Pastor Jeremy Husby delivers a sermon entitled “Joseph Guardian of our Lord” based on Matthew 1:18-25 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered: Sunday, December 24, 2017
It’s a love story. That is what this whole season of Advent has been building up toward. The angel, the Baptizer, and the prophetess Anna. The songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon. They all set the stage, before and after, leading up to the peak of this narrative and back down again, for this greatest story ever told.
Now, tonight and tomorrow morning, you will most certainly hear the climax of this account. But, like any great Hollywood blockbuster, this tale can’t all take place on that peak of the mountain of joy. There has to be tension. There has to be struggle. The audience has to be lead to relate to the characters and, once they do, to feel the pain and the heartache of some adversity
that stands in the way of the star of the show.
Though you have followed along over some bumps and hurdles on the way, today’s gospel account relates an example of what might be the most heart-wrenching hindrance to love that human beings experience.
It is important to remember, though, as you watch this film unravel in the theater of your mind that, unlike big budget movies, this tale is not fiction. It isn’t simply
“based” on a true story with some literary liberties taken. This is actual and factual.
Mary and Joseph were real people. They weren’t simply forced together in some sort of arranged
marriage. They caught each other’s eyes from across the room. Joseph felt butterflies when Mary entered a room. Mary blushed when Joseph whispered sweet nothings into her ear. They felt nervous about saying “I love you” for the first time.
Now, to be fair, things were a little different back then. It was a different culture, so some things need a little further explanation. After Joseph popped the question, they did become engaged, but engagement meant a little more than it does today.
In the eyes of their family and friends, their community, and even their God, their engagement meant that they were husband and wife. The difference was that, throughout their engagement, they would remain living in their parents’ homes until plans could be made for a great wedding banquet, likely about a year later. And, most important to remember for today, that meant that the physical part of their husband and wife relationship would also be reserved for after the marriage feast and festival.
But, during that betrothal, their dramatic romance became a crushing tragedy. After spending 3 months away at Elizabeth’s, her elder relative’s, house, Mary started showing. She was pregnant. And, because
Joseph was a righteous man, there was no chance the baby could be his.
As deep as his love for Mary burned in his heart, so devastatingly did he feel this apparent betrayal. Did all of the stolen glances mean nothing? Was he not enough of a man for her? Did he mean so little to her
that she could ruin not only their relationship, but their lives in the community as well? Would anybody now buy a table built by a man who couldn’t keep his wife? Would anyone be able to ignore his shame and hire him solely on his carpentry skills?
With redeeming quality, Joseph decided to take the high road. Rather than suggesting her name for
stoning, his love for her won out against his hurt. He decided his only solution was to cut his losses and
divorce her quietly. That was the only answer that he could find on his own. But, thankfully, he wasn’t the
only one working toward a resolution.
After he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of
David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”-which means, “God with us.”
Cue the dramatic music and an Oscar-worthy look of understanding on Joseph’s face. All the pieces of the
story arc were now falling into place. In a gripping twist, along with Joseph, the audience begins to realize that this love story doesn’t center on him or his relationship with Mary. He isn’t the star of the show. Instead, it is all about lmmanuel. The love story is God
Like a superhero movie paying homage to the whole comic book universe, the angel’s message to Joseph
brings in the rest of the characters of the story. His words call to mind volume 1, issue number 1-the one with Adam and Eve in the Garden, along with the rest, like Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Pharaoh, Kings David and Solomon, and, most importantly, you and me.
You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.
Joseph did not divorce Mary, but, instead, did exactly what the angel told him to do. Even though, by all
appearances, she did not deserve it, he loved her anyway. Does that sound familiar?
Joseph, in this Gospel today, serves as a shadow of his step-son, showing a small glimpse, in his character, of a true characteristic of Jesus. His name is Immanuel, and Joseph was to give him the name Jesus, because he is so faithful to you that he became God with us to save you, his people, from your sins.
But, in Joseph’s character, you don’t only find a glimpse of Jesus’ true characteristic, but your own as well. The reason why Joseph jumped to his first conclusion wasn’t simply because he lived in a sinful world where it wasn’t out of the ordinary for a woman to cheat on her husband. He came to that conclusion because of his deep-seated character flaw-the true malady of this love story-he was sinful and needed to be saved.
