Genesis 11:1-9 / Acts 2:1-21 / John 14:23-31
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon for today is the last of seven in our series, “Lives Changed.” We’ve been looking through the book of Acts and digging into the lives of the characters there as we ask two questions: “How does the Holy Spirit change lives?” and “What do changed lives look like?” Whether you look at Paul or the Ephesian elders, at Lydia or Cornelius, at Matthias or today at the disciples and the people of Pentecost, you find that success in the early church isn’t so much about reports of thousands coming to faith or about great miracles that amaze. It has more to do with how the wind of the Holy Spirit is blowing in order to make the things that were broken whole again, to bring clarity to those who are confused, and to let mercy and forgiveness flow where there is sin and strangeness.
Seven scenes for today as we see God change lives on the festival of Pentecost where we see the Spirit of God working to speak in words that people could hear.
Scene number one, where my friend shares with me about las paltas. It was four years ago, when one of my good friends, Katie Lane, came back from mission work in South America, she told me about many things, but one particularly meaningful thought for today. She told me that she’d never again eat an avocado. Not because she disliked the taste, not because she’d gotten sick, but because to her, they weren’t avocados; they were las paltas. To call them las paltas was to speak her language, to bring up everything that they meant to her in her time there. To understand what they meant to her, you would have to speak in the language of her heart
Scene number two, where my wife learns to speak my language. You see, I was doing the Poppa time thing with my bouncing baby boy, itty bitty Benjamin when Laura came home from work and asked me to start making a sauce for our dinner.
And here’s what you need to know: I need different directions than Laura. Directions I need are like the ones in a recipe book: I like to hear words like “Take a quarter cup of this…” or You’ll need two tablespoons of that.” Laura’s more of a “two generous scoops of this, a dash of that, the rest to taste”
And so she starts explaining: You just need to get this and that out, and you kind of eyeball it up, and I’m not sure how much of the other thing you should add, but you just add it, but not too much…” and I tell her, “Is it a quarter cup, or is it a tablespoon?” Are you taking scoops like a half-cup’s worth or like heaping teaspoon scoops?”
And it’s taken three – almost four – years of marriage for us to get this, but Laura, instead of shooting me a look like I was a knucklehead, just took a deep breath and started speaking in words I could understand.
Scene number 3, our Old Testament lesson, where success in the short-term would only lead to failure. The wickedness planted in the hearts of Adam and Eve had fully bloomed during the time of Noah, so God sent a flood and told Noah to start it all up again, but it wasn’t enough. God had washed the world once but that flood wasn’t enough to wipe men’s souls clean, and the people banded together under one language and put together all their resources to do whatever came out of their hearts, and that was to build a tower towards the heavens.
Now, know what that means. God had told them to spread out and they gathered themselves together. God had told them to start taking care of the ground, and they cared more to reach up for the heavens. God had told them to be like him, to be his hands and feet, his co-caretakers in the world, and they cared not to do God’s work but to be like God, to be gods themselves.
It’s not that God was worried they would overthrow him – have you ever wondered about that? He says, “And if they finish this, nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” That means, if they finish this, then they’ll believe that any vain conceit will fill the hole in their hearts. If they succeed here, then they’ll start down a path whose only end is destruction. Their success won’t be for their good. It will only lead to greater harm.
And so he makes their language match their hearts. They had confused the desires of their own hearts and now he confuses their language. He inflicts pain and suffering so they could be ready to hear him speak in a language they could understand. Have you ever experienced that?
Scene number 4, where disciples hear but they don’t hear. It’s Maundy Thursday, John 14. The disciples gather around Jesus asking the same confused questions and getting the same confusing answers. No doubt they believed that Jesus was the Christ, but they did not know what it meant for his kingdom to come or his will to be done. No doubt they believed with all their hearts they would never fall away, but they had not yet experienced the forgiveness that covers over even the multitude of their sins. No doubt they knew the right answers, but those answers hadn’t sunk deep down into the language of their hearts. It took the Father sending the Son. It took the Son sending the Spirit. It took the Spirit blowing wherever it would, afflicting and comforting, guiding and leading, to open hearts and minds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Scenes five and six. It’s been fifty days since the Passover Sabbath that we know as Holy Saturday and ten days since Jesus ascended into heaven. Scene number five happens when the disciples – not just the apostles but all 120 disciples – were waiting for the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. This was the Jewish feast celebrating how the people of Israel received the covenant on Mt. Sinai fifty days after the Angel of Death passed over the children of Israel – on that day, the wind of the Spirit decided to blow with the words of the new covenant, and their house was filled with wind, their hair was filled with fire, and for a time God reversed the curse of the Tower of Babel.
Scene number six, where the disciples start speaking the same kind of message in all kinds of ways. The disciples start going outside and talking to all kinds of people who speak all kinds of languages. For some, this complicates matters. They start wondering, How are these men jabbering on? Are they already drunk? But for those that the Holy Spirit had prepared, this miracle wasn’t nearly as remarkable as the mighty works of God they spoke. The miracle of tongues played second fiddle to the story of how God had saved the world. The programs that they ran and the numbers they put up and the money they raked in and all that was flashy that day only served the greater good that the people of God got to be the people of God and do what the people of God do: preach the Gospel, break down barriers of sin and strangeness, and preach the same kind of message in any and every way they can.
