Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Psalm 98 - “The Metrical Paraphrasers are at the Door”

Christmas Day
Sunday, December 25, 2005

(little toy plays “Joy to the World”)

I don’t think Isaac Watts would be impressed. Isaac Watts wrote “Joy to the World” in 1719, and I’m not sure he’d be impressed with a toy Santa playing the congas to his hymn. I’m ready to get rid of this little toy, but unfortunately, our son, Samuel, loves to watch it and dance to the songs. Some Christmas I’ll have to explain to Samuel why Daddy’s not a fan of this toy that goes on and on and on.

So Isaac Watts who wrote “Joy to the World,” one of the most triumphant Christmas hymns, wouldn’t be impressed by this little toy, but the truth is, when Watts wrote his hymn, there were a lot of people who weren’t impressed with his hymn. . .even when it was played on an organ.

Watts received a lot of criticism. Living in England at the turn of the 18th century, Watts was a Calvinist Christian. The Calvinists only allowed metrical settings of the psalms for use in worship. That means all songs sung in church had to be very close translations of the psalms, including every line in very similar phrasing. What Watts had done with “Joy to the World” is a metrical paraphrase. “Paraphrase” means to rewrite something in the spirit of the original but using your own phrases to give the sense and meaning of the original but not having to reproduce it word-for-word. “Joy to the World” is based on Psalm 98, verses 4-9, but it doesn’t completely match the phrases in that psalm.

So if some carolers show up at your door singing “Joy to the World,” tell everyone in the house that the metrical paraphrasers are at the door. I know, it doesn’t sound as quaint as calling them carolers, but calling them metrical paraphrasers will help you remember that “Joy to the World” is a paraphrase of Psalm 98.

Isaac Watts had complained as a teen that no one seemed to be showing their faith while they were singing the psalms. He started writing hymns, because he wanted to find ways to put words on people’s lips that were true to Scripture but also were words that people would understand. He wanted their hymns and songs to use words from their daily lives.

This was very controversial. It’s hard for us to imagine Christmas Day without “Joy to the World,” and yet, that’s what some leaders at the time of Isaac Watts wanted. They didn’t want anyone singing hymns by Watts.

That’s like slamming the door on the Christmas carolers. Saying that Isaac Watts was all wrong, that’s like slamming the door on those carolers. Could you imagine slamming the door on carolers?

The RYMS, our youth, and others who were with us a few years ago caroling in the neighborhood don’t have to imagine someone slamming the door on carolers; it happened to our group. Our eager youth rang a doorbell to sing a carol, perhaps even ready to sing “Joy to the World,” and someone opened the door, heard the song, and quickly shut the door again. Some people just didn’t want to hear any Christmas carols, didn’t want to hear about Jesus.

But now, could you imagine someone slamming the door because they didn’t think that “Joy to the World” was an appropriate Christmas hymn? That’s what people were doing to Isaac Watts and others who were writing hymns that paraphrased the psalms, hymns that were their own creations. The metrical paraphrasers are at the door, singing “Joy to the World,” proclaiming the love of God and the promise of salvation, and there were some ready to slam the door.

Yet, the people who spent so much time on saying that his hymns were no good, they missed out on what “Joy to the World” teaches us, how this hymn reminds us of the words of Psalm 98, how these words we’ve grown to love reflect the truth of God’s Word.

Let’s look at Psalm 98. Open your hymnals (Lutheran Worship) to page 338 in the front of the hymnal, that’s the small numbers on the bottom of the page. On page 338 you’ll find Psalm 98. We’ll look at how Psalm 98 inspired Isaac Watts to write the words of “Joy to the World.”

Now, first of all, the hymn Watts wrote for Psalm 98 has two parts. We only know the second part, “Joy to the World.” Part 1 of his hymn is based on verses 1-3, and actually works very nicely with the same melody. Click here to see Part 1 via the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

The second thing I should mention is that while we sing “Joy to the World” and other metrical paraphrases, and we sing hymns that are simply creations of hymn writers, this in no way means that we consider hymns to be more important than Scripture itself. Hymns are tools to teach the truth of Scripture. Just as we use plain language in sermons, Bible studies, Sunday School classes, and everyday conversation in order to teach other about Jesus, so our hymns try to speak freely about Jesus. Yet, just because “Joy to the World” teaches us about Jesus doesn’t mean that the hymn is more important that Psalm 98 itself.

Now, “Joy to the World,” part 2 of his hymn, is based on verses 4-9. Verse 4, there on page 339 in your hymnals, says, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,/Burst into jubilant song with music.” When Watts wrote that first line of his hymn, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” that’s his way of giving us that shout for joy. Remember Watts grew up hearing his fellow churchgoers singing Psalm 98 in a version that said, “All earthly creatures, praise the Lord God/And sing for joy at His behest.” The singing for joy gets swallowed up in the awkward English phrases, buried there in how the psalm is translated. While those words remain true to Scripture, Watts instead puts the “shout for joy” on our lips as we sing those four first big notes, “Joy to the world.”

And why not give us a hymn that truly shouts for joy? Psalm 98 declares the marvelous things that God has done. When Psalm 98 was written, the writer could look back and see God’s power in creating the world, saving His people from slavery in Egypt, and being with His people in the Temple. Yet, now that Christ has come, now that Christ was born this day, our shouts for joy take on an even more triumphant tone. The Savior is here. God has sent His Son to save His people from sin and death. Isaac Watts gives us this full shout for joy with those four notes, “Joy to the world!” By criticizing Watts, people were missing out on the sermon he was preaching just with those four victorious notes. The world can sing and shout with full joy, because Christ the Lord has come!

Watts was changing up how the words of Psalm 98 were translated for singing in order to help the people sing out the meaning of Scripture. Jump down to verses 7-8 of Psalm 98 where it says, “Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;/The world, and all who live in it./Let the rivers clap their hands,/Let the mountains sing together for joy.” These words match the idea in many psalms that all of creation praises God.

What Watts does with these verses is a wonderfully poetic way of driving home the point that the whole Creation celebrates the Savior. Watts takes these different parts of the created world, puts them all together in that one line in stanza 2 of “Joy to the World,” “While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,/Repeat the sounding joy.” Fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains. Watts the poet puts all of that together to really emphasize that every portion of God’s Creation is celebrating today. It’s a truth based on Psalm 98, put into different words in poetry, in order to remind us today as we’re out and about on Christmas Day that every field, every body of water, every rock, every hill, every plain that we see praises God for sending His Son into the world.

Back now to this little toy Santa playing “Joy to the World” with a conga beat. Isaac Watts might not have been very impressed by this version of his hymn, but I guess, even if this little toy annoys me, I still catch myself singing along with it while Samuel dances. It still gets me singing those words which are inspired by Psalm 98. And that’s exactly what Watts left room for with his hymn—our praises to God can use any kind of music.

Look at verses 5 and 6 of Psalm 98. “Make music to the Lord with the harp,/With the harp and the song of singing,/With trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn.” The psalm offers up examples of instruments that the people might use to make music to God. The psalm isn’t meant to say that worship songs only could use harps and trumpets and ram’s horns. It’s a way of saying, “Grab whatever you have, and use those instruments to praise God.”

Well, Watts, I think, felt funny that the church kept singing about harps and ram’s horns when the church wasn’t using harps and ram’s horns. The church was mainly using the organ. So that’s why in stanza 2 of “Joy to the World,” Watts wrote, “Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!/Let all their songs employ.” In other words, use all of the songs, all of the music, all of the instruments you can find to praise God. When Watts wrote “let all their songs employ,” I doubt he could’ve imagined it, but he opened the door to letting his hymn, his words of praise to God be sung while accompanied by piano, orchestras, concert bands, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, marching bands, keyboards, banjos, fiddles, jazz bands, DJ’s mixing on the turntable, and even little toys. Watts might not have imagined all of those kinds of instruments, but his words carry the spirit of Psalm 98. Let all our songs employ, let us use all of our instruments and music makers to praise God.

This morning we’ve used the organ, the piano, handbells, solo voices, all of our voices. Later Kylie and Mara will use their violins. Why are we using all of these different kinds of music makers? Why raise our songs in so many different ways? Because we’re shouting for joy to the Lord using whatever we’ve got to praise His Name. Just like the fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains are celebrating God with the noises they make, we’re making a joyful noise to the Lord.

We’re making this joyful noise, because Jesus Christ is born this day. Jesus came from His eternal place in heaven, was born as a child, lived as a man, suffered, died, and was buried, and then rose again from the dead. Jesus did this in order “to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray,” to save us from sin and death, to give us life after death. That’s why we’re singing today. That’s why at the close of the service we’ll sing “Joy to the World” written by Isaac Watts. We’re shouting for joy today, because God sent His Savior. We don’t have to fear death anymore; we don’t have to worry that He’ll judge us to death for our sins. We have songs of joy on our lips this morning, because salvation is here.

During the offering, the handbells will play “Sing We Now of Christmas,” and the reason we sing of Christmas, the reason that the bells ring of Christmas, the reason that Bowmans play the organ and piano and violins of Christmas, the reason we all sing of Christmas today is because Jesus has come to save us! Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Isaiah 7:10-14 - “Are We Like Ahaz?”

Midweek Advent Service
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

I’m going to tell you the history behind the reading from Isaiah chapter 7. Knowing the history is how we start to see how this passage applies to our relationship with Jesus. At some point, you may find yourself asking, “What does this have to do with me?” I’m glad when you ask that question, and I promise that we’ll get there. For now, listen to the history of God working in the world, and if you’re still having trouble waiting and wondering what this has to do with us today, you can start by asking yourself this question, “Am I Ahaz?” This history is about King Ahaz of Judah, and we have to wonder in hearing about him, “Are we like Ahaz?”

