Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Taught by the Spirit, We Keep Christ's Words

John 14:23-31 Each week we confess our Christian faith in the words of the creed.  We confess that we believe in one, holy, Christian and apostolic church.  When we confess that the church is “apostolic” we are saying that we believe what the apostles believed.  But there is even more to being apostolic than that!
            The root of the word “Apostolic” is the verb “to send”.  From the very beginning of the Christian church, believers in Jesus were sent out into the world with the Good News of salvation.  That was true of the apostles and it is also true of every Christian since then.  Each of us have a part in the mission of the church for the sake of the world’s salvation. 
The words that we have before us for our meditation this morning were spoken by Jesus in the Upper Room after he instituted the Lord’s Supper.  As meaningful as that moment was, it was not meant to be an end unto itself.  After the supper was ended Jesus said:  “Rise, let us go from here!”  Forgiven of their sins, instructed by Jesus, fed by the body and blood of Christ, the apostles were ready for their mission to the world.
So it is for us.  Worship on the Lord’s Day is blessing but it is not an end unto itself.  Instead, it is the preparation and strengthening we need to take our place and do our part in the Lord’s mission by keeping his Word, sharing his peace, and confronting evil.  Jesus said:
If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me.   “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
            We are going to hear this theme again next week—that a big part of Christian discipleship, of following Jesus as Lord and Savior, of our life with God—is keeping and guarding the words of Jesus.  Our faith and the Lord’s mission depends upon it! 
Faith comes from the Holy Spirit working through the Word.  We believe in Jesus and have a life with God because the Holy Spirit has brought us to faith through the preaching of the Gospel.  The Bible says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.  Our saving faith in Jesus comes through the Word of God.
Faith is maintained in the same way—by the word.  To continue in faith we need to know what God’s will is for our life and the direction he wants us to go and the forgiveness we have when we fail.  It is necessary for our salvation to keep and guard the words of Jesus.
But it goes much farther than that!  Keeping and guarding the words of Jesus is necessary for the salvation of the world so that others can hear of Jesus and come to faith! 
Just as those who keep and guard Jesus’ words are his disciples and have a life with God—those who don’t know his Word cannot have a life with God until someone shares Jesus.
It was not enough that the disciples around that table in the Upper Room kept the Word of God and were saved by faith in Jesus.  He told them, “Rise, let us go from here” because he came to save not only them-- but the world-- and so to every generation of Christian including us here today, he says the same:  “Rise, let us go from here.”
He wants us to take his words of life out into the world around us and yes, we do that in places where we cannot go through our mission giving, but we also do it through our own personal witness.  The words of Jesus that we have kept are to be upon our lips so that those around us can have the peace with God that we have.  Jesus says:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe.
            I don’t have to tell you that we live in a world that is filled with anything but peace.  Instead, there is turmoil and conflict and hatred.  And that is not just true among the family of nations—it is true among the family of man—because the nations are merely people in a certain place who share a common language and culture. 
There is no peace among nations- because there is no peace among men- and there is no peace among men- because the great majority of people in the world do not know Jesus.
So it has always been.  Jesus came into this world in the midst of violence.  A tyrant killed dozens of babies trying to get to him.  His own people tried on numerous occasions to murder him and finally succeeded and by the time the last apostle died, Jerusalem and its temple were rubble. A violent world is nothing new. 
But Jesus came to bring peace—peace with God and peace between men.  He did that by offering up his life as an atoning sacrifice on the cross, his shed blood removing the wrath of God over sin that kept us from God’s presence—so that now we have peace with God-real and lasting- even in the midst of a violent world. 
Jesus intends that his blood-bought peace would make us agents of peace in the world.  As his disciples sat around the table in the Upper Room, experiencing the peace that comes from knowing that they were right with God through Christ’s body and blood—he told them:  “Rise, let us go from here!” 
Let us go from here to the garden where I will be betrayed and captured by an armed mob.  Let us go from here to the cross where I will die a violent death.  Let us go!
And what were the words that were spoken by the Prince of Peace in each of those violent places?  Put away your sword!  Father, forgive them!  Words of peace and forgiveness shared with the world so that men could have peace with God and peace with one another.
Very quickly in the life of the church we see how the peace that Jesus gives makes for peace among men as Jews and Gentiles—enemies for generations—were gathered into one church, united in the body of Christ.
In the same way, part of our mission as disciples is to be agents of peace in the midst of violent world in which we live.  Paul says that if possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.  The writer to the Hebrews says that we are to strive for peace with everyone.  And Jesus says that peacemakers are blessed.
We become agents of peace in a violent world, first of all, by sharing the Good News that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ.  The peace that Jesus gives—the peace that comes from knowing that our sins are forgiven and that we are right with God—is the only peace that can heal troubled, fearful hearts.
Second of all, we extend Jesus’ peace by living with others in ways that are gentle and humble and caring—putting flesh and bone on the peace we have in our hearts. 
When those around us see that kind of peaceful life in our marriages and families-- and the humble way we conduct ourselves in the workplace and school and community—it is a compelling witness to the power of Christ to change lives for the better—a witness that is desperately needed in this broken, evil world in which we live.  Jesus says:
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here.
