Sunday, August 31, 2014

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Jesus!

Matthew 16:21-28 At the very beginning of his public ministry, when John was baptizing at the Jordan River, Jesus came to be baptized.  The sinless Son of God stepped down into those baptismal waters filled with the sins of the people and he publicly identified himself with sin and sinners.   John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  And God the Father spoke from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
There was never any question about who Jesus was—there was never any question about what he had come to do.  Jesus was God’s Son who came to take away our sins.  Almost immediately his identity and mission were under satanic attack.
“If you are really God’s Son…” the devil said, “then prove it”.  In other words, “Cast aside your Father’s testimony and claim, reject your Father’s Word and demand that he do some miracle that will testify to your sonship.”  “If you are really God’s Son, then your Father wants you to have all the things the world has to offer.  There is no need to go to the cross—there is no need to die.  You can have it all right now.”
The devil continues to tempt us in the same way.  God claimed us as his own precious children in the waters of Holy Baptism.  He is well pleased with us on account of Christ.  But the devil is right there, telling us to reject God’s claim and doubt his Word and insist that God do some great thing, give us some great blessing, to prove our identity as his children. 
The devil says to us, “If you are really God’s child then your heavenly Father must want you to have every earthly blessing, he cannot intend that you would suffer in some way.  He wouldn’t withhold some pleasure from you.  I will give you the desires of your heart.”  And we are tempted.  And we fall.
What good news it is for us that Jesus never did.  Not when tempted by the devil, not when tempted by his friends--but again and again, Jesus rejected the temptation to avoid the cross. 
Jesus knew who he was—that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God--and he knew what he had come to do:  to suffer and die and rise again for our salvation.  The Bible says that:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
            With every miracle the disciples witnessed—with every victory they celebrated—with every sick person that was restored—the disciples must have thought that they were on the cusp of a new day when sorrow and suffering were at an end. 
When they heard Peter’s confession, that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God and Jesus’ affirmation that, yes, that was true—they must have thought the day was at hand when the lion will lay down with the lamb and the weapons of war would become the instruments of peace.
 But Jesus’ affirmation that he was the Christ and the Son of God led to a very different place than earthly peace and prosperity.  He would not go to Jerusalem to defeat the Romans.  He would go there to suffer.  He would not be recognized by the powers of the day as the one true king.  They would reject him.  He would not slay his enemies.  They would kill him. 
And these events were not just one possibility among many.  It had to be this way.  This is what Jesus had to do.  This was the price that had to be paid.  This was the Father’s plan for our salvation.  There would be life—rich, new, abundant eternal life—but it would only come through the cross.  The Bible says that at these words:
Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”  
            All of us can identify with Peter.  We don’t want those we love to be in pain.  We don’t want them to suffer rejection.  We don’t want them to die.  We want those we love to enjoy the earthly blessings of peace and prosperity.
Which one of us wouldn’t have put our arm around the Lord’s shoulder and try to convince him that it didn’t have to be this way!  Who among us wouldn’t have done the same?  It is a completely natural, normal, human thing to do.  It’s the caring, compassionate thing to do.  Which is why Jesus’ response is so shocking:
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
            The first lesson that God wants us to learn today is that we must not and indeed we cannot separate Jesus from the cross.  It is not just mistaken—it is satanic!  The devil tempted Jesus with that very idea in the wilderness and here Jesus faced it again—this time from a friend.
Just a few moments earlier, Peter was the great hero.  He confessed the truth about who Jesus was—the Son of God and Savior of the world.  This confession would be the foundation of the church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. 
But that Jesus was the Messiah—that he was the Son of God—that he was the Savior of the World—meant just one thing:  that he came not to be an earthly ruler, not to live a life of ease, not to go from one mountain top experience to another—but to suffer and die for our sins.  There would be life—new, abundant, overflowing eternal life-but that life would take root in a grave.  This was God’s way.
Peter and the disciples and those who followed Jesus didn’t understand that.  They wanted a never-ending stream of earthly blessings. They wanted what Satan offered Jesus in the wilderness.