King Ahaz of Judah gets this incredible opportunity. Isaiah the prophet of God comes and says that Ahaz can ask God for a sign. A sign would be very helpful at this point in the career of Ahaz. It looked like Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah were going to be conquered by two kingdoms called Rezin and Pekah. Isaiah 7:2 says that “the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.” Ahaz was afraid that Rezin and Pekah, these two kingdoms, would come and conquer him. He needed a sign from God to show that this wasn’t going to happen.

So God sends Isaiah to Ahaz. Isaiah tells Ahaz not to worry about Rezin and Pekah. Rezin and Pekah will not conquer Judah. Rezin and Pekah themselves will be conquered. And from world history, we know this is true. Rezin and Pekah were conquered before they could harm Judah, and so that’s why most of us have never heard of Rezin and Pekah.

Except Ahaz didn’t believe Isaiah. Ahaz still thought he needed to make a plan of his own to protect his kingdom. Ahaz didn’t believe that God was going to save them. So tonight when we hear Isaiah say, “Ask the Lord for a sign,” he’s essentially saying that Ahaz could ask God for a sign to prove this message. Ahaz might not have believed that Rezin and Pekah wouldn’t be a threat, but to help Ahaz believe, God was going to give him a sign.

Ahaz refuses. Who turns down an opportunity like that? You get this good news from God, your kingdom won’t be conquered, and better than that, God said he’d give you a sign to back up this message. Who turns that down? Ahaz does, because Ahaz thinks he can handle this on his own. It looks like he’s being humble, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test,” but really, Ahaz is slamming the door on God.

So Isaiah tells Ahaz that God will give a sign anyway, the sign of a virgin giving birth to a child who will be called Immanuel. This is the sign of the Messiah, the Christ, who would be born to save God’s people. This is a sign that points to Jesus. And really, it doesn’t have anything to do with Ahaz and his problems. Ahaz refuses God’s sign, and so God decides that instead of giving a sign for Ahaz, He’ll give a sign for the whole world.

Imagine it this way: Ahaz is like someone driving down the road, not quite sure where he’s going. God’s offer of a sign is like giving the driver a GPS or Magellan or OnStar, one of those things in your car that gives you an interactive map, tells you where to turn, and gives you directions. God’s offer to give Ahaz a sign is like offering to give a driver something that would give him directions all the way to his destination. Ahaz refuses. Like a typical guy, Ahaz doesn’t want to ask for directions. He decides he can figure it out on his own, decides he already knows what’s going to happen so he’ll take care of it by himself. The sign God would’ve given to Ahaz was for Ahaz alone, but since Ahaz refused the opportunity, God decides to use this situation to give the sign to everyone.

So now instead of a GPS telling that one driver how to get to his destination, it would be like changing all of the highway signs to electronic message boards. Those electronic message boards would give directions to everyone. Those directions don’t lead to the same place the original driver was going; instead, those directions lead to someplace even better. When Isaiah gives the sign of God, “a virgin will give birth,” this no longer has much to do with Ahaz. God is giving a sign on all of the electronic message boards, telling all of the drivers to head towards the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world. Ahaz didn’t want the GPS, didn’t want the sign, didn’t want God’s help, so God just changes the message so that now it’s a message for all people, for anyone who will listen to Him.

OK, now we’re ready for that “what does this have to do with me” question. Now let’s try to figure out the answer, “Are we like Ahaz?” No, we are not like Ahaz. I mean, I suppose you already know that you’re not kings with kingdoms, but also God hasn’t given us the opportunity to ask Him for a sign.

Sometimes we’d like to ask God for a sign to confirm our actions, thoughts, or beliefs. We’d like a direct sign to show us whether we’re right or wrong, to show us what the future holds. We’d like to ask God for a sign, but this passage in Isaiah chapter 7 doesn’t mean that God is telling us we can ask for a direct sign like Ahaz could’ve. God went to Ahaz specifically with the opportunity to ask for a sign. We’re not Ahaz; God doesn’t promise to give us this opportunity; God doesn’t promise to give us a GPS for our lives where He’ll give us directions about every decision we make.

We’re not Ahaz getting the GPS; instead, we’re everyone, the whole world, all of the other drivers seeing those electronic message boards. When Ahaz doesn’t receive a sign from God, we’re the ones who benefit because instead of Ahaz getting some message just for him, we get a message that tells us that the Savior of the world will be born to a virgin and be named Immanuel. We get a message which points to Jesus as the One who saves us from sin and death. We get a message that we celebrate every Advent, waiting for the Child to be born.

So we aren’t Ahaz, and we don’t need to be. We don’t need any specific, direct signs from God, because we have the biggest, best sign we could possibly hope for in Jesus Christ. When Jesus is born to a virgin fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, when God comes and takes flesh in the person of Jesus, we have the ultimate sign of hope and love and peace. While I’d like a sign to help me figure out how to make a decision, while I’d like it if God gave me a GPS that told me the right answer every time, I don’t need such signs. You don’t need those kinds of signs. We have Jesus. We have the Good News of Jesus which helps us to understand how to live in this world as we wait for eternal life.

And yet, sometimes we’re like Ahaz, because we have trouble trusting the message. Ahaz had trouble walking in trust with God. Ahaz thought he needed to do something about those kingdoms, Rezin and Pekah, and while he had heard the message of God, Ahaz still decided he needed to take matters into his own hands. Spiritually, sometimes we still think we have to take matters into our own hands.

If we try to take control of our own spiritual lives, we’ll miss the sign that God has given us. God has offered His Son, Jesus, as a sign to us, reminding us that we will be saved from eternal death. God is flashing this sign on all of the electronic message boards along the spiritual highways of life, and if we decide to ignore those directions and go our own way, well, then we’re going to find ourselves down a dead end, an eternal dead end.

While the sinful part of me would love to take credit for my own salvation, I’d be fooling myself if I thought I could really save myself. I’d be lost.

Instead, listen to the message of God. God has given us the message that He will save us through His Son. This salvation is a gift, a free gift from God that we haven’t earned. Jesus was born to save all people from their sins. When we admit that we’re sinful, when we admit that we can’t save ourselves, it’s not the end of our story. Instead, by admitting how lost we are, that’s when we realize that God’s given us this incredibly wonderful gift of salvation.

God has saved us; God has promised us forgiveness, love, salvation, eternal life, and peace. The sign of the virgin giving birth to a child is the sign for us. Our Savior is born! We do not have to wait for another sign, because God has announced this sign to the whole world—the child is Savior of the world.

Just in case the birth of a child doesn’t always seem like a sign that’s powerful enough, remember the night that Jesus was born. His birth wasn’t a small affair. The angels showed up in multitudes, calling out to the shepherds, making sure people knew that the sign was fulfilled, the Savior had been born. This is your sign tonight, the sign that you have been saved by God:

8“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”

15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

Make haste this Advent season to see this one sign that the Lord has given us, the only sign that we need: the Savior was born, the child of a virgin.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Isaiah 40:1-11 - “Preparing the Way: The Literal, Triumphal, Historical, Prophetic, and Spiritual Highways of Our God”

Second Sunday in Advent (Year B - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, December 4, and Sunday, December 5, 2005

Isaiah in chapter 40 speaks words from God about preparing the way for the Lord and making straight a highway for our God. Seeing all of this picture language about leveling out the rough ground to put that road in got me wondering what it takes to make a road. So I asked one of our construction people in the congregation, Howard Hamann, to explain the steps of road construction to me.

First, Howard said, the engineers have to survey the land and lay out the plan. Bulldozers and scrapers are then used to remove the grass and brush. Fill is used to even out the low spots; the earthmovers break down the high spots. Even in this modern age of large machinery, it’s no small feat to make a highway.

There are five different ways of looking at that image in Isaiah 40, the highway of our God. There’s the literal, triumphal, historical, prophetic, and spiritual highways. At every level of the image, no matter how you look at this passage, there’s more depth for our understanding of God. The insert in your bulletin has these five different ways of looking at the highway of our God. And if you listen for the phrases that fill in the blanks on the insert, at the end of this sermon you’ll see how all five help us to see the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

First of all, the literal highway was the road from Babylon to Israel. This is a reminder that God has a plan. God has a plan. It’s a plan of hope and restoration, a plan to save His people. God would bring His people back from exile, lead them back on a road to their homeland, the land of Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem.

Isaiah had been given the unpleasant task of telling the people of God that they would be sent into exile for their sins. God was going to let Jerusalem be conquered by the Babylonians, because God’s people had been worshipping idols.

When we get to chapter 40, though, Isaiah is also given the message of comfort and hope. Yes, God would send His people into exile; they would lose their land and their way of life. However, God also promised that one day they would return to Jerusalem; God would bring them back to live again in peace and security. The people couldn’t see it yet, all they could see was that soon they would be conquered by the Babylonians, but God here is promising that one day they’d literally be on that highway, a highway prepared by God, a highway from Babylon to Israel. God would bring them back.

The literal highway is a reminder that God had a plan to save His people. I put a picture of an earthmover there, because God had a plan to clear a path for His people to return to Jerusalem. Isaiah uses the image of building a road to describe the literal highway, the return path the people would take after the exile.

The second way of looking at the highway of our God in Isaiah 40 is as the triumphal highway. Yahweh is the personal name of our God, and when He says He’s going to bring the people back from Babylon, He’s saying that the people should be ready for the triumphal march of Yahweh, the march of triumph of the true God. Like a victorious king, Yahweh will lead His people. The triumphal highway is a reminder of God’s victory, a reminder of God’s victory. When the people return from exile, it won’t be about them congratulating themselves for getting out of exile; it’s going to be about celebrating what God did to free them.

