Friday, August 18, 2017

Hear the Word of the Lord!

Jeremiah 7:1-11 It is important to be in the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day.  It so important that it’s one of the Ten Commandments:  Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Luther’s Small Catechism explains it this way:  “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
God wants us to be in worship and Bible study on the Lord’s Day to receive Christ’s gifts of forgiveness and the strengthening of the Spirit.  But as I always remind our confirmation students, it’s not just our presence that God wants-- but our thoughtful worship.  Hearing God’s Word means taking it to heart.  Learning God’s Word means putting it into practice in our lives.
I am so thankful to God for everyone present here today-but we ought to be aware that the devil and our flesh can misuse this sacred time in God’s house by turning it into an outward act that has no real connection to our lives in the week to come-- because we do not take to heart what we hear or put it into practice in our lives.
That’s what happened to the people in Jeremiah’s day.  They kept the outward form of worship but they never let it change their lives.  They still did, and said, the right “religious” things.  But God’s word had absolutely no influence on their lives—they went on living in unbelief just like they had before- with no improvement of life.
God intends for his words of law and gospel to change us—to deepen our faith and influence our decisions and to lead us in his ways.  Our lives ought to be different in this new week because of what we have heard today from God today.  The Bible says:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Stand in the gate of the Lord's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord.
            When we come into the Lord’s house, what we ought to expect to hear—what we ought to demand to hear --is the Word of the Lord!  Not a stringed-together series of amusing anecdotes.  Not what the pastor thinks about politics or current events.  Not some self-help pep talk.  But we ought to hear God’s word of law that condemns our sin and his word of gospel that forgives our sins in Jesus. 
God has given to pastors what he wants preached-- and that is his written Word-- and you should not listen to any man who comes in the name of the Lord bringing anything else other than God’s Word.  BUT-- when the Word of God is preached-- you ought to receive it for what it is:  nothing less than the Lord’s Word to you
When you walk into this place for worship you ought to have an expectancy that the one true and living God of the universe has something that he wants you to know—that he wants to change the way you live and deepen your faith in Jesus and guide your life by his Spirit.  He certainly wanted that for the people of Jeremiah’s day.
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. 
            These words were spoken by God through Jeremiah at a particularly dark moment in Judah’s history as the temporal judgment of God was about to befall them.  But even in that late hour-- it was not too late.  There was still time for them to hear the Lord and take his words to heart and put them into action in their lives before they were carried off into exile.   
            Specifically, God wanted them to amend their ways and deeds.  In other words, change how they were living—renew their faith in him—and commit to doing things differently in the future.  God wants the same for us.
And so let me just ask you in all honesty, when was the last time you heard something in church or in Bible study and you said to yourself, “You know, I’m wrong in this.  I’ve done the wrong thing.  I’ve said the wrong thing.  This part of my life isn’t right”.  And you told the Lord you were sorry and asked for his forgiveness. 
But you left the Lord’s house and did not do one concrete thing to change the situation or make it right-- and your life was not one bit different than it was before?  Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:  Amend your ways and your deeds! 
In other words:  be reconciled to that person you are at odds with!  Stop petting those pet sins!  Change the way you treat the people in your marriage and family and church!  Amend your ways and your deeds while there is still an opportunity and do not think for an instance that merely being present in the Lord’s house is a substitute for a living faith and a changed life.  Jeremiah told the people of that day and us too:
Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
            So what did Jeremiah mean by this, that these were deceptive words?  After all, they WERE in the temple of the Lord!  How could they be deceived about that?  What he meant was that the people were deceiving themselves with these words, thinking that they promised something that they didn’t.
About 150 years before, the northern kingdom experienced the judgment of God at the hands of the Assyrians.  They suffered God’s righteous wrath for all the years they had worshipped false gods in pagan places when the true temple and the true worship of the true God was in Jerusalem.
