Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Out with the Old and In with the New (A sermon based on Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Do you like spring cleaning? Like tossing your old stuff? Some people do, but for others it can be tough getting rid of the old, the well-known, the comfortable and replacing it with something new and unfamiliar. But sometimes "out with old, in with the new" is necessary. That's the way it is with God's two covenants. The one was broken -- by us, when we cheated on God by our sin. So God in his grace, rather than divorce us, made a new covenant -- an entirely one-sided covenant that we can't break. Read or listen to (download or stream) this sermon based on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and rejoice in the new covenant God's made for us in Christ...

Out with the Old and In with the New

A sermon based on Jeremiah 31:31-34

Sunday, March 25, 2012 – Lent 5B


It's that time again. Time for spring cleaning where it's out with the old and in with the new. For the Guenthers this year that means clearing out some old toys and outgrown clothes to make room for the new ones that show up every time a grandparent visits. It means getting rid of the books I've read and won't read again. And it means cleaning out the garage and think about putting the snow shoes and sleds in the back and the bikes and fishing poles out front again.

But when it comes to tossing stuff, out with the old can sometimes be tough, especially when what's old is something that you love and are comfortable with. And in with the new can be equally tough when the new is unfamiliar and, therefore, uncomfortable and perhaps even a bit scary. Think of a move  or relocation you've made. Or think of the "new" hymnal (that's now around 25 years old) or a new Bible transation. Out with the old, and in with the new can be tough. But sometimes change is for the better and "out with the old, in with the new" is necessary.

That's certainly the case with the covenants that God made with his people. It is better by far that God says it's out with the "old" covenant and in with the "new" -- a covenant that the prophet Jeremiah described about seven hundred years after the old covenant was written and about seven hundred years before the new covenant was fulfilled. Here's what he wrote in Jeremiah 31:31-34...


31 "The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. 33 "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."


I. We Break the Old Covenant


Before we discuss the two covenants that God has made with his people, perhaps we'd better define what exactly a covenant is. After all, covenant's not a word we use on a daily basis, or maybe at all outside of this Biblical context. But we are familiar with contracts. And that's really what a covenant, or testament, is:

contract, an agreement, or a promise. And those come in different forms, don't they? The first of God's covenants is like a two-sided contract. This will be done, if this condition is first met. And if that condition is not met, there is no obligation for the promise to be kept. So what's the promise and condition of the old covenant?

Well, the old covenant was the one made on Mount Sinai after God had let his people out of Egypt. God promised to be the Israelites' God.  He promised to guard them and protect them, to make them prosperous and guide them with his wisdom, to make them a strong nation and give them a great part of the country to live in. The other side of the covenant was the Israelites' promise that God would be their God. They would not forsake him for other gods. They would follow Him and do everything that He told them. And the people signed the contract. Exodus 24:3 says, "When Moses went and told the people all the LORD's words and laws, they responded with one voice, 'Everything the LORD has said we will do.'" (Exodus 24:3)

In a sense, it was like they were now married to God. Each belonged to the other. Each would love and serve the other. And just as a loving husband provides for his wife, takes care of her, and gives himself up for her, so the Lord did and does that for his own. You would think a wife would be loyal to such a husband. You would think.

But Israel didn't keep their end of the bargain. "They broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD." Even though he was the perfect husband, who brought them out of Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness, saved their lives, protected them from their enemies, and promised them a Savior, they cheated on him. Again and again. Before the ink could dry on the marriage certificate they cheated on him with the golden calf. They broke God's law and broke God's heart just as Moses broke the tablets on which the covenant was written. And as the decades and centuries passed, they continued to behave more like prostitutes than a loving wife, offering themselves to every false god they could get a hold of.

The first covenant didn't work. Not because there was anything wrong with the covenant, and certainly not because there was anything wrong with God. But there is something very wrong with people. God's first covenant requires perfect faithfulness from his people, and the Israelites just weren't up to it. We aren't, either.

You know, the title "old" covenant can be misunderstood. It doesn't mean "old" in the sense that it's obsolete or no longer applies. No. God's law still stands. Do all these things and live. And the wages of sin is still death. The contract still applies. God's Law still requires that we love him and one another perfectly. But you and I are born with a flawed, sinful nature that makes this totally impossible.

