Judas or Peter

I’ll be honest with you. I’m not feeling all that inspired this morning as I plink away at the keyboard to write my weekly eNews. Of course there are plenty of things happening, so there should be something worth observing and then sharing for the benefit of others.

I’m definitely an observer. I’m always watching. Well, that sounded a little creepy, didn’t it? Perhaps a better way to say it is that I’m always sorting. I’m always taking in as much of what’s going on around me as I can, and as I process it, I’m sorting it. I’m putting it into categories of thought.

But I’m not the only one who does this. You do it, too. We all do. In my case, after everything has been processed, the written word is its regular release valve.

But this morning, I’m sort of disinterested in opening the valve. And yet, here we are. I’m typing anyway. You’re reading. Now what?

I’ve established this regular duty that has blossomed into an expectation. That’s what. A good number have come to expect something from me by this eNewsletter every week all year long, and so now it is my responsibility to persevere—to filter my disinterest away and get the job done.

Maybe that’s where this free-thinking ramble is leading—to the topic of perseverance.

I don’t know about you, but I experience those times in my life where my resolve seems somewhat flimsy, my courage is minimal, and my strength feels as though it’s waning. Sometimes things are silent and dark, and I’ll catch myself mumbling beneath a breath, “I can’t go on.”

Everyone has those moments.

As I type this, what immediately comes to mind is a discussion we had in the Adult Bible study here at Our Savior a couple of weeks ago. We talked about how as human beings, when it comes to a right understanding of our Sin and what actually justifies us before God, we can find ourselves teetering at the edge of two categories of personality: Judas and Peter.

Both of these disciples found themselves steeped in the thickest mires of atrocious betrayal. Judas sold the Lord to His enemies. Peter denied association with Him, even calling down divine curses upon himself in order to mask his lies. Face to face with Jesus in both circumstances, who can survive such an act of deliberate dreadfulness against the one true God?

Judas gave up and is no more. But Peter persevered and was restored to the brethren.

What gives?

Faith in the all-availing sacrifice of Christ. Faith in the One whose love is greater than our betrayals. That’s what.

I don’t always know where I am in any given moment on the timeline. The darkness swirls. The headwinds are strong. I’ll say I can’t go on. But by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ, I’ll know I can. I’ll know I must—and not because my relationship with Him requires that I earn my way back into His graces, but because He loves me. That love changes things completely. I must go on.

I mentioned in the sermon two weeks ago that I never usually go in the “what this means to me personally” direction while preaching, but I did anyway that day. Pondering the “Good Shepherd” text from John 10, I mentioned that from everything we’d heard from all of the readings combined (Psalm 23; Ezekiel 34:11-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25; John 10:11-16), the most meaningful part for me as an individual was the real, down in the trenches context in which the Word of God was leading. Side by side, the texts communicated that Jesus is truly the only One who can look upon me in my dreadful, filthy, ungrateful, and wandering state and still love me so incomparably that He would tuck me into His arm while He fights off the circling wolf packs of Sin, Death, and the Devil. Knowing that these monsters have been defanged through the person and work of Jesus Christ, my resolve becomes sturdier. My courage begins to overtake my fears. My strength returns. I can persevere.

I learn and relearn a valuable lesson each time I find myself despairing for the strength to take another step. I learn that for the Christian, perseverance doesn’t emerge from within any one of us. It comes from the outside. It’s given to us and then worked within us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. With that, perseverance becomes synonymous with faith. Christians persevere—we press forward even when pressing forward seems foolish—because our eyes are on Christ. He has our trust.

“I can’t go on,” I’ll sometimes say.

“Yes, you can,” the powerful Gospel for faith always replies. “Look. There’s Jesus. He’s already broken through the enemy’s fiercest strongholds. Do you see His cross? And His empty tomb? He’s made a way through. The ramparts are crumbling. The opposing forces, while they remain fiercely vicious, they are in disarray and are weakening. Get back in behind Him and follow. He more than has you in His care.”

Study the Word and You’ll See

I mentioned yesterday after worship that because I’d spent a good portion of last week trying to adjust to a new medication, I didn’t actually get to the meat of the sermon writing process until early Sunday morning. That rarely happens, but when it does, I don’t like it. I don’t like it because I don’t feel as prepared with the text, at least not as prepared as I think a preacher should be. Still, I used the time I had at my disposal, and I kept close to a more simpler pace of just observing the scene in the text and then being what I am as a Christian man—someone who is excited to know Christ, a witness who wants to tell you what I’ve seen and heard, a friend who wants very much to introduce you to Jesus. Working from this perspective, the task of preaching is really rather eventual. It has a way of coming alive. It has a way of becoming otherworldly and beautiful, and it has the potential for causing anyone to feel a little like Andrew running to tell his brother Peter, or Philip running to tell Nathaniel, “I have found the Messiah!”

