Jesus Brings Us into the IN Crowd

Shadow

A girl shuffles through the lunch room, clutching her lunch in her hands1. “Is anyone sitting here?” she asks at one table. “Yes, someone is sitting here,” is the quick response she gets. So she goes to an empty table by herself.

An employee peaks his head into his boss’s office. “Here are those ideas that I told you about the other day. You want to go over them now?” “No,” his boss says, “just leave it on the desk.” Later on, when it is clear that his ideas weren’t used, he is told that the management decided to “go in a different direction.”

A woman finds out that someone she considered a good friend is getting married. After talking to several other mutual friends she realizes that they all got an invitation to the wedding, but she didn’t.

Have you ever felt there was an IN crowd, but you weren’t in it? Some people get really frustrated and angry about it; they feel like they’re always trying to break through to that IN crowd but never quite get there. There always seems to be some group that won’t let you in, that isn’t interested in your company or what you have to say. Of course, what we may or may not realize at that times is that even the people already in the IN crowd can feel the same way about a different group. We live in a world where we often divide ourselves into groups. These groups are ways of making us feel together, but they can also divide us. They can leave us feeling isolated and alone.

I believe that there is one group — one IN crowd — that is the most dangerous group to be outside. I’m talking about the group that is confident of God’s love toward them. The most important IN crowd to be in is the one that has complete trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness, the group that is sure that their God is on their side no matter what.

Maybe you think, “Well, that’s easy! That’s what we’re here in church for, right? We’re here because God loves us, we’re here to celebrate the fact that he sent his Son to live and die for us, we’re here to rejoice because we have God’s love now and we will get to enjoy that love forever in heaven!” And if you feel that way, great! That is exactly why we’re here.

But just maybe you realize that not everyone feels that way all the time. Sometimes something happens — an accident, the loss of a job, a sickness — that makes us start to wonder. “If God loves me so much, then why did he let this happen?”

Or maybe we feel outside of God’s IN crowd because of a disagreement or getting offended by someone else. It could be a fellow member of our church or even a pastor. Something happened, and now we don’t want to go to God’s house. And soon the church starts to be an IN crowd that we just don’t feel a part of anymore.

Sometimes it’s our own mistakes that do it. We look at our past, we’re filled with regret, and we think, “God’s IN crowd is for people way better than me. It could never be for me.”

Today I want you to have confidence; I want you to have zero doubts about God’s love for you. When we look at ourselves, the doubts will come. When we look at people around us, we’ll start to wonder. The only way to be sure of God’s love is to look at Jesus. He is the reason we don’t have to doubt. He is the guarantee of God’s love and forgiveness now and forever. He doesn’t leave us on the outside, he brings us in. Jesus brings us into the IN crowd. Continue reading

Compelled to Serve

There are certain stories on the news1 that I’d just rather avoid. One of them was the recent events of another US journalist being executed by the Islamic military group ISIS in Syria. They once again posted a video of the event. Seeing stories like that on the news makes your stomach churn, and my instinct is to get the remote and make it go away.

Sometimes, though, I have to wonder. Why on earth do these reporters and journalists put themselves in harm’s way like this? Why would someone go to the most dangerous part of the world, around the most dangerous people in the world and make themselves stand out by asking questions? It’s obviously risky and seems downright foolish.

Well, someone I know recently mentioned an answer to this question. The journalists, he said, feel compelled to go. These men and women have such a passion for witnessing and reporting the truth and for getting that truth out into the world, that they feel compelled to get out there and make sure that these stories are told. Now, they don’t want to die, and they often take precautions to keep themselves as safe as possible wherever they are. But their passion for the truth keeps them from simply quitting their jobs or getting less dangerous assignments. They are compelled to go.

Our Passion

As a Christian, this brings up a question: do we feel the same passion and determination in our relationship with our God that these reporters do for their stories? That passion can be difficult to feel. Often our faith doesn’t feel particularly urgent. After all, we’re not in danger; we don’t face the threat of death at every turn. The church is there today, we reason, and it will be there later. What does it matter what I actually do today?

Even our church membership can be something of a yawn. As long as my name is on a dusty membership book somewhere, or as long as my vital statistics are saved on a computer program, I figure I’m covered. If I feel like attending church or serving in some way, great. But I certainly don’t feel compelled to do so.

But our church membership and our connection to God is meant to be much more than that. It’s not about our names on a membership list. It’s not even about our attendance percentages or service records. It’s the fact that we are compelled to act, that we have a passion to stay connected to our Savior.

