Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Grace Alone. Faith Alone. Christ Alone.

Romans 3:19-28 In a recent Concordia Publishing House catalogue I noticed a book entitled:  “Doctrine is Life”.  It’s a collection of writings by one of the great Lutheran theologians of the 20th century—Robert Preus.  And when I saw the title, “Doctrine is Life”, I kind of chuckled to myself and thought:  only in the Missouri Synod could a book with that title have a chance of selling copies to anyone but the author’s family.
All kinds of things may be central to the lives of people today, but very few people—even Christians—would identify doctrine with life. And yet the truth of the matter is that the book is appropriately titled—doctrine is life.  Now…
What Dr. Preus mean by “doctrine” is not some theologian’s speculations or some academic exercise.  Instead, the doctrine that is life is found in the basic teachings of the Bible that tell us:  who we are- and who God is- and how we can have a life with him. 
To live a life that is fully human, it is necessary to know the truth about these things—truth that is found:  not in a man—not in a group of men—not in a church council or convention—but in the Bible which is the word of life. 
And the heart of biblical doctrine is the teaching that we have before us today:  the doctrine of justification—that we are declared right in God’s sight by his grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Such is its importance of justification that the reformers called it “the article upon which the church stands or falls”--the belief that the very life, and continued existence of Christianity, depends upon teaching and confessing and believing this doctrine correctly. 
Why is that?  Why do we place such importance on correctly teaching justification?  It is because this doctrine answers the most important question of our human existence:  How can a sinner like me have a life with a holy God? 
To know and believe the Bible’s answer to that question is to have eternal life—and to be deceived or ignorant of the Bible’s answer is to be separated from god for time and eternity.  The bible says that:
We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 
            Every single person is born under the righteous demands of God’s holy will.  No one is excluded—not those who are too young to realize that they are under the law—not those who have never heard of the Ten Commandments.  Every human being is subject to keeping God’s law perfectly so that we are holy as he is holy. 
And it does not count in our favor one little bit that we have not done this sin or that sin when it comes to our being right in God’s sight.  To have sinned just once-- is to fall under God’s wrath-- and all of the rationalizations and excuses and justifications that we offer for our sins--falls on deaf ears. 
Every mouth is stopped and the whole world is held accountable to God by the law and “the wages of sin is death”. 
One man who knew the demands of God and the depths of his own sinfulness was Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk who lived in the first half of the 1500’s.  He was far ahead of most people today when it comes to the things of God because at least the church of his day had not lost sight of the holiness of God.
Luther knew that the Lord was a God of justice and wrath.  He knew that he was a sinner.  And he knew that a death sentence hung over his head because of it.
Where the Church of his day did go wrong was in telling him that his own works and sacrifices and efforts could appease the wrath of God over his sin and earn him eternal life. 
But Luther gave it his best shot as none of us ever have.  He joined a monastery and became a priest and gave up his earthly goods and fasted and whipped himself and made a pilgrimage to Rome and prayed to the saints for help. 
And yet, at the end of the day, WHAT Luther discovered about his relationship with God is what Paul tells us plainly in our lesson today—the impossibility of being right in God’s sight by our own efforts.  The Bible says that: 
By works of the law no human being will be justified in God’s sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
  As Luther gave it his very best to live a life that would atone for his sin through good works, what he discovered about himself was that he was not drawing nearer to God at all-- but was seeing ever more clearly the great gulf that separated him from God.
Luther knew the truth about himself that he was sinner deserving God’s wrath.  He knew that the answer his church gave to this great human dilemma provided absolutely no hope of satisfying the righteous requirements of God. 
And he was led almost to the point of despair until he re-discovered the Good News that changed his life, and reformed the Church, and restored the Gospel to the central place it must have in the church’s teaching and in our lives. 
He discovered that what we cannot do for ourselves through the works of the law, God has done for us in his Son. The Bible says that:
Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
            As he reflected on his life and as he tried to work his way to heaven, Luther was tormented by the phrase “the righteousness of God” because he knew how far his own life was removed from anything resembling God’s righteousness. 
But what Luther re-discovered was that the righteousness of God was not just something that God required of us in the law-- but something he provided for us through faith in his Son Jesus Christ.
And “re-discovered” is the right word because the Good News of salvation through faith in God’s Messiah was not a new doctrine.  It’s what the church had always believed, and what the Bible had always taught about the sinful condition of all people revealed in the law-- and the hope of all people found in Christ.  The Bible says that:
There is no distinction:   for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,   and are justified by his grace as a gift,
            Paul spends the first three chapters of Romans very carefully proving what he says so simply right here:  ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  There are no exclusions and no exceptions. 
But that word “all” also means what it says about those who have been justified in God’s sight:  ALL have been justified by his grace as a gift…”  What we could never earn for ourselves—a right relationship with God—God gives to us a gift.  So how did God accomplish that?  Paul tells us the justification of all people came:
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.     
            What we could not do for ourselves in gaining a right relationship with God, God has done for us.  Jesus Christ was sent into this world by his heavenly Father to offer up the atoning sacrifice which would take away God’s wrath over our sins. 
