3 May 2009 - Easter 4 - John 10:11-18

One time I heard a story about a visitor to Israel, who was told by his tour group’s guide that in the middle east, shepherds do not walk behind their sheep, herding them in the direction they want them to go, but they walk ahead of their sheep, calling out to them, so that their sheep will follow them to where they want them to go.

After a while, the bus on which this visitor’s tour group was riding passed by a man who was in fact walking behind a flock of sheep, herding them, and forcing them to go forward.

The visitor said to the guide, “I thought you said that in the middle east, shepherds walk ahead of the sheep, but there is a shepherd who is walking behind the sheep.” “That’s not a shepherd,” the guide said. “That’s a butcher.”

I don’t know for sure if this story is true, but it does reflect the way in which sheep were tended by their shepherds in the culture of which Jesus was a part. Shepherds spent time with their sheep, and developed a relationship of sorts with their livestock, so that their voice would be recognized by the sheep.

Sheep would then follow the voice of their own shepherd, when he called out to them to follow him to a place where food and water could be found, or when he called out to them to come toward him and away from a dangerous situation in which they may have wandered.

But the sheep would not respond to a unfamiliar voice. Even with their limited knowledge and intelligence, the sheep would know that this was not their shepherd, and they would not pay any attention to the commands or warnings of a stranger.

Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Are you a member of the one flock of Christ? That’s just another way of asking if you “know” Jesus as your shepherd.

Can you tell the difference between his voice, and the voice of a stranger who is not your shepherd? Do you listen to the Lord’s voice when he speaks and calls out to you?

There are strangers about, who don’t have a right to tell you what to do, but who are trying to take charge of your life nevertheless. There are many strange voices that are illegitimately calling out to you, and beckoning you to come in their direction.

If you are a member of Christ’s flock, those voices should be unfamiliar voices as far as you are concerned, and you should not be listening to them. But are you making the necessary distinction between these voices, and the voice of your true shepherd, Jesus Christ?

The devil and his servants masquerade as shepherds. They would call out to you to draw you away from the safety of God’s will, and to entice you toward what they would claim is a place of true happiness and fulfillment.

But the sins to which such voices would lead you will destroy you, not nourish you.

In theory we would all admit that there is a huge difference between the truth of God and the lies of the devil. But in practice it is often hard for people to tell the difference between the two, until it is too late.

It is God’s will that our faith would be fed with the promises of his grace; that our lives would be equipped with the gifts of his Spirit; and that our actions would be guided by the godly vocations that he has entrusted to us.

It is Satan’s will that our pride would be puffed up by his deceitful promises; that our lives would be weighed down by an ever-increasing indulgence of the lusts of the flesh; and that our actions would be guided by a self-serving desire to use others for the satisfaction of our selfish ambitions.

At the end of your life you will be able to look back, and in hindsight see quite clearly whose voice you were actually listening to - whether you realized it at the time or not. You will be able to see the linkage of events in your life - how one thing led to another - and to see the final result.

But now, when the future is not so clear to you, you may not be able to tell the difference between the voice of your shepherd, and the voice of the devil.

With the cacophony of competing voices that are ringing out all around you, and in the weakness and short-sightedness of your human nature, the future consequences of what you believe now, and of whose voice you listen to now, may not be so obvious.

Where should you turn? Whom should you follow? How can the true shepherd of your soul be identified?

In your decisions about which voice or voices to listen to, will you be allowing the good shepherd to lead you into the future, and into the safety and joy of eternal life? Or will you be allowing the devil to lead you into the future, and into the misery and emptiness of eternal death?

You want to trust the right voice. But how can you tell whose voice is the right voice?

How can you tell the difference between the voice of the true shepherd, who has your eternal good in mind, and the voice of the imposter, who does not?

Well, pay close attention to something that your true and legitimate shepherd says about himself: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

The devil does not make any sacrifices for anyone. He knows only how to trick and manipulate others into making sacrifices for him and his evil purposes.

But the voice of the true shepherd comes from a Savior who does sacrifice himself, and who gives of himself, so that his sheep can be safe.

Whenever you hear a voice that tells you to live for yourself, and not for others, that is definitely the voice of the imposter - the phoney, Satanic shepherd - and not the voice of the genuine guardian of your souls. And of course, when the devil tells you to live for yourself, what he really means is that you should live for him, and be his servant in this world.

But when you hear the voice of one who tells you to love others because he has loved you, and has saved you from sin and death, you can then know that this is the voice of the good shepherd. He laid down his life for you, and held nothing back in redeeming you.

The voice of this true shepherd - who lays down his life for the sheep - can be heard today most explicitly, and most certainly, in the words of his Holy Supper, in which he gives himself and his forgiveness to his sheep.

“Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

Neither the devil, nor any of his servants, would ever be able to say anything like this, and really mean it. But Jesus does say it, and he does mean it.

You can therefore be sure, whenever you hear the shepherd saying these words, and offering these gifts, that it is the good shepherd - the true and genuine shepherd of your soul - who is speaking to you.

It is the voice you can and should follow, because it is the voice of the Savior who wants only to protect you, and nourish you, and lead you in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

And it is the voice - the true and certain voice - by which you can judge and evaluate every other voice you may hear. The more time you spend getting to know Jesus specifically as he comes to you in this sacrament, the easier it will be to recognize him and his voice elsewhere, in other times and places.

Indeed, we would acknowledge in faith that the voice of the good shepherd comes to us through the entirety of Holy Scripture, and whenever the message of Scripture is accurately proclaimed.

At the same, we must always be on our guard against the attempts of the devil and his servants to twist the Scriptures, and improperly to bring the words of Scripture into the service of their deceptions.

But we can be bolstered in our ability to tell the difference between these distortions, and the genuine message of the Bible, when we compare whatever it is we are hearing - which claims to be Biblical - to that sacramental voice that we definitely know is from the good shepherd.

Therefore, whenever the Scriptures are made to say something that has nothing to do with a shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, or that has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins that the shepherd offers his sheep, we can then know that this interpretation is a deception, and not the true voice of the shepherd.

But when the Scriptures are expounded in such a way as to show us the truth of Christ’s sacrificial love for us, and of the rescue from sin and death that he accomplished for us by his death and resurrection, we can then know that our shepherd is thereby calling out to us, to warn us of danger, and to lead us to green pastures and still waters.

