The Verdict Is In


When the judge came back into the room, the whole crowd got quiet1. Not just quiet, they became silent. Everyone could hear their own breathing and their own beating heart, which was beating faster now. The accusations had been shocking, the trial had brought out all the evidence, and now, finally, the verdict was in.

There were only two ways it could go. Either the defendant would be found guilty and would face punishment, or he’d be found not guilty and be free to go. The first verdict meant the end; it meant death. The second verdict would mean life, hope, and possibility.

So the crowd listened in the courtroom. An even bigger crowd listened outside, with people stretching to try to see into the court or straining their ears to hear what would be said. Reporters were waiting to tell the story; dozens of news vans with tall satellite-dish towers were parked outside.

But now the waiting would end. No more wondering or speculating. Now we would know for sure. And the judge opened his mouth to speak.

We tend to be fascinated by courtroom trials. The sheer amount of movies, television shows, and plays that are about trials or that at least contain a trial are staggering. They’re everywhere! Most of us know courtrooms from these shows more than we know about real courtrooms.

There’s something so dramatic about a trial. There’s right and wrong on display. There is evidence brought forward. There’s a decision. There’s a verdict. Sure, we know real life has things like appeals and mistrials and hung juries. But most of the time, when that verdict comes in, it’s going to be interesting.

It was over 19 years ago that the verdict came in for the murder trial of former NFL football player OJ Simpson. The reading of that verdict was broadcast live on television, and at the time, it was the most-watched event in television history, with more than 150 million viewers. So, yeah, people are interested in verdicts.

But what verdict would we be most interested in? I think that’s pretty obvious: it’d be your verdict. If you were on trial, well, I can’t even imagine what that verdict announcement would feel like. Especially if the case was life or death.

But that’s really what we’re getting at today. That’s what our text from the book of Daniel is about, that’s what this whole service is about today. Judgment Day, the end of the world, it’s all about a verdict. A decision is going to come down about your life — your very soul. The consequences couldn’t be higher; the two options are life forever in heaven, or death forever in hell. There’s no in-between.

But here’s the thing: we don’t have to wait. We don’t have to gather around a tv or wait outside a courthouse. We get to find out right now. The Judge is God, the defendant is you, and the verdict is in. Continue reading

Last Judgment

Since I moved to Wisconsin from New York 3 years ago, I have served at a church as one of two pastors. This means I don’t preach every week. Because of this, every once in a while I have to preach on a topic that hasn’t come up on “my week” in quite a while. This weekend is one of those.

This coming Sunday we’ll be focusing on Judgment Day. I haven’t had to preach directly on this topic since 2010, which feels like a long time ago at this point.

It strikes me how harsh these appointed readings for this day are. They’re the kind of Bible readings that make you squirm a bit. There’s no wiggle room; no politically correct, everything’s-ok-for-everyone vibe here. <!–more–> 
Take the first reading, Daniel 7:9-10. It’s short, but it packs a punch. 

9 “As I looked,   

“thrones were set in place,  

and the Ancient of Days took his seat.  

His clothing was as white as snow;  

the hair of his head was white like wool.  

His throne was flaming with fire,   

and its wheels were all ablaze.   

10 A river of fire was flowing,   

coming out from before him.  

Thousands upon thousands attended him;   

ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.   

The court was seated,   

and the books were opened.  

Nothing cuddly or warm-and-fuzzy to grab on to here. The end is coming. There will be flames and fire. There will be a judge, *the* Judge, in fact. The books will be opened and the judgment will be made. This is the text I’ll be preaching on.

The second lesson, 1 Thessalonians:5:1-11, has a different emphasis, but it also paints our lives now into a bit of a corner. 

4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.


1 Thessalonians 5:4-6

It’s easy to think of ways that we haven’t lived like a “son of the light,” but instead like someone who “belongs to the night.” Definitely gives us pause when we realize that the end will come “like a thief.”

Thankfully, though, this lesson also brings the fantastic *gospel* application of Judgment Day in full force. 

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

1 Thessalonians 5:9-10

The end of the world is scary, but Jesus has already won! This is a reminder I need every day.