Jesus suffered his Father’s wrath—the wrath that we by our sins have deserved-- and he shed his life’s blood to set us free from sin and death and the power of the devil—and God showed his acceptance of that sacrifice by raising his Son from the dead for our justification. 
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection have once again made things right between God and man but for us to benefit from his atoning work we must believe in him. 
This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
What is the “this” that shows God’s righteousness?  It is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for every sin and every sinner.  It is there alone that we can truly come to know God and have a life with God.  It is there at the cross that we see just exactly how God regards human sin—as an abomination which deserves his wrath. 
But it is also there at the cross that we see the truth about God’s love for us—a love that withholds absolutely nothing from us—not even his own Son. 
We see in Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world that God is just—that he is holy—that he will not abide with sin—but it is also there at the cross that we see his love for us and the one and only one way for sinful people to have a life with him—and that is through faith in his Son.  Paul writes in conclusion:
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.  For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 
            Faithful Lutherans around the world celebrate this day as Reformation Day—not as a thumb in the eye for the rest of Christendom and not as a day to re-open old wounds between us and other Christians.
We observe this day with a deep humility at the goodness of God that he has still preserved in our midst his saving doctrine that gives life:  the Good News that we are justified by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone!  Amen.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Jesus Is Our Sabbath Rest

Hebrews 4:9-13 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Over the course of six days, he spoke his almighty and powerful Word and called this world into being from nothing.  He created the stars and the planets.  He created the oceans and dry ground.  He created the plants and animals.  And he created mankind.
            And not only did he create man—he established a relationship with them.  Man was made in the image of God—male and female he created them to have fellowship with him.  They knew God face to face.  They walked with him and talked with him.  They ruled over the rest of creation and their love for one another created new life.   
Day after day, God spoke- and what he spoke- came into being.  At the end of each of the days of creation, God looked out upon all he created and called it good.  And on the seventh day he rested.
God did not rest because he was tired.  He did not cease from his creative work which continues to this day as he speaks that ongoing “yes” that sustains the universe. 
The seventh day was a day in which he took a step back to admire the perfect world he had brought into existence and the loving relationship he had established with man.  Can you picture that scene in your mind where all is right in the world?
If you can, you know what a tragedy it was when man rebelled against God and destroyed the world he created and the relationship he established with man.  And yet God promised that he would re-make what man’s sin destroyed and re-establish that right relationship that existed between God and man in the beginning.
From then on, the Sabbath Day was set aside by God for man, not only so that man could rest from his labors, but so that he could feast his eyes of faith on that first, seventh day vision of a perfect creation and a right relationship with God—set aside so that he could worship and praise God for his goodness—set aside to lay hold of God’s promise that he would make things right, just like they were in the beginning. 
Every Sabbath day existed for that purpose:  to give thanks for what God’s Word accomplished in the beginning and to be renewed in faith and hope at what God’s Word promised was still to come.  And yet, the Bible says:  There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.  In other words, there was still more than those Sabbaths.
For thousands of years God’s people observed the Sabbath—that seventh day of remembrance and promise.  But as joyful and hopeful as those celebrations were, there was still a shadow over them.  They remembered something that no longer existed because of their sin.  They looked forward to a promise that had not yet been fulfilled.
But that shadow disappeared when the Light of the World took on human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.  The Bible says that the Sabbath days were “a shadow of things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”  What the Sabbaths longed for and hoped for was fulfilled in Jesus.
Jesus Christ re-established the fellowship that existed between God and man in the beginning.  He did away with the sins that keep us from God by washing them away in his blood on the cross.  And his resurrection was the beginning of a new creation in which death and sin have no part.
Jesus Christ is the true Sabbath-rest of the people of God.  He is the certainty that there will be a new heaven and a new earth just like there was in the beginning.  He is the guarantee that we will once again dwell in God’s presence. 
All of this has been accomplished by the saving work of Jesus and to enter into his Sabbath rest—to take our own place there—it is necessary to rest from our labors and receive in faith what he has done.  The Bible says:  Whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. 
Let’s go back for a moment to that first, seventh day Sabbath—the one from the beginning.  What did God see as he looked out upon his world?  He saw a creation that was perfect.  He saw a world in which there was only life.  He saw mankind as his children.  He saw that his work was complete.
To enter God’s Sabbath rest is to look to Jesus Christ and know that the same is true for through faith in him.  Once again we are counted as God’s children.  There is a life for us that death cannot end.  And there is nothing that needs to be added to Jesus’ work-- by our own work. 
How foolish and faithless it would have been for Adam and Eve to look at the beauty of the creation around them and regard it as the work of their own hands!
They were the creatures—God was the creator.  They were the recipients of his creative work.  They had status as children that God simply bestowed upon them of his grace.  So it is with us and Jesus!
How foolish and faithless to look at Jesus’ holy life and bloody death and glorious resurrection and count even a part of our salvation the result of what we have done.  How sinfully presumptuous to believe that our status as God’s children is anything other than our identity in Christ that the Holy Spirit has bestowed on us in Holy Baptism! 
