How Can I Thank the Lord?

Psalm 116:12 “How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” 

The cup of the salvation was a term used to describe one of the cups of wine passed around at the Passover meal. That cup was lifted for everyone to see. It reminded the people of how the Lord had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and brought them to the land of Promise.

We may lift a glass to give a toast at our holidays, but our customs don’t match the picture in this psalm. That doesn’t stop us from doing something similar with our mouths. We still hold up God’s salvation for all to see as we tell them about our salvation. The Passover, after all, was a foreshadowing of how the Lord would deliver us from our slavery to sin. Through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead we have been set free from the chains of death and brought to the promised land of eternal life. It is our privilege to put this salvation on a pedestal. We lift up our Savior and his work by sharing them with everyone who needs to know.

And isn’t telling someone else one of the sincerest forms of thanksgiving? Isn’t it a genuine way to express our appreciation? Everyone appreciates a thank-you card, or even a simple thank you in words. Perhaps that gratitude is even easier to see when those who receive our gifts can’t wait to tell everyone else what they have been given. 

Your children thank you for the new sweater, but you know their appreciation for the gaming console is genuine when they run to tell all their friends about it. The psalmist says something similar here. How can we repay the Lord for all his goodness? It’s one thing to pray words of thanksgiving for giving us his Son and all his other gifts. Perhaps that thanksgiving is better expressed when we run to our friends and say, “Just look at what the Lord has done for me!”  

Lifting up a cup perhaps brings another picture to our mind. When we lift up a cup, it is generally to drink from it. We wouldn’t survive long without something to drink. In the same way, we want to drink regularly from the Lord’s cup of salvation. Our lives and words have not been never-ending expressions of thanksgiving for God’s goodness. We regularly need forgiveness. We regularly need of assurance of God’s love. We regularly need the strength the gospel message provides. We drink in the comfort and strength the Lord shares when we hear and use the word of God. Its life-giving message brings us face to face with the Savior who was willing to drink from another cup, a bitter one, in which he suffered the punishment for our sins. With such love he opened heaven’s gates to you and me.

We are the ones who stand to benefit by drinking from the cup of salvation. But drinking also expresses our thanks. We don’t let gifts we love sit in the closet collecting dust. We put them to use. We tell others what we have been given. Thank the Lord for all his goodness by telling others about his salvation, and by taking a good drink of it yourself.

Glory to the One Who Makes Us Kings and Priests

Revelation 1:5-6 “To him who loves us, and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and ever! Amen.”

Are you proud to be an American? Maybe you take exception to some decision or other our leaders make. For the most part, though, we like being part of this nation. We are proud to live in the most powerful nation on earth. This is a nation that strives to stand for what is good in this world. It provides its citizens with the one of the highest standards of living. Our country has expended its resources and made great sacrifices to bring freedom and a better life to others. A sense of privilege goes along with being a citizen of the United States. Look how many citizens of other countries are trying to get in!

The citizenship Jesus has given us in his kingdom is a far higher one. Here we are all royalty. Even now you are a “blue blood,” a member heavenly nobility. The Apostle Peter echoes these same words in his first letter when he calls us a “royal priesthood.”

Because of our exalted position in Jesus’ kingdom, everything serves us now. God has promised that in all things he works for our good. The entire universe and everything that happens in it submits to us.

Are you fascinated by your family history? Have you traced your family tree or taken DNA tests to know who you are? By faith we are part of a royal family that traces its roots through Adam and Abraham, David and Daniel, Peter and Paul, and especially our dear brother Jesus. That’s our lineage, our heritage, our ancestry by faith. Jesus has ennobled you and me by making us part of his kingdom.

In that kingdom we all serve God as his priests. Before that is task or responsibility, it is a privilege. It means we have direct access to God. Sometimes people come to me as pastor and want me to pray for them. They believe I have some kind of “in” with God as a member of the clergy. They suspect I have God’s ear, that I have access in a way other people don’t. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to pray for anyone. But for Christians, pastors have the same special access Jesus has given everyone else. John doesn’t say Jesus made a few of us priests. He made a whole kingdom full of priests. We all enjoy this direct, individual, personal relationship with God. When you come to God he’s not going to say, “Who sent you? What are you doing here?” He welcomes you as one of the priests Jesus has called by faith.

