Friday, September 23, 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31 I want to begin with the five brothers who were still living—who very much needed to hear what God had to say about the place of money in their lives.  Their rich brother had died and was in hell—Lazarus had died and was in heaven—and both of them would remain there forever.        But the brothers were still living.  There was still time for them to turn aside from the idolatry of greed and to faith in God.  And the question was:  would they listen to what Jesus had to say about money—or would they turn a deaf ear and end up in hell like their brother?
I begin there because that’s where we are and the same question asked of us.  When it comes to money, will we listen to Jesus or the world? 
Is it really true that we can’t serve God and money?  It seems like we do a pretty good job of trying.  Is the love of money really the root of all evil-- or is it possible to love money the right way?  Should we really be content with just the basics of life-- or should we strive for luxury like the world around us?  Does the desire for riches really plunge us into ruin and destruction-- or does it encourage us to be successful in life?
Just like the five brothers of the rich man in Jesus’ day, we are the ones who need to hear this story that Jesus tells about Lazarus and the rich man because the consequences of living a life devoted to wealth rather than to God are eternal and terrible.
Jesus said:  “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.”  We hear the question often: What would you do if you won the lottery?  And the fantasy begins.  Having the best of everything.  Living a life of ease.  That's the kind of life the rich man was living–and there is no indication that it was ill-gotten gains that he was living on.  He apparently worked hard, invested well, and was enjoying life. 
There's much in this picture that appeals to us.  After all, he's living the American dream!  And if he forgot the God who blessed him–if he neglected those in need around him--well after all, he was busy with life and concerned for himself.
That’s not hard for us to imagine, is it?  Often times we grow complacent (rather than thankful) during times of prosperity, forgetting the God who blessed us and the poor who need our help.  But putting ourselves in Lazarus’ place--now there's a difficulty.  Jesus said:
“[At the rich man’s gate] was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.  Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” 
Imagine this with me: You have no place to live.  You have no money.  You have no food.  You have no family to help you out.  And on top of all that, you have a horrible disease that disfigures you to the point where you can't even stand up.
The best, most compassionate thing that anyone can think to do for you is take you and lay you at the entrance of a mansion, hoping that someone will come out of those doors, find you, and have mercy on you.  That's the most you have to hope for, but what you receive instead, is a visit from scavenging dogs.
But rather than cursing your situation--rather than being angry at your desperate lot in life--you simply say "God is my help".  And most remarkably of all, it’s not just a slogan--you actually believe it—that is your confession of faith!  In the midst of this horrible situation, when you seem abandoned by God and there is no visible sign of his mercy or provision--you say, "God is my help."  That's what the name “Lazarus” means: “God is my help”. 
It’s difficult to imagine having such faith.  Especially because we know how just a few setbacks in life can make us begin to question God--to demand his help as we see fit, when we see fit--to forget everything that our Savior has so generously given in the past. 
Though they were completely different in life, both Lazarus and the rich man shared this one thing in common:  they were both mortal.  Their physical life came to an end.  Jesus said:  “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.  The rich man also died and was buried.”  No matter what their financial picture, they could not escape death—and neither can we.  Whether we are rich or poor, we will leave our possessions behind and they will not matter to us anymore because we are either in the joys of heaven like Lazarus or the unquenchable fires of hell like the rich man!
Just as they were different in life, so they were different in death and eternity.  When Lazarus lived, he was carried to the entrance of a rich man's house, only to be ignored.  When he died, his poor body was carried to a pauper's grave with no one to mourn his passing–forgotten by the world.
But God hadn’t forgotten him.  The holy angels carried him to his eternal home in heaven--a mansion far grander than the richest man in the world could ever imagine.  The pain of his life passed away never to be experienced again-- or even remembered --and Lazarus’ faith was rewarded with the riches of his heavenly Father.
But when the rich man died, how different was the scene in time and eternity!  His funeral must have been extravagant!  There were family and friends to mourn his passing.  There were people from the community to eulogize his life.

An ornate cloth covered his body and a large, beautiful stone monument marked his grave.  I'm sure he would have appreciated all the care and concern…if he hadn't been burning in the fires of hell.  But that was exactly his situation and it would remain so for eternity.  Jesus said that:  “In Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.” Please understand….
Lazarus didn't go to heaven because he was poor–there is no moral value in poverty.  The rich man did not go to hell because he was rich–there is nothing immoral in wealth.  There are many rich people like Abraham in heaven and there are many poor people in hell.  People don’t go to heaven or hell because of their wealth or lack thereof.  Where we spend eternity is determined by what we have lived for and where we have placed our hope and trust and faith in this life:  in Jesus or in the things of this world.
