In His Presence

Sir Robert Stopford commanded a ship in the Royal British Navy at the end of the 18th century. He himself was under the command of Vice Admiral Lord Horation Nelson. Nelson’s fleet was in pretty bad shape; their ships were battered and low on munitions, the food was nearly gone, and the fleet they were pursuing was almost twice the size of their own. Despite these difficulties, morale was unusually high.

When asked about this phenomenon, Stopford replied, “We are half-starved and otherwise inconvenienced by being so long out of port, but our reward is that we are with Nelson.”

The men fighting under Nelson knew the danger they were heading into. They knew that no amount of money could tempt them forward nor recompense what they were about to face. There was only one thing that made it all worth while: They were with Nelson.

Friends and fellow warriors, we know that constant difficulties and hardships will beset us as God’s children. The world does not want to hear the message of Christ crucified for our sins. In some places, Christ’s disciples are mocked and ridiculed. In other parts of the world, they are treated with no less hostility that He himself was when He walked on earth. The path of discipleship is not an easy road to walk. Tragedies and heartache abound in this life; our struggle often leaves us feeling weary, battered, and on the verge of despair.

We can certainly find comfort in the words, “Great is your reward in heaven.” And yet, we have comfort even in the trials of today as we go forward into the uncertain future with the resolve to stand by our Commander and Chief, bearing the full armor of God and wielding the Sword of the Spirit.

We are with Him.

Whatever difficulties we will face are nothing compared to the reward of being in Christ’s presence throughout our fight. He comes to us in His Word, as we hear it preached by faithful servants and as we read it in our homes. He comes to us in Sacrament, as we receive His very body and blood in His supper and as we remember the marks put upon us in our baptism. He comes to us through those who fight alongside us in this spiritual battle, promising that even in those who seem to be least in the body of all believers, indeed, there He is.

Of all the hardships we face, morale should never have to be among them. We have our reward, and it is not a distant, far-off future promise. We hold it in our hand and clutch it to our breast as we recall his words, “Behold, I am with you always.”

Our reward is that we are with Him, and that He is with us.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant us the peace that comes through knowing that Your Son has defeated our enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  Be with us in our struggle against the world and our own sinful nature.  Let our joy be ever in You, through Jesus Christ, Your Son.  Amen.

Showers of Blessings

“Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
let the earth cause them both to sprout;
I the Lord have created it.”  ~Isaiah 45:8

 

“April showers bring May flowers.”

I think these words give us hope as we stare out the windows at the early springtime weather. It’s wet, gray, sloppy, and at times simply depressing out there. So we have to remind ourselves that the current dreariness will soon produce the beautiful and abundant fruits of the earth. God’s blessings for tomorrow often come in the form of cold and bitter rainstorms.

In our personal lives, it is often the same. I know there have been times in my life where I was very angry with God over some temporary pain, loss, or disappointment – only to feel the sting of shame later when I realized how God was bringing about incredible blessings in my life through that same event. Scripture tells us that affliction leads to perseverance and eventually hope. Strangely enough, none of us jump up and down and get excited when affliction comes our way.

Heavy rain certainly reduces visibility. We tend to be so self-centered and short-sighted that we immediately become blind to the many, many other present blessings that God continues to shower down on us, even as we shake our fists at Him for our current discomfort. Our heads are hunkered down against the stinging cold of adversity, forgetting that it is the same rain that will bring forth fruitfulness, life, and abundance in the near future – but also pushing away all thoughts of other comforts and joys that are ours through God’s grace.

Perhaps this is our present state as we feel a certain amount of disgust toward our culture and society. We get frustrated and depressed over the Godlessness and immorality in our country, and forget the fact that God has graciously preserved our ability not only to worship Him openly, but to speak freely and challenge the empty philosophies of secularism. As we despise the humanistic notions that are running rampant around us, we lose sight of the many joys, comforts, conveniences, and luxuries that we so richly enjoy in our country. And who knows, but that this current shift in culture is not the rain that will moisten the earth and provide the perfect setting for the seed of the Gospel to sprout and flourish in the hearts of millions?

Occasionally, there will be rain showers; financial difficulties, health problems, frustrations and dilemmas in future planning. But we know that in all these things, God is faithful to the work which He has begun. We stay mindful of the hope we have of the growth occurring just below the surface, which will soon spring forth in splendor as God’s Word blossoms in our community and country. And we do not lose sight of the many, many blessings that He continually bestows upon us; the faithful members of our congregations and families, the devoted friends and neighbors, the beautiful children of God who have been entrusted to our care – and most of all, the life and forgiveness we have through Jesus Christ our Savior.

