Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Meaningful Life, Ecclesiastes 2:18-26

18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21 For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22 What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? 23 All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.
24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26 To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Those are the kind of things you expect to think after a rough day at work, and you probably tell yourself you’re just having a bad day, and all you need is a “pick-me-up.”  Does it surprise you to find those thoughts in the Bible?  Maybe what you thought was just a bad day is actually a sobering reality check, and if so, what’s wrong?
It was probably King Solomon who wrote those words, and he was, humanly speaking, one of the richest and most successful men ever.  His name is remembered today, 3000 years after he died.  The Bible says that his yearly income was more than 25 tons of gold.  Kings traveled from everywhere to ask him questions because he was that famous.  He himself wrote that could have anything he wanted.  Good food, good drink, beautiful things, and beautiful women—lots of beautiful women.  He had 700 wives.  I don’t think I have to tell you that Solomon wasn’t happy.  Many of you tell me that one wife is plenty.  Even aside from being sinful, I’m sure having 700 wives did not make him happier than one wife would have.
King Solomon looked at all he had and said this is meaningless.  To summarize his words in our text, he had to work really hard and didn’t enjoy it, after he died he couldn’t keep all his stuff, and someone else would probably waste the wealth that he had worked so hard for.
So what do you think?  Was King Solomon just having a bad day when he said, “I hate my life, this is meaningless?”  I think he was looking at life without God in the picture, and “Meaningless” is the reality of it. 
Even if you believe in God, and Solomon did, you might be looking at your life without considering how he fits in to the picture, and it will seem meaningless.  That’s because with no God in the picture, our sinful hearts take over, and our sinful hearts will never be happy with what we have.  We will work ourselves to the bone because we never have enough.  We will work so hard that we don’t time to enjoy what we have.  We will worry about we don’t have, and worry about all the ways that we might lose what we do have.  Only God can give true happiness.  Only God can make your life meaningful.

Listen again to what Solomon said about the meaningful life that God gives:
24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
The happiness comes when you recognize that none of this good stuff we want is here by chance.  The beautiful flowers and mountains and streams, the good food and drink, the job—God has given us all of that only because he loves us.   Every little thing is a meaningful gift from God.
Most people don’t notice God’s love for them in all those little ways though, not until he opens their eyes.  Solomon wrote, “To the one who pleases him God gives wisdom, knowledge, and happiness.”
It pleases God when, instead of continuing to try to make it on our own, we confess those sins of forgetting about him.  It pleases God when we trust in our Savior for forgiveness, because our Savior Jesus pleased God.  He pleased God by dying for those sins.  He pleased God by giving us the gift of forgiveness and eternal life.  Do you see where this is going?  Jesus pleased God by making us pleasant to God.
That big act of love opens our eyes to all the little ways that God shows his love for us too.  Here comes the wisdom, knowledge and happiness that God promised through Solomon.  God could have given us hell for our sins, but instead he gave us a Savior.  He could have given us hell, but instead he has given us a beautiful, sun-shiny day, with birds singing and good food to eat.  He could have given us hell, but instead he has given us useful things to do with our lives.  Even if there is nothing useful that we can do, God could have given us hell, but instead he has given us a day to praise him and encourage each other.  We can also see God’s love in the things we don’t have—he could have given us hell, but he wants us in heaven, and so he doesn’t give us everything that we want.  After all, in Jesus’ story the rich man forgot God and went to hell.  A meaningful life comes from knowing that everything comes from God’s love.

Conclusion:  It’s a shame that so many people will never notice all of God’s love for them.  Their lives are truly meaningless.  Their wealth will perish with them.  Not us, though.  We have a meaningful life of knowing our Savior and his love, and seeing all the ways that God blesses us besides that.  When we die, that all continues.  God’s love for us continues in eternity, when he takes us to live with him.  What we enjoy now is only the beginning of God’s love for us, and that makes this life truly meaningful.  Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Luke 10:25-37 The Good Samaritan