Scene number seven, where a married couple gets it right. A newly married couple comes in scared because their marriage felt like it was blowing apart. They were screaming at each other. They were both hurt. They were lost and angry, so much so that they wouldn’t let the other person finish their sentences before they had something else to say. And it wasn’t my job to fix their conflict or to fix their marriage. In those hours, it was my job to help them hear what the other was actually saying. That he isn’t angry and selfish; he’s just never felt like he was smart or good enough to deserve her, and he needs to know she respects him and will stay by his side. She isn’t being nit-picky and judgmental; she’s scared that he didn’t think of her and wasn’t keeping her safe. And as much as they had tried, their real intentions were lost in a confusion of words. In order to hear, they needed to slow down and listen to what was really being said.
And with tears in their eyes, they listened to each other as if for the first time and heard again how beautiful the words of forgiveness sound.
How does the Holy Spirit change lives? The Holy Spirit changes lives in our readings by breaking down barriers. He changes lives by confronting us with our failure that comes from our own sin that leads to our own death so that he can shower us with the Gospel. He changes lives by adding frustration where we’d wish success, by guiding and preparing us in the least likely ways, but most of all, the Holy Spirit changes lives, time and time again, by working in the ways God’s promised to work – by the word, in baptism, in the Lord’s Supper – and doing it through his people, wherever they go, whatever they do, however they succeed, whenever they fail.
The kingdom of heaven is like a church spending a good deal of money to send youth down to a Youth Gathering to hear the same words they hear up here at our church for free. And yet, whether it’s the close quarters or the large crowds, whether it's the cool music or seeing their pastor brush his teeth, the Holy Spirit starts breaking down barriers so that they can hear the life-changing message of the Gospel as just that – life-changing.
The kingdom of heaven is like a husband and wife whose temptation is to run through their days only half-listening. And yet that have made a habit of looking each other in the eyes and listening to each other for what they’re actually saying.
The kingdom of heaven is like a large church in a small town more interested in seeing what the Spirit is doing than keeping its programs going. More interested in walking with others in a life that looks like the Gospel than moving more butts in the pews. More interested in connecting with people however we may than preserving our own pride and culture. So they spend their days rejoicing in the Gospel, weeping at their sin and sins of others, and walking humbly with Jesus wherever he would go on his mission.
What do changed lives look like? They look about as different as different could be. They spring up in the most unlikely ways. Some travel together and some apart. Some grow fast and strong, others are more like watching corn grow. But one thing binds them: they have one Christ who saves them, one Holy Spirit who leads them, one Father who loves them, and one God who prepares all kinds of good for them in advance to do.
Sixth in a Series of Seven Sermons
Seventh Sunday of Easter and Mother’s Day
Acts 1 21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
Over the past five Sundays in this Easter season, we have been pointing out that when we think about healthy and growing churches, our thoughts usually go first of all to growing numbers. Growing numbers of people in the pews, growing numbers of cars in the parking lots, growing numbers of baptisms and confirmations and members joining. As we read through the Book of Acts, we see days where thousands of sinners were getting baptized, and we find all kinds of examples of the Holy Spirit showing up in spectacular fashion. Tongues of fire on the apostles’ heads, sound of a mighty rushing wind, speaking in tongues, miracles of healing and even of resurrections. Again and again, however, we have wanted you to see that what makes Christianity so extraordinary is that the Holy Spirit is transforming hearts one at a time. His usual methods are slow, but sure. They are most often gradual, even invisible. Today, we would focus on Mathias and on moms and again, we would answer two questions, “How does the Holy Spirit change lives?” and “What do lives that have been changed by the Holy Spirit look like?”
July 13, 1980 That was the day I was installed as pastor at Immanuel Lutheran, also called Silo Lutheran, near Lewiston, MN. One of my most vivid memories of that day was how ecstatic the folks in that place were to have us there. Not because of anything that was particularly special about my family, but for the simple reason that they had been without a full time pastor for three and a half years. No fewer than 19 or 20 (they lost count) experienced pastors had received the call to be pastor there, and all 19 or 20 had, for one reason or another, said no thank you. Finally they prayed about it and they voted to ask the Synod to send them a pastor, in those days they couldn’t really specify who they wanted, they just said send us somebody, anybody, a warm body! Which turned out to be me. The Holy Spirit knew all along what was the plan, of course. You see, God’s plan for calling and gathering and enlightening and sanctifying His people has always been His plan, not ours. Today, we would study how it came to be that Matthias filled the office vacated by Judas, the man described by Luke as the one who became the guide to those who arrested Jesus. We ask the same question we’ve been asking in this season of Easter, how does the Holy Spirit change lives? Two answers to that question.
The first answer is that Lives are changed for generations to come by (spending time with Jesus). When it came time to replace Judas, only one qualification is mentioned. The 12th apostle would have to be a man who had spent time walking alongside of Jesus, a man who had spent time watching Jesus in action, a man who had spent time listening to Jesus. Two truths we want to learn today about the importance of spending quality time with our Savior.
The first truth is that God doesn’t choose the qualified, He (qualifies the chosen). By this I mean to say that God doesn’t look out over the crowds and select the best and the brightest to do His bidding, He chooses us before we were ever formed in our mother’s wombs and prepares in advance lists of good works for each of us to do.
