John 8:31-32 (NIV) 31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Anniversaries are helpful occasions to mark the passage of time for important events. There are wedding anniversaries to commemorate the years that husbands and wives have enjoyed in a loving relationship together. There are anniversaries in the lives of called workers to recognize their faithful service to the Lord and his Church. Communities celebrate anniversaries that have local significance. For example, in 2009 the city of New Ulm, Minnesota celebrated the 2000th anniversary of Arminius, also known as Hermann the German, who defeated three legions of Caesar Augustus. Last year, of course, the Lutheran community throughout the world celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation—marking the time when God restored the truths of his word through Martin Luther and other reformers.
Today we are recognizing what took place on June 13, 1918 at Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. On that date, 130 confessional Lutherans met to establish the Minnesota District of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Other States. That action brought 22,000 communicant members into the new synod. Today, one hundred years later, the Minnesota District consists of 38,000 communicant members and 47,000 baptized souls. Those numbers illustrate blessings from a gracious God.
But this anniversary celebration is not about numbers. It’s about a gracious God and his powerful word—the word that reveals Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This anniversary celebration is all about
Continuing in God’s Word
I. Gratefully acknowledging the past.
II. Faithfully addressing the present.
III. Prayerfully awaiting the future.
The setting of John chapter 8 is Jerusalem. It was the first year of the Lord’s public ministry. Jesus was in the temple courts and he was speaking to a crowd that had divided opinions of him. Some of the Jews challenged Jesus’ authority and rejected his message. Other Jews were led to put their trust in Jesus and acknowledge him as the promised Messiah. It was to this second group of people that Jesus addressed the words of the sermon text. He instructed them: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.” Jesus’ words tell us that Christian discipleship is more than a one-time acknowledgement of God’s word as truth. Christian discipleship is all about continuing in God’s word.
Did the Jews who stood around Jesus that day in Jerusalem continue in God’s word and remain his disciples? We don’t know. The Bible does not tell us how their lives continued. We do know what happened after that meeting in St. Paul in 1918. God blessed Lutherans with the desire and ability to continue in his word.
And just think of some of the obstacles those people and others faced in the last century. That founding year of the district, 1918, came on the heels of the end of The Great War, World War I. It wasn’t long before our country entered the Great Depression. After the economy recovered, we became involved in a second world war. Wars in Southeast Asia took place in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Conflicts in the Middle East have topped news headlines in the past 30 years. Stock market crashes have rattled investors periodically. Events like these can shake the foundation of people’s faith. People can be led to wonder, “Where is God? Why isn’t he doing anything? Is his Word really true and reliable?”
To all these difficulties, we can add the doctrinal struggles our district and synod went through: issues concerning discipline, election and fellowship. There was the painful suspension of fellowship from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. These and other doctrinal struggles forced our district founders and leaders after them to search the Scriptures and resolve to continue in God’s word, regardless of the cost or consequence.
You and I gratefully acknowledge the faithfulness of past Christians in continuing in God’s word, and that is very appropriate. The writer to the Hebrews instructs us: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” That passage reminds us that, while we cannot live in the past, we can use the past as a reminder of Christian faithfulness and a motivation for similar godly action.
II. Faithfully addressing the present.
So, what is the Minnesota District like today? The district consists of more than 160 congregations in four states. Those congregations operate almost 60 early childhood ministries, 36 elementary schools, and three area Lutheran high schools. Those schools serve almost 5,000 students each year. In addition, the district is home to Martin Luther College, the WELS college of ministry. Obviously, none of these congregations and schools run on their own. It takes a lot of people and resources, energy and effort to keep these ministries going and to expand them, if possible.
But then, it’s all worth it, isn’t it? Remember what Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching [if you continue in my word], you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Having the truth is absolutely vital when it comes to our relationship with God. What truth? The truth about ourselves by nature and the truth about ourselves as we go about our everyday lives. As shocking as the confession of sins from the Common Service might sound to those outside the church, the confession states truth, biblical truth: “Holy and merciful Father, I confess that I am by nature sinful and that I have disobeyed you in my thoughts, words and actions. I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good. For this I deserve your punishment both now and in eternity. But I am truly sorry for my sins, and trusting in my Savior Jesus Christ, I pray: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” A confession like that speaks the truth about sin. But there’s more.
