Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sermon for 9/30/12

Sermon “I Wish All Were Prophets”

Lord, grant us grace to live as vessels of your Gospel, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Bickering. Strife. Envy. The grass is always greener. Do we have to eat that again? We’re not the only people who fall into those traps, are we. The people of Israel did just the same thing as we saw in Numbers chapter 11. Once they got going for a while Moses was at the end of his rope. Coming before the LORD he complained. “What am I supposed to do with these people? I work, slaving away, being God’s servant to deliver them out of Egypt. I follow Your commands, looking to Your promises, and here they are unhappy with the way You are miraculously feeding them! What am I supposed to do?”

Now before we go too far into this sermon, I think I’d better point out two important elements. First, there’s a wonderful resource that we use here called a “lectionary.” It picks out readings for us. The one we use has a three year cycle. I pulled out today’s Scripture readings from that lectionary and they are the passages for today simply because it is today. That’s something I want everyone to know. Second, I’m not preaching this sermon out of frustration with anybody. I’m going to this topic because it is in the passages of the day. It’s one of those topics that you need to preach about when you don’t think you need to and which you don’t dare preach about when you really want to. It’s kind of like righteous discipline of a child. When you really want to discipline that kid it’s probably the wrong time. There are certain trainable times. We need to hear this topic. But I’m not convinced we are in critical trouble due to ignoring the topic. We’ll let that unfold. So this topic is on the table today because of the preaching schedule, not because of my personal opinion.

Back to Moses. “What am I supposed to do? These people are driving me crazy! They don’t believe You and they are taking it out on me!” What is God’s response? He gathers a handful of elders. Looking at the text you might think seventy is a large number, but let’s remember that the people of Israel are at least a half million people. So it’s a relatively small percentage of the people. He gathers the elders of Israel together and pours out His Spirit on them. The result? They prophesy, but they don’t keep doing so. It seems to be limited in its time and scope.

Does anyone else find that difficult to understand? I don’t mean finding the words difficult to understand. We can grasp that just fine. It makes perfect sense, we know what they did. But why is this happening? What is the importance of it? It’s kind of like seeing a person with his hair dyed maroon, carrying a big maroon foam rubber glove with an index finger extended. We could all recognize the situation. We might not understand it unless we knew the local school color was maroon and there was a football game coming up. But what’s happening with these elders? Why do they make prophecies? Why do they stop? Is this a good thing, as Joshua thinks, or is it a bad thing, as Moses thinks? What does it say to us? It seems pretty distant from our time and place.

Why do the elders make prophecies? This is the natural result of the Spirit of the Lord falling upon the people. They are consumed with God’s majesty and glory. What do we do when we are moved, deeply moved? We show that in our lives. Maybe we are struck silent. Maybe we are moved to tears. Maybe we start smiling or laughing. Maybe we become excited. When God comes upon these people they start speaking out in His name. They don’t have any other choice. A post-communion canticle that I’ve been teaching our young people, we sang it here not long ago, says “tell everyone what He has done.” When we know what our Lord is doing our natural reaction should be to tell about it. The people of God, moved upon by the Holy Spirit, start telling about God’s wonderful works. We saw that in the first chapter of Acts. We see it throughout the Bible. When people see God’s glory they tell about it.

So why do the elders stop making prophecies? The Bible doesn’t tell us. We don’t know. But Moses considers it a bad thing. He would like them to keep speaking out boldly as they were. Joshua is uncomfortable with it. That may be a clue to the elders’ actions. You see, when you start doing something, something that may be a very good thing, but people aren’t used to it, it’s easy to start to fear. Many biblical counselors I know would term this “Fear of Man.” I think you know how it works. Let’s take a very unimportant desire. For instance, if I decide I like a particular type of hat and want to wear it. Does anyone here have anything against hats? Nobody finds them offensive? I just want to be clear that putting a hat on is not a problem in our society. Now, what if I want to wear this hat? If I am the person who always wears a silly hat you might not want to be seen with me, at least not until you figure out that I am not otherwise offensive.

The elders of Israel were speaking God’s words, possibly singing his praises, in public. How many of you plan to go down the street this afternoon singing hymns aloud? Is it easier if nobody is present? I know my tendency, and it isn’t on the street. If I’m singing a Matins or a Vespers service on my patio or even in my office and I hear someone coming by I have a tendency to sing under my breath. Why is that? Fear of man. It’s more controversial than a silly hat. Singing God’s praises involves actual content about who God is and what he has done. It involves proclaiming that Jesus has come to bear our sins. That means that God says we have sinned and that we need a savior. It means that we are telling anybody who is around us that Jesus is able to take his perfect life and apply it to us by grace through faith. It means that we are telling everybody that, well, that we are made perfect in Christ. And someone is going to be offended at that. “Do you mean you’re perfect and I’m a sinner?” Of course, you can take it that way if you want, but I’d rather say it means I’m a sinner who has been made perfect in Christ and you are a sinner who needs to be made perfect in Christ. Then we get to go into the whole bit about being a saint and sinner at the same time. And it’s uncomfortable. Most people around us won’t give it the time of day and will shut the conversation down pretty fast.

Yet Moses wishes all the people would be prophets. He wishes all the people would be so transfixed by the Holy Spirit that they would proclaim God’s wonders. I think by this point we see what the passage has to do with us. Think back to the Epistle and Gospel readings. How does Jesus carry on his work in this world? He does it through us. He does it by pouring out His Spirit through the prayers and faithful acts that we engage in. He does it by working to call people to himself, to heal them, to forgive them, to cast out their demons through his Word. And he delivers the Word through us, his messengers. Do we need to be careful? Of course we do. That’s why in our churches we have ministry standards. That’s why we examine candidates for the pastoral office. Those who are placed in the office of dealing with Word and Sacraments in a regular and public manner are responsible for training the next generation of pastors, for guarding their flocks, and for giving them all the right food. It’s a big responsibility, more like that of Moses than of the seventy elders. But Moses has a limited shelf life. I have a limited shelf life. As we pass on the Word of God from generation to generation, though, God’s Spirit will work in one person after another, raising up pastors, teachers, all sorts of Christian workers, bringing that Gospel to every nation, every generation.

