Saturday, August 18, 2018

Choose This Day Whom You Will Serve!


Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 In our text today, we find the children of God in the land of Canaan.  It was a long, difficult trip from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  But God was with them every step of the way on that journey of faith.
The LORD delivered his people from slavery--he destroyed their enemies in the waters of the Red Sea--he provided for them in their desert wanderings and guided them every step of the way with his bright, shining presence--he gave them victory over their enemies in Canaan so that they were now the possessors of the land–just as he promised. 
And so Joshua gathered the people together to remind them of this--to give them an opportunity to remember all that God had done for them–to reflect on their own lives of faith and discipleship-- to repent of their sins--and to renew their commitment to the Lord.
It is in this context--in the remembrance of what God accomplished in their salvation--that Joshua spoke to God’s people and said:  “choose this day whom you will serve”.
It is important that we understand what had transpired up to this point-- because too many people get this passage wrong.  They make these words into a “proof-text” for “decision theology”-- as if this call to serve God happened in a vacuum--as if the Israelites could choose to be God’s people or not—choose to be saved or not.

But that’s not the point at all!  The people assembled at Shechem already were saved--they already were God’s people.  God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt when they could do nothing to save themselves.  God had destroyed their enemies in the waters of the Red Sea when they were powerless to protect themselves.  God had provided for them and guided them when they were lost and afraid and in need.
Joshua did not call upon them to honor and fear and love and serve and worship the Lord so that they could become his people or to save themselves.  Instead, Joshua called upon them to worship and serve and fear and love the Lord because he had redeemed them and set them free and made them his own dear children.
And so the question for the Israelites that day was this: Would they continue to serve the one who had saved them?  Would they, in grateful obedience, do as the Lord commanded?  Would they remember and recognize that it was God alone who was the source of their life as individuals and as a nation?  Or would they abandon him to follow other gods?
For Joshua, the choice was clear: “Choose this day whom you will serve”, as for me and my house--we will serve the Lord!”

If some of these ideas and circumstances and themes that we see in our lesson from the 24th chapter of Joshua seem familiar to you and applicable to your lives at this moment–it’s because they are!  Everything that I’ve just said about the Israelites at Shechem that day--can be said of you this day. 
The Lord has set you free from slavery to the enemies of sin and death and the devil.  He has done this by one even greater than Moses--by his own Son Jesus Christ.  By his holy life, bloody death on Calvary’s cross, and glorious resurrection, Jesus has redeemed you and set you free from slavery to sin and death and the devil, and through faith in Christ, you are God’s child.
Just as with the Israelites, your heavenly Father has provided for your physical needs every moment of your life’s journey.  More importantly, he has provided for your spiritual needs.  Week after week he has spoken to you from his Holy Word: revealing your sins—and assuring you of his forgiveness- and providing guidance for your life.  He has given you the true manna from heaven, Jesus’ own body and blood in Holy Communion.
It has been a long journey from the waters of Holy Baptism to this moment, but God has been with you every step of the way–just like he promised.

And so then, this day, just like that day thousands of years ago,  is an opportunity for you to remember all that God has done for you–to reflect on your own life of discipleship up to this point–to repent of your sins–and to renew your commitment to the Lord.
Just like for the Israelites that day, this day is important in your lives as God’s children because there is a choice of eternal consequence that lies is before you: a choice to either remain steadfast in the knowledge and worship of the true God and serve him only-- or to slowly but surely give in to the idols of the pagan world that are present all around you.
And so then, the question for you this day is the same as it was for the Israelites of that day: Will you serve the God who has rescued from your sins at the cost of his own Son’s life?  Will you honor the God who has made you a part of his people through Holy Baptism?  Will you fear and obey the God who has conquered death and the grave on your behalf?  Will you love this one, true Triune God who has loved you from eternity with an everlasting love?
Or will you follow and love and serve and honor the false gods of this sinful world in which you live?  “Choose this day whom you will serve!”
That you can make this decision to serve God at all is only because God has already graciously chosen you in Christ to be his child.  Jesus told his disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit that will last.”  Paul assured the Ephesian believers that, “God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world, to be holy and blameless in his sight.”  He told the Thessalonians that “God chose them to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.”  And James reminded his congregation that “God chose to give us birth through the Word of truth.”