Today, your shepherd - your genuine and trustworthy shepherd - will speak to you once again in his clear and true sacramental words. He will feed you with his own body and blood, and with the promises of the Gospel in general - as those promises are enshrined in his loving institution.

He will forgive your sins, and renew your faith. And as your good shepherd, he - as he has a right to do - will invite you to follow him.

He will call you away from the spiritual danger of a life of self-indulgence and self-centeredness, and he will call you to the spiritual safety of a life of repentance and faith.

He will direct you to look to him as the source of all good gifts, and as the reliable guide whom you are to heed in all things.

And, he will direct you to look through him, and through his love for you, to those around you who are in need, so that your calling as a sheep of the Lord will be fulfilled, in Christian love, in your service to them.

Jesus, Shepherd of the sheep! Thou thy flock in safety keep.
Living Bread, thy life supply! Strengthen us, or else we die. Amen.

10 May 2009 - Easter 5 - John 15:1-8

In last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus used an analogy from the world of animal husbandry to illustrate some important truths about himself and his relationship with us. He is the good shepherd, and we are the sheep who hear his voice, and who follow where he leads.

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus uses an analogy from the world of fruit farming - growing grapes to be exact - to illustrate some additional truths about himself and his relationship with us. He is the vine, and we are the branches, who live and bear fruit because of the fact that we have been grafted onto him.

This kind of imagery helps us to see that the Christian faith is not merely a matter of intellectual beliefs and ceremonial habits. It involves a very personal and very spiritual connection with Christ.

A Christian, if he is a true and genuine Christian, has the Holy Spirit flowing through him, keeping him spiritually alive and fruitful - just as a branch on a grape vine has the life-giving sap of the plant running through it, keeping it alive and fruitful.

To be connected to Christ does, of course, mean that we trust in the promises of Christ, and that we acknowledge certain things about him, and about us, to be objectively true.

There is a necessary doctrinal and intellectual component to the Christian faith. But there is also an experiential and practical component.

Christ, as he unites us to himself through the Gospel, causes us to be filled with his life. By faith we become “plugged into him,” as it were, and the energy of his love flows into us, and through us.

And when the life of Christ is in us in this way, the fruits of Christ, and of his love, will flow forth from us. C. F. W. Walther described the union of the believer with Christ, and the believer’s life in Christ, in these words:

“The Savior desires that we be grafted in Him like branches in a vine. That does not mean that we are to be physically incorporated in Him, but that we believe in Him with our whole heart, put our confidence and trust in Him, and embrace Him wholly with the arms of faith, so that we live only in Him, our Jesus, who has rescued us and saves us. When this takes place, we shall bear fruit.”

As you ponder this mystery, and as you reflect on what Jesus tells all of us today about himself and about the fruits of faith that he wants us to bear, I imagine that one of the things you are thinking about is how unfruitful your life is - at least as compared to how fruitful it is supposed to be, and could be.

I know that this is what comes quickly to my mind, when I see my failures to live up to what I know Christ wants me to be, and what I myself want to be. And I’m quite sure that I also fail in even understanding everything that he wants me to be.

I’m lacking in the fruit that I know I’m supposed to have, and I have no doubt that I am also lacking in fruit that I don’t even know I’m supposed to have, because of the weakness of my faith.

Do those who interact with you as you pursue your callings in this world, know you to be a person who speaks and behaves in ways that are noticeably different from the ways in which unbelievers speak and behave?

Do your next door neighbors hear arguments and raised voices coming from inside your house, at just as high a decible level as they do from inside the house of the unbelievers who live on the other side of their home?

Do your coworkers hear profanity coming from your lips, just as frequently as they hear it coming from the lips of the non-Christians at your workplace?

Do those who are lonely and in need of companionship, or poor and in need of help, get the brush-off from you just as often as they get it from those who do not profess to be Christians?

Jesus says: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

Are you destined to be burned - in the Lord’s righteous judgment - because of your unfruitfulness? If your life shows little if any evidence that Christ is really a part of it, or that his Spirit in dwelling in you and working through you, then maybe he is not a part of your life.

Maybe you are not abiding in him after all. Maybe you’ve just been playing a religious game - going through the motions, saying the right words - but not really believing any of it.

Maybe you are a withered branch, with no genuine connection to the vine. Or, by God’s grace, maybe you are still connected, but with a weak connection that God wants to correct and strengthen - starting today!

Notice this additional piece of the story that Jesus tells in today’s text: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

When I was young - way back during my high school years - I worked as a vinedresser for a grape-grower in my home town. In the spring of the year, it was necessary that the grape plants be pruned.

The wild growth needed to be cut off, so that only a small number of sturdy and sound branches and shoots could thrive, and bear the desired fruit. If all the wild shoots were allowed to remain on a vine, that particular vine would bear a lot of small and sour grapes - of no value to anyone.

But if the wild and small shoots on a vine were cut off, then the remaining branches and shoots would bear the kind of grapes the grower wanted. There wouldn’t be as many grapes, but they would be plump and sweet, not small and sour.

Let’s be honest and admit that in our lives, there is not as much of the desired fruit as there should be, because there are too many wild and small shoots.

Contrary to God’s will, we cling to those wild shoots, which sap away our spiritual life. And we cling to the spirit of the world and of the sinful flesh that they represent. We have not allowed God to prune them off.

So, the minimal fruit that we do bear, such as it is, is smaller and less developed than it should be. That’s why God the Father, the heavenly Vinedresser, intends to clip those shoots, and to cut them back.

He desires more for us than the half-hearted spiritual existence we have been leading. And he is going to accomplish for us, with the pruning knife of his law, what it is that he desires.

When God brings you into a painful trial, which shakes you out of your complacency, and forces you to reevaluate the meaning of your life and the priorities of your life, he is thereby cutting the wild shoots from you.

He does this so that strong and healthy shoots - the godly beliefs and values that you know should govern your life - can thrive.

When God’s commandments press themselves into you, and expose the compromises and cowardice that cause you to speak and act in the same way as unbelievers speak and act, God is thereby pruning you.