            One of the many blessings that come with being a part of Christian congregation is that there are people around us who share our values and concerns and priorities.  We share the same understanding about what is right and wrong and that is a comfort because often times when we look at the what the world around us values, it seems like we are the last sane person on earth.  And so to discover that there are others who see the world as we do is a blessing. 
            That night in the Upper Room the disciples must have felt the same way.  They believed in Jesus when the vast majority of their friends and family didn’t.  They believed what Jesus said about what is important and lasting.  It must have been a blessing to gather around that table in the Upper Room in safety and peace. 
But they weren’t allowed to stay there.  Jesus said, “Rise, let us go from here!” and he said that knowing full well the evil they would encounter from the ruler of the fallen world.
But that is exactly why Jesus sent them from that place—to confront evil with the goodness of God! 
Christians have always faced the temptation to remain a holy huddle—people cut off from the world, content to by surrounded by others like themselves.  It certainly seems easier and less dangerous (and it is!) if our only concern is for ourselves.
But Jesus loves the world and wants to save the world and so he sends us out into the world to confront evil—not conform to it!  Evil had no claim on Jesus and it must have no claim on us.  Our lives as his people are to be set apart and different from the world around us as a witness to the world. Jesus said, I do as the Father commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. 
So it is for us!  Our Christian witness is not just the words that we say, it is how we live.  Holy lives, obedient to God are our testimony that we have a Savior who can change human lives and there is no more powerful support to the words we say about Jesus- than the witness to give to Jesus- in the holiness of our lives.
Before long our worship will be over but our witness will being:  keeping Jesus’ words, sharing the peace of Christ, and confronting the evil of our world with the holiness of the Lord.  May God the Holy Spirit bless our witness to Jesus!  Amen.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Stewards of God's Grace

Stewards of God's Grace

1 Peter 4:7-11 If you have your bibles open you will see that the editors of the ESV bible have called this section of the Bible “Stewards of Grace”—a nice little summary of what we have before us and the title of my sermon this morning.  But what do these words mean?
A steward is someone who manages what belongs to another.  The thing itself does not belong to the steward-- but they are free to use it and manage it according to the values and guidelines of the owner.
That is what we are when it comes to the gifts that God has entrusted into our hands:  money, health, time, life itself—all of those things that we call “mine”—really belong to God who has given them to us to use and manage according to his will. 
Today God tells us of a special kind of stewardship that we have—that we are stewards of his grace.  Grace is the attitude that God has towards us on account of Jesus—his undeserved favor and love on account of his Son’s redeeming work. 
That we are stewards of God’s grace means that God has entrusted to our hands the love that he has for the world so that we can use that grace for the sake of others.  And so then, how does that stewardship of God’s grace takes shape in our lives in our attitudes and actions?  The Bible says that:  The end of all things is at hand;
            Peter knew that Jesus could return in glory at any moment—but he also knew that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousands year like a day—and so when he wrote that the end of all things was at hand, he wasn’t setting a date-- but he was saying that there was nothing left in the redemption story except the Lord’s return.
Everything has been accomplished for our salvation:  Jesus has died upon the cross, risen from the dead, and ascended to the Father and has promised to return.  That is what we are waiting for and looking forward to-- and as we wait and watch for our Lord’s return, the Bible talks about what kind of attitude we are to have as stewards of grace--that we are to be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of our prayers. 
To be self-controlled means that we tell ourselves “no” when it comes to doing those things that are wrong and we must learn to “make” ourselves do what is right.  And secondly, to be sober-minded means that we must learn to think clearly and carefully about life, guided by God’s Word.
Just think about the scandals that we see all around us—public and private—and how many of those could have been avoided if the people involved had learned how to tell themselves “no” –thought clearly and carefully about the consequences of their actions BEFORE they did them—and made themselves do the right thing. 
As stewards of God’s grace, our will ought to be self-controlled—our thinking sober-minded—and our hearts filled with love for others.  The Bible says:  Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 
God’s undeserved favor and mercy flows from Jesus’ love for us shown at the cross.  And as his stewards, that same love of Christ is to flow from us to others. 
We live in a world that needs the love of God.  There are so many hurting people—so many broken families—so many sad situations that we may not even know about—where the love that has been given to us in Jesus would make all the difference in the world if we would only share it with others. 
The Bible says that love covers a multitude of sins and we see how true that is first of all in Jesus’ love for us.  It is his sacrifice, given on the cross that has covered all our sins with his blood. 
That same kind of loving sacrifice on our part is what causes us to overlook the frailty, faults and failings in others that are a part of our common life together.
Our faith in Jesus conforms our will to his in that we live lives that are self-controlled.  Our faith informs our intellect in that we are sober-thinkers.  And our faith transforms our emotions so that our hearts are filled with love for others.  It is this Christ-like attitude that shapes our actions as stewards of God’s grace.  The Bible says:
Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.  As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace:  whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies…
            This list of ways that we can serve as stewards of God’s grace is not exhaustive but it is representative of grace-filled living:  hospitality—serving—and speaking.   And so, we are going to look at those three in detail—both from the perspective of God acting in these ways towards us-- and then us sharing these same graces with others.
