Castaway – Caught – Cherished


Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 22, 2017

“However, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when it will no longer be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ 15 but it will be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ For I will restore them to the land I gave their ancestors.

16 “But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the Lord, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks. 17 My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes.

People were sharing fishing stories at a Bible Class one day. After some described the unlikely catches of fish they got, an old man took the floor and shared a story that no one had heard before. “A father, his son, and a friend of his son were sailing off the Pacific Coast one day. All of a sudden a fast-moving storm swept in. It blocked any chance they had of getting back to shore. The waves grew higher and swept over the boat. The father was an experienced sailor, yet even he couldn’t keep the boat upright.”

Everyone was listening to the man’s story at this point. He continued, “All three, the father, his son, and his son’s friend were all washed into the Pacific Ocean. The father eventually made it back on to the boat, but the boys were still out on the water. There wasn’t much time. Reaching into the boat, the father grabbed the rope – the only rope on the boat. With both boys drowning in different areas of the sea the father had to make the choice no one would ever want to make. He could only throw the rope to one of the boys. Which one would he throw the rope to – his son, or his son’s friend?”

Who would ever want to be in that predicament? Lost at sea, one rope, two boys, and one is your own son. It is hard to fathom because we probably haven’t often found ourselves swirling in the middle of a storm on the ocean.

But there are many different kinds of storms we are forced to weather in this world. Sometimes those disasters include pain, sadness and even sacrifice. Such personal hardships have been taking place as long as sin has been in the world. Adam and Eve heard one day that their first son, Cain, had killed their second son, Abel. Think of the anguish they felt as parents! Noah and his family boarded the ark as the flood waters washed away all of their relatives and former friends. It must have been difficult to be on that boat, too.

And then there was the kingdom of Israel. By the end of Jeremiah’s life, his own people, the Israelites, were all but obliterated. He had watched as they turned away from the Lord. Then he warned them when they turned to false gods. And finally Jeremiah had seen with his own eyes the ultimate destruction of Jerusalem and the temple itself.

These were stormy, turbulent days for God’s people. They must have felt like castaways. In fact, they were cast away. The Promised Land that had once been there’s now belonged to their conquerers, the Babylonians. The Israelites had no place to worship. They had no animals to sacrifice. Their homes and fields were gone. And they were shipped off to other, foreign lands.

I suppose that is what it means to be a castaway – forgotten, lonely, doomed. Even when they were brought back home, things weren’t the same. Jerusalem was still buried in rubble. The temple was rebuilt, but didn’t look nearly as golden as it once did. There was no king. Most of the tribes were lost to the ages.

In perhaps the saddest book of the entire Bible, Jeremiah described Jerusalem. “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!” Jeremiah then explained why this happened. “The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins. Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe.” To summarize it all, Jeremiah finally admitted that his people’s “wound is as deep as the sea. Who can heal you?”

And yet there was a promise of healing. For all the bad news Jeremiah had to preach over the years, there were moments when his gospel message would shine forth. The Lord said through Jeremiah, “I will restore them to the land I gave their ancestors.”

Then Jeremiah went on to prophesy something very specific. By the power of God, he foresaw what the promised Messiah would do. “I will send for many fishermen,” declares the Lord, “and they will catch them.” This morning in our Gospel reading we saw the Lord do just that. “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him.”

That father in the boat had an awful decision to make. Who should he throw the rope to – his son or his son’s friend? Amazingly, in that split-second, the father decided to throw the rope to his son’s friend! After pulling him into the boat, the son was no longer above the water. He was gone.

Now remember, the old man in that Bible Class was sharing this story. At this point many asked him the question we probably have: Why save the friend instead of his own son? The man answered, “The father knew his son had faith. He also knew that his son’s friend didn’t. Knowing where his son was going enabled him to do the unthinkable and throw the rope to the friend.”

It is hard to think about a father making that kind of decision. And yet, that is the decision your heavenly Father made. When it came time to choose between you and his one and only Son, Jesus…he chose you over his Son.

God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, into the the heart of hell itself as Jesus suffered for our sins. God the Father watched his Son die. God the Father had forsaken Jesus, so that he would never have to forsake you and me. Jesus wasn’t saved from the destructive waters of our sin and death so that you and I would be.

That was what the old man in that Bible Class was getting at. The father in the boat had allowed his son to die in order to save someone else. But the story wasn’t over. After the man shared the story in that Bible Class some of the people came up to him and asked him how he could have known the details of this story. He smiled and said, “You see, I was the son’s friend.”

So are you. So many years ago Jesus caught some fishermen by the sea and turned them into fishers of men. He has done the same for you and me. Today he reminds you with those same words, “Come, follow me.” He sends you out with that same call – go catch others with the gospel message. Go share the good news that saved you. Go tell others that the Son died so that they could live eternally. Go…be fishers of men. Amen.

