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Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17 (NIV)
- CW 384 “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed”
- CW 377 “To Jordan’s River Came Our Lord”
- CW 677 “The Death of Jesus Christ, Our Lord”
- Choir sings “Go Now in Peace”
This is not going to be a traditional sermon. Throughout this message, there will be two verses you will hear intertwining like threads weaved into a story. You will hear Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” And you will hear John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This is probably the type of sermon that would be considered bad writing. But I’m willing to be considered a bad writer if God’s Word still shines through.
It’s funny. I never wanted to be a pastor. Why would I have? Long hours. Low pay, at least compared to other jobs for the same amount of schooling. Sitting in an office and not getting a lot of physical activity. So much heartbreak and counseling. And then there’s that whole public speaking thing. You know? The thing that happens each week as a pastor gets in front of a bunch of people and they stare at him, looking to him to inspire and teach them for 20 minutes. Frankly, it sounds terrifying if you ask me. These were my thoughts in middle school and high school. The reason all this is funny to me is because the Gospel has a way of changing things. Of changing people. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
In high school, I read the Bible. It wasn’t for a good reason, but I did it, slowly and carefully from cover to cover. As Jesus put faith in me and caused me to grow in my belief of him, I could not believe how it started changing me. Nothing else could have changed me like that. My actions changed. My personality changed. My worldview changed. God was dragging me towards him, sometimes forcefully, because I needed it. I was astounded that God could love me, even me, as unlovable as I was/am. But he did and it made all the difference. I didn’t have a crazy in-depth knowledge of the Bible and I was pretty rough around the edges as a person, but that didn’t stop Jesus from dying for my sins too. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
I went to a public high school, but there was a group of adults that came and led a Bible study every morning, until they couldn’t. The school had a new policy which stopped them from coming. Someone had invited me to come join, but the Bible study had been banned right before I had a chance to attend. It’s not that a Bible study itself was prohibited. It’s just that outside people weren’t allowed in to conduct it. How could God do this? Here I was on fire to learn more about Jesus and the leaders get kicked out before I could attend. “God, how can that be a good plan?” God’s answer: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” A high school buddy came up to me and said we could start a Bible study before school in their place. We could offer people God’s Word. I was like, “Nah, dude, I just read the Bible, I’m not qualified to share God’s Word.” Plus, there was that whole speaking in front of others thing again. I’m not sure you all understand how much I hated speaking to people. I was bad at it. Like really bad. I was the type of person who would stare awkwardly at you for an hour trying to think of one sentence to say.
Somehow, my buddy talked me into helping him with teaching a Bible study. I still have no idea how he did it. And so we began a brand new adventure of feeling inadequate and unprepared. And the Bible studies did not do well. In attendance we had 1 girl, and I eventually found out she was there just because she had a crush on my friend. We did the study anyway. For a whole year, we did it. And our attendance record was a whopping 3 people who didn’t seem to be paying attention. And yet, God’s Word was there. Later those 3 people would become Christians. The next year, we decided to try it again. We started with low expectations, but were faithful to God and the Word and something amazing happened. We weren’t pastors, we weren’t vastly skilled or super charismatic, but God’s Word was powerful. Groups of students started attending to the point where we had to keep pulling over extra table after extra table so everyone could listen and participate. The biggest win? People were saved! Not because of us. God knows that wasn’t it. But because of the message of a Savior. People understood that “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
High school ended. And a decision had to be made. What next? Remember all those thoughts against being a pastor at the beginning of this story? Most of those were still there. Plus, I didn’t know the first thing about being a pastor or how to go about becoming one. But I had seen the power of the gospel on people, including myself. I had felt God’s grace through his Word. That was enough. What better thing could I do than share the same grace that saved me?
