Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Sermon: “Go Tell Johnny” Grace and Peace to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The time is coming, truly coming. It’s almost here. It’s about time to start baking cookies, or maybe even getting late, as some of the cookie exchanges are already happening. I’ve heard people talking about the size of turkey they have, how many people will be there for a Christmas dinner, and I know for a fact that the season of present-shaking has begun. The time is coming. What do you suppose you’re getting? Or maybe you’ve been busy wrapping things up and have started asking yourself what something might be in this or that package that you wrapped, because you don’t quite remember what it is. There’s something in that package. You know it’s going to be good. But maybe you start wondering if you’re going to have what you wanted. Maybe, like me, you put some things on a wish list a long time ago and don’t remember what they were. Or you think maybe you were vague about something you should have been more specific about. One person in my family wanted “flavored coffee, not hazelnut.” One wanted “flavored coffee, hazelnut.” What about the person who just said “flavored coffee”? I don’t want to disappoint someone. What flavor? The anticipation can create delight. But it can also create some anxiety. I’m this way when a family member goes to the doctor. I know it’s a routine checkup, but I wonder, what is that doctor going to find? Is something unexpected going to happen? What about those dread diseases with few warning signs? They run the routine blood culture and say they will get back with you in a few days. I always get nervous. Some of you do also. Some with reason. The future is full of unknowns. Some of them are a lot more pleasant than others. Some of them are downright frightening. In the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 7, John the Baptizer, Jesus’ cousin, sends a couple of his disciples to check on Jesus. Maybe John isn’t sure what will happen. He wanted to see Jesus coming to rescue his nation from all its enemies. He was looking for a person to come as a king. And as we’ve seen lately, Jesus doesn’t always seem very kingly. He comes as a humble donkey-rider. He walks around with his disciples, not keeping all the trappings of a superhero anointed deliverer. So what should we think? Are you the one we are looking for, or should we just be glad you’re here but look for some other Messiah? What can we expect? What does the lab test say? What’s in the package? (long pause) (longer pause) Anticipation can be frustrating, can’t it? (long pause) Jesus doesn’t answer either, does he? Or maybe he does. “At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind” (Luke 7:21, ESV). What kind of an answer is that? “I’ll tell you what, Johnny, while you are waiting around, I’ll just do some of my work. I’m going to heal some of these people, a whole lot of them. I’m going to give them a life that they could never hope for. Is that enough of a sign for you?” What do you think? Is this enough of a sign? Jesus comes to us as the Messiah who is able to heal all sorts of diseases, give sight to the blind, and even chase away evil spirits. That’s pretty good, pretty good. But what about the people who are healthy? What about the people who seem to be doing all right? What kind of deliverer do they get? It’s a good idea to give them an answer also. So what should we tell Johnny? What answer can he have? Luke 7:22-23 (ESV) says, “So he replied to the messengers, ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.’” What do we tell Johnny? There’s more healing going on than you see. Not only are people who are sick with something being healed. Jesus says he is in the business of resurrection as well. He is the one who will take all who believe and raise them from death itself, body and soul, putting that which is dead back together again alive. He’s also the one who is giving good news to the poor. What’s in the lab report? You are fine. By God’s grace, as you trust in him, no matter what happens to you in this world, you are fine. You know someone in the business of resurrection. Johnny, even if some arrogant ruler decides to remove your head with a sword, you’ll still be fine. I’m the one who can put you back together again, and make your head work like it never did before in all your life. That’s what’s in the lab report. What’s in that package you’ve been wondering about? All the forgiveness, life, and salvation that you could ever need or want. In Me, Jesus says, you are perfectly whole, perfectly safe, and you are headed for eternal, conscious, joy and bliss. That’s what’s in the box. You asked for a new pair of socks. I’ll give you true life. How’s that for a deal? And I bet someone will give you some socks too. Go tell Johnny that Jesus is exactly the one you should be looking for. Jesus is exactly the one you need. Jesus is exactly the one you can depend on, day in, day out. Go tell Johnny. That’s what you tell him. Now, I don’t know who you might be. You might be Johnny yourself. You might be one of the disciples who can go tell him the message Jesus has. You might be someone who is hanging around near the disciples pretending not to listen. You might be one of the people who wasn’t sent by Johnny but who knows someone a lot like Johnny, someone who is lacking in faith, lacking in hope, who thinks there’s something good, bad, or indifferent in the package called the Church, in the package called Jesus. You are the perfect messenger for someone. What are you going to tell Johnny? Tell him that in Jesus there dwell all the riches of the Godhead bodily, like we see in Colossians 2:9. Tell him that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, like he says in John 11:25. Tell him what you saw Jesus doing here in Luke 7. Sometimes we just need to be told. Sometimes we just need to be reminded. Like we see in 1 Corinthians 13:9 we know in part, we prophesy in part, but one day we will know him as he is. Until then we need someone to tell us. Go tell Johnny. Go tell Johnny. What if Johnny won’t listen, what if he won’t believe? We don’t worry about that. We know that Jesus has told us to listen to him, to believe him. He is the one who will take care of the rest. Do you hear Jesus calling you? Do you hear that he is the one who has promised you life, As Jesus says in John 10:10, he has come so that you may have life, abundant life. And we live that life, day by day, by faith. He’s in charge of the lab report. He is the one who has given us many gifts. He is the one who gives his life so that we may receive it and life. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Look to him. He is coming. He is the one we are looking for. I think most of you have heard this prayer. You probably associate it with a meal. Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest. May Your gifts to us be blest. Amen. Come, Lord. We await you eagerly.
Monday, December 10, 2012
Sermon “Who Shall Stand?” Grace, mercy and peace to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. During Advent our call is for the Lord to come. We start to realize our darkness and our need for a savior. Yet like anything else, we are able to twist that which is good into something self-destructive. We take what God intended for good, a call to repentance so we can receive forgiveness with great joy. But once we have twisted it around a little bit like these pipe cleaners we have something that won’t even serve our purposes. Here’s a case in point. Christmas sales. I recall a time when it was common for people to do most of their Christmas shopping starting about now, in the two weeks or so before Christmas. And that was among people who were thinking ahead. Is it nice to give presents? Certainly. Is it a good thing to be able to find those presents without it being a tremendous last-minute rush to locate, purchase, and wrap all those bits of mechanized, electric joy? Well, it probably is a nice thing. So the Christmas merchandise comes out earlier and earlier. To inspire a rush of purchases we started seeing this special holiday called “Black Friday.” This started in the 1960s. It isn’t a long-standing tradition, though it’s been around for most or all of our lives. Black Friday? Sometimes it’s more like black and blue Friday. And it’s moved into Thursday now, making a civic holiday, a day of Thanksgiving, originally to God but now pretty universally referred to as “turkey day” a day when a bunch of turkeys want to go out and buy more Christmas presents, sold to them by a bunch of people who are being made to work on a holiday. But we need to get an early start on Christmas because everyone is going to pile it up with so much activity, so many desires, a greed for things to be “special” that we forget the nature of Christmas. We stop using this season to anticipate the coming of Christ and we let Christmas move forward, earlier and earlier. Then by the time the twelve days of Christmas arrive at the end of December 24 we’re so tired of it all that we unwrap the presents and look forward to getting that Christmas tree down as soon as possible after Christmas Day. We don’t even make it through those twelve days of Christmas and we’d sure be upset if we were supposed to give each other a little gift each of those twelve days like “my true love gave to me.” Rush, rush, rush, hurry here and hurry there, and we twist this good celebration of our Savior’s birth into something which can barely be recognized. By the end of it we’re worn out. It’s not surprising that mental health professionals report December and January as the most depressed months of the year. We start out with some high hopes and bit by bit they are crushed. We build these expectations that nobody is going to fulfill. And some of those expectations are expectations of our savior. Who are we looking for? Are we looking for a mild Jesus who is going to make us feel good about ourselves? Are we expecting that sweet little baby to lie quietly in the manger forever so we can talk baby talk and see if he smiles? What kind of a Jesus are we looking for? Let’s take a look back at Malachi chapter 3. How does our Lord come to us? He is a refiner. He takes us as lumps of ore and heats us to burn off the waste and lift the valuable metal out, making it useful. In all this smelting we are pulled out of our former lives. We are changed. We cease to be the pieces of rock that we once were. We are made useful, valuable. But we’re subject to great heat, pressure, crushing, sifting. When it’s all over, though, what emerges? Maybe silver, maybe gold, certainly something that is valuable and useful when it was not valuable and useful before. Our Lord comes to each one of us. He calls us to repent of our sins. He calls us to believe the Gospel. He promises us forgiveness and grace. And when we receive that, he works in us as the refiner, making us valuable and beautiful in his sight. Jesus comes to us as a refiner. Jesus also comes to us as a launderer. In baptism he washes us, cleansing us from sin. In confession and absolution he delivers us full and free forgiveness, washing away all the stains of our sin day by day. He takes that which is dirty and foul and presents it clean and sweet-smelling. Again and again in the Bible we read about washings. Sacrifices are washed. Priests are washed. People who have made sacrifice are washed. Sometimes there’s a sprinkling of blood, which is also called a washing in the Bible. We care cleansed, ceremonially, which means we are cleaned on the inside and the outside, by the blood of Christ shed for us. Jesus washes us from all sin and shame. Again, what is unrighteous is taken away, only what is good and fine remains. Jesus changes us into people who make offerings of righteousness. Our old habits, our self-centered view of the world, our selfish desires can gradually pass away as he takes us and makes us able to minister to others, to build them up in the faith. Have you seen this happen? This is the kind of change that we receive when we are courageous enough to let the Word of God change us. That’s one of many reasons I always encourage people in daily Bible study themselves and at least weekly Bible study with others. There’s something we gain when we are taking in the Word of God and discussing it with