Jesus has done it all and when we gaze upon his re-creating work all that we can do-- is what God did in the beginning when he looked upon his original creation—call it good.  The Bible says:  Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.
That we are to strive to enter the Sabbath-rest of God may seem like a contradiction when we can do nothing but receive what he has done—but it is not. 
God speaks these words about striving to enter his rest because throughout salvation history, there have been countless millions who did not enter his rest because they rejected what he had done.
In the verses before our text today, the author reminded his congregation about the people of Israel who came out of slavery in Egypt—how they were delivered and set free—how they saw their enemies die in the waters of the Red Sea—how they were led by God and fed by God and received his Word at Sinai and yet when it came time to believe in what he said and trust in his promise to take them safely into the Promised Land, they refused to go—they would not enter his rest. 
They fell in the wilderness because of their lack of faith.  Their enemies seemed more powerful than their Savior.  They didn’t like the hardships of the journey.  They preferred the life they knew as slaves over their freedom as God’s children.   
The same thing can happen in our life of faith.  The dangers of failing to complete our faith journey are real.  The temptations to return to slavery to sin are powerful.  To adopt the values of the unbelievers around us is easier than holding fast to God’s ways.  The hardships and challenges we face seem much more real than God.  We face the same temptation as God’s ancient people to fall back and turn away rather than trusting in God. 
That is why the Bible tells us we are to strive to enter the Sabbath-rest God has provided in Jesus Christ by believing the promises of his word and trusting the guidance of his Word to lead us to heaven.  The Bible says that:
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
            From the very beginning of the Bible we see clearly the power of God’s Word.  God said let there be light and there is light.  God called this world into being by the power of his Word and where before there was only darkness and emptiness, when he spoke-- there was light and life. 
God’s Word has the same power when it comes to spiritual life and light.  When Jesus says “Father, forgive them” from the cross we are forgiven.  When Jesus says “take, eat this is my body, take drink this is my blood shed for the forgiveness of sins”—so it is and so we are.  When the Bible says that we have died with Christ and been raised with Christ in Holy Baptism—so we have.  The Bible says that we have been born again by the living and abiding word of God. 
Just as Adam and Eve received their life from God calling them into existence- and just as Lazarus was raised from the dead at Jesus’ word- so we have been given spiritual life by the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word. 
God’s Word is living and active and has accomplished the saving purpose for which God sent it by bringing us to faith in Jesus who is our Sabbath rest.
But the Word of God has not only brought about our spiritual life, it is the enduring source of that life—the word is means by which God works in our lives to sustain our faith so that not only do we begin in faith but we finish our life in faith.
God speaks to us in his Word as it is read and studied and proclaimed and received in the Sacrament.  It speaks into those deep places in our lives where there is sin that needs to be confessed and fears that need to be confronted and a faith that needs to be strengthened so that we can enter into the fullness of what Christ has won for us.  It lays bare the truth about our life of faith.  The Bible says:
No creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
            When Adam and Eve sinned, it wrecked their relationship with God.  They realized they were naked and experienced guilt and shame for the first time and hid from God in fear.  But God sought them out—calling out to them so that they could acknowledge their sin and receive his forgiveness and have their guilt and shame covered by his bloody sacrifice. 
            So God continues to do.  His powerful words of law tell us the truth about ourselves—that we have sinned and fall short of his glory.  His powerful words of the Gospel tell us that there is forgiveness for us in Christ.  He calls us to himself again and again so that we can acknowledge our sins and have our guilt and shame covered by Christ’s bloody sacrifice on the cross.  That is our true Sabbath rest and we enter it by believing in Jesus.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Loved by Jesus

Mark 10:17-22 Most of us have heard the old expression that “God loves us just the way we are but he loves us too much to let us stay the way we are”.  That’s what we are going to learn about ourselves in our Gospel lesson for the day. 
We see a perfectly nice young man who was the apple of his parent’s eye—a young man who possessed every earthly blessing--and yet he wasn’t all that God wanted him to be because his life with God did not come first. 
The key to the whole passage is that Jesus looked at him with love.  He loved him just as he was—right then and there with his very real sins and failings--but Jesus wasn’t content for him to remain as he was.  So it is for us.  The Bible says that:
As Jesus was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 
Then and now, when you give a compliment to someone it’s a way of greasing the wheels socially for what is about to follow between the two of you.
But Jesus wasn’t going to let him think that this was just some ordinary discourse between a traveling rabbi and someone who wanted a religious opinion.  Jesus loved the man too much to let him escape from that encounter without having to come to grips with who Jesus really was-- and who he was by comparison.  And so…
Jesus reminded him that only God is good.  People then and now forget that.  We say that this man or that lady are good folks but what we really mean is that they are better than others—maybe even better than us if that were possible! 
But only God is good in the way that the Bible talks about goodness.  He is perfect and holy and righteousness and the difference between him and us is not a matter of degree-- but of kind. 