The Good News for you today is that God has chosen you in Christ to be his own dearly loved child  in time and eternity, by giving you the gift of faith in Jesus Christ-- and it is only because of God’s choosing you-- that you can choose to serve him as your master.  “Choose this day whom you will serve!” 
These are some of the most inspiring words in the whole Bible.  Many of us have them in our homes in some format–on a plaque or wall hanging.  For thousands of years these words have been a rallying cry for every true believer to re-commit themselves to the Lord. They are a call to all of God’s people–young and old–to remember God’s salvation in Christ and repent of our sins and resolve to serve him more faithfully and follow him more carefully.  “Choose this day whom you will serve!”
No less than the children of Israel, you are surrounded by a pagan world and their false gods.  Not gods of wood and stone and metal-- but the much more subtle, and therefore sinister, gods of materialism and self-centeredness and sexual immorality.  This is the culture of death in which you live.
Satan, the great deceiver, is still at work in this world and would have you be lax in your commitment to the Lord and lull you into sinful, spiritual complacency.  You will be tempted to abandon your spiritual lives by staying away from worship and bible study.  You will be tempted to make room in your lives for sin.  You will be tempted to use your Christian freedom, not to grow closer to the Lord, but to grow closer to the world.

This is the spiritual battle that you will face–and you should be aware of it.  It is a serious thing the Lord asks of you today–to commit your lives to his service–to promise your faithfulness to Him above all others–to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from your confession of faith and your allegiance to Christ’s church. 
“Choose this day whom you will serve.”  The Israelites, to their credit, despite their failures of the past and uneven track record in obedience, joined with Joshua in resolving to follow the Lord.  With one voice they affirmed all that Joshua had said and they promised their obedience to the LORD.  “We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God!”
There will be challenges in your walk of faith.  There will be times when you stumble and fall.  But the God who has known and loved you and chosen you from eternity to be his own–the God who lived, died, and rose again to save you—the God who called you to be his own in Holy Baptism--will be with you-- moment by moment and day by day–lifting you up–forgiving you–strengthening you-- and guiding you by his abiding, living presence in Word and Sacraments.
This is why it is so critically important to attend worship services regularly and hear and study the Word of God and receive the Body and Blood of Christ and be absolved of your sins.  These are the gracious means that Jesus has lovingly provided to keep you strong in your faith and resolute in your commitment to serve him.  
In light of this never-ending love that God has for you in Christ Jesus, I invite you, to join with all of God’s faithful people past and present and make this solemn resolution in your heart today: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”  To this end may God grant you his grace for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Be Imitators of God, as Beloved Children


