"Life Narrows Down"#85-16
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 17, 2017
By Rev. Dr. Dale A. Meyer, Guest Speaker
(Q&A Topic:Life Narrows Down)
Copyright 2018 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: John 1:6-8, 19-28 (John testifies to Christ)
O Spirit of God, fill the depth of our souls with the Word of Jesus and trust in Him. These are tempting days, these last days before Christmas. This season is wonderful, the silent and holy night we shall soon celebrate can be most beautiful, but the temptation is to see only a baby and not our Savior. O Holy Spirit, do not depart from us but renew a right spirit within us. Amen.
The days are narrowing down toward Christmas. You've probably taken care of many holiday activities during the last weeks. One week left, and you still have some things to do, but we're closer. The days are narrowing down. So it is in life; it narrows down. When I was a child attending parochial school, memory work was a daily assignment. That was a long time ago, but one passage comes back to me now more than ever before. Ecclesiastes 12:1, "Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them.'" To me as a kid, that sure was a downer! But I understand now. I have seen bad times, and-I don't like to dwell on this-I'm sure I will see tougher times ahead. You know what I mean. But to the writer of Ecclesiastes I have to say, that whatever is to come, I will find a pleasure in every day, and while evil may seem to have the upper hand in the world, I for one will not call any of my days evil. What's my reason? God who created me, has lead me to trust Jesus.
Some years ago I came across two sentences that have had a profound impact upon my spiritual life. I was reading a book called Devotions for the Chronologically Gifted. You've got to love that title: Devotions for the Chronologically Gifted! I was reading a devotion by Rev. Arnold Kuntz. He wrote this, "Life narrows down, and crisis comes. And suddenly only one thing matters, and there, in the narrow place, stands Jesus." When I had to memorize Ecclesiastes 12:1, remembering my Creator in the days of my youth, my pastor and teachers were preparing me for life narrowing down. As I grew into my early adult years, life was opening up. Few young people think of life as narrowing; they are alive with hopes and dreams for the future. So it should be, but even optimistic young adults have days when they say, "I have no pleasure in them." The prophet Isaiah says, "Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength" (Isaiah 40:30-31). Sooner or later, the narrowing comes; faith becomes very personal, and we know we are going to our Creator. "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12). The wisdom that God gives us is to know and trust His Son Jesus. "Life narrows down, and crisis comes. And suddenly only one thing matters, and there, in the narrow place, stands Jesus." The poet focuses us on Jesus this way:
Lift up your head, ye mighty gates, Behold the King of Glory waits;
The King of kings is drawing near, The Savior of the world is here.
Life and salvation He doth bring, Wherefore rejoice and gladly sing:
We praise Thee, Father, now, Creator wise art Thou! (The Lutheran Hymnal, 73, 1)
There is something interesting about the birth of Jesus in the New Testament. The writers don't talk very much about Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. The four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, have a total of 89 chapters. Of those 89 chapters, only about three chapters are about Jesus' birth. Why is that? Because they want to put your focus on the ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Thus, Mark writes nothing about Jesus' birth, but begins his Gospel with John the Baptist announcing the adult Jesus. Mark begins with these words: "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, 'Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."
So also the evangelist John begins his Gospel with John the Baptist pointing to the adult Jesus. And Matthew and Luke, after they've given their accounts of Jesus' birth, begin the real story with John the Baptist and the adult Jesus. What you and I need to get right, as the days narrow down to Christmas, is the message of John the Baptist about the ministry of the adult Christ.
John the Baptist "got it." He understood that we all need a Savior. Life not only narrows down; it tightens like a vise. The judgment upon our sins comes upon us, and there is no way out. You remember your past, remember your sins, how you hurt others, hurt yourself, and broke God's commandments? You remember your past, but can you do anything about it? No, the vise of judgment tightens. John knew his job was to prepare the way of the Lord, as Isaiah 40:3 says, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" but, this is an important point: John the Baptist did not know the identity of that Lord, did not know it would be Jesus from Nazareth. Listen, from the first chapter of St. John's Gospel: "The next day he (John the Baptist) saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, "After me comes a man who ranks before me, because He was before me." I myself did not know Him ... I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on Him. I myself did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'"
Why do I say that this is important? Like John the Baptist, you and I do not naturally know that Jesus is the Son of God come to save us from the closing vise of judgment on our sins. When life narrows down, and the great crisis of sin and judgment closes in, God has to show us Jesus, just as He showed John. St. Paul says, "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except in the Holy Spirit."
Dear God, take this down into our hearts. Give us faith to trust Jesus as our Savior! God is mysterious, way above anything I can understand. Do you ever marvel at the photos our telescopes and space probes send back to earth? "How great Thou art!" Francis Rossow, one of our professors at Concordia Seminary, once said, "We know precious little about God, but the little we know is precious." The precious little, God telling you and I is where to look, where to put our faith as life narrows down. John the Baptist didn't know Jesus of Nazareth as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world until God revealed it to him, and then He believed. The shepherds and the wise men, how did they know the baby was special? It was the Word of God that told them; the Word that they trusted. Why did Joseph endure all the hardships he did for the holy Family? Why did Mary ponder all these things in her heart? Because God announced to them who Jesus is, and they believed it. God reveals to us the precious message who the Babe of Bethlehem really is. You can celebrate Christmas with the crowds all the years of your life, but unless the Word is received through faith, you have no way out, as life narrows and crisis comes. Dear Jesus, give me Your Spirit so that I think past the sentimentality of the manger scene to Your total ministry for me. A popular Christian song by Rick Founds makes the point well. "You came from heaven to earth, to show the way, From the earth to the cross, my debt to pay, From the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky, Lord, I lift your name on high."
