Saturday, January 21, 2017

We Are United in Christ

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 This congregation is 90 years old.  During those years we have been served by 15 different pastors plus a number of vacancy pastors.  Some of these pastors were older men—some younger.  Some of these men were fiery, “pound the pulpit” kinds of preachers—others more soft-spoken. 
Each pastor was different from the man who came before him—different than the man who came after him.  For long-time members, the differences between all the pastors you have known are vivid.
            And yet as different as these pastors were—one from another--what unites all them was a shared faith—a shared pastoral practice when it comes to administering the sacraments—and a shared commitment to provide spiritual care for the folks here. 
For 90 years the people of God at Trinity Lutheran Church in San Angelo, Texas have been able to come to church on Sunday morning and be confident that you will hear the Word of God faithfully preached and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution.  This is a profound blessing from God! 
            But what we see today in God’s Word is that this is a blessing that can be undermined when individual preferences and personalities become more important than the shared faith and practice that binds us together as a congregation.  Paul writes:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
Paul began this letter to the Corinthians by reminding them of their identity—that by virtue of Christ’s saving work—they were now children of the heavenly Father—members of the same family—brothers and sisters in Christ. 
And when he begins to address the troubles in their congregation, he continues in the same way:  I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...
That appeal rings out across the centuries to us sitting here today since we share in that same apostolic faith that was believed and practiced in Corinth.  And so the admonition of Paul is spoken to us too—that there be no divisions among us—for divisiveness undermines the identity that God bestows upon us.
When we were baptized, we were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  No matter what name we bear on earth—all of us bear the name of Christ as his people—we have the same spiritual family name.  When there are divisions in the Christian congregation-- it is a denial of our identity as Christ’s people. 
On the other hand, when we are united in the same mind and the same judgment—that unity is a powerful affirmation of the truth of our identity:  that we are the heavenly Father’s children and that Jesus is our brother.
It’s the living out of this baptismal identity that is always the challenge—but we must never become reconciled to anything or anyone that undermines and destroys our identity and identity.  That’s what was happening in Corinth as they let their own personal preferences.  Paul writes:
It has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
            Like our own congregation here in San Angelo, Corinth had been served by a number of pastors and teachers.  And like our congregation’s pastors, Paul and Apollos and Cephas and the others, taught and practiced the same Christian faith. 
They were very different men to be sure --with different gifts and abilities and personalities—but they were perfectly united in the Christian faith that they taught and practiced as pastors.
 But their common faith and common witness was being undermined by a “cult of personality” that the Corinthians had allowed to grow up in their midst.  The Corinthians were identifying themselves with a particular pastor --and allowing their personal preferences to divide them from one another.
Now, there is nothing wrong with personal preferences—we all have them—and it is natural to identify more strongly with one person more than another.  This happens even with our pastors.  We prefer this guy’s style- or we identify with another guy because he’s in the same place in life as we are- or we prefer another man’s personality. 
And there is no problem with that UNTIL those personal preferences take precedence over the truth of God’s Word that unites us together.  Then those preferences begin to undermine who we are and what we are called to be about as a congregation.
Such was the bitterness and quarreling in the Corinthian congregation that it had gotten outside the walls of the church into the greater Christian community. 
All of us need this reminder that when there is division and quarreling in a church—it is not just that church that is wounded—but the mission of Christ is undermined.  We need this timely reminder that what UNITES us in this congregation is infinitely greater than what DIVIDES us.  Paul writes:
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)
            Any time we are tempted to let personality or preference, divide us as Christians we need to remember these words.  In the strongest terms Paul points out the sinfulness of divisiveness in the Christian congregation.
  By virtue of our baptism into Christ, each of us are members of his body.  Is it possible that Christ is divided?  Of course not! 
Is Paul or Cephas or Apollos or some individual pastor whom we prefer to another greater than our Savior who shed his life’s blood for us?  Blasphemous! 
Does one pastor’s baptism make us more of a Christian than the Holy Trinity who adopted us in Holy Baptism?  It’s outrageous to even suggest such a thing! 
There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism—one God and Father of us all and that God-given unity in the congregation must not be torn asunder by some individual preference on our part.
So strongly does Paul make this point that he goes on to say that he is glad that he only baptized a few folks there in Corinth so that he has as little part in this divisiveness as possible. 
Now this is an incredible thing for a pastor to say!  The greatest blessing for a pastor is to baptize—to see someone go from being an enemy of God to a child of God—to bestow the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation upon someone in the waters of Holy Baptism-- is a profound joy!   
But such was Paul’s opposition to their divisiveness that he is glad that he only baptized a few so that his name is not drawn into it.  He says:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
            The power of the cross unites.  The cross united God and man by the atoning sacrifice that was offered there.  The cross united Jew and Gentile into one family of faith.  The cross of Christ is the power that restores life for us as it was in the beginning.
To preach the Good News of the cross:  Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the sins of the world-- was the great mission that Jesus had called Paul to undertake.
Other men would follow him who would baptize and commune and absolve and do the “day-to-day” work of a pastor in a congregation and together they would work to see that the apostolic message of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself went out into the world.
Nothing could be allowed to rob this message of its saving power—not fine-sounding philosophical arguments that left people unsure of what was being preached—not personality differences between pastors--and certainly not divided congregations that were a denial of the very thing that they were proclaiming.  
Over the last several years that I have served Trinity, we have been blessed by God with the spiritual gift of unity.  With very few exceptions, personal preferences and individual personalities have never threatened to undermine our unity. 
I am profoundly grateful to the saints in this place for your spiritual maturity and respect for the pastoral office no matter who the incumbent of that office is.

