Psalm 23

Psalm 23
April 17, 2016

Focus: Jesus, the Good Shepherd
Function: Listener will understand that Jesus watches, guides and cares for us

Psalm 23 is very familiar, both inside the church and out. We hear it on Sundays at least once a year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, and often at both weddings and funerals. If you were listening to pop music in the 90’s you heard the rapper Coolio quote from it. Sunday School children present plays based on it. You’ve probably all heard the story of the 2nd grader who was struggling with learning it before his spring Sunday School program. He couldn’t get past the first verse, so his teacher said just do the best you can. When the day came for the kids to recite the Psalm, he was so nervous, he stepped up to the microphone and said, “The Lord is my Shepherd…and that’s all I need to know!”

The boy got that right. But what else do we know about this Psalm? What was the background story? Why did David write it? I don’t think you have to look far to get the answer. Go back one Psalm to number 22 and I think you’ll find the reason. David wrote that Psalm, too, and it began with the words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Now that’s the cry of someone travelling through the valley of the shadow of death. David had walked that road several times, with the death of one son, betrayal by another, exile, wars and a plague that devastated his royal city – he had seen some pretty rough times. He might have penned Psalm 22 when he entered one of those shadows. And then written Psalm 23 when he found that he was not alone in the darkness.

That’s the draw of this Psalm. It has been a help for so many people in their times of darkness. A Lutheran seminary surveyed folks on what they knew about the Bible. They were asked the question: “Is there a Bible text that is important for you in difficult times?” Over a quarter of the people said they found comfort in the book of Psalms, and most of those pointed to this one, Psalm 23, in particular. When life gets dark, when sickness and sorrow, conflict and weariness drag us down, it is reassuring to be reminded about a place where God will wipe our tears away, where the green pastures and the still waters will be ours. That’s what makes this Psalm so helpful and memorable.

So this morning I want to do something a little different. I want us to take a few moments to go through this Psalm one verse at a time, and take a closer look at what it’s got to say. This morning let’s find the comfort that David found in his Good Shepherd.

1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

This Psalm was written by a fellow who knew a lot about shepherding. Our first glimpse of David (in 1 Samuel) was as a young man out in a field, tending the family flock of sheep. That was his full-time job, since all his older brothers were off fighting in the Army. Out there he learned a lot about sheep and a lot about shepherding. He no doubt discovered that while sheep are not dumb, they can be “high needs” animals. They required a fair amount of care. They wandered off and needed to be hunted down. They had no real defenses and were pretty vulnerable to attack. David found out that being a shepherd was a lot of work.

So when he wrote “the Lord is my shepherd”, David was saying a couple of things. First, he was saying that he was like a sheep. This was likely not a compliment. He was admitting that there were times when he was high maintenance, or times when he wandered off the good path God has set him on, and times when he just flat out needed someone to keep him safe as he traveled through life.

We’re no different from David. When we read that first verse, we’re confessing that we can’t make it on our own. Whether it is the world, our flesh or the devil that drives us down, we can’t right ourselves by ourselves. We are sheep in need of a Good Shepherd who will seek us out, protect us and set us right-side up.

And that’s leads us to the second thing David said with that first verse. Our Lord is the one we need. Jesus is a really good shepherd. He cares for our needs. We can give all our “wants” and “needs” to Him because He knows what He is doing. We know that because He spared no expense for us – not even His own life for the sake of this wayward flock. So certainly, we will lack nothing in His care.

Actually, this is all we need to know. The rest of the Psalm just fills in some details. Like the second verse:

2He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.

A shepherd’s care begins with food and drink, the main concerns of sheep and the basic elements of life. Sheep are like us men; they are pretty indiscriminate about what they feed on and they need help to be pointed to the right stuff to keep them healthy. They require still, quiet waters for drink. Rushing streams will spook them and leave them thirsty. Did I mention that they can be high maintenance animals? (The sheep – not us guys. OK maybe us guys too.)