Ephesians 4:17-5:2 When Caroline’s dad was a young man he loved to race anything with wheels and an engine—from motorcycles to cars.  Unfortunately, he had a major wreck--lost a leg-- and went through life with an artificial limb—and because of this, had a very distinctive walk.  He was also a photography buff and so from the day she was born, he was taking pictures and making 8mm movies of Caroline.
And in one 8mm movie, made when she was only about two or three, there is this little brown-eyed girl walking with the same distinctive walk as her father.  She’s not making fun or being cruel of course—this is simply the way her father walks-- and so imitating him, this is the way she walks.
In God’s Word today, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to tell us that we are to be imitators of God, as his beloved children—that we are not to walk as the world—but to walk as Christ and make him manifest in our words and deeds to a world that very much needs to hear and see him.  The Bible says:
You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.  They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.
            A question that has always haunted me as a pastor and a Christian husband and father is this:  Is my life as a Christian really, noticeably, discernibly different from the unbelieving world around me? 
In other words is my daily life and that of my family different from the nice family who lives next door or down the street who are not Christians?  Different in how I view life?  Different in my priorities?  Different in my values?  And if it is not—why not?
The Bible says that we MUST NO LONGER walk as the Gentiles do.  In other words, our lives as Christians are to be radically different from that of the world’s. 
Our worldview—our way of viewing the world around us and interpreting what is valuable and good and true must be different—for the world’s view of these things is distorted.  Paul says that their minds are futile—they are darkened in their understanding—and they are ignorant.  And these intellectual problems stem from a common spiritual cause:  they are alienated from God.
Paul puts his finger on something that we have all wondered about:  how when it comes to such basic issues as the right to life, and the value and dignity of the human person, and the sanctity of marriage—how people who are just as intelligent as we are—can see things so very, very differently than we do? 
It’s because the unbelieving world does not really don’t think about these things like we do because they are alienated from God.  And alienated from God, they not only come from a totally different starting point and perspective—but the trajectory of their lives away from God grows more and more pronounced over time. 
A life devoid of God will always give itself over to sensuality because that it all it has.  And by sensuality, Paul is not just talking about sexuality, but about all manner of satisfying and catering to the flesh.  Sensuality is always a downward spiral at an ever-increasing speed for no material things can ever truly satisfy mankind-- for we were not made for them—but for God.
That is why I asked the question that I did about our lives being noticeably different than the world’s-- and why I am so concerned about the answer-- for we cannot, without great spiritual peril to our life with God, adopt the thinking of the world on marriage or money—career and children—without also adopting a worldview that is totally alien to the Spirit of Christ.  The Bible says:
This is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. 
            This section brings up another question and concern that I often wonder about both as an individual Christian and as a Christian pastor:  have I clearly, consistently, and without compromise taught the truth about what it means to be a Christian to my family and congregation?  Or having I downplayed the importance of a true and living faith that results in a changed life?
I oftentimes get the idea that many, many Christians do not understand or ignore or want to downplay—the connection between their faith in Jesus and their day to day life of discipleship—and so I want to make sure that everyone here understands that necessary connection.
We ARE saved by grace alone through faith alone by Christ alone—but that faith is never alone—it is always accompanied by a changed life-- and the fruit of the Spirit-- and good works that serve our neighbor. 
In other words, the cause of our salvation is always God’s grace alone and the content of our salvation is Christ alone—but the consequence of saving faith for God’s children is a holy life like our God’s.  This is the teaching of Holy Scripture and the teaching of our church.  And so then…   