That’s where the phrase “make straight the highways” really comes into play. Most roads from place to place in the time of Isaiah were crooked paths, switchbacks over mountains, small paths for people to walk on or maybe donkeys. It took a lot longer to get somewhere than if you had a straight path, but it also took a lot of work to make a straight road. You needed a reason to make a straight, wide road; you needed an important reason to work that hard on making a highway.

A king’s march of victory. . .that was a reason to make a highway. When Isaiah talks about making straight a highway for our God, He’s using that image of the triumphal march of a king. The triumphal highway is a reminder that this is God’s victory. A reminder that it is God’s victory when His people are saved.

In this section, you’ve got pictures of a presidential motorcade, preparing the way for the president. First, police escorts go ahead clearing the road, blocking off entrances, making sure that nothing gets in the way of the president Then the presidential cars come, a series of limousines and Chevy Suburbans, all of which carry Secret Service, staff, other officials, and somewhere in there, the president. No other traffic is allowed on the road; no other traffic is allowed to cross that road. The highway is prepared for the president.

In that same way, God calls on the people to prepare the way for Him. The people of God will literally walk on the highway from Babylon to Israel, and the whole way they will be celebrating the victory of God. The people will stop any other gods or any other things from crossing that path. The triumphal march, God’s motorcade, is about God’s victory. Flashing lights, sirens, blocking traffic, blocking any distractions, the people would turn their attention on paving the way for God.

And now the third way of looking at that highway. When the people heard about “making straight in the wilderness the highway for our God,” they would’ve also thought about the historical highway, the path of the Exodus, the wanderings in the desert. The historical highway is a reminder that this time it’s going to be different. This time it’s going to be different.

Before the people were in exile in Babylon waiting to return to Israel, they were in exile in Egypt. God brought them out of Egypt through Moses and the plagues. He led them into the desert, the wilderness, where the path was anything but straight. They were supposed to be headed to Israel, the Promised Land, but instead, they wandered for 40 years. Their path wandered all over the place.

Here in Isaiah 40 it’s clear that this time it’s going to be different. The path is going to be straight. God’s going to be like the bulldozer you’ve got pictured there. He’s going to lead His people straight back to Israel. He’s going to make them a path that is clear.

The historical highway is a reminder that it’s going to be different this time, but this is where there starts to be hints of the spiritual truths here. The reason the people wandered in the Exodus wasn’t because they weren’t good at reading a map; it was because they wandered in their relationship with God, didn’t always trust Him. If the people were going to take the literal highway from Babylon to Israel and it was going to be different than that historical highway of the Exodus, then it seems that God is talking about a spiritual change. Isaiah chapter 40, we see, goes beyond just a road. It’s about a relationship with God, and when Isaiah says, “The glory of the Lord will be revealed,” we start to see that’s it’s more than getting the people back to Jerusalem. This is about bringing the people back to God Himself.

So turn your insert over. Let’s start to see where this passage goes beyond the people of Isaiah’s day. The words of God in Isaiah chapter 40 look ahead to a day when He’d be building the road to eternal life. The fourth way of looking at the highway of our God is as the prophetic highway. The one who would be out there preparing the way for God would be John the Baptist, and the prophetic highway is a reminder that the Savior was coming. A reminder that the Savior was coming.

John the Baptist was an earthmover. He went out into the desert to preach about God, to tell the people to turn away from their sins, asking God for mercy and forgiveness. That kind of message cuts to the heart. That kind of message moves the heart like an earthmover flattening the hills.

I suppose I could’ve put a presidential motorcade picture here at John the Baptist, too, because John the Baptist was kind of like the motorcade of Jesus. John the Baptist told the people the Savior was coming. Flashing lights, sirens, clearing the highways, alerting the people that the motorcade was coming. Then when Jesus appeared, John the Baptist pointed to Him, identified Jesus as the Savior.

As much as Isaiah 40 is about the literal highway, the triumphal march of God’s people back to Israel, when the people got back to Jerusalem, it wasn’t really as good as chapter 40 makes it sound like. Not all mankind knew God. Not all of the people remained faithful to God. So Isaiah 40 has to be about something more than that historical event. It has to be a prophetic highway, a reminder that the Savior was coming.

That’s a lot like Advent. We’ve got the historical part of Advent—waiting for the birth of Jesus, looking back on the days that led up to the birth of the Savior. Yet, more than that, Advent is a prophetic time of the year, a reminder that the Savior is coming again. Reading about John the Baptist is still like seeing the motorcade of Jesus coming down the road, alerting us to prepare the way, because the Savior is coming.

The fifth way of looking at that highway of our God is as a spiritual highway, the highway of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. The spiritual highway is a reminder that the hills of sin have to be cleared away. A reminder that the hills of sin have to be cleared away. That bulldozer you’ve got pictured there on the insert, think of that as the Holy Spirit making inroads into your heart. You’ve got all of this sin piled up. It’s rough ground—your heart and mine. It’s a rugged place—your heart and mine. Folk singer Greg Brown wrote a song about the dark places our hearts are. He sings, “Lord, I have made you a place in my heart/among the rags and the bones and the dirt./Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart, but I don't reckon you're gonna come.” Isn’t that true? When you think about what’s in your heart, it doesn’t really seem like a place where God would want to be.

Yet, God’s Holy Spirit levels out that rough ground. God turns that rugged ground into a plain. God’s Holy Spirit is working in your heart to remove the extra dirt, to fill in the low spots, to make a highway for God.

Knowing how much God did to put His people on the literal highway from Babylon to Israel shows me that God cares for His people. Yet, talking about making a straight highway for a triumphant king, making it possible for the people to go back to Jerusalem, that’s only a picture for what it took for Him to make a spiritual highway in our hearts.

When you think of what it must’ve taken to build a highway during the days of Isaiah, the days before modern machinery, the days of doing the heavy lifting by human labor and animals, then when God describes saving His people as being like building a highway, we can see that this is truly a reminder that God will do a great deal to clear the way to save His people. It’s more than just the literal highway from Babylon to Israel; Isaiah’s message is for us to understand that God has cleared the way to bring us to eternal life.

Yet, there’s still road work ahead, as the sign says. There’s road work ahead in two different ways. First of all, we continue to need the bulldozer of the Spirit. We continue to need the bulldozer of the Spirit. As much as it is true that God has made a spiritual highway in your heart through the Holy Spirit, we’re not perfect yet.

Ever since first moving here over five years ago and driving to Madison periodically, I keep imaging that they’ll be done with construction around Fond du Lac. They aren’t. More than that, it’s amazing how long the Marquette Interchange project will go on in Milwaukee. Road construction seems to be a never-ending process.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick way to build a spiritual highway in our hearts either. We will continue to need the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts, to convict us of our sin, to help us to see that we need God’s victory and salvation, to help us to believe in Jesus. The road work that’s ahead is road work for our souls. Perhaps we should make t-shirts that have a “Road Work Ahead” sign on them, and instead of the sign saying “Road Work Ahead Next 5 Miles,” the shirts could say, “Road Work Ahead For Life.” We will continue to need the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts.

The second way that’s there’s road work ahead is that we are asked to be part of God’s road crew. We are asked to be part of God’s road crew. Sure, the Holy Spirit is the one driving the bulldozer into our hearts, pushing out sin and bringing in faith, but God is hiring. He’s asking us to be part of the road crew that goes out to build roads into the hearts of the people around us. Just as God asked John the Baptist to drive that earthmover, to be someone who would help to prepare the way for Jesus, so God is asking us to be on the crew. Whether you’re sharing His Word with your words, your actions, your support, your behind-the-scenes duties, your out-front duties, you are part of the crew.

There’s another t-shirt for someone to make for the church: “God’s Road Crew.” In fact, maybe it would make sense to have that on the back of the other shirt. On the one hand, we’re under construction. On the other hand, God’s using us to do the construction. “Road Word Ahead” for our hearts, and yet, we’re “God’s Road Crew.”

Well, anyway, I said that if we’d put together the phrases that fill in the blanks, we’d see the Gospel of Jesus. Going back to the beginning, then, we see that in Jesus, God has a plan of hope and restoration. God has victory. It’s going to be different this time with Jesus, because the victory is over eternal death. The Savior was coming, and the Savior is coming again. The hills of sin still have to be cleared away; we continue to need the bulldozer of the Spirit. Yet, we are asked to be part of God’s road crew. That’s five different ways of looking at the highway of our God, the literal, triumphal, historical, prophetic, and spiritual highways of our God, and yet, the image all leads to knowing that God comes into our hearts to bring His salvation. Let the construction continue!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Isaiah 65:17-25 - “You’re Not Going to Heaven”

Sunday of the Fulfillment (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, November 19, and Sunday, November 20, 2005

“I’m But a Stranger Here” (altered)

I’m but a stranger here, The new earth is my home;
Earth is a desert drear, The new earth is my home.
Danger and sorrow stand Round me on ev’ry hand;
The new earth is my fatherland, The new earth is my home.

What though the tempest rage, The new earth is my home;
Short is my pilgrimage, The new earth is my home;
And time’s wild wintry blast Soon shall be overpast;
I shall reach home at last, The new earth is my home.

Therefore I murmur not, The new earth is my home;
Whate’er my earthly lot, The new earth is my home;
And I shall surely stand There at my Lord’s right hand.
The new earth is my fatherland, The new earth is my home.