This verse begins to describe Jesus’ shepherding work. It tells us that He is active and present today. He starts by pointing us to the right stuff for life. He leads us past the peril and towards the places of nourishment. He puts the Scriptures in our hands. He sends us to our family, to our church, where we can hear His words of forgiveness and love, and so find comfort on our day of need. He brings us to quiet places where we can be safe. And it doesn’t stop there. His work continues in the third verse:

3He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

There we go again: another confession. “He restores my soul.” With those words we’re saying that our lives are not as perfect as we’d like them to be. We mess up. Our souls get dragged down. Our life sometimes need to be salvaged.

That’s what our Good Shepherd does. He forgives our sin and restores us. He sets us back on the path that we were meant to tread. He leads us to righteous places, places where His intent for our lives can be lived. He gives us the ability to experience real joy, perhaps in a loving marriage or in the friendships we share. He puts us in places where we can live and grow as people of integrity and service.

And He does all this is for His name’s sake. That is, He is not saving us because we are so valuable or so good. He does this all for His own name’s sake; He does this because that is just the sort of God He is. The Good Shepherd lovse us, He cares for us, sometimes despite ourselves. We hear more about His love in the fourth verse:

4Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The shepherd’s rod and staff comforted the flock because they fended off the predators. But they were also used to pull errant sheep back into line or drag them away from deadly drops. They were even used to deliver a whack where it might do a bit of good, reminding the sheep who is in charge. Both were part of herding the flock through dangerous areas.

The same goes for us. Sometimes we will feel His hand keeping us safe, like a pastor friend whose life was spared when a slow store clerk delayed him for a few minutes, keeping him off the road and out of a terrible highway accident that might have cost him and his family dearly. How many times does that sort of thing happen and we don’t even realize it?

Other times the tender care of our Good Shepherd might leave us a little tender. We might not initially perceive His discipline as “good times”. But in retrospect, we sheep will see that this, too, was God’s love being demonstrated in our lives. Both are part of Jesus guiding us through evil times.

Most important, though, is knowing that on our last day, when we walk through the valley of the shadow of our death, we will not be alone. Jesus has already walked that road. He knows every pot hole and every hazard. He will hold our hand even when we are too weak to hold His. We will fear no evil on that day because we know He will be right there.

5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

After the valley of death, is the feast of triumph. The filled table and overflowing cup speak of a regal victory over a foe. The Good Shepherd has prevailed over sin, death and the devil, and now He becomes our Lord and King, offering us abundant life.

God has prepared a table before our eyes today, in the presence of both enemies and friends. Death lurks, age creeps, but today we get to dine at the altar with saints and sing with angels. Our heads are anointed with the holy oil of heaven. We are given the gifts of Jesus’ body and blood – forgiveness and strength. We are abundantly blessed. Our lives are not merely full, they overflow. We have gifts to spare and gifts to give.

6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

This is the grand finale. We are shepherded by Jesus – now and forever. Goodness and mercy follow us; they will pursue us always. There is no place we can go where God cannot bless us. And there is no sin we commit which will not be met with His mercy. Jesus is our Good Shepherd.

In our baptism, He made a promise to you and me to watch, keep, feed, nourish, and protect us. Throughout our lives He will guide us. The Lord is our shepherd and that’s all we need to know. Amen.

Breakfast with Jesus

John 21:1-14
April 10, 2016

Focus: Breakfast with Jesus
Function: Like the disciples that day, Jesus nourishes us for the task ahead – fishing for men

The text for the message this morning comes from our gospel reading: John’s account of Jesus catching up with His disciples a short time after Easter. In this chapter, we get a brief glimpse of life after the resurrection. And it might not be exactly what you’d expect to find.

Now, the previous few weeks had been a pretty amazing time for those disciples. As they traveled with Jesus to Jerusalem, I’m sure they were filled with nervous anticipation, wondering what would happen next. After the dread of Good Friday came the joy of the empty tomb and their risen Lord. They were filled with faith and wonder as Jesus entered rooms through locked doors, showed them His wounded hands and side, breathed the Holy Spirit on them. Those days had to be the very definition of a mountain top experience.

But now it was “afterward.” In fact, our reading starts with the word “afterward.” This was a week, or maybe two weeks, after Jesus rose from the grave. And though John doesn’t directly say it, I have a feeling that those disciples were experiencing something very similar to what first-time parents feel about two weeks after the birth of their child.