We are preparing for a missions weekend. May the Lord send His Spirit to call many of us to be prophets, to proclaim His good works, to proclaim the glory of God through Jesus Christ, to our generation and to the next, as many people as the Lord will bring into contact with us. Amen.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Time to re-focus

During this year so far I've spent a good deal of time, and I think it has been good and valuable time, trying to get posts about Bible readings up five times a week, typically covering about five chapters in each post. I've been finding that I am not able to keep up with some other responsibilities as I would like. I also noticed that the posts on the Bible readings didn't seem to be as widely read as other types of posts about other books I've been reading or about Christian theology and philosophy in general.

After a good deal of soul-searching it's time to set aside the posts on the Bible reading challenge. I'll keep putting suggested readings up on a weekly basis, along with a snippet from Luther's Small Catechism. I think those are important. But I'll concentrate my writing time on other issues, ones which may be less common to find in the blogosphere.

Who knows, maybe my family will see more of me too? You never know! Edit on this 9/26/12 - I drafted this post some time ago and didn't notice that it never published. Now you know what happened to my posts.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Reformation Day

What Is Reformation Day? In the year 1517 Augustinian monk and professor Martin Luther expressed concerns about practices he perceived as pulling the Church away from its apostolic foundations. As October progressed he chose to post a list of topics for debate. November 1, All Saints’ Day, was a public holiday and would be the appropriate day for a debate. In preparation for debates, Dr. Luther posted 95 Theses for discussion, phrased in Latin so they would be read and considered by scholars, on the door of t Wittenberg castle church. The theses, posted on October 31, All Hallow’s Eve, were quickly translated into German and distributed widely. The debates became a worldwide discussion which divided the Church. Within fifteen to twenty years the followers of Luther’s reform movement, called “evangelicals” or “good-news” people, found themselves separated from the church at Rome. Today, these people, called “Lutherans,” are spread through the world. Reformation Day, October 31, is the day we celebrate this move to return to a biblical faith. We commit ourselves to training ourselves, our children, and all the coming generations in the pure Christian faith. In recent generations Reformation Sunday has been celebrated the Sunday before Reformation Day. Join with us as we commit ourselves to learning and growing in Christ. May the Lord bless us as we grow together in Christ.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sermon for 9/23/12

Sermon “Sow Peace, Harvest Righteousness”

Our merciful Lord, let us delight in you, drawing from you all the mercy and grace that we will ever need, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Garbage in, garbage out. You reap what you sow. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, not coffee. We understand there is a relationship between the resources we have and use and our outcomes. Handsome is as handsome does. We can look for this relationship to be active almost everywhere. After all, when I planted green beans in the garden this year I knew if I got anything from the plants it would be green beans. I expected my tomato plants to give me tomatoes, not plums. We put the potato sets in the ground so we expect to find potatoes, not radishes there. Yet in our reading from James we have a slightly different pattern. It’s related, but just a little different. We sow peace but we harvest righteousness. We plant one item but the harvest is more of a finished product. Consider for instance, planting cucumbers but harvesting pickles. The righteousness we harvest is the polished version of peace. It is peace not only with ourselves, not only with our neighbors, but also with God.

As we saw last week, it’s very difficult to plant peace. Strife seems to be all around us. We are conflict magnets. Some of us attract more conflict than others. Yet God in His Word says to sow peace and look for a harvest of righteousness. It is no coincidence, then, that James goes on to tell us where conflict comes from. It comes from our selfish desires. It comes about when someone tries to get something at any cost. It comes about when we decide that we want what we want when we want it and we are either willing to sin to get it or to sin if we don’t get it. When we cross that line, when we want something that badly, we are betraying that we have set it up as an idol. It’s something that we are going to love and serve no matter what. Those sinful desires grow, they take root, and they bear their fruit - thorns and thistles that bring harm to us and to all around us. We sow in strife and we reap all manner of trouble.

What happens when we plant peace instead? Remember, peace is not the absence of strife. It’s not the absence of anything. It is a very real thing itself. When we act in peace, when we are messengers of peace, when we speak God’s words of peace and comfort, approaching our situations with Jesus’ attitude of peace, like our Savior considering ourselves as nothing but considering our neighbors as more important than ourselves, when we sow the seeds of peace we will find a harvest of righteousness. We have done what is right. We have acted as God’s blessing to others. We have been giving out a precious gift. And whether we see those we treat with God’s kindness or mercy change in any way is really not the issue. You may act in peace and kindness toward the worst, most evil person in town. That person might not change. But you will change. The people you treat with kindness may brush it off. Or they may be unaware of what just happened to them. But you are aware that you have been God’s instrument of blessing. You will change as you realize what it cost Jesus to give himself for you. You will change as you count the cost of caring for others and do it anyway. You will change as your reward for your kindness done in secret is given to you in secret by your Lord who smiles upon you with pleasure. This is the harvest of righteousness.

This brings us to our Gospel passage for the day, doesn’t it? Sowing peace is a lot like what Jesus did. When the people were arguing about who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus took a little child and pointed to him as God’s favored person. The little kids are the ones who get lost in the shuffle. They come last. But when we consider the last to be first, when we prefer others to ourselves, when we seek their good instead of our own, that’s when we are sowing peace. That’s when we can expect to see a harvest of righteousness.

