Sunday, July 20, 2014

What Shall We Do About the Weeds?

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 In the world today there are two billion people who identify themselves as “Christian”.  All of us know that there are hypocrites in that number who are not Christians at all.  All of us know that there are those, who despite their self-identification as Christians, deny the same by their false confession of faith.  But for the purpose of our sermon let’s say that there really are two billion Christians in the world today.
That still leaves five billion people who are not Christians--more than twice the number of those who are.  This may sadden us or horrify us but it should not surprise us.  Jesus said:
“The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
We also know that the “many” who are on the way to destruction are not content to go quietly on their way to hell-- but instead are intent on making life miserable for the “few” that are on the way that leads to life.
Across our world today Christians are persecuted and martyred for their faith and driven out of homelands they have occupied since the days to Jesus.  Western nations that were once Christian have allowed Muslims to almost become a majority so that now in England more people attend worship in mosques than in churches.
Closer to home, there are 33 million people in our country, who, when asked about their religious affiliation answer:  none.  And on this Lord’s Day there are four times as many Americans sitting at home than there are gathered to worship. 
Is it any wonder that the faithful few on the road to life are persecuted and oppressed and even martyred?
All of us can understand the temptation to strike back—to believe that the world would be a little better off if there were more of “us” and less of “them” however we made that happen—and, it probably would! 
Peter tried to do that with a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The crusades and the Inquisition attempted the same.  The Moral Majority tried to do it politically here in our own country in the 1990’s.  We understand the temptation.  We want to rid ourselves of the evil men in our world who make our lives as Christians miserable. 
But what about Jesus?  What would he have us do with these weeds that have grown up in his field?  The Bible says that:
He [Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field…
In the beginning, God created a perfect world.  It was a reflection of his goodness and wisdom and power.  It was a world where a perfect, holy God could look upon it with joy and satisfaction and call it “good.” 
But this created world was not the pinnacle of his work—it was not the end goal—it had no purpose in itself.  It was made for man.  God created man in his own image so that we could live with him and have fellowship and enjoy him forever.
That is what Jesus is talking about in this verse.  The world God created is the field in the parable and the good seed that Jesus sowed in that field were Adam and Eve and now, all those who are his son and daughters through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. 
That we feel ill at ease with all of the evil that surrounds us, that we feel that something is not right when we think about all of those in the world who do not acknowledge the LORD as God and confess Jesus as their Savior-- is perfectly natural.  Of course we should feel this way!
This world belongs to God.  It is his for he made it.  It is his perfect, holy, wise will that we would live with him forever in a perfect heaven and earth.  That is the entire creative, redemptive, purpose of Almighty God.  And to think that there are billions of his creatures who do not know him or worship him or thank him for their lives and his gifts-- is an outrage! 
But that is the world in which we live.  The question is: how did it get to be this way?  Jesus tells us that:
while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.  
All of us know what happened next in the very early days of our world after the creation of man.  Into the midst of God’s perfect creation, where there was no suffering or want or death, where God and man dwelt in perfect fellowship, an enemy—a deceiver slithered in.  He did not come as he was—as evil and darkness and death—he came as a creature, a destroyer of everything God created and the ruin of man.
The devil tempted Adam and Eve and his evil words took root in their hearts and what God had created and called good became evil—filled death and sorrow—characterized by alienation from God and animosity towards others.  Into God’s fruitful, abundant, living world, noxious weeds of evil and death were sown.
The very next person mentioned in the Bible after Adam and Eve was their son Cain who murdered his brother—noxious weeds right alongside God’s good wheat—and they multiplied from there.  By the time that Noah came along, the weeds had so taken over that there were only eight stalks of wheat left in a world filled to overflowing with evil men.  That is why the world is like it is.  Jesus says that:
The servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’
When we look out at the world around us it’s easy to become discouraged like Elijah and believe that we are the last believer left in a world that is trying to kill us.  But the Son of God has not abandoned his world.  He is still sowing the good seed of believers everywhere his cross and resurrection is preached.  It may not be the majority-- but there is good seed in the world.