Lazarus knew that God was his help and lived his life, as difficult as it was, with his eyes of faith fixed on that promise-- and when he entered into eternal glory his faith was proved true.
The rich man lived his life-- as if this world was all there was.  How very wrong he was!  God's Word plainly teaches that eternal torment in hell is the punishment for those who turn their backs on Jesus and serve instead some false god such as money or pleasure or success. 

Now you would think that in hell people would come to the terrible realization that all they had believed and lived for was wrong --and repent of it in tears.  But they don’t.  They exist in hell as they existed in life–separated from God–turned in on themselves–unconcerned for others.  The rich man said: 
Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this fire.”
Even in hell the rich man still saw Lazarus as some one who exists to serve his needs, demanding that he leave the peace and joy of heaven to come to the agony of hell to bring a drop of water for his burning tongue—still concerned only for his physical needs, with absolutely no thought of the pain he caused others.  As he lived on earth–so he would remain in eternal death and damnation.  There would be no relief from the fires of hell for him–then or ever.
“Abraham said, Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” 
It’s a frightening picture isn’t it?  It’s meant to be!  Jesus tells us this story because he wants us to be reflective about the direction of our life before it is too late.
Have we lived our lives like the rich man?  Have we put our desires, our wants, our needs before those around us?  Has our selfishness caused pain for others?  Have we lived our lives on this earth, as if this life is all that matters?
Through the voice of the rich man crying out in hell’s torments, Jesus speaks a stern warning to us this morning.  He says:  Turn away from selfishness!  Turn away from greed!  Keep your lives free from the love of money!  Open your eyes to the needs of others!  Live with eternity in view!  Look to me alone for help!

Just like with the rich man’s brothers there remains for us a gracious, God-given opportunity to hear and heed the words of Jesus and change the direction of our lives.  Today is the day to remember and take to heart that, just like with Lazarus, God is our help.
Despite the scarcity of our loving concern for others, our Father has given of the riches of his Son’s holy life in place of our self-serving life.  Despite our desire to selfishly hold onto our blessings, God has poured out upon us the blessings of his grace and mercy by forgiving our sins on account of his Son’s bloody death on the cross.  And despite our unwillingness to see the needs of others, he has not only seen our need for salvation and forgiveness and new life, but has met that need through his Son’s resurrection from the dead-- so that life-- not death-- is our eternal future.
God gives us the riches of his grace as a free gift through his Son Jesus Christ and it is this risen Savior, witnessed to by Moses and the prophets, who calls us today to live a new life like his, concerned for others.
And so, we go forth into this new week as disciples of Jesus Christ with our eyes fixed on heavenly, not earthly values---looking for opportunities to show our faith in Jesus through loving and generous service to others.  May God grant this each of us for Jesus’ sake! Amen.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Jesus Receives Sinners

Luke 15:1-10 Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them."
            There were two distinct groups of people around Jesus that day.  There were the “sinners”—people known in their community for their sins.  And then there were the self-righteous—people like the Pharisees and the experts in the Law who looked down on everyone else who didn’t quite measure up in their eyes.  “Sinners” and the self-righteous standing in the presence of Jesus-- and their responses to Jesus and to his words could not have been more different.
The sinners were drawing near to Jesus to listen to what he had to say and the self-righteous were standing apart from Jesus grumbling about what he had to say.  Two distinct groups of people—two distinct reactions to Jesus. 
And believe it or not, the sinners actually had a spiritual advantage over the self-righteous—because at least they knew the truth about themselves.  They couldn’t hide their sinfulness under a fa├žade of piety.  Their neighbors knew, and they knew, just exactly what they were—they were sinners.  And that was a distinct spiritual advantage when it came to benefiting from Jesus’ message. 
To recognize that we are sinners is still a spiritual advantage—because then at least we know we need forgiveness.  We begin each Divine Service confessing the reality of our own sinfulness—we enter into the presence of God already acknowledging that in thought, word, and deed we have not done the good he expects of us and instead have done the evil that he forbids us to do. 
The sinners around Jesus knew exactly what they were and so did their neighbors and so when they heard Jesus preach and teach about forgiveness for their sins and a new life in the Kingdom of God for all of those who were sorry for their sin and came to him in faith—they wanted to hear more--and so they drew near to him and listened to what he had to say and many turned from their sinful ways and came to faith in Jesus.