I changed the words of that hymn, because you’re not going to heaven. The traditional words say, “I’m but a stranger here, Heav’n is my home,” but heaven isn’t going to be your home.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m damning you to hell. Instead, what I want you to understand from our time together looking at God’s Word today is that we’re going to live on a new earth for eternity. In Isaiah, we heard God say, “I will create a new heavens and a new earth.” We heard Peter say, “We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”

This is the way that the Bible talks about eternal life, life after death. It says that Christ will come back, this world will be destroyed, and there will be new heavens and a new earth. What does that mean for us for eternal life? I thought we always talked about going to heaven when we die. And yet, you look at this phrase that Isaiah uses and Peter uses and St. John uses in Revelation, you look at the phrase “new heavens and a new earth” and maybe we’ve missed something along the way about what eternal life means. We’re not going to heaven; we’re going to live on the new earth.

I know this is probably sounding strange to many of you. We’ve always said that we’re going to heaven. Even our hymns talk about going to heaven. But think about it this way: there’s heavens and an earth right now. Where do we live? Earth. So if for eternity God is making new heavens and a new earth, where do you think He’s planning on us living? Earth.

God created people to have physical bodies to live on a physical Earth. Adam and Eve were living in God’s paradise in the Garden of Eden until they sinned and corrupted God’s world. When we find out that God wants to save us from sin, wants to forgive us through Jesus Christ, wants to take us to live with Him for eternal life, it’s the hope of God to restore Creation, to return to His original plan, to have us live in paradise for eternity just like He started with Adam and Eve, to have us live forever in a beautiful, physical Earth, with beautiful, physical bodies. So when God says in Isaiah, “I will create new heavens and a new earth,” His vision for eternity is that we’ll be living on that new earth.

This is tough sometimes to realize. I know that until one of my professors, Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs, at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, pointed this out that I didn’t think about eternal life in this way. (see Gibbs’ article) I’m just like you. I’ve spent my days in the church hearing about heaven, the pearly gates, hanging out with the angels. I’m just like you, and I’ve seen all of the pictures in art and movies about clouds, harps, and floating around in white robes.

Yet, you see that’s only a part of the truth. The Bible does talk about us being with Jesus when we die, our loved ones who died in the faith are with Jesus now, their souls being comforted. I think this is where we get the idea of living in heaven, of having an existence that’s bodiless, our souls with God. It’s what theologians call the interim state. Interim means temporary, in between, not final. And that’s my point, when we focus our attention on being in heaven with Jesus, we’re focusing on a temporary thing, a teaching that’s only a small part of what the Bible teaches about eternal life.

In fact, one of the places in Scripture that we see a description of the souls in heaven with God is in Revelation. There John sees a vision of the souls of the Christians who have died, they’re at the altar of God in heaven. However, what are the souls of the Christians who died doing? They are crying out, “How long, O Lord, until You judge the people of the earth?” In other words, the souls who are in heaven are still waiting for Jesus to return to bring an end to the world. The souls are waiting for Jesus to raise the dead and create a new earth. The souls are in heaven, but they aren’t home yet. That’s why I changed that hymn we sang, because the souls in heaven are still waiting. Heaven isn’t their home. The new earth will be their home; the new earth will be our home.

We confess this every week in the Creeds. We say we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Our hope for eternal life isn’t just about our souls going to heaven. Our hope is for our bodies to be raised along with our souls to live forever on a new earth, and God will be with us.

It’s not that we’ve been believing false doctrine. Like I said, it is true that the Christians who die, their souls are with Jesus, comforted by Him. It is true to say that those who die are in heaven with Jesus. So it’s not a false doctrine, but it’s not the whole truth. When we focus on “dying and going to heaven,” we’re missing out on the fullness of God’s promise.

When I heard my professor talking about this, I think it got my attention, because I have to admit that sometimes I felt like heaven was going to be boring. I don’t really like the idea of floating around in the sky on a cloud. I don’t want to play in the angel band, because they only had harps and not electric guitars. I don’t want to be an angel, because I think being a human is pretty cool. An eternal life without a body and without a physical world sounded. . .boring.

And then when I heard my professor say that we’ve been forgetting that the Bible teaches that we’re going to live on the new earth, that our bodies will be raised from the dead, that eternal life is a physical life, I realized that’s why I thought heaven sounded boring. That idea of floating around in the sky isn’t what we were created to do and that’s not what we’ll be recreated, resurrected to do. We’re not going to be angels; God made us to be humans. He’s going to renew us, glorify our bodies, make us to be the best humans, better than we can imagine. It won’t be just about playing harps. Adam and Eve were hanging out with the animals, taking care of the garden, taking walks with God, and there’s going to be all of that and more in the new earth.

Next week begins the season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, the birth of Jesus. Advent is a time of remembering how the world waited for Jesus to come, for Jesus to become flesh and blood, for Jesus to come and live on this world as both God and man. Yet, as Pastor Miller was pointing out to me while we were discussing this idea of the new earth, we spend Advent talking about Jesus becoming flesh and blood, but then we talk about it as if Jesus became a man so that we could just go to heaven. We talk about it as if the soul is the only important part, that the spiritual is the ultimate, when really everything about Jesus being born, everything about how God chooses to save us shows that God highly values the physical world as well. We are both—spiritual and physical. Advent is about God coming into our physical world to save us both in spirit and body.

Now what’s that new earth going to be like, what’s our physical, eternal life going to be like? The reading from Isaiah tries to explain something that we can’t really understand. God uses figurative language to describe the new earth. He says, “I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.” The New Jerusalem is an image that is often used in the Bible to talk about the new earth. Jerusalem was the center of the worship of God in the Old Testament and makes a natural image for the new earth which will be centered on God. And unlike the days of Isaiah, and unlike our days, we will no longer weep or cry.

When Isaiah was prophet, the people were being threatened by enemies who were going to take over their nation, and so they were living in a time of fear. God gives them a vision of the future, “Never again will there be in it, an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.” God goes on to talk about building houses and bearing children. It’s a confusing passage, because there won’t be death in eternity. Jesus said we won’t be married, so it doesn’t seem that there would be people having children in eternity either. So what’s this passage mean?

Well, first of all, the message that came through Isaiah has two purposes. First, it is a prophecy that tells the people that even though they will be taken into exile by the Babylonians, they will eventually return to Jerusalem and it will be better than ever. The prophecy is about the next 70 years.

Secondly, though, the prophecy is a figurative image to describe eternal life. The change that was going to come for Jerusalem in the next 70 years, the change from a land of fear that had little future and many threats, that was going to change to a land of prosperity and security. That is a metaphor for the kind of change that will happen for us in eternity. We will go from this world of fear, death, and sin, to a world of eternal security, hope, prosperity, and love. It doesn’t mean that there will be death or people giving birth. It’s a comparison between this life and the next life. It’s a comparison between something we can understand—a land under attack becoming a strong, safe land—compared to something that’s harder to understand—eternal life with God.

Kind of like how we’d say that for the people in Isaiah’s time getting back to Jerusalem wasn’t the most important hope for their lives, that it was more important to have the hope of being with God forever, so, too, I’d say that according to the Bible, dying and going to heaven isn’t the most important hope for your life. That’s a temporary stop, and I don’t want you to focus on something that’s temporary. I want you to focus on the true hope, the hope that God speaks about in Isaiah, the hope that Peter mentions, the hope of the new earth. That will be our home, and that’s why I changed that hymn today.

The Church Year is the way we set aside different readings and have a different focus for each Sunday. This is the last Sunday of the Church Year, and the end of the Church Year always focuses on the end of the world. I didn’t say it focused on death. Many of us, if not all, may die an earthly death before Jesus returns to bring an end to this world, but our earthly death is not our focus here at the end of the Church Year. Our focus is on Jesus returning, Jesus raising us from the dead, Jesus taking to live in the new earth forever.

Because we know this promise, the end of the Church Year and talking about the end of the world helps us to realize how important it is to share the message of Christ with others. We don’t tell people about Jesus just so that they can go to heaven when they die. We want people to know about forgiveness through Jesus so that they can live on the new earth for eternity. That’s our ultimate hope; that’s what God has in mind for us; that’s where He wants to take all people. So we go out into our families, friends, community, and the world to tell people about Jesus, so that when He comes back, Jesus will raise them from the dead, too.

So you might get someone pretty curious if you tell them that today’s sermon was called “You’re Not Going to Heaven.” You might just get someone asking about what happens when we die, what eternal life will be like, and how do we know that we’ll have life after death. You can tell them, “You’re not going to heaven—at least, not permanently. God’s really going to take you to live in a new earth, a beautiful, wonderful, physical world, where you will have a beautiful, wonderful, physical body, and you will live there with Him forever in peace, truth, and love.”

If you’ve found today’s message challenging, I’m going to have a little ask the Pastor session right after the service. If you’d like to stay for 10 minutes or so to talk, at the end of the service, please come to the front rows rather than exiting the sanctuary.

Now, let us confess our common Christian faith, including our faith in the resurrection of the body, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Matthew 23:37-39 - “Jesus the Chicken”

Reformation Day (Gospel reading for 24th Sunday after Pentecost - LCMS Readings Year A)
Saturday, October 29, and Sunday, October 30, 2005

[Jesus said,] “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”

It’s hard for me to quite get the right passion in my voice when reading these words of Jesus. Jesus knows the history of God’s people, how often God has sent them prophets with messages of judgment and grace, law and gospel, but how often those prophets were rejected, imprisoned, or killed. Jesus has come to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the whole world, but He also knows that the very people that He has come to save are the people who will hand Him over to be killed. Jesus wants to take all of His people in, bring them to God the Father, bring them close like a hen protecting her chicks, but many will not. They will reject Him, and the passion and intense sorrow build in His voice.

