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Steven S. Billings

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Monday, March 23, 2009

CONCERT, MARCH 20TH, 2009

Concert March 20, 2009

As some of you might know, we had a concert scheduled for Friday, March 20th, featuring John Schlitt of Petra. Sadly, John couldn’t make it due to a family situation. But, we decided to go ahead with it anyway. I performed my whole album to a very appreciative audience. What great fun!!

10:24 pm est

Sunday, March 8, 2009

DEATH AND BAPTISM
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Epiphany 6
Sermon
2-15-2009

2 Kings 5:1-14

1 Now Naaman, captain of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man with his master, and highly respected, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man was also a valiant warrior, but he was a leper. 2 Now the Arameans had gone out in bands, and had taken captive a little girl from the land of Israel; and she waited on Naaman's wife. 3 And she said to her mistress, "I wish that my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would cure him of his leprosy." 4 And Naaman went in and told his master, saying, "Thus and thus spoke the girl who is from the land of Israel." 5 Then the king of Aram said, "Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel." And he departed and took with him ten talents of silver and six thousand shekels of gold and ten changes of clothes. 6 And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, saying, "And now as this letter comes to you, behold, I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may cure him of his leprosy." 7 And it came about when the king of Israel read the letter, that he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man is sending word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? But consider now, and see how he is seeking a quarrel against me." 8 And it happened when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, that he sent word to the king, saying, "Why have you torn your clothes? Now let him come to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel." 9 So Naaman came with his horses and his chariots, and stood at the doorway of the house of Elisha. 10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you and you shall be clean." 11 But Naaman was furious and went away and said, "Behold, I thought, 'He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper.' 12 "Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?" So he turned and went away in a rage. 13 Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, "My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, 'Wash, and be clean'?" 14 So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

You can easily tell from both the Old and New Testaments that God wants to bless all people so they can have a clean heart and an everlasting place in His gracious presence. Everything He made was pure and perfect and holy right from the beginning of creation. Even after the Fall of Adam into sin, God wanted everything to be flawless and unblemished. But He knew that He would have to be the one to make it that way. So, in a world full of disease, demons and death, the Lord spoke and acted, not only according to His holiness and justice, but according to His grace and mercy, using the means He Himself appointed.

Today's Old Testament provides a beautiful opportunity for us to understand that God bestows grace through His Word. The Lord has ordained His undershepherds to proclaim His Word of forgiveness in the Absolution. That's one of the means of grace. Holy Communion is another in which the Word is in, with and under the bread and wine. And Holy Baptism is another, where the Word is connected to the water. The account of Naaman's cure from leprosy helps us to understand God's desire and provision for our salvation. Let's look a little more closely to see how gracious this Washing of Water with the Word is.

"Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean." Naaman was a commander in the Syrian army, a man who was victorious in battle. He was a powerful man in a position of great power. He was also a man with a terrible problem; he was a leper. Leprosy eats away at the body, consuming it slowly, but surely. It's a loathsome disease, both to the one who has it and to those around him. "Unclean" is the word that comes to mind and is often used to describe the individual who has this hideous disease. Naaman needed cleansing from this horrible affliction of the body.

There's something like that disease that everybody here has. It's a disease that permeates the soul. It's called sin – a condition that is ours by nature even before we're born. King David declared the truth for each one of Adam's descendants: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psalm 51:5). Sometimes people think that sin is only something we do or fail to do. But our condition goes much deeper than that. We are in need of spiritual cleansing, which is why we beg God: "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! . . . Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:2, 8).

Naaman needed physical cleansing because he was a leper. If left unchecked and untreated, his condition would result in condemnation from the community, rejection by others and a lonely, putrid death.

Our spiritual condition, if left unchecked and uncleansed, would also result in condemnation, rejection by God Himself and eternal death. That's what would happen to everybody if God had not made the Way of salvation available to all. Scripture declares: "therefore . . . sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned" (Romans 5:12) and "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23a). That's what all deserve. God's mercy is shown by not giving us what we deserve. Consequently, thank God for the rest of that verse: "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).

Through Elisha God made a promise to Naaman: "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean." What wonderful, great, fantastic, undeserved news for this leper!