others, or at least listening in as others discuss it. Over time our Lord equips us with all that we need for life and godliness. He uses the Word for instruction in righteousness. He changes us so we can act as encouragers for others. This is why we kept the Adult Bible Class going through the summer. This is why we’re having some Wednesday evening Bible studies looking specifically through the Gospel of Luke, drawing out what our Lord would say to us. May the Lord change us into good offerings. How else does he come? He comes in judgment. He will judge all that evil, sorcery, adultery, perjury, failure to do justice. So where do we stand? We seem to be guilty. How do we confess? Sins in thought, in word, in deed. We have failed to love God with all our heart, all the time. We have turned our back on his goodness and mercy. So how will we stand? Who can stand before this kind of a judge? We should be destroyed. Yet in verse 6 we see that we are not destroyed. Why not? We are not destroyed because God does not change. Wait a minute! I thought God was the judge and would destroy all the evil. Now he’s not destroying us because he doesn’t change? What’s going on here? Maybe we need to remember what he just told us. What did we think all that refining, that washing, that changing us from inside to out was about? God is the one who doesn’t change. He is still full of mercy. He is going to cleanse us from all sin and present us to himself as his perfect bride, with no fault. This is how great our Lord’s mercy is. But what happens to all that sin and evil, all that slag, all the dirt and grime that he cleans from us? It all falls upon Jesus. That’s the Jesus we are looking for, not the sweet little baby, but the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, by taking them upon himself. We are looking for the Jesus who lives a perfect life in our place and who then becomes sin for us. We are looking for the Jesus whose mercy never changes, who will be crushed for us, who will be twisted beyond recognition, so that we can be presented to the Father holy and innocent. And that’s exactly the Jesus the Bible gives us. The more we learn from Scripture the more we see that Jesus is our only hope in this world. He himself is the light at the end of the tunnel. He himself is the one who gives us repentance. He himself is the one who draws us to him in faith. He himself is the one who raises us up. He is the one who takes us, who were once useless, fouled, destroyed, and makes us, like Paul in Philippians, a partner with him in the Gospel. He is the one who frees us from eternal death. He is the one who enables us to be about the business of making disciples. Earlier I talked about how our wrong expectations can drive us to be so very busy about things which will always disappoint us. Looking to Jesus, can we be busy about learning from our Savior? Can we be busy about the Word of God? Can we be busy about the work of training the next generation in righteousness? Can we be busy making a difference in our world, being those people who were making the precious offerings in the book of Malachi? By his grace, may he make us eager to hear and to obey his Word. Lord, let us see you as you come, not the one we may have expected, but exactly the one we need. Change us, cleanse us from inside out Fill us with your Spirit. Make us walk in your paths, bringing your grace to all those around us, for you live and reign, one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
Monday, December 3, 2012
Sermon “Kingly Grace” Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Have you ever met someone outside of the role you expected? Sometimes that person is hard to identify. We expect to see one thing but what we see, what we perceive, is something else. Years ago when I taught for a private school in West Virginia I was spending some time in the summer repairing light fixtures and refreshing the paint in the school building. Being a senior faculty member and the person who was most likely to be around, the school secretary and the headmaster considered me the point man for inquiries. There’s something that seems odd about being sweaty and smudged up from working on dirty old light fixtures and then being called unexpectedly to greet people and consult with them about curriculum. “I thought you were the custodian.” “I am the custodian.” “What do you know about teaching Latin?” “Well, I do that most of the time during the school year.” We’re very quick to look at someone and jump to conclusions. We think we know what kind of leadership to expect when we see a particular kind of person or someone who carries himself in a particular way. Did you know that normally the taller of the main party candidates for President in this country is elected? I guess I’d better give up my aspirations. What kind of a king did the people of Israel look for? What did they expect as their Messiah, their Christ, their anointed one who would come in the name of the LORD? They expected someone who would look kingly. They expected someone who would come with military might, be recognized as the descendant of David, who would overthrow the oppressive enemies like one of the judges or kings of old, and who would establish his reign on the throne. To the disciples Jesus seemed a likely candidate. He had been working miracles. He taught like nobody else taught. Surely he could come into Jerusalem and teach everybody a lesson. Yet how does the Lord, as we read in Jeremiah, “the LORD our righteousness,” enter into the city? He doesn’t put on any royal robes. He doesn’t have a retainer of soldiers. He doesn’t even seem to have a weapon. There are no trumpeters. He rides a donkey, an animal which is a symbol of humility and of peace. And this isn’t even a very good donkey! It’s a donkey nobody has ever ridden. It has no clue what to do with someone sitting on its back. It doesn’t know where to go, when to start, when to stop, it’s a novice. To the casual observer it looks like Jesus is being taken for a ride, and like all the people who are supporting him are being deceived also. Jesus hardly looks like a king as he enters into Jerusalem. Yet we know from Zechariah chapter 9 that Jesus is fulfilling prophecy. He is the king who comes to Jerusalem, humble, riding on a donkey. He is the one who is coming in humility, coming to heal the broken-hearted, to bind up the wounded, to heal the sick, to raise the dead. Wouldn’t you think he would want some sort of special notice for work like that? At least he ought to have a special coat or a gold watch. But Jesus enters Jerusalem, not claiming his own glory. He’ll do that later, when he rises from the dead. For now he lets others proclaim his wonders. What of the opposition? The Pharisees who tell him to stop his disciples? Jesus reminds them that the disciples are right, that Jesus is the king coming in the name of the LORD, that if they stop proclaiming the truth then God can have all nature do it instead. Do we know our Lord comes to us today? Do we remember that when we gather in His name we gather not to bring him something he needs, but to receive from him something we need? Do we remember that he is the king and is present for us, present in the Word, present in the Sacraments, present according to his promises, even though that presence isn’t always visible to those Pharisees around us? Do we remember that Jesus is the one who has come to rescue us? He doesn’t look much like a rescuing, mighty king. But he is the glorious Lord who has come to save us. He may not be the kind of king we were looking for. But he’s exactly the king we need. King of all, thank you for coming to us in humble form, coming to pick us up, coming to rescue us from sin and every evil. Confirm us in your grace. Amen.
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Sermon Merciful Fearful Snatching Grace and peace to you in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen. A few years ago I was driving my family home from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Huntington, West Virginia. We had taken a little bit of a detour to drive through a town with a church in our association, just to see what the territory was like. It was later in the day than I had planned. We had made several unscheduled stops and found ourselves in a high traffic area in rush hour traffic. Normally this isn’t a very serious problem. I’m used to city driving, and not cities like Watseka, cities with four or five lanes going one direction, stopping and starting, lots of lane changes. No, I wasn’t on my cell phone. All of a sudden, after I had looked over my shoulder to make sure a lane change was safe, I saw brake lights. Let off the gas pedal and re-adjust, check the mirrors for other lanes. Then I saw that the cars directly ahead were not just slowing, they had made an emergency stop. I was going some fifty miles an hour faster than they were. Antilock brakes are a wonderful thing. Who’s behind me? Am I going to turn our van into a sandwich? We can’t stop on a dime and we wouldn’t want to. Everyone is buckled in. Still going too fast, not enough room. I sure hope that person in the lane to the right is slowing down enough. We came to a stop spread out across two lanes. White knuckles, Martha is furiously stamping down on her imaginary brake pedal, Hannah has dropped her book and is asking what is going on, nobody was hurt, we didn’t hit anyone, though we were within a few inches of the car in front of us before getting to the right of it. Have you been there? Though it only took about ten seconds from beginning to end it seemed like an eternity. What’s our reaction? There’s a reaction I didn’t do. It’s what I call the “mom” reaction. My mother always did it in a sudden stop. I’ve seen many other women do it. I have nothing against women. It’s a very noble reaction. What do moms do? Can anyone make the gesture? The “mom” reaction is to hold the steering wheel with the left hand and stick the right arm out in front of the passenger. This is a noble thing. Of course, it won’t stop anyone from pitching into the windshield. But that’s beside the point. There’s a reflex that most mothers have. They reach out to protect the ones they love. What do dads do? They actually fight that reaction, grip the steering wheel with white knuckles, and pull back on it, as if that will slow the car down faster. That’s noble too. It’s all an attempt to protect those we love. What does Jude tell us? In verse 21 we keep ourselves in the safe place. We keep our arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times. We wait for Jesus’ mercy to rescue us. And we need rescue. We are barreling down the highway right toward those brake lights. And we don’t have any brakes, we don’t have steering, we don’t have seat belts, we don’t have air bags. Without Jesus’ loving protection we are in peril. We have no hope except that he has promised to guard us and rescue us. How does that rescue happen? How do we receive eternal life? It’s a gift of God’s grace. We read in Ephesians chapter two that we are saved by grace through faith. Salvation is not of us. It is a gift of God. Yet how is it that we are safe? We keep our arms and legs safely inside the vehicle at all times. And that vehicle is God’s love and mercy, protected by the most holy faith that has been delivered to us. Do you notice here that I don’t say that we are protected by our faith but by the faith? I’m going to run a risk here, and it’s the risk of being labeled a pointy-headed academic. You all know I have a good dose of that in me, though when I look at the work of real scholars and theologians I don’t think my head is pointy at all. But I want to be sure we understand what Jude is talking about here. Do I dare use two different Latin phrases? I think I will. Unfortunately, the phrases sound almost exactly alike. If you want to see them distinguished, look at the sermon on my blog. But I’ll try to translate them in a way that will be different enough. Theologians talk about two different kinds of faith. One they call fides quā credimus. That literally means “the faith by which we believe.” This is our faith, this is my faith. It is the faith that I place in the saving work of Jesus on my behalf. Much of the time when we refer to faith we are using it this way. And since most of us think three Latin words at a time is altogether too