This was true for the Office of (Apostle) Jesus made it clear to his disciples that they did not choose him, he chose them and he appointed them to go and bear fruit that would last. The first disciples didn’t walk up to Jesus and ask for an application to fill in for the office of apostle, He walked up to them and said “follow me and I will make you into fishers of men.” We can be sure that God knew before creation that Matthias would be the 12th apostle. And as often as Matthias listened to Jesus teach, as often as he watched Jesus perform one miracle of healing right after another, as often as he searched the Scriptures available to him, that often the Holy Spirit was changing him from the inside out. That often the Holy Spirit was changing him for the better and for the benefit of generations to come. Luke had this to say in Acts 17 about God taking some pretty ordinary kinds of men and molding them and making them into something pretty special, Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.
The principle that God doesn’t really choose the qualified, but has a way of qualifying the chosen has always been true for the Office of (Mother), as well. God doesn’t look out over the crowd and determine that certain girls and young ladies have earned the right to give birth, no, before the world was ever created, God chooses many, but not all women to give birth and He appoints them to go and bear fruit that will last for generations to come. Like many of you, I was blessed with a mom who did spend her days searching Holy Scripture. I have this memory seared into my mind of my older siblings going off to school, dad going outside to do his work, and mom in her bathrobe sitting on our couch having her quiet time, sitting still with her Bible and big green prayer book spending time with her Savior.
Like many of you, I was blessed with a mom who did make sure the family would pile into the car and make it to church Sunday after Sunday. (Story of sitting between mom and dad in front, mom putting spit on her fingers and wetting down my rooster tails, then going into my ears with her little perfumed handkerchief and cleaning, much to my dismay and the delight of sisters and brother in the back seat.)
How eager so many of our moms were for us to believe and never doubt that Jesus loved us, that He suffered, died, and was buried for us, that He rose up again on the third day for us that he ascended into heaven and was crowned king of kings on the 40th day for us. Listen to what Luke writes about the Berean Christians on this subject of searching Scripture in eager fashion, Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
Back to our text. We see that before Matthias could be chosen as the 12th apostle, Judas Iscariot had to commit suicide. Before we can read the story of the early church praying and then casting lots and the lot falling on Matthias, we have to read of Judas hanging himself, falling headlong, bursting open in his midsection, and all his bowels gushing out. Not a very soft and fluffy and cuddly story for Mother’s Day, but there it is. Again we learn that it may not seem like it, but there’s always a method to (God’s madness).This was true in the (early church) in so very many ways. There had to be the madness of Judas committing suicide before there could be the installation of Matthias as witness to the resurrection. There had to be the madness of Good Friday before there could be the victory of Easter Sunday. There had to be the madness of Saul persecuting the early church before there could Jesus could slap him upside the head and make him a missionary to that church. A couple of weeks ago, I described how there had to be the madness of my brother Curtis dying in a car accident before there could be a desire in my heart to pursue the vocation of pastor.
This is what Jesus prays for, (even today), that through all the madness of every day living, that the Holy Spirit would keep on changing lives for the better and for the benefit of others. Listen to Jesus pray to His Father, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.”This is what Jesus pray for, even today, that you would believe and never doubt believe and never doubt that Jesus loves you, that He suffered, died, and was buried for you, that He rose up again on the third day for you, that he ascended into heaven and was crowned king of kings on the 40th day for you. This is what Jesus prays for, even today, that the witness of the apostles would be your foundation, that Jesus Christ would be your cornerstone, and to use the words of our Shared Vision, the culture around you would be transformed as you faithfully manage your God-given vocations.
Which brings us to our second and final question, “What do lives that have been changed by the Holy Spirit look like?” Christian vocation is at the same time both complex and (simple). The early church’s life together was complicated as news swept through their ranks that one of the 12 had committed suicide, and at the same time it was simple as they prayed for guidance and then listened. Our life together here at Trinity is complicated by the fact that we have a trio of enemies assaulting us in every one of our days – sinful nature, sinful world, devil and all of his demons – and at the same time it is as simple as it can be as our sins are forgiven, as often as we are still and know that God is God, as often as we hold onto that which many of us received at our mother’s knees.
The kingdom of God is like washing your (robes). There was something really simple about doing laundry back in my college days. I did what all the guys would do – jam as many clothes of all colors and fabrics as could be jammed in the washing machine, throw in a bunch of detergent, turn it on and walk away. When I got married, I learned that laundry is much more complicated than that. In fact, Debi has pretty much put a restraining order on me, she forbids me to do laundry! John records Jesus saying in the last chapter of our Bible, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” The forgiveness of sins is easy for us, Christ has already done all the heavy lifting. The forgiveness of sins is easy for us, how hard can it be to take a robe that has been washed clean and put it on? The forgiveness of sins is easy for us, how hard is it to receive a gift that has already been paid for in full?
In his book, “Joining Jesus on His Mission”, Greg Finke suggests that The kingdom of God is like driving a (car) He writes, “My car has several complex systems working together in order to allow me to drive to the store simply. In the same way, God has his complex “systems” (namely his kingdom and his mission) working together in order to allow us, his people to be included in his redemptive mission, and in a way that is simple enough for any of us to participate.” Witnessing to the resurrection of Jesus Christ is easy for us, Christ has already done the heavy lifting, how hard is it to repeat good news we know to be true?