I wonder if some of us have been realizing that we are not sowing peace, but that we’re planting strife instead. Maybe you’ve been pursuing your own selfish desires. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. But there’s always going to be a trail of rubble. There will always be hurt feelings, crushed dreams, and broken relationships on that pathway. You get some of what you want but it doesn’t really satisfy. You see the collateral damage. And, truth be told, you’d be furious if anyone treated you or someone you love that way. Today is the day for repentance. Today is the day to confess that selfishness before the Lord. Today is the day to turn your dreams over to Jesus and to ask him to give you his dreams instead.

I wonder if some of us have been sowing peace, at least we think we have, for a long time. But we wonder where the harvest is. Life seems to go on and we don’t get the reward we were hoping for. Do you remember Romans 8:29? Jesus is working in you to make you into his image. But sometimes that polishing is difficult. Sometimes it hurts. He’s rubbing our rough edges off. And he uses abrasive people and situations to do it. Be strong and courageous! He is able to use you wherever you are, planting peace. It may bear fruit for the other person in your conflicts. We don’t know. But it will bear fruit in your life, in the time the Lord has appointed.

But what of those of us who are despairing. We are afraid that God’s peace is meaningless. We think of it as something that’s so far away from our reality that we may as well give up. Let me tell you once again that Jesus, by his perfect life, death, burial, and resurrection on your behalf has broken down the wall of enmity between God and man. He has made peace, breaking down the sin that separates us from God. And in his resurrection his desire is to be the firstborn among many brethren. He is the one who will bring all his people to God the Father by faith in the name of Jesus, the one who saves us from our sins. And he has made that promise for you and for me, for all who call on his name. We walk by faith, which is a confidence that God’s promise are true. We don’t walk by sight. Trust in the Lord! He has purchased your salvation.

So what are we sowing this year? Are we going to sow peace? We can look for a great and glorious harvest. Stand with me if you can, as we pray.

Our Lord, you have purchased peace with God through your perfect death on our behalf. Grant that we may receive your peace, the peace that passes all understanding, to guard our hearts and minds. Use us as your instruments planting peace, that is your Word, the living Word, Jesus Christ, through all your gracious promises, in our world. Bring forth the increase, a great harvest of righteousness, as you bring many to glory, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Christ in My Neighbor's Words

I’ve lately been thinking a lot about the pastor and his role in visiting the saints. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together (tr. Doberstein, Harper & Row, 1957) tells that each Christian needs other Christians for nurture and encouragement. “The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure” (p. 23). This is what I find again and again when I visit people in hospitals and nursing homes. I tell them the same Gospel that they have heard, sometimes for ninety plus years. But they need to hear it. They are in crisis and I am not. The Christ in their heart is weak, but the Christ in my word is strong. Are we interested in the same kind of encouragement when we are not in an overt crisis? As a part-time pastor I recently started finding some holes in my schedule of visiting shut-in church members. So I’ve started to try to visit church members who are not having crises. Sometimes they are resistant, suspicious about what might be wrong. Or maybe they don’t want to unload some of their struggles. It could be they aren’t ready to do that yet. I don’t know. What I do know is that it is a delight to have a call to visit someone who is wanting to share in the riches of Christ. We can encourage one another in the faith, get to know a little about each other, find out each other’s values and desires, struggles and fears. And when the times of trouble come we are ready to build each other up as well. Why do we hesitate? Why not rather join in fellowship with one another and rejoice together?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sermon for 9/16/12

Sermon for 9/16/12 "Where's the Beef?"

“May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:2, ESV). Amen.

A campus pastor I knew years ago was once giving a seminar on open-air preaching on the college campus. This is not something that most people are comfortable with. It isn’t that we are uneasy with the idea that everyone needs to hear about God’s gracious act of sending his Son to die for us and bring us forgiveness. It isn’t that we are uneasy with the facts of the Gospel, either. If we’ve been living a Christian life, growing in Christ, taking in the Word of God for any period of time we should be very familiar with the ideas of Christ for sinners, that the sin of man required a man to die, that an adequate sacrifice needs to be of like kind as the sinner but perfect, which requires a perfect man to die on our behalf. We might be uncomfortable with people seeing or hearing us making such proclamations, though I’m not sure that is the issue most of the time for college students and people on college campuses. Different points of view are often promoted publicly, at least they were twenty-odd years ago when I was there. It seems harder to get an honest hearing of different opinions in our more politically correct academic culture nowadays. But I don’t think that is the big problem we face when we want to proclaim the Gospel publicly. Rather, I think it is the same problem my campus pastor friend articulated. He said you haven’t started preaching in a public space until someone argues with you. You haven’t started preaching in a public space until someone argues with you.

This idea brings us back to our Gospel reading for the day. The disciples had been confronted by a problem. They were asked to pray for a young man and bring God’s healing. When they were unable to do so an argument broke out between the disciples and the “teachers of the Law.” We don’t know the details of this argument but it isn’t hard to imagine, is it? The disciples are certain that God can heal this person and that Jesus wishes it to happen. The teachers of the Law are certain that God works through the processes laid out in Moses and the Prophets and that the disciples are leading the young man and his family astray, since Jesus is not an authorized representative of their system. The disciples promote their faith in Christ. The teachers of the Law make theological arguments which they know the disciples can only partially understand. The disciples don’t know who the various teachers are in the arguments. They are frustrated because the healing is not happening and because they are being opposed. The teachers of the Law go in for the kill, tearing at the disciples with their highly trained verbal abilities. The disciples respond in anger, eroding their argument that they are the representatives of the God of all love and grace. When Jesus comes on the scene nobody has actually punched anybody yet, but they are about to.

