A Voice in the Storm

If anyone believes that being a Christian exempts him from the difficult experiences of life, he is not acquainted with the life of St. Paul. The Apostle was beaten at Philippi, stoned in Lystra, imprisoned in Caesarea, unjustly accused in Jerusalem, and shipwrecked in the Mediterranean. All of this Paul endured while suffering poor health.

That is not all. Paul also suffered emotionally. He was sneered at in Athens, hated by the masses of his world, rejected by old friends in Jerusalem, and misrepresented by the religious rulers in the secular court. Paul knew what it was to encounter difficulties in life. He had sailed figuratively on the stormy seas of life, and today’s text presents the Apostle truly floating around on a plank in the stormy Mediterranean Sea.

How did Paul get into this predicament? The answer is clear. He preached Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. While his enemies tried to silence him, Paul refused to be quiet. As a result, Paul was brought to the courtroom of Governor Festus in Caesarea. The Jews asked that Paul be tried in Jerusalem, and the Governor asked if Paul would agree to their request. Paul replied, “If I am guilty of doing anything deserving of death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar.”

Hearing Paul’s dogmatic statement, Festus replied, “You have appealed to Caesar. To Caesar you will go.”

When all was ready, Paul and the other prisoners were loaded on a ship and set sail for Rome. It was during this journey that they were caught in a hurricane similar to what we have read about the past few weeks that caused millions of dollars worth of damage in Florida.

In the midst of the storm, the sailors panicked. They were convinced there was no chance for any of them to live. Sensing these men were terrified, Paul spoke these words: “Men, I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of God, whose I am and whom I serve, stood beside me and said, ÔDo not be afraid, Paul! You must stand trial before Caesar in Rome; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.”

Soon it was learned they were close to shore, and the ship could be thrown against the rocks. They set anchor and prayed for the dawn. When morning arrived, they were near a sandy beach on the island of Malta. They were safe and on their way to Rome.

This incident in the life of St. Paul reminds us that God never spares his children from the storms of life. Neither does He leave them comfortless. For as God once spoke to Paul in the Mediterranean, so the voice of God speaks to us in our storms.

There are many people who ask the question, If God does not spare his children from these earthly difficulties, why should we bother with him? One answer to that common question is abundantly clear from our text: When our lives are tossed to and fro on the sea of life, we need an anchor that will not fail us. We need a voice speaking in the storm, assuring us that all is well. That voice must have an authoritative note. Only the voice of God is adequate in the storms. Because God has spoken this promise to Paul, he could in turn speak authoritatively to those who felt they were perishing. It is this voice from God, uttered by Christian people, that our world needs to hear in every generation, including ours.

Life places us in some precarious situations. We find ourselves in dangerous and frightening circumstances. Let us think of some of these times.

About fifteen years ago I visited a close friend and member of our congregation. Hans was in the hospital to get relief from severe pain. It was an emotional visit for me as we shared Psalm 23. Later that day I wrote about this visit in my journal. We talked about walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Hans knew his death was close at hand. He wanted to live. There would be exciting times watching his family grow to adulthood and make great contributions to God’s Kingdom. One daughter is a physician, and she and her husband spent many years in Nepal ministering to the poor people who had so little medical care. How proud Hans would have been to learn of her accomplishments!

His grandchildren were outstanding athletes. I can see him now at one of those games cheering them on to victory. Yet he was going to have to leave all of this excitement. This had to be an emotional hurricane. Yet, in the midst of the storm, he quoted these words from the Bible: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” Then he said, and I have this in my notes, “Sometimes God lets us get close to the borderline where you simply cannot stand the temptation anymore.” Wouldn’t you have wondered, had you been Hans, why you had to suffer this severe pain and leave your family? Still, God’s Word was his anchor.

Here is another symbolical hurricane: Your son has enlisted in the Marine Corps and is about to be sent to Iraq. You have read that more than 1,000 young men and women from our country have died in this war. Thousands have been wounded. Could this be the fate of your son, whom you love so much? That is an emotional hurricane. You need an anchor, and that anchor is the promise of God’s Word. The Lord has not promised that your son would return home. However, He has said he would walk with him.

Life has its storms. Some of them are of our own making; others are the circumstances of life. The Old Testament Prophet, Jeremiah, knew God was his anchor when he wrote, “I remember my affliction and my wondering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ÔThe Lord is my portion; there I will wait for him.’ The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lamentations 3:19-26).

