Watch! Be Ready!

This is the Advent season Ð the four Sundays before Christmas Ð when our hearts are being prepared for the Christmas season. The Christmas message never changes, but circumstances in our lives do. Trials and joys, tribulations and good times seek to bring us new insights into what Christ’s coming really means.

The Advent message is basically centered around this message: Christ is coming back. Keep watch! Be ready!

Late in Jesus’ ministry, he shared with his disciples that he would be arrested and crucified, then resurrected. Within a short period of time, the disciples saw that prophecy fulfilled. However, before he ascended into heaven, Jesus also told them that he would come again. What did he mean? Christ’s Church is still waiting for the day when he will come again. To remind us of this coming event, we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

It was natural that the disciples would ask when he would return. Jesus told them that no one, including himself, knew when that day would be. Only the Father knew. However, his message was clear: Be ready to meet him when he returns.

Jesus assured them that signs would precede his second coming. The temple in Jerusalem, which was the heart of Jewish worship, would be destroyed. (This happened in 70 AD.) There would be false prophets, wars, earthquakes, and famines. Christians would suffer and die for the cause of Christ. However, through it all, the Gospel would be carried to all parts of the world.

This is where we stand today. Two thousand years have passed since Jesus ascended into heaven, and many believe he will never return. Yet Peter reminds us that a thousand years is as one day with the Lord. His promises are sure, and he will return. The message does not change. It is important we remember that.

Recently a lady asked how long I had been preaching. When I told her it had been more than sixty years, she asked, “How can you find something new to tell those who listen?”

My answer was that the message does not change. We are not looking around for something new to say. What changes is the society in which we preach this grand old Gospel. Christmas will not be the same in 2008 as it was a year ago. God’s Word speaks to the day in which we live.

Think of our experiences in this year that is coming to a close. In our part of the country we have experienced floods and tornadoes. Other places have had earthquakes and hurricanes. In many ways, our lifestyle is quite different. Heaven will be just a little closer than it was a year ago. The Christ child is speaking to the same old audience, but under different circumstances.

We have lived through a political campaign that went on for more than a year. During these campaigns, we witness the frailty of human flesh as one candidate after another maligns the character of their opponent, and we wonder how low a person will stoop to win a seat in government. The Savior points out to us that even the best of our candidates do not have the final answer. We are to respect them, but never worship them, for they are but frail people. Circumstances change, but his Word stands.

Some homes will have added a child to the family since they last celebrated the birth of the child in Bethlehem’s manger. What a gift from God, and what an opportunity and responsibility to raise that child in the faith that they may walk through life with the Savior.

Other homes have fought a serious illness and the death of one who had blessed them in many ways, but who died trusting Jesus. Some have lost much of their earthly savings in the financial crisis, but they hear the Savior say, “I will provide.”

The message today is not only to the disciples of old, but also to us: Be ready, for we do not know the hour when He is coming. He is coming soon. Will we be ready to meet him?

We plan for our future. We save for retirement and look forward to those long trips that we read about and can now become a reality. But have we prepared for meeting Jesus?

Sometimes, when we talk about Jesus’ second coming, other people say they would rather not think about it and just take their chances for the future and eternity. They say, “I believe Jesus came to earth in Bethlehem. But I don’t believe he is coming again.”

Jesus says, “Yes, I am coming. Will you be ready?”

How do we get ready? Should we do a lot of good deeds believing we will earn our way to heaven, so that when he returns we will hear him say to us, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”

No. We are prepared when we confess our sins, kneel beneath the cross of Jesus and realize that the payment for all our sins has been paid. We are ready when Christ has come into our heart. We live each day with him, and he will live with us forever. Then we can sing the words of Philip Brooks with a sincere heart, “O little town of Bethlehem descend to us we pray; cast out our sin and enter in; be born is us today. . .”

Advent is a rebirth. For some, claiming Jesus at this season of the year will be a time of conversion. It was a different Christmas for I found how necessary it is to be prepared for Jesus’ second coming. Now I am ready; I have laid my sins on Jesus, the spotless lamb of God, and I know that all is well. I am not afraid to die.

