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Help of the Helpless

2nd Sunday after Pentecost (A)        June 18, 2017        Text:  Matthew 9:36        Rev. Jon Nack

           Dear friends in Christ, I remember listening to the radio after the terror bomb attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester England.  I heard a man – a father – speaking about what he felt knowing that his daughter had gone to the concert.  He said that when it happened, they were 2 or 3 hours away at the time and they never felt so helpless.  They wanted to be able to do something; he wanted to protect his daughter.  But she was caught in the blast.  Emergency responders took his 15 year old daughter to a nearby hospital where she had surgery to remove shrapnel from her shoulder and arm, and thankfully well on the way to recovery.     In that moment, Gary felt helpless because he knew there was nothing he could do.

            But you do not have to feel helpless to be helpless.  I don’t suppose too many of the people in the crowds that Jesus saw as He went throughout the towns and villages of Galilee felt all that helpless.  Sure, there were the sick and the demon possessed.  And certainly, there were examples of people who were driven in their helplessness to Jesus for His help.  In chapter nine, we see a paralytic who is completely helpless lying on a mat.  His friends carry him to Jesus who forgives his sins and heals him so that he can stand up and walk.  We see the ruler whose daughter died and was helpless.  We see the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years and was completely helpless.  We see the two blind men who also were helpless and who turned to Jesus.  And then, there was the demon possessed man who couldn’t speak who was brought to Jesus.  In his own way, he too was helpless to do anything to help himself.

            But for most of the people in the crowds, they probably lived fairly normal lives, went about their daily work and were able to deal with their problems and challenges on their own the best that they could.  There were those who were doing O.K. for themselves, and probably those who were doing quite well for themselves.  Most of these folks probably didn’t feel like they were helpless.

            Probably most of us don’t feel that way either until something happens that makes us feel that way and we have to face the fact that there is nothing that we can do to help the situation.  Something like a death in the family, the loss of a job, the serious illness, or marriage problems that seem to just get worse.  Or depression (or maybe even having to depend on family to take care of you.)  (There was also a Denzel Washington movie John Q. some years ago about a father who felt helpless because the insurance company was denying the medical treatment necessary to help his son. In that movie he takes matters into his own hands and takes a hospital hostage to get his son the heart transplant that he needs.  People want to cheer him on in the movie because no one likes feeling helpless.  We want to believe that there is always something we can do.

            But most of the people in those crowds probably felt like they could take care of themselves just fine, thank you very much. 

            But Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.  They didn’t feel helpless.  But they were helpless and Jesus knew it.

            They were helpless first of all because their leaders were misleading them.  They weren’t being led to repentance and faith in Jesus.  They weren’t being directed to God’s Word.  They weren’t being called to turn from their sins to God.  They weren’t being told that there was nothing that they could do to save themselves.  Instead, they were told that if they led basically decent lives and followed the rules of the scribes and Pharisees, that they would be O.K. with God.

            But where does that relying on the law lead.  Jesus says that anyone who relies on the law is under a curse.  And St. Paul says that if you put yourself under the law, you must obey all of it.

            They were helpless and harassed by human leaders who had forsaken god, and they were harassed by the spiritual forces of evil.  They were harassed by the popular religious ideas of the day that had no basis in truth, were the figment of human (or satanic deception) and were leading people to their own destruction.  They were helpless because they were being kept in the dark about the seriousness of their own condition and that if they perished apart from Christ, they would be doomed to eternal hell.

            They were helpless because they had no answer for their sin and no hope for salvation.  This is true because what the leaders offered did not provide any true relief or life. 

            They were helpless because they thought they could justify themselves.  And we do that too.  We excuse our sinfulness; our ignorance of God’s Word, our judging of what we deem is right and good instead of accepting what God says.  And we even attempt to excuse our own sin sometimes by saying, “I couldn’t help it!”  When we are making excuses for ourselves is about the only time we will admit that we are helpless!

            Just because we don’t always feel helpless, doesn’t mean we aren’t helpless.  But Jesus sees and has compassion.  And He has come to shepherd His sheep in compassion, justice, and righteousness.  He comes to provide the help that we cannot provide ourselves. 