For we too cheat on God with other gods. We make our plans and priorities around them. We spend our time and money on them. And make sure nothing gets in the way of them. Hobbies, drinks and drugs, sports and TV shows... ourselves. We have broken our contract with God. And every time we break a commandment, we break the covenant again. Remember what you promised at your confirmation? We promised faithfulness—faithfulness for life, even to the point of death. And we have not lived up to that promise. So what's our penalty? Well, we deserve to have God divorce us for cheating on him so often. But, amazingly, in an act of extraordinary love, our gracious and faithful God said, "Out with the old and in with the new!" and brought in a completely new contract. 


II. God Keeps the New Covenant


In love, God would re-marry his people and write a new contract. They couldn't keep the old one. So he'd make one they couldn't break. But maybe "contract" isn't the right word, because this one is entirely one-sided. They had nothing to do with it. We have nothing to do with it. God declared, " I will put my law in their minds... I will be their God... I will forgive their wickedness." This is a one-sided promise from God, more like a will than a contract. And no one has earned or deserved it, but God delivers these promises because that is what God is all about.

Now, literally, "I will put my law in their minds..." is "I will put my torah in them." And torah isn't just the law as we good Lutherans typically think of it, but is literally, "teaching," "instruction," or "doctrine." The context makes it clear that the gospel is what's refered to here.

And just like "old" can be misunderstood, so can "new." This wasn't really a new covenant. Last year I got a "new" jeep. But it was made in ____. It wasn't really new, but it was new to me. Likewise, the "new" covenant was promised already to Adam and Eve.

So what is this "new" covenant all about? What's the one-sided gospel promise? "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." That's what God did in Jesus. Under the "new covenant," the gospel, here's how your relationship with God works. God forgives your sins and you… well, you…nothing! That's it! There are no conditions to agree to before God will take you back. No stipulations that God will forgive you if you're good enough. You are forgiven. God chooses to forget your sin.

How? Well, think of it this way: When a professional athlete wants to write a new contract, he gets himself a good agent. Our good agent, if you will, really went to bat for us. He knew what God demanded of us, and fulfilled it in our place. He was completely faithful to God, at all times, obedient in every way. And he fulfilled the second part of this contract, and was punished for our sins. Jesus has fulfilled the terms of the contract for us, signing it, sealing it, with his blood.

And this "new" covenant isn't just for a few, but for all. He says, "No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,"

To "know" God is not just to have knowledge about him, but to experience who he is. If you know forgiveness in Christ, you truly know the LORD. So this covent is for all. From the smallest and the youngest to the greatest—for all.

And the Holy Spirit acts as the executor of Jesus' will, bringing the blessings of the new covenant are to us in the Word and in Baptism and in the Lord's Supper. For when he instituted this "new" sacrament he saidin Luke 22:20, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." In other words, out with the old covenant of Passover that recalled the Exodus from Egypt and the promise of the coming Messiah. In with the new covenant of Jesus' blood. So next Sunday you and I won't eat the Passover Lamb, but the very Lamb of God that takes away your sin. And as we do, God forgets our sin again.

Out with old sins, in with new forgiveness. Talk about spring cleaning! And now, in thanks to God for this new covenant, we do some spring cleaning of our own. Now it's out with the old way of living to serve ourselves and in with new, holy desires and thoughts and actions.

For those who live with God under this new one-sided agreement of grace, an amazing thing starts happening. We find ourselves loving God and living for him, not so that God will make us his, but because he already has. And where the old covenant of God's Law nagged at us from the outside, the Gospel changes us on the inside. The new agreement gets results where the old one failed.

So out with the old, dear friends, no matter how comfortable the old may be! And in with the new! In with the new covenant of God's grace! In with the new covenant of his blood! In with a new life lived for him in thanks for all he's done! In Jesus' name and by the new covenant he brought, amen!  

In Him,
Pastor Rob Guenther

Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church
47585 Ciechanski Road, Kenai, AK 99611

Monday, March 19, 2012

Look and Live! (A sermon based on Numbers 21:4-9)

Does life sometimes seem hard? Does God sometime seem to be fighting against you? It felt that way to the Israelites. So they started whining and complaining against God. But God loved them too much to let them become the spoiled brats they were acting like. So he gave them a spanking of sorts by sending poisonous snakes to bite and kill. And this loving action of God worked. It led his people to repent of their sinful behavior and turn to him for help. Then, in his love he gave them the help they needed. He didn't make them work for their salvation, or find go through some elaborate procedure or multiple treatments, they just believed God's promise to them and by faith received life. God deals the same way with us today. In love he disciplines his children, leading us to repentance. And when we do repent of our sins, he's quick to forgive. He doesn't make us do anything to earn our forgiveness. We just look to the cross, and trusting in his promises, we live. Read or listen to (download or stream) this sermon based on Numbers 21:4-9. Take a look and live!

