Thursday, October 19, 2017

Put Off the Old! Put On the New!

Ephesians 4:22-28 On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg--ninety-five “points of discussion” that addressed what he felt was wrong with the church of his day. 
The Christian life had fallen into what was essentially an economic transaction—give so much to the church and you could count on forgiveness.  All kinds of Christians were appalled by this and so to talk about it in his own community Luther posted 95 discussion points to address what was going on in the church.
The first three theses went like this:  1. When Jesus said "repent" he meant that believers should live a life of repentance 2. Only God can give salvation - not a priest.  3. Inward penitence must be accompanied by a real change in lifestyle. 
To make his point, Luther appealed only to the Bible—not to tradition, not to a priestly hierarchy.  We see how true this is in our text today which is the biblical foundation for Luther’s first three theses:  that the Christian life is one of repentance—that salvation comes from God, not from another person—and that a changed heart results in a changed life.  The Bible says:
Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self
            The first of Luther’s 95 Theses said that the entire life of the Christian consists of repentance.  When we hear that word “repentance”, most of us think of contrition or sorrow over sins—that I recognize that I have done wrong, am sorry for it, and confess it for the sin it is.  And that is certainly true as far as it goes.  In fact…
That’s what Paul is talking about in this first verse or so of our text—that we are to put off our old self, which belongs to our former way of life because it is corrupt and full of deceitful desires.  In other words, everything having to do with sin in our life is to be taken off like filthy clothes and cast aside. 
And because sin is not just the wrong things we say or do or think- but is as close to us as our own flesh- we will have to put off that old self again and again until we lay it aside in death.  We will never be rid of sin in this life but we must strive to put it off every day so that when it comes to sin we can always consider it something in the past rather than a present reality in our lives.
When we hear that the Christian life is one of life-long repentance, this ongoing sorrow over sin, and confession of it, is what we think about—and that is right—but it is still only half the story.
The other half of repentance—the other half of the Christian life—is where we turn to, after we turn away from sin--and what we put on, after we put off the old sinful self.  We turn from sin to Christ-- and put on the new self when we put off the old. 
In other words, repentance is not just sorrow over our sins (that’s just the first part) it is also faith in Jesus to forgive us our sins.  For example…
In our Gospel lesson today, the paralyzed man and his friends came to Jesus in faith—they had a confident trust that the power and compassion of Jesus could help them-- and they were not disappointed.  That is what faith is:  a confident trust that Jesus will do what he says and give us forgiveness and a new life.
Last week we talked about the identity that we have in Christ and the importance of living as who we are.  We heard that the Holy Spirit has made us God’s children and disciples of Christ. 
This is the new self that we are to “put on.”  We take off the old sinful self and we put on this new identity—this new self that is a child of God and disciple of Christ.
That we believe this and that we can do this (putting off the old and putting on the new) is from beginning to end, the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. 
In his second thesis Luther made the point that this life of repentance is not accomplished in us by any priest or ritual but it is the work of God.  The bible calls it a renewal in the spirit of our minds and that we are a new creation after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
In the beginning, God created man in his own image (not that they looked like God who is Spirit) but that they reflected his righteousness and holiness.  That image of God was lost when man sinned.  The righteousness and holiness that they were given at their creation ceased—not only for them but for all their children—us too. 
And so every person, by nature, simply by virtue of their birth into the human family, can no longer can be counted as God’s child but as his enemy.  That is why Jesus told Nicodemus:  you must be born again!  In other words, you must be renewed and recreated to be what God intended you to be at the beginning.  And just like at the beginning, it is only God who can do that work.  And he has!
All of us who have been baptized and brought to faith in Jesus have been born again by water and Spirit.  God has chosen to give us new birth so that now the image of God (the true righteousness and holiness of Christ) has been restored in us. 
This is what Paul is talking about when he says that we are renewed in the spirit of our mind.  We have a new attitude towards sin, hating it and wanting nothing to do with it.  We have a new attitude towards those around us, loving them for Christ’s sake and bearing with them patiently.  And we have a new attitude towards the way we live, wanting to walk in the ways of Christ.  The Bible says:
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.  Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.  Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.
            In the third of Luther’s 95 Theses he says that our inward repentance (that is our sorrow over sin and our Spirit-worked faith) ought to be plainly visible in how we live our lives.  It is a terrible perversion of the Gospel to say that the forgiven sinner can simply return to his former life of sin.  Nothing is farther from the truth!
            No one should come to Holy Communion this morning is they do not intend to make a complete break with sin.  If you are planning to return to a sinful life when you leave the communion rail—stay away—you will receive judgment not blessing.
            Instead, our sorrow over sin and our confident trust in Christ’s forgiveness means that our lives will make a complete 180 degree turn from what they were before.  Paul gives some concrete examples to illustrate what he is talking about but they are certainly not exhaustive.
First of all, Christians tell the truth.  Christians know the One who is the THE truth and so there is no place for falsehood in the Christian life.  Very few things are as destructive to our various human relationships as lying--and all people hold liars in contempt.  The Bible says that our speech must loving, straightforward, and that we are to be people of our word who can be trusted to tell the truth.
Secondly, the Christian does not live with bitterness and anger in their hearts.  The Bible writers recognized that there are situations where anger is the appropriate response.  How can we not be angry over injustice and brutality and perversion?  They anger God—they anger God’s children. 
But we cannot let this anger rule over us.  That we do not “let the sun go down on our anger” means that we are quick to be reconciled with those who have angered us so that Satan does not gain the upper hand over us.
And finally, Christians do not steal.  They don’t take things from work.  They do not fudge on their taxes or expense reports.  They give a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage.  The Christian knows that the way to having their own possessions is work. 
Christians (unless profoundly disabled or ill or elderly) do not live on the charity of others—not their families—not their fellow church members—and not the government.  They work.  They work to support themselves and their families.  They work so that the mission of Christ can go forward.  And they work so that they have something to share with those in genuine need.  Labor- and the necessities of life- go together.   

