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Pastor Mark Nieting
Palm Sunday 2011

Matthew 21: 1-11

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus, on Palm Sunday in the year of our Lord two thousand and eleven.

If you’ve been journeying with us this Lent via our Wednesday services, it won’t surprise you at all when we begin our Palm Sunday story not on the road to Jerusalem, but a few miles away, in the pastures, hilltops and valleys surrounding the ‘little town of Bethlehem.’ Ever since the days when King David was a small boy, Bethlehem was “shepherd and sheep” country. Every year the flocks of Bethlehem grew as the ewes birthed a new generation of lambs. Every spring there was a mass exodus of residents from Bethlehem (and other small towns too) towards Jerusalem, an exodus made up NOT of people, although there were some of them, but of year-old, perfect male lambs.

It wasn’t just a few lambs. It wasn’t a few hundred or even a few thousand. Each year huge numbers of lambs, some estimates run over 100,000, were led by their shepherds from the countrysides of Judea to the city of Jerusalem. Imagine Jerusalem’s narrow, crowded streets as flock after flock were driven into the markets and courts of the city. Imagine the noise; the smell; and the, let’s face it, imagine the mess in the streets.

By the time of Jesus this an annual drama had been continuing for almost 1450 years. It had begun in Egypt, where God instructed His people to kill a young, male sheep and paint its blood on the doorposts of their homes so that the Angel of Death would “pass over” them. This was, God commanded them, to become a “lasting ordinance” (Exodus 12) that would be repeated each spring to remember their protection from death and their deliverance from slavery.

Things were fairly simple when their entire nation of Israel lived as one large community with the Tabernacle as their focal point. Each family brought their lamb, the priests and Levites “dispatched” each animal according to very strict protocols, and the families went home to prepare for their Passover celebrations. But once the Twelve Tribes scattered across the entire region, things became much more complicated.

No matter where they lived, the Jews had to come to Jerusalem for the Passover. There was no place else to sacrifice the Lambs. As winter ended, each Jewish family, no matter where they lived, prepared to make the journey to Jerusalem to observe the Passover. It was a tough-enough journey without bringing their own lambs, so each and every springtime, two very different groups merged on the streets of Jerusalem: the shepherds, as they drove their huge flocks into the city; and the huge number pilgrims, each one need of a room for their family and a lamb for their feast. The historian Josephus recorded that the population of Jerusalem would swell from thousands of people to a few million!

For weeks before, the city itself had been in preparation. Roads were repaired, fresh wells were dug, graves were whitewashed and thousands of temporary ovens were built to accommodate all the lambs that would be roasted. For the priests and Levites it was “all hands on deck,” as every one of them would be needed for the sacrifices to be completed according to God’s commands.
On that day, a Friday, the Temple was crowded with pilgrims bringing up their lambs for the Passover slaughter. All the priesthood of Israel was also at the Temple for this festival. Because of the huge number of lambs that had to be sacrificed, the afternoon offering began early in the afternoon. The lambs were killed and their blood poured over the altar in “bucket brigade” fashion by lines of priests who used gold and silver basins. While this was happening, the choir of Levites in the Temple chanted Psalms 113-118, the same Psalms that Jesus and his disciples would have sung each time they celebrated the Passover.
All this was the back-story, the setting, and the external motivation for the divine drama that unfolded on the road to Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday. There would be thousands of lambs, each one bleating, confused and totally unaware of their fate, and there would be One Special Lamb, THE Lamb, Who alone knew what lay ahead for Him in the events of the week to come.

This Lamb was VERY aware of what awaited Him. All of Scripture pointed to this moment. All of heaven breathed in deeply, anticipating what would happen. The very first prophecy in Scripture had laid the groundwork, as God said to Satan that although Jesus’ heel would be “bruised,” Satan’s head would be crushed and his power would be broken.(Genesis 3:15)

The first lamb ever sacrificed belonged to Eve’s son Abel. It was offered with a sincere heart and a deep faith, and God accepted the offering. Abel’s brother, Cain, didn’t…..and the first murder in history occurred as a result. Adam and Eve must have been heartbroken until God gave them another son to carry on the promise He had made.

Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his only son Isaac, only to have the knife stopped in mid-air and the boy replaced on the altar by a lamb that God provided.

Each year at the Day of Atonement, Israel’s High Priest would sacrifice one lamb for his own purification and another for the people. Then the priest would lay his hands…..and the sins of the nation….and the head of the Scapegoat lamb, which would be driven out of the Temple, away from Jerusalem, and out into the wilderness. Each year the people would celebrate their forgiveness.

Imagine how their joy evaporated when in 586 BC their Temple was destroyed and they were marched off into Babylon! No more sacrifices could be offered and no more sins atoned for. Imagine their HOPE when they came home and their temple was rebuilt! Once again the LAMBS could be marched into Jerusalem. Once again their sins could be set aside.

Then John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness with news….the Messiah was coming…..and when Jesus came, John’s message clear: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” It would be a different Lamb and a different sacrifice.

As He rode into town on the colt His disciples had procured for Him, Jesus knew this was the very thing for which He came into the world. This was to be the year that the Old Covenant would end and the New Covenant would begin. This was to be the Last Sacrifice. The Final Sacrifice. Instead of the blood of sheep and goats, it would be the Blood of the Lamb that was offered for the sins of the people.

For 33 years Jesus had lived a perfect life; something almost unimaginable to us and certainly unachievable by us. The offering He would bring to the Temple would be a perfect one, unblemished in any way. Instead of being driven INTO the wilderness, Jesus came OUT of the wilderness, INTO Jerusalem and up to the Temple itself, ready to take the sins of the entire world onto Himself, knowing full well what lay ahead for Him in the events we now call Holy Week.

I’ve attended a few presidential inaugurations over the years I lived in the DC area. I’ve heard a few more inaugural speeches, and truth be told, they all seem about the same…….lots of parades, lots of expectations and lots of promises. In the end the people go home, the streets get cleaned up and life in our nation goes on, sometimes for better and sometimes, maybe not.

The Palm Sunday Inaugural Parade, if that’s what we could call it, was different. Jesus entered Jerusalem in a way that the prophet Zechariah had foretold, as His ancestor David had done centuries earlier. The crown He would wear would be a crown of thorns. The hands placed on Him would be the Hands of God, placing the sins of the world on His head. And the blood that would be shed would be His blood; the blood of God Himself. The people may have been hoping for deliverance from the Roman occupation, but Jesus knew what they needed: deliverance, once and for all, from their sins…..and deliverance once and for all for OUR sins.

The unknown author of the Book of Hebrews summarizes it all this way: ‘Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when THIS PRIEST…JESUS…had offered for all time ONE sacrifice for sins, He sat down at the right hand of God. (Heb 10: 11-12).

To Jerusalem came the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world. Behold the Lamb!

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 7: 15-27

Sermon on the Mount, part 10
[audio:|titles=Figs Fruits Fakes & Firm Foundations]
It was a simple email, and it looked perfectly legit; just a few pieces of information were needed to keep my hotmail account up and running. Who can live without email, right? So I entered what they asked and hit send.

It wasn’t long before charges started being wracked up on my credit card, things I had never bought from places I had never been by people who had STOLEN my identity claiming to be someone they weren’t. I was NOT a very happy camper. I had been deceived; “ripped off” by identity thieves. I should have known better, of course, but I was in a hurry and it LOOKED “right.” I really thought it did!

Looks can be deceiving, Jesus says, as He brings the Sermon on the Mount to a “crashing end” with these words, “The rain came down, the water rose, the winds blew and beat against that house and it fell with a great crash.”

Does it seem like there have been a lot of earthquakes recently? Off the top of my head, first Haiti, then Christchurch, New Zealand and finally Japan have been hit hard. In Haiti over 300,000 people died, far more than the others. In Japan the tsunami killed far more than the earthquake did. What was the difference? Simple: Japanese buildings are designed to withstand earth-quakes; Buildings in Haiti? Not at all. The difference starts with the foundation and ultimately works up through the entire structure of the building. An “earth-quake proof” house might LOOK the same as those that aren’t…… the proof is in the shaking.