Finally, the Gospel for this Sunday is Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ famous parable of the sheep and the goats. In some ways, this reading can be the harshest of all. It *could* lead someone to the conclusion that it is our *good works* that get us into heaven. But the reaction of those who did good works shows otherwise:

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 

40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:37-40

Believers don’t do works to save themselves. They do good works because God has given them faith in Christ. This faith leads us to want to do good works, to produce those works whether we realize we’re doing it or not. We do works because we’re saved, not in order to get saved.

All in all, I look forward to preaching this Sunday. I’m praying I can put Jesus and the comfort of what he’s accomplished for us front and center for this service.

Now back to my sermon work!


Grace Alone

This coming weekend my congregation will celebrate Reformation Sunday. This is always a special Sunday in a Lutheran church. It’s not special because we’re celebrating the man, Martin Luther. It’s special because of God’s grace. We celebrating going back to God’s Word and rejoicing in the fact that on our own, we’re lost — hopelessly and eternally. But God doesn’t leave us on our own; he sent his Son to do what we could not, to suffer what we should have suffered, to die that we might live. That’s why the Reformation is worth celebrating.

I realized that this is the first time since 2007 where I won’t be preaching for Reformation. My associate pastor will be doing that this time. I look forward to hearing from someone else about God’s grace to me. 

I also found a quote from Martin Luther himself where we see his emphasis on grace.

All who seek entry into His kingdom must seek it by nothing but grace. Christ has regard for no one because of his pile of gulden, his beauty, his wisdom, his golden hair, or because he wears a garment embroidered in gold or silver, or a gray coat. No, it is grace alone that counts. His is to be a kingdom of grace, belonging to those who are wretched and poor, whether they be men or women, rich or poor. 

~Luther’s Works 22:190




Press On Toward the Goal


When home is in sight, you just want to press on and get there1.

That’s how I felt last weekend. My family had been in Minnesota for a wedding, and the day after we climbed into the car for the 6-hour or so drive back to Two Rivers. (That might sound long, but 6 hours is still pretty nice since you’d have to add a good ten hours of driving time on top of that for when I used to live in New York.)

But then, as we started our drive, we ran into some delays. Some roadwork was being done on the interstate before we even made it across the border to Wisconsin. That probably added another hour to the trip. It was frustrating, but we had to press on.

So by the time we were making our way down 147 through Mishicot, I was ready to be home. Sure, I was tired from driving and from the weekend, but it’s amazing how you get that little burst of energy. You know home is near. You can practically see it. So you press on to get there.

I’m not much of a runner; in fact, I pretty much despise running. But I’ve done it enough to know how sweet the end, the finish line, looks. As much as I would like to give up and stop running, seeing that goal ahead does something. It reminds me that I’m close; I can do this. So I press on.

But what does that look like in our lives as Christians? Heaven is our goal; it’s our true home. It’s the reward Jesus earned for us where we get to spend all eternity. But it seems pretty far off. Unless we’ve received some sort of terminal diagnosis or are going in for major surgery, our entrance into heaven is not likely to be the first thing on our minds.

So instead of pressing on, instead of pushing forward with that heavenly goal in our sights, we just kind of exist. Maybe we go to church once in a while. And it’s really easy for our faith to not feel particularly urgent or even important on a day to day basis. After all, we’re already saved, right? So what’s the big deal?

But here’s the thing: we are all a heartbeat away from eternity. We don’t know when we’ll get there, but we need to be ready. We don’t want to be wandering aimlessly away from our faith and into sin. We want to focus on our goal. We want what Jesus won for us — heaven — to be in our sights at all times. And we want to press on toward it. We want to stretch out like a runner leaning into the finish line. We want to live every minute of our lives for the one who gave his life to us. And thankfully, we can do just that, because God gives us the strength. So press on! Press on toward the goal! Continue reading

That’s Not Fair!


A little boy just celebrated his sixth birthday. He got 5 presents from his family1. But he remembered very clearly that his older brothers had each received ten presents at their last birthdays. This did not make the boy happy, and he let his parents know about it. That’s not fair!

