Monday, October 29, 2012

Sermon for 10/28/12

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.

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