The self-righteous were actually in worse shape spiritually than the notorious, public sinners because they didn’t recognize their sinfulness—not because they didn’t know the righteous requirements of the LORD written in the Law—they did, better than the sinners knew the Law by far—and not because it hadn’t been preached to them—it had, countless times as they attended synagogue and temple worship. 
But rather than take God’s Law to heart, as a word spoken to them too--they took God’s Law—a word of divine judgment that always condemns even the best that humanity has to offer to God--and they twisted it into a word that approved of the way they lived their lives.  They worshiped on the Sabbath.  They tithed.  They didn’t blaspheme or murder or commit adultery.  They were outwardly righteous.
But they had either forgotten-- or chosen to ignore-- the fact that God doesn’t only care about the outside of our lives—but also cares deeply about what’s on the inside—about what’s in our hearts and minds. 
And that’s where they had a real problem.  Jesus said that they were white-washed sepulchers (graves)—white and clean on the outside but dead on the inside—standing in need of forgiveness and new life--no less than the public sinners. 
And so Jesus, out of love for them too, taught them that it wasn’t only the one living with another’s wife who was guilty of adultery- but also the one who lusted in his heart.  It wasn’t only the killer who was guilty of murder- but also the one who was angry and bitter towards one another.  It wasn’t only the pagan who was guilty of breaking the first commandment- but also the worrier and greedy.
He taught them what they should have already known from the Old Testament:  that God expects holiness of us through and through—inside and out.  Hard words of law to be sure—but they were spoken by Jesus to bring them to repentance.
We are not immune from this sin of self-righteousness—and we ought to take it seriously for it can imperil our souls.  Very few people are as close to committing the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit as are those who persist, unrepentant in self-righteousness. 
Why is that?  Because so long as we continue in self-righteousness-- we are denying the work of the Holy Spirit who labors to convict us of our sins through the preaching of the Law and we are denying the work of the Holy Spirit who labors to bring us to faith and convince us of our need for a Savior through the preaching of the Gospel.  Self-righteousness denies our sinfulness on the one hand and denies our need for a Savior on the other—and is spiritually deadly.
The self-righteous that day were in such a profound state of denial regarding their own spiritual condition that they were grumbling against the Savior who had been sent to save not only the notorious sinners—but the outwardly holy as well.
So where do we find ourselves in that crowd around Jesus?  Are we the sinners or the self-righteous?  Do our sins grieve us-- or are we among the self-righteous, believing ourselves a little bit better in God’s sight than everyone else? 
At some point in our lives most of us have probably spent a little bit of time among both groups and that is why it is such Good News for us today that no matter which group we are in—the sinners or the self-righteous—Christ loves us all and wants to forgive us of our sins and self-righteousness and the parables he told were meant for all us—sinner and self-righteous alike.
So Jesus told them this parable:  "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?  And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.   And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.'      "Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?  And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' 
            These stories are simplicity itself.  Both of them tell the story of searching for and finding a lost thing and the joy that comes from finding it—something that we all have experienced—earthly stories we can connect with—but with a heavenly meaning. 
The first parable describes Jesus’ gentleness with lost sheep.  For the first 15 years of our married life Caroline and I had this orange and white English Pointer named Hemingway.  A better dog you could hardly ask for UNLESS he got out the front door and then he was off—running like a madman through the neighborhood.  I would like to say that when I finally caught up with him I was like the shepherd in the parable, gently carrying him home-- but I wasn’t--and he got it.
But that’s not the way of Christ.  He gently takes that wandering sheep of a sinner in his arms and carries it to his flock and cares for it as a shepherd.  For those of us who are sinners--this is the best possible news of all.  We don’t have to be afraid to come to Christ for forgiveness and new life, wondering what kind of welcome we will receive.  Turning from our sins in sorrow-- and believing in him for salvation and forgiveness-- we can be certain that he will welcome us with gentleness.
The second parable describes a woman’s persistence in finding a lost coin.  When Caroline and I were dating, I bought her a little pair of shell-shaped 14k gold earrings.  Tiny little things that didn’t cost much.  She dropped one in the carpet one day putting them in and we spent hours looking for that earring until I finally gave up.  But she never did.  I told her that I would buy her more-- but it didn’t matter—that was the one she wanted –it was hers--and she kept on looking for it for years.  She finally found it the day that we were packing up to move from that house to another.