As he drives you to repentance for those compromises and for that cowardice, he is, as it were, shaving off those useless and harmful pieces of your life.

It can be a painful process. There is a certain amount of stress experienced by a plant when wild shoots are clipped off.

But it is for the good of the plant. It is so that the plant can become a mature and useful part of the vineyard, and bear good and useful fruit.

In regard to the pruning and cutting that God the Father does, Jesus says this: “Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

And then he says this to his believing disciples: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you.”

And he says the same thing to you too, today, as you yearn to be ever more firmly connected to him, and as you seek to be indwelled by his Spirit. The word that Jesus speaks to you makes you clean.

His chastisements cut away the wild and unfruitful shoots. His forgiveness strengthens and reinforces the connection, or the graft, by which you are and remain a part of him.

In its discussion of the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession includes a wonderful statement by St. Cyril of Alexandria - the famous fifth-century bishop and theologian - concerning an important application of the words that Jesus speaks about the vine and the branches. The quote from St. Cyril reads as follows:

“We do not deny that we are joined spiritually to Christ by true faith and sincere love. But we do entirely deny that we have no kind of connection with him according to the flesh. We say that this is altogether foreign to the sacred Scriptures. For who has ever doubted that Christ is a vine in this way and we are truly the branches, deriving life from him for ourselves?”

“Listen to Paul as he says, ‘We are all one body in Christ; although we are many, we are nevertheless one in Him; for we all partake of the one bread.’ Does he perhaps think that the power of the mystical benediction is unknown to us? Since this is in us, does it not also, by the communication of Christ’s flesh, cause Christ to dwell in us bodily?” So far the words of Cyril.

Whenever the message of Christ’s forgiveness and mercy comes to you - in whatever form it comes to you - Christ is joining himself to you spiritually, to sustain your faith, and to renew your love and the fruits of your love.

He’s doing that right now, as I am privileged to be telling you about his gracious desire to be a part of your life, and to live his life through you. Jesus is here now, forgiving you, and filling you.

But in the Lord’s Supper, when Christ comes to you not only spiritually but also bodily - by the power of his Word, under the forms of bread and wine - he mystically joins himself to you, and grafts you into himself, in a special and profoundly powerful way.

At such a time - as you approach him in reverent humility, and receive him in joyful faith - your spirit is energized by his Spirit, so that you believe in the things that he teaches you, and desire the things that he wants you to have.

And your mind and body are likewise energized by his true and transforming presence, so that your thoughts, your words, and your deeds become a reflection of the life of God that is in you - to his glory, and to the honor of his name.

People will see that you are different. People will see Christ, and the love of Christ, in you.

Think about that, my friends, the next time you commune. Think about what Jesus is doing for you, to make you fruitful according to his will.

Think about what is happening to you, when Christ abides in you by means of his Word and Sacrament.

Jesus says: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

And so we do ask and pray, in the words of the hymn we sang a short time ago, and with confidence that the Vinedresser will hear us and grant our petition:

As a branch upon a vine
In my blessed Lord implant me;
Ever of my Head divine
To remain a member grant me.
Oh, let Him, my Lord and Savior,
Be my Life and Love forever! Amen.

17 May 2009 - Easter 6 - John 15:9-17

At various times in history, the Christian church - at the institutional level - has allowed itself to be influenced by the economic culture of the world around it, in some very unhelpful ways. This often resulted in severe distortions of the true mission and message of the church.

One clear example of this was at the time of the Reformation, in the sixteenth century. European society was in the midst of a huge cultural transition, from medieval feudalism to mercantilism.

In the old feudal system, wealth was measured chiefly in terms of the land that a nobleman owned and controlled. In the mercantile system, wealth was now measured chiefly in terms of the money and credit that a businessman or banker owned and controlled.

During the Middle Ages, the institutional church had come under the influence of feudalism, and became the largest land-owner in all of Europe. And in the years preceding the Reformation, the institutional church had also come under the influence of mercantilism.

A desire to accumulate money, and a willingness to use money even for transactions of a spiritual nature, had brought serious corruptions into the church, and has obscured the Gospel.

This was the driving force behind the practice of buying and selling indulgences - which all people on all sides now recognize as an abuse, and which led to Luther’s decisive pastoral protest in 1517: the posting of the 95 theses.

That protest launched the Reformation movement, and inaugurated the beginning of the Lutheran Church as a distinct historical phenomenon.

The church of our day is afflicted with a similar kind of problem. The economic culture of twenty-first century America is bearing down on the institutional church once again, and is having a very harmful influence in many places. Perhaps it’s having an influence on us.

Our modern economy is not an economy of feudalism, driven by the things that drove that economic system in the Middle Ages. And it is not an economy of mercantilism, driven by the things that drove that economic system in the sixteenth century.

Instead, our economy is chiefly an economy of consumerism. This consumer-oriented economy is driven by the techniques and methods of marketing.

And the techniques and methods of marketing are, sadly, becoming the techniques and methods of many churches.

In the larger economic culture of consumerism, the consumer, or the potential buyer, is seen as supreme. The individual consumer is therefore the focus of everything that marketers do, to try to sell their company’s products.

The potential buyer is the center of attention. He is flattered and manipulated, tricked and cajoled, lured and enticed, into making a choice for the product that the marketers want him to buy.

When you are standing in the cereal isle at the grocery store, choosing which box of cereal you will take home, it’s as if the Kellogg’s cereals and the Post cereals are all calling out to you and beckoning to you.

Tony the Tiger, the Lucky Leprechaun, the Cocoa Puffs cuckoo bird, the three friends Snap, Crackle, and Pop, and various and sundry athletes, are all competing for your attention. They are all trying to persuade you - as best they know how - to make a decision for their product, and against the products of their competitors.

The question of which box of cereal you will take down off the shelf is a question that will ultimately be settled by you, and by the exercise of your free will. The marketers know that.

Therefore, everything they say and do, and every image they paint in your mind by their slogans and jingles, is oriented toward getting you to exercise your will in choosing them, and not someone else.

And this is exactly what is going on in so many of the churches of our land, to an ever increasing degree. Ministers are often not preaching the Word of God, but they are marketing God - selling him, if you will, to an audience that is out shopping for a religious experience.

The religious practitioners of the marketer’s craft identify the felt needs of their audience. They then try to persuade the audience that the God of their church can meet those needs.

And on this basis they entice their listeners to make a decision to believe in the God they are presenting, and to give that God a chance to do what they have claimed he can do.

God can give you a feeling of purpose and direction in life. He can help you to overcome addictions and flaws in your personality.

He can develop within you skills for success, that can be put to work for you in the arenas of business or romance - or both. He can give you power over your adversaries, and victory over your enemies. And the list goes on.

They proclaim a God who lets you decide what your problems are, and who then offers to solve those problems for you - as long as you make the choice to buy the product - the God - they are selling.

According to the popular theology of our time, the question of whether you will choose this God, or choose some other religious angle or program, is a question that will ultimately be settled by you, and by the exercise of your free will.

Therefore, everything these religious marketers say and do is oriented toward getting you to choose their God, and their church, and not someone or something else.

What does Jesus say to all this? This is what he says, to his disciples, and to those also in our day who believe in him and serve him:

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit...”

Jesus speaks for a God who refuses to be marketed to fallen humanity like a box of cereal. Jesus is a God who is in control of the relationships he establishes with people.

The God of the universe, who created all things, and who became a man in the person of Jesus, does not present himself to you as one option among many, and then try to persuade you to choose him over those other options.

He does not consider you to be a religious consumer, to whom he must cater. You are not in charge of whatever transaction may happen between you and him.

He is in charge. He makes the decisions. He does the choosing.

And he knows what your true and deepest problem is. He knows the difference between that fundamental problem, and the symptoms of that problem.

Your real problem is not your unhappiness and lack of success in your earthly endeavors. In your natural, original state, your problem is that you are spiritually dead.

Apart from Christ you are isolated and alienated from God. Apart from Christ you are antagonistic toward God and under the wrath of God.

In this world, and especially in the consumerist American version of this world in which we happen to live, we’re not used to being told things like this. We’re used to our “free will” being treated with more respect.

We’re used to being treated according to the maxim, “The customer is always right.” But what that simply means is that we’re used to living and thinking according to the false notion that God is eagerly waiting for us to approach him on our terms.

We’re used to the false notion that God reacts to our wishes and desires, and that he comes to us only after we have come to him, by the spiritual choices that we make, in the exercise of our free will.

The truth of the matter, though, is that, as far as unregenerated man is concerned, “free will” concerning the things of God is an illusion. We do not come into this world with a free and sovereign will.

We come into this world with a will - and with a mind and a spirit - that are captive to the dark forces that overwhelmed the wills of our first parents in Eden - and that still keep fallen humanity in bondage to the power of sin and the fear of death.

It is only when the Gospel of Jesus Christ liberates our will - through the gift of faith, and the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit - that our will becomes truly free.

Only then can we see what our true problem - our true need - had really been. And only then can we see that God, in Christ, has solved that problem, and met that need, with the salvation that he has bestowed on us, and worked in us.

As St. Paul says in his epistle to the Philippians: “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” There are many unanswerable mysteries in connection with God’s sovereign control over the affairs of men, and over the affairs of your life. But God does not invite you to speculate on why he does this or doesn’t do that; why he allows this or doesn’t allow that.

“Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” - St. Paul forcefully asks.

And God certainly does not invite you to resolve these mysteries in your own mind by taking credit for yourself, for the spiritual direction that your life takes.

When Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” he thereby humbles us before him. He humbles our will before his will.

He removes us from the center of things - where our consumerist culture wants to put us. And he places himself at the center, where he belongs.

But these words of the Lord are not only humbling. They are also comforting. Listen again to what Jesus says:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide...”

Jesus has the right to choose you, and to be in control of your life, because he has earned that right by shedding his blood on the cross for you.

In his profound love for you, he took pity on you, and made himself to be your friend - before you were willing or able to be his friend. And as your friend, he laid down his life for you.

He redeemed you from the power of sin and death, that had kept you in bondage to the devil’s will. And he accomplished for you a reconciliation with God, and deliverance from God’s judgment.

But Christ’s gracious work for your salvation doesn’t end there. He also blazes a trail from Calvary to you - to where you are right now - through his Word and Sacrament. By these means he delivers to you the blessings of his death and resurrection.

If you have a godly sorrow over your sins - including the sin of putting your consumerist self at the center of your spiritual life, where God actually belongs - know that this repentance has been worked in you by the Spirit of Christ.

Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit comes, “he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Jesus chooses to send his Spirit to convict you, and prepare you for his grace.

When this happens, it is not something that the Holy Spirit does because of your choice.

And if you now desire to be a friend of Jesus - to believe in his mercy; to accept his forgiveness; and to serve him in willing obedience - know, too, that this desire - this faith - has likewise been worked in you by the Spirit of Christ.

Jesus chooses to send his Spirit to save you, and to dwell within you. When this happens, it is not something that the Holy Spirit does because of your choice.

In today’s text Jesus says: “all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” God’s life-giving Word, which has the power to make you to be a new creature in Christ, has been brought to you, and proclaimed to you.

God’s Word, spoken to you by Christ, and sacramentally applied to you by Christ, has been implanted in your will, in your mind, and in your spirit. And through it God has converted you, and given you a new spiritual birth.

In last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was quoted as saying this: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” But by God’s grace you are not apart from him.

You are in him, and he is in you. He has chosen you for his mercy’s sake, that you should believe in him, and that you should go and bear fruit.

Also, as recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus’ disciples asked him on one occasion, “Who...can be saved?,” Jesus answered: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

By the power of your human will, and by means of your human capacity for choices and decisions, you cannot be saved. You can, of course, make choices in regard to the things that are below you - things pertaining to this life, and this world.

But apart from God, you cannot choose God - at least not the true God.

God, however, has chosen you, in Christ, to be in Christ. Therefore, in God’s strength, and according to his will, all things are possible.

In Christ, according to the new nature that has been birthed within you, you can do what God’s Spirit leads you to do. You can have faith in the Gospel, and be justified by that faith.

You can love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. You can love your neighbor as yourself.

Your captive will can be set free. Your dead will can be brought to life.

These things do not happen because of any choices that you have made for Christ. They happen, miraculously, because of the choices - the loving and merciful choices - that Christ has made for you.

He chose to bring the cleansing waters of Holy Baptism to you, and to nurture you with the preaching of his Word. He chose to instruct you in the truths of Holy Scripture, and to invite you to the sacrament of his body and blood.

And, by means of all these saving choices, and all these saving works, he has also chosen to bestow on you the gift of faith, by his grace alone, without any merit or worthiness in you.

He has called you by the Gospel, and enlightened you with his gifts. You have not chosen him. He has chosen you.

We’re not talking here about unbelievers, who harden their hearts against the Word of God, and who perish, by their own fault, without faith and without hope. We’re talking about those who have faith - who do believe the Gospel.

The reason why they believe it is not to be found in them. It is to be found in God, and in the gift of God’s Spirit.

God did not market himself to you in such a way as to appeal to your human will, and your human capacity for making choices. Rather, God gave himself to you in such a way as to transform your human will, and conform it to his divine will.

By faith you are therefore able to know that you belong to Christ, who has chosen you to be his own. By faith you are able to know that your destiny is in his hands, and that he will never leave you nor forsake you.

Lord, ‘tis not that I did choose thee; that, I know, could never be;
For this heart would still refuse thee, had thy grace not chosen me.

Now my heart owns none above thee; for thy grace alone I thirst,
Knowing well that, if I love thee, thou, O Lord, didst love me first. Amen.

21 May 2009 - Ascension Day - Mark 16:14-20

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Where is Jesus? That question has been asked and answered more than once.

At the time of the Lord’s birth, the shepherds wanted to know where Jesus was, so they could go and worship him. They were told by the angel that he was in a stable, lying in a manger.

At the time of the Lord’s resurrection, the women at the tomb wanted to know where Jesus was. The angel told them on that occasion that he was not in the tomb - where they expected him to be - but that he would be going before them to Galilee.

Today, on the occasion of our Lord’s ascension, we once again ask the question, “Where is Jesus?” When our minds are troubled by the uncertainties of the volatile world in which we live, and when we might begin to wonder if the Lord knows or cares about these dangers, we are prompted to ask, “Where is he?”

The answer of Ascension Day is that Jesus is at the right hand of his Father in heaven. This does not mean that he is now far away from us, and unaware of our trials and fears.

As God and man he is aware of everything, and will never be surprised or “caught off guard” by anything that may happen. And in his governance of the universe, from the right hand of his Father, he always knows what he is doing.

To be sure, you will not always know what he is doing, or why he is doing it. In fact, you will usually not know these things. The hidden works of God are and remain hidden from your probing and curious mind.

But Christ’s ascent to the right hand of the divine majesty means that, as God and man, he is now making full use of his divine power, for the sake of his church. He protects his church from the devil’s attacks. He creates opportunities, in the affairs of men and nations, for his church to carry out its ongoing mission.

But there are other reasons why we might today ask the question, “Where is Jesus?” It is comforting for people who are a part of God’s church to know that Jesus is taking care of them, and is watching over them from his position of heavenly power. But what if you’re not sure that you are in fact a member of his church?

God’s law tells you that you have sinned against him, and that your sins have earned God’s displeasure. And when you look at yourself, and consider what you’ve done and not done, your conscience forces you to admit that what God’s law says about your failures and missteps is true.

In the four Gospels, you’ve read the accounts of people with a similar sense of guilt and foreboding, who were able to have their guilt lifted through a direct encounter with Jesus. They were able to find out where Jesus was, and in their need they were drawn to him: to be touched by his hand, and comforted by his voice.

Those people - who lived during the years of the Lord’s earthly ministry - were assured, through that encounter with their Savior, that their sins were forgiven. They were also able to know, in a very personal way, that they were included in the Lord’s promise of protection.

But how can you know? Where is Jesus now, when you need him? Jesus is now exalted far above the earth, and all the affairs and concerns of the earth, isn’t he?

He is, after all, seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. People like us, who still dwell here below, don’t have access to his human touch and his comforting voice any more, do we?

Actually, we do! The “right hand” of God is not a reference to a specific place. God is everywhere. And therefore the “right hand” of God - the right hand of his power and majesty - is everywhere.

This means that Jesus, at the right hand of the Father, is likewise everywhere. In his ascension Jesus “fills all things,” as St. Paul tells us. He can do anything he wants to do, anywhere he wants to do it, at any time he wants to do it.

And what it is that he wants to do - for you and for all people - he makes very plain when he says to his disciples: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.”

We also read: “then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them.”

Jesus is not less accessible to us now, in his state of exaltation, as compared to when he literally walked the earth. He is, in a sense, even more accessible now than he was then, and to more people. Today, Jesus very actively works with - and through - those whom he sends forth to preach the Gospel to every creature.

Christ proclaims his words of pardon and reconciliation simultaneously from a million pulpits, all over the world. You may not be able to see him, but he sees you. And it is his comforting voice that you hear when his forgiveness is announced to you.

Christ distributes his body and blood simultaneously from a million altars, all over the world. You may not be able to see him, but he sees you. And it is his human touch that you experience when his body and blood are placed on your lips.

This is the same body that was born of Mary, and that was nailed to the cross in your place. This is the same blood that was shed on the cross for your salvation, and that washes away your sin.

And so, “Where is Jesus?” He is at the right hand of the majesty and power of God. And that means he is here, where you are, to guard you from all spiritual danger. He is here, where his Gospel is preached, to forgive you of all sin, and to assure you of his unending love.

We thank Thee, Jesus, dearest Friend, That Thou didst into heaven ascend.
O blessed Savior, bid us live, And strength - to soul and body - give. Amen.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

24 May 2009 - Easter 7 - John 17:11b-19 (ESV)

Some people seem to thrive on conflict. They always like to “stir the pot” of dissension and division.

But most people don’t like conflict and disunity. They want to get along with others. They want the organizations to which they belong, and the family of which they are a part, to be united in a common purpose and affection, and to be at peace.

And this is the attitude that most people have also in regard to their church. There are, of course, some people in various churches who always seem to be looking for something to criticize, or to be unhappy about.

But most Christians, and hopefully all of us here, are not like this. We eagerly want to be at peace with one another in the church. We yearn for a sense of oneness, in faith and mission, with all who bear the name of Christ.