It’s not so much a matter of ability as it is a matter of (persistence) Those were the first words of Professor Norb Mueller from the Ft. Wayne Seminary as about 20 other pastors and I began the Doctor of Ministry program. It turned out that he was right. So also dear friends, in closing, know that as often as you spend time with Jesus Christ, that often you are putting yourself in a position for the Holy Spirit to mold you into the kind of person God wants you to be. And as often as God’s Spirit is working on you from the inside out, that often you will find it possible to manage whatever vocation God is asking you to manage. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Fourth in a Series of Seven Sermons
Acts 10: 44 – While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the message.
Acts 11 – vs. 1 – The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the Word of God…vs.15 - As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them as he had come on us at the beginning….v. 18 So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
When we think about growing and healthy congregations, our thoughts may first go to numbers. Numbers of baptisms, numbers of people filling the pews, numbers of cars in the overflowing parking lots, numbers that indicate budgets getting balanced and debt getting retired. But we are seeing in these weeks of Easter, that numbers are only the effects of something deeper. They are the effects of the Holy Spirit working in hearts and minds, one at a time. At times in the Book of Acts and in church history, the Holy Spirit falls on and changes lives in dramatic fashion, as in the case of Saul and in today’s lesson, in the case of Peter and Cornelius, but most often watching Lutheran Christians grow in their faith is like watching corn grow. Slowly and surely, and only occasionally fast and flashy. In today’s sermon, I offer you seven scenes which will help us think about our Shared Vision in this place, which is to mature as disciples for Jesus Christ. Three questions we want to ask in each one of these seven scenes. Question #1 – How was the Holy Spirit changing lives? Question #2 – What did those changed lives look like? And #3 – For what purpose was He changing those lives?
Scene #1 The Holy Spirit falls on a few God-fearing women at their (monthly meeting). Today we are celebrating 100 years of our local Ladies Aid being alive and well, 100 years of meeting in a monthly kind of a way to receive God’s Word, 100 years of terrific fellowship, 100 years of giving their mites to support missions near and far. With that in mind, Scene #1 takes place in about 1958 and 1959 when I started attending Ladies’ Aid meetings with my mom. My mom would pile me in our Four door Mercury and we’d pick up Betty Cink / Myrtle Strege /Freida Krause (who I thought was about 100 years old) and off to little Peace Lutheran Church basement we’d go.
Every month, these sweet little old ladies would try to give a quarter for gas, every month Mom would say no, every month they would insist, and every month Mom would say, “ok, put it in the mite box.” What matters most about those Wednesday afternoons is that lives were changing slowly, but surely. Slowly but surely the Holy Spirit was drawing these ladies close and closer to their Savior, slowly but surely, these Gentiles were receiving the Word of God, slowly but surely the blood of Jesus Christ was cleansing their souls, slowly but surely, they were going back into their homes living out in faithful fashion their vocations as wives, mothers, sisters, neighbors, and friends. Why was the Holy Spirit showing up at their monthly meetings? So that sins could be forgiven, so that souls could be saved, so that marriages could be strengthened, so that one more generation could be raised in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, so that the good gifts of God could be given, so that God could grant Gentiles the kind of repentance that leads to eternal life. That’s why!
Scene #2 The Holy Spirit falls on a grieving family as they just sit there and (listen to their pastor) Fast forward about ten years to September 5, 1968, a Thursday afternoon where our respected and trusted Pastor Dierks was reading and explaining Scripture to my parents, my sisters, a few aunts and uncles, my brother’s fiancé and me. The night before my brother Curtis had visited his fiancé Becky in Fargo, and it was late at night before he started the 60 mile trek back to the farm. About 2 in the morning, on Highway 46 near Kindred, he apparently fell asleep, missed a curve and he and his 1962 Ford Galaxie 500 crashed into the bank of the Sheyenne River. Ten hours later, in dramatic fashion, the Holy Spirit fell on our entire family as we just sat there and listened to our pastor. I say dramatic fashion because in those very hours, Jesus was messing with me in such a way that before I knew it I was announcing to my parents that I wanted to be a pastor some day. For what purpose did the Holy Spirit show up that day so full of trouble? So that one more pastor could be sent, so that the Gospel would be preached, so that sinners could hear, so that souls could be born again, so that sins would be forgiven, so that one more family would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are but strangers here, heaven is their home, so that one more little country church could lay one more Gentile into the ground rejoicing that Christ is risen, so that God could grant what He absolutely loves to grant, repentance that leads to life. That’s why!
Scene #3 The Holy Spirit falls on a devout soldier (as he prays). For Scenes 3-6 we go back to Acts 10 and 11, where the Holy Spirit falls first on a Roman soldier named Cornelius in an important city named Caesarea, at 3 in the afternoon. He was already a military man, a leader of men, and a commander of soldiers. He was a man who feared the one true God, a man who gave alms to the poor, a man of frequent prayer. In fast and flashy fashion, the Holy Spirit shows up that day in the form of a vision. A vision in which an angel of God appears, the angel indicates that God is in fact listening to his prayers, and directs him to send men to Joppa for the purpose of bringing back Simon who is called Peter. You ask why did the Spirit of God show up that particular day in that particular place? So that sins could be forgiven and so that souls could be saved first in the household of Cornelius and then in the homes of Gentiles for generations to come. So that Jews could learn that circumcision was a thing of the past, so that the crucified and risen Jesus Christ could be glorified, so that apostles and disciples could be set on fire not only for the Jews but also the non Jews. So that Jews and non Jews alike could know that what God has declared clean should never again be considered unclean, so that God would grant them the kind of repentance that leads to life, that’s why!
Scene #4 The Holy Spirit falls on a hungry apostle as he (wrestles with Jesus in prayer). Scene #4 takes place by the providence of God the very next day, about noon, in Joppa, as Peter went up on the roof to pray. Three times Peter had denied his Savior on the night he was betrayed, countless times Peter had cried his tears of regret and wished he could have had a do over. Now the Holy Spirit shows up as a hungry disciple waits and watches and wrestles with God in prayer. Peter sees as strange a dream as he has ever seen. He sees heaven open up, he sees a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners, he sees all kinds of unclean animals, and he hears the command to kill and eat. Three times Peter refuses, three times a voice from heaven insists, and before could figure out what was happening, a delegation from Cornelius arrives as commanded, and the mission of Jesus Christ moves forward. Why would the Spirit of God show up at high noon in the form of a stranger than fiction kind of a vision? So that Gentiles could be included, so that well intentioned but dead wrong people of God could be corrected, so that Peter could take necessary next steps, so that true and reliable witnesses could do what true and reliable witnesses do, so that sinners could be baptized, so that the Risen Christ could be honored, and so that God could do what is in His nature to do, grant the kind of repentance that leads to life. That’s why?
Scene #5 The Holy Spirit falls on a few Gentiles as (Peter preaches) Scene #5 finds Peter and a number of Christians on their way, the following day, from Joppa back to Caesarea. It finds Cornelius kneeling down before Peter, but Peter telling him to stand back up. It finds Peter and Cornelius tag teaming to a large gathering of people and once again the Spirit of the living God shows up to do his thing. While Peter was still preaching, the Holy Spirit came on all who were hearing, and before the day was done Gentiles were speaking in tongues, Gentiles were getting baptized one right after the other, Gentiles were joining on a mission they had no idea how it might end.
Scene #6 The Holy Spirit falls on a few critics as Peter (tells them what he now knows) Scene #6 is our appointed lesson for the day, we find apostles and brothers throughout Judea hearing that Gentiles were receiving the Word of God, we find Peter going back to Jerusalem, we find circumcised Jews criticizing, and we find Peter explaining. Even as began to explain, even as he began to tell them what he now knew, just like clockwork, the Holy Spirit came on all who were in fact using their ears to hear, He came on every single one who had been appointed for eternal life, He came as promised. By now you don’t even have to ask. You know the answer to why the Spirit of God shows up wherever and whenever His Word is preached and listened to and believed and remembered and held onto. So that souls can be saved, sins can be forgiven, heavenly mansions can be reserved, and lives can be changed. So that lives can be changed for the better and for others. To say it in the way that Luke records it, so that objections to truth can be dropped, so that God can be praised, so that God could grant even to the Gentiles the kind of repentance that leads to life.
Scene #7 The Holy Spirit falls as often as sinners (repent) Our final scene isn’t final at all. It’s all that we have time for. Although the scenes of our lives have been ordained before we were ever born, they need to be lived out, one at a time. Although God has promised to work everyone of them out for the good of those who love Him and are called according to his purposes, they still include all kinds of decisions on our part. Decisions that flow out of a fear, love, and trust in God above all things, or decisions that flow out of a fear, love, and trust in this world above all things.
The kingdom of God is like is like a busy and stressed out and weary woman going to her Ladies Aid meeting, going to her small group Bible Study, going to church on a Sunday morning, going to her Bible on a Monday morning, and as often as she goes there, as often as she just sits there and listens, that often the Holy Spirit of God falls on her. That often, ever so slowly but surely, that often, from the inside out, she is changed. She is changed for the better, and she is changed on behalf of others.
Finally, the kingdom of God is like a middle aged man who from the world’s point of view is as successful as can be, but every time he looks in the mirror at night, and every time he prays, and ever time he thinks through what matters in life and what doesn’t matter so much, he finds himself wanting to get down on his not so young knees anymore and cry out for mercy. As often as he cries out for mercy, he knows that mercy is his. Even more than that, he knows that in that moment, the angels of heaven are in fact rejoicing, his life is in fact changing, the name of His Father in heaven is being hallowed, and the kingdom of His God is coming. Or to say it the way Luke likes to say it, God is granting yet one more Gentile the kind of repentance that leads to life. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Second in a Series of 7 Sermons
Dear Friends in Christ,
Many times when one thinks of churchly success, numbers come to mind. Numbers of people packing the pews, numbers that balance the budget, numbers of a growing membership, for example. Looking back at the early church, success seemed to be about the number of sick people getting healed, the number of miracles being done, numbers of apostles speaking in tongues. But in our readings appointed for these seven weeks of Easter, we see that these numbers are only the effects of a deeper change. What makes Christianity so extraordinary is how in the midst of hundreds and thousands coming to faith in the book of Acts, it’s the Holy Spirit changing hearts and minds one at a time. Today we would see how the Holy Spirit got ahold of a vicious persecutor of the church and turned him into an amazing missionary for the church. We want to see first of all how Jesus changes lives, and secondly what those changed lives look like.