That is what Jesus wanted the young man to come to terms with that day and he wants the same for us.  Jesus is not merely a good man in that he is better than others.  He is not merely a wise teacher in that he is smarter than others.  He is not merely an inspiring example to follow in that he is more heroic than others. 
Jesus is God in human flesh and his goodness is the goodness of God himself.
Jesus wanted the man to set aside pious-sounding speech that really didn’t mean anything and to confess Jesus for who he truly is:  not just a man who offers an opinion that can be taken or rejected as the young man saw fit—but as the one true God who can command all that is about to follow and who expects obedience.
There is a lesson here for us too.  We call Jesus our Lord and Savior and that sounds very pious.  But is he really our Lord?  Does he have the final say in our lives?  Do we live our lives in his service?  Do we gladly set aside the things he forbids and do the things he commands?  Is his purpose and mission our purpose and mission? 
We call Jesus our Savior but do we recognize him and him alone as our only hope from sin and death or are we still trying to do our part to earn heaven?  Do we truly believe that he has saved us from sin, death, and the devil or are we still walking around with a load of guilt, fearful and worried, and giving in to the devil?  Is Jesus our peace in life or do we find comfort somewhere else like our possessions?
The young man didn’t know Jesus as Lord and Savior-- that is why he asked the question that he did!  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  That is the question of all human flesh.  What do I need to do to make my own place with God?  And every human religion except for true, biblical Christianity--gets the answer wrong because they don’t know the truth about themselves or God.  Jesus wanted to open his eyes and our too
And so, in effect Jesus says, “fine, you want to know what YOU have to do to life forever:  keep the commandments”!  With the voice and authority of Sinai, Jesus said:  
'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.' "   And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth."   
That is the answer to what we must do to inherit eternal life!  Jesus says that we must keep the law.  But not according to our abilities.  Not better than the guy next door.  Not as best we can.  We must keep the law with the same degree and kind of holiness and perfection and righteousness as God himself. 
That is what the vast majority of the world, then and now, does not understand about God’s expectations for us.  But Jesus is very clear on it. 
Jesus says that it is not just the act of adultery that is the sin-- but also the lust of the heart.  It is not just the act of murdering that is the sin-- but the anger in the heart that preceded it.  It is not just the unkind word to others-- but the way we feel towards them in our heart.  Sin clings to our flesh even when it is not seen or heard by others.
And it is here that outwardly pious people—people like the man that day and people like us —fail.  You see, we are not called to be better than our neighbor-- we are called to be holy just exactly God-- and failure at just one point of the law makes us guilty of all of it.   When it comes to being saved by the law—when it comes to what I must do-- the standard is not “plenty good enough”—but perfection that is required
I have absolutely no doubt that the young man was just exactly the kind of young man that every parent would want for a child—that he stood head and shoulders over his peers.  (He thought he did anyway)!  But that was not the standard.  The Good One who stood next him-he was the standard.  And so then with perfect justice Jesus could have judged him, chastised him and brought him up short.  But he didn’t.  The Bible says that: 
“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  And in that one little phrase we hear the most wonderful teaching of all of Holy Scripture—that God loves us just the way we are.  In our self-centeredness, in our self-righteousness, in our selfishness—God loves us. 
The Bible says that “this is what love is—not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world”.  The Bible says that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us”.  The Bible says that “God loved the world and sent his Son that whoever believes in him would have everlasting life.”
Christ lived a holy life for all of us who are caught up in the delusion that we can please God on our own and earn salvation.  He died on the cross for all of us who think God ought to reward us rather than punish us as we deserve.  Christ rose from the dead for all of us who think that eternal life with God is simply the result of having lived an outwardly decent life.
Christ loved that young man (and he loves us) just the way we are—but he loved that young man (and he loves us) far too much to let us remain as we are, living apart from God in the blindness and delusion of sin. 
That is why Jesus was there that day—to change that young man—and that is why he speaks to us through this lesson this day—to change us too.  The Bible says that: 
"Jesus said to him, You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."   
Jesus knew exactly what the man’s problem was and that was the place that God had—or rather didn’t have-- in his heart.  The young man was careful to keep commandments regarding his neighbor, but he had forgotten the first commandment—that we are to have no other gods than the one true God.
Jesus knew just exactly what came first in that man’s heart just as he knows what comes first in our hearts.  The love of money filled that man’s heart-- and Jesus’ LOVE for him demanded his repentance and a radical change of heart. Jesus told him:  Go, sell all you, and give to the poor. 
With these words, we have come full circle when it comes to who Jesus is.  A wise rabbi has absolutely no right to ask anyone to go and sell all his possessions—but God does.  No matter who he thought Jesus was when he came to him, now he knew the truth—and so do we.
Jesus was and is and always will be God.  He is the One to whom we will bow the knee to in love in this life as our Lord-- or in abject fear in the life to come—and he calls each one of us to repent of all those things that come before him in our life.
And it’s important for us to see what true repentance involves—not just sorrow over sin—not just some words on a page that are spoken while our minds are elsewhere--but a concrete change that truly shows we have turned from sin, to God, in faith.