We like harmony and unity. And so we also like the prayer that Jesus offers on behalf of his church in today’s text, from St. John’s Gospel.

He says: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”

Let me state quite plainly that the disunity that exists in Christendom today is a scandal, which we should all regret. It is indeed confusing and discouraging to people on the outside of the church, whom we are trying to reach with the Gospel, when they see so much division and conflict among professing Christians.

Let us, then, pay close attention to the words that Jesus speaks today, in his earnest prayer for unity among his people. Let us commit ourselves, with God’s help, to be instruments of the Lord for the healing of the divisions that afflict us.

And, let us listen very carefully to what Jesus also teaches us in his prayer about how this unity can be established and maintained.

There are many possible approaches to finding and preserving the unity of the church, and they have all been tried at one time or another.

One way to attempt to do this is to bring the coercive power of civil government to bear on the problem of religious conflict, and force everyone to conform to the officially-approved religion. Some of the earliest settlers of our country - the Pilgrims - had experienced that kind of “unity” firsthand, back in old England.

But this worldly, political approach doesn’t work. That’s why the Pilgrims ended up in America, where they could worship according to the dictates of their own conscience, rather than according to the dictates of the King.

Another possible approach is to seek to maintain the unity of the church by means of an authoritative teaching magisterium, which comes up with an official response to any controversy that may arise, and which then imposes its decision on everyone else. But is such a mechanism what Jesus is really talking about when he prays that we may be one, as he and his Father are one?

Who can really know that such a teaching magisterium is correct in what it pronounces? Where does God give such a teaching magisterium the right to bind our conscience?

Perhaps the easiest approach - a “short-cut” of sorts to unity - is to “lower the bar” through an ever-increasing doctrinal laxity. In that way, it is thought, conflicts in the church can be avoided, because there would be a shared indifference, among all the members, to anything that people otherwise might argue about.

This sort of liberalism in the church is basically an ongoing shrug of the shoulders in the face of any question that may come up. In such a setting, people avoid controversies over doctrine by avoiding doctrine.

They avoid any possible disunity over competing beliefs by basically not believing anything - or at least not believing it very strongly. But of course, the more you whittle away, in the realm of convictions and articles of faith, the less reason there will be for the church even to exist.

And with such a shallow and superficial unity in terms of what is believed, a real and vigorous unity in purpose and mission will be very hard to find. So, this is not what Jesus is talking about either.

What is Jesus talking about? Where is the oneness, that he wants for us, to be found? On what basis is it to be established and preserved?

Well, this is what he says about that specific point in his prayer for his disciples: “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. ... I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. ... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”

Notice these interesting expressions: “While I was with them, I kept them in your name.” And then: “I have given them your word.”

To keep the disciples in the name of God, and to give the disciples the Word of God, is the same thing. And the name, or Word, of God, is the only legitimate basis, and the only true source, for the kind of unity that Jesus wants us to have.

God’s “name,” of course, is not just the term we might use when we call upon him or refer to him. His holy name includes everything that he has made known about himself. His name is his self-disclosure and his self-revelation.

The Small Catechism reminds us that when we pray to our Father who is in heaven, “hallowed be thy name,” these words are said with a recognition of the fact that

“God’s name is hallowed when His Word is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God live holy lives according to it. This grant us, dear Father in heaven! But he who teaches and lives otherwise than the Word of God teaches dishonors God’s name among us. From this preserve us, heavenly Father!”

And this, my friends, is the proper way to define what it is that we are to be looking for, when we are looking for the unity of the church. This is what Jesus is talking about when he prays that we may be one, as he and his Father are one.

God’s Word is to be taught among his people in its truth and purity. And, we who believe God’s Word, are to live holy lives in accordance with that Word.

This is not a oneness based on wishful thinking, on human effort, or on political coercion. It is a oneness that has its origin in a supernatural source, namely God’s clear Word: as Jesus proclaimed that Word to his apostles, and as they proclaim it to us, still today, in the pages of Holy Scripture.

So, when there is disunity among those who profess to be Christians, this means, at the very least, that someone is not listening to God’s Word. It might mean that no one is listening. But it cannot be the case that all parties are really listening, but are still disunited.

God’s Word, proclaimed in its truth and purity, is the only valid basis for Christian unity. And when God’s Word is having free course among us, Christian unity will inevitably be the result.

God’s Word reveals to us the objective truths we are to believe about God’s holiness, about human sin, about God’s mercy in Christ, and about the salvation from sin that God offers through Christ. Our catechism and creeds summarize these Biblical facts very nicely.

This is sacred information. It is real data, and real history. And it is necessary for the church to believe and confess these revealed truths, if the true unity of the church is to be maintained.

And this remains so, regardless of how implausible some or all of these articles of faith may seem to be, to those in our day who are under the spell of rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism.

The Gospel has never tried to appeal to the dictates of human reason. God’s message of salvation in Christ has also never catered to the presumptions of those who won’t believe in anything they haven’t seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

It is a completely misguided enterprise for the church to water down its commitment to what the Scriptures teach concerning creation and redemption, death and resurrection, or forgiveness and judgment, so that those who are infected with a spirit of unbelief will, it is thought, be more likely to tolerate the trace amounts of Christian doctrine that may still remain.

Such compromises do not honor the name of God. Such compromises therefore do not, and cannot, foster the kind of unity of which Jesus speaks.

But God’s Word, when it performs its unity-creating work, does not deal solely with these objective saving facts - as important and indispensable as they are. God’s Word is also a power - a living power - by which these facts are impressed upon us in heart and soul, so that we believe them, and personally recognize them to be true.

And when God’s Word works in us in this way, it also transforms us, in heart and soul, so that we become the kind of people God wants us to be. Jesus also prayed in today’s text that his disciples would be “sanctified in truth.”

The virtues of love, peace, patience, gentleness, and self-control, which the Holy Spirit brings forth within us, contribute in obvious ways to an atmosphere of unity and harmony among Christians.

On the basis of the name and Word of God, Jesus wants his people to be united in what they believe and confess as objectively true. And on the basis of the name and Word of God, Jesus wants his people to be united in their mutual love for one another.

