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Jesus is our Salvation

Psalm 62:6–8 (ESV)
He only is my rock and my salvation, 
my fortress; I shall not be shaken. 
On God rests my salvation and my glory; 

my mighty rock, my refuge is God. 

Trust in him at all times, O people; 
pour out your heart before him; 
God is a refuge for us.
Our world is a dangerous place. We trust God alone is our rock and salvation. He is the strength we lean on in times of trouble. In Christianity we use the term salvation to describe how Jesus rescues us from death and reconciles our separation from God. While we were yet hostile to God’s plans, He sent His own son to be our salvation. There is salvation in no one else. No one else, besides Jesus, is able to accomplish our rescue from death. Jesus restores our relationship with God. This broken relationship with God cannot be restored by any other. The particular claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation can be seen by others as arrogant, prideful, or unfair. The minimization of Jesus as the only way of salvation is rooted in a failure to understand the problem of sin. Sin has broken our relationship with the one true God. We do not have the capability to restore this relationship with God through our own efforts. There is not one person that is righteous enough to stand in front of the Almighty Father without the intercession of Jesus. Our hope is built on Jesus Christ as our refuge and strength.
Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity, assumed our full human nature. Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Jesus is perfect love, righteousness, holiness, and eternal truth. Jesus is the Son of God, fully divine. Jesus lived a sinless life. Jesus did not merely look like a man. Philippians 2:8 declares, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” The incarnation is the act of Jesus becoming human. God in the flesh in Jesus accomplishes the salvation for all people. Jesus took upon himself the penalty of our sin. Jesus carried our sin as a substitute. Jesus is our way to a right relationship with God. Believe in Jesus as your way, truth, and life because He alone is the one able to save us. Trust in Jesus.
Our Shepherd Lutheran Church is a community of believers that trusts in Jesus and shares this rescuing love. We share the good news of Jesus because we trust the love of Jesus is for all people. Throughout the season of Easter continually look to Jesus as your salvation and trust that the Holy Spirit will give you opportunities to share this good news with others.
Posted by Evan Gaertner

Return to the Lord - Lent at Our Shepherd

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The Bible includes bold, vivid, and terrifying imagery for coming judgment of God, the Day of the Lord. In the Book of Joel, in the middle of frightening imagery about the end times, we find a tender invitation from the Lord: “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13). God’s invitation and promise finds its fullness in Jesus Christ. Even during the terrifying and vivid imagery of the Passion, God invites us to find our peace in Him.
During this season of Lent, we will consider the theme “Return to the Lord” and examine how the call to return played out in practical ways for the people who walked alongside Christ as He demonstrated and carried out God’s grace and mercy on our behalf. When Jesus took on God’s wrath, Jesus set the stage for our heavenly Father to “turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him” (Joel 2:14).
Each worship service in this series focuses on a particular event in the Passion, with a special focus on the people involved in the event. We will hear how we have turned away from the Lord through our sins, and reinforce and rejoice in God’s call for us to return to Him with all our heart.
Lent Midweek Services
Ash Wednesday, February 17 at 6:30pm
“A Call to Return” Joel’s prophecy is dark and terrifying. In the midst of the fright we will hear God’s word declare, “Return to the Lord! I am gracious and merciful, and I will bless you.”
Wednesday, February 24 at 6:30pm
“Return to Prayer” We will focus on Peter, James, and John, and how their time in the Garden of Gethsemane helps us hear God’s call to pray.
Wednesday, March 3 at 6:30pm
“Return from Betrayal” This sermon explores the theme of betrayal, specifically the ways we betray one another and Jesus through our denials and rejections.
Wednesday, March 10 at 6:30pm
“Return from False Witness” During the trial of of Jesus before Caiaphas and the Council, false witnesses made accusations against Jesus. In this sermon we will examine what God means in the Eighth Commandment when He said that you should “not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). What do we do when our failures lead us away from God?
Wednesday, March 17 at 6:30pm
“Return from Denial”
Peter stood in the courtyard, watching His Lord and master being wrongfully accused, having promised that he was ready to follow Jesus both to prison and to death. Peter denied Jesus. Is it possible to return to the Lord after our weaknesses are revealed?
Wednesday, March 24 at 6:30pm
“Return to the Kingdom of God”
Pontius Pilate ruled from his headquarters and was forced to wrestle with the question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), but the real question is “Who is truth?” In this sermon, we will explore how Jesus calls us to return to His rule and reign so He can pour out blessings on us.
Posted by Evan Gaertner

Pruning and Cold Hardening of the Church

Recently I read a commentary by a pastor that identified American Christianity in a stage of pruning, of winter hardening. Cold hardening is the physiological and biochemical process by which an organism prepares for cold weather. 