But this reminds me of something else, too, and a guy by the name of O.C. Edwards poked at it when he wrote: “When you come right down to it, the idea that the most exciting message the world has ever heard can be presented in a way that makes it sound old hat and dull is mind boggling. There are probably only two circumstances under which that could happen. First, we are uninteresting, or second, we find the gospel uninteresting. In either case, something ought to be done about it.”

Truth be told, he’s talking about those who are called to preach. Nevertheless, I think his words still resonate for all Christians in a practical way, especially as the Church finds herself more and more immersed in a culture of religiosity where the Gospel is just one thing among many things, and often considered as not all that important in comparison. To say it another way, Christians are not immune to portraying to the world that we like the Gospel, but we don’t necessarily love it. When this is true, it affects the way we communicate Christ to others.

Maybe another, more practical way to think about this would be to consider something that Richard Hays, a New Testament professor at Duke Divinity School, once said about one of his former professors, Alvin Kernan:

“When I was an undergraduate at Yale University, students flocked to Alvin Kernan’s lecture courses on Shakespeare… Even though it was the late 1960s and we were living in an atmosphere charged with political suspicion and protest, none of this overtly impinged on Kernan’s lectures. Kernan was not a flashy lecturer. What, then, was the draw? He loved the texts.”

In other words, Kernan was an expert on Shakespeare, but being an expert didn’t make him a productive communicator of Shakespeare. Hays sheds a little more light:

“His teaching method, as I remember it, was simply to engage in reflective close readings… delineating their rich texture of image and metaphor and opening up their complex themes – moral, philosophical, and religious. Often, Kernan would devote a significant part of his lecture time to reading the text aloud, not in a highly dramatic manner, but with sensitivity to the texts’ rhythms and semantic nuances. I would often sit in class thinking, “Oh, I hadn’t heard that in the text before.” And I would leave the class pondering the problems that Shakespeare addressed: love, betrayal, fidelity, sacrifice, death, and hope.”

Quite simply, Kernan was in love with and devoted to the texts of Shakespeare. When he wasn’t teaching Shakespeare, he was reading Shakespeare and enjoying it for himself, and this directly affected his telling of the story to others.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). I’m sure I’ve shared with you before that the word Jesus uses in the Greek for “keep” is one that relays a defense of something considered to be invaluable and most precious. Considering this, while at the same time knowing that by faith, a Christian is in the deepest of loves with the One who spoke the words, we learn something very important.

And here’s where I’m going to suggest that you follow Kernan’s example and immerse yourself in the study of something you love…

Consider joining the Sunday morning adult Bible study because regular study of the Word of God is crucial!

Now, don’t stop reading here. Keep going.

Through the study of God’s Word, not only is the Christian fed from the divine wellspring that gives true wisdom for salvation, but there’s another product of the effort that many might overlook, and it’s that it provides a depth for a multitude of discussions. And when one is truly prepared, one is much more confident and convincing. Again, what I mean is that there’s a genuine difference between someone who knows about the Ark of the Covenant and someone who has spent time in the Word admiring its golden dimensions. There’s a difference between someone who knows about the Israelites being pursued by Pharaoh and someone who, through deliberate study of God’s Word, has had the opportunity to be led in a way that sees the fear in the Israelites’ eyes and feels the quaking ground—the rocks trembling and the dust rising—as Pharaoh’s army charges toward them in pursuit. There’s a difference between knowing the story of the feeding of the five thousand and being so aware of the implications of the event that one can begin to hear the rumbling stomachs of the hungry crowd and be concerned. It’s one thing to say so nonchalantly, “Yeah, Jesus died on the cross,” but it’s something altogether different to study Saint Paul’s words regarding the depth of the event, and by this, to be led to envision the blackened clouds of darkness and to feel the stern breezes casing the scene at Golgotha. I could go on and on, telling you how Easter is just one thing that happens every year for so many Christians, and yet for those immersed in the study of God’s Word, it is an emotionally jostling celebration that sees the absolute unexpected become reality—Sin and Death have been done away with forever—and it’s a reality that applies to us right now!

Like I said, I could go on and on about this stuff, but I suppose I’ve already written way more than most people might be willing to read. With that, I pray that you’ll take these words to heart and that you’ll think about joining the adult study on Sunday. My words are given here in love as they are given from someone who, like Andrew and Philip, has met the Messiah and truly wants for you to meet Him, too.

The Experts Have Nothing on Jesus

Common sense often has very little to do with the Christian faith.

Here’s what I mean.

If you recall the text from Luke 5, the fishing night, the time when fishing would be accomplished successfully had passed. Jesus had traveled to Lake Gennesaret (which is also the Sea of Galilee). He’s been followed by crowds of people pressing in around Him, and as the text says so succinctly, they are doing this because they want to hear the Word. It’s there by the shore that Jesus meets Peter, along with James and John. They’re fishermen, and they’re calling it quits just as He approaches—washing their nets and packing up their boats and tools with nothing to show from a long night of work.