But there was a problem. The leper wasn't too happy with God's promise, because God had attached it only to the water of the Jordan River, a river that was far away from Naaman. And he didn't like that. He said: "Behold, I thought that [Elisha] would surely come out to me, and stand and call on the Name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper. Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?' So he turned and went away in a rage."

Here's Naaman's point: The water of the Jordan River isn't any better than the water of rivers closer to him. Rivers in Damascus would have been much more convenient. It's all H2O, right? In fact, water is just water and in itself, doesn't possesses any medicinal power to cleanse anyone from leprosy.

But there was a reason God's promise was tied to the particular water of the Jordan River. It wasn't the water that did the cleansing; it was the promise of God connected to the water that did it.

This is strikingly similar to the power of Baptism. The water we use to baptize someone isn't anything special either. When asked, How can water do such great things?, the reply is: "It is not the water indeed that does them, but the Word of God which is in and with the water, and faith which trusts the Word of God in the water. Without the Word of God, the water is simple water and no Baptism. But with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Spirit" (Luther's Small Catechism).

That right there is often the problem. How the Naamans of this world howl at this! Surely there should be something more to salvation than that; certainly you have to make some kind of decision, right? You have to make some kind of personal pledge, doncha? Doncha have to do something? How else am I going to feed my pride or have my ego stroked?

That's what Naaman's problem was. He thought the prophet of God should come out to him and wave his arms in the air and call on God's Name and do all sorts of other entertaining things. Angry that God was not using his prescribed methods for cleansing him, he went away in a huff.

But - lucky for him - one of Naaman's undeserved blessings was that he had some wise servants, who said: "My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean?'"

What a wonderful, inviting way of saying, "Look, you idiot. That prophet sent his messenger with the Word of God's promise to you. If you would've been commanded to give 10,000 pieces of silver – if you were ordered to conquer one nation or another – you'd have done it and been glad. But now, since God's Word of hope and cleansing has been given to you and that you need only wash seven times in the Jordan River, you're offended, angry, pitching a fit?! Are you really willing to pass up your only opportunity to be cleansed of this awful disease?"

Oh, how the unbelievers of the world and even the doubters in the church regard the invitation to repent and be baptized, to come and hear the Word of the forgiveness – to take and eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. Though it's an invitation and not a command, they often reply, "Don't tell me what to do. I thought the pastor was gonna come out and wave his hands and entertain me. Instead, he sends me an invitation to eat some unleavened bread and drink a sip of wine. My bread's just as good as yours. Take and eat, indeed! I don't like to be told what to do. I'm not gonna put up with it!"

And what happens to people like this? I don't know. I know what happened to Naaman. If he hadn't repented he would've remained a leper. But he did repent!

"He went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the Word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean."

Beloved, when you were baptized, you were cleansed by the Presence of the Lord God Almighty. You were restored to God; your soul was healed; your life was regenerated by the gracious washing of water with the Word. Sin no longer controls you, you are no longer enslaved by it, death no longer has dominion over you, you live in Christ, you are united with Christ in a Resurrection like His, you are alive to God and you walk in newness of life.

When Naaman was cured of leprosy, it was a cure that continued with him. Otherwise, he would've had to wash in the Jordan seven times every day. But he didn't. It continued with him and he must've been glad every morning when he arose and thanked the Lord for the Word and the water.

So also the cleansing you received in your Baptism remains with you. Every morning when you wake up remember that. Live your Baptism every day, drowning the old Adam and rising new and clean and refreshed.

In Romans 6, we're told that those who've been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death. His death on the cross paid the price for the life of the world. The sins that we've committed and the ones that we'll commit in whatever days that we have left on this earth have all been paid for in the death of Christ.

Death and Baptism are intrinsically connected in Christ. Centuries after Naaman went to the Jordan River to wash away his leprosy, "Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John wanted to prevent Him, saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and You come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting to fulfil all righteousness" (Matthew 3:13-15).

