It’s dark outside. It has been for quite some time. That’s winter in Wisconsin, or Illinois, or anywhere up here in the upper Midwest. The darkness comes early. It adds some difficulty to our routine, too. Driving in the dark can be dangerous, especially in the cold, dead winter where the sheer ice covers the road. Maybe the darkness leaves you feeling tired, or depressed, or both. Everything outside is dark, yet today we celebrate the light. In the darkness of this world, the light has dawned. On Christmas we remember that light has come into the world. The light’s name is Jesus. He is our LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS today and all the year.
Israel was living in darkness, too. No, not the darkness of Wisconsin winter, but the darkness of sin. Their king, Ahaz, had rejected the word of the Lord. Like the king, so the people. The people sought truth from any other means—psychics and mediums. They searched for their answers in anything other than God’s Word. They were walking in darkness of stubborn unbelief.
If you’ve ever tried to walk in darkness, you know it’s hard.Worse than the darkness of leaving your lights off while you stumble to find the bed at night is utter and complete darkness. Have you ever walked in the darkness in a cave, where no light shines through? You can’t see your hand in front of your face, much less how to get where you need to go!
God said that was Israel’s spiritual condition. They had no idea where they were going. They thought they could find the way on their own, but they were getting nowhere.
That’s the world we live in today, too. Yes, people consult psychics and mediums and think they’re harmless. But even worse, people will turn to anything—common sense, the government, any and every religion—rather than hearing the truth, the Word of the Lord. The people of our world live in spiritual darkness.
And it gets deeper. The text we read said “the land of deep darkness,” yet that deep darkness is even clearer in the original language. This darkness is the shadow of death. Those who are in this darkness know death will come, yes. Death looms over them like a shadow, yes. But everyone dies. You and I also have not escaped this deep darkness. The darkness of sin blinds us, so we think we can find our way on our own. Or we think our reading of God’s Word is something that makes us good with God, or our coming to church to hear him once or twice a year is good enough! Humans by their nature are so lost to the darkness that they can’t even see the results of their own actions. The only end to sin is death.
Has anyone ever told you why the church celebrates Christmas on December 25? The Bible never tells us the date of Jesus’ birth. He easily could have been born on any of the other 364 days in our calendar year. But since as early as the 200s, the Church has been celebrating Christmas on December 25. One reason is the winter solstice that took place just a couple days ago. In case you missed it, the sun gives the least light to the north of the equator as late as December 22. This year it was the 21. The light is least in the world on that day. But the solstice comes to an end at midnight (tonight/this morning), and the light returns to the world.
Similarly, the light has come into the world. The light is Jesus. Although the people of the world walk in darkness, he is the light. He exposes the darkness of sin. No sin can be found in his light. He also brings to light God’s wonderful plan of salvation. Jesus himself saves us from death and gives us his own gift: eternal life. He has “enlarged the nation.” He has included not just Israel, God’s chosen people, but all who believe in Jesus as the light who takes away the sin of the world. This light that shines in the darkness and brings us to God is God’s own Christmas gift to us.
That gives us joy. A reason to celebrate in the cold, dead winter. We have more joy than those who bring in the harvest, more joy than those who win the war and bring home the spoils. Our joy is the light, that gives us eternal life. Our joy is that at Christmas we don’t celebrate the goodness of the dark world, but the goodness of a great God, who gave us the greatest gift of all: his own Son. Amen.
We have a little over a week to go. Until Christmas? Sure, but I was talking about the shortest day of the year. The day when the sky is darkest because we have less sun than any other day of the year. It’s dark. It’s depressing. The world we live in shows it, too. For the second year in a row, the life expectancy in our country has dropped due to suicides and drug addiction. Maybe the darkness of the times hasn’t escaped you, either. Christmas is a time of year we are supposed to be joyful, but maybe the holiday has you feeling empty and joyless. Can our expectations of what Christmas is supposed to be match reality? God promises he can in his Word as he gives us THE LIGHT OF JOY.
Isaiah wrote to people who would live a couple hundred years after him. The book of Isaiah took people through their present struggles into the future God had in store for them. He would send his people to Babylon. They would suffer, but the LORD promised their suffering would have an end. “Although you have been forsaken and hated, with no one traveling through, I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations.”
Do you ever feel like you’re struggling just to survive? Do you feel like you can’t wait for the New Year to come so it will all be done, and life can return to normal? If, like Charlie Brown, the commercialism and surroundings of the holiday have sucked all the joy out of you, you may begin to understand the suffering Israel had faced. People hated them. Even the surrounding nations knew Israel was a place no one wanted to go. No one wanted to see the ruins of that forsaken country. But God promised he would make his people the pride and joy of all eternity. These words filled the returned exiles with hope. Their grief would come to an end.
But God promised more than just an end to his people’s suffering. He promised them royal treatment. They would drink the milk of the nations and be nursed by royalty! God is not only saying he will end their grief, but he will make them prominent among the nations. Instead of being an afterthought, all the nations will serve them. Foreign countries will provide for the needs of God’s people. But it’s important to notice why.
The darkness of the early nightfall around us, combined with the cold, dead winter world we live in, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. For some, it’s downright depressing. Yet it can serve a good purpose. For those who despise winter, it can help us appreciate the changing seasons. All the busyness of the Christmas season can help us appreciate the special holiday.
God’s people, more than depression or complaints about work and weather, had been humbled on the world scene. Israel had returned from exile, and now they would have good things with a purpose: “Then you will know that I, the LORD am your Savior, your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” God’s people would know, not just in their heads, but by their experience, that the LORD was their God. With each name, God packs something significant about himself. He is Savior, the one who delivers people. This title for God is best known in the name Jesus, the one who saves his people from their sins. But for the exiles when they returned, they would have thought of God as the one who delivered them from captivity in Babylon. God called himself the Redeemer, the one who ransoms or buys his people back so that they continue to exist as his people. He bought them back from slavery in Egypt and now would buy them back from Babylon. He is the Mighty One of Jacob, the one who provides his own strength to help his people. With all these titles, God makes it clear that he wants to have a deep relationship with his people.
Have you started your Christmas shopping? Those who like to stay ahead of things may have already finished, but procrastinators may not have started just yet. Imagine what would happen if the gift you bought changed. Instead of what you purchased, it becomes the present is perfect! That’s what God promises to do for his people. He promises to turn their bronze into gold, their iron to silver, their wood to bronze and their stones to iron. Not only will his people be swimming in wealth, but their life will be unimaginably great! The one who oversees them to make sure things are going smoothly is peace! Instead of the corrupt kings they had before the exile, they would have peace! And their ruler would be righteousness. Everyone was going to do what is right. There was no reason to worry about how the neighbors might react to a gift or respond to a card. Everyone was going to do the right thing.
And if that sounds too much like heaven and too little like 5th-century Israel, it just keeps getting better. There’s no violence, but Israel has had violence since the return to this day. There’s no destruction, no need for gates. Instead, they’ll just have salvation and praise. And the sun, moon and stars no longer give their light because God is there to provide his light. These were the things God promised Israel when they returned. They are the things he promises to his Church. But then how come we don’t see them.
