Have you been nominated for the ice bucket challenge yet? The craze is sweeping the nation in an effort to raise awareness (and funds) for the treatment of ALS, more commonly known Lou Gehrig’s Disease. There is some concern, however, about whether or not the funds raised will be used to finance experiments with embryonic stem cells. This is no small concern because research with embryonic stem cells requires killing the embryo to extract the desired cells. Lutherans believe that such research is not moral. You can read more about that here. The question becomes whether or not there is a good alternative for donation. One option is outlined here. While we as Lutherans have disagreements with Roman Catholicism on many theological points, we agree that embryos should not be used in stem cell research. If you have accepted the ice bucket challenge and are looking for a charity to support, please consider the JPII Medical Research Institute.
Beware of False Teachers
Eighth Sunday After Trinity
August 10th/11th, 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
The World Health Organization released a statement this week declaring that the Ebola virus is a health concern of international proportions. The last time there was a concern of this magnitude was the H1N1 flu scare in 2009. Countries around the globe are being encouraged to take proper precautions to protect their population from the virus. People are being urged to take proper precautions to guard themselves and their loved ones against possible infection. But many of us already go out of our way to protect ourselves from infection. As a pastor I spend a fair bit of time walking down hospital halls. As I’m sure all the doctors and nurses and other hospital employees here today can tell you, there are hand sanitizers everywhere. There is typically one outside every patient room so that you can sanitize your hands on the way in and on the way out. That way you don’t bring in any germs or take any out. They’re by the elevators and entrance doors too because we take infection seriously and know how to protect ourselves from it.
We make it a point to protect ourselves from all manner of dangers. People with allergies carry epi pens. People with asthma carry inhalers. It is second nature for many of us to buckle up when we get into a car. We have identity theft protection and fraud alert to protect our finances. Fear of second hand smoke has led to the banning of smoking in public places. Certain building materials like asbestos and lead paint have been outlawed because of their potential dangers. The point is, when we identify potential dangers, we tend to act accordingly in protecting ourselves from those dangers.
But do we act the same way toward spiritual dangers? Are we as vigilant when it comes to things that are spiritually harmful? Do we take seriously Jesus’ warning at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, the warning we heard just a few moments ago? “Beware of false prophets,” Jesus says, for although they look harmless enough, like sheep, they are in fact ravenous wolves who are seeking to devour you. And today’s reading is not the only time Jesus issues this warning. In fact, interestingly enough, if you look at the way the word “beware” is used in the New Testament, the warning is almost always against spiritual dangers. Jesus doesn’t go out of his way to tell us to beware the sicknesses or diseases of this life. We learn that for ourselves pretty easily. Neither does he make it a repeated thing to tell us to beware the lust or greed or pride that might creep in and distract us. Again, the danger of sin is one that we know all too well already. No, the vast majority of warnings in the New Testament are warnings against false teachers and the spiritual dangers they present.
Jesus is so concerned with false teachers that he warns us in Matthew 10: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” The reason false teaching is so deadly is because it has eternal consequences. Last week we reflected on the fact that the miracle of faith is greater than the miracles of healing that Jesus performed because the miracles of healing were temporary but the miracle of faith is eternal. We are called today to evaluate the threats around us according to the same standard. Do not fear the disease that can ravage your body, for you will receive a new body in paradise. Far more important is to get to paradise, and far more dangerous is the false teacher who can get in the way. That is the one we should fear.
False teachers are so dangerous because they’re difficult to recognize. They are, as Jesus put it, dressed as sheep. The New Testament and Old Testament alike consistently say that God’s children are sheep and Jesus is our Good Shepherd. The false teacher is dangerous because he appears as a sheep even though he is a wolf. The picture on your bulletin cover might be a bit comical, but it gets the point across. By saying that the false prophet appears as a sheep, Jesus is saying that the false teacher will appear as a Christian to the outward eye. That’s what makes him so dangerous, and it’s a point of tremendous importance. It is certainly important to recognize the dangers that the world presents. There are countless places where the philosophy and ideals of the world are not in line with our Lord and his Word. It is so important to be careful what we watch, read, and listen to so that we are not blindly shaped according to the world’s standard instead of our Lord’s. But the teachers of the world are wolves in wolves’ clothing. It ought to come as no surprise that the voice of Hollywood and Washington is not the voice of Christ. When those voices speak things that contradict our Lord’s Word, we must be on guard so that we don’t buy into the deception. But we shouldn’t be surprised when they endorse things condemned in our Lord’s Word. Their influence is dangerous, but not as dangerous as those who would do the same thing in the name of Christ. Jesus warns us to beware of the wolves in sheep’s clothing, for they are far more dangerous and far more deadly.