People who need help often come here, to church, when they don’t know where else to turn to.  For instance, a woman may walk through these doors on a Thursday afternoon, and she is crying.  She sits down and explains to me that she hasn’t had any food in a while, and she is afraid she is going to die.  She explains that she is diabetic, and I can see that she is starting to shake.  Its one of those scorching 100 degree afternoons.  I ask her if she has been to the homeless shelter, but she doesn’t know where it is.  I’m getting pretty hungry too; its about time for me to go home.  Should I shrug my shoulders and tell this woman that I’m sorry, and I have to go home?  No, I need to find a way to help her.  You would be ashamed of me if I didn’t. 
Now, I ask you, would it be any different if that woman showed up on your front doorstep?  It think it would be tempting to give her a couple bucks so that she goes away, but that isn’t what God means when he tells us, “Love your neighbor as yourself?”
Jesus told a story to teach that God wants us to Love With No Limits:
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

1.  Our love should have no limit.
The expert in Jewish law was really asking the wrong question.  We shouldn’t be asking, “Who is my neighbor?” as if to say, “Who do I have to help, and who can I ignore without losing my place in heaven?”  Jesus’ story shows us that the better question to ask is “Who can I help?”  Or, “Who needs me to be a neighbor?” 
Consider this story from another perspective: What if you were the man who had been robbed and left for dead?  If you saw someone coming on the road, would it matter if you knew that person or not?  You would be praying that this stranger might help you.
What if you were homeless?  It would be nice if someone would give you a couple bucks.  It would be even better if you could find someone who would treat you like family.
We may not know the person who is suffering, but you know in your heart that you should love that person like you love yourself.  You can be a neighbor.  You can be that person’s family.
That expert in Jewish law had asked Jesus what a person must do to inherit eternal life.  You realize, don’t you, that if we have to be like that good Samaritan all the time to get into heaven, we aren’t going to get there.  Your sinful nature, the grouchy old man inside of you, objects: I can’t open myself up to people like that.  I don’t know that person.  I don’t owe them anything.  They should have taken better care of themselves, like I did.  Besides, I can’t help everyone. “
No one loves God perfectly.  No one loves without limit every time there is someone who needs help.  We aren’t going to get into heaven that way.  Actually, that selfish old grouch inside of us deserves hell.
This is where we need to remember that Jesus was not telling this story to show us how we are going to get into heaven.   He was showing us how God wants us to love.  And this is where I will remind you where this “Good Samaritan” kind of love comes from.  It is God who loved us first.

2.  God’s love has no limit.
God is never too busy.  It’s never too much trouble for him.  It’s never one too many prayers for him to answer; never one too many sins for him to forgive
You might think of Jesus as our “Good Samaritan.”  I know he wasn’t a Samaritan, but he did see us spiritually dead on the side of the road—hopelessly unable to do what it takes to get into heaven.  He came down to us to pick us up and clean up our wounds—He forgives our sins, and gives us a new start and a new life with God.  He carries us along our way to make sure we get into heaven with him, just like that Good Samaritan carried the wounded man to the inn.  Jesus has stopped at nothing to make sure that we will get into heaven.
The great thing now, for us, is that there is no limit to the number of brand new starts that God gives us. Yes, that grouchy old man inside drags us down, but we always have a fresh start in Jesus to get up and love perfectly again, without limits.

Lets make it our goal here to love with no limit. We want people to know God’s love.   Don’t just tell them.  Show them, by imitating God’s “Good Samaritan” way that God loves you.
Look around you.  Treat these people like family.  This is something I see many of you doing.  Let’s all do it, and do it better.  When you talk to each other over coffee and donuts, sit by new people.  Don’t just talk about yourself; ask questions.   Be interested in the person you are talking to.  Show them that you care.  If you find out that person is hurting or in need, don’t just shrug your shoulders and say “I’m sorry to hear that.”  Listen, care, and do whatever you can to help.   Be like that Good Samaritan.  Love with no limits.  Amen.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

1 Kings 17:17-24 God Gives Life to the Dead

A young child dies, and people wonder how a good God could have let that happen.  Elijah put his question a bit more strongly.  In his question you have to see the history of God’s goodness to the poor boy’s mother.  You have to know about how God was afflicting so many other mothers at the time, because of their horrible sins.  In that context, when tragedy came on this woman also, it looked like cruelty.  It was unbelievable that God could really have done such a thing.  Elijah took the dead boy in his arms and in anguish asked God, “O LORD my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this woman I am staying with by causing her son to die?

The Story
This story really begins earlier, at a time in Israel when most people worshiped idols instead of the true God, the LORD.  It was a time when God was giving them what they deserved; he kept it from raining for several years, so that there was little water and no food in the whole area.  This widow of Zarephath was the woman whom God was using to take care of his prophet.  When God sent Elijah to her, he found her out collecting a few sticks to bake one last loaf of bread for herself and their child, and then, since they were out of food, they were preparing to die.  Elijah told this woman, “First bake me a cake, and then some for yourself and your boy, because God is going to make sure that your little bit of flour and your little bit of oil will never run out.”  The woman believed Elijah, and sure enough, they never ran out of flour and oil.  God was taking care of them.  Here was a prophet who believed in him and preached his Word, and here was a woman who listened and believed, and God was not giving them what they deserved like he was the rest of the land.  He was merciful to them, and he blessed them. 
Just think how this woman had enjoyed God’s blessings—the prophet came to her and told her about the true God.  As long as the prophet stayed, she not only got to hear Elijah talk about God, but God also miraculously provided them with enough food every day. 
Then suddenly, and for no apparent reason, the child became very sick and died.  Was God all of the sudden treating them like the rest of those sinful people who didn’t care a bit about the true God?  There were plenty of widows in Israel, and I’m sure many of their children died in that famine, but they deserved it.  They worshiped idols.  But this woman who fed Elijah every day and listened to him talk about the true God—what had she done to deserve this?
Apparently there were things that came to her mind.  As she carried her dead boy to Elijah, she said to him, “What do you have against me, man of God?  Have you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”  It must be my sins, she thought.  We know what that’s like.  When God brings trouble into our lives, we can always think of a few reasons why we deserve it.  Its usually the sin that we live with and struggle with, the sins that come from our passions.  It’s the hot temper that we can’t control, the nasty critical nature that never seems to be able to find anything good in other people.  Those sins of having sexual desires for anyone other than your husband or wife, even the sin of having homosexual desires and actions may come to mind.  When trouble comes, your heart should tell you why God should be angry with you. What the woman said is quite true, and good.  When trouble comes, we should remember our sins.  God isn’t the one who is being bad, we are, and trouble is what we deserve.
It’s when we are so used to God not giving us the trouble we deserve that he seems to be so cruel when he brings trouble.  This is why Elijah was so upset.  There were plenty of widows in Israel whose boys died, but they deserved it.  They didn’t listen to God’s prophets.  They didn’t worship God anymore.  But this woman listened and believed.  She fed God’s prophet when she didn’t even have enough for herself and her son.  Elijah couldn’t believe that God would be so cruel as to show this widow his mercy like he had, and then turn on her and kill her son.  God isn’t cruel.  He is good.  He would much rather bless people rather than give them the trouble they deserve.
Elijah stubbornly believed in God’s mercy, so he took the boy and prayed, “O LORD my God, have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?”  Then he stretched himself out on top of the boy three times and prayed, O LORD my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” 
Look and see what happened.  God is merciful, and he isn’t cruel.  He heard Elijah, and boy came alive again.  Elijah brought him to his mother, and the mother said, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.”  God wasn’t being cruel.  He was showing them just how far they could believe in him.  Even if all hope was cut off— even at the point of death!—he would hear their prayers and help them.  God gives life to the dead.

