Saturday, July 14, 2018

Blessed in Christ With Every Spiritual Blessing

Ephesians 3:1-14 God’s plan to save the world through his Son Jesus Christ was not an afterthought- or one option among many -or a stopgap measure when everything else failed.  It was always God’s plan to save the world in this way by giving us his Son at just the right time so that he could redeem the world.
            It is the best possible news for us that in the same patient, wise, loving way that God has planned for and accomplished the salvation of the WORLD in his Son Jesus Christ, so he has planned for and accomplished OUR salvation in particular, blessing us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. The Bible says:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
            What God wants us to know and believe this morning is that all of the promises of the prophets stretching back to the Garden of Eden-- and all of the great events in salvation history-- and all of the works and words of Jesus-- were accomplished so that we would be blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
Forgiveness for our sins.  Peace with God and a place in his family.  Divine guidance for our earthly lives.  Another life to come when this life is over.  All of these and more are the spiritual blessings we have in Jesus Christ.  And they are blessings IN Christ.
There is no forgiveness apart from Jesus-- there is only guilt and shame.  There is no peace with God or a place in his family without Jesus-- there is only rebellion and warfare and God as our enemy.  There is no divine guidance for our earthly lives without Jesus-- there is only darkness and finally despair.  And there is no heaven without Jesus-- there is only the terrible specter of eternal punishment in hell.
The blessings that God gives to us in Jesus Christ have changed everything for us and how can we not join our voice to Paul and all of God’s faithful people to bless him for his goodness and praise him for his mercy that has led to our salvation—a salvation that he has planned for us from before the foundation of the world.  The Bible says that God:
chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love [God] predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
            The Good News for us on this Lord’s Day is that what God has graciously accomplished for our salvation:  by sending his Son Jesus Christ and calling us to faith and guiding us to heaven--God has purposed and planned to do for us from before the foundation of the world.  We are chosen in Christ to be right in God’s sight and predestined to be God’s children.
It has always been God’s purpose for us that our sins and guilt and shame would be taken away by the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross so that we could stand before him in time and eternity holy and blameless. 
It has always been his plan for us that Jesus would set us free from the devil’s dominion and restore us to our place as beloved children in his family, adopted as sons and daughters in the waters of Holy Baptism. 
It has always been his will to bless us with every spiritual gift in Jesus Christ so that all of eternity would be filled with the praises of God’s people for his gracious love.
At the center of God’s purpose, plan and will to save the world and God’s purpose, plan, and will to save us personally and individually stands Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, in whom alone are all these blessings of life and salvation are found.
How can we ever thank and praise God enough for his undeserved mercy and love and saving will in Jesus Christ that extends to us—not in just some general way—but for us, personally and individually?! 
It is in Jesus that we can know beyond any shadow of a doubt that God’s purpose, plan, and will towards us is one of love.  The Bible says that:
In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 
            God has revealed his saving will for the world in general and for us in particular in Jesus Christ.  When our eyes of faith gaze upon the Christ Child; when our eyes of faith are turned to the cross; when our ears of faith hear the words of the risen Christ:  Because I live, you also shall live; how can we ever doubt God’s love for us?!  It is only in Jesus that we can begin to understand the love God has for all people and for us personally and individually. 
It is a love and care and concern that does not change or diminish with time.  It is not pinched or narrow or sparse.  It is abundant and overflowing and everlasting.  We can draw from God’s love again and again without ever worrying that somehow, some way, someday, our trespasses will cause it to run out.
God reveals the mystery of his saving will for us which began before the foundation of the world so that we can be confident in every moment and circumstance of life—in joys and sorrows—in plenty and in want—that we have always been loved and will always be loved.  The Bible says that:
In [Jesus] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.
            There are so many comforting truths found in our text today!  We have been redeemed from Satan’s dominion not with gold or silver but with the blood of Christ.  We have been adopted into God’s family through faith in Jesus.  Clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ we are holy and blameless in God’s sight.  And God has always intended to lavish upon his unending mercy and grace.  How can we ever praise him sufficiently for his goodness to us in Jesus Christ?!