For those parents, the months leading up to birth were pretty awesome times. Seeing the ultrasounds; hearing the heartbeats; feeling the kicks – those are amazing events. Joy and fear would mix in equal parts when labor finally came and they sprinted to the hospital. Another mountain top experience: a child is born.

And then comes “afterward.” Mother and child return home. Feeding, changing, rocking, playing, changing, walking, burping, napping, changing: being a parent is a lot of work. Yes, there are moments when the babe’s big blue eyes stare searchingly into Mom’s and she instantly forgives the long days and sleepless nights. But a moment later she’s back at it. Feeding, changing, rocking, playing, changing, burping: let’s face it, reality sets in pretty quickly.

That’s where the disciples were, too. John opened with: “Afterward.” A week or maybe two weeks after Jesus rose from the grave, reality began to set in. During that time the disciples had traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee in obedience to Jesus’ command to meet Him there. They were back with their families, trying to find way to feed a few hungry mouths. Their mood seemed muted. They were back to real life.

John wrote that “afterward,” Peter and 6 other disciples were together. “”I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.”” Sometimes you just have to make a living. Sometimes you have to fish.

And I get that. The same thing can happen to us around this time of year. Easter is usually a pretty joyful time. We remember the resurrection of our Savior and what that means for us: forgiveness and new life. There are a few more faces at church than usual, folks we haven’t seen for a while. We sing familiar hymns, enjoy fun activities, gather for family dinners; if it’s not a mountain top experience, it’s at least an above average day.

But by this week, we’re back in the “afterwards” days. It’s a couple of weeks after Easter. The chocolate bunnies are long gone. Our Easter baskets are back in their boxes and stowed in the closet. Even the lily we bought at Walmart has lost its petals. We’re back to reality; back to making a living. And there’s really nothing wrong with that.

God wants us to be good workers and good citizens, good children and good parents. Those are some of our vocations – some of the things He has called us to do. When the disciples got in the boat to fish, there was no voice from heaven scolding them for doing it. When we turn off the alarm and get ready for work, we aren’t disobeying God’s will for our lives. That’s who we are and what we do. But for us Christians, that is not just who we are, and it is not just what we do. There is more.

And that “more” is where our reading from John takes us. After the disciples worked the nets all night and caught nothing, they caught sight of a figure on shore. The man there called out: “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” I suspect that John, the disciple who Jesus loved, squinted at the fellow and wondered who was yelling. The man on the shore called out: “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” Now, I’ll bet, John’s heart skipped a beat. He thought: “Jesus? No, that can’t be Him.” Then the net filled with a huge catch of fish and John’s stomach did a flip-flop as he pulled Peter close and shouted: “It is the Lord!”

Peter forgot the fish, remembered his shirt, and jumped into the sea to swim ashore. Jesus’ arrival had transformed the mood of the disciples from sweaty labor to overwhelming, sweet joy.

John’s gospel reminds us that, for us too, the joy comes when Jesus arrives in our lives. He arrived for us in the manger, to live the prefect life that we could never attain and then lay it down for us on the cross. He arrived for us outside the empty tomb to proclaim victory over sin, death and the devil. He arrived for us personally in our baptism, when He forgave our sin and made us His disciples. He arrives for us in the Lord’s Supper when we share it, forgiving our sin and giving us strength to serve Him. Jesus arrives for us just as He did for the disciples. And when He arrives He brings the same joy the disciples knew at His coming.

Jesus arrival at the shoreline brought more than joy – He brought a reminder for those disciples. And the reminder came in the form of 153 fish.

Now, John did not record many of Jesus’ miracles. Instead of trying to list everything Jesus did, like the other gospel writers had done, John carefully detailed just a few miracles, each one chosen to help make a point. So we have to ask: why did John record this one? It wasn’t to prove Jesus’ credentials as Messiah – His resurrection had already shown that. It was not needed to display Jesus’ power over creation – walking on water and feeding 5,000 covered that. So, what made John think this was worth recording?

I believe the catch of 153 fish spoke to the disciples like a parable. It reminded them of their mission and filled them with a renewed sense of purpose. And it did this by reminding them of another, earlier, miraculous catch of fish.