Thankfully, messenger from God came and made him understand by sharing with him the Word of his God.
When the tragedies of your life strike, when the adversities that you face are more than just perceived betrayals by a loved one, but actual and factual sufferings and pains, remember that while they may hurt you deeply, they are not the main malady of the story.
Listen to a messenger called by God who shares his Word with you. It’s a love story where Jesus is the star of the show and he made himself Immanuel, which doesn’t mean God with Joseph or God with Mary or God with any of them. The love story is God with us.
Jesus became a human being to demonstrate his great faithfulness to you. At the creation of the world, he announced his love to you and to all of humanity and expressed his desire to share his life with you for all of eternity. But, because a marriage to Jesus is a little different than the weddings of this world, your engagement to him lasts as long as time lasts on this earth.
During your engagement, you were unfaithful to him, but, because he is the righteous man, he took the high road. Rather than suggesting your name for stoning or the eternal flames of hell, he took the high road. His love for you won out.
Unlike his shadow, though, your Jesus didn’t seek to divorce you quietly. He kept his betrothal despite your betrayal. And, even more, he made it so that you would not experience the painful effects and consequences of your unfaithfulness.
Because he united himself to you when he took on human flesh, his faithfulness to you and to the Law of
God was substituted in place of your unfaithfulness and the times when you have broken God’s Law.
And because he has kept his vow to you, your engagement, still stands. And because of his great faithfulness, you can endure this Advent anticipation with certain hope, knowing that your husband is coming soon to take you to a wedding feast that is, quite literally, out of this world. And, afterward, you will live with him, in his home, forever-where you will, in truth, live happily ever after. Amen.
Pastor Paul Waldschmidt delivers a sermon entitled “Anna-A Fixture in God’s House, Jesus-A Fixture in our Hearts” based on Luke 2:36-38 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered: Sunday, December 17, 2017
Even in retirement, Faye Polhemus still gets up at 4 a.m. every day. She can’t help it. Old habits die hard. You see, Faye retired last year at age of 82. But for the previous 66 years, she’d worked as the breakfast shift waitress and also part time cook at Miller’s Family Restaurant in Adrian, Michigan. Think about that for a second. Prior to her retirement, Ms. Polhemus of had been giving customers coffee refills since Harry Truman was president. She had served eggs and pancakes for hungry diners while they read the day’s headlines about the Korean War…and then the Vietnam War and the Cold War and the Gulf War, the War of Terrorism, the War in Iraq. For 66 years, she was what you might call a fixture. When you went into Miller’s Family Restaurant for breakfast, you knew Faye Polhemus was going to be there.
You know anyone like that in your life? The teacher who has been at a school so long that she has taught 2 or maybe even 3 generations of the same family! Or the mail carrier who has walked the same route for decades. Some of you are fixtures, too, by the way. You’re sitting right now, in the exact same church pew that you’ve sat every (Thursday) since I’ve been here and probably long, long before.
I mention it because our character for this week’s Advent Characters and Songs was a bit of fixture herself. If you went into the temple courts of Jerusalem, around the time of Jesus’ birth, you knew that Anna was going to be there. Our text says that Anna “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.”
You might wonder how that practically worked…I mean, did she actually sleep at the temple? There were living quarters on the temple grounds that were set aside for the priests who would come into to serve their two week stints on duty in the temple proper. Maybe Anna was such a fixture there that the powers that be gave her a place to call her own.
The real question is not so much about where she was there, but about why she was there. We know she was very old, that she was widowed as a young woman and never remarried, if she had any children or grandchildren, they are not spoken of. Was she there in the temple, possibly, because she had no other place to be? That she was all alone in life. That God’s house was her happy place, the place she felt at home, the place she belonged.