A girl is in the seventh grade. One of her classmates keeps making noise and interrupting things, though that doesn’t stop this girl from working. Once, though, when one of her classmates asks her a question, this girl turns and whispers an answer. The teacher gets furious: Why are you making a noise and interrupting class like this? This is unacceptable behavior! The girl remembers the noise that her classmate usually makes and doesn’t seem to get in trouble for, and she’s pretty upset that she gets in trouble for something so minor. It makes her want to shout out: That’s not fair!

A seventeen year old boy wants to spend some time on Saturday afternoon with his girlfriend, but his parents have other ideas. You need to be at your little sister’s volleyball game that afternoon, they tell him. Why would they force him to do this? It’s not like the whole family made a point to be at all of his games for different sports! It’s not like this volleyball game was going to be more important than all the other games he’d already been to this year! This was ridiculous and his parents were about to find out what he thought about it: That’s not fair!

A young woman was about to graduate from college. She’s spent so many years of hard work to get to this point. Her grades were always good. She had what it takes to make it in her field, and she had been excited when she started applying for jobs and going to interviews. But with each job opening, after each interview, she got the same frustrating answer. No. Some of her classmates had already gotten jobs, so why hasn’t she? So when she’s all by herself she breaks down, and all she can manage to say is, That’s not fair!

The young couple has been married for several years now. They’ve always loved kids and dreamed of when they would start their own family. But it’s just not happening. Family and friends keep asking them why they’re waiting so long. Birth announcements keep coming in the mail for friends of theirs having kids. Even their doctor isn’t sure why and says they’ll have to do even more tests. In frustration the couple confides in each other how they really feel: That’s not fair!

An older couple were thankful just to have had their son. They knew you couldn’t control these things. Still, they wish he could’ve been around longer. There was so much they wanted for him. And having him taken away so soon, well, it left them feeling upset. Sometimes they even wanted to yell at God and tell Him what they thought. They wanted to shout, That’s not fair!

The man wasn’t even surprised when the tests came back positive. After a lifetime of doing everything right, things seemed to be going wrong. I mean, he never smoked, he didn’t really drink, he’d been healthy and active. So how could God do this to him now? How could it be one thing after another, one more thing he didn’t deserve. It’s like God didn’t even care, and no one else seemed to understand. And now he was stuck suffering for it. That’s not the way things were supposed to go in his life. That’s not fair!

No matter what your age, no matter what your position in life, no matter what you do, there are times when it becomes abundantly clear to us that life isn’t fair. Sometimes our frustrations are directed at the people who should know better, the people that could’ve made things fair. Sometimes we get angry at our circumstances, wondering why they didn’t work out differently. Other times, we take our anger out at God. Maybe we express it in words, or maybe we bottle it up. In the end, though, the thoughts are the same: God messed this one up. He gave me the raw end of this deal. Maybe he’s just not so great after all. Continue reading

Forgiveness Sets You Free


Scene: two toddlers stand facing each other at the insistence of an adult nearby1. One of the kids has been crying and is still visibly upset. The adult talks to the other one. You hit him and took his toy away, and now it’s time to say you’re sorry.

The child hesitates a moment, but then: Sorry. The adult turns to the other one and says, Ok, he is sorry, what do you say? The answer comes: I forgive you. The adult only has one thing left to say. Give each other a hug and you can go back to playing. And that’s just what they do. The kids give a quick hug, then run back to play. The hitting-and-toy-taking incident is never mentioned again. End scene.

If you’ve spent any time around young kids, this story won’t be surprising to you. Of course kids are going to hit or take things or otherwise hurt other kids. Of course they’ll say sorry when they need to. Of course the kids will “make up” and go back to business as usual. This is how it’s supposed to work.

Did you ever notice how much harder this process is the older people get? It’s much more difficult, even with older kids, to get that initial sorry said. The forgiveness might not be expressed very often. And the hugging and going back to play, well, that’s probably the first thing to go.

As adults, we’re supposed to get better at things as we get older. We’re supposed to improve. But it doesn’t always work that way, because we’re still sinful. We sin every day. We hurt others. We make mistakes. Not only that, plenty of people sin against us and make mistakes that hurt us.

So with all that sinning, with all that hurt, you’d expect to see all sorts of scenes like the ones I mentioned before with the kids, except with adults. One says, I’m really sorry I said those things to you. The other, I forgive you. They hug. Wouldn’t that be great?! It’s not that things like this never happen, but I think they’re more rare than they should be considering the things wrong we do every day.

Instead we tend to let our problems fester and grow. If we hurt someone, maybe we’ll apologize — or maybe we’ll just not bring it up and hope it goes away. If someone hurts us, well, we’ll just see how they act to us in the future. Maybe we can just ignore them. Maybe we can just be rude to them, see how they like it. And forgive them? Well, if they are good enough, if they can make it up to us… maybe. But they’re going to have to earn it.

Friends, I want you to realize today that forgiveness isn’t something you earn, it’s something you need. Without forgiveness as a gift, our relationships become prisons. We lock one another up with our past mistakes. We’re locked in the cells of anger and grudges. The only way out is forgiveness.

Forgiveness sets you free! True forgiveness can never be earned. It’s a gift. God showed us that. He proved it in the free forgiveness Jesus won for us. His forgiveness sets us free from hell itself. It gives us eternity. And, it lets us show forgiveness in our lives. So don’t stay locked up in guilt and anger. Forgiveness sets you free. Continue reading

Changing and Unchanging Voices

My 5-year old daughter just got her tonsils out. (Well, she got her adenoids out, too. Am I betraying too much of my ignorance to tell you I don’t actually know what adenoids are much less what they do? I should probably look that up.) She’s the first of my 5 kids to ever have any kind of surgery, and I will say it’s a bit nerve-wracking from a parent’s perspective to have your child be put under for surgery.

I’ve had experience with my wife having surgery before, and it was nice for my wife and I to talk about the surgery with my daughter and also pray together that God would be with her. I’m thankful, of course, that God decided to keep her safe and have the surgery be a success.

One striking thing after the surgery, though, has been to notice a difference in my daughter’s voice. Given the fact that her tonsil’s were enormous and left her just a small space to breathe through, I suppose it’s not surprising that her voice would come out sounding differently. I just wasn’t prepared for how different it is. Continue reading

Jesus Brings Us into the IN Crowd


A girl shuffles through the lunch room, clutching her lunch in her hands1. “Is anyone sitting here?” she asks at one table. “Yes, someone is sitting here,” is the quick response she gets. So she goes to an empty table by herself.

An employee peaks his head into his boss’s office. “Here are those ideas that I told you about the other day. You want to go over them now?” “No,” his boss says, “just leave it on the desk.” Later on, when it is clear that his ideas weren’t used, he is told that the management decided to “go in a different direction.”

A woman finds out that someone she considered a good friend is getting married. After talking to several other mutual friends she realizes that they all got an invitation to the wedding, but she didn’t.

Have you ever felt there was an IN crowd, but you weren’t in it? Some people get really frustrated and angry about it; they feel like they’re always trying to break through to that IN crowd but never quite get there. There always seems to be some group that won’t let you in, that isn’t interested in your company or what you have to say. Of course, what we may or may not realize at that times is that even the people already in the IN crowd can feel the same way about a different group. We live in a world where we often divide ourselves into groups. These groups are ways of making us feel together, but they can also divide us. They can leave us feeling isolated and alone.

I believe that there is one group — one IN crowd — that is the most dangerous group to be outside. I’m talking about the group that is confident of God’s love toward them. The most important IN crowd to be in is the one that has complete trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness, the group that is sure that their God is on their side no matter what.

Maybe you think, “Well, that’s easy! That’s what we’re here in church for, right? We’re here because God loves us, we’re here to celebrate the fact that he sent his Son to live and die for us, we’re here to rejoice because we have God’s love now and we will get to enjoy that love forever in heaven!” And if you feel that way, great! That is exactly why we’re here.

But just maybe you realize that not everyone feels that way all the time. Sometimes something happens — an accident, the loss of a job, a sickness — that makes us start to wonder. “If God loves me so much, then why did he let this happen?”