When Jeremiah spoke these words, the people of Judah were still worshiping in the temple.  They were still offering up the sacrifices.  They were still going through the motions of worship.  Outwardly, it looked like things were fine.
But when Jeremiah came to them with God’s Word, warning them of judgment to come, calling them to amend their lives before it was too late—they turned a deaf ear to what God had to say and went on as before, denying that they even needed a savior.
You see, alongside of Jeremiah there were false prophets who told them they had nothing to be afraid of—that Jeremiah was just a fear-monger—the God would never think about letting anything happen to his temple-- and so long as they were saying the right words and doing the right things in worship-- they had nothing to fear.
But they were deceived-and there is no deception as dangerous to our souls as a religious deception-- for it blinds us to the truth about ourselves and the truth about God! 
We have a beautiful sanctuary.  The creeds and confessions of our church are faithful and true.  We have worship services that are dignified and God-glorifying. 
But they have a purpose beyond this time and place of worship:  that you would repent of your sins and trust in Jesus and amend your ways and your deeds. 
And if you tell yourself that it is plenty good enough that you have come to church—that God ought to be satisfied with your standing and sitting and bowing—you are in a particularly dangerous place spiritually because what God really wants is to change your life beyond this hour—for time and eternity.  The Bible says:
If you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.
            When we are truly sorry for our sins- and when we truly believe in Jesus -our lives will be different.  Not perfect—but better.  Not without sin—but always hating sin and desiring to be done with it.  Striving to love God and man as the law demands.
Our faith in Jesus is not some set of theological propositions we try to keep straight in our heads—it has an impact on every facet of our lives—on our life with others and on our life with God.  And so what does that mean for you this week?
Amendment of your ways and your deeds means that, when it comes to your life with others, you will make a real, concrete effort to do what you know is right from God’s Word.  Anger and lust and coveting and gossiping will be taken to the cross and left behind, washed away in the blood of Jesus.
Amendment of life means that, when it comes to our relationship with God, we will make a real effort this week to be faithful in our prayers and bible-reading—that we will turn aside from occasions for sin and walk by the Spirit.  It means that we will stop misusing God’s name and stop worrying--that we will rest in the forgiveness of Christ.  
When it comes to amending our ways and our deeds we must resist the temptation so say:  it’s too late to change now.  It’s not!  No more than it was for the Israelites. 
This is a day of God’s grace—a day that he has given for us to hear that Jesus forgives us and that the Spirit will help us—that so long as we are living and breathing God will keep his promise to bless us and forgive us and change our lives for time and eternity.  Sadly, the people of Jeremiah’s day refused God’s salvation and turned a deaf ear to his call for repentance.  He told them:
“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail.  Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?  Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord.
            They did the very opposite of what God asked of them.  They mistreated their fellow man and they abandoned the Lord for false gods.  The regarded the Lord’s house as a lucky rabbit’s foot that would keep them safe-- rather than the place to hear the voice of God calling them to heartfelt repentance and faith.  The way they lived- and the way they worshipped- revealed that they really had no faith at all.
They were going through the motions of worship—but God saw directly into their hearts.  The temple that had been set apart for the worship of the true God (to hear his voice and receive his forgiveness) had become a den of robbers—not because God was not present there with his gifts of forgiveness-- but because the people had no faith to recognize him there.
This place too is set apart for the worship of the true God—to hear his Word and receive the forgiveness that Jesus Christ won for us on the cross—to be renewed in the power of the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament so that we can amend our lives.  God is here with the gracious gifts of forgiveness and life he gives in Jesus Christ.
What about us?  We must not think that we are magically immune from sins and failures of God’s ancient people --for we are not.  We need the deliverance from sin and death God has given in Jesus just like they did-- and God’s call through the prophet to amend our ways and our deeds is spoken to us too! 