There's a somber reason you and I should apply ourselves these next days to devout fear and love of God. The reason is God has given mankind the terrible ability to reject His salvation. Oh, you can look religious but not get it right. Some people who came out to hear John the Baptist were not cut to the quick by the preaching of repentance. From John chapter one, "This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?' He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, 'I am not the Christ.' And they asked him, 'What then? Are you Elijah?' He said, 'I am not.' 'Are you the Prophet?' And he answered, 'No.' So they said to him, 'Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us ... (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) They asked him, 'Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?' John answered them, 'I baptize with water, but among you stands One you do not know, even He who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.'"
John gave them the word about Jesus, but here's the terrible truth: the Pharisees and the self-righteous didn't receive the word with faith. How about you and me? Martin Luther observed that we who are religious are especially tempted to think that there is something in us that in some way merits the grace of God. In the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Luther wrote, "The person who believes that can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty. Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ. It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ."
British scholar John Barclay described this as the "supersized" sin that you and I believe there's something in our religious life that somehow merits the grace of God. Sixteenth-century theologians called it "Pharisaic pride," and it can be found among so-called Christians today. I hasten to add that you and I cannot look into the hearts of other people, so leave that judgment to God. Pharisees will find their life narrows and the vise of judgment for sins will tighten on them. By the way, the opposite of Pharisaic pride is what the old theologians called "Epicurean indifference." The Epicureans were an ancient school of philosophy who said that the gods didn't matter. That abounds in today's culture. "You have your opinion; I have mine. Who are you to tell me that my opinion is wrong?" To whom will they turn when the inevitable crisis comes?
The good news is that some Pharisees, like Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night and Paul, an exemplary Pharisee, did take the message of repentance to heart. Luke tells us that many believed the word John preached to them. Reading from St. Luke, chapter three: "And the crowds asked Him, 'What then shall we do?' And He answered them, 'Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.' Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to Him, 'Teacher, what shall we do?' And He said to them, 'Collect no more than you are authorized to do.' Soldiers also asked Him, 'And we, what shall we do?' And He said to them, 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, but be content with your wages.'
"As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, 'I baptize you with water, but He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.' So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people."
What's the Good News today? It is this: that life narrows down, and we look to Jesus. How does the narrowing come to you? Through advancing age? Through illness? Through adversity? Yes, such troubles come and should shift our focus more and more to the eternal. The best narrowing comes through daily repentance. We are not to go into the wilderness just once to hear John's message, and then return to our old ways of doing things. Young people should not put repentance off until gray hairs. Busy adults should not put off repentance until they imagine they'll have more leisure time. Who knows how much time any of us has? Hebrews chapter 1 says, "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." The good news today is that the narrowing of life is inevitable, but when the crisis of judgment for our sins comes upon us, there stands Jesus. Therefore, in the words of the hymn-writer,
"Fling wide the portals of your heart; Make it a temple set apart
From earthly use for Heaven's employ, Adorned with prayer and love and joy.
So shall your Sovereign enter in, And new and nobler life begin.
To Thee, O God, be praise, For word and deed and grace!
"Redeemer, come! I open wide My heart to Thee; here, Lord, abide!
Let me Thine inner presence feel, Thy grace and love in me reveal;
Thy Holy Spirit guide us on, Until our glorious goal is won.
Eternal praise and fame We offer to Thy Name. Amen."
(The Lutheran Hymnal, 73, 4-5)
This is the full manuscript of the sermon. The audio version maybe edited down for air time allowances.
Reflections for December 17, 2017
Title: Life Narrows Down
MARK EISCHER: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. That was Dr. Dale Meyer. Pastor Ken Klaus joins us now.
KEN KLAUS: Hello, Mark. Well, today, the good doctor concentrated on the man and the message of John the Baptizer.
MARK EISCHER: That's right-someone who made quite an impression on those who heard him.
KEN KLAUS: Absolutely. It's a shame that we know so little of him.
MARK EISCHER: What more would you like to know?
KEN KLAUS: Before I answer that, let me put in a qualifier: the Scriptures are complete in and of themselves. My statement about wanting more is not a judgment on the quality of the Lord's Word. My question, like others, is founded on my own curiosity.
MARK EISCHER: What else would you like to know?
KEN KLAUS: I've always been curious about Lazarus. You know, nowadays we get reports from people who say they "died" and then are brought back. Lazarus was longer in the grave than anyone else. I wonder what, if anything, he remembered of that dead time. The second question I have is-what happened to him? We know the religious leaders plotted against Lazarus, too. A living Lazarus was simply too good an advertisement for Jesus. That's why they wanted him out of the way. Did they succeed?