Our priesthood is also a privilege because now God has entrusted his sacrifices into our hands. We don’t offer blood sacrifice anymore. Jesus made the sacrifice for sin once for all. But God has entrusted us with sacrifices of praise. We offer our bodies, not in a bloody way, but in an unbloody way. “Living sacrifices” Paul calls us in Romans. We make these offerings by sharing our faith with others. We serve by letting our hands and feet become God’s tools for loving those he has placed in our path. This is our sacrifice of praise, and we will continue to offer it long after we have left God’s kingdom of faith here to join him in his kingdom above.

America has no king and Americans don’t want one! We may be fascinated by the melodramatic lives of the monarchies in Europe, particularly the British royal family, but we aren’t eager to have the same scenes played out here. Ever since George Washington turned down the opportunity to be king with the words, “I didn’t fight George III to become George I,” we have been happy to be a nation without a king.

Jesus, however, doesn’t rule us by fear or intimidation. He didn’t force us to follow him at the edge of a sword or end of a gun. He won us to his kingdom by his love and made us its royalty by grace. We are proud to take our place in that kingdom, and give glory to the King we serve.

Glory for Our Freedom

Revelation 1:5-6 “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and ever! Amen.”

            Almost twenty years ago I watched the video from a Houston courtroom in which multi-millionaire Robert Durst was acquitted of murdering his neighbor, Morris Black. Mr. Durst claimed that he killed Mr. Black in self-defense. After killing him he cut up the body and threw it into Galveston Bay. He did not deny disposing of the body this way. The courtroom camera caught Mr. Durst’s reaction as the not guilty verdict was read. I wish I could show you a picture. You could see the tension escaping his body as his shoulders suddenly relaxed. His head tilted back, he closed his eyes, and he let out a visible sigh. I suspect he was not expecting a not guilty verdict. I am certain he was utterly relieved to be out from under the threat of punishment.

In the Lutheran Sunday service, you hear week after week that you are on the receiving end of a not-guilty verdict. Together we confess our sins. The pastor announces God’s mercy and forgiveness for the sake Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. We are free to go. We are out from under the threat of a punishment that would make death by any means look inviting. Do you feel relieved? Whether or not you have the same sense of relief as Robert Durst, the fact remains that Jesus has set us free from the anger of God our sins deserved.

What makes that freedom truly special is the price the King paid to set his subjects free. He gave his own blood, his own life. When someone asks us merely to lend them something– not to take it, just to borrow it– do you sometimes feel some inner hesitation, especially if it is something you hold dear? Will it be damaged? Will it be broken? Will it ever be returned? Will we be inconvenienced while it is gone?

Jesus didn’t merely risk his life for us. He didn’t temporarily lend us his body. He knew that it would be damaged, and broken, and taken away from him. He gave his life up to free us from our sins. “No greater love has anyone than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

We give those who have given their lives to ensure our political freedoms and personal liberties a special place in our hearts for the sacrifices they have made. But none of them died for their natural enemies like Jesus died for us. None of them were punished in our place. None of them suffered the hell Jesus suffered for us. This was the price for our freedom, and we give Jesus glory because he has freed us from our sins by his blood.

To Him Be Glory for His Love

Revelation 1:5-6 “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and ever! Amen.”

I want you to notice something about the word “love” right away. It is in the present tense. John says, “To him who loves us,” as in “right now.” He does not say, “To him who loved us,” as in “thousands of years ago when he was still alive.” Jesus is not merely a great hero from the past we study as a part of history. Jesus is just as alive as your living friends and family members today, only he loves you more. Even though we have never seen him with our eyes, he is someone we know and love personally, only he loves us more. Jesus rose from the dead, body and soul. He is very much alive and well at this very moment, loving you more than anyone else ever has or can.

You knew this already, at least you knew it in your head. But we need to take a little closer look. I think you know why. When the Apostle John first wrote these words over 1900 years ago, he was writing to people who might have wondered whether they were really true. The Church was going through terrible times. The Roman Empire was rounding up Christian leaders in some parts of the empire and executing them. John himself had been exiled to the island of Patmos.

Under such conditions it would have been easy for Christians to wonder whether Jesus was genuinely alive and in control. If he was, did he really love them anymore? They needed to hear that Jesus’ love wasn’t a past phenomenon. They needed to hear, “Jesus loves you right now.”

What about you? Each of us could come up with evidence contradicting his love without too much thought. I once received a phone call from a man who asked me, “Where can I find a gracious God?” “Jesus shows us God is gracious,” I told him. “But where can I find him”? he questioned. He was convinced God did not love him. God’s promises must apply only to other people who had happier lives. In a single year his wife had left him and taken the children. He lost his home and his job, and he was left with nothing. It was hard to believe Jesus loved him anymore.

