Wonderful Counselor

The land where Jesus grew up and did His ministry was once called Zebulun and Naphtali. It had been a territory ravaged badly by war. The Assyrians had slaughtered the Israelites and carried the remnants off in exile. The Bible describes it as a land of doom and distress.

Then the day came when the Prophet Isaiah brought them a message of hope. He writes, “There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past God humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan Д

This is a prophecy of the Messiah who would come and bring hope to the Jewish people. Isaiah continues, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:6-7).

These are familiar words often used as a greeting on Christmas cards. It is one of the primary Advent texts that the Church has used for generations, and we will use it as a basis for our sermons the four Sundays of Advent.

Look at these words: “And he will be called Wonderful Counselor.” Let’s stop right here for our first Advent thought. Jesus conducted counseling sessions for people who lived in darkness concerning spiritual matters. One of these subjects often discussed by any generation is salvation. It is an important topic in the Advent season.

Why did Jesus come to earth? Joseph, the man engaged to be married to Mary, asked that question. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and told him that Mary was going to have a child. “How could this be?” Joseph wondered. They had not lived together. Then the angel added more to Joseph’s confusion when he said, “What is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sin.”

How would this child become the Savior? From what was Jesus to save them? These are questions that people have asked in the past and continue to ask today.

Let’s look at Jesus as he counseled a well-known teacher of the law named Nicodemus. He came to Jesus one night to discuss man’s relationship with God. It did not take our Lord long to tell Nicodemus that, to be saved, he needed more than the law of God. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).

Our Lord went on to tell this teacher of religion that he had once been born of the flesh, and now he had to have a spiritual rebirth to be a part of the Kingdom of God. It took more than one counseling session for Nicodemus to understand what it meant to be saved and Jesus’ part in granting him salvation. However, on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion it was Nicodemus who assisted in His burial. After being counseled by Jesus for three years, he understood the reason for Jesus’ coming to earth and how people are saved.

The generations come and go, and people ask the same questions: Is there life after death? What do you have to do to be saved? What is Jesus’ part in our salvation? The world lives in spiritual darkness when it comes to understanding how we enter a personal relationship with God.

There are many other subjects for which we need the counsel of Jesus. To live the abundant life, it is necessary for us to have a good relationship with people. As we approach the Christmas season, is there something between you and another person that is detracting from the joy of the season? If so, Jesus wants to be your counselor concerning this problem. What keeps you from letting Him heal this broken relationship?

Maybe some of these words will help to restore that friendship you once enjoyed. The Lord says, “Go to that person and have a good visit about your feelings toward each other. If you are offering your gift at the altar, (that is, if you are in church) and there remember that your brother has something against you, then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23f).

What is His counsel? Don’t carry a grudge. Don’t let anything continue to separate you from another person. Get it straightened out. Note how direct Jesus is. This is what has to be done. The situation will not be solved without talking to each other. Now go and do it. Wouldn’t our lives be much happier if we would accept this marvelous piece of counsel?

If the anger between two people is not dealt with, it will soon develop into hatred. Then we adopt an attitude that one day we will get even with the enemy. One of our Lord’s servants, St. Paul, elaborates on this sin when he writes to the Romans. They were trying to get even with those who had offended them. “The Lord says, ÔVengeance is mine.'” It was a word from the Old Testament that needed to be reemphasized as a divine truth then, as it should be now.

How much happier King Herod’s life would have been if he had only followed that counsel. You remember Herod, the jealous king. He was betrayed by the Magi who had come from the East to worship the Christ child. Herod told these strangers to return after they had seen the child and tell him where Jesus was so that he might go and worship the Babe. However, the wise men received word from the Lord that they should not do that because Herod had only one purpose Ð to kill the child. When King Herod heard that he had been tricked, he became so angry that he sent out an edict for all male children, two years and younger, were to be killed. This was vengeance at its worst. If only Herod had left his anger with the Lord, how much happier he would have been.

Here is another concern that can be very disturbing. Materialism runs high in the Christmas season. Think of the millions of dollars spent on Christmas presents. We are told that how well the retailers do at Christmas determines whether their business operates at a profit or a loss for the year.