Where does this passion come from? God’s Word tells us. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

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The source of our passion, the thing that practically forces, compels us to action, is the love of Jesus. And how did he show his love? He died for all. He put himself in harm’s way; he went to the most dangerous place there was and suffered the worst punishment that could ever be: death on a cross and the punishment of hell for our sins.

And how does his death, all those years ago, change us? He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. We have a passion, too. Our passion is to live for the same Savior who died and rose for us.

What Now?

What does this passion actually look like in our lives? Well, it’s not about just having our names on a membership list. It’s about staying connected to our God. That connection is there as we speak to God in prayer, and even more importantly when he speaks to us in Word and Sacrament. That connection is there every time God speaks to us in his Word. That connection isn’t about a feeling, it’s about the objective reality of God working at strengthening faith by Word and Sacrament.

When God has strengthened us in this way, we realize something amazing. We want to serve him. We are compelled to serve him. We don’t just want to do that in a church group or when we know someone who is struggling. No, we want to serve our God at all times in everything we do.

It comes down to this: we’re already in harm’s way. We live in a sinful world. The devil isn’t always as obvious as a terrorist group. He prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8) He wants us to yawn away our faith, or lose it in a calendar too cluttered with other cares. That’s why we need passion. Jesus’ passion. His sacrifice. His love compels us. So stay in his Word. Let God change your heart. Let him give you passion to serve and live for him.


  1. The story is everywhere, but you can read it here. That story also contains an interesting graphic on the number of journalists. killed around the world. 

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, for Tomorrow We Live!

Eat Drink Be Merry

A couple times a day in my house there will usually be a scene I enjoy watching1. It goes like this. Someone shouts an announcement to the house: Girls! Supper time! Or maybe it will be something like, Come on up for lunch! And it usually doesn’t take long to start hearing and then seeing a decent-sized group of kids come running from different parts of the house. They converge at the dining room table, eagerly waiting the feast of lunch or supper that awaits them.

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Eat, drink, and be merry.” It’s a phrase about enjoying yourself and experiencing the happy times that can come from something as common as a meal together with people you love. It’s a phrase that can be abused somewhat in certain situations. Sometimes you even hear, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!”

The point of that attitude is Hey! Life’s rough. There’s work to do, but let’s blow it off! Let’s enjoy ourselves! You only live once! This is an attitude that’s only about pleasing yourself and maybe even shirking your responsibilities. And that’s not a good attitude that I want to encourage for anyone.

But still, there does come a time to eat, drink, and be merry. There is a time to just sit back and enjoy the blessings that God gives. That can happen at the family table when people are ready to give thanks and enjoy their food. That can happen when we have things like graduation or confirmation parties or other celebrations in our lives. That can happen whenever we take the time to thank God for his blessings.

But there’s a problem that can happen when we have a feast or a party like this. Maybe we picture this mostly with little kids, when they come to eat and say something like, I’m not hungry. No thanks. I don’t want to eat. This frustrates parents with kids, because you know the kids, if they aren’t hungry now, will be hungry pretty soon. Plus, you just went through the time and effort to make all this food, so eat it already!

But it’s an even bigger problem with the spiritual feast that our God prepares for us. God has sent us his Son. He gave us Jesus and by his life, death, and resurrection, we are saved! We are rescued from our sins! We have forgiveness, life, and salvation forever. And then he gives us his Word and Sacraments. And through them, he invites us to feast on his blessings. He says, Come and eat! Look at everything I’ve given you, everything I’ve done for you! And it’s really easy for our reaction to be I’m good. I’m not actually all that hungry. When I need something, I’ll come back.

But today God comes to us and says the time is now! He says that his feast has been prepared! His blessings are there for us; go and get them. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we live! Today we have God’s promises, and tomorrow we rejoice that God will keep every promise that he has given. We rejoice in God’s feast of spiritual blessings. Continue reading

Wisdom Is Wealth

wisdom

You hold in your hand a blank check.1 The check isn’t from your bank; it doesn’t connect to your account. But the check has been given to you. It’s for you to fill out the “To” line, and for you to fill out the “amount” line. It’s all up to you.

Wouldn’t it be a powerful feeling to have a blank check? You can use it for anything you want, you can give it to anyone you want. The possibilities would be exciting, but they’d also be kind of overwhelming.

I mean, obviously, you could make the check out to yourself. There’d be lots of good reasons for doing that. You could pay some pesky bills, fix a few things around the house, make sure that everyone has all the clothes and food they need. You could pay for whatever you need, and maybe you’d even have enough left to help some others!

