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Sermon Series

 

April 5, 2015 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

Isaiah 25:6-9 [NLTse]

6 In Jerusalem, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world. It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat. 7 There He will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth. 8 He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against His land and people. The Lord has spoken!

9 In that day the people will proclaim, “This is our God! We trusted in Him, and He saved us! This is the Lord, in Whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation He brings!”

Sermon

Most people are afraid of death. Most people are afraid of themselves dying or of their loved ones dying. It is that fear of death that gives terrorists such power. It is that fear of death that has made the healthcare industry so profitable. It is that fear of death that keeps so many parents up at night worrying about their kids, and so many husbands or wives worrying about their beloveds, and that keeps so many other friendships and caring relationships that are so burdened by worry: Because of so many people’s fear of death.

But Jesus tells us that these people uuu are not dead, but just sleeping, at least to Him. The leader of a synangogue came to Jesus asking Him to help his daughter who was deathly ill, only she died before Jesus could get to her. And Jesus said of the synagogue leader’s daughter who had died, that she was just sleeping, and then He raised her from death and she came back to life. (See Matthew 9, Mark 5, and Luke 8.)

Jesus said to His disciples about the death of their friend, Lazarus, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but now I will go and wake him up.” The disciples didn’t get what He was saying and so responded, “Lord, if he is sleeping, he will soon get better!” (Because they thought Jesus had meant that Lazarus was actually sleeping.) So He told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” And then Jesus went and called Lazarus – who’d been dead for 4 days – back from death to life. (See John 12.)

The Sadduccees – a Jewish denomination that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead – came to Jesus once seeking to prove to Him their belief that once dead always and forever dead. But Jesus asked them, “Haven’t you ever read about this in the writings of Moses, in the story of the burning bush? Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, how God said to Moses, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? So He is the God of the living, not the dead…” (See Mark 12.)

Jesus told a story once about a rich man and a poor man that well-illustrated what happens at death because in the story both men died. The rich man had been greedy and hard-hearted, so when he died his soul went to Hell, where he suffered greatly. The poor man had loved the Lord (we are to assume), so when he died his soul went to Heaven, where he met father Abraham and was greatly comforted. So the story gives us a picture of what happens to people at death: Our bodies are inactive – they rest, they sleep; but our souls continue just as alive and awake as before either in Heaven with the Lord being comforted or in Hell apart from the Lord suffering torment. But, either way, we’re not dead. These are not dead. [Pointing to the slide of Milford Cemetery.] Jesus has conquered death!

In Jesus Christ there is no more fear, of death or anything else! Do you remember that the very first thing the angel said to the women when they arrived at the tomb was, “Don’t be afraid!”? Well, that was not only a verb of command – exclamation point, “Don’t be afraid!” – but it was an ongoing action verb – most literally saying, “Don’t ever be afraid again!” Why could the angel tell them to never be afraid again? Because Jesus was no longer in the tomb! He had risen from the dead! Jesus has defeated death!

In our reading this morning – 500 years before the birth of Jesus – Isaiah prophesied that the Christ would “remove the cloud of doom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.” (V. 7) And now Jesus has suffered that doom for us, and so it has been removed. And we no longer live in shadow but we are the direct recipients of Jesus’ marvelous light: We and all those who believe and have ever believed! That’s what Jesus has done! That’s what His victory over death and Hell has done!

He’s proved wrong the Sadduccees and any who would say that after this life there is nothing, only oblivion, only worm-food. And He’s likewise proved wrong all those who believe in reincarnation and that we all have many lifetimes behind us and many lifetimes still to come. No, at death our bodies sleep while our souls live-on in comfort or suffering. But there will come a time when He returns – when He, Jesus, physically raised from the dead, returns – and when He will raise us – but not spiritually this time, physically – will raise us physically from the dead. And we will go on to life or go on to death depending on our deeds and whether or not our deeds were motivated by faith.

So it all comes down to faith. Not trying to keep our loved ones alive, but sharing faith with them. And not just a deathbed conversion! But sharing with them a lifetime of trusting and resting, free from fear and believing in our beloved Jesus! Faith is what counts.