We’ve been reading, studying and living the Sermon on the Mount for almost 3 months now, and by this time I am sure you have noticed a theme running from beginning to end: there are tremendous blessings to be experienced by those who live in the Kingdom of God, blessings that can’t be obtained anywhere else.

He began with the “beatitudes,” the series of blessings: blessed are the poor, blessed are the merciful, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and so on. It’s totally “counter-cultural,” isn’t it? After all, wouldn’t it be far more logical that the rich, the powerful, the famous, the happy, the strong, and those ready to go toe-to-toe with anyone else would end up “winning” in life? That may be the prevailing message of our culture, but it’s not the language of the Kingdom of God.

All through the Sermon on the Mount Jesus shows how different life is within the Kingdom of God from life in the world. I find it tremendously interesting, however, that there’s not a single clue in this entire message about how one BECOMES a part of the Kingdom of God. It’s focused on highlighting the differences between those who are truly IN God’s Kingdom and those who aren’t.

I don’t have to tell any of you today that life can be downright difficult. Recently at Hope we’ve had people struggle with dying, with cancer, with divorce, with auto accidents, sick children, aging parents, financial issues, deployment stresses, coming back off deployment stresses, and a long list of life’s other maladies. We all face a variety of tests in life, you have yours, I have mine.

In the first section of today’s text, Jesus warns His people about what He calls “false prophets.” He refers to them as “ferocious wolves disguised in sheep’s clothing.” I don’t know about you, but “Little Red Riding Hood” jumped into my mind…….unless we were 2 years old the first time we heard the story, most of us were going, “Hey Red, watch out…..can’t you tell that’s not your grandma? Check out the paws, the teeth, the bad breath! RUN RED RUN!!!!”

Most false prophets do a far better job with their camouflage than did Grimm’s big bad wolf. These false prophets may look like real Christians, act like real Christians, give their offerings and offer their prayers. They may have huge churches, fancy pulpits and television shows all their own. They might offer all sorts of great sounding advice, flowery prayers, best selling books and who knows, maybe they even heal people! But they’re not, says Jesus, bearing good fruit, and in the end, they will be “cut down and burned in the fire.”

People like this have been around since the very beginning of the Christian church. Paul dealt with them. So did the rest of the disciples, the post-apostolic church leaders, Martin Luther and his contemporaries and down the road to you and me. As long as the devil is alive in the world, which he most certainly is, there will never be a shortage of false prophets trying to lead God’s people away from God’s kingdom.

So how do we tell? What’s the test? Jesus gives us the answer in 7:16: “You will recognize them by their fruit. A good tree bears good fruit. A bad tree… no way. In fact, Jesus says, a bad tree CAN’T produce good fruit and a good tree can’t produce BAD fruit.” OK….we know an apple tree isn’t going to produce milkweed pods and a poison ivy plant will never bring out bananas, great…..but when it comes to Christianity, we need a different standard: one that comes from God’s Word.
In Acts 17 Paul and Silas have gone to Berea. The Jews there had received the news about Jesus and were excited about what they heard. Even though we know God’s Holy Spirit brings the gift of saving faith in Jesus Luke carefully tells us that the Bereans tested everything they heard about Jesus against the prophecies from the Old Testament. They did this every single day! They let God’s Word be the filter for everything they heard.

Martin Luther grew up in a church that was filled with false teachings and false teachers……a church that taught people could have their sins forgiven by purchasing indulgences; a church that taught that so many good works moved you from purgatory to heaven, a church that offered extra forgiveness if you would go to Rome and crawl up the stairs of St. Peter’s basilica, kissing each step as you went!!

To the vast majority of the people in Luther’s day, the church looked real, acted real, dressed real…..but when Luther (and many others) studied the teachings of the church and compared them to God’s Word, he realized the truth wasn’t in Rome, it was in Scripture. The result was the Reformation, where, in the words of Jesus, Luther found the truth and the truth set Luther free and the rest, as we say, is history…..our history.

It’s sad to say, but I have attended quite a few funerals and watched countless more on television where the message has come across loudly and clearly that the dearly deceased beloved is in heaven because he or she was, hear me, “a good person.” I can remember watching Princess Diana’s funeral (along with a billion others) on television when the Archbishop of the Church of England proclaimed clearly that Princess Diana was in heaven because she led a campaign against the use land mines in war! Here was a church leader who had a wonderful, God-given opportunity to proclaim salvation by faith in Jesus Christ as a gift from God through the Holy Spirit. Sorry to say, this man ended up as a wolf in sheep’s clothing proclaiming a false gospel of being saved by being good.

I shudder to think how much damage was done to the Kingdom of God that day.

God gives us the gift of saving faith in Jesus, the most precious gift of all. From the time we are marked with Christ in baptism, we are also marked by Satan as his “targets of opportunity.” He attacks us in a wide variety of ways, sometimes subtly and other times blatantly. His message can be as sneaky as “did God REALLY want you to leave this one poor tree alone” or as bold as “fall down and worship ME!” What’s important, dear friends, is that we recognize him.

That’s why Bible study is so important. Parents and grandparents, that’s why Sunday School is critical for children and confirmation for our teens. The best way to recognize false teaching is to know what it is that the Bible teaches and what it doesn’t and the only way to know that is to be IN the Bible.

For each and every one of us there will come a time, as happened to our dear Angie Colrud last Monday, when we face the last and final storm of life: death itself. It’s in that moment when we will discover the eternal and everlasting joy of having built our lives on the solid foundation that is none other than Jesus; His perfect life, His suffering, death and resurrection….all done for us. It is in that truth that we live, that we produce the fruits of faith, and that we “go home!”


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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 7: 1-14

Part 9 in our series on the Sermon on the Mount
[audio:|titles=Whats in YOUR eye]

Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus.

Ever heard of the Golden Rule? I’m sure you noticed that it was in today’s text as part of the Sermon on the Mount, but just in case you didn’t catch it, I’m going to give you three different versions and see if you can pick out the “real” Rule:

a) Let’s do it to them before they do it to us! (Sgt Esterhaus, Hill Street Blues)
b) Treat other people the same way they treat you. (A majority opinion)
c) Do to others what you would have them do to you. (Jesus, Sermon on Mt)

So….. which is it? Obviously the third one. As Jesus nears the end of this magnificent teaching he summarizes it with this absolute GEM. It’s like Jesus is saying to us, “Do you want to really get to the heart of what I’ve been teaching?? Then here it is, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” How sweet is that! Isn’t that how the entire world ought to work, everybody just loving on everybody else? That’s not, however, where He begins the section.

He begins by telling, literally by ORDERING us not to judge others…..unless we want to be judged by God, and who wants THAT to happen?

The world is full of people who love to judge other people, and I’m not talking about Judge Judy and Joe Brown. We ALL have a tendency to judge others. Walk through a mall and we’re literally going: hmm….don’t trust him! Looks kind of shady! She looks kinda questionable. Her mother let her out of the house looking like that?? My my what a fine looking young man…. Must be Lutheran!

What are we doing when we judge other people? We’re applying whatever standards exist within us to those around us. To my mother, the only kind of music worthy of existence under God’s blue sky is classical music. That’s HER standard and she made sure we kids knew how she felt when we listened to something else. Ford people think like that about Chevy people, and vice versa; Steelers fans can’t imagine how anyone can root for the Eagles, and Eagles fans…. are there any?

A lot of judgment is based, of course, on ignorance. It’s something that takes maturity, experience and wisdom to discover……sort of the way teenagers, when they finally mature, begin to see that their parents really DO know something.

Now before we all turn to the person next to us and tell them, “See…. Jesus doesn’t care about my grades or if I eat with my elbows on the table or what my curfew should be or whether I text while I am driving!!!” let’s be clear about what this means. Jesus is NOT talking about the decisions made by human judges or those who work in Kingdom of the Left Hand to enforce the laws of the land. If we run a stop sign and get a ticket, we get the judgment we deserve. In fact, we can go so far as to be able to remind others when they are breaking a Law, because a Law applies to everyone!

