Ascension Thursday

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Painting of Jesus Ascending into Heaven

Jesus’ ascension to heaven depicted by John Singleton Copley, 1775

On this Ascension Day, we celebrate that Jesus is not dead. It’s not just that He was once raised from the dead … but that He was resurrected, appeared to His disciples and many others, then was visibly taken up into heaven where He still resides today! Acts chapter 1 records for us:

“After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”(Acts 1:9)

What a marvel it would have been to behold!  You can understand the disciples’ jaw-dropping awe as they stared up long after He was out of their sight.  (As an aside, we use the word “awesome” in so many lesser ways, don’t we?  This would have truly been an awe-inspiring moment!)  It’s no wonder that the men/angels/messengers looked at them and said:

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? …” (Acts 1:11a)

But here’s the part that not only inspires awe in us, but creates HOPE … the men continue:

“… This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11b)

Because Jesus did not stay dead, but was resurrected and ascended into heaven and is still living and reigning on His throne, at the right hand of the Father … and because He promised to return again, we have hope.  It’s as if we are living in the blink of eternity between Christ’s ascension and His return – which will be like a “reverse ascension” … He will return in the same way, visibly in the clouds.  Speaking of this event, Jesus himself said:

“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” (Mark 1:26)

And the Apostle John’s records his vision of this event in the book of Revelation this way:

“Look, he is coming with the clouds,” and “every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”; and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.” So shall it be! Amen. (Revelation 1:7)

Which is why we Christians are so adamant about telling people about Jesus – He lives. He reigns.  He will return!

As some have said, “it was Christ’s last command, so it ought to be our first concern.”  The very last words of Matthew’s gospel are what have been called the Great Commission – Jesus sending us into the world to make disciples:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

And ending where we began, Jesus last words to His disciples just before He ascended were:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

So this Ascension Day is all about witnessing and hope.  We have hope that Jesus is still alive!  And we have hope that Jesus will one day return to make all things right, and new.  And because of this, we witness to others what His life, death, resurrection, ascension and imminent return mean to everyone. We want this same hope for others … and so we tell of this great news – Jesus is not dead, He is alive and reigning on His throne in heaven!

When He returns will you welcome Him?

Spiritual Battles …

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We love superheroes don’t we?  I recently dressed up as “Pastor America” and visited the little kids at our school.  They were duly impressed.

It’s interesting that the world so readily latches onto the idea of someone stronger, faster, and more powerful than us who can step in battle the evil villain.  Whether it’s Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Marvel or whatever… we seem to be insatiable when it comes to dreaming about this battle of good vs. evil – and in particular, the power of good to rescue us from the power of evil.  Where’s that come from?  It’s actually rooted in Truth. In History. In Reality.  In the Bible.  Spielberg, Lucas and the others get this idea from the Bible, whether they realize it or not.

The Apostle Paul warns the Christians at Ephesus, and us.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 6:12

In other words, we are in a spiritual battle – whether we like it or not. The challenge for us is that we often dismiss the spiritual realm altogether.  We buy into the greatest trick of the devil as he attempts to convince us that he does not exist.  And if we do believe in a spiritual realm, often we just don’t know what to make of the demonic side of that spiritual realm.  We don’t want to overemphasize the activity of demons and spiritual forces of evil, such that we blame “the devil” for the fact that our bank balance is low, for example.  But we can’t dismiss the fact that the devil and his demons are real and are active causing trouble in our lives – especially because we are believers in Christ. (See: 1 Peter 5:8)

The Bible gives us so many warnings about how the enemy:

  1. tempts us to sin,
  2. distracts us from God’s will,
  3. and inflicts suffering.

Speaking to the young pastor Timothy, the Apostle Paul warns that some of the people in his church had fallen into the “trap of the devil” and that he had “taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:26).  This doesn’t mean that the devil possessed those believers, but that he had set traps for them, and they walked into those traps, unwittingly doing the will of the devil.

An interesting thing about our sin is that God uses our sin to get us to repent and turn to Him.  He desires to restore our relationship with Him as He forgives our sin.  The devil, on the other hand, uses our sin to cause us to distance ourselves from God in shame, and even turn away from belief in God, turning to false religions.  Paul told Timothy The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. – 1 Tim. 4:1.

Finally, while I believe the devil cannot possess Christians who have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, through faith and baptism (see: Acts 2:38-39, 1 Corinthians 6:19), I do believe that he can harass and oppress Christians, and that he readily does.  Scripture is full of stories showing the activity of the forces of evil against believers and unbelievers alike.  (See Matthew 17:15-18).