So, do you believe that God raised Jesus from the dead? Do you believe that God will raise you from the dead? Do you believe that upon your death that your soul will go to be with Jesus in Paradise while your body sleeps – rests – in the grave? Do you believe that when Jesus returns to raise you from the dead that a new Heaven and a new Earth will be created for all to live in where holiness and righteousness and love and grace will be the law of the nations? Do you trust God with those you love? (That is, trusting Him to judge them fairly and to give them life if they love Him?) Do you trust God with those you love who have already died? (Your parents, unborn children, children or brothers and sisters who’ve died too young, friends, neighbors, husbands, wives? Do you trust God to do what is best and right and most loving for you and for them?)

All this and so much more is what everyone means when they say, “Jesus has conquered death.” His resurrection gives us a bedrock of evidence for our faith so that we need never be afraid of anything or anyone ever again! Because if He is for us, who or what can be against us? Secure in His Kingdom, secure as members of His family, with the apostle Paul I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of Hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (See Romans 8.)

That is what Jesus’ resurrection from the dead promises and guarantees. That is what has secured us in this life and in the resurrection-life to come: Not our own goodness or righteousness. (After all, none of us are really all that good, are we? Though we’re getting better.) No, what secures us is God’s love for us, and our trusting in His love more than in our worries, fears, and circumstances; the death-defeating love that Jesus Christ has shown us in rising forever from the dead!



March 29, 2015 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

Matthew 27:1-2, 11-26 [NLTse]

Very early in the morning the leading priests and the elders of the people met again to lay plans for putting Jesus to death. Then they bound Him, led Him away, and took Him to Pilate, the Roman governor…

Now Jesus was standing before Pilate, the Roman governor. “Are You the king of the Jews?” the governor asked Him.

Jesus replied, “You have said it.”

But when the leading priests and the elders made their accusations against Him, Jesus remained silent. “Don’t you hear all these charges they are bringing against You?” Pilate demanded. But Jesus made no response to any of the charges, much to the governor’s surprise.

Now it was the governor’s custom each year during the Passover celebration to release one prisoner to the crowd—anyone they wanted. This year there was a notorious prisoner, a man named Barabbas. As the crowds gathered before Pilate’s house that morning, he asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you—Barabbas, or Jesus Who is called the Messiah?” (He knew very well that the religious leaders had arrested Jesus out of envy.)

Just then, as Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him this message: “Leave that innocent Man alone. I suffered through a terrible nightmare about Him last night.”

Meanwhile, the leading priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be put to death. So the governor asked again, “Which of these two do you want me to release to you?”

The crowd shouted back, “Barabbas!”

Pilate responded, “Then what should I do with Jesus Who is called the Messiah?”

They shouted back, “Crucify Him!”

“Why?” Pilate demanded. “What crime has He committed?”

But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify Him!”

Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing. So he sent for a bowl of water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood. The responsibility is yours!”

And all the people yelled back, “We will take responsibility for His death—we and our children!”

So Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned Him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.

Sermon

This week from Palm Sunday leading up to Easter Sunday is most often called “Holy Week” by Christian people, and many Christian churches seek to celebrate during Holy Week those same things that Jesus celebrated 2,000 years ago: His “inaugural” entry into Jerusalem where the crowds treated Him and hailed Him their king; His “last supper” with the disciples on Thursday; His trial before the religious leaders and Pontius Pilate that led to His crucifixion on Friday; and, of course, the women finding the tomb empty in the cemetery at sunrise Easter morning, and the Lord appearing to them all alive – resurrected! Victor over death! – later on Easter day.

So the Lord lived the same sequence of days we’ll be celebrating. On that first Palm Sunday the crowds shouted, “Hosanna! Save us!” They had seen Him heal, provide food, control the weather, and bring people back from the dead! And they’d decided that Jesus was the One to lead them in overthrowing Rome and those of their own leaders who had conspired with the Romans. He was the One to reestablish David’s kingdom!

Even so, five days later, this same crowd – now seeing Jesus beaten, bloodied, chained, and seeming to be helpless in the custody of those conspiring Jewish leaders and in the judgment hall of Rome’s Pontius Pilate – cry, “Crucify Him!” and take upon themselves and their children the responsibility for Jesus’ death.

Couldn’t they make up their minds? Wouldn’t they commit to one side or the other?

