7th Sunday of Easter – A LSB #525:1, 3-5
Text – John 17:3
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, & Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
THIS IS ETERNAL LIFE
Two weeks ago, during one of the beautiful spring days we’ve had, I was walking along the fence line near our home. At several spots along the way there are lilac bushes growing & they were in full bloom. I decided to smell one of the blooms & that fragrance, combined with the warm spring sunshine, brought back a powerful memory from my childhood days.
I was taken back immediately to the yard of the farmhouse where my grandmother lived. There were lilac bushes growing around the front porch of her home. I used to play there by climbing the trees in the front yard on nice sunny days. So I have memories of spring time that are tightly connected to the aroma of those blossoming lilacs.
My fond recollection of those times include a carefree life in an almost paradise like condition. Sunshine warming my skin with the smell of lilac blossoms on a gentle breeze. I have no idea why it’s blooming lilacs instead of tulips or dandelions, but the memory was unmistakable the moment I tasted the scent of those blossoms just a couple weeks ago.
Maybe you have memories like that as well of times in your life that seemed to be paradise. Can you picture the place in your mind? Can you feel the surrounding walls or scenery? Maybe you hear voices & other sounds that bring those memories to living color.
The reading from the Gospel of John this morning gives us a picture of Paradise. As Jesus prays to His heavenly Father, He says, “And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, & Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3 ESV) When you think of paradise is it palm trees that come to mind in bright sunshine with a comfortable breeze coming in off the ocean? Jesus says that knowing God is eternal life because that relationship is the only remedy for what makes all of our current world a lot less, much less, than paradise! And yet, people the world over are searching for paradise in all the wrong places. For your benefit, it will do you well to consider where you have been searching.
As Christians, we’ve been taught not to value the things of this world too highly, where moth & rust destroy. Yet, is it really as easy as we pretend to keep our main focus on the things above? You’ve never thought how nice it would be to spend the winter in Florida or Arizona? You’ve never set your hopes on a fulfilling marriage or career?
I know a bunch of us follow the Spartans & a few of you follow that Maize & Blue team. I’m going to guess that Americans spend ten hours following their favorite sporting teams for every one hour they spend getting to know the only true God. How does that square with Jesus’ definition of eternal life? Where have you been searching for paradise?
So let’s do a 180 right now, & completely turn the search on its head. Think about this question instead, “Where would you guess is the absolutely most unlikely place that anyone could ever find paradise?” Hell would be an obvious answer, but, by God’s design, it can’t be the place. I’d throw out life on a submarine. If you’ve seen combat you might say, “War.”
Here’s a clue, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Do you remember those words? Do you recall where they were spoken? Who was on the receiving end of that gift & that promise? Yes, on that very day, one of the criminals who were hanged with Jesus found paradise in the absolutely most unlikely place – while dying on a cross.
Yet, not long before, he too was insulting Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew tells us: “…the chief priests, the teachers of the law & the elders mocked [Jesus]… In the same way the robbers who were crucified with Him also heaped insults on Him.” (27:41, 43 NIV) Something changed for one of those criminals, as he was dying on that cross, & he came into possession of eternal life because of it. It wasn’t obvious to him at the beginning, yet was clear as a bell by the end of his suffering & his death. You may recall another man for whom it wasn’t so obvious. St. Matthew recorded this conversation after Jesus predicted that He would suffer & die:
“And Peter took Him aside & began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But [Jesus] turned & said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Matthew 16:22-23 ESV)
On the cross, in the most brutal suffering of his life, the criminal found paradise. What changed, from the beginning to end of the crucifixion, is that he came to know the only true God. He came to that relationship through Jesus Christ whom God the Father sent in the flesh. This Jesus was not some abstract warm & fuzzy ideal, but a suffering & dying human being.
Probably not your idea of a good place to find paradise or eternal life. As noted earlier, St. Peter would have agreed with you. Yet there, on the cross, the criminal hanging next to Jesus finally saw the Truth & the Way & the Life. “Today,” Jesus explained, “you will be with me forever.” The Son of God offered the criminal eternal life, & he took it gladly.
Knowing the only true God is eternal life. It is paradise, & since you already claim to have it, your task now is helping others get to know the same, only true God. Here’s an example from one of Jan’s friends in St. Petersburg, Russia. Sasha writes in his newsletter:
“Twice a month on Saturday we meet early in the morning for prayer & accountability, where we pray for the nonbelievers we’re in touch with. There are usually 6-9 people at each meeting, people who are eager to make disciples. I am praying for unbelieving men, that God would give me the opportunity to speak with them, & He is answering these prayers. In the last month, I’ve had 3 meetings with men who are no believers. I would like to tell you about one of these meetings. I met this man at our son’s soccer practice. When he found out I was a believer he often asked me about different religious sects & told scary stories about how these cults take away people’s money & apartments, hinting that I was one of them.