But what we always see in Scripture is that God is more powerful than the devil.  Jesus is always able to cast out the evil spirits (Matthew 17:18).  They must always obey Him!  In fact, they recognized Jesus and His authority over them before even Jesus’ own disciples did! (see Mark 1:24).

The demons are well aware of the power of the Son of God over them.  The question is are you?  Do you realize how powerful the Name of Jesus is over any power of the devil or darkness?  Do you realize the miraculous authority over darkness that you possess as a follower of Jesus who bears His Name?

When people at our church are baptized, we give them a candle lighted from the flame of the candles on the altar.  We tell them that this light symbolizes the Light of Christ that has come into the world … and the Light that they now carry into the world as a follower of Jesus.  What I don’t think we often realize is just how powerful that Light is over the darkness.

Friends, if you and I are in a spiritual battle – that cannot be fought with flesh and blood.  Then the only way we can “take our stand against the devil” (Ephesians 6:10-18), is to call upon the Name and the power of Jesus.  This is the authority that is given to us, and which we take up when we put on the Armor of God.

Imagine a frail elderly person who has been commissioned as a crossing guard at an elementary school.  They do not possess the power within themselves to stop a moving car or truck. (Nor does any mere mortal, for that matter.) But the stop-sign that they have been given in their role as crossing guard gives them the authority to stop those moving vehicles.  They simply hold up the stop-sign, and the operators of the vehicle recognize their authority and stop.

It’s the same with demons and the devil.  When you and I call upon the Name and the authority of Jesus, the powers of darkness must obey! 

What spiritual battles are you facing right now?  Don’t be surprised if that relationship struggle, or that challenge at work really has an invisible spiritual battle being waged underneath – a battle for your inner peace and joy, if not for your very faith.  Don’t let the enemy trick you into trying to win that battle in your flesh.  Do what you can in the earthly realm, for sure.  But turn over the spiritual battle to Jesus and His angels to fight in the spiritual realm on your behalf.

In the Name of Jesus,

Pastor Augie.

If you’d like to hear my recent sermon on “Miracles of Deliverance,” click here.

A Faith That Works

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Faith with Works PowerPoint Sermon

Speaking as someone who is celebrating a birthday this month I can say that often it feels better to say that I’m “maturing” rather than getting older. Of course when I was younger being mature still sounded like being old. So I guess there’s no way around it the two sort of mean the same thing. And yet they don’t.

We must admit that it’s possible to grow older but not necessarily to mature. I think we all know those people who are up and age but never outgrew the immaturity of their youth. Maturity is also not the same as experience.  It’s been said that a person may have 20 years of experience – but that just may mean they’ve had one year of experience 20 times over.  In other words, they are not necessarily learning from their experiences; they are just repeating the same mistakes over and over.  Maturity, however, learns from its experience.

Maturity also has nothing to do with our achievements or academic degrees. A person may accomplish a number of things or have a string of letters behind their name and still be immature.  I am sure we all know someone like this.

So what is maturity? And in particular, what is spiritual maturity? That is what we are going to be discussing the next few months at Redeemer by the Sea as we go through the book of James verse by verse. James is one of those books that you love to hate and you hate to love. James pulls no punches. He says so many things that we need to hear, but do not want to hear.  The Apostle says things like:

  • “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” – James 1:2
  • “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” – James 1:22
  • “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” – James 2:10
  • “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” – James 2:17
  • “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you” – James 5:1

Even Martin Luther struggled with the book of James because it could be taken out of context to emphasize works over faith.  However Martin Luther understood that faith and works must go together just as the Apostle James says. And so we are embarking on a three-month Journey seeing and understanding our faith to be one “that works.”  This is a catchy phrase that reminds us that a true faith does good works but also that the kind of faith the Christian is to have must actually work in their life.

And the faith that we profess in Jesus Christ does work. It works to form us into the image and likeness of God’s Son. Our faith creates believers who understand that we live in a sinful and broken world that will cause us trouble and give us challenges but though these may test our faith, our faith can withstand them – and even find joy in the struggles of life.

A mature faith is one that understands that even if our neighbor is our enemy, we still can have love for them, and desire for them to repent and return to the Lord.  A mature faith understands that the words that come out of our mouth, represent what is in our heart. And so as our faith matures, we will desire to serve others rather than self.  We will grow in patience and prayer as we wait for the Lord’s return.

Perhaps it’s fitting that we begin this journey as the Summer Olympics begin in Rio de Janeiro. Just as an Olympic athlete trains tirelessly to grow in their skill for the Games, we too as Christians must “work” to train our faith up to maturity – to be more Christ-like.  There is much to unpack in the book of James!  It will take us a few months to get through it, and ultimately it will take a lifetime in order to mature.