Have you ever been there? You say something about Jesus and his love. The person you are talking with retaliates with accusations about the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. You say something about the way Jesus wants to protect life. The person you are talking with talks about how the christian militias in the Middle East act as much like terrorists as do those people they are trying to kill. You say something about how Jesus cares for the economic well-being of his people. The person you are talking with reminds you that single moms, allegedly forced to bear their unwanted children by well-meaning or sinister Christians, have a higher risk of poverty than childless people. It is so very easy to be dragged into a conflict which you never intended. This is what happened to the disciples here in Mark chapter 9. Their expectation of acceptance was thrown to the ground and trampled. They themselves felt trampled and responded in anger. A dispute broke out. What was at issue? At issue was whether God would actually care for this young man or not.

My friend the campus pastor would say that the preaching was ready to start. There was an argument, or at least a dispute, for those of you who remember the difference between an argument and a dispute. I’d rather call it a dispute, since that’s what it is. An argument, after all, takes one of the points at issue and provides a specific reason why that point is right or wrong. That’s an argument. They are few and far between. Most of the time we don’t have arguments. We have disputes.

How does Jesus take care of this dispute? What does he do? People are running to the scene. A fight is breaking out! Remember these are people who don’t have TV, radio, internet, or telephones. They depend on live action for their entertainment and information. What’s happening over there? A crowd is assembling. Must be some sort of excitement. We’d better run so we don’t miss something. After all, it will never be replayed on YouTube. But before the crowd is overwhelming Jesus asks the boy’s father about his case. He reassures the father and heals the boy. Jesus understood the problem. He knew the situation fully. He was able to address it. He did not want to see that family suffer as they had been. So he brought healing and grace. It was entirely straightforward in his mind. It was easy for him to do. It was included in the work he came to do, as he came to drive out demons, defeat them, and bear the penalty for the sin of the world. Jesus needed no argument. He made no argument, not with the crowd, not with the demon.

Remember that an argument provides a specific reason why a point is right or wrong. Jesus had no argument, not even with the demon, certainly not with the boy or his father or the crowd. Rather than arguing, he commanded the demon to be gone. That was that.

How often do we, as Christians, think that we need to get into an argument of some sort? Worse yet, how often do we settle for a mere dispute in which there is no substantive point for discussion and where it is impossible for the facts to stand on their own? Tragically, we wait for a dispute to happen and then think we can blast our way out of the dispute with a doctrinal gun. We try to get someone talking about a spiritual topic and we wait for the chance to blast our opponent away with both barrels. We think we’re facing a squirrel and are loaded for bear. In fact, we’re facing an elephant and we have a pea shooter. We end up in a dispute and finally fling accusations at other people so that we show ourselves as self-righteous, stupid, arrogant, or all three. We face those teachers of the Law. We fight with them. Meanwhile the boy is suffering with a demon. We aren’t helping him. We aren’t helping his father. Finally his father, if he is smart, takes the boy and walks away before either of them gets hit with brick that someone is throwing at nobody in particular.

Are we ready to start preaching when the dispute breaks out? No. We missed the opportunity. Jesus redeemed it in this instance in Mark 9. But he won’t always break in on us like he did there. How can we redeem those opportunities? Let’s take our cue from Jesus. He investigated the situation. He prayed the Father’s blessing. He asserted his authority over the situation. He presented the boy back to his father. Are we ready to ask questions about the life issues people bring us? Or do we want to jump right to our answer? Are we ready to hear the pain and suffering of those around us? Or maybe we’d rather walk away, dropping a Gospel grenade as we go. I had an acquaintance who was blind. She often would ask the leaders of the local church to pray for her. Before she could share her prayer need, that her husband would believe on Christ, they would pray for her to receive her sight. She eventually stopped trying to ask for prayer since nobody would listen to her. Jesus asked about the situation. Let’s care enough to ask.

Do we jump right into the fight or do we pray God’s blessing? Do we think that we can solve everyone’s trouble? The greatest trouble we have is our sinful nature and the fact that other people in this sin-cursed world show their true nature to us. Are we committed to blessing those who curse us? Do we care enough for the people around us to ask that the Lord would care for them? He is able to care for you far better than I am. He is able to meet your true needs. I’m able to meet a few of the needs you recognize. He’s able to do it all. Jesus prays the Father’s blessing.

Now who has authority over the conflicts in life? Do I? Do you? Finally it is Jesus who has shown he is the one who is ruler of heaven and earth, the one who has overcome all that this life can throw at him, the one who rose victorious from death. Do we want to assert our authority over someone? Or should we assert Jesus’ loving care for that other person’s situation? What does Jesus say about our troubles? Isn’t that better than what I say about our troubles?

You might ask, then, if all we do is proclaim Jesus’ work and then walk away, what kind of hypocrites are we? Why, just last week I talked about showing our faith through our works. And we do need to do that. But let’s realize that our works will not save anyone. It is only Jesus’ work that will save someone. It is not our works that will make peace with God. It is Jesus’ work that does that. It is not our works that can bring full and final healing. Jesus can do that, but we can’t. But what if Jesus’ healing is not what you were looking for? What if his proclamation on the cross, “It is finished” is not enough? What if his living a perfect life, dying a perfect death, and being raised from the dead by the power and for the glory of God is not enough? What if his applying his perfect resurrection life to you and taking away your old man who is dead in sin is not enough? Then you have no dispute with me. You have a dispute with Jesus. Jesus has done all this. He is ready to pick you up and present you back to your father, your heavenly Father, whole, like you have never been before. This is his proclamation of truth.