Being hospitable  means that our hearts and homes are open to others—that we are willing to make a place for others in our lives.  But the root of the word in Greek means to especially welcome a stranger—to make a place for someone who is not naturally a part of our circle. 
That of course is what God did for us.  We are not naturally his children but his enemies.  And yet God’s heart was open and loving and he made a place for us in his family through Jesus’ reconciling work. 
When we are hospitable to others we share this grace of welcome.  In our homes and congregations and our circle of friends we are not closed off to others but make a place for them in our lives so that they can know there is a place for them in God’s life.
And then there’s serving.  Jesus once told his disciples that he had not come into the world TO BE served—but TO serve and to give his life as a ransom for others.  The Bible says that we are to look out for the interests of other and count others better than ourselves.  Jesus service cost him his life and there is a cost to us in serving others—a cost to our pride—a costs to our wallets—a cost to our time.
But it is especially in serving that the world can see Christ in us.  All over this world today there are Christians who are feeding others and teaching others and healing others and caring for others in the name of Jesus Christ. 
These works of mercy help the world around us to know the Savior we follow.  And the same is true much closer to home.  When mom feeds the family and dad works overtime to support the family and the kids help out around the house—in other words when they serve one another-- they show something very real about the faith they have in their hearts and they allow God’s grace to bless others around them.
            And finally the Bible talks about our speech as a vehicle of God’s grace—certainly in telling others about Jesus in our homes and community—but also in how we talk to one another in day-to-day life.  The Bible has plenty to say about our speech. 
It instructs to ask three questions about what comes out of our mouth:  is it true?  We are forbidden by God to tell lies about our neighbor and gossip about our neighbor and ruin his reputation.  And then, is what we’re saying loving?  Even if something is true, is it loving for us to mention it or bring it up.  Would we be embarrassed to have friends hear how we talk to our family members?  And finally, do my words edify—that is, do they build up that other person or tear them down?  Is our speech true and loving and edifying like God’s Word to us?
Our speech is a powerful means of bestowing the grace of God on the lives of others when we speak in loving, honest ways that mirrors the loving words that God has spoke about us in his Word, encouraging, praising, and thanking others. 
When we welcome others into our home and congregation and circle of friends—when we serve those around us to meet their needs—when we say kind things about others that build them up rather than tear them down—we are exercising our stewardship of the grace of God and witnessing to Jesus Christ and bringing glory to God.  The Bible says that we are to do this so that:
In everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.  To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
            In the upper room, the night before Jesus went to the cross, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and prayed:  Father, I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work you gave me to do.  So it is to be with our lives as stewards of God’s grace—that our lives are dedicated to bringing glory to God by sharing his gracious love with others just like Jesus did.
            We ought to make it our life’s goal to able to say those same words at the end of our life:  Father, I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work you gave me to do.
The Bible says that we who believe in Jesus Christ are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus FOR good works.  This is why the grace of God has been poured out upon us so richly in Jesus Christ—so that our own lives would be like his, bestowing his gracious love upon others—so that they could come to know and love him as we do.  May God bless and empower our lives as stewards of his grace.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Our Ascended Savior

Acts 1:1-11 In the introduction to his Gospel, Luke tells Theophilus that he is writing his account of Jesus Christ so that Theophilus may know with certainty the things he has been taught concerning Christianity. 
We don’t know who this Theophilus was except that in the way he was addressed as “the most excellent Theophilus” he was very likely a person of influence.  Luke is also the author of the Book of Acts from which tonight’s text is taken and we see that this book is also addressed to the same Theophilus, but this time his title is removed. 
So what you ask?  Well just this, early Christians did not address one another with titles such as “Most Excellent” which means that Luke’s Gospel was the instrument that the Holy Spirit used to bring this Theophilus to faith in Jesus--and now with his next book, Act, Luke wants to make sure that Theophilus knows the rest of the Gospel story from the ascension onward-- which is the story of the Holy Spirit and the church.
Through these same words, written nearly two thousand years ago, the Lord speaks to us on this Ascension Day about those things that he wants us to know with certainty and believe with all our heart:  1. that Jesus is just exactly who claimed to be:  the Savior of the world—2. that this Good News of salvation is for all people, in every place and time—3. and that Jesus will return as he ascended:  as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Luke writes:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  To them he presented himself alive after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
            In these opening sentences you have a brief little summary of the contents of Luke’s “first book”—his Gospel:  the things that Jesus did and taught—his choosing of the apostles—his suffering, death, resurrection and ascension—and the promise of the Holy Spirit.
This is the story of Jesus, inspired by the Holy Spirit, written down by Luke, and read by us tonight for exactly the same purpose as it was originally written to Theophilus:  that we may know with certainty that Jesus is who he says he is-- and that his ascension is the visible demonstration that he has accomplished what he was sent by the Father to do—and that knowing these things, the Holy Spirit would give us the same measure of faith that he gave to Theophilus who was the first person to read Luke’s history of the early church.