Elijah faced similar indecision when he gathered the leaders of Israel on Mt. Hermon (along with all the prophets and priests in Israel who were serving Baal at that time). Elijah challenged them: “How much longer will you waver, hobbling between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him! But if Baal is God, then follow Him!” (See 1 Kings 18)

The picture Elijah is describing is one of a person who has legs that are different lengths, “hobbling” along. My older brother, Dick, was born with his legs being different lengths. I never remember Dick ever seeming any different from anybody else – he was my big brother! – and he was too brave to show any of us how horribly painful it was. (I learned that later.) But I know the “hobbling” (as Elijah calls it) kept him from playing any of the running-related sports he would have liked. He didn’t have the balance for it with his legs out of whack like that…

In Matthew 23 the Lord Jesus yells at the religious leaders for such “hobbling”. He said, “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees.” Jesus called them, “hypocrites!” because what they taught was so different from what they did, and because the darkness in their hearts was so opposite from the righteous, holy appearances they wanted the people to see.

As some of you may know, the word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word hupokrites: An actor. And that’s what indecision and a lack of commitment does to a person: They become actors, acting this way with this person or this group of people and acting that way with that person or that group.

When we will not decide, when we will not commit, we experience the pain inside and the unsteadiness outside of hobbling back and forth, and we take upon ourselves the roles of hypocrites, trying to figure out what those around us are looking for and trying to act in whatever ways are necessary to please them.

Can you think of topics that you hobble back and forth about?

Do you ever act one way around one person or this group of people but act another way around some other person or some other group?

How about when it comes to the Lord: Do you hobble, or act differently with different people, when it comes to Him?

Of course, isn’t it great that our Father’s not like that with us? He’s sent prophets and priests and in the fullness of time His Own Son to publicly proclaim to all the Earth humankind’s sinful nature and yet His steadfast love for us! And He had God-the-Son to be publicly tried and crucified to not only pay the penalty for our sin but to also put our sin nature to death! (And then He made sure it all got written down so that every generation could know such good news, as well!) And He calls us to public baptisms and public confirmations and public declarations of faith so that everyone might know that He’s chosen us and made us His Own!

There is no indecision with God. He shows us no divided loyalties. No hobbling, no pretending with our Abba. He’s all in! And He calls us to be like Him: All in! All boldly and publicly in!

Let me make clear what I’m trying to say is on the table here as we sing, “Hosanna!” this Palm Sunday, 2015: Our Father in Heaven doesn’t want us to worship Him when it’s easy or popular to do so, but later Baal when Baal’s the one on top. He doesn’t want us to go along with the crowd in order to save us from troubles or pain. No. God wants us to always do and to want to do what He wants no matter who we’re with at any given time. He’s wholly committed to us and He wants us to be wholly committed to Him.

So, with that in mind, where in your life are you undecided with the Lord? Are you bold for Him at Youth Group or YoungLife but you find yourself going along with what everybody else is doing and wearing back at school? Do you “Amen!” sermons about truth and sacrifice while telling little white lies on your taxes or going along with dishonest practices at work?

Is the Holy Spirit talking to you today? Is He calling to your attention different parts of your life that you are keeping from Him? If this is you (and it is all of us!) what can we do about it?

Well, the Lord commands us to two complimentary behaviors that each of us can do to put our “people-pleasing” to death, and to focus more whole-heartedly on pleasing Him.

The first comes to us from the Book of Proverbs 3:5-6. A famous and much-loved passage: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.” The Lord makes clear that if we’ll let those around us know why we don’t cuss and why we don’t sleep around, why we don’t lie or cheat, why we don’t join in the gossip and nasty joke-telling – “Because the God I believe in and follow doesn’t want me to be a part of those kinds of things” – if we acknowledge Him, that is, if we make it clear to everyone around us that He’s the reason we do the good things we do, that He will then make our lives “straightforward”.

Now, notice that He’s not saying that we won’t have any troubles or trials or heartaches or heartbreaks if we acknowledge Him in all our ways. No. But He is saying if we make sure others know He’s the reason for doing what we do, that the troubles and trials and hardships that do come our way will simply be straight-forward for us: We’ll know what to do or we’ll have His peace in the midst of them… (That is, if we commit to Him, and if we boldly acknowledge to those around us that we are His.)

The second way God’s Word helps us combat pleasing others and helps us focus on pleasing Him comes from Joshua’s final address to the leaders of Israel. As we’ve already said, Joshua had rebuked them for their hobbling and hypocrisy of faith. But when they told him that they wanted to worship the Lord alone, Joshua said, then “Throw away the foreign God’s that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (Joshua 24:23)

This is simply repentance. What is in your life that does not please God? (I don’t care who it does please, and no longer do you!) What is in your life or a part of your life that does not please God? These are your idols that our Abba is calling you to throw away. They may be TV shows and DVDs you like to watch. Perhaps it is music you like to listen to that doesn’t fit with your faith. Perhaps your idols are things you do in your bedroom, ways you treat different kids at school or different colleagues at work or different neighbors around town or different family members around your home. Or maybe your idols are specific practices you have that you know hurt God’s heart. Maybe your idols are what you eat and drink or how much you eat and drink. Perhaps your idols are things you say or things you don’t say…

The Lord is calling us to stand for Him, firmly on both feet. Plant your banner! Commit! He’s calling us to take off our masks and be real: That is, to really be who He’s redeemed us to be!

Because you’re a slave to those around you when you seek to please them. You can’t be free when you’re always trying to make those around you happy. And Jesus came to set us free! Being free – that is, not burdened about the consequences of your actions, not burdened by the agreement or disagreement or the favor or lack of favor of those around us – being free is a sign of the Christian life. Being free, light, unburdened, undistracted, and undivided to simply seek God’s will and then to do it: That is why King Jesus died on the cross: So that you and I would be free to please Him alone.

Remember: People had no power over Jesus. And people have no power over Jesus-in-you!



March 22, 2015 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

The Gospel According to Luke 9:51-10:2 [NLTse]
9:51 As the time drew near for Him to ascend to Heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 He sent messengers ahead to a Samaritan village to prepare for His arrival. 53 But the people of the village did not welcome Jesus because He was on His way to Jerusalem. 54 When James and John saw this, they said to Jesus, “Lord, should we call down fire from Heaven to burn them up?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 56 So they went on to another village.
57 As they were walking along, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow You wherever You go.”
58 But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay His head.”
59 He said to another person, “Come, follow Me.”
The man agreed, but he said, “Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.”
60 But Jesus told him, “Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach about the Kingdom of God.”
61 Another said, “Yes, Lord, I will follow You, but first let me say good-bye to my family.”
62 But Jesus told him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.”
10:1 The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them ahead in pairs to all the towns and places He planned to visit. 2 These were His instructions to them: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord Who is in charge of the harvest; Ask Him to send more workers into His fields.”

Sermon
I believe the Lord is fulfilling this plea among us today…
Our reading this morning marks a turning point in the Gospel of Luke: From the Lord Jesus’ ministry around the Sea of Galilee to His journey towards Jerusalem. A turning point and a journey that would end in the Lord Jesus’ suffering and death. It was a journey which could have been accomplished in two or three days, yet it seems to have taken Him about five months!

Luke’s and John’s gospels together present a picture of a Jesus with a vast program to fulfill and with only a limited amount of time in which to do it. He was set on making a great appeal to the entire nation before He came to Jerusalem for the last time. So the picture here is the Lord Jesus moving from place to place to place, always surrounded by crowds of people, so that all the country which had not yet heard Him in person (especially the more remote parts of Judaea) might have opportunity to see and know that the Messiah, the Son of God, was in their midst.

A part of Jesus’ itinerary brought Him through Samaritan territory, as Sue Ann read. Luke writes, “He sent messengers ahead…to prepare for His arrival.” And Luke 10:1 goes on from there reporting, “The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them ahead in pairs to all the towns and places He planned to visit.” Now the assumption is often that these messengers were to prepare accommodations for His arrival, but the words could just as easily mean that that they were to prepare the various townspeople for His arrival.

And I think that that is more likely what Luke had in mind. And as Holy Week and Easter Sunday draw near, I believe that, likewise, the Lord is sending us out to prepare our various friends and neighbors and coworkers for Jesus’ arrival.