The Covenants that Culminate in Christ – The Bronze Snake


Look and Live!

A sermon based on Numbers 21:4-9

Sunday, March 18, 2012 – Lent 4B


Take a look at this! It's life changing! So the infomercial claims. But that was literally true of what Moses brought forth in the wilderness. Take a look at this! It's life changing! One look at this piece of art I've made and you'll never be the same."

Of course it wasn't Moses' artistic abilities that made such a deep and profound impact on the souls of those who admired his work, but it was the promise of God given and the faith of those who believed it that rescued the Israelites from the certain death that the venomous snake bites would bring. They didn't have to do anything. Just "Look and live."

And "Look and live!" is true for us too. When we look to the cross, we find life, without effort of our own, but by faith alone. "Look and live!" Let's take a look at Numbers 21:4-9 that we might live...


4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!"

6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us." So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The Lord said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.


"You want to complain? Then I'll give you something to complain about!" Mom was fed up with the whining and it was only the second day of Spring Break. J But in a sense that's how God responded to the Israelites. "You want to complain? Then I'll give you something to complain about!"

After he rescued them from slavery in Egypt with the miraculous plagues, after he delivered them from Pharaoh's army leading them through the Red Sea on dry ground, after drowning the enemies that pursued them, after giving them manna, bread from heaven, quail from the sky, and water from a rock… how did God's people respond? They whined and complained. They grumbled and they griped.

The people grew impatient… they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!"

They acted like a spoiled brat. They acted like a toddler in the grocery store that throws a tantrum when mom won't buy the candy bar. In short, they acted a lot like we do.


Let's face it, God has certainly blessed us. Though we may be struggling to various degrees, we all have food (and much more and a much better variety than manna and quail). We all have shelter (and much more comfortable than a tent in the dessert). We all have freedom from slavery (and freedom of religion and regular opportunities to read and hear God's Word every day). We have it even better than the Israelites ever did! But how do we respond?

Don't we too sometimes whine and complain? "I didn't get the job I really wanted! I wish I could have the blessings that other person has! How come my marriage isn't any better? How come my kids don't always behave? God, if only you'd give me…" and fill in the blank with whatever it is you feel God has shorted you and you have to admit, too often we act just like the Israelites with their whining and complaining.

"You want to complain? Then I'll give you something to complain about!" We deserve to hear God say that to us. We deserve to have him strip us of our blessings, to take away the gifts of health and wealth and food and clothes and house and home and family and kids. We deserve to have him take away his offer to bring us into his home, into the Promised Land of heaven he's given to us.

That's what we deserve. And if he left us to our own devises we'd head back to the slavery we were once in and miss out on the Promised Land, just as the Israelites would have headed back to Egypt. But God loves us too much to let us go our own way, just like he loved the Israelites.


God loved his people too much. He wouldn't let them grow up to be spoiled brats. So he'd discipline them. In love he said, "You want to complain? Then I'll give you something to complain about!"

6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.

And God spanked his people in the form of "snakes on a plain." J But wait a second! Isn't that a pretty harsh spanking? After all, some of them died! And what was the big deal anyway? They just whined. It's not like they killed anyone.

But, consider the alternative. They would all die eventually. But if they died in impenitence—that is, not sorry for their grumbling and complaining against God—they would die eternally. That made their "small" sin of complaining a very big deal! Was God's punishment harsh? No doubt! But it was given in love.

And the spanking worked. As the snakes bit and some Israelites died, the people were led to repent. They had a sincere change of heart. 7 The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us."


And friends, we can thank God that he loves us enough to discipline us too. I believe there are six poisonous variety of snakes that live in North Carolina, a few of which I think I've seen in what was my back yard. So I was relieved to hear that there are no snakes in Alaska. (You can usually see bears or moose approach, and therefore can evade them more easily than spiders and snakes, so I like them more.) But nevertheless, though he may not use snakes here in Alaska, God still can and does have his ways of disciplining us and leading us to repentance.

He lets family strife remind us of our selfishness and unfaithfulness to him. He let's financial problems remind us of our covetousness and greed and mismanagement of his blessings. He lets health problems grow to remind us of how spiritually sick we are with out him. And he still lets death strike—a sober reminder of our mortality caused by sin. But these are not (strictly speaking) curses from God. They're meant to be blessings; great blessings that lead us to repent and turn to God, and thus, save our souls.