With that command to repent comes the greatest invitation of all—to come and follow Jesus—to be a part of his kingdom-- and enjoy all of the blessings of peace and joy and hope that he bestows through faith. 
That is what Jesus wanted for the young man that day and it’s what he wants for us.  You see dear friends in Christ, Jesus is not primarily interested in our having enough money or being in good health or having a worry-free, struggle-free life. 
He is perfectly willing to let us go into the kingdom missing an eye or hand or wallet that sins because he knows that there is no comparison between the things of this world and the eternal treasures of a life with God that only he can give.
But in that moment, on that gracious day of salvation, the rich young man turned his back on those treasures.  The Bible says that:   Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”    
I pray that our response today would be different.  That hearing Jesus’ invitation to come and follow him—that seeing the feast of love and forgiveness that is set before our eyes in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood--we would gladly, willingly repent of our love for the things of this world and follow Jesus by faith into eternal life.  Amen.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Have Salt in Yourselves

Mark 9:38-50 Jesus said that we Christians are the salt of the earth-- but he also warned us that we can lose our “saltiness”.  That is, we can lose the distinctive effect that we are supposed to have on the world around us so that we give no distinctive “flavor” of Christ to our relationships—no distinctive “purifying” effect to the world around us because our lives are no different than those who do not believe in Jesus.
But the “well-seasoned” disciple is different.  These disciples know that they are called to be salt and light in a dark and decaying world by letting the purifying work of the Spirit do its work in their hearts and by letting the “salt” of the Word give a distinctive Christian flavor to the way they live their lives.
As we consider what it means to be filled with salt from God’s Word we will see that this kind of Christian:  1. supports the mission of Jesus Christ 2.  is careful to cause no one to sin (not even themselves) and 3.  is filled with the Word so that their lives always have a distinctive Christian “flavor.”  The Bible says that:
John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 
The Bible says in 1 John that “The Son of God appeared to destroy the works of Satan.”  In other words, the saving mission of Jesus Christ was being accomplished by that man who was casting out demons-- but the disciples wanted to stop it because they weren’t the ones doing it. 
Perhaps there was some jealousy in their hearts because not too long before this conversation the disciples had failed at this very task of casting out a demon.  But Jesus quickly set them straight.  He said: 
“Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  For the one who is not against us is for us.
            The “well-seasoned” disciple takes the Lord’s words to heart and understands that the mission of Jesus is much greater than our own little group--even if that group is the original twelve disciples. 
Jesus has destroyed the power of the devil and broken the bonds of death and he wants every Christian everywhere to have a part in that mission of setting people free from Stan’s dominion by sharing the Gospel.
Far beyond the walls of our own congregation are fellow Christians who are working in the harvest field of souls and we are glad to support the mission of Jesus beyond our own congregation and want to make sure that we ourselves are a part of that mission through our own works of mercy and witness.  Jesus says:
Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. 
            Compared to driving our demons, giving a cup of water to fellow Christian may not seem like such a big thing.  But the Lord’s accounting is very different than ours!  Every work of mercy done in Jesus’ name is remembered by him and will be graciously rewarded by him on the Last Day.
And so when we gather food for the poor and serve meals to the homeless and welcome women in the midst of troubled pregnancies and take a stand for the sanctity of human life, we are doing a work that pleases the Lord. 
The “well-seasoned” disciple knows that they are called to support the mission of Christ through gifts and service.  We also know that we are called to holiness of life so that we do not undermine the salvation of those who are brought to faith. Jesus says:
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 
            When a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ a great spiritual battle has been fought and won.  The forces of death and hell that reigned over that person’s life have been conquered by the Lord of Life.  A prisoner bound by chains of sin in Satan’s kingdom has been set free.  Hell has lost a soul and heaven gained one.
But from that moment on, there is another battle for that person—the battle against sin—the battle of faith.  The “well-seasoned” disciple knows they have been called to walk in newness of life so they do not undermine the faith of a fellow disciple. Let me explain. 
Imagine for a moment a person who has just come to faith.  They know that the way they lived their lives in the past was outside of God’s will and deserving of his eternal punishment.  They want to live a new life. 
But there are Christians around them who engage in the same sins that once afflicted them.  Christians who don’t take seriously the call to live a holy life.  Christians who are cavalier about making use of the means of grace. 
And seeing this poor example in the lives of those who have been Christians for years, their own, new lives of faith are undermined.  They return to the sins that they left behind.  They don’t feed their new faith with God’s Word and Sacraments.  And having little root, they fall away from faith in Christ. 
Jesus says that it would be better to be drowned in the depths of the sea than destroy the faith of a fellow Christian by our sins. 
“Well-seasoned” disciples are called to preserve the faith of those around them rather than cause it to decay by unholy living.  And that is true about our own lives too—we are called to holiness of life for the sake of our own faith journey.  Jesus says that:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’
            If these words of Jesus do not convey to us just how seriously Jesus takes sin and how seriously he calls us to holiness of life—nothing will! 
We are to let absolutely nothing lead us to sin—not even the members of our body.  We are to be willing to sacrifice everything if it is leading us to hell—even the members of our body.