“Time passed, our relationship continued & his opinion of me changed – I even became for him, ‘An expert on cults.’ When his friends started going to various groups he would ask me about this or that church. Then his son transferred to another soccer team but I continued to keep up the relationship with him through regular phone calls.
“About 2 years ago there stopped being an answer at that number. I figured he’d changed phone numbers. In February I made a list of acquaintances who are not believers, including him, & started to pray for them all. About a week later he called me & started sharing how everything in his life was bad: his business had fallen apart, he had debts & creditors & everything like that.
“I was really surprised by his call & encouraged that God had answered my prayers. We set a meeting & had a good visit. I shared the Gospel with him, gave him a NT, suggesting he read it & that we meet again to talk about what he had read. He started to comment on his background, how he is a Muslim from the Tartar people group, so he cannot read the NT.
“I recommended that he read it anyway, saying that Jesus loves all people, regardless of their nationality.” And that’s where Sasha’s story ends for now, not the most satisfying ending because there’s no report of a conversion like there was with the thief on the cross next to Jesus. Yet, we need to remember the earlier question, “Where have you been searching for paradise?”
Eternal life is found in knowing the only true God. It is not found in anything else, not even in a satisfying conclusion to well over 2 years of witnessing to the same person. Paradise can even be found in death by crucifixion if that is where Christ chooses to meet us. Frustration over not finding paradise comes from our unwillingness to meet & know our heavenly Father at the place of His choosing. If church services are no longer as exciting or interesting as the latest TV episode of Survivor then people are more than willing to leave the 3rd commandment behind & search for paradise in greener pastures.
In that short-sighted view of things we’d rather have Jesus deliver us from the cross He’s called us to bear than have Him rescue us from hell. The reading from 1 Peter 4 gives us a radically different take on what our lives on earth should be like:
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” In other words, God is telling us that fiery trials are normal in this broken & sinful world. Then Peter writes, “…rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice & be glad when His glory is revealed.”
Jesus came to earth for the purpose of suffering, not to find paradise. If we think life here should be heaven then we don’t understand the 1st thing about our Savior’s purpose for taking on human flesh & being born in Bethlehem. We are not greater or more privileged than our Master. We are also not worse off than Jesus. We already know the one true God & that is eternal life.
The Bible reading from the Gospel of John occurs on the night when Judas will betray our Lord. It’s known as the great high priestly prayer because Jesus is praying that God almighty would guard & protect the Apostles over the coming days. Their view of Jesus’ ministry is about to be turned upside down & inside out. Nothing they thought was true will be left unchallenged.
Jesus prays for them because the powerful hand of God alone is able to keep them as members of the holy Christian Church. Their view of paradise is going to be completely reconstructed in the coming days. Maybe you’ve had experiences like that regarding what you once thought it was to be a follower of Jesus. The thief on the cross came to know God in a way that hopefully, you & I will never have to, but he also came to know paradise in a way that none of us ever has. For it is in the world’s most desperate suffering that the God who is love stands out in the clearest contrast as the only beacon of hope. To know our heavenly Father in that way truly is eternal life, whether you are here on earth or already in heaven.
As we wrap up our meditation on this Biblical text of Jesus’ prayer, St. Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy teaches us about our practice of prayer:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, & thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings & all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful & quiet life, godly & dignified in every way. This is good, & it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved & to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2:1-4 ESV)
Knowing the truth is to know the one true God, & Jesus taught that such is eternal life. He suffered, died & rose from the dead in order that all people might be saved from the corruption of sin. Those experiences you have from this life, that are a picture of paradise to you now, will be multiplied a thousand times & more once you reach heaven’s shore. Amen.
Crown Him with many crowns, the Lamb upon His throne; hark how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own. Awake, my soul & sing of Him who died for thee, & hail Him as thy matchless king through all eternity. Crown Him the Lord of life, Who triumphed o’er the grave & rose victorious in the strife for those He came to save. His glories now we sing, Who died & rose on high, Who died eternal life to bring & lives that death may die. Amen. LSB 525:1, 4.
Armed Forces Sunday – 2017 LSB #656
Text – Psalm 46:1
God is our refuge & strength, a very present help in trouble.
GOD IS OUR REFUGE & STRENGTH
Dear brothers & sisters in Christ Jesus, the sermon for this 2017 Ministry to the Armed Forces Sunday is based on Psalm 46. That psalm is also the basis for the Battle Hymn of the Reformation written by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” (LSB 656) Luther wrote this great hymn in the year 1529 – probably for the Diet of Spires.
Psalm 46 tells of a miraculous victory for the children of Israel during the days when King Jehoshaphat was on the throne. The nomadic tribes of the Moabites, Ammonites & Edomites were gathered together in siege against God’s people. Things looked dismal for them. Only a miracle of God could save them, & they knew it. So Jehoshaphat turned to the LORD.
God responded through His prophet Jahaziel, “…Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.” (2 Chronicles 20:15 NIV) The true God filled the enemy armies with confusion & they began to fight one another. The battle was fierce & the outcome was devastating. They ended up destroying each other.
When the morning hours arrived & the children of Israel saw what had happened, they immediately knew that this victory was not theirs but God’s. Moved by the Holy Spirit, the sons of Korah, hymn writers for the children of Israel, penned this 46th psalm which tells us:
“God is our refuge & strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea... The LORD of hosts is with us... Come, behold the works of the LORD... Be still, & know that I am God.” (ESV)
500 years ago Martin Luther recognized the close parallel between what he saw in the
lives of the children of Israel & what he saw in his own life & the unfolding of the Reformation.
In either case, these words applied: “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield & weapon; He helps us free from every need that hath us now o’ertaken. The old evil foe now means deadly woe; deep guile & great might are his dread arms in fight; on earth is not his equal.” LSB 656:1
We could summarize it: “Don’t ever forget that your God is a mighty, saving God.” Yes, the LORD is truly & always will be the believer’s refuge & strength. Whenever you think the going is getting tough, whenever questions arise in your mind as to whether God really is aware of you & your problems – remember yours is a God about whom we can boldly say:
“God is our refuge & strength.” Yes, a mighty fortress is our God. He has freed us from every bondage that wants to bind us for eternity. He was so in the times when Psalm 46 was written. He was so in the days when Luther wrote the hymn. He is so this day in your life. And He will ever be such a God to the ends of time & beyond.
Yes, God truly is our refuge & our strength. If you reject Him as your God, then you must contend with Satan all by yourself. You must do battle with that old evil foe who uses his immense power, deep guile & subtle trickery to enslave you. Lucifer will use both his power & deception as the one-two punch of dreadful arms to destroy you.
No human being on this earth – you, me, the wisest woman, the strongest man, the youngest baby or the oldest person – is equal to the task of fighting & prevailing against the old evil foe. For we are not contending against flesh & blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness.
“With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected; but for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected. Ask ye, Who is this? Jesus Christ it is, of Sabaoth Lord, & there’s none other God; He holds the field forever.” LSB 656:2 Imagine being the children of Israel surrounded by three armies. Defeat is imminent; impending destruction & doom are but hours & minutes away. Oh, dear God, we are lost. You alone are our hope.
Before Luther came to an understanding of the Gospel, he too was lost. Writing to a friend, he stated: “I daily find myself approaching closer & still closer to hell.” He signed the letter “an exiled son of Adam.” But then, with all thanks & glory to God, he came to understand that he could not earn peace & forgiveness from God.
Rather, peace & forgiveness already have been earned for us through the life, death & resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Salvation is a free gift from our heavenly Father to all who believe in the Valiant One as their Savior. Luther had come to know that God is our only hope & thus he truly wrote ‘A Mighty Fortress’ out of his heart.
Like Luther, we are not unaware of our sins & transgressions before God. We know we daily sin much & indeed deserve nothing but God’s wrath & damnation. We also know if God were to deal with us according to His justice, there’d be only one thing He could say to us: “Depart from Me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil & his angels.”
But thanks be to God, you & I have come to know a God who not only sent His Son into this world to keep the Law perfectly in our place, but a Son who also died on the cross & rose victorious to pay for your sins, my sins, & the sins of everyone. God is our refuge & strength from anything that truly threatens us.
Prior to his discovery of the free gift of God’s grace in Christ, even Luther had moments – lots of moments – when he felt despair. Under the sentence of death & the spiritual assault of the old evil foe, he had nowhere to turn but to the LORD.
Like Martin Luther, if relying on our own might, we can do absolutely nothing to defeat our enemies. Soon would be our demise, our downfall & our destruction. Fortunately & blessedly, there is a Valiant One who has stepped onto the battlefield for you & for me. Do you not see Him – this Champion come to wage war & fight on our behalf?