Outside of Jesus Christ we would fear death. It is far more than just living so many years on this earth, then closing our eyes and entering into oblivion. At the end, when we stand before God, that is when we have to be ready. We are ready only when we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ himself and have the assurance that Jesus atoned for all our sins. When we know him as our blessed Redeemer, and we know he will come a second time, we do not need to place all our hopes on political campaign promises, for we realize that frail human beings do not have all the answers in life. However, Jesus Christ is adequate. He is the one who can give us a reason for not being afraid.

Advent is going to be a busy season, as it is every year. Take the Bible, read the Gospels carefully, and meditate on what Jesus Christ has done. Take it seriously when the Savior tells you that you haven’t let the Holy Spirit work in your life. Listen once more to his words when he says, “Watch! I am coming again.”

Don’t be so concerned about when he will come. Instead, be more concerned about the reality that Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem’s manger and died on Calvary’s cross, is coming again.

He Will Come Again

This is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the Church year. Next Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of a new Church year. We will then be in the Advent season, which is when the Holy Spirit seeks to prepare us for the coming of the Christ child, the incarnation of God as man, walking among us.

Today Christians understand what was happening the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We can also anticipate the day when He will return to judge the living and the dead.

The first time Jesus walked on the planet, his stay was thirty-three years. His first thirty years he lived with Joseph and Mary in Nazareth where he worked as a carpenter. The Bible tells us, “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon Him” (Luke 2:39-40).

Matthew also adds to our knowledge about Jesus’ early life when he writes, “Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in the synagogue, and they were amazed. ÔWhere did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?’ they asked. ÔIsn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at him” (Matthew 13:54-57).

People rejected Jesus when he taught that he was the promised Messiah. It was the beginning of a difficult three years, where he would suffer much, and it climaxed in his crucifixion. However, after the crucifixion was Jesus’ resurrection and then his ascension when he sent his followers out to make disciples of all nations.

This is where Christians are today in their relationship with the Lord Jesus. We live on in anticipation for the day when he will return to judge the living and the dead.

In our text we read, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”

This raises the questions, who are the sheep and who are the goats?

The sheep are those whom Jesus described in this way: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

The people asked, “When did we do all of these things?” And Jesus replied, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

The goats are those who did not do these deeds of kindness.

One might ask if this portion of Scripture teaches that we are saved by works. This is where we employ the biblical teaching that Scripture interprets Scripture. Jesus is not contradicting himself. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. However, faith proves itself in works. Our faith is judged by our works, or, as James writes, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

And so we confess on the basis of Scripture that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead.

We have the biographical sketch of Jesus’ life:

¥ Prophets foretold His coming.

¥ He was born in Bethlehem.

¥ He lived thirty-three years on this earth.

¥ His Church has been proclaiming his Gospel in word and deed throughout the world since his ascension.

¥ We prepare for his second coming, when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is Lord.

We receive these truths in faith as they are given to us by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.

All of this still leaves an abundance of questions:

¥ The whole world will stand before Christ in judgment. Will this nclude people like Joe Stalin and Adolf Hitler? The Bible says all nations will be present.

¥ What about those who have never heard the Gospel?

¥ Will there be a separation with some going to heaven and others to hell? Yes, that question is answered.

¥ When will this happen? Will it be soon?

Only Jesus knows the details to the day of judgment. He says all that matters for us is to know that he is coming back. We should leave the rest to Him and accept what He has told us in faith.

Christ has promised, “I go to prepare a place for you . . . that where I am there you may be also. . . I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:3-6).

His plea to all people is to trust him.

Is It Time for Another Reformation?

I was visiting with a friend recently and asked him, “Do you think it is time for another Reformation?”

He replied, “Does the house need to be cleaned after a large party? Wherever humans dwell, things get dirty.”

It is clean-up time in the church, for some of its teachings no longer reflect biblical truths.

In the last two sermons we talked about some great teachings of Scripture that Martin Luther uncovered for us. They were:

1. We are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

2. Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man. Through him we have direct access to God through Christ, with no other intercessors.

3. All Christians are priests through their new birth in Christ. Through the work of Christ, all God’s people are called to serve him and proclaim his word to others. This is called the universal priesthood of all believers.