And so I pray that, as we hear and learn God’s Word this Lord’s Day, we would take it to heart and put it into practice in our lives. Amen.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Examples for Our Instruction

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 As I read the words from the beginning of our text, I want you to underline the word, “all.”  The Bible says: 
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were ALL under the cloud, and ALL passed through the sea, and ALL were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and ALL ate the same spiritual food, and ALL drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
            Do you know how many folks are included in that word “all”?  Six hundred thousand men over the age of twenty besides all the women and children—certainly over two million people.  Millions of people delivered from slavery to freedom—millions of people cared for--by the powerful, merciful love of their Savior God.
All of them walked on dry land directly through the waters of the Red Sea, led by Moses, while their enemies perished in those same waters.  All of them were miraculously fed in the desert by food from God that came down each day from heaven.  All of them had their thirst miraculously met for decades in that dry land.  All of them were guided on their journey to the Promised Land.  And Christ walked with them every step of the way. 
In every way—in every moment—in material blessings and in spiritual blessings-- the Lord generously, graciously met the needs of all.  Six hundred thousand men over the age of twenty left Egypt as free men.  Do you know how many entered the Promised Land?  Two! 
The Bible says:  With most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.  That has to be the greatest understatement in the Bible!  Most of them!?  Two out six hundred thousand is certainly “most” alright!
God’s purpose in their deliverance—God’s purpose in their freedom—God’s purpose in their provision (to bring them into the Promised Land) was fulfilled in two of the six hundred thousand men who started out on that journey, for the rest were “overthrown” in the wilderness.  In other words, God exercised his temporal judgment upon them on account of their sins.
Under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit Paul recounts this sad history so that we would learn from it—so that the same judgment would not befall us as we journey to heaven. 
We have all been set free from slavery to sin and death (much harsher masters than Pharaoh) by the outstretched arms of Jesus Christ upon the cross.  All of us have been baptized into Christ Jesus, our spiritual enemies washed away.  All of us are fed with food from heaven in Holy Communion.  All of us have our material needs generously and graciously met.  All of us have the abiding, guiding presence of Christ to walk with us through the wilderness of this world on our journey to the Promised Land of heaven.
What more could our Savior God possibly do for us than he has already done- and promises to do in the days to come -just like he did for all of those who came out of Egypt, of whom, two entered the Promised Land!  The Bible says that: 
These things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.  Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.
            Paul was supremely aware from the history of God and his people that it is entirely possible to have been blessed by God in mighty ways and still not enter heaven because of our own abject rejection of his grace and our own stubborn unwillingness to turn form sin. 
In the verses immediately preceding our text Paul speaks of this very thing in his own life and says that he disciplines his body and keeps it under control so that after preaching to others he himself wouldn’t be disqualified from the imperishable crown of eternal life. 
If Paul knew this about himself, how much more should we know the same about our own life of faith!  And so Paul records this story for us so that we would learn from it and take the lessons of history seriously and not repeat them and lose our way to heaven!
What was it that kept all but two men from entering the Promised Land?  Paul says it was:  idolatry; sexual immorality; putting God to the test; and grumbling.  These sins undermined their journey of faith; earned God’s judgment;  kept them out of the Promised Land. 
And so then we have to ask ourselves:  Do I fear, love and trust in God above all things?  Do I attribute all good things in my life to God alone?  Does he come first in my life and is that priority readily seen in how I live my life? 
We have to ask ourselves:  Am I leading a sexually pure and decent life in word and deed?  Do I entertain myself with sexual immorality in movies or TV or the novels I read?  Am I endeavoring in my marriage to love and honor my spouse?  Am I making excuses for- and room for- the sexual sins of those around me?
We have to ask ourselves:  Am I tempting God by turning God’s grace into a license for sin in my life?  Am I excusing some pet sin rather than repenting of it?  Am I continuing to sin with no real sorrow and no real amendment of life, believing that I will still be forgiven?
We have to ask ourselves:  am I grateful for every single blessing of body and soul, large or small that the Lord has poured out upon me or am I embittered by what I don’t have and envious of what others have?
We must ask ourselves these questions seriously because these are exactly these same kinds of sins that kept all but two men out of the Promised Land and sin will have exactly the same deadly effect on our own life faith.  The Bible says that:
These things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction,
            Most of us have heard the phrase “Those who will not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” and that is exactly why the Holy Spirit wanted Paul to write these words—so that believers in every time and place would learn from the lessons of salvation history. 
Even for the people of Moses’ day, every time God exercised his judgment upon some of them—and there were many such occasions-- all of the rest of them should have learned from it. 
            Paul says that is especially true for us Christians, on whom the end of the ages has come.  All of human history- and all of salvation history- has reached its culmination in Jesus Christ.  He is the alpha and the omega, the first and the last—he is the purpose and fulfillment of all of human history-- so that there is not one thing left undone- that must be done -before the final judgment and the end of the world. 
            From the moment of Christ’s ascension into heaven, the world continues to exist only until that moment the Lord has gathered to himself all of those who are his.  And so it is especially incumbent upon us, that in this late hour, we do not fall victim to our sins and miss the crown of life. 
But how do we do that when so many who have come before us—so many who were blessed by God just like we are blessed by God—have missed out?  The Bible says:
Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.  No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.
            To withstand temptation, to complete our journey through the wilderness of this world, to receive the fullness of God’s redeeming work we must, first of all be on guard in our own lives for those very things that kept so many Israelites out of the Promised Land. 
We must have deep sense of humility that recognizes that we are no different than they were—that their story in the Bible is not recorded so that we can say:  “Those bad Jews”-- but so that we can see ourselves in their story and learn from them. 
We must also understand that the temptations we face are no different and no greater than the people of God have faced in the past—that in this is both warning and a promise. 
We are just as susceptible to Idolatry and sexual immorality and grumbling and tempting God as were the Israelites. 
But we are also just as capable as trusting God as was Daniel when he was thrown into the lion’s den; and we are just a capable of sexual faithfulness as was Joseph as when he fled the temptations of Potiphar’s wife; and we are just as capable of gratitude as was Naaman when he was healed of leprosy; and we are just as capable of repenting of our sins rather than testing God’s grace as was David when he sinned. 
We are capable of the same because the God who has saved us is the same and will strengthen and sustain us on our journey.  The Bible says that:
God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
            When we look at the salvation history of our own lives we can see that our story is the same as God’s ancient people—that it is the story of God’s faithfulness rather than our own faithfulness-- and that is Good News indeed.  God promises that he who began a good work in us WILL bring it to completion at the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And so then with every temptation we encounter, God makes a way for us to face it and remain faithful in the midst of it.  He moderates the intensity and duration of our trials.  He raises up people around us to encourage us when we struggle.  He gives us his Word and Sacrament for spiritual strengthening.  And today he warns us-- in the strongest way--about the dangers of falling away.