By profession Luke was a doctor—but he was also a very fine historian.  Besides being inspired by the Holy Spirit, he gathered sources and weighed evidence and interviewed first hand witnesses-- to make sure that what he wrote about Jesus was true and reliable and could be counted on to lead people to faith in Jesus.
The story of Jesus, written in the pages of Sacred Scripture, is grounded in a particular point in time-- with Roman and Jewish leaders we know from the historical record.  The story of Jesus is grounded in particular places that you can still visit today.  The story of Jesus is grounded in particular cultures for which there is rich archeological and anthropological evidence. 
Luke’s biography of Jesus and history of the early church is accurate.  But even more than that—his inspired words are the power of God unto salvation through which the Holy Spirit worked faith in Theophilus’ heart as he read the story of Jesus—just as the Spirit works in our hearts the same way tonight to bring us to faith.
Theophilus didn’t get to see the many convincing proofs of the resurrection that the disciples of Jesus saw.  He read about them in Luke’s books.  But as he read about them, the Holy Spirit worked faith in his heart and he became one of those blessed ones of whom Jesus spoke who did not see-- and yet believed.
We are a part of that same blessed group.  We look back over the last six months of the church year and see through the Gospel story the birth of our Lord and the Magi’s visit.  We walked with Jesus on the road to the cross and we saw his suffering and death.  During this Easter season we have also seen that death was not the end for Jesus—but that he rose again and appeared as the risen Lord to over 500 of his faithful followers. 
This biblical picture of the Lord has been revealed to us for one reason:  that just like Theolphilus, we might know with certainty and believe with all our heart that Jesus is just exactly who he claimed to be:  the Savior of the world who has brought us into God’s kingdom through his death and resurrection—and who desires that others would have a place there through our witness in word and deed.  Luke writes:
While staying with them Jesus ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, "you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."  So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"  He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." 
            It is necessary that each of us believes that Jesus Christ is our Savior from sin and death if we are to enter into the kingdom of God.  Luke wrote his Gospel for that very purpose.  But much too often, we stop there-- and our own personal salvation becomes the pinnacle of God’s work in the world. 
But just as much as God loves us and works for our salvation-- so he loves the world and works for the salvation of the world.  This Good News about who Jesus is and what he has done- -is for all people.  That Christians forget this at times-- is nothing new.
Even after all they had seen and after all they had been taught--the disciples still thought that the goal of the Messiah’s work was about restoring the fortunes of physical Israel.  They still didn’t understand that Israel had always been—at its heart—a spiritual kingdom comprised of all those who had faith in God’s promised Messiah.  But at Pentecost they were about to get a powerful, visible demonstration of that wonderful truth that the kingdom of heaven is open to all people through faith in Jesus.
Just as he promised, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit upon the apostolic community-- and in a miracle that made it clear that the Good News of the Gospel was for all people--pilgrims from all over the world who had traveled to Jerusalem for Pentecost heard the Good News of Jesus proclaimed—each in their own language.  As they took this message back to their own countries, more and more people—both Jews and Gentiles-- came to faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
The Holy Spirit was given by the ascended Christ for that very purpose of inspiring and empowering the proclamation that Jesus of Nazareth is the Savior of the world-- so that those who believe in him-- can share him with others.
The words that we hear Jesus says tonight, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” were not just spoken to those present at the ascension-- but they are spoken to every Christian, in every time and place—right down to this moment. YOU ARE MY WITNESSES! 
There is much that we do not know in life—there are times and seasons and circumstances and situations in our lives where the Lord gives us the same answer that he gave to the disciples who asked about the restoration of Israel:  it is not for you to know the Father’s business. 
But what Jesus does want us to know tonight, is that our lives have meaning and purpose no matter what our situation or circumstance-- and that divine purpose is to bear witness to God’s love for all people in Jesus Christ to every corner of the world.
The apostles never travelled to San Angelo or Wall or Miles or Cristoval—but we have—and this little corner of the world is our mission field—and the Holy Spirit has been given to us by the ascended Lord so that we would bear witness to Jesus in our daily lives. 
We are:  who we are-- and what we are-- and where we are-- so that through our witness as many people as possible might come to know Jesus as their loving Savior before they meet him on the Last Day as the Mighty King and Righteous Judge—for that is how he ascended and that is who he will return.  Luke writes:
When Jesus had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
            At his ascension, our Lord did not go up into heaven as the Babe of Bethlehem—he did not return to his Father’s side as the poor, itinerant rabbi who had no place to lay his head—he was not lifted up from human view as the Suffering Servant. 
Our Lord ascended into heaven as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who conquered the enemies of sin, death, and the devil that had ruined his Father’s world and wrecked our lives-- and he took his rightful place at the throne of Almighty God from whence he had come.  That is the way that he will return—as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords-- and at his return every knee will bow to him—either in love or in fear. 