MARK EISCHER: Jesus said, "Among those born of women, there was has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet, the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." So what made John the Baptist so great and does Jesus describe anybody else as great?
KEN KLAUS: Let's deal with the last question first. Over the centuries a lot of people have been given, or given themselves, the title "great." I think the most recent one has to be Muhammad Ali, the boxer. There was Peter and Catherine "the Great" out of Russia. There was Genghis Khan, the great khan of Mongolia, and the Bible speaks of Herod, aka, "the Great." But that title is never given to the mad monarch in the Bible. Finally, there is one secular person who deserves the title more than anyone else: Alexander the Great. To the best of my knowledge, nobody else in Scripture received the same title as John.
Now I know, having said that, our switchboard is going to light up and say, "But the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary and said Jesus would be "great."
MARK EISCHER: Is there a difference?
KEN KLAUS: There is. Jesus is "great" in God's holy eyes. No other person in Scripture, or outside of it, could receive such a high evaluation from the Most High. On the other hand, John's greatness is only in comparison with other people, that is, sinners. Now I'm not saying that's a small accomplishment. It's not. It's just comparing apples and oranges.
MARK EISCHER: Now, in your opinion, what was so great about John the Baptist?
KEN KLAUS: Well, some would say John was special because the Lord foretold and announced his birth. Although John's birth was unique because of the personal visit of Gabriel, the Lord did foretell the coming of children other than Jesus and John. First on that list would be Abraham's boys Ishmael and Isaac. Next, King David was told by the Lord that he was going to have a son and his name was to be Solomon. The Lord also named good King Josiah some decades before he was born. Different from the rest in the list is another king who is named by the Lord: the non-Israelite ruler, Cyrus of Persia. Amazingly, that statement of the Lord was made more than a century and a half before the monarch was born.
MARK EISCHER: John's specialness does not derive from the circumstances surrounding his birth, so did it have anything to do with him being a Nazarite?
KEN KLAUS: Good question. Maybe, Mark, you'd like to explain what a Nazarite was.
MARK EISCHER: Okay. Well, first off, a Nazarite is not a person from Nazareth. A Nazarite was someone whose life was dedicated to the Lord. And that could have been for their entire life, or just for a set period of time. We have some examples of lifelong Nazarites in the Bible: Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist.
KEN KLAUS: And what did Nazarites do that was so special?
MARK EISCHER: A Nazarite never drank wine, never came into contact with the dead, and he never cut his hair or his beard.
KEN KLAUS: No, I don't think John's greatness consisted in the length of his hair or his abstinence.
MARK EISCHER: All right. What made him so great?
KEN KLAUS: The Bible doesn't say, and Jesus doesn't amplify as to why John was greatest. So what you hear from here on is my opinion.
MARK EISCHER: Thank you. Understand.
KEN KLAUS: First quality is humility. John was humble. Let's take a look at him. He is preaching out in the Jordan and the Gospel of Matthew says people from Jerusalem and all over Judea were going out to hear him. Mark, you and I drove from Jerusalem to Jericho.
MARK EISCHER: That's right, and I'm glad we drove it rather than walked it. For those people to have made that journey, it was more than a one-day excursion. It was a serious commitment on their part.
KEN KLAUS: Okay, so all of these folks are coming to see John with his wild hair and his camel-skin suit, and now they get out there, and how does John preach? Would you say he was an ancient Mr. Rogers?
MARK EISCHER: No, he was calling those people to repentance.
KEN KLAUS: And they ask him a few questions? Do you remember those questions?
MARK EISCHER: They asked him to clarify who he was, and he said he wasn't the Christ. They asked if he was Elijah or one of the other prophets. He said he wasn't, although he was fulfilling the prophetic role assigned to him.
KEN KLAUS: The people were comparing John with some of their historical heavy-hitters. Now they had no pictures of these ancient prophets. How easy it could have been for John to say, "Hey, yeah, I'm Elijah, all right." But he doesn't do that.
MARK EISCHER: And then when Jesus comes to be baptized, John said he wasn't worthy even to untie Jesus' sandals.
KEN KLAUS: And when some of his disciples started following Jesus, John didn't fight to keep them.
MARK EISCHER: He said Jesus would increase but he had to decrease. What else would you say put John at the top of the list?
KEN KLAUS: Once again, just my opinion, but I would put his honesty there.
MARK EISCHER: Based on what?
KEN KLAUS: It comes from his time in prison. He has criticized Herod and has been thrown into the dungeon. Now it says something about John that Herod is afraid to kill him. John must have been incredibly impressive. At any rate, it appears John's end is coming and he sends for Jesus. He wants to know if Jesus is really the Messiah.
MARK EISCHER: John had doubts?
KEN KLAUS: Some might say that. I prefer to think John just needed to hear it from the Savior. If he was going to die, he wanted to make sure it was for the right cause, but that was honest, in the extreme. He doesn't try to bluff his way through; he doesn't pretend he doesn't have questions; he doesn't act as if everything's okay. He is really ready to die if that is what is going to happen, but he's not ready to die for the wrong individual. I don't know many people like that.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)