Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lent 4a General Prayer

Lord God heavenly Father, You are our refuge and our portion in the land of the living.  Hear us as we come to You in Jesus’ name and lay our needs before You in prayer:

We pray that You would magnify Your law and make it glorious for the sake of righteousness in our nation and its people and leaders.  Lead people everywhere to acknowledge Your will and walk in Your ways.  Rid us of our besetting national sins and help us to use our freedom to worship You.

We give You thanks and praise that when we were in the darkness of sin and death You caused the light of Your Son Jesus Christ to shine into lives.  Grant us the powerful help of Your Holy Spirit to walk in his light so that we may say and do those things that are good and right and true.

Bless the church as it proclaims Your word throughout the world so that the works of darkness are exposed and the light of Your Son Jesus is revealed for the salvation of many.  Support the missionaries of the church and prosper their work. 

Watch over and protect all of those who are persecuted for their faith.  Deliver them from their persecutors and set them free from their prisons that all may see Your mighty deliverance and give thanks to Your holy name.

Grant us compassion for all those who are affected by the brokenness of this world.  Use us as Your hands and feet and mouth to show Your love for them.  According to Your wise Fatherly will, grant healing to the sick, provision for those in need, and comfort for those who mourn.

When we are called upon the bear witness to You and Your powerful work in our lives grant us courage and clarity in our confession so that those we tell could come to a saving knowledge of your Son Jesus Christ.

We give You thanks and praise for all of the material gifts You bestow upon us.  Bless and strengthen the marriages and families of Your people.  And especially do we ask Your continued blessings upon Wes and Harriet as they celebrate their wedding anniversary, that their love for You and one another would grow each day.

Whatever else You see that we need; whatever serves our neighbor and brings glory to You; grant to us dear Father in heaven for we ask all things in the name of Your Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Walk as Children of Light!