much we generally knock it down to two words, fides quā. The faith by which we believe. When I trust, when I believe, I believe in something. And so do we all. Who is the object of our faith? It better not be ourselves. Don’t trust your heart, it is deceitful. Don’t trust the Force. There’s a dark side to that. Don’t trust people too much. There’s too much sin and selfish desire in all of us. Trust in Jesus, the one who has given his life so you could live it in his place. There’s the fides quā, the faith by which we believe. But Jude here is talking about something else. We might mistake it just looking at verse 20. But in verse 21 we see that when we build ourselves up in our faith we keep ourselves in God’s love. We wait for his mercy in Jesus. This isn’t something about our faith. Rather, this is the other kind of faith the theologians talk about. It’s fides quae creditur. I’ll try to translate that, but I’ll give you the shorthand also, fides quae. Can you see how people who don’t actually understand the Latin would have trouble distinguishing between the two? They are just one letter different. But there are words like that in English also. One little letter makes the difference between “trough” and “through.” This fides quae is “the faith which is believed.” That’s what Jude is talking about. This is the faith known as the Gospel. It is the Christian faith. it is the body of belief that Christians confess about God’s love. It is the faith we confess. It’s what we believe. This faith which is believed is much greater protection for us than our individual faith. It’s what keeps us safe. It’s what keeps us in God’s love. By my personal faith I fasten my seatbelt. I reach out across to the passenger seat and try to hold someone who weighs a lot more than a brick in place despite a sudden stop or a collision. By my personal faith I find myself like Martha found herself that day in Ohio, stamping down on a brake pedal that isn’t actually there. By my personal faith I find myself not knowing who I should trust. By the fides quae, the faith which is believed, I find myself safely inside this vehicle with a perfectly functioning seat belt, air bags, anti-lock brakes, Jesus’ hand on the steering wheel, and the ability to avoid any collisions. By the faith which is believed, I find myself in an ark of safety which will never be destroyed and in which no lasting harm can come to me. By the faith which is believed, even at the end of the year, as we consider the end of the world, I see that there is no trouble that can come against me which will throw me into the fire of God’s wrath. There is no danger. I’m perfectly safe. Why? Because this faith is not mediated by me. It is governed by Jesus, my merciful savior. How do we who are called by Jesus respond in these times of trouble? We are merciful to those who doubt. We see someone mashing down on the brake pedal that isn’t there. We remind them they are in an ark of safety. We snatch some from the fire, pulling their arms and legs into the vehicle, God’s ark of safety, the Church. We show mercy mixed with fear to some. Consider this day of God’s wrath, the day of destruction by fire. It’s a fearful thing. We smother the flames that threaten to engulf them. They are inside God’s ark of safety, by God’s Word we extinguish the flames. So who are you today? Where are you sitting in that van? Are you aware of the danger of the end but unable to do anything about it? Maybe you’re tramping on that brake pedal that isn’t there. maybe you are fearful for the future, maybe you are entirely out of control. Trust in the Lord, who has given you the Church to keep you in safety. Maybe you’re the person who is living dangerously, hanging your head out of the window. When we call to you, when the Lord calls to you, come to him, look to him for your protection, pull your head in, let us who are safely inside help you, let the soothing, healing, cooling water of the Holy Spirit extinguish the flames, heal the burns, cleanse you. Or maybe you are one of the people who wasn’t paying attention but suddenly something seems to be happening. The Word of God warns you about God’s wrath to come, his righteous judgment on all evil. Does he condemn you as evil? He does that to everyone, as we have all sinned and fallen short of his righteousness. Devote yourself to this faith, this most holy faith, which is able to guard you. How do we do that? We do it in response to the grace of God, as His Word is spoken, as we hear it, and as we respond in faith. We receive from his riches, the riches of his mercy and grace, as he warns us of his wrath. We receive from his riches as we realize that Jesus, by his perfect life, death, and resurrection on our behalf is the one who has plunged into destruction so we would be perfectly safe. Trust in the Lord! Build yourself up in this most holy Christian faith which has been delivered to you over the centuries through the Church, the place where Christ is present to grant us forgiveness, life, and salvation through His Word and Sacraments. 24 To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— 25 to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Sermon: The Confidence of the End Grace, mercy, and peace to you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. There are some people in this world who are obsessed with different things. Do you know any of them? Some people aren’t satisfied unless they know all the stats not only for their favorite football team but for all the football teams. Some people are focused on keeping that lawn free from weeds and mown smooth like a carpet. Some people have perfectionistic tendencies, some even say I do. And someone recently remarked on my terribly messy office, saying I must be obsessive about keeping it tidy because it was so neat. Sometimes we see our obsessions and sometimes they are more visible to other people. Does our world have an obsession? I think it does. I think there’s one within the Church as well. It’s an obsession with the end times, the things of the last days, the fear of God’s final judgment. If you want to make a lot of money as a Christian author, write a book about heaven. Write a book about the transition from earthly life to eternal life. Write a book about the end times. Would you like to have a full church building? Hold a multiple-evening seminar on who the Antichrist is. Would you like an empty church building? Hold a multiple-evening seminar on who the Christ is. That shows the obsession our world has. And today, as we move to the end of the Church year our Scriptures look to the time of the end. In just two weeks we will start the new year, with Advent, the time for both mourning and eager anticipation of the coming Christ. But for now we are bringing the year to a close. We are looking at the end times, the last days, the coming of Christ at the end of the world. From our very brief passage in Daniel I’ve pulled three critical points. 1) Eternity is for everyone. 2) Those who are “wise” are those who stand firm trusting Jesus. 3) All who trust in Jesus will be delivered in perfect safety during the last days. First, eternity is for everyone. In the resurrection, at that last day, all the dead will be raised, all the living will be taken. Everyone will be judged. Some will have what the Bible calls life, others will have what Daniel calls “shame” and “contempt” that will last forever. All people are ushered into an eternal existence. Everlasting death is pictured in the Bible as conscious punishment, pain, grief, suffering, agony. Unlike the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who say that unbelievers will simply cease to exist, the Bible teaches an eternity of conscious torment for those who die outside of Christ. Sadly, in 1995 the Anglicans took an annihilationist position as well, becoming the first mainstream Christian group to take an official stand in favor of it. We have to ask ourselves what death looks like in the Bible. God told Adam and Eve that in the day they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would die. How did they die? They became subject to separation from God. They became subject to the kind of pain that we endure because we are not in unity with our Lord. This is death. And in eternity those who are dead, dead to Christ, dead to God, live on and on with all the pain of the curse of God. They have shame, they have bitterness, they have hatred, and they have nothing at all to do with it. They are described as being in a perpetual burning with no hope of relief. Eternity is for everyone. We don’t just cease to exist. There should be great fear in approaching death outside of Christ. So I’m going to pause for a moment and sound a little less like a Lutheran. I trust you’ll be understanding. The Bible calls us to trust in Jesus. The Bible tells us that we can be raised to glory as we are looking to Jesus in faith. Maybe you are someone who has just come to the Church recently, or maybe you are someone who has been around Christians for a very long time. But being around the Church doesn’t always mean you are looking to Jesus in faith. Do you believe that Jesus is, as the book of Hebrews describes him, the author and finisher of your salvation? Or are you someone who may be unprepared for eternity, who is not trusting in Jesus? Don’t be taken, don’t be raised to shame. Believe that Jesus is here for you, full of grace and truth, full of forgiveness, the one who will give you eternal life in his glory, in his presence. Trust in him. And whether you are just now trusting in him or have believed him before, turn to him, daily hoping in his mercy and his forgiveness. He is faithful and just to forgive you your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. Eternity is for everyone. Trusting in Christ we are raised to glory. This brings us to our second point, which will be very short. Those who Daniel presents as “wise” are the people who have “the brightness of the heavens” (Daniel 12:3, NIV1984). Who are the wise people? Those are the people who stand firm, trusting Jesus, as we read in our Gospel passage today. Whom do we trust? What do we trust? Do we remember that Jesus is the one who is presenting us to God the Father as his perfect bride, dressed all in the white robes of Christ’s righteousness? This is our Lord’s promise. He will awaken us to him. We have no reason for fear. We have no reason for doubt. It is not our own works, it is not our own righteousness, but it is Jesus’ perfect life which he applies to us as we trust in him. Would you like to be perfectly good, perfectly right, perfectly holy? This is what Jesus does for you when he forgives you and presents you to God the Father. Eternity is for everyone. Those who are wise, trusting in Christ, are presented to God in Christ’s holiness. And now our third point, all who trust in Jesus will be delivered in perfect safety during the last days. When are these last days? That brings us to another doctrinal difficulty in the Church, and it’s one that has taken hold of this country in a very serious way, the doctrine of the millenium. For almost two thousand years now, the view of the vast majority of the Church has been that we are in the last days, as Peter proclaimed in the second chapter of Acts. By faith in Christ we are in that time period presented in Revelation chapter 20 as the “millennial” or “thousand-year” reign of Christ on earth. The idea of the millennium, which means “period of a thousand years” seems to be taken from a simple bit of symbolic math which the author of Revelation presents. The trinitarian number three plus the number for completion and perfection, seven, equals ten. This is why there are so many threes, sevens, and tens in the Bible. Now I’m no expert at biblical numerology, nor do I want to be one. Many people try to find symbolic number patterns throughout the Bible and miss the fact that the Bible is all about Jesus. Yet this number, ten, when cubed, ten times ten times ten, see the “three” coming back, adds up to a thousand. When used outside of actual counts of people, such as in military actions, the idea of a thousand is intended to indicate as much perfection, as much completion, as you could have. So here we have a thousand year period. It’s a time period nobody could live through, a time period nobody could completely count systematically. It’s the time