            By His blood, He provides the answer to sin and separation from God.  By His Word He gives us something to stand upon and be protected from the assaults of the devil and those who would assail us.  We can stand on the Word of God and say, “I have been baptized for the forgiveness of sins and have been given the gift of faith and life.”

            It is for this purpose that the Lord says that we are to pray for workers to be sent out into the harvest field.  Because it is through the preached Word of the Gospel, the good news of forgiveness in Christ that people are shepherded in truth and mercy.  It is there that the helpless find help for their greatest need.

            Jesus truly is the help of the helpless.  It is not just in the crisis situations, but every day that we acknowledge before the Lord, “Lord, I am helpless.  I cannot do anything to save myself.  I cannot justify my sin.  I cannot excuse my actions and inactions.  I cannot find my own way.  I cannot even know or understand the truth unless you lead me and guide me.  But you have promised to come and shepherd me through your Word.  Protect me as my shepherd from the attacks of the evil one.  Let my conscience be cleansed by your powerful Word of forgiveness.  Let my life of death be filled with your life and power.  Turn me away from useless pursuits and beliefs that lead nowhere.  Guide and direct me through your Word that I may follow you all the days of my life.  For when I follow you, I am no longer harassed and helpless. For I have you as my Good Shepherd.  In your merciful name I pray.  Amen.

He Has All Authority

Holy Trinity (A), June 11, 2017                  Text:  Matthew 28:18                  Rev. Jon Nack
 

            Dear friends in Christ, it has been a long standing tradition to confess the Athanasian Creed on Trinity Sunday in the Church.  Here is confessed the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity – the triune God – one God – three distinct persons, and also the way of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  It is a confessional standard for Christians clearly demarcating a line with Christians on one side, and non-Christians on the other.  You can call yourself a Christian.  But it actually the faith that is believed that indicates whether you are a Christian or not.  So the last line of the creed states:  This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved. 

         The creed puts forth the teachings of Holy Scripture so that we may know and believe.  The Scriptures have the same purpose.   But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  John 20:31. The creeds and the Lutheran confessions were not just written so that we would have all the right answers and “win the grand prize” on God’s game show because we know all the right answers.  They were written to strengthen us in our faith so that we are standing on solid ground which cannot be shaken by doubt, despair, doctrinal distortion, or controversy.  They are beacons which guide us through the treacherous shoals which so easily shipwreck one’s faith.  They are standards to let soldiers of the cross know where to rally, and where to take their stand.  They let us know where the gospel is being proclaimed rightly.  Most importantly, they let us see God, see Christ clearly, as He has revealed Himself to us. 

         These confessions also help drive away doubt.  It is fascinating to me that Matthew reports even after the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee, some doubted.  Perhaps those who doubted had only seen Jesus this one time, while others had seen Him on multiple occasions. 

         But this story gives us insight about doubt and unbelief.  For what were the disciples really doubting?  And what is at the heart of doubt and unbelief today?  Were the disciples doubting that Jesus existed?  Were they thinking of him as someone like a Santa Clause, a mythical figure?  Did they think that as they looked upon his face, that they were hallucinating, going crazy?  I don’t think so.  Although, I wouldn’t put it passed some people today to deny that Jesus every really existed, I don’t think that is the case for most people today.

         As those disciples were struggling with their doubts, what does Jesus say to them?  “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.”  They weren’t doubting his existence, they were doubting his authority.  Clearly, the doubted His claim to who He said He was, the Messiah, and to carry the authority that the Messiah must have by definition as the Son of God in Human flesh.

         Unbelief means that you doubt God’s authority.  If I do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then He has no authority over me.  He has no claim on me.  His teachings and commands are nothing more than suggestions for me to consider and adopt those that please me and reject those that I don’t appreciate as much.  Unbelief then is rejecting the Lord’s authority over me.

         It would be like a motorist being pulled over by a county deputy on a state highway.  He could argue that since he was traveling on a state highway, the county deputy doesn't have the authority to give him a ticket.  You can bet that the deputy would take the time to demonstrate exactly what authority he has in that situation!

         Jesus repeatedly demonstrated his authority as God in this world.  One obvious example is when He commanded the wind and the waves of the sea of Galiliea to “Be still.”  And instantly that furious squall became as tranquil a sleeping baby.  He demonstrated that he had authority over nature, over illness and disease, over demons, over those who had been leading the world astray with their false teaching. 