He’s not even saying we shouldn’t remind each other about the “stop signs” that are all around us in life, things that are summarized in the Ten Commandments. We parents HAVE a God-given responsibility to PARENT our children, and God will hold us responsible for the task. At the same time, we children have a God-given responsibility to be subject to our parents, in the same way we are subject to God!

What Jesus IS saying is this: “If you think you’re better than someone else or smarter than someone else or more righteous than someone else, you better think twice, because you’re not.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his great work “The Cost of Discipleship” says it this way: The source of the disciple’s life lies exclusively in his fellowship with Jesus Christ. He possesses his righteousness only within that association, never outside of it. (page 205).
Let’s put it another way: can one grain of salt decide it is “saltier” than the next grain in the shaker? Salt is salt! Do light bulbs run about saying to other light bulbs, “I’m a brighter than you are, you dim bulb?” No, they do not.

Jesus is applying Kingdom Principles to the People of His Kingdom, and the greatest Kingdom Principles are these 2: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

It all began with forgiveness….and as we’ve been seeing on Wednesday evenings throughout Lent, forgiveness is a messy business. It cost Jesus His life, Jesus who, while we were still sinners, died for us. Forgiveness is a dirty job, but it’s one we both receive, and are asked to give, on a daily basis.

Farther back in the Gospel of Matthew, Peter walks up to Jesus and says, “Lord, if another member of my church sins against me, how often should I forgive him? As many as seven times?” I can almost feel Peter puffing out his chest with his sense of self-righteousness. Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (18:21-22). Forgiveness. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.

Jesus is calling us to roll up our sleeves and do some very demanding work. In our justice-oriented world, we expect that insults are going to be followed by apologies and crimes are going to be followed by punishments, but Jesus turns this system upside down by saying, “Just forgive!” Notice that Jesus doesn’t even expect the sinner to repent or make amends. Forgive them,” says Jesus — “Not seven times, but, seventy-seven times” (v. 22). Maybe 490 times. Maybe beyond calculation.

It’s a dirty job. That’s what Lent reminds us. Love isn’t easy…..that’s what makes it precious.

The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18) reveals the reason we must offer forgiveness to one another. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven “may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves” (v. 23). So Jesus is saying that we can learn a little something about life in God’s kingdom by paying attention to a story about how this king deals with his debtors.

The king begins by summoning a man who owes him 10,000 talents, which is an insanely large sum of money. A talent is the largest monetary unit of the day, equal to the wages of a manual laborer for 15 years. 10,000 talents would be the wages of 10,000 manual laborers, over the course of 15 years. So this man is more than knee-deep in debt. He’s over his head, drowning in red ink. It makes the sub-prime mortgage crisis look like a problem with petty cash.

The king orders the slave to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, so that a payment can be made. With nothing left to lose, the slave falls on his knees before the king and says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Surprisingly, the king shows pity and releases the slave, forgiving him the entire debt (vv. 24-27).

That’s the kind of God we have, says Jesus — a king who has mercy on us, and who forgives us our debts. It’s a dirty job, but we’ve got a God who will do it!

Now that’s a pleasant parable, but we haven’t reached the end. That freshly forgiven slave races out of the palace and comes upon a second slave who owes him a hundred denarii — 100 coins, someone’s wages for a few weeks. It’s something, sure, but it’s positively microscopic compared to what the first slave owed the king. The first slave seizes the second slave by the throat and demands that he pay him what he owes. The second slave falls down and pleads with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you” (v. 29). Sound familiar?

No way, says the first slave. Not gonna happen. He throws the second slave in prison until the whole debt is paid.

The plot thickens. When his fellow slaves see what has happened, they go ballistic —and run to the king. The king summons the first slave and says, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. You think that was easy for me Why didn’t you show mercy to your fellow slave, as I did to you?” The slave is speechless.

Then, in his anger, the king hands him over to be tortured until he pays his entire debt.

Jesus concludes with the words, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v. 35). There’s an unbreakable bond between the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness we are to offer one another, making it illogical and impossible for us to accept the mercy of the Lord and then refuse to extend mercy to others. Jesus summarizes this quite succinctly in his teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins, as we also have forgiven those who have sinned against us.” (Matthew 6:12).

Forgive us our sins: all of them, every single one: that’s what we ask of God.

As we have forgiven you : that’s what we offer our neighbors.

In the economy of the kingdom of heaven, you can’t have one without the other.

Our Lord is a merciful God who is willing to do the dirty work of blotting out our transgressions, washing us from our iniquity, and cleansing us from our sin (Psalm 51:1-2). God is telling us that once we have been transformed by his forgiveness into the kind of people who can do the hard work of forgiving others. God knows that his mercy can have a surprising and wonderful effect — it can create a community of merciful people.


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Pastor Cofer
Matthew 6:19-34

Sermon on the Mount Part 8

[audio:|titles=Needs, Wants, and Worries]
In light of our Gospel lesson for today, I feel like I should share a story with you all. I was involved in planning a wedding with a groom, his bride-to-be, and his future mother-in-law. Suffice it to say, having a mother-in-law in the process can complicate things.

There was one day in particular that I recall, in which the bride and groom were exceptionally even-keeled, and the mother-in-law was… not. She had, in fact whipped herself into a bit of a frenzy, sobbing uncontrollably over whether they had ordered a large enough cheese ball or some other earth-shattering crisis of that caliber.

The crying and ranting would have been funny, if it wasn’t happening right in front of me, but that wasn’t the memorable part. The thing that stuck in my memory was this. The mother said to the couple, “Look at you both, you couldn’t care less… nothing will ever get done.” The bride-to-be gave a little exasperated sigh and held up her faithfully and thoroughly kept notebook. “We have a plan. Everything is under control.” And the mother furrowed her brow and said very matter-of-fact-ly, “Well if I don’t worry, no one else will!”

Worry – it’s one of the most righteous-feeling sins there is. We worry about our families, we worry about our jobs, we worry about the future of our church. We think that to love is to worry.

Jesus, however, speaks out pretty strongly against the practice of worry. But to get a good angle on what he’s saying to us, I think it’s worth taking a broader view of the text for today. Worry is a symptom of a much deeper issue: a lack of trust in God. I know that sounds harsh, but hear me out.

People like to think they are in control of much more than they actually are. Take, for example, the crazy football fan who wears the same socks every time his team plays. He sits at home, watching the game on his TV (which cost more than his car), and yells at the referees. He chants, and cheers, does the wave, and paints his face. He does it all because he hopes his cheers, and raving, and his face paint and lucky socks are all going to help his team win. In reality, nobody on the field sees him, hears him, or even knows he’s out there. But he feels like he’s making a difference.

We do that with worry in our own lives. When you lie awake all night worried about their kid’s first day of school, when you keep rehearsing silently the words of the email you just sent, when you live in fear about lay offs or cutbacks at work… Worry isn’t making anything better, but it gives you the false sense that you are making a difference by twisting your stomach in knots.

I find as I talk interact with folks here at the church, that families are busy – stretched-to-the-breaking-point-busy. I don’t think it was always that way, but now it seems to be the norm. Family time, quiet time, and rest seem to be nice ideas, and the stuff that vacations are made for, but not a part of everyday life.

That makes me feel a little concerned, though. Jesus says that where you invest yourself is where your heart is at. And if you are investing yourself in a dozen different places, what must that be doing to your heart?

I find that when Jesus talks about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field there is a chord struck deep inside me. Of course it’s easy to abuse this section of scripture – to use it as an excuse to be lazy or negligent. But Jesus isn’t an advocate of laziness or negligence. The simple fact is that God desires that we are good stewards with what he entrusts us. That means that we ought to plan ahead. We ought to try and make wise decisions. But all of that must follow the recognition that He is ultimately in control, and all that we have is on loan from Him. You cease to be a steward if you claim that what God has entrusted you with is yours and not His.