period of the last days, Christ’s gracious rule on earth, the time of the Church. Some people have decided to look forward to a coming thousand year reign. They find it makes Revelation 20 relatively easy to explain. But it makes it impossible to explain many of Jesus’ statements in the Gospels without having to twist his words about his kingdom being present, his believers seeing his kingdom, all sorts of statements which he makes to comfort us. When confronted with the millennial views of the more radical parts of the Reformation there are two directions they take us. One of them, held by many Presbyterians, is called “postmillennialism.” In this picture, by working diligently for social change we will bring the Gospel to all nations and usher in a period of Christ’s rule on earth. This pushes our Calvinist brothers and sisters to enthusiastic missionary activity. While the emphasis on proclaiming the Gospel is something we should all learn from and embrace, the Bible doesn’t picture us as bringing a time of peace. It says Jesus brought that peace when he died for the sins of the world. The other direction millennialism can take us is more common among Baptists and the more broadly evangelical people in our culture. They say that the world will reach a crisis point, Jesus will come, and at that point he will judge the world and usher in his thousand year reign. This “premillennial” view still can’t explain the time of the Church that we are in. Both views are full of difficulties. That’s why the historic Church says we are in the millennium now, but that it is not necessarily limited to a literal thousand years. What’s at the heart and center of these views? It is that Jesus is working to deliver his people, and they will be brought to him perfectly safely. There is no fear in the love of Christ. We see in Revelation that the throne of God is surrounded by a great multitude of people who have trusted in Jesus. The people who have been killed for their faith, the people who have died of natural causes or in accidents or from cause of warfare not related to their Christian faith, all who die trusting in Jesus are perfectly safe in the resurrection. Jesus, the Lord of heaven and earth, is able to bring all who trust in him into the presence of the Father. We will all be perfectly safe. One of my historical heroes, Stonewall Jackson, when asked how he seemed perfectly at ease on the battlefield with bullets and cannon balls flying around him, said that in the arms of Jesus his savior he was just as safe there as he was at home in his bed. His Lord and Savior would protect him and bring him home as a partaker of the resurrection no matter the circumstances of his death. Eternity is for everyone. Those who are wise trust in Christ. Those who trust in Christ are perfectly safe both now and for eternity. Let us then trust in our Lord as we join with the multitude of saints who have gone to their eternal rest and with those who are still laboring on this earth, confessing our common faith together, trusting that Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith will make us shine in the heavenly realms forever. Amen.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Sermon “A Little and A Lot” Dearest Lord, open our hearts to receive from you according to the riches of your grace, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today we read about an elderly lady, no husband, no money, one who has outlived her resources. She has a little bit of money, but not much, really not enough. She’s living in poverty with nobody to take care of her. I’m sure if you have been around Christianity for long you have heard sermons about the widow from our Old Testament reading in 1 Kings 17 as well as the widow in the Gospel from Mark 12. Neither of these women has any assets, at least not that we can see. Neither has any hope in earthly things. One is preparing to eat her last meal. One is giving a small amount of money which is a lot to her. I’ve heard the sermons and you probably have also, those about how when we dedicate all that we have to the Lord he takes it and makes it a lot. It preaches well. Leaves us with a good feeling, especially if we don’t have much money and we decide to make a big pledge by faith to support the church or maybe a missions project. The preacher turns into an auctioneer and begins working the price up, building an emotional frenzy that will bring in the pledges. Here’s one I saw, actually experienced, once. The evangelist was talking about the love of money being the root of all evil. Of course, he misquoted 1 Timothy 6:10, just as I did. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. But he persuaded people to find their wallets, take money out of them, hold it up to God, and wave it before Him, renouncing the Devil. Then he proceeded to pass the offering plates an extra time. Tremendous peer pressure to put money in the plate. Who seemed to be loving money? But people will take these passages and use them to pile the guilt on their hearers. If we truly trust the Lord, won’t we want to give away everything we have? If we really trust God, won’t we pledge our last cent to his kingdom? If we really trust God enough we can dedicate ourselves, our resources, our families, all we have, to his service. Now don’t get me wrong. Our Lord calls us to lay down our lives. He demands our life, our all. There’s no question about that. Yet we see the Bible full of examples of people, wealthy people, using their resources wisely to further God’s work on earth, including providing for the needs of their family in their own generation and in future generations. If God has blessed you with the ability to earn money and set it aside for your family, use it wisely. Give in a planned and reasoned way, give extra when there are needs you are aware of and when you are able to contribute to those needs, and care for your family. I’m veering off from the Gospel passage for a moment. I hope you’ll forgive me. Many people talk about the “tithe,” a 10% portion of your income, as the appropriate amount to give. They will tie this back to Old Testament passages requiring the giving of a tenth. “Tithe” literally means “tenth.” This seems to be an idea that has caught on and has remained within the body of Christ. I’ve even run across church congregations in which the membership agrees to give a tenth of their gross income in the offering or to be subject to church discipline. I know some of us in this room have been in situations where that is the norm, and it’s a good norm, at least the giving part, not the discipline part. If everyone in this congregation gave ten percent we would have enough to help those who are in need, to support many ministry projects locally and around the world, we’d have an abundance. It isn’t a bad idea at all. But there is something flawed in the reasoning. At the time when God called Israel to make those offerings, they provided not only for the needs of the priesthood and for charity to the poor, they also provided for all the functions of government which were necessary in the nation. There was no separate civil government taxing the people. To make matters more complicated, in some years there were multiple different offerings of a tenth of your increase, resulting in a much higher level of giving. In the New Testament we do see Jesus complimenting the Pharisees because they are rigorous about giving the offerings required by Moses, but we also see the apostolic pattern from 1 Corinthians 16:2 of setting aside something on the first day of the week, Sunday, “in keeping with” income. The percentage isn’t mentioned. At that time there is a civil government which taxes its people. There are plenty of needs for giving. There will always be poor among us. There will always be projects we need to accomplish. But the idea of the ten percent doesn’t seem to be specifically what the New Testament would require. Instead we see a picture much more like a planned amount that is fitting in terms of our income and the needs of others, as well as additional offerings from time to time as needs present themselves. This might just revolutionize our giving strategy. We use the money God has given us in a planned way to meet the known needs as well as we can, setting aside a budgeted amount, and supporting God’s people. At the same time we realize that the Church does not serve all the functions that our government has assumed. We give liberally so there will not be a need for continual special offerings. And we do it, like the widows in our readings today, in faith, trusting that the Lord who provided us with all we have is able to make it last as long as he wants to. We do it in faith, knowing that God’s mercy is upon us and that he will use us to show mercy upon others. We give not to be seen, but to accomplish what is needful. There, we’ve returned to mark 12. Jesus commends this widow who gives what she has. He wants us to realize that we also have nothing in particular. We ourselves are poor. We have no means of our own, it all comes from the Lord. We have no great claim to glory and honor. We simply go about our business, helping others as well as we can, in the end being unsung heroes. We give our little bit. We trust in our Lord. And as everyone does the same, we find that the confidence we have in Jesus is a great reward. We find that we are lacking nothing. And when we are lacking something, since there is an abundance of giving, we are not afraid to ask our brothers and sisters, the body of Christ, to support us in our need. What is our need? Most of the time we need prayer and encouragement. As I’ve gone around visiting people in the Faith Lutheran congregation, making it to more of the homes of people who are not shut-ins, the biggest need people have talked about has been a need for encouragement. May the Lord grant that our times of worship and fellowship together can be a time for encouragement. Have you told someone recently what a blessing he is? Have you gone to those who are sick or troubled and brought them care? It’s a job for all of us, not just the pastor. What other needs do we have? I hear from people who might come to church more often or more easily if they had a ride. Do some of us drive right past with empty seats in our cars? We used to attend a church congregation with a number of younger families. It wasn’t uncommon to find a sort of a swap meet in the parking lot after worship. Our family often had the back of the van propped open with a number of items from our house which we were no longer using, ready for others to take. Other people did the same. Sometimes we brought things to church that didn’t come back with us. Sometimes we went to church and brought back gifts. We never know what we’ll find. Sometimes there are other needs, financial needs, a need for help with a big project. Can we step up to the plate, let our needs be known, and trust that Christ’s people will meet our needs? Or do we want to be like those people Jesus talked about in Mark 12 who say their lives are in perfect order, who deny their poverty, who give rich gifts to be seen by others? May God give us the grace he gave the widow, to give out of our poverty, realizing that we have nothing that doesn’t come from our Lord, that we need his grace in every way. What is the greatest need we have, and we all do have it? It’s the need we express week after week, that need for forgiveness. Are we ready to admit our poverty in spirit before the Lord? Are we ready to confess that we are sinners in need of salvation? Are we ready to confess that we are too quick to trust in our own ways, in our own ability, in our own resources? Then let us turn to our Lord and Savior in faith. Jesus, God the Son, gave his life as a sacrifice for our sin. He gave the riches that we need, his perfect eternal life. As we look to him in trust, he will give that life to us. We don’t really bring anything, just a couple of copper coins. He brings us forgiveness, life, and salvation. And he delivers it to us freely, richly, as we trust in him and receive from the Word of God. Let us pray. Lord of all, let us see that we in ourselves are poor widows with no inheritance. Yet as you give us what we need through Word and Sacrament, make us trust you and live as those who have received all your grace and mercy. Have mercy upon us, Lord Jesus, Amen.