But in my mind, what we heard just now is perhaps the most comforting of all:  that God works all things in accordance with the purpose of his will.  And so what does that mean for us?
It means that:  the God who has loved us with an everlasting love—the God who has sent his son to shed his life’s blood for us—the God who has graciously made us one of his children—the God who has given us an inheritance of life and hope and peace—is, at this moment and every moment in our lives, working all things according to the purpose of his will to save us and bring us safely to our heavenly home.
Let’s be clear, that phrase “all things” means just exactly what it says.  In other words, this same wise, good, loving God who has planned, not just for the world’s salvation, but for our salvation, is wisely, lovingly working ALL things in our lives for that same, saving purpose—so that we would be saved.
And so then, we can be certain that:  in every moment, every circumstance, every situation, every decision, every relationship--the God who loves us with an everlasting love—the God who gave his Son to die for us-- is working all of it so that it will ultimately lead to our salvation.
Our joys and sorrows—our gains and losses—our successes and failures—every bit of it God is working for our good so that it all comes together for our salvation.
God has accomplished our salvation in this way—from a plan in eternity he made-- to a sacrifice in time he gave-- to the individual particulars of our life that he orders-- so that he receives all the glory. 
When it comes to our salvation, it is God’s work alone, a gift of his inexhaustible grace received by us in faith, worked in us and sealed in us by the Holy Spirit.  The Bible says that:
In [Jesus] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
            The Bible says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God—that God has chosen to give us birth by the word of truth—that we have been born again through the living word of God—that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all of those who believe.
The point is this:  our place in God’s plan to save the world, a plan that includes us personally and individually, was accomplished in us personally and individually as the Good News of Jesus was preached to us and the Holy Spirit converted us and came to dwell in our lives.
That we can say Jesus is Lord—that we know the mystery of God’s saving will—that we have been adopted into God’s family-- is only because of the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, who has brought us to faith, and who will keep us in faith until we go to heaven.
Dear friends in Christ, it is the best possible news that God’s plan to save the world in his Son Jesus Christ includes us personally and individually!  May God grant us his grace and the Spirit’s help to believe it for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.    

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Thus says the LORD God!

Ezekiel 2:1-5 The LORD spoke to Ezekiel and said:  “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak to you.”  When the heavens are opened and Ezekiel sees the glory of God, Ezekiel lay with his face in the dust before the LORD because that is the only position a sinful man can take in the presence of a holy God.  God is God and we are not and the Bible says, “If thou LORD shouldest mark iniquities, O LORD who shall stand?”
            Sinful man may not stand in God’s presence as if we are equals and Ezekiel is indeed a son of man—a part of the human family that is, by nature, broken by sin, riddled by guilt, and consumed by shame—and so is every other man who is called to preach.
            Certainly members of this congregation understand that!  That I have very real, sinful failings surely does not come as a shock to anyone who has been paying attention over these last four years of my ministry here at Trinity.  I too am a son of man!
But it doesn’t hurt for both pastors and people to be reminded of the fact that those who preach-- are called out from the exact same sinful people of those whom they are called to preach to—they are no different and certainly no better!
            For preachers, this text is a healthy remedy and corrective for any temptation to pride of position: that somehow preachers are a little bit better than everyone else or have a step up on everyone else because of their calling.  It’s simply not so. 
            And for those who are hearers of the Word, the call of “sons of men” to preach is an important reminder that no preacher has a right to hold himself up as the standard for his congregation and no preacher ought to have an expectation to be heard on the basis of his own holiness or experience—but only because he brings God’s people God’s Word through which the Spirit does his work of raising us from sin and death.  The Bible says:
Then the Spirit entered me when He spoke to me, and set me on my feet; and I heard Him who spoke to me.
             Ezekiel had to be lifted up by God’s Spirit who worked through the Word that was spoken so that he could stand in God’s sight unashamed and unafraid. 