It’s an intensity that I’m not very good at conveying, so I’m going to let the obscure, 60’s folk rock singer Simon Finn do it. Finn captures that intense sorrow in this song called “Jerusalem,” and while you may find Finn’s voice and song to be strange, the reason I want you to hear a bit of it is because I haven’t found any other example of trying to show how Jesus is very much broken-hearted when He cries over Jerusalem.

Simon Finn
“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.”

That’s the sorrow, passion, and frantic feeling that Jesus had as He looked at Jerusalem, saw the chosen people of God rejecting Him, their Savior. As the insert in your bulletin shows, the title of this sermon is “Jesus the Chicken.” I’m not saying that Jesus is chicken, meaning he’s afraid to do something. No, rather, Jesus describes Himself here as a hen, a female bird, a chicken perhaps. It’s one of the few times that the Bible uses a feminine image for God, but when it comes to that passionate sorrow, there’s not a better image than a hen, a chicken.

The picture of a chicken taking her chicks under her wings is an intimate, motherly, protective image, but here in the words of Jesus, the image is of a chicken, a hen, chasing after her chicks, wanting to protect them, wanting the chicks to be under her wings, but the chicks run and run and run. Foxes come threatening to steal those chicks away, but still the chicks will not seek the protection of their mother hen. As those foxes get closer to her chicks, the hen gets frantic, squawking, throwing up her wings, going after the chicks while also facing off with the foxes. She may even lose her life to a fox rather than letting her chicks be taken. It’s a scene of squawking sorrow, and it’s an image that gives us a glimpse into what Jesus has done for us.

Jesus the Chicken has done everything He can to protect and save us, His chicks. Even when we run away from Him, He continues to fight the evil foxes who threaten to steal us from the true faith. He fought to protect us, fought all the way to the cross where He took the death blows in our place. Jesus the Chicken offering to take us under His wings is an intimate, motherly, protective image for what it means that Jesus has taken us to be His own.

Dominus Flevit Church
On the bulletin insert you have a picture of the Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. This church was built near the spot traditionally said to be where Jesus cried over Jerusalem. The church’s name in Latin means “the Lord cried.”

Hen & Chicks
The reason I found out about this church was because I was searching on the Internet for a picture of a hen with her chicks. You’ve got that picture here. It’s actually part of the mosaic inside the Dominus Flevit church. The mosaic shows a hen putting her wings around her chicks. What is striking, although a little hard to see in black and white, is that there’s a halo around the head of the hen. Paintings and artwork, especially from the Middle Ages, often placed those halos around Christ and the saints of the Church. Here the halo is given to the hen. It’s a clear reminder that Jesus compared Himself to a chicken; it’s an image that jumps out, reminding us that Jesus reaches out to take us under His protection like a hen.

I hope one day to see that mosaic in person, because this image reminds us that Jesus really hopes to take us under His care. No matter how often I’ve run away, He’s still reaching out with His wings, wanting to protect me from the foxes of this world, protect me from sin, death, and the devil. For all of my running around, trying to take care of things on my own, I’ve got this passionate, motherly, protective Lord right behind me, chasing off more foxes than I can know.

Recently, my Tuesday morning Bible studies have been looking at biblical imagery. We’ve talked about a lot of words that are metaphors, comparing the things of God to things from daily life. Why would Jesus compare Himself to something as humble as a chicken? Isn’t that kind of degrading, putting Jesus down to compare Him to the farmyard bird pecking away in the dust? It’s not the grand idea we might have of Jesus, but Jesus uses images like the hen in order to help us understand spiritual truths. He uses things from our world to understand the things that are out of this world. I’ve seen chickens; I’ve never seen Jesus. I’ve seen chickens protecting their chicks; I’ve never seen how God protects me. Jesus gives us a visual for something that’s invisible. Jesus wants to teach us about His love and protection, and He’s not afraid to compare Himself to a chicken in order to make His point.

But now today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, commemorating the beginning of Martin Luther’s effort to reform the Church starting in 1517. Luther had found that the Roman Catholic Church was not teaching the whole truth of God’s Word. The Gospel, the Good News, the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus, was a message that was mainly forgotten. It was a Church built around a message of fear and judgment, of trying to do enough good works in order to get right with God. Luther wanted the Church to realize this and begin sharing the whole message with God’s people. What started as His hope to reform the Church eventually led to a division within the Church. Rome excommunicated Luther and his followers, forcing them to begin their own church. However, that was never Luther’s intention. He was the Chicken like Jesus the Chicken. He stood looking at the Church, crying with intense sorrow that the Church wasn’t teaching the truth about Jesus.

On the back of your bulletin insert, you have a quote from Luther explaining his hope for the Church. This quote shows that Luther was acting like Jesus. Luther wanted to bring the people to the truth of forgiveness, wanted to take people under his pastoral care like a hen takes her chicks under her wings, but the Church refused. Luther says,

That is why I would let everyone who wants to do so, keep the papal and human laws, wherever it is possible for faith and God’s word not to be crowded out by them. But I will not keep silent when fear and despair are created with them and all those who do not obey them are accused of being damned heretics even if they keep all the other articles of faith.(1)

Luther is saying he would’ve been fine with the pope and Church laws as long as those things didn’t change the faith. He didn’t come to do violence to the Church. He came like a hen, wanting to bring the Church back under the protection of the Gospel. Just as Jerusalem rejected Christ, Luther was watching the Church reject Jesus. It is with intense sorrow that Luther sees the Church ignore the truth of God’s Word.

That’s why Luther goes on to say that there’s no other choice when the Church tries to scare him into being quiet. There’s no other choice but to go outside the Roman Catholic Church if they are not going to let him teach that we are forgiven through faith alone. The Church was calling Luther a heretic, saying that Luther was teaching false doctrines. The Church damned Luther to hell. Luther was convinced that he wasn’t teaching falsely, that the forgiveness of sins through Jesus is something taught by God’s Word. Luther was convinced that he wasn’t a heretic, and so are we. That’s why we’re here. We believe that Luther was teaching the Word of God correctly, pointing to forgiveness for our sins through Jesus.

Jesus cried over the people of Jerusalem who rejected God’s love. Luther cried over the Church who rejected the Gospel, but Luther didn’t always understand the Gospel message. Luther was also the chick, the chick who sometimes ran away from the truth of God’s Word. Luther spent many years being a chick chased by Jesus the mother hen.

In another quote on your bulletin insert, Luther remembers how his friend Pomeranus helped him to see that he was running away from God’s forgiveness, acting sort of like a chick running away from the hen. Luther says,

Pomeranus sometimes consoled me when I was sad by saying, ‘No doubt God is thinking: What more can I do with this man? I have given him so many excellent gifts, and yet he despairs of my grace!’ These words were a great comfort to me. As a voice from heaven they struck me in my heart, although I think Pomeranus did not realize at the time what he had said and that it was so well said.(2)

Pomeranus points out God’s frustration with Luther. Luther had spent many years as a monk trying to perfect himself, trying to punish himself enough for his sins, trying to earn God’s righteousness on his own. Surely God is frustrated when we do this, because God has already promised us forgiveness, salvation from punishment and death, and already made us righteous, holy, and innocent through Christ. God was chasing Luther like a hen chasing her chick, and eventually, God caught Luther.

And Luther saw the protection of the Gospel for what it is. Luther realized that the Gospel was what he needed all along. Luther had been so afraid of God, so afraid of judgment and death and hell, so afraid because of his sins. Luther ran and ran and ran, until God finally helped him to see that Luther could come and find protection under God’s own wings.

When are you the chick? When do you realize that you need to be under the wings of Jesus? When you realize you’re sinful, when you’re aware of the devil’s evil plan to bring you to eternal death, when you confess your sins to God, that’s when you are the chick. That’s when you’ve humbled yourself before your God. When you realize that you’re just a helpless chick, that’s when it’s good to know that Jesus is your mother hen. That’s when it is good to feel those wings of the Gospel reaching to draw you close.

When are you the chick that runs away from the hen? Are there times in your life when you’re so afraid of God, feeling like you can’t dare approach God because of your sins? If you’ve felt that fear, than remember the mosaic from the Dominus Flevit Church, remember how Jesus offers to take you under His wings. There’s no need to keep running and running around the barnyard. There’s no need to keep scratching in the dust. Just calm down. Rest. Let Jesus cover you with His wings of grace and mercy and love and forgiveness.

You are little chicks in this big world of ours, especially when it comes to the big spiritual world. You’re not big enough to go out on your own. None of us are. We are little chicks who need their mother hen. Jesus has offered to be your mother hen, so don’t turn it down. Let those wings wrap right around you now.

You will always be chicks, the little ones of Jesus, but there are times when God calls you to be the chicken too. Jesus the Chicken wants to protect His people the chicks. Luther the Chicken wanted to protect the people the chicks. We the Chickens want to offer people that same protection of the Gospel. God will use us to offer His wings of protection, His message of hope and love.

Just as Luther was sorrowful over the Church rejecting the truth of God’s Word, we, too, celebrate Reformation Day with sorrow not cockiness. We do not mention the error in the teaching of other denominations in order to brag. We cry as chickens wishing to take people under the protective wings of the Gospel. If someone is in a church where they are not taught that our sins are completely forgiven by what Jesus did for us on the cross, then they do not know the true freedom and hope and peace of Christ. We stand with sorrow, crying out for those who don’t know this truth. We are the chickens, calling others to come under the protection of the Gospel.

And so in the words of Jesus, we realize we are the chicks who run away, the chicks under wing, and the chicken. We are all three at different times and even at the same time. We are the chicks who run away, the sinners who reject Jesus, the sinners who shake off His protection trying to go out on our own. We are the chicks under wing, the objects of His love, the faithful ones who realize we need His protection. And we are the Chickens who match the heart of Jesus, who cry with sorrow for those who run away from God while offering the wings of the Gospel to those who need it. Jesus cried over your sin of faithlessness, called you to faith through the Holy Spirit, and now sends you to be hen in the world. The chick who ran away became the chick under wing became the chicken who was sent to offer protection to other chicks. Jesus, your mother hen, has called you and He is faithful.