Almost 500 years ago Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg and the very first words the Reformation was a call to a life of repentance.  We hear the same thing in God’s Word today:  that we are to put off the old life of sin and put on the righteousness of Christ—that this life of faith can only be accomplished in us by the work of God the Holy Spirit—and that a heart that has been changed by Jesus shows up in a changed life.  May God grant it to all of us for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

What Does the LORD Your God Require of You?

Deuteronomy 10:12-22 We are saved by God’s grace alone.  That is the central teaching of Holy Scripture- and that is the rallying cry of the Reformation- and that is the confession of our church.  Our life with God, from beginning to end, is a gift that he gives.
            But God’s people have always struggled with what that means in their day-to-day lives—how to live that out.  The problem is not with God and his gracious gifts.  The problem is with our flesh that wants to turn grace and forgiveness and God’s saving work on our behalf-- into license and sin and going our own way.
            That is what we see in God’s Word today.  The people of Israel had been rescued from slavery.  Their enemies were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea.  They possessed the riches of Egypt.  They were led into God’s presence. 
But there in the sight of God at Sinai they abandoned their Savior God and made an idol and worshiped it in the place of the LORD and committed the worst kinds of sins.
Let me tell you the story of another people—a people who have been rescued from slavery to sin and death, a people whose enemies have been drowned in the waters of holy baptism, a people who possess the eternal riches of forgiveness and life, and yet a people who continue to sin in the sight of their Savior God and show with their lives that there are other things that come before him.  We know those people, don’t we?
The words that we have before us today are spoken to all of God’s people, in every place and time (including us here today!) about what it means in our day to day lives, in how we live our lives, that we are the saved people of God.  The Bible says:
What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?
            It is critically important to understanding and applying this text to our lives that we know WHEN these words were spoken. 
God’s people had been saved.  Their enemies had been destroyed.  They had been given riches beyond measure.  They had been provided for on their journey and led along the way into the presence of God.  All of this was the accomplished facts of salvation history-- and so it is for us.  This is what our Savior God has done for his people.
It is in that context of God’s saving work and his gracious gifts that these words are spoken to God’s people so that we might understand what God desires from us—not to earn our salvation—but to live out that identity.
We are to fear the LORD—to stand in awe of him and glorify him and magnify him.  We are to walks in his ways—to value and treasure what he says as important and to go in the direction he leads.  We are to love him—not because a command can make us love him--but simply because of who he is and what he has done for us.  We are to serve him with everything we have, in all we do.  And we are to keep his commandments.
And we are to do this for our good—for OUR good.  You see dear friends in Christ, God does not need our love.  God does not need our obedience.  God does not need our service. 
He has created us and redeemed us for OUR good --not only with the gift of salvation he gives, but so it is with the life of the saved that he calls us to live—it is for our good because he loves us and knows what will truly bless us because he is our Creator.  The Bible says that:
to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.
            Here is what the Holy Spirit wants you to understand—here is the love that will empower you to fear, love and trust in God above all things and serve him in every way all your days.
The one, true and living God of the universe, the One who is before and after all things, the One who called all things into being by his almighty, powerful word and sustains them in the same way today—that almighty, eternal, righteous, holy God-- loves you. 
And he has always loved you- and always known you- and has chosen you in Christ to be his own and has done everything necessary in time and eternity to make it so.