4. Because the Bible is God’s voice through the written Word, it is extremely important to read the Scriptures faithfully. Luther made this possible when he translated the New Testament into the German language so that his people were able to study it in their homes.

Today, I would like to share with you the thought that there must always be an ongoing reformation. It is foolish to believe there is no need for further reformations. Humans contaminate the Scripture in every generation. If you don’t believe this to be true, listen to what some of your relatives and friends say about the Christian faith.

Let me point out two heresies that need to be dealt with by the church today. They are being taught in some of our seminaries, and then in turn reach the congregations through confused preaching.

The first one we mention is known as God’s ongoing creative activity. To put it simply, it teaches that, as the years have gone by, God’s observation of human behavior has caused him to change his mind on certain teachings of the past. What was once right now needs to be changed. God had adjusted his thinking to fit us where we are living. Through this type of teaching, doctrines such as the virgin birth and the resurrection come under attack. In matters of sexuality, churches spent a lot of time and money to develop a statement, as though the Bible is not clear on the subject. Because this philosophy believes God has had to adjust his behavior, we now must adjust ours. The Christian faith, like everything else, has to be updated.

This is heresy that can in no way be accepted by those who take the Bible seriously. The Scriptures say, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). When humans expound a teaching, such as God’s ongoing creative activity, they are being unfaithful to the Word of God and have dirtied the waters. Such teachings must be dealt with by the church, and those who expound it must either change their minds or be excommunicated. He, who is the Word, does not change. It is time for a reformation.

The second heresy is relativism and involves the use of God’s Law. In Exodus 20 God gives us His Law. It tells what God demands of us When we read and study these commandments, we see how helpless we really are and how dependent we are upon God. Then God comes in with his gracious Gospel and brings us into a relationship with Him.

What he wishes for us may not be what we want for our lives. However, if we want to live in a relationship with God, we must repent of our sins and turn to him. Then God will hear our pleas for mercy and reach out his hand to forgive us of all our sins. He will accept us as his child and bid us go in peace.

The Gospel is only precious if the Law is taken seriously. It has meaning only when we understand how helpless we truly are. To live in a personal relationship with God, we must have a personal Savior Ð Jesus Christ alone. Without a savior we have no forgiveness of sins; and without forgiveness of sins, God can have nothing to do with us.

Humans are independent and do not want to rely on anybody. They want to figure out their own style of living. Let me have my own way. So we have a philosophy called relativism telling us no absolute holds true for all time and in all circumstances. In determining whether a certain behavior is right or wrong, one must consider the situation. For some it might be wrong, and for others it is not.

An example would be marital faithfulness. Under normal circumstances, a couple should not become sexually involved with another man or woman. However, if the husband should be sent abroad on business, he could become involved with another woman, since he has drives that need to be fulfilled.

Advocates of relativism say that God is doing something special in our time, so we dispense with teachings and guides that do not speak to our day.

More and more often our culture knows little about right and wrong. Behavior can always be rationalized to make it come out in our favor. When Christians talk about God’s Law, a common response is, “Who are you to push your views of right and wrong on me?”

When the church becomes involved in the heresy of relativism, one can only say that it is time for another reformation.

Humans can mess up the simple basics of God’s Word when they reject, add to, or modify its teachings. Therefore we must continually read and study the Scriptures in order to find peace. When a person relies on the Law, there is no peace, for the Law cannot save you. Whenever the Gospel and the Law are confused, the person or the congregation is in need of a reformation.

Teachers in our colleges have a tremendous responsibility. If heresies are being taught in our seminaries and colleges, they must be dealt with forcefully, but lovingly. There is always a need for an ongoing reformation.

Pastors in the pulpit and teachers in Sunday school also need an ongoing reformation so that the gospel of Jesus Christ may ring clearly.

Men and women, being what we are Ð sinful human beings Ð make it necessary to clean up the kitchen once in a while. That is also true as far as our spiritual life is concerned.

The Bible Made Available to the Common Man

The following conversation could be heard in many homes:

“Mary, do you have a Bible in your home?”

“Why, of course.”

“Where do you keep your Bible?”