Repent of your sin, dear friends! It is NOT okay! It is a big deal! It's been said that small sins become great when they are thought of as small. That is, every sin is a big deal! When it's an impenitent sin—that is, one for which the sinner is not sorry—it's a damnable sin no matter how small it might seem: a few extra minutes to my break, a snappy comeback to mom or dad, just one drink when you're underage, or just having "a little fun" outside of marriage.

Repent before God sends his loving discipline and save yourselves a world full of "snakes." And then, when you do, be certain that God will be quick to forgive and restore, just like he was for the Israelites.


When the Israelites finally repented, God was very quick to forgive them…

Moses prayed for the people. 8 The Lord said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live."

In other Words, God said, "Take a look at this! It's life changing!" And it was… literally! Look up to this bronze snake that Moses had crafted and instantly the people were saved. They were rescued from the sudden death that would follow the venomous bites.

But… does that seem believable to you? I mean, come on! If the doctor told you that you had poison coursing through your veins—a deadly venom that killed all who had it in their system, but… that there was hope: "If you'd just look at the statue by the fountain on the way out to the parking lot, you'll be cured." Would you believe him? How ridiculous!

But it's not ridiculous when God speaks. God can send a cure to a deadly disease that makes no sense medically speaking, and have it work just fine every time. And if the people just looked at the statue Moses made, the venom was removed from their blood stream without any medical treatment. In other words, they were saved by faith—faith in God's gracious promises.

And it should be no surprise to us that God's promise rang true.

9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

When God's people repented of their sin, and put their trust in his gracious promises, God rescued them and they lived. They didn't have to first right the wrong. They didn't have to go through rigorous procedures. They didn't have to do anything. They simply looked at the snake in trust and the lived.


Look and live. Sound familiar? It should. Because that's exactly how God deals with us. We, who have sinned against God by our grumbling and complaining, repent of our sinful behavior. We cry out to God for help and God doesn't prescribe a certain procedure we must go through. He doesn't tell us of a rare cure that can be found if we work hard enough. No. He tells us, "Look and live!"

Look at my Son and see what he has done for you. Look at the cross and believe my promises. And when you do, without any effort of your own, but by faith alone, you will live. Jesus said as much himself. Remember the Gospel lesson that we just read? He said, "4 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

We don't have to first right the wrong. We don't have to go through rigorous procedures. We don't have to do anything. We simply look at the cross in trust and live. Repent of your sin, dear friends. Then rejoice that when you do nothing but believe in God's promise of grace, you will look (at the cross) and live, in Jesus' name, amen.

In Him,
Pastor Rob Guenther

Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church
47585 Ciechanski Road, Kenai, AK 99611

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

We Love the Law of the Lord! (A sermon based on Exodus 20:1-17)

How perfect are you? That's sort of a trick question, isn't it? There are no such thing as degrees of perfect. You're either perfect or you're not. When we examine our lives according to God's Word, his Law shows us that we have not done what he wants. We are less than perfect. We all are. So how can we love the Law of God when it points out our flaws and failures? How can we find it a joy to do God's will? We turn to the Jesus. And we see how he perfectly fulfilled the Law in our place. The Gospel, the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection for us, sets us free from any obligation to keep the Law. But ironically, now we can't help but do all we can to keep the Law, not because we must to be saved, but because we must to show our love and thanks to God. Read or listen to (download or stream) this sermon based on Exodus 20:1-17 and be encouraged to love the Law of the Lord!

The Covenants that Culminate in Christ – The Law

We Love the Law of the Lord!

A sermon based on Exodus 20:1-17

Sunday, March 11, 2012 – Lent 3B


You remember the scene from Mary Poppins where the kids don't want to clean their room because they know that cleaning their room is no fun. But then enters their new nanny with her magical powers and Marry Poppins shows them how "In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun," and how "a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down." And turning the chore into a game, the kids suddenly love to clean their room.

In our sermon text this morning we have some tough medicine to take. In what are commonly known as the Ten Commandments God tells his people: "Don't lie. Don't cheat. Don't steal. Don't want what's not yours! Do obey me. Obey my representatives. Honor my name. Listen to my Word. Love one another in all you do. Be content in all things!" Those are tough pills to swallow, aren't they?

So, can we find some sugar that will help us keep the Law and help the medicine go down? Can we keep the Law of God gladly? Can we love the Law of the Lord? And if so, how? If we just turn the commandments into a game will it suddenly be fun?

We can love the Law of the Lord. In fact, as Christians we do love the Law. We love the Law because we love the Lord who loved us first. We love the Law of the Lord because the Lord fulfilled the law for us. We love the Law of the Lord and are eager to keep it all to show our love for him. Listen now to the ten decrees of God listed for us in Exodus 20:1-17…


And God spoke all these words:

2     "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

3     "You shall have no other gods before me.