For those who are sinners, our Lord’s persistence in seeking us and finding us is the best possible news of all.  Not only have we wandered away from him- but we have done it again and again.  Not only have we sinned- but we have done it again and again.  Not only have we stood in judgment over others- but we’ve done it again and again.  And we can’t help but ask ourselves:  Won’t Christ get tired of seeking us and finding us?  Won’t he simply give up on us at some point along the way?  NO!  Jesus calls us to come to him again today and promises that he will receive us.
And why does he do that?  Why is he so gentle and kind to sinners who have done wrong?  Why is he so persistent in seeking us out even when in our self-righteousness we don’t think we need seeking out?  It is because we belong to him—like sheep to a shepherd and like money to a homemaker—we are his. 
God the Father has given us our earthly life--God the Son has laid down his life for us on the cross—and God the Holy Spirit has given us new life through the Gospel.  We are the treasured possessions of him who seeks the sinner with gentleness and persistence. 
Those were the parables that Jesus spoke to the sinners who drew near to him that day but the self-righteous also heard these words and the parables were intended for them too.  And so what did Jesus especially have to say to them as they stood off to the side grumbling about the company he kept?  The words that were especially spoken to them were these:  Rejoice with me-- for what was lost has been found—Rejoice with me here on earth and know that heaven shares my joy over these sinners who have come to me.  He said:
There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance…there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
            For the self-righteous that day this had to be stunning news—that this attitude of Jesus towards those who were sinners wasn’t some kind of moral laxity on his part-- but also the attitude of heaven --and their self-righteous grumbling stood in sharp contrast to the righteous rejoicing of God and his angels in heaven over those who repented.
            Jesus loves the self-righteous no less than he loves the sinful and he spoke these words to get them to see the truth about themselves:  that their good works and their piety and their religiosity was not able to save them—that they needed his perfect righteousness that only comes by faith in him and we know that some of the Pharisees eventually did become his followers.

            The charge against Jesus that day was that he welcomes sinners and eats with them—and that’s absolutely right—he did—and still does.  To all who are sorry for their sins and put their faith in him for forgiveness, Jesus says come to me—enjoy this feast of forgiveness that I have set before you today.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Count the Cost of Following Christ!

Luke 14:25-35 The man who steps into the pulpit today and wants to be faithful to God’s Word so that at the end of the sermon he can say in his heart:  “Thus saith the Lord!” faces a difficult task. 
The words of our Lord Jesus Christ that we hear in the Gospel lesson today call us to hate our loved ones and even our own lives.  They tell us to voluntarily take upon our own shoulders an instrument of torture and death.  They command us to bid farewell to everything that we call our own and leave it behind.
Jesus says that unless we do this hating and taking and forsaking, we cannot be his disciples.  We cannot be his disciples.
If you have your bibles open or the bulletin, take a pencil and under line these words in verse 26:  he cannot be my disciple; and these words in verse 27: he cannot be my disciple; and then these words in verse 33:  he cannot be my disciple.  What does Jesus mean by these words?  He means what he says when he calls us to count the cost of following him!  The Bible says that:
Great crowds accompanied him [Jesus], and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
            When we hear these words of our Lord Jesus Christ we understand why he said that wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are MANY who go in by it. But narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are FEW who find it.  We understand why the people asked Jesus if those who would be saved are few.
            We wonder to ourselves:  is this really the message that we want to convey to the world?  Is this really the best way to get people to join our church?  Are these the words we want on our sign out there on Sunset as thousands drive by each day? 
And yet Jesus spoke these words to the great crowds who followed him—unconcerned for his reputation; unconcerned that his words might be misunderstood; unconcerned about the effect that his words would have on those who heard them except that people would know and understand just exactly what it means to follow him as a disciple so that they might count the cost from the very beginning. 
Jesus spoke these words so that we would understand that being his disciples means that he must come first in our Lives—first in our Loyalties—first in our Loves.  He comes first to such a degree that every other love and every other loyalty looks like hate in comparison and that life apart from him is death.  Now please understand…
When Jesus spoke these words about hating those who are closest to us, he had not forgotten that the summary of the Law is to love our neighbor as ourselves.  He was not overturning the commandment to love, honor and serve our parents.  He was not contradicting the teaching of the apostles who would take the Gospel to the world that husbands must love their wives.  What he was saying—in a vivid, memorable way--is that love for him comes first in the lives of his disciples.  Let me give you an example. 
There is a Lutheran lady here in Texas whose son married a Mormon and eventually he joined the Mormon Church.  You can imagine what a knife in the heart this is for this Christian mother.  And so she learned everything she could about the Latter Day Saints and goes to various churches and conventions warning people about the spiritual danger that is found in that religion.  Because of this, her son and his wife have turned their backs on her and forbidden her to see her grandchildren.