            That is why it is so important for us on this Ascension Day to learn these things that the Lord wants us to know:  that Jesus is the one and only Savior whom God has provided to the world--and that because his salvation is intended for all people, he gives us the Holy Spirit so that we might bear witness to him and bring others to faith in him.  And that united together with all who believe, we look for him to come again the same way he ascended:  as the most highly exalted King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Amen.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Grumbling or Gratitude?

Number 21:4-9 Grumbling or gratitude?  That is the choice that we have to make each and every day even before we throw off the covers and our feet hit the floor.  Grumbling or gratitude?   Which will it be? 
For you and me and for all who are privileged to be called the people of God and enjoy his blessings and tender mercies--it ought to be gratitude.  That we woke up—that we have a bed—that we have feet to hit the floor with--ought to engender in us profound gratitude to Almighty God.  And yet the truth of the matter is that it is grumbling, not gratitude, that is natural to our sinful flesh.
            The Israelites came to know the same about themselves during the years of their sojourn in the wilderness.  The Bibles says, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom.
That they were making this journey at all was of course a miracle of God’s grace.  They had been delivered from hard bondage in Egypt and made the free people of God—carrying with them the wealth of the nation that had previously enslaved them—all of it by an act of God’s merciful, powerful redemption.
            For forty years--as they were led by God through a wilderness that should not have supported them for forty hours—they were given food and water by the Lord—their clothing and sandals never wore out—they were never alone.  They had all they needed for life and what’s more they possessed what they had no right to have:  a relationship with the one true and living God of the universe whom they could address as Father.
            We can say the same about our lives.  That we are sitting here today, living and breathing, is an unmistakable sign (for those with the eyes of faith to see it) that we have a God who protects and provides.  For all the years of our lives we have been fed and clothed and sheltered.  And what is much more important, we are blessed to be able to call God our Father through faith in Jesus Christ.  We have been baptized into Christ and fed with his true body and blood.  We can talk to God in prayer and hear his Word.  Despite the faithless worries that afflict us at times—God has been, and will always be, faithful.  People blessed like this ought to be grateful, right?   The Bible says:
The people became impatient on the way.  And the people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread and no water! And loathe this worthless food!" 
This wasn’t the first time that the Israelites showed this kind of grumbling, rather than grateful, attitude.  Almost immediately after having been delivered from slavery they told themselves that it would have been better to die in slavery in Egypt than live as the free people of God in the wilderness.
            They grumbled about what they didn’t have and weren’t grateful for what they did have.  What was particularly shameful about their attitude is that the food they detested—the manna--was not just meant to nourish their bodies- but was a spiritual food meant to nourish their souls as they gathered just enough for each day to teach them to trust God’s ongoing provision and protection.
            When we reflect upon our lives we see that we have some of those same kinds of spiritual struggles of grumbling rather than gratitude—and it is just as unwarranted.  The bible says,
We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”
 God has provided that to us and much more and yet we know how often our thoughts are filled not with satisfaction but with wanting—always wanting more.
            What is particularly shameful is that, like the Israelites, we don’t always hold in high regard the spiritual gifts and provision of the LORD. 
We watch television many more hours than we read the Bible.  We worry about our problems rather than meditate on God’s promises.  We find ourselves going through the motions as we come to the Lord’s Table rather than really reflecting on what is present there and resolving to amend our lives in the strength that we find there.  Our prayer life is filled with many more “please give me’s” than “thank-you’s”.
            What we learn today is that grumbling rather than gratitude demonstrates a lack of faith--and is deadly to our life with God.  God loves his people too much to let them continue like that.  The Bible says,
“Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people and many people of Israel died.”    
            The snakes that the LORD sent among the people as a punishment seem to us very harsh—and it was.  But not as harsh as letting the Israelites continue in the direction they were going—a direction that would lead to their eternal damnation--more terrible by far than anything that could happen to them on earth. 
God always had their eternal welfare as his first goal and so he disciplined them—even harshly—so that they would not continue along the broad and easy road that leads to eternal death.   That biblical truth, that God disciplines those he loves, is important for us to remember as well for it stands to this day. 
            Now we have all kinds of goals and hopes and dreams that we want to accomplish.  There are all kinds of things that we want to possess.  But God has just one:  that we would possess eternal life today and forever and he will do whatever it takes—even if it is painful-- to bring us safely to our heavenly home. 
            And so God uses hardship and suffering and loss to break the hold that sin has on our life—to get our attention—to bring us to our senses-and drive us to our knees just like happened with the Israelites.  The Bible says that,
“The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you.” 
            It is when we see our marriage on the rocks that we realize we haven’t been following God’s model for men and women.  It is when we are sick that we realize that we have been living as if this life would go on forever.  It is when we suffer “want” that we realize that we haven’t been generous with God and with others.  It is when we are alone that we realize that we haven’t been a friend to others.  It is when our faith is weak and God seems far away that we realize we haven’t made use of God’s gracious gifts of Word and Sacrament-- and that it is us—not God—that has moved.