God desires that we would live with him in heaven forever.  That is the reason he has created us and redeemed us and provided for us in our daily life.  Let us take seriously the examples from salvation that are written for our learning and walk the narrow way that leads to eternal life.  Amen.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Beware of False Prophets!

Matthew 7:15-23 There are a number of frightening scenes of God’s judgment in the Bible:  Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden with a sword-bearing angel blocking their way back; the flood of Noah’s day destroying every living thing except those on the ark; and the ground opening up and swallowing the disobedient and rebellious at Korah. 
There are many, many others—but for me, this scene of the final judgment that we have before us today in our Gospel lesson is one of the most frightening-- for there is no chance for repentance for those being judged and the fiery punishment is eternal.
On one side is heaven and an eternal life of joy and blessing with God.  On the other side is hell—an eternity of torment in fire.  Before the multitude stands Jesus Christ—not as the babe of Bethlehem—not as the gentle rabbi—not as the suffering man of the cross—but as the king of kings and lord of lords and righteous judge whose holy eyes see directly into souls of those assembled before him for judgment.
The people going into the eternal fire had always—even in that late moment—regarded themselves as God’s people.  They used religious words.  They did religious works.  Jesus said that there are many of these kind of people who saw themselves one way-- while God saw them differently.
They thought they knew God—but Jesus never knew them—and he judged them guilty of lawlessness and sent them into the eternal fires of hell from which there is no escape.
That alone is frightening—but the really frightening thing is that right up until that moment they were cast into the lake of fire—they thought everything was fine between them and God—but they were profoundly deceived about that which is most important—their relationship with God. 
How had they come to that place of fiery eternal punishment from which there was no return?  How could they have avoided it altogether?  These are the questions that Jesus answers for us today.  He said:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
            The Bible says in Romans chapter ten that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God and in the first chapter of James the Bible says that that God brought us forth by the word of truth and in the first chapter of I Peter the Bible says that that we have been born again by the living and abiding word of God. 
That is how important the truth of God’s Word is—it is a matter of our eternal salvation—that we would know the truth rather than lies about our life with God and be born again to a true and living faith in Jesus. 
Conversely, that is the deadly danger of false prophets-- for they do not bring the saving truth of God words--but lies that deceive people to eternal damnation. 
What is truly frightening about false prophets is that they are found WITHIN the church.  Not every person who holds themselves out as a pastor and teacher can be trusted to tell us the truth and lead us to heaven. 
Not only is it possible that someone is a false prophet—Jesus tells us that there WILL BE false prophets that we have to beware of.  Paul said the same thing—that there will come a day when people in the church will not endure faithful teaching but will flock to pastors and teachers who will tell them what their itching ears want to hear.
Jesus says these false prophets come in “sheep’s clothing”—in other words they intentionally try to fit in with the flock of the Good Shepherd—presenting themselves as harmless—cloaking themselves in the trappings of Christianity-- while all the time they are absolutely deadly to our life with God because they do not bring us the truth—but lies that lead to destruction. 
But as dangerous as they are and as deceptive as these false prophets are—they can still be recognized—not by their outward appearance (which they try to hide)—but by what they say.  Jesus says:
You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.
            When it comes to false prophets, Jesus says that we are to do two things:  watch out for them—that is, believe him when he says that they exist within the church and be on the lookout for them—and secondly, we are recognize them for who they are—in other words, we are to be discerning in who we listen to and measure their teaching by the perfect standard of God’s Word. 
False prophets are deceptive and they are dangerous but Jesus expects us to be on guard against them and be able to recognize them by examining their fruit.
The fruit of a prophet—be he true or false—is what he teaches—not how he seems on the outside, not how pious he acts, not how great is his following or how beautiful his sanctuary, not even if he is able to do miracles—but whether or not what he preaches and teaches is exactly what the word of God says—no more and no less—in big things and small.  That is the measure of a prophet.
You will notice that Jesus assumes that his followers will know enough of the Bible to make that determination—that they are to be as familiar with the great truths of the Bible as they are with the everyday things in the world around them.
He used the example of the plants and trees that they were familiar with.  If he were here today he would remind us that we don’t look for peaches on Mesquite trees and we don’t look for grapes on Catclaw and neither should we look for anything good from a false prophet who cannot bring himself to simply teach God’s Word as it is written. 
But many people do that very thing.  There are countless millions of people who call themselves Christians who sit in pews Sunday after Sunday or in front of a Television listening to some false prophet who, in the name of Jesus, teaches lies. 
They listen to him because of the fancy church he preaches in.  They listen because he’s an excellent speaker and draws great crowds.  They listen because he is reported to do miracles.  But no matter how impressive the outward trappings—Jesus knows which prophets are his own and which are not-- and those who are not can only expect his fiery judgment.  Jesus says:
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
            In James chapter 3 the Bible says that “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” and Moses writes in Deuteronomy that the false prophet who speaks his own words in God’s name—even if he is a miracle worker—is to be put to death for he has led a rebellion against God.
This is how the Lord regards false prophets—as destroyers and deceivers of his people—as rebels against his rule—and his judgment is that they should suffer the fires of hell because of their lies that lead men away from God and destroy their souls. 
And so it is not just the false prophets who will be subject to the fires of hell—it is also those who listen to them and believe their lies. 
Jesus says to all who would follow him:  you WILL recognize them by their fruits.  Whether it is because of moral laziness or doctrinal laxity, the Lord will not excuse those pew sitters who listen to-and believe-false prophets.  Jesus says:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
            Jesus tells us plainly that every person won’t go to heaven.  Not every person who uses religious words or does religious works is going to heaven.  The fact of the matter is, not even every person who calls Jesus “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.
            And so who can be confident about going to heaven?  Who is the person who can be absolutely certain that they have a place in God’s kingdom?  Jesus says it is the person who does the will of his heavenly Father.  And what is his heavenly Father’s will? 
As Jesus travelled up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles the crowd of pilgrims asked him:  “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?  And Jesus answered them, “THIS is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  He went on to tell them:  “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him, should have eternal life.”
The will of the Father in heaven for you—the way that leads to eternal life—is to believe in Jesus—to trust that his death and resurrection is the way to heaven—that his righteousness counts in God’s sight for your salvation. 
That is the only way of salvation and those who trust in Jesus have nothing to fear-- but those who have listened to the lies of false prophets—those who do not believe in Jesus—those who do not do the Father’s will--will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus said:
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
            These people who are cast into the eternal fires of hell are people who thought they knew God.  They used religious sounding words and they did religious seeming works. 
When they discover that they are headed for hell rather than heaven you could knock them over with a feather so completely have they been deceived about what life with God is all about.   
            We should take this warning from Jesus to heart! 
We live in a religiously pluralistic culture where we are told that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you believe, and that way of thinking has infiltrated the church. 
We live in a time and place where the truth is considered relative rather than objective so that even in the church people are embarrassed to take up the Bible and say “this is what God’s Word teaches and if you believe differently you are mistaken and if you teach others differently you are misleading them.”
Jesus calls us to resist these cultural forces and the lies of false prophets with all our might and do the will of the heavenly Father by looking to Jesus and believing in him as our one and only Savior from eternal death in hell. 

It is only these who can be certain that they have a place in the kingdom of heaven.  Amen.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Slaves to Righteousness