The reason that birds and lilies don’t worry is that they live in open dependance on God. People, do as well, of course, but worry is the result of pretending like we don’t. When we forget that God is in control, and that he gives us our daily bread, we try to take on God’s job. And of course that results in fear, anxiety, and worry.

This happens in another way too. An addiction to “stuff” is a surefire road to anxious living. Let’s try an experiment: think about something you worried about last week. Be as specific as you can. Now, if things turned out badly – if the thing you worried about actually happened – what would the result be? Was it a literal life-and-death situation?

If it wasn’t, then was it worth worrying about? If it was life-or-death, how did your worry improve the situation?

We could eliminate so much anxiety in our lives if we could learn to simplify our lifestyles and our desires. God didn’t promise you a new car, or an ipad, or popularity, or a college education. Those things are nice, but you can get by happily without them. What God promises is His love, the basic necessities of living, and a home in heaven at life’s end. If we could learn to desire these things, then we would daily be receiving our hearts’ desires. It is discontent, it is the serving of too many masters that drives us into anxiety and worry.

That’s why Jesus instructs us to store up treasures in heaven. It’s not that earthly treasure are necessarily bad. After all, whatever earthly treasures we have came from God. But they don’t bring satisfaction, joy, and peace. Did you know that studies have shown that over 75% of lottery winners spend their entire winnings in a few years? How is that possible? Simply put, earthly treasures don’t really satisfy. They are all temporary… even with great financial planning, you can’t take it with you when you die. But treasures in heaven last. There is no inflation in heaven. There is no recession in heaven.

Remember the story of Jesus are Mary and Martha’s house? Martha is busily doing dusting and washing dishes and vacuuming or whatever sort of household chores folks did back then. Mary, on the other hand, is just sitting and talking to Jesus. And which of them was doing, “what is needful?” It’s not that housework shouldn’t be done. It’s that we like to have nice homes, but we need to spend time with Jesus.

Christ calls us to trust in our heavenly Father, and to prioritize what matters to Him. When we learn to value what He values, then we experience the simple and pure joys of just being God’s children. He provides our daily needs, and that frees us up to think about more important stuff than food and clothes. It frees us up to spend our efforts on things that truly last.

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Pastor Michael Cofer
Matthew 6:1-15

Part 7 of our series on The Sermon on the Mount

[audio:|titles=Teach Us to Pray]
I think every Christian knows someone in their life who is just a fantastic pray-er. You know who I’m talking about. They open their mouths and poetic verse oozes from their lips like honey. They quote scripture, they say exactly what you’re thinking, and they could talk for half an hour straight and not feel the least bit self-conscious. When the Bible Study teacher asks if anyone would like to lead the prayer, everyone in class looks directly at that person.

Do you know one of those prayer rock stars? You ever look at one of those folks and say to yourself, “I wish I could pray like that.”

I’ll be honest, I like when those folks say prayers with me, because I feel like something deeply spiritual is going on. I’ve been thinking about that this past week as I’ve read over the Gospel lesson for today where Jesus teaches us about prayer, and I’ve really been disappointed in myself. As it turns out, the little Pharisee inside of me is still alive and well.
Let me set the scene for you in Jesus’ day. Jews in that time had prescribed times for prayer, The most important being 3 times a day, morning, noon, and evening. The custom was to go to the synagogue to pray – in fact, some taught that only prayers offered at the synagogue would be heard by God. So three times a day, all of the Jewish people gathered at the synagogue. Which afforded the prayer rock stars three opportunities per day to stand on the synagogue steps and inflict their overly pious and exhaustive prayers upon all of the regular folks who passed by.

Can you imagine that sort of self-righteousness one of those guys would have to carry? Can you imagine the kind of resentment it would generate? In the minds of those folks going to synagogue there was a broad chasm between the “righteous” and the “regular” folks.

Of course, we know that God hears every prayer offered in faith, whether eloquent or simple. We know that, but deep down do we believe it? Or do we draw a line between the regular folks and the spiritual rock stars?

¬¬¬I will confess to you that I struggle in this area. I mean, when I come into worship, I expect a certain level of polish and professionalism in what I do here. When I pray up here, I try to make it sound a little fancier than I usually speak. When I preach, I try to be insightful and clever and occasionally funny. I am fairly concerned with how I look to you all. And as soon as I start worrying about how I look, I’ve already failed in the most important thing I can do on a Sunday; I’ve failed to worship God.

Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites.” We take that to be a pretty technical term which means something like, “someone who doesn’t practice what they preach.” That’s a pretty good definition, but I think we can do one better in this context. The word “hypocrite” is actually a Greek word that means “actor.” What the Pharisees are doing when they pray is not so much a failure to practice what they preach as it is simply play-acting. They are pretenders putting on a show. They are by no means engaging in spiritual communion with God.

Take for example Mr. Hugh Laurie. Mr. Laurie is an actor best known as doctor Gregory House. On TV he is an exceptional doctor, able to discover and treat the obscurest and deadliest diseases with ease and even contempt. Here’s the thing: Hugh Laurie’s job is not to be a doctor; it is to make all of the rest of us think he is. His goal isn’t to make sick people well; it’s to make us all think he’s making sick people well.

And that’s what was happening to worship in Jesus’ day. Prayers weren’t about talking with God. They were tradition and a status symbol. It was a way of letting everyone around know that you’re one of the “good” people.

God doesn’t want his people to pretend to pray. He desires a real, genuine connection; and we need it. Sure, if you come to worship to impress people with your religiosity, you probably will. And that’s all that you’ll get out of the experience. That’s what Jesus means when he says that the play-actors “have already received their reward in full.” But that is a vain, shallow, and inconsequential thing compared to the opportunity to actually speak with the God of the universe.

Well, after all of the warnings and prohibitions about how not to pray, Jesus follows up with a simple how-to for prayer, which we call the Lord’s Prayer. I have to say that it is ironic that this prayer has become for some people a sort of incantation – a prayer that has power even if you don’t take the time to think about what it means. It can become one of those prayers that Christians pray as a cultural habit – which is exactly the kind of thing that Jesus was warning us against.

The Lord’s Prayer is short, uses plain language, and yet somehow wraps up the whole of Christian life, and it becomes with a fundamental reframing of our relationship to God in those two short words, “Our Father.” That’s the posture we ought to adopt in our worship.

God isn’t a far off, mean-spirited judge who delights in finding fault in you. He isn’t the type to play favorites. He doesn’t take days off. He is a Father in the truest and best sense of the word. We don’t have to earn his love – much to the chagrin of the Pharisees. God loves saint and sinner alike, which is handy since each of us is both of those. He blesses us with good things, and disciplines us when we need it. He is invested in helping us grow up to be mature, and good, and a blessing to other people. He has plans and dreams for us, but gives us the freedom to make our own mistakes. And when we fall down he picks us up and gives a fresh start. And never, ever loves us any less.

So when we pray, we aren’t trying to wear God down with babbling and repetition, like the child pestering their parent with an interminable series of “please, please, please.” We aren’t trying to impress God with a flowery poem or academic treatise. We are just kids, speaking to our Father with simplicity, honesty, and respect.

God doesn’t need you to be a rock star. He just wants you to be the person he made you to be. He loves you too much to ignore your prayers. He promises to hear wherever, and however you pray.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Genesis 22: 1-14

The first promise in Scripture was recorded in these words, pronounced by God upon Satan. “I will make you and the Seed of the woman enemies. You will bruise His heel, but He will crush your head.” (Gen 3:15) Satan had plenty of reason to tremble, even given the power he had as an archangel from creation. And Adam and Eve had plenty of reason to hope.

When Cain was born, Eve remembered the promise. She held her first-born son and marveled, “I have received a man, the Lord.”

But Cain wasn’t the Promised One. Neither was Abel.

Generations would come and go, LONG generations. Seth, Enoch, Methuselah, Noah, Heber, Terah, Genesis 6, 10 and 11 tells the whole story, they all carried the Seed. Finally, on a starry night in the Land of Ur of the Chaldees, God chose Abraham as the one who would carry the Promise.