Sunday, November 4, 2012
Sermon “Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant” Open our hearts and minds to you, Lord of the covenant, that we may know the grace you have bestowed on us, giving your great and precious promises. This we pray in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. As with all our Bible readings, there were quite a few sermons asking to be preached today. It’s always exciting to see what the Lord would have us ponder whenever we open our Bibles. And I hope you take our readings and ponder them on your own, asking the Lord to speak through His Holy Word on a daily basis, renewing your hearts and minds. Today we’re brought to the message of God’s covenant love. This idea of a covenant comes from Old Testament customs. At the time of Abram, probably about 1500 B.C., some 3500 years ago, this custom of sealing a covenant was well established. In the ancient cultures of his time, rulers who were making a treaty would take a variety of sacrificial animals, divide them in half, make a pathway between them, then walk down the pathway together. The ground and the animals were spattered with blood. By the end of their walk, the rulers would be wet with the blood of the sacrificial animals. The smell of death was all around them. In this ceremony both of the rulers would pledge that if they were to break their agreement, their covenant, they themselves should be put to death, just like the sacrificial animals they had killed. We find a covenant like this sealed in Genesis chapter 15. If you have a Bible handy, you might want to look at this passage, in Genesis 15. God has promised Abram a son who would be his heir, who would inherit the great land of promise, who would be great, and who would be a blessing to all nations. There’s just one problem. Abram is old. He has no children. When God repeats his promise to Abram he asks how he will know that the promise will be for him. God sets up a sacrifice. Abram is to bring sacrificial animals, but he is not to pass between them. During the night, the LORD tells Abram more about his future. Then the LORD himself passes between the animals, but he doesn’t allow Abram to do so. By doing this God has said clearly, for all time, that if he fails to keep his promise he is no longer God, he deserves to be torn apart and put to death. By preventing Abram from passing through this sacrifice he says that Abram cannot and will not keep the promise. He keeps Abram from convicting himself. Over the generations the nation of Israel grew. They continued making the sacrifices that God had appointed. And these sacrifices did bring forgiveness. The people were sprinkled with the blood of their sacrifices. This sprinkling cleansed the people of God. Yet it would not have any effect except that Jesus came to pass between the sacrifices on our behalf. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as we read in Hebrews chapter 9, passed through death, “by his own blood” (v. 12, NIV84), bringing us eternal forgiveness. Jesus himself took the place of Abram. He took the place of Moses. He took your place, he took my place. He walked through the valley of death, the passageway between the parts of the dead animals, representing you and me, acting as our mediator. What is a mediator? Before we get ahead of ourselves I think we’d better make this clear. A mediator is, strictly speaking, a middle-man. It is the person who represents one person to another and that other person to the first person. It’s sort of like a messenger, but it is normally a messenger who has authority agreed on by both people to represent their points of view. Often in modern days a mediator is a lawyer who speaks for a client who is unable to be present, then speaks back to the client about the other party’s needs and desires. We see in this passage of Scripture that Jesus is our mediator. He is the one who works on our behalf, taking our needs before God and bringing God’s answer back to us. He is the one who walks between the sacrifices for Abram and for us. So what is the critical factor in this event? How does the author of Hebrews see it? Jesus, our priest, the one who makes sacrifice on our behalf, the one who stands for us, enters God’s presence pleading for us. But just as we have confessed, we have a problem. Jesus is like the lawyer who is coming to the judge on behalf of someone who has committed a terrible crime, one with plenty of evidence for conviction, and who has confessed that crime. What response does the judge have for us when we plead guilty of our crimes? He may commend us for our honesty. He may even thank us for coming clean. But someone has to go to jail. The penalty stands. We are guilty. The penalty of our guilt before God? As we know from Romans chapter 6 verse 23, sin receives death. We are guilty. We deserve present and eternal death. What will we do? How do we receive forgiveness? All the offerings we can make, all the sacrifices we can make, all the penalties we can pay are of no use. Someone has to die. And it looks a lot like that someone is you. It looks a lot like that someone is me. Really? Just for those “little” sins? Yes. There is no sin that is too small to convict us. There is no failure before God which goes unnoticed. Our Lord is perfect. In Matthew chapter 5 he demands that we should be perfect, just like him. Ezekiel chapter 18 tells us that the soul who sins must die. So what are we going to do? Go cry without stopping until we die? That won’t do us much good, will it? In fact, it will do us no good. There is nothing we can do of our own accord that will stop the penalty of God. He kept his promise made to Abram. He remains the true God and is not condemned. The good news in all this is that Jesus did walk down that path for us. He passed between the sacrificial animals, and he did it for us. He did it for you, he did it for me, he did it for every single man, woman, and child ever born in this world. And by doing that he stands before God as a mediator of the new covenant. He pleads before the Father that we should not be torn apart, but that he should instead. He asks the Father that our sins should be laid upon him. He asks the Father that all the sacrifices anybody had ever made should be replaced by his perfect sacrifice and that he may end it all, taking our penalty upon himself. Someone has to die. Jesus, our mediator, begs that he should be the one who dies for us. Jesus, then, is the mediator of a new covenant. He is the mediator of a covenant that is completed. He is the one who has finished the work of our forgiveness. He is the one who has wiped away all our sin, all the sin we have ever committed, all the sin we will ever commit, all our sins of commission, what we have done, all our sins of omission, what we have left undone. He has taken it all upon himself. He has died for your sin and for my sin. He has become sin for us, according to 2 Corinthians 5, so that we could become God’s righteousness. And how did he do that? He did it by having his body broken for you and for me. He did it by having his blood shed for you and for me. He has sprinkled us with the blood of his covenant, he has brought us forgiveness, life, and salvation, to as many as believe him. Do you come today with a guilty conscience before God? Jesus has taken all your sin. Do you come today with a burden of sin? Jesus has taken it away from you. Do you come today doubting whether God keeps his promises? Jesus has fulfilled all righteousness, keeping all the promises of God. Do you wonder whether this work of Jesus is for you? He has given us his true body and his true blood, whenever we gather in his name and receive his gifts of grace in communion. And this gift is for you and for me, for as many as believe that he died for us. Jesus gives you life! He is the mediator of the new covenant! As we read in 1 Peter chapter 5, let us cast our cares on him. He cares for us. When we gather to receive communion, when I raise the bread and the cup, join with me in trusting that his body is broken for you and his blood is shed for you. When you receive our Savior in your mouth, trust that he is here, as he said in John chapter 6, to give you true food and true drink that will last for eternity. Trust in our Lord Jesus Christ with me. He is the mediator of the new covenant, a covenant in his blood, which will wash you from all your sin. (2 Cor. 13.14, NIV) Now may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all, amen.
Monday, October 29, 2012
What’s that red light for? You know, the one hanging at the front of the church? This is a question I field sometimes as a pastor. It’s a question that gives us opportunity to talk about Jesus at work in this world. Usually in our culture a red light is a symbol for stopping. But if you step into the nave of a Lutheran church and look into the sanctuary, the place behind the altar rail, behind the pulpit or lectern, you’ll almost always find a red light. This red light doesn’t tell us to stop, or does it? It’s a light which is kept on in the church building all the time, symbolic of the presence of Jesus’ blood, shed for all who believe, always available to us for forgiveness. In our church the light is produced by a long-burning candle which is inside a red glass cylinder. Every week the candle is replaced. Every week the flame starts at the top and moves down toward the bottom. When I step into the nave the level of the flame reminds me to pause, to reflect on the fact that Jesus has given himself for me once for all time, but that time continues to pass. The flame is lower today than it was yesterday. Many events have happened, events that I need to pray about, circumstances I have reacted to, often badly, situations for which I need to repent and receive God’s forgiveness. It’s always there. The time flies by. I come and go. Jesus is always there. What happens when we stop and observe the red light? We stop and observe Jesus who gave himself for us.
