Saturday, February 16, 2019

Blessed Is the Man Who Trust in the Lord!

Jeremiah 17:5-8 “Thus says the Lord”.  That is the way our text begins and if that is all there was to it, it would be more than sufficient to profitably occupy our reflection and meditation on God’s Word this morning.  “Thus says the Lord!”  The only question is:  will we hear it as God’s Word to us?
      I hope so because the words that God speaks to us today are words of curse for those who do not trust in him--or blessing for those who do.  Curse or blessing for this life and for the life to come.  Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord.” 
      Just the briefest reflection on those words, and what the Lord says to us through those words, and the point that Jeremiah is making is self-evident:  why on earth would anyone trust in flesh?   The Bible says that:
"All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass.  The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever."
      Andy yet, despite knowing the frailty of man and futility of flesh, how often do we earn God’s curse because we trust in them?
      We think that our security is found in how much money we have saved.  We believe that our success depends upon our hard work.  We imagine that our nation’s future depends on the outcome of some election.
      And because there is the need to save money and work hard and vote wisely, the devil is right there taking those good things and twisting them and tempting us to believe that that is all there is—our efforts—our strength—our flesh.
      But what we need to remember is that God stands behind it all!  It all depends upon God!  He is the One who daily and richly provides us with all that we need for this life.  He is the One who has created us and given us our strength and intellect.  He is the One who guides the forces of history.  It is God alone—not our flesh-- who must be trusted.
      And it is not just our physical life where we are tempted to trust in man and flesh—it is our spiritual life too. 
      We are think that because we belong to the right church --and because we lead an outwardly moral life-- and because we do what we are supposed to do-- that we are in good shape spiritually.
      And because it is important to go to a church where the truth is taught and because God does want us to lead a decent life-- the devil is right there, twisting those good things and tempting us to believe that that is all there is. 
      But there is a God who stands behind it all who is totally responsible for our salvation and it is he alone—not our flesh-- who must be trusted in all things spiritual.  And so we too need that lesson and that warning that God speaks today:  “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength.”  
      Why is that?  Why is trusting even in our best works cursed by God?  It is because trusting in ourselves: turns our heart away from the Lord.”  
      If you are trusting in yourself—in your hard work, in your intellect, in your good deeds, in your own righteousness—your heart has turned away from the Lord—and that earns God’s curse on your life in time and eternity.
      The sin that Jeremiah is warning us against is the sin of idolatry—of trusting in something or someone other than the LORD—and it is always brings curses into our lives because it cuts us off from the LORD who is the one true source of our life in this world and our life in the world to come. 
      Oftentimes we tend to absolve ourselves of this sin of idolatry because we think of it only in terms of things like pagan worship.  We tell ourselves that we don’t pray to statues or worship false gods and so we are keeping the First Commandment.
      Not so!  And because the temptations we face are much more subtle than a statue-- we must be on guard even more when it comes to trusting in ourselves. 
      Behind our physical efforts is the God who creates and sustains-- and behind our spiritual efforts is the God who calls, gathers, and enlightens his church-- and so we must always look beyond ourselves to the LORD and find in him ALONE the source of our faith and trust and life because a life lived apart from God is small and dry and unfruitful.
“He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”  
      This is one of those places where the necessity of hearing these word--s as words from the LORD-- is readily apparent. 
      When we look, with our physical eyes, at the world around us, we see people who seemed to have escaped this curse and are making it just fine without God.  But what we cannot see-- and what must revealed to us-- is what these lives lived apart from God look like to God. 
      No peace.  No joy.  No hope.  No faith.  No trust.  Nothing but an endless catering to the flesh until the flesh is no more.  That is not the life of a human—it is the life of an animal—and for an animal it is fine.  When their life is over they are simply no more.
      But we are not animals and we are not meant to live like animals.  We are human beings-- and we were created for life with God --and a life that is lived apart from him in this life will result in a life lived apart from him under an eternal curse.