When the temperature drops, a plants membrane’s fluidity changes. The cells shrink as water is drawn out. In order to maintain surface area cells form more and stronger strands, tubelike structures that connect the protoplast to the cell wall. Even while the cell is shrinking, it is building stronger connections that will allow the cell to remain strong during the winter and prepared to expand when the warmer weather arrives.

Image by nightowl from Pixabay 

The temperature for Christianity appears to be dropping in America. The number of people in America that identify as Christian is dropping. In 2018 and 2019 the Pew Research Center telephone surveys revealed 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians. This is a decline of 12% from a decade ago. The people who identify with “nothing in particular” has increased over that same period from 17% to 26%. (https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/).

Rates of affiliation are not the only thing in decline. All Christian denominations are experiencing a decline in attendance. More Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less (54%) than say they attend at least monthly (45%). The rate of attendance is even more alarming as the numbers are looked at by age group. About two-thirds of Millennials attend religious services a few times a year or less often, including four-in-ten who say they seldom or never go.

Christians are declining as a share of the population in the U.S. and as an absolute number.

The causes of this decline are difficult to pinpoint. There is not just one cause and so there is not just one fix. Carey Nieuwhof wrote an article explaining ten reasons why church attenders are attending less often (https://careynieuwhof.com/10-reasons-even-committed-church-attenders-attending-less-often/). Most of his explanations demonstrate that Christianity is not convenient in our culture. 

There is some research that points out that the number of people in churches that clearly identify with the teaching of their denomination and consistently attend church has not significantly varied. The number of people that are culturally Christians as a matter of convenience has declined as Christianity has become less convenient. This evaluation of the data tries to explain the decades long drift away from church attendance as a demonstration that cultural Christianity no longer exists.

The summer season of easy growth in congregations has passed and congregations are moving into a winter season filled with challenges for survival. Tim Keller (https://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/witness_winsomeness_and_winter) has identified four “seasons” in the cycle of the church’s relation to the culture. You can read about this framework in more detail in his book Center Church.

  • Winter - the church faces hostility from the culture, is weak or underground, and sees limited evangelistic fruit
  • Spring - the church is embattled but growing and signs of life are beginning to break through
  • Summer - the church is highly regarded in the public square and Christians are involved in the center of cultural production
  • Autumn - the church experiencing a decline in cultural influence and believers are increasingly marginalized

The move between seasons will create conflict in congregations as expectations for previously successful strategies are not reframed for the changing context.

Does this mean the end of the church? No. A church built by human hands may fall apart, but the church that is the communion of saints built by the Spirit of God will never fall. 

During the transition between autumn and winter seasons of the church, we will be marginalized and persecuted. We will experience a decline in cultural influence. We will no longer be the center of cultural movements. This shrinking of the church in the public square will be difficult. People who are not prepared to see this changing of seasons will be confused and angry at their cultural church being taken away.

Winter seasons are necessary for deciduous trees. Unchecked growth of trees without winter lead to soft and mushy trees that have overladen branches that lack the structure to feed them. Winter hardening provides a tree the opportunity to strengthen the Hechtian strands, tubelike structures that connect the protoplast with the cell wall. The shrinking of the plant’s cells during winter allow it to release some of the unsustainable growth which did not have supporting structure. The winter season can lead to deeper roots but the difficult pruning of winter may make a tree look bare until the blooming leaves of summer again appear. 

detailed image of Hechtian strands

The church has gone through these seasons before and emerged stronger and better prepared. We will endure if we build on the strong foundation of Christ. We will tumble and fall if we build our identity on having a central place in American culture. Our roots are deep when they are nourished by the savior God that created the world. Our roots are shallow when they are nourished by the praise and pomp of the latest viral trends of the internet. When the storms of winter come the trees with shallow roots will be uprooted. John the Baptist told the Phariseesa and Sadducees come to his baptism, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:9-10).

The pruning of the branches is difficult to understand, but we trust in the wisdom of the Lord. Isaiah wrote, “For before the harvest, when the blossom is over, and the flower becomes a ripening grape, he cuts off the shoots with pruning hooks, and the spreading branches he lops off and clears away” (Isaiah 18:5). Jesus also references this work of the Lord in John 15, and confidently declares, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch that does not bear fruit he takes away and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear fruit” (John 15:1-2). We should be praying for the vinedresser to prune us so we may bear fruit.

Posted by Evan Gaertner

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