This is why your pastors come calling when you are in the hospital or there has been a death in the family. We need to hear that Jesus loves us right now when he has decided to take a child from us in death, or a husband, wife, friend, or family member we always leaned on. Jesus still loves you, right now, even when the doctor tells you that the pain isn’t going to go away. It’s likely to get worse. Your chances of survival are less than 50 percent.

How about after you or I have committed the “Big One”? Or how about the stream of ordinary sins we churn out like a factory running at full capacity? Our assembly line steadily turns them out, each one an unimaginative copy of the other. Once again this week I deserved to go hell. Most of the sin looks a lot like last week’s. Shouldn’t God get tired of it? Don’t we make ourselves impossible to love?

But there is one thing steadier than my sin. That is Jesus’ love for me. More than anything else it is that love– the same love with which he loved me yesterday, the same love with which he loves me today, and the same love with which he will love me when I have passed from time into eternity– it is that love which invaded my heart and conquered it for his kingdom. We give Jesus glory because he loves us, today and always.

Only So That We Might Live With Him

1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”

One of the great truths the light of the gospel makes possible to see is that, for the Christian, Judgment Day holds only salvation. God did not choose us and call us to faith so that on the last day he could still take his anger at sin out on us. He sacrificed his Son and brought us to faith to guarantee us a place in heaven.

Some have questioned the wisdom, or even the truthfulness, of that promise. If people aren’t kept in fear of Judgment Day, they believe, they will feel free to live a wicked life. But is that true? Do people have to be held in fear of the end to get them to behave properly?

When I was in grade school my parents planned a family vacation to Disney World. As a child, there was nothing I looked forward to more. My parents invested a lot of time planning that vacation. They paid a lot of money to make it reality. Practically nothing I could do would have stopped it from happening.

Just because I knew it was “guaranteed” didn’t make me behave worse in the meantime. On the contrary, in my excitement over going I did a lot of positive things getting ready, not to make the vacation possible, but just because I was sure we were going.

Just because heaven is guaranteed, that doesn’t mean that we will stop taking the coming Judgment seriously. We approach it as children of the light. In our excitement over going, we are more likely to spend our time getting ready, not to make heaven possible, but just because we know we are going to go.

For most people, the term “Judgment Day” sounds like something dark. And that’s how it will be…if we belong to the darkness of unbelief. But this is also the day on which the full light of God’s glory is going to shine. It will be the first time for such light on earth since creation in all its majesty. The entire population of heaven is coming to the big event: saints and angels, our glorified Savior and his holy Father. Don’t be afraid for that day to come. We are only going home to live with him.

Life in the Light

1 Thessalonians 5:6-8 “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet”

Not everyone who belongs to the darkness is a grand, public, disgusting, dangerous sinner. Many are simply spiritually asleep. Like so many of our neighbors, they raise their children to be friendly and respectful. They work hard and have successful careers. They volunteer in the community. They vote conscientiously. They offer to watch your dog when you go on vacation. Everyone considers them to be good folk.

But spiritually, they are asleep at the wheel. The very ordinariness of their lives has lulled them into a false sense of security. So caught up with raising their family, making a living, saving for retirement, and making the community a better place, they have no sense of the fact that they are rushing headlong toward a fatal crash with God’s justice on the Day of Judgment.

Others are more intentional about living a life that suits their spiritual darkness. “Those who get drunk, get drunk at night.” When a person gets literally drunk, what happens? All the inhibitions come down. Lips starts flapping and saying things they shouldn’t. People don’t restrain themselves sexually. Some lose control of their tempers. Even more self-destructive behavior may follow.

What happens when the spiritually darkened no longer believe God’s word? Their inhibitions begin to drop, don’t they? It’s easier to rationalize their self-gratifying behavior. It’s easier to ignore their conscience. Sexual perversion seems defensible, even “natural.” Dishonesty in the workplace is just “taking care of yourself.” All kinds of self-destructive behavior may follow, with no fear of reprisal.

But why should the apostle Paul remind us of all this? Aren’t we the sons of light? Yes, but isn’t it easy for us find the monotonous grind of ordinary life spiritually deadening? Don’t you find the urgency of 101 little daily responsibilities spiritually distracting? In the parable of the sower Jesus warns about ending up like the seed that fell among the thorns. The cares, worries, and pleasures of this life choked that seed of faith and made it unfruitful. How many pet sins or secret desires wouldn’t we be happy to stop resisting? How much easier to give in to a state of spiritual inebriation.