Having the truth regarding the forgiveness of sins is absolutely vital when it comes to our relationship with God. That truth of life and forgiveness centers in him who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). That’s Jesus Christ. He was our perfect substitute in life and in death. Just consider this one area of continuing in God’s word and see how Jesus was our perfect substitute. Luke chapter four passes along this interesting information about Jesus: “On the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom” (Luke 4:16). The word of God and the third commandment were not insignificant to the God-Man. No, as true Man he had a need to learn God’s word. And learn it he did. Remember the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple courts schooling the teachers? That account ends with these words: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Growing in wisdom included continuing in God’s word and worshiping him on the Sabbath day.
Continuing in God’s word was not a mere academic exercise for Jesus. Whenever Satan pulled back his bow and fired a flaming arrow at Jesus, the Lord snuffed it out with words of Scripture. Jesus continued in God’s word perfectly in our place—and for our eternal good.
Continuing in God’s word ultimately meant that Jesus went through with what the word had prophesied about him—so he offered himself as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. On the cross, the Innocent One became the guilty one in God’s court of law. And when Jesus cried out on Calvary, “It is finished,” he made it clear that he had lived up to his name, which means “Savior.” In life and in death, Jesus did everything necessary for our salvation, and now through Spirit-worked faith in him, we enjoy a peaceful relationship with God, we walk through life with the forgiveness of sins and we confidently look forward to life with our God throughout eternity.
This truth about Jesus is vitally important because only this truth, received in faith, sets people free. Without Jesus, people are slaves to sin, as he said. This is why it is so important to reach out to people with the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ and to encourage young and old to continue in God’s word. We do that now and as we await the future.
III. Prayerfully awaiting the future
It is said that Abraham Lincoln once remarked: “The best thing about the future is that it comes only one day at a time.” That day-by-day approach to the future can be comforting to people because, when it comes to our earthly lives and the events of this world, we do not know precisely what the future holds. The inspired writer James reminds us of the obvious: “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow” (James 4:14).
As we think about the future, it’s difficult not to look at the past, the recent past. Who would have guessed how spiritually and morally bankrupt our country would have become in the last half-century? Two items stand out. In 1973 the United States Supreme Court ruled that abortion was legal throughout our country. Then, in 2015 the highest court in our land ruled that two people of the same sex can become married. What will the future bring in the areas of morality and legality? How much more challenging might it become for Christians to confess their faith with their words and actions? How much more societal pressure might there be for Christians to put their light of Christian faith under a bushel?
The apostle Paul wrote: “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” When did you first notice the itching-ear syndrome? How much more intense do you think the itching will become?
As we think of an uncertain future, we do well to put our thoughts into prayer. After all, we accomplish nothing by the sin of worry. On the other hand, God assures us that prayer is powerful and effective. So, we direct our thoughts and requests to God in prayer. What do we pray about concerning the future? We pray that young people will continue in the word so that they can train to become the next generation of pastors, teachers and staff ministers. We pray that the Lord of the harvest will send out workers into his harvest field. We pray that we and fellow Christians may remain grounded in God’s word. We pray that the Lord will keep our church leaders faithful to his word, as they continue in his word. We pray these things with the confidence that God promises to hear our prayers and answer them according to his wisdom and love.
During this year, a number of 100-year anniversary celebrations are scheduled. Some of them are probably not all that significant to people. For example, GM is celebrating 100 years of making Chevy trucks. John Deere is celebrating 100 years of manufacturing tractors. Other 100-year anniversaries though are significant. Case in point: later this year events around the world will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One and the establishment of several independent countries. So where does the 100th anniversary of the Minnesota District as part of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod fit in? Not too significant or significant? Most people would not consider it significant because most people will never hear of it. But this anniversary is significant and important to us because we are a part of it. It’s important to us because the anniversary is another marker of God’s gracious love.
How do we celebrate this anniversary? When Minnesota District President Charles Degner preached at the worship service celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation at Martin Luther College last year, he said we could celebrate that event best by going home and reading our Bibles. Similarly, let’s celebrate this district anniversary by continuing in God’s word. Amen.