Ephesians 5:8-14 At one time you were darkness…” With those simple words- and with that powerful image -Paul conveys the terrible truth about the plight of mankind apart from God:  darkness --and along with it-- despair and death. 
It has become fashionable in our day and time (when speaking of the human condition) to talk about moral ambiguities-- and shades of gray--and different perspectives and experiences and values.  The average person on the street when asked about their relationship with God will freely admit that of course they are no Mother Teresa but neither are they an Adolf Hitler --and so they ought to make it into heaven.
But the bible knows absolutely nothing of a moral middle ground where the vast majority of “pretty good” human beings supposedly reside.  Biblically, there are ONLY two options for humanity when it comes to our standing before God:  darkness or light. 
The painful, frightening truth, is that every person who is born into this world—while biologically alive—is born spiritually dead—lost in the darkness of unbelief-- and unless rescued from that darkness—unless the Light of the Lord shines upon them—they will remain there in darkness and death for eternity. 
That is the dark shadow of death that the devil’s deception in the garden has cast over all humanity-- and we were all at one time a part of it.
We tend to forget that.  Most of us were born to Christian parents, raised in the Christian faith, and we are believing members of the church today.  In our memory, there never was a time that we were anything other than what we are now: alive in the light of the Lord.  Praise the Lord for that godly heritage!
But there are those who have experienced the truth of what Paul is talking about:  those who were adult converts to the Christian faith and lived the great part of their life in sin and unbelief—those who were raised in a Christian home and fell away from the faith in unholy living only to return to the light of the Lord as adults—those who sat in church pews as hypocrites before coming to faith. 
These folks know by experience the truth of which Paul speaks concerning the tragic spiritual darkness of mankind apart from Christ.  For the rest of us, we will simply have to believe what God’s Word says about us—that we were at one time:  darkness. 
It is important to remember where we came from because forgetting how desperate our plight was as we were born into this world—we will never fully realize the wonder and glory of what has followed—that now we are “light in the Lord”  because “God…called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.” 
Whether it was in the first few weeks of our life when our parents brought us to the waters of Holy Baptism-- or whether it was in childhood and a friend brought us to Sunday School or VBS and we heard about Jesus for the first time in our lives--or whether it was later on in life through the preaching of the Gospel or the witness of a friend—Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, shone into our sin-darkened lives and dispelled the dark shadow of death.  The Bible says:
“For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”  Imagine how someone rescued from being lost in a dark cave must feel!  Imagine how the African slaves felt on the day of their emancipation!  Imagine how someone who receives a new organ must feel towards the donor!  And these priceless gifts of rescue and freedom and light benefit us only in this life.
How much greater and enduring is what Christ has done for us:  rescuing us from the darkness of death by his resurrection—setting us free from sin by his death on the cross—enlightening our heart and mind by the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament so that now:  “You ARE light in the Lord.” 
Please note:  the Bible does not say:  “you must be light!”--“you ought to be light!”--“you should try to be light!”  Instead, you are “light in the Lord” and your purpose in life-- is to let the light of Jesus Christ shine through you in all that you say and do. 
Because we are light in the Lord, the Bible says that we are to, “Walk as children of light”. 
The light and life of Jesus Christ THAT has shone into our lives, dispelling the darkness of sin and death--is now to shine from our lives into a sin-darkened world.  Our lives- and how we live them-our attitudes and priorities-- are to be a reflection of the light of Christ that has shined upon us. 
And so what does this kind of shining life look like against the dark shadows of this dying world?  It has two parts---things that we are to do and things to avoid.  First of all it is a life that bears abundant spiritual fruit.  The bible says, “Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.”
As those who have been called out of darkness into light, our perspective has changed and our eyes have been opened.  We see things differently than we did before.
Now we want to please God and do his will and so our entire lives are devoted to bringing glory to God in all that we say and do—asking ourselves in every moment and circumstance and decision:  is this pleasing to the Lord?  Do it serve others?  Will it bring glory to God.
That is what Paul is talking about when it comes to walking as children of the light.  When we produce spiritual fruit such as “goodness, righteousness, and truth”, we show the world around us that we belong to God—that we are filled with his Holy Spirit—and that we are connected to the true vine of Jesus Christ, living lives like his and bearing the spiritual fruit of our fellowship with him. 
Second, the Bible says that those who walk as children of the light:
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.
It is a spiritual impossibility to live in the light of Christ and continue to live in the darkness of the unbelieving world—to have, at one and the same time, fellowship with God and fellowship with the Devil.  It is simply impossible!
The child of God has nothing to do with the sins of this dark world but rather by the light of Jesus Christ that shines from our lives--exposes them for the demonic darkness that they are.
All around us we see a world living in dark delusion—a world that has turned the truth of God upside down—a world that calls that which is evil, good—a world that regards moral and spiritual darkness as light. 
Those who walk in the light of Jesus Christ have a responsibility—in their lives and with their lips—not only to refuse to have fellowship with evil, but to actively and purposefully expose it—letting the bright, shining light of God’s Word reveal it for the darkness and death that it is.
As the people of God, we are called to be salt and light in a dark and decaying world.  We have a prophetic responsibility to those who will not see and will not hear the truth-- to unashamedly show with our lives and speak with our mouths that which is good and true and righteous so that they may be awakened from spiritual death. 
The Bible says:  “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”  In these words to us today from the living God of the universe, there is a “wake-up: call for the Christian and for the unbeliever-- and a glorious promise for both.
For Christians, this is a wake-up call to be done with the lazy, lax distortion of Christianity that is so common today in the church today. 
We have been rescued from darkness and death!  The Light of Jesus Christi has shone into our lives!  God has a call and claim upon our lives to walk as children of the light—to leave behind the disengaged, disinterested Christianity that fills so many churches today and to live a life concerned for others, thoughtful about what we see and hear, and actively involved in the Lord’s mission.
For the unbeliever it is a wake-up call to rise from the darkness of sin and death. God says:  Arise! Arise!  My Son has forgiven your sins upon the cross and he raised you up from the dead in his own resurrection.  His love and light and life shines upon you!  Arise!  Arise and walk in newness of life!
For all of us, this is a day to remember where we were:  lost in darkness.  This is a day to give thanks to God for where we are right now—living in the glorious light of Jesus Christ.  And this is a day to recommit ourselves to letting his light shine forth from our lives into the darkness of the world around us.  May God grant it for Jesus’ sake!  Amen. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

Luke 22:39-44 Imagine traveling back in time to the Garden of Eden and being able to observe all that happened there.  We see a place of beauty and wonder.  There is Adam and Eve living in peace and plenty.  And everything within in us makes us want to join them. 
But then we see the serpent.  The evil is palpable.  He is talking to Eve, holding out to her the forbidden fruit.  We want to warn her.  “Don’t listen to him!”  “He wants to destroy you!”  “He is lying to you!”  And then Adam walks into the scene.  Surely he will come to her rescue!  Surely he sees the temptation for what it is!  But he doesn’t.  He listens to his wife.  Disobeys God.  Takes the fruit.  And destroys the world.
A terrible scene full of darkness and death.  But there in the darkness there is a sliver of light that grows greater than the darkness.  The LORD is there with a promise:  he will send a Savior to bring life and light back to a dark and dying world.
Imagine traveling forward from that moment to another garden—the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives.  There in the garden there is the One who God promised—the new Adam, bowed down under the burden of our sin—and the fate of humanity hangs in the balance just as it did all those years before. 
The Bible says that:  Jesus went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him.  And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
The Garden of Gethsemane was a familiar place to the disciples.  They had come there often with Jesus to pray with him and be taught by him.  It was a place of joy and peace and beauty where they could enjoy fellowship with the One who is God in flesh.  But on this night it would become the place where their faith was tested—where they would come to see just how weak and needy they were.
It’s easy for us to imagine that if it were us rather than Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden or with the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane it might have all gone differently.  Knowing what we know about Satan—knowing what we know about the consequences of our actions—surely we could have made a better choices—surely we could have stood firm—surely we would have chosen the Lord over an apple—chosen the Lord over sleep.
But what is our track record when it comes to temptation?  We love our spouse but that doesn’t stop our eyes from lingering on another.  We are blessed by God with countless material gifts but it doesn’t stop us from always wanting more.  We know how unkind words and thoughtless deeds harm those around us but we still do and say what we shouldn’t.
The fact of the matter is that we are no different than Adam and Eve.  We have desired that which God has forbidden.  We have listened to Satan’s lies instead of God’s truth.  And we have chosen what God forbids.  We are no different than the disciples in that we give in to our weak flesh.  The words of Jesus to his disciples are still spoken to us:  “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
  Jesus spoke those words to his disciples because he knew that this garden of prayer would also be the garden of passion—the place where his suffering for the sins of the world would begin in earnest.  The Bible says that:
Jesus withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
            When Jesus tells his disciples and us to watch and pray so that we do not enter into temptation, he knows that of which he speaks.  He shared in our human flesh.  He knows about temptation. 
He battled the devil in the wilderness and chose obedience to God over his own physical needs.  He rejected Peter’s suggestion that the way of salvation could go around the cross.  He refused to let the timing of his mission be sidetracked by his own mother.  
            He came to speak his Father’s words and do his Father’s will and he would not be deterred  from the way of salvation that led to a rough cross and dark tomb.
As a young boy he reminded Mary and Joseph that he had to be about his Father’s business.  Throughout his ministry his face was set towards Jerusalem.  And now he had come to the garden of passion—this place of temptation and suffering where he came face to face with the horrible realities of what was about to unfold over the next few hours.
What we see in Jesus as he kneels before his Father in prayer is not the weakness of Adam or the frailty of his disciples or the fickleness of our own life of faith but the perfect, holy obedience that yields itself to his Father’s will.  But that doesn’t it mean it was easy.
The cup of which Jesus speaks—the cup that he dreads—is the cup of God’s holy, righteous wrath over man’s sin.  It is the vessel that contains all of God’s hatred over evil.  It is the full, overflowing measure of God’s judgment upon every sin and every sinner—and it is horrible to behold for it leads to his death and abandonment by God.
Jesus sees that clearly.  He is not ignorant of what crucifixion entails.  He surely has seen it before as he traveled to Jerusalem.  The humiliation.  The agonizing pain.  The death that the condemned pray for, beg for, and will not come except slowly.  He knows what lies ahead.  But there is even more.
Jesus knows the Father’s anger over our sin—his wrath over our disobedience—for he shares it.  His Father’s hatred over evil is his own.  And yet, he will have to take it upon himself.  Is it any wonder that he begs his Father for another way?  Remove this cup!
But look at what comes before and what comes after those words:  perfect, holy, humble submission to his Father’s will.  “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”   Here in this moment is the new Adam earning our salvation through his holy obedience and the suffering of his sinless soul.
Adam did his own will and not his heavenly Father’s will and in this set a pattern that all of his children would follow, including us here tonight. 
The difference between Jesus and Adam and the disciples and us is not in temptation—every human being who has ever lived has been tempted including Jesus.  The difference between Jesus and us is his obedience and submission and humility that counts his Father’s will greater than his own. 
Not my will, but yours, be done.  With these words the new Adam restored everything that the old Adam and his children have ruined and God sent his angel to strengthen his Son.  The Bible says that:  there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. We don’t know what this strengthening was—whether it was direct, divine help or a heavenly reminder of the Father’s promise to lead his Son through death to life or something else.  But we do know WHO gave the help:  an angel.
Just imagine what it meant to all the heavenly angels to see Jesus come into the world to restore what one of their own kind had destroyed!  Satan had been one of them and he had rebelled against God and now God’s own Son, the seed of the woman had come to restore their honor. 
We see the angels throughout the Bible doing all within their power to assist God in his plan of salvation by punishing evil—by welcoming Jesus at his birth—by rejoicing as heaven gains new members-- and now in strengthening the Son as he goes to the cross and sheds his life’s blood for our salvation.  The Bible says that Jesus, being in an agony prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
            Before we go with Jesus to the Praetorium and witness his humiliation and beating, before we walk with on the Via Dolorosa, before we hear the hammer upon the nails, already here, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Garden of Passion, we see the cost of our salvation.
The agony of the cross is fully revealed in the agony of his soul and in the bloody sweat that fell from his body to the ground from which we were created. 
After the fall in the Garden of Eden, God promised Adam that his living would come from the sweat of his brow until the day he returned to the ground.  Here in the Garden of Passion the second Adam labors for our salvation and his sweat falls to the ground so that our lives will not have the dust of the earth as their final destination but the glories of heaven.  This is work that only he can do—work that must be done for us.  The Bible says that:
When Jesus rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
            Here was the reason that Jesus is in the garden of passion—here is the reason that Jesus goes to the cross—it is because his disciples do not have the ability to watch and pray even for a moment.  Their commitment to the Lord—their promise never to desert him—would all come crumbling down in the next few moments.
So it is for us.  We cannot the things that God asks of us even for day.  The weakness of our flesh is evident in the evil we do and the good we forgo.  Our promises and commitments always fall short.  Our salvation must come from another.  One who is holy.  One who is humble.  One who is resolute.   One who is faithful.  And so it does in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Standing in Grace; Rejocing in Hope; at Peace with God

Romans 5:1-8 Whether you are a family trying to get out of debt or a young person preparing for a career or someone trying to lose weight—you need a plan. 
As different as these goals are—the plans to get out of debt and build a business and become a doctor  and lose weight all share the same characteristics:  where are you right now—your goal at the end—how you are going to get there—and what resources are at your disposal to reach your goal.  Every plan has those steps.
The same thing is true in our life of faith.  All of us have the goal of going to heaven when we die.  And so we need to know where we are right now in our journey of faith.  We need to know how it is that God is going to bring us to himself in heaven.  And we need to know what spiritual resources we can count on to get us there.  Paul writes:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…
            Standing in God’s grace.  That is where we are right now and it’s a great place to be when it comes to our life with God! 
Standing in God’s grace means that when it comes to our relationship with God:  we can be confident that God’s  attitude towards us is one of love and blessing.  Far from being “out to get us”—God is for us. 
But how did we come to this remarkable place of blessing and favor?
Paul says that we have been justified by faith in Jesus and that through him—we have gained access into this precious place of standing in God’s grace.  And so it’s through faith in Jesus that God has counted us righteous in his sight.  God himself has counted Christ’s holy life as our own righteousness.  God himself has counted Christ’s death on the cross as our punishment for our sins. 
The wrath that God has towards sinners has been taken away and replaced by peace so that we can be absolutely confident that God looks upon us with a shining face of love and desires to bless us with every good gift of body and soul.  Grace is where we are and faith has brought us there.  That is why we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Our goal is to one day live in the presence of the glory of God with his light and love and life shining upon us forever and ever.  This is the goal of the Christian life.  To that end…
God has created you by his almighty Word- and redeemed you at the cost his Son’s blood- and brought you to himself by the power of the Holy Spirit- for a single purpose:  that you would live with him in heaven—so that his glory would shine upon you forever in joy and peace.  As Christian people we rejoice in that hope.
So far we have learned:  1. Where we are right now:  standing in grace 2.  How we got there: by faith in Jesus 3. and what our goal is:  eternal life in the presence of the glory of God.  The next step in God’s plan is getting us there.  Paul writes about God’s work to bring us to heaven through the hardships and difficulties of life:
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame
            There are going to be some hardships along the way until we reach the glories of heaven.  But far from complaining about hard times, we can actually rejoice in the midst of them because we know that there is a God of love who is wisely, graciously, lovingly, patiently working in those hard times for our good-- to form us into the image of his Son and prepare us for an eternal life in his presence. 
And so how does God do that exactly?  What are the steps that God takes in that plan?
First of all, we just need to accept that there are going to be hard times and there is going to be some suffering in this life.  We live in a broken world- and we are broken people- and there are going to be times when that brokenness comes to rest on us and those we love.  But as we endure those times, we come to see that what we thought was unbearable, has actually made us stronger.
            Character is produced in us as we face and overcome the challenges of life.  When we discover (through trials) that God will equip us and strengthen us for whatever difficulties we have to endure—ever so slowly we begin to change on the inside—we become more courageous and confident—we develop an inner resolve—we gain a mental and emotional strength.  Our character grows.  And character produces hope.
That is where God is working to bring us—to a firm hope in him—confidently facing the future and eternity—because we know the God who has been our help every step along the way has promised to remain our help until we get to heaven.
Suffering.  Endurance.  Character.  Hope.  Let me just summarize this process with an analogy.  All of us who are parents know what we want at the end of our child-rearing years:  we want decent, hardworking, Christian adult sons and daughters. 
And so, is the best way to achieve this goal to give them every thing they want on a sliver platter, to pamper them into helplessness, to never challenge them beyond where there are in any given moment?  Is that the best plan?  Of course not!  It’s a recipe for disaster! 
If we have sense enough to know that that formula doesn’t work for our children—why on earth would we demand that our heavenly Father work that way among us—his children?  That is a recipe for spiritual disaster! 
But as little as we would spoil our children, neither would we let our children fend for themselves without our help-- and neither does our heavenly Father leave us to our own resources and strength to work our way to heaven. 
Every bit of God’s plan to bring us to our heavenly home (through suffering and endurance and character and hope) is accomplished in us by HIS loving help.  Paul says that: God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.  And so what does that mean?  It means that:
Every time we hear God’s Word preached (the law that corrects us and the Gospel that comforts us) every time we hear that our sins are forgiven—every time we receive Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion—there, in those places, and in those moments—God is pouring his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit—to give us those spiritual resources we need to reach our heavenly goal—which is why he sent his Son in the first place.  Paul writes: 
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
All of us understand the challenges of reaching a goal.  Lots of kids want to be doctors until the hard work of physics and chemistry kick in.  Plenty of us have lost and gained back hundreds of pounds.  We get one bill paid off only to be faced by another.  We know about failure in meeting goals. 
And so how can we be confident as Christian people that we WILL make the goal of heaven?  It‘s because the One who has already accomplished so much for  us has promised that we will-- and his track record of accomplishing what seems to us impossible—is perfect. 
While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.  It you think you are weak now (and that causes you to worry about reaching heaven) think what you were before you came to faith in Jesus!  That is real weakness!
But it was at that moment—when you had no spiritual resources of your own—that God loved you and sent his Son to die for you.  It is while you were still sinners—incapable of pleasing God—incapable of even making a start towards God—that Christ died for you.
This is the deep, abiding, everlasting love that God has for each and every one of you and having sent his Son to die for you—having brought you to himself by the Spirit’s work in Holy Baptism—having sustained your faith through word and sacrament up to this point—HE WILL NOT STOP working to bring you to heaven until you are safe and sound, standing in his presence, basking in his glory.
And so when you think about how far you still have to go to get to heaven—when you are in the midst of some kind of sorrow or suffering—when your sins seem to overwhelm your faith—remember what you learned today: that through faith in Jesus you stand in God’s grace RIGHT NOW.
He is at work in your life in hard times to shape and mold you into the image of his Son—and that having sent his Son to die for you while you were still a sinner—he CERTAINLY will not give up on you until you reach your heavenly goal.  Amen.