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Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost: June 18, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
† sdg †

Green Altar Parament

Green Altar Parament

Jesus could have taught the message of His kingdom in so many other ways. What if He sent out legions of angels to declare it to multitudes? He could’ve used a loudspeaker from heaven for all to hear at the same time. He could just sit in the temple and summon all nations to come to Himself. He could do whatever He wants: He’s the Son of God. But instead, we see Him picking twelve men to go and tell.

They go, and they know two things at this early time in their education: they’ve been given a Word, and they’ve been sent. There’s no making up the message as they go along, but they proclaim the message that has been generously given to them. They don’t perform wonders and healings out of their own magic hat of powers. Instead, they’re going to work wonders because Jesus has given them the power to do so. They’re not even going out on their own, but they’re going because they’ve been sent. Freely all this has been given to them. Now they may go and give the Gospel for free.

Imagine the crowds that gather around them. They gather in order to see the Savior, but here they get the understudies instead. Perhaps some leave disappointed or disgusted before the disciples open their mouths. Perhaps they feel like Jesus has let them down by not coming personally, or because the student is never better than the master. Those are typical human reactions, but humans are typically wrong with God’s things. The Lord is not unfaithful. This is His way. This is His order. Jews first, Gentiles soon to come. When the disciples heal the sick, the sick are healed. When they cleanse the lepers, the lepers are cleansed. They raise the dead; the dead are raised. They cast out demons; demons flee.

Why? Because it’s not them doing it. Thaddaeus isn’t saying to the sick, “In the name of Thaddaeus, be healed.” Bartholomew isn’t saying, “In the name of Bart, come out of them.” Demons aren’t afraid of Bartholomew. But they are afraid of Jesus, and the disciples speak in Jesus’ name. He’s sent them; and by His Word, He is there with them. When they preach, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” it’s true because the King is there by His authority and Word. And, when the disciples tell the people that their sins are forgiven, their sins are forgiven. Not because the disciples are forgiving them, but because really, Jesus is. That’s what He sent them to do. That’s what He gave them to do. Freely they have received. Now they freely give.

One of the favorite Sunday School and Vacation Bible School stories to tell is the one about the prophet Balaam in Numbers 22. As you may recall, the unbelieving King Balak sent the prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. However, as Balaam rides his donkey toward the people, God opens the mouth of his donkey and the donkey talks. The donkey rebukes the prophet Balaam, and Balaam blesses God’s people instead of cursing them. Pastors like to say this:

“If God can speak through Balaam’s donkey, then He can speak through me, too.”

Beyond the laugh, there’s an important point. In His wisdom, with a world full of lost and wandering sheep, God has chosen to spread His kingdom in a most curious way: He wants sinful human beings to speak His Word. He calls pastors in the Holy Ministry to preach that Word publicly, on behalf of His Church; and pastors can be quite a strange bunch. Despite the quirks and personality failings, however, the Lord still uses them as His instruments. Not just them, though: every Christian, tempted though they may be by sin and weakness, every believer has the privilege of telling that Word about Jesus to others. That is how the kingdom of God spreads.

Why is that? It is not the people. It’s the Word. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is present by His Word: the kingdom of heaven is at hand because our King is at hand. The same Savior who went to the cross to die for the sins of the world, now comes in His Word to give that forgiveness to individual people—to you and me and all who will hear. Jesus is present where His Word is. Add that Word to water, and He’s there in Baptism. Add that Word to bread and wine, and He’s present in His Supper.

It’s the Word that’s powerful—not the person speaking it. It’s the same Word with the same power that heals the sick, cleanses the leper and casts out demons in the Lord’s time. By that Word, Jesus comes to give forgiveness and faith and life, to turn wandering sinners into the people of His pasture, the sheep of His hand. It’s that simple.

Can the people who are sent get into trouble and stand in the way of God’s Word? Of course, they can; even though the Lord is faithful, sinners are sometimes not. Sometimes though, people place their hope in the preacher’s great charisma. If his style is engaging and holds interest, then that must make the Word powerful. If he is less interesting or has a bad day, then the Word maybe isn’t so powerful. If this is true, that means that God is only as faithful and powerful as the sinful man who is preaching the sermon. It means that God’s power varies based upon how much sleep the pastor got the night before. This is an extremely seductive temptation in our culture and society, because image is emphasized so much. People judge books by covers, and companies spend millions of dollars to make sure that their products have the right packaging and an exciting ad campaign.

We are easily tempted to judge the quality of anything by how well it holds our attention. Old Adam inside you and me makes sure that we judge the power of God’s Word on the same criteria. Pastors suffer this temptation, too; they can believe that their personality or style make the Word more effective. It’s simply not true. However, repent and rejoice! The Word’s power is not bound by the personality of the speaker. Where the Word is, Jesus is. Where Jesus is, there is forgiveness and life.