So I figured out the steps of what to do and where to go next and then went to Martin Luther College and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. I’m skipping over some parts just because I have like 20 minutes to talk to you and not 10 hours. I will tell you this. Going to a WELS college had some culture shock to it. It seemed everyone there already knew everybody from high school and I didn’t know any of them. But God worked it out. I made friends, grew in knowledge and faith, continued through vicar year, graduated and 8 years later stood ready to receive my first call into the pastoral ministry. Once again, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
By this time most of those previous thoughts about low pay or long hours had drifted away. That getting up in front of people and talking thing was still a bit scary, still is, but it would be alright. God would work it out. And then I got my first call as a pastor from this one place called Salem. I still had a lot to learn, but I thought things went fairly smoothly for the first three months. And then as you know, disaster struck. I got really, really sick. Unable to move. Unable to think. Illnesses and aftereffects I’m still fighting today, but on a much lesser scale. I’m not going to go into details here, but I am going to say how frustrating it was. I remember looking at God and thinking, “Come on man! I’m trying to share your Word. Why are you messing with that? God, how am I supposed to help the kingdom grow, if I keep collapsing in the back room.” I don’t know all the reasons I went through that. I really don’t. Nor do I need to as God has proven he’s worthy of my trust. But God was kind enough to have several people share with me part of why I might have gone through something like that. Some said I was an inspiration for them and helped them battle things they were going through and draw closer to God. I certainly didn’t feel like an inspiration, but hey, if it helped. I was able to empathize with others going through certain things. I grew more patient and humble (God knows I still need a lot of work on these things). But here’s the coolest thing. Even through all of that, as I was struggling, God still worked among his people at Salem and elsewhere. Once again, God had proven he “works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” even when it didn’t seem like it. God was proving it wasn’t about me at all, but his Word was the powerful thing. It’s a little ironic because I talked about this in my very first sermon at Salem. I actually dug it up and want to read a little portion for you:
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this. My first sermon as an ordained pastor. It’s a little different from how I pictured it in high school. You see when I first knew I wanted to become a pastor I saw in the future my first sermon as a grand affair. I would make an entrance like some sort of athlete or entertainer. And then all sorts of pyrotechnics would go off. As I revealed myself as the pastor of everyone’s dreams, the congregation would explode into cheers. “Yeah Jake, You’re so awesome.” As I’m sure you’ve discovered, there are about a million things wrong with this illusion. The grandest one being that it’s not about me! Over time, I pushed that selfish idea away and still work at it. And in doing so reality comes in a little clearer. The focus is not on me, nor is it on you. It is on God. We’re going to take a look at how God chose us for salvation. We had nothing to do with it.”
It’s all about God. Faith, changing hearts, making people alive through the Word is all from him. I knew it from the day I came here, but since then I’ve seen it so powerfully on display at Salem. For which I am thankful for. My time at Salem has been nothing short of the grand privilege being a pastor can be. To see people believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who takes away the sins of the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This leads me to your story…
Your story may be very similar or quite different, but one thing is the same. If you are a believer, God has worked powerfully in you and for you. Being baptized in Christ and being a lifelong Christian is just as impressive as God causing a hardened heart of an adult to suddenly turn to him. Either way, faith is a miraculous thing brought about by him. And whatever your story, whether exciting or boring, pain-filled or joy-filled, God is working things for your good. Most of all, whatever you endure on this earth, when you believe in him you will not perish but have eternal life.
I’m almost out of time so before I wrap this up, if you’d permit me, I’d like to tack on some advice as I depart and Salem moves forward:
- Fall forward- Grounded in the same Word that’s always been, don’t be afraid to try new things, new ways to communicate the same unchanging Word. If it fails, that’s ok. That’s part of the process of growing. If you aren’t occasionally failing, it usually just means you aren’t trying anything. While I was here, we tried starting the youth program twice. Both times we started it, we had zero kids the first week. The last three events had 25, 28, and 27 teens show up. It’s ok to fall forward, learn from it, make changes or try something different.
- Stick together. Even the Lone Ranger had a partner. Pastor Wolfe is a wonderful pastor, in my opinion one of the very best. He’s going to do a great job for you here, but this is not just his church. It’s all of yours. You are, and have always been, stronger together. Please lend your talents. With all of you there is nothing you can’t do. Research has been showing people who have believing friends and supporters, are less likely to fall from the faith. Scripture has always known that. “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25)
- Your opinions aren’t the most important thing. God’s Word is. If you have a favorite preaching style, type of music, or even a favorite pastor, cool. Don’t let that get in the way of getting what you need. All opinions fall short of the main point. God’s Word is here. Support it and support those who share it.
- Enjoy the victories. In my opinion, Salem is currently in the best position since I’ve been here. It’s completely alright and encouraged to celebrate the wonderful things God has done and continues to do for you.
- Remember why you do everything you do. You have a message that is the difference between death and life, an eternity in hell and an eternity in heaven. Sharing it could be just the thing that saves one more soul.
Lastly, Thank you for the past 6 years. It’s been a wild ride. Thank you for the kindness, the generosity, the memories. Thank you for letting me share God’s Word with you and for sharing it with me as well. There is nothing better I can leave you with than God’s own Word, summarizing what he has done for us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Amen.