(1) Luther, M. (1999, c1967). Vol. 54: Luther's works, vol. 54 : Table Talk (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (Vol. 54, Page 15-16). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

(2) Luther, M. (1999, c1970). Vol. 39: Luther's works, vol. 39 : Church and Ministry I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (Vol. 39, Page 171-172). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Philippians 4:8-9 - "Our Motto"

21st Sunday after Pentecost (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, October 8, and Sunday, October 9, 2005

(End of Children’s Message on Matthew 22:1-14. . .)

One last question for the children before you go back to your seats. Why do I wear this robe?

This robe reminds us that we are forgiven, clean in God’s sight. God has taken away our sins, made us like clean and white robes. You can go back to your seats, but as I start my sermon, I’m going to keep talking about this robe.

(As children go back, take off robe and hang it up).

There’s one more thing I want everyone to understand about that parable that Jesus told in the Gospel of Matthew, and it’s sort of like refusing to wear my pastoral robe. The king gathers in all of these people off the streets, invites them to the big wedding celebration, but then he find one person who isn’t wearing wedding clothes. He kicks this guy out, and it seems quite harsh. I mean, maybe the guy couldn’t afford wedding clothes.

Except a normal part of a big wedding celebration at the time of Jesus was that the host would provide wedding clothes, especially for people who couldn’t afford them. So when the king spots this guy not wearing wedding clothes, he knows that it’s because this guy refused the gift of wedding clothes. So the king kicked him out.

Now if the king is God the Father who has invited everyone to come to His big wedding celebration in eternity, then the wedding clothes are like the righteousness that He gives us. God the Father gives us forgiveness, innocence, holiness, makes us clean and white in His sight, gives us wedding clothes to wear, gives us white robes to wear.

And if we refuse His gift of forgiveness and righteousness, then we’re rejecting His invitation to the party. If we reject God the Father’s gift of forgiveness, then He will kick us out, sending us to hell for eternity.

Refusing to wear the wedding clothes, refusing God’s gift of righteousness, that’d be like me taking off my robe. The robe a pastor wears is supposed to be a reminder that we are all forgiven and holy in God’s sight because of Jesus. It reminds you that when I speak God’s Word, it is not me that speaks but rather God. It reminds me that I don’t come on my own with my own words; I come to preach clothed by God’s holiness.

If I say, “Oh, I don’t need God’s righteousness, I don’t need God’s help, I want people to see me not that silly robe. I refuse to wear a robe that might make it look like I need God to make me good enough to be a pastor,” well, then, I’m rejecting the truth, I’m going to get kicked out of the party, I’m refusing God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life.

(while putting on the robe again) I know I can’t do this on my own. I know that I can’t make myself right in God’s eyes. I know that I need God’s forgiveness, so I’ll keep this robe on today, this symbol of the forgiveness that covers us all.

You see, the parable of Jesus isn’t about clothes. We can’t use this parable to say, “See, all of those people that don’t wear suits and ties or long, pretty dresses shouldn’t be allowed in church.” That’s not what this is about at all. It’s about refusing God’s gift of righteousness, holiness, and forgiveness in Jesus. It’s about refusing to see that we need God to make us right. It’s about refusing the true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy Gospel of Jesus.

Hopefully that list of words sounds a little familiar, and for those of you keeping track at home, you know that these weeks we have been preaching about Philippians. This is our last week on Philippians, and I haven’t talked about Philippians today. . .until now. Paul says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” When the guy refuses the king’s gift of wedding clothes, or if we refused God’s gift of forgiveness, that’s a huge rejection of the excellent things of God.

What Paul is saying is “if there is excellence, and you believe there is, then strive for this excellence” (Hawthorne). Paul is talking to Christians who know that there is truth and excellence in the world because of God. He’s urging them to think about these things, instead of getting caught up in all of the junk that’s around them. That’s a pretty good reminder for us, too—because even when you know God’s truth is the only truth, and even when you remember Paul’s words, it’s easy to start letting other things become more important than the praiseworthy things of God.

Philippians 4 verse 8 is the motto of Northwestern University where Susan and I went to college. Northwestern was started by Methodist Church in 1851. For years it was a school of higher education that also kept faith at its core. The excellence of God’s Word sent the founders of the school to study the excellence in God’s world around them.

Over the years, though, the excellence of the world became more and more important than the excellence of God. When Susan and I got there in the 90’s, the school motto was still Philippians 4:8, but it was hard at times to remain focused on God at a school where many professors rejected the faith—and sometimes even rejected students who believed in Christ. Faith was sometimes even kept out of discussions in the Religion Department.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my alma mater, the school where I got my bachelor’s degree. I love Northwestern, and when I sing the “Alma Mater,”

“Alma Mater”

Hail to Alma Mater,
We will sing thy praise forever.
All thy sons and daughters
Pledge thee victory and honor.

Alma mater, praise be thine,
May thy colors ever shine,
Hail to purple,
Hail to white,
Hail to thee, Northwestern.

TUNE: VARIATIONS ON ST. ANTHONY’S CHORALE BY HAYDN, Brahms; arranged by Peter Lutkin (1917)
TEXT: “Alma Mater” – Thomas Tyra (1958)

when I sing this song, I still get goosebumps. Northwestern is my alma mater, which literally means “founding mother.” Northwestern is the founding mother of my higher education, an incredible four years of learning.

Yet, my own school’s motto didn’t urge me to make my school the most important thing in my life. It didn’t make me limit my study to the excellence of the world. Instead, my school that has drifted away from its founding faith has a motto that reminds me to seek God’s truth above all things. God has given us the gift of His truth, and I don’t want to reject it.

So a few years ago I heard Sally Miller was playing “St. Anthoy’s Chorale” during offering, which is what Northwestern’s “Alma Mater” is based on. As I was sitting up front here, I found myself singing to my school. That didn’t seem right. First of all, it made me suddenly have flashbacks of being at a football game, and secondly, while I really love my school, being here is about worshipping God not a school.

So I decided I should rewrite Northwestern’s “Alma Mater” so that we could use it here for worship of the true things of God. Since “alma mater” means “founding mother,” I’ve called my new words “Alma Pater,” founding father, because God the Father is the founder of our faith, the One who begins faith in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

It sounds like this. . .

"Alma Pater"

Hail to God the Father,
We will sing Thy praise forever.
All Thy sons and daughters
Pledge Thee victory and honor.

God the Father, praise be Thine,
May Thy Name forever shine,
Hail to Father,
Hail to Son,
Hail to Holy Spirit.

TUNE: adapted by Stephanie Bowman
TEXT: “Alma Pater” – Benjamin C. Squires (2005)

More than singing praise to my school, I want to sing God’s praises forever. More than pledging victory to my school, I honor the victory of Jesus on the cross who saves us from death. More than my school colors of purple and white waving high above the football stadium, God’s Name will forever shine.

But where did Northwestern make its mistake—when it started to teach about the world instead of just teaching religion classes? Where do we make the same mistake—when we start to enjoy the world around us instead of just coming to church? No. Remember I said that Northwestern started because the founders knew the excellence of God’s Word which led them to study the excellence of God’s world. The mistake wasn’t enjoying the world; the mistake was forgetting that it is God’s world.

S-ame with us, we can make this mistake when we forget that the good things around us come from God. It’s OK to recognize excellence in the world until you start to make the world more important than God, until you sing with all of your heart for your school, your team, your family, making anything more important than God.

When Paul says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things,” it’s like a pair of goggles that we use to see the world. We see the world with God’s eyes. We spot the excellent, praiseworthy, truthful things around us, knowing that they come from God.

There are a lot of excellent things in this world, but it’s important to remember that the excellent things come from God. Sometimes it might be hard to spot those excellent things around us, though, what with crime, immorality, war, terror, hatred, all of that around us. Yet, Paul’s not telling us to run away from all of it, to go hide in a cave.

Instead, when you find it hard to see anything good in the world around you, maybe think about it as “sheep in wolves’ clothing.” Did you catch that? Sheep in wolves’ clothing. There’s a lot of wolves around us, a lot of things that threaten to tear us apart, to lead us astray, to destroy our faith. Yet, behind even the most sinful places and people, there’s something that’s true and excellent. The wolves have taken those excellent things and distorted them, messed them up, but it all started with something excellent.

For instance, when you see someone who is clearly neck-deep in sin, living a life that is full of crime or hatred, all that you might see is that they are a wolf. However, what’s beneath that wolf’s clothing? A sheep. An excellent creation of God. A person loved by God. A person whom God wants to call back into His flock.

Take another example: you hear some song on the radio, see some movie, read some book that only seems to be about sinful passions. However, what’s beneath that wolf’s clothing? A sheep. An excellent creativity that’s a gift of God. A creativity that might be used in the wrong direction, but it’s a skill that comes from God. Maybe it’s a message that goes against God’s Word, but is there a search for truth, a desire to find God? That search has gone in the wrong direction, but the search, the need for hope, peace, comfort, or love, that search is an excellent, praiseworthy thing of God.

Knowing that there’s a lot of sheep in wolves’ clothing around us helps us to realize that there’s a lot of things the world uses for bad purposes but that God means us for us to use for good purposes. For instance, today is LWML Sunday, the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, who support mission projects throughout the world. They raise money to help spread God’s Word. They use the Internet to promote their efforts. They fly in planes or drive cars to go to conventions. Now money, the Internet, planes, and cars can all be used for evil purposes, but like the LWML Pledge says, “We dedicate ourselves to God with all that we are and have.” They pledge to use everything they have for the purpose of God. They will find the sheep in wolves’ clothing, finding that things are made by God in excellent ways to use for His purpose of telling the world about Jesus.