Crown with Chi-Rho

Crown with Chi-Rho

Some may fall for the opinion that only pastors have the ability to share God’s Word. Sure, only a pastor is given God’s holy orders to preach in a setting like this, for the benefit of God’s congregation in the Divine Service, but the misconception is that if a layman shares the Word with someone in their daily life, it’s just information but nothing more, like a recipe or a news broadcast. It tells about salvation, but it doesn’t save the person hearing the good news. If this is true, then God would have made a mistake when He told us to forgive those who trespass against us! No, you give forgiveness with the same power that the pastor has been given.

In fact, Christians meet and spend time daily with all sorts of people whom the pastor will never meet, and each believer has the joy of telling of the hope they have in Christ. Sadly, many believers balk at the thought of doing so. “I don’t know what to say,” is one excuse, well, why not? With Bibles to read and sermons to hear and classes to attend, what prevents you from not knowing? Simply tell other people about Jesus—about His ministry and miracles, His death on the cross and resurrection; about forgiveness and the hope of eternal life. “Oh, but I’m not a very good speaker.” Neither were Moses or Paul, and I suspect that Balaam’s donkey wasn’t usually eloquent either; yet God used each of them. “People won’t listen to me.” Careful, now; because that’s like saying that the power of the Word depends on you, not on Christ. I can assure you that people don’t always listen to pastors more than anyone else. Once again, it’s the Word—not the person who speaks it. “I don’t like talking to strangers.” That’s okay. Talk about Jesus to each other. To your kids. Your grandkids and other family members. A good friend who’s curious about your faith. The Lord will provide opportunities.

That’s how the Lord spreads His kingdom on earth: He sends out His Word. He gives His people, you and me, the privilege of telling it to others. He gives us the honor, despite our sins and weaknesses, of being His instruments to tell others of Jesus; and He promises that His Word will not return to Him void, but will accomplish what He sends it forth to do, whether or not there’s a huge crowd coming to hear it. Where people do listen to us and rejoice with us, that’s when we give thanks and glory to God. Where people reject the Gospel we proclaim, we remember that people rejected Jesus, too, and we give thanks that He counts us worthy to suffer for His name’s sake.

But as you speak His Word, rejoice most of all in this: Jesus first speaks that Word to you. Freely you have received; only then do you freely give. Your salvation this day is not based upon how well you evangelize, how many people you tell about Jesus, or how well you tell the great story. God’s gifts are already yours because Jesus has already died on the cross to save you. By the mouths of people in your life—parents, pastors, friends, and others—the Lord has told you of forgiveness; and whenever you’ve heard that Word, He has given it to you. He could have done it any way He wanted; this is what He wants.

So it is this day, as we gather here. It has all been about God’s saving Word. As the Gospel is spoken, it speaks and delivers forgiveness. So on this day you rejoice: you have not just heard about forgiveness today. You have not just been told you have to go and spread the kingdom by telling others. But most importantly, by that Word that you have heard today, you have been made a part of that kingdom, you have been healed by Jesus the merciful Savior, you have been forgiven of all of your sins.

Cross and Crown

Cross and Crown

In the Name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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Sermon for the First Sunday after Pentecost; Holy Trinity: June 11, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
† sdg †

White Parament

White Parament


The celebration of Trinity Sunday is unique. Unlike Christmas, Easter and Ascension Day, there appears to be no historical event that has taken place upon which this church festival can build. The Trinity didn’t happen; the Trinity…just is. If a church happens to have been named Trinity Lutheran, like many are in the Missouri Synod, then this day can be a special namesake celebration for them, just like Good Shepherd Sunday last month was special for us. But we have all heard the true statement that is often pointed out- the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. No that term is not there, but the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet at the same time one true God, most certainly is professed all over in Scripture. The name, which was constructed out of the words three and one, describes succinctly what our Triune God revealed to us His Church through centuries of prophets, apostles, and most importantly, the Son of God Himself who came to our world clothed in perfect, untainted human flesh.

Since the Trinity is a confession of doctrine more so than an event that occurred, and since our congregation does not go by the name of Trinity Lutheran, it may be difficult for us to find a clear reason why we should celebrate Trinity Sunday, other than, it shows up on our Church Year calendar. The Athanasian Creed goes on and on about three persons, one God, not three Lords, nor three Uncreateds nor three Infinites, but One Uncreated and one Infinite. Then, this third creed that we don’t see as often shocks us with the statement that we will have to believe this unwieldy, confusing, complex statement called the “catholic faith,” believe it perfectly or else we cannot be saved. Based on everything else you’ve heard preached in a Lutheran Church, it would be very likely that you might hesitate a second: just what is the purpose of celebrating Trinity Sunday, anyway?