But we also have to admit that there is plenty of evil too!  Everywhere the Son of God is doing his sowing work in this world, there our enemy the devil is doing his work as well—planting the seed of evil men right alongside of us.  We must come to grips with this reality and call it what it is:  the evil work of our enemy the devil.
It has become fashionable in some part of visible Christendom to discount and outright deny the existence of a personal evil being called the devil and he is quite pleased with this for it gives him free reign to do his destructive work.
But the Bible and Jesus are absolutely clear that such a being exists and throughout history the devil has been intent on destroying God’s “purposes and plans” by planting evil seed everywhere Jesus is planting good seed.  We Christians know this and believe this and we are tempted to fight back with the arm of flesh just like the believers in the parable: 
So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.
Before we discuss what Jesus is talking about, I want to make sure we understand what he is not talking about. 
In this parable, the field is the world, not the church, and so Jesus is not talking about letting evil go unaddressed or unchecked in the church.  Jesus tells us to treat those in the congregation who are unrepentant as if they were a tax collector or Gentile-- and Paul says that we are to remove the immoral person from our fellowship and mark those who cause division among us and have nothing to do with them.
Neither is Jesus talking about what nations ought to do when they are confronted by evil.  It may be in our national interest to go to war against some nation like Iran—not because they are Muslim and we are Christian—but because they are violent savages bent on the destruction of those around them and we are a democracy that believes in life and liberty for all people.
Instead, what Jesus is talking about is the very real temptation we believers have to hurry along God’s judgment of evil men.  James and John wanted to call down God’s judgment on those who rejected the Gospel but Jesus told them no.  Peter took up the sword against Jesus’ enemies but Jesus told him to put it away—that he could call upon legions of angels if and when he needed them.  There have been others attempts by Christians to get rid of evil men down through the centuries—the Inquisition and the crusades come to mind--actions that Jesus forbids to his followers.
The point is this:  the judgment of evil men is the business of Jesus and he will deal with them.  We do not have the ability to see into everyone’s heart.  We do not have the ability to act with perfect justice.  We do not know who will be converted.  And so our salvation and the salvation of others is at stake when we take upon ourselves the judgment of evil men. 
Right now, Jesus’ goal is our salvation and he does not want us to do anything that will imperil that- which is why wheat and weeds will grow together until the Last Day.  Jesus says:
Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Jesus knows just exactly what is going on in our world today.  He sees the evil that surrounds us.  There is not one wicked act that escapes his eye.  He knows better than we ever will how the devil roars about looking for those he can destroy.  He faced him at the cross and had the victory on Easter and he will deal with it fully and finally at the harvest on the Last Day.
Later on in Jesus’ ministry, when he was teaching on the signs of the end,  he said that all the tribes of the earth will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call and they will gather. 
They are the reapers that Jesus speaks of in this parable who gather all the evil from throughout the world for eternal destruction in the fires of hell.  Too often we think of angels as tiny cherubs sitting on a cloud when we ought to think of them as the destroying angels executing God’s terrible, fiery wrath upon the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah and slaying the firstborn of Egypt without mercy.
The judgment of the Son of Man by his holy angels against all the evil in the world means that we can put way the sword of our anger and animosity and trust that evil will not win out.  The devil and his angels and the sons of evil will be tormented and punished eternally in the never-ending fires of hell.
But there is another gathering that will take place on the last day.  The angels will gather the elect from all over the world.  The good seed Jesus has planted will not be lost.  The fruitful wheat of believers will be gathered unto the sower who planted them and not one and not one good deed done by them will be forgotten and they will shine like the stars in heaven.
Jesus concludes this parable the way he did last week:  he has ears to hear, let him hear.  In other words, reflect on this lesson for yourself and apply it to your own life.  Am I among the good seed that the Lord has planted and caused to grow through his Word?  Do I trust his promise that he will deal with all in the evil in the world?  Am I looking forward to that day when Jesus will gather me to himself, safe and secure in my heavenly home?  God grant that it is so!  Amen.       