It is sad how many churches around the world use the name Christian while at the same time rejecting or contradicting what our Lord teaches in his Word. These are the wolves in sheep’s clothing – those who would call themselves Christian yet openly teach that Jesus is not divine, that the ten commandments are not all binding any longer, that our Lord’s Word on marriage and sexuality is no longer true, that abortion on demand is somehow acceptable in God’s eyes, or any other false teaching that is spread under the name Christian. Jesus says that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will inherit the kingdom of heaven. That means that not everyone who uses the name Christian and does things in the name of Jesus will inherit the kingdom of heaven, even if those things as marvelous as casting out demons, or in our day, feeding the poor and sending missionaries into the jungle. Many are nothing more than wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their godly appearance is what makes them so dangerous. This is what we are to be on the lookout for – and we recognize it by the fruit it bears. Thistles don’t grow strawberries. You can call an apple tree whatever you want, but it will be shown for what it truly is when the apples start to grow. Similarly, you can call anything an apple tree, but it will be shown false when the oranges or peaches appear on the branches. Simply calling something Christian or picking it off the shelf in the Christian section of the book store does not make it Christian. You will know it by its fruit.
This is why we must not only be aware of the fruit of other teachers, but we must constantly be watching what we ourselves are teaching. In honest repentance, we must acknowledge that left to ourselves we would become wolves. Our sinful flesh is always looking to put itself in the place of God. Our sinful minds cannot understand the truth of the Spirit, for it is Spiritually discerned. In humble confession, we must cling to the clear teaching of our Lord’s Word above all earthly opinions. We must remain firmly rooted and growing in our Lord’s Word of Law and Gospel. The truth of Scripture will drive us to our knees in repentance. The truth of Scripture will show us our sin. It will not allow us to sit in here and think we’re better than anyone else. We are the ones who have sinned in thought, word, and deed. We are the ones who have not acknowledged God for who he is, but instead have worshiped our careers or our social life or our vacation time as if they were the most important thing in our life. We are the ones who have disrespected the authorities God has placed around us, smearing their reputation and calling it politics and patriotism. We are the ones who have murdered others with our hatred, raped them with the click of a mouse, and assaulted their reputation while hidden safely behind a keyboard or smart phone. The true teaching of our Lord’s Word doesn’t promise me my best life now, it shows me for the hell-deserving sinner that I am. It leaves me no room to escape. It is like fire, says Jeremiah, and like a hammer that breaks the rock of my self-righteousness into pieces.
But once I am crushed, the truth of our Lord’s word restores me to newness of life with the sweet healing balm of the Gospel. The fruit that is truth is the whole counsel of God. It not only crushes me in my sin, it crushes me in order that it might raise me up with the good news of salvation. It puts the life of Jesus under the microscope so that when God looks down the barrel and examines my life he sees only the perfection of his Son. It covers my sin in the blood of Jesus given and shed for me, and declares me righteous. And it is all given to me as a gift. All that is left for me is to acknowledge it, to believe it true. My believing doesn’t make it true, it is already an accomplished fact of history. Rather, the gift of faith confesses that what was done in history was done for me.