4     "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7     "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

8     "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12   "Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

13   "You shall not murder.

14   "You shall not commit adultery.

15   "You shall not steal.

16   "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

17   "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor."


I. Look at the Law of the Lord!


It's often been noted that these are called the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions. And how true that is. Because it's God who speaks, we must listen. We don't have a choice. And because God spoke all these words, we can't pick and choose which commands we'll keep and which ones we won't. So let's take a quick review of the mandatory list of jobs that God gives to every person. Let's start at verse 7:

"You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God…" Keep God's name—that is, his reputation—holy and set apart for a special use. Ever hear someone say, "If that's how Christians act, I don't want to be one." Mahandas Ghandi famously said, "Jesus I love, it's his followers I can't stand." So God's command is to bear the name Christian and live in such a way that we always improve God's reputation.

"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy." Sabbath literally means rest. But God's not telling us to take a day to sit on the couch, but to make time to worship and to find rest from our burdens in God's Word. Luther adds, "gladly hear and learn it." You're here, but are you glad to be? Or are there times you'd rather be somewhere else?

"Honor your father and your mother…" Kids, note it's not just obey them, but honor them. Show them love and respect. Adults, that's not just for your aging parents, but for your local and national government, those that God has put in authority over you. And for you too, it's not just obedience that God commands, but give them respect (whether earned or not) as God's representatives.

"You shall not murder." Don't hurt or harm God's gift of life. That includes your own life in the way you treat your body and care for it. In what you choose to eat and what you choose to do. In how you actively seek your neighbor's good, defending him, caring for her physical needs.

"You shall not commit adultery." Honor God's gifts of marriage and sex, recognizing that God commands the two go together and neither one should be without the other. Guard your thoughts and your heart to keep them pure.

"You shall not steal." Work faithfully at your job, lest you unintentionally rob your employer. Use your gifts to your full potential, lest you unintentionally rob your family. Give generously to those in need, lest you unintentionally rob your God.

"You shall not give false testimony…" Don't lie and don't hurt others reputations, even with the truth. Defend them. Speak well of them. Take their words and actions in the kindest possible way. It's been said that the only exorcise some people get is jumping to conclusions and running others down.

"You shall not covet…" In other words, be content. And this is the heart and core of the Law. Be content with all the blessings God has given you. Then you won't need to run others down. You won't need to lie or steal. Be content with your marriage or your singleness, and you won't lust or cheat. Be content with the Grace of God and you'll love his name. You'll love his Word and long to read and learn it and grow in your faith.

Ah, but there's the catch. We don't always stay content with God's blessings, do we? We do break the commands of God. And break any other one and we also break the first commandment as we don't put God first. All too often we put ourselves first as if to say "I matter most, God."

And that's a big problem because God is serious about his Law. He's holy and cannot tolerate sin. He impressed that on the Israelites with the way he gave the law: with smoke and lightening, with an earthquake and thunder, and mysterious supernatural trumpets blasting at the top of Mt. Sinai. And the people stood in holy fear and awe. They knew they were sinners.

So do we. And God said he showed love to "…those who love me and keep my commandments." So, how can we possibly love the Law when it sets a standard that's so high, we can never even come close to keeping it? How can we love the Law, when the Law condemns us—when it condemns us to hell?

Well, in order to love the Law, we need to stop looking at the Law. Instead we need to see God's love, revealed there at Mt. Sinai too…


II. Look at the Love of the Lord!


Did you know that not all churches number commandments the same? Lutherans, like Roman Catholics, follow the ancient church's numbering. Most other Protestants don't. They split our first commandment into two: 1) "You shall have no other gods…" and 2), "You shall not make for yourself an idol…" Then they combine our ninth and tenth commandments, which are essentially the same: "Do not covet." But either way, if you count them, it seems there are nine commands, but Moses refers to them as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:24, Deut. 4:13; 10:4), so one of them needs to be split. But I think there's a better solution…

Literally in the Hebrew it doesn't say Ten Commandments, but Ten Sayings or Ten Decrees.  They're not necessarily all telling people what to do, just telling people something important from God. And the most important of God's decrees really comes in verse two: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." "I am…." God says, "the God who rescues. I am the God who delivers from slavery. I am the God who saves lost sinners." And God did rescue his people from Egypt and greater still, he rescued them from sin. He appeared to Moses at the burning bush. He released his people by the Ten Plagues. He led them to cross Red Sea to safety on dry ground. He fed them manna from heaven.