That is true not just for Ezekiel- and not just for those who preach- but for every one of us here today!  It’s exactly the way that God continues to work in every sinner’s life!  We can stand in God’s presence ONLY when he himself has raised us up from the death of sin by his Word in Baptism, Preaching, Absolution, and Eucharist.
            That a sinful man can be used of God and speak his Word and administer his sacraments is a sure sign of God’s grace that none are beyond God’s ability to save.
            Now, having said that there is absolutely no difference between pastor and people when it comes to their standing before God—no difference in their sinfulness and need for salvation--there is, nevertheless, a difference between them in their vocation and responsibilities.
That difference is found in the pastor’s call to go and proclaim God’s Word in a particular place to a particular people.  The LORD said to Ezekiel:  “Son of man, I am sending you to the children of Israel…”  Ezekiel was sent by God!
            No less than Ezekiel, every pastor’s call comes from the Lord.  Ezekiel received his call directly from the Lord without any mediating groups or individuals.  Pastors today receive their calls via congregations or church bodies who gather to ask the Spirit’s blessing and guidance in choosing a pastor. 
But whether they are prophets or apostles or pastors, they are no less calls from the Holy Spirit to go to a particular place and people and preach the Word.  The call of the Holy Spirit is the basis of the preacher’s authority!
            Ezekiel had absolutely nothing in himself to commend him to the people of Israel—in and of himself he was no better than the next guy.  But what he did have was much more important than his own personal gifts and abilities and worthiness!  He had the call of God the Holy Spirit to go and preach! 
That was his authority and that was the foundation of his ministry and so it continues to be today.
            I am more thankful than you will ever know that God has blessed me with this congregation.  I can honestly say that I love you in the Lord as your pastor—as I am called to do—and that I also genuinely like you and enjoy your company and count my service to you a joy. 
But my preaching- and your hearing- is not based upon our liking one another but upon God’s love for us all and his desire to save us from our sins which is why the ministry of the Word exists at all.  The LORD said to Ezekiel:
I am sending you to the children of Israel to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day. For they are impudent and stubborn children. I am sending you to them. 
The “them” that Ezekiel is sent to, are described by God as “rebellious, impudent, and stubborn” and of course we know from the biblical history of the Israelites that was exactly the case!  God was absolutely right in his judgments!
            Despite knowing God’s expectations for their lives—despite having witnessed some of the greatest miracles recorded in the Bible—despite having promised countless times to “straighten up and fly right”—the Israelites continued on a path of disobedience and sin.  They were indeed “rebellious, impudent, and stubborn.”
            But their story is the universal story of humanity—of our waywardness from God’s path, our resistance to God’s correction, and our unwillingness to put our whole-hearted faith and trust in God.
            We may have trouble seeing ourselves as “rebellious, impudent, and stubborn” but according to our sinful flesh that is exactly what we are—just like the people of Ezekiel’s day. 
And yet God loved them and us and wants all people to turn from their sinful ways and put their whole-hearted trust in him and be forgiven and restored in his sight and that is why he sends preachers to say:  ‘Thus says the Lord GOD.’  
Ezekiel’s ministry of the Word—his proclamation of God’s enduring, steadfast love-- was the means through which God accomplished his saving purpose in the lives of his people—turning them from their sin and renewing their status as his sons and daughters.
            Ezekiel, as a prophet of God, had but one purpose and that was to give voice to God on earth—to tell all who would hear:  God’s correction and rebuke to be sure!  But more importantly to assure them of God’s love for them and his promise to deliver them from their slavery and restore them in his sight.
            The content of every pastor’s message today must be exactly the same:  to say to those to whom he is called:  thus saith the Lord!  To preach the law of God in all its severity-- but also to preach the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. 
Business success is gauged by an owner’s ability to give the consumer what they want in an ever-changing marketplace but the preacher has no right to change God’s Word or tailor it to fit his audience—his success is measured by one criteria alone—his faithful proclamation of God’s Word.  That’s what Ezekiel did.