But today’s lesson applies to us too if for no other reason than as a timely reminder that congregational unity is a blessing to be sought and carefully nurtured because the consequences of division cuts to the heart of the Christian faith and undermines the saving mission of Christ in this world.  God grant that there be no divisions among us!  Amen.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

God's Answers to Life's Great Questions

1 Corinthians 1:1-19 There are three great questions that lie at the heart of our human existence—questions that speak to our identity and the meaning and value of our lives—questions that must be answered if we are to be truly happy—questions that find their only real answer in Christ.
Those questions are:  Who am I?  What am I doing here?  Where am I going?  These are the questions that the apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, gives answer to today as he writes to the congregation at Corinth and to believers in every time and place—including us here today.  Paul writes:
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes…
            When you go into Barnes and Noble Bookstore—one of the largest sections in the whole store are those books devoted to:  “self help”.  Row after row after row of books trying to answer life’s great questions—all of them offering nothing more than the limited perspectives of their human authors.
            But the words we hear today about our identity, purpose, and value are the words of God himself through the apostle Paul who was called by God for that purpose:  to tell the us that the answers to the questions that lie at the deepest part of our human existence are found in Jesus Christ and a life with God through him. 
God has created us for fellowship with him and that is why he sent Jesus—to remake and restore what sin has destroyed in us.  And that is why he called Paul to be an apostle—so that we would know the real answers—God’s answers-- to life’s great questions-- beginning with our true identity.  Paul writes:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.    
            This letter to the Christian congregation at Corinth is one of the most timely, relevant books of the Bible with a profound connection to our modern existence because Corinth was a place that would be familiar to us.  Corinth was a place of wealth and commerce.  It was religiously diverse.  It was full of sexual immorality.  Material things were valued above all else.  A place much like our nation today.
And the reason that Paul wrote this letter was that the Corinthian Christians much too readily identified themselves with the culture around them.  They were not immune to sexual immorality even in their own congregation—and in fact, bragged about how their freedom in Christ allowed them to live like this.  They were very aware of financial differences among their own members and looked down upon those with limited means.  They valued spiritual celebrities.   
They had an identity crisis like so many in our world today because they had forgotten who they were—that they were called to be saints.
From the Bible’s perspective, to be a saint is not just someone who lived in Bible times- or someone fantastically holy- or someone listed on a liturgical calendar of a church.  To be a saint is to be someone set apart for God.  That’s what the word means --and to put it terms from the beginning of our sermon it means that we find our identity in terms of our relationship with God.
That is what Christ does.  He sets us apart for God—sanctifies us—by forgiving our sins with his blood on the cross—and living in our hearts by his Spirit—restoring us to the life we had with our heavenly Father in the beginning of time. 
These words from the apostle Paul about our identity were not just written for the Corinthians—they were written for us too-- for we also call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and confess him to be our Lord.  
The Good News for us today is that we do not have to find our identity in the world or wonder who we are-- for we know that we are God’s sons and daughters—set apart for him in Holy Baptism and this identity gives answer to the next great question of our human existence:  Why am I here?  Paul writes:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—  even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—  so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift,
            The Corinthians were a spiritually gifted congregation.  There were those who had the gift of discernment and those who had the gift of speaking and those who had the gift of healing and those who had the gifts of serving and giving and administration.
When God gave them the gift of faith in Jesus Christ-- he also lavished upon them spiritual gifts that gave meaning and purpose to their lives.  Paul told them:  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good… so that there may be no divisions in the body but that the members may have the same care for one another. 
But what was happening in that congregation is that the gifts given by God were not uniting them as members of the same body—they were not serving the common good—but they were dividing them-- and instead of caring for one another—they were living for themselves.
That is what we see so much of in our world today—so many people living for themselves—living as if they sand at the center of the universe.  But lives devoted to the service of a “god” as small as ourselves cannot help but leave us feeling as if our life does not count for much.
But when we find our identity in Christ, God himself breaks into our narrow little world and gives us a purpose that is above the bounds of time and space.  His eternal purposes and plans now include us-- as we serve him and his people.  That is the purpose of our lives—to serve God and those around us! 
To that end, he gives each of us spiritual gifts—gifts of administration and giving and leading and speaking and teaching and serving so that we can help those around us.  This is what Paul means when he says that the testimony about Christ was confirmed among them:  the Gospel converts us to Christ and the spiritual fruits of that re-birth will be seen in our lives in this world.
As children of God, our lives have meaning and purpose:  to know God and his ways—to speak of him to others—to serve those around us in the context of our daily vocations.  The life of the Christian in this world is the most exciting, fulfilling way to live because it is what we were created to do:  to love God and love our neighbor.  Paul says that this is the way we are to live:
As we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
            There is an emotional and psychological and spiritual toll that is taken on us when we do not know who we are and what the purpose of our life really is.  This is especially true when we do not know the answer to the third great question of life:  where are going?  Are we simply going into a grave and that’s it?  Will our lives end in futility and nothingness? 
All you have to do is look around at the culture we live in to see what happens to people when they do not know where they are going when this life is over:  mind-numbing addictions—constantly seeking one new experience after another—grasping for their fifteen minutes of fame—trying to fight the fear of death. 
All of us, by nature, are afraid of death because deep within us is the realization—that futility and death is not the way it is supposed to be for the human person.  We know in our hearts that we were created to live forever. 
The hopes and dreams and aspirations we have for the future are not a cruel hoax perpetuated on us by evolution-- but have been placed within us by God to draw us back to him as he source of a life that death cannot end.
Jesus Christ has made the way back for us to God.  He has taken away our sins that keep us from a holy God.  He has conquered death for us in his own resurrection from the dead.  His ascension to heaven is the assurance that our own bodies will rise from the grave and live eternally with God. 
To that end, Christ works continually in our lives to keep us in faith until the Last Day.  That same faithful God who:  chose us from eternity -and sent his Son to live and die and rise again for us- and called us into fellowship with him by the Holy Spirit—WILL work in our lives through Word and Sacrament with that same powerful love to keep us in faith and bring us safely to our heavenly home.