But why did he do all this? Because they were so good? Because they were faithful? Because they kept all his commands? No! They grumbled and complained. They told God, "We wish you'd left us alone in slavery where we had better food to eat than this stupid manna!" They built a golden calf. And Joshua pleaded with them more than forty years later, "Will you finally get rid of your stinking idols?" No, they didn't deserve God's deliverance! So why'd he do it? Out of love alone. It was his grace that led him to rescue them.

Just as he's rescued us.

The Passover Lamb, the sacrificial system that followed, the bronze snake, the water from the rock. all pointed to Christ. The Law itself pointed the people to their need for Christ. And it still does for us! No one is made right with God by the Law! It only makes us aware of sin and aware of our need for help. (cf. Romans 3:19-20) I won't see the doctor if I think I'm just fine. Most guys won't unless the bleeding doesn't stop after a couple of days. But God's law shows us how serious the problem is. I can't fix it. But he can. He has.

Out love alone, God has delivered us! It was his great grace alone that led him to rescue us from our slavery to sin.

It's interesting that the first thing God says in Exodus 20 is "I am…" It's interesting because that's what God told Moses to call him. "Call me Jehovah or Yahweh," he said from the burning bush. "Call me 'I am.'" It's God's covenant name (in all caps) that's used in verse five where God says, "I, the Lord your God…" And God kept his covenant, didn't he? "I am," Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane, knocking the soldiers to the ground. (John 18:5-6) "I am," Jesus told the high priest when he was asked if he was the Christ. (Mark 14:62) "I am the good shepherd…." said Jesus, "[who] lays down his life for the sheep." (John 10:11) "I am the resurrection and the life," said Jesus to Mary before he brought her brother back from the dead. (John 11:25)

And the Great I AM has done this all for us. By his suffering, by his death, by his resurrection, he says to you, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of… slavery." And that's a wonderful decree. That's a pill we gladly swallow because it's the medicine that saves our souls. Now you are forgiven. You have the Promised Land of heaven! What love the Father has lavished on us!


III. Love the Law of the Lord!


And that love has brought us into a relationship with him. And for that love we love God and we're eager to serve him. We're glad to keep his Law. We're excited about the challenge of loving him back. Think of it this way: If you're not right now, think back to when you were dating. Imagine that your dream date says, "Let's not see other people. Let's be exclusive." Would you consider that a burden? Of course not! It would be exciting! You'd be thrilled!

Well, in a sense, that's what God says to us. "Let's be exclusive." Love me as I've loved you. Don't have idols (literally "carved things.") Of course we're more sophisticated than that. We don't worship blocks of stone or wood. But God says don't love our idols of paper money or plastic gadgets more than him. Why not? Because God is a slave master? No! Because he loves us so much that he's jealous for us! He loves us so much that he carved up his son for us. So now, we long to worship and serve.

And we long to honor his name. The opposite of "Don't misuse" is "Do use correctly." And because of his love for us, we long to call him in prayer to tell anyone who will listen how awesome our God is, just as the guy who gets the date with the dream girl is eager to call her back and to tell his buddies all about her.

And if that guy should get a love letter (or an email or a text) you know he'd grab it right away to learn more of what's on that special someone's heart and mind. And God has given his love letter to us in his Word. And we rejoice in God's work for us, we love his Word and gladly hear and learn it.

In fact, we love everything about God. We love the blessings he's given and strive to use them to his glory. We love the government he's blessed us with and honor our leaders. We love the life that God's given to us and to others and strive to preserve it. We love God's gift of sexuality and use it only as he would have us use it, longing to be faithful to him. In short, we love the Law of the Lord, because we've seen his great love for us and we long to reciprocate it.

A young man once sat in his cramped apartment on a wooden crate eating mac and cheese off a TV tray. He had no money for better food or for good furniture. And yet, he had a huge grin spread across his face. How come? Because he sat across from his brand new bride. And after he swallowed his mac and cheese he told her, "If I have you, I don't need anything else." He was full of love and he was eager to serve the object of his love. God's love for us, fills us with gratitude and love for him. And we are eager to serve the object of our love. And this is love for God: that we keep his commands. We are glad to do all he asks. We're eager to serve because we're in love. And we really do love the Law of the Lord. In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.

