Sunday, June 29, 2014

Losing Our Life To Find It

Matthew 10:34-39 Isaiah promised that the Messiah would be the Prince of Peace.  When the Virgin’s Son was born the angels proclaimed peace on earth.  Paul said that the Savior himself is our peace.  And yet what we hear from Jesus today in our Gospel lesson sounds very different indeed!  He says:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” 
And so then, were Isaiah and the angels and the apostles wrong?  Did they fail to understand the real mission and message of the Messiah?
No!  The difference between their words about Jesus- and Jesus’ words about himself- is reconciled when we understand what kind of “peace” is being spoken of and when we can expect it.  Jesus himself made this distinction.  He told his disciples: 
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”  
            The peace that Isaiah foretold-- and that the angels proclaimed-- and that Paul preached is the real and lasting peace of changed hearts and forgiven sins and a new relationship with God and the hope of heaven.  The peace that Jesus gives is the peace of God which passes all understanding and we have it right now!
            The peace that Jesus brings is completely different than what the world thinks of peace—as merely the absence of conflict while hatred and animosity still simmer below the surface. 
Jesus speaks these words because he wants us to know that the peace that has changed our lives won’t necessarily make conflict go away.  In fact, his peace will very often bring conflict from those who don’t share our faith!  How can it be otherwise?
The peace that we have with Jesus begins with an understanding of our own sinfulness—that our lives don’t come close to living up to God’s expectations and what we deserve is God’s wrath in time and eternity. 
Those who don’t have the peace of Jesus don’t measure their lives this way and they certainly don’t want to hear from us that they are sinners who need saving. 
The peace that we have with Jesus comes from knowing that he has done everything for our salvation and that he is the one way to eternal life that God has provided in this world. 
Those who don’t have this peace of Jesus reject his claims out of hand.  It infuriates them to hear from us that there is only one way to God.
These differences between those who find their peace in Jesus and those who do not strike to the very heart of our human existence:  our understanding of who we are and who God is and what the future holds for those who believe and those who don’t.    
Because Christians and unbelievers have very different views about these things that matter eternally, there cannot help but be conflict between those who know the peace of Jesus and those who don’t-- or as Jesus says:  a sword that divides.
At any given moment in the world the greatest division between human beings is not gender or nationality or socio-economic differences.  The greatest division between human beings is where people stand in relation to Jesus. 
From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the end there were those who received the peace he came to bring-- and there were those who rejected him and heaped scorn on those who believed in him.  You can follow the conflict between these two groups in Holy Scripture and down through history to this moment in time. 
Jesus wants us to understand the nature of this conflict up front because the division between those who trust in Jesus and those who don’t-- can cut right through the human relationships that are most dear to us.  Jesus says:
I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. 
            Conflict and division between family members over Jesus is nothing new—it began in his own family.  We know that Jesus’ siblings rejected him, leading Jesus to say that it was only those who did the will of his Father who were really his family. 
            That faith in Jesus can divide our family, and bring conflict between those who are closest to us, is a difficult thing for us to hear!  Of all of the earthly gifts that our heavenly Father gives, surely none of them are more dearly loved than our families.  We want the Lord to grant us good marriages and close families and believing children. 
When there is a shared faith in Jesus Christ these blessings are often found and our families become a foretaste of heaven.  But when that shared faith in Jesus doesn’t exist—there is conflict in our families on account of Jesus.  How could it be otherwise? 
The Christian believes that it is love for the Lord that must come first and the unbelieving spouse resents it.  Christians have a different moral perspective on the role of men and women and the sanctity of human life and divorce than those who don’t follow Jesus.  Every Sunday there is tension because the Christian knows it is their first priority to worship Jesus while the unbeliever sees no point. 
And it can’t help but always be in the back of everyone’s mind that as close as family members may be one earth—there are two very different eternal futures that will separate them forever:  the Christian will go to heaven and the unbeliever to hell. 
Because there is this conflict about things that matter eternally—the Christian will always face the temptation to simply give up and give in and go along—to make peace without Jesus.  But Jesus warns us what a terrible mistake that would be:
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 
            To be worthy of Jesus means to have faith in him—to recognize him as God in flesh—to trust in his death and resurrection as our salvation—and to follow him as Lord.  It means we fear, love, and trust in him above all else—including our families. 
There can be no divided loyalties when it comes to our relationship with the Lord.  Nothing else and no one else is permitted to have the first place in our life that is reserved for God alone—not even a family member.  As much as we love our spouse or our children—we must love Jesus more.  So what does that mean?
It means that we cannot compromise with evil to make things convenient for an unbelieving family member.  We cannot hide our faith to avoid arguments.  We cannot change our priorities to suit someone who does not believe the Bible.
Jesus wants us to understand that there are consequences when we put God first.  We see that in his life.  He was misunderstood by his family—branded a heretic by the church of his day—rejected by his own people—and finally nailed to a cross—all because his loyalty to-and love for- his heavenly Father came first in his life.
When we faithfully follow Jesus we will find the same experience is true in our own lives.  There will be very real difficulties and perhaps even suffering from being a disciple of Jesus Christ--what Jesus calls “the cross.” 
The cross we have to bear on account of Christ is unique to each of us.  Maybe it is being ostracized from friends at school because our faith in Jesus keeps us from going along with sin.  Maybe it is suffering the ridicule of those in our social circle because we believe what the Bible teaches.  Maybe our understanding of the sanctity of life means that we have to bear the burden of a disabled child or a chronically ill loved one rather than cause their death.
There are countless ways that we can suffer hardship because we are faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  That we can bear these crosses is only possible because Christ first bore his. 
Because he did not shrink back from his cross, we know that those times we have sinfully avoided the cross are forgiven.  And because he has risen from the dead, we know that ultimately the cross is not the end—not for Jesus and not for us—but that we too can find hope and life even in the midst of suffering and death. 
It is vitally important that we keep his resurrection victory before our eyes as we follow him because the consequences of forsaking our cross are not only for this life but also for the life to come.  Jesus says:  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
We are surrounded by countless people who honestly think that they are living life to the fullest because they have their health and because they have money in the bank and because they have earthly success. 
But because they do not know Jesus as their Lord and Savior—they are living, breathing dead men and women.  And having satisfied their souls with the things of the world they will lose their souls when they pass from this world. 
But to take up our cross and follow the crucified Savior—to offer up our lives in service to him as living sacrifices—to accept the hardships and difficulties of being a Christian is to find a life that even death and the grave cannot end.  
It is perhaps the greatest paradox in all of Holy Scripture that the only life worthy of the name can only be found in the death of the old person within each of us and the new life we have in Christ. 
And because we have seen in the life of Jesus that death leads to life, we gladly, willingly take up our own cross and follow him as his disciple-- knowing that the way of the cross leads to life.  Amen. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