Living in sin will destroy our lives eternally.  Hell is real.  It is eternal.  It is terrible.  It is unending, unquenchable, fiery torment—and it is the final destination for all of those who live in unrepentant sin.  We must fight against sin all our days so that we do not fall from faith.  Now, having said that…
Jesus, of course, knew perfectly well that cutting off our hands and feet and eyes and ears will not cure our sin problem because our broken-ness goes to the very center of our being.  But he wants us to see the same-- and so he uses this vivid language about a sacrifice for sin so great that we cannot provide it. 
But he can—and did.
To set us free from sin, his hands and feet that never sinned were pierced for our transgressions.  His lips that never spoke an unkind word were beaten and broken.  His eyes that never looked upon evil filled with blood from a crown of thorns pressed upon his head—and he died for us, in our place—every member of his body an instrument of righteousness for our salvation.
It is not necessary to cut off our hands and feet and pluck out our eyes to be free from sin.  Something much more difficult is required—and that is to be born again into a new life—something that must be done for us by God through his Word and Spirit.  Jesus says:
Everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
            At the beginning of this morning’s sermon we hear our Lord tells us that we are the salt of the earth.  He also said that we are the light of the world. 
Both of these images convey the distinctive difference the Christian is to have on this dark and decaying world.  But what accounts for that difference?  What makes us the salt of the earth?  What gives a Christ-like “flavor” to our lives? 
            The difference is the Holy Spirit working new life in us through Word.  James said that we have been born again through the Word of Christ.  John the Baptist said that we have been baptized—not just with water—but with the fire of the Spirit.  Our lives are shaped and guided by that same Sprit who brought us to life by the Word.
The “well-seasoned” disciple knows the importance that the Word of God plays in the life of faith and how a faith that is not fed by Word and Sacrament can lose its distinctive “flavor”.  And so the “well-seasoned” disciple makes sure that they stay connected to Jesus through the Word so that they are “salted” for service again and again.
We make it a point to study God’s Word and attend church and Sunday School so that the Word of God can have it’s purifying, enlightening effect on their lives and on the lives of those we touch through our service and witness.  Amen.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

True Greatness in the Kingdom of God

Mark 9:30-37 We know how the world works, don’t we?  “You gotta sacrifice to get ahead.  You get what you pay for.  You have to believe in yourself.  It’s not what you know–it’s who you know.  Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make your own luck.  The one who dies with the most toys–wins.”  We know how the world works.
And if we were not Christians, this world-view would pose no moral or emotional or spiritual difficulties for us at all.  We could take our place with the rest of the rats in the race and claw our way to the top of the corporate ladder–or at least as close to the top as our own efforts could take us.
But the fact of the matter is (and the difficulty for us living in the world as we do) is that we are Christians.  And even if we’re not bible scholars, we know that Jesus has said some rather disquieting things about how we ought to live–unsettling because his words stand in direct opposition to how we understand life in this world.
Jesus says that the poor in spirit and those who mourn and those who are persecuted are blessed.  He says that the meek will inherit the earth.  He tells that rich young man with all the toys to sell what he has and the rich, successful, enterprising farmer-- he calls a fool.

That is certainly NOT how the world around us works, but time and time again Jesus makes the point that true greatness in God’s kingdom is not a matter of titles and authority and the use of power-- but of service and sacrifice and self-less deeds of love.  Jesus said:
“The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.  They will kill him, and after three days, he will rise.  But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.”

The words that Jesus spoke were simple enough, weren’t they?  Betrayal.  Death.  Resurrection.  The words are easy to understand.  But what they meant–what they meant for Jesus and for them--that was the difficult part, that’s what was hard for the disciples to understand.
To hear that Jesus would suffer and die and then that his life might have some connection with what they could expect for their own lives as his disciples–that they too would be called to lead a life of sacrificial service--never crossed their minds.  You see–they had bigger plans.
As soon as the disciples recognized and confessed Jesus as the Messiah they began forming a mental picture of what life would be like for them in the kingdom. Jesus would be king of course, but surely there would be positions and power and plenty for them too–after all they were the inner circle–and that’s how the world works.
That’s the way the disciples were thinking about how things would be in the kingdom and because all this talk of betrayal and death didn’t fit in with the way they thought things were going to go--they chose to ignore it–and go on planning who got to be the greatest.
It’s easy for us sitting here today who know the rest of the story to say to ourselves, “Oh those silly disciples!  How could they have been so dense?  How could they be thinking about these worldly matters when Jesus was about to die?” 
And yet, can we honestly say, that we, with a much greater knowledge of the Kingdom at this moment than the disciples had at that moment, are really all that different?  Don’t we have our own expectations about what life will be like for us since we are a part of the Kingdom of God?  Expectations that, if we’re honest with ourselves, are not all that spiritual?
We would never admit to wanting to be first, after all, we’ve got too much “aw-shucks” humility for that, but desiring material blessings–a happy, healthy life–an honorable, dignified place in the community–that will be sufficient for me if it’s all the same for you Lord.