In Him,
Pastor Rob Guenther

Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church
47585 Ciechanski Road, Kenai, AK 99611

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Where is Bethel? (A sermon based on Genesis 28:10-17)

Ever feel scared? Ever feel alone? Ever feel like nobody cares? Like God himself has abandoned you? Then it's time to take a trip to Bethel. No, I don't mean Bethel, Alaska. Nor do I mean Bethel, Israel, where God visited Jacob in a dream. But it's time to visit the House of God (that's what Bethel means) and hear his comforting promises. He has rescued you from your guilt and sin. He has promised that you are never alone--for he is always with you protecting you and loving you. He has promised to bring you into your promised land of heaven. Read or listen to (download or stream) this sermon based on Genesis 28:10-17 and be comforted that you know where Bethel is.

The Covenants that Culminate in Christ - The Ladder

Where is Bethel?

A sermon based on Genesis 28:10-17

Sunday, March 4, 2012 – Lent 2B


Are you smarter than a fifth grader? In what subjects might you struggle? I think I could take a fifth grader in languages: in spelling and reading, in forensics and public speaking. I think I could take a fifth grader in math and geometry, possibly in science and in physics. But where I have a lot of doubt is in the subject of geography.

I'll admit it. Geography isn't exactly one of my biggest academic strong suits. I struggle with the difference between Iraq and Iran, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and Kotzebue and Chicken. And to make matters more difficult for me, when it comes to Biblical geography the names of the cities and towns have changed multiple times over the centuries. So I really have to rely heavily on my Bible atlas to know where a city is. So when I looked at the text for this morning, I had to check to see where Bethel was. Do you know where Bethel is?

The city of Bethel, where God first gave Abraham the promise that he would be father of many nations, is about 40 miles north of Beersheba, the city from where Jacob left home, running for his life from his murderous brother. From Beersheba to Haran (Jacob's final destination) was about 500 miles. So he wasn't very far into the journey when he had this amazing experience from God.

But when I ask if you know where is Bethel, I don't mean in Israel. And I don't mean Bethel, Alaska either (though I did have to look that one up too). But do you know what the name Bethel means? Anytime you see a Biblical name ending in "el" (Isra-el, Dani-el, Ezeki-el, or Beth-el), know what the "el" part is an abbreviation of Elohim, the Hebrew for God. And Beth means house. So when I ask you where is Bethel, I mean to ask where is the house of God? Where does God live? Where does God make his home?

It's really the same place for us that it was for Jacob. No, not Bethel, Israel. But he lives with us wherever he comes to us in his Word and in his promises. And like he was with Jacob, he promises to be with us wherever we go. That's where we find Bethel. Listen now to the account of Jacob's dream from God given to him at Bethel, recorded for us in Genesis 28:10-17…


10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. 11 When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. 12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. 15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it." 17 He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven."

I.              God Lives in His Promises


Do you remember why Jacob was leaving Beersheba, here in Bethel, on his way to Haran? He was a fugitive. Remember why? Though God had promised before they were even born that Esau would serve Jacob, that Jacob would be blessed, he grew impatient. So, taking advantage of his brother's hunger, he really stole his brother's share of the inheritance. As if that weren't bad enough, he lied to his father with an elaborate scheme in order to steal the blessing that Isaac was to give Esau, his favorite son. Robbed of his share of the estate and robbed of his father's blessings, Esau was enraged. He vowed that the moment his father died, he would murder his brother to exact his revenge. So Jacob ran.

Now, only a few nights away from what had been home, imagine how Jacob must have felt. He lost his family. He lost his father's respect. He lost any chance at having a healthy relationship with his brother. He lost his home. And apparently, he even lost his pillow. He wasn't camping out under the stars that night. No. He was homeless. Alone. Scared. And no doubt full of guilt.

Some suffering we humans face is because of sin in the world. But some suffering is because of our own sin. That suffering isn't, properly speaking, a cross. We call that consequences. And Jacob deserved what he got. He was suffering the consequences of his sinful actions. And I imagine that having lost his relationship with his father, with his mother, with his brother, with his friends, he must have wondered if he hadn't lost his relationship with God too. After all, he knew he deserved the mess he was in.

But man's relationship with God doesn't rest on so fragile a thing as man's behavior. So God came to Jacob in that dream and gave him comfort and assurance.

12 He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 There above it stood the Lord, and he said: "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.

God showed Jacob a vision where God himself would send angels from heaven to condescend to him to give him comfort. Though Jacob deserved to be cut off from God, God would come to visit him. Though he deserved to be homeless, God promised to give Jacob and his descendants the land he traveled on. Though Jacob deserved to be alone, God promised to give him a family—a family so huge it would cover the world like the dust of the earth.