         Jesus has not just been given some authority, but as God, He has all authority.   He has the authority to demand absolute obedience.  And He has the authority to punish those who don't obey.  Therefore, rebellion and rejection of that authority is no sin to be taken lightly.  Despising His Word, being slow to believe and slow to follow are not sins to be taken lightly. 

         The doctrine of the Trinity and the person of Christ should drive us to repentance for our rebellion against authority, and failure to respect His authority.

         However, the doctrine of the Trinity and the god-head of Christ is also a source of great comfort for the repentant Christian.  As the Son of God, He Has all authority.  That means that He has authority to forgive my sins.  Is this not why He healed the paralytic, so that the crowd would know that He has authority to forgive sins.  The Bible teaches us that Jesus has the authority on earth to forgive sins.  He has that authority because He is God’s Son and because He glorified the father by completing what He had been given to do for our salvation and rescue.  He has that authority.  Let there be no doubt!

         He has the authority to call us to be His own as the Holy Spirit works through the Gospel.  His Word has the authority and power to transform, renew, enlighten and sanctify.  He has that authority!

         He has the authority to raise the dead by the power of His voice because He is the Son of God.  He has the authority to draw a line of defense around us as His own.  He has the authority to protect us and defend us.  He has the authority to place limits on what the devil can do to us. 

         He has this authority as the Son of God and He uses it for us.  All of it.  And it is by that same authority that we boldly go into the world to proclaim who Jesus is, the living Son of God, the one who has all authority in heaven and earth.  He has the authority to be with us always.  So as we confess that truth today, let it be a comfort to us for the strengthening of our souls and for driving away all doubt.  In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.

 

The Glory of God

5th Sunday of Easter (A)           May 14th, 2017        Text:  Acts 6:1-9. 7;2a, 51-60        Rev. Jon Nack
            Dear friends in Christ, in our text for today, I see a pattern repeated in the church that carried over from the life of Christ among His disciples.  Imagine what it must have been like following Jesus.  There certainly would have been much that was mundane:  traveling from place to place (whether walking a dusty path or rowing a boat across the sea), taking care of the necessities of life (like where they would stay for the night or where they would get food and water and even where they would wash their clothes) taking care of financial responsibilities and family members (paying taxes and taking care of sick family members and attending family functions like weddings and funerals.)  All of these things make up the daily mundane activity of human life.

            But there were moments, right in the midst of mundane life, where it became clear to the disciples that God Himself was at work in their midst.  During a normal trip to the temple and a normal Sunday school lesson, Jesus amazes the teachers with His command of God’s Word and His authority.  During a wedding, Jesus turns water into wine.  A boat ride across the sea becomes the place where Jesus displays His divine power over nature and the wind and waves.  At the funeral of Lazarus, Jesus is at work restoring life to the dead.  A “regular” synagogue service becomes the stage for a showdown between Jesus and Satan.  In their journeys with Jesus, the lame man that people passed everyday becomes the recipient of a miracle healing – Jesus – God Himself – at work in the everyday lives of everyday people in the normal, mundane activity of human life. 

            This was the regular pattern of Jesus during His three years with the disciples before His death and resurrection.  So it should not surprise us that it is also His pattern as He continues His work now in the church.  In other words, God is here and at work in the mundane and “normal” everyday activities of human life – in human congregations, homes, and families.

            After all, what sounds more normal than a conflict arising in the church (or the family for that matter)?  What sounds more normal than divisions among ethnic lines, or socioeconomic, or political lines.  Whether the problem was real, or only perceived, it was still a problem for the church when the complaint arose by the Hellenists or the Greeks against the Jews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.  What could be more normal than the complaint of favoritism and injustice?  After all, the Greeks were the newcomers in the church.  They didn’t have the connections like the Jews did.  They probably didn’t have the numbers like the Jews did either. 

            But it is right in these kinds of “normal” conflicts and problems that God is at work.  It is right in the middle of these situations where we have the opportunity to seek God’s will and God’s ways.  And it is actually only in these kinds of situations where we get to “take our faith for a spin” and trust God’s grace, goodness and direction.