Out of all the wonders of the universe, out of all the mighty works of his hands, out of everything he has done in the past and will do in the days to come, the LORD has set his heart on you. 
That was the promise of everlasting love that God made to his ancient people and that is the promise of everlasting love that God makes to you sitting here today and the content of that love and the shape of that love and the source of that love is Jesus. 
That was true for God’s ancient people and that is true for us:  the promise to come for the Israelites and the promised fulfilled for us.  For all of God’s people in every place and time, Jesus is the only reason for us to be counted as those loved by God.  And it is that love- and only that love-- which has the power to change us.  The Bible says:
Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.
            There is no way to fear love and trust in God above all things-- and there is no way to serve God all our days in all our ways-- until our hearts are changed. 
Our lives of faith and obedience and service do not make our place with God and they do not earn our salvation.  Our lives of faith and obedience and service do not come first when it comes to having a life with God-- but follow God’s saving work for us-- and come from a change of heart within us.
That is what the Holy Spirit means when he says that we are to “circumcise” our hearts—heartfelt repentance and faith.  It is not enough to merely go through the motions with God—to regard our faith and life with God as something external to us—to think that God is pleased with acts that are merely religious—or with people who think that they can make a deal with him. 
That is what the Holy Spirit is talking about when he says that God takes no bribes and shows no partiality.  Instead, we are to have a genuine change of heart and mind and direction in life and turn away from sins and turn towards our Savior God.  Here’s the thing…
We will always see God’s call to live changed lives as a burdensome imposition—always as something that is outside of us--until our hearts are changed through repentance and faith that understands the holiness and righteousness of God to be sure-- but also the greatness of his love for us who do not deserve, and could never earn, his love.  The Bible says:
He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.  Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
            The great act of the Lord’s salvation in the Old Testament is the deliverance of God’s people from slavery in Egypt.  They did not deserve it.  They could not earn it.  They could not do it on their own.  They were poor and weak and far from home.  All they could do was cry out to the LORD for his mercy.  And that is what they received.
So it is for us.  What we could not earn, what we did not deserve, what we could never accomplish by our own strength and resources God has done for us in his mercy, sending his Son into this world as our great Redeemer who has purchased our freedom by his own blood and set us free from sin and death.
The story of our life with God is one of love and mercy and grace and forgiveness and so that is to be the story of our life with others, a reflection of our life with God:  we love because he first loved us and has shown us that love in his Son.  The Bible says:
You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen.
            I can’t imagine that there is anyone sitting here today who would not have loved to have been there with God’s people as they walked cross the Red Sea on dry land and then to be guided by his presence every step of the way in the wilderness.  How could anyone who had seen and heard these things not offer to God their entire lives for all that the LORD had done?
And yet, what they saw and heard pales in comparison to what we see and hear in Jesus Christ.  God’s own Son come to die for his people!  God’s own Son defeating sin and death and the power of the devil!  God’s own Son feeding his people with his own body and blood and God’s own Son leading his people to the Promised Land of heaven!
Our service and our praise and our worship is very little indeed compared to what God has done for us in Jesus and promises to do  for us in the days to come.  The Bible says;
Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven.
            There is not a person in the world who would have said that this small group desert tribesmen would have ever survived in Egypt.  But the Lord was with them and even after centuries of oppression they were hundreds of thousands.  Only the LORD could have accomplished that!