Jesus never counsels that making a profit is wrong. We must not get overly pious at this point in our discussion. But what about this word of counsel from the Savior who wants us to be happy people: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). Is He not counseling us to enjoy our wealth, but make sure it has the right place in our lives? When the almighty dollar begins to control us and we live for material possessions, we serve another god.

I have often wondered if the innkeeper in Bethlehem could have found a room for Mary and Joseph that night when Jesus was born if he had been offered a premium price. If were so, the love of money that robbed this business man of the opportunity to have the God incarnate born in his inn.

As we read through the Bible, we see rich counsel that God is anxious to give to us. There is much joy and celebration at this time of the year, but there is also much sadness. Maybe there is a bit of darkness in all of our homes. The Christ child is our best counselor. He can help us deal with life as it presents itself to us in this emotional time of the year. I leave you with this thought, which I find written in the footnotes of my study Bible, “He will not always take us around our troubles, but if we will follow him wholeheartedly he will lead us safely through them.”

Christ THE King

Christ carries many titles. Some called Him rabbi, and the disciples often addressed Jesus as master. While these words described a role that Jesus played in the lives of these people, His stronger titles are Christ, Messiah, and Lord. However, there is yet another. In today’s text Jesus answers to the title of king. There are so many references to Christ as King that the Church has set aside a day and calls it Christ the King Sunday. This is the festival we celebrate today.

The Jews had brought Jesus to Pilate. They accused Him of claiming to have a kingdom, and that he was the king. Hearing this, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you a king?”

Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”

“Then you are a king?” Pilate asked.

Jesus replied, “I am a King” (37).

This causes the world to ask the question, If he is a king, where does Jesus rule today?

Christ has never ruled as the king of a nation. America once referred to itself as Christian, but this is not the type of kingdom that Christ made reference to as He stood before Pilate. There He made it clear to Pilate that His Kingdom was not of this world. It is true that in western civilization churches were built, and people were taught the doctrines of the Christian faith. The churches were financed by the government and often referred to as the state church. However, Christ was not the ruling power in these countries. Though they gave the impression of being Christian, and many citizens were, political structures were in control. Christianity had a place, but not the place.

I recall my grandparents telling me that the state church had little spiritual life, but independent Christian movements were organized where Christ was preached in an evangelistic way and people were converted. This was true in the Scandinavian countries. People in Denmark went to the Mission House for services, and in Norway they worshiped at the House of Prayer.

Yet Jesus was quick to tell Pilate that His Kingdom was not of this world. This brings us back to the question, where then is this Kingdom? Jesus answers this question when He says that His Kingdom is in the hearts of those who listen to Him.

When we receive Him as Savior, He becomes our king. Then He rules our life. He shapes our values and controls our behavior. He assures us that we are His forever. This is the Kingdom that Christ is building today.

From this portion of scripture, we learn that we are citizens of two kingdoms. We are citizens of the United States (or the country where you live), and citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Now, here is the important point: All earthly kingdoms will one day come to an end. Paul writes, “One day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Jesus affirms this teaching when He says, “When the Son of man comes in His glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on His throne in heavenly glory. On that day all nations will be gathered before him.” Then Christ, and Christ alone, will reign. Thus, Christ is ultimately referred to as the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

Do we believe this Biblical teaching? Obviously millions laugh and call it foolishness. Adolph Hitler, though baptized in the Christian Church, turned his back on Christ. He was building the kingdom that would long endure. When Dr. Martin Niemoller reminded Hitler that the destiny of the German people was in the hands of God and not his hands, Hitler sent him off to the concentration camp.

As citizens of the one super power left in this world, Americans must be aware that all of the military power in the world, and all of the gold, cannot make us secure in believing that we are here forever. Yet, with all of the exposure we have had to Biblical teachings, we scoff at this teaching and make it clear in so many ways that we can get along without God. For example, His will regarding marriage as the union of one man and one woman is set aside in the state of Massachusetts as it bows to the court’s interpretation of a state constitution written by frail people. Now having same-sex marriages is legal in that state, which was never God’s intention. But who is king?

This is but one example, which causes us to see that the Kingdom of God has no impact on the hearts and minds of many within this blessed land that has been so blessed by Almighty God.

On this Christ the King Sunday, let God’s Word speak to you. Then let your love for America be so great that you will courageously point out its sins in dismissing Jesus Christ from His rightful place among us. He is King.