Our expectations often differ from reality. Christmas gifts provide a fine example. Set too high—or low—an expectation, and we won’t get what we expected. If you expect the winning lottery ticket for your Christmas present, you can expect to be disappointed. Your expectations are set too high.
God set his people’s expectations very high, but were they too high? Or is he here only forecasting heavenly hope without any earthly joy? Israel, when they returned to the Promised Land, experienced a reality that varied some from what God had said. They had their land back, but the nations didn’t flock to pamper them. Instead of wealth, they had work. Instead of peace, they had problems. The expectations God had set didn’t meet reality.
And what about us? God has set the same expectations for his New Testament Church. Does he meet the expectations he set? Maybe this year you find yourself wishing the nations were pampering us, that we had peace in place of our president or goodness instead of our governor? Violence and ruin continue on in the world. We’re no closer to solving that than Israel was. The world outside us grows gloomier and darker, and we, like Israel, cry out for “the days of our sorrow” to end.
Did God set our expectations too high? As long as we remain in the darkness, it seems that way. We cannot see the joy that God has already given us because we see things through the veil of sin. Instead of seeing the great spiritual realities we already have, we grumble and complain against the government we have and forget that God is ruling the nations! We desire wealth and spend our time running after it and fail to see the spiritual riches we have already. We cry for joy in a joyless season and overlook the true cause of our joy. Instead, we cry out to God to give us more. Our expectations of God are high, and rightly so. But when he doesn’t give us exactly what we want, like a spoiled child who didn’t get that precious toy for Christmas, we blame him and miss all he gives us.
God desired a deep relationship with his people. He wanted the people to know in their hearts he is the Savior, the Redeemer, the Mighty One. And he promises that he himself will be our light. That is certainly true of heaven. It doesn’t start there. We already have joy as the Church. When Jesus came into the world, he said he is “the light of the world.” He shined his light into our hearts to awaken us to the tremendous spiritual gifts God has given us.
Jesus gave light to this world by being the Savior, Redeemer, the Mighty One. By bringing peace to his people and bringing praise to his God. Jesus fulfilled every one of God’s promises. He is the pride of Israel. Where Israel failed because of the human condition, Jesus succeeded. He was without sin. Jesus is our joy in this season. He is the cause of a joy that no one can take away from you. The joy of knowing that God cares deeply for you and will not let you be abandoned, even into eternity. Jesus brought the nations into the Church. These promises are not for Israel alone, but also for you and me. He gives his Church blessings from his bounty—not always silver or gold, but gifts of his Spirit. He has brought peace to his Church. The Church still exists 2000 years after Jesus, and it will be here until he comes again. The devil’s attacks cannot disturb her peace. Our rest in Jesus cannot be undone by a restless world. Jesus came to be with his people, to be the light. As light of the world, he overcame the darkness. He gives us his own righteousness, sinless perfection. He is the Savior who delivers us from the kingdom of darkness into his own kingdom. He is the Redeemer who bought us back with his own life. He is the everlasting light that the darkness could not overcome. Instead, he rose triumphant. The light of his life shines forever in this dark world. And because he lives, you too will shine.
And if that seems like to much to remember, it doesn’t stop there! Jesus goes far beyond our expectations. He may not give us exactly what we want now, but that is also a reason to praise him. He gives us what is good. In a world so filled with gloom and death, Jesus gives us the light of joy. Nothing and no one can take that joy away from you, either. It will be yours in heaven, where you will see God. There he will be the light. But even here on earth, he is our light that shines on us. The darkness of the devil and the evil of the world around us cannot undo that.
Don’t let the frenzy of the week to come rob you of your joy. Instead, be a light. Take time to tell someone of your joy this week. Tell them God’s light shows you how blessed you are. Tell them about Jesus, our Savior, Redeemer, and Mighty One, who took away the sin of the world. The days of your sorrow are at an end, but your joy will never end. Don’t keep that joy to yourself! Amen.
Be thankful and joyful at what God has already done
Supply what is lacking
Let your love overflow
Pray God would strengthen your hearts
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. 12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. 13 May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.
It’s that time of year again. People are getting ready. The shopping has begun. Trees are being decorated. Lights are being put up. The world we live in is getting ready for Christmas.
At church, we have begun a new church year, and that means we’re getting ready. We are in the season of Advent—which means “coming.” As the world gets ready to celebrate Christ’s first coming, we are getting ready for Christ’s second coming. How do we get ready? It’s a matter of the heart. PREPARE YOUR HEARTS FOR ADVENT.
Paul wrote his letter to a model congregation in Thessalonica. As our text begins, Paul asks, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” Paul is doubling down with these words. He’s doubling down on his thankfulness. He asks how he can possibly thank God enough in return for what he’s gotten. He’s doubling down on joy. He’s doubling down on God—he thanks God for the joy he has in God’s presence. And he’s doubling down on the church in Thessalonica. He thanks God for them and the joy he has because of them. Paul’s emotions well up into joy and thanks to God for the believers in Thessalonica.
Like Paul, we have a lot to thank God for today. As your pastor, I cannot thank God enough for you and the joy you give me. But more than that, we have many reasons to rejoice in God’s presence: people are hearing God’s Word from our congregation. With God’s blessing, we have plans to bring that Word to new sites. The Verona site has become a model congregation. The Monroe site is still here and growing. Our multi-site congregation is providing an example for others throughout our church body.
The song tells us it’s the “most wonderful time of the year.” The time of year when people are too busy to do anything. People are shopping. They’re baking. They’re decorating. And the job won’t give you a break to get it done, either. Students are studying for exams and preparing their projects. Teachers are in a mad dash to work on grades. Everything outside is cold and dead. There’s shoveling to do, salt to put down, cars to scrape. With so much to prepare, it seems like we never break! The “most wonderful time of year” often seems like “the most stressful time of year.” Yet whether you finish preparing or not, Christmas will come just as fast.
Paul was busy, too. Instead of getting ready to see the relatives for Christmas, he spent his time praying. “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.” Paul had been to Thessalonica before. As he preached there that Jesus had to suffer and die and rise again, many—both Jews and Greeks—came to believe in Jesus as their Savior. But his stay in Thessalonica was cut short. After three weeks, the jealous mob ran him out of town. He had to leave, but he hadn’t finished getting them ready. He longed to come back to them so that he could “supply what was lacking in their faith.”
The Thessalonian Christians, despite being model Christians, had a lot left to learn. Paul never stopped encouraging them to grow. They had faith, but it was uninformed. They knew very little about Christ’s second coming. They needed instruction about what it meant to live pure and holy lives. Yet they didn’t know what they were lacking.
Have you ever had that awkward moment when you realized you forgot to buy a Christmas gift for someone? And, as if to add insult to injury, it’s impossible to find the right gift for them? Even if you remember, whatever you come up with at the last minute won’t be good. With so much going on, it’s easy to forget someone at Christmas time.
Like that forgotten Christmas gift, we are unable to see our spiritual blind spots. That’s not to say that we don’t have faith. There are just certain things we are woefully unaware of. It’s really the same problem the Thessalonians faced. Their faith was lacking, but they didn’t know what it was. So our faith is lacking. Yet we have God’s Word! There he tells us everything we need to know. But there is a sinful nature inside us that takes the amazing gift of God’s Word and turns it into a terrible chore. We don’t always like reading it because it tells us just how great our shortcomings are. When we read it, it kills us. Rather than give our hearts confidence for Advent, it tells us we have fallen fall short of what God expects of us. When we do read the Bible, sometimes we don’t take the time to think about we’re reading. We read a chapter, or a page, and we move on with our day as though what we read makes no difference. Or we don’t understand it. And we’re blind to how it applies to my daily life. With a thousand things to do in the busy season, something has to get dropped. Sometimes God’s Word gets short shrift.
With so much going on, how can we possibly prepare our hearts for Advent—Christ’s second coming, when he will judge the earth? Ignorance will not be an excuse. Neither will laziness, or the long list of other things we had to do. Instead, we go to the Word of God, because there God supplies us with what we lack. There he fills in our blind spots. There we see we are sinners whose failures are worthy of damnation. But there we also learn that God himself prepares our hearts for Advent.
To get ready for Christmas and all it entails, some people make checklists to make sure they have everything ready. Christmas tree decorated? Check. Christmas lights outside? Check. And then there’s the big, long list of people you need to buy gifts for. Sometimes people even make lists of gifts they want to make finding a gift easier.
Jesus filled out God’s checklist for our Advent preparation. He studied the Scripture, not as a chore, but as his delight, because we don’t always. As the God who wrote its very contents, he still took time to learn it, even as a child. He knew how to apply it. When the devil and the people of the world tried to catch him in a trap, he always had an answer. He didn’t get blindsided by something he didn’t see coming. Jesus loved God his Father perfectly. He always did what God required. And he loved all people. Jesus gave his life as the perfect gift, to check off God’s requirements for ready hearts. Jesus did for us what we couldn’t; he checked off the list of everything we need to satisfy God. He’s checked it off for you. Because of Jesus, you are prepared for Advent.
Because he knew the gaps in knowledge the Thessalonians had, Paul couldn’t wait to get to Thessalonica. He launched into a prayer asking God to bring him back to them. And God did, briefly. But Paul wrote two letters to instruct the believers there. He continued to pray for them night and day. His prayer was that God would fill them with his love.
The picture there is God filling us so full of his love that we overflow with it to others. It’s like filling a cup so full of water that it leaks onto the table around it. But you can’t overflow with love if you don’t have any. It doesn’t matter how much scraping and shoveling you do if you don’t have any gas in the tank. Similarly, we don’t rightly love others without the love of God. We learn about God’s love for us in Jesus in the Bible. It’s where God supplies all our needs and fills us with his power for our daily struggles with sin. When we are in God’s Word, faith grows in the love of Jesus. Then our love will overflow to others. Then we can use it to show others God’s love and, like Paul, make others ready for Christ’s second coming by telling them about God’s love for them. Tell them how Christ fulfilled God’s checklist. When we live our lives in the Bible, it informs our prayers.
The goal of Christmas preparation is to be ready for the big celebration. Each year, the day comes and goes. Unlike Christmas celebrations, Christ will only come again once. It won’t be expected, either. The goal of Paul’s prayer for the Thessalonians—and of our prayer for you—is that by being filled with God’s love your hearts would be strengthened, blameless, and pure when Christ comes again. On our own, we are not blameless or holy. We cannot make our own hearts strong. But God does it for us in his Word. Try it out! Read and see the difference God makes in your life. Join our Vine and Branches in the spring and encourage others. Come to Bible study and ask the teacher your questions. Continue coming to hear God’s Word. Make regular use of Word and sacrament. God makes you ready for his coming in it, because there he tells us about what Jesus does for us.
When Jesus comes again, none of our winter or Christmas decorations will matter. Until then, they have some value. They also serve to remind us of greater preparations. Prepare your hearts for Advent. Thank God for all the joy he has given us in this congregation. Thank him that he supplies what we don’t have, most importantly his Son, who meets God’s Advent requirements for us. Thank him for his love that he pours out to us. Pray that he would continue to make that love overflow in your life. He will strengthen your hearts in his Word so that he will find you holy and blameless when Jesus returns with his angels and all his holy people. Continue to study his Word. There God makes you ready. You are prepared for Christ’s Advent. Amen.
I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16 for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. 17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. 18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.
20 To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Count your blessings. It’s a Thanksgiving tradition. Given the holiday’s history, it makes sense that people of our nation would count their blessings every year. That’s because Thanksgiving is a holiday about giving back to the God who gives us everything. As Paul reminds us, GOD MEETS ALL OUR NEEDS.
Paul was writing to the Philippians from prison. Hardly a place most people would thank God to be. Yet Paul continually expresses his joy in this letter. He finds joy in every situation. To put it in our terms, whether he spent Thanksgiving warm and well-fed or hungry and helpless, he knew how to find something to thank God for.
That might not be too different from the first Thanksgiving. The settlers had survived a long voyage to the New World and an even harsher winter. Between sickness and starvation, many of their number lost their lives. With help from the natives, the following year they stored up enough food to survive the coming winter. It wasn’t just the plenty that caused them to celebrate, but the lack they had experienced before.
What about you? Are you experiencing more than you need this Thanksgiving? Or are you just scraping by? What blessings will you count tomorrow? I expect most of us would include common blessings like family and friends, work and rest, would you give thanks for hardship? We might not thank the LORD so much with a burned turkey, a busted refrigerator, or a power outage. Can you, like Paul, thank God from prison for all his goodness to you?
But was Paul really thankful for prison, or was he thankful from prison? After all, what led Paul to give thanks in the text was a gift he received from the Philippians. That’s something we could all give thanks for, isn’t it? But Paul was also thankful for prison. Why? He had learned the secret to being content with whatever he had. He was enduring it all for Christ, who promised to meet all his needs.
On Thanksgiving we often count our blessings. We remember the God who gives far beyond what we have earned our deserved. He puts people in our lives. Many thank God for family and friends. But be honest: if you tried to count all your blessings, you wouldn’t be able to get past the blessings God has given you today. Did you wake up in a bed? With a pillow? And a roof over your head? Four walls to protect you from the cold? If you’re like me, an alarm clock woke you up. Another blessing. And the list goes on from there. God has given us tremendous blessings--far more than we deserve. We often fail to thank him for it. Instead, we complain about the things that go wrong.
The first Thanksgiving set a precedent for the ones that followed. The surviving settlers came together with the natives to enjoy the fruit of the earth. The harvest they had and the game they hunted, while not wealth like we have in the 21st century, were more than they needed. The settlers wanted to celebrate the goodness of the God who provides.
On Thanksgiving, we thank God for everything he has given us. We are all still here. He has met all our needs so far. God meets all our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ. Jesus suffered want to supply our need. Jesus gave thanks to God in every situation, even death on a cross. He endured the cross for our sake. In Jesus, we see just how much God is willing to give to us. He gave us his Son. He gives us all good things with him. If we ever need anything else, we can be confident he will give it to us. He promises to. If it seems like he isn’t, pray! Because of Jesus, God looks on you in love! Demand that he does what he promised. God will not fail you.
Paul was joyful because of what God had given him and the Philippians. He was joyful, too, to see that the Philippians wanted to give to Paul. He gave thanks, not because they gave something so great, but because this fruit of their faith showed Christ’s love was active in them.
Thanksgiving is a day to return our thanks to God who gives us so much. Confident of his promise to provide for you, give back to the God who gives you everything. Make God’s love complete by living the love he has shown you. Use every gift God has given you--your work, your hobbies, your passions, your resources--to live a lifetime of thanksgiving. It’s only right, after all God has given us, to give all we have back to him. He is the one who gave it to us in the first place. Thanks to his love for us in Jesus, we will give thanks to him forever in heaven. But don’t just thank him there. Let your whole life give thanks to the God who supplies all our needs.
Some people count their blessings at Thanksgiving time. It’s a good tradition. But if you count all your blessings, you’d never finish. God has given us that much. He has blessed us, even when it doesn’t seem like blessing to us. He gives us many things to thank him for. Most of all, he has given us Jesus. May your lives bring thanks and glory to the God who supplies all our needs forever. Amen.
Do Not Forget the LORD!
Pastor Andrew Ewings
Pastor Andrew Ewings
Theme: DO NOT FORGET THE LORD.
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. 11Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
What is your Thanksgiving routine? Whether you travel “over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house” or you live at grandmother’s house, there are certain key ingredients to a traditional Thanksgiving. It just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without them. With family, food, and football, fun and festivities, the holiday has a lot to offer. God’s Word adds one key ingredient to the mix today: DO NOT FORGET THE LORD.
We traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving Day with a feast. For some, it’s not Thanksgiving without turkey and mashed potatoes, pie and all the other dishes. And it is certainly appropriate to enjoy the blessings of the country we live in. That’s similar to the situation the Israelites found themselves in when they entered the Promised Land. The LORD gave a fruitful land to his chosen people. He wanted the nations to know that this was his people. They would have more crops than they needed, so Moses reminded the people to remember why.
On Thanksgiving Day, we celebrate the plenty God has given us. As Moses reminded Israel, when we eat and are satisfied, we need to be careful. The blessings God has given us are just that--blessings. But if we don’t take care, they can become a snare for you.
Can that be right? Sure, there’s such a thing as overdoing it on Thanksgiving, but who has ever complained about having too much money? Everyone has a little too much on Thanksgiving. But we’ve worked for it! Haven’t we earned a little break?
Israel quickly fell into spiritual apathy. They began dispossessing the peoples who lived in the land. But they never finished. They became too caught up in their work and the produce that came from it. God gave them vines, and they became more concerned with their grapes and wine than him. God gave them bountiful harvests, and they worried themselves with amassing more wealth. The people quickly forgot the LORD. Instead, they worried themselves with the day-to-day living of their own lives.
Tomorrow our nation celebrates a national day of Thanksgiving. While that is appropriate, why do we have only one day of Thanksgiving to the Creator? Doesn’t our society concern itself more with daily life than with returning thanks to God? And what about you and me? Even the poor in our country have tremendous wealth compared to the poor of the world! Like in Israel, money, work, success, and pleasure--blessings from God--quickly take over our lives. The human condition is so evil that we can take blessings from our Creator and make them into a curse!
Moses warned the people against doing so, but their children’s hearts were turned away. Moses’ warning served not just as a reminder of what to do, but who God is. He told the people not to forget the LORD who brought them out of slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness. The LORD brought them into the Promised Land. God gave them every good thing.
That’s because that’s at the heart of God. He gives to his children. On Thanksgiving, we remember the many blessings God has given us. DON’T FORGET THE LORD , and what he gives, but also don’t forget what he does.
Thanksgiving is a holiday typically celebrated with family. God had adopted Israel as his family. They didn’t listen to him, so he sent what was dearest to him--his own Son--to take the curse his people had earned for themselves, the curse we have earned for ourselves. Jesus died to take you out of the slavery of sin and ensure you have a home in heaven. In love, God still provides for you as his dear children.
Jesus took the curse so that we would receive every blessing from God. As long as you remain in Jesus, the blessings of God remain blessings. Listen to Moses’ warning. Don’t forget the LORD. That is the key ingredient in giving thanks to the God who gave us his Son.
Whatever your routine on Thanksgiving is, remember what God has done for you. Celebrate family! Family is a great blessing when placed where it belongs. DON’T FORGET THE LORD, who brought you into his family. That’s the key ingredient for Thanksgiving.
Yes, you can celebrate with food, too. No, pastor isn’t giving you permission to overdo it. But celebrate the tremendous blessing the LORD has given to you, to your family, to our country. Make sure your celebration doesn’t exclude him. He is the key ingredient. Amen.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his own blood and made us a kingdom and priests to God his Father—to him be the glory and the power forever. Amen. (Revelation 1:5–6)
Then I saw another angel flying in the middle of the sky. He had the everlasting gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth, to every nation, tribe, language, and people. 7 He said with a loud voice:
Fear God and give him glory,
because the hour of his judgment has come.
Worship him who made the sky, the earth, the sea, and the springs of water.
It’s depicted as a comic battle as old as the world itself. Battle lines are drawn up. Weapons at the ready. On one side, the forces of good with their hero. On the other, the forces of evil and their champions. The fate of the universe hangs on the onslaught that ensues. Sound familiar? It could easily be the plot of any novel or movie. The conflict between heavenly forces and the devil’s army is the story of the Bible and the history of the world. That warfare forms the background of the tapestry that is the book of Revelation. The picture painted there is a conquering king—Jesus—and the rest he wins for his people.
Today we remember one small part of that cosmic battle. The Reformation 500 years ago had the same purpose as the angel in our text. THE GOSPEL IS PROCLAIMED.
As we look at the tapestry of Revelation, we see a scene change. After the book pictures heaven, a messenger comes with a message for all people of all time. A winged messenger occupies the middle of the sky so everyone can see him and hear his message. The message he proclaims was first heard in the Garden of Eden, right after the devil declared war on God and mankind. God returned the declaration of war with war on the devil to rescue mankind from his clutches. That everlasting message—the gospel—has been in the world ever since. The gospel defeats the devil and his forces. But the devil will not concede defeat.
The angel, which means messenger, proclaims this message to every people and nation and tribe and language. Because of the message he proclaims, he encourages us today, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come.” But why should we be afraid of God?
In 15th-century Germany, a monk lived in constant fear of God. His terror at God’s judgment fueled all he did. Martin Luther understood. God demands glory from us. As we say in worship, God created us to love and serve him as his dear children. God has every right to demand glory and praise from us. That’s what he created us for. The problem is, we don’t.
Martin Luther knew he couldn’t all too well. It led to terror and despair. And he was right to do so. The Lord Jesus himself tells us not to fear those who can kill the body, but the one who can kill both body and soul in hell. That’s not the devil, but God, who will judge all. Those who are lacking will suffer an eternity in hell. God’s judgment is just. Every person must face it.
In Luther’s day, the devil used one of his weapons to obscure the truth and drive people to despair. Rather than proclaiming the eternal gospel, the church was running after wealth and the things of this world.
But is our day any different? In our nation, the church is more concerned with getting people to behave than telling them what God does, as though that were boring or uninteresting. Plenty of churches run after wealth or worry about survival rather than proclaiming the everlasting gospel. Our nation views this message for all nations as something for an individual to decide. And then there are the who have turned their back on the everlasting gospel as outdated or foolish!
If you think you’ve escaped those ways of this world, think again. Are the people of the world glorifying God because of your testimony? Or do you, like the world, go after wealth, pleasure, a promotion at work—your own glory, earthly concerns? How many spiritual conversations are we really engaging in? Are people using the name of Jesus as a curse word instead of giving God glory? Do you make the most of every opportunity to tell others this message? God demands glory from all people. As his people, we ought to be leading the charge. All too often, we bring him dishonor, shame, and even blame rather than glory.
That is exactly the state of things when this messenger, the angel, comes to proclaim the everlasting gospel.
Today we remember Martin Luther, a messenger from God. Through study of the Scripture, he rediscovered the everlasting gospel. In a tower in Germany, he finally came to understand the fear of God.
Children, when they are young, often do what is right because they know mom or dad will discipline them if they don’t. As they grow older, they come to understand how much their parents love them. Over time, their motivation changes from fear of punishment to trust and love for their parents.
In the same way, Luther came to grasp true fear of God: not terror at God’s righteous judgment, but awe-filled reverence at the God who loves us. The gospel transformed his life. His fear turned to faith in God’s promises. That is the message he proclaimed: the same everlasting gospel the angel proclaims in our text. The good news about Jesus Christ is a message for all times. Luther proclaimed it 500 years ago. We are heirs of his reform.
But someone will say the world has changed a lot in 500 years. People say the gospel is outdated. The good news is old news. Even church fathers said, “The church must always be reformed.” Does that mean we, and the message we preach, have to change with times?
Now that the gospel message has gone out, the battle of good and evil has not ceased. The devil, constantly on the attack, seeks to undermine the gospel we proclaim. People in our day attack it as nonsensical. And what we believe truly defies logic. But what human reason cannot comprehend, faith grasps.
The ancient, cosmic war continues into our day. But in that war one battle needs to be highlighted, because it is the same scene the angel in the middle of the sky so urgently proclaims. In this war, no one was able to challenge the devil. You and I could do nothing. We were just as likely to give up and join his side. As Luther put it, “With might of ours could naught be done.” The devil, the world, our sinful flesh, false religion—the enemies of God’s Church, certainly looked like they had the upper hand. And then it happened. The champion of the forces of good enters the fray. “For us fights the valiant one.” An angel announced his coming to Mary. An angel choir sang to shepherds, heralding his birth. He challenged the sin, death, and the devil to combat. Because he knew we couldn’t prevail in this struggle, he fought himself. On the battlefield, he died. The Lamb of God was slain. That apparent defeat dealt a crushing blow to our enemy. There Jesus won the war. An angel announced his resurrection, his victory. This is the everlasting gospel—a timeless truth. What we could not do, Jesus died to do for us.
So do we need to change with the times? The change that must happen—the reformation that is always necessary—is not the message we proclaim. No, like the angel, like Luther, we proclaim the everlasting gospel. It is the good news of Jesus’ victory. The reform that is necessary is when that message makes contact with the human heart. Then, like Luther, our fear of God turns from terror of God’s judgment to faith in Jesus’ deliverance. He saved us from our enemies. They “can harm us none.” God’s judgment is still being poured out—but not on us. He judges his enemies. As Luther put it, “One little word can fell him.”
That word is the gospel message. The eternal gospel that has gone out since the fall. Saved by God’s underserved love, we are able to bring God glory by proclaiming the gospel. That’s why we worship. We gather today—and every Sunday—to proclaim the eternal gospel to one another. By grace alone, Jesus has brought us into God’s kingdom.
That’s the message Luther proclaimed. In a time when few were educated and even fewer could afford the Bible, Luther used the tools available to him to unsheathe God’s weapon: the gospel. With the printing press, he made God’s Word accessible to the common people. He used the language of the common people to communicate God’s Word to them. Luther continued the fight with the gospel message. That message is still going out today.
This everlasting gospel is not just a message for all time. It’s a message for all people. The gospel made its way across the sea to us in the United States. That message is still on the rise. God’s Church is growing as the devil’s attacks are thwarted with the Word of God. Tens of thousands of believers in Vietnam have joined us in the fight as we build a school to train men to proclaim the gospel there. More have joined us from Ethiopia. By God’s grace, we are poised to strike in Sudan, Kenya, Liberia, and many more countries in Africa. The Church will not rest until the gospel is proclaimed to every language of every nation.
But what does that mean for us here? The battle lines don’t stop in those countries. Christians throughout the world heed the gospel’s call. They proclaim the good news of Jesus, who gave his life to save us. But there are thousands who live in our own communities who need to hear the everlasting gospel. Satan may have lost, but he will not give up. Armed with the gospel, you can defeat any attack he has. Jesus has destroyed his power. Bring the good news beyond enemy lines while there is still time. Use every tool available to you to make the gospel clear to the people around you. If your skill is talking, use your words to bring people to Jesus. If it is serving, love others with the love the Lord has showed you. Make the most of your service so you can tell others about the love of God in Christ. Use your time, talents, treasures—every resource—to proclaim the gospel. If you don’t know how you can serve, pray and ask! Pray for opportunities and for God to open doors. God is faithful. He will do it.
Bring people to the God who created and redeemed them. God’s judgment will come soon. But the devil is already judged. Jesus has handed down our verdict, too. Jesus has conquered our sins. Tell others about him. Bring them to a right fear of God—not fear of punishment, but loving trust in his forgiveness.
The battle rages on, and it will until the end of the world. The end will come when every last soul who will believe comes to faith in Jesus. Hasten his coming. Take up your weapon. The everlasting gospel will not be silenced. Because of God’s love for us, we will continue to proclaim it in heaven with him. Bring that message to every person, every nation. God will be with you because the gospel is his power to save the world. Proclaim it. Amen.
Now to him who is able to strengthen you—according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, . . . to God, who alone is wise, be glory forever through Jesus Christ. Amen. (Romans 16:25a, 27)
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”
29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.
Around age two or three, children get a terrible case of the “whys.” Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to take a nap? Why can’t you play with me now? Why? Why? Why?! Little children are constantly asking why. Have you ever stopped to think “why” they do that? There’s a good reason. Children learn more about the world around them by asking questions.
In our text for today a young man came to Jesus with a question. Not why, but what. He brought an urgent, earnest request to Jesus. In fact, his question was one of LIFE’S MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS. His question and the questions that follow are questions each person must answer. Thankfully, Jesus gives us those answers.
Jesus was leaving the Judean countryside to get to his final destination. Jerusalem. As he left, a man came running up. He had a question so important, it couldn’t wait. The man needed to know the answer. He fell on his knees, recognizing Jesus as a man of God. “Good teacher,” he says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man’s question was: what do I have to do to get to heaven?
How would you answer the man? Many might say: “Nothing—just believe in Jesus.” But not Jesus. He knew exactly what this man needed to hear.
First Jesus raises another issue. “Why do you call me good?” he asks. Few people doubt Jesus’ teaching credentials, even today. But in our times of things being either “the best” or “the worst,” we miss out on something. “No one is good except God alone,” Jesus says. In other words, Jesus asks his own question: what is good?
Do you ever stop to consider what “good” actually is? We use the word to slap approval on something. We often muddle it. “It’s pretty good,” we say. We mean it has room for improvement. It’s good, not great. But what is good? Good is the absence of evil. Good is when no flaw is present. Nothing bad. Complete and total excellence.
So when Jesus says no one is good except God, he’s saying no one is perfect. Only God is. But wait a second—don’t we say Jesus is God? So why doesn’t Jesus just accept “good” with his title and move on?
Jesus doesn’t ask questions for his own benefit. He already knows the answer. This question is for the man to ponder. Jesus moves on: Keep the commandments, he says. Don’t murder. Don’t make marriage dirty. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Honor your parents. Do you see what Jesus is saying here? Jesus tells the man: “be good.”
Most Americans today think that way. Many believe in heaven. But ask them how you get there, and they will give you mixed results. Perhaps the most common answer people give is that they are going to heaven because they are “good.” The problem with that? Jesus already said only God is good.
The man in our text thought the opposite, though. “I’ve been good. I’ve done all that since I was a kid.” Maybe he wanted something to do something great, not just good. This man’s confidence is like a child riding on a cross-country trip. Right at the start he asks, “Are we there yet?” confident they must be close. In reality, they’ve only just left town.
Jesus looked at this man with his urgent, earnest question. The most important question that has ever been asked. And Jesus loved him with a love that sacrifices personal needs for the good of another. With that love, Jesus reaches out to the man and…breaks his heart to pieces. “If you want to do something good enough to inherit eternal life, you only need to do one more thing. Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and leave your old life. Instead, follow me. Become my disciple. Share in my struggles; you’ll also gain everything I can give you.”
The man went away crushed. He had come confident he could do anything to make God happy. So Jesus gave him one thing. Just the one thing he wasn’t willing to do. The man’s problem was the commandment Jesus skipped, the very first: you shall have no other gods. The man’s trust wasn’t in God, but in his own ability to make God happy. It’s in his question: What must I do?
Some people think God should let everyone in to heaven. God is good, and if he’s good, won’t he just love everybody and give us all a free pass? Bothe Jesus and the Bible say the opposite. Jesus loved this man with the deepest kind of love the world could ever see. In love he showed the man his error. Love doesn’t just accept people for what they are. Love tells the truth. This time, the truth broke the man’s heart.
What does that mean for us? Maybe you don’t, like that man, have great wealth. But unless you know what it’s like to live out on the streets, or what it’s like to wonder if you’re going to eat today, I would say most of us are doing fairly well. Do you trust in your wealth? Here’s a test: If you gave up every dime you have today, would you survive? Have you left your money to follow Jesus?
Maybe you don’t trust in money. But the same Jesus who saw the idol in the rich man’s heart can see through you. Have you left everything to follow Jesus? Family? Friends? The comforts of home? Maybe your idol is your own reputation. Whether it’s success, screen, or self, the human heart is an idol factory. When Jesus unravels the ugly facade we’ve put on and points out how utterly incapable we are of doing good, we are forced to admit we aren’t good. We aren’t God. We are, like that man, hopeless,.
That’s the right place to be. Twice Jesus says it’s hard for rich people to get into heaven. Fitting a camel through the eye of a needle is easier than getting wealthy people on God’s good side.
Like now, the rich were considered the “winners,” the influential, blessed by God. Shocked, the disciples ask another of LIFE’S GREATEST QUESTIONS. Who can be saved? If even the great people of the world can’t get into heaven, who can? Jesus answers, You can’t. People can’t. It’s impossible for man to get on God’s good side. I cannot, by my own reason or strength, come to Jesus Christ as Lord. We have nothing to offer him. If we give everything we have to him, it already belongs to God. We can do nothing to contribute to our salvation.
But Jesus’ answer still matters. How do you get to heaven? It’s impossible for people, but not for God. God can do all things. So where does that leave us?
Think through the account again. Jesus asked the rich man why he called him good. He looked at him and loved him. In a look, in a question, Jesus gave him—and us—what we need. “Come, follow me,” he said. Be my disciple. Follow my way. I will give you all the good that is coming to me.
Jesus didn’t deny he was good. He raised the issue so we would think. What man can’t do, God can. And God is good. The good teacher set out on his way to do it. Remember, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He had already come a long way. He had left everything behind—his Father in heaven, his earthly family, people’s admiration, much more—to follow God’s will. He moved on to certain death—to make the impossible possible.
On his way, he took time to answer the question of a self-righteous man. He looked at and loved a man who had all sorts of wrong ideas about who he was and what he could do. That same Savior looks on you and loves you. He loves you when you’ve got all the wrong ideas, and he loves you when you give up everything to follow him.
Children ask their parents how much they love them. It’s a game. Parents stretch out their arms to an extent the children can’t reach. “I love you this much,” they say. With that same love, Jesus stretched out his arms to say, “I love you more than life itself.” He gave up his life to save you. The good God made the unsaved saved, loved the unlovable, did the impossible. He died on a cross for mankind’s evil, because he is good. He defeated evil. He did one more impossible thing: he rose from the dead.
He did it to put you back on God’s good side. That’s the answer to LIFE’S MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS. How do you get to heaven? Only by the love of God through Jesus, who earned what we couldn’t. Who can go to heaven? Only those who have given up any notion of garnering favor with God. God will never turn away those who in desperation turn to him, begging he do the impossible: save you. By his grace, he did. He creates faith in you to trust his promise. Those who trust in Jesus as Savior can be sure. You have eternal life because it doesn’t depend on you, but on the good God who can do all things.
But what does that mean for us now? That’s what Peter, who had left everything to follow Christ, asked. What do I get for following Jesus?
Jesus doesn’t say, Come on, Peter, you’re already getting eternal life in paradise; what more could you want? No, Jesus says you’ll get more than you could imagine. Those who abandon their idols and cast away the things nearest to them because they trust in Jesus as Savior will receive more than they’ve asked for. You’ll gain more than you ever lost. Houses, fields, brothers, sisters. So is Jesus affirming our materialistic world that says the guy with the most stuff wins? Hardly. All those things, “along with persecutions,” he says. You good things and bad. But the good God will make the bad things good. He’s in the business of making impossible things possible. He will give you enough good things so you don’t become discouraged and lose your way. But he’ll also send you enough trouble to keep you from thinking you can handle everything yourself. He will make sure you cling to him, so you don’t forget that this world isn’t all there is. Even now, your salvation depends on God.
Children are always asking questions. Even if it annoys mom and dad, it’s good for them. That’s the way they learn. God never grows tired of our questions. So ask him. More importantly, make sure you know the answer to life’s most important questions. How do you get to heaven? Only through the work of Jesus, who loves us. Who gets to go to heaven? Those who trust in him as their Savior. What do we get for following him? Both good and bad, that God will use for our good. He will preserve you until the end.
What is marriage? Companionship, completion, clinging, Christ.
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.
Picture this: Christians live in a perfect world. They have everything they ever need or want. Those who confess faith in Christ never go hungry. Instead, they all have their dream jobs making more money than they need. Everyone who believes in Jesus as Savior owns a big house, drives a brand new car, and enough free time on their hands to enjoy them with their loved ones. Believers have the best health care coverage in the world for the best price. In fact, they never die.
Can you envision a world where everything goes right for God’s people? Most of us probably could, even if only in our wildest daydreams. We might even imagine the whole world would convert to faith in Jesus rather rapidly in a world like that. But the reality we face is a world filled with suffering. We see heartbreaking divorces. Parents burying their children. Cancer in remission. The list goes on. We might wish to see a distinction between believers and unbelievers, but the truth is Christians suffer just as much as others. With so much suffering, especially when believing in God seemingly makes no difference, WHY FOLLOW CHRIST? That’s what we consider as we hear God’s word today.
In the last year of Jesus’ ministry, as the end approaches, he wants to make sure his followers understand who he is. So he springs a pop quiz on them. Just two questions. One: who do the masses say I am? Their answer: John the Baptist or Elijah or a prophet. Some thought Jesus was John brought back from the dead. Others thought he was Elijah returned as the prophet Malachi had predicted. Still others thought him a good man in the tradition of the prophets.
People still think that today. No, they don’t say Jesus is John or Elijah. But they still think he was a good man, maybe even a man who spoke from God. Every year someone covers a “search for the historical Jesus.” To save you the time of looking into all of them, they always find the “real Jesus” is at odds with what we read in the Bible. They interview scholars. Some say Jesus was merely myth. Others say he was a political figure. Others say a teacher of good things. With the experts split on who Jesus was, WHY FOLLOW CHRIST?
That’s where Jesus’ second question to the disciples comes in. “What about you?” he turns to them. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answers for them all. “You are the Messiah.” “You are the Christ.” “You are God’s anointed, fully God, fully man. You are the one God promised would come.”
There’s an answer. WHY FOLLOW CHRIST? Because of who he is. Along with Peter, we confess Jesus is the Messiah. He is God and man. He rules the universe as our compassionate brother who took on flesh and blood. He is the one the Scripture points to. All the hopes and dreams of God’s people ride on him. But what does the Christ do?
Jesus warned his disciples not to tell others until the time was right, so that he could complete his mission. The mission was this: the Son of Man must suffer. He must be rejected. He must be killed. And he must rise again. But if even God has to suffer, has to die—WHY FOLLOW CHRIST?
Peter didn’t like Jesus’ news one bit. Here before him was the one who was going to deliver God’s people from their oppression. He was staring at the end of human suffering. In all his dreams, Jesus restored God’s kingdom—paradise on earth. So how can Jesus say hemust suffer? Peter rebuked Jesus for talking such nonsense.
Which of us hasn’t dreamed of a better world where our problems are gone? When you see an alternative to pain or misery or loneliness, don’t you take it? I don’t hear many people praying for 10 years of dementia when they could be praying for 10 healthy years instead. That just opens the bag to all sorts of questions. Where is God when I’m struggling to make ends meet? Where is God when all my friends have left me alone? Where is God when I struggle to do what’s right and end up jobless while the godless advance? He’s got to fix it! Like Peter, we are quick to tell God that we have a better plan. It’s a lot easier to follow our own advice than the teachings of Christ!
Of course, those are the devil’s plans. It comes through in Peter’s voice: “Oh, Jesus, just stay on earth a little longer. Set up a kingdom! Think how glorious it would be! All the people would acknowledge you,” he says. But Jesus rebukes him. “Get behind me, Satan.” Those aren’t God’s plans. They’re human. And they’re wrong.
Instead, God’s plan was what the Scripture said all along. Christ came to suffer and die. He didn’t come to rid the world of suffering, but to take its suffering on himself. He knew the schemes of the devil that make us look for glory. He resisted temptation. Instead, he did what was necessary. “The Son of Man must.” Why? Because God determined in eternity that this was the way he would save his world. A world filled with suffering that results from sin. He was, is, the promised Messiah who delivered all people. As he revealed to his disciples, he would die on a cross.
So WHY FOLLOW CHRIST? Why follow a man who died the cruelest of deaths? The most painful, the most humiliating? Because of what he does. He bore the cross for you. He suffered for our sins. Took our punishment. Died our death. He experienced our hell on the cross, not so we would feel sorry for him, but because he loves you. He’s God. He bore it as only he could. And irony of ironies, that day he was too bruised and bloody to even carry the cross. Someone had to carry it for him. So he could die for you and me and Simon. And also rise again. His resurrection guarantees this story—and our story—does not end in death.
But that’s not the reality we’re faced with. If Jesus suffered to take away all suffering, to save the world from death, why do we still have to deal with such terrible offenses as child abuse? Why do we still bury grandma and grandpa, mom and dad? If Christ didn’t resolve it, WHY FOLLOW HIM?
To that Jesus answers, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.” That’s tough. Give up my plans when they fly in the face of God. End my efforts to do what seems best to me but is contrary to what God says. If Jesus stopped with this, it would already be too hard. But he goes on. “Let him take up his cross,” Christ says. And we groan, “Great, even more suffering! Suffering because of Jesus and his gospel? Why, God, why?”
Friend, when your cross seems monumental, when you’re ready to drop it and run—for the times when you can’t pick up your cross, consider what Christ does for you. He followed God’s plan of greatest suffering, dying on a cross. He faced rejection by God and all people so that God would never reject you. Jesus knows your suffering. He won’t ignore it. Instead, he comes to you. He comes to us in the waters of baptism, promising that we share in his death and will certainly share in his resurrection. He comes to us in bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins. He comes to us on the pages of his book.
In light of what he’s done for you, is it too much to ask you to share, for this short life, in his sufferings? Shouldn’t we rather rejoice that God allows us to suffer because we bear his name—Christian, a follower of Christ? Thank God when others call you a fool for believing in Christ! Praise God when the world hates your outdated views on an ancient book! Give thanks that you suffer. WHY FOLLOW HIM? Because he has made you his follower. He knows your troubles. He won’t leave you alone in them. He promises he will make it right.
In a world so filled with problems, WHY FOLLOW CHRIST when we could think of so many better options? He is the only way to eternal life, and he won’t abandon us in this one. Follow Christ because of who he is, what he has done, and who he has made you to be. Take up your cross, and follow him!
Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. 2 Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you. 6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” 7 What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? 8 And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? 9 Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.
It’s that time of year again. If children haven’t already gone back to school, they will be back in school shortly. And why? Why do we send children off to school? They have lots to learn—life skills, life lessons. The ability to read and do simple math problems are important in our fast-paced culture. History and social studies provide much-needed perspective on the world we live in. And there are many more lessons to learn. Whether we prepare students for further studies, for the work force, or just to be responsible citizens, a good education can go a long way in shaping the youth of our nation. But our learning is never done.
It’s the same here. We never finish learning this side of heaven. We’re gearing up at Resurrection for the school year, too. Sunday school and confirmation class seek to give children the necessary backdrop from which to continue to learn the important truths of God’s Word. Bible study puts us in contact with the Word of God as we grow closer to him. In God’s Word today, we see Moses encourage God’s people to learn God’s Word and take it to heart. He also impresses on them the importance of passing it on. Like Moses urged the people, REMEMBER WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED. Keep learning what God has done for you, and teach others about the LORD.
Moses lead Israel for about 40 years. He taught them the things God told him. God called them away from Mt. Sinai after Moses received the Law from God. After the LORD delivered them from slavery in Egypt and miraculously provided for them in the desert, the people cowered in fear when they saw the giants living in the promised land. They rebelled against the LORD; the people were forced to wander 40 years in the desert. Even Moses sinned and was not be permitted to enter the land. Still, the LORD was good to his people. He delivered their enemies into their hands. He brought them to the other side of the Jordan. Now Moses gave his last great lesson to Israel.
Educators know, “Repetition is the mother of learning.” Moses knew that, too. He repeated the law of the LORD before the people. He begins in our text with an urgent plea to listen. “Hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.” Moses made it clear why the Israelites were receiving the land. It wasn’t because they were the best theology students, or because their nation was better than any other. The LORD gave it to them. That was to be their motivation for following the laws Moses taught them—the promise the LORD had made to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The best teachers don’t just know the material they teach. They know how to ignite a passion for learning, to motivate students to learn. So what is our motivation to learn from the LORD? Like Israel, our motivation is the promise given to Abraham. Not the promise of the promised land, but that all nations would be blessed through him. That is God’s promise to us.
People forget a lot of what they learn in school. Students retain a fraction of what they learn from year to year. But even that is enough to remember addition and subtraction. But Moses told Israel they didn’t need to perform such simple operations with God’s Word.. “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.” The people weren’t to add to the commands of the LORD. Or take away from them. Why? Because God was the one who gave them. They were good, like everything that comes from the LORD. He knows how to make good things. What’s more, the people would show their wisdom by obeying the LORD. Their job was to make God look good by living his law to the world—a law that was itself flawless and good. God was making them look good by giving them this law.
God’s law is so good that if everyone kept it all the time, the world would be a perfect place. If everyone loved God and their neighbor the way God intended, there would be no need for any other laws. So why don’t we see that?
A good teacher sets up the student to succeed. The LORD set Israel up for success. He gave them the proper motivation. He gave them a perfect law. But REMEMBER WHAT YOU LEARNED in Sunday school. The people crossed the Jordan River and defeated their enemies. Except when they failed to listen to God. The people turned away from the LORD. When it got bad, they cried out for help again. The LORD delivered them, but they went right back to doing the terrible things the law forbade. Sure, they had moments of greatness, in days of kings like David and Solomon, Hezekiah and Josiah. Faithful men like Elijah and Elisha still pointed people back to God. Humble women like Ruth and Esther still quietly trusted in the LORD. But the nation abandoned the LORD. They forgot his law. Didn’t care what God said. Ignored the prophets who pleaded with them. Ignored the Word of God. Even in Jesus’ day, they added their own customs to God’s Word. But they subtracted the love—the motivation behind it all.
So is there a problem with the law? NO! So what’s the problem? Human nature adds what I feel to the Word of God. Human nature adds science because it’s reasonable. It adds the tradition of the Church, because how else can we know for sure that we’ve got it right? Human nature adds my experience, because that’s my truth. But it doesn’t just add. It subtracts. Human nature subtracts all the little parts that point out what I’ve done wrong. All the things I don’t like. Sure, we’re okay when others hear the good law of God. But don’t let it point at me! The law always accuses us, because we omit— intentionally or by forgetting—what we don’t like.
People strive to make the world a better place without the Word of God. They inevitably fail. That’s human history. Since the beginning, people have been taking the Word of God and wrecking it. Ever since Adam botched the world we live in, his descendants have followed. And the Church, instead of bringing glory to God as his beautiful bride who keeps his commandments, has tarnished his reputation in the world. If God gave us a grade, it would have to be a complete failure.
The best teachers aren’t the ones who take the job because the hours are good or because they get a long summer holiday. The best teachers love their students. They want to see their students do well. They do all they can to help the student learn.
God knows that we can’t learn how to follow his law perfectly. He knows that on our own, we will never do anything more than fail. So did something no one else could. He came near. As Moses reminded Israel, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” There is no God who came near his people like the LORD did for us. Far more than any love of a teacher, he sent his Son to earth to be the Teacher. The one who taught he is the way to eternal life. He fulfilled the law we could never keep. He never added or subtracted from the Word. He brought God glory by always doing his will. He never once forgot a Word God spoke. He didn’t leave anything undone. Fulfilled God’s promises. Never broke a law. Always loved God and neighbor. For you. He earned the perfect grade for you. What the law was unable to do because human nature opposes it, he did. Because he is God. He took what people wrecked and made it good again. And he did it for you! His perfect score is yours!
When students finish a year or a semester in school, they move on to other classes and other teachers. Eventually, they graduate and don’t have to take classes anymore. But we don’t graduate from learning God’s Word. As Moses warned the people so long ago, this Word of God is spiritual life. It’s your eternal security. It’s your free pass to life with him. That’s what you’ve learned. Remember it.
But also use it! When students enter the work force, they struggle to apply equations and arts and sciences in an everyday setting. God’s Word still applies to our lives. It still has lots to say to us—not just for eternity, but also for our lives right now. But if it remains on the shelf until next Sunday, it remains a cold and lifeless book. Open it up! Watch God’s power work in your life.
And then also teach it. Moses exhorted the people, "Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”
Teachers go to school for years to learn their trade. But you already have the knowledge you need to teach others about Jesus. It’s the same message you learned in Sunday school. It’s the God who came down to earth to save his creation. Remember what you’ve learned. It’s really as simple as telling your children the things you’ve seen—observing what God has done for you in your life. Teach his love. Tell others all our God has done for us! That’s our motivation for keeping his Word, and for observing his law. That’s why we want to do what God says—because he is good. He is near in Jesus.
School starts soon. Some students love it. Others may dislike it. But we have something far more important than the lessons we learned in math, science, and social studies. REMEMBER WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED. It’s not how we can make the world better through education. It’s how Jesus came to the world to give us his perfect record. Learn about him. Learn the Word of God. And then teach it to others. Amen.