And really, God promised to keep Jacob in his family. Because the best promise came in the second half of verse 14: All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. Here God reiterated the promise that he'd made to Jacob's grandfather, Abraham, that the Messiah, the one who would crush the devil's head and restore fallen, sinful mankind to God, would come from his family line. Here God really assured Jacob that his sin was still forgiven by that coming Descendant who would take his sin away.

What comfort! What love! What grace God gave to Jacob! What grace God gives to you…

After all, let's face it. When we face problems in our relationships, when we feel alone, when we've lost the blessings that once were ours, all too often we too can say that we deserve the mess we're in. For our lying and scheming, for doing things our way so we get the things we want when we want them, instead of doing things God's way and accepting with thanks the things he gives when he wants to give them, we, like Jacob deserve to lose our blessings. In fact, we know that for our sins against God, we deserve worse. We deserve hell.

That's what we deserve. But you know that your relationship with God doesn't rest on so fragile a thing as your behavior. So God comes to you to comfort and assure you. Though not necessarily in a dream, God does come to you in his Word.

There he comes to you to assure you that you are blessed through Jacob's offspring. In John 1:51 (which we already studied earlier this year) Jesus told Nathanael that he was fulfillment of this vision that God gave to Jacob. He said, "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

Jesus is the stairway where God himself descends from heaven to earth to take fallen man from earth to heaven. Through Jesus, you too have seen a magnificent vision! Jesus said if you have seen him you have seen the Father. You know God's love for you. You have seen the cross where your lying and scheming and every sin has been forgiven. You have seen the empty tomb which assures you that what Jesus said (in John 19:30) is true: "It is finished!" You have seen the covenant God made with Jacob fulfilled in Jesus. He is the perfect mediator. He is the ladder that God sent from heaven to bring us up to him. He is the stairway that leads to heaven.

So, where is Bethel? Where is the house of God? Where can one go to have a direct connection with God, where his angels ascend up into heaven to take our needs to God and where God sends his messengers to carry his help and aid to us?

Bethel is right here. Here is God's ladder, at church. Where the Church gathers, God is. Where his Word is preached in its truth and purity with Law and Gospel God condescends to speak to us—and far more clearly than in any dream. Where the Sacrament of Holy Communion is administered God condescends to us to be with us—bodily, physically present. Here at Grace Lutheran Church God lives in his Word, in his promises to you, in this bread and wine. At Grace Lutheran School God feeds his children with the message of his grace. God is here in this place. This is Bethel—the house of God. This is the gate of heaven!

II.            God Lives with His People


But is that the only place that God was with Jacob? Was it only at that site where he propped up the rock and made a memorial? Was that sacred space, renamed "Bethel," the only place that God would comfort Jacob? No. Of course not. God himself promised Jacob (in verse 15)…

15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."

What comfort that promise would bring Jacob as he continued his long journey from Bethel to Haran (a journey that's about the same distance from Kenai to Bethel, Alaska, by the way—almost 500 miles!). Though he may have been scared and apprehensive of what lay ahead, though he may still have had his doubts, though he may still have felt alone—he wasn't alone. Ever! God was with him. God was watching over him. No matter where he went! God promised that he would never leave him until every promise made to Jacob was fulfilled.

And God has promised the same to you. Though we deserve to be alone for alienating ourselves not just from others, but from God, instead God promises us a family; we are a part of his family through Christ and, in turn, we get a family of believers to comfort and encourage us. Though we deserve to be abandoned, God promises us, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?" (Hebrews 13:5-6) Though we deserve to be homeless, we are promised a home with God in heaven. He will not leave us until he has done everything that he's promised to us.

So it's not just here at Grace or at another church where the Word is taught that God lives. Where is Bethel? Where is the house of God? Wherever you go, God is with you, guarding you, protecting you. That's why he calls himself, "Immanuel, which means "God with us." (Matthew 1:23) That's why he promises in Romans 8(:39) (which we just read last week) that "[Nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." How do you know it's all true? Because of the cross. Jesus condescended to come from heaven. He came down to rescue us. He came down to take us to be with him. "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32)

God will keep his promises. He always has. So we know that one day soon he'll keep his promise to bring us to our Promised Land. He will take us up to be with him in heaven. We most certainly will ascend that stairway. In the meantime, no matter where your journey leads, no matter where you go, no matter what you do, rejoice that God is with you. That's where he lives. Wherever you go is Bethel—the house of God. And at Bethel we worship him. For "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." In the name of Jesus, the Ladder sent from heaven, dear friends, amen!

In Him,
Pastor Rob Guenther

Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church
47585 Ciechanski Road, Kenai, AK 99611