Pray with me, dear friends, that he that the Lord would work the same in us. That he would give us the dedication and devotion to be fixtures in his house, regardless of our circumstances. Whether we are all alone or surrounded by multitudes of branches in our family tree, whether we have no other place to be or feel like we have a thousand different things on our to do list, how blessed it is for a person to call God’s house our happy place, a place we feel at home, a place where we belong. Understand that it’s not really about the church building itself—that can change over the years. It’s not primarily about the people who are at church—some times they can mess up, let us down and hurt us real bad. This is the place where we belong because of the God to whom we belong. Here we sing his praises, here we gather around his Word and Sacrament, here we are asked to ponder the depths of our sin and the heights of His mercy. Here we see Jesus.
Actually, that’s what Anna saw, too. She saw Jesus, live and in the flesh. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph were there at the temple with their young baby to offer a sacrifice and consecrate their little one to the Lord (v. 22-23), as faithful Jewish couples regularly did. That was not extraordinary. But Anna knew that this child was. She gave thanks and told everybody was
I know, it doesn’t sound particularly exciting compared to angels appearing announcing that “a virgin will be with child” and a woman “way past child bearing years” would also soon find herself in the delivery room. Anna’s story seems rather pedestrian in comparison to the stories of Jesus’ birth and John the Baptist’s birth. Anna was just a lady who saw a baby and was happy about that baby.
On the other hand, maybe that makes Anna a character we can relate to more than the other major players in the story of Advent and Christmas. She had no angels appear to her, no miracle announced to her. She simply saw Jesus and rejoiced. Just like us.
Most of our days are pretty simple, pedestrian, unspectacular, consumed by the routine of the day to day. They seamlessly flow one into another, to the point where we might find ourselves stopping and asking on occasion, “It’s Wednesday already? Where did this week go?” “It’s December 14th already, where did this month go?” Most days aren’t Christmas. Most days are go to work, come home, go to bed. Do it all again tomorrow.
But in the midst of the pedestrian, the unspectacular, the routine—we see Jesus, like Anna did and we have reason to rejoice. Had he not appeared, the devil would hold all the cards, our sins would be our own to carry all alone, death would be our destiny and the end to our pathetic story of misery. Because sin is a fixture in our world, and sadly a fixture in our hearts.
But in the midst of our shame, our bleak hopelessness all of sudden—we see Jesus. He says, “Place your speeding and your stealing, your lusting and your lying, your discontent and your disrespect, all of them, all of them, place them on my back. We’ll switch. I’ll be the sinner, you’ll be the sinless child of God. I’ll be punished. You’ll go to heaven.” Who does that? Who says stuff like that? Jesus, that’s who.
So he becomes a fixture, too—in our hearts. And we pray…Heavenly Father, when you look at my heart, see Jesus and his perfection there, too. Never, ever look upon me, O Lord, without seeing him, too. Even more steadfast than Anna in the temple or Faye Pohlemus at the restaurant, become our fixture in our hearts, Lord Jesus, and never ever leave.
Do you think his presence there, might change the way your life looks when you leave here? Seeing Jesus moved Anna to give thanks to God and speak with all around her concerning the Christ-child. What will seeing Jesus inspire in you and me today? Will it be a closer rein on our tongues or a more avid commitment to serve and help spouse, children, parents, or neighbor? Will seeing Jesus move you to give thanks by doubling down on your commitment to stomp a particular sin out of your life or doubling up on the prayers you offer for those in need? I can only suggest, of course. It’s your heart. And God’s the one who makes it happen. All I know, is that when Jesus is a fixture there, there’s less room for sin to be a fixture there. And there’s more room for rejoicing. Rejoicing in sin’s demolished, rejoicing in conscience clear, rejoicing in strength for the trials and comfort for the troubled. Rejoicing in the promise of and the prospect of life eternal. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Amen.
Pastor Aaron Steinbrenner delivers a sermon entitled “John the Baptist – Unique Preacher” based on Mark 1:1-8 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered: Sunday, December 10, 2017
In America the first printed ad appeared in the 1700’s. As you would imagine, the ad was basic. Wordy. Visually blah. Over the course of time that changed. In the 1900’s Ford Motor Company started to use flashy images and flashy slogans. Ever since ad campaigns have been trying to engage the senses and ignite the imaginations of the consumers. Now focus groups and surveys and demographic studies have turned advertising into not just an art, but also a science. Big business too. In 1941 TV ad would have cost $9; today a 30 second TV ad run during prime time goes for over $300,000. Run that same ad during the Super Bowl and you’ll pay $4M.