No leprosy was washed from Jesus that day, for He was perfectly clean. No transgressions were carried away from Him by the washing of water with the Word, for He was without sin. In fact, it was just the opposite. Jesus stepped into those filthy waters and all the diseases of body and soul, all the sins of humanity, were washed up and onto Him. He stepped out of that river and continued His journey to the cross, carrying in His body that awful, terrible, horrible burden with Him. He did it, not because He needed it for Himself, but so that you could continue to lay your sins on Him and know that in your baptism all your sins - past, present and future - are washed away and you are clean. In the Name of the Father and of the T Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
4:19 pm est

SICKNESS IN LIGHT OF THE CROSS
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Epiphany 5
Sermon
2-8-2009

St. Mark 1:29-39

29And immediately [Jesus] left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. 31And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. 33And the whole city was gathered together at the door. 34And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” 39And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.

In some ways we have a rather troublesome subject before us this morning. In our text Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law and later on He heals many who were sick and diseased. Obviously, healings are good things.

This is just one of many miracles in the gospels. Seems like every time Jesus opens His mouth miracles happen. He smears mud in a man's eyes and he sees. He says, "come forth" and a man rises from the grave. He commands demons to leave and they do! And here in our text He takes death by the hand and ushers it right out the door! This is such a glorious passage of Scripture because it reminds us that Jesus is God and that He holds all power in His hands, even power over sickness and death.

So, what's so troublesome about that? Well, the problem is, with all this healing going on, people sometimes wonder: "Why doesn't Jesus do this for me? What about my sickness, what about the sickness of my child or parent or some other friend or relative? Why doesn't He help us?"

The subject of sickness - especially the sickness of Christians - is bothersome for a number of reasons. First of all, we know that Jesus has the power to take away our sickness, don't we? I mean, He's God, right? And that means He's omnipotent - all-powerful; there's nothing He can't do, there's no sickness He can't heal. So, why are there Christians - His own beloved children - still sick? That bugs us.

And then we begin to question God's love and mercy. What kind of loving and merciful God would send His own Son to the cross? And what does His death have to do with my sickness? Anything? Does the cross say anything about why Christians get sick? Does it have any relevance? It does, actually, and that's what I want us to consider for the next several minutes: "Our Sickness in Light of the Cross."

I'd like to begin by looking at the book of Job. When we Christians think about sickness and suffering we're often drawn to the story of Job - and there's plenty there to talk about!

In chapter seven Job writes: "I have been allotted months of futility, and nights of misery have been assigned to me. When I lie down I think, 'How long before I get up?' The night drags on, and I toss till dawn. My body is clothed with worms and scabs, my skin is broken and festering" (Job 7:3-5).

Now, maybe you'd describe your sickness differently, but no doubt you can relate to how Job felt about his. There's an emotional stress that comes right along with his physical problems. We get that too. And it often comes from the fact that we don't understand why - even though Jesus gave His life for us - we still suffer. Why does that happen? What's the purpose? Why does a Christian, a baptized child of God, have to deal with illness? Jesus has redeemed us body and soul. So why do we still get sick?

I want to say unequivocally that God does not use sickness as a punishment. The punishment for sin is death, and Jesus already suffered that on our behalf, so get rid of that idea right away. Might it be some form of discipline? Perhaps. But there's a big difference between discipline and punishment. Punishment has as its singular goal the meting out of retribution for a violation of the law. You get caught doing 80 across the Butte des Morts bridge and there's gonna be some retribution. You can trust me on that! (No, I don't have any personal experience with that; it's pure speculation, I promise!)

Discipline, on the other hand, has as its main goal discipleship. The purpose is to make you a disciple, to help you in following the teachings of your master. Sometimes sickness is given to get us to change our behavior from things that damage our relationship with Christ to things that enhance and improve it. Many an alcoholic has been scared into sobriety because of a life-threatening illness brought on by his drinking. I've known people who work too hard that have found in their heart attack the motivation to slow down and sit at the feet of Jesus instead of running around trying to serve Him all the time. Are these things sinful in and of themselves? Of course not. But when these behaviors interfere with your relationship with Jesus they need to be modified. We'll leave it up to God, of course, to decide if an illness is what you need to get you back on track.