I wonder, are we any different?  We’re glad enough to be forgiven.  We can check that off and go on to things that really matter—things to do with this life and what I want.  But the way to life goes through the cross—for Jesus and for us.  The Bible says that:
Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 
            These words are the call to discipleship to everyone who claims Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  And so dear Christian friend, if that is true of you—that Jesus Christ is your Lord, that he is your Savior--hear again what Jesus has to say to you this morning:  deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. 
Here is the second lesson God wants us to learn today, the way of the cross was not just true of Jesus—but of his disciples as well. 
To deny ourselves means that we say “no” to our flesh and the devil’s temptations.  It means that we put the needs of others before our own.  It means that our chief concern is not about being served but about serving those around us—not about being first but being last—not about getting more stuff but realizing that life does not consist in the abundance of our goods.  None of this comes naturally to us.  None of it is easy.  Much of it is painful.
That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says that if we confess him as Lord and Savior and we follow him as a disciple--we must take up our cross.  The cross is an implement of death.  Jesus would not be deterred from it and neither must we. 
In his vocation as Savior, Jesus died a real death on a real cross.  In our daily vocation, in ways that are unique to us, we are called to die to self and accept the hardships, difficulties and pain that come from following him as a disciple. 
Our cross may be rejection by those we love in our families or among our circle of friends.  It may be ridicule by the world around us.  It may be the loss of earthly blessings.  It may be the sacrifice of some activity.  But whatever form it takes, to be a follower of Jesus is to bear a cross. 
When we realize that this is what following Jesus is, that this was the path he took and the path he asks us to take—it becomes easier to understand the temptation to avoid it altogether—to try and make some uneasy alliance with the world and the devil where we can have God’s blessings apart from the cross.  But that is an eternally fatal mistake.  Jesus asks all who would follow him to count the cost of making that demonic deal:
What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?
The answer to both of these questions is:  nothing.  All of the wealth we could ever possess—all of the success we could have—all of the pleasure we could ever enjoy still do not equal up to life itself.  The richest, most powerful man who has ever lived cannot purchase or demand one extra second of life beyond what God has appointed for him-- to say nothing of a life that extends beyond the grave.
And yet God in his mercy gives life freely and abundantly in his Son Jesus Christ.  That is why to lose our life for Jesus is to gain eternal life.  That is why denying ourselves for Jesus is the only way to learn our true identity.  And that is why bearing our cross as we follow Jesus is the only way to know true peace and joy in this life.
The satanic temptation that Jesus faced in the wilderness and the satanic temptation that he faced from Peter (the temptation to avoid the cross for the things of the world) is the same satanic temptation we all face and the consequences of giving in to that temptation is eternal.  Jesus says that:
The Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 
            In effect, what Jesus is saying is this:  if you are struggling to deny yourself when those around you are constantly promoting themselves—if you are tempted to reject the difficulties of being my disciples because it’s easier to go along with the world—if you are wondering if following me is the right way to go—consider my call to discipleship in the light of eternity and then decide.
Jesus is coming again and this world and everything in it will be destroyed.  On that day, what will any illicit pleasure that we have avoided, or any sacrifice we have made, or any difficulty we have endured for the sake of following Jesus matter compared to the blessing of living forever with God in the kingdom of his Son?  They won’t!  Jesus says:
Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
            Peter confessed the truth about Jesus, that he was the Christ, the Son of God.  But he didn’t understand what that meant.  Jesus had to tell him that it mean rejection, suffering and death.  And yet, we hear the promise of Jesus that those who were standing there that day would live to see him come into his kingdom.  How is that possible?
For that answer we have to travel to Calvary.  Raised upon a cross is Jesus—rejected and crucified just as he promised.  But above his head is a sign, placed there by his enemies, acknowledging him as king.  Beneath Jesus was a soldier, making the same confession as Peter:  This man was the Son of God.  Beside Jesus was a repentant sinner asking to be remembered when Jesus entered his kingdom.  Here at the cross is where it all comes together:  the Son of God—the Savior of the world—the one true King.
This is his kingdom—it is the kingdom of the crucified—the kingdom of the One who bore the cross for us and of all those who are his, bearing their crosses for him.  Let us take up our cross and follow Jesus!  Amen.