Sermon “A Great Throng Will Return” Lord, reform our hearts and minds. Plant your word in us so that we may taste and see that you are good, drawing us together as the mighty Church, your instrument in this world, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Sing with joy! Gather together, singing the praises of God! Pray for him to save his people, to gather his remnant! This remnant, this group of redeemed people, this is the true Israel. This is the gathered people of God. This is the mighty army, made mighty by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who himself is our high priest, our perfect sacrifice, the one who is able to break down the wall of separation between man and God, the one who has triumphed over death. Just look around you and see this mighty army of God. Is something wrong with the picture you are seeing when you look around? This remnant, this people called out by God, this people he has prepared for his service, we don’t look awfully powerful, do we? Granted, some seem to be in better condition than others. But if we look with our human eyes, with our fallen wisdom we see the foremost of this congregation and we see frailty. We want to go storm the gates of hell, which Jesus says will not prevail against His Church. But we confess who we are, we, the gathered people of God. In this congregation I don’t have use too much imagination. See these people from our reading in Jeremiah 31 verse 8? We have the blind, or at least a lot of people who need a good bit of help seeing. We have the lame. I don’t think we have any expectant mothers at present, and no women in labor. But those are examples of young people who are fragile and need someone to care for them. Yet we are a great throng, at least in God’s eyes. We are his mighty army, we the people who are weak, we the people who know our frailty, we the people who need a level path and who try very hard not to stumble. And we are the people our Lord is gathering to himself for his purposes. We are the people who are called out, we are his servants, we are those who complete the work he has given us. In our passage from Jeremiah, why are the people weeping? Where are they coming back from? Jeremiah writes in a time of national turmoil. God’s people have been abducted, they have been taken into captivity. Many have been deported to live in prison colonies. In fact, the mass deportation happened early in the time that Jeremiah was writing, when he was a young man. By the time he writes this, or at least by the time that he is talking about, he himself will be an old man. He is weak. He is frail. He, though he was not taken into captivity, has been subject to violence, hatred, hunger, privation of all sorts. Yet our Lord has promised that he will deliver his people. He will bring them back from captivity, some seventy years after they were taken away. Only those who were very young when deported will return. The rest, all the young and strong people, have never seen their homeland. They have never known freedom. They have spent their lives in bondage to a cruel paganism. Now at last they are being brought back to their homeland. They are being delivered from death. They have been recalled to life. In a similar way, we who have lived in captivity are recalled to life by our Lord. Today, this very day, the day we remember the Reformation, we are called to renew our minds, to turn in our hearts to the Lord Jesus Christ, to look to him in faith, to see that he has called us out of death into life, and that he, our perfect high priest who has never failed us is the one who can hold us, who can guide us, and who can make us walk in those level paths without stumbling. Yet we may ask, what captivity? What is this captivity? As the Pharisees said to Jesus, we have never been slaves to anybody! The preacher tries to tell us we are slaves, but we’re free people. I’d like to tell you a brief story, then, a story about the time of the Reformation, the situation Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, found in the year 1517. He faced a time of captivity, and it was a time remarkably like our time. The culture of his day, through several hundred years, had moved farther and farther away from biblical truth. The Church government in the West, centered in Rome, had spent many generations appointing political leaders for their own purposes, and in turn being heavily influenced by the politics of the day. Popes, bishops, and priests were pursuing their own glory, what we would call the “theology of (man’s) glory” rather than the “theology of the cross.” They saw man’s good works as necessary to salvation. They saw that God had placed a standard upon mankind. Then rather than look to Jesus for mercy and grace they urged people to rise to that standard and prove themselves to God. Only by being good enough, only by doing enough good works, only by having others do good works on our behalf, could we ever hope to escape from the terrible judgment of God. There are two and only two responses we can make to these demands. We can despair, giving up all hope of salvation, knowing that we can never rise to God’s standard. Or we can find some way of lowering God’s standard, deciding that our good works might balance out our bad works, trying to depend on our faithfulness, our going to church enough, our leading prayers, our having Bible studies, our giving to enough Christian projects, and generally being a good person to save us. Both of these solutions were on the table back in the sixteenth century. People would be bound in their conscience. If you are really a Christian you will do this, do that, do the other thing, and you will always do it better than anyone else. Remember the confession that says, “I am heartily sorry” for sin? Balderdash! We aren’t nearly sorry enough that we have not loved God with all our hearts. Not at all. So we deserve his condemnation, period. This leads to despair. It was common in the sixteenth century and it is just as common in the twenty-first century. Churches bind people in their conscience and tell them the solution to sin is to quit sinning. That’s kind of like telling a dog to quit being a dog or telling a fish to stop swimming. And some of you have been confronted with this teaching. It’s destructive. It takes away your hope. This is why I spend so much time telling frightened people in hospitals and nursing homes about the grace of God. We don’t look to our own sufficiency, we don’t look at how well we stop sinning. We look to Jesus. If we could stop sinning we wouldn’t need a savior. Jesus would have died for nothing. Does this seem familiar? It’s all right to say “amen” if you think saying “yes” isn’t fitting for a church service. We would like to stop sinning, but we can’t. We need a savior. The culture Martin Luther lived in had forgotten that. So has ours. We try to work out our own salvation. It’s hopeless. We can’t do it. So when we are called back into God’s promise, like the poeple in Jeremiah 31, we call out, “God, save us.” We need a savior. What about that other solution? Maybe we can find a way to dodge God’s standards. That was also common in the sixteenth century. Since you can’t seem to stop sinning, and neither can your family members, make a generous contribution and we’ll have special prayers for you. It’s got to be a good generous contribution, though. We have a great cathedral to build. But you can have your name on a brick if you give enough. I guess I’m about to step on some toes. We don’t have much of this around here. But have you noticed how some churches, I won’t name names, have little plaques on different items? I filled the pulpit at a church once which had a big altar Bible. It was a very nice big altar Bible, actually one on the altar and one on the pulpit. At least it was a nice big Bible some sixty years ago when it was donated in loving memory of someone. The back of each one was broken. The pages were curling and falling out. The Bible was a translation that was no longer in use within the congregation. It was never used for a reading and hadn’t been used for a reading for many years. Could they move it and replace it with an altar book or a Bible that would be used in the services? Of course not. It was given in memory of so-and-so. Or in another church where I was there was an electronic organ which was donated to the church by someone who had died many years ago and whose family had long since stopped attending that church, having participated in a church split. The organ no longer worked. It was of a type that might have belonged in a museum of old electronics, but the church leadership couldn’t find such a museum that didn’t already have one which worked. What to do? People give gifts. And they tie their hopes to those gifts. They count on their giving to override their sin. Again, they deny their need for a savior. After all, they have done something good which will take care of them. Again, maybe if I’m a good person, maybe if I can show some redeeming qualities, God will overlook the fact that I am a lawbreaker. We might try something like that to lower God’s standard. Or we may try to explain it away. We’ve seen a lot of that in recent generations. We see it with people having “affairs.” We used to call that adultery. We used to excommunicate people, to treat them as unbelievers, for continuing in flagrant sin. Now we seem to say we’re in a more enlightened generation. We wink at sin. We live in a culture that is overrun by sexual sin. We assume that young people are going to live together before getting married, or that marriage is optional. It’s assumed that young people, and not so young people, will be engaged in drunkenness and other substance abuse. We call it a disease. The person suddenly is no longer responsible and is powerless to exercise self-control or to look for meaningful hope and help. We decide that it’s all right for our government to be intolerant of Christians and that we won’t exercise our liberty to stand against the kind of intrusion that tells Christian employers they have to pay for abortions through their health plans. We decide that it’s not an important issue when our leaders try to redefine marriage so that it doesn’t serve the social and cultural purposes that it has always protected. We decide that it is all right for elderly people to be cast aside for financial reasons, that Medicare should be allowed to pay for assisted suicide but not for measures that can help people live as long as they can with dignity. We shrug our shoulders and choose not to take a biblical stance. Then we’re surprised when Christians are not tolerated in our society. We turn our back on the biblical mandate to protect the weak, the helpless, the last, the least, the lost, and the lonely. We say that isn’t really so important as long as we are quiet and keep our heads down. We let business, school, athletic, and social demands take the place of devoting ourselves to assembling together regularly and receiving the gifts of life and salvation from our Lord. We decide that as long as we’re basically good people everything will be fine, particularly if we aren’t as bad as some other people around us. When we say that we are saying God’s righteous demands don’t matter. We declare that we are no longer sinners. We declare that we don’t need a savior. We deny our Lord Jesus Christ. He is no longer important. We have rejected Christ. Now is not the time to say “amen.” It is the time to repent, to turn to him for help and hope, to plead that he will deliver us from evil. So now it’s the time to say “amen.” In 1517 Martin Luther stood up against this denial of biblical Christianity. He said that if we’re going to call ourselves Christians we’d better depend on Christ. We’d better look to him for help and hope. We’d better throw ourselves upon his mercy. We’d better look to him as the perfect priest, the perfect offering, the one who dies for our sin, the one who rises on our behalf. We need to stop looking to ourselves and our potential. We simply don’t have the potential. We in fact are the weak, the helpless, the last, the least, the lost, the lonely. What did Jesus do for that beggar in the Gospel reading? He gathered him up and delivered him from his bondage. What does Jesus do for us? He gives us eyes to see him, a heart to believe him, and pulls us to our feet, makes us to follow him to his promised land, the people he will lead and support along a level path, taking us to the place of his blessing, the place we have never seen before. He gathers us as a mighty throng of people following him and calling out, “Lord, save us.” By faith in him we can stand, but faith in him, trusting his grace, we are rescued from bondage, just like the people of Israel, just like the people of Germany were in the sixteenth century, just like people of every age are. Reformation starts with you. Reformation starts with me. Reformation starts as we look to our Lord, revealed in the Bible, seeking his deliverance. Lord, deliver us from evil. Make us walk in your paths, to the glory of your holy name. We pray this in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