Jesus climbs into Peter’s boat and asks him to push out into the shallows. Strange, and as I chatted about it with Pastor Heckert last week when I went to visit him at home, perhaps even rude, especially knowing that Peter had been fishing all night. Most likely he was tired, and if he’s anything like the rest of us (and I know he is), he just wanted to go home and rest.

But so strangely, Peter doesn’t resist Jesus’ request. Perhaps out of respect for the Rabbi, he does what he asks. No big deal. What’s another hour, right?

With that, Jesus preaches to the people, and as He concludes, He turns to Peter and his assistants and stretches the boundaries of their hospitality a little further. Jesus tells Peter to let down the nets into the deep water for a catch. It’s at this point in the story that I can almost hear Peter give out a sigh as he thinks, “Wait a minute. I’m tired. We’re tired. We worked all night and caught nothing. The best time for fishing has long since passed, and with that, we’re done. And you saw us packing up and cleaning our nets, right? Do you honestly expect us to go through the trouble of dragging them out and casting them again, especially during the most inopportune time to fish? Don’t you realize what a colossal failure that would be?”

A colossal failure. Sounds and feels very familiar to me. Why? Because I’ve had my share. And I often find myself convinced that with a little bit of common sense, I can avoid future failures by doing this or that. In one sense that’s true. But in another, it couldn’t be any further from the truth.

This carries us back to what Pastor Heckert preached with regard to the power of the Gospel. As believers—people converted and convinced by the Gospel—we are those who live and die trusting in the powerful Word of Jesus of Nazareth, who, when He speaks, does not give empty words even as we recognize that His Word won’t always jive with what we are thinking needs to be done in a particular situation. You, the people of this congregation, are living proof to this wonderful trust. So often you continue in Holy Worship—Sunday after Sunday—no matter what the secular world may try to tell you, no matter how tired you are from the previous day’s efforts, no matter what common sense might urge as a better use of your time and resources. You are here because the Gospel Word of Jesus has power and it has changed you. It is for you the greatest story ever told, and it is message of hope and deliverance you can trust even when it seems to drive us toward scenarios where we are to drop the nets in the deep waters when common sense and experience tells the experts there won’t be any fish.

The Gospel had this very same effect on Peter. He’d been carried to a point where it would have made sense for him as the fishing expert to seize control of the situation and advise the Lord in a better way. But he’d heard the preached Word of the Gospel before Jesus called for the impossible. Peter, a man who had been cultivated by Jesus’ preaching, could not end his sentence to Jesus about the long day and the cleaning of the nets with a response of refusal. Instead, he says so simply, “We have fished all night and caught nothing… but at Your Word, I will let down the nets.”

And then we watch Peter very closely. We watch what the world would call foolishness. Peter will trust the Lord, and he will witness the catch of fish and then he will fall to his knees in confession, asking the Lord to leave his presence because Simon is a sinful man and unworthy of being near Him. And still, thanks be to Jesus, He doesn’t agree to Peter’s common-sense advice. Instead, He stays with him and absolves him, “Do not be afraid, Simon. From now on, you will be a catcher of men!” In other words, you are forgiven, and now by the power of the Holy Spirit in this same Gospel, you will preach a Word that matches the backward events of this day. You will preach the powerful Gospel of Christ crucified!

It wasn’t that many years ago that someone warned me that this church and school, like so many other churches and schools, would almost certainly be closing her doors in six months. But here we are many years after the prediction. Sure, we have our struggles, but one thing is for sure…

The so-called experts have nothing on Jesus.

Even better, when I think on these things, I’m glad that this particular reading from Luke 5 occurs during the leaner summer months. I need to hear it and remember. I’m even more satisfied that it lands near the beginning of the church’s annual budget cycle. This reading is a Gospel-filled encouragement to continue in faithful stewardship with the gifts the Lord provides, trusting Him and seeking only faithfulness to Him, even as the world around us continues to tell us that we need to do this and that, to use the Law to frighten and bring guilt and shame to motivate givers and attenders. The Lord doesn’t say that kind of stuff. Instead, by His Word He preaches, “Keep Word and Sacrament in this place, and keep it pure. That’s what makes Christians. From that, be strengthened, be patient and teach my people to be Christians. Raise them up by the Gospel of forgiveness that they may know not only the joy of giving back to the One who gave everything for them, but they may know My love, that they would share this love, that they would seek first the Kingdom in all things, and they would be with Me in the eternal joys of paradise.”

So, with that, I say “Thanks be to God that there are Christians in this place, who when their trust is called ‘foolish,’ their first inclination is to smile and say innocently, “You should read Luke 5, because so is fishing in broad daylight in the deep water.”

At Your Word, dear Jesus, I will continue to trust you even when it doesn’t make sense. And by the power of the Holy Spirit through Your Gospel, I will let down my net for a catch.