      But there is another way that God sets before us this morning—a way of blessing.  “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust IS the Lord.”  Where the end of each human life—billions of time over—from our very first parents until the obituaries in today’s paper--have shown the futility of trusting in man—God has shown again and again that he is worthy of our trust. 
      He always has been and always will be the God of salvation and deliverance and provision and through it all he was pointing the way to the greatest sign of his steadfast love and trustworthiness—the sending of his own Son Jesus Christ so that not only do we trust IN the Lord-- but now our trust IS the LORD.
      Jesus Christ is the content of our faith—he is the reason for our hope—he is the substance of our trust. 
      His death:  the redeeming price of our sins.  His resurrection:  the bridge between God and us.  His gift of the Holy Spirit:  God’s life in our heart.  Jesus is the blessing of the LORD in our life and when we trust in him we are planted and rooted in his person and work like a tree rooted in rich, life-giving soil.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.  He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” 
      Driving through west Texas during the summer months you have a sense of how hot and dry and desolate this area is—except alongside the rivers.  You can go for miles and never see anything green but when you come to banks of the Colorado and San Saba and Llano and Concho things are lush and fruitful and alive.
      That is the power of water in a dry land.  That is the power of the living water Jesus Christ in our lives—the difference between life and death—blessing and curse.
      Jeremiah presents us with a powerful contrast between those who trust in man and those who trust in God—it is the difference between a desert shrub having to scrape by just to live and a fruitful tree that has no fear of the drought around it because its roots are fed from directly from the water beside it.  Jesus promises,
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 
      Every time we hear the Good News about Jesus preached—every time we hear in absolution that in him we are forgiven—every time we come to Holy Communion and receive his body and blood-- our spiritual lives are renewed and fed and watered again and again by the living water of the Holy Spirit which flows from Jesus Christ.
      Rooted in him we can be confident and courageous even in hard times—and those will come.  There is no promise that there will never be times of heat and drought.  Trials and struggles come to the Christian too. 
      But there is all the difference in the world between the way that we face these hard times—trusting in the LORD--and what happens to those who do not know Jesus.  We have God’s never ending strength and presence to depend on—and they have only their own frail flesh.
      That is why the Christian’s life remains fruitful even in times and trial and tribulation.  Rooted in the living God—our lives fed by his life—our spirits sustained by his Spirit--there is still peace and joy and hope and trust in our lives even when there is no earthly reason for this fruit-- but only because we trust in him. 
“Cursed in the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD.  Blessed is the man who trust in the LORD, whose trusts IS the LORD.” 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord of Hosts

Isaiah 6:1-8 We picture heaven as a peaceful English countryside full of beautiful flowers and green grass because we have seen some illustration or painting that shows it that way.
We picture the angels as Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  Or we picture our dear, departed relatives with beautiful wings and white gowns and serene smiles because that is the way that Bill Keane portrays them in the “Family Circus” comic strip.
Many of us picture God as some kindly old fellow up in the sky with a twinkle in his eye always ready to pat us on the back and say “there, there–it’s not as bad as all that”.  Someone, who, if we are really honest with ourselves, looks a lot like Santa Claus.
Of course none of this is true at all.  We’ve created it in our minds.  We design a heaven and a god and heavenly beings that is really nothing more than a projection of ourselves and there is a grave spiritual danger in this because what happens in these scenes is that we then become the gods of this little heavenly world that exists only in our imaginations.
Heaven becomes a place that we like–where we would feel comfortable.  Angels become creatures whose primary purpose it is to serve us-- not God.  And God becomes someone whose job it is to approve of us and to welcome us no matter what we’ve done.
If this is the way that we picture these heavenly realities–then the devil is pleased because this is nothing other than a satanic lie that is given in the place of the truth which is found only in Holy Scripture-- particularly in our text today–through the eyes of Isaiah who saw the truth about heaven and reveals it to us.  He says:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above him stood the seraphim.  Each had six wings: With two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.