Nothing Is Permanent

There are a few lessons in life that are difficult to learn. Jesus is teaching one of these lessons in today’s text, which can be summarized with these words: nothing is permanent. Stop and think about it. Nothing on this earth, with the exception of our souls, will last forever. This old world is moving toward an end when nothing will be left standing.

Let us pick up Jesus’ conversation as recorded in Mark 13. Jesus and His disciples were leaving the temple. Listening to the Lord’s conversation you might wonder if He was suffering from depression. I don’t know. He was very realistic, and confronting people with realities is often not well received. Much of this sermon, based on Jesus’ words, is quite heavy. You may say halfway through this message, “Thank God for the hymns. I certainly do not need this kind of a sermon today. It is too negative.” All I can say is stay with me. The last part of the sermon brings great news, which makes it possible for us to deal with life as it is.

Leaving the temple, his disciples said, “What massive stones! What a magnificent building.” They were impressed.

Jesus responded, “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Thomas, the doubter among the disciples, could well have said, “I take most things that you say seriously, Lord, but those words I cannot swallow. This building is really put together! It took some of the world’s best craftsmen forty-six years to construct it. It covers the top of Mt. Moriah and rises two hundred feet over Jerusalem. It isn’t going to tumble down. Let’s be real.”

But how real Jesus was! The temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans. Based on the studies of the ancient theologian, Josephus, modern historians write, “Jerusalem suffered atrocities that exceeded the holocaust in comparative numbers and gruesome details.” The temple is gone, and on this site today is a Moslem mosque that one day will also be gone.

This truth is very difficult for us to accept. Let’s paint a modern picture. The World Trade Center in New York City was an impressive building. Therein many important decisions affecting the world economy were made. Inside those walls sat some of the most brilliant people in the world. Today it is gone, and we can’t, nor should we, stop talking about it. Did we think it would be there forever?

While we know better, it is even hard for us to comprehend that our house will one day be bulldozed down, and the ground on which it stands will be used for some other purpose. Watching some of our athletes with their strong bodies makes it difficult for us to comprehend that these people, who can run up and down the field so quickly, will one day be sitting in retirement homes unable to walk. I can hardly believe it is the great Yankees’ baseball catcher when I see an elderly man by the name of Yogi Berra sitting in a barber’s chair doing a commercial. Wow! I used to watch that guy when I was a kid, and the Yankees came to play the Red Sox in Boston. Now I wonder if Yogi could run the bases.

Organizations, buildings, and people are not permanent. Nothing that the eye can behold is permanent. When I preach in some of our beautiful churches that will seat 700 people, and only 100 are present, I ask, “Where are all the people?” Then I am told that the neighborhood changed and the people moved away, or the farms got larger and the population decreased, or the Word of God was not preached seriously and the people lost interest. It is then one realizes that nothing is permanent. Everything is here today and gone tomorrow.

There will be wars, and some will say, “This is the war referred to in the Scriptures. Jesus’ return will come soon.” That was the cry of many when the state of Israel was established, and war broke out between the Palestinians and the Jews. The Jews have returned to their homeland as the Bible described. The end is near. You know what? I believe it is near, but those are just my feelings. I have a right to them, but I had better not be specific in my preaching about when Christ will return lest I am one of those false prophets Jesus is talking about in our text. It is best to leave it where the Church fathers did in the creeds. “And he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” That He will return is a fact. When he will return is speculation.

We should not be alarmed at some of these messages. During the last sixty-five years we have been involved in five wars. Each of these wars has had the same message accompanying it, “The end is near.”

Jesus also tells us that there will be earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, fires, and famines. These too are interpreted as signs of the end of time. We are warned to be careful. Don’t go wild. Don’t be led astray by these false prophets. The Christian message loses its credibility, not over the basic truths of God’s Word, but how people misinterpret and misuse the Bible.

Nothing is permanent, yet no one knows when the end will come!

And now for the last part of the sermon:

Recall in the first part of this sermon we said, “Nothing on this earth, with the exception of our souls, will last forever.” We also asked if Jesus depressed because of all the sin and sorrow He had seen in his thirty-three years on earth.