Romans 6:19-23 Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. 
            The poem is Invictus by William Ernest Henley and while it is a great poem—it really is terrible theology.  “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
There is much in those words that appeal to us—particularly as Americans—but they simply do not tell us the truth about ourselves.
Far, far from being the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls, the Bible says that everyone in this world—without exception-- is a slave. 
You either belong to sin and death OR you belong to righteousness and God.  You either serve sin and death OR you serve God and righteousness.  Sin and death is your master OR God and his righteousness is your master. 
We may love the illusion of autonomy and freedom that is found in the poem Invictus, but it is the Bible that tells us the truth about ourselves and who we truly serve.  Under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul wrote: 
I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 
            Jesus told the Pharisees that everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Peter said that the false teachers of the early church were slaves to corruption.  Throughout his epistles Paul uses this slave imagery to describe our spiritual condition—either as slaves to sin and death OR slaves to God and his righteousness. 
It was a vivid image, immediately recognizable and understandable by people in the ancient world, and he used this word picture so that this biblical teaching would be perfectly clear in our mind-- such is its importance to understanding our life with God.
Far, far from being the autonomous, independent, free people we imagine ourselves to be—every person in this world has a master they serve.  Everyone!  And that master is revealed in the actions of our members, that is, the parts of our bodies.
It’s like we learned in the old Sunday School song:  be careful little eyes what you see—be careful little ears what you hear—be careful little feet where you go—be careful little lips what you say.  Be careful:  because the members of our body reveal the master of our soul.
For those who are slaves to impurity and lawlessness, their master is revealed in the words they say, the images they rest their eyes upon, the places their feet take them, and the things their hands do. 
So it is for those whose Master is God and his righteousness, that their members also reveal a slavery—not to lawlessness and death—but to sanctification and finally, to eternal life. 
That is why we are to be careful about the members of our body because they reveal (not only the identity of our master) but also the direction of our life and our destination in eternity.  There is no such thing as just a little sin because lawlessness leads to more lawlessness and eventually that journey ends in death.  The Bible says that:
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 
            When Paul says that those who are slaves to sin are “free” regarding righteousness, he does not mean that they are free to do righteousness or abstain from righteousness as they see fit, and as suits them, in a particular moment. 
No!  What Paul is saying is that the person who is a slave to impurity and lawlessness is free FROM righteousness altogether!  There is NOTHING in their life that pleases God—NOTHING in their life that God looks upon with favor—and certainly NOTHING in their life that he counts for salvation. 
            Those who are enslaved to sin and death do not have God as their Master and so their lives are completely free from ANY spiritual fruit whatsoever. 
That person who is a slave to impurity and lawlessness may look like they have the world by the tail—they may view their sexual sins as conquests—they may see their money and status as security for the future-- but God says that it all leads to death and because of that-- sin is not something to take pride in-- but something of which to be ashamed.
The Roman Christians understood that.  They could see the deadly direction they were headed.  They recognized the destination of a life’s journey marked by slavery to impurity and lawlessness.  They realized just exactly who their master had been-- because Christ, their new mater, had set them free.  And so should we!  The Bible says:
Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 
            What was true of the Roman Christians in Paul’s day is also true of us in our day:  Jesus Christ has set us free from slavery to impurity and lawlessness.  He has redeemed us with his own life’s blood as the purchase price to set us free.  We HAVE been set free from sin!
But it is absolutely critical that we understand that we have not only been set free FROM something—we have been set free FOR something—and that is to serve God as slaves of righteousness.  He is now our Master!
Right here in these verses is one of the most critically important concepts in the Bible and yet is widely misunderstood and too often ignored to the eternal peril of God’s people:  that the freedom we have in Christ finds its true purpose in the whole-hearted service we offer to God as slaves of righteousness.  Christian freedom and the fruit of good works go together without fail. 
The Bible says:  You were called to freedom, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  The Bible says:  It is by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus FOR good works.
God has not set us free from sin and death at the cost of his own Son’s life so that we can turn around and go right back to living in lawlessness and impurity!  Who would voluntarily enslave themselves to sin and set out on a journey that would, without question, lead to hell?!  No one would do that!
Instead, we have been set free so that we can become what God has created us and redeemed us to be:  people whose only desire is to know and do his will:  slaves of God and slaves of righteousness.
That we are free in Christ and that we are slaves to God is certainly paradoxical-- but these two teachings are not opposed to one another because the true purpose and meaning and value of our lives can only be found in our connection to God—a connection that is always fruitful unto good works. 
Jesus said, I am the vine and you are the branches and in me you will bear much fruit.  And so it is that as we walk with Jesus- and as we are filled with his Spirit- and as we are fed with Word and Sacrament--our lives begin to take on the shape they were meant to have—no longer turned in on ourselves—no longer focused on satisfying the desires of the flesh—but now turned towards our neighbor who needs our care—now growing in Christ-likeness as we receive his gracious gifts—now desiring to make God’s will, our will.
This is the life on earth that leads to eternal life---not because we have earned it by doing God’s will or walking in his ways—but because it has been given to us as a gift.  The Bible says:
The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
            It is in this verse that we see a profound difference in human slavery and in spiritual slavery—whether to sin or to God.  Earthly slaves earn nothing—they are paid no wage for their service--but those who are spiritually enslaved to sin and impurity earn, for themselves, eternal death. 
Everything they have lived for—everything they have devoted themselves to:  their much vaunted autonomy and independence is torn away as they enter into hell to be tormented forever with the one who has truly been their master.
Earthly slaves are given no gifts—they are unloved by their masters—they are regarded as property.  And yet, slaves to God and his righteousness are given the status as God’s children- and are counted as heirs of the living God- and are given eternal life as a gift through faith in Jesus.
We have to admit that the words, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul” appeal to our flesh but the Bible says that there is a way that seems right to men but in the end leads to death and that is it.

Instead, the way to true and lasting riches—the way to a life of meaning and purpose—and most importantly, the way to eternal life is the way of slavery to God and his righteousness.  Amen.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Righteousness Needed for Heaven