And then when Jesus fails to give us our fair share of the spoils–when we are called upon to suffer some kind of loss–when we undergo just a bit of discomfort for being a Christian (never mind persecution-) we scream bloody murder…despite the fact that Jesus said that his disciples must take up their own cross and the servant is not above the master.

Let’s be honest, we know why the disciples didn’t understand, don’t we?  They didn’t want to!  As they walked along together, Jesus knew what the disciples were talking about–what was in their hearts–and he knows what is in ours.
When Jesus was in the house, he asked them, “What were you talking about on the road?”  But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
I guess they did!  Do you see the terrible irony in this scene?  Here they were in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth–the Messiah promised of old–true God in human flesh–and they were arguing about who was the greatest.
With Jesus’ simple question, “what were you guys talking about”, they saw the irony--they got the point—they were struck to the heart--and all they could was hang their heads in silent shame.
Dear friends in Christ, can we do any less?  The petty power plays we engage in our marriages–our families–our workplaces–our churches.  The keen eye we have for making sure we get our fair share.  And dare I even mention our disappointment with God because we don’t have all that we desired or expected from being a part of his Kingdom?
Here today, in the presence of Jesus (no less than the disciples of that day) we too are struck to the heart by our sinful, self-seeking desire to be first.  Our lips, just like theirs are silenced, offering no excuse for our sin-- so that now our hearts are ready to listen to what Jesus has to teach us about greatness in his kingdom.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”    

Let me tell you what this saying of Jesus (about the first and the last) is not.  It is not a subtle strategy about how to really get ahead in the Kingdom of God.  It’s not a business plan to promote yourself so that if you “plan your work and work your plan” you can get to the top of the kingdom.  It is not clever way to “win friends and influence people” and gain power and prestige in the church.
Jesus is not a corporate CEO who is giving us the inside scoop on how to “think outside the box” and “work our plan” on a ride to the top of the kingdom hierarchy.  That’s not what Jesus is saying at all!
Instead, Jesus is telling us the Good News about who really is first in the Kingdom of heaven-- and that is the One who made himself the very last of all–the One who became the servant of all-- the One who suffered the betrayal of friends–who shed his life’s blood and died on Calvary’s cross to take away our selfishness and self-seeking and sinful delusions of grandeur.
It is in this most humble sacrificial service of holy, obedient living according to his Father’s will-- and terrible, bloody dying on the cross-- that true greatness is to be found and the foundation to our own life with God in his kingdom.
Baptized into Christ’ death and raised in his resurrection–fed by his life-giving Body and Blood–filled by his own Spirit-- we Christians share in his life and are filled with his life and are called to make his life visible to the rest of the world in all that we say and do.  But how to do that?
It brings us back to the very beginning, doesn’t it?  The challenge we have as Christians to live in the kingdom of the world as children and heirs of the kingdom of heaven.  How do we do that?  What does that kind Christ-life look like as we live it out day to day?
Jesus took a little child and had him stand among them.  Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me”.
If you want to make business connections to get ahead–it you want to network to increase your power and visibility–if you want to make sure that you are a part of the movers and shakers and big dogs in your business and community–spending a lot of time and effort on kids doesn’t make much sense. 
They can’t promote you or give you a good recommendation or include you in a business deal or even get you in the door.
That’s the way it was for the disciples too.  Dealing with children was for women and not for dignified Jewish men-especially not for these twelve disciples who would be the foundation of the church.  They had important kingdom business to take care of and couldn’t be bothered with such “small” details.
And yet Jesus, the greatest in the kingdom, stooped down and took a child in his arms and made him feel at home and loved and valued.  That’s what a Christ-like life looks like in this world.  Humble, self-less, simple service for the sake of others.  That’s the life we live.
Even though we live in the midst of a dark and dying and Darwinian world with room only for the biggest and best and brightest–even though we have to go right back into the same job tomorrow with people who have a very different set of values and perspectives than our own–with the Spirit’s help, we can live lives like Jesus by valuing those around us–not for what they can do for us–but for what, God, working through us–can do for them–by humbly serving them in love the way that Jesus has served us.  To this end, may God grant us grace.  Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Power of Our Words

James 3:1-12 “We all stumble in many ways.”  That’s the way we begin God’s Word to us today and how true that is!  We all stumble. We all miss the mark.  We all go astray.  We all sin.  That’s why Christians begin their worship of God with a confession of those very sins and stumbles and wayward ways.
We confess that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed—by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  “We all stumble in many ways.”  That is why our baptismal service includes a renunciation of the devil and all his works and all his ways. 
We ALL stumble in many ways.  That’s what the Bible teaches-- and Christians believe that every word of Holy Scripture is inspired by God and little Lillian is a part of that ALL because she too is part of the human family and so we renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways and we confess about ourselves that we sinned in thought, word and deed.
“We all stumble in many ways.”  I know some of my sins over this last week and I’m sure you know some of yours and at least for me, that the moment of silence between the confession and the absolution is wholly insufficient to number all my sins.
I remember them with sorrow and shame-- and I repent of them—and I rejoice in Christ’s forgiveness and the help of the Holy Spirit to begin again. 