Thankfully, the Bible, which is God’s Word from God’s mouth, produced by the work of God’s Holy Spirit, does not speak to us using lots of difficult terms like we read in the Athanasian Creed. The Bible, rather, unfolds for us a story, our true history, and little by little our Lord reveals more and more of Himself as He speaks His Word to us. We read about the Creation this morning—here’s the Trinity: God the Father, spoke forth His eternal Word with His Spirit fluttering over lifeless waters and then there was light, there was Earth, there was Sky, there were seas, birds, fish, land animals, creepy crawlers and, finally, Man in God’s image, created to be male and female, and it was all good! In that momentous event, the very beginning of our universe, God showed us a little of who He is, but the entire picture of Father, Son and Holy Spirit was not yet fully disclosed.

Jesus had called His disciples and said simply, Follow Me. At first, that’s all they had to go on. As He taught them, these students understood more about who Jesus really is and what He came to do for the redemption of the world. There was no complex doctrinal statement with legal jargon that they had to grasp perfectly and

then sign on the dotted line. They simply trusted that Jesus was teaching them the truth, beginning from the basics. These students of the faith needed to witness our Lord’s brutal crucifixion and death. They needed to meet face-to-resurrected face with Christ who conquered death. Jesus lovingly reminded them that all these things that they experienced came true because their Lord perfectly fulfilled His Word. And then something wonderful happened.

Finally, with all of those lessons learned, all of those precious gifts received from the great Teacher, then it was time to reveal the greatest mystery behind it all. Then, after all was completed, Jesus spoke of the Trinity. He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have handed on to you.” As we read today in the last chapter of Matthew. Only then did Jesus speak this full, majestic and excellent Name to the disciples. It was like the entire story from Creation up to that very minute had come to fulfillment, and then it was time for these apostles to spread out into the created world and make more students, more disciples just like they were.

Yet we read that they doubted, even while they were worshiping Jesus! Actually, it was more of a hesitation than it was a hardened, I won’t believe at all, kind of doubt. Sure, I believe, they must have thought, but something is just in the way at the moment. I need help. That’s what was troubling these disciples as they were coming closer to the moment when they will not see Jesus any longer.

Where has been your moment of hesitation? For some I would guess it might have come from a significant change in your life. For others, it has been a gradual gnawing at your spirit—sure I believe, but there seems to be some little thing in the way. I don’t feel it’s important to give a portion of my time or my treasure to the Lord. I’m confused about why the church teaches against living together before marriage or against homosexuality or transgenderism. I have questions that seem too tricky to resolve in my mind. I have friends or loved ones who challenge me and what I should think is right as I deal with them—I don’t want to lose them just because something they’re doing is going against God’s Word.

You are not alone with those hesitations and questions. You are not in danger of condemnation to hell if they pop into your mind. Jesus’ own disciples worshiped Him in those last days that they saw Him, but also they hesitated. It was a problem that they could not fix or resolve for themselves by their own reason or strength. Jesus Himself knew that about His disciples, and He knows that about you, His own dear children. That’s why even while His students were hesitating, Jesus came to them! He had said earlier that No one comes to Me…unless… unless God the Father draws him to me. He also said I am sending you the Comforter, the Holy Spirit who will guide you into all the truth. See, there’s the Trinity again! We confess that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit precisely to save you, and to help you in your doubts, questions and even slight hesitations. You didn’t have to grasp it perfectly and completely in your head, but your Lord made it possible for you to believe it with all your heart.

There was even an event that happened for you, an event in which the Holy Trinity actually came into your life and changed you forever! That was the moment of your Baptism; the moment when water was combined with God’s Word and administered with God’s Command- the Command to make disciples by baptizing in My Name, as Jesus said. So, when you celebrate the Church Festival of the Holy Trinity, you are celebrating again your own baptism. Every day you remember your baptism when you admit your sins to God in confession and believe that you have received forgiveness from the pastor as from God Himself in the Absolution.

White Parament on the Pulpit

White Parament on the Pulpit


Take a look at that Baptismal font as you leave today. There in Baptism the Father begets you anew. There the Son cleanses you from all sin and delivers you from every death. And there, in the waters of Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit gives and delivers you into your Lord’s very own Body so that you also become true sons of God and are born of God. He is your only peace in all time of adversity and prosperity, during life and in death, when things go well and when things get scary. Remember your Holy Trinity event in your baptism when you leave this sanctuary after the Divine Service and pass by the baptismal font. Dip your finger in the water if you like—it’s not special holy water, but the water you touch can help you clearly recall to your mind and heart the powerful words that were once spoken with a similar splash: I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Your own personal Trinity historical event happened and you have never been the same since. On this Holy Trinity Sunday and every day of your life, confess with conviction along with the rest of us that God is indeed Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the Bible teaches; insist as a forgiven sinner that Jesus is true God at the same time as He is true Man, because that’s how your baptism truly does save you. Strap on the great Triune Name of God as your breastplate and armor, just like St. Patrick of Ireland did even as he faced the deadly evils of persecution. He sang this song about the Trinity which you can find in our hymnal:

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three.