Of course, you could just write the check directly to someone else. You could give it to the church; you could write it to some other charity for people in need; you could directly help out someone you knew who needed it. It would be pretty incredible to have a blank check. What would you use it for?

In our text today, we get to see how someone else responded in a similar situation. No, God didn’t hand King Solomon a check; he gave him something way better. After all, a check is bound by how much money is in the bank. God’s offer was even better. He said, “Solomon, ask for whatever you want me to give you.” (1 Ki. 3:5) Whatever! Just name it and claim it! It’s all yours!

Can you imagine that? Can you even begin to imagine the possibilities? Forget paying a few bills and finishing the car payments. You can just ask for the bank. You can just ask to be in control. You can just make sure you get whatever you want. I mean, this is the kind of stuff usually reserved for stories about genies in lamps. But for Solomon, this was no story! It happened.

But we already read the text before; you know how it turned out. You know that Solomon, when he could’ve gotten anything, asked for wisdom. Wisdom! How boring is that? How could he have blown his chance like that?

But you know that’s not right! You know Solomon didn’t blow it. You know he made the best possible choice. So, would you make the same choice? Would you choose wisdom from God if he offered you anything? You know it’s the right choice. But it probably doesn’t feel like the best choice.

There are a few reasons for that. You might argue that God offered Solomon the chance to ask for anything, and he’s never offered that to us. You might think that Solomon was in a much different situation and he had better reasons to ask for wisdom than we would. You might even think that wealth, today, is just way more important than it used to be, and it’s just plain more important than God’s wisdom.

But here’s what I want us to realize today: wisdom is wealth. God’s wisdom, the wisdom he gives to us is worth literally more than all the treasures of this world put together. Continue reading

His Yoke’s on You

His Yoke

“You look tired. Everything all right?” Ever heard that?1 I have. And you know, I probably did look tired. And you have probably looked tired a few times yourselves. We all get tired, every day. And every day, we do something to correct it: we go to sleep.

But that doesn’t always seem to take care of the problem. We wake up in the morning, or we’re woken up by an alarm clock or a voice and suddenly our time for sleeping might be over, but we’re still tired. Sometimes we snap out of it, but sometimes it just drags with us for the rest of the day. And even when we’re not thinking about it, we can feel it, in our face, in our bones. That tiredness is there, just under the surface.

So it’s not surprising people would try things to help them rest. There are medicines designed to gently help us sleep. There is certain kinds of music or “white-noise” makers that are made to help that sleep come faster. There are even special beds that are supposed to help. I remember watching adjustable bed commercials years ago and thinking that it sounded pretty interesting to be able to sit up and recline your whole bed.

But none of those things works perfectly. We still get tired, and even if we wake up rested one morning we’ll be tired again later, eventually.

That’s why it’s interesting to me to think of Jesus in our text. To picture Jesus in our text, calling out like some kind of salesman: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matt 11:28) Here Jesus claimed to have the cure for tiredness, for being weary and burdened. But what was that cure?

It was a yoke. A yoke. And no, that’s not on the inside of an egg, a yoke is a wooden bar that would be used for two oxen, to connect them together by the neck. The yoke would keep the oxen together, plowing in the same direction at the same time. Yokes might also be used by servants or slaves. Someone might have a yoke that’s a bar of wood laid across their upper back so they could carry something on either end, like buckets of water.

Yokes are made for work. They are made when someone has to carry something heavy. Sometimes “yoke” can be short for slavery or bondage or any kind of cruel, back-breaking work.

So what does Jesus say? He says, if you want rest, real rest, take my yoke. It doesn’t make sense. It seems like a cruel joke to think a yoke would ever bring anyone rest.

But Jesus’ yoke is different. Jesus brings us spiritual rest. And he doesn’t do it by forcing us to work or making us his slaves. He does it by doing the work for us. He does it by bearing the burdens, the spiritual burdens and the burdens of sin and grief and shame in our place. Jesus gives us rest by connecting himself to us in his Word, and then giving rest to our souls now and forever.

So today, I want you to feel rested, spiritually. I don’t want you to be tired or bogged down or burdened in your spiritual life. I want you to feel the rest only your Savior can give you. Because his yoke’s on you. Continue reading

Balance in the Work

I wanted to follow up on yesterday’s post about whether certain tasks were up to me or up to God. When it comes to eternal salvation, this question is pretty easy: God does it all. There is absolutely no effort on my part that earns or secures my place in heaven. That is done in Christ alone.

But other tasks get more tricky to pin down. The classic example for a pastor would be preaching. How much of what goes on in any given sermon depends on my effort and how much depends on what God himself is doing.