Cutting edge. Innovative. Eye-catching and thought-provoking. That’s what advertisers are shooting for. With one goal in mind. To draw attention to the product.
Is it too much to say that God’s prophets in the Old Testament were living, walking, talking advertisements for the Lord? Is it too much to say that we are too? We’re not selling anything; but our main goal is to draw attention to Jesus. And we don’t have to be flashy. Just take a look at one of the best, most effective walking, talking advertisements in the Bible, John the Baptist. He was unique, one-of-a-kind.
He broke just about every rule. Fancy packaging? No. He wore camel’s hair and a leather belt. Publicity stunts or celebrity appearances to attract attention? No. He preached the word, straightforward. He used the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
His pulpit was even unique. He didn’t preach in synagogues or even the local street corner. He was a “voice of one calling in the desert.” The desert. That seems a strange place for John the preach. Maybe so, but God taught many a lesson to his people in the desert. The children of Israel learned how to look to God for their daily bread – do you remember the manna and the quail? They did their share of grumbling and complaining too, and when chastised by the Lord, they learned to repent and turn to him for healing and salvation – do you remember the bronze serpent on a pole? In the desert, which is stark and lifeless, the people were stripped bare. They realized it was them and God and the only way they could survive is if God were to be gracious to them and bless them.
Come on out to the desert, John says to you and me. Come on. Leave behind your life for a moment. Step away from your neighborhoods. Take a short leave of absence from your jobs – the 9-5’s or the shift work or the overtime. Come sit in the sand just for a bit. Forget about the shopping and the decorating. Turn off the phones and the TV’s and the computer screens. Leave behind that world where possessions and money seem to matter most…where people are admired and almost idolized for having successful and full lives (and yet those same people may never have been baptized and may never have knelt at the manger – how full could their lives be?). Leave behind that world where people are elbowing each other as they try to get ahead, striving to be the better student, the better athlete, the better employee. Come, John says, join me in the desert. Strip everything else away and just sit here in the sand.
See how everything else in life, even the good stuff, is just clutter? See how the “full life” has nothing to do with money and possessions? See how often we have chased after treasures in this world that will one day deteriorate, while the real treasures are between Genesis and Revelation and on this altar and in the font? See how the sand of the desert is a reminder of the dust and the ashes and the dirt that we will one day return to? See how the dry, fruitless desert is a picture of our human hearts…what they once were before Jesus came to dwell within us? See how we are no different than those children of Israel?…the only way we can survive here in this place and the only way we can be rescued from this place is if God is gracious to us and blesses us? O Lord, be gracious to us and bless us!
John wasn’t afraid to call people on the carpet. Do you remember when the Pharisees came to hear him in the desert? He called them a brood of vipers and he warned them of being self-righteous and spiritually unprepared. Do you remember how John spoke the truth of God’s Word to King Herod…and it landed him in jail…and eventually cost him his life? Yes, John preached the law, but the main goal was to draw attention to Jesus. So “John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Forgiveness of sins. That’s what Jesus has for our thirsty souls. Wouldn’t it be tragic if that weren’t the case? Can you imagine if the Bible said it differently. What is Psalm 32 read: “I confessed my sins to the Lord; but he refused to forgive me” Or if you opened up to Psalm 103 and it read: “The LORD is not compassionate or gracious…he is not slow to anger…instead he treats me as my sins deserve.” Or what if the thief on the cross, after he said, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom,” heard Jesus say, “No. I won’t forgive you.”
O dear Christian, see how amazing it is that our Lord reaches out to us even while we are in the desert of our sins, and he assures us again and again that he is faithful.
- David did write in Psalm 32: Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away…For day and night your hand was heavy on me…Then I acknowledged my sin to you…And you forgave the guilt of my sin.
- And Psalm 103 so beautifully proclaims: The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love…he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
- And the thief…that repentant, dying thief heard the best reply: Today you will be with me in paradise.