            The promise of deliverance and freedom that Ezekiel preached to the people of Israel was true indeed—they were set free from slavery in Babylon--but it was still only a picture/sign/promise of what was to come in God’s ultimate deliverance-- of not just the Jews but the whole world in the Messiah—his own Son Jesus Christ. 
            You see dear friends in Christ, Jesus Christ was the true prophet of God from whom all other prophets and priests and pastors derive their office. 
Jesus not only spoke the Word of God, he was the Word of God incarnate, and he is the content of every preacher’s message today and he is the means by which God reconciles the world to himself.  The Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.
            But then and now, what the Lord says must be believed if we are to be saved from sin.  The LORD said to Ezekiel: 
As for them, whether they hear or whether they refuse—for they are a rebellious house—yet they will know that a prophet has been among them. 
The exiles saw the promises of God through Ezekiel come to pass as they returned home from exile.  We know the promises of God fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
And so when we come into God’s presence each Lord’s Day to hear and study God’s Word, we ought to have the glad confidence that we have heard nothing less than the voice of God himself and willingly give him our faith and obedience.  Amen.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Grace of Giving

2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15 Last Sunday in our adult bible class we were talking about various aspects of basic Christian piety:  prayers before and after meals, prayers at the beginning and ending of the day, a daily bible reading plan and daily devotion, doing good work in our vocation, worship and bible study on the Lord’s Day, and Christian giving.
            We talked more in depth about what Christian giving is because we are about to start 2 Corinthians and much of this letter deals with giving.  And we said that Christian giving has several important features.
Christian giving is first-fruits.  In other words giving for the work of the Lord is our first financial priority.  We said that it is proportionate—that it is reflective of the gifts that God has first given us.  We said that our giving as Christians is to be intentional—that we are thoughtful about what we give and have a giving plan.  And finally we said that it is sacrificial—that it costs us something significant, that we can feel it in the pocket book, and that we could spend much more on ourselves if we did not give so much to the Lord.
That is what Christian giving is from God’s perspective.  Those are some ways to describe and measure pious Christian giving. 
But what we hear today from God’s Word is where we gain a heart and mind and will for that kind of giving—that hearts and hands that are glad to give generously to the Lord come from his gift of salvation in Jesus and from the gift that he gives us when he allows us to share in his saving work in this world with our offerings.  The Bible says:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.
            I want to take just a moment to explain what was going on in the early church.  Throughout Judea there was an extreme drought and over three years every harvest failed.  We know from ancient historians that millions died.  There were no helping agencies to bring relief.  If people were going to be saved from starvation, everyday people were going to have to do it.
And so throughout the Roman Empire, Gentile Christians came together to send financial aid to their Jewish brethren in Judea. 
These Gentile Christians who gave to those in need were not rich people—for the most part they were common folk-- and the Bible says in these verses that they themselves struggled under extreme poverty.  But in the midst of their extreme poverty the Lord gave them a gracious gift.  Do you know what that gift was?  The grace of giving. 
Their hearts were filled with joy that came with their life with Jesus and all they needed was a way, an opportunity, to let that joy overflow into the lives of others.  And so the Lord gave them a gift—the gift of giving—the gift of seeing how richly they had been blessed (despite their poverty) through the gift of sharing with others.
I want you to mark in your Bibles the contrast between “their extreme poverty” and their “wealth of generosity”.  Here’s the point:  Being of limited means was no impediment to their generous giving.  Paul shares this example with the Corinthians and with us here this morning to encourage us in our own giving. 
He wants us to ask ourselves:  Is there an abundance of joy in my heart for the life I have with Jesus?  Does that joy overflow with generosity towards supporting his work in the world?  Do I see my Christian giving as a gift that God has first given me, a privilege to work with him?  And if severe affliction and extreme poverty was no barrier to the Macedonians giving generously, what is holding me back from doing the same?  The Bible says that:
They gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—
and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.