The strong Name of the Trinity has saved you also this day, it fills your heart with joy over your forgiveness and everlasting salvation in heaven, and it will energize you to live for God and sacrifice yourself for the sake of your neighbor’s needs. To this Holy Trinity alone belongs all glory, honor, worship and praise, now and forever.

In the Name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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Sermon for the Day of Pentecost: June 4, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
† sdg †
Acts 2:1-21

What an exciting day this is! On this day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost was first a Jewish holiday, called the “feast of weeks;” that was the shadow. Now Jesus stands up in the midst of that feast to declare He’s the real thing that all the shadows have led to. He’s the source of the living water that was prophesied to flow from the Temple. The Christian festival of Pentecost has been named the birthday of the Church, the beginning of the Gospel’s spread throughout all nations, as noted by the many languages that instantly appeared on the tongues of Jesus’ disciples, who are now apostles. At Pentecost, we are thankful that Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit, the promise of our Heavenly Father, and rejoice that by His help, our church will thrive in this evil world. Thus we pray that God will continue to work among us for many more years to come until the return of Christ.

Red Parament

Red Parament


Now I hate to rain on your Pentecost parade, but I must. If the most important thing for you as a Christian is to believe in Jesus Christ your Lord, then perhaps the second most important thing is to acknowledge that it is impossible to believe by your own reason or strength. To say it another way: I believe that I cannot believe. But boy is that a hard thing to confess! These days you see people giving personal testimonials and people trying (with good intentions of course, but) trying to make church no more than just a fun and exciting place to be. Free hamburgers might get them in the door! Then, once you’ve lured them in, perhaps they’ll commit their lives to the Lord, thanks to you. That makes you feel good, it feels like God is using you and you made a difference, and that good feeling you tend to translate into a stronger faith. Why? Because you feel that your own commitment got stronger, and your heavenly Father has no choice but to be pleased with you for what you’ve done for the good of the kingdom.

Isn’t that what having the Holy Spirit is all about? Jesus Himself said after all that the rivers of living water (meaning the Spirit) would flow right out from the believer’s heart. And isn’t the Holy Spirit supposed to come with some spectacular special-effects like we read about in the book of Acts? Miracles and tongues and prophecies and so on. Your human nature would crave a little more of this visible, tangible proof that God is acting mightily—it would do our world some good. Just like those Jews were looking for Jesus to overthrow the Roman Empire’s rule and establish a kingdom right then and there. And then you suddenly find yourself tempted to write the agenda for the work of the Holy Spirit, rather than believing that He works when and where He pleases. When that happens, then your ideas of success in the church take over God’s plan and mission.

Which is why you cannot get anywhere as a priest of God and worker in the Lord’s vineyard unless you first admit that you cannot make a difference. In fact, your own efforts that flow out of your own sinful purposes, those could actually bring harm and hindrance to the work of the

Church, if it weren’t for Christ’s forgiveness. Whether you like it or not, the Holy Spirit convicts you because in the eyes of God’s law in the Ten Commandments, you stand condemned. You have not loved the Lord your God with all your heart. You have not loved your neighbor as yourself. And when it appeared to others like you were fulfilling these things, still your sinful thoughts, which are known only to you and your Lord, dragged you into sin despite any good that might have resulted.

You must face the truth. All your righteous, spiritual-looking acts are in God’s eyes no better than filthy rags, as Isaiah says. Your ear has bent more readily to nasty rumors than your mouth has spoken up for the truth. You have insisted in many and various ways that the Holy Spirit works in ways that you determine, rather than through the Word of the Lord. It’s a common misperception that doctrine is dead, cold and lifeless—just a book on a shelf that does nothing unless you dress it up and add the Holy Spirit to it as though the Holy Spirit came from somewhere else besides the Bible. But really, doctrine, that is God’s teaching, is the only thing that gives true life and it’s the source of the Holy Spirit. No wonder the devil attacks doctrine in the church, in his effort to destroy it.

Don’t think that you’re immune to this, that you can ignore it, be nice, and it’ll all go away. Satan doesn’t want you to live from the Word, but rather to use it as a weapon like he tried to do with Jesus in the wilderness. He leads others to ridicule you, even in petty ways, like what happened when outsiders accused the apostles of being drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning. You could find yourself with a lust for peace despite the sufferings of the cross of Christ that has pushed you to give mere lip service to your confirmation vow: the promise that you would suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from your confession of faith. But for you to live renewed each day with the Holy Spirit’s power within you, the sinner that you are must die—drowned each day in the waters of your baptism. Your spiritual thirst can only be quenched in one way.