We would never have chosen Him – a baby in a manger in Bethlehem – this Man from Galilee who comes armed only as the Word of God. Yet this is the One whom God has elected to fight the battle in our place & to stand in our stead. Do you ask, “Who is this?” Jesus the Christ – the Messiah – it is. This is the LORD of Sabaoth.
God sent His Son to defeat sin, death & the devil. “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill; they shall not overpower us. This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will, he can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done; one little word can fell him.” LSB 656:3
Yet, the forces of evil still do a great deal of damage. Psalm 46 declares that the nations rage, the kingdoms totter. There are wars – physical & spiritual – being carried out today. Early in the Reformation, Luther was summoned to the city of Worms, to defend his faith & the truth of God’s Word. He was advised by many not to go. He very well could be put to death.
His reply was: “Even if there are more devils on the rooftops than clay shingles, I will still go to Worms & defend the truth of God’s Word.” His confidence didn’t come from strength within but from the conviction that the LORD was leading his life even if it meant death.
The devil’s purposes are thwarted by one little word. What is that word? It is no secret nor is it magic. It is the name of the LORD – the name of the Triune God. Into His Name you were baptized. It is the name which is above every name; at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven & on earth & under the earth, & every tongue confess – Jesus Christ is LORD.
One little word can refute the devil. One little word takes you from the kingdom of darkness & transfers you to the kingdom of light. That word was heard from the cross, one word – tetelestai. It is finished – precious words from Jesus as He died & defeated Satan for us. In the darkness of the cross & in the silence of that empty tomb – behold the works of the LORD. He says, Be still, & know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted in the earth!
“The Word they still shall let remain nor any thanks have for it; He’s by our side upon the plain with His good gifts & Spirit. And take they our life, goods, fame, child & wife, though these all be gone, our victory has been won; the Kingdom ours remaineth.” LSB 656:4 Based on those lyrics, imagine the following scene.
You are a parent, sitting upstairs in your home in Wittenberg of present-day Germany. In your arms is your dying daughter, a young girl named Magdalena – your little girl whom you love so much. You say with tears flowing from your eyes:
“Oh, how it hurts to lose my little Maggie. But God wants her, & she is His. Therefore I release her into the hands of a gracious & loving God.”
Perhaps you get a sense of the agony & the victory behind the words in the stanza Luther penned. “And take they our life, goods, fame, son, daughter, husband, wife, even if these are all gone, yet the forces of evil have not won. The Kingdom remains mine.” Your life has not been free from the troubles that often bring tears to your eyes & sorrow to your heart.
Perhaps the troubles have come in the form of illness, family difficulties or financial struggles. Perhaps you have stood at the deathbed of a loved one, feeling the burden of life weighing down upon you. Even on such tragic days – God is your refuge & your strength.
Near the end of Luther’s life, he traveled to Eisleben. The trip was difficult. He had severe chest pains & knew the end was approaching. He prayed, “The pain is so severe, God, but I am ready to come home to you, Father.” Shortly before his death, when he was asked, “Brother Martin, are you willing to die in that faith which you have proclaimed?” Luther said with much gusto, “Yes, yes.” Shortly thereafter he fell asleep in the LORD – into the hands of God, our refuge & strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.
You know the day will come, sooner or later, when you will die & face your God & Creator. Yet, you need not fear. You have Jesus, who has said, I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine. Nothing & no one can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. He is your refuge & strength. He is your mighty fortress & your God! Amen.
The peace of God that surpasses all human understanding will guard your hearts & your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
5th Sunday of Easter – A LSB #’s 908, 715, 741:1, 3, 8
Text – John 14:5-6
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, & the truth, & the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
KNOWING THE WAY
A plane is on its way to Houston when a blonde in Economy Class gets up, moves to First Class & sits down. The flight attendant watches her do this & asks to see her ticket. She then tells the blonde that she paid for Economy & so she’ll have to sit in the back. The blonde replies, “I’m blonde. I’m beautiful. I’m going to Houston, & I’m staying right here!”
The flight attendant goes into the cockpit & tells the pilot & copilot that there’s a blonde sitting in First Class, who belongs in Economy, & will not move back to her seat. So the copilot speaks to the blonde & tells her that because she only paid for Economy she’ll have to return to her proper seat.
But she again replies, “I’m blonde. I’m beautiful. I’m going to Houston, & I’m staying right here!” The copilot tells the pilot that he should probably have the police waiting when they land to arrest this woman because she won’t listen to reason. The pilot responds, “You say she’s blonde? I’ll handle this. I’m married to a blonde. I speak their language!”
