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.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
Sometimes we think of catechesis, or training in the Christian faith, as just something for children, particularly for young teenagers. Yet learning and growing in our Christian walk is for believers of every age and every level of experience. Quite a few years ago, now, the pastor of a church I was attending, seeing that he had only one other elder in the church, gathered a group of the men of the congregation. He picked people who, as far as he could tell, fit the description of overseers (elders) in 1 Timothy 3. We were invited to join him every other Saturday morning for a three hour session of training, accountability, and prayer for our families and our congregation. After working together for about two years we spent some time together studying the Scripture in regards to the ministry of elders in the local church. About half of us were interested in serving this way, while the other half, though thankful for the experience and time together in training, did not consider serving as an elder something that fit their families at that time. Those who were identified and willing to serve as elders were brought before the congregation, answered whatever questions congregants had of them, and then the pastor and the other elder laid hands on us and ordained us for service in Word and Sacrament within the body. I make just a few very quick observations about this process. 1) It seems to reflect the idea of elders being appointed out of and for specific local communities seen in Scripture. 2) It acknowledges the fact that those who teach will be held to a high standard and need to be prepared for that ministry. 3) It gathers biblical elders in a fellowship of other elders who will hold one another accountable. 4) It assures that the elders will spend time growing in their knowledge of and commitment to the local congregation. Since that time, some ten years ago, two of the elders have left that particular congregation and are serving in pastorates elsewhere. All acknowledge their need for ongoing training and their gratefulness to the pastor and their fellow elders who have invested in them through the years. Catechesis - Christian training - is not just for children. It’s for all of us.