This is why it is so important to believe that you cannot believe. You need to receive the Holy Spirit from outside of you in the Word of Christ’s forgiveness. For the rivers of living water wouldn’t have had a chance to come out from your heart, had it not been the case that the same river streamed out first from the pierced heart of Jesus as He hung on the cross. After all, it is Jesus Himself who says to you who are thirsty, Come to Me. The Holy Spirit comes from no other source than from Christ. Forgiveness and eternal peace comes from nothing else besides His death for you and His resurrection from the dead. Your Savior doesn’t want you to be uncertain of the future; His plan is not to have you scrambling around looking for comfort for your distressed soul. He wants you to call on His name and be saved, each and every day. Believe in Him. Don’t trust in your commitment to Him. Instead, latch on to His rock-solid promise to you. Feed on His flesh just as He told the 5,000 whom He miraculously fed out there in the remote field.

Yes, all this comforting Gospel may be offensive to your selfish human nature. I may be raining on your parade, as long as your parade makes you the Grand Marshal, or the center of attention. But you know, the prophet Joel speaks of rain as God is moving him to write in his book of prophecy about the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Peter quoted from Joel as he was speaking to the gathering people on Pentecost, and just before that quoted part, Joel writes this: “Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given the early rain for your vindication; he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before.” (2:23) This kind of rain from the Lord your God is what you need for your faith in Christ to grow. God the Holy Spirit comes and goes as it pleases Him, but He always comes to give you faith when you hear the Gospel of your forgiveness. This is not the same as to say if you don’t feel loved by God, wait 10 minutes and the weather will change, but it does say that you are not in control of the Holy Spirit no more than you are in control of where it rains in Southern California, and that is a good thing for you. He’s the one who calls you by the Gospel, enlightens and sanctifies you and keeps you in the true faith. Your Savior gave you the ability to trust in Him, you didn’t have it by yourself. And His Body and Blood will strengthen that faith until He comes again in fully visible glory.

And that is the answer to your nagging question on a day like Pentecost? What is the future of this particular church that was founded decades ago? Jesus answers: Come to Me. Drink of the living water that comes straight from the heart of Jesus. Hear My Word and trust Me when My called and ordained servant of the Word says your sins are forgiven. Eat My Body and Drink My Blood and you will have forgiveness, life and salvation through yet another means. When it comes to the mercy, grace and blessing of God for you, His people, when it rains it pours! Then in turn, He automatically directs your heart to serve your neighbor, that they may also partake of the living waters of grace. And though you may or may not see the visible, special-effects of the Holy Spirit among you, like the fire and wind and language-abilities, you still have God’s promise that as long as there is the preaching of the Word, there the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh. May He bring you to Jesus until you see God the Father face-to-face in the heavenly Zion of His kingdom.

In the Name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 28, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
† sdg †
I Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11

You’ll have to excuse the disciples for being a little confused. They had just witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven, which happened forty days after He rose from the dead. There they were on that Mount of Olives, staring upward as the Teacher and Friend who said He would be with them always, even to the end of the age… then He suddenly disappeared out of sight. That would be the opposite that someone would expect, right? He had also told them, “Go and make disciples of all nations… Preach the Gospel to the whole creation.” And yet, the Lord also commanded, “Stay right where you are in Jerusalem.” Don’t you think that would make it hard to understand what it was He had in mind? And then we hear from St. Peter in the epistle he wrote, “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”

Wouldn’t you think that would be strange? We are now beginning our seventh week of the Easter season, and Pentecost is knocking on our doorstep. God has been proclaiming His great power right and left. Jesus died on the cross, then rose from the dead on the third day. Sin and death have been undone; the debt to God that we could never have paid—Jesus paid it! Nothing more needs to be accomplished for our salvation. Fiery trials, we figure, come as a result of sin, so it perplexes our minds that sin continually makes this great comeback against us, everywhere we turn, especially when we have the promise that Jesus is our Lord and our Savior forever. So why isn’t He using His power to hold it back?

Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus – I Peter 5:8 “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil like a lion roaring”

And then you have the Apostle Peter’s words about the devil: “Be sober-minded, be vigilant, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” Well, who let him loose? Why is Satan seemingly so free to assault and trouble us? I thought that on the cross, Jesus defeated the devil too! He descended into hell in His exalted human flesh to proclaim His victory over Satan. Why do we now have to watch out, always looking back over our shoulders, lest the evil foe’s lion-like attacks pounce upon us unawares? You can understand now why the disciples were very confused in the moments right up to our Lord’s ascension into heaven. They looked at each other in confused disbelief over this apparent contradiction. It had seemed like His grand triumph did not make a single difference as we find ourselves still in the difficulties and problems of this world. Wouldn’t we still suffer, Jesus or no Jesus? That’s what it feels like. So for us to rejoice simply because we are suffering these problems, there has to be something more that leads us beyond the simple facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Those events happened long ago in the past. What good are they for us today? What message is still there in those ancient Bible books for real people in the 21st Century?

Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus – I Peter 4:17 “For it is time to begin judgement at the household of God”

The first message we need is the message of judgment, since Peter himself told us: It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God. We must repent, because we wrap ourselves up in everything that concerns us today. Our

schedules are crazy, the demands for us to get stuff done, it is outrageous. If we can put off anything that we don’t need to treat right now as an emergency, we feel we can get away with setting it out of sight, and hopefully it will become out of mind. Guess what usually is set aside because it never seems like an immediate emergency? It’s this: You have sinned against the Lord. He has given you commandments, and you keep breaking them. You are a sinner. All of those don’t have any alarms or reminders or past due notices clamoring for your attention. So you ignore them, as do I.

This message of judgment gets a little tricky for us, though, because it is possible to hear condemning words not only from God, but from the devil, too. I’ll explain. God says in His total, perfect justice: You deserve to die; turn away from your sin and believe in Jesus, and you will live. I, however, will bear you up as you suffer, and I promise you full deliverance, just repent and believe that forgiveness is yours, no matter what your feelings tell you.

The devil then steps up to say his piece, and tries with all his might to scramble that message: Did you just hear God tear you down? I heard it myself! You have no chance with Him! No matter what you do, you’re just going to keep suffering because you are a sinner. Your sin must be too big for Jesus, if we’re going to face facts. Simply put, you have sinned too much, and you haven’t demonstrated that you’re ready to change your life to sufficiently please God. You know I’m right, he says, because you are still hurting more than others around you.

Lies. All lies, through and through. But as you hear them, and feel the way you do sometimes, you can’t help but fall for those lies. You get confused, and the message of judgment that we all need to hear, starts sounding like the blessings of life with Christ are faraway, unattainable dreams. For a little while, your ears start to itch for more law, for more ways to make yourself feel better, for a less condemning and more inspirational, do-it-yourself message, but eventually you realize that the devil’s discouraging voice in your conscience has won out and you get convinced that judgment is the last word.

Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus – I Peter 4:13 “But insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings, rejoice”

But it is not. There is an all-important second message. The Apostle says rejoice, even in suffering, and that too is God’s Word. Peter doesn’t say try to rejoice, not, reach deep inside yourself and make a believable effort at faking happiness. No, he says, rejoice—you really are sharing in Christ’s sufferings. This is not a mental exercise or trick—Jesus, the risen and ascended Jesus, He really is suffering, the same way He was when He once told Paul: Why are you persecuting Me? He is to this very day identifying with us in all that we are going through. He’s linked you together with Him because you are baptized into His Name. And when Christ is suffering, you can know for absolutely certain, that you are being saved, delivered from evil just like you pray for in the Lord’s Prayer. All Divine judgment landed on Him on the cross. Do you suffer insults? Then you are being blessed because all those insults fall on Jesus, and He turns them into blessings. Have you been shamed, that is, someone has forced you to accept their sin because they claim that
would be the “loving thing” to do, but you wouldn’t? Then be ashamed no longer. Glorify God because He rejoices with the truth. Without Jesus on the cross it would have been impossible for you to hate the sin and love the sinner.

This is going to be tough—most of you already know that it is. The righteous is “scarcely saved,” Peter says. That means it looks like it would all go the way of judgment against us, as if the devil’s lies would turn out to be reality. You and I need God’s help every day—there is absolutely no way we could simply read our Bible and Catechism once through and then think, All right; I’m done. I’ve graduated from learning the faith. There’s nothing more I need to know. I believe in Jesus and I know I’m forgiven. That’s not humbling yourself, waiting for the Lord to exalt you. That’s exalting yourself! That’s when you become ripe for the lion to pounce on you and pin you to the ground. Do not let a complacent, vague, forget-about-it style of forgiveness keep you from taking God’s Word of judgment seriously. But also, at the same time, do not fall for the devil’s scheme that makes the precious Gospel seem like it’s too far out of your reach. Both the word of judgment and the word of rejoicing are necessary, and they are yours for your eternal good.