Abraham and Sarah moved on into Israel, and the years moved on, and on, and on, and still no Seed was born. A CHILD was finally born, to Abraham’s servant girl….but it wasn’t the child of the promise.

More years passed. In a time when God had put a limit on life-spans, Abraham neared the century mark and Sarah was 90. The promise, GOD’S promise, hung by a thread, or so it seemed. Until God came by one day and reminded Abraham…and Sarah… of His promise. The line, and the promise, would be continued!

Nothing is ever too hard for God!

In time the child was born; a son named Isaac, which means “laughter.” The name reflected Sarah’s incredulous response and, ultimately, the joy of both of them. Was THIS the One who would crush the Evil One?

Isaac grew: a toddler, a child, a teen, finally a young man.

Then came the time of testing. You know the story well; Genesis 22 is the text for today. God came to Abraham with a horrible request. The God of promises became the God of the dreadful command.

“CHOOSE, Abraham! Choose ME or choose Isaac!”

What would YOU have done?

Abraham had made his choice decades ago. He would serve the Living God.

The next morning he got out of bed without arousing his dear wife. He called Isaac and they left the tent, gathered wood and headed toward Mount Moriah……a 3 day walk.

It must have been long for both of them; Isaac wondering why his father was so quiet, Abraham wondering what he had done to offend God. But neither of them looked back until they arrived, tied up the donkey and went to the top of the hill. Isaac carried the wood. Abraham carried only a knife.

The legacy of Abel lived on……Isaac expected a LAMB to be the sacrifice, and there wasn’t one. “Where is the Lamb,” he asked his father.”

“God will provide, my son,” Abraham answered. Isaac laid the wood on the altar he had built and Abraham tied Isaac up and laid him on the wood. Scripture records no dialog. Abraham wasn’t going to argue with God as he had done several times earlier. He knew arguing with God wasn’t an option.

WHAT, Abraham must have wondered, would happen? What would become of the PROMISE? Who would crush Satan’s head? It all seemed to be coming to an end on the altar of Mt. Moriah.

Doesn’t your mind become cluttered with “what if’s” at this point? Mine has, quite often!
– What if Abraham offered his own substitute?
– What if Abraham had chosen his son and not his God?
– What if Isaac had taken off running?
– What if Abraham had told his son it was his idea, not Gods?
– What if Isaac had seen his father’s hand tremble, even for a second?

Would there be bargaining with God? No! There would be no “what if’s.” Faith came first and faith was foremost. Aware of the loneliness that would follow; aware of the ending of the promise, Abraham’s hand was poised for the blow.

“Abraham! Abraham!” An angel intervened at the very last opportunity.

Faithful no matter what…..Abraham passed His Lord’s test.

The angel pointed to the ram, the male sheep, caught by its horns in the brambles of the hilltop. Imagine Isaac’s relief as he helped his father tie the lamb onto the same firewood that still held his imprint? As he saw the flames leap and rejoiced he wasn’t in them?

When their worship was over, Abraham named the place, “Jehovah-Jireh; God will provide.” I’m sure Isaac didn’t argue with him.

Abraham is the father of all who are faithful to God; first of the Jewish tradition and finally of the Christian faith as well. His story has been told for millennia: his faithfulness has never been missed, the lamb has always been there……a substitute sacrifice provided by God for God’s people to go on living in God’s promise.

Last week we talked “TYPES,” shadows of things to come.
There is shadow…..then there is substance.
There is type……….then there is reality.

What are the lessons of the Lamb on the Mountain?

Let no man, ever in time, forget that God is perfect….and that we are sinners. One cannot abide the presence of the other: my sin, God’s righteousness…..they are mutually exclusive. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul would write to the Romans….and the Virginians.

Aren’t we all Isaacs…..doomed by the perfection of God and His demands that we too be perfect? Isn’t that what Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount? (Matt 5: 48) Isn’t God as Good as His Word?

But there is a Lamb on the Mountain…..caught in the bushes. He has become entangled in the terrible arms of the wood of the cross; a substitute has been offered on the altar before God, crucified to carry my sins and your sins straight to hell.

Better them…… than us. Bet HIM than me…. or you.

The Lamb is bound by nails……offered in unending obedience; the Son’s offering to the Father……and as a result, we are set free. We are loosed from what binds US.

Some day some enterprising archeologist like Paul Maier may find the pillar of stones called Jehovah-Jireh. Until then, it will remain lost.

But the LAMB….. the LAMB that God provided, has NEVER been lost.

He is ours.

He is our Savior!

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matthew 5: 38-48

Part 6 in our study of the Sermon on the Mount

[audio:|titles=Paybacks are Tough]
For Terry Anderson, a reporter in Lebanon back in 1985, it started right after a game of tennis. He was just leaving the court when a group of Shiite Muslim terrorists who were angry at America for helping Israel, kidnapped him. For nearly 7 years he was chained to a wall in a dark and dirty cage. He was beaten. He stayed sick for years. He was tortured. Amazingly…..a purely “God Thing,” he was allowed to have a Bible, which he read over and over. Finally, after spending 2,455 days in captivity, he was released. The media asked him, “Can you ever forgive them?” Anderson said that the words of the Lord’s Prayer flashed through his mind, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” His response? “As I Christian, I must forgive them and I will forgive them, no matter how hard that seems.”

In Lancaster County Pennsylvania, October 2006, a gunman barricaded himself into an Amish schoolhouse filled with schoolgirls. He shot 10 of them, killing 5, before committing suicide. The American media seemed quite confused when the Amish community responded by refusing to express hatred for the shooter and by expressing love for his family.

In these two sections of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages His hearers to move into the deeper waters of discipleship with one statement: LOVE YOUR ENEMIES!

Let’s start with a very simple illustration. You are talking with someone and they SMACK you in the face. There are two possible options for you at that point. What are they? A) You hit them back. B) You DON’T hit them back. If you DO hit them back, THEY can hit you again or THEY can stop, but because they started it, they aren’t inclined to DO that, so they may hit YOU harder. At which point you might decide to hit THEM even harder…… do we see where this is leading? It’s not going to go anyplace good, is it? It won’t be too long before this spiral of violence gets someone very hurt or very dead.

Is that they way we want it to end? Maybe I shouldn’t have asked!

In verse 38 Jesus quotes three different Old Testament passages that sum up the condition of God’s Law at the time of Moses: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This didn’t mean people exchanged body parts when someone else got hurt….. it was a system where each offense had a cash equivalent that had to be paid out to hold offenders accountable. So “an eye’s worth of hurt” would only be worth an “eye’s full of vengeance.” No more. No less. It was a system designed with two goals in mind: to LIMIT the amount of vengeance someone might want and to LET people know there was a price to be paid for violence.

It was also, and this is important to remember, designed to apply to the government, NOT to individuals. God has and still gives governments the authority to keep order in society by establishing both Laws and systems of retribution for the breaking of those laws. That is the responsibility of the “Kingdom of the Left Hand,” of the governments under which we live. But just like the previous sections we’ve discussed already, people, even GOD”S PEOPLE, who live also in the Kingdom of the RIGHT HAND, the Kingdom of God, had gone so far as to take matters into their own hands…..even when it came to violence and vengeance.

Now comes Jesus who quotes this “law of equal retaliation” and then says, “Do not resist an evil person.” Then He gives four different illustrations:
If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other one to him too!
If someone wants to take your shirt, give him your coat.
If a Roman soldier orders you to carry his pack a mile, carry it TWO!
If someone begs from you, don’t refuse him.
All of these things we would do in a heartbeat for a friend. All of these things would come naturally there. But for our enemies? For those who hate us?

What is Jesus saying here? Is He telling us we have to be spineless doormats who roll belly up at the first sign of struggle in our lives? Is He saying we should give away all we have and not protect our families and our property? Are we supposed to ignore sin….and sinful behavior? Certainly NOT.

Once again Jesus is speaking to the condition of our hearts. Once again He is reminding us of the two great summaries of the Law: Love the Lord God with all our heart, soul and mind; and, we are to Love our neighbors as ourselves.