There was a man in the early church named Marcion who taught that the God revealed in the Old Testament (the God who spoke from Mt. Sinai and gave the Law to Moses) was incompatible with the God of the New Testament who forgave those who broke the Law.  He believed that they were opposed to one another—the God of the Old Testament being a harsh, demanding God of wrath-- and the God of the New Testament, Jesus, being kind and merciful and forgiving. 
His teaching was condemned as heresy and he was excommunicated-- but his ideas are still around. 
You hear people saying that because Jesus never specifically addressed abortion that it must be acceptable to him.  You hear people saying that what Jesus really cares about is not who you are intimate with-- but that you love that person.  You hear people saying that the Holy Spirit is leading the church away from the old morality contained in the Ten Commandments-- to a new way of approval and acceptance.
And these modern followers of that ancient heretic appeal to Jesus as their authority—they tell us that surely if Jesus were still here on earth he would agree with them.  But he would not!  Jesus upheld the Law as the unchanging will of God for mankind and he bound all of us to that Law until the end of time.  Jesus said:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
            Those who look to Jesus for their authority to cast away the moral Law of God cannot appeal to his words or to his life.  They will find no support from him for their heresy that denies the moral Law as being from God.  Jesus said of himself again and again:  I came to do my Father’s will.  I speak my Father’s words.  The command I give you was from the beginning. 
Jesus’ entire life was lived—not in opposition to the Law of God—but in perfect fulfillment of the Law of God.  In thought, word and deed he was careful to do his Father’s will and keep his Father’s words and live in holiness like his Father—and he called people to leave their sins-- rather than leave them in those sins.
Jesus cannot and must not be pitted against his heavenly Father when it comes to the moral Law because he and his Father share the same divine nature and have exactly the same divine holiness.  And Jesus and his Father are also perfectly united in their expectation of how we are to live until the end of days.  Jesus says:
Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
Besides appealing to Jesus for a new understanding of morality, you will hear people say that times have changed-- and we Christians have to change along with them when it comes to what is right and wrong and accept what has always been a sin. 
Well, they are right in that times have changed—but what is right and wrong in God’s sight cannot change -because it is grounded in the unchangeable will of God.  God’s will, expressed in the Law, flows from his own holiness --not from what we think is right and wrong at some given moment in human history. 
The Law comes from God—it is written on the human heart and it was written on tablets of stone on Mt. Sinai and people can try to ignore their consciences- and they can break stone tablets- and they can enact legislation that goes against God’s law-- but not for one moment can they change God’s law.
God has not changed his mind about the necessity of worship or the sanctity of life or the definition of marriage-- and he stands opposed to those who claim to speak in his name to set aside his commandments—and so does Jesus.  Jesus said:
Anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
            Throughout more and more places in the church today there is a wholesale apostasy from the faith and morals of Christianity that sets aside the Law of God and teaches others to do the same.
The unbelieving world, of course, looks on with glowing approval.  Look how loving they are!  Look how accepting they are!  Look how open and welcoming they are!
And by contrast of course the world judges those who hold fast to God’s word as unloving, judgmental, and angry.
But what matters, is not what the world says-- but what God says-- and he says that those who hold fast to his commands will be called great in his kingdom. 
And so why does Jesus put such a high priority on upholding God’s Law and making sure that it is not diminished in the least but taught faithfully?  It is because, only through the rigorous preaching of the demands of the Law, can we know of our need for God’s salvation in Christ.
To tell someone that their sin is not a sin is the most loveless thing that anyone can possibly do to another person because it leaves them in their sin and condemns them to hell and to do this- from the church- in the name of Christ is an outrage! 
Rather than diminishing the law, the church needs to uphold it in all its moral rigor so we can see our need for a righteousness that lies outside of us.  Jesus says:
I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.  You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
            Jesus in no way, shape or form diminished the requirements of the law like so many do today in his name.  Instead, he pointed out that the righteousness requirements of the Law (what God expects of you and me) go far beyond what most of us think. 
The law doesn’t just demand of us that we never commit adultery so that we can pat ourselves on the back if we have never been divorced or have never had an affair—the law demands of us that we have never, not even once lusted in our heart. 
The law doesn’t just demand of us that we do not bow down before idols or worship a false god-- but that we have never, not even once failed to trust God perfectly by worrying. 
And the law doesn’t just demand of us that we not murder so that we can congratulate ourselves on not being thugs--but the law demands of us that we have never, not even once been angry or called someone a bad name. 
The fact of the matter is, that, according to Jesus-- just one of these sins against God’s law will keep us out of the kingdom of heaven and make us subject to the eternal fires of hell! 
That is the way that Jesus wants the Law upheld and taught among his people for this reason:  that we would see our great need for a righteousness that is far beyond what even the most devout and decent people can offer up in their lives.
The righteousness that God counts as salvation is found in only one place and that is Jesus Christ who came into this world—not to do away with the law---but to suffer our punishment on the cross and fulfill the Law for us, in our place-- so that through faith in him, his righteousness can become our own. 
And because this righteousness of Christ is ours by faith, Jesus expects us to show it in how we live—not returning to sin, but living in holy obedience to the Law.  He said:
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
            Jesus’ expectation for you and me is that we would take seriously what God has to say in his Law and live our lives according to it—and that we ought to be careful that we do not fool ourselves into believing that things can be right between us and God while we are living in unrepentant sin.
The example he gave is one of interpersonal conflict.  Maybe harsh words were spoken between these people—maybe there was an angry disagreement—maybe there was some kind of business deal that was not on the up-and-up—but whatever happened--there was conflict and he says that before there can be worship --there needs to be repentance and reconciliation.
Jesus used the example of interpersonal conflict as a sin that comes between us and God but he could have used any of the Ten Commandments.  When we are living in unrepentant sin, actively, purposefully going against God’s will—we must not believe that things are right between us and God (because they are not!) until we repent and receive Christ’s forgiveness.
God promises the blessings of forgiveness for those who love him and keep his commandments.  But he also warns us that there are curses and consequences that come with disobedience.  Jesus said:
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
            There are consequences to sin—God has built it into his Law:  abusing drugs and alcohol wrecks your health—sexual immorality ruins marriages—constantly bad-mouthing others makes others keep you at arms-length and anger and bitterness destroys families and friendships. 
A lack of repentance hurts us and those around us and it also hurts our relationship with God.  The man in Jesus’ example had every chance to be reconciled --but if he wouldn’t- he faced jail.  We have an opportunity today to repent—to change the direction of our lives, be reconciled to God, and to go a new way.  To turn our backs on this moment of grace is not to face a lifetime in jail but an eternity in hell.
Jesus has fulfilled the law’s demands and he has paid, with his life’s blood, every last penny that we owe on account of our sins.  There is no reason for anyone to go to hell when he has paid to set us free. 

As the free children of God we live our life like that of Jesus:  upholding the Law and fulfilling God’s commands and walking in newness of life.  Amen.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Word of the Cross Is the Power of God