The Good News for us today is that God answers life’s great questions about our identity and purpose and value:  We are God’s children, living lives of loving service here on earth, headed to heaven when we die.  May God grant his faith to us all for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Are We to Continue in Sin?

Romans 6:1-11 Everything that Paul wrote up until these verses from the sixth chapter of Romans can be summarized in one sentence:  We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus apart from deeds of the law.  That is what the Bible teaches regarding salvation.  That is what we believe.
But almost from the day that these words were written, there have been those within the church who misused them—who turned God’s grace into a license for our sin. 
It began in Galatia where Paul told the people that was for freedom that Christ had set them free-- but then had to warn them to walk by the Spirit so that they did not use their freedom to gratify the desires of the flesh.
The misuse of God’s grace showed up during the Reformation when there pastors and teachers who were actually teaching that good works are detrimental to salvation.
And the misuse of God’s grace continues in our own day where there are entire church bodies that have separated a Christian confession of faith from the Christian morals of the Bible so that they can confess the Nicene Creed and at the same time deny what the Bible teaches on marriage and sexuality and abortion and the roles of men and women.
Of course, it is easy to point the finger at others but in our own lives we are tempted to misuse God’s grace and turn it into a license for sin. 
We get caught up in besetting sins.  We know they are wrong.  We say that we are sorry.  But we never really take any concrete steps to end them.  We are not zealous for good works and holy living and tell ourselves it’s because we don’t want to be too “catholic”.  We draw a distinction between our confession of faith and our life of faith and soothe our conscience with God’s grace when what we ought to do is repent of our sins and amend our lives.
There are countless people-- who have their names on some church’s membership roll-- who haven’t stepped foot in church in years-who are living with people who are not their spouses—whose lives are no different than the unbelievers around them—and they tell themselves that they are Christians.  Is this possible?  The answer is no!  The Bible says:  What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!
            The Christian must not continue IN sin.  Now I know what you are thinking:  “But pastor, I sin all the time!  What do you think I’m doing when we come to the confession and absolution?  I’m confessing my sins!”  Me too!
Yes, we sin.  We lose our temper.  We speak unkind words.  We think ugly thoughts.  But that is a very different thing than CONTINUING IN SIN!  Continuing in sin is living in sin—be identified with some sin—never repenting of sin.  Continuing in sin is making an excuse for our sin--saying that it is no sin at all—having no intention to amend our lives.  That is utterly incompatible with a true and living faith in Jesus Christ.  In fact, the Bible says that:  Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil.  No one born of God makes a practice of sinning. 
This modern idea that just because someone knows the story of Jesus and can parrot the right words like grace and faith (and yet lives like the devil) is somehow a Christian and will be saved-- is absolutely unknown to the writers of the Bible.  Paul asks us:
How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 
            The unbelieving world and the apostate church and our own flesh might think that we can, at the same time, have a true and saving faith and continue in sin but Paul does not!  How can we who died to sin still live in it he asks us?  And the answer is:  we can’t—because we have died to sin in Baptism.
At the cross, all of our sins were laid on the Lord Jesus Christ and he died in our place.  When we were baptized, we died with Christ and were buried with Christ and were raised with Christ and the salvation of the world accomplished on the cross was given to us as a gift (personally and individually) in Holy Baptism.
This is why:  living in sin—continuing in sin—abiding with sin-- is absolutely, positively incompatible with a true and living faith in Christ—because that kind of life is an abject denial:  of Jesus- and the cross- and the salvation he accomplished for us there and gave to us in Holy Baptism. 