The Lesson
God gives hope to the hopeless.  He gives life to the dead.
When trouble comes, whether you’ve done something especially horrible or not, remember your sins.  Listen to that little voice inside that speaks up and says “God is angry with you, you deserved that.”  That little voice is a blessing from God; use it.  Take the opportunity to remember your sins and remember why they are so horrible that you deserve such trouble.  Humble yourself, and confess your sins to God.
But also, when trouble comes, remember God’s mercy.  He isn’t cruel.  He gives hope to the hopeless.  He gives life to the dead.  Maybe your trouble isn’t that someone has died, but it seems hopeless nonetheless.  Remember that if God can raise the dead, he can work out any hopeless situation.  If someone you love has died, or you yourself are dying, remember that God raises the dead.  You haven’t seen anyone rise from the dead like what happened in this story, but God has promised that everyone who believes in Jesus will rise from the dead.  If the one you love who died did not believe, God can give life to that hopeless situation too.  He gives strength now, and he will raise you above all this sorrow to be with him in heaven.
When we are getting the trouble that our sins deserve, remember that no one whose faith is in Jesus will truly get what he deserves.  The widow put her faith in God’s prophet, and God blessed her, even giving life to her dead son.  We put our faith in the greatest of the prophets, Jesus, the Son of God.  We will not get the death we deserve, and God will rescue us from all our troubles.  There is forgiveness for our sins, and the promise, as it says in the Psalms, that for everyone who trusts in Jesus “God’s anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.  Weeping may last for a night, but rejoicing comes with the morning.” God gives hope to the hopeless, and life to the dead.

There is something to be said for stubbornly trusting in God’s mercy.  That’s what Elijah did.  When all hope looked lost, and every indication was that God had cruelly taken this son away from his mother, Elijah trusted that God would still be good to her.  Even in death, God would mercifully help.  The interesting thing is that I don’t know of any time that God brought a dead person back to life before this.  Elijah just believed that God could not be that cruel.  All the more so now, when we have seen God give this boy his life again, and many other times after that where God rescued his people out of hopeless situations, even raising them from the dead.  Our Lord himself rose from the dead.  There is never any reason to believe that God is being cruel.  Troubles come because we deserve them, and when they come we have all these reasons to believe that God will rescue us from them.  When it happens that God rescues us from our troubles, we can look back and see from experience that he really is good, and he really does help.  That’s what the widow said when Elijah brought her son back to life, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.”  Trust stubbornly that God is good and he will help, and you will see the truth of what you have believed.  God helps the helpless; he gives life to the dead.  Amen.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Acts 2:1-21 Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