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Many Christians have had the experience of feeling like strangers to the world we live in.  We discover that the things we value- and the God we believe in- are rejected by more and more people.  We can’t figure out why everyone does not believe what seems so obvious and important to us.  But they don’t.  The Bible says:  The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing…
What is this “word of the cross” that Paul is referring to?  It is the basic proclamation of the Christian church:  that Jesus of Nazareth was God in human flesh and his life, death, and resurrection are the only way for sinners to have a life with God.
So why does the world around us reject this “word of the cross” as foolishness?  It is because this “word of the cross” cannot be seen in nature- and it cannot be discerned by our intellect- and it cannot be measured scientifically. 
It cannot be known in any way except by revelation from God—and that is the height of foolishness to the unbelieving world around us.  And yet for us Christians, the “word of the cross” defines:  who we are- and why we’re here- and where we are going when this life is over.  For us, the “word of the cross” is the power of God.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ has rescued us from sin and death and made us God’s children. 
How can there not be a division between those who believe this message--and those who reject it?  The truth of the matter is that God has ordained this very thing:  that man cannot “think” or “reason” his way into heaven.  God says:
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 
            These words are a quote from the prophet Isaiah and Paul uses them to make the point that God has ordained that our human intellect is an insufficient means of knowing him as he desires to be known—as a God of love and mercy. 
You see, not only has sin rendered us incapable of having a life with God on our own terms—but our Creator has placed limits on our intellect so that we can never “think” our way into heaven. 
The human mind is a great gift from God.  The breadth of human knowledge is vast.  The technological achievements of mankind are staggering.  But all of it together still cannot bring us to God.  And that has been proved true again and again down through history. Paul writes:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
            There is a division between those who believe the message of the cross and those who don’t and that dividing line cuts across human religions and human philosophies.
Hinduism and Islam and Judaism look very different from one another-- but at their heart they are exactly the same:  they are religions that tell their followers that they can have a life with God-apart from Christ- based upon their own efforts. 
The various moral philosophies of mankind have the same message.  And they leave their followers in exactly the same place—alienated from God—incapable of knowing God as he desires to be known. 
No matter how pious these religions might be—no matter how earnest the followers of some human philosophy—no matter how subtle and sophisticated their arguments:  God counts it all as foolishness because they cannot do what he has done through the cross—and that is to reveal himself as the God who loves us.  Paul writes:
Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
That there is a division between those who believe the message of the cross and those who don’t—that it is impossible for mankind to come to God on the basis of his own works or intellect—is not an accident.  God in his wisdom has made sure that we cannot have a life with him on the basis of human wisdom. 
Certainly we can know some things about God:  we can know that he exists by looking at the creation around us—we can know that he loves good and hates evil by the testimony of our conscience to our actions. 
But we cannot know him as he truly is-- and desires to be known.  That has to be revealed to us in what Paul calls “the folly of what we preach.”   
When Paul calls the word of the cross “folly’ he is talking about the judgment of the world about the message of the cross.  He recognized the same thing that we recognize as we interact with the unbelieving world around us:  that what we regard as the highest wisdom--the world regards as the worst kind of foolishness. 
And yet… believing that message is the only way to salvation.  Right there is the great dilemma and difficulty for mankind—the human roadblocks to faith.  Paul writes:
Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The dividing line between Christians and the world is nothing new--Paul experienced it also.  Jews didn’t believe in Jesus because they wanted some indisputable sign that he was the Messiah.  And even though he did miraculous sign after miraculous sign—they weren’t the signs they wanted.  They wanted the Romans overthrown and Israel restored. 
For Greeks it was unimaginable that God would take on human flesh and die.  They believed in the immortality of the soul, but a bodily, physical resurrection was seen as ridiculous.  And so the “word of the cross” was a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles. 
But it was also true that the Christian congregation at Corinth was full of both Jew and Gentile believers.  As great an impediment to faith as was the demand for signs and the human intellect—the wisdom and power of God to save them was even greater.  Paul writes that: 
The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 
In the years since these words were written, mankind has plumbed the depth of the atom and unraveled the building blocks of life and stood upon the moon.  The wisdom and strength of mankind is great indeed! 
And yet, in all those years, no one has come to God in any other way than by the cross.  What we cannot do in our wisdom-- and what we cannot do in our own strength—the foolishness and weakness of Christ crucified can do, and has done, in bestowing the title “child of God’ upon the lowliness of men.  Paul writes:
Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
            The true power and wisdom of God that is found in the weakness and foolishness of a crucified Jew could be clearly seen in the members of the Corinthian congregation.  Very few of them were wealthy or powerful.  They were just regular folks God had chosen to make his children through faith in Jesus.
So it is today.  Those who have great wealth and great power and great intellect are more often found outside the church than within.  There are exceptions of course and those folks have the ability to do great things for the cause of Christ.  But by and large-- power and wealth and great intellect are hurdles that have to be overcome to have a life with God-- rather than helps to faith in Christ.
That is because power and wealth and intellect lift us up rather than bring us low and that is what God has to do to save us.  So long as:  we are trying to come to God on our own terms—based on our own knowledge and strength, we still don’t know the way of salvation that comes as a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus.  Paul writes:
Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
God the Father has chosen us form eternity to be his own.  He has sent his Son Jesus Christ to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  And his Holy Spirit has worked faith in our heart through the Gospel so that we can believe in Jesus and be saved. 
He is our wisdom—the only way that we can truly know who God is.  His holy life is our righteousness before God.  He is our sanctification—his resurrection life within us that is the ongoing power to live a holy life.  And he is our redemption—the one who has paid the price, in his own blood, to set us free from sin, death, and the devil.

There simply is no room in God’s salvation for the boasting of mankind.  But there is a place for boasting in the Lord!  The rest of our earthly life and all of eternity is not enough time to sufficiently thank God for the power and wisdom of Christ crucified for us—but we can begin today to serve him and praise him as he deserves.  Amen.   

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Merciful Father and His Merciful Children