“We have several. There is one on the coffee table in the family room. We have another on the bedside table. Others are scattered throughout the house. We have plenty of Bibles!”

“Do you read the Bible?”

“Yes, but not as much as I should.”

“Do you read it once a week?”

“No, perhaps more like once a month.”

That was a conversation with a very faithful member of the congregation. She is active in quilting, serving lunch after funerals, and in many other ways. However, she does not spend much time alone with her Bible.

If you asked these same questions of her husband, his answers would be even worse. You would hear him say that he seldom picks up the Bible to read.

“I may only look at it around Christmas and Easter, but I do not consider myself biblically illiterate. Our family goes to church regularly. I hear the Bible read at worship services. I can tell you who the prodigal son is, and the story of Zacchaeus is one of my favorites. My parents taught me to have great respect for the Bible, which I believe is the Word of God from cover to cover.”

The Bible is God’s primary way of making His will known to us. Paul writes, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

We call the Bible the means of grace. It is the means through which we can hear God speaking to us. We often talk about a personal relationship with God. To have this kind of a relationship, we must listen to what He is saying to us on the pages of Scripture.

We cannot be a witness for Christ unless we lead others, through what is said in the Bible, into the study of God’s Word. It is that Word, through which the Holy Spirit works, that brings a person to faith in the Savior.

Often people will ask questions like,

¥ What about life after death?

¥ Do you think people are born with a sinful nature?

¥ Do you feel it is alright for our son to bring his girlfriend home and stay in his old bedroom with her?

My answers to these questions are only valuable if I am saying what the Word of God teaches. None knew this better than Martin Luther. As a child, Luther had been taught that he was born in sin. The passage from Romans 5:12Ñ”Just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in just this way death came to all men, because all men sinned”Ñlived in Luther’s soul. He knew what Paul had said: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Luther’s sin sent him to the monastery to find the answer to his question, How can I have peace with an angry God when I am such a sinful person? But in the monastery he found little help for his problem. It was not until Luther was studying the Scriptures that he learned salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone. It is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ that he and all people could stand before an almighty, but loving, God.

Through the Bible, Luther received the strength to stand before noted theologians and emperors, pointing them to Christ as their only Savior. How did he dare make such a challenging statement when the Church taught differently? Luther had learned from God, through the Scriptures, that “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (I Corinthians 3:3-4).

Because the Bible had brought Christ to Luther, he was anxious that all people have access to this blessed message. Therefore, when he was kidnapped and put in the Wartburg castle for safekeeping, Luther translated the New Testament into the language of his people. Through reading the message, they could find peace with God through the Lord Jesus.

Our nation is torn apart even though most homes hold a Bible. Washington and Wall Street have been caught in their greed and dishonesty. The financial condition we find ourselves in could have been avoided if the leadership in government and big business had taken seriously what God was saying to them through their Bibles. Contrary to the Scriptures, many believed that greed was good. It was necessary, because it motivated people to keep moving higher and higher in their financial kingdoms. Today, we see the error of this belief.

When I mentioned this to a good church member recently, telling him that only a strong spiritual awakening in our land would save our nation, his answer was disheartening. He said, “That may be right, but it isn’t going to happen. We have to be practical and use our heads when we elect the next President.” (As if a man could change the dilemma that we find ourselves in today.) Unless our nation turns to God, we too shall perish.

As we point our fingers at Washington and Wall Street, what about the Church? What have we been doing in leading these people in high places of leadership? Have we spoken out strongly on greed? Have we said it again and again: You must take your Bible off the coffee table and find the answers there. You must turn to God for courage to be the prophetic voice in a den of unbelievers.

Many of these leaders are committed Christians and are in church on Sunday mornings. Their souls must be hungry, too. Fear fills their hearts, as they know better than we do what the future has in store for us as a people if we continue in these sinful ways.

There is no political agenda in these closing words, but let me tell you about an experience I had this year. I was a guest preacher in the congregation where one of our U.S. Senators worships regularly. This man has been my friend for many years, and I have known him as a brother in Christ. After the service my mind went back to the congregation and the hundreds of people there. Each one was important to God. However, I kept thinking of the senator, and these were my questions: Had the Word that I proclaimed led him into the presence of Jesus Christ? Did he receive something from God that he could take back to Washington? Something that would give him the courage to speak with conviction when God’s Word addresses the problems our government faces?