An Urgent Message from the Holy Spirit:
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
If I started my sermon by shooting off some fireworks I would definitely have your attention.  You would be wondering what is going on, and waiting to see what I would do next.  The Holy Spirit had a better way to wake the people up when Peter and the other disciples preached in the temple on Pentecost.
Think how it would be if you had been in the crowd at the Temple on Pentecost.  It was one of the three great Jewish festivals, a celebration of the wheat harvest.  Jews had come from all over to celebrate.  Just for a moment, imagine yourself as one of those Jews who had grown up in a foreign country, maybe Egypt.  Now you are living back in Jerusalem, and you have come to the Temple to worship.  You’ve learned Aramaic just like the other Jews, and you’re pretty comfortable conversing with them.  But Egyptian is still your native tongue.  That’s what you speak when you talk to your children.  Suddenly, in the temple, you hear someone speaking Egyptian.  You walk over there, and you recognize the speaker as one of the disciples who had been with Jesus.  He is a Galilean.  He shouldn’t know Egyptian.  He has never studied.  Something very strange is going on here.  Now he definitely has your attention!  You listen, and you hear him preaching about Jesus.
There were some there who said it was nothing important.  They heard and ridiculed the disciples.  They said, “These men have had too much wine.”  That’s the reaction that sinful people often have to the Word of God.  This isn’t worth their time.  It isn’t worth listening too.  It isn’t worth the effort of understanding how it applies to your life today.  It won’t help anyway.
Peter said no, this isn’t just a bunch of nonsense.  “These men are not drunk, as you suppose,” he said—and you have to catch the irony here—“it’s only 9 in the morning”—in other words, too early to be drunk.  No, what was happening there was from the Holy Spirit, because God had an important message he wanted them to pay attention to.  In fact, it was something God had been telling them for a long time.  God gave this message to the prophet Joel hundreds of years earlier, and now he was doing it. 
Peter quoted the prophet Joel, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.  Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”
This is what they were seeing that day in the temple on Pentecost.  There were lots of prophets.  It wasn’t like God used to do, when he gave a dream or a vision to one person or another—maybe Isaiah, or Elijah, or Moses— and that person went to the people and said, “I have a message from God.”  Peter was saying that we are in the last days now, and we are seeing what the prophet Joel was talking about: lots of prophets.  Look what has been happening ever since then too!  People have gone out throughout the world bringing this message from God.  We see lots of prophets, in a sense—look at all the pastors; look at all the ordinary people who have a message from God for their friends and family!  And here is the Word of God brought to you in your own language; not miraculously as at Pentecost, but nonetheless!  It hasn’t always been this way.  In the Old Testament, if you wanted to know what God had to say, you needed to learn Hebrew.  Not so today!  Here it is for you in English!
What’s so important that God has sent out all the prophets and he has given his Word to us in our language?  We are in the last days, and there are signs of the judgment that is coming!  Peter continued with the prophecy from Joel, “[God says] I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke.  The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.”  It sounds to me like a city is burning.  The people of Jerusalem would soon see their city destroyed by the Roman army, and they may have thought of these words.  They needed to be saved, but not just from the burning city of Jerusalem.  That was only a sign of what was coming. Peter explained that they were in big trouble, because they had crucified their Savior.  They needed to be rescued from the Judgment that is coming.  He told them repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.  3000 of them paid attention and were baptized, they called on the name of the LORD, and they were saved.
We may hear those words from the prophet Joel and think of different things—blood, fire, and billows of smoke.  That may remind you of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, or any number of other battles.  It may remind you of something horrible that you’ve seen in the news—9/11 for instance.  Some hear the words about the sun turning to darkness and the moon into blood and they think that there will be a war on the moon.  Personally I don’t really think that’s what God meant, but I do know that if there is ever a war on the moon I will be looking at this prophecy and thinking this is a sign that the Judgment is coming!
Now some will dismiss what the Scripture says, thinking its only for religious fanatics, religious drunks! —and that these words aren’t worth the effort.  No!  As Peter said, “These men are not drunk.”  The words are meant for you, so pay attention. 
The prophets have gone out into all the world.  The Word of God has been brought to you in your own language.  The signs, the blood, fire, and billows of smoke are in your life.  You know that you need to be rescued from the horrible things that happen in life, but you need to pay attention to what God is really saying to you.  All those horrible things are only signs of the Judgment that is coming.
Pay attention, and ask yourself how these words are meant for you.  How is your house burning down?  Where are the blood, fire, and billows of smoke in your life?  What do you need to be rescued from?  Then remember that those things are just signs of the destruction that is coming—we need to be rescued from the Judgment. 
Today, we see all the prophets.  Today we see the signs of the Judgment.  And today, the good news that God really wants us to hear is in the last part of the prophecy that Peter quoted, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  We, who see the signs of the Judgment that is coming, we can call on the Lord to save us.  That just means that we hear that God has promised to rescue and we say “Yes!  Have mercy, LORD!  Rescue me!”  Then, since he has told us that he wants to use Baptism, the preaching of the Word, and Holy Communion to save us, we run to those things.  We, who call on the name of the Lord, will be saved.
There is a picture in my mind of God coming to you like a fireman searching through a burning house.  He finds you sleeping on your bed.  He says, “Wake up!  Your house is burning down.  You need to get out!  Come with me!  Now is not the time to roll over and go back to sleep.  This would be a bad time to think, “This fireman is crazy.  He must be drunk.”  If you say, “Hm, my house is on fire, that’s an interesting theory.  I think I’ll ponder that for a while”—you are going to die.  Take the time and effort to listen to what the Word is saying.  I am telling you that your world, your life is burning down.  You need to ask yourself how that’s true.  See the signs and know that you need to be rescued.  Your house is burning down, and you need to get out.   Take God’s invitation—call on him to save you.  Not just once, but every day.  I’m talking about a lifestyle of following him out of the burning house. Come to hear what he says in his Word.  Call on his name, and you will be saved.  Amen.