Luke 6:36-42 In the words that Jesus speaks to us today we hear one of the funniest and most familiar images in the Bible—the person with the log in their own eye trying to get a speck out of someone else’s eye---Jesus’ point being that we are often times blind to our own faults but have perfect 20/20 vision when it comes to the faults of others.
That log in our eye (which is really self-righteousness) blinds us to our own sins—blinds us to our need for God’s mercy—it blinds us to the truth about others.  What Jesus wants to do for us today is to take that log out of our eye so that we can see our own need for God’s great mercy but also see that others need the same mercy from us. 
In other words, God wants us to know and believe that we have in him a merciful Father and that he expects us to be his merciful children.  Jesus says:  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 
What do you want from your life with God?  What do you want your relationship with God to be based upon?  Justice or mercy?  We may not phrase it as justice, but isn’t justice what we really want from God? 
That God would recognize what a great person I am, much better than the rest of the folks around me, and reward me accordingly for being such a fine fellow.  That God would take a little bit closer look at those around me and punish them for their failures.
The fact of the matter is, we wish God were a little bit more exacting in his judgments because surely then we would be lifted up above those around us.  So says our sinful flesh that does not recognize the depth of our sinfulness or the height of God’s holiness. 
We may want justice from God-- but Jesus tells us that what we really need is mercy.  He says:  Your Father is merciful.  Those words tell us something about ourselves—that we need his mercy.  And they tell us something about God—that we can count on his mercy.
The fact of the matter is, we have an elevated view of how good we are because we measure ourselves against the standard of other men.  But that is not God’s standard.  God’s standard for us (what we think and how we live and the things we say) is himself-his holiness and goodness.  And by that standard none of us can stand under God’s justice—all we can do is cast ourselves upon his mercy.
And he has had mercy on us in his Son.  Jesus was the One who met God’s standard in all that he said and did -and what was in his heart- and how he lived his life.  And yet the justice of almighty God fell upon because he came into this world to take our place under God’s judgment at the cross so that all we would know is God’s mercy.
We are God’s children because of his mercy Jesus Christ and because of that mercy we are called to be merciful towards other people—to have compassion on them-to take pity on them—to empathize with their plight—and reach out to them with forgiveness and love.  Jesus said:
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.
            So far we’ve asked:  what do we want from God for ourselves?  And now the question is what God does want from us when it comes to others?  The answer is very simple:  as his sons and daughters he wants us to be like him:  merciful and generous and forgiving. 
The verse that we have before us about not judging is one of the most often quoted and yet misused and misinterpreted verses in the Bible.  When Jesus says that we are not to judge he is not contradicting himself and the rest of the Bible when it comes to spiritual discernment and the moral judgment of the church.  When we measure behavior against the standard of the Bible we are not judging—God is. 
But what Jesus is talking about- and what is absolutely forbidden to the child of God- is the self-righteous, self-exalting judgment of those who make themselves the standard for everyone else—the kind of judging that always seems to acquit us while condemning others. 
This kind of judgment and condemnation ALWAYS earns God’s condemnation because it removes God from the judgment seat and places us upon it.
Instead of being judgmental and harsh, we are to be forgiving and generous towards others just like the Father has been forgiving and generous to us--with the promise of Jesus that we will receive his abundant grace.  Jesus says we can expect that:
[A] Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
            This picture comes from the ancient marketplace.  A woman goes to the market place and makes her purchase of grain.  But a generous merchant refuses to use an exacting scale and instead fills her order with an overflowing abundance—far beyond anything that she had any right to expect—far beyond what was merely just.
That’s the way God has dealt with us.  His overflowing grace has been poured into our lives.  Not only has he given us life—not only has he provided for our material needs—but he has forgiven our sins and given us a place in his family and promised that we will live with him forever.
Unexpected, overflowing gracious generosity—that is what we have received from our heavenly Father.  And because we are his children—he expects us to use the same generous measure in our dealings with others.
Our forgiveness is not to be grudging.  Our giving is not to be pinched.  We are gracious, generous, forgiving people because we have a heavenly Father who is gracious and generous and forgiving and Jesus is the one who puts flesh and bone on what that kind of life looks like: 
Jesus also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.
            When Jesus calls us to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful-- and to be as forgiving and generous to others as God has been to us--he is calling to live a life for which there are no earthly parallels or analogies.  
While the world may know something of mercy-- it knows nothing of mercy that reaches out again and again to lift up those who are avowed enemies.  While the world may know something of forgiveness and generosity-- it knows nothing of forgiveness without limits and generosity that extends to the giving of one’s own life.
But this is the mercy and forgiveness and generosity that we are called to live out in our lives as children of the heavenly Father and the only place to learn of it—the only place to see it in action-- is in the life of Jesus Christ. 
Jesus called the religious leaders of that day “blind guides” because they knew nothing of the true nature of God-- and all of those who followed them could expect the same fiery judgment that they would receive in the pit of hell. 
But Jesus came to open the eyes of the blind—to give us the ability to see God for who he really is through his own life.  And so Jesus is the God-given teacher who leads us in the ways of mercy and forgiveness and generosity. 
We come to him with our sins and he forgives us.  We come to him for assurance that we are really his people and he feeds us with his body and blood.  We come to him needing guidance and direction for our lives and he speaks to us in his Word.  And though his word and through the sacraments he is forming and shaping our lives to be like his own.
This training in Christ-likeness doesn’t take place overnight—all of us are growing in our faith and we need his ongoing help—but day-by-day we are becoming more like Jesus until that day we stand in his presence with the burden of sin and selfishness cast away and we will be like him for we will see him as he is.
Until that day we need to recognize the limits of our own righteousness while we do everything in our power to be merciful and forgiving and generous to those around us when they don’t quite measure up to our standards.  Jesus said:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye.
            Occasionally Caroline or I will get an eyelash in our eye and we will get the other one to help us out--which is like a Three Stooges skit because neither one of us can see all that well. 
“Can you see it?”  “No, I don’t see anything!”  “Well, I feel something.”  “Look up--now look down!”  “There I think I got it!”  It’s hilarious!  But imagine how ridiculous—how absurd it would be if one of us was trying to help the other with an eyelash in their eye while we had a wooden fence post sticking out of our own eye!  There’s something not quite right with that picture.
But Jesus says that’s the way it is when we look with judgment on the shortcomings of others—constantly focused on their little failures-- all the while we are blind to the big problems in our own lives that need to be recognized and confessed and forgiven by Jesus. 
Jesus doesn’t say that we are not to help our friends and family and fellow believers with the problems in their lives anymore than Caroline or I would not try to get an eyelash out of the other’s eye.  But we begin, not with the failures of our loved ones, but with our own failures—asking God to help us see what our sins and shortcomings are so that we can get rid of them through repentance and faith.
It’s only that person who recognizes how good God is to take those fatal logs of sin out of their eyes, who can clearly and compassionately see what needs to be done in the lives of those around them.  Then the help that we give to others doesn’t come from a place of self-righteousness and judgment--but from the mercy that was first given to us.

And so let us turn away from self-righteousness and hard-heartedness and rejoice in the Good News that in the Lord we have a merciful Father who calls us to be his merciful children.  Amen.