Wear your goggles, then, and start to see the praiseworthy things around you. You know God’s Word. You know that God loves us and forgives us because of Jesus. You know that God made this world to be different than it ended up, that He didn’t mean for us to sin and go against Him, so put your goggles on and start to see the true, noble, admirable things around you.

And when you spot them, praise your Father in heaven for them. I found excellent things at Northwestern, but I’m going praise God the Father for those excellent things. You’ve probably found excellent things in your family, your school, your work, your hobby, your backyard, but sing praise to God for those excellent things. God the Father is the founder of the excellent things in this world.

So will you try singing the “Alma Pater” with me? We’re praising God with this song for all of the excellent things around us—for God’s Word of truth, for God’s world that He made, for the people around us, for the eternal life that He will give us. So let’s sing. Please stand.

Hail to God the Father,
We will sing Thy praise forever.
All Thy sons and daughters
Pledge Thee victory and honor.

God the Father, praise be Thine,
May Thy Name forever shine,
Hail to Father,
Hail to Son,
Hail to Holy Spirit.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Philippians 1:19-27 - “Analuo or Epimeno”

18th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, September 17, and Sunday, September 18, 2005

Place tent in front of the church

Don’t worry. I’ll explain the tent in a moment.

Today we begin a four week series of sermons on Philippians. Pastor Miller and I will both be preaching on Paul’s letter to the Christians in the city of Philippi. Often during this time of year, the appointed readings from the Epistles, the letters in the New Testament, will be what’s called continuous readings. Each week takes another section from the same letter, going in order. While not covering all of the verses of a book, a continuous reading helps us to get a sense of that New Testament letter over a number of weeks.

So Pastor Miller and I have chosen to use these four weeks to look at Paul’s very personal letter to the church in Philippi, a Roman colony in Macedonia (modern day Greece), where Paul had preached and helped the church begin. Now Paul was writing to encourage the church, because there were people opposing the church.

From today’s reading in chapter one, I want to focus in on verses 23-24 where Paul says: “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” Paul is in prison as he writes this letter. He’s truly debating about what would be better—to keep living and suffering but doing the work of Christ or to die and be with Christ. Death would bring an end to his suffering, but living would mean he could continue to do the work of Christ.

From verses 23-24, I want you to learn two Greek words. The first one is analuo>. Say it with me: analuo. When Paul says, “I desire to depart,” the word for “to depart” is analuo. The other word is epimeno. Try it: epimeno. That’s the word Paul uses when he says, “I remain in the body.” So Paul is debating between analuo and epimeno.

The reason I want you to know the Greek words is because there’s a great word-picture here. Analuo is the word used when taking down a tent, hence the tent. Epimeno means to reside, abide, to continue to live. So when we say that Paul is debating between analuo and epimeno, it’s like he’s debating between taking down his tent or staying in his tent.

On the one hand, he wants to analuo, to depart. He’s suffered a lot for the sake of the Gospel, and there’s a strong desire in him to simply be done, praying that God would take him away from these troubles. Paul knew that it was a very real possibility that he’d be put to death, and part of him was just fine with that. If they killed him, he’d be with Christ.

On the other hand, he also knows that if he epimenos, if he continues to live, Christ will be with him. God will use Paul to encourage the Philippians and others, telling them about the love of Christ.

That’s the debate that Paul is having there in prison. It’s not so surprising to think that someone in prison would be having that kind of debate. It’s not that Paul’s thinking about committing suicide or not. It’s more that as he’s chained up, locked in that prison, he’s wondering why God wouldn’t just allow him to die instead of continuing to suffer. He’s comforting himself with the realization that it’d be a wonderful thing to die. He’d be with Christ. That’s not defeat; that’s victory and peace.

Think of it the debate this way. A climbing team is up at Base Camp III on Mount Everest. This is where the team rests a little while before making a final push to the summit. Now if the weather turns bad, the snows come in, the winds pick up, the temperature drops, the visibility is gone, then the team has to debate between taking down their tents, analuo, or staying, epimeno, hoping that the weather will clear up in time for them to go to the top of the mountain. There’s usually very little room for waiting because of oxygen, food, and water supplies, not to mention the extreme cold. Yet, when we’re talking about a climbing team, the debate between analuo and epimeno is a debate between not going up the mountain but getting out of the bad weather or staying and trying to get to the top of the mountain, their goal for the whole trip. If the team chooses to analuo, to take down their tents, they will not get to the summit. If the team chooses to epimeno, they endure and remain and will get to the summit.

That picture helps us to understand the words analuo and epimeno, but it actually doesn’t accurately show us the kind of debate Paul was having. He wasn’t debating between not getting to the summit or not. No, Paul’s saying, “To live is Christ, and to die is to be with Christ.” Either way, Paul is saying that he will be with Christ. It’s like either way the climbing team will get to the top of the mountain, whether they analuo or epimeno.,

Imagine that climbing team again, high up on Mount Everest, with the wind and snow and cold threatening to rip them right off the mountain. Normally if the team chooses to analuo, take down their tents, and depart, they won’t get to their goal of reaching the top. However, the way Paul’s talking about being with Christ whether he departs or remains, that’s like the climbing team knowing that they could epimeno, remain, and climb to the top, or they could analuo, depart, and still get to the top. If the team goes up the mountain, they’ll get to the summit. If the team goes down the mountain, they’ll get to the summit.

I know that’s not the way it works on Mount Everest. If you analuo, the expedition is over. You will not achieve your goal. But if you can imagine for a moment what a strange place it would be if you get to the summit whether you go up or down the mountain, if you can imagine that, then you’ve got some sense of the unique situation that Paul was in, that we’re all in as Christians. Whether we live or die, whether we analuo or epimeno, we will be with Christ. There’s victory either way. Either way this expedition reaches its goal.

That’s a unique position to be in, because without Christ, we wouldn’t have that same hope. For instance, if Paul didn’t believe in Christ, he might have wished for death while in prison because death would bring an end to the trouble and suffering. But that death would mean the end of life. Without Christ, there wouldn’t be any hope of getting to the summit if he takes down his tent and departs. You’d get out of the blizzard, but the expedition is over with nothing accomplished.

Again, if Paul didn’t believe in Christ, he might have wished to live, avoid death, while in prison, but life would continue troubles and hardships. There wouldn’t be any hope that life would bring a hopeful conclusion. Without Christ, you might remain on the mountain, trying to get to the top, but you’re going to continue to suffer in that blizzard with no guarantee that you’ll make it to the top.

Without Christ, that’s the kind of situation our family and friends face. Without Christ, the people around us are on a mountain, debating between taking down their tent or remaining, but there’s no guarantee of hope or victory no matter what happens. Without Christ, people who face death do not have the hope of victory in death. Without Christ, people who continue to live will suffer without any guarantee that there’s anyone waiting for them at the top of that mountain.

So Paul wanted the Philippains to know, and I want you to know that with Christ, you have victory whether you analuo or epimeno, whether you die or live. You will be with Christ no matter what. We do not need to fear death, because death will mean we are with Christ. If our tents get taken down, we’re still going to the top. On the other hand, we do not have to face suffering alone in this life, because Christ will be with us. If we remain in the tent on the mountain in the blizzard, we’re still going to the top. There’s this unique guarantee that you have through faith in Christ—whether you live or die, you will be with Him.

But now when facing all of that suffering in prison, how could Paul choose to epimeno? He says, “It is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” If death would bring an end to his suffering and he’d get to be with Christ, why would Paul be OK with continuing to live, suffering?

It’s like being on Mount Everest in that blizzard. If I knew that I could take down my tent, go down the mountain out of the blizzard, but still get to the summit, I’d choose to analuo, pack it in, and get out of the cold. But Paul stays up there. . .why?

Well, to stretch the Mount Everest metaphor just a little bit more, imagine that if you go down the mountain to get to the summit, that you’re the only one who can go. You came up the mountain as a team, but choosing to analuo, well, that’s only about you getting to the summit. The only way to help your whole team get to the summit is to remain, to epimeno, to continue through the blizzard and make a push for the top.

That’s kind of like the conclusion Paul comes to. Death would certainly mean the end of his suffering and the beginning of eternal life with Christ, but that’s only about Paul himself getting to the summit. Paul realizes that the only way that God can use him to help others get to the summit is if we stays, remains, epimenos on that mountain.

Paul’s debate isn’t just about Paul. Paul wants to epimeno for others—for the Philippians, for the other churches, for the people he hadn’t met yet, for all of the people that might hear about Christ through him if he continued to live, for us who hear God’s Word in his letter nearly 2000 years later.

There’s going to be plenty of times in our lives where it would seem far better if we could analuo, if we could take down our tent, if we could die, rather than continuing to suffer. Death is still hopeful for us because we know Christ will bring us to live with Him forever. Yet, God didn’t put us here just for ourselves. We’re not on this mountain expedition alone. If we remain, if leave our tents up, if we epimeno, God will use us to tell others about Christ, help others reach that summit.

Paul may have felt like departing to be with Christ, but the fact that he epimeno-ed, he remained, he endured, already meant incredible things for the Gospel by the time he wrote this letter to the Philippians. Listen to verses 12-14 of chapter 1:

“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.”

Because Paul continued in life even while suffering in prison, it meant that the palace guard, the Roman soldiers knew that Paul was in that prison because of Jesus. The soldiers were learning about Christ, learning how they too could have the hope of reaching the summit, having eternal life through believing in Jesus.