The fact of the matter is that Christ has died and been raised from the dead and we have been saved—so that we can live a new life.  The Bible says:
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
  Do you see those three words “in order that”?  In the original Greek, there is only one word there and it denotes purpose.  In other words, Christ died and was raised and you were baptized FOR THIS PURPOSE:  that you would walk in newness of life.  That is what salvation is about—a new life in Christ!  God’s plan and Christ’s death and your baptism is for this purpose:  that you would walk in newness of life. 
As certainly as Christ was raised from the dead—so it is the saving purpose of God from everlasting to everlasting (from the first moment of your life to the last) that you would possess and live out a brand new life both in time and eternity.  The Bible says that:
If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
            Christ died on the cross, was buried, and on the third day rose from his grave.  All of those who have died with him will certainly rise from their graves just like he did.  United with him in death—we WILL be united with him in a resurrection life his.  What will that life be like?
            First of all we will rise from our graves just like Jesus did.  When Christ comes again—whether it is ten years from now or ten thousand years from now—no matter what has happened to our body—we will come forth from our graves just as Christ did from his.
Our bodies will be changed like that of Christ’s resurrection body—no longer subject to pain and death—body and soul united forever.  And like Christ’s own ascension to his heavenly Father, we will ascend to heaven where we will live forever.  That is the resurrection promise of eternal life that God makes to us in Holy Baptism. 
But already- right here and right now- we have died with Christ and been raised with Christ and been given the gift of a new life to live on here on earth—a new life that is to be different than the lives of those who do not believe.  The Bible says that:
Our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.
            All of us are born with Adam’s sin.  The Bible calls it our flesh—the old Adam within each of us that does not know God or believe in God—and, in fact, is war against God.  This Old Adam cannot be reformed—he cannot be cleaned up a bit here and there—he must be put to death—he must be crucified! 
That is what happened when we were baptized—the Old Adam was crucified—and he must continue to be crucified daily as we return to our baptism:  repenting of our sins and being renewed in our faith in Jesus so that, more and more, his life become our own. 
Baptism itself is a once in a lifetime event—it cannot be repeated—but WE CAN return to it again and again because it is a promise that God made to us, that we are no longer slaves to sin because we have died with Christ in Holy Baptism.
Occasionally you will hear someone say:  “The devil made me do it”.  Or they will excuse some sin with:  “Well, I’m just a sinner”!  But the baptismal promise of God is that we are no longer slaves to sin.  We are now the children of God.  Our identity is found in Christ.
This is the life of the Christian—the life of baptism.  This is why we Lutherans make the sign of the cross:  in the morning to remind ourselves that as baptized children of God we are to walk in newness of life throughout our daily tasks --and in the evening to remind ourselves that as baptized children of God we have been forgiven of our sins and promised a new, eternal life with God.  The sign of the cross is emblematic of our entire life as Christians where Jesus is both Lord and Savior.  The bible says that:
If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
            All of us are born into this world as God’s enemies, enslaved by sin, subject to death.  That is our birthright as Adam’s children.  But Christ came into this world to change that.  He died the death on the cross that we deserve and he rose again to give us a new life here on earth and forever in heaven.  Sin and death are defeated enemies—not our masters.
Jesus is our Lord—our master-- and our king—and he calls us to live a life here on earth like his—doing his Father’s will and speaking his Father’s words.  Every moment of his life lived for his heavenly Father.  So it is for us, that we live for God. 
That kind of life began for you in Holy Baptism where God spoke the same words about you that he did about Jesus:  this is my beloved child.  And your life will be changed when you begin to see yourselves as God sees you:  dead to sin but alive in Christ. 