But in any event, we need to remember that punishment is not the purpose for illness, just as it was not out of sheer heartlessness that God sent His Son to the cross. Friends, this is really the perspective that we need. As followers of Christ - and especially as Lutherans - we must categorically refuse to think of God in any way apart from His grace in Christ Jesus, so beautifully demonstrated by His death on the cross. You know, the cross wasn't just some historic event; it was - and is - everything for us. It forms and informs our understanding, our very conception of God. The cross is the filter through which we consider every single aspect of our life.

Let me give you an illustration. A few years ago we had Hurricane Katrina, one of the most devastating causes of human suffering in our lifetime. Some religious people have said that Hurricane Katrina was God's wrath being carried out upon the sin-filled city of New Orleans. As far as they're concerned, New Orleans was just another Sodom and Gomorrah and the tragedy of Katrina was God's judgment, His punishment, if you will, on the city and its people.

Now, this is the kind of proposition that we, as Lutherans, have to reject in the light of the cross. Dr. Gene Veith wrote about the subject recently in one of our Lutheran publications. He said: "In the Lutheran mind-set, when we think of God's wrath, we immediately bring Christ into the picture. The target of God's wrath is Christ - not us, not the hurricane victims . . . not the whole sinful mess of humanity - [but] Jesus on the cross, bearing in His body the sin of the world and experiencing God's judgment against that sin, so that we can experience instead His grace and mercy." As Luther once warned: "We dare not presume to approach or even think about God apart from a mediator, apart from Christ."

So, beloved, your sickness - whatever it is - is not punishment from God. Jesus' cross eliminates that possibility. So, why do we get sick? Obviously, if God allows it, it must have a purpose, right?

That doesn't mean that we'll always know what God's purpose is. Sometimes the hidden things of God remain hidden. Sometimes we have to let mysteries be mysteries. But when you see God through the Light of the cross, you see that even when we don't understand His purpose, we can understand that He has one! "God," the Scripture says, "causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28).

No, we don't always know what God's purpose is in our sickness, and we shouldn't drive ourselves nuts trying to figure out what it might be. Under the cross of Jesus all of life is given meaning, as one of our Lenten hymns puts it: "Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure by the cross are sanctified" (LSB 427:4).

Sometimes we face illness so we can learn to give thanks to God for doctors and medicine. People often pray for miracles when they're sick. I wonder if they realize that sometimes the miracle is the doctor God has given them or the medicine that's prescribed. These are just as miraculous as the healing of Simon Peter's mother-in-law. They're just given in a different way.

Sickness also calls us to repentance and faith. You know how it is - when you're sick you slow down and reflect on your life. Though it isn't necessarily our sins that have caused our illness, still, we pause to confess them. Our plea becomes all the more that God would create in us a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within us. We learn to find hope in God's Word. The slightest promise becomes a treasure that other people could hardly begin to comprehend. We die to sin and find new life in the promises of God. In other words, we learn to live the baptismal life.

So, yeah, sickness calls us to repentance and faith. It humbles us. Paul endured his thorn in the flesh so that he would remain humble before God. He could have boasted in his accomplishments, but it was his weakness that became the greatest source of his strength. He prayed for God to take away his thorn in the flesh, but God, out of love for Paul, left it there so that his pride would never overtake him.

Ultimately, sickness drives us to the cross of Jesus, because we refuse even to think about it apart from that cross. It's in the cross that we find our comfort, our rest, and our hope. And if God can give us life through that great symbol of death, if He can give the greatest good through the suffering of His Son, He surely can - and does! - bring good through our suffering as well.

God enable us in our illnesses to see that He has not let go our hand, but will, in His time, and according to His purpose, restore us to health and strength, that we may rise and continue our service to Him. In the name of the Father and of the T Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
4:05 pm est

Saturday, March 7, 2009

HANSEL & GRETE & TED & ALICE

Steve & Liz

A little silliness preceded this photo after church recently, as I participated in a P.D.Q. Bach opera. It was a lot of fun!

2:09 pm est

THE GREATEST PROPHET
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Epiphany 4
Sermon
2-1-2009

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

15 "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him. 16 "This is according to all that you asked of the Lord your God in Horeb on the day of the assembly, saying, 'Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, let me not see this great fire anymore, lest I die.' 17 "And the Lord said to me, 'They have spoken well. 18 'I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 'And it shall come about that whoever will not listen to My words which he shall speak in My name, I Myself will require it of him. 20 'But the prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he shall speak in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.'"