            But I want you to know today dear friends in Christ-- that even in the late hour of the Lord’s discipline—it is not too late.  The bible says, “A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” 
God disciplines us in love so that we will despair of our own sufficiency—so that we will call out to him in our need—so that will look to him in faith and live. That’s what the Israelites discovered that day of the Lord’s hard discipline.  They cried out: 
“Pray that the LORD that he take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. 
In the hour of their deepest need, the Israelites discovered that in Moses they had an intercessor—one who would stand between their sinful grumbling and God’s wrath-- and plead to God for mercy and healing on their behalf.
            That of course was not just Israel’s need that day--but a picture or a type of humanity’s need throughout history—to have someone who will serve as an intercessor and mediator between our sins and God’s wrath.  That person is Jesus Christ.
            Jesus Christ was sent into the world, not to save us from a desert serpent’s sting, but to save us from the eternally deadly sting of the satanic serpent who has been leading people into death every since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
            God promised them that a deliverer would come—one who would indeed be wounded by Satan but would have the victory by crushing him completely.  And that is what God did in his Son Jesus Christ.  Even though he was mortally wounded on the tree of the cross—suffering the full poison of the sins of the world which he bore in his own body—Christ was not defeated—his death was victory and he showed that victory to the world on Easter morning as he rose from the dead.
            The person and work of Jesus Christ was the Lord’s antidote from the deadly sting of sin, death, and the devil--the fulfillment of what he showed to the people of Israel in the desert.
The LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live."  So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” 
 The LORD provided a cure from the sting of the deadly serpents—a cure that was for all the Israelites—a promise that anyone—young, old, rich, poor, male, female—anyone who listened to the promise of God and looked to it in faith—would live.
            In exactly the same way, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is the God-given cure for the whole world from the Satanic curse of sin and death—it’s blessings and promise is for all people but just like then, we must look to it in faith if we are to live. 
            The faith which lays hold of the blessings of God that are in the cross and empty tomb comes to us in exactly the same way as it came for the Israelites—when we, by the powerful help of the Holy Spirit, believe God’s promises that are conveyed to us in his Word and Sacraments.
            There is nothing miraculous in water anymore than there is in bronze but when God says that in Baptism we have died and risen with Christ we really have.  There is nothing miraculous in bread and wine anymore than there is in snakes but when Jesus says take and eat my body and take and drink my blood for the forgiveness of sins we really have it.  There is nothing miraculous in the presence of a pastor anymore than there is in a pole but when Jesus promises that when we hear forgiveness spoken by those who are called to speak in his name we can be sure that we have what they promise.
            Today is the day for us to recognize God’s gracious provision in our lives—to re-commit ourselves to regular use of Word and Sacraments-- and to let gratefulness for the gifts of God rather than grumbling always be foremost in our hearts—and to look to Jesus and live.  Amen. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Our Father's Unchanging Love

Our Father's Unchanging Love

James 1:16-21 The words that precede our text deal with the trials and temptations of the Christians.  We Christians are not magically immune from hardships and difficulties and earthly sorrows.  The Bible says:  blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial.  In other words, there are going to be trials for the child of God.
Neither are we immune from temptation.  All of us struggle to be the people that God wants us to be.  The Bible says that we are “lured and enticed by our own desire.”
And so we experience earthly trials and temptations just like those who do not share our faith at all!  Christians have always struggled with this. 
We want to believe that since I am God’s child, surely he will make my life’s journey smooth.  We want to believe that since I have faith in Jesus, I will go from spiritual victory to spiritual victory.
But of course we know that is not true and that “disconnect” from who we are as God’s children- and what we actually experience in life- has always been a faith struggle for Christians.  It makes us wonder:  why is life this way and why do I feel this way?
Satan uses these difficulties to call into question the goodness of God.  He says, “Maybe the problem is not with you—maybe the problem is not with the world—maybe the problem is with God”. And he tempts us to doubt God’s goodness and love.
The Holy Spirit inspired James to write an answer to these questions we have and respond to these temptations of the devil.  The Bible says:
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.  Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,
            The idea that somehow God has failed us when it comes to trial and temptation—the Bible calls a deception—just the opposite of the truth.  The fact of the matter is that our heavenly Father can be counted on to give his children good gifts.
But we also need to understand that God gives good gifts AS our Father.  In other words, it is his wisdom and his values and his foresight and his plans for us that govern the gifts he gives and when he gives them. 
That fatherly wisdom and love begins to explain some of the “disconnect” between our identity as God’s children-- and what we actually experience in life in trials and temptations.
All of us who are parents know that it is neither good nor wise to give our children everything they ask for.  Some things are not good for them.  Some gifts are inappropriate for their age.  Some things are not part of the values of our family.  Some gifts are not even things that they would ask for. 
For example, when we get braces for our children’s teeth it costs us thousands of dollars and is not all that pleasant for them—but we know that it is for their own good.  So it is with God and the good gifts he gives us.
None us would choose some trial for ourselves.  None of us enjoy pain.  But God already knows the kind of person he wants us to become and we mature in our faith as we face those challenges and endure that pain and learn to trust his wisdom—confident that he is working good in our lives because that is who he is.  The Bible says that he is
the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 
Our heavenly Father has always been good to us and will always be good to us because he does not change—even though we change by the moment. 