How did Jesus make sure that both those words would be yours for certain? He promised you the Holy Spirit. The gift that we will celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost was actually the answer to Jesus’ prayer to the Father, as recorded in our Gospel today. By the Holy Spirit and not by any other way, believers know that Jesus is the Son of God, and that they belong to the Father thanks to Him and what He has done. By the Holy Spirit you have the glory of Jesus that He always had as God, but as man that glory was given to Him upon completion of His salvation mission. Now that Jesus has been glorified—He suffered, died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven—now that He has this glory, He lavishes forgiveness upon you and grants you the only reason you need to rejoice in the midst of suffering, hardship, and the conflict of this world, even the conflict you face from time to time with fellow believers. The Son and the Father are perfectly one with the Holy Spirit in the mystery of the Holy Trinity, so that unity is bequeathed to you. Now you are one with God and with one another in Christ.

Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus – John 17:11 “that they may be one, even as we are one.”

Jesus prayed for you! And His prayer was certainly answered in your case when you were baptized, and the Holy Spirit made His home with you. This is not a fairy tale or make-believe catch-phrase. This is really happening because you are not just hearing my mouth speak; you are receiving the blessed words of judgment and rejoicing sent to you straight from God Himself.

Your Lord continually prays to His Father even now, that you may be one with one another, but most importantly, one with God. And as you are joined together with Him, you are made bold to confess the truth, even to the point of death as the confirmation vows require, for in fact you have already died to yourself that you may live to God. He will bring you to Himself whenever He serves you with His Holy Word and the Blessed Body and Blood of

Christ, and give you the hope of eternal life in perfect bliss and happiness.

In the mean time, rather than be puzzled at the apparent contradictions that you see, trying to make human sense of what our Lord is teaching you, may you continually pray that when you are attacked by any evils of body or soul—pray that the Lord would yet accomplish His Will among us His Church on earth until He comes again. And God who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you.

Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus – I Peter 5:13 “will himself restore, confirm, strength and establish you”

In the Name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 21, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
† sdg †
Acts 17:16-31

The second half of the month of May is very solemn in America, you could even say it’s spiritual. It urges us to dip down deep into our nation’s religious roots and our reliance on God our Creator. This past week was National Police Week, a memorial for those cops who died in the line of duty. Today is Armed Forces Sunday, and we thank God for our loved ones past and present who have served in uniform. And of course at the end of this month our Nation will observe that most somber national holiday, Memorial Day. At these seemingly spiritual occasions it just feels right to say a prayer with all our fellow citizens, regardless of denomination, thanking God for His abundant blessings and including a prayer for those who are still out there, hard at work defending our liberties and promoting the well-being of our allies. You have often seen students in the past holding hands in a moment of prayer standing around the flag pole. Churches often make a patriotic tug at the heart strings, even going so far as to force the pledge of allegiance into the liturgy and manufacture a new creed exalting the Christian virtues of certain founding Fathers.

Of course, if feeling is the only thing you go on when you consider the spiritual work of prayer, then you run the risk of straying from God’s Word and what our Lord Jesus Christ gives us in the gift of prayer. I can give you an example from Kansas City, where they absolutely love President Truman. I know some people there terribly miss him in the White House! But a few years ago, on the occasion of Truman’s birthday (also in May) a Catholic priest offered a so-called “prayer” that really was a collection of Truman’s pithy quotes arranged like a litany so that one of them went like this: “If you want to have a friend in Washington, get a dog.” And everybody was supposed to respond, “Amen.” As cute as that was, and well-intended to honor one of our presidents, I’m sure, it said to me at least that American Christians can sometimes get a little lost when they think about prayer. It’s like they are wandering around in the dark, and can’t find their way.

In our reading from Acts 17, the Apostle Paul visited the eminent city of Athens—it was already an ancient city in his day! Athens was constantly buzzing with philosophers, thinkers, theologians and religious experts from all over the known world. Following the tradition of Alexander the Great, leading thinkers at Athens were constantly pursuing all possible philosophies and religions in order to arrive at a deeper, more profound truth.

Our world around us may look like it is doing the very same thing as those educated people did in Athens. Always learning, but never coming to a full understanding. What I would say is the most profound difference, however, between then and now was that the men of Athens gathered more and more information so that they would better understand those things that were already true in the world around them. Today, on the other hand, there is no more search for information, really! The information bombards you constantly, and it practically demands that you must throw out the window anything that you currently consider true, and make up for yourself whatever is true for you. Nobody is confident anymore, including many Christians. They question truth; in fact, it can be considered quite rude and arrogant for you to say one religion is better than another. Instead, it’s popular to believe that you just have to find what works for your own purposes. You can use religion, philosophy, values, politics, anything. You just can’t say in today’s world that whatever you have found to be true for you is really the one, profound, all-encompassing truth that’s good for everyone. And with just the right amount of boldness, you could respond, “Who says you can’t say that?”