This text clearly speaks of Jesus as a new Prophet. God directed Moses to put it here, after he's already laid down the instructions concerning the priesthood, the kingdom, the government, and the whole business of worship is all about. His purpose, it seems, is to show that in the future there will be another priesthood, another kingdom, another worship of God, and another Word, by which everything Moses commanded would be fulfilled. It musta been kinda weird to write about your own end and to foresee the completion of your work in the Prophet yet to come!

Moses begins to explain this to his people by saying that it was necessary for the new Prophet to bring a new word, a word unlike that which Moses himself taught. But what kind of a word would this be? Wasn't the Law of God perfectly communicated through Moses? I mean, what more could you add to the Ten Commandments? What loftier thing could be taught than to believe, fear, love, and trust in God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength? Obviously, the new Prophet would not bring more Law, since God's Law had already been delivered in its perfection. This new Prophet, then, would bring not a message of Law, but of Grace.

This new Prophet would speak with authority, like Moses, but with the very voice of God. "I will put My words in his mouth," the Lord said. So the new Prophet would be greater than Moses. All the other prophets after Moses taught from the Law that Moses had given, but this new one would bring something new, a different kind of word from God. Whereas Moses delivered the Law, the new Prophet would deliver the Gospel.

Moses, indeed, gave the Law, which pronounces sin and death, making everyone guilty and subject to punishment. The Law makes demands, but does not give what it demands. The new Prophet, however, proclaims righteousness, grace, and life. So they're alike in terms of divine authority, but when it comes to the fruit of their ministry they are polar opposites. The sin and wrath that Moses kindles through his ministry this Prophet cancels through His. The new Prophet doesn't demand a thing, actually, but grants everything the Law demands.

So here we have two ministries of the Word, both necessary for our salvation: the Law and the Gospel, one for death, the other for life. One is temporary, the other eternal, because the righteousness it brings will never end.

To have a firm grasp on this, we need to make a clear distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel, understanding, first of all, that the Law makes demands only on unbelievers, as Paul writes to Timothy: "The Law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless."

What are the intentions of the Law? The Law is meant to drive sinners to their knees by convincing them of their sin. Do you - as a believer - need to be convinced of your sin? Sometimes. Because you don't always act like a believer, do you. You don't always think like a believer. Why? Because sin still adheres to your mortal flesh and your faith is not perfect; there's still a part of you that doesn't believe like it should.

But for the most part you , as a believer, are already convinced that you are sinful and in need of forgiveness. So, apart from the occasional kick in the seat of the pants that we need from the Law, mostly what we need is the Gospel, which calms our fears, soothes our conscience, and then empowers us to live more in keeping with the Law.

Now, this doesn't mean that we are free from the Law's demands - we are not! - but we repentant sinners are certainly free of the guilt and punishment threatened by the Law. It has become for us a guide, a teacher in the way of righteousness. We're not bound to the demands of the Law, as though in chains, imprisoned by the fantasy that we can - or even must - earn our salvation through obedience, but are satisfied with knowledge that salvation is ours by the free gift of God through faith in the death and resurrection of His Son.

But you need to be careful, because some people think that the Gospel is some kind of insurance policy – a safety net, so to speak – so that they can sin as much as they want to, expecting God's grace to catch them when they repent. But if you're really born of the Spirit you don't play that kind of game. True believers don't do that. They do their best to live according to the Law - not because they feel they have to, but because they want to.

Listen, if you play the "I'll repent later" game, how can you ever be sure that your repentance is sincere? I mean, if it was, you probably wouldn’t have sinned so boldly in the first place, right? Besides, true repentance always includes trying to make right what was done wrong - to return what you stole, to stop your sinful behavior, to repair your broken relationship, and so on. Luther calls this "mortification of the flesh" - putting to death our impulses to sin. If there's no mortification going on, if there's no fruit of repentance, you gotta kinda wonder if the repentance was real in the first place.

Now, there's something of interest here in Moses' use of Exodus 20. He says that the people asked for another Prophet like Moses. But there's no such request in the passage he quotes from. So why does he say it?