Sermon “Dealing with Difficult Passages” Lord, open my lips to speak your word with courage, truth, and grace. Open our ears and our hearts to receive what you would give us. Open our hands as your instruments, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our sermon today is entitled “difficult passages.” When you heard that and you were confronted with the Scriptures we read you may have started to construct an idea of what the sermon would be about. I hope some people try to predict it. But what are we talking about here? Is it the fact that these are “passages” of the Bible which are difficult? Maybe I want us to see how to deal with texts which are hard to work with, and these are difficult texts today. Or maybe we’re thinking about the theme in Ecclesiastes of our goods and possessions passing from ourselves to others. That’s a difficult thing to see, and many of us do see that we labor and toil and often don’t recognize or enjoy the gain. There’s always somebody wanting to use the money we earned, always another expense. Maybe we’re thinking about how we pass our time, sometimes in very hard labor, seldom recognizing that our hard work is for our Savior Jesus Christ. Maybe we’re concerned with the passage from Hebrews and the passage to enter into God’s rest. That’s an exciting passage, because it might refer to our release from sin as our Lord brings us forgiveness, it may refer to our release from this earthly life and entrance into heavenly blessing, it may refer to both. That’s a difficult passage in many ways. Maybe you were thinking about the text from Mark and the passage of the rich man into the kingdom of God, the camel through a needle. Yet another difficult passage of Scripture and another difficult life passage as well. So many passages here we could find ourselves in a maze! Here’s where I want to look today, though, considering Hebrews chapter 4. You might want to follow along a little bit, as we jump to vese eight in the text. I’d like to read verses 8-16 again for you so it’s fresh in all of our minds. 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day.9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. The difficult passage here in Hebrews is a passage from death to life. It’s a passage from our frenzied attempts to work out our own spiritual lives to the life of rest in the Lord which we are promised by God. The author is comparing it to Israel entering the promised land. The people of Israel didn’t bring themselves into God’s promises. The Lord brought them in. They didn’t make up the plan for conquest of Canaan, God did, All the deliverance, all the protection of the people of Israel was founded on God’s calling and promise. He is the one who told them where to go and what to do, and he is the one who made them able to do his will. There’s an important principle behind the conquest of Canaan that the author of Hebrews talks about. God makes commands but he knows we are not able to keep his commands. Because we are by nature sinful and unclean, just as we confess again and again, we are incapable of doing anything that is truly pleasing to God. We can’t do it ourselves. What we can do is look to the promise of God which is included in his command. For instance, when he commands the people of Israel to take the land he is promising to give them the land. When he commands us to seek his face he promises to give us grace to do so. When he commands us to be holy as he is holy he gives us the means of grace to make us holy. When we are told to enter into God’s rest he promises to bring us into his rest. And how has he done that? Through Jesus living a perfect life, dying a perfect death, and rising again from the dead on our behalf. Jesus, who no longer dies, gives us his life and protects us from eternal death. By his grace, as we believe Jesus is our savior, we can enter into the rest, the deliverance from sin, that he has purchased for us. This entry into life, into holiness, through trusting Jesus is true entry into rest. We no longer have to strive with sin, for Jesus has already done all the striving. We no longer have to do battle with death. Jesus has already won the victory. All we do is trust that he is who he said he is and that he has done what he said he would do. Jesus commands us to enter into his rest, and he gives us the means by which we can do it. How is this passage from death to life informed? By the Word of God. If we are not guided by God’s Word we are lost indeed. In verses 12-13 we see that God’s Word is sharp, it is accurate, it cuts into us with surgical precision, doing what no human hand can do. Have you ever experienced this? I know I’ve had times when I go to church and the pastor has seemed to be looking right through me, taking the Scripture and talking as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking. There are some people who take the Scripture and are able to pin it right to my life. The pastor who was responsible for a lot of my formation as he nurtured me as an elder and leader in the church used to put it this way. He said that some people had a “thin” Bible and others had a “thick” Bible. The people with the thin Bible were the people who looked at the Gospel and didn’t see God accomplishing that much. The Bible speaks to matters of salvation but doesn’t have much to do with how we’ll live our lives, how we’ll decide what kind of candidates to vote for, how we can go about defending those who can’t defend themselves, how we will run our businesses. That’s all left up to secular sources, worldly wisdom. These are people who have a thin Bible. They finally have to trust themselves and the culture around them. Trust your heart! But what does the Bible say about that? Jeremiah 17.9 (NIV 1984) says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” We don’t want to trust our heart. We want to trust our Lord. What about those people with a thick Bible? These are the people who look at the Gospel and see that Jesus has redeemed all our life. They are the people who ask the Lord for their daily bread and see that God graciously provides them with all they need. They are the people who trust that Jesus has delivered them from death in eternity and that he has also rescued them from every evil that can come upon them today, including the sin they are committing. These thick Bible people know that the Lord has given them hope and help through Jesus as revealed on every page of the Bible. They are going to be wearing their Bibles out by reading them, pondering them, learning to discuss what they are reading. As a side comment, that’s exactly why I assign my confirmation students to read five chapters in the Bible each week and to come on Sunday prepared to re-tell something they were reading. How long does it take to read a chapter in the Bible? A few minutes. Would you like to know what’s even better than the confirmation student reading that chapter? It’s if the family reads it together, maybe at the dinner table, maybe at the breakfast table, maybe near bedtime, and if they spend a while letting the Scripture inform their discussion. The Scripture informs all our walk. Through the Word of God we receive what we need to pursue the righteousness of God, to enter into the rest of God. We need those thick Bibles. What is our goal? Our goal is Jesus, the one we look to, the one in whom we hope, the one all of the Bible centers upon. That’s what we read about in the end of our passage in Hebrews. Jesus is the one who is our great high priest. He is the one who comes before the Lord, who makes sacrifice on our behalf, and who becomes our sacrifice. He is the one in whom we can trust. He is the one who knows all our struggles, all our pains, all our suffering, all our weakness. Jesus is the one who became sin for us and died in our place. He is the one who suffered all the wrath of God poured out against all the sin of all humanity. Jesus is the one who can sympathize with us. And Jesus is the one all the Scripture points to. So as we make that difficult passage, the passage from death to life, the passage from striving to rest, we are making a passage from ourselves to Jesus. How do we make that passage? I hope here I don’t mess our accompanist up. You’re familiar with the revivalist hymn from the second half of the 19th century, aren’t you? “Trust and Obey”? The song has some merits, it truly does. But there’s something wrong with the theology. Are we supposed to obey? We sure are. Yet it is not our obedience. It is Jesus’ obedience that gives us rest from sin. How are we happy in Jesus? Just by trusting. He’ll take care of the obedience part. He’ll work it in us. He’ll fulfill his promise, making us able to keep his command. How do we pass from death to life? We trust in the Lord. How do we pass through this life as long as we live? We trust in the Lord. How do we finally pass from this life to the everlasting life of the resurrection? We trust in the Lord. Now may our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ take His Word and add faith to our hearing, that he may work his perfect love and perfect trust in us, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Saturday, October 20, 2012
Maybe you remember giving piggyback rides to children. Maybe you do it now. Maybe you remember when you received piggyback rides. I remember years ago when I would take my baby daughter for father-daughter bonding time as we did the laundry in the basement of the apartment complex where we lived. She’d ride in a little front pack, I’d do the laundry, and she’d enjoy being along for the ride. We’d read some books, sing some songs, and get it all washed, dried, and folded. As I did the laundry my daughter learned that I would be there for her. If she had been a little older she would have been learning how to do laundry also. In life, which is another word for “ministry,” we often forget the value of piggybacking. We separate our lives into different compartments and neglect the value of taking someone along with us, doing whatever we needed to do, and growing in wisdom and grace. Pastors try to get others into visitation and spiritual care training. Why don’t we just decide to go along together and do what we are doing? We try to persuade people to participate in Bible studies about making the Christian faith visible in the world. Why don’t we just take people along and make that faith visible? Life’s a piggyback ride. Take the challenge. How many things were you accomplishing at the same time last week? How many things can you accomplish at the same time next week?
Monday, October 15, 2012
Have you ever cautioned people not to be driven by their circumstances but to be driven by the truth? I’ve done that countless times. Yet we have to acknowledge that our circumstances are powerful teachers. When used and interpreted correctly the situation we find ourselves in can give us priceless instruction. I found myself learning from physical pain in my life to remind me of his grace. For about 22 years I’ve had frequent migraine headaches. In case you haven't experienced them, make no mistake. These are the kind that make me feel like someone smacked me in the head with a really big shovel. Some people get the hammer kind, some get the knife kind, I get the shovel kind. Sometimes I can barely see. Sometimes, but rarely, I feel nausea. Reasoned thought doesn’t exist. After a migraine I don’t remember anything that happened during it or much of what happened before it. When it’s really bad I will have one after another in a cycle that seems never-ending. This has happened to me a couple of times in the past year. It’s a problem, to say the least. What does Paul report in 2 Corinthians 12:9? He has a “thorn in the flesh” which bothers him intensely. We don’t know what it is. Yet as he prays again and again God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (NIV). What is your struggle? No matter the battle we fight, we know that God’s grace is sufficient. He is able to bring us through it all and redeem it for his purpose. Of course, the other day, my wife reminded me of how that turned out for Paul. Ceaseless painful labor on earth, imprisonment, death by execution. Yet through it all God’s grace was sufficient for Paul. It’s sufficient for me too.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
Sermon “Something’s Missing” Lord of all, guard our hearts. Change them to honor, trust, and serve you. Let us look to you above all else, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. This encounter Jesus has in Mark 10 would absolutely astound most of us if it were to happen to us. It’s rather rare even for me as a pastor to have someone come to me asking how to receive eternal life. And, come to think of it, the times it has happened to me the other person has been challenging me. I think those cases have probably been either because of the church body I represent or because of the “pastor uniform.” After all, there’s a large segment of American Christianity which thinks anybody associated with a Lutheran church or anybody who might wear some sort of a special dress code in ministry is almost certainly not a genuine Christian. There area lot of Christians who wish to shed all sorts of traditions and enter into a faith that is genuine, earnest, and from the heart. They see that as incompatible with candles, robes, crosses, or special gestures in a church service. But these people are making a distinction that doesn’t need to be made. After all, if we have a heart full of reverence for the Lord it is quite appropriate to bow before him or, for that matter, the symbols we have of his presence, such as a cross or an altar. If we have a clear concept the dark black sinful lives we have and the white robe of righteousness our Savior places on us the very garments I’m wearing make perfect sense. If we are grateful for Jesus’ cross, death, and resurrection applied to our lives it is very appropriate that we would make the sign of the cross over ourselves or over people for whom we ask God’s blessings. Treating the elements of communion with reverence, remembering that we consecrate them for consumption, reminding ourselves of that purpose by making sure we consume them, it’s all perfectly consistent with showing reverence for what our Lord has done. And this is consistent with loving Christ with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The people who may wish to criticize such acts of devotion may in fact simply not recognize the devotion we are expressing or the fact that some people who go through motions are doing much more than going through motions. Yet here in Mark 10 the man who is asking Jesus how to receive eternal life isn’t trying to trap him. He isn’t trying to tempt him. He