He goes back to First Class, whispers in the blonde’s ear, & she says, “Oh, I’m sorry!” gets up, & moves back to her seat in the Economy section. The flight attendant & copilot are amazed & they ask him what he said to make her move without any fuss. “I just told her that First Class is not going to Houston.”
Apparently the blonde didn’t really know the way to where she was going, because she was so easily fooled. But then, that’s the point of blonde jokes, to make fun of how gullible & easily deceived each of us can be under the right circumstances. You see, blonde jokes aren’t just about people with blonde hair, & today’s Gospel reading isn’t just about disciples named Thomas or Philip. Do you know the Way to where you’re going?
Some people believe that going to church every Sunday is the way to heaven. Some people believe that living a good life is the way to heaven. Some believe that all the different religions are simply different ways to the same heaven. All three of those beliefs are examples of human wisdom. Are any of them the true Way to heaven?
Men have been stereotyped for refusing to ask the way even when they know they’re lost. Few women would ever admit having filled the role of the blonde in a joke. And not one of us likes to believe that we are the fool.
But the Apostle Paul warns us about human opinion as he assures us that even the wisdom of this world is nothing more than foolishness in God’s sight. All the PhD’s in the history of mankind would not add up to the lack of intelligence demonstrated in one blonde joke, in comparison to God.
So let me give you a bit of context for today’s Gospel lesson. The setting is the Upper Room the night before Jesus is crucified. It’s Maundy Thursday. Judas has already left in order to commit his act of betrayal, & Jesus has been telling the remaining 11 that He is about to leave them, going where they cannot follow for now.
Peter, in his normal impetuous way, asks, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Then Jesus answers, “Will you really lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the rooster crows you will disown me three times!” How easily Peter fooled himself into thinking he knew the way.
“I will lay down my life for you.” Such bold words, spoken with such human confidence; it’s easy to smile at them, kind of like “I’m blonde. I’m beautiful. I’m going to Houston, & I’m staying right here!” Yet, if all of us know the Way to heaven so well, how come the detour is so often the road we end up finding ourselves on? Like the little boy & girl that so cutely sang, “Jesus loves me,” who end up living together prior to marriage, because human reason tells them it makes sense.
What about the detour children end up on after they’ve been baptized, but then are not brought to God’s house on a regular basis for training & instruction? Here’s a summary of the vows taken by the parents & sponsors before God. We promise to:
“Remember this child in our prayers, remind this child of its Baptism, give our counsel that this child be brought up in the true knowledge & worship of God, be taught the 10 Commandments, the Creed, & the Lord’s Prayer, that as this child grows in years, we will place into this child’s hand the Holy Scriptures, bring this child to the services of God’s house, & provide for further instruction in the Christian faith.” Know any children on a detour?
How many adults have ended up on a detour from the vows they made at confirmation? “Do you intend faithfully to conform all of your life to the divine Word, to be faithful in the use of God’s Word & Sacraments, which are His means of grace, & in faith, word & action to remain true to God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit, even to death?” PAUSE
One problem that other denominations have with Lutherans is that many of us seem to look at life as nothing more than a destination, where detours don’t matter. We forget that we’re on a journey as well; that the day-to-day actions of our lives do make a difference.
Baptism & Confirmation frequently end up as nothing more than excuses, so we can be about the business of the world rather than about the business of our Father who is in heaven. We believe we’re going there; Jesus has done it all for us, so we sleep during the journey: “I know the way. I’m baptized & confirmed. My spiritual life is all set.” That is the detour that many Lutherans end up on. Some are just plain lazy. Some live in fear of becoming confused, so they don’t want to think too much about spiritual things. Still others are just way overconfident & far too foolish. Have your actions ever said, “I’m Lutheran, I’m baptized & confirmed, I’m going to heaven, & I’m staying right here?”
“I don’t have to go to church & I don’t have to contribute money or my time in order to be a Christian. I don’t have to study God’s Word, teach it, or even speak about it with anyone. My faith is only between God & me.” All of those statements have truth in them, but sadly, what they’re missing is an appreciation of the love that God has for us.
People with that attitude, may speak the words, “Jesus loves me,” with their mouth, but they don’t feel them with their heart. They’re on a spiritual detour & have lost their way on this journey called life. They might even be on the road to death without knowing it.