Is it possible for a person who is dead to sin and alive in Christ to continue in sin?  No!  God grant it to us all for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

A Mystery Revealed

Ephesians 3:1-12 Several years ago I read an essay entitled “Strangers in a Strange Land.”  The author talked about growing up in Quebec in the 1950’s in what was then a profoundly Catholic culture.  He said that during those years attendance at mass was 90%.  Catholic education, health care, and social services were the backbone of daily life.
Today attendance at mass is 6%.  Only 9% of high school age people identify as Catholics.  There are 38 abortions for every 100 live births.  In one generation Quebec has gone from being one of the most Christian places on earth to one of the most pagan.
The same is happening all over the west.  In England there are more people who attend worship service in a mosque than in a church.  In the heart of the Reformation countries, church attendance is in the single digits.  The same trend can be observed here in the United States.
Those kinds of seismic changes taking place in the heart of the Christian west can’t help but disturb us and worry us and even lead us to despair over the future of the church.  What will become of the church?  Is there a future for Christianity? 
The answer to that question is in the five billion people on this planet right now who don’t know Jesus as their Lord and Savior—1.4 billion in China, 1.2 billion in India, 1.1 billion in Africa.  Billions of potential new Christians waiting in darkness for the light of Jesus Christ on them. 
On this Epiphany Day we are reminded that the love of God in Jesus Christ extends to all people—even the most unlikely of people-- and that his ability to save is still mighty and powerful.  Paul wrote:
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly.
            Paul was in prison for his own protection.  When preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the temple in Jerusalem, he was almost killed by a Jewish mob.  And so what was his crime?
Paul dared to teach that the love of God was not just to the Jews also for the Gentiles—that all people could come to God through faith in Jesus—and that he had been called by the resurrected Christ to reveal the great mystery of God’s saving work in the world.  And so what was that mystery?  Paul wrote:
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  
            The great mystery of God’s saving work in the world is that from the very beginning of time, God planned for people to be reconciled to him in only one way and that is through faith in his Son Jesus—that irrespective of race or gender or place in society, all people could have a life with God through faith in his Son.
This Good News was a mystery in the sense that it had to be reveled and manifested and made known to the world. 
No one could reason their way into the knowledge of God’s salvation:  that God himself would take on flesh and become part of his creation; that the Savior of the world would live in obscurity; that eternal life would come through his terrible death on the cross; and that people would enter into heaven by hearing that message of the Gospel. 
That mystery must be revealed to those who know nothing of the things of God like the Gentiles of Paul’s day and the unbelievers in our day.  It must be revealed to those who know something of God and his ways because they know the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments like the Jews of Paul’s day and Muslims in our day. 
But the natural knowledge of God and the moral knowledge of God are insufficient for salvation.  It is Jesus who must be known if there is to be a life with God. 
That is why Jesus commissioned and sent the apostles into the world:  to reveal the mystery of God’s saving will for all people.  It is why Jesus met Paul on the Road to Damascus and sent him to the Gentiles—because the Good News of God’s love extends to even the most unlikely of people.  Paul wrote:
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ,
            Paul counted himself a servant of the Gospel.  That’s what that word “minister” means—not clergyman, not priest, not pastor—but servant. 
He was who he was solely as the result of an undeserved gift.  He knew that he was, by nature, the least of all the believers for he had persecuted Christ.  And yet God forgave him and gave him an opportunity to tell others about Jesus.
So it is for us.  We are to count ourselves servants of the Gospel first—before being a teacher or homemaker or student or farmer or businessperson or retired person or pastor.  We are God’s servants because of his undeserved gift of a Son—called by God in the context of our daily life to proclaim the blessings that we have in Jesus. 
How necessary this is:  that we see ourselves as servants of the Gospel--that we stand in awe of the riches of Christ--because the mystery of God’s saving purpose still needs to be revealed to the people around us!  Paul wrote that we have a responsibility:
To bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
            The same God who called the world into being and perfectly ordered his entire creation also has a plan to save the world in his Son. 
In the Bible we can trace how that plan unfolded so that at just exactly the right moment in history the Savior was born.  We can look back upon our own lives and see how God was patiently working to bring us to the knowledge of the truth. 
It is through us, believers in Christ, the church-- that the amazing, wonderful plan of God is made known in our own day and time—to bring to light the love that God has for all people in Jesus.  That is the mission of the church!
Over one hundred ago, there were people from all across this country who gave to the work of missions so that a missionary could be sent to the west Texas—to people that they had never met and never would meet until they got to heaven.  They didn’t know them from Adam-- but they wanted to make sure that people in west Texas knew about the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ.
And here we are tonight, 90 years later, with the call of Jesus on our own lives to do all that is within our power to make him known to people that we will never meet until we get to heaven. 
This is the wisdom of God that is revealed in nowhere else but the church: that life with him is for all people—not matter their past—no matter their skin color—no matter their language. 
That vision is revealed in the pews of Christian churches throughout the world that are filled with all kinds of people-a vision that even the angels of heaven delight to see.  Paul says that:  through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
            From the very beginning of creation the angels gazed upon the work of God.  They saw the various parts of creation come into being.  But something happened when man was created.  Part of the heavenly angels rebelled against God’s purpose and attacked mankind while the holy angels looked on with sorrow.
From that moment on an unseen, spiritual battle raged.  Over salvation history God used the good angels as his messengers.  They announced the coming Savior.  They sang at his birth.  They comforted Jesus in the desert and in the garden in the hours before his death.  The Bible says that they longed to look into God’s plan of salvation.
It is when they gaze upon the church that they see the mystery of God’s saving plan revealed:  that through faith in Jesus Christ, we have been restored to what God always planned for us to be:  his sons and daughters, members of his family with whom he desires the closest fellowship.  Paul wrote that:
This was according to the eternal purpose that God has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
            Every news article I have read and every news story I have seen on TV is filled with fear and trepidation about the New Year.  What will happen to the economy?  What about North Korea and Iran?  What about the price of oil?
            But far above these temporal concerns is a God with an eternal, saving purpose that he wisely, graciously accomplished in his Son Jesus Christ.  And you are a part of that plan.  You are the object of his redeeming love and you are his servants, called to be a part of his saving plan in someone else’s life. 