Do you remember that there is no actual argument here? There is only Jesus’ action. Jesus doesn’t argue with sin. He doesn’t argue with death. He doesn’t argue with sickness. He doesn’t argue with hunger. He doesn’t argue with any of the sorrows that we might have. He makes no argument. He simply conquers them. He proclaims them to be resolved. He casts out sin and all evil. He is powerful to do all things by his word. And when he has proclaimed that you have new life by the faith that he gives you, it is so. You can rise up and walk in that newness of life, the life that Jesus gave you, as he presents you back to the Father.

So where’s the argument? It is gone. It is between the disciples and the teachers of the Law. Do you want argument? Go be like they are. Do you want life? Look to Jesus. He is the resurrection and the life. He is the one who has borne our griefs. He is the one who has made peace with God, removing the curse of the Law which was against us. Trust in Jesus, the one who has done all we need. There is no argument. Only his proclamation. That’s where true preaching begins.

Rise with me, if you can, to pray. Lord, give us a heart to look to you and your proclamation of perfect peace. Give us forgiveness, life, and salvation. Show yourself again to be the one who heals us and presents us to the Father, for you ever live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, who has favored us. Amen.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Time to re-focus

During this year so far I've spent a good deal of time, and I think it has been good and valuable time, trying to get posts about Bible readings up five times a week, typically covering about five chapters in each post. I've been finding that I am not able to keep up with some other responsibilities as I would like. I also noticed that the posts on the Bible readings didn't seem to be as widely read as other types of posts about other books I've been reading or about Christian theology and philosophy in general.

After a good deal of soul-searching it's time to set aside the posts on the Bible reading challenge. I'll keep putting suggested readings up on a weekly basis, along with a snippet from Luther's Small Catechism. I think those are important. But I'll concentrate my writing time on other issues, ones which may be less common to find in the blogosphere.

Who knows, maybe my family will see more of me too? You never know!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Doubly Trained

Thanks to Exegete for urging me to post on this blog.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, lived a young man. He and his family were involved in their local church. They had attended regularly since he was only a few years old. Because this was a church and family who believed baptism was symbolic and should be applied only to those who had already trusted on Christ, he had not been baptized. As he grew his family was very involved in teaching him about the Christian faith. Though he was not able to articulate his faith in adult terms, he spoke regularly about Jesus’ love for him, his trust in Jesus as his savior, and his desire to live a life dedicated to Christ. As he learned to read he would frequently read from the Bible and wanted to read books about Christians.

The family approached the elders of the church, who talked with them. Because baptism was reserved for those who were confessing their Christian faith, the elders requested that he do a Bible study about passages from the New Testament related to baptism. After doing so and having several more interviews with the leaders of the church, he was baptized when he was nine years old. He was admitted to communion and continued to grow in his faith.

Alas, the family became persuaded of some different doctrinal views and began attending a different church congregation. While the parents were accepted as Christians and welcomed into the church body, the new congregation always had students complete a two-year instructional course prior to being admitted to the body and welcomed to communion. Wishing to submit to the leadership of the church, the young man waited until he was allowed to enter the course, then participated in it for two years. Because he was steadfast in the Scriptures and had been thinking about and articulating his Christian faith for some years he was an outstanding student in the course and was later admitted to communion.

We see here two of the many possible approaches to discipleship in the local church congregation. There are certainly other patterns which can be defended biblically. What are the strengths and weaknesses of what I wrote about above? What were the special challenges this young man faced? What do you think would have proven especially discouraging to him? How about features which may have been very encouraging and strengthened his faith?

By the way, the young man is still a young man, though several years older than he was during this part of his journey. He is steadfast in his commitment to Jesus. We can look for him to serve his Lord for many many years in exciting and fruitful ways.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sermon for 9/9/12

Sermon “Show the Faith

Lord, open our hearts to hear you and receive your word by faith. Change us from inside out so we are ready to show our world your mercy and your grace, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In today’s readings we saw very clearly that when God comes on the scene he changes everything. Old things pass away. New things spring into being. He takes away fear, blindness, suffering. He conquers affliction of every kind. This is the big message of our passage from Isaiah 35 (4-7). Many times we’re tempted to settle for a glorious message like that, leave it there, and go no farther. Do you doubt me? I’ve heard it in countless children’s sermons. It’s all over the place in the Sunday school curriculum I’ve surveyed and reviewed for nearly thirty years. It’s there in vacation Bible schools. And it’s that way in many sermons you hear in churches. When God comes on the scene he changes everything. He’ll take care of you. Just trust. That’s the end of the story, the end of the sermon, the end of the Sunday school lesson.

Now, everybody, because I think it wasn’t just the children who were listening to the children’s sermon, what was wrong with that? Does God come on the scene? Yes he does. Does he change things? Yes he does. Do we respond in trust? Yes we do. Who or what was missing from those statements? There was nothing false. But there was something missing. What was it? Right. Jesus was missing. And if Jesus isn’t there, it isn’t specifically a Christian sermon. It’s the same as with songs we sing. If we are not specific about the person and work of God in Christ in what we sing, our culture can fill in the blanks and have any old god of their own imagination doing whatever it is they want. Remember from the children’s sermon? Is Jesus mentioned? Is he doing the verbs? What kind of verbs do we find Jesus doing? Well the first little part of the sermon failed. It wasn’t specific enough.

Let’s try again. When God comes on the scene, he changes everything. And he does it through the person of Jesus, as we saw in Mark chapter 7. Jesus came and brought his mercy and grace to a disabled man. He saw the man’s plight. He treated him with dignity by taking him off into private and having a little time with him. He treated the specific problems the man was having, touching his ears and his tongue and healing both. Now, knowing this, we are free to say both, “Good for Jesus, he did what he wanted to do,” and “Good for that man who needed healing and received it.” Did we pass the sermon diagnostic? We did. Excellent. Is the job done yet? Not exactly. Though we have redeemed this and made it a Christian sermon it doesn’t seem to have much connection to you yet.