Because Paul epimeno-ed, other Christians were speaking about Jesus even more boldly. They saw how Paul had the hope of being with Jesus no matter whether he lived or died, and so they had the courage to go out and speak God’s Word.

From in prison, Paul would’ve had trouble at times seeing what good could come out of his suffering, but he trusted that God would use him.
And that brings us to the last picture I want you to take away from having this tent here. It’s the tough part of trying to choose to epimeno in the face of trouble, trying to remain in the tent on the mountain with the blizzard blowing down on you. (get inside tent until end of sermon) You see, when you’re in a tent, especially one designed for the extreme conditions on top of the world’s tallest mountain, you’re not spending much time looking out the screen door or sitting around a campfire. Instead, you’re sealed up in your tent with very little chance to see out. It’s dark outside, or it’s a complete whiteout. To peek out the door means letting in snow and wind.

So you’re sealed up in your tent, listening to the wind slam against the tent walls. You do not know how much snow is building up against the tent. You can’t hear anything but wind, so if someone else’s tent has been blown down, you probably won’t hear their shouts. You are ready to epimeno, to remain, to help the whole team reach the summit, but from inside that tent, there’s no way to see whether you’ll actually ever get to the summit.

In that same way, Paul couldn’t see what would happen to him while staying there in prison. We can’t see what will happen to us as we epimeno, as we remain on this mountain trying to tell others about Jesus Christ. Paul tells us that no matter what we will be with Christ, but we can’t see that. We can’t see down the trails. We can’t see the future.

Instead, we have faith, and faith is believing in things that we cannot see. We can’t see outside the walls of this tent, but we trust that we’re going to be able to climb to the summit. We can’t see beyond what we’re living through right now, but we trust God will be with us, that He will use us to tell others about His forgiveness and love.

You can’t see Jesus, just like you can’t see me right now. But Jesus is here with you. As you struggle in life, as you go through hardships, as people get offended by your faith and tell you to shut your mouth about that Jesus of yours, Jesus is with you. He will use you to help the rest of the team get to the summit, help others to know about eternal life with Christ. As you epimeno, as you remain, as you continue to live, Jesus will epimeno, remain, continue to live with you.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

2 Samuel 22:1-4,7,17-18a,32,47 - “Blessed Be the Rock”

Vacation Bible School
Thursday, August 11, and Sunday, August 14, 2005

“I Will Call Upon the Lord”

I will call upon the Lord!
Who is worthy to be praised!
So shall I be saved from my enemies,
I will call upon the Lord!

The Lord liveth and blessed be the Rock,
Blessed be the Rock of my salvation!
The Lord liveth and blessed be the Rock,
Blessed be the Rock of my salvation!!

Words & Music by Michael O'Shields. © 1981, Sound III, Inc. Adapted.

That song fits perfectly with the theme for Vacation Bible School, “Build on the Rock.” All week we’ve talked in Vacation Bible School about how Jesus is our Rock, how Jesus protects us from death, how Jesus will give us eternal life.

The words of the song come from 2 Samuel, the Old Testament reading for tonight. They’re words of David who praised God, because Saul had been out to kill David, didn’t want David around because Saul knew that David was going to be the next king of Israel. David sings this song to God, because God kept David from being killed.

The TVs are out, because these words of David make me think of an image that I want you to see. David says, “He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters. He rescued me from my strong enemy.” When David says, “He sent from on high, he took me,” it means that God reached down from above and picked him up. That makes me think of Will E. Coyote. (push play, run sequence to where he lands at bottom of cliff, pause)

You see, that’s how life seems sometimes, it seems like it’s all going downhill, all going the wrong way, it’s just crashing down. Busy days turn into stressful days turn into exhaustion. Tough situations turn into difficult messes turn into things that make you want to run away and hide.

But then you remember that Jesus is the Rock, that Jesus is our fortress and deliverer, the One who will protect us and save us from trouble. “He sent from on high, he took me.” He reached down from above and picked me up. . .(press rewind until Coyote is at top of cliff).

When I think of God reaching down to pluck me out of trouble, that’s the image that comes to mind. It’s like God pressing the rewind button, pulling us out of the fall, keeping us from crashing to the bottom. Jesus is the Rock, and so when I’m teetering on the edge, He comes and puts some more rock on that cliff to hold me up. If I don’t realize that I’m going to fall, He comes and finds a way to get me back away from the edge. If I’ve started to fall, He catches me and returns me to the top.

Karen, my godmother, has a disease that attacked her lungs. For awhile now, she’s had to have oxygen. She’s often been weak and tired. Karen’s only chance was a lung transplant. It’s been hard, because it didn’t seem like a lung would become available soon enough.

Karen’s been my mom’s best friend since they were in 8th grade. I grew up spending time with Karen and her family. Her children were my childhood playmates. Karen and her family are like family to us. Knowing that Karen was struggling to breathe, it was making me feel like I was falling off that cliff. I was losing hope.

Then this past Sunday we got the news that Karen had received a lung transplant. The surgery went very well. It is just such a miracle. Each day she is getting stronger just as the doctors are hoping. God reached out and pulled Karen back to the top of the cliff, giving her hope and a new chance to experience life. God reached out and pulled me back to the top of the cliff, giving me hope again for Karen.

It makes me want to sing, “The Lord liveth, and blessed be the Rock.”

Of course, just because I tell you one time when Jesus was my Rock, a time when He reached out to put me back on top of the cliff, that doesn’t mean it always works like that. Sometimes you still end up hitting bottom. (let video go to splat, pause)

Even then, I’m still singing, “The Lord liveth, and blessed be the Rock”—at least I try to keep singing to God.

I work with some young adults who have been in and out of jail, fighting addictions to drugs and alcohol, struggling to get away from a group of friends who keep leading them back to trouble. I visit them in the jail to share God’s Word with them—yes, to tell them where they’re wrong, but also to tell them that God loves them, forgives them, wants to have a relationship with them. It’s amazing how much it means to some of these young adults to hear that God loves them—even while they’re sitting in jail wearing an orange jumpsuit. These young adults are very aware at that point of how God is pulling them back to the top of the cliff.

Yet, I feel like the Coyote at the bottom of the cliff when I hear that someone is back in jail less than a month after getting out, has new charges that I hadn’t heard about, isn’t quitting the drugs or alcohol. My heart sinks; my heart gets broken. My hope is dashed on the rocks.

From the bottom of the cliff, I try to keep singing “the Lord liveth, and blessed be the Rock.” It doesn’t always happen; I don’t always keep praising God. Sometimes I let my grumbled words take over, my fears and worries and anger. And yet, even when I’ve seen how the enemy keeps attacking, how the devil keeps trying to figure out ways to keep me from sharing God’s Word with these young adults, still I want to sing and praise God and thank God that He does love them, He gave them a chance to hear about Jesus, that whatever happens to them, no matter how times they fall, I want to praise God that they’ve heard His Word and maybe one day they’ll remember that He is with them.

So even at the bottom of the cliff, even when it feels like we’ve gone splat with the Coyote, David’s song is still our song, “The Lord liveth, and blessed be the Rock.”

And that’s the most important thing that the students have learned this week, that the teachers have taught, that our youth helpers have remembered: Jesus is our Rock for eternal life. Vacation Bible School wasn’t just about Jesus being our Rock for difficult days in this life. It’s more than that. He is our Rock, our salvation, our protection for eternal life.

When we think about our spiritual lives, it’s pretty clear that we’re down at the bottom of the cliff. The first man and woman, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God, and what do we call that event? The Fall. Watching the Coyote keep falling down the cliff over and over again, that’s a perfect image for what our spiritual lives are like. We keep falling. We keep sinning and going against God’s ways. Spiritually, we’ve gone splat so many times at the bottom of that cliff.

Yet, that’s not where God leaves us.

(press rewind until Coyote is at top of cliff)
He lifts us up. He reaches down and picks us up from our sins. He gives us the promise of eternal life. No matter how many times you’ve fallen into sin, no matter how deep that valley is, no matter how ugly your spiritual life might be, the forgiveness of Jesus brings you right back up to the top.

You see, this week we learned that Jesus is our Rock. When the Coyote is on top of the cliff, he’s sitting on rock. When we have a relationship with Jesus, we’re on the Rock.

But just like how it takes the rewind button to bring Coyote back up to the top of the cliff, so it takes a rewind button to get us to be on top of the cliff with Jesus. We can’t climb out of our valley of sin. It’s too far for us to climb. We can’t get ourselves back into a relationship with God.

So God sent Jesus to be the rewind button for our spiritual lives. We’re sinners at the bottom, and Jesus jumped into the valley and climbed out, bringing us with Him.

When Jesus dies on the cross, that’s when Jesus jumped into sin and death with us. He did what a rescuer should never do—He put Himself into the same dangerous situation. He ends up dying there just like all of us who will die because of sin.

Then when Jesus rose again on Easter, that’s when Jesus pressed the rewind button. He got Himself out of the valley, got Himself out of the grave, but He brought us out with Him. He will give us eternal life. When we die, He’ll press the rewind button and give us eternal life, bringing us to the top of cliff.

Except this is even better than what we can do with Coyote here, because when Jesus gives us eternal life, there won’t be anymore cliff or valley. We won’t fall again. There won’t be sin; we won’t walk away from God; we will never leave God’s side again.

And that makes me want to sing, “The Lord liveth, and blessed be the Rock.” Praise God that He will reach out and pull me out of the valley when I face trouble in life. Praise God that He will stay with me when life has gone splat. But more than all of that, praise God that He will press the rewind button and bring me back to the top of the cliff, give me eternal life to be with Him forever. “The Lord liveth, and blessed be the Rock.”