General Prayer Pentecost 12 Proper 17c

Gracious heavenly Father, grant us a firm faith that You will answer our prayers and act for our good for we come to You in Jesus’ name:

As we look upon a violent, wicked world we pray that You would deliver us form the hand of the wicked and redeem us from the grasp of the ruthless.  Watch over our military men and women who serve in harm’s way.  Grant wisdom to our president and all of those in authority over us.  Remember those who are persecuted for Your name’s sake and visit them with Your mercy.

Guide us by Your Word and form in us a right conscience so that we would hate what is evil and love what is good.  Watch over us so that we are not overcome by the evil that surrounds us but strengthen us to overcome evil with good.  Help us to be courageous in standing up for what is right in Your sight.

In our life together as Christians, in our marriages, homes, families and congregation help us to live in harmony with one another and fill us with brotherly affection for our fellow believers.  Make us humble and willing to serve those around us.

When we are wounded, keep us from seeking vengeance against one another and instead help us to forgive others as You have forgiven us. 

We thank You for all the earthly gifts that You have bestowed upon us.  Especially do we thank You for the gift of life that You have given to Your servant Elizabeth.  Grant her every good gift of body and soul. 

Grant us hearts that are open to the needs of others and hands that are willing to meet those needs generously.  According to Your will heal those who are ill, especially Jennifer, Joyce, Myrtle, Shirley, Ray, and David.  Watch over expectant mothers and grant them safe deliveries and healthy babies. 

We praise You for sending Your Son Jesus Christ to suffer, die, and rise again for our salvation.  We know that there was nothing that we could offer to earn our life with You, but Christ has paid it all.  Help us to treasure the spiritual gifts of forgiveness and grace and eternal life above all else in this world. 

As we await the day when the Son of Man comes in glory with his angels to judge the world make us fervent in spirit, patient in tribulation, and constant in prayer.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Most Important Question