To combat such temptation, Paul encourages, “But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” There are two places we need to be careful to protect. First put on a breastplate. What does a breastplate cover? It protects your heart, doesn’t it? If we want to live self-controlled lives, we need to protect our hearts from things that try to take Jesus’ place there.

And what is that breastplate made out of? Faith and love. As long as we are tending to the things that nurture our trust and love for Jesus, reviewing and remembering his promises, receiving his forgiveness and grace, the light of faith keeps burning in our hearts. Jesus remains our heart’s one true love. The temptations of the darkness can’t compete for our affection.

The other thing we need to protect is our head. Our minds are another key battleground for our spiritual lives. If the darkness can lead us into some false belief, we become vulnerable to its temptations.

Against this we put on the hope of salvation as a helmet. When our minds are occupied with God’s saving work, when we are getting to know our Savior better, we are safe from temptation. And do you notice that the protective gear has to do with gospel things? When head and heart are right, a right life will surely follow.

We can see what others can’t. Doesn’t it make more sense to follow the light than follow the blind?

You Can See

I Thessalonians 5:4-5 “But you, brothers, are not in the darkness, so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.”

The point of Paul’s analogy is not difficult to understand. Those who belong to the night or the darkness can’t see. Those in spiritual darkness don’t see who God is, how he works, what he’s done, or what he expects.

This is not a small problem. A blind man is blind wherever he goes. Those who live in spiritual darkness carry their darkness with them into every perception and experience. It affects how they interpret their whole world.

Biblical ignorance is a major ingredient in this spiritual darkness, but it’s not the whole thing. Making people Biblically smarter doesn’t always make them better. If people don’t trust God when he tells them a behavior is sinful, how does the information help them? If people don’t trust God when he tells them the wonderful things he has done for them, how can they benefit from his promises? People who don’t trust God, who won’t let his opinion stand above their own, still can’t see. They are still in the dark, no matter how much Scripture they know.

We do not belong to that darkness, but its shadow continues to creep up on us. We still desire to set ourselves up as judges over God’s word: which parts make sense or sound fair. Wherever we set ourselves up as judges, the darkness is creeping back in. It casts a shadow over our faith.

That is not the nature of our faith, however. “You are all sons of the light and sons of the day.” Jesus once described his disciples as the light of the world. Our lives of love and words of grace reflect God’s love to people around us. They help people see Jesus.

But Paul isn’t thinking of something we do when he calls us “sons of light” and “sons of the day.” He is thinking of something we are. Before we shine, we have to see. Before we reflect God’s love we have to be people who have seen that love and received it ourselves.

This is what it means to be sons of light. Sons of light see their condition as it actually is. They don’t pretend to be super spiritual. They don’t go about like a man whose leg hurts terribly, but he tries to appear as though he isn’t limping. They know they can’t cover up what is broken. The cancer of sin is terminal. It has spread through the whole self. It has strangled the heart. And how do you cover up a dead heart?

Sons of light also see God’s love in all its glory. They know he didn’t waste time waiting for spiritual corpses to revive themselves. He started over with a substitute. He himself became that substitute. He lived a life of love for them. He died the death their sins deserved. He leaves no debt unpaid. He leaves no demand unfulfilled.

Sons of light know that the beating heart of faith is itself God’s gift to them. Can you imagine trying to do transplant surgery on yourself? It doesn’t work spiritually, either. But God has given us a new heart. It believes his love. It has eyes to see things as they actually are.

So here’s the difference between the sons of light and those who belong to the darkness: When tragedy strikes, those who belong to the darkness assume that God must have forsaken them. Worse yet, they suspect there is no God or he would have prevented it. But the sons of light know God must still love us. They realize the Lord disciplines those he loves. They see life as it actually is.

When considering someone’s eternal fate— heaven or hell — those who belong to the darkness consider only the life lived. Did the deceased get along with his neighbors? Did he give to charity? The sons of light are more interested in whether he professed himself a sinner who cast himself on God’s mercy. They know that “if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins (God) is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). They see how our eternal prospects actually work.

Because we know and trust Jesus, we can see. Live in his light now, and be ready when he returns.

Consider God’s Judgments

Luke 23:27-31 “A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed! Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?’”