As I often do, I’m going to come up with two ways we can handle this situation. We’ll see how they work. One way, and I think it’s a good way, to apply this kind of passage to you is by offering to pray for the sick. In James we read that if anyone is sick he should call the elders of the church and they will anoint him with oil and pray for him. And some of you have been in situations where I have come and anointed you with oil and prayed for you. I used to attend a church congregation where they would do a variation on this on Sunday evenings. There would be an extended time of prayer and the elders would be stationed near the front of the nave. People in the congregation could come up and the elders would pray over them specifically. We went to another church for some years where there would be a few prayer meetings in evenings during the year and people would have opportunity to ask for prayer and others would gather around them to pray. Jesus is indeed the God who answers prayer and who comes to heal the sick. You can’t read the Bible and deny that. It’s certainly a good thing to gather together and pray for one another. No doubt about it. Yet we need to realize that even as Jesus healed this one man there were others in the world whom he did not heal. Even when we pray earnestly and fervently for those we love we find that sometimes the Lord doesn’t heal them, or he doesn’t heal them in the way we hoped. There is no denying that several people whom I have anointed with oil and prayed for have later had me officiating at their funerals. They were not healed from their illness in the way we may have prayed, though Jesus did give them ultimate healing.

What’s another way we can handle the situation? We can decide that we will dedicate to praying for one another that Jesus would bring his healing. And we should do that, trusting that he will continue to show his mercy. But another thing we do is to turn to our reading from James chapter 2 and find that we can care for the poor and needy in our midst. This includes people with little or no money and it includes people with other types of difficulties. Some people involve themselves in projects to support medical research, programs to help people with disabilities, programs like the ARC house next door to the parsonage – some of the folks who live and work there have been attending church services here and we want to welcome them with open arms. We care for those people who are in need. We treat them with dignity and respect. Why do we do that? It’s because Jesus cares for them. We love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus loves us as himself. And as we do that we remember that our neighbors need forgiveness above all, just as we do. You see, we who have received forgiveness, healing, and grace from Jesus who gives it freely should also give it freely. We who have been honored and respected by Jesus should honor and respect those he brings into our lives. We whom Jesus preferred above himself should also prefer others above ourselves. This is why as Christians we show our faith through our works. We don’t have any other way to do it. Jesus showed his love through his works. Now we go and show his love through our works. We go to heal the sick, clothe the poor, feed the hungry, visit those in need, and bring the Gospel with us always.

Now we’re getting pretty close to having our sermon in order. We’ve used the words of the Bible. We have spoken specifically about Jesus, telling what he does. We’ve received the command Jesus gives us to go and love our neighbor as ourselves. But there’s still one thing missing, and it is an important element. I’ve mentioned it but only in passing. It’s been kind of obscured, I’m afraid. And I want to be very bold and clear. Just like in our music we sing I don’t want to leave too much to our imagination or intuition. I want to connect the dots for you. If we are going to show the works of Jesus, we don’t want to leave with the idea that Jesus’ work is primarily in healing the sick of their illnesses, helping people overcome their physical limitations, or even feeding or clothing them. Those are good and right actions and we need to be about them. But what is the prime work of Jesus? It is to live a perfect life, to die a perfect death, and to apply his death for your sins and mine to you and to me so we can live a new life, being recreated into the image of God. This brings us full circle. We go back to Isaiah and we see that when our sin and shame are cast out by Jesus’ perfect righteousness which he applies to us we have no need to fear. We have his riches, his forgiveness, his perfect love. And then we are enabled to be his instruments, telling others of his grace. We are then able to bring healing to people. We are able to give to their needs, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit people who are sick and in prison, reminding them all the while that Jesus has suffered and died for them. We are ready to tell and show that it is through God’s mercy in Christ that we are motivated to care for them, to treat them with dignity and respect, to bring them his grace.

Do you believe that Jesus gave himself for you? We don’t just trust in any old thing. We trust in his giving himself on our behalf. We don’t simply make up our own morality and say that we are going to do what we have determined is good. We take on his values and do what he has said is good. We become the instruments of God in Christ as we trust in his name. Trust in the LORD, Jesus Christ, with all your heart. He comes onto the scene and changes everything. And he will change you, as he changes me. He gives us the true faith, faith in him, which we can then show to our world. If you are ready to show this faith, stand with me as we confess our common faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Bible Reading Challenge Week 36 Day 5

Our reading challenge for the day is James 1-5. I’ll hit a few highlights. You make comments too and fill in the gaps. What strikes you as specially significant?

James 1 - Trials are positive opportunities. They build character and urge us to look to the Lord for wisdom. When we depart from wisdom we realize we were not tempted by God but that we ourselves departed, not trusting God in a steadfast manner. In light of God’s revelation we strive to put on Christ’s character.

James 2 - Christians are not to prefer the rich over the poor, accepting all alike. We don’t depend on our good treatment of people for a reward, but we show a life of faith by doing good works to all, as we are able.

James 3 - We are well advised to be cautious in what we say and teach. Teachers are held to a high standard, as they can easily harm people. Guarding our mouths is of great importance.

James 4 - Many of our disagreements, spurred on by our speech, are over our selfish desires. If we pursue our selfish goals we often sin against others to get what we want. We should rather be humble and trust the Lord to put us in the appropriate place.