A Light For The Gentiles


Second Sunday after the Epiphany – January 15, 2017

“So, gentlemen, brothers, let it be known to you that through this Jesus forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you, also forgiveness from everything from which you could not be justified through the law of Moses. 39 In this Jesus, everyone who believes is justified. 40 So watch out that what is said in the prophets does not happen to you: 41 Look, you scoffers, be amazed and perish! For I am going to do something in your days, something you would never believe, even if someone were to explain it to you.”  42 As Paul and Barnabas were leaving, the people kept begging them to speak again on this same subject on the next Sabbath. 43 When the meeting of the synagogue had been dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God. 44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of God. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with envy and began to contradict what Paul was saying by slandering him. 46 Then Paul and Barnabas responded fearlessly, “It was necessary that God’s word be spoken to you first. But since you reject it and consider yourselves unworthy of eternal life, look: We are now turning to the Gentiles! 47 For this is what the Lord has instructed us: I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the end of the earth.” 48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were rejoicing and praising the word of the Lord. All who had been appointed for eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was being carried through the whole region.

There is something that exists in every performing theater from New York to Los Angeles. While it can be seen on stage every night without fail, it is usually not seen by anyone. It does not act. It is not a prop. In fact, it might be the only thing on the stage any given night that is not pretending at all. It is real, and its purpose is more utilitarian, more pragmatic than any actor. Every night it lights up the stage, and no one is there to see it.

It is called the “ghost light”, and it performs a useful, if not ominous, purpose. At the end of every theater’s nightly performance, after the crowds have left and the actors have gone home, after the janitors have cleaned the entire theater, the ghost light is placed on stage and turned on.

Of course, it is meant to be practical. The theater can be a dangerous place at night if there is no light to guide you through it. Therefore, by law, every theater must have and use a ghost light.

As you can imagine, there is often more to the story of the “ghost light” than that. Performers, after all, are a superstitious bunch. Some say the original purpose of the ghost light was to appease the ghosts of actors and actresses who have long since died by allowing them to continue to perform in the dead of night.

Now I can tell you this morning with the utmost certainty, that ghosts do not exist. But darkness does strange things to the mind. The very things we think are so foolish to believe in the light of day become all to real to our minds eye when shadows cover the earth. Even a simple light bulb that seems so harmless during the day becomes a frightening beckon in the darkness.

I suppose that is true of us as people, too. Normally logical people can make ridiculous decisions in the night when they think nobody is looking. Kind individuals become vindictive. Even faithful believers in Scripture used the cover of darkness to try to hide their sins. That never went well. “You have placed our iniquities before You, Our secret sins in the light of Your presence.” We might sin in darkness, but God is never in darkness.

Of course, darkness isn’t just a night-time problem. God speaks of darkness in a far more absolute way. “Darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples.” So how can darkness cover a world that is always half-lit by the sun? Because God isn’t talking about physical darkness. He is talking about spiritual darkness.

That is the world we were born in to. In fact, that sin-darkened world described us, too. We were part of those “people walking in darkness.” There are those who say that everyone is born with some sort of “inner-light” that leads them to faith. That isn’t how God describes us. He called us completely dark, sinfully doomed, and by nature dead.

To put it another way, we aren’t born into this world looking like a darkened theater that has a single ghost light shining inside. By nature, we are the theater without even one lightbulb on. And the sins that have hung over our heads loom in a far scarier way than any ominous ghost light.

That was the sin-darkened condition Paul and Barnabas saw for themselves in our second lesson. On their first missionary journey, the two arrived in the city of Pisidian Antioch. It was a spiritually dark place. No one knew about Jesus. And when they started sharing the light of the gospel, things only seemed to get worse. Crowds were coming to hear the message, and some didn’t like that that was happening. “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with envy and began to contradict what Paul was saying by slandering him.”

Jealousy was now getting in the way of the message. Thick darkness threatened to cover the light of the gospel in Antioch. This wasn’t a one-time problem. Wherever Paul preached the light of the gospel, there was darkness threatening to snuff it out completely.

I suppose that shouldn’t surprise us. The same thing happened when the “Light of the world”, Jesus, arrived too. Jesus came a “The light shines [that] in the darkness.” However, the problem was that “the darkness has not understood it.” At his very birth he, the angels in the heavens and the star that guided the wise men shone in the night. Throughout his ministry Jesus, and the light of the gospel, shone in the hearts of sin-darkened souls.

Then, in the shroud of darkness, Judas came to betray Jesus with a band of soldiers. As he was carried away and falsely accused Jesus summarized the situation with words few understood: “But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.” Darkness continued to reign as Jesus, the Light of the world, allowed his light to be snuffed out. When that happened thick darkness once again covered the earth. When Jesus died gospels tell us, “Darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.”

The world must have seemed a dark, ominous place for Jesus’ followers. By the time Sunday came, the disciples were so frightened that they huddled together behind locked doors. No wonder that when Jesus himself rose again and appeared to his disciples we hear that “they were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.”

Sometimes a single, solitary light in the midst of darkness can do strange things to the mind. Jesus had risen. Now was the time to dispel all doubts and fears. Jesus said, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

It all fulfilled what the prophet Isaiah said eight centuries earlier. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” On example of this was Paul and Barnabas, who shared the light of the gospel even in the face of persecution. The book of Acts tells us how God blessed their efforts. “This is what the Lord has instructed us: I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the end of the earth.”