The devil is working 24/7 to fool every one of us into making our own way to heaven, or nirvana. And if, like the blonde, you aren’t sure of the way, you will get sidetracked or deceived. Even lifelong Lutherans end up speaking as Philip did:
“Lord, show us the Father & it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him: “Have I been with you so long, & you still do not know me, Philip?” (John 14:8-9a ESV)
More of us should be humble enough to admit that we need direction, & are fully capable of filling the role of the blonde in many of those jokes. Ignorance is not a problem if we’re humble enough to admit it, but pride is because it prevents us from receiving the help that all of us need.
That’s the point of the Law; to show you how gullible & easily deceived each of us is regardless of the circumstances. There are many Christians being led astray, by things that seem harmless, because Satan is behind them, & he is not harmless. More of us should be like Thomas who wasn’t afraid to reveal his ignorance by his challenge to Jesus: “Lord, we don’t even know where You’re going, how can we know the way?” (John 14:5)
Jesus answers Thomas with His well-known reply: “I Am the Way & the Truth & the Life.” (John 14:6a ESV) Faith in Christ is not just knowing facts concerning Him; like that He died & rose again. Faith is also about knowing Jesus personally, because it’s not the information that is the Way. Jesus Himself is. And He is the only Way.
Hebrews states, “Therefore, due to the blood of Jesus we can now go boldly into the Most Holy Place by the new, living Way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, His Body.” By a miracle of God, His children participate in that Body of Christ at Holy Communion.
And as our Gospel reading begins, Jesus is telling His disciples that He’s leaving them in order to prepare a place for them in the many rooms of His Father’s mansion. Jesus prepared that place as He died on the cross. As His body hung there it became the Way to God’s presence. All of His children will pass through that body on the way to life everlasting.
That’s a difficult & very abstract concept to understand. As the sinful human beings that we are, we’re far too blonde to ever understand the dynamics of it. Yet, Abraham didn’t know the dynamics of the route through which God would lead him to the Promised Land, & still he followed God’s leading by faith in the Messiah.
Likewise, we don’t need to know the physical path, or the way, that God is taking us on. We only need trust in His Messiah, & follow. Jesus Himself has become the Way through His death, resurrection & ascension. As God’s children, we also follow that path of death, resurrection & ascension, a path or way that Jesus has already blazed before us.
From the journey of Abraham & Sarah, all the way across the centuries, to the journeys upon which you & I embark each day, Jesus is still the Way. It is faith in Christ alone that can behold the glory of our salvation at the death of God. In His suffering, death, resurrection & ascension the heavenly mansions of our Father are opened to the sinner. Sin had separated us from God’s house at the Garden of Eden. Jesus once again opens the Garden & He removes the barrier that has prevented us from entering.
Our failures to keep vows that we made at baptism, or confirmation, have been forgiven. The sin of people who live together without being married is forgiven. Attempting to make our own way to heaven is forgiven. Even our failure to appreciate the love Jesus has for us is forgiven. Knowing the way to heaven is no more complicated than knowing the Son of God.
“I will lay down my life for you.” Those were the bold words of Peter, & in the end he did lay down his life for his Lord. Tradition says he was crucified while hanging upside down. Finally, Peter did know the Way. It was through faith in that Way, in Christ Jesus, that the Holy Spirit worked, so that Peter would in reality lay down his life for his Savior.
What a powerful force it is to know the love of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. He is a pilot who does speak our language, yet He won’t tell us lies in order to undo our sin. He will not take advantage of our blondeness in order to deceive or mislead us. In fact Jesus takes our ignorance, our suffering, & our sins upon Himself. Then He dies because of them.
Do you see it now? Blonde jokes aren’t just about people who have blonde hair, & today’s Gospel reading isn’t just about Philip or Thomas. They are both, very much, also about each one of us. Amen.
Jesus, Savior, pilot me over life’s tempestuous sea; unknown waves before me roll, hiding rock & treacherous shoal. Chart & compass come from Thee. Jesus, Savior, pilot me. Amen. LSB 715:1.
P: Heavenly Father, we spend much of time on this earth struggling to find our way, whether that’s in school, marriage, careers, friendships, & certainly even in our spiritual lives. Our human wisdom, opinion, confidence & reason constantly get in the way of our relationship with You. Our eyes stray from the cross, & seek out the greener grass we see growing along the detours. Though You have promised us eternal life, grant that we may not take that gift for granted. Teach us to appreciate Your love for us, & through the power of Your love work through us to be Your willing & able servants. As fear & temptation come into our lives, reassure us that our Savior is the one, true & only way to the rooms You have prepared for each of us in Your heavenly mansion. Lord, in your mercy,
4th Sunday of Easter – A LSB #588
Text – John 10:10
The thief comes only to steal & kill & destroy; I came that they may have life, & have it abundantly.