In the year 430, in the region of Hippo North Africa, church father St. Augustine was nearing the end of his life. He begged one of his friends to paint the words of Psalm 32 on the wall opposite his bed. So as he lay there…dying…and his mind remembering all the sins of his youth and all the times he fell short in his Christian living and every time he brought dishonor to his Lord by his faulty words and deeds…he would see the words: Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
Can you think of more important and more meaningful words to cling to while dying? Can you think of more important and more meaningful words to cling to while living?
John the Baptist draws our attention to Jesus. And as we leave the desert sand and go back to our lives, it will be our challenge to keep the attention on Jesus. Not only that, but that the Lord might use us as living, walking, talking advertisements for Jesus. Not flashy. Not drawing attention to self. But through the course of our days – good times and bad – we see the passage painted on the wall: Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Living, walking, talking, FORGIVEN advertisements for Jesus. Amen.
Pastor Paul Waldschmidt delivers a sermon entitled “God is My Hero” based on Luke 1:26-38 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered: Sunday, December 3, 2017
Advent is the time of year when we talk a lot about name meanings. Because knowing that, for example, the name Jesus, literally means “Savior” or Immanuel means “God with us”, knowing that adds supplemental wonder to the already wonderful Christmas story, God becoming man to save man. You probably knew the meaning of those names already. But you might not know the meaning of the name Gabriel, the angel who plays a prominent role in our text for this morning on the First Sunday of the Advent season. Gabriel is the combination of two Hebrew words–gibor which means mighty warrior or hero and el which means God. So Gabriel’s name literally means “God is my hero.”
The Biblical moniker doesn’t always fit the Biblical personality, of course. King Zedekiah, for example, whose name means “The Lord is my righteousness” was one of the smarmiest fellas to ever sit on the throne as king of Israel, and that’s saying a lot. But in the case of Gabriel, the name fits. God is my hero. Today we’ll say the same.
Even though Gabriel is technically the focus of our Sunday service, we should be clear right off the bat. He’s not the hero. God is the hero. God is my hero. How Gabriel fits in becomes evident right off the bat in our text. “ In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth.” He’s the messenger. Just like the angels in the sky outside of Bethlehem that first Christmas, just like the angels at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning, Gabriel was the messenger, not the hero. He came to tell someone what the hero was doing.
The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Think about that for a second. The one who stands in the presence of God comes and tells Mary that she’s the one who is highly favored! Isn’t that what God’s messengers say to us every Sunday? They’re like Gabriel in this regard—they’re messengers, sent to us to point us to what the hero is doing now. So they stand before God’s people and they say, “Greetings, you who are highly favored, the Lord is with you.”
Only problem is, we might come here wondering if either one of those statements is actually true. We might come here wondering if we are truly highly favored and if the Lord truly is with us. Because honestly, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Why should he favor me, we might ask? Why should he favor us when he sees all that goes on in our homes, in our minds and in our lives? Why should he favor us when he knows the cringeworthy words that have come from our mouth, the stomach turning sights our eyes have seen, the unseemly places our feet have stood? We might well ask, “Why would he favor me when he should be repulsed by me? Why would the Lord be with me….shouldn’t he be running to get as far away from me as possible?”
But that’s the thing about heroes. Being a hero isn’t about doing an extensive evaluation and then saving people who are most likable, deserving or somehow worthy of saving. Being a hero is about saving people who need you, people who would be lost with you, people who absolutely cannot save themselves.
Just like Gabriel did long ago, just like Pastor Steinbrenner did last week and Pastor Husby will do next week, today I have the privilege to stand up here and say to you, though world weary and weighed down by sin, Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you. Not because of something you have done, but because of something God has done. Remember, God’s the star of this show. A hero comes not to the people who deserve it, but to the people who need saving. People like you and me. That’s why God is my hero.
Showing up is half the battle. But it is only half the battle. But a hero doesn’t just show up on the scene. A hero also does the things necessary to save people. That was part of Gabriel’s message, too. 31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
You might think, “That all sounds very royal, and impressive, but it ain’t particularly heroic, per se.” Fair enough, but think about what Jesus did so that we call him great. Think about how he ascended to the throne of his father David, to his kingdom that will never end. How did he become king? Remember what the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians?