You are part of that fulfillment! By faith you know the Light; you know Jesus. And now, like the disciples, like Paul and Barnabas, Jesus had made you his lights in this sin-darkened world. And as the Holy Spirit enables you, continue to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Amen.

You Are Anointed by the Holy Spirit


The Baptism of Our Lord – January 8, 2017

The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs. 8 The anger of the Lord burned against Israel so that he sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim, to whom the Israelites were subject for eight years. 9 But when they cried out to the Lord, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, who saved them. 10 The Spirit of the Lord came on him, so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war. The Lord gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him. 11 So the land had peace for forty years, until Othniel son of Kenaz died. (Judges 3:7-11)

If you could pick any Biblical time in which to live, I doubt you would choose the time of the Judges. It was a time that started with such promise. Moses had guided their parents through the wilderness to the edge of the Promised Land. The great commander, Joshua, had guided them in battle, conquering Canaan. Settlements were being established. Farms were built. Fields were plowed. Most importantly, the people had the five books of Moses to guide them in their lives.

In many ways God had blessed his people with a fresh start. But this fresh start soon devolved into the same old sins. One by one, Joshua and his faithful generation passed away. Their children proved to be not as faithful. Our first lesson tells us what Israel did in the absence of their faithful commander, Joshua. “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asherahs.”

Get used to that phrase in the book of the Judges. What happens with this first wicked generation will only get worse with each ensuing generation of Israelites. The very God that saved them from slavery in Egypt, then saved them again in the wilderness, and then saved them again from every group of people who tried to wipe them out along the way; the very God who gave them the land he promised them, was the God they turned away from.

The people exchanged their all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God for a couple of useless, local gods: Baal and Asherah. A civilization is always one generation away from losing God and his Word completely. This generation of Israelites proves that.

God responded in the way we would expect. “The anger of the Lord burned against Israel so that he sold them into the hands of Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram Naharaim, to whom the Israelites were subject for eight years.” Get used to that in the book of Judges, too. Every time the Israelites turned away from the Lord, the Lord gave them a wake-up call. This one took the form of an enemy from the North and it lasted eight years.

The wake-up call worked. “[The Israelites] cried out to the Lord.” This was the cry of a repentant people. They realized their sin and they confessed it to their Lord. We did the same thing this morning in our liturgy when we admitted, “I confess that I am by nature sinful and that I have disobeyed you in my thoughts, words, and actions. I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good. For this I deserve your punishment both now and in eternity.”

There is nothing vague about that confession. It is meant to include everything we don’t want to admit: our sinful nature, our sinful thoughts, our sinful words, and our sinful actions.

But it also included these ever-important words, “But I am truly sorry for my sins, and trusting in my Savior Jesus Christ, I pray: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Israel was also pleading for God’s mercy. And God, by his grace, answered his people. “He raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, who saved them.” When his people needed him most, God sent them a deliverer. The man’s name was Othniel and while we know precious little about him, in the book of Judges, the less said about you as a leader, the better.

Othniel was the first judge of Israel and perhaps her best judge. But that didn’t have anything to do with Othniel. God made that clear. To show all Israel that Othniel was a judge and leader selected by God himself, God carried out something extra special. “The Spirit of the Lord came on him, so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war. The Lord gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him.”

The Lord anointed Othniel, Israel’s first judge, with the Holy Spirit. After that, victory was certain. Othniel took Israel into war and overtook the king of Aram. The peace that followed was a welcome sight for Israel. Sadly, it wouldn’t last. The temptations Israel fell in to in the Promised Land would continue generation after generation.

In fact, they continue today. The false gods of this world continue to pull us away from the true God who has given us everything. If given a choice, I would imagine a lot of people who have lived throughout the ages would choose to live today. Look at the blessings the Lord has given us! Yet like those Israelites living at the time of the Judges, we take our abundance of blessings for granted. That is why we had to confess our sins this morning, and every morning.

God had anointed Othniel to deliver Israel. He wouldn’t be the last man to do that. Othniel was followed by people like Ehud and Deborah, Gideon and Samson, Samuel and David and Solomon. Yet each of those deliverers needed to be delivered themselves. They all had their faults and shortcomings…and sins.

Then this morning we hear of another deliverer. Like Othniel and all the other judges, kings, prophets and priests, he also had to be anointed for his task of deliverance. Our Gospel reading detailed that for us. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John…As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.”

Having been anointed with the Holy Spirit in the waters of Baptism, Jesus went on to complete his mission of deliverance. This morning, our words of absolution told us how. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy.” Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, you heard that beautiful announcement of forgiveness, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Isn’t it fitting that your forgiveness is announced in the very name of our Triune God that you were baptized into? Through those waters of Baptism you also have been anointed by the Holy Spirit. That’s what Paul was writing about in our second lesson. In Baptism “[God] anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” You are now a child of God, equipped with the Holy Spirit to live for him, to share your faith and to live your faith. You can declare now and always: “I am baptized into Christ; I’m a child of paradise!” Amen.