By way of introduction, let me tell you what my life looks like ever since Pastor Paul Muther came to town. It looks different. I could tell you dozens of stories proving that to be true, I will limit myself to two. Exhibit #1 – About ten days ago, an organization called Adult and Teen Challenge presented to our youth in a powerful kind of a way, so much so that our youth director Heather, Pastor Muther, and I all agreed that we should get them on the schedule to come back again. Pastor Paul agreed to make the contact. Two days later, his text to Heather and me reads as follows, “Heather, my cat took the business card of the Teen Challenge gentleman that came last week. Do you happen to have contact information for him?” Who says stuff like that?
Exhibit # 2 – On the night of public examination of our 23 confirmands, Pastor Muther and I are doing our tag team approach, and as we are winding down for the evening, Pastor Muther has the microphone and he’s winding up, if you know what I mean. By this time, I’m just sitting and minding my own business, and this is what I hear him say to the confirmands, “If we pastors ever stop doing the work of making disciples, we want you confirmands to come into our office and (slap us upside the head). Who says stuff like that?
Pastor Muther has it right, it is our vision in this place to make disciples for Jesus Christ through a faithful Word and Sacrament ministry. It’s a vision we share with the Father, it’s a vision we share with Jesus who is the Christ, it’s a vision we share with the Holy Spirit, it’s a vision we share with St. Paul and all the saints who have gone on before us and those who will carry on once we are long gone. In terms of slapping upside the head, that’s pretty much what Jesus does to Saul in our first reading for today, he gets his attention with the proverbial two by four, he teaches him what he needs to know, and he sends him in a different direction. Two parts to our sermon today about how God changes lives and what they look like once the old song has been replaced by a new one.
Lesson #1 is that Jesus changes lives through a perfect mix of (extraordinary) and (ordinary) means. There are churches which teach that believing in Jesus is a decision people can make, but the Bible teaches that no one can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit. Some would teach that people need to reach out and find their Savior and make Him their own, but in this place we teach that it’s God who does the reaching, it’s our Savior who comes to us in the waters of Baptism, it’s the Spirit of God who is effecting change in the preaching and in the teaching and in the eating and the drinking. Growing up into Jesus Christ isn’t at all about us pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, it’s about Jesus pulling us up out of our self inflicted messes and having his way with us!
First, we see in Acts 9, that’s what He did on the Road to (Damascus). Today’s reading picks up Paul’s story with Jesus slapping him upside the head with light flashing, a voice from heaven booming, and eyes blinded. But this wasn’t the first time God had been working on Paul. Paul writes that God had called him from his mother’s womb. While he was still a toddler, God was watching his every step. During his rambunctious teenage years, God kept him in sight. During long years of rabbinical teaching, God was calling him to salvation, Paul just didn’t know it yet. No doubt when Saul saw Stephen accept martyrdom for the sake of Jesus, God was working on him. No doubt when he saw the church growing instead of dwindling in the face of persecution, Jesus was messing with him. And when the time had fully come, God reached down, slapped him down, and brought him into the kingdom. None of this was by accident. All was ordained as part of God’s divine plan. A perfect mix of the ordinary with extraordinary.
(Secondly) That’s what He did in the early (Church). The Book of Acts records at least ten stories of conversions, several of them individual conversions, and others mass conversions. In Acts 2, Peter preached repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and 3000 were added. In Acts 3 and 4, a lame beggar was healed and Peter did some more preaching and Peter and John stood strong before the Council, and before the day was over, 5000 men plus women and children were believing! In Acts 8 the Samaritan crowds of all people were listening to Philip preaching and they were believing, and Simon the Magician was seeing signs and great miracles performed and he was believing and Philip was explaining Scripture to a Ethopian eunuch, and before that day was over he was asking why he couldn’t be baptized. In Acts chapter 10 and again in 13 and again in chapter 16, the stories of conversion keep on happening, not at all by accident. In every case, Jesus Christ is on a mission, His Church is joining in, and if you were to be traveling the roads of Judea and Samaria in those days, you would be finding a peace that will not be explained and a joy that will not be contained.
(Third) That’s what He’s doing on (Carver Road) Carver Road right outside of Mankato and where Blue Earth County Jail is located. This past Thursday morning, I took the time to practice what we preach in this place, that when people you know are in prison, you should visit them. Three people I know were in jail that day, two of them former confirmands of mine, and one a friend of one of those confirmands. In all three cases, I was well received, in all three cases they knew they had messed up, in all three cases, they had a hard time looking me in the eyes, in all three cases the Gospel was shared, in all three cases, it seemed as though repentance was making room for the forgiveness of sins to sweep over their souls with a new beginning.
Finally, That’s what He promises to do on (your road). God promises to work everything out for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes. Listen to what Paul wrote to young pastor Timothy, “I am the worst of sinners, but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the worst, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” That’s another way of saying that Paul’s conversion wasn’t just for the salvation of Paul, it was for your salvation and for mine. No man is an island unto himself, and if you will take that truth on to its logical conclusion, you will be able to see that your conversion, your baptism, your faith isn’t just for yourself, it’s for the sake of others. Which brings us to our second question today, what do lives changed by the Spirit of God look like?
As often as people see and hear Jesus, their lives go in a different (direction).
This was true for Paul. As soon as he saw and heard Jesus the way Jesus wanted to be seen and heard, everything changed. Instead of breathing murder against Christ, Paul began to breathe in new life, courtesy of (the Holy Spirit). In a matter of days, Jesus grabbed ahold of Saul the terrorist and turned him into Paul the missionary. One day he was adamantly against Jesus, and three days later he was for him in the strongest way possible.