1534 Luther Bible

1534 Luther Bible – Acts 17 “and found an altar on which was written To The Unknown God. Now I proclaim to you this same, which you unknowingly”

Paul’s tactic was not to condemn the Athenians, to be sure. That wasn’t his apostolic and missionary call. But it is important to note that he did not affirm their scatter-shot belief in all those false gods, either. Instead, he preached the Gospel to these people, saying, “I know you are nobly diligent in searching for the truth and if you will hear me out, I will present to you the Good News that your search is over!” Then Paul preached to them following an outline that’s very similar to the Creed. He said: “The God who created you and has sustained your earthly life, is the one and only true God. He sent His Son as His appointed Savior, who died and rose from the dead, and will come again to judge the world in righteousness.” Rather than condemning them, Paul, out of Christian love for all people lost in sin, delivered to them God’s own command that everyone should repent. He let God remain the judge, and He informed the ignorant so they would know the one and only Gospel truth.

1534 Luther Bible

1534 Luther Bible – Acts 17 “God, who made the world and everything that is in it, since He is the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made with hands”

We have the blessing of the freedom of religion, for which we should daily thank and praise the Lord. In general, it holds true that all citizens ought to be free to worship according to their conscience. Still, that does not accurately translate into a conclusion that all religions are true. Nor does it mandate that religions be mixed together or treated as equal attempts to approach our Creator. There’s a lot of “try us, see if you like what we have to offer,” out there, and that is especially tempting in American society. But it wasn’t easy for St. Paul, either. He needed great courage to confess the one, true faith. And he had the sincere love for the lost brothers and sisters of Athens and other mission fields to tell them what God wanted them to hear. He did not have to change or modify what he said in order to help the Word out or give the Holy Spirit a helping hand.

Note also that Paul did not ask them to continue their ignorant spiritual groping, saying something like, that’s OK, one day you may possibly stumble on Jesus Christ the crucified. He did not invite them to pray until they were brought into the Holy Christian Church through baptism. Prayer was certainly not Paul’s instrument by which a person accepted Jesus into his heart. Instead, prayer is described in the Bible as the response of a faith already given. It, too, is a precious gift of God, thanks to Christ. Prayer is a privilege bestowed upon us by the Holy Spirit, along with all of His gifts, about which we will hear again soon on the Day of Pentecost.

Today, we heard the promise that Jesus gave to His disciples just before His suffering and death. Yet a little while, Jesus says, and you will see Me. If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. If you ask anything in My Name, I will do it. But how can it be that those great blessings and promises often have such a tough time breaking through to your heart? Why are you at times concerned about only your own well-being, and not about that of your neighbor? What kind of grip does worry or anxiety have over your spiritual life? Perhaps it’s difficult for you at times to see your faith as having any impact on the rest of your life out there in the so-called “real world.” Or, in order to search for something more relevant, you start to fall for the “pick and choose” temptations of our culture.

Our merciful Lord is not an unknown God, after all. In fact, as St. Paul said to the people of Athens, He is very near to us. He had every right to condemn you for your sin and for your sluggishness in putting your faith into practice. He deserves to refuse your prayers. But he doesn’t. Not because you said you were really sorry this time. Not because you made a handsome deal with the Lord. It’s because Christ your Savior pleaded for you. He followed through on His promises to you, and granted you the forgiveness that was bought and paid for by His blood on the cross. Your experience and your feelings may tell you in certain times of your life that you might be an abandoned orphan in this cold, cruel world. You feel as though you have no one to rely on but yourself. No one will understand you, and the politically correct society will inevitably find some way to refuse a place for you and for what you confess to be true. But Jesus says, I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you. Because I live, you also will live. My resurrection is yours. You may pray with certainty in my Name because I have already given you everything for free.

As we enter the week of Christ’s Ascension in the Church Year calendar, prayer is highly emphasized. Prayer and keeping the commandments both express one and the same love for Jesus. That’s because they also flow from His great love for us. He comforts us with the assurance that we need not grope around for truth in the darkness of our sin. We need not fear the antagonism that comes at us from every corner of our society, from people claiming to be smarter, from those followers of Hollywood debauchery, from anyone more interested in self-preservation (whether it’s in politics or in the school and workplace). Yes, we might even get friction from wholesome American spirituality in this solemn part of May and feel forced to focus only on our feelings of love for God and of brotherhood with each other, and forget about all our different doctrine talk.

No, you are not a slave to the cute and the current. Those things of this world don’t make prayer any more effective even though they may feel good. You don’t have to pray to satisfy some innate feeling or urge to get closer to God. You rather have the privilege to pray because Jesus Christ gave that privilege to you before He ascended to the Father’s right hand. He died and rose to forgive you and claim you as His own. You have the Savior’s own sworn promise that the Father loves you. Thanks to His Holy Word, He is not an unknown God, like He was in ancient Athens. During this month of May leading up to Memorial Day, when you set aside a holy day and remember those who are now gone, remember also your living Savior, who is with you as He promised, and make use of the precious gift of prayer that He has granted you.

In the Name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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