We do not contribute toward the unity of the church by drawing close to other Christians in a spirit of negotiation. Instead, we contribute toward the unity of the church by drawing close to God’s Word, in a spirit of humility and faith.

When that happens, of course, we will then experience true unity with others who are doing the same thing. We will learn with them. We will grow with them.

We will be patient with them and support them in their need, even as they will be patient with us and support us in our need. And we will all be built up together, stone upon stone, into the living and eternal temple of Christ’s church.

Such a task, even when it is carried out on the basis of God’s Word, would seem to be very daunting indeed. In fact, it would seem to be impossible. And it is impossible - if it were to be attempted by our own human strength.

In the weakness of our human nature, we simply cannot grasp the full depth and detail of God’s revelation. Our knowledge of God’s Word always remains lacking. There is so much that we do not understand as well as we would like.

And that’s why it’s so important to remember these words of Jesus’ prayer today. He said: “I have given them your word.” God’s Word is not placed up on a pedestal, so that you can, with some effort, reach up for it and bring it down to your level. God brings his Word down to your level from the get-go.

He gives his Word to you. He gives his name to you, and places that name upon you.

In the weakness of our human nature, no matter how hard we try to honor God’s name in how we live, we also cannot avoid the slips and falls that so often put a strain on our relationships with others. And sometimes the things we do are really shameful, and are real relationship-breakers.

When you are veering off the moral road that God wants you to be traveling, his gives you his Word - a word of warning and rebuke. He injects his law into what you are doing, or into what you are thinking, and makes it plain to your conscience that this is not to be so, for someone like you, who bears his name.

But also, when you sense your need for the forgiveness that can come only from God, and when you know that if you are to be saved, your salvation must come from God alone, then God gives you his Word once again - his word of pardon and life.

His Word reminds you of the important events of sacred history: that Jesus became a man in the womb of the Virgin Mary, that he lived a perfect life under the law, that he suffered and died under the judgment of the law, and that he rose from the grave in order to shatter the devil’s power.

And his Word also tells you, with God’s own pledge of forgiveness, and with God’s own promise of a home for you in heaven, that Jesus did all of these things for you, in your place, and for your benefit.

You are adopted as God’s Child in Christ. Your sins are washed away in Christ. You stand now as righteousness before God in Christ. The callings that God gives you in this world bestow meaning and purpose on your earthly life in Christ.

God’s Word makes all of this happen, when God gives his word to you - when God places his name upon you.

And when these things happen, the cause of the unity of the church is advanced: because what God does for you, he does for others too. As he works through his Word in these ways, to unite all of his people ever more firmly to their Savior, he thereby also unites his people ever more firmly to each other.

Don’t ignore God, or oppose God, when he wants to do these things. Instead, listen to his Word, and believe it. Acknowledge that his Word is true. Acknowledge that his name is powerful.

And thank him, that in this way he truly does establish and preserve the unity of the church. Thank him, that in this way he answers the prayer of his Son: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Amen.

31 May 2009 - Pentecost - Acts 2:1-21 (ESV)

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Alleluia.

Before his ascension, Jesus told his disciples that, before long, he would pour out upon them the special gift of his Spirit.

The Holy Spirit was, of course, already present and active among the disciples, even as he had always been present and active among God’s people. Remember King David’s penitential prayer - which we repeat every Sunday in our Liturgy - “Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.”

But the Holy Spirit would fall upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost in a unique way - in a way that would supernaturally empower them. Jesus had said that they would receive “power” when the Holy Spirit came upon them.

That no doubt sounded appealing to them, even as it sounds appealing to us. We want to be empowered, so that we can accomplish the things we want to do.

In our desire to be in control of our circumstances, and to make things go the way we want them to go, we yearn for power over those circumstances, and also over the people who are connected to those circumstances.

We want power over those things that threaten to hurt us or to diminish us: economic uncertainty, poor health, insecurity in relationships.

We don’t want to be weak or impotent. We want the confidence and certainty that comes with power - physical, emotional, and mental power; economic and political power; personal and professional power.

It’s easy to imagine, therefore, that the power that Jesus promises to his disciples, and presumably to us as well, can fit in nicely with these desires and needs.

God’s Spirit, when he empowers us, can give us the ability to make good things happen for ourselves. Or at least that might be our presumption and expectation, as we endeavor to acquire our share of this supernatural, Pentecostal resource.

That’s actually a popular way of thinking about the power of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit, in today’s religious world. If you listen to some of the well-known contemporary TV preachers - which I don’t actually recommend that you do - you will hear a lot of power-talk.

God’s Spirit, it is said, will give you power over your problems, and help you to overcome the things that hold you down and keep you back. God’s Spirit can give you power to succeed, and to reach your goals.

Is that what you are looking for? Is that what you think you need? Is that the benefit you expect to receive, when you in some way “tap in” to what was given to the church on the day of Pentecost?

Well, it is true that Jesus promised that his disciples would receive power when the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit from heaven would come upon them in Jerusalem. And they certainly needed that power.

They were frightened and timid. Their faith was still weak. In certain respects they probably also still felt like failures.

They knew they had let Jesus down at the time of his arrest and crucifixion. He had forgiven them, to be sure, and they were grateful for that. But there was still so much uncertainty swirling around them.

Jesus was now gone - at least he was gone from their sight. He had told them to wait for the gift he had promised them, and he had told them that they would receive power when this gift was received.

But exactly what kind of power would this be? They didn’t have to wait for long, to find out.

“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” That’s how St. Luke begins his account of what happened on the day of Pentecost, in Acts chapter 2.

St. Luke also tells us in this chapter what Peter the apostle told the crowd, concerning the events that transpired that day, and concerning the nature and purpose of the power that he and the other disciples had just received. Let’s listen:

“this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Peter knew that the words of the prophet Joel held the key to interpreting what was going on around him. The words of Joel also held the key to a proper understanding of exactly what kind of power the Christian church had received, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon it on that day.

There are two things here, in this quotation from Joel, to which I would like to draw your attention. First, notice all the references to prophesying.

To “prophesy” means to speak forth with authority. In Biblical usage it usually refers to those who speak forth on the basis of a direct revelation from God, although the word doesn’t have to mean that.