Before I go on I’d like to ask you all a question: Who here is here because of someone else in the Sanctuary? I mean, someone else here invited you and so you came and have kept coming? Or you knew that so-and-so came here and so you decided to try it, too, and you’ve kept coming? Or something like that? …

Doesn’t it feel good to know that you’re the reason someone’s come to Christ, or come to enjoy the life in Christ’s church that we have here? … Yeah, me too!

I bring all this up because in American culture, going to church on Easter is something many people do by tradition. It’s a societal norm. The majority of Easter visitors aren’t seeking God, and they’re not looking for a church to join. They’re doing what Americans do on Easter:
1) They give their children presents on Easter morning.
2) They hold an Easter Egg Hunt.
3) They attend church.
4) And they eat a nice meal together as a family.

I don’t say this to judge people, I just say it to describe people. For many Americans, attending church on Easter morning is simply the third item on their list of Easter things to do.

Now, you and I know that these people are sinners and broken and need Christ. All people are sinners and broken and need Christ. So there’s every reason for them to Worship with us on Easter Sunday morning, find Christ here, and want to return! Yet, because they have no intention of returning (because they’re not looking for a church to belong to, they’re just looking for a church for Easter), because they have no intention of returning, if we hope to reach them across Holy Week or Easter Sunday morning we may have to prepare them for Jesus’ arrival.
Now, an important part of preparing them is preparing for them. And I think of when my wife and I invite guests to our home. Amy’s always so good at thinking of ways to make others feel comfortable and thinking of what they might enjoy doing with us while they are over. So when we know they have young children, for instance, we get out our kids old toys and ask our kids if they would look after and entertain them so that their folks – our guests – can relax and enjoy their time with us. Amy’s always careful to find out what people can or cannot, like or don’t like, to eat… And I think of the same thing around here: What might discourage a visitor from returning? And what might encourage someone to do so?

One thing that has already come to my mind is parking. I want to ask all of us, for the next two weeks (because next Sunday is Palm Sunday and then Holy Week and then the next Sunday is Easter) for the next two weeks I want to ask each of us to not park directly in front of the church or in front of the Ann Street doors. Please park across the street in front of The Diner or over in the Wells Fargo lot or farther up or down Ann Street. Let’s save the very best parking spots for visitors for these holy days.

Greeters: I want to encourage you across these next two weeks especially to keep the doors open (if it’s warm enough) or to stand outside the doors, to help people find their way who may be coming for the first time. Of course, we all want to be friendly, but remember that new people want to feel welcome, not accosted!

I want to ask you all to walk around the church buildings – outside and in – asking yourselves, “What might discourage someone from coming back? And what kind of change might encourage them to do so? (You can bring what you’ve noticed to Elder Marilyn Neel or myself, and we hope you’ll also bring your willingness to join us in addressing whatever it might be.)

A second thing we can do to help prepare the people around us for Jesus’ arrival is to pray for them. Have you ever heard that we should talk with Jesus about our friends before we talk with our friends about Jesus? Yeah. I want each of us to write down the names of seven people we hope would come to Christ this Easter. They can be local people or people who live far away: Friends, family members, favorite teachers, coworkers, … (Of course, it would be great if at least some of them were local people so that you could also reach out to them.) But pray for these seven people every day between now and Easter Sunday (at least). Ask God to prepare them for Him. And then invite them to church. (At least those ones who live around here.)

Now, inviting seven people to church can be a lot of people to look out for, so, take advantage of Holy Week and invite one next week to Palm Sunday, a different one to our Maundy Thursday Seder Dinner, a different one to Good Friday night Worship, and a different one to Easter Sunrise or Easter Sunday morning Worship.

It’s a lot of services to attend all in one week. But Holy Week was the most important week on Jesus’ calendar, and it provides us with a richly diverse opportunity to both worship and reach out to those around us!

The Lord Jesus said, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord Who is in charge of the harvest; Ask Him to send more workers into His fields.” We don’t have to be great preachers or evangelists to prepare people for Jesus’ arrival; to help our friends and neighbors know that the Messiah, the Son of God, is in our midst; or, to be the ones who in future years people look back on as the one the Holy Spirit used to bring them to Christ. It can be as simple as inviting those around us to church. Palm Sunday, the celebrations of Holy Week, and Easter provide us with multiple opportunities to do so!