Pentecost 6 proper 11 General Prayer

Lord God heavenly Father, as we come to You in prayer, we ask that You would be gracious to us according to Your promise:

When the cords of wicked men ensnare us, protect our lives, goods, and reputations through those whom You have appointed as Your ministers in the state.  Give wisdom to our leaders and protect our military men and women.

The earth, O Lord, is full of Your steadfast love and yet there are many who lack the necessities of life because of their own foolishness and the greed of others and the wickedness of evil men.  Give to those who stand in any material need the gifts to sustain their earthly life and lead us to be generous to meet those needs.  We especially ask that You would watch over the young people who are crossing our border and give our leaders the wisdom to meet this crisis in a just and merciful way.

We confess and believe that there is no god besides You and that all that is worshiped apart from You are idols.  Bless the church here and abroad as we seek to bear witness that You O Lord are the God who created us, redeemed us by the blood of Your Son, and calls the world by the Holy Spirit to repent and believe your promises.

Always set before our eyes the blessings that only You can give so that when we are tempted to depart from Your ways we would be reminded that the things of this world are not worth comparing to the blessings of life and salvation we have in Your Son Jesus Christ.

Grant us patience to endure a life that is lived in the midst of our enemies and remind us that the day of judgment is still to come.  When we feel angry at the troubles and injustices that we experience on account of being Your people, remind us that we are safe and secure in Your almighty hands.  Set before us again and again the example of Your Son Jesus so that we too would find the strength to forgive our enemies.

We thank You for the gifts of marriage and family.  Raise up godly spouses for our children.  Bless those who are beginning their married lives together.  Keep our children in the faith and give them every spiritual and bodily blessing.  Especially do we ask Your blessing upon Jim’s grandchildren, that You would keep them close to You and work all things together for their good.

Be with us throughout our life so that at the close of the age we would be found to be those fruitful sheaves of grain who are gathered into Your barn and shine forever like the sun.

Whatever else You see that we need; whatever serves our neighbor and extends Your kingdom; whatever gives glory to You, grant to us dear Father in heaven for we ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

General Prayer Pentecost 4a Proper 9

Gracious heavenly Father, You are our refuge and fortress and we trust in You.  Hear us as we pray in Jesus’ name:

Grant us the gift of joy as we face the difficulties and trials of life.  Remind us that our King has come for us, righteous and having salvation, and that all the troubles of life cannot rob us of Your presence and peace.

We look forward to the when Your Son will come with power and glory and speak peace to the nations and destroy the weapons of war.  Until that day, bestow peace upon our nation and uphold and protect those who serve to protect us from evil

When we face an uncertain future give us hope.  Help us to look forward to the days to come with the confidence that You are with us and will bless us for our eternal good.  Grant healing and help to those are ill and injured and suffer any need.

Strengthen in us the desire to do what is good and the self-control to avoid those things that are evil.  Throughout our life help us to fight the good fight of faith.  When we stumble and fall back into sin, deliver us and set us free from guilt and shame by Jesus Christ our Lord.

We thank You heavenly Father for the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives who has revealed to us the Good News of Jesus and caused us to be born again to eternal life.  Open our ears to the invitation of Your Son Jesus who calls us to come to him and lay our burdens down and find rest for our souls.  Deepen our love for Your Word and sacraments where You are present in a way that we can lay hold of by faith.

We give You thanks for the life and courageous example of Your servant Nancy who now rests in Your presence.  Comfort us with the knowledge that You receive all of those who trust in Your Son Jesus.