What a blessing it is to be allowed to tend this patch of earth!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  ~Isaiah 55:10-11

Prayer: Heavenly Father, bless Your Word as it goes forth in our communities, our nation, and throughout our world.  Grant that the seed which is sown will fall upon fertile soil, that the harvest be one of hope in the righteousness won for us by Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  In His name we pray.  Amen.

The Parable of the Foolish Branch

Text: John 15:1-17

Once upon a time there was a great Vine with a very foolish branch.  One day this foolish branch was thinking about how strong and thick he was, how green and shiny its leaves were, and how plump and juicy fruit always grew on its stems.  Seeing all this, he decided that he didn’t need the Vine anymore.  So he cut himself off from the Vine and set off on his own.

The foolish branch experienced all kinds of wild, exciting things in the days to come, and he knew that he had made a very wise decision.  After all, these were experiences he had never had before, in places he had only dreamed of visiting.  He felt sorry for all the other branches back in the vineyard, stuck firmly in place, rooted to the Vine.  Oh, if only they knew what they were missing!  A wave of superiority flooded over him as he compared his newly enlightened lifestyle with the boring, mundane life of his old friends.

However, these new experiences were taking their toll on the foolish branch, which he soon began to discover.  His delicate leaves weren’t used the abuse of gallivanting all over the countryside, and he noticed after some time that his foliage wasn’t quite as thick as it had been when he was attached to the Vine.  Many of his fine, shimmering leaves had fallen or been knocked off during his adventures outside the vineyard.  He wisely concluded that he would just have to be more careful – but this was no crisis too terrible for one such as him.

At first, the foolish branch didn’t even notice the parching thirst that came over him – he was so distracted with all the fun he was having away from the Vine.  He was not accustomed to this lack of water.  All his life it had constantly been supplied to him through a constant and invisible mystery; but that was when he had been attached to the Vine, and its distended veins allowed the sweet, life-giving liquid to flow steadily into him.  But now, his few remaining leaves lost their sheen, growing dry and brown around the edges.  The foolish branch knew that he must find a water source on his own if he was to survive, but without the strong, deep roots of the Vine, this was proving very difficult indeed.  When he finally did manage to locate a filthy little mud puddle, he was shocked to learn that the healthy veins that had connected him to the Vine were steadily closing up, as though an invisible firebrand had cauterized the place that had once secured him to life and health.  The foolish branch became worried.

As the branch trudged along, no longer reveling in the liberty and excitement of his enlightened lifestyle, he stopped to rest against the fence behind the barn.  Peering across the field, he saw something strange; the vineyard workers carried sad, dilapidated bundles of something brown and twisted.  Squinting, the foolish branch recoiled in horror as he realized what it was; it was the branches that year after year produced no fruit and had been cut off from the Vine.  When he had seen them last, they looked healthy enough; true, they had no fruit on their stems, but their leaves had been green and lustrous as his own…

He looked down at himself and almost withered on the spot.  He was no longer bearing even the slightest bit of fruit.  His leaves were wilted and dried up.  Everything about him bore a striking exactitude to the branches now being carried by the vineyard workers, to…where were they taking them?  The branch’s eyes were drawn toward a thick billowing cloud of inky black smoke on top of the hill.  His eyes continued to follow the workers as they approached the burning heap, stopped, and promptly cast the great burden into the waiting flames!  The horror, the shock of seeing it sent the foolish branch reeling.  What was he doing here?  Why did he leave the Vine in the first place?  Who did he think he was?  He was a branch, grown to produce fruit – not amble about the countryside idly enjoying the sights!  There was only one thing to do; he must produce fruit, and now!

The foolish branch thought that perhaps he could produce fruit on his own, without the Vine.  Yes!  That’s it!  The branch hunkered down where he lie and squeezed with all his might.  He pushed and grunted and heaved, but it was no good.  He suddenly came upon the terrible realization that he had no idea how to produce to a single grape.  Sure, he had produced thousands before, while still attached to the Vine, but back then it had just sort of…happened.  Now, now that he must perform this feat for himself or be destroyed, it was simply impossible.  The same life-giving waters that the Vine had poured into him had been the very source of the nutrition that produced each and every grape on his stems.  He realized now that – by himself – he had never been able to produce any fruit to begin with.

Parched, wilted, and despairing, the branch crawled its way back to the Vine.  He could see, well up the Vine, the very place where he had cut himself off from life.  The spot was healed over now.  Even if he could reach it – which he knew was impossible – there would be no way to be grafted back onto the Vine at this point.  He was as good as dead.  He lay down on the ground and waited for the inevitable – when the vineyard workers came and made their rounds, picking up the dead branches to be cast into the fire.