The entirety of the Christian life consists in putting off the old self and putting on the new self—in other words, repenting in sorrow over our sins and trusting in Jesus for salvation—and living out that reality by imitating God.
The point is this:  repentance and faith are infinitely more than just words—but they are as dramatic a change within a person—in their heart and minds and lives--as being raised from the dead to life—for that is exactly what they are—spiritually speaking. 
This divine dynamic of dying to sin and rising in Christ is worked in us by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament and it is not just a once in a lifetime thing-- but a daily renewal in the life of a child of God and a sure sign of a true and living faith. 
The new person within each of us, recreated in the image of God in righteousness and holiness, desires to please God in all that it does.  Paul goes on to show us some concrete examples of what this new self looks like as we strive to imitate God.  Paul says:
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
            The list that Paul gives are examples of what imitating God looks like in daily life but it is not meant to be exhaustive.  Rather it deals with some broad categories of behavior:  our daily vocations and speech and emotions.
            Regarding our daily vocation, Paul says that dishonest ways of making a living must be avoided—that there is no shame in working hard for our daily bread. 
Work is one of those gifts like marriage and sexuality that was given to mankind BEFORE the fall into sin—it is a good thing (marred by sin into more hardship than God intended) but a good thing:  a good thing because it is the way that God has provided for caring for ourselves and our family—a good thing because it is the means that God has provided for caring for others who genuinely cannot care for themselves.  Our heavenly Father is at work in this world and so his children work.
Regarding our speech Paul says that we are to speak honestly with one another.  This admonition to honest speech is needed in our day.  We live in time and place where honesty is in short supply.  Politicians on both sides of the aisle make promises they have no intention of keeping.  Husbands and wives lie to one another about what they spend and children lie to their parents about where they’ve been. 
But as Christians we are called to speak the truth in love.  Paul says that our speech as Christians is to supposed build up those we speak to rather than tear them down—that it is to convey grace and blessing to others just like the words of our heavenly Father.
And Paul closely ties our speech to our emotions.  Bitterness, malice, wrath, and anger are emotions that often times show up in our speech.  How many times have we truly forgiven one another after some disagreement but the harsh words that were spoken in the argument linger for years? 
These kinds of emotions hurt one another-- but they also hurt our relationship with God.  The Bible says that they grieve the Holy Spirit—because they are a denial of the God of love who lives within us AND within that other person that we are angry with.
Instead, we are to be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”  Anger and malice and bitterness are what idolatry looks like as it is expressed in human emotions. 
We sinfully stand at the center of the universe and are angry that everyone else doesn’t recognize it and let us have our way.  And when that anger continues on without repentance and faith-- it takes hold over our whole lives in bitterness and a malicious intention to hurt others as they’ve hurt us.  All of this—from beginning to end—is a denial of who we are as children of God’s love in Christ.
There is only one person in the universe who has a perfect right to his anger and that is God in his holy, righteous anger at our sins.  And yet God loved us-- and his heart was tender towards us-- and he sent his Son into the world to take upon himself that righteous wrath over our sins—so that now there is forgiveness and peace for us and a right relationship with God. 
God wants that same thing in our relationship with others.  That we have received his forgiveness MEANS that we will share that forgiveness with others in the same way it was given to us—freely and without condition. 
Everything that we’ve talked about today—what our life with God is supposed to look like and how that is done--can be summed up in the last verses of our text.  Paul says:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
            In Jesus Christ, God has forgiven us and loved us and given us new life AND he has shown us how we are to live our lives:  that we are to imitate him and love others.  May God give us strength to live this out day by day!  Amen.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Equipping the Saints for the Work of Ministry