Sometimes our faith is strong—sometimes it is a flickering flame.  Sometimes we do a pretty good job walking in obedience to his will—sometimes we live in open rebellion.  What a blessing to know that we can count on a heavenly Father who is good to us simply because he is good and always be good! 
The truth of that goodness and steadfastness is shown most clearly in God’s desire to save us and make us his children.  The Bible says that:  Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth
            It is the will of God to save us.  The Bible says that:  “this is what love is—not that we loved God but the he loved us and sent his Son Jesus to be the sacrifice for our sins”—that “God has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be his own”—and that our Father who “did not spare his own Son will graciously give us all things in him”.
The Father’s steadfast will to save us is seen most clearly in the perfect gift he gave to us in his Son Jesus.  God has always loved us and will always love us and has given his Son to prove that love beyond any shadow of a doubt. 
Yes, there may be times of trial and temptation when the love of the Father and his attitude towards us is in doubt—but we are directed to the cross where the proof of his unchanging love and saving will for us is seen again and again.
And not only has he given us his Son but he has graciously and providentially ordered our lives so that we could come to faith in Jesus and be saved.  He is the one who has brought us forth, causing us to be born again unto eternal life. 
Many of us were born to Christian parents who taught us the faith.  All of us have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and had the good news of forgiveness preached to us.  We are fed with Christ’s true body and blood.
Our salvation from beginning to end is the work of a loving Father who has chosen to give us life through faith in his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives through the Word.  He did this for a reason…
That we would be “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”  Now, what does the Bible mean by that?  Just this:  It is in the lives of Christians who have been born again by the power of the Gospel that we can actually see the fruit of Christ’s redeeming work.  We can see what he has accomplished for us in his death and resurrection. 
One day there will be a new creation--but we can’t see that with our eyes, we have to accept it by faith.  One day there will be no more sorrow or suffering—but we can’t see that with our eyes, we have to accept it by faith.  One day there will be no more trials or temptation—but we can’t see that with our eyes, we have to accept it by faith.
But the fruit of Christ’s redeeming work can be seen in people who have come to faith in Jesus Christ.  In the lives of Christians, we see and hear living and breathing examples of God’s saving purpose in the world—the firstfruits of a new creation where sin and death and the power of the devil have no place.
But what happens when we Christians (who are the fruit of Christ’s redeeming work) do not show the saving work of God because we continue to live in sin as if Christ hadn’t saved us at all?  The Bible says:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
            James uses the specific examples of anger and sins of speech to make his point—but the effect of sin in our lives, whatever it is, is the same:  it does not produce the righteousness of God in our lives.
Here the Bible is NOT talking about the righteousness that counts before God as salvation (that only comes through Jesus!) but the Bible is talking about the righteous life that ought to come from our faith in Jesus.
In other words, the righteousness that we have by faith in Jesus ought to produce a righteous life in us—hating sin and doing the RIGHT thing.
The specific example from our text has to do with our relationships and the things we say.  Just imagine to yourself what your marriage and family would be like if you were always quick to listen to others, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. 
Of course, we know about ourselves that just the opposite is much too often true—we don’t listen carefully to others—we are much too willing to make sure that we are heard—and we become angry quickly.  And so what is the solution when we find that our lives are not showing the fruit of Christ’s saving work?  The Bible says:
Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
            One of the greatest gifts our heavenly Father gives us is the opportunity to start over.  He never washes his hands of us.  He never says you can’t come back home.  He never tires of forgiving us and lifting us up again.
We don’t always live the righteous way we ought to live as those who are the first-fruits of Christ’s redeeming work.  We give in to temptation.  We let the trials of life lead us to doubt God’s love.  In those moments we need to be clear:  God hasn’t failed us—we’ve failed God. 
That is when it is time to call the sin and doubt what it is-- and put it way by being sorry for it and repenting of it and confessing it to God.  And then listen to God when he tells us that he forgives us and loves us and we are his children and he is our Father and he can be trusted for salvation.  Amen.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Living as Servants of Christ

1 Peter 2:11-20 We spend an hour a week in church on Sunday hearing the Word of God and receiving Holy Communion and being among God’s people. If we stay for Bible class that’s an extra hour and during Lent and Advent there is another hour.
Basically, we spend an hour or two a week here in church, listening to and studying God’s Word, enjoying the fellowship of our fellow Christians—and then it’s out into the world for the other 167 hours of the week. This is where the real spiritual battle to live as servants of God takes place. The Bible says:
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.
The challenge of being Christians in the world begins in our own heart and how we see ourselves. The Bible says that we are “sojourners and exiles”. In other words, this world is not our true home—we are citizens of another place—we are simply passing through to our true home with God in heaven.
And so then, as sojourners and exiles we are to embody the values of our true home (which is God’s kingdom) and our rightful King (who is Jesus).