Through faith in Jesus Christ, it is not fear and trepidation that fills our heart but boldness and confidence as we take our place and fill our role in God’s saving plan!  Amen.      

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

We Are Sons of God through Faith

Galatians 3:23-29 When we think of Moses on Mt. Sinai we think about the Ten Commandments.  But there were many, many other laws given there as well--hundreds of laws that spoke to every aspect of the Jews’ lives as individuals and as a nation. 
There were laws about food and clothing and relationships and money and social justice and worship.  God gave these laws to the Jews and demanded that they be obeyed-- and the penalties and punishments for breaking these laws were harsh.  This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote that:
…before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.
            The Jews were hemmed in on every side by God’s law just like a jail cell hinders the movement of an inmate—and that was its God-given purpose—to keep them close together until he could set them—and all men-- free. 
Those rules and regulations were never meant to be a permanent way of life—but only a temporary measure until Jesus came into the world to live and die and deliver the world from the bondage to sin and death.
The person and work of Jesus is the “faith” that Paul was talking about here in this verse when he says:  before faith came.  He is not talking about the faith with which we believe.  That had always been the way to life with God. 
Four hundred and thirty years before the law was given to Moses at Sinai, the Bible tells us that Abraham believed God and God counted it as righteousness.  But here Paul is talking about the faith THAT IS believed—the content of saving faith which is Jesus Christ:  his birth, life, death, and resurrection. 
The purpose of the rules and regulations given at Sinai was to guard the Jews as a people until God revealed the Savior in his Son Jesus Christ.  Paul wrote that:
…the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
            That word “guardian” that Paul uses here has a very specific meaning.  In the ancient Greek and Roman world, a servant would be appointed by a boy’s father to watch out for him.  This servant would walk him to school and back home again.  He would make sure he wasn’t hanging out with the wrong crowd.  He would teach him manners and how to behave in polite society and correct him when he did wrong. 
He was his guardian—but only until the boy reached adulthood—for then he no longer needed a guardian.  The servant had accomplished his purpose when the boy took his rightful place in the father’s house as a full grown son.
            Those hundreds of laws and precepts and rules that God gave at Sinai to govern the life of his ancient people—regulating every facet of their lives—served as a guardian over them until Christ came. 
But those ceremonial and religious and political laws of the Jews were never meant to be an end unto themselves or a permanent way of life—they only existed so that the Jews would be preserved as a people until Christ came, as Paul says, so that we might be justified by faith.
.           Here Paul moves from the faith that is believed—the content of faith—to the faith with which we believe—what we trust in. 
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the content of the Christian faith and when we believe it—when we put our faith in it and build our life upon it--we are justified in God’s sight—that is, we are declared righteous in his sight and we take our place in God’s family as his sons.  Paul wrote:
…now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
            The rules and regulations and precepts of the Jews that governed every facet of their lives have no place in the life of a Christian—whether they are Jew or Gentile.  That kind of guardianship has come to an end with Christ. 
So it is with every new rule or regulation or precept that some Christian group mistakenly wants to impose on us for our own good.  To tell a Christian what day of the week they can worship or that they cannot eat meat-- or what color their buggy has to be—or what they should do about their children’s education-- is a return to Judaism and the dead works of the law.
The Bible says that we are justified by faith APART from the works of the law.  In other words, our right standing in God’s sight and our relationship with him does not depend upon keeping all the rules and regulations and precepts that God gave to the Jews-- or the rules some misguided Christian wants to impose on us.  Instead, our place in God’s family comes solely through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son.