Or maybe we feel outside of God’s IN crowd because of a disagreement or getting offended by someone else. It could be a fellow member of our church or even a pastor. Something happened, and now we don’t want to go to God’s house. And soon the church starts to be an IN crowd that we just don’t feel a part of anymore.

Sometimes it’s our own mistakes that do it. We look at our past, we’re filled with regret, and we think, “God’s IN crowd is for people way better than me. It could never be for me.”

Today I want you to have confidence; I want you to have zero doubts about God’s love for you. When we look at ourselves, the doubts will come. When we look at people around us, we’ll start to wonder. The only way to be sure of God’s love is to look at Jesus. He is the reason we don’t have to doubt. He is the guarantee of God’s love and forgiveness now and forever. He doesn’t leave us on the outside, he brings us in. Jesus brings us into the IN crowd. Continue reading

Compelled to Serve

There are certain stories on the news1 that I’d just rather avoid. One of them was the recent events of another US journalist being executed by the Islamic military group ISIS in Syria. They once again posted a video of the event. Seeing stories like that on the news makes your stomach churn, and my instinct is to get the remote and make it go away.

Sometimes, though, I have to wonder. Why on earth do these reporters and journalists put themselves in harm’s way like this? Why would someone go to the most dangerous part of the world, around the most dangerous people in the world and make themselves stand out by asking questions? It’s obviously risky and seems downright foolish.

Well, someone I know recently mentioned an answer to this question. The journalists, he said, feel compelled to go. These men and women have such a passion for witnessing and reporting the truth and for getting that truth out into the world, that they feel compelled to get out there and make sure that these stories are told. Now, they don’t want to die, and they often take precautions to keep themselves as safe as possible wherever they are. But their passion for the truth keeps them from simply quitting their jobs or getting less dangerous assignments. They are compelled to go.

Our Passion

As a Christian, this brings up a question: do we feel the same passion and determination in our relationship with our God that these reporters do for their stories? That passion can be difficult to feel. Often our faith doesn’t feel particularly urgent. After all, we’re not in danger; we don’t face the threat of death at every turn. The church is there today, we reason, and it will be there later. What does it matter what I actually do today?

Even our church membership can be something of a yawn. As long as my name is on a dusty membership book somewhere, or as long as my vital statistics are saved on a computer program, I figure I’m covered. If I feel like attending church or serving in some way, great. But I certainly don’t feel compelled to do so.

But our church membership and our connection to God is meant to be much more than that. It’s not about our names on a membership list. It’s not even about our attendance percentages or service records. It’s the fact that we are compelled to act, that we have a passion to stay connected to our Savior.

Where does this passion come from? God’s Word tells us. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)


The source of our passion, the thing that practically forces, compels us to action, is the love of Jesus. And how did he show his love? He died for all. He put himself in harm’s way; he went to the most dangerous place there was and suffered the worst punishment that could ever be: death on a cross and the punishment of hell for our sins.

And how does his death, all those years ago, change us? He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. We have a passion, too. Our passion is to live for the same Savior who died and rose for us.

What Now?

What does this passion actually look like in our lives? Well, it’s not about just having our names on a membership list. It’s about staying connected to our God. That connection is there as we speak to God in prayer, and even more importantly when he speaks to us in Word and Sacrament. That connection is there every time God speaks to us in his Word. That connection isn’t about a feeling, it’s about the objective reality of God working at strengthening faith by Word and Sacrament.

When God has strengthened us in this way, we realize something amazing. We want to serve him. We are compelled to serve him. We don’t just want to do that in a church group or when we know someone who is struggling. No, we want to serve our God at all times in everything we do.

It comes down to this: we’re already in harm’s way. We live in a sinful world. The devil isn’t always as obvious as a terrorist group. He prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8) He wants us to yawn away our faith, or lose it in a calendar too cluttered with other cares. That’s why we need passion. Jesus’ passion. His sacrifice. His love compels us. So stay in his Word. Let God change your heart. Let him give you passion to serve and live for him.

  1. The story is everywhere, but you can read it here. That story also contains an interesting graphic on the number of journalists. killed around the world.