He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This king became king by wearing robes most unroyal, the filthy rags of our wickedness. This king became king by wearing a crown not of gold, but of our shame. Our hero shed his blood and gave up his life, so that our sins would be erased and our eternities spared. A hero sacrifices his own well being to save people. That’s what Jesus did for us. That’s why God is my hero.
Mary didn’t totally understand how it could be that she would become a mother at all, much less the mother of God’s Son. Gabriel’s message continued. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.”
Nothing is impossible with God. Now don’t take the wrong way. It doesn’t mean that we should expect to do the impossible. It means that God can do anything he sets his mind to. You might look at your life and see impossibility. It’s impossible for God to love me and save me after I’ve done so much wrong and done it so long. Nothing is impossible with God. It might seem an impossibility that faith can come through water and the word or the forgiveness can come through eating and drinking. It might seem impossible that he will raise the dead, impossible that he will come back to judge, impossible that there is indeed waiting for God’s faithful children a much better life than this one in a much better place than this one. Nothing is impossible with God. This hero can actually do the impossible. That’s why God is my hero.
The hero who came once to save us, will come again to take his people home. So here is a serious question that demands a serious answer. When our hero returns, on the blessed day of his second advent, what will he find in our hearts and in our lives? May he find hearts that shun sin in humble contrition. Hearts that cling to him in humble faith. Hearts that serve our neighbor in humble love. People that know their name is Christian and are personify what it means. That will be the reception Jesus deserves. That will truly be a hero’s welcome. Amen.
Preacher, Pastor Jeremy Husby delivers a sermon entitled “Be Content in Thanksgiving” based on Philippians 4:10-13 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered: on Thursday, November 23, 2017
Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.
Those words, or something somewhat similar, were spreading like wildfire throughout ancient Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia Minor in the 1st Century. However, though they sound familiar to Christians who have read through the inspired words of Paul in the second lesson for today, they did not come from his pen, his mouth, or his mind. Unlike Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the words that were captivating the Roman Empire were not inspired of God.
Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.
Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher is credited with coming up with that phrase in particular; along with another insightful quip: It is not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.
It was not accidental that Paul’s words, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, sound almost as if Paul and Epictetus were cut from the same cloth.
One of the apostle’s apologetic strategies, his tools for defending and explaining the truths of Christianity, was to study the philosophers of the age and expand on their rudimentary understandings of how and why human beings exist.
For a few hundred years before Paul sent this letter to the Philippians, Stoic philosophers were sorting through those very questions. What is the point of life? Why are we here? What does this world offer to me to fill this insatiable desire to be content and satisfied and, finally, truly happy?
Paul learned the answer to that question. In keeping with his apologetic efforts, the word that Paul used to describe the emotional state and spiritual gift of contentment that he enjoyed isn’t used anywhere else in the Greek New Testament. It is, however, found over and again in the writings of the Stoics.
When Paul wrote, I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, a much more literal translation of his words might read I have learned self- sufficiency whatever the circumstances.
Have you been to a bookstore recently? Or, rather, as you are seeking out your Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals over the weekend, take a look at what books are the most popular and best sellers among baby boomers and millennials, alike. The self-help sections have surged so much.
That’s because it isn’t just Stoics in the centuries just before and after Christ that are seeking happiness and fulfilment in life. Believers and unbelievers alike want the kind of self-sufficiency that Paul wrote about almost 2000 years ago. However, the secret of self-sufficiency that Paul learned is the difference between believers finally finding it and unbelievers continuing their search.
Paul had to learn that secret because, even as the philosophers posited, contentment is not a natural emotional state for human beings. That fact is something that you don’t have to learn, isn’t it? Even as you sit down for your Thanksgiving meal (tomorrow/today), with enough food to feed an army, will you feel satisfied? It could be something somewhat insignificant, like the turkey being a little dry or that your sister-in-law put too much pepper in the green bean casserole. Maybe you’d rather be watching the football game or be in a room with anyone other than your mother-in-law. Maybe it is that empty chair that still sticks out like a sore thumb, either because of the loss of a loved one or the one you are still looking to love.
Whatever it is, everything isn’t exactly the way that you want it. You might be happy, but it could be better. Or, maybe, you won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving at all. You might take the time, like you are for an hour today, to be thankful to God for all that you have but you’re not having a meal, there’s no family gathering, and your list of physical blessings to be thankful for is pretty short.