It appears that Moses infers this from their request not to hear the thundering voice of God anymore, and their appointment of Moses as the one to speak on behalf of God. Sort of: "You go and talk to Him and come back and tell us what He said."

So Moses agrees to do this, but he knows he's not going to be around forever. Eventually, someone's going to have to take His place. Who's it going to be? Well, God will decide. Of course, God had already decided. He determined from eternity that He would send His Son, because He knew that we can't stand in His presence and look at Him as He is. He'd already told Moses: "No one may see my face and live" (Exodus 33:20). He had to become one of us, so that we could be in His presence and not die.

So the people were looking for a kinder, gentler, more pleasant communication from God, and God, who sees and knows what no one else can see or know, listens not just to the sound of our voice, but to the sound of our heart - the thoughts and feelings burning within us that no words can express.

And this is the way God wants it. He doesn't want lazy, cold-hearted followers. He wants sighings that cannot be uttered. He wants the passion of a heart that yearns and groans and aches to be heard. And you can't have that kind of passion if everything is handed to you on a silver platter. You only get that by feeling the depth and despair of your sin - the bite and sting of it - like the people of Israel did when they heard the thunderous voice of God from heaven. They couldn't bear hearing that voice God or seeing that great fire anymore. The guilt of their sin made them tremble, so that they longed to hear a different Word; they needed the Word of Life. They needed a different kind of Prophet.

And that's what God gave them - a Prophet who heals those wounded by the condemning voice of the Law, a Prophet who consoles those afflicted by the guilt of their sin, a Prophet who uplifts and encourages those terrified and broken. And what medicine does He use? Nothing but the Word of Life and Salvation, the proclamation of peace and reconciliation. God the Father sent the Prophet that Malachi wrote about: "And suddenly will come to His temple the Messenger of the covenant, whom you desire" ; and Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me and sent Me to proclaim the Gospel to the poor, to heal the contrite heart, to preach the year accepted by the Lord." This is the One they asked for at Horeb. And this is the One the Father gave according to His good and gracious will.

Oh, how different the Word of this Prophet is compared to that of Moses! His Word is not the Law, which kills and terrifies, but the Gospel which raises the dead and gives comfort.

Of course, there are those who won't listen to it. And since they reject the Gospel, they'll be stuck with the Law. Like disobedient children they'll suffer the punishment they deserve, as the Lord says: "In anger and wrath I will execute vengeance upon the nations that did not obey" (Micah 5:15). But what sort of obedience is He demanding? Clearly, it's the obedience of faith; the obedience of a heart that is willing to hear and believe.

The Law of God reveals that we absolutely cannot save ourselves, but the Gospel assures us that through faith in Christ salvation is already ours in fullest measure.

And when the heart is at peace through the Spirit, then there is confession with the mouth, there is mortification of the flesh, and good works naturally flow in love, forgiveness, kindness, peace, and so on.

The sum of our religion, friends – and the Word of the new Prophet – is that faith is given through the Word, that sin remains in our flesh and must be cleansed through the Means of Grace, and that mortification of the flesh is not an achievement, but a process – a process that follows faith and flows from faith, a process that's never completed in this life by anyone, which is why we deal lovingly with those who are weak in faith and morals; we do not condemn them, for clearly we would also be condemning ourselves.

The fact is: we all need the Word of the new Prophet, for the word of Moses does nothing but strike us dead. The Word of the new Prophet is the Word of the Gospel, the Word of Grace and Life.

In an age when the Law is touted by everyone and kept by no one, we need - now more than ever! - to know the difference between the Law and the Gospel. The unbelieving world needs to hear the Law of Moses, the first great prophet, but we must also be quick to offer the Gospel of Christ, the greatest Prophet, whose message of forgiveness and life we do well to keep in our own hearts and minds, as well as on our lips. God grant it for His glory and our great benefit. In the name of the Father and of the T Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:39 pm est

CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Conversion of St. Paul
Sermon
1-25-2009

St. Matthew 19:27-30

27 Then Peter answered and said to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?" 28 So Jesus said to them, "Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. 30 "But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

"For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, And deep darkness the people; But the Lord will arise over you, And His glory will be seen upon you" (Isaiah 60:2). What a wonder it is that darkness - even deep darkness - can be converted to light. St. Paul, of whom Ananias said: "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints" (Acts 9:13), was later to confess: "By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me" (1 Cor. 15:10). How do you go from being one who "has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on" the name of Jesus (Acts 9:14), to "a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel" ? (Rom. 1:1)

But it was true - he who was last became first. In comparing himself to others he wrote: "Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ?; I speak as a fool; I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness; besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity" (2 Cor. 11:22-30).

