Set Free

There is an old saying, “You never have to fear the truth. It will set you free.” Many would question this statement. There are times when it is hard to face the truth, especially when it confronts us with reality. For example, many

people have big problems in misusing their credit cards. When they have to face the reality that these bills have to be paid, it is an uncomfortable time for them.

Jesus believed and taught that truth was not to be feared. He said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” We are always better off to face the realities of life. It may hurt for a time, but it ultimately saves us a lot of pain.

Well, if we don’t like to face the whole truth, how about living with half-truths? This is living with the idea that, while I cannot deny the truth, it doesn’t necessarily apply to me. As we get older, it is easy to live with half-truths concerning our health. The men in my golf group are 65 years or older.

There is always something wrong with one of us. Some go to the urologist, dermatologist, or oncologist. Others are on the way to see the cardiologist, rheumatologist or orthopedist. Often one will say, “I can’t understand what is wrong with me. It seems like I am on my way to the doctor most of the time.”

One day I suggested that we really know what is wrong; we just don’t want to face the truth.

One of my friends asked, “What is wrong with us?”

I suggested to the group that we are getting older and the body is wearing out. It is like an automobile with 100,000 miles on it. What can we expect at our age?

Read the obituaries and the evidence is before us. We are mortal beings. It is appointed for us to die. That’s truth, which is kind of hard for some to accept, especially when we are enjoying life. We sometimes tell our kids to act their age.

Maybe we who are older have to accept our age.

It is also difficult at times to accept spiritual truth. We are not as verbal in telling

others what is wrong with us spiritually as we are physically; but in all honesty,

doesn’t some of our behavior bother us? Don’t you get disappointed with yourself?

We have been Christian for many years, but we still have a quick temper, a critical

spirit, and a self-centered personality. Why is that the case?

God tells us the truth about ourselves when He says, “Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men because all sinned . . .” (Romans 5:12).

What does it mean? It means that sin has come into the world, and it is passed on to us from our first parents. It’s called original or inherited sin. Original sin carries with it imperfections of all minds. By nature we are not the good people that humanism pictures us being. We are born with a fallen nature and are helpless sinners.

That’s why I have trouble with temper, a critical spirit, and a self-centered personality. Listening again to St. Paul. He writes, “What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?” This is the spiritual truth I must face if I want God to help me. It is when we accept the truth about who we are that God’s Word brings us great hope. Jesus says, “Never fear the truth. It will always set you free.”

No one understood this better than Martin Luther. On this Reformation Sunday, let’s take a look at the Reformer’s experience when facing the truth.

Martin Luther was a brilliant young law student who was haunted with the question, “How can I appease a Holy God?” Luther faced the truth that he was a helpless sinner. But his answer to the problem was to escape to the monastery in the hope that there would be fewer temptations to sin

there. Instead he experienced Satan’s power there as well as on the streets of Eisnarach.

He went to confession frequently, and his confessor suggested that he not take himself so seriously. He continued to search the writings of the Church Fathers in the hope that there the answer could be found. Nothing seemed to help. But then came that blessed day when, in the Word of God, the Holy Spirit opened Luther’s eyes, and God revealed the truth, “the righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). Humans cannot save themselves; but God, in His love and mercy has given His Son, the Lord Jesus, to pay the price for our sins through His sacrificial death and resurrection. It was Christ and Christ alone who set Luther free.

When we meet Jesus, we find out the truth about ourselves, and that truth sets us free. That spiritual freedom transcends all other freedoms. How thankful we should be for our political freedom; but even that great blessing does not compare to spiritual freedom. Hitler took political freedom away from the German people, but thousands in that great nation walked through

the Nazi enslavement as free people in Jesus Christ.

These last weeks have presented us with new fears. Our country has been attacked. Buildings have been destroyed. A biological attack, though

ever so small, is causing us some distress. We are told, and rightly so, to remain calm. But how can we, if our souls are in spiritual captivity?

On this Reformation Sunday, let us not forget our heritage. From the Scriptures we have learned that, through faith in Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are restored into fellowship with God forever. Trusting in Him we are safe forever more.

Persistent in Prayer

Religious feelings are natural, but they can never be the basis for our Christian faith. Aren’t your emotions touched when you sing a familiar hymn? I feel a tear in my eyes when we sing “Jesus Loves Me.” Some of it is nostalgic. I remember singing that hymn as a child in Sunday school. How simple, but true, the message is. It is not the music nor the feelings that make the hymn so important, but the words, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” It is a truth I have carried with me for more than 70 years.

The foundation of our faith is Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “For no one can lay any other foundation than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 3:11). We grow in our faith, and the Christian’s spiritual maturity can be seen in his or her prayer life. That’s what Jesus is talking about today in our text, which has but one message, “Let the Christian be persistent in his or her prayer life.” To make His point, Jesus tells another parable:

In Jesus’ day, the judicial system was corrupt. Unless you had money and influence, there was no hope of getting your case settled. In this culture, Jesus tells of a widow lady who was not going to be pushed away. Someone had treated her unjustly. She had no money and few people knew her, so there was little social influence working for her. However, she continually went to the judge saying, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” The judge refused; but finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming.” She was persistent.

Jesus told His disciples, “You can learn from this woman. If an evil judge, who cares nothing for God nor man, grants the wishes of this woman, will not God, who is your Heavenly Father, hear your prayers as you persistently come to Him?” Prayer is not simply coming to God when we are upset, asking our Father to grant our request, and then leaving Him. There is such a thing as “wrestling with God in our prayers.” This is the prayer life of a mature Christian person who lives in an intimate relationship with God.

But how mature is our prayer life?

Nearly six weeks ago our nation was attacked. We sat glued to our television sets unable to believe what we were seeing. The World Trade Center was hit by an airplane, not once but twice, killing thousands of people. Then came the news that the Pentagon had been hit, and there were more dead. Then a fourth plane was highjacked near Pittsburgh. This was to have attacked the White House or the Capitol.

What was coming next?

America experienced a need for God. It was a spiritual awakening. Tens of thousands of people crowded into their churches to ask God for strength to face what was happening, guidance for those who were to lead us in this frightening time, and deliverance from the enemy. The leaders of our land gathered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. as Billy Graham pointed our nation to Christ as our only hope. Later leaders in Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol Building to sing, “God Bless America.”

My wife and I went to our church and were moved as young and old filled the large sanctuary. They had come to make their requests known to God. The Holy Spirit was at work in our souls. I rejoiced that, deep in the hearts of many people, there is still a spark of faith crying out to God in times of crisis, saying “We need you!”

But how immature it can be. Six weeks have passed, and America is getting back to normal. This includes our spiritual life. The airports are open. People are traveling. The stock market is back doing business. Our fears are being quieted as government leaders tell us they are on top of the situation and ready to deal with the enemy. Six weeks ago we needed God, but now it appears we can handle the situation ourselves. A pastor friend of mine said that on September 11, the day of the attack, his church was filled for a prayer meeting. He decided that they would continue this prayer meeting each week. Three weeks later there was just a handful of people coming to pray. We can be assured that the citizens of this great land, and those who lead us, need God’s help as much on October 21 as they did on September 11.

Jesus is telling us today that true prayer is not just sending God a message to take care of us when all else fails. That is only the beginning. The prayer of a mature Christian is persistent.

Pray and don’t give up. This applies to our nation at this hour. It applies to us as individuals. He tells us in this parable not to be discouraged when our prayers are not answered according to our will and on our timetable. Many times I have asked people who were having difficult times, “Have you prayed about your needs?” Often they responded, “Yes, I tried to pray, but got no answers. Praying does no good.”

In contrast, I had a woman in my church whose husband died. She had children to raise. Many times during the day and night during his illness she would ask God to place His hand of healing upon him. She spelled out to God how much she needed her husband in the raising of the family. But, in spite of her praying, he died. In one of my visits after the husband’s death she told me that she was still praying. Now she was asking God what to do next. The prayer went something like this, “All right God, here I am. I asked you to heal my husband, but he died. Now, what is my next move? It’s in your hands. Show me what to do, lead me, strengthen me.” Then she smiled and said, “Believe me, He is answering this prayer. He is strengthening me. I still wish that I had my husband with me. It would help so much, but God isn’t going to let me down.” This is persistency in prayer.

Any person, who has done a lot of praying during his or her lifetime, will agree that there are many mysteries surrounding our prayer. Satan doesn’t lose any time in tempting us to question the value of praying, since sometimes we do not get what we ask to receive. But our Heavenly Father has told us to pray, and today He says, “Be persistent in your prayer life. Continue to pray.” Your Heavenly Father is listening and will grant your prayer, if it is according to His will. Isn’t that reason enough to keep on praying?

Lord, Increase My Faith

This is the last sermon in a series of three with the theme, “Sixty Minutes with Jesus.”

What would you ask Jesus if you had the opportunity to spend an hour with Him? I have asked Him two questions:

How should I, as a Christian, relate to people?

Will you give me a better understanding of my relationship with You?

Today my question is: Lord, will you increase my faith?

The prayer, “Lord, increase my faith,” came first from the apostles. These men felt inadequate when they heard what plans Jesus had for them. They were convinced that, as humans, they could not accomplish what God wanted them to do. Christians in every age have shared these same feelings. The human being does not have the spiritual strength to live the Christian life without the Lord increasing his or her faith.

From this request, “Lord, increase my faith,” we learn that faith is not static. It either grows or diminishes. There is a weak and strong faith. Jesus said, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to the mulberry tree, ÔBe uprooted and planted in the sea, and it will obey you.'” Using pictorial language, Jesus is saying, “That which looks impossible becomes possible if it is approached in faith.”

But before we go further, we must clarify what faith is. Bishop Ryle, in his commentary, says, “Faith is that hand by which the soul lays hold of Jesus and is united with Him, and is saved.” It is far more than simply giving intellectual assent to all that the Bible says about Him. Some of the world’s greatest theologians who have acquired vast amounts of knowledge about the Lord often do not have the faith that their parents, with much less education, have. One theologian of our generation was asked, “Do you believe there is a hell?” He replied, “That is an interesting question. I am not sure how to answer it. I know my parents believed in hell, for that was the reason they spent their entire life in Africa as missionaries.”

Faith is throwing ourselves into the arms of Jesus and trusting Him for life and salvation. As we are baptized and instructed in God’s Word, the seed is sown. Then it has to be fed. As we walk with Christ in His Word, the faith increases. It is the Holy Spirit who creates the faith through the Word and sacrament. As our faith grows, we receive the guidance and strength necessary to carry out the work our Lord has given us to do.

In faith we bring our cares to the Savior who has invited us to come. Today we have cares in our national life that are quite different from what they were two months ago. Then our greatest concern reported by the media was the falling economy. Today, in the midst of a scary war, we are concerned about biological warfare and other threats that could affect us seriously right in our homes. How do we deal with this care? In faith we bring the concern to Jesus, who is adequate and will give us grace to face the day.

In faith we bring our sins to Christ. Our sins will differ. Yours could be different from mine, but neither of us can afford to let them linger long in our souls. The guilt can kill us. Not long ago, I visited with a young woman who felt life was over for her. She had made some serious mistakes and tried to deal with them in her own way, which did not work out. I pointed out to her that these sins can be forgiven, and, in Christ, she can start over again. “But how do I get this faith to believe these promises? I have known them all of my life, and I believe they are true, but I just cannot seem to make them the truths with which we live.” It is at this point she prays with the apostles of old, “Lord, increase my faith. The temptations of the day are strong, and I am weak.”

In faith we bring our families to Christ. Our children and our grandchildren live in a world where temptation is all around them. Imagine walking on the campus of one of our colleges surrounded by a vast majority of students and professors who claim no allegiance to Christ. How important it is that we pray for them, not only that their grades will be good and their experience at the university will be pleasant, but also, in the midst of it all, that their faith will be strong.

In faith we bring congregations to Christ. “Lord, increase our faith to reach out to the lost. Help us to at least entertain the thought that not all who sit in our churches on a Sunday morning are saved. Give us the grace and love to make clear that only in Christ is their salvation. It is frightening to evangelize on our own strength, but empowered by the Holy Spirit, Christians can be assured that we will not only have the right words, but also the right spirit to confront the lost with God’s love in Jesus Christ.

This prayer, “Lord, increase our faith,” can be answered. The Bible says, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). If we will only spend some time with Him in His Word and prayerful meditation, we will experience God at work within us. It makes no sense to say, “I want a stronger faith,” and then turn our backs on the means Ð Word and sacrament Ð that God has chosen to increase our faith.

Meditation is another means God has used in increasing my faith. It is good for us to look back and see how God has been at work in the lives of those who trust Him. The present can sometimes be discouraging, and the future can be frightening, but meditating on the past can be encouraging as we see what God has done in our lives. He was with us as He said He would be in those perilous times. He gave us a peace which passes all understanding, as He said would be the case. He has given us strength to move mountains that would otherwise have destroyed us.

Note how Christ has changed the lives of friends and family. We often lament that some have gone astray and are living wretched lives. Such is true, but think of those who have been turned to the Lord and their lives are entirely different from once they were. All of these experiences are used by God to answer our prayer, “Lord, increase our faith.”

Yes, the apostles knew they were inadequate to do what the Lord had called them to do, but they learned after Pentecost that, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they could become powerful people as the servants of Jesus Christ.

So also with us, our prayer needs to be, “Lord, increase our faith,” and that is why one of my requests in the sixty minutes with Jesus would be to ask Him to cast out my doubts and trust Him for all he has promised to do for and through me.

God, You Owe Me One

If you had an opportunity to spend 60 minutes with any person, who would it be? I asked this same question in last Sunday’s sermon. A musician might like to have an hour with Bach. A professor of literature might choose to spend her hour with Shakespeare. Lincoln may be the choice of a historian, and I wonder if a psychiatrist would not like to learn more from Hitler or bin Laden about their disregard for human life.

My choice for this hour conversation would be Jesus. The first twenty minutes I would like to learn more about the Christian’s relationship with people. In today’s interview with our Lord, I would ask questions about my relationship with God. As our relationship with God becomes more personal, it also becomes more complex. One of these questions would be, “Do you ever feel indebted to the human being?”

Jesus discusses this question in our text today. His answer is, “God wants to give you everything necessary for an abundant life, but He owes you nothing.”

Jesus makes it very clear that no person ever makes God his or her debtor. To make His point, Jesus tells a story. There was a servant who worked all day in the fields. With the day’s work done, he returned to the house. His body ached, and he was exhausted. Did the master say, “You have had a hard day. After you have bathed, come and eat with me”? No, rather the master greets the exhausted laborer with the command, “Prepare my dinner, and when I have eaten, you may eat.” Did the master thank the servant for his labor? No. Jesus concluded the story by saying, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”

God can function without us, but we cannot exist without Him. He owns us. We are not our own. He has created us and daily sustains us. When we separated ourselves from God, He made it possible for this relationship to be restored by sending Christ to suffer and die as a payment for our sins. We can contribute nothing to our salvation. It is a gift from God.

What is your honest response to this teaching Ð that God owes us nothing?

Is it not true that the human attitude shows a lack of understanding of what Jesus is teaching in the parable? Do we not sometimes feel like saying, “God, I think you owe me a favor”? You could present your case. “Lord, I believe that Jesus is my Savior. I try to do Your will. I am a faithful member of the Church. I run my affairs in a Christ-like manner. Isn’t this worth a favor? My wife is terminally ill. She is such a good person. How about making her well? My son has made a mess out of his life, but don’t you owe him another chance to make up for all of his mistakes? I have been a generous contributor to the church. Shouldn’t you reward me by blessing my business?”

Are these not some of our thoughts and the basis for our “why” questions? In an emotional state, it is easy to say, “It’s unfair, God. Where were you when I needed you most?” Jesus makes it clear that God does not have to answer these questions, nor bestow favors because we have lived a respectable life. He is not indebted to us.

However, this parable is not the whole truth about our relationship with God. Not out of obligation, or even out of fairness, but out of love, God says in His Word, “I want to give you everything that will make your life abundant, but I owe you nothing.” Listen to some of His promises.

“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.” That was a word God gave to a young father and husband. His wife was dead. He had little children to raise. It was necessary for him to work. How could he ever be both father and mother to these kids? There were no human words that would bring him comfort. From a human point of view, it just didn’t make sense. While other couples were out having a good time, he remained at home trying to get involved in a television program or good book, but he was angry. Thankfully, he could bring his feelings to God, and gradually God’s Word began to do its work in his soul. There was a comfort in knowing that God walked with him and the children, and all the wonderful kindnesses that came to him from others served as evidence that God had not forgotten him.

Months after the funeral, he said to me, “Do you remember the words you read for me the night Jean died?” Before I could acknowledge that I did not remember, he quoted them, “ÔAs a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.’ It was only after a lot of tears and anger that these words began to make sense, but truly He is my comfort. It is very difficult without Jean, but by God’s grace, we are making it.”

The last weeks have been frightening for us as a nation. Thousands are dead. People in prominent positions admit they are not quite sure how to fight a war such as we have. If it were a showdown on who had the best army and the finest equipment to fight a war, we could defeat the enemy, but knives in the hands of people for whom life is cheap are more powerful than nuclear weapons in the hands of those who understand how precious life is. It is in this hour that God says, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

This is the promise God has given to every Christian, and not the least of all, to our President, who openly confesses that Jesus Christ is his Savior and lives in a personal relationship with Him. This is the Word that brings confidence in the midst of a very dangerous world situation. This promise is God’s gift to us. These gifts do not come from our demand, but because God loves us and wants to give us everything; but He owes us nothing.

Yes, all relationships are complex. Certainly this is true in our relationship with God. He is our Father and loves His children, but He is still God. Why He does not always answer our prayers the way we believe they should be answered is an unknown. Someday these questions will be answered, but today we pray, “Increase my faith, Lord, that I can live with your promises and know that you have said, ÔI came that you might have life and have it abundantly.’ Help us to understand that You want to give us everything that will be good for us, but you owe us nothing.”