Growing in Christ,

Pastor Augie.

Godly Wisdom in the Worldly World

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1 Corinthians 2:14 “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”

Do you realize that as God’s baptized people, we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us? (Romans 8:11)  At times, I’ve had people resist and even deny this clearly Scriptural concept, and yet it is true – we are meant to be “God containers” within this world!  Humbling, isn’t it?  Sadly, I have been guilty – with more frequency than I care to admit – of ignoring the Spirit that is within me, and forging ahead with my own fleshly desires.  These may be outright sins, or they may even be “good” intentions of serving God, but they really have no basis in God’s Spirit.  Rather they are more about my own pride and fears. Ouch.  So what’s the solution?  Simple – say “no” to the wisdom and pace of the world, and spend time with God in His Word and Sacraments, where your soul, and the Spirit within you is nourished and fed.  It is only then that we can hope to bring Jesus into our family, church, community and world – not by our will, but by the Holy Spirit at work within us.

Blessed to be a blessing,

Pastor Augie

God is Closer Than You Think

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That’s right … He is even next door!

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ – Matthew 25:40

This is an exciting time for Redeemer!  And this month it seems that two themes are coming together in an interesting way.  The first is our church’s vision for Redeemer to be “a church family joining Christ in our community.” The second, appears unrelated, but as I will point out, is actually much related: this month’s message series called “God Is Closer Than You Think.” It’s based on a book by John Ortberg, and the premise of the book is that God has “broken” into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, and He promises to remain with us in this world even though bodily He has risen and ascended into heaven.  It is through His Holy Spirit, that He remains with us in presence even though our eyes cannot see Him.

Who among us is not thrilled that Jesus has given us God’s Holy Spirit to dwell within us through our baptism?  The question I am posing for us to consider is, can we see God’s Holy Spirit present and at work outside of us? … even in our community? I believe Jesus has told us that He is. In fact you’ve probably heard me say at one time or another that “God is always at work.” This is something that we are counting on as we set out to accomplish our vision and goals this year – to discover God at work in our community.  That means then that we need not dream up our own activities that attempt to do God’s work, but rather we simply observe what He has begun and is already doing in our midst and join Him there!  If we are going to be about looking for where God is present and at work, perhaps the best place for us to look is in the lives of our neighbors.

Jesus told Parables to His disciples often having to do with neighbors. Perhaps the most memorable is that of the Good Samaritan where the question was asked of Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus pointed out that our neighbor is the one to whom we show love.  He confirms this in another setting: Matthew 25 – only this time He does not speak in a parable, but uses plain language.   Jesus tells His disciples that when Judgment Day comes, He will be concerned about how we have showed love to “the least of these.” Why does this matter to Jesus?  Because, He says, when you loved them, you were loving Him.

I think it is no accident that our vision emphasis for the year is to join Jesus as He works in our community, and now our first message series following Easter has to do with looking for the presence of God in our lives. I believe Jesus wants us to discover that He is present and at work in the very people around us that we are seeking to reach and serve with the Gospel!  Whom might Jesus be directing you to reach and serve with the message and love of Christ?  You might be surprised … you may also discover that God is at work in your life through them too!

I recently read a book where the author pointed out that an important part of spiritual growth and even conversion to faith, comes through what he calls “providential relationships.” The idea being that when people tell their faith stories, they invariably include the work of Jesus that they saw in another person. It may be a couple who just “showed up” in their lives, or a person that talked to them about Jesus, or a teacher that really opened the Scriptures to them.  Whatever the case, there was a relationship where they felt the love of Jesus coming through.  And the thing is, you and I cannot manufacture these relationships … but we can work to create “margin” in our lives for these relationships to form.

It’s my goal and prayer that we continually ask these complementary questions:

  • How can I join Jesus where He is already working in my neighbors’ lives? And
  • How is Jesus revealing himself to me in His Word and the people and circumstances around me?

I’m increasingly viewing our world as not just a “waiting room” to get into heaven, but rather a place where Heaven has broken through, and a place that Jesus is already transforming by his grace. You do not need to wait until you die to be in the presence of God. He is closer than you think.

I hope that you’ll join us for the rest of this message series, and that together we will be used by God to bring His love and salvation to the people we meet along life’s way!

Joining Jesus on His mission with you,

Pastor Augie.

A Switch and a Dimmer

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Switch and Dimmer image

Illustration of Justification and Sanctification

A while back an image formed in my mind that I thought would be helpful in illustrating an important theological concept.  The image is that of an electrical circuit; one containing both a switch and a variable resistor.  The theological concept that it illustrates is that of the distinction between “justification” and “sanctification.”