A couple weeks later, at a Sunday brunch, I shook his hand and said, “I am praying for you.” He looked into my face and said, “Thank you, Homer. I need those prayers. We all do.”

No matter where this day finds you, please take your Bible off the coffee table and let the Lord speak to you. This is God’s Word. It was given back to the people as part of the Reformation movement. Don’t try to change it to fit your style. Don’t deny it when some say it does not speak to our day. Just read it, and let the Holy Spirit do His work.

Are we in need of another Reformation? We’ll talk about this next Sunday, God willing.

The Reformation Event: One Mediator and the Priesthood of All Believers

The Reformation is an event in church history dating back to the sixteenth century. Martin Luther and John Calvin were two prominent names in the Reformation event.

The basic teaching in the Reformation is that humans are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It is through faith in Christ alone that we can live in a personal relationship with God. This teaching tells us that, in Christ, believers walk with Jesus at their side, and when they die, they will go to their heavenly home.

While this is the primary teaching of the Reformation, there is more. In this sermon we talk about the universal priesthood of all believers, and there is only mediator between God and humans.

St. Paul writes to Timothy, “This is good, and pleases our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (I Timothy 2:3-6).

St. Peter tells us that, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful works of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).

A mediator negotiates between two people who are at a variance. He brings them together. Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humans. Through his sacrificial death and resurrection, Christ pleads our case before the Father. He is our great high priest, our advocate. There is no other mediator before God for sinful human beings.

This teaching Ð that there is one mediator between God and man Ð had been lost in the sixteenth century. Dr. George Forell, professor emeritus of religion at the University of Iowa, explains what happened to the understanding of all believers in Christ being high priests, but only one mediator.

Through the years, practices can become traditions, and traditions can become dogma. Dogma is of equal value to what is taught in Scripture. The Scriptures teach that all Christians are priests through their new birth in Christ. Through the work of Christ, all God’s people are called to serve him and proclaim his word to each other. In Christ they have direct access to God without the help of another person.

This practice was laid aside and clergy were made mediators to plead people’s cases before God. Soon the ordinary man and woman were dependent upon a cleric to be their intercessor. Such a teaching can be found nowhere in the Scriptures, but is a part of Catholic tradition, making it equal with biblical teaching.

The Reformation said this teaching is not scripture. We have only one mediator between God and man: Christ Jesus.

This is a major difference between Protestant and Catholic teaching today. In Protestantism, we teach that there is no difference between laity and clergy. We have a oneness in Christ, and it holds the Church Ð not a hierarchal system Ð together.

What then do we do with the hierarchy in Protestantism? Laity respects the office of the clergy, be it pastors, professors, or bishops. The clergy are to be theologically trained and ordained to teach and preach the Word and administer the sacraments. This is a teaching that must be held dear, for the church has a danger of losing it in every generation. Pastors are tempted to believe that they are the final voice of authority in the congregation. This is not true. They are simply there as servants of the Church at large.

A pastor’s voice is only one of many among the believers. I had to remind myself of this fact many times. A few times good lay people have had to remind me. When I spoke interpreting the Scriptures, the mature lay person was anxious to listen and consider it authoritative. When I spoke on a business matter in a church council meeting, I was just one voice among many, for God has not given ordained clergy the final answer in all matters.

For many years, the church of which I am a part was divided into synods, which were led by presidents. Now we have bishops, and it is right that we should respect them for the sake of their office. However, the bishop has no more authority over the congregation than the ordinary member. Sometimes their decisions are wrong; sometimes their view points are quite different from ours. They are not infallible or elevated, and they do not have a special insight into the Word of God that is not there for the layperson. We are all together in the family of God, a holy family, one whom God uses to share the Gospel with the world. We should like to hear the bishop’s counsel and then decide what the congregation should do, for therein rests the final authority.

This is a great teaching from the Reformation. There is one mediator, Jesus Christ; we are all priests; and Jesus Christ is our Savior.