That feeling of discontent isn’t there simply because you are being ungrateful. That’s simply a symptom of the disease that affects the way that you perceive and receive the actions of your neighbors and the situations that surround you.
The reason that, by nature, you are discontent is because you are sinful. It is not outside influences that teach you how to have insatiable desires. That has been an inclination in human beings ever since Adam and Eve conceived their first child. Which means that the problem with finding self-sufficiency, that even the greatest philosophers couldn’t solve, is that your self is flawed.
But, if happiness doesn’t come from outside influences and it cannot come from within, where can it possibly be found? What is the secret?
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Paul’s secret isn’t so secret. It is the same thing that has been giving people strength for centuries. Strength cannot come from within you and it does not come from adapting your mind and heart to, or simply accepting, your particular circumstances. It is not understanding who you are. It is about understanding what Christ changed you into.
The secret that Paul learned by experience in his life, when he was blinded and, subsequently, when the scales fell from his eyes, was so much more than simply giving him rose-colored glasses to see the world differently.
Up until his conversion, Paul had been seeking to find contentment and satisfaction in pleasing God through his righteous acts and religious fervor. But, as he learned, he could never accomplish it on his own. He could never be good enough. Instead, Christ gave him the strength to be righteous in God’s sight by changing him from being a sinful enemy of God to being an innocent child of God.
Jesus did that by living a perfect life on this earth, never once falling for the Devil’s temptations to covet or be envious or greedy. In his divine self, without the flaws of sinful man, Jesus was content to leave his plentiful life in heaven to feel hunger on earth and sacrifice that life to pay for all of the times when Paul was covetous, envious, or greedy. With his precious blood, shed from the cross, he covered Paul’s imperfection completely so that, when God looked at Paul he only saw his own perfect Son, instead.
With Christ’s forgiveness on his mind, Paul was content with whatever situation he is placed in. Even if in jail, which is likely from where he wrote the book of Philippians, he sang praises to the one who redeemed him and gave him self-sufficiency in the life Christ made his.
Is Paul a good example for you to follow? Sure. But rather than focus on him being able to overcome any situation in life, focus on why he was able to do it; Christ gave him the strength.
Christ gives you the strength, too. He lived perfectly for you. He died in your place. Whether you are well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want, Christ strengthened you to be a blood-bought child of God.
To paraphrase Epictetus, you can be sick and yet content, in peril and yet content, dying and yet content, in exile and content, in disgrace and content because in
Christ’s life and death, made yours by faith, your new self is sufficient for you. Amen.
Preacher, Pastor Paul Waldschmidt delivers a sermon entitled “God Keeps Two Sets of Books?” based on Revelation 20:11-12, 15 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered: on Sunday, November 21, 2017
You might say that Richard Scott is in a little bit of trouble. The Los Angeles, California man is in jail tonight, accused of defrauding the United States Veterans Administration of over $11 million dollars! You see, Richard Scott was the owner/operator of the parking lots at the Los Angeles VA Hospital and as such, he was supposed to turn over 60% of his gross revenue to the Veterans Administration. Only he didn’t do that. He kept a big pile of that money for himself and used it to fund a lavish lifestyle as evidenced by the possessions in his garage, which included a racing boat, three Ferraris, a 1969 Corvette L88, two “high-end” Mercedes-Benz, and a Shelby Super Snake Mustang (whatever that is!), luxuries now all seized by the federal government.
How did Richard Scott manage to bilk the VA out of 11 million dollars? Easy. He kept two sets of books. The fake one full of made up expense forms and falsified income statements that he showed federal auditors. And the real one kept by his accountant.
Ask anyone and they will tell you that keeping two sets of books is a really bad idea. It’s the stuff of embezzlers and organized crime and it will sooner or later land a person a spot in the slammer right next to our pal Richard Scott.
Usually two sets of books is really bad thing. But not today, not when it comes to God. Today in our text we see that God keeps two sets of books. It’s not because he’s up to any funny business, of course. Our God is nothing if not pure, and just and totally above board. And it’s not like one set of books is fake and the other legit. No, both sets of books that will be opened on Judgment Day are real, valid and undeniably true.