Step back, says Jesus, and focus your hearts and lives on the bigger picture of life. My people are to be SALT and LIGHT. My people are supposed to be noticeably different, says Jesus, than those who don’t know me.

How did Jesus go about DESTROYING the power of Satan in this world? He did this by voluntarily allowing Himself to go to the cross. It was one of the most amazing demonstrations of strength the world has ever seen. It wasn’t through weakness, not for a moment. When He was being questioned by the high priest, a servant slapped Jesus on the cheek. He doesn’t hit the man back but simply says, “If I was wrong, say so. But if I was right, you don’t have any reason to hit me.” With those words Jesus stopped one particular cycle of violence, not with weakness, but with strength.

Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount is that our reply to hatred, envy, slander or persecution should not be more hatred, envy, slander or persecution, but instead, our help, our love, our prayers, and our blessings. Revenge might feel good for the moment, but does it point people to Jesus? Is it showing love for our neighbor?

The Pharisees were the masters of the fine print of Jewish Law. In Luke 10 one of them asked Jesus to define “neighbor.” Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who was the neighbor? It was the Samaritan, people despised by the Jews, looked down on by them as their traditional enemies. Martin Luther summarizes it this way: Our neighbor is any human being, especially one who needs our help, even one who has done (me) some sort of injury or harm. (AE27:58)

If “everyone” is our neighbor, who are our enemies? Who are YOUR enemies? Can you bring to mind right now the one person in your life who gives you the most trouble, the most grief, the one who has caused you the most stress? Hold that face in your mind for a moment as we consider Jesus’ words to us; that we are to LOVE them.

It’s a very specific word that Jesus uses here. It’s not a word that evokes EMOTION, rather, it speaks to ACTIONS and ATTITUDES we are to have about “our enemies.” We are, Jesus says, to:
– pray for them.
– to be fair towards them and respectful to them.
– to treat them as if we DO love them, despite what they do to us!
Imagine God holding OUR faces in His mind, God who IS perfect, God who cannot tolerate sin. God who removed Adam and Eve from His presence because of their sin in Eden. How does God act towards us? In love….

In Romans Paul says that while we were still sinners, while we were in active rebellion against God, Christ died for us. That is true love….and that, Jesus says, is what I want you to extend to your “neighbors” and your “enemies.”

Still have that one, special person’s face in your mind’s eye? Are you asking WHY you should show love to someone who has given you so much grief?

There are at lot of good things that come to us through loving and forgiving our enemies. The first is a PHYSICAL benefit. When we’re upset with someone, it’s like poison runs through our bodies. Scientists have found that chronic anger and bitterness can be far worse for us than even a high fat diet! Anger can shorten our lives. One researcher studying Jewish holocaust victims found that those who adopted an attitude of forgiveness lived much longer and better lives than those who lived in bitterness.

Second, there is a RELATIONAL benefit. Proverbs 23 says that we are what we think. People who are angry too often turn into angry people, and they are no fun for anyone to be around. When we make a decision to return GOOD for evil, it’s like dropping the end of a rope in a tug-of-war……it ends the tension. It short circuits the flow of hostility. Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Love is the only power that can transform an enemy into a friend.”

There is also a SPIRITUAL benefit, and this is huge. Scripture says that our relationship with Jesus can be strengthened or weakened depending on our ability to love our enemies. It’s IMPOSSIBLE, dear friends in Christ, to allow the love of Jesus to flow into our lives when we stubbornly refuse to forgive someone. If your worship feels dull and empty; if you feel far from God this morning, you may wish to examine your attitude towards other people, especially that person I invited you to picture in your mind. By forgiving that person, you are freeing YOURSELF and closing the gap between yourself and God.

Finally there is a KINGDOM benefit to loving our enemies. What GOOD is it, Jesus says several times in this sermon, if you love your friends. BIG DEAL! Everybody does that….even unbelievers! There’s no salt there. There’s no light there. But when we, as people of the Kingdom of God, show love to those who hate us; when we offer forgiveness, people take notice.

NOBODY would have blamed Terry Anderson if he had wanted to bomb the terrorists. Nobody would have blamed the Pennsylvania Amish if they had withdrawn farther from society because an “outsider” murdered their girls. Nobody would have given that a second notice! But when God’s people offered grace, mercy and forgiveness, the world gasped……and asked WHY. They Asked HOW. This is what makes Christians different from other people. It’s doing what DOESN’T come naturally. It’s doing what isn’t EASY. It’s the quality of righteousness that outshines the false righteousness of the world.

It is this “above and beyond” kind of love that drove Jesus to the cross and drives us to love those who aren’t easy to love….and it is this kind of love that always points to Jesus. It always reflects God, whose very definition IS love (1 John 4).


Jesus ends this section by raising the bar as high as it can be set….”Be perfect, just like God is perfect.”

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Genesis 4: 4-16

Ash Wednesday 2011

Dear Friends In Christ, Gathered together wearing the “mark of the ash.”

All things, except for God, have a beginning…..a ‘genesis.’ Only God is eternal. Only God has always existed. God’s WORD begins with some very majestic words, ”In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He brought all things into existence, literally from nothing…..with a thought from His mind.
“Let there be light. Let there be heavens and the earth. Let there be the dry land and the seas. Let there be plants and swarms of living creatures.” God said it and it happened…..and, God looked at all of it and God saw that it was GOOD.

In this fantastic paradise God formed Adam and then Eve from the dust of the ground. He blew His breath into them and they became living souls; and it must have been incredible for them; walking with God in the Garden of Eden.

But there was also evil in the Garden, a fallen angel named Satan, intent on spoiling God’s creation and the lives of God’s created. He tempted them to doubt the authority of God and they “reached for the fruit” and fell into sin. God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness resulted in consequences: Satan was cursed, Adam and Eve were put out of the garden, and…..Good News…. God promised to right the wrong that had come into the world. In time, a Savior would be born.

A child WAS born, the first-born of Adam and Eve. They named him CAIN. Was he the One, the Savior? Adam and Eve wondered. Even Satan wondered; would this be his downfall? The one who would crush his head?

A second son was born…..and named ABEL. Cain tilled the soil. Abel tended the flocks. Can you imagine the boys listening to their parents’ stories of the Garden of Eden, of walking with God, of life in paradise? Cain and Abel must have LOVED those stories, but NOT the stories that led to their expulsion from the Garden. Those stories were not so easy to hear… would they play out? When would Satan meet his “head crusher?” Who would that be?

Abel grew up in the shadow of his older brother. He heard the same stories. He worked long hours taking care of the flocks, while Cain raised the crops. Both brothers worked hard and their labors produced wonderful results.

Whether God commanded them to bring thank-offerings or whether it was a spontaneous outpouring of their hearts we don’t know, but a day came when each brother brought some of the “fruit of their labor” to give thanks to God. It was the first act of worship in human history.

Cain gathered a basket of fruits from his trees and seeds from his fields.
Abel chose a lamb, the finest of his flock.

Both offerings were certainly fine. Both were likely equal in value. The difference wasn’t on the surface…..the difference was in the hearts of the givers.

Abel’s heart will filled with love for God. Abel was waiting and hoping for God’s promise to be fulfilled. Abel quietly laid his lamb on a simple altar, offered with prayers that the sins of his parents would be overcome by the love of their God in forgiveness. Prayers that God would fulfill His promise of redemption.

Cain brought his gifts with a different motivation, one that’s still common today: that God can be influenced by the gifts we bring to Him. Cain’s faith was surpassed by his pride and his self-importance. Cain’s faith was in himself.

God accepted Abel’s offerings……….but not Cain’s. It made Cain angry. His anger turned to hatred; his hatred hatched a plan; and the plan flowered into the killing of his brother. Cain became a metaphor for murder in the first degree; outcast and separated not only from his family but from his God.

The lamb in this story seems almost insignificant. After all, it wasn’t the content of the offerings that we remember, it was the content of the hearts. Abel holds the story for about 3 sentences; and then he’s gone. Cain’s story isn’t much longer. Neither of them will ever be mentioned again in the Old Testament; and only briefly in the New.