Jesus’ words to the women weeping for him help to clear up some misconceptions that people have about sin and God today. In the past it was true that people often saw God only as the angry judge. They were driven to approaching him in a works-righteous way. They were never certain of his love or their salvation.

Today, perhaps, the pendulum has swung too far the other way. People forget that God is Judge. They see him as someone who excuses sin instead of forgiving it. Jesus’ words open our eyes to the truth. They help us understand that sin is serious, and so is God’s judgment of it.

How serious? Think about the dearest people you know. Can you imagine wishing they had never even existed? Some watch their loved ones go through such severe pain that they pray for the Lord to let them die and end the suffering. I have never known someone to wish the person they loved never existed.

That is the picture Jesus paints here. Is there a love more tender than the love of a mother for her child? In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, it was considered a curse for a woman never to know that love. Jesus warns that, when God visits his judgment on the unrepentant people of Jerusalem, these mothers will see such suffering that they will wish their children never existed in the first place.

Still not sure whether to take his warning so seriously? Jesus has one last way of driving home the horror of the judgment to come. “For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” Jesus was the green tree. He was full of spiritual life, a life of perfection. Look at how he suffers now. If this is what happens to the innocent Son of God, what will happen when those on trial are sin-filled human beings, without any spiritual life in them?

Get the point? God considers sin a serious matter. Nor is there reason for us to think less seriously about our own. Those who face judgment won’t have to be told to weep. Jesus warns many times that those who are thrown into the outer darkness will experience “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

If all that we produce are tears of sorrow, tears of dread, tears of fear, then we have failed to take in the whole scene again. More was waiting at the end of this road along which Jesus traveled than his executioners. God was waiting there. He was waiting with the very judgment on sin about which Jesus warns. It was the punishment we and all people deserved. Jesus bore it all in our place.

Our story doesn’t have to end with the judgments Jesus describes. All that made him so pitiable that day, all that led those ladies to tears, were things he was suffering so that we might be forgiven. Jesus carried his cross, and then he died on it, so that we can escape God’s judgment.

Jesus’ pain may make us shed a tear. God’s judgment might fill us with a sense of dread. Don’t miss the peace and joy his cross provides as well.

Misdirected Tears

Luke 23:27-28 “A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.’”

What kind of people were there? Some of them were utterly rebellious. They were Jesus’ enemies. They had plotted his end and orchestrated his trial and execution. Among them were the priests and Pharisees we later hear mocking Christ while he is hanging on the cross. They hated Jesus. They were only too eager to get rid of him–to finally see him die.

Some following to the cross were little more than curiosity seekers. As horrible as a crucifixion is, as severe as the suffering may be, these people had a twisted, morbid interest in going to see someone die. They were not the only ones of their kind. When executions were performed in public in our own country years ago, they always drew crowds. People have a strange interest in seeing someone breath their last, the gorier the better. Isn’t that why violence still draws ratings on television? Isn’t that why slasher movies do well that the box office? It is part of the twisted and perverted nature of fallen humanity to find painful deaths entertaining.

Then there were these women of Jerusalem. It was not wrong to feel sorry for Jesus. But who was being served by their display? They were not leading anyone to confess faith in Jesus and stand up for him. They stopped short of objecting to the injustice he suffered. Feeling sorry for Christ doesn’t save anyone.

Do you see why Jesus says, “…do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children”? This collection of people following him was a collection of the most spiritually privileged people on earth. These people, of this nation, had been the closest people to God. They lived in the shadow of the temple in the holy city of Jerusalem. God chose them to be his own.

Still, what do we find among the most spiritually advantaged people in the world? Hatred of God. Open rebellion. Twisted and perverted minds. Weakness and sentimentality at best. They had a better reason to cry than the pitiful sight of Jesus in front of them. So do we. “Weep for yourselves,” Jesus says. Weep tears of repentance. Cry over the depth of your sin. Go and weep bitterly, like Peter did after he denied Jesus the night before.

Then remember why Jesus was there. The heaviest thing Jesus was carrying through the streets of Jerusalem was not his cross. His greatest pain was not his bleeding wounds. His burden and his pain were our sins–our hatred, our perversion, our weakness. He carried these as our substitute.

Don’t pity him, then. Believe in him! Be certain your sins have been forgiven. Your guilt has been removed! He carries his cross through the streets of Jerusalem to the place of his execution to free us from suffering as he did for our sins.

Then we are seeing this scene the way he wants. Then we are not looking at Jesus as an object of pity. He is our heroic Savior. He carries his cross for you.