God forbid that something so terrible should happen to any of us but the words of Jesus let us know up front that living as his disciple may mean that a Christian spouse has to leave their unbelieving loved one behind on Sunday morning so that they can attend Church. 
It may mean that Christian parent has to tell their unbelieving child that their live-in boyfriend is not welcome in their home. 
It may mean that we cannot “go along and get along” when a family member tears down Christ and his ways. 
What these words about hating our family mean is that there is a cost to following Jesus as his disciple and that cost is often times comes in the lives of those we love in our families.  As difficult as THAT is, Jesus goes on to say that those who follow him as disciples must even hate their own lives. 
We see exactly what those words look like in the lives of all the faithful martyrs of the past and present.  In Revelation, John is writing about these martyrs and he says that they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death
So it has been down through salvation history-- and even on the pages of the newspaper today:  disciples who love Jesus more than their own lives and so are martyred for the faith.
We may not ever be called upon to bare our neck to the sword and so it becomes easy for us to say that we would.  But our own actions deny those words when we will not make the smallest sacrifice to LIVE as a Christian today to say nothing of dying for Christ someday. 
But death is exactly that to which we are called.  Jesus said:  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
            The people who heard these words knew Jesus exactly what referring to—they saw it all over the Roman world.  As they traveled up to Jerusalem there was a man crucified by the side of the road for being a revolutionary.  There was another man crucified for being a murderer.  And there on Golgotha was a man crucified under a sign that read:  The King of the Jews.
This was the life that Jesus had come to live. This was the death he had come to die.  This is the journey that every one of his disciples is called to make and the destination to which we are called to go.  We are to accept the judgment of the world that we are fools.  We are to endure the shame and abuse of unbelievers.  And we are to die.  Jesus wants us to understand:
The way of discipleship IS the way of the cross and the way of the cross leads to death.  It leads to the death of self.  It leads to the death of our hopes and dreams and plans that we make for ourselves.  It leads to the death of our will and going our own way. 
Jesus says:  If anyone would be my disciples, this is the journey you will make, this is the life you will live, these are the priorities you will have and if you will not do that, you cannot be my disciple.  Jesus speaks these words plainly so that all of us would understand the cost of being his disciple--up front—before they begin.  Jesus says:
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
            When you travel from San Antonio down to Kingsville there is an enormous house sitting off in the brush on the west side of the road about half way complete.  You can see that it was going to be something magnificent. 
But it has sat there, incomplete, abandoned, empty for almost two decades because the man who began to build it ran out of money and now it is a monument to his inability to finish what he started. 
In the days leading up to Desert Storm I Saddam Hussein told us again and again that if we invaded Iraq, it would be the “Mother of All Battles” and would mean the destruction of the United States.  The entire conflict was over in just a few weeks and Saddam Hussein was shown to be a blowhard and Desert Storm I is a monument to his foolishness and pride.
Those are the kinds of warning that Jesus gives to everyone who follows him as his disciple.  He is not saying that we shouldn’t begin—we should—but we should also understand the cost!  But why on earth would anyone pay that cost?  Why would anyone go the way of hating, and taking, and forsaking?  It is because…
The way that Jesus sets before us and the journey he invites us to travel—even though it most certainly leads to death—is the only way and journey that will also lead to life-- for the way of the cross does not end at Calvary but goes on into the darkness of a tomb and then to the bright shining light of a resurrection morning that will have no end.
That was the way of the cross for Jesus—and that is the way of the cross for us-- and only when we understand that up front can we accept the cost when Jesus says:  if any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. 
            That word “renounce” means to leave behind; to forsake; and bid farewell to.  Jesus is talking about a final break with anything and everything that we would lay our hand to and call:  mine.  We see what that looks like throughout the Bible as people followed the Lord.
When Abraham followed the Lord’s call he left everything familiar to him and went to a land he did not know.  When Elisha heard the call of God he sacrificed his oxen and burned his plow.  When Matthew heard the call of Jesus he left his tax booth behind.  And when the sinful woman was saved from stoning she left her sinful life behind.
To follow Jesus Christ as his disciple is to give everything into his hands—our future, our hopes and dreams, our desires—not so that he can take from us—but so that he can then fill us to overflowing with his blessings, a full measure, pressed down and overflowing. 