TO STEAL & KILL & DESTROY
During the two years in which I led bible studies at the county jail in North Dakota, I spent the majority of that time working with the man who’d started them. He had a verse from Scripture that he often used to get the attention of the inmates. It was the 1st half of the sermon text for this 4th Sunday of Easter.
He liked to tell the inmates that you can recognize when you’re doing things that are of the devil’s will rather than God’s. To steal & kill & destroy is not God’s work. It probably seems like a no-brainer to most of you, but it wasn’t to a member of one the churches I served out there. Less than a year after graduating from high school he was in the state penitentiary.
He got there by stealing guns from a local hardware store. With all the school shootings that had taken place in those years the feds weren’t real keen on that sort of crime. This member of my church claimed that he had a scholarship to college, but was 15 minutes late for taking the entrance exam, so they wouldn’t allow him to take it that day.
He never made it back, & that’s how quickly a person’s life can start out on the wrong road. To steal & kill & destroy is not so obviously wrong to everyone. This young man didn’t have a job or a place to live & he was hungry. He told his mother that he was perfectly justified in stealing those guns, because he needed money in order to eat.
In my visits with him he was obviously sorry that he got caught, but I sensed he never felt the weight of having committed a sin. “You shall not steal” seems pretty black & white to older generations, but things are a lot more relative to people growing up today. This guy didn’t mean to harm anyone. He just wanted to eat. It’s like stealing is only a sin if you’re out to hurt someone. How easily a person can rationalize their actions in order to excuse themselves from guilt, or from the constraints of the law. With that line of thinking, the end does justify the means. This church member needed to eat & stealing those guns was simply the means for achieving that.
What’s wrong with wanting to eat? That’s the question he was asking himself while in prison. The problem is, from God’s point of view, it is the wrong question. He should have been asking, “How did I mess up my life so badly that I have to steal in order to eat?”
In the Gospel reading, Jesus said, “All who came before Me are thieves & robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” If someone is stealing guns to eat are they actually one of God’s sheep?” After all, Jesus’ sheep don’t listen to the thieves & robbers.
I hope that few of you easily relate to that opening illustration. In North Dakota I dealt with enough of my members in prison to last the rest of my ministry, & I’d rather not have to visit any of you at the ‘big house’ in Jackson. But the lesson from the sermon text for today isn’t really concerned with actual stealing of worldly or material goods.
Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven...” (Matthew 7:21 ESV) People like Jim & Tammy Baker, who years ago were stealing millions of dollars from their ‘church’ ministry, are the kind of thieves & robbers Jesus is talking about, but not simply because they stole money.
Jesus is referring to the destruction brought upon God’s sheep. The Bakers were not entering the church by the gate, but were climbing in some other way, in order to steal, kill & destroy. They came in order to take from their sheep rather than to feed them. They destroyed life, rather than gave it, as Christ the true Shepherd, gives.
The sexual abuse scandals, which rocked the Catholic church in years past, are
another dimension of how spiritual shepherds have fed themselves at the expense of the sheep. And the Bishops, they didn’t want the church or their reputations to look bad, so they buried the crimes & moved the criminals around to disguise the problem.
They were not entering through the gate of Jesus Christ, but were climbing over the wall in order to steal, kill & destroy. Bringing life to the sheep was the last thing on their mind.
In Jesus’ day it was the Pharisees who were fattening themselves at the expense of the sheep. Their religion was constituted almost entirely of Law. They taught no Good News. And it’s still common, even in our day, for churches & pastors to coerce, or lean on their people to do good works. They threaten them with the law, or with the wrath of God’s anger.
Yet, good deeds done in response to that sort of heavy-handed approach are not good deeds in God’s sight. They are only good if done in response to the love that God has for us, & because of God’s love living within us. His true sheep will listen to Him & do His will without strong-arm tactics or deception & trickery.
But there’s been a trend in our own denomination, for 70 years already, to move away from using the Gospel to motivate people. These false shepherds want to use feel good songs, feel good bible studies & feel good worship to motivate people into serving God.
You can find entire hymns that mention not a single word about Jesus Christ. You can hear complete sermons that say nothing of what God has done for our salvation. False shepherds will tell you “Don’t worry! Be happy! Go & serve the Lord!”
But those words have no power to change your mood when you wake up on the wrong side of the bed. In fact, people like myself, just get angrier. The Apostle Paul countered, “This is how Christ gives us confidence in God. He has made us able servants of a new covenant, not of a written Law but of the Spirit, because the written Law kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:4 & 6) The written Law he’s speaking of can be anything that someone tells you to do, like, “Don’t worry, be happy!” That’s law, not good news, & according to St. Paul it kills. He claims it’s the Spirit, or the Good News, that gives life.