He kept every rule, regulation, and precept God gave to Moses at Sinai.  Already at the very beginning of Jesus’ life we see him keeping the covenant God made with Abraham as Jesus is circumcised in the temple, shedding the same blood with which he would forgive the world’s sins at the cross. 
Jesus’ circumcision was the beginning of a lifetime of holy obedience to his Father’s will for our sake—so that through faith in Jesus his obedience could become our own and we could be counted as sons in God’s family.
Just a few verses after our text, Paul said:  When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.  This is the purpose of God’s redeeming work in this world—that we would be restored to what God created us in the beginning to be:  his sons.
It’s interesting and important to note that Paul is not inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the word “children” but the word “son.”  It’s not because we are not God’s children (we are!) but that we are “sons” describes our status as full-fledged mature members of God’s family, with all of the rights and responsibilities and privileges as God’s only-begotten Son Jesus.
That’s Paul’s point—that through faith in God’s Son-- we who are God’s adopted sons can expect from our heavenly Father exactly the same blessings as he gives his only-begotten Son.  That is how important it is to have faith in Jesus! 
But how did we receive that faith in Jesus that makes us a part of God’s family?  That came through the power of the Gospel proclaimed in Word and Sacrament.  Paul wrote that:  … as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.   
The Bible teaches that every person who has been baptized with water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit—has been baptized into Christ’s death and raised up in his resurrection so that we would walk in newness of life until that day we pass into everlasting life.
The picture that Paul uses in our text is that of someone putting on Christ like a garment-- and that is exactly what happens in baptism.  We are clothed in the righteousness of Christ—his death becomes my death—his holiness becomes my holiness—his resurrection, my own eternal life—and all of this through faith in him. 
This righteousness of Christ is that wedding garment that Jesus said all must wear to enter into the marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom. 
Christ’s righteousness is the white robe that all of the saints wear as they worship around the throne of the Lamb in heaven—people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages—having just one thing in common with one another—the one thing necessary to stand in God’s presence:  the robe of Christ’s righteousness they have received in Holy Baptism and put on by faith.  Paul wrote that, clothed in the righteousness of Christ:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
            There are six billion people on this planet—each of us different from the others—different races, different genders, different places in society.  There are many billions more who have lived and died—all of them different from one another.  Perhaps there will be many billions more to come.  But there is only one Man who is perfectly holy and righteous in God’s sight—and that is God’s own Son Jesus Christ. 
When we were baptized into Christ, his life became our own-- and we were clothed in his perfect holiness and righteousness-- and so through faith in him we also stand before Almighty God in exactly the same way as Jesus does right now—with the blessing of the LORD and his bright, beaming face shining upon us. 
And as God’s adopted sons we can count on the same glorious future as his Son Jesus enjoys right now.  Paul wrote:  …If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.  So that there is no doubt in your mind…
The grammatical construction in the original reads this way:  If you are Christ’s—AND YOU ARE!—then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promises.  There is no doubt about it!  Baptized into Christ, clothed in his righteousness, believing in Jesus—you are sons of God and you will inherit everything God first promised to Abraham—everything that Jesus earned for you in his life, death, and resurrection.  The Bible says that is an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. 
We have a renewed and restored relationship with God.  We don’t have to worry what his attitude is towards us because we know what it is towards Christ:  love and blessing.
We have the gift of the Holy Spirit--giving us joy and hope and peace despite whatever the world throws at us.
We have the abiding presence of Jesus who has promised to be with always—speaking to us in his word and feeding us with his body and blood.
And we have an eternal life in God’s presence to look forward to and a new heaven and new earth where sin and suffering and sorrow have no part.