But the LAMB will play an ever-increasing role.

It was there, just outside the gate of the Garden of Eden, that the lamb was quietly placed on the first altar in the first recorded worship service. The LAMB will be in full focus when God brings his first prophecy into fulfillment. And the LAMB will be in full glory and splendor in the final pages of Scripture as St. John describes the climax of God’s creation.

That is the genesis of the lamb.

God uses “types” … another word for “symbols”…. In the Old Testament to foreshadow Christ, who would be the fulfillment of that Garden of Eden prophecy; the one to crush the head of Satan.

The brazen serpent of Moses, held high on the pole in the desert to save God’s people from the poison of the snakes, was a “Type” of Jesus.

So was Jonah, three days in the belly of the whale and then “rising again” to life.

It was the blood of thousands of lambs saved God’s people from the plague of death in Egypt. So the lamb was a “type” of Jesus, who was to come.

There came a day when John the Baptist DID come, telling people “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Then came that fateful night when the lamb of the Passover was placed on the table in the upper room, set before the Lamb of God Himself; the “type meeting the anti-type,” the shadow meeting the substance, the promise meeting the fulfillment.

And then, for Abel, for Cain, for Adam and Eve, Moses and Peter, for Caiphas and Pontius Pilate, for you and for me, came those hours on the cross when Christ, our Passover Lamb, offered HIMSELF up to God in sacrifice for our sins.

At the end of time we will be, if by grace we are still in the faith, a part of that great supper of “the Lamb and His Kingdom,” guests at His Feast of Victory!

Lent comes again this year, as quietly as that first lamb came to that first altar. And so Christ comes to us in this season as He came; quietly that first Christmas, in a stable outside Bethlehem. The Lamb came and continues to come, in His holy Word. The Lamb meets us in the waters of our Baptisms. And the Lamb feeds us in the Sacrament of the Altar.

We are “the people of the Lamb.” He created us…. ransomed us…. and will be OUR LAMB forever. Amen.

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Pastor Mark Nieting
Matt 5: 33-37

Sermon on the Mount, part 5

[audio:|titles=Simple Truth Telling]
Almost 300 years ago, in England, there lived a sea captain named Fudge. He became notorious for the amazing stories he told about his adventures on the seas, stories everyone KNEW were lies. Whenever his crew heard someone else tell a lie, they would yell “Fudge! Fudge!” Over time his name became the “dockside” word for, shall we say, “stretching the truth.” His fame spread to America, so that when someone heard a lie they would say, “You’re FUDGING!” And so it continues to be. Make a promise and go against it, what are you doing? Fudging! If you’ve made a budget with some “wiggle room,” what’s that called? (A Fudge factor!)

Let’s face it, right…..everybody ‘fudges’ once in a while, right? Everybody stretches or bends the truth, don’t they? Even if it’s just to make someone else feel good… know, the commercial where “Honest Abe’s wife asks him if the dress makes her look fat!” !) Even TIME magazine headlined an issue “Lying, Everybody does it!” In fact, just to level the playing field, if you have NEVER told a lie, never fibbed, never “fudged” or bent the truth even a tiny bit, raise your hand up high. Welcome to the Liar’s Club… won this one “hands down!”

In the Greatest Sermon ever preached, Jesus has been describing “life in the kingdom of heaven.” He’s pushed back all the “Pharisaical Fine Print” to emphasize the two great summaries of God’s Law: Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, your soul and your mind; and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. “Life in MY kingdom,” Jesus said, “reflects the condition of the heart.”

In this section Jesus addresses ‘truth-telling’ and oath-taking,’ things which certainly seem to go together, don’t they? We “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God” when we appear in court. If we insist on someone believing us we say stuff like “I swear I mean it!” which is supposed to more honest than just saying “I mean it!” We use expressions like “honest to goodness,” the ever-popular, “cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye,” and when we want to pull out ALL THE STOPS and make sure someone knows we are really telling the truth, we ”swear to God,” don’t we? Who would lie with that oath attached? “I SURE WOUDN’T, I SWEAR TO GOD!”

“Oath-taking” is mentioned 200 times in the Old Testament, going back as far as Abraham. It’s not that God’s people are forbidden from taking oaths; that’s certainly not the case in Scripture. The taking of oaths is nothing more than a simple admission that people tell lies! It’s a reflection of our sinful hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship page 152) says it this way: “The very existence of oaths is a proof that there is such a thing as lies. If lying were unknown there would be no need for oaths.”

Swearing oaths was as common in Jesus’ day as it is today. The intent has always been the same; to get people to tell the truth. But God also doesn’t want His name taken in vain, or used to back up a sin, so people, wisely, I believe, substituted other things in their oaths. They didn’t swear “by God,” they swore “by heaven” or “by Jerusalem” or “by the temple.” The closer the oath was related to God’s actual name, the more weight it had: kind of like the difference between swearing “on my mother’s grave” or swearing “on the grave of my third cousin, twice removed.” It’s obvious which has the weight…….and so once again, it became all about the fine print. If you swore “on the altar” it didn’t mean nearly as much as if you “swore by the gifts on the altar.”

In WC Field’s parlance, they were “looking for loopholes.” It was just another way to add “shades to the truth” while still appearing to actually TELL the truth.

How does Jesus address all this “fine print?” Just like He has with everything else in this sermon, but cutting to the chase and putting it all into one sentence: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no!” People in MY kingdom, Jesus says, are going to be people of honesty and integrity. If we live like this, there will never BE a need for oath taking, swearing, or promising on stacks of Bibles!

Do you know anyone who is as good as his or her word? Their yes is yes and their no is no! Those are people who STAND OUT from the crowds, don’t they?

It’s almost that joyous time when Little League begins, when boys and girls turn into baseball players and (some) parents turn into raving lunatics! The story is told about a 7 year old little leaguer named Tanner. He was known for telling the truth. (True story from S.I.) Tanner was playing shortstop one day. He scooped up a grounder, swiped his glove at the runner and the ump called “OUT!” Tanner stood still, looked at the ball, looked at the ump, and said, “I missed him.”
“What do you mean,” asked the ump? “I missed him,” said Tanner. “He’s safe!” So the ump called the runner safe. Imagine how THAT endeared Tanner to his own teammates.

Several weeks later; playoff game; same ump; same situation. Tanner scoops, tags, the ump calls the runner “Safe!” Tanner looked at the ball, looked at the ump, and then said quietly, “But I tagged him.” “What do you mean,” asked the ump? “I tagged him!” said Tanner. So the ump changed his call to OUT….and OUT stormed the coach of the other team, madder than a wet hornet, screaming, yelling, protesting… know how they get!

The ump told him what happened 2 weeks ago, and then said, “I know Tanner, and Tanner tells the truth.” Period. End of story. That’s what God wants His people to be like: people living in God’s LOVE and acting in love for each other. People of TRUTH. People of INTEGRITY. He wants us to be people who stand out from the crowd because of how we handle the truth in our lives.

How does this play out in our daily lives? We’re going to look at several different areas of living where the truth is prone to tampering; where our yes can take different meanings and our no might not be a no at all!

The first is in the area of regular, every-day relationships, the promises and commitments we make to our family and our friends. We may have the best intentions, but…..not always the best results. Ever said to someone “I’ll call you in a minute” and it took hours, if ever, for you to call them back? Ever said to your child, “I’ll play with you as soon as I get home” and it didn’t happen? What was the expression on those little faces when they realized you weren’t going to follow through on your promise? Ever said, “The check’s in the mail” and it was actually the truth???

It may not hurt when we’re on the “saying end,” but when we’re the one on the receiving end? When the nurse says ‘the doctor will be with you in just a moment’ and before he comes you’ve built Fort Knox out of tongue depressors? How many times have we been asked to pray for someone…..and said we would; and 2 weeks later when we see them across the Fellowship Hall we whisper, “God, please bless old Farquahr?” Ouch!