The Good News, the Gospel, the stuff with the power to change lives, to actually give life, that is what God has done to make us not worry, & to be happy. That news does have the power to change attitudes because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. “Don’t worry, be happy!” is nothing more than the power of sinful men.
Have you been guilty of preaching “feel good” theology? You know, have you ever told someone, “Just snap out it,” or “Smile”? Then you have tried to take the short cut that all human beings are tempted to follow – that of using the Law to motivate people rather than using the Gospel to change & convert people.
The shortcut saves us time & effort, but the reason we take it is not that we’re concerned about those who are unhappy. We take the shortcut because we’re concerned with ourselves. In that sense each of us has been guilty of stealing, killing & destroying. We’d rather control the sheep than give of ourselves sacrificially in order to support them.
Giving to them will cost us, but most of the time we believe we’re too poor to give. We don’t have enough time, enough energy, enough money, or enough love. That should make you wonder if you’re one of Jesus’ sheep. Remember the Gospel reading? Jesus calls His own sheep by name & goes on ahead of them, & His sheep follow Him because they know His voice.
Do you recognize His voice when He calls you to suffer on account of His name? Have you been following Jesus by serving Him even if it costs you something? Are you listening to the true Shepherd? How do you tell the difference? How do you learn to recognize His voice? Stephen was not an apostle. He was a layman who was murdered for proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ. As he died, he prayed for his killers, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Was Stephen motivated to sacrifice his life by the words, “Don’t worry! Be happy!”? I think not! The book of Acts says, of Stephen, he was a man full of God’s grace.
That grace is undeserved love. Stephen fully understood that he did not deserve God’s love. Yet Jesus gave it to him along with life abundantly. No, Stephen was no more a perfect man than you or I. He, like each of us, was guilty of stealing, killing & destroying.
Sin is what sinners do, but good deeds are what our Heavenly Father sees when He looks at one of His children. And He sees those good deeds because our Brother Jesus has covered us with the robe of His perfection. That is good news! That news does motivate to live without fear, & then to live with abandon.
Like Stephen, we can pray for the forgiveness of those who harm us, because that forgiveness costs us nothing. We are never too poor when we are God’s children. And when we mess up our own lives so badly that we have to figuratively “steal in order to eat,” that same unending supply of forgiveness is available to cover our sin.
Verse 3 of the Gospel lesson says that Jesus calls His own sheep by name, & that calling, that naming, 1st occurred at your Baptism. Already there the robe of perfection was placed upon you by your Lord & Savior as He claimed you for His own. In hearing & studying His Word, you will learn to recognize His voice.
In receiving the Body & Blood of your Holy Shepherd, who is also the true & sacrificial Lamb, you are strengthened for the journey, so that you might reach the ultimate destination. Jesus Christ, & only He, is the gate through which we enter there. He did not come to steal or to kill or to destroy, but that we may have life, & have it abundantly.
We experience that life already in this world of false shepherds, through faith. But that
fullness of life is not about an SUV in every garage. It is about a spiritual fullness, peace with God, peace with ourselves, & peace with our neighbor. Even men serving time in a state penitentiary can know that peace, because it’s given by faith & not by sight.
The more we read & hear God’s Word, the truer becomes the sound of it, & the more certainly we recognize the thief as he comes to steal & kill & destroy. Matthew wrote of the people in his 7th chapter, “They were astonished at [Jesus’] teaching, for He taught as one who had authority, & not as their teachers of the law.” (Verse 28-29)
They recognize that Jesus is different. They recognize that His message is one of life & not one of death. The sermon text summarizes the contrast between Jesus & the Pharisees. There’s nothing cramping or restricting about life for those who enter God’s fold, because your heart & attitude is made new by God’s creation of the new man within you.
In your life, as you’ve listened to the false shepherds & followed their voice, be assured of this, it is by the wounds of Christ that you may be healed. For in this life, all God’s children are still subject to the rotten & corrupt nature that lives within. Daily it will steal, kill & destroy.
Yet the God who died for His own creation reassures us, “I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) You see, it’s not what we do, or don’t do, that makes us God’s sheep. It is what Jesus does. He simply calls us to follow to Him. Amen.
Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong; they are weak, but He is strong. Jesus loves me! He who died heaven’s gates to open wide. He has washed away my sin, lets His little child come in. Amen. LSB 588:1-2.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet