Advanced Christianity

As a member of the Rotary Club, I joined with other members as we sang a few songs just before the program began. One of these songs still lingers in my mind. These are the words:

“Smile and the world smiles with you, sing a song.

Don’t be weary; just be cheery all day long.

Whenever your trials, your troubles and your cares

Seem to be more than you can bear,

Smile and the world smiles with you.

Sing a song.”

We knew there was little truth in these words, but it was fun to leave the real world and just make believe our cares could be whisked away that easily.

Now listen to the words of Jesus as he addresses the subject of facing our troubles and cares:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? . . . So do not worry, saying, ÔWhat shall we eat?’ or ÔWhat shall we drink?’ or ÔWhat shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:25-27, 31-34).

This is quite different from the Rotary song. It could be labeled Advanced Christianity, because it takes years to learn the full impact of what Jesus is teaching us in these words.

Jesus is speaking these words, not to an unbelieving world, but to his followers. How we need this message when life’s problems are too big for us to handle! He is telling us not to carry the whole load of life alone. He also assures us that we are not walking through life alone, but with our Savior.

What are some of these daily cares?

One quick look at the newspaper tells us that the stock market is giving a great deal of concern to some people these days. One man, with a disturbed look on his face, asked me, “Will I have enough money to last me out?” When I asked why he was so concerned, his response was, “Well, I count on my investments to see me through this life, and today I lost thousands of dollars in the stock market.”

A few days later I met the same gentleman. This time he had a smile on his face and said, “It has all come back, so now I feel better.”

I do not know whether this man is a Christian or not. However, if he is, Jesus is speaking to him when he says not to worry.

Worry is one of my many sins. That is why I have titled this sermon “Advanced Christianity.” A person has advanced far in the Christian life when they have the grace to place all things in God’s hands.

Money is not the only thing that worries us. Children also can give their parents great concern. Those worries do not stop when they are grown, either. One mother told me how concerned she was about her daughter, who was marrying for the third time. It is natural for any parent who loves their child to worry. However, in a situation like marriage and divorce, we need to remind the loved one that she should not be married to an unbeliever. This is what the Bible says. The parent has to give it all to God in obedience to this command.

Sickness brings many fears to our lives. When we face a serious illness that will bring pain and an inability to be active in life, it is quite difficult to follow Jesus’ words not to worry. These words would mean nothing to a person who is not committed to Christ.

What do we do with these words of Jesus? I like the prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote, “God, grant me the serenity to accept those things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” King Solomon said it well: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path” (Proverbs 3:5, 6).

The Tale of Two Cities

My theme for this sermon is the story of two cities.

The Bible tells us that our life in the first city is temporary: “Here we have no lasting city, but we look for the city that is yet to come” (Hebrews 13:14). I do not believe we can fully understand this statement until death confronts us in a personal way. A few weeks ago I was given a real insight into this text. Permit me to share it with you.

My wife and I were invited to attend the 125th anniversary of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Atlantic, Iowa. St. Paul’s was our first parish, and we had the joy of serving this congregation for nearly five years. Those years were wonderful; we were young and had only been married a year. While we lived in Atlantic, God gave us our first child. We have fond memories from this congregation we will carry to our graves.

Some close friends met us as we arrived on Saturday. We enjoyed dinner with them that evening and began reminiscing. However, it was not until Sunday morning, when I stood in the pulpit looking at the congregation before me, that I felt a profound shock.

This was not the congregation I had expected to see. This large group of people had only a sprinkling of familiar faces among them. Where were the rest? They were dead. How could I have been so naive? I knew it, and yet I did not, not really.

I was witnessing what the Bible had told me: “Here we have no lasting city.” It has been fifty-five years since we left Atlantic. During that time, the city we knew had mostly gone.

As we drove the two hundred miles back home, I asked my wife how she had enjoyed the visit.

“It was fun,” she said. “Our old friends were just as loving and kind as they had always been, but something was different. Many who had been so close to me were gone.” She went on to mention a few.

Then she was quiet for a while and finally asked, “Did you have the same feeling?”

“Eunice,” I replied, “I was in a state of shock as I stood in that pulpit and preached. It is one thing to visit a family who has lost a loved one, but to stand before hundreds of people you expected to recognize and see only a few familiar faces is something else.”

It has been fifty-five years since we left that wonderful congregation. We wanted it to remain just as we left it, but that is not how life works. People grow old and die; new people are born and take their places.

The past fifty-five years had been good ones for St. Paul’s congregation. The Word had been preached and the fruit of their faith was evident. They had a beautiful new church building. The congregation had grown. They had done well financially and prospered materially. Agriculture had its fluctuations over the years, but currently things were fine. They wanted to talk about children and grandchildren who had done well, some in education, one as a federal judge, others in medicine, law, dentistry, clergy, mission work, the crafts, and more.

Nevertheless, true to life, they had also experienced hard days. Sickness, death, and other disappointments had come to them. I asked one man where his wife was and he responded, “She is at home with an attendant. She would not have known you. She has dementia.” As we heard these sad stories we could only say, “That is part of living, is it not?”

Yes, the city we had known, with few exceptions, was gone. How true it is that “Here we have no lasting city.” However, that verse does not stop there. St. John goes on to say, “. . . but we look for the city that is yet to come.” That is the Good News of the Gospel.

The Bible tells us this earthly city will end. The heavenly city, though, has no end. It is eternal. Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-4). He reminds us that this eternal city is a gift for all who receive him. Jesus makes it clear that there is only one way to enter this eternal home, and that is by grace through faith in him.

St. John gives us a great picture of what believers in Jesus Christ can expect to inherit. You can read his description in Revelation 7:9-12 and 14-17.

He says a great multitude of people will be in this city. Too many, in fact, to be counted. They will come from every nation. (This is the fruit of our missionary efforts as the Good News of Jesus is carried to all parts of the world.) They will have come out of the great tribulation, a description of life on this earth. Their robes will be washed in the blood of the Lamb. Christ will have cleansed them, and they will appear before God, their Judge, spotless and clean. They will never again thirst or hunger. All their tears will be wiped away. Never again will they experience suffering, death, mourning, crying, or pain.

We were getting close to our home. Eunice said, “I am always so glad to get home. It is such a wonderful place to live.”

Then the preacher part of me came out in our conversation as I said, “But we remember that it is no lasting city; an even greater home is awaiting us.”

And Eunice had the last word: “And that is Jesus’ gift to us.”

It was a marvelous weekend, one that reminded me in a personal way that we are citizens of two cities.

What about you, the Christian Crusaders listener? Is this not a great life when we follow Jesus’ voice? Is his grace not sufficient? Are not his promises true? Has He ever let us down?

Trust Him. He has still greater gifts in store for you Ð a house, not made with hands, eternal in heaven.

How Did It Happen

Why did it happen?

That is the question we ask when something terrible happens. We wonder, why did God allow this to occur? Frankly, there is often no explanation. The best I can do is repeat St. Paul’s words when he said, “Now I know in part. Someday I will fully understand.” I believe these words remain applicable for us today.

In this sermon, I would like to address another similar question: How did it happen?

We ask this question when something unbelievable happens. Something that seems humanly impossible. For example, when a person, who was a vocal unbeliever, becomes a dynamic Christian and a powerful witness for Jesus Christ. To these “how” questions we often have the answer: it is God the Holy Spirit at work. What is impossible for humans to do, He can do.

This is Pentecost Sunday, when we focus our attention on the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God at work in us, first saving and then transforming us. If you are a Christian, it is because of the work of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who convicted you of your sins, brought you to Christ, worked faith in your life and empowered you to say, “I believe, Lord Jesus. You are mine.”

The telling of the Pentecost story in Acts 2 is an important part of our Bible. On the first Pentecost day, the Holy Spirit came in a unique way to work among the people. Briefly summarized, you will recall that Jews from many different countries were in Jerusalem at that time celebrating the Jewish Pentecost. Suddenly, the people who were gathered there saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that came to rest on each of them. They began to speak in other tongues so that each person present heard the Gospel in their own language. This happened because they were filled with the Holy Spirit.

This amazed them, and someone tried to explain what was happening by saying those gathered there were drunk. It was then that Peter stood and preached, telling the crowd that this was, in fact, Jesus, whom they had crucified, raised by God from the dead. When the people heard Peter’s sermon, they were cut to the heart and asked Peter, “What shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Save yourself from this corrupt generation.” About three thousand accepted the message. This day is now known as the birthday of the Church.

Jesus had told the disciples, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever Ð the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither knows nor sees him. But you know him, for he lives in you.”

Think of it! The Holy Spirit lives in all who trust Christ as the Savior and Lord. He works in us and through us and does what humans cannot do in bringing people into a personal relationship with Christ.

To make the work of the Holy Spirit come alive, let me tell you what he did for Corrie ten Boom. Many are acquainted with the story she tells in her book, The Hiding Place, about living in Holland under Nazi rule during the 1940s.

Corrie, her sister Betsie, and their father, all Christians, worked with the Dutch underground during World War II to hide scores of Jews in their home. The three were arrested and imprisoned at the concentration camp at Ravensbruck. There both Betsie and the girls’ father died. Before her death, Betsie and Corrie agreed that, when freed, they would tell the story of what happened at the camp and how the Holy Spirit had walked with them each day as they lived always in the shadow of death.

Corrie was eventually freed and years later she was speaking in Munich, Germany about her experiences. In the audience she recognized a former S.S. guard whose job it was to stand at the shower door in the processing room at Ravensbruck. He was the first of the actual jailers she had ever seen on the outside.

After her speech, this former Nazi guard came up to her as the church was emptying. Beaming and bowing he said, “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein. To think that, as you said, ÔHe has washed my sin away.'”

He thrust out his hand to shake Corrie’s. Corrie writes, “I, who had preached so often the need to forgive, kept my hand by my side. Even as the angry thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for that man; was I going to forgive him? I tried to smile; I struggled to raise my hand and could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. So I breathed a silent prayer: Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.”

She goes on, “As I shook his hand, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder, along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.”

Corrie concludes, “And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness, any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.”

Corrie ten Boom’s story gives you a picture of the Holy Spirit at work within a person. God the Holy Spirit gives us the power to do things that are not possible for us humans to do. The Father created us, the Son redeemed us, and the Holy Spirit works in us.

Yes, life is full of questions. “Why did it happen?” Often, we do not know. However, the question Ð How did it happen? Ð can often be answered with, “It is the Holy Spirit at work within us.”

Truth and Culture

Last Thursday was Ascension day! It has been forty days since we celebrated Jesus being raised from the dead. Just before his ascension, Jesus said to his disciples, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46, 47).

The Christian message is based on two words Ð repentance and forgiveness. These words are not subject to change, and Jesus’ message must never be adjusted so that it best relates to the culture in which we live.

Repentance calls for the objective truth. In order for us to repent, we must know what we have done wrong. Truth must be objective, and it must come from God. This truth is revealed in the Ten Commandments. Paul tells us that when the Holy Spirit examines us in the light of these Laws, we are convicted of our sins. The Law is to be preached around the world, and it is no respecter of person or age.

A month ago, my wife and I visited St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Atlantic, Iowa. It was the congregation’s 125th anniversary. I served this church the first five years of my ministry. Now it has been fifty-five years since we left, and many changes have occurred. The congregation has a new church building, many new people attend, the leadership is different, and the music is a bit different. However, the message has not changed. The pastor is still proclaiming Law and Gospel, repentance and forgiveness.

However, certain parts of the Lutheran Church have adjusted some divine truths of God’s Word. This has been done so it can better relate to our culture and not offend the academically elite or those who are personally affected by its message of sin and grace.

Two such sins that have been accepted by culture are cohabitation and the practice of homosexuality. Twenty-five years ago the Lutheran Church would never have debated at its convention whether or not this type of behavior could be acceptable lifestyles for Christians. Yet, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will consider this matter for the third time at its next Assembly.

A leader in the church was asked how he could accept this change in policy. He said, “We must make all the adjustments necessary to preserve unity in the church.” It is clear that culture is affecting the life of the Church, rather than the Church being the “salt of the earth” and changing culture.

Jesus does not agree with this thinking. The message of repentance must be proclaimed. If the Church loses its God-given message to proclaim repentance, it will no longer be a vital voice in our communities.

The Church was also mandated to proclaim the message of forgiveness. Paul described himself as a wretched creature and asked, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He then answers his own question: “Thanks be to God. I am saved through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Jesus has come to die for the sins of the world. This is the Gospel, the unique message of the Church.

Where the message of the Church is faithful to the Word of God, it does not condone sin. However, it also does not leave humans to die in their sin. Instead, the Savior offers us complete forgiveness and the opportunity to be brought into a living relationship with him. In Christ the sinner can be changed. God hates sin, yet he loves the sinner.

We could stop right at this point and not deal with the issue that is before us. But what does a congregation do when its members love the denomination, which has now decided to change parts of its message to be in conformity with modern thought?

The issue is much larger than the practice of homosexuality or cohabitation. Now we deal with the authority of God’s Word. If God’s Word is our authority, can humankind change it? If the denomination insists on make these changes, can the congregation remain a part of this group? Some have chosen to leave the denomination, but with great hurt. Others continue to struggle. Members within the congregation differ and another division among families and friends within the congregation appears. Satan is at work.

Listen again to Christ’s words: “The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”

It is a soul-searching question Ð Shall we leave or shall we stay? Each individual believer needs to answer that question. Believe me, I struggle with it even as I continue to pray for my denomination. It has blessed me and so many other lives in days gone by. It will continue to bless future generations, but only if it is faithful to God’s inspired Word.