General Prayer Pentecost 3a Proper 8

Gracious heavenly Father, we come to You in prayer, asking for those things that we need, trusting that your mercy is great:

Look upon the afflictions of Your people and deliver them according to Your wise fatherly will.  Grant healing to those who are ill.  Watch over expectant mothers and give them safe deliveries and healthy children.  Provide for those who lack the necessities of life and lead us to be generous to all, especially to those who are disciples of Your Son.

Lift up those who face persecution and adversity for their faith in You and give them courage so that they do not swerve from Your testimonies.  Forgive the enemies of Your people and turn their hearts to faith in Your Son.

From ancient times, war, famine, and pestilence have come upon many countries and great kingdoms.  Preserve our nation from these disasters.  Give wisdom to our leaders and fellow citizens that they would acknowledge You as Lord and walk in Your ways.  Protect our military men and women and support their families.  Rid us of our national sins that destroy innocent life.

We give You thanks and praise that by the body of Christ crucified and raised You have saved us from the curse of the Law and the fear of death.  Help us by Your Holy Spirit to bear spiritual fruit that leads to life.  Especially do we ask Your blessing on our VBS this week, that You would give us opportunities to tell the Good News of Your Son Jesus.

Bless our families.  Grant that our marriages would bear witness to the love that exists between Christ and the church.  Help our adult children to find spouses who share their faith.  Convert those family members who are not Christians.  In every way make our homes into places where Your love and presence is known.  Especially do we pray for Zachery as he celebrates his birthday, that You would bless him in body and soul all his days.

Keep us from finding our lives in this world and losing them for eternity and give us the courage we need to take up our cross and follow You to that which is truly life.

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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

General Prayer Pentecost 2a Proper 7

Gracious heavenly Father, You are our refuge and our fortress and we trust in You.  Hear us as we bring our prayers to You in Jesus’ name and help us by Your Spirit to pray for the things we ought and give voice to those which we cannot even name:

Watch over all who are persecuted for their faith in You and grant that they would find refuge in You.  Turn the hearts of their enemies and grant them repentance unto life.

Lord, You are a dread warrior who punishes evil and rewards good.  Upheld and guide all of those who serve as Your ministers for our good in the government.  Give them wisdom so that they would do what is right in Your sight and care for the weak and needy.  Protect our military men and women who serve in harm’s way.