But what particularly grieves me—where I particularly need help and want to do better-- are my sins of speech.  After all…
My “thought” sins are hidden away—known only to myself and God—easily concealed from others.  My sins of “deed” have perhaps, ebbed with the passing of time and the length of years and a lack of energy and enthusiasm for really whooping it up. 
But my tongue and my sins of speech—their power to lead me astray seem unaffected and undiminished by time.
Perhaps you have experienced the same.  Do we still struggle with crude speech and coarse jokes?  Do we talk to our spouses and our children in ways that we hope no one overhears?  Do we gossip about others in the church or speak ill of our co-workers? 
What we learn today from God’s Word is that, the way we speak to others, reveals the evil that still remains in our hearts in a way that few other things can do. 
But what we will also hear the Good News that there is a perfect man named Jesus whose powerful speech forgives us and restores us—a perfect man who can help us use our tongues in a way that pleases God and builds others up in the words we speak.   The Bible says:
The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.  How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
            On this Lord’s Day morning our lips will confess our faith in the one true God.  Our tongues will sing his praises.  Our voices will add their “amens” to God’s Word. 
These are good and God-pleasing things.  But what have we done in the week just past- and what will we do in the week to come- with those same lips, voices, and tongues? 
After this hour of blessing God, will it then be a week of cursing others?
You’ve no doubt heard the old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stone can break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  We of course know better than that and so does any little child with tears in their eyes and hurt feelings who has heard parent or teacher quote that proverb to them after being wounded by words!
Sinful words can hurt us very much indeed!
            Listen to how the Bible describes sinful speech:  a fire; a world of unrighteousness; a stain; restless evil; and deadly poison!  If you have been on the receiving end of unkind speech, you know how apt this description is. 
As small as the tongue is compared to the other members of our body, how devastating, how destructive, how disastrous are the results of sinful speech!  The Bible compares it to a small fire that has the power to destroy an entire forest—or a marriage or a family or a congregation or a friendship.
And as small as the tongue is, how much it reveals about the evil that still remains in our heart and the sin that still clings to our flesh.  The Bible says:
Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
            And the answer is:  of course not!  Ugly speech is a sign of ugliness within.  These words are nothing other than what we heard Jesus tell us two weeks ago about what really defiles us in God’s sight.  Jesus said:
what comes OUT of the MOUTH proceeds FROM the heart…defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.
According to our Lord’s own words, sins of speech are counted no differently in God’s sight than murder, adultery, and theft.  They defile us—they render us unclean—they stain us with sin.   
So it has been from the beginning.  Eve used her mouth to talk to the devil and tempt Adam.  Adam used his mouth to blame Eve and accuse God and so it has been for all their children down through the ages. 
As James say, “We ALL stumble in many ways”.  That is, save one of us.  On perfect man whose speech brought only blessing.  James speaks of that one who “does not stumble in what he says…a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”  He speaks of Jesus.
Jesus said, “I came to speak my Father’s Words.”  Jesus said, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples…"  Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”  Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him…"  Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Jesus said, My words are spirit and life”.
And so they are!  Jesus is the perfect man James speaks of whose holy life stands in place of our own sinful one.  He is the perfect man whose kind and loving speech God counts as our own.  He is the perfect man who offered up the perfect sacrifice for our sins, speaking in those dark hours on the cross, words of care for others and confidence in his heavenly Father. 
Jesus is the crucified, risen, ascended, glorified perfect man who powerfully speaks to us today and says: you are loved and you are forgiven and you are empowered from this moment on by my living presence in your life to change for the better the way you speak to others.
We are not perfect men and women but we have a perfect Savior who has transformed our lives by his life-giving, life-changing words so that now we can begin to use our tongues to not only praise him-- but to bless one another.  James uses this example:
If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
            James wrote at length—and we have spoken at length—about the destructive power of the human tongue.  But that sad, sinful story is not the whole story about us by any means!  As children of God who have been born again by the power of living and enduring Word of God, who have been forgiven by the spoken word of the cross, we now have the power of Christ to speak well of others and build them up by our speech.
            The Bible says that we are to ask ourselves regarding our speech?  Is it true?  Is it kind?  Is it necessary for building up another person? 
All around us in our world today are those who hearts and lives and emotional well-being have been destroyed by unkind words and false accusations.  What a powerful blessing we can give them by the things we say-- to encourage them and lift them up.  The Bible says:
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.  The Bible says:  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  The Bible says:  Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.  And in summary the Bible says:  Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, there is power in the words we speak as children of God who are led by the Spirit.  There is power to share the love of Christ.  There is the power to lift up and encourage.  There is the power to teach and forgive and lead and comfort. 
When the disciples were challenged by Jesus to decide whether they would continue to follow him or not, Peter spoke up for all of them and said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the word of eternal life!”  And so he does! 
His powerful word has forgiven our sins and raised us up from spiritual death to life and as his people we are blessed and empowered to use our words in the same way, to bless the lives of those around us.  May God grant us his grace and the help of the Holy Spirit to do just that!  Amen!