Toward evening, he heard steps approaching.  The footsteps stopped just next to where he lay.  He felt himself being slowly lifted from the ground, saw the bundle of brown, twisted, fruitless branches a few yards away, and waited to be tossed atop the pile.  But something happened then that he wasn’t expecting.  As gentle hands turned him over, he found himself looking at no mere worker; it was the face of the very Gardener Himself.  The Gardener just looked at him; looked at him for a long while with a very sad, compassionate look on his face.  He then nodded to himself, took a knife out of his pocket, and trimmed away the crusted surface where the branch had once held onto the Vine.  What was he doing?  The foolish branch looked on apprehensively as the Gardener reached out to his own Vine, the Vine he had loved and cared for all these years, and sliced into the surface of that Vine directly where the branch had cut itself away.  The branch could have cried out for pity’s sake – don’t hurt the Vine!  It’s my fault!  I was the fool!  I deserve the fire!

The branch didn’t understand what was happening, but watched with shame and sorrow as the sap poured out of the Vine which had been wounded because of him.  The Gardener continued to work, pressing the now clean surface of the branch to the freshly-wounded Vine, grafting the branch back in its very own place.  He bound the foolish branch there with strong and gentle cloth, working with care and diligence.  The foolish branch felt life flowing back into it once more through the wound of the Vine.  In time, his leaves began to green once more and luscious fruits ripened and filled on his stems.  And the once-foolish branch never again forgot that this miracle was only possible because of the ever-sustaining Vine and the love and sacrifice of the Vine and the Gardener.


 

My friends, it is a very dangerous thing to cut ourselves off from Jesus, the true Vine.  We know that in Him, and in Him alone, is found life and salvation.  Yet we neglect His Word, always finding something “better” to do with our time than read the life-giving Scriptures.  We fail to pray, to call upon him in praise and thanksgiving, to put our every sorrow and need into His loving hands, opting instead to face the impossible in our own feeble power.  We stray from our worship habits, relishing Sunday mornings as “our own time,” and not even noticing the slow withering of our leaves and the decay of our fruits as we distance ourselves from the Church that would feed and nourish us with His Word and Sacraments, cleansing our sinful wounds through the confession and absolution of sins.

We, like the branch, are all fools.  We go our own way, looking for excitement and adventure even at the very cost of our own destruction.  We cannot produce any good work that is pleasing to God apart from Jesus, for Jesus is ultimately all that matters in this world.  We cannot even take credit for the growth of our faith, just a branch does not decide to grow itself, but starts as nothing and grows up out of the Vine, by its power and discretion.  And when we fall away, it is only through the caring, gentle hands of the Father that we are brought back to life and salvation through the True Vine, Jesus Christ, who poured out His own blood on the cross that we might live in Him and through Him.

May Jesus sustain and nourish you always through His Word, and may you always rest in the loving hands of God the Father.  Amen.

Jealousy and Envy – Slaying the Green-eyed Monsters

“But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.  Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:14-16)

Jealousy is certainly a monstrous sin.  It rips and rends our relationship with God our Father.  It goes marauding through our Christian communities, trampling love, devotion, and fellowship underfoot.  Finally, it devours our personal happiness, fulfillment and well-being before shambling off to terrorize new victims.

First of all, jealousy and envy are sins against God.  Like greed and every other vice that focuses on the “Self,” jealousy rips our love, trust, and devotion away from God and places the emphasis on our own sinful desires and rebellious tendencies.  Sometimes I don’t believe that God has given me everything I need.  I often doubt that His withholding of certain things from me is for my own good.  My sinful human heart tells me that I deserve much more than what God provides.

Of course, you and I know what we really deserve when we stop to think about it; nothing more or less than temporal suffering and death followed by eternal torment in Hell.  God has given us so much more (and less!) than we deserve.  We live a life filled with beauty and pleasure.  We need so little, yet God pours out His blessings on us abundantly every day.  And in His mercy and grace, God has placed the scourge of His wrath squarely upon the shoulders of His Son, Jesus Christ, while lavishing us with His love and affection.  Reflecting on these facts reveals the truly petty nature of our common jealousies.