James 5 - Rich people who have wronged others need to consider and repent, becoming humble and patient instead, like the prophets of God are. We can then pray with power for those who are suffering.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bible Reading Challenge Week 36 Day 4

Our reading challenge for the day is Ecclesiastes 9-12. I’ll hit a few highlights. You make comments too and fill in the gaps. What strikes you as specially significant?

Ecclesiastes 9 - In fact, often the life of the righteous and of the sinner look remarkably similar. But he who trusts in God has hope. We can live in that hope and trust that the LORD will give us his blessing as we go about our normal business.

Ecclesiastes 10 - Wisdom is to great advantage. It only takes a little foolishness to condemn us, but wisdom is always of benefit.

Ecclesiastes 11 - Fear of the future can hinder us from our normal work, as the future always bears some element of risk. Yet it is wisdom to go about our business trusting the LORD.

Ecclesiastes 12 - We do best to rejoice in God in our youth, while we are strong. This will also give us strength in the day oftrials, which is sure to come.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bible Reading Challenge Week 36 Day 3

Our reading challenge for the day is Ecclesiastes 5-8. I’ll hit a few highlights. You make comments too and fill in the gaps. What strikes you as specially significant?

Ecclesiastes 5 - Our walk is based on honoring God. His way of ordering society is great protection. If we try to order affairs in our own way we will never be satisfiedl.

Ecclesiastes 6 - It is evil that we work and strive but do not get to keep or enjoy what we earn. It is better to have little and enjoy it than to have much and surrender it to an oppressor.

Ecclesiastes 7 - True blessedness involves realizing our mortality in light of God’s eternal mercy. We do not rightly take ourselves too seriously but we should take God very seriously.

Ecclesiastes 8 - What is true vanity? It is trusting in ourselves whether wise or foolish, evil or good. We escape vanity when we look to the true LORD.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bible Reading Challenge Week 36 Day 2

Our reading challenge for the day is Ecclesiastes 1-4. I’ll hit a few highlights. You make comments too and fill in the gaps. What strikes you as specially significant?

The author of Ecclesiastes is often identified as Solomon, king of Israel, possibly in his old age. While it is uncertain, it is definitely plausible. Sometimes people look at this text as the ramblings of a disillusioned person. I can see him as disillusioned in a positive sense - one who has seen a lot of illusory life and realized its true nature. Look rather to God and His perfect Law which brings true wisdom.

Ecclesiastes 1 - Our work, including our attempts at innovation, is not something we should take too seriously. It will make a difference but genuine world-changing responsibility belongs to God alone.

Ecclesiastes 2 - In our lives we may have opportunity to possess much or little. What we have or don’t have, or even the wisdom or lack of wisdom we may have, is not what brings fulfillment. What we really need is something permanent, which is only God’s grace.

Ecclesiastes 3 - Our lives are full of different seasons, each with its appropriate characteristics. Again, God is the ruler over all.

Ecclesiastes 4 - Life is full of sorrow and hardship. Yet in the midst of it all God’s blessing emerges.

Bible Reading Challenge Week 36 Day 1

Our reading challenge for the day is Hebrews 11-13. I’ll hit a few highlights. You make comments too and fill in the gaps. What strikes you as specially significant?

Hebrews 11 - We receive life from God by faith, just like those of old did. This chapter is sometimes called the “Hall of Faith” like a “Hall of Fame.” All these lived and died in faith. They did not receive the promise.

Hebrews 12 - We also live by faith, looking to Jesus who has overcome sin and is seated at God’s right hand. We live by faith in righteousness even receiving chastisement and discipline so we can grow in grace. Again we are warned not to depart from faith in Jesus.

Hebrews 13 - Because Jesus has redeemed us we live a life which reflects his perfection. All we do is motivated by Jesus and his forgiving love for us.

Bible Reading Challenge Week 35 Day 5

Our reading challenge for the day is Hebrews 6-10. I’ll hit a few highlights. You make comments too and fill in the gaps. What strikes you as specially significant?

Hebrews 6 - We leave ‘elementary doctrine” and push on. The author observes that it is horrible to consider those who know the Gospel and fall away. We do want to read verses 4-6 in light of Jesus’ frequent calls to all who would hear that they should turn to him. This maturity we seek is life in the promises of God.

Hebrews 7 - Jesus is himself the priest like Melchizedek, the one greater than Abraham, the king of peace and righteousness forever. Jesus is the one who makes us able to approach God.

Hebrews 8 - Jesus is our priest, at the right hand of God. He is the one who makes the faultless new covenant with Israel, putting God’s law into their hearts.

Hebrews 9 - The old Holy Place in the tabernacle and temple was replaced by Jesus, the new Holy Place, able to enter by his own blood and purify sins eternally. All the worship prior to Jesus was symbolic of him, pointing to Jesus’ full and final redemption for mankind.

Hebrews 10 - The Law cannot make permanent forgiveness. If it could we would not have made offerings after offerings. Jesus gave himself once for all, permanently. This gives us confidence that we have complete forgiveness. As a result, we strive to avoid sin. After all, forgiven people should walk in that forgiveness.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sermon for 9/2/12

Sermon “Inside Out”

As young Christian parents, wanting to establish God’s Word in our household, as we had both been raised in unbelieving homes, I remember that Martha and I did some searching for ways to teach our children in the faith. We didn’t have the advantage of a solidly confessional church body to help us. We were young in the faith, both having been converted to Christ as young adults ourselves. We posted and worked with a series called “The 21 Rules of This House.” I looked them up on the Internet recently. The author of the program still has them available. The rules are good. They are biblical. They include telling the truth, loving, honoring and praying for one another, speaking quietly and respectfully, forgiving, comforting, lots of good things. We worked with those rules for a time. We were surprised to see something very negative growing out of them. There was a smugness that developed, not humility, not dependence on the Lord. We see the same thing sometimes among people who are involved in the churches that have their leaders plege to avoid certain things, generally it’s alcohol, tobacco, dancing and theater-going. Yes, those churches are very common in some parts of the country, though not as common in this area. Often we seem to decide that if we follow all the rules we’ll be just fine. Again and again, when visiting the sick, people will tell me that they have always tried to be a good person. That’s a great thing. I’m all for it. Absolutely in favor of it. Go and be a good person. Treat others with respect. Exercise self-control in all you do. And as we saw in today’s readings, those are absolutely approved in the Bible. But isn’t there something more here?