Seraphs, a type of angel, are not chubby little children, but mighty beings with six wings whose complete focus is the worship and praise of God–beings who serve humanity only at God’s direction–beings, who must hide their faces in the presence of the Lord’s holiness and glory.
Heaven is not fluffy clouds or a peaceful English countryside but a majestic throne room like no other with the thundering sounds of worship and the smell of incense.
And the focus of heaven is not you or me-- but God alone whose holiness and glory fills it all.  How must Isaiah have felt to see and hear these incredible things?  How would we feel?   Where do we fit into that biblical picture of heaven?
Let me give you some mental pictures to impress upon you some sense of how he must have felt.  When Caroline and I visited Niagra Falls I remember being stunned by the raw power of water rushing over those falls–to fall in and go over the falls is almost certain crushing death.  Others of us have stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and been amazed by the sheer magnitude of something that large.  Others of us have flown on airplanes and have seen in a mere glance hundreds of square miles and thousands of people below. 
When we experience these things in the natural world we begin to get a sense of how small and insignificant and weak we humans really are–and then to realize that there are billions of us on the face of the earth at this moment and human history extends back in time with the countless generations that have gone before us--we begin to see that in view of space and time-- we humans really are a mist that is here today and gone tomorrow.
How much more do we see the truth about ourselves in the unapproachable light of the One who created space and time?  How much more do we see the truth about ourselves in the very presence of the living God surrounded by his holy angels who said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory”.  And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
Holiness–the perfect holiness of the Triune God-- is the defining feature of heaven and the LORD can never be praised enough for it.  The praise of men and angels for all of eternity will never be enough to sufficiently praise God for his holiness. 
This word for holiness in the original Hebrew not only means his sin-less-ness but it also means “set apart”—that which is wholly other than everyone and everything else.  God is holy.  In the beginning, man knew this.
Mankind was originally created in the image of God—knowing him as he desires to be known—wanting to do his will--righteous and holy in his sight.
But on account of the Fall, now we have a sinful tendency to make God into our own image of him.  You hear people say things like: “You have your god and I have my god”–or-“my god would never do this or do that”.
But the True God is not a reflection of ourselves.  He is not a puppet on a string who serves at our command or a lucky charm we pull out in hard times expecting a miracle.  He is holy-- and completely set apart from us-- and we will never have God on a leash or locked up in a box.  We can not and must not demand of him:  justice or love or care as we see fit.  God is God–and we are not. 
To stand in the presence of the Holy Living God of the universe is to lose-- once and for all-- the silly and self-serving pride and pretentiousness of our human nature and Isaiah’s words capture this awareness. 
“Woe to me!” For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
This is God’s judgment upon all people and standing in the presence of the Holy Trinity, Isaiah knew it.  He was struck down by his own sinfulness and wickedness.  All pretense of his own goodness or holiness dissolved in the presence of perfect goodness and holiness that is found in God alone.
We too are people with unclean lips and unclean hands and unclean hearts and unclean minds-- and to stand in the presence of God is to know that painful truth about ourselves and cast aside all foolish notions of self-righteousness.
Isaiah knew it in that moment.  Peter knew it that day in that boat–Go away from me Lord I am a sinful man!  And we know it about ourselves as well.
Between us and the Holy Living God of the Universe is a chasm of sin that we can not traverse.  We can’t stretch out our hand and grasp onto God.  We can not cross that divide by our own efforts.  We can not bridge it by our own self-righteousness for in God’s sight that righteousness is nothing but filthy rags.   
Woe to me–I am ruined!” is the cry of despair of every sinner who see his own efforts to come to God on his own-- crumble into dust.  But the Good News for us today is that what we can not do for ourselves–God does for us.  Isaiah says that:
One of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.  And he touched my mouth and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
All Isaiah could do was cry out in horror at his own sin–he couldn’t demand that God do anything–he couldn’t choose to do anything–it was God alone who, in mercy and grace and love, brought atonement to him.
The angel was sent by God to mediate Isaiah’s atonement.  He brought purifying fire from the altar of God’s grace and removed Isaiah’s guilt and covered his sin.  Atonement–the task of bridging the gap from God to man–the task of making the two one, is the work of God alone.
What we see God do for Isaiah in these verses is a picture and a promise of what God would do for all people. 
Out of love for world, God sent his Son Jesus into human flesh to make atonement for the sins of all people.  He alone is the mediator between God and man.  Christ alone is the refining and purifying fire that Malachi prophesies.  He is the One of whom John speaks when he says that:  the coming One will baptize you with fire.  It is in Jesus’ shed blood alone that our guilt is taken away so that we can now serve him in his mission.  Isaiah says that:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send?  And who will go for us?”  Then I said, “Here am I.  Send me!” 
At the atoning touch of God, Isaiah was no longer the man he was before.  The one who cried out in fear “Woe is me–I’m lost!” is now the one who unashamedly answers God’s call and exclaims in joy and gladness “Here I am send me”!  The one who cowered in fear approached the throne of God’s grace with confidence.  His sins taken away and his guilt covered-- he was a fit instrument for the Lord’s use.
The same is true for us.  On account of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we are not the same kind of people as we were before.  Courage replaces our fear. Willingness replaces our unworthiness.  We don’t have to live our lives in shame over the past.  God does not want us to carry a load of guilt or let it hinder our life in him because it has been covered forever in the shed blood of Jesus. 
And because of God’s gift of cleansing—because the holiness of the Lord himself is bestowed upon us as a gift through faith in Jesus-- we too can answer God’s call and say, “Here I am–send me”  
“Here I am—send me” into all the places and relationships where he calls us to be his people.  Amen.

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Church: One Body, Many Members

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a Last Sunday we heard about the great value and worth that God places upon every human life.  God says that, from the very beginning of life to the very end of life, he is the one who creates life and bears life in his mighty arms of love and blesses life along the way.  We also heard the Good News that his great saving work in Jesus Christ is for all people. 
The words we heard last week from the prophet Isaiah apply to every person in the world—whether they are Christians or not.
But in God’s Word this week we move from God’s loving purpose for the people of the world in general-- to God’s loving purpose for the people of the church in particular. 
God says that we are all members of the Body of Christ and that we are all needed in the Body of Christ and we are all gifted with the Spirit in the Body of Christ.  The Bible says that:
Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
            Each and every one of us assembled here today is a part of the Church—each of us a member of the Body of Christ.  It does not matter if we are young or old—it does not matter if we are male or female—it doesn’t matter if we are single or married. 
            Every person here today who confesses their faith in the one true, triune God and has Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior is a member of the Body of Christ. 
There is one body with many members and we are united to one another in that body where the most important thing is not the bodily differences that distinguish us from one another-- but what unites us together and how we came to be a part of that body of Christ in the first place.  The Bible says that:
In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
            We each took our place in the Church, the Body of Christ, when we were baptized with water in the name of the Triune God. 
The Bible says that in Holy Baptism we died with Christ and were raised with Christ so that we could walk in newness of life and live with him forever.  And so then…
United with Christ in one body, our identity in Christ infinitely more important and meaningful that any earthly distinction that might come between us.
In the culture of Paul’s day the differences between Jews and Gentile, men and women, rich and poor, slave and free were profound to the point of being insurmountable.  You were, and would remain, as you were born.  But in Christ all of those differences fell by the wayside.
Every person in the church stands with open hands beneath the cross as a beggar.  Every person in the church needs Christ’s redemption.  And every person in the church enters the body through the Spirit’s work in our lives through Holy Baptism. 
Now, of course there are differences among us.  We are men and women, young and old, rich and poor.  All of us are different from one another.
But those differences between us that are rooted in creation and culture are NOWHERE nearly so important as the fact that we are part of the Body of Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit who brought us to faith and empowers our life of faith as we take our particular place- and do our particular part- in the church.  The Bible says that:  The body does not consist of one member but of many.
            Paul used an illustration of our unity in Christ that even a child could understand:  the human body.  Each of us have a body that is made up of many parts.  In other words, there is one body with many members. 
So it was with Christ.  There was just one Jesus but he had arms that embraced the broken-- and feet that went to those in need-- and eyes that looked with compassionate upon the poor and lonely--and hands that came to their aid.  One body with many members.
So it is in the Church, the Body of Christ.  Each of us are members of the Body of Christ and the important thing is not our own particular role or function there but that we are members at all in the first place!  
Nevertheless, having said that, each of us do have a particular place and role and function in the Body of Christ and each of us are needed.  Paul uses a humorous little example to make his point that we belong to the body of Christ and that we are important to the Body of Christ.  The Bible says:
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.
This is what happens when we tell ourselves that we are not a part of the body because we have a different place in the body than someone else—as absurd as a foot thinking it was not a part of the body because it was not a hand or an ear thinking it was not a part of the body because it was not an eye.
Each of us have our own place in the body and what matters is that we are connected to Christ in the first place!  Far from doubting our place in the body, we need to understand the absolute importance that each of us have in the Body of Christ.  The Bible says that:
If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?
            If we were asked which of our senses or which of our members we would prefer to lose, I think that all of us would answer:  none!  We want to see and hear and smell and taste and move.  They are all important to the other senses and they are all diminished when one is missing.
So it is in the Church.  Each of us have our particular place and our own particular role and each of us are important to one another and important to the whole body of Christ and it is God himself who has determined our place in the body.  The Bible says that:
God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
            This alone ought to be sufficient to silence any concerns we might have about our own place in the Body of Christ:  it is God himself who has arranged each part. 
Just think of that!  God himself, knowing you better than you know yourself, has wisely placed you in the Body of Christ in a role where you can flourish and grow-- and others around you in the body can be served by you in love.
            And these same words—that God has arranged the members in the body—ought to be more than enough to silence any sinful ideas about the importance of others in the Body.  The Bible says that:
The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require.
            When it comes to the church, there is one body with many members and each and every one of us have our own place in that body that is distinct from others but important to the well-being of the body—even if our part seems rather humble.
            In my years as a pastor I have walked with people who have had colon cancer and bladder cancer and prostate cancer and I am here to tell you that, while none of us would ever want to lose our eyesight or be paralyzed, when those parts of the body affected by colon, bladder, and prostate cancer fail-- it is pure misery. 
For the health and well-being of the body, all of our parts need to be in good working order—even the most humble.
So it is in the church.  There is no member of the church that is so humble that we can afford to not have it working away for the good of all.  Every one- in every place- is needed and valuable and worthwhile to the whole body.  The Bible says that:
God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
            One of the great blessings of being a member of the Body of Christ is that we care for one another—or at least it should be!  But what is happening more and more is that the busyness of modern life is blinding us to the needs of others and fragmenting our common life together.
            I recently heard from a fellow pastor who was going through an incredibly difficult time in his congregation and he felt like he was all alone.  I don’t think that was because other churches and pastors were uncaring, but they were just so busy with their own issues that they ended up not caring for him in real ways.
The same can happens to us in our life together in the body.  But the Bible is very, very clear that we belong to one another in such a personal way that the joys and sorrows of one of us-- become the joys and sorrows of all of us-- and in this way we demonstrate to the world the blessings of being one with Christ.  The Bible says that:
God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. 
            While every member is important and valuable and needed in the Body of Christ, there are gifts that come first—gifts that form the very heart of the Body of Christ because they are the very heart of God—and that is the ministry of the Gospel ministry in all its forms because that gift brings others into the Body of Christ.
            God has made us members of the church and blessed us with the Spirit so that we can not only serve one another already in the church, but so that we can be about his work of bringing others into the church.  There is always room for more members in the Body of Christ and it is our privilege to use our gifts to bring them to Christ.  God grant us the desire to do so!  Amen.