The Good News for us on this first day of a new year is that we are God’s sons through faith in Jesus and a great and glorious future awaits us.  Amen.

Lord, Teach us to Number Our Days



Psalm 90:1-12 When we come to the end of another year, we cannot help but think of how we have spent our time over this last year and what we will do with the time that we are given in the year to come.
Even those folks who are not people of faith recognize that time is a precious, limited commodity and they resolve to spend their time more wisely in the New Year than they did in the past-- even as they drink and dance this night away.
The prayer that we have before us tonight, “Lord, teach us to number our days” is of course about much, much more than merely knowing how many days we have lived and how many days we have left to live -out of that fixed number that the LORD has granted to us—a number that no one knows except God himself. 
That we would “number our days to get a heart of wisdom” is not really about “counting” at all--but it means that that we would see our life as the LORD sees it:  brief and broken—and that this knowledge would humble us and give us a new perspective and a new set of values that puts God first in this new year. 
The first thing that we discover from God’s Word tonight about our life is its brevity.  The psalmist writes,
“The years of our life are seventy or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone.”  
It’s always amazed me that when I was younger time seemed to go on forever.  Watching a classroom clock, I could have sworn that time had reached a standstill.  Waiting to turn sixteen so that I could drive seemed like an eternity.  But now that I am older time seems to rush forward and I don’t even know where it’s gone. 
When I was a boy someone who was seventy or eighty years old seemed ancient.  Now that I’m fifty-four, it doesn’t seem nearly so old.  Seventy or eighty (still today the average life-span in the United States) seems very short indeed—especially when we measure our brief life against that which is truly ancient.  The psalmist writes,
“Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.  For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.”   
            What is our lifespan compared to the mountains and seas and ground upon which we stand?  What is our lifespan compared even to human history which is ten thousand years old?  Even the longest human life is like the blink of an eye compared to the age of the world around us and the civilizations that have come and gone. 
And yet, as old as human history is-- and as old as the created world is—what are they compared to the God who created them?  A thousand years of history is like a few hours in God’s sight for he exists from everlasting to everlasting.
So how does this recognition of the brevity of our lives help us to gain a heart of wisdom?  How does it help us live a better life in 2017 than we have in 2016? 
First of all we learn humility and perspective.  The sun does not rise and set on our lives and we are not at the center of the universe.  The toils and troubles we face—as serious as they are at times—are not the end of the world. 
This kind of humility and perspective provide us with the gift of steadfastness that is so important to living a calm, peaceful, stable life. 
            Secondly, recognizing the brevity of our lives also gives us a measure of respect for those generations who have come before us and for the collective wisdom of the ages. 
Our culture’s current questions regarding marriage and family and sexuality (that have never been up for grabs in all of human history) are today-- because we have forgotten just how short our lives are and how many countless generations have come before us with a wisdom gained through experience over thousands of years. 
When we consider the fact that God has existed before this world began and will exist after this world comes to an end-- we come to realize that maybe, just maybe, God really does know what’s best for our lives, even though we often act as if we know best and go our own way rather than his.
And that is the next thing that we see about our lives as reflect upon them at the end of this year:  that we are broken by sin. 
We have lived as if we stand at the center of the universe and we have rejected the guidance of the One who made us and who sets a limit on our days.  The psalmist writes:
“You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.  For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.”   
            When we number our days aright—when we are truly reflective about our lives—when we think about this last year--we cannot help but see that we have failed to live as we ought:  loving God above all else and loving our neighbors as ourselves. 
All of us would blush with shame if we could add up all the hours we have spent sinning in thought, word, and deed.  Thankfully we can’t!  But God can and does!
The psalmist writes.  “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.”    Our lives are measured by the perfect standard of God’s holy law and that measure reveals that we are broken by sin, deserving of death--which is why we are here tonight in the first place.  You see…
The only reason that the end of one year and the beginning of a new year has any meaning at all for us is because we know that there will come a day when we will not be able to enter into a new year because we will not have lived through the old year. 
The bible says in Romans that “the wages of sin is death”  and that judgment will be rendered upon all of us one day.  The psalmist knew the same about himself.  He wrote of God’s judgment of sinners:
You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’  You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning:  in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.  For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.” 
            Because we are broken by Adam’s sin and because we are sinners in our own right, there will come for each of us a last year and month and week and day of life—and we will die—returning to the dust from which humanity was created. 
But rather than discouraging us, the sobering reality of our own mortality is one of the best means of enriching the life we live now—for when we number our days and recognize them as finite—it helps us to realize that each day we live is a gift from God—a sheer gift of his grace—a day not meant to be lived in sin and unbelief—but a day to live for God and for the good of his people.
The first step in living each day as a day of God’s grace is this important realization that we are sinners and that our lives will come to an end because of it. 
But knowing that we are sinners is not the end of the story for us at all.  If it were our lives would be lived in fear and despair and ultimately end in futility. 
But this brief life is not all there is!  Even when that last year and month and week and day come for us—there is still another life for us to live—a life lived in eternity with God.  The psalmist writes:  “Lord, YOU have been our dwelling place in all generations.”
We get very comfortable with our lives lived on earth and I suppose that’s the way it always is.  But God’s Word tells us that this world is not meant to be our eternal dwelling place.  The writer to the Hebrews says:  “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come”.
While the wages of sin is death and the wrath of God against sin is real-- it is also true that the gift of God is eternal life and that God’s love and care extends even to the worst of sinners.
The proof that both of these are true—the wrath of God that leads to death and the love of God that leads to life—is found in only one place—and that is in God’s Son Jesus Christ. 
In his death on the cross we see both:  God’s righteous wrath over sin that he pours out upon his Son who stands in our place as the chief of sinners --and the love of God that reaches out to the world from those arms outstretched on the cross. 
Jesus resurrection from the dead three days later is God’s guarantee that the Lord is indeed our dwelling place—both in this life and in the life to come. 
Yes, there will come a day when we return to the dust but that very same moment the psalmist promises us that we will fly away—that our body will be laid to rest but that our soul will find its true home in its eternal dwelling place until it is reunited with the body on the last day when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead.
When we begin to number our days aright and see that time is short and eternity long--when we begin to see our lives as God sees them—as those who have been redeemed from sin and death—as those who will one day be called upon to give an account of our lives—we will, by God’s grace and the Spirit’s help-- begin to live our lives right now and in the new year as those who are wise in God’s sight.  Amen.