No, he was not depressed. He was describing life. Our souls are eternal. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ will not be destroyed. God came into the world through Jesus Christ. He brings along an eternal message telling us that, while sin can separate us from Him, He died to take away our sins and restore us into fellowship with Him forever. If we, in faith, will receive Jesus as our Savior and Lord, we will live forever. The World Trade Center was destroyed, but the believers who perished in that building were not destroyed. They live with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Their bodies function no more, but their souls went into eternity to live in God’s Kingdom. This is the Kingdom that has no end.

It is this message that makes it possible for us to live victoriously in this world knowing nothing is permanent, but we have been placed here to enjoy these temporal blessings God has given to us while realizing that they too will pass away. The end will come, but then comes the beginning of that new existence for all who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

A Genuine Faith

On which sin did Jesus come down the hardest?

Some would say that He was the most condemning of sexual sins. It is true that Jesus did not take them lightly. He forgives the prostitute, but tells the woman to clean up her lifestyle. He also reminded the woman who was cohabitation with a man not her husband that she was sinning.

Others would say that He was the hardest on those who had made money and material possessions the god. He did warm against the love of money and said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Jesus condoned no sin, and perhaps it is impossible to believe a particular sin is more grievous to Him than is another.

However, I believe that Jesus was especially critical of superficiality. Jesus had trouble dealing with the hypocrite Ð a person who confessed one thing and did another. Living on the surface was not to Jesus’ liking. Do you remember that a passage in Scripture where He says of the hypocrites, “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”

The sin of hypocrisy is always with us. Wouldn’t you agree that there is an element of hypocrisy in all of us? It is easy for us to present ourselves as someone we are not. If people really want to know what we are like, they should ask our children what dad is like. We need to say with St. Paul, “Not that we have arrived, but we press on to the high calling, which we have in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12).

Let’s look at Jesus’ denouncement of superficiality.

He was speaking at a conference in the Temple courts. In the group were the teachers of the Law who made a great impression on the people and even caught the eye of Jesus’ disciples. They strutted through the courtyard in their colorful robes getting the attention of those who had come to worship. People admired them for their wisdom of the law, and that they had been set apart to be teachers of the law.

Clothing does have a psychological affect on people. David McKenna compares the teachers to a banker wearing a three-piece, navy blue pinstripe suit with a phi beta kappa key chain across the vest. I recall going to the bank as a child with my father and seeing Mr. Hay, the President of the bank, dressed as described by McKenna. “Wow!” I thought. “He is a very important man. Maybe someday I will be the president of the bank.” He had my attention.

On the day of my ordination I wore a clergy collar for the first time. In the eyes of the public I was a different person. They had a joke back in my hometown about the Lutheran minister who went through a red light. The police pulled him aside and, seeing the pastor in her clergy collar, said, “I am going to let you go, but be careful at the next corner. That cop is a protestant.”

It didn’t take me long to shed the clergy collar. I didn’t like being set aside as someone different, and my wife liked it even less. She had visions of people saying, “There goes a priest with a woman and three children.” That wasn’t for her.

Our relationship with Jesus Christ must go much deeper than our dress. But it wasn’t only the flowing robes that distinguished them. They were treated differently by the general public. These teachers received the best seats in the synagogue and the banquets. How they loved to take their seats just before the service or the banquet was to start. All eyes were upon them as they made their late entrance.

Having this place of distinction, they often took advantage of the ordinary person. The teacher of the law made no salary. Therefore, they had to make their own Way financially. Some did very well. Jesus says, “They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.” They became involved in the widows’ estate planning and took a healthy cut for themselves assuring the people that God would be pleased with their willingness to care for His teachers. They presented themselves as very religious people, but their relationship with God was filled with hypocrisy.

When we read of such an account, we shouldn’t be surprised if the behavior of some clergy, and their numbers are small percentage wise, disappoint you with dishonesty, sexual promiscuity, or whatever the sin might be. A robe or an ordination certificate does not change the person. Only a heart captured by Christ can make one a worthy servant of the Lord.

Later on in the day, Jesus was sitting opposite the place where the offerings were placed. He watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people gave large amounts of money, but a poor woman came with two small coins. The Bible says, “Calling the disciples to him, Jesus said, ÔThis poor woman has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty, put in everything Ð all she had to live on.'”

This woman is the one who should impress us. The point is not the amount of money, but the genuineness of her faith. It is in the spirit of that woman we can sing, “Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to Thee. Take my silver and my gold. Not a mite would I withhold.” This woman is an example of one who has a depth in her relationship with God. It is a genuine faith.