So what’s in the books? We’ll find out as we study our epistle lesson from Revelation 20, a little more closely. You might know that the Book of Revelation is a vision that Jesus allowed John the apostle to see showing him the battle of God and his church would wage against foe and oppressor, the battle that would play out throughout history. When we jump into chapter 20, we press play as story is reaching its climatic moments. Satan is thrown into a lake of sulfur, consigned to torment day and night for eternity. And then we cut to a different scene. Judgement Day. And it looks….pretty much like you probably pictured Judgement Day to look.
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. It’s relatively easy to deny, defer and delete God from our daily thoughts now. Many people do. They have the option to not think about standing before an almighty Judge. So they occupy their thoughts with chasing after the baubles and trinkets of this material world.
But there will be no denying the Creator-King on Judgment Day.. The one who once dreamt peacefully in a manger, will on that day judge in purity and perfection on a great white throne. Those who called him anything less than God, those who dismissed him as imaginary, those who classified him along with Peter Pan, Superman and Paul Bunyan will realize to their terror just how wrong they were.
As we see in the next verse, no one is too powerful in man’s eyes and no one is too insignificant in man’s eyes, to be exempt from standing beneath the Judge’s gaze. In other words, John sees us. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Uh oh. If you wanna know what’s in those books, remember a couple things.
First of all, God doesn’t count sins like a heavy man counts calories. You know what I mean? Long on loopholes and short on accountability. God does not look at our constant disobedience and say, “Well, he struggles with so much in every other part of his life, it’s probably okay for him to indulge a little bit in this temptation.” God doesn’t say, “She flew off the handle and lost control of her language but her obnoxious kid just wouldn’t stop pestering her. That’s understandable.” He doesn’t say that.
Second of all, God doesn’t sort sins like an 8 year old sorting football cards at the kitchen table. He doesn’t say, Okay, little sin…little sin…medium sin…big sin…ooh, I’m gonna remember that one.” He remembers all of them. He’s God after all, how can he forget? He knows all, sees all and demands perfection above all. So when we’re talking about two sets of books, we have to understand first of all that God is a ruthless accountant. He has to be. He had make sure not a single one was missed, not single one was dismissed so that he could punish them all, ruthlessly and without mercy….on the cross.
Remember, two sets of books. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. So what’s in this book? No works, right or wrong, no sins and offenses. Just names. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. That’s admittedly a little jarring. And it is true. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. But don’t forgot the unspoken opposite. If anyone’s name is found written in the book of life, all of a sudden that first book we mentioned no longer spells our doom. O baptized child God rejoice! For you and I can say, “Yes, my sins are real. Yes, I deserve their full, complete and unending punishment. But check the other book and you will see my name.”
How do I know my name is there, listed as a child of God and heir of eternal life? How can you know that your name is there in the book of life? Because God himself has promised it. In the water and the word of Holy Baptism, He not only took you in his arms, he wrote down your name. The apostle Paul wrote, “All of you who have been baptized into Christ, have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
O great and mighty Judge, one day, I will stand in your courtroom. I look forward to that day without dread and without trepidation because I know that I stand in the robes of righteousness you yourself have won for me and given to me. And so I pray, do not delay. Come soon, Lord Jesus. Come today.
That’s one of the side effects that comes from knowing there are two sets of books, that indeed there is a book of life, with the believers’ names written in it. You’re not afraid of Judgment Day. As the world around us continues to devolve, and the society around us continues to crumble, maybe we start to see the leaves on the trees and know that summer is near—as Jesus said in our Gospel lesson. Maybe we start to see that the signs of the end and know that it really, seriously could happen today. Come soon, Lord Jesus. Come today. And even if it’s not today, nothing changes what God has told us in his Word today. We go on with our lives—watching, waiting, eagerly anticipating, and doing the very things God has given us to do while we wait. Living with a quiet spirit, an obedient heart, a mouth that builds the people around us up, hands that are more ready to give and serve instead of taking and being served. Not so that our names can be written in the book of life, but because our names already are.
Two sets of books? Two sets indeed. We thank God for that second book and wait with eager hearts for the day that it is opened! Amen.