when Jesus said, “Take up your cross,” He was speaking to everyone. Luke says, “And Jesus said to all.” He’s not just talking to the Twelve Discples, the inner circle. Jesus is saying that anyone who wants to be His follower, anyone who wants to be a Christian, anyone who believes in Him will take up their cross. This isn’t just something for the leaders or those who are more inclined to be heavily involved in the church. This isn’t just for the more spiritual people, the churchy people who go to a lot of Bible studies. You can’t make that distinction here. Jesus is speaking to everyone.

If you consider yourself to be a Christian, to be a believer in Jesus, then Jesus is talking to you—“Take up your cross, take up your electric chair, be prepared to suffer many things for the sake of My Name.” As Basil the Great, one of the early church leaders, said, you must be ready to die for Christ, be prepared to face dangers on behalf of Christ’s Name, and have a certain detachment from this life—living as if the things in this life weren’t as important as knowing Jesus.

That’s discipleship, but how often do we make being a Christian a lot easier than that, when really Jesus is saying that being a believer means going to the extremes?

Think about it: what do you have to give up to follow Jesus? When I met with 2 guys in the county jail this week for Bible study, I asked them that question. They said in order to follow Jesus they have to give up a quick temper, getting drunk, doing drugs, having sex, and their friends who are bad influences. In his own words, one of them said he needs to give up “criminal thinking.” And it’s true. To live for Jesus, these 2 guys have to stop thinking like criminals, thinking of ways to steal or get high.

I also heard them saying that it feels like they have to give up having fun. Drinking and smoking dope, that was fun. To live for Jesus they feel like they have to give up having fun. We talked about how Jesus doesn’t ask us to give up these things to make our lives boring. Jesus is calling us to follow Him to where there is true life, where we can taste real joy. One of them admitted how getting high seemed stupid now, to get a buzz and just sit there. We talked about how God wants more for our lives than this.

Yet, no matter how good it seems to stop doing drugs or stop getting drunk or stop hanging out with the wrong crowd, following Jesus still means giving up stuff that is hard to give up—habits, pleasures, goals, doing your own thing.

You might be thinking, “Yeah, those guys in jail have a lot of to get rid of in order to follow Jesus,” but none of us are any different. Those guys got caught, but some of you might be guilty of the same crimes. Those guys did something that society says deserves jail time, but we all do sins everyday that keep us from truly following Jesus.

If you are going to follow Jesus, what do you have to give up? What habits get in the way of your relationship with God? What goals do you have in life that keep you from living for God? What pleasures are more important than learning about God? When are you doing your own thing, making your own choices, rather than submitting to Jesus?

We all have a lot to give up in order to follow Jesus.

But we all have a lot to gain by following Jesus. Jesus offers us life, true life, a life today where we know what love means, where we know true hope, where we know forgiveness, where we know that death doesn’t mean defeat. Jesus offers us the gift of eternal life, to live with Him forever. All of these things in this life that seem so important, well, they seem pretty small compared to having a relationship with the Son of God, having hope and forgiveness, having the promise of living forever. Like my friend in jail said, getting high is stupid, having a buzz and just sitting there. “What’s the point?” There is no point which is why Jesus calls on us to give up those things and turn to Him.

There is no point in finding a purpose in life outside of knowing Jesus. Jesus is giving you a purpose-driven life right here, “Take up your crosses.” He is calling you to be His disciples, because He knows that through following Him, we will have peace, hope, forgiveness, love, comfort, and life. We will have salvation. Even if we die, we will not die forever. We’re with the true King who will bring us to His Kingdom to live forever.