isn’t suggesting that Jesus will not know. He’s asking it for a different reason. He wants to know. And one of these days we can all hope someone will ask us the same question, or at least give us good permission and attention while we answer the question anyway. After all, we often give people answers to the questions they should have been asking. What must he do for eternal life? First, Jesus reminds the man that he does have authority to answer. Only God is good, but the man seems to be recognizing him as God, or at least as God’s teacher. Look what Jesus does. See where he goes. He starts quoting God’s commandments. He reminds the man of the part of the Bible which shows up in our catechism segments in the bulletin just now. And like we try to be able to explain God’s word, just like people in every age have tried to explain God’s word, Jesus’ questioner gets to try explaining the commands. Jesus reminds him of several that he knows. The man in Mark 10 knows how to explain these commands. That isn’t a problem. He can look at his life and he can tell whether he has kept these commands or not. He may not see them perfectly or exhaustively. But he knows about murder, adultery, theft, false witness, cheating, and dishonoring people. This is a good list, just like the other lists of behaviors that we find in the Bible. And each one of the items on the list, at least as far as the man can identify them, can be measuerd. He’s an upright person. He doesn’t go around killing people. He’s faithful to his wife. He buys his things, he doesn’t steal them. He can say he has been honest. And I say, “Good for him.” He is doing what he should do in society. Yet all this doing, all his upright deeds, the way he lives his life still leaves him with a question. It’s an important question, then. All his living and doing things does not earn eternal life for him. It hasn’t worked. It’s just like the person who thinks that by attending church regularly and serving on this committee or that committee, or even by becoming a pastor and saying a lot of prayers or singing a lot of songs or doing other acts of service he can earn eternal life. I have news for you. If I wear black and then put on a white robe I’m just like any other guy wearing black and white. If I bow once, twice, or three times in front of the altar I have potential for being someone who made some large muscle group adjustments. If I read the Scripture aloud I may manage to simply exercise my voice. Are you seeing the distinction? I can do all sorts of things, and they may be very good things, but like the man who came to Jesus I may be finding that they are of no help at all. What did Jesus leave out of the list of commands? He left out what the man wasn’t doing. He left out the beginning, the commandments that all the others depend on. He left out loving God and honoring his person and word. He left out the attitude of the man’s heart, exactly the thing that was wrong. You see, I can make a prayer using words and skip over repentance and belief. Or I can pray using the same words but engage in belief on Christ. The first one is just words. In the second one the words are good for something. I can lift up the cup at communion because that’s what you do. Or I can lift up the cup and show us all that we exalt Jesus in his real blood shed for us. Both times the motion is the same. But one is done in faith. We can either trust in ourself, our riches, the things we have stored up for ourselves, like the man in Mark 10 did. Or we can trust in our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Jesus’ call to that man was that he should give up all the things he had. How are we doing on that? Truth be told, we really should be sad. We should be moved to repentance. We should realize, day by day, how we don’t love the Lord with all our heart, how we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves, how we trust in our wisdom, our education, our financial resources, all sorts of human elements rather than trusting in God. We ought to be going away sad. And we can do that, like this man questioning Jesus did. Does it do us any good? No, it simply separates us from the love, mercy and grace of our Lord. What should we rather do? We can look to our Lord, confess our sins, recognize that we truly need a savior to come, live, die, and rise again for us. We can confess our sins to the Lord and trust that he will forgive us. We can ask him to make us depend on the resources he has given us. And we can go away justified, trusting our Lord, knowing that he pours out his mercy on us. We can walk away knowing that we have inherited eternal life. Do you trust that Jesus has given himself for you? Do you believe that he forgives you all your sin? Then you get to go away happy, knowing that he has promised to be with you and to care for all your need. Do you wonder what you need to do for eternal life? Then I’m here to tell you all we do is trust that the Lord Jesus Christ has promised to give us that life as we are sorry for our sin and ask him to forgive us. Trusting in our Lord and his good favor, let us rise and pray again in the words of the confession you found in the front of your bulletin, again receiving God’s forgiveness and then confessing our common faith together.
I have a fairly strong background in the type of biblical counseling endorsed by people like NANC and CCEF (look them up for an interesting perspective on the sufficiency of Scripture in gaining wise counsel). So when I engage in counseling we tend to open our Bibles quite a bit and expect that God will give people hope and help through Jesus’ work on their behalf. It’s pretty common for people to come to me when they are in a deep crisis. Experience has shown me that I can expect some solid and lasting change usually in 12-15 weeks’ work. Yet frequently people show up for three or four sessions and then start missing, not completing their assignments, or even drop out. Why is this? I think it’s because biblical counseling is like antibiotics. You know the instructions the doctor always gives you. Take one tablet every eight hours for twenty-one days. Continue taking the tablets until they are all gone even though you may start feeling better in a few days. It is important to finish the course. Why do we finish the course even though we are feeling better? We do it to prevent reinfection. In the same way, though our crisis may have eased and some of our pain have abated in a few weeks’ worth of counseling and work, we need to finish the course so as to fortify ourselves against further crises. When do we most need that biblical counsel? When we’re strong, so as to grow stronger and more stable. This way even when the challenges come we see the help and hope that our Savior gives us.
Sunday, October 7, 2012
“Made Perfect through Suffering” Grace, mercy and peace to you all in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our readings today are full of struggles, full of troubles of various kinds. We have the man God created, naming and classifying all the rest of creation, finding out in his work that he is all alone. We see Jesus talking about the trouble we inherit when we are not faithful to that husband or wife the Lord has blessed us with. We see children brought for blessing and others hindering them, trying to keep them from receiving God’s blessing. But the struggle I want to look at today is the one we see in Hebrews chapter 2. It’s a serious struggle. It’s a deadly contest. It’s a matter of life and death. What is our temptation? Drifting away. The penalty? We are told that we cannot escape if we ignore salvation. This is a very serious matter. Yet I’m concerned that sometimes we don’t realize the true nature of the struggle. We are products of our culture, just like the people who received the letter to the Hebrews were products of their culture. But we are in very different cultures. How we understand drifting away is, I would suggest, quite different from the way the original readers of this letter would understand it. The Jewish audience by and large realized that they were God’s special, chosen people. He had made a covenant with them. But the covenant was dependent, in some way, on their works. If they were obedient they were able to be full partakers of God’s covenant promises. If not, they were subject to his rejection He promised always to keep a remnant of the faithful, but his blessings were seen as depending on how well the people obeyed the law which Moses had laid down. The author of Hebrews points out to these Hebrew Christians that they have been saved by grace through faith in the promised work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. They are not saved by their obedience to the law. They are not saved by anything they do, but rather by the one in whom they believe. Of course, this is exactly the same way we are saved. God has not changed. But what do we modern Western Christians think about maintaining our salvation? The Hebrews, if they drifted from faith would start considering that they were delivered by their works of obedience to the law of Moses. They would be tempted to depend on their sacrifices or their keeping of the dietary laws or maybe their faithful routine of chanting prayers for assurance of their salvation. While we see this sometimes as modern Gentile Christians, with people depending on their years of service as deacons, Sunday school teachers, or their record of giving to their local church, we also see another way of depending on something, something other than the Gospel, which I would say is a more common problem and much more harmful to the Church as a whole. We are warned not to drift from the true faith. May God give us grace to be faithful to him. What is this danger which I think we face in our world, right where we are, right now? It’s the temptation to look to our own perception of our faithfulness for assurance of salvation. Let me describe a true situation to you. I’ll mask the identity of the person involved. I think I am probably the only person alive who would recognize the situation and be able to put it in its context. Here’s how it works. I was called upon to visit someone who was in an institution and not thriving. This person was suffering from a number of physical and emotional difficulties and was not eating. The staff and the family members could not get any nutrition into the person, who was rapidly wasting away and would die of starvation in another few days. As I visited with this individual I found that although there were numerous physical difficulties that root problem was one of unforgiveness. The person enumerated several sins, which were serious, no doubt. When I asked my question, you know my question, “Do you believe Jesus forgives you all your sin?” this dear saint of God said that other people’s sins could be forgiven. But that forgiveness would not extend to my friend. I asked why not. The answer? “I’m just not faithful enough. I don’t think I’m worthy of forgiveness.” I asked if there was some sort of sin that Jesus didn’t suffer for. The person thought for a while and said that Jesus suffered for all sorts of sins but not for that one. The disfavor of God the Father, His righteous wrath against sin was poured out on God the Son for all sin except for this individual’s sin. I asked if it was a faithful act to punish oneself for sin or if Jesus had really accomplished salvation. After a moment’s thought, the answer was that it was a faithful act to kill oneself for failure in one area of life. So Jesus’ forgiveness extends to everyone but you? Yes. I closed my communion kit. “Why did you do that?” “You just said that Jesus’ forgiveness is not great enough for you and that you need to earn your own forgiveness and try to die for your own sin.” “So you aren’t going to give me communion?” “That’s right. You have just told me that Jesus’ death is not sufficient for you, that you can do it better than he can.” I asked if I could continue to pray that this person would receive God’s grace in Christ. That was fine. We prayed together and then the person asked if I would give communion with a promise that today’s supper would be eaten instead of being thrown at the institution’s staff. “Are you going to try to trust that Jesus will forgive you all your sin and that you can’t earn your own salvation?” “Yes, I will.” We prayed, the saint received communion, and has been eating regular meals ever since. When we depend on our perception of our faithfulness to maintain us in our salvation we put ourselves in the driver’s seat. We say that Jesus is useful but not as useful as we are. We deny what Jesus did in dying for all our sin and shame. We reject our Savior who has freely given us forgiveness, life, and salvation. The author of Hebrews warns us about neglecting our salvation. He warns us that we can reject Jesus’ mercy by depending on ourselves in any way. Let it never be! May we rely on him and him alone, the author and finisher of our salvation. Jesus has done all you need, all I need, all anyone in this world needs, for life and salvation. He has promised to give us forgiveness. May we never trust in ourselves, but always trust in the saving grace of Jesus, the one who is able to bear all our sins, all our sorrows, all our suffering, all our grief. Do we have a tremendous load of guilt and shame? Let us cast it upon our Lord and Savior. Do we have physical and emotional suffering? Yes we do. Let us cast it upon our Lord and Savior. We cannot trust in our faith or our faithfulness. We can only trust in Jesus, who bore all our sin, even our own attempts at making salvation for ourselves on our own terms. Cast your cares on the Lord, for he cares for you. Receive this forgiveness, once again, knowing that he has taken all your sin. He promises you, day after day, as long as you need it, until you are perfected in his presence, abundant life and forgiveness. Thanks be to God. Amen.