But the truth of the matter is, we are attracted to values of this unbelieving world and we are constantly tempted to follow in its ways and so our life in the world is a battle we have to wage every moment between the person that we are in Christ-- and our flesh.
The Bible says that we are to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”  Abstaining from what we want does not come naturally to us and most of us don’t have a lot of practice doing it. There is some new toy that we want and so we get it. We eat until we groan in pain. We sleep in rather than exercise.
And because we never tell ourselves “no” in the small things--we have little ability to say “no” when it really matters—when our flesh is tempting us to sin.
The struggle to live as servants of God begins is in our Old Adam and too many Christians have given up and given in when it comes to saying “no” to their flesh.
This is no small thing. The Bible calls it a war and that is exactly what it is! There will be a victor and there will be a loser. Either your passions will win out and drag you body and soul into the fires of hell-- or the Christian in you will win out and you will go to heaven and be raised on the last day.
Those are the only two possible outcomes of the spiritual battle each of us face within our hearts and out in the world and against the devil to live as servants of God and so we are called upon by God to abstain from the temptations of the flesh for the sake of our eternal salvation—but also for the sake of those around us. The Bible says:
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
The battle that we must wage against our own sinful flesh has eternal consequences not only for us—but also for unbelievers around us.
In other words, when we walk out of this place on Sunday we have a solemn responsibility to live as Christian people so that those who don’t know Jesus as their Lord and Savior can come to know him BY how we live our lives in their presence.
You and I both know that, from Sunday to Sunday, we don’t really have all that many opportunities to speak about Christ.
Now, we have many, many more than we actually make use of!  But most of our interactions with others don’t provide us with many opportunities to talk about our faith. And yet we have limitless opportunities to live out our faith in our daily lives.
When we are kind to the people who serve us in the various stores around town—when we are patient with our co-workers—when we are helpful to our teachers—when we are generous to those in need—there is a powerful witness to Jesus whom we serve.
And that matters! There are plenty of people in our world today who are ready to think the worst about Christians and believe the worst about Christians—plenty of people who reject our values and who doubt our core beliefs.
We can talk to them—we can try to answer their arguments—we can be advocates for our rights as Christians in the public square (and there is value in all of these!) but there is one thing that is absolutely unassailable in making the case for Christ—and that is the power of a sincere, genuine Christian life.
The Bible says that you are to live in such a way that people see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. This means that on the day of our Lord’s return, there will be people going to heaven who give glory to God because they saw how we lived our lives—learned about what we believe and why-- and came to faith in Jesus.
That is the high calling of the Christian life—that in our daily lives we reflect Jesus so that others can see him in us. That is certainly to be true in our lives as citizens in this nation. The Bible says:
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
There are any number of governmental entities and individuals that have a claim upon our lives as citizens and so we pay our taxes and serve on juries and obey the speed limit.
As Christian citizens we are free to advocate for less government and fewer regulations and lower taxes, but when it comes to the laws that are on the books and the government officials who enforce them--the Bible says that we are to be subject to them.
God expects us to do good rather than evil for our nation and its government and our fellow citizens because that has a positive effect on those around us—silencing their complaints and concerns about having Christians as fellow citizens because of how we live our lives.  The Bible says: Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
There is an honor due to everyone given their place in life. To the young woman who checks us out at HEB it is common courtesy. To the tradesmen who does work for us there is there prompt payment of their bill. To doctors who care for us and educators who instruct our children there is appreciation. Honoring everyone means that treat others as we would like to be treated.
Our attitude towards our fellow Christians goes beyond that. The Bible says that we are to love the brotherhood—that is, our fellow Christians and especially the members of our own congregation. It is a shameful, sinful thing when Christians despise and mistreat their fellow Christians for we are brothers and sisters in God’s family.
And when it comes to our relationship with God, the Bible says that we are to fear him. It’s an interesting word that the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to use when it comes to what we are to render to God.
In other places, the Bible talks about loving God and trusting God and obeying God-- but here the Holy Spirit says that we are to fear God. And so we should!
That is because these are words are written to us with the expectation that we will obey them. They are not left to our own discretion. They are not optional for the Christian.
God expects us to recognize those places in our life where we have fallen, repent of them immediately and receive the forgiveness of Jesus and then begin to amend our lives by following his will for his servants that we find in his word today. The Bible says:
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
            It is easy when reading through these words to simply see them as a list of rules that we are to follow that govern our conduct in the workplace and in the nation and in the church. And they are indeed commands of God and God expects our obedience!
But there’s more to it than that. These words about love and respect and obedience are words about Jesus and how he lived his life:  doing good to those who mistreated him—enduring sorrows while suffering unjustly—dying for our sins.
Jesus’ life of love and obedience and respect did not earn him worldly success and great fame and wealth—his life of love and obedience led him to the cross—and it will lead to hardship for us too. But it also the only road that leads to eternal life.
That is why the Bible says that it is a gracious thing in the sight of God when we suffer for doing good and endure because that kind of life identifies us with Christ and his life. 
And so we live our lives here on earth as Jesus lived his life—as servants of God—speaking our Father’s words and doing our Father’s will and walking in the steps of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.