Clearly, by his own testimony, Paul suffered more than most - certainly more than anything you and I have had to deal with. But in all of this - His suffering, His labor, His affliction; in all his "infirmities," even in his "thorn in the flesh," [in all this] he did not suffer alone, for His encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus shows that our Lord truly knows all things - even the sufferings of His servants. For before Paul was persecuted, he was the persecutor; before he suffered, he was the instrument of great suffering.

As he sat in the dirt, having been knocked over by a great light, Jesus confronted him and said: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" (Acts 9:3) In other words: Why are you causing my servants to suffer? You see, their suffering - and I should say our suffering - your suffering - [all of it] is His suffering, and it is not in vain, for "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28).

So be encouraged, my friends, for you who have been baptized into Christ, have been enlightened by the Spirit of Christ. You are God's child - and this was no accident, "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified" (Rom. 8:29-30). In baptism you were called to be His own, justified - declared holy in His sight - and you have the promise of future glory.

But be careful - glory comes through affliction, "because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Rom. 5:3-5).

So, yes, at one time there was a great darkness in St. Paul. He was a persecutor, a jailor, an executioner of sorts, of those who called upon the name of Jesus. He dished out an awful lot of suffering for Christians. Indeed, his very appearance on the scene was a veritable death sentence.

But the Spirit of God was hovering over Paul, as He had over the face of the deep at the creation of the world. And "the true light that gives light to every man" (John 1:9) spoke light into the darkness of Paul's soul.

And so it was that this former advocate of death became an proponent of life. Instead of persecuting others he allowed himself to be made last, saying: "It seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world" (1 Cor. 4:9-13).

Did you ever feel like "the scum of the earth" ? Life as a Christian in this world can be awfully disheartening. And things are about to get worse.

Some of us have been very discouraged lately watching the rise of the Culture of Death in our country. I'm about to upset some people, and I don't really want to do that, but I feel compelled to say that we have just inaugurated the greatest advocate of abortion in our nation's history. And that statement isn't so much about the man himself as it is about the mind-set those who placed him in office. Every protection against the slaughter of the unborn is about to be ripped from the pages of this country's legal system. Hate him if you want to, but our past President went a long way toward making the womb a safe place to live again. All of that is about to be reversed faster than you can quote the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Right to Life is clearly enunciated in the founding documents of this nation, and that right is being stripped from us at an ever-increasing rate. The proponents of the Death Culture won't be satisfied until they have abortion on demand with no restrictions whatsoever, and now we have a President who's willing to give it to them.

With this prospect looming before like a harbinger it would be easy to slip into despair. But let us rather follow the example of St. Paul who to be content even in circumstances that to us would seem intolerable. And let us not forget to pray for our leaders. Our new President needs our prayers. Let's pray that God would persuade him to protect the lives of all he serves, including - and perhaps especially - the unborn and all those who cannot defend themselves.

After all, if the Lord can change the heart of St. Paul from that of a threat to God's people to that of a champion of Christ, He can certainly change hearts today - in all branches of government and in all walks of life.

In the meantime, we may have to suffer losses. Sadly, many young lives will be lost, and this will cause us great consternation. But let us not shun the affliction that will surely be ours, for God has promised that it will not last forever. One day, the first will be last and the last will be first (Matt. 19:30). In God's time and according to His good and gracious will, "Gladness and joy will overtake [us], and sorrow and sighing will flee away" (Isaiah 35:10), for as He says: "'Surely I am coming quickly.' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen" (Rev. 22:20-21). In the name of the Father and of the T Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:25 pm est

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For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
(Philippians 1:21)

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