The best answer to this that I’ve heard comes from a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Professor Rich Gurgel. Here’s his explanation: In a sermon I use my first article gifts to proclaim second article truths with third article confidence.

This saying refers to the three parts of the Apostles’ Creed, and I actually mentioned it in a blog post here nearly four years ago (which you can read in full here.) Here’s my explanation of the saying from that post:

My first article gifts are the gifts God my Creator has given me. He’s given me skill in writing, speaking, and teaching his Word. The 2nd article truths are the heart of what I want to preach: that God sent his one and only Son to save sinners through his life, death, and resurrection. The 3rd article confidence is knowing that the Holy Spirit will use that Gospel message to work in hearts. It gives me confidence.

Sometimes I need to remember that it’s not me who converts people or directly strengthens people’s faith. But sometimes I also need to remember that I need to use the gifts Gid had given me in the best way possible to carry out the work he has given.

This leads to a balance and a tension in preaching that might seem like a problem, but is actually just a chance for me to let God be God. and let me use my God-given abilities to serve him.

It’s Not Up to Me

Sometimes I get myself into the mindset of It’s up to me. That mindset isn’t all bad. It can get me moving when my lazy self just wants to do nothing. It can remind me of my own problem-solving skills when I want to rely on someone else to swoop down and fix whatever situation I’m in. It even helps me to make an honest choice when my all-too-easygoing attitude wants me to just shrug my shoulders.

But more often, as a pastor who is both a saint and a sinner at the same time, I need to remember that it’s not up to me.

It’s not up to me, at the end of the day, whether someone actually believes what I’m preaching to them. I can only put it out there, the Holy Spirit is the one who brings faith.

It’s not up to me to get the members of my congregation to heaven. I bring the Word — in law and gospel. I comfort them when they’re pressed down and without hope. I afflict them when they’re comfortable with their sins. I encourage them to make use of God’s gifts in Word and Sacrament. But I don’t strengthen them through these things; God does. I just get the privilege of his using me to do it.

And finally, it’s not up to me to somehow perform up to God’s standards. It’s not up to me to do everything right as a husband, father, and pastor. It’s not up to me that everything I want to do and accomplish is what actually happens. If it were up to me, I’d have failed it all miserably long, long ago.

No, those things are up to my Savior. And it’s not like I’m waiting for him to get these things done. Already from the cross he has proclaimed it to me: “It is finished.”

So when I get caught up in my to-do list, I rejoice that my life (with all my failures and shortcomings) is on Jesus’ done list.

Thankful for Vacations

I just got back from vacation. Vacations are strangely tough for pastors to take. There’s always a temptation to feel guilty for taking the time off.

But it’s worth it. My vacation has helped me recharge in many different ways. I was able to spend time with just my wife, with all my kids, and with other family. These are gifts from God that my vacation helps me to be faithful to in a better way.

And now, I’m back to work. Not dreading it and worn out, but ready to go. I’m ready to keep at the work I was called to do.

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Here I Stand

Today is a big day. Today is one of the reasons why I’m a pastor; it’s definitely the reason I’m a pastor in a Lutheran church. That’s because 484 years ago today, a group of princes in the area we know today as Germany presented their confession to Emperor Charles V in a city called Augsburg. Their confession, which we know as the Augsburg Confession, marks the start of the Lutheran church.

This might seem like minutiae of history, something that only pastors and church history buffs would care anything at all about. But it’s not like that. Today I’m reminded that my spiritual forefathers in the Lutheran church, including Martin Luther himself (who wasn’t at Augsburg because of a price on his head!) — I’m reminded that they stood for something. It wasn’t, “we want our own church” or “we want to do things our way.” It was, “let’s get back to what God actually says in his Word.”

That’s really what the Augsburg Confession does: it points back to the Bible as the true source of everything we need to know about God. For me, I don’t agree with the Augsburg Confession because it’s Lutheran or I’m Lutheran; I agree with it because it is true to God’s Word. And like those people 484 years ago today, I want my church to stand for something, to stand on what God says, on his Word alone.

If you haven’t read it before (and even if you have), today would be a great day to take a look at the Augsburg Confession. There’s a free, online version available to read here. Enjoy!

I got to baptize a little baby yesterday. It’s a privilege I’m always thankful for. The difference yesterday is that we were having our service in our school gym instead of at church. So I had to improvise a bit for a baptismal font.

Thankfully, though, we still had all we needed. Water connected with God’s Word. We had a little child who became God’s child, connected to her Savior, born again by the Holy Spirit.

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Not Just Plain Water