But notice that the power of Pentecost was manifested chiefly in this kind of speaking forth. Sons and daughters, male servants and female servants - basically everyone in the Christian church - is now empowered by God, supernaturally, to speak his Word.

God’s power did not come to these early Christians so that they could harness that power for the solution of their personal problems. God’s power came and, in effect, harnessed them, and put them to work for God, in proclaiming the Gospel to all people.

On Pentecost God gave to his church the power to speak, and not to be silent. He gave the Lord’s disciples the courage to tell others the saving message of Christ, even when this speaking and telling might result in persecution at the hands of those who don’t want to hear this message.

But they spoke it anyway. They prophesied, and declared aloud the truth of Jesus.

In their human frailty they previously didn’t have the power to do this. They were weak and timid. They were afraid. But all this changed on Pentecost, when they were empowered by God.

And this Pentecostal empowerment continues, for you, today. The Christian church still exists in this world. It’s mission has not yet been completed.

There are still many souls that do not know of their Savior. They have not heard or believed the message of Christ.

And you, dear friends, are appointed by God to be his instruments in telling them. To be sure, this is a task for pastors and public preachers, for ministers and missionaries.

But as the prophet Joel would remind us, it is also a task for all the sons and daughters of men, who have been filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith. All of the Lord’s male servants and female servants have been empowered by God, so that they too can speak of these matters to others.

You don’t have to be afraid now to say something to your friend or neighbor about Jesus, and about the salvation that Jesus offers to all people. God’s Spirit has come to you too, in your baptism, and in the Gospel that you have believed, to empower you, and to embolden you, in speaking of these things.

God will guide you and encourage you. And God will bless your words, for the saving benefit of those who hear them. This is the kind of power that God offers to you and to all his saints.

It’s not a power that you can use for the satisfaction of your earthly desires, and for the achievement of your earthly goals. It’s a heavenly and supernatural power - a loving and gentle power - that God can use, through you, for the satisfaction of his desire, to bring the forgiveness of sins to the world.

You might be surprised to see what happens, when God gives you an opportunity to speak a word of warning to a friend who is callous or indifferent about his sin, and to speak a word of comfort and hope to a friend who is troubled by his sin and who wants to know if God will help him.

You might be surprised to hear what comes out of your mouth at such times, with a level of confidence and conviction that you might not have thought possible. When those sorts of things do happen, they happen by the power of God - by the power of his Word and Spirit, working ever so calmly yet forcefully through you.

There’s nothing flashy or overbearing about this. But there is something very powerful about this. There is a hidden but real power at work, when sons and daughters prophesy; when male servants and female servants speak of the things that God’s Spirit has impressed upon them.

The second thing in Joel’s prophesy to which I’d like to draw your attention is this:

“the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Christians live in this world alongside everyone else. Christians experience the grief and turmoil of this world along with everyone else.

God does not give us a special kind of power, that allows us to avoid the sufferings and trials that are common to the human race - of which we are a part.

As the world hurls itself toward its final destruction, we will still be onboard, for the whole ride. When the world someday comes to an end - to a bitter and violent end - God’s people will still be around, enduring what others endure.

But there will be this difference - a difference that will have its origin in the unique power of God in the lives of God’s people. “it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

God’s power in your life - on the last day, or on any day between now and then - is not a power that enables you to skirt around the suffering of humanity, or to bypass the forces of destruction that continually threaten humanity.

But it is a power that will never abandon you, as you press forward in faith into the midst of suffering, and into the midst of destruction - even if it be the destruction of the world as we know it. It is a power that will enable you to call upon the name of the Lord, always and forever.

Because of the presence of God’s power in your life - a supernatural power that the Holy Spirit bestows upon you, and instills within you - no trial, no threat, no hardship of any kind will be able to separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus your Lord. That, my friends, is real power.

It’s not a power that is intended to be a resource for you to draw on, when you might seek to rise above the economic and medical challenges you may face, or when you might seek to maximize the potential of your personality.

Now, don’t get me wrong. God does not mind it if you pray to him for his help in these various matters.

After all, he counts the hairs of your head, and he is truly concerned about all the things that trouble you and upset you. He takes care of you, and helps you through the problems you face in this life, whatever they may be.

But his “power” - his Pentecostal power - reaches so far above these relatively temporary and relatively minor concerns.

The power of His Spirit doesn’t just get you ready to face tomorrow - although it does do that. It gets you ready to face eternity.

It gets you ready to face judgment day - and to face that day with the certainty that your sins are forgiven because of the sacrifice of Christ; that you are completely acceptable to God because of the righteousness of Christ; and that your soul is saved - forever - because of the grace of Christ.

God’s power, as the Holy Spirit is poured upon you and dwells within you, is a sustaining power by which you can withstand and endure anything that the devil may throw at you - any grief, any sadness, any threat.

Whatever happens, you can always call upon the name of the Lord, with the utter confidence that he hears you. Your prayers can and will ascend to the throne of your Father in heaven, and be heard by him, even if they arise from inside the most frightening of storms.

And when you call upon the name of the Lord, in repentance and faith, you will be saved. No matter what.

The storms of life in this world, and the storms that rage within your own mind and conscience, cannot sink you, when you are anchored and tethered in this way to the solid rock, Jesus Christ.

In fact, the tumults that surround you, as you call upon him, will be used by God for his own glory, and for the benefit of your soul. He will bring something good out of the worst of situations.

He will use those trials to sharpen the focus of your faith, so that you will be reminded of the fact that God and his mercy are your only hope. He will use those trials to keep your attention fixed on his Word and promises.

This power of God - for faith in Christ, and for confession of Christ - is available to you, and to all of his people, as his Spirit comes to you again and again in his Word and Sacrament. And when God empowers you through the Gospel, for the sake of the Gospel, he is thereby empowering you for things that really matter.

He gives you boldness and confidence to proclaim the message of Christ to those you know - and sometimes maybe to those you don’t yet know - whether you are a son or a daughter, a male servant or a female servant.

And he gives you a sure and certain faith: a faith that is preserved and strengthened in the midst of all adversities; a faith in which you can and do call upon the name of the Lord, and by which you are saved from your sins forever.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Alleluia. Amen.