            In every aspect of a sincere, heartfelt Christian piety there are people, fellow believers, saints of God who we can look to as an example to follow.  That’s what Paul is doing here.  He is saying:  if you want to know what Christian giving looks like you need look no further than the Macedonians whose first priority was love for the Lord and his people. 
They begged Paul to give to this work.  They gave far beyond their limited means.  They regarded their gifts as a favor that Paul was doing for them!  They knew that their gifts were much, much more than money-- but a sure and certain sign of an entire life given over to the service of Christ and his Church. 
How about us?  When there is some financial need at Church do we hope and pray that no one calls on us?  If we do give, is it some small sum that really doesn’t stretch our faith?  And then, when we do give something, do we get all puffed up at the great thing we have done for God?  In our Christian giving, do we show that we are giving ourselves FIRST AND FOREMOST to Christ and his church?  We should.  The Bible says that:
We urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.  I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.
            The Corinthians were in incredibly gifted congregation.  God had showered them with material and spiritual blessings and in many, many ways they reflected that giftedness in their lives as individual Christians and as a Christian congregation.  Paul says that they “excelled” in everything related to their life in Christ. 
But there was still one more part of the life of faith that needed their attention and their commitment and that was their Christian giving and Paul wanted them to excel in this too as a sign of the genuineness of their faith.  Their giving proved their faith.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are a gifted congregation.  It is hard for me to even convey to you how blessed we are! 
We are in such a remarkable position in terms of location and facilities and opportunities and stability and peace and workers that the vast majority of congregations can only dream of.  God has blessed us and guided us and provided for us for a purpose:  that we would be a blessing to others—that we would trust this God who has blessed us in the past to bless us in the future—that we would help others in this community to know and love the Savior we know and love.
And that is really the key to this part of our Christian life.  There is, in the New Testament, no specific command regarding what the faithful child has to give to the Lord.  No command.  No law.  No rule.  There is only the sacrifice of Jesus, freely, completely, graciously, generously given for us that fills our hearts and minds and wills and changes everything for us, including how we think about money and giving.  The Bible says that:
You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
            The Macedonians knew it.  The Corinthians knew it.  We know it:  The incredible gift that God the Father has given to us in his Son.
Our Lord Jesus Christ who is the one, true and living God of the universe took upon himself our broken flesh, was born in a trough to peasant parents, earned his living by the sweat of his brow, had no place to lay his head, took upon himself every one of our sins:  our fear, our lack of trust, our grudging giving-- and carried that terrible burden to the cross and died under its weight with the curse of God upon it, stripped of every earthly possession and even his own life.
The One who was rich in every way became poor in every way so that in what theologians call The Great Exchange we could become truly rich.  And that is what each and every one of you are:  rich beyond human imagination.
You are sons and daughters of the living God of the universe.  Your sins are forgiven.  You possess the righteousness of Christ.  And you will live in an eternal home prepared just for you that the most magnificent earthly castle cannot begin to compare.  That is who you are.  That is what you possess.  That is your eternal future. 
And that is why you can open your mind and your heart and your hands and give generously to the Lord and his mission joyfully and generously, without fear, knowing that the God who has given you Jesus and eternal riches will not then withhold anything from you in this life—not the joy of giving a gift, not the comfort of receiving a gift.  The Bible says:
I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”
            Throughout our lives and there are giving times and there receiving times.  God has ordered the life of the church in the Body of Christ in such a way that we all work together for the common good and for the salvation of the world—giving and receiving.
When we are children, when we are in need, when we are in our later years we may be more on the receiving side.  But even a small child can share and a person in need can give their thanks and appreciation and an elderly person confined to a nursing home can pray for their pastor and church.  We don’t like to think about being on the receiving side but that is one of the ways that God helps others grow in their faith when they care for us.
For most of us here today, we are on the giving side of life.  We have been blessed materially-- so that we can be a blessing to others by helping them when they have a need but especially so that they can come to know Jesus through the mission of the Church and we have nothing to fear in giving generously because they One who has given us Jesus will meet our needs.  Amen.