Whatever else You see that we need; whatever gives glory to You; whatever else serves our neighbor and extends Your kingdom, grant to us dear Father in heaven for we are confident that You will hear and answer all of those who come to You in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Saint and Sinner

Romans 7:14-25a Every Christian comes to the cross of Jesus Christ with the spirit—if not the words—of the old hymns:  “just as I am without one plea but that thy blood was shed for me” and “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling”. 
Every Christian comes to Jesus as a sinner—knowing that there are no excuses we can offer up to God for our sins—knowing that we cannot justify ourselves God’s sight for we have fallen short of his glory. 
Every Christian also knows that, coming to the cross in faith, putting our trust in Jesus and what he has done, we are justified by God’s grace:  our salvation and forgiveness and peace are a gift from God. 
From that moment on, we are born again and new people in Christ.  We love God from our inmost heart and we desire nothing more than to do his will and live in fellowship with him.
But we also discover that what we most desire in our life with God—to do his will and serve him in holiness of life—is the very thing that we struggle—and often times fail—to do.
Even if we had never before heard these familiar words of our text from the book of Romans—we immediately recognize the truth of them—the genuine pain and sorrow of wanting to do God’s will—but failing to do that very thing.  That struggle was true of Paul and it is true of us too.
That we have this battle between what we desire as Christian people and what we actually accomplish in our life—is not unique to us.  It is the painful struggle against sin of every true Christian.  This struggle is not a sign that we have lost our faith—but so long as the struggle exists—a sure sign that we are Christian people—wanting to do the will of the One who has saved us—but falling short again and again on account of our flesh.  Paul wrote:
We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
            The broken-ness of our human condition is not the fault of God or the fault of his law.  But rather, the fault lies within us—in the sinful flesh we inherited from our first parents.  That is true of every person by nature—and it is STILL true of us even when we become Christians. 
When we came to faith in Jesus, we were born again—we have a new heart and a new spirit—we are new people—in Christ.  But the old, sinful flesh we were born with did not magically disappear.  We still must bear it—like corpse that is chained around our neck that we must carry around every moment of our lives—but even worse, for this corpse fights against our best efforts and sincere desires as Christians.
We know the pain in Paul’s words:  I do not understand my own actions.  How many times have we said to ourselves:  “Good grief!  What is wrong with me?  I know not to do that!  I know that’s not right!  Why can’t I keep my big mouth shut!  When will I ever learn!  You would think I would know better than that by now!”
When we sin against better knowledge--it seems that we haven’t even begun to progress in the holy living that we really want to do as Christian people. 
Now, all of this is assuming that we really are Christians and we really do hate the sin in our lives—but the person who is living in sin without repentance or concern-the person who is consciously and deliberately making room for sin in their lives--ought not fool themselves into believing that any of this applies to them because they are not Christians no matter where they sit on Sundays or what church roll they are on.  There is no saving faith where there is no repentance and no intention to amend one’s life.
This struggle against sin that Paul is describing is only true of the Christian who knows what God desires—who very much wants to do it—and yet finds that they fall again and again under the crushing weight of their sinful flesh.  Paul wrote:
If I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
            To understand these verses, it is vitally important that we understand who the “I” is that Paul is talking about.  The “I” in these verses who hates sin and wants to do what is right as revealed in the law-- is the new person we are in Christ.  This new person we are by faith in Jesus knows the right things to do and wants to do them.  We recognize that the law reveals the holy will of God—and that the judgment of the law upon our own lives is correct:  that sin still dwells within them—in our flesh.  Paul wrote:
I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
            The old sinful person within us, the flesh that leads us away from God and into sin—cannot be reformed-- for there is no good within it to begin with.  It cannot be whipped into shaped.  The law will never make it better. 
Instead, the flesh must be crucified and put off again and again which is the purpose of the law —to show us the truth about our sin again and again—to lead us to sorrow over our sin again and again-- and to bring us to the cross of Jesus Christ for forgiveness again and again.