Back at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He had instructed a boatload of fishermen to drop their nets after a long night of fruitless fishing. Do you remember what happened? That time they hauled in a catch so large it broke the fishing nets. And once they made their haul, Jesus told those fishers – Peter, James and John – that from then on they would be fishers of men. Oh, they might need to spend a day or two fishing to support their families. But from that time on, their real mission was to spread the joyful news that the kingdom of God was at hand.

This new catch of 153 fish pointed them back to that original catch. It reminded them that their real work was going to be for the Kingdom of God and not just for their stomachs.

Those 153 fish speak to us today, too. They remind us that the reason we are left on earth is not just to catch fish, or balance books, or teach lessons or wait tables – though we will probably have to do some, or all, of that. God’s got something more in mind for us. There are bigger fish to fry, if you will.

Today we are also the fishers of men, women and children. We are being sent out into our families and into our community. We’re going into a world filled with hurting people, broken relationships and aimless lives. We’ll be talking with folks who are looking for answers in all the wrong places: from pills to Dr. Phil. But we know that all the important answers aren’t found there. We can share with them the reason for our joy. We can share with them the difference it has made for us since Jesus has arrived in our lives!

After the fish were fried, the disciples sat down to breakfast with Jesus. How fitting that the last meal John recorded the disciples and Jesus sharing was breakfast. It’s the meal that gets you ready to go to work. Breakfast starts the new day. And those disciples really were at the beginning of something big. They were about to truly embark on their task of fishing for men.

That’s where we are today, too. Ready to bring the good news of God’s forgiveness to those He is calling into His kingdom. Jesus arrives for us in His Word and Sacrament to prepare us to go out and carry out His plan. It might be hard work, but Jesus has promised to provide the results. Our job is always just to throw out the nets where He tells us.

As we make our way through the “afterward” of Easter, God grant us the grace and boldness we need to be fishers of men. Amen.

Defending Thomas

John 20:19-31
April 3, 2016

Focus: Defending Thomas
Function: Through the life of Thomas, listeners will understand that God will never leave us alone in our doubt – He is always by our side

This morning our gospel reading centered on the familiar story of Thomas.  We call him doubting Thomas because of what we heard just now from John’s gospel.  He would not take his friend’s word for something that seemed unbelievable to him.  He wanted to see Jesus’ hands and touch His wounds.  Only then would he believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  He was a “show me” kind of guy.  I know a lot of engineers that would totally agree with him.

But I think most of us are “show me” kinds of people to one degree or another.  When something seems too good to be true, especially when it comes from someone running for office, we want some proof.  When President Regan dealt with the Russian diplomats, he quoted the old Russian proverb to them, that we would trust but verify.  When the pastor’s little boy was called in for dinner and his mom told him to be sure to wash up first, the kid just grumbled: “Germs and Jesus.  Germs and Jesus.  That’s all I hear and I’ve never seen either one of them.”  We’re all “show me” kind of people to one degree or another.

Life teaches us that we can’t always believe everything we hear.  Sometimes you need to get proof by seeing for yourself.

And so maybe when we read about a fellow like doubting Thomas, we should have a little sympathy for his position.  He was not all bad.  In fact, once you hear the whole story of Thomas I think you’ll agree that at least in some ways it is good to be like Thomas.

What do we know about Thomas?  His name shows up in all 4 of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  He shows up on every list of Jesus’ 12 disciples.  That means that Jesus called him just like He did the other 11.  That also means that Thomas followed Jesus everywhere He went.  He listened to His teaching, saw His miracles, and was sent on at least one mission trip by Jesus to spread the good news in villages in Galilee.  Thomas was a real disciple.

John, in his gospel, wrote a bit more about Thomas.  He recorded two times when Thomas spoke up.  The first was when Jesus learned of the death of his friend Lazarus.  Jesus told His disciples they needed to travel to Bethany, to wake Lazarus up.  

Now, on the whole, the disciples did not have much interest in going to Bethany.  Why?  It turns out that just a short time back, the people in that area had tried to kill Jesus.  When Jesus mentioned the trip, the disciples spoke up: “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?”  Is this trip really necessary?  There was a whole big “rest of the country” waiting to hear Jesus’ message.  Why put themselves in danger?  

But Jesus insisted.  And it was Thomas who showed both courage and devotion by speaking up and convincing the others to stick with Jesus.  He said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him”.  It was a brief statement that spoke volumes.  Thomas was ready to die with Jesus.  Thomas was a true disciple.