Every time we break even a casual commitment our credibility is diminished, trust is eroded, relationships are strained, and…..importantly, God is offended. And when we take it a step farther and begin to tell outright LIES, it gets even messier. Every time we tell a lie we have to keep score: to whom did I tell what lie, when I told it, who might know. So one lie is told, and then another, and another, until eventually we might not even be sure what the truth is ourselves! Sir Walter Scott said it this way, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” Lying may seem “convenient” at the time; it might keep you out of trouble for a while, but it never, ever turns out well. Even spiders can get caught in their own webs!

The second area of “truth-telling” for us as Christians is our business lives, our workday world. When we commit ourselves to working for a company, we commit ourselves to doing all we can do to the very best of our God-given ability. We are, after all, God’s representatives in all those different places. It’s God who has given us the job. It’s God who is honored by the tithes and offerings that come from our paychecks. We may well be the one connection our employers can make to Christ! Are we giving a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay? Are we following through with commitments and promises we make? Are we “looking for loopholes” and sliding by with the bare minimum……or have we committed ourselves to honesty and integrity? It may not always be easy to take the “high road,” but it’s God’s way.

The third area of “truth-telling” for us as Christians is in the “Kingdom Commitments” that we have made to God in various ways.
Every person who joins this congregation (at least since I’ve been here) has pledged to do the following seven things:
1. Attend worship regularly.
2. Lead a Christian life while not living in a manner that is offensive to the witness and example of the Christian faith.
3. Develop a pattern of sacrificial tithing to the Lord’s work.
4. Grow (in faith) through regular personal study and by participating in our Christian educational programs.
5. Discover and use your spiritual gifts to extend God’s Kingdom (serve).
6. Allow yourself to be admonished when you have erred.
7. Accord honor and love to those in congregational leadership.
Some of these I have struggled with over the years! Perhaps you have also?

For every child who is baptized here at Hope (and in every church), those parents take an oath before God to raise their children in the faith, bring them to Sunday School and confirmation classes, and teach them God’s Word. I made those promises for each of my children, and in some areas, my performance may have been “less than stellar?”

For every person married at a Christian altar the promises are made to love each other to death do us part. I failed on this one once….doing much better today!

Those are our Kingdom Commitments, promises made to God and to each other with the best of intentions……and I’m not reeling off these lists to put any of us on a “guilt trip,” but instead, to remind us that God IS the one who remains faithful when we fail. God’s “Kingdom Commitment” to us took Jesus all the way to the cross and the grave. God’s Kingdom Commitment to Jesus was renewed in His resurrection and extended to us as well. It’s God’s commitment that comes to each of us in Isaiah 15:9, when He says, “Then you will call and I, the Lord, will answer.” God is faithful and He is as Good as His Word. His YES is YES and His NO is NO…… even when ours……..well……turns to FUDGE at times.

Jesus simply asks us to be people who live by His word and keep OUR word. I’ll close today’s message with a short parable from the great theologian, Dr. Seuss, in his noted discourse, “Horton Hatches the Egg.” Horton promised to sit on Lazy Mazie’s egg, since Lazie Mazie doesn’t want to work that hard. The weeks go by with Horton balancing on the nest up the tree. His friends, who used to encourage him, make fun of him. Remember his response? “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant is faithful, one hundred percent!”

Our God is. Our Savior Jesus is. It’s our challenge, our goal and our blessing!


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The Heart is the Matter – Matt. 5:21-32
Pastor Cofer

[audio:|titles=The Heart is the Matter]
Last week we spent some time talking about how Jesus really expanded the definition of the “Law” from a complex system of “do’s” and “don’ts” to the far simpler and infinitely more demanding mandate of love. This week, that theme gets elaborated upon in some pretty specific and uncomfortable degree.

After all, He pretty much called all of us murderers and adulterers. You know, I’m getting a little disgruntled with this Jesus. He isn’t playing very nice. I mean, I thought Jesus was supposed to be loving and accepting. This Jesus seems so judgmental and… mean.

Or maybe he’s just being a little over the top to prove a point. Surely he can’t mean that being angry with someone would actually be a sin? I mean, I can’t help getting angry sometimes, and some people deserve to be told off, because that’s being honest. And Jesus wants me to be honest, right?

We all know better than that, don’t we? Jesus meant it when he said that harsh words and even harboring anger and condescension are the same as murder in your heart. But we try to minimize or rationalize away from that idea, and I think I know why…

Inside of me there is this little Pharisee that just insists that I am ultimately a good person. That little Pharisee likes to tell me that at the end of the day God loves me because I’m a pretty decent person, who doesn’t murder or sleep around or steal. That little Pharisee inside of me has a hard time buying into what Jesus is saying here.

I used to make sense out of this text by thinking that Jesus is making the Law so hard to obey that no one could do it. And if no one could do it, then everybody would need a savior. I’ve come to realize that that’s a very backward way of looking at it.

Jesus isn’t actually making the Law harder. He isn’t actually raising the bar on righteousness. Rather he’s actually just explaining the way things have always been. If that’s true, it sheds some light on the whole business of cutting off your hands and gouging out eyes.

Some people would say that we shouldn’t take Jesus seriously about all of that gruesome stuff, otherwise we’d have a whole lot of blind, handless Christians walking around. But you know what? I take Jesus to be quite literal in this passage. If it were as simple as losing a hand or an eye to keep from sinning, it would totally be worth it.

The trouble is, it isn’t my eyes or my hands that cause me to sin. Those are the tools I use to sin, but the cause of sin is my heart.

That’s not to say that sin doesn’t have consequences in the real world. It definitely does. After all, if you have been harboring hatred in your heart, that’s just like murder right? Well, they are the same sin, but the consequences of each are different. You can’t say, “Well I’ve killed him in my heart already, why not go ahead and actually kill him?” But both the murderer and the one who hates are subject to judgment before God, and the penalty for each is the same.

Now, if you are the type of person who always thought of yourself as generally good (and certainly better than the more flagrant sinners and criminals of the world), this message comes across as bad news. If you think you’ve got it all together, then you’ve got another thing coming. But what if you are one of those folks who sees yourself as a mess? What if you don’t think too highly of yourself? What if you aren’t one of the “good people?” Then maybe the distance between you and the religious folks isn’t so far after all.

If sin resides principally in the heart, then who could possibly judge anyone but themselves? Who could say that the Pharisee is righteous or that the Tax Collector is wicked? Only God can see the hearts of men, so only God can judge.

Indeed, if sin resides in the heart, then I only have the ability to judge one person: myself. No wonder Jesus is so firm in his prohibition that even calling your neighbor a fool is as grave a sin as murder. It is no less than idolatry, because to do that means to put yourself in God’s place. Rather, the right thing to do is to seek reconciliation.

Think about it: Jesus said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Now, let’s say that today we were going to take Jesus at His word. How many of us would be able to put an envelope in the offering plate?

Jesus is making a strong point here: until you get your heart straight, until you let God be God, your worship will be strained. It doesn’t work to work on your relationship with God to the exclusion of the very people He is calling you to love.

It’s not about being a people-pleaser. Jesus certainly wasn’t that. It’s about being honest about our sinfulness – deeds, words, and even thoughts – and seeking reconciliation. We see a beautiful picture of that in action between Jesus and Peter.

You’ll recall that when Jesus was about to be arrested, Peter emphatically told Jesus that he would die before he ever denied Jesus. And yet, as soon as Jesus is handed over to trial Peter denies Him not once, but three times. Three times Peter publicly rejected the title of “Christian.” If I were in a place to judge Peter, I’d have said he had no faith and there’s no way he was going to be saved.

It’s a good thing I’m not the judge. Because Jesus (who had every right to turn his back on Peter) instead restored him to his place as a disciple – not once, but three times. That is the kind of attitude that we are called to. We are to be honest with ourselves about our own sinfulness, but we are also to be merciful with others who sin against us.

Sin and righteousness: they both begin in the heart. That’s what makes the cycle of repentance and forgiveness so transformative. Christ fulfills our pleas to “create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.” That inside-out change is the gift we receive because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As for the little Pharisee living inside of me… well… I’m encouraging him to move out so Jesus can remodel my heart.

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