This dynamic of- sorrow over sin and faith in the forgiveness of Jesus- is the heart of the Christian life and it begins with seeing our sin as God sees it—as that which is evil.
The sin that Paul mentions as that which brought him to the truth of his sinful condition was coveting—desiring things of which were not rightfully his—a sin of the heart.  He wasn’t committing adultery or stealing or murdering or blaspheming God—he simply had sinful desires in his heart—but he recognized those as evil—not because they were less than others’ sins—but because of what they were in God’s sight:  evil.
Often times, we are confused about the seriousness of our sins.  We say to ourselves:  “So I am not real regular in church attendance—maybe I say a curse word now or then—so what if I talk back to mom and dad—I’m still better than most people.”
But most people are not the measure that matters!  The holiness of God is the measure of our lives—and all sin is evil in his sight-- and all sin deserves his punishment in time and eternity. 
Recognizing our sins as evil in God’s sight and deserving his wrath brings us to a point where we can be saved-- because so long as we are measuring ourselves against others-- so long as we are excusing our sins-- so long as we are trying to justify what we do wrong—we will never come to the cross as sinners who need salvation. 
And that is what we are… for that even when we are doing our best—sin is never too far away.  Paul wrote:
If I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,
            The child of God wants to do the Father’s will.  It is simply impossible that a person has truly come in faith to the cross of Jesus Christ- recognizes the priceless gift of forgiveness that is there in the shed blood of Jesus—but remains unmoved in their hearts to live for God from that moment on.  It is simply impossible!  The child of God delights to know and do his Father’s will and searches the Word of God to discover that will is so that we can begin to do it in our lives.
            But as soon as we begin to do that—our sinful flesh is right there beside us, marring the good that we would do.  We volunteer at church—but we want to be honored for it.  We give to charity --but we hope someone sees and comments.  We extend kindness to someone in need—but are oh so proud of how nice we are. 
Paul says that it is a a principle—a pattern—that as soon as we begin to really attempt to follow Jesus—we discover- in a brand new way- just how sinful we are –that it extends to each part of our lives.  Paul wrote:
I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.   Wretched man that I am!
Our mouth says things that we know we shouldn’t say—our feet take us to places we shouldn’t go—our eyes look at pictures we shouldn’t look at—our ears listen to words we shouldn’t hear.  There is a spiritual battle that lies before us each moment of our lives and that battle doesn’t just come from the unbelieving world (so that we could shut ourselves up in a monastery and avoid it) the battle comes from within us.
From the moment we came to faith in Jesus there was a spiritual struggle within us—a conflict between the new person we are in Christ and our old sinful flesh.  There is not one part of our lives that is not affected by that battle-- and often times we lose and fall into sin. 
And so what should we do when that happens?  Should we just give up and give in?  Should we simply surrender to our flesh and confess that it is too powerful a foe?  No!  Instead, we fight on—moment by moment, day by day, temptation by temptation—we fight on—confident that our daily battle against sin is a part of an epic war and that has already been fought and won by Jesus Christ who gives us his victory and ultimate deliverance from the power of sin and death.  Paul wrote:
Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
            I have always said that one thing that I am looking forward when I die is the opportunity—for the first time in my life—to be unencumbered by my fallen flesh—to never again disappoint my Lord by sinning. 
Of course I’m looking forward to seeing Jesus—yes I want to know what heaven is like—but I will be really, really glad that my days of sin will be done with—once and for all.
            But that day of deliverance is Good News for us ONLY because Jesus has already dealt with sin and death—for us—in our place and had the victory. 
His death on the cross has forgiven all of our sins—even those sin we commit in weakness as Christians.  His resurrection is God’s promise that our own death will be a day of deliverance into a new life in which sin will never have a part. 
The realities of our Lord’s death and resurrection mean that the daily battles against sin that we often times lose—are not the last word about us—but that Jesus has already won the victory-- and so our victory is assured.
            Today Jesus invites those who are weary and heave-laden to come to him and rest.  He speaks to us in his Word and comes to us under bread and wine to assure us that despite the sins of this last week and despite the struggles against our flesh which often seems more powerful than our faith—we really are his people and he forgives us and lifts us up in his power so that we can begin again to fight the good fight of faith.  Amen.