Any teacher that does not put these two realities before our eyes is but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They may have wonderful things to say about family life and parenting, but that’s just wool. If the truth of sin and salvation is obscured, the teaching is poison. The teacher may have wonderful things to say about financial management or time management, but that’s just wool. If the truth of sin and salvation is obscured then the message is poison. The teacher may speak a message that I can identify with on a political or social level, but that’s just wool. If the truth of sin and salvation is obscured, the message is poison. If the wolf wasn’t wearing sheep’s clothing, he would be easy to spot. But he’s not easy to spot. He speaks things that soothe our desires and scratch our itching ears. Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing, and listen instead to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Students and skeptics often ask in jest, “Why would Eve talk to a snake? Didn’t she know something was up when the snake started talking to her?” It’s a somewhat silly question, but the same question can be asked of the voices we listen to today. The sheep hear the voice of their shepherd. They listen to him. They know him. Don’t listen to the voice of other sheep, for sheep don’t talk. If a sheep is telling you something that the shepherd didn’t, then it’s not a sheep at all. It’sreally a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Instead of listening to the sheep, hear the voice of your shepherd. Come to the services of our Lord’s house and hear his Law and Gospel proclaimed to you, for you won’t get that from the world. Come to study our Lord’s Word with other Christians so that you can learn to better pick out the voice of your Shepherd amid all those shouting for your attention. Be diligent in prayer and private devotion so that you learn to recognize the voice of the Shepherd in your life.
Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Beware the false teachers. Protect yourself not with hand sanitizer or Life Lock. Rather arm yourselves for battle by diving head first into our Lord’s Word. Swim in it. Study it. Pray it. Live it. Confess it. That is your protection against the anger of false teachers, for the Word of our Lord is not mere information on a page, it is the life-giving breath of God that sustains you in your walk with him. It is his voice speaking to you each day to convict you in your sin and let you rejoice in the gift of your forgiveness. It is in that confession and forgiveness, in that time spent at the feet of your Shepherd, that you will learn to recognize his voice, and by that discernment, the Holy Spirit will establish you in the true faith unto life everlasting.
 Matthew 10:28
 Jeremiah 23:29
Many of us remember watching The Wizard of Oz at one point or another. Who could forget the first time Dorothy and her travelling companions stand before the Wizard. Bursts of fire. A huge intimidating head. It was enough to send the Cowardly Lion head first through a pane of stained glass. There is a similar scene in the book of Exodus when the Israelites first arrive at Mount Sinai. On their third day at the mountain, “there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled” [Exodus 19:16]. The voice of the Lord is described as being like thunder as he spoke the 10 Commandments to the Israelites. It was so intimidating that the Israelites requested that from then on Moses speak to God and tell them what God said. They preferred that arrangement to personally hearing the voice of thunder again [Exodus 20:19].
The description of this scene has led many to a false understanding of the Laws given at Mount Sinai. Because of the intimidating nature of God’s presence, many people view the 10 Commandments as a terrifying weapon God uses to attack us. But we ought to be clear when talking about the Law. The problem is not the Law, the problem is sin. The Law always accuses us in our sin, but not because the Law is bad. Quite the opposite – the Law accuses us because it is good. It is, in fact, a reflection of the perfect people God created us to be. Before sin corrupted creation, God had set Adam and Eve to live in perfect harmony with him, with each other, and with the world around them. The Law gives us God’s own summary of how this would look.
The problem is not the Law; the problem is our inability to keep it. Sin is the problem that Jesus came to solve. His death on the cross covers our inability to keep the Law. His death on the cross frees us from the condemnation of the Law, but doesn’t eliminate the Law. The Law can’t be eliminated because it is a description of the right relationship between God and his creatures. As long as there are creatures, there will be a Law that describes how God created them to exist. Think of the Law like a ballpoint pen. A pen works best when the cap is off. If you attempt to draw on a piece of paper with the pen cap on, you will be able to make some marks, maybe even legible marks that another person could read. But the pen will work best if you use it how it was designed to work. So the Law for the pen is “Thou shalt not write with the pen cap on.” In that commandment you have the description of how the pen will work best. So also the 10 Commandments – in them God has told us how we work best, how humanity works best, and how families and relationships work best.
Over the next few months we will be exploring how to properly view and use the gift of God’s Law as we set about trying to be the creatures he intended us to be. The first step in this process is to stop looking at the Law as if it is a random compilation of rules cobbled together by the Almighty so that he would have something to threaten us with, punish us for, or even save us from. God did not give the Law to suck the fun out of life, but to show us how life works best. But we must also recognize the Law for what it is and, remembering the depths of our sin, not attempt to use it to earn salvation. That would be like trying to use a pen as a steak knife instead of a writing utensil; it simply will not work. For salvation we rely on the saving work of Jesus. However, the fact that we cannot earn salvation through the Law does not make the Law useless for God’s children any more than the fact that a pen won’t cut sirloin makes it useless. It simply must be used in the time and place it was intended. The same is true of God’s Law. If we want to live the life we were created for, even this side of heaven, the Word of God given on Mount Sinai is a good place to start.
Next month, we will consider how trying to live according to God’s Law as the creatures he created us to be ultimately drives us to our knees in repentance and back to the sacrifice of Jesus for our salvation.
Confidence in the Storm
His Time Radio Homily
August 4, 2014
Author Mark Twain once quipped: “To succeed in this life you need two things: ignorance and confidence.” Anyone who has witnessed a toddler fearlessly leaping into a swimming pool with no clue as to what will happen if there is no one there to catch them understands where Twain is coming from. There is a certain confidence that one might have when he or she is clueless about the consequences. But this confidence pales in comparison to the confidence that fills your soul when you are absolutely certain of the outcome. Scary movies are not as scary the second time around when you already know how they end.
Such is the confidence that Paul had in the midst of a terrible storm at sea. The waves crashed against the boat. The rain fell so violently that hardened sailors were praying for morning. Fearful that they might be crushed against the rocks, the soldiers sought to escape by using the ships lifeboats, desperate for any hope of reaching shore. They were convinced that their ship was a lost cause. In the midst of the panic, there sat the Apostle Paul, urging them to eat something. What gave Paul such tremendous confidence in the face of petrifying conditions?
He knew the outcome. He knew how that story would end.
You see, Paul had been visited by an angel, a messenger sent from God, who told Paul, “Do not be afraid, you must stand before Caesar.” Paul knew that he would survive the storm, for he had been told as much by God. Paul knew that the soldiers, sailors, and other prisoners on the ship, 276 people in all, would survive the storm, for he had been told as much by God. Paul had the confidence not of being oblivious to possible dangers, but the confidence of knowing that no matter what dangers reared their ugly heads, he and his travelling companions would survive the journey, for he had the promise of God.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we too have the promise of God. We too have the confidence that comes only from knowing how the story ends. As Paul himself wrote in Romans, the sufferings of this life are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us at the end of the journey. So often our lives are laid siege by fear and doubt and uncertainty. A disease threatens our lives or the lives of loved ones. A job loss ushers in the uncertainty as to where we will come up with the money to meet our bills. The loneliness of a broken relationship or a relationship that never materialized fills us with uncertainty about the future.
In such moments we, like Paul, are called to put away our fear and remember the promise of our Lord. No matter what hardship this life throws at us, we have the promise of salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have the hope of deliverance given to us personally through the cleansing water of baptism, a hope that is strengthened and nourished as we feast on our Lord’s Supper. And while the knowledge of this promise doesn’t take the problems away or make our lives smooth sailing, it does give us the confidence to sit and eat in the midst of the storms.
We, like Paul, know how to handle whatever this life throws at us. We know how to be brought low and we know how to abound. We know the secret of being content in any circumstance, be it good or bad. We know the secret of facing plenty or hunger, abundance or need, sickness or health. We can handle anything through Christ who gives us strength, for we know that we do not handle it alone.
We have the promise of God that he will see us through. He will provide comfort for us in the promises of his word. He will provide for our needs in the fellowship of his church. He will not abandon us to the rocks and waves. So the next time you find yourself terrorized by one of life’s storms looming on the horizon, or by the crashing of the waves as they threaten to overwhelm you, fear not. Take heart. Don’t let Satan drive you to despair. You are a baptized child of God – you will make it safely to your heavenly home.
 Acts 27:24
 Romans 8:18
 Philippians 4:11-13
In the Midst of Miracles
7th Sunday After Trinity
August 3, 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
What do you mean when you use the word “miracle”? How do you use it? “It’s a miracle I
made it to work on time with all that traffic.” “It’ll be a miracle if the Tigers’ bull pen can get through a game without giving up a run.” The word miracle is used differently than it once was, and it’s meaning has shifted. We have a tendency to use the word miracle today to describe things that aren’t truly miraculous, but are simply rare or impressive or unlikely. For something to be truly miraculous it must break the laws of nature, like gravity pushing an object up into the sky instead of pulling it down to the earth. We tend to use the word to describe something extraordinary or improbable, but that is a bit different than the way the word is used in the scriptures, I think that significant. I think our general misunderstanding of what a miracle actually is has blinded us to some miracles that happen in the world today.
The Bible tells of many miracles, times when God intervened directly in nature in such a way that the natural order of things is overruled. Take today’s Gospel reading, for example. Jesus and his disciples were doing what they usually did, travelling the countryside proclaiming the Word of God and healing the sick. As usual, a great crowd had gathered to follow Jesus. This crowd followed him for several days, and when their provisions ran out, they had nothing to eat. Many of them had apparently packed a lunch of some sort, but now all their food was gone and they had nothing left. Jesus had compassion on them and fed them from the seven loaves of bread that the disciples had left for their own meal. He also gave them fish. About 4000 people were fed using seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. The people ate their fill, and the disciples gathered up seven baskets of leftovers, the miraculous feeding of the 4000.
But while today’s text ends there, the story does not. In fact, the story doesn’t really even begin there. In the sections before today’s reading we read of Jesus healing a young girl of an unclean spirit after her mother pleads with him by admitting that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. We also read of him healing a deaf man by putting his fingers in the man’s ears. In the section that follows today’s reading, we hear of the Pharisees once again coming to Jesus and demanding a sign from heaven, a request which Jesus denies. He will not indulge their desire for parlor tricks. After denying the Pharisees request, Jesus and the disciples get into a boat to travel to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. On the way, the disciples realized that now they had forgotten to bring enough food. As the disciples discussed their predicament, Jesus said to them, “Why are you worried about the bread? Don’t you get it yet? Are your hearts that hard? Don’t you remember how many baskets you had to gather up when I fed 5000 people? Don’t you remember how many baskets you had to gather up again when I fed 4000 people? Don’t you think I can provide for you? Do you not yet understand who I am?”
It is in Jesus’s questions that we see the importance of recognizing the miracles of the Bible as distinct from other extraordinary acts of God. The miraculous acts of Jesus were an announcement to the disciples and the rest of the world that he was indeed the long promised Messiah. What made his actions miracles was not that they were simply rare or impressive, but that they defied the way things normally work, showing the power he possessed as God. But not only were they an announcement that Jesus was the Messiah, they were an indication of what type of Messiah he is. They were a glimpse into the heart and will of God. When I was teaching at the high school, sometimes the students would get into fairly intense debates about what super power they would want to have. Some said they would want to fly. Others wanted invisibility. Me? I would like the power to freeze time, that way I could accomplish all the things I wish I could get done on a daily basis. All idle speculation aside, the reality is that as God in the flesh, Jesus had not just one superpower, but the ability to do anything he wanted. He literally had all the power in the universe right there in his fingertips. And what did he do with all that power?
Did he fly? Did he shoot fireballs from his fingertips so that people would marvel at his great power? Did he travel the countryside wowing the crowds to make a name for himself? No. He healed sickness. He gave sight to the blind. He gave speech to the mute. He gave movement to the lame. He gave life to the dead. He gave freedom to those oppressed by demons. He gave food to the hungry. That’s why the crowds came – to see creation restored to what it was before the fall. To catch a momentary glimpse of Paradise, where God himself puts all things right. As our Gospel reading makes so abundantly clear, Jesus is a God of compassion. In his miracles, not only is Jesus showing that he is the Messiah, he is also showing who the Messiah is, namely, a loving, merciful, compassionate God.