            Today those hundreds of thousands who knew the LORD as their Savior God are now numbered in the billions and we are part of that multitude through faith in Jesus.  That is why we can give ourselves wholeheartedly in the Lord’s service and trust that he stands ready to bless us with his gifts—because he has always done that for his people and always will!  Amen.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Maintain the Unity of the Spirit!

The title of today’s sermon is “Maintain the Unity of the Spirit”—words taken directly from our text and inspired by the Holy Spirit.  They capture the theme of what God is calling us to believe and do in these verses. 
But a simpler way to express the same thought is this:  God’s guidance on how to “get along” with our fellow Christians.
These words are not quite as holy sounding as the title from God’s Word, they are a little bit blunt, and maybe they take us aback.  We hate to think that Christians would ever be at odds with one another or that there would ever be any conflict between Christians.  “How can I not get along with fellow believers—they believe in Jesus too?!”
But what about that Christian you are married to—are you always on the same page with your spouse? 
What about those Christians who are your children or your parents—do you always see eye-to-eye? 
What about those Christians sitting here in the Lord’s house with you today—do they never rub you the wrong way?
The Spirit-inspired words that we have before us today from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians gives us down-to-earth, practical advice on how to get along with fellow Christians in our marriage, home, and congregation. 
These words tell us that:  1. We are called to unity and peace-filled relationships with fellow believers—2.  They tell us how peace and unity is accomplished through Christ-like lives—3.  and they tell us that unified and peace-filled relationships with fellow Christians are a reflection  of the deepest truths of the Gospel.  St. Paul wrote:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
            The reason for many of the struggles we have in our Christian lives (including getting along with our fellow Christians in our marriages, homes, and congregation) is that we do not give sufficient attention and importance to our identity in Christ—what Paul labels our “calling”.  And so, what is our Christian identity or calling?
By virtue of our baptism into Christ we are called:  God’s children:  we have died with Christ and been raised with Christ—we have been reconciled to our heavenly Father and filled with the Spirit-- and are called to walk in newness of life—in other words:  to live out that identity by taking up our cross and walking in Jesus’ footsteps of love and sacrifice for others as his disciples.
Children of God and disciples of Christ—this is who we are—not who we would like to be—not what we have to strive to be—this is who we are.  And our lives—what St. Paul calls our “walk” should correspond to that identity and calling.  But that’s not always the case, is it?
There have been times over the course of my ministry when I have been asked to mediate a conflict between two Christians and when all else fails I will tell them:  “Let’s just pretend for the sake of argument that we are Christians, what would a follower of Jesus do and say in this situation?” 
And that always gets their attention.  “I don’t have to pretend I am a Christian!  I am a Christian!”  “Wonderful!”  I say, “How then should a child of God and disciple of Christ act in this situation”?  “Oh”!
When we get caught up in conflict with another Christian—whether in our family or marriage or congregation—often times it’s because we have forgotten the high calling of being children of God and disciples of Christ.
The content of that calling is Jesus and it is his life that is to be shown in our lives—in other words, that we are to live, as the Bible says, in all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love just like Jesus did.
            Now, I want you to think about the last conflict you had with a fellow Christian—the last argument or disagreement—the last time there were hard feelings between you and a fellow believer-- whether in your marriage or family of congregation. 
Just for a moment forget about that other person and what a stinker they are and ask yourself:  “Was I humble—did I count that person more important than myself?  Was I gentle- or was I ready to give as good as I got?  Was I willing to bear with that person—in other words, was I willing to put up with that person -or was I quick feel put upon?”
If we are honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that often times we don’t get along with other Christians in our marriages, homes, and congregation—not because they are such stinkers—but because we are not the humble, gentle, patient, loving children of God and disciples of Christ that we are called to be.
There is one more piece to this when it comes to our attitude towards other Christians that especially applies to times of conflict.  The Bible says that we are to be EAGER to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  And so let me ask you a question:   Are you EAGER  to live at peace with your fellow Christians?
All of us are tempted to say “yes” to that question.  “Of course, I am willing to live at peace with them!”  But are we really? 
You see, being united to, and living at peace with, fellow Christians is much, much more than avoiding those Christians that we don’t particularly like in our congregation.  It is much, much more than the simmering “cease-fire” we reach with our children or parents.  It is much, much more than the “let’s just try to make the best of this” attitude that couples often fall into in their marriage. 
That we are EAGER to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace means that no matter what that other person does, WE will take the initiative when it comes to making things right.  It means that no matter how that other person acts, WE will be the ones who are humble and gentle and patient and willing to go the extra mile. 
And we will do that because that is who we are as Christians and that kind of life shows the deep truths of our Christian faith.  The Bible says that:
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
            For all of us, there are times in our lives when we do not live in peace and unity with our fellow Christians-times in our lives when we are not the humble, gentle, peaceful, long-suffering people that we ought to be. 
What a blessing to know that Jesus Christ never failed to live this kind of life and through faith in him his holy life is counted as our own! 
The Bible says that Jesus’ cross has removed the diving wall of hostility—not just between our sin and God’s wrath—but has removed the dividing wall of hostility between us and others—that he has done this to unite us to himself along with all those who share the same faith and hope that we have in him.   
Because of Jesus’ forgiving life, death and resurrection:  God is our Father- and heaven is our home -and we are filled with the Spirit right now.  AND SO THEN…
We cannot say to our fellow Christians “I want nothing to do with you”-- because they are members along with us in the one body of Christ.
We cannot think the worst of our fellow Christians-- because they are filled with the same Spirit as we are and he is at work in their lives too.
We cannot withhold our love from our fellow Christians-- because our heavenly Father loves them and sent his Son to die for them too to make them members of his family just as we are.
Whatever the differences might be that we have with our fellow Christians, what are those differences compared to what we share in common?
We confess the same faith on Sunday mornings in the words of the creeds.  We have been washed in the same baptismal water and fed with the same body and blood.  And we confess the same Jesus to be our Savior and Lord.
When we elevate (what are really minor) grievances and aggravations into divisions and bitterness, we deny the profound gifts we share together with our fellow Christians.
Today we hear God’s call to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”—in other words, to “get along” with our fellow Christians. 
We are reminded that we are God’s children and Jesus’ disciples and that because this is our identity we are called to live Christ-like lives. 
And that as we do so, we are showing the deep truths of our Christian faith:  that God loves us and has brought us to himself to live with him and our fellow Christians forever. 
May our peaceful, united lives with other believers always reflect this wonderful, saving Good News!  Amen.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017