The great mystery of discipleship is that we will never receive those blessings until we trust in Jesus’ words to let all things go.  This is the whole purpose of a life of discipleship and Jesus says:
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
            The purpose, the essence, the value of salt is to make things salty and if it does not do that then it has no value at all.  So it is when a disciples loves others more than Christ and forsakes the cross and trusts in possessions. 
That is not discipleship at all and is worse than worthless in the end and Jesus’ point is that no matter how great the cost of discipleship, the cost of not following him is terrible and eternal.

The Lord has put ears on the side of our head so that we can hear his words and take them to heart.  God grant it for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Life of Humility and Hospitality

Luke 14:1-14 Last week we heard that there is a narrow door that leads to heaven and only those who have faith in Jesus will enter it and take their place in God’s kingdom.  We also heard that-- as wide open as that door is today, there is coming a day when it will be closed-- and those who are left outside--will never enter in.  These folks will claim a familiarity with Jesus (that they ate and drank in his presence) but because they never had faith in him—he will not claim them as his own.
Today we see these faithless people take on flesh and bone.  Jesus was invited to the home of one of the rulers of the Pharisees for dinner with other local dignitaries.  They eat and drink in his presence.  They heard his teaching.  They were familiar with him—but faith in him was absent because the fruits of faith were not there.
What we are going learn from this is that faith in Jesus is MUCH MORE than just a cold, sterile recitation of the facts of his life.  Instead, the true and living faith by which we enter into God’s kingdom has the living Christ as its content—and baptized into his death and resurrection--believing in him—filled with his Spirit--his life of humility and hospitality will be lived out in our own life.  The Bible says that:
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. 
            There had already been conflict between the lawyers and Pharisees and Jesus over his healing people on the Sabbath—a work of mercy that many of them regarded as breaking God’s Law since it was done on the wrong day of the week--and now there was a whole room full of witnesses.  What would Jesus do?
As in so many other instances, the person who was put forward by the Pharisees, was not fully human in their eyes—but a handy object in their plan to trip up and trap Jesus.  But Jesus didn’t see people as props or tools or case studies for applied ethics—they were people who needed his mercy. 
The Bible says that the man had “dropsy” which is the accumulation of fluids in the body—perhaps as the result of congestive heart failure—but whatever the cause, he was desperately ill.  And put forward by the Pharisees to “trip-up” Jesus, Jesus turned it back to them, asking them: 
“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”  But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. 
They had no answer because the Mosaic Law gave no specific answer.  There were various rabbinic interpretations and opinions that differed with one another—but no clear command in the Law of God.  But they all knew what the law was really all about:  to love our neighbor as ourselves.  And that’s what Jesus did.  He healed him --and sent him on his way.
But Jesus wasn’t through with those who opposed him—he still loved them and wanted them to be a part of his kingdom too—and for that to happen they needed to see the truth about themselves.  And so he asked them another question:
“Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” And they could not reply to these things.
Even without their having said a word, the judgment of Almighty God that they wanted to render against Jesus --came to rest upon them.  The Law of God and their own conscience CRIED OUT for mercy to those in need—but they refused.
What about us?  All of us have the power to act mercifully to those in need and the Lord provides us with plenty of opportunities.  But much too often we look like the Pharisees trying to figure some reason why mercy isn’t required of us or why the person before us is the wrong person to help.
Our Lord wasn’t that way—he reached out to help those who needed his help whenever he came across them.  It’s why he came to earth and took on flesh in the first place:  to do for us what we could not do for ourselves—to do what was in his power alone to do—and that is to reconcile us to God by his death in our place.
As those who are the recipients of his mercy, we are called act with mercy towards others—and that relationship between Jesus and us—of us standing in need of the help that only he can give—cannot help but make us humble.  The Bible says that:
Jesus told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.
            There has never been anything on TV as interesting as watching living, breathing human beings interacting with one another.  Of course, when Jesus is the one doing the “people-watching” it’s something else altogether.  It’s a reminder that how we act towards one another is not hidden from God—not even what’s in our hearts.
And so what did Jesus see at that dinner party?  He saw plenty of people seeking out the most prominent places for themselves—each of them trying to get a seat at the head table.  But he also saw their hearts--the exalted view that they had of themselves over against their fellow guests for whom they had little regard.
This is not only a problem with the prominent and the powerful.  On the night when Jesus was betrayed, as he and the disciples gathered in the upper room, not one of them was willing to do a servant’s work and wash the other’s feet.  They may have just been fishermen—but they were certainly not servants!  They had their pride after all!  And so Jesus humbly served them—just as he had come to do for us all.