So also for the early church. The Holy Spirit took a small group of frightened and confused Jews and multiplied them into thousands of on fire Christians. Instead of running in fear from their enemies, the early Church began (“walking in the fear of the Lord”) Instead of just feeding their own fat faces, they fed the hungry. Instead of hoarding their possessions, they were famous for selling them and giving money to those who needed money. Instead of avoiding the sick and shunning the prisoners, they visited them. One day the disciples were huddled behind closed doors jumping at every noise they heard, fifty days later, they were proclaiming the Gospel unafraid, unapologetic, and unashamed.
In closing today, I ask you to think about what it would like if pastors and teachers and officers and members of this church would spend our days proclaiming the Gospel unafraid, unapologetic, and unashamed. What would it look like in this place if lukewarm turned into burning hot, if indifference turned into interest and if interest turned into passion? What would it look like if instead of merely appreciating what Jesus has done for us in the past, we begin to wonder (what He’s up to today!) What would it look like if we were curious about what Jesus is doing in the hearts of folks sitting next to us in church, if we were curious about what Jesus might be up to in the lives of folks using the food shelf and asking for gas vouchers this week, if we were curious about a co-worker’s marriage is going, if we were curious about the direction our neighbor’s teenage son is going, if we were curious about how Jesus might be messing with the janitor who is sweeping up after us at church, at school, or at work. With that in mind, dear friends, I invite you to notice three blank lines on the bottom of your sermon notes. Your assignment is to take one step down the road of what Greg Finke likes to call in his book joining Jesus on His mission. One small step, which is this, that you would write the names of three people in your life that you want to pray for in this Easter season. Pray that Jesus would be alive and well in this person’s life, pray that the Spirit of God would draw this person close to Jesus, and pray that you would have opportunity to listen to this person’s story.
Acts 5:12-20, Revelation 1:4-18, John 20:19-31
Focus: God changes us through the death and resurrection of his son.
Function: that the hearers pray to see the ways that Christ is already working.
Many times when one thinks of churchly success, numbers come to mind -- packed pews, generous bankrolls, and growing membership, or, looking back at the early Church, one might think about miracles and speaking in tongues. However, we see in our readings in the coming weeks that these are only effects of a deeper change. What makes Christianity so extraordinary is how in the midst of hundreds and thousands coming to faith in the book of Acts, it’s the Holy Spirit working in each and every individual life that brought about lives changed.
What changes lives? What do changed lives look like? What is the Gospel, and what does it look like when gospel comes in and does its work?
Two thoughts on the first question and one on the second question.
What changes lives? First, it’s a “Who,” not a “What.” Jesus changes lives. For the Christian, the peculiar and particular answer is that Jesus is the one who changes lives. In the book of John’s Revelation, Jesus speaks to John saying, “I hold the keys of Death and Hades. I have died and behold I am alive forevermore. I am the first and the last.” It’s his work, not yours. It’s his plan, not ours.
In these days, the most often-repeated advice that I hear is, “Enjoy every moment with your son, because those moments go way too fast.” And the second most often repeated is, “Don’t push him to start walking, because once he starts, he’s not going to stop.
And when I think of that, I think of tummy time. Itty bitty Benjamin enjoys tummy time far more now than he did a few months ago, but that’s not really saying much. Just the other day, I put him on his stomach and he was trying to flip onto his back, and he just wasn’t getting his legs around – I mean he knows how to do it, and I’ve seen him get it right before, but he just didn’t want to do it – and he started to cry, because even though he had his arms in the right places, but his legs just kind of didn’t do what they needed to, I told Laura that it was so hard not to just do it for him. I just wanted to push him over the rest of the way, but I couldn’t. It was his task to do. He didn’t need me to figure it out for him; he needed to figure it out for himself. In fact if I had done that, I wouldn’t have helped Benjamin; I would have kept him from what he needed. My role wasn’t to do his task for him; my role was to be there while he figured it out himself.
I tell you that to tell you this: every time a messed up marriage comes through my office, I have the temptation to think that I can fix it. I am tempted to think I can save their marriage for them. It’s easy to start thinking that I’m the fixer, and the survival of their marriage is on me. That’s not true.
Jesus Christ is the only one who can fix them. Jesus Christ is the only one who can pay for their sin. Jesus Christ is the only one who can bear their burdens for them, and he did that already, before they were born, when he exchanged his righteousness for their sin, when he died a sinner’s death, when he did all of this without our approval, without our knowledge, for the sole purpose so that he could keep on holding out this grace won for us.
He is the only one who holds the keys to death and Hades. There is only one way of salvation, and that’s through Jesus Christ. And, for the Christian, every solution in the world must work forward from this fundamental truth.
The kingdom of God is like a mom and a dad wondering where they went wrong, why their kid wandered so far. They wish they could go in and take away all the pain, right all the wrongs, fight all the battle, but they can’t. No, their task is to watch and pray, to love and to trust with eyes that look for the way Jesus is working.
Second thought on the question, “What changes lives?”, and this has to do with the “where.”
Where does Jesus change lives? Jesus changes lives in community. Our Gospel reading finds the disciples with their doors and their hearts shut tight with fear. They huddle together, except for Thomas. He had been out on his lonesome, and so had missed when Jesus appeared to the disciples.