A few years ago a research group took a poll to see what Christians would say best described the Bible. Do you know what won out? It was the statement, “God’s rules for right living.” Again, like the 21 rules of the house or the idea of trying to be a good person, this is fine, but only a partial answer. Does God give his Law? No doubt. Does he tell us how we should live? He certainly does, and our reading from Deuteronomy points out that the people of Israel have laws which are superior to their neighbors. We can see that people who conduct their lives according to God’s Word tend to do better than those who do otherwise. We see this in antiquity, where in the Bible people who committed crimes had to make restitution which was a serious penalty to them, but that their cases were treated with mercy. In the neighboring nations criminals were simply killed out of hand without taking responsibility, trying to restore what they damaged, or being brought back into society. We see through history that people who have governed their lives according to biblical principles tend to be healthier, wealthier, happier, and live longer than those who don’t. There’s a case in point with marriage today. In this country, did you know that married men tend to earn more money and report themselves as happier than unmarried men? Did you know that marriages of people who have not lived together or engaged in other marital relations before marrying tend to be happier and longer lasting than marriages of people who don’t exercise self-control and who don’t wait to be faithful within marriage? What’s more, children of married parents are healthier and get better grades in school than children of unmarried parents who live together. That’s something we can’t quite find a reason for, especially the health issue. To get right to a current news and election issue it seems that children of just one parent tend to do worse than children of married parents, children of a single parent with a non-parent living in the household do worse, and those with same-sex couples in the role of parents do quite poorly. I don’t want to make anyone feel bad. If you are a single parent I know there’s plenty to the story and it’s a complicated and hard story. Another thing I know is that we will do well to pitch in and help and support those families which aren’t in the traditional pattern. They can have a lot of challenges that some of our families don’t face.

Life goes well for those who are following biblical patterns. But is that all the Bible is about? What about our Gospel reading for today? Even if we have followed all those rules, even if we do pretty well, even if our families are together, even if we have been a good person, even if we adopt pets and people who need adoption, what does Jesus warn us about? He says that all sorts of things come pouring out of our lives. No matter how we work to uphold God’s standards we find ourselves full of those evil thoughts, those bad attitudes, those desires to enter into all sorts of evil, or arrogance that we have not entered into evil. No matter how you stack it, we all have a sin problem. We can’t escape it. Like the people in the film The Village a few years ago, people who tried to escape from sin and evil by setting up a new society, we find that sin and evil comes with us. This is something I’ve found talking with a wide variety of people. I have met some monks now and then. One, a Roman Catholic who was a monk and Latin teacher was a fairly good acquaintance over the Internet for some years. Several I’ve spoken with who are Russian Orthodox have expressed the same to me. Though you would think their lives would be relatively stress-free, they are actually quite difficult. Here they find themselves in a Christian community where they are surrounded by other people of like faith and where they are able to dedicate much of their lives to Scripture, prayer, and worship together. What do they find? They find the same thing Jesus talks about. Evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. They are all there, lurking below the surface, trying to get out. And they are there not only in the monastery, not only in those neighborhoods you don’t want to go to, not only in the people you don’t want to associate with, they are there in you and in me. We all need repentance. We all need forgiveness. We all need cleansing.

What will we do? Jesus has proclaimed us unclean. And we find ourselves agreeing with his proclamation. Or if we don’t, we need to notice that the word “arrogance” is still in that list. Then we really don’t have any choice. We have to agree with him.

I have good news for you. Did you know that in the Bible the word “confess” really means “say that you agree”? Confession is to agree with God that we are sinners in need of a savior. It’s to agree that God has given his law and that we have not lived up to it. It’s to agree that no matter how hard we try to follow God’s pattern, his desires, his values, we have other desires that are in conflict with him. It’s to agree that we need forgiveness.

Jesus himself has won that forgiveness. Jesus himself has become sin for us. He has taken upon himself all of the sin and evil that we are bringing out of ourselves. He has promised us cleansing. He has promised that when we confess our sins he is faithful and just to cleanse us from all sin and to give us his perfect righteousness. This is Jesus’ promise. That’s much bigger than what we can do by obeying rules, by trying to be a good person. God’s Word promises forgiveness. And it’s rich, it’s free, and it’s for you and for me.

Do you realize that you have been trying to be a good person and leave it at that? Or maybe you have done pretty well at keeping the commands of God and wish you could be congratulated for it, falling into the arrogant category? Or maybe you are confronted by another type of sin that comes from within, out of the heart. Maybe you have not been able to conquer it. Maybe you see that you won’t be able to conquer it. The victorious life seems far away from you. Let me remind you that Jesus is here for you. He is here to give you forgiveness and life. He is ready to take your sin upon himself and give his perfection to you, again and again, as often as you find yourself in need of his forgiveness he will grant you all the forgiveness you need. Believe in the Lord! He has given himself for you.

As we gather today for communion, you can receive from Jesus not only words of forgiveness but the body and blood which he has given, placed in your hand and in your mouth, as he tells you this cup is a new covenant in his blood which is shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sin. Receive this forgiveness with us. Receive life. Receive the hope of God. Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.