Which brings us to today. Do miracles still happen today, in 21st Century United Sates? The answer to that question begins with remembering what a miracle is. A miracle is not just something rare; the last miracle Jesus performed on earth was no less miraculous than the first miracle even though by that time people knew he could do it. A miracle is any time the God of compassion directly intervenes in such a way that the natural order of things is overruled. Neither does a miracle have to be something that would cause our jaws to hit the floor if we saw it firsthand, like raising the dead. Do you want to see a real miracle? Don’t look to the snake charmers or faith healers, look around this room right now. Remember today’s reading from Romans. Each person here today was at one time a slave to sin. We were at one time slaves to death. We were stuck in our sin so that we could not free ourselves. But now, through being united through baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are slaves to righteousness. In our old slavery to sin, our actions ultimately got us only death. But being slaves of God, the fruit we get leads to righteousness and eternal life. For the payment for sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.
If you want to see a miracle today, look around you. Look at the person next to you. Look at me. Look in the mirror. The church is a miracle of God. Through Adam’s sin, we are all born enslaved to the tyranny of sin, unable to free ourselves. The fact that any of us is here today is a miracle, for it required God to intercede and undo the natural order of things. We are often tempted to confine the miraculous to only spectacular things like the feeding of the 4000 or the many healings Jesus performed. But those events, while miraculous, pale in comparison to what is going on around you in this very room today. Those people who ate bread and fish on the hillside no doubt grew hungry again, probably that very day. Those people who had their sickness healed by Jesus still got sick again and one day died. Even the people who Jesus called out of the grave ended up back there again. Those miracles still left those people enslaved to the tyranny of sin and death. But the miracle that takes place when a person receives the gift of faith, even today, is a miracle that has eternal results.
Last week we considered how our lack of awe when it comes to the water of baptism doesn’t undo the miraculous work accomplished by God there. We have the same challenge before us today. The challenge today is to see the church of God for the miracle that it is and not be blinded by its worldly appearance. You are witnessing a miracle this morning, for this morning you are surrounded by people who were at one time dead in their sin but who are now alive in Christ. That is not something any of us can do for ourselves, it requires God coming to us to overrule the natural order of things. The fact that anyone would actually want to come hear the Word of God is a miracle of the Holy Spirit at work in them. The fact that anyone would want to come teach others of their Savior at Vacation Bible School is a miracle of the Holy Spirit at work in them.
There may not be any news crews outside trying to catch a glimpse of the miraculous thing going on in this room or in churches around the world today, but the fact that there are any Christians at all is a miracle of God, for it requires the working of the Holy Spirit to undo the natural way of sin and death in the fallen creation. Not only is the church miraculous, but the gifts given to the church are as well. Not just water, but the Word of God in and with the water to accomplish such great things as the drowning of the old man and the birth of the new. Not just bread and wine, but bread and wine joined with the body and blood of our Lord so that our new creation will be fed and nourished in faith toward God and in love toward our neighbors. It may not be as visually stunning as watching a paralyzed man get up and walk, but it is no less miraculous, for it is God himself overruling the natural way of creation to accomplish something great for you.
You live in the midst of the miraculous.
So often we are tempted to look for things that meet the world’s new definition of what the miraculous should be and end up ignoring the truly miraculous right in front of us. We are tempted to look to incredible healings or speaking in tongues or dramatic conversion testimonies as the evidence of God’s presence on earth today. But dear friends, we have the miraculous right here. We have the word of God himself preserved for us and given to us in the pages of Scripture. We have the body of Christ to feed us spiritually the same way that Jesus miraculously fed over 4000 people all those years ago. We have the gift of the new creation and the simple reality that any one of us born in sin would desire to hear the Word of God proclaimed to us. These are no small miracles, and they are around you today.
That doesn’t mean that the marvelous miracles don’t happen anymore. If something marvelous does happen, be it miraculous intervention or simply a case of God using the normal order of things to accomplish something great, rejoice and give thanks for God’s goodness. When a disease is suddenly or improbably healed, thank God. When a person walks away from a horrific automobile accident unharmed, thank God. When a person survives a natural disaster even though the odds were stacked against them, thank God. But don’t lose sight of the simple miracles in your midst each time the new creation given to you in the water of baptism seeks the things of God. Don’t ignore the miracle taking place each time you desire to pray, to read the Scriptures, to come to our Lord’s house and receive his body and blood. For these desires are truly miraculous, given to you by the working of a compassionate Messiah who cares for you.
 “God’s Care and Miracles” in the Lutheran Study Bible p.1674