Trust Him! His voice speaks clearly in the storms of life.

The Call to Faithfulness

Humans have a need to be accepted. Consequently, we make great efforts to be liked by others. Preachers are no exception.

Mark Dever, in his book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, quotes Oz Guiness: “The preacher, instead of looking out upon the world, looks out upon public opinion, trying to find out what the public would like to hear. Then he tries his best to duplicate that. He then brings his finished product into the marketplace where others are trying to do the same. The public, turning to our church culture to find out about the world, discovers nothing but its own reflection.”

Speaking about my own profession, I wonder if we in the clergy do not misread what our world (culture) wants to hear from us. In order to be accommodating, we often do not speak the authority from God’s Word, but instead preach what will not be offensive to others.

Still, it is not only clergy who fall into this temptation. Campaigns leading to political offices from the President of the United States to the county supervisor candidates for office are asking, “What do my constituents want to hear from me? Whether it is right or not, without their approval I will not be elected.”

This is what Jesus and his disciples are discussing in our text today. You know the parable well. It was a favorite story when I was a child in Sunday school. The manager of a rich man was accused of wasting his possessions. “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

Hearing this, the manager asked himself, “What am I going to do? I am too weak to do physical labor for a living, and I am too proud to beg.” Then he made up with what he thought was a brilliant idea. He would work a deal with his master’s debtors. The first debtor, who owed for eight hundred gallons of olive oil, was told to cut it in half. Then he asked another debtor how much he owed. The fellow replied, “I owe for a thousand bushels of wheat.” The manager told this man to take the bill and make it eight hundred bushels.

When the rich man who owned the business learned what the manager had done, he commended him for being so shrewd. It was not a bad idea to use money to win friends. That should buy him security when and if sometime in the future the going is rough and he would not know where to turn.

But then Jesus pointed out that this kind of reasoning did not work in the Kingdom of God. Note these words: “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (3).

In our secular world, compromise is the rule of the game. You give a little and take a little. That is the way we get along with each other. There is much truth to this teaching. How important it is to realize in our family setting that it is a give-and-take situation. However, this teaching does not work in our relationship with God. Here we are called to faithfulness.

No matter how often our culture would say there are many kinds of religion and all are equally acceptable, God says, No, no, no.

What does the world want to hear about marriage and its related subjects: divorce, cohabitation, and same-sex marriage? This is one of the church’s more recent answers to these problems:

Well, these are tough subjects to deal with in our society. After all, we cannot be offensive to these people who employ such lifestyles. Before we become too harsh in our judgments Ð even when they are not our judgments, but the Word of God’s teachings Ð let us choose a committee and let them come up with a recommendation that we will vote on at some church assembly several years from now.

I have a friend who often gives this counsel: When all else fails, why not try a little honesty? It might just be the solution to the problem you are trying to solve by being so diplomatic.

How can we, who know the truth from God’s Word, be so unfaithful to Him who has loves us so much?

I believe that as Christians we are reading the world wrong when we think they want us to adjust the teachings of God’s Word to be more palatable to their way of life. The unbeliever comes to the Christian for help with his or her way of life. At that point, we are tempted to condone the way they are living Ð a lifestyle very much contrary to God’s revealed will. Now they are hearing from me, a Christian, what they are hearing from some of their friends who are not Christians. I truly believe some of them cry out, “I need someone to tell me the truth about my lifestyle!”

It is at this point that Christians have a marvelous opportunity to share what God’s Word has to say about the way this person is living and what he believes.

We talk a lot in Christian circles about God’s faithfulness to us. What about our faithfulness to Him? Isn’t living the double life one of our greatest sins? Our text is just one more passage from the Scriptures that tells us so clearly God is not interested in a double loyalty. He said it clearly: “You cannot serve two masters.”

Promises – Human and Divine

How big is your world?

The size of your world depends on how you handle promises – the promises that come from humans and from God. The person who is skeptical of every one and every thing lives in a very small world. How sad it is to hear people say, “Life has taught me never to trust anyone.” A conversation with this person reveals that some time along life’s way he has been burned one time too many. After being let down repeatedly by people he trusted, this person has concluded that he cannot trust anyone.

With this outlook, the skeptic becomes a bitter person. Life is very narrow, for he trusts no one other than himself.

On the other extreme, we meet people who are so trusting they are sometimes gullible. They trust everybody, though they know their promises are questionable. They simply do not want to doubt the word of anyone, especially those who are close to them. We might call them naive, but they are happy people, and they live in a big world.

Let us take a look at human promises.

Some promises are never intended to be kept. My Aunt Jenny made promises she knew would never be kept. She lived about a hundred miles from our home. In those days it took about three hours to drive that far. When Aunt Jenny invited us to dinner, she would say we would eat promptly at noon. The argument that my father and mother had over the invitation was when to leave for Jenny’s house. Mother was afraid one day she would actually have the meal ready on time. However, my father said it would never happen. Too often the dinner scheduled for noon was served at 2:30 p.m. Dad and Mom settled their differences this way: We would arrive at noon. However, just before we got to Jenny’s house we would stop and have lunch in some diner. This would tide us over until dinner was served, and we would still be in good humor.

Was Aunt Jenny a liar? No, that would be too harsh a statement. She just did not plan to be ready when she promised.

Some promises go beyond our ability to keep. A husband promises his disabled wife to care for her in their home until she dies. I watched the faithful husband get weaker and weaker. One day he said with tears in his eyes, “I promised Mary that I would care for her in our home until she dies. However, I am not giving her good care.” The situation got so bad he finally had to give in and put his wife of many years in a nursing home. This was much better for both of them. However, the husband lived with great guilt. “I lied to her; I lied to her,” he would say to me after our Bible study each Thursday morning.

Was the faithful husband a liar? No, he had simply made a promise he was not able to keep.

Because people have not kept their word, we are tempted to weigh all promises with some doubt. Second marriages often carry some skepticism for the future. Will my new spouse really keep our vows?

Because the promises of humans are not always kept, we raise the question, Can we trust the promises of God? The stronger we grow in our relationship with Him, the more we trust his promises. Our world then grows bigger and bigger, filled with more challenges and abounding in excitement as God uses us to do big things for him.

Isaiah was God’s prophet to Judah. He was fearless in pointing out the people’s sins. It took courage to announce to his people, “See the day of the Lord is coming – a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger – to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. I will punish this world for its evil, the wicked for their sins” Isaiah 13:9-11.

Where did the Prophet get the courage and strength to bring such a pointed message to the people he loved? He claimed the promises God gave him. Listen to these words of assurance from God to his servant:

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” Isaiah 43:1-3.

On another occasion God said to the Prophet,

“So 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.

God told Isaiah there would be very difficult days. However, Isaiah had God’s promise: “I know you personally. I can call you by name. I will give you strength and will help you. I am going to take you by the hand and let your voice be heard that my people may repent of their sins and turn to me.” Isaiah was living in a big world when he knew God was leading him.

God has empowered many persons in our day with this same strength to tell us of our sin. It was what Martin Niemoller did when he confronted Hitler telling the dictator that the destiny of the German people was in the hands of God. God gave Martin Niemoller the strength to remain faithful all the way to the concentration camp.

King David was Israel’s strongest king. He writes, “The promises of the Lord prove true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in Him.” David faced the enemy many times, but always with the confidence that the Lord was with him. He wrote, “Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” His world was big, for he trusted the promises of God.

Through his word, God brings us the same promises. Listen to some of them:

“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.”

“As your day is, so your strength will be.”

“He who has the Son has life.”

“Nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Trusting promises such as these, we do not have to let the threats of humans hold us captive in a small world. As God’s servants, we are free to break out of spiritual captivity and be a strong voice in building the Kingdom of God. If we trust only in our own powers, or hide behind the name of some nation or institution, our strength will soon wane, and we will crumble. However, if we go in the name of the Lord Jesus to proclaim the Gospel, there is nothing to fear, for he is with us.

The congregations and individuals who have done great things for God have trusted his promises. Their world is big.

Turning Blessings Into Idols

What is your greatest temptation?

A woman answers, “Letting my temper get out of control. Since I was a child, I have had a very short fuse. It still is a major problem for me. Let me get angry and someone is apt to get a tongue lashing.”

The alcoholic replies, “Being tempted to take a drink is a real problem for me. I am only one drink away from being intoxicated.”

Do I have any company if I should say, “Turning my blessings into idols is a real temptation for me.”

Our children are very good to their aging parents. Three weeks ago we had a marvelous weekend with them, living high on the hog. We attended the PGA golf tournament, played a game of golf at a beautiful country club, and went to a major league baseball game in the new Milwaukee baseball stadium. As we drove to the golf course, I thought of the blessings God has given to us: enjoying our daughter’s gorgeous Wisconsin home on Lake Winnebago, being transported in comfortable automobiles, and enjoying good health.

After returning home, I read the Old Testament lectionary text for today. Moses says to Israel, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (15-18).

I find nowhere in the Scriptures that says wealth, in and of itself, is displeasing to God. Is it not God who has made the wealth possible? We live in a nation where we have been given every opportunity to be successful people in what we choose to do. However, He also sets before us the warning of death and destruction. The blessings He has given us can become a curse. When does this take place? When the blessings become idols for us. They become the center of our lives. It is easy to let this happen in a culture that is affluent. God’s first commandment is, “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism is, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

This warning of turning blessings into idols was first voiced by Moses to the children of Israel as they were about to enter the promised land. Israel had spent forty years in the wilderness as a punishment from God for being a rebellious people. Now they were beginning a new chapter in their history.

They would move into the land God promised them where they would build a nation from which the Messiah (Savior) would come in the flesh. They would be under Joshua’s leadership, for Moses was not permitted to walk in the promised land because of his rebellion toward God. However, the old leader wanted Israel to hear clearly what God was saying to them.

“I set before you today life and prosperity, or death and destruction. Walk in God’s ways, and you will live and increase. But if your heart turns away from God, and you bow down to other gods and worship them, you will be destroyed. You will not live long in this new land that God gives to you.”

They had a choice. Their possessions could be turned from a blessing to a curse. The material gifts that satisfied their appetites could entice them to move away from God to other gods. They could begin to live for more money, power, prestige, and pleasure. These possessions could become their idols. God could be placed in the background and only addressed under certain situations, conditions, and places. Israel was confronted with a choice. Follow God and be blessed, or turn from him and be scattered.

The rest of the story is made known as we read the Old Testament. They were scattered, and even today this chosen people of God fight for a land they can call home. God wanted to bless them. He simply did not want the blessings to become idols. Since Israel’s experience, God has blessed many other nations and empires who have then walked away from him only to see the walls of their kingdoms collapse.

Now we move out of history to the present, and our eyes are on the land that we love Ð America. Does this portion of God’s Word speak to us?

God has blessed us and given us great opportunities to be a blessing to him and other people in this world. Yet with all our wealth and power, do we have other gods such as Wall Street, the Pentagon, the university, Las Vegas, and Hollywood? Do we live as though we do not need God?

We take the liberty to kill the unborn while yet in the womb of the mother and call it a woman’s right. We outlaw the teaching that God is our refuge and strength to children in the public schools. We have followed the philosophy of relativism and ruled out the absolutes; there are no rights and wrongs. We refuse to write into our constitution words that would limit marriage to one man and one woman, even though this was God’s intent from the beginning. We say we can do nothing about the way our nation chooses to live; it is all in the hands of our politicians. But who chooses the political leaders? Do we not send those who promise us the most to our legislative assemblies?

“Yes,” you might reply, “but we still believe in God.” But what does this mean? It is true that we sang God Bless America last weekend at the ball game in Milwaukee. It is true a percentage of America still finds their way to the church on Sunday morning, especially if they can find a church that will entertain them with drums and dance and limit the sermon to no more than eight or nine minutes. Why should God bless us?

Now let us turn to the church. There we are also tempted to make our blessings idols. How can we spend thousands of dollars to discuss the ordination of practicing homosexual people? The Bible speaks against this lifestyle. Yet we come to church on a Sunday morning and leave our offerings; part of this money is sent to the denomination headquarters where some of this offering is used to finance this sexuality study! Apathy, or a lack of courage, keeps us from saying to our leaders, “No more!”

At this level in our discussion of today’s text we see that Israel’s problem is our problem. How easy it is to let our blessings turn into idols and let our faithfulness move away from God to our idols!

For some reason we do not like choices. Yet, this is life, and these teachings not only apply to a nation such as Israel or the United States, they also apply to us as individuals. Think of the choice Jesus gave us as written in Mark 16:16-17. He is about to ascend into heaven, and his parting words are these:

“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

What a choice! Some will say, “But I cannot believe that!” Then God has been dethroned, and your mind is the god who rules your life. How easy it is to break that first commandment, “Thou shall have no other gods before me.”