The next time we hear from Thomas was on the night when Jesus was betrayed. After the last supper, Jesus talked with His disciples about His impending death and departure.  It was pretty obvious that the disciples were having a hard time grasping what Jesus was telling them.  

Here is what Jesus said: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”  It was that last phrase that threw them:  you know the way to the place where I am going. They knew Jesus was talking about leaving.  They understood that He would travel alone.  But what did He mean by you know the way to the place where I am going?  

It was Thomas who gave voice to their frustrations.  He asked: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Thomas wanted a road map so that he could keep close to Jesus.  Jesus replied with the profound statement: “I am the way and the truth and the life,” which was all the road map any of us really need.  But the point for us this morning is just this: Thomas was demonstrating how much he wanted to stay by Jesus’ side, no matter where that was.  Thomas was a real, true disciple.

So with that background in mind, let’s have another look at our reading this morning.  This true disciple had been through a lot.  Jesus had recently been arrested, beaten and crucified.  His lifeless body had been take from the cross and placed in a tomb.   The disciples were hidden behind locked doors.  And as far as Thomas knew, his plan to stay close to Jesus was finished.  The game was over.  The fat lady had sung.  It was time to move on.

So when Thomas was told that Jesus was alive, he said: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it”.  Show me.  You keep talking about Jesus, but I still haven’t seen Him.

Of course, that was not the end of the story.  At just the right time, the Holy Spirit prodded Thomas and he made a return trip to visit to the disciples.  And at just the right time, even though the doors were locked behind, Jesus appeared to Thomas and the others.  Thomas, He said, let me show you something.

Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”  Jesus would not leave Thomas in his doubt.  He provided Thomas with everything needed to get back on track again as a disciple.  And Thomas was left with nothing more to say, than to confess that Jesus is “My Lord and my God”.

If we’re honest, we know there are times when we are strong like first Thomas: we have an unshakable faith that wants to follow Jesus everywhere.  But there are also times when we wonder, just like second Thomas, where God has gone.  Some days we are convinced we’re seeing God’s hand at work everywhere.  But other days it feels like everything is going south and God seems to be absent.  How do you believe in God when illness and injury strike, or when bills pile up, or when impossible decisions have to be made, or when tragedy attacks friends and family?  How can we believe in Jesus, when He doesn’t seem to be there for us?  

Well, by ourselves we cannot believe.  The good news in our reading this morning is that Jesus did not leave His disciples in doubt, and He will not leave us in doubt.  He has actually visited each one of us, just like He visited Thomas.  He did it first years ago when He called us to be His children.  God made a divine appointment for each one of us, to draw us to Him in the water of our baptism.  

But His love for us did not stop there.  Jesus continues to visit us and call us back to Him.  He does it through His Word – the Bible – that we read and hear.  How many times has a passage you’ve come across at just the right time comforted you, or increased your faith or helped you understand God’s will for your life, even when everything seemed out of control?  Jesus wants us to know that He is right there with us, even in the worst times.

He visits us again in the Lord’s Supper that we share, providing us with forgiveness of sin and strength to live each day.  

And you know, a lot of times He works through His people.  Thomas was surrounded with friends who stuck with him through a very rough week.  It would have been easy for the others to cut off contact with a doubter.  But the Holy Spirit used those other disciples to encourage him to come back, to welcome him even though he really didn’t fit in right then.  The Holy Spirit gave Thomas a Christian family to help get him back to where he needed to be.  God didn’t leave him alone.  

God still does that today.  He provides us with good Christian friends and a church family, too.  That’s why Sunday is so important.  There are always going to be hard times, times when we doubt and just want to quit.  The Holy Spirit uses each one of us believers to gather together, to encourage each other, to pray for each other, to share the burdens and blessings of life.  God never leaves us alone.    

It is impossible to get through life alone.  That’s why God will never leave us mired in the fear and doubt of our own Good Friday.  He will come to us with His word and His Supper.  He will send His people to show us His love when we really need it most.  

We can trust Him with our troubles, look to Jesus and say with Thomas that Jesus is “My Lord and My God”.  Then, it is good to be like Thomas.

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