The ruler of the Pharisees and all his important guests thought that Jesus was the one who should have been honored just to have been invited.  But the truth is that Jesus was the only one there deserving of exaltation-- and he had a very definite opinion about what he was seeing as the guests jockeyed for honor.
He said that what they ought to do (rather than risk the public humiliation of having to move from a higher to a lower spot) was choose the lowest place first.  That they ought to consider, just for the sake of argument, that just maybe, they were not the most important person in the room—that others might come before them. 
Of course Jesus was talking about much, much more than how to conduct oneself in polite society—he was talking about how own life and life in his kingdom—that those who are humble are lifted up.  He said:  Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 
His own holy life is the example of that—making himself a servant so that we could become God’s children—and that is how his kingdom works for us too. 
Who we are and what we are is by God’s grace alone.  There is nothing that we have, that we have not received.  Our high status as children of God is only true of us because Jesus set aside divine honor and glory to humble himself upon the cross. 
This humility of our Lord changes how we view ourselves and how we view others.  No longer do we keep others at arm’s length.  Instead, we reach out to them and invite them to take their place with us in God’s kingdom.  Jesus said:
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.
            Throughout Jesus’ ministry we see him eating with the oddest people:  Pharisees who were his enemies.  Notorious sinners.  Disciples who betrayed him and failed him.  He never kept anyone at arm’s length-- but embraced all people in love and made a place for them at his table. 
It’s in those meals that we can clearly see how the mercy and humility of Jesus came together in a hospitality that welcomed all people to have a part in his life.  No one was kept away by Jesus because they were sinners.  No one was kept away by Jesus because of their social status.  All people are welcomed by Jesus.
In every meal where Jesus gives his body and blood under bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, he humbly condescends to make himself present for sinners and he does this in mercy—knowing that we need the forgiveness and fellowship he gives there but that those around us do too—and so he says to us:
When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
We live in a time and place:  where even in the midst of great crowds, people feel isolated and alone—where families are fragmented—where television and the Internet offer only an illusion of community.  There is an entire world full of broken, needy people just waiting for our invitation to partake of the Lord’s never-ending feast of forgiveness and as we do that we have the Lord’s own promise that: 
No act of mercy or humility or hospitality that we do in faith is ever forgotten by the Lord and it will be rewarded as we take our place in God’s kingdom.  Amen.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Narrow Door

Luke 13:22-30 We are inundated—and too often influenced-- by the religious voices around us:  TV preachers, friends and family members, and media personalities.  Let there be no doubt, by their words they intend to teach us--to shape our thinking-- on the eternally important questions of:  who is God and how can I know him and have a life with him. 
            But God did not leave us to the opinions of men when it comes to knowing the answers to these questions.  Instead, he sent his Son to teach us the truth.  The Bible says:
Jesus went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem.

            This is what Jesus came to do:  to teach us the truth about God and our life with him by leading us to Jerusalem—to the place of the cross and the empty tomb where our questions about life with God, and forgiveness, and eternal life are answered in Christ’s death and resurrection. 
God does not want a single person here be confused by the voices of the world that would mislead us.  He doesn’t want us to be deceived by our own flesh.  God wants everyone to know the answers these questions.  That is why he sent us Son to teach us the truth about how to get to heaven.  The bible says that:  Someone said to Jesus, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?"
            Jesus really never does answer this person’s question (about how many will be saved) because that is Jesus’ business, not ours--and the way that Lord dealt with this question is a helpful reminder that the Lord teaches us what he wants us to know—not necessarily everything that we want to know. 
Instead, he answers the question in such a way that WE CAN BE SAVED by knowing the answer he does give.  That is always his priority:  not to deal with our speculation --but to provide for our salvation.  He answers the salvation question this way:  "Strive to enter through the narrow door.  
The Lord pictures heaven as a huge house with just one entrance:  a narrow door that is Jesus Christ!  He is not only the teacher sent by God to instruct us concerning salvation—he IS our salvation—he is the narrow door to heaven. 
In stark contrast to all of those who would have us believe that there are many paths to God, the Father’s heaven-sent teacher tells us that there is just one way:  Jesus. 
He alone has atoned for the sins of the world by his death on the cross.  He alone has risen from the dead destroying the power of the grave.  He alone has fulfilled all righteousness by his holy life—he alone is the one mediator between God and man-- and no one—no one—will come to the Father and enter into heaven except by him. 
Jesus is the narrow door to heaven—but we are the ones who have to enter in.  How do we enter through that narrow door?  It is by faith.  Jesus said:  “this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life.” 
Jesus says that we are to STRIVE to do this.  We strive for all kinds of things in life—money and success and recognition and good marks--but those things will not save us-- and to have them all and not have Christ is to have less than nothing.  STRIVE to enter through the narrow door because many will fail.  Jesus says:
For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.  When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then he will answer you, 'I do not know where you come from.' 
            Why will so many fail to enter by the narrow door and be saved?  It is not because they do not know it is there (they do!).  It is not because they have not heard how they are to enter it (they have!).  It is because they will have waited too long. 
For all who are living and breathing on the earth at this moment—there is a remarkable day of grace that God has given to us today—a day when the door to heaven stands wide open to all who will enter in by faith in Jesus.  But Jesus also warns us that there will come a day when the door will be closed—never to be opened again. 
The Lord’s words call to mind the days of Noah when there was ample opportunity for everyone who heard the preaching of Noah to take it to heart—repent of their sins—trust in God’s promised deliverance-- and enter in through door of the ark of salvation.  Plenty of time right up until there was no more time-- and door to the ark was closed and the judgment of Almighty God began to fall. 
In the same way today, Jesus points the world to the open, narrow door of eternal life and invites all people to come inside-- but he also warns us that the door will one day close—after which no one will be able to enter.  Jesus warns us:
 Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.' 
            The people who saw Jesus’ miracles—the people who heard his teaching—the people who were fed by him-- numbered in the tens of thousands.  But not all of them believed in him and not all would be saved simply because they were familiar with him.  Then and now:  Familiarity is not enough—FAITH is what’s needed.
There are all kinds of people who are familiar with the story of Jesus—but that is not enough.  There are all kinds of people who are familiar with the things of the church--but that is not enough. There are all kinds of people who have family members who are Christians-- but that is not enough.  YOU must believe in Jesus Christ to be saved.
It is necessary to know Christ as your Lord and Savior to be known by him on the Last Day.  It is necessary to confess his saving name if he is to confess your name before his Father in heaven.  On that day, Jesus will say to those who have not believed in him:   
“…I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!' 
            Jesus is not saying that on the Last Day that he will somehow lack the omniscience to know those who have rejected him.  Just the opposite is true—he knows them better than they could ever know themselves—every ugly, sinful detail. 
The kind of knowledge that Jesus is talking about is the intimate knowledge that exists between a husband and wife in a love relationship.  In effect Jesus says to all those who have not entered by the narrow door:  “we’ve never had a relationship and now it is too late to have a life with me because you are evil and will remain so forever”.
We tend to think of people being evil on the basis of what they do or don’t do—and certainly there is some truth in that.  But the measure of Jesus’ judgment on the last day is whether or not we have entered through the narrow door by faith in him-- or rejected him and remained outside.  That is the evil that damns! 
It’s important for us to remember—that no matter who “good’ we think we are—no matter how “good” we think someone else might be—the judgment of Christ is that apart from faith in him-- individuals are evil and can never live with him in heaven and instead are sent by him to hell.  Jesus says that:    
In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 
            Jesus plainly taught that hell is real- and it is terrible- and it is eternal—and utterly unnecessary because there is a way of salvation.  The prophets and patriarchs all knew that there was one way of salvation which is the narrow door of faith in God’s Messiah—a door that is open wide to all people.  Jesus says:
People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."
            God wants everyone to have a place at his table.  For the Jews this was a shock.  They thought that simply by being Jews they would be saved—but they were wrong.  Yes—they had every advantage: they had the temple and the Torah and circumcision and sacrifice—but apart from faith in Christ these advantages would not save them.
Others of that day had none of these things—no natural advantage owing to their birth among Jews—they were Gentiles from all over the world-- but they believed in Jesus when he promised that through faith in him they would be saved—and they took their place in the kingdom of God.  The first, last—and some of the last, first.
The same thing is still true today.  There are people born into Christian families and raised in the Church—people who have every advantage—and yet they reject Christ.  Others have no such advantage—they were born to unbelievers and were brought up that way—and yet by God’s grace they heard Christ preached and believed in him and entered through the narrow door to eternal life.  The first, last—and some of the last, first.

To those who have the advantage of having grown up in the church, Jesus says: use it!  Put your faith in me and be saved.  To those who had no such advantage Jesus says the same:  today is the day of grace that God has provided for you to enter through the narrow door and take your place in the Lamb’s great eternal feast.  May God grant us all the faith to enter into eternal life by the narrow door of Christ!  Amen.