Matthew 16:13-20 There are many important questions that we are asked over the course of our life.  Will have this man to be your husband, this woman to be your wife?  Do you solemnly swear to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic?  Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the trust?  The answers that we give to these questions are important--but only for this life. 
There is another question—the most important question—that each of are asked and that we must give answer to—a question that will shape and direct, not only our lives on earth, but also eternity.  That question is asked by Jesus of every person in the world:  Who do you say that I am?  The Bible says that:
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
            Whether one is a Christian or not, there can be no serious disagreement that Jesus is the most important person who has ever lived.  Billions and billions of people have followed him as Lord and Savior.  Billions and billions of others have regarded him as a great moral teacher and leader.  Billions and billions of others have regarded him as their greatest enemy and nemesis.
The entire course of world civilization- with the rise and fall of great nations and the plans of great men- have taken place in the name of Jesus.  He stands at the very center of history and everyone has an opinion about him.  So it was in Caesarea Philippi.
They said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
Everyone had an opinion about Jesus.  A prophet.  A miracle worker.  A great teacher.  Such was the beauty of his life- and such was the power of his words- that he impacted everyone he met and all of them had a high opinion of him.  But it is not enough then or now to know the opinions of others.  We must answer for ourselves.  What about you, who do you say that I am? 
The way we answer this question determines how we will live every other moment of our life and it determines where we will spend eternity.  And it is not good enough- to get close enough- to the truth.
To live the life that God intends for us to live on earth—to live with God forever in heaven—we must know and confess the truth about Jesus—about who he is and what he came to do.  The Bible says that at the question of Jesus:  Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
            This is the answer to the most important question that we will ever be asked.  This is the answer that will shape and guide our lives here on earth.  This is the answer that opens our graves and heaven’s gates.  Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God!
Jesus is the Messiah—the Promised One of God.  He is the Savior who the prophets promised would suffer for our sins and rise again.  He is the One who stands victorious over death and our grave and has conquered Satan and forgiven our sins.  He is worthy of our trust.
Jesus is the Son of God.  He is Immanuel-the God who is with us.  To know him is to know the Father.  To hear him is to hear the Father.  To have him as brother is to have God as Father.  He is worthy of our worship.
  And Jesus is our Lord.  He is our one true King.  His will must be our will, his ways our ways.  To walk in his footsteps as his disciples is to walk in the narrow way that leads to life. 
To have Peter’s answer- as our answer- is to know and believe the only thing that really matters and endures.  So important is this answer to our life right now and our life to come that God himself gives the answer to us.  The Bible says that:
Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
            The Bible says that God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.  But the knowledge of saving truth does not come from our own reason or intellect—it does not come from some scientific experiment—it does not come from mystical, emotional experience that we have had. 
A saving knowledge of the truth—the correct answer to the question of Jesus:  Who do you say that I am—comes from the work of God in our hearts, from his revelation.  The Bible says that:  of his own will the Father has brought us forth by the word of truth.  And the Bible says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.
Peter confessed the truth about Jesus Christ because he saw the truth in Jesus’ life and heard the truth from Jesus’ lips and his heavenly Father caused Peter to be born again—to have a new heart and new mind that believed in and trusted in Jesus.  So it is for us!
That we can confess the truth about Jesus Christ and be saved is because God has given us the gift of faith.  He has known us and loved us from eternity.  He has sent his Son to die and rise again for us.  And he has called us to faith through the Gospel. 
When it comes to our salvation, God has left nothing to chance.  He has accomplished it all.  And he has revealed it to us so that we can know and believe the truth.  This is the way he builds his church one person at a time.  Jesus said:
I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
            The Bible says that the household of God is being built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets.  But what does this mean?  Obviously a foundation built upon mere men (as the prophets and apostles surely were) cannot endure eternally.  Much less can the church be built upon one man—even a man as great as Peter. 
And so what is the church built upon?  It is built upon Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone and the faithful confession of who he is and what he has done that came forth from the mouths of the prophets and apostles of old.
The prophetic and apostolic scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the foundation upon which our faith and the faith of the whole Christian church on earths rests and Jesus says that the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
What a comfort that promise is in these days when it seems that powers of evil hold sway and Christians across the world are persecuted and martyred for their faith. 
When we see what is going on in the world around, when we experience the decline of Christianity in our own nation, it is so easy to become discouraged and worried about what the future holds when it comes to the church.  But we have Jesus’ promise that all the powers of the devil cannot rob us of our faith or destroy the people of God. 
There may be hard times.  There may be sorrows.  There may be persecution.  But rather than retreat, we are called to go forward with the Word of God, confident that Jesus will continue to build his church.  Jesus said:
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
            The promise of the keys is nothing else than the Great Commission:  to open the gates to heaven by preaching the Word of God—both the law that condemns and the Gospel that saves.  That is the mission of the Church—to bring people to heaven.
We are to speak the truth in love about the wages of sin and call the world to turn from sin and be done with it.  We are to unashamedly bear witness to the will of God expressed in the Law and warn the world that the broad and easy way leads to death.
But we are also to tell the world that Jesus has forgiven sins and conquered death and opened the way to eternal life.  We can do this with confidence that we are speaking the very words of Christ and his authority stands behind them.  This is our mission.
Often times churches and congregations get confused about their purpose.  A concern for the material needs of others becomes a social gospel whose goal it is to make a better society rather than bring people to heaven.  A willingness to be all things to all people makes the church a mirror of the culture rather than the salt and light we are supposed to be.  A godly desire to abstain from the sins of the world makes us draw back into a holy huddle rather than engage the world we live in.
But these words of Jesus are the cure to all these perversions of the church.  Because the gates of hell will not prevail against us and because the authority of Jesus is with us, we go forth into the world with the Good News, knowing that Christ and his people will ultimately have the victory—which is why it the words that conclude our text are so odd.  The Bible says that Jesus:   strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
            It certainly seems odd that Jesus would commission his apostles to build the church and open the gates of heaven and then forbid them from speaking the truth about who he was!  But this charge to remain silent was only for a time.  He wanted to make sure that people had the whole story—that his identity as the Messiah was tied to the cross—that he was not an earthly king but a heavenly Savior.  Even the disciples struggled to get this right.
            But after his death and resurrection this command to remain silent is no longer in effect.  We know the truth about Jesus—his identity and mission—and that truth must be told so that those around us might also know the answer to the most important question:  who do you say Jesus is?  Amen.