Secondly, a jealous heart opens the floodgates for all manner of wicked behavior toward our neighbors.  We find “every evil practice” in the presence of selfish ambition because we are so easily enticed to sin when confronted by someone who is receiving the goods, attention, or lifestyle to which we feel entitled.  Like the early morning workers in the vineyard (see Matthew 20), we readily begrudge others of the blessings and riches that we deem them “unworthy” of receiving – forgetting that God has been much more than fair with dispensing our own wages.  Our selfishness is quickly inflamed to sin against them in thought, word, and deed because we cast an envious eye upon their blessings – when we should be rejoicing with them and helping to preserve and protect our neighbor’s goods, property and life.

Finally, after the monster of jealousy has reduced our relationships with God and man to smoldering ruins, it will turn upon us and devour our very heart and soul.  As Proverbs 14:30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to body, but envy rots the bones.”  When we willfully refuse to recognize the many blessings that God has showered upon us, life has a way of shriveling up and withering away.  We become consumed by our own bitterness, always pining for those things which the Devil convinces us we need in order to be “happy” but which God lovingly withholds from us in order to reveal the true way to happiness: Walking with Him in humble praise and service.

Jealousy and envy are deadly adversaries, threatening our own personal well-being as well as the larger community of Christians and the witness we bear to the world.  Arm yourself with the mighty weapons God has provided to fend off this green-eyed beast: a joyful thankfulness for all that God has done for us; peace that comes from contentment with God’s physical and spiritual blessings rather than the trappings of earthly pelf; goodness that puts the “self” aside and rejoices in the good fortune of others; faithfulness to our true calling of seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness rather than vain pleasures or riches; self-control to hold our bitterness and resentment in check, drowning the old sinful nature and calling forth the warrior to selflessly go and serve.  Jesus’ victory on the cross not only frees us from the eternal consequences of sin, but also from the earthly terrorizing of sins like jealousy, guarding our hearts and minds through His love.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for providing so richly and abundantly for all my physical and spiritual needs, especially for the gift of faith which You have bestowed upon me through the Holy Spirit.  Grant that praising You and serving others would come first in my life and that the doors of faith would be opened for all, that they too might receive the blessings of Christ’s righteousness; in Jesus’ precious name.  Amen.

Faithfulness – A Mighty Fortress

“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” (Psalm 91:4)

If we are to speak of faithfulness as an armament of faith, we must look first to God’s own faithfulness.

Again and again the Bible speaks of God’s faithfulness as an awesome source of protection for His children.  In His faithfulness, He protects us from the troubles of this world, the temptations of the Devil and our own sinful flesh, and especially against the wrath that our sins deserve:

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

“But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.” (2 Thessalonians 3:3)

“O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief.  Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you.” (Psalm 143:1-2)

Yes, God’s faithfulness is truly our ultimate protection against every evil we face as His warriors.  In times of trouble and affliction, the best thing we can do is to place ourselves in His loving hands and proclaim, “Thy will be done!”  We have seen and know that the Lord is faithful to fulfill all of His promises: “But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.  He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.  It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.  It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

So what about our faithfulness?  If God’s faithfulness produces fruit in us, as Jeremiah claims, what is the role of the faithfulness which we return to God in thanksgiving?  The first and most important way that we return God’s faithfulness to Him is by continuing to cling to His promises throughout our lives.  “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).  This is God’s will for us, and it is our sure defense against the accusations of the Evil One.  But don’t doubt its effectiveness as a weapon against evil!  Perhaps the best witness we can bear to others is a sure and steady trust in God’s promises that is evident in our words and actions.  This testimony can certainly deliver a stunning blow to the Devil as he attacks those around us with doubt and unbelief through their own trials and difficulties.

We can also return thanks to God for His faithfulness by remaining faithful to our calling as Christians.  Our integrity toward others and in our service to God’s kingdom is modeled after God’s own faithfulness in our lives.  And as we persevere in doing God’s will, we can rest assured that God will remain faithful to bring about results: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).  Because God loved us enough to send His Son to die for us, we know that He will also be faithful to prosper all our ways in Him.

God has not abandoned his rebellious creation, but in His faithfulness has sent the Hero, Jesus Christ the Lord, to slay the Dragon and deliver us from bondage:  “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True” (Revelation 19:11).  Despite our unfaithfulness, God has remained true to His love and His Word of promise.  This is our sure defense, and the faithfulness we return to God and neighbor is the weapon we wield in our fight to bring the light of God’s righteousness through Christ to a dark world.

“I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and salvation.  I do not conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly.” (Psalm 40:10)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You before all the world for Your great love and faithfulness to me – a sinner.  Grant that I may never falter in being faithful to Your name as I call upon You in repentance and proclaim Your steadfast mercy to all those around me; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.