Through living with the Lord in His Word and with His people our faith will grow. We will test the promises of God and see how true they are. His voice will remind us when our superficiality is showing and that we need to change our thinking and behavior. Christianity, on the surface, will not weather the storms of life.

I have a friend who is convalescing from a bone marrow transplant. He keeps us informed about the progress he is making. A few days ago we received his e-mail in which he said words to the effect that this waiting gets very long. The doctors are encouraging, but at the end of the conversation have to say that they will see how the tests read in a few weeks. With this word he goes home to wait another week. He admits that at times this waiting is testing. Then he goes on with his powerful testimony and assures us that God is strengthening him spiritually. If my friend had nothing but a faith built on emotions and feelings, he would have discarded it long ago. But his faith is rooted in Christ and built by the Holy Spirit working through the Word and sacraments.

Let us not be misled. There are many confessing Christians whose faith is very shallow. Is that not true of all of us under certain conditions? But let us also remember the millions of people who have walked through trying times trusting their Savior and have won the battle with the power that He has given to them. The victory might have come when they were dying, but they are the victors. This is a genuine faith.

Where’s Grandma?

Grandma had died, and her five-year-old great-granddaughter missed her very much. Several weeks after the funeral, the child cuddled up in her mother’s arms and asked, “Where’s Grandma?”

The mother comforted her daughter by saying, “Grandma’s in heaven.”

Is this just another fairy tale to comfort the child, or is there a basis for the mother’s answer? Yes, there is a basis. The Bible assures us that those who have died trusting in Jesus as their Savior are a part of the heavenly host.

The Apostle John describes the heavenly scene in this way: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language standing, before the throne and in front of the Lamb. . . .

“Then one of the elders asked me, ÔThese in the white robes ÐÐ who are they, and where did they come from?’

“I answered, ÔSir, you know.’

“And he said, ÔThese are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. . . . Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. . . . And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'”

Some of our questions are answered in this text. These people have come from earth where they have suffered in the great tribulation. While they enjoyed their stay on earth, in comparison to the heavenly home, times had been difficult.

Now they have been cleansed by the blood of Christ. The only way they could enter heaven was by grace through faith in Christ, who died for their sins and restored them into fellowship with their Creator. Some interesting people were in the large gathering: St. Paul and the robber on the cross to whom Jesus promised a place in his eternal kingdom. Biblical personalities, such as Abraham, David, Peter, James, and John were there as well as some great historical people like Augustine, John Huss, Martin Luther, and Grandma.

That’s right! Grandma was there because she left this world confessing Jesus Christ as her Savior and Lord. Sometimes it is difficult for us to believe that ordinary people like our grandmas will enjoy the same heavenly reward as those who are well-known from the pages of Scripture and history. In fact, it makes heaven feel much closer when we think of people who have personally influenced our lives as being there. They are people who taught us about Jesus and the importance of living a life pleasing to Him. They are those who made it clear that the Christians are to be lights in the world and salt of the earth. These saints did not permit culture to determine the rights and wrongs of life for them. Instead, they influenced culture declaring behavioral absolutes based on God’s Law.

We, who are still on this earth, learn from these people. While we may say to those to move over; It’s my turn to serve the Lord here on earth, we can never tell them to move out of our life, for they have too much to teach us. We cannot become so arrogant that we believe have nothing more to learn from the saints who have gone before us, or even those who are anticipating their departure for the heavenly mansions relatively soon.

When we want to have a final word on love, we can’t find anything better than Paul’s masterpiece recorded in I Corinthians 12. Luther is our role model in showing us the Church is always in need of a reformation. Billy Graham can still demonstrate what evangelism is all about. F. Melinius Christian’s Beautiful Savior should always have a place in the music of the Church. Mother Theresa can give us fresh insight into what it is to serve the hurting. Grandma will always show us what the real role of parents is in the raising of their children.

It is All Saints’ Day, and o, how I need the message of this Sunday! When I see the superficiality of the earthly crowd, my eyes are lifted to the heavenly host, and I realize that, as believers in Christ, a place is reserved in those heavenly mansions for those of us who are still a part of Christ’ Church on earth. That is where we will live forever with our Savior.