People, even theologians, often confuse the two.  This can be frustrating at best, or at worst it can obscure God’s gift of salvation.  This simple electrical concept makes a good analogy because you’ve likely seen it at work already in your own home.  A variable resistor is known in more common terms as a “dimmer switch.”  Whereas a simple switch only allows you to turn a light on or off, a dimmer allows you to make your lights bright or dim to your liking.   How can this example from electronics help illustrate the theological concepts of justification and sanctification?  To understand, let’s turn to the Bible …

  1. The act of God forgiving a person who has sinned, by their faith in the righteous life, suffering and death of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21) on their behalf is called “justification.” Read Romans 3:22-24. It clearly states that we all fall into this category, but it is God’s grace alone through the work of Jesus Christ that entitles us to be saved-or as the NIV text reads, “justified.” Romans 4:5 and Ephesians 2:8-9 further clarify that this justification is not based on any worthiness or merit of our own (see also Romans 3:28, Galatians 3:3). How the electrical circuit analogy helps us better understand this concept of justification is this: just as a simple switch is either on or off, so a person is either saved or condemned (Mark 16:16). There is no middle ground. Just as a woman cannot be only “somewhat pregnant,” we cannot only be “partially saved.”  This means, that their is nothing for us to add to our salvation, nor can we weaken it by our sins.
  2. It is important to note that the act of justification is not to be confused with the process of “sanctification.” Whereas justification (also referred to as salvation or conversion) is a one-time completed action, sanctification is an ongoing process. The Apostle Paul, as sanctified as he was, acknowledged that he had not attained perfection (Philippians 3:12); none of us ever will during this life. We can, however, strive to become more Christ-like in our actions (Philippians 3:10). This process is called sanctification. Sanctification can be stated in simple terms as “the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in my life” (Titus 3:5). Or, put another way, “my demonstration of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’” (Galatians 5:22-23). While our justification is not dependent upon us (Acts 16:31), mankind is entirely capable of embracing or resisting the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives (John 14:15). It is our “resistance” to the Holy Spirit’s work that is represented by the dimmer!  You can think of it this way: the “light” of the Holy Spirit in your life is on because of your justification.   How brightly it shows in your life, however, is determined by how much you welcome or resist the work of the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51).  In electrical terms, a bright light meets with little resistance from the dimmer switch, whereas a dim light encounters a high measure of resistance.

Now what does this mean for you? It means that because your salvation (justification) is dependent only upon the completed work of Jesus Christ, you need never fear that your earthly life and deeds are not good enough to get you into heaven!  John 3:16 says nothing about our works. Furthermore, you have the assurance that nothing can separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). You are secure.  And your ability to profess (and believe) “Jesus is Lord,” shows that you have the Holy Spirit in you (1 Corinthians 12:3).  This gift of salvation and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, then creates a life change in you that compels you to live according to God’s commands (Psalm 119:41-48).

It is great news that the Lord loves you just as you are (Romans 5:8)!  … But He loves you too much to leave you just as you are.  The Father justifies the sinner through His Son, and sanctifies the spiritually re-born “saint” (one made holy in Christ) through His Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit in you will continually work to conform you to the image of His Son Jesus until that day He calls you home!

If you want to better understand justification, sanctification, or the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, send me an email, give me a call, or stop by on Sunday!

In His Holy Name,

Pastor Augie

Q&A – Responding to Sandy Hook

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In response to the recent tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary, one of our members posed the following observation and question. After that is my response…

Q: “The people’s hearts have been broken. Their minds are open for change. Is this an opportunity for God to make a comeback ? … What can we DO?”

A: What you have said is so true. Our society does need God… everyone does! However, one of my professors at the seminary said it well – “The Lord allows His gifts to be rejected.” He allowed JESUS to be rejected. He allows his forgiveness and SALVATION to be rejected. And so He allows His blessings and PEACE to be rejected as well. This is actually a function of the GOSPEL… That we have freedom. (If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed… John 8:36)

How do we get our nation to actually desire God again? There’s no simple answer to that question, but I fear that it will need to get worse before it gets better.

I could go on and on…. but I’ll just end with a simple reminder that we are to be “salt and light” Jesus says (Matt. 5:13-16). His Kingdom does not come by sight, nor by force. We sow the seeds of the Gospel and leave the results to the Holy Spirit. In the mean time, we do not let Satan rob our peace, joy and security! Those can never be taken from us.

This is a very brief response to a deep and significant problem.  The battle is fought on the battlefield of prayer. (Ephesians 6:18)

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