            There is no manipulation.  There is no character assassination.  There is no minimizing the problem or the people involved.  Instead, the twelve apostles gather the whole group of disciples and explain that a course of action needs to be taken that will keep the Gospel focus of the whole group.  In other words, the decision that is made will not be for the interest of any individual or party per se, but rather, for the good of the whole, for the Good of the Gospel.  This is a way to say that they knew that what they were about as a church has eternal significance for the souls of those in the church, and those not yet in the church.  Therefore, they are going to work out their conflict in a way that keeps their eyes on, and supports the things of eternal significance.  The physical support of the widows was important.  But the salvation of every human soul is even more so.  Therefore, the decision was made to select seven men full of the Spirit and of Wisdom who would tend to these tasks so that the apostles could focus on the preaching of the Word of God and prayer. 

            Seven men were chosen and hands were laid upon them as they prayed.  And in such a mundane and “normal” human occurrence like this conflict, God proves Himself at work in the midst of the church, and the whole congregation exercises their faith in prayer and support of the preaching of the Word of God as the thing of eternal significance.  And you see the results of God at work in their daily lives through His Word.  The text says that the Word of God continued to increase, the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great number of the priests became obedient to the faith.

            It is important for you to know that God is at work in the everyday lives of His people, even in the mundane activities of everyday life.  This is why husbands support their wives and their children.  It is why mothers nurture and take care of their children.  It is why they provide loving and safe homes for them.  It is why they see to their instruction, and bring them to church and Sunday school.  But it is also why they cook and clean and vacuum and change diapers and take their children to doctor’s appointments and buy clothes and help with homework.  It is why she supports her husband as the head of the household as He takes the responsibility to make sure that the Word of God is spoken and learned in the home.  It is why an atmosphere of love, grace and forgiveness is cultivated in the home.  All of this because God is at work in that home through the Word of God and whatever is being done their according to the Word of God is tending to the things (the people) that have eternal significance.  And as that calling is carried out with an eye towards what really matters and in support of that, the result will be satisfaction and joy in life and the knowledge that God is present and at work, blessing His people.

            And perhaps, the most dramatic example of the pattern we are speaking about this morning is what happens to Stephen, the church deacon, the waiter of widows, whose life was an instrument in God’s hands for things of great significance.  Where God comes, the devil raises his fangs in opposition.  And so it is no surprise that the devil is also active and at work right there in the mundane everyday things of this life. 

            And you can see the result.  In the text it was the kind of hatred and anger that leads to the gnashing of teeth.  It results in seething anger and finally murder. 

            Maybe we cannot see it to that extent, but who do you think is at work when we find discontent in the mundane and daily things of life?  Who do you think is at work when we find discontent with our spouse, or our children, or our jobs?  Who do you think is at work when we are filled with resentment and bitterness?  Who is at work when we do and say things that are unloving and harsh and critical and angry and unforgiving?  Who is at work when we put all of our time into things that have no real lasting significance and neglect the things (i.e. people) who do?  Who is at work when we lose our temper and gnash our teeth and fly off the handle?  Oh yes!  Satan is at work right there in the mundane, everyday activities of human life.

            But what Stephen does, even as the missiles of hatred are being hurled at his head shows an astounding work of God in the darkest place of human rebellion.  Just as the Son of God Himself prayed, “Father, forgive them…” so also now the pattern is repeated.  Stephen prays for those who were smashing the life out of him, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

            Jesus has ascended to heaven.  But the pattern continues.  The Lord is still at work, even in the midst of our everyday lives, which often includes some sadly normal brokenness and sin.  The Lord has not abandoned His own.  He still comes by the power of His grace, through His Word and through His people to offer that one thing, that one divine healing grace, the full forgiveness of sins bought with the blood of Christ. 

            Conflict, and hurt, and sin are normal.  But God is at work there in the midst of our everyday lives.  Christ continues to come.  And we have the gift which we receive as our sins are forgiven in Christ and by Christ.  And we have the gift to give which is the same forgiveness in Christ.  And so, you truly are instruments of God by the Grace of Christ to do that which is truly extraordinary as you live your everyday lives.

            In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.   Amen.     

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