Strengthen us with Your grace and the help of the Holy Spirit so that sin has no dominion over us.  Help us to use the members of our body as instruments of righteousness, serving our neighbor in their need.

We thank and praise You that You have set us free from sin and death by the perfect life and bloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Since we live by Your grace, make us Your obedient children.

You have warned us that the wages of sin is death but You have also promised us that You give us eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Comfort all who mourn the death of loved ones with this good news, especially Caroline and her family as they mourn the death of Billy.  Assure them that he rests in Your presence.

Grant us the courage we need to always acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  Prevent us from denying him by our words or deeds.  Help us as individuals and as a congregation to bear witness in our community and add to our fellowship those who are being saved.

We rejoice that Your knowledge of us is so great that even the hairs of our head are numbered and that You see our needs.  Grant us what we need for this body and life:  healing for those who are ill, hope for those who are discouraged, food and shelter for those who do not have the basics of life, and friends for the lonely.

We thank You for all Your good gifts.  Especially do we thank You this day for the gift of life that You have granted to Your servant Harley.  Bless her in body and soul all her days.

Lord, You are our dwelling place and refuge.  Keep far from us all evil and bring us at last to our heavenly home.  We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Have No Fear Of Persecution!

Matthew 10:5a, 21-33 In a jail in Sudan that was designed for 100 inmates but now holds 1200, a woman named Mariam is imprisoned.  She is chained to a dirt floor.  Imprisoned with her is her 20 month old son and a newborn baby girl she recently delivered without aid while remaining in chains.  Sometime in the next several weeks she will be given one hundred lashes and then when the baby is weaned (at about age two) Mariam will hanged by the neck until dead. 
What was her crime?  She is a Christian.  She was raised by an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian mother and she married an American Christian man.  She can make this all go away by simply renouncing her faith-- which she has refused to do. 
How did she come to this place of persecution and torment?  Her brother turned her in to the Muslim Sharia courts which sentenced her to be whipped and then put to death.  Jesus said:
Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 
            We tend to forget it—but for most of the last two thousand years, to be a Christian meant being subject to persecution, oppression, and even martyrdom.
Stephen and James were killed by Jewish authorities.  Peter and Paul and countless others were killed by the Romans.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer and St. Maximilian Kolbe and the family of Corrie ten Boom and thousands of others were killed by the Nazis and millions of Ukrainian Christians were starved to death by the communists.  And who knows how many Christians are being killed at this moment in the Muslim world. 
Millions of Christian martyrs over the last two thousand years killed by their own countrymen, betrayed by their own neighbors, handed over by their own kinsmen.  Every one of them believed that it is only the one who endures to the end who will be saved.  Every one of them proved with their lives that it is possible to endure to the end—it is possible to remain steadfast in persecution—it is possible to count our life with God more precious than our own life here on earth.  The Bible says: 
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 
What is strange—at least from the perspective of most of the Christians who have ever lived—is how little persecution we Christians here in the United States have had to face.  And yet even that is changing. 
Right now in our country, Christian business owners will have to decide if they will provide services to events they find morally objectionable to keep their businesses.  Right now in our country, Christian organizations that feed and heal and educate our fellow citizens will have to decide if they will provide the means to kill unborn children and remain open- or if they will remain faithful to God’s Word on the sanctity of human life and lose their ministries.  Right now in our country, families and friendships are stretched to the breaking point as Christians try to love their friends and family members and co-workers without approving their sinful choices. 
The powers that be in government, industry, education, and media are all allied together and aligned against anyone like us who holds to the faith and morals of the Christian faith once delivered to the saints.  This is our time to be tested by fire.  Jesus promised that this is the way it would be for Christians until the day of his return.  He said:
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. 
            Oppression, persecution, and mistreatment at the hands of those who do not share our faith in Jesus (or our commitment to his word) is the normal state of affairs for his church.  It should not surprise us-- but neither should we let it overwhelm us.  Jesus has promised that the very gates of hell will not prevail against his people the church.  Jesus has promised that he will not let us be tested beyond what we can bear.  And so as King of the world and King of the church he sets a limit on what the church can bear so that we are not overcome and fall away.
But why must there be persecution and oppression and hardship for us at all?  Why should the unbelieving world hate Christians in the first place?  Why will there be an unbroken band of martyrs until the Lord’s return?  What is the source of the world’s hatred?  Jesus says:
“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. 
            The world hates and persecutes and oppresses and kills Christians because the world hated and persecuted and oppressed and killed Jesus.  It’s just that simple.  When Christians live like Jesus—adopting his thinking and his ways and his life—we can expect for ourselves what he received—the hatred of the world.
But why is this?  Wasn’t Jesus kind and good?  Didn’t he help people?  Didn’t he forgive and love even his enemies?  He did.  But there was more. 
Jesus also completely overturned the thinking of the world.  He said that it is better to be last than first.  That it is better to serve than be served.  That it is blessedness to be treated poorly for doing good.  And not only did he overturn the thinking of the world—he insisted that his way--is the only way--to live and to think and to have a life with God.
He did not offer his life and his thinking as one way among many—he said that it was the only way—that he himself is the way and the truth and the life and that life with God is found only in him.
We Christians believe that.  And even though we do his deeds: feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and healing the sick and caring for the poor and weak (deeds which the world is glad enough to receive!)—when the same Christians insist that Jesus and his ways and thinking are the only way to live and think—we are hated by the world just like he was. 
It cannot help but be true that the disciples is not above the master and if they world once called Jesus the devil—they will regard his people in the same way.
When we Christians insist (as Jesus did) that he is God—when we maintain that his words about marriage and money and forgiveness must be followed—when we proclaim that he is the only way to God—we will be called every terrible name in the book, our motives will be questioned and condemned—and we will be counted people of hate rather than love.  But we must not be afraid of the hatred and persecution and oppression of the world.  Jesus says:
Have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
            When we face persecution and oppression and hatred from the world, we have two choices:  we can fearfully remain silent or we can courageously bear witness to the truth.  What we cannot do is serve two masters:  the world and Jesus.  And yet there are many folks sitting in pews this morning who try to have it both ways. 
There are entire church bodies which have gone along with the thinking of the world on the great moral issues of the day.  There are Christians who cannot bear to lose a friendship or family member so they never speak up about what they believe.  There are believers who shrink back in fear when called upon to make some small sacrifice for their faith.
But if it is fear of others that makes us silent—if it is fear of embarrassment that makes us go along with the world—if it is fear of some loss that makes us willing to compromise the truth of God’s Word, Jesus says that there is something that we ought to fear more:  not those who can harm and hurt us for a time—but the One who can punish us eternally in the fires of hell and that is God.
Being called names and having our motives impugned is painful.  Losing our business or profession is frightening.  An embittered relationship is heartbreaking.  But no hardship of them—not even losing our lives—is more fearful than being punished forever in the fires of hell for abandoning our faith in Jesus Christ and turning our back on his Word. 
We may see some compromise with the truth as a small thing—we may wonder what the big deal is when it comes to trying to get along by going along in this world--but Jesus tells us that the stakes are eternal-- which is why it is such Good News that our heavenly Father is watching out for us as we live our lives here on earth.  Jesus says:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.
            For every Mariam that the world knows about- there are tens of thousands of Christians who are laying in some dark prison cell, being raped by some Muslim barbarian, enslaved in some concentration camp.  They count for nothing be the measure of the world. 
But no matter how alone they are—no matter how insignificant in the world’s eyes—no matter how anonymous in the annals of history—they have a Father in heaven who knows every hair on their head, who hears every cry of pain, who sees every indignity that is done to them.  Jesus said that:  nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.
We have a heavenly Father who loves us and values us so much that he has sent his own Son to die for us on the cross.  That is the value that God places on his people and there is a day of reckoning when every evil thing done to his people—every evil thing said about his servants—every drop of blood shed by his witnesses will be accounted for.  Jesus said that:    
Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.
            At the beginning of the sermon I mentioned that Mariam was betrayed to the Sharia courts in Sudan by her brother.  When he was interviewed by the press he was quoted as saying that if she will only renounce her faith in Christ she will be released and pardoned and his family will gladly take her back. 
Can you imagine the temptation?  She is a wife and mother.  She has a toddler and a newborn.  What will happen to them if she dies?  Will they be raised by Muslims and lose their faith?  You can imagine how the devil must be doing all within his power to get her to deny Jesus.  But she hasn’t and she won’t.  Why?
            Because she is a Christian who believes the words of her Master:  that those who deny Jesus before men, he will deny before his Father—but that those who acknowledge him before men, those who confess their faith and hold fast to him—Jesus will acknowledge them before his Father in heaven.
Why won’t Mariam simply give in?  Because she has a heavenly Father who cares for her even in prison.  Because she knows that only if she endures to the end can she be saved.  Because she is looking forward to the day when she stands in God’s presence and Jesus acknowledges her as his own.  May God grant that we know and believe the same so that we have no fear when we face persecution.  Amen.