Ephesians 4:11-16 In the Christian church, pastors and people go together.  Shepherds and sheep are part of the same flock.  Teachers and their students are there too, learning God’s Word.  This is not an accident.  It is the way that Christ himself has ordered the Church. 
            From the very beginning, it is the way that God himself has ordered the life of his people.  It is not optional, it is not one choice among many.  Pastor and people go together and it is Christ himself who wants it that way.
            And so then, when I heard that Pastor Cofer had accepted our call to serve as associate pastor of outreach and evangelism here at Trinity, I was profoundly thankful to the Lord of the Church that he heard and answered our prayers. 
            I firmly believe that Jesus guided and directed the whole process so that his saving will is done in this place—not only in the lives of us who are already members-- but also in the lives who will come to faith in the days to come and take their place among the people of God.
            That’s what we are going to be talking about today in our meditation on God’s Word:  the gift that Jesus gives in church workers who labor in the Word of God; the purpose of that gift in equipping the saints so that the work of ministry is multiplied far beyond a few workers; and the goal of that gift in building up and growing the Body of Christ. 
            The Bible says that:  Jesus gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers…
            We can only imagine what the early church must have been thinking after they saw Jesus ascend into heaven—what a lonely feeling that must have been!  For three years they followed him.  They saw his miracles.  They heard his words.  There were incredible lows as they saw him die a terrible death on the cross.  There were glorious highs as they saw their resurrected Savior and knew that death had been defeated. 
            Then, after all that, to witness his departure—to know that he would no longer be with them in the same way—it must have been an incredibly empty, lonely feeling! 
            But Jesus would not, and did not, leave them discouraged and downcast.  He told them that it was actually for their own good that he return to his Father and that he would give them gifts to help them in their mission to make disciples of all nations.  And that is what he did! 
            Jesus gave each of them the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost—men and women, young and old-- and he gave them the gift of workers who would devote themselves to full time ministry in the Word so that Christ’s people would continue to be taught and led and shepherded and cared for-- just as they had been during Jesus’ earthly ministry. 
            The gifts of the ascended Savior continue down to this day and these people.  You too have the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And Christ has given us the gift of a new pastor.  It is a blessing to receive these gifts—to know that our ascended Savior King is still caring for his church. 
            But you also need to understand that Jesus has a purpose in these gifts that moves you from the passive role of a recipient of his gift to an active role as a worker in his kingdom so that others can receive these same gift of salvation. 
            The Bible says that Jesus gave these gifts:  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...
            Over the last two years there has been an incredible amount of work done by the call committee:  working on a ministry description; going through information forms, interviewing pastors, working on budget issues and more-- to say nothing of the prayers.  I am thankful beyond measure for the work of the call committee and the support of the congregation. 
            But it is right now at this moment that we face a temptation that can undermine everything we have done this far and that is to wipe our brow, pat ourselves on the back, and tell ourselves that we are done and now it is all up to Pastor Cover.
            It is simply not so!  Jesus is sending Pastor Cofer here to equip you for the work of the ministry so that the Body of Christ would be built up in this place.  Let me say that again:  Jesus is sending Pastor Cofer here to equip you for service in his kingdom—the work of building up the Body of Christ in this place. 
            One the great teachings of the Reformation (that is close to being lost in the modern Lutheran Church) is what the Bible has to say about the Priesthood of All Believers—that each of you by virtue of your baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection are priests before God, servants in his kingdom, workers in his vineyard.
            In the medieval church, the ordained priest was seen as the one who did really did God’s work along with monks and nuns.  They were the ones who were really close to God—they were the ones really about God’s work in the world.
            But that is not what the Bible teaches and Luther knew it.  God says about you and all his children that you are
a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that YOU may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
            Each and every one of you is a priest before God.  Each and every one of you has a ministry, a service that you are to render to God on earth for the purpose of building up the Body of Christ.  And so Jesus is sending Pastor Cofer here, not to do your work, but to equip you to do the ministry God desires in this church and school and community.  Please understand…
            We have not fulfilled that sacred obligation of proclaiming Christ by merely calling a pastor and checking that off our list of things to do and waiting for him to get busy.  No!  The real work begins as YOU take your place and do your part in building up the Body of Christ in this place.  And so how does that happen?
            The Body of Christ is built up in two ways:  as those who are already Christians mature in their faith and grow up in their faith and more and more resemble Jesus Christ –AND- as more and more people are added to the Body of Christ I this place and take their place in the kingdom of God.  The Bible says that this work of ministry that he equips for goes on:
until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
            The point of parenting (from beginning to end) is to help our children grow up into the men and women that God has created and redeemed them to be. 
            When they are babies we expect them to act like babies.  When they are toddlers to act like toddlers.  When teens to act like teens.  But nowhere along the way are we content to let them go backward.  Toddlers carrying around a bottle and blankie are adorable—twenty year olds carrying around a bottle and a blankie, not so much!
            So it is for us as children of God and our relationship with our heavenly Father.  He wants each of us to grow up—to become mature—to no longer be children in our thinking—to measure up to the stature of Jesus Christ who came to serve others and always had their best interests at heart.
            Much, much too often churches themselves can undermine the growth and maturity of the children of God.  Members come expecting to be served rather than to serve.  They expect things to go their way rather than putting others first.  They expect to be praised for their mere presence.
            And like an indulgent parents, the church and her leaders go along with this- and foter immaturity-- and institutionalize helplessness.
            What happens in those congregations is that God’s children remain childish and the growth and maturity and stature of Christ is never manifested in the lives of God’s people.  Our flesh may love and long for a church that is nothing but a nursery for infants-- but that is not the will of our Father for his children who wants us to grow up.
            And so then, Christ gives gifts like Pastor Cofer, not so that OUR selfish needs will be met, but so that our real need for growth and maturity and Christ-likeness would be met as we are challenged to step out in faith and begin to think about those around us—especially those who don’t know Jesus.  The Bible says that
…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
            We have called Pastor Cofer