I read an article recently on addiction and its affect on lab rats, and it referenced an experiment where rats were isolated in cages and given a choice between water and heroin-laced water. Nine out of ten would succumb to addiction and overdose.
Another scientist saw this experiment and added an element – what if the rat wasn’t in a cage by itself with nothing to do except eat and drink? What if they changed the environment and gave it a community? They created what they called “Rat Park” – complete with exercise wheels, toys, tunnels, and most of all community. “The rats obviously tried both water bottles,… [but] the rats with the good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it.”
Now, the Christian knows that his addiction to sin goes deeper than the physical, than even the emotional – it’s a problem with the relationship of our whole self to our God. But if community matters so much in this earthly problem, how much more does this allow us to see the reality that our faith put us in community with one another – a community called the Body of Christ?
William Barclay, in commenting on Thomas in John 20, puts it so well that I quote him at length: “[Thomas] made one mistake. He withdrew from the Christian fellowship. He sought loneliness rather than togetherness. And because he was not there with his fellow Christians he missed the first coming of Jesus. We miss a great deal when we separate ourselves from the Christian fellowship and try to be alone. Things can happen to us within the fellowship of Christ’s Church which will not happen when we are alone. When sorrow comes and sadness envelops us, we often tend to shut ourselves up and refuse to meet people. That is the very time when, in spite of our sorrow, we should seek the fellowship of Christ’s people, for it is there that we are likeliest of all to meet him face to face.”
It was precisely “where two or three or more were gathered in [his] name” that the risen Jesus shows up. It was precisely when two walked down the road to Emmaus that Christ accompanied them. It was precisely when the people of God gathered that Jesus shows up among them. It is precisely when the people of God gather around to receive the sacraments and hear the Word that the God comes in his might and in his mercy.
God shows up where God has promised he’ll show up, and when he does, we see him do what he’s promised to do. We see the Father showing up to act like a Heavenly Father that gives all that we need to support this body and life only out of his divine fatherly goodness and mercy; we see the Son distributing the salvation he purchased and won on the cross through the body and blood bread and wine; we see the Holy Spirit blowing a fresh wind of forgiveness and life whenever the called gathered enlightened and sanctified Christian church daily and richly forgives sins.
The kingdom of God is like a bunch of young people putting down their phones and looking each other in the face. It’s like a bunch of older folks taking the time to enjoy, really enjoy some teenagers, and even when they don’t enjoy them, to learn about whom they are. It’s like a party thrown in someone’s honor where the honored guest suddenly shows up and starts serving everyone their punch. It is a risen Savior appearing among his gathered guests and saying “Peace be with you.”
Now we turn to our second question: what do changed lives look like? We turn to our reading from Acts. Do you see this in the lives of the apostles? They are being blown along by the Spirit of God. They are setting their minds to the tasks laid before them. They are seeing something bigger than themselves – the working of the Holy Spirit – move them along into God’s grand story. The lives of the apostles and disciples were like this: the extraordinary mingled with the ordinary. The unbelievable mingled with the mundane. Joy mingled with sorrow. Success mingled with suffering. Jesus changes lives and we are along for the ride.
In other words, divine Appointments, or as Greg Finke puts it, “How is God messing with you?” You see, it presupposes that God is in control and that you are not. Finke tells a story from his time working on an oilrig with an angry, mean man named Joe. “I got to spend 12 hours every night with Joe drinking coffee and hearing what he was angry about. At first I just tried to endure it. Then, I started listening more carefully… Eventually, I figured something out. Joe was a person… over time, Joe found out I was someone who followed Jesus… early on I realized that I couldn’t fix Joe…” but he could listen and pray and befriend. At the end of that summer he saw that Joe had made progress becoming less bitter, but he ends this story by saying, “I never saw Joe again after that summer. I don’t know if he ever came to trust Jesus or not… The work wasn’t complete, but the stone was thrown. The yeast was inserted. The kingdom had come to him and started him on his journey of redemption and restoration.”
Joe was in Jesus’ hands long before Finke met him, and he will be in his hands long after Finke left him. It’s not our place to inform God about what’s happening but rather to suss out how God has prepared the ground, how he is working in the present, and pray that his kingdom which already comes and his will which already being done, might come and be done through us and among us also.
Can we take a moment to appreciate how remarkably mundane the exchange between Finke and Joe was? On Finke’s part, it isn’t anything extraordinary. It isn’t anything incredible, and yet, when you think of this one thread in Joe’s life, you see how God’s work in our world is a tapestry of interactions, of little moments, of nudges of the Spirit, where God’s word works and it works through his people in ways they know and in ways they don’t. And all we are to do is ask, “God, what are you doing and how can I join?”
The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town that has stopped asking the question, “How do we get more butts in the pews?” or “How do I fix all the stuff that’s wrong in my community?” and increasingly asks the question, “What is the Spirit of God already doing? How can I join in?” And as they ask this question together, they start to see the great bounty of good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do.
How are lives changed? First, we remember that Jesus is the one who changes lives. Jesus, not us. Second, that Jesus shows up with his power where he promises to – and he promises to do so in the sacraments, in the preaching, and in the gathering of his people. What do changed lives look like? It looks like a bunch of Christians praying that they get in on what God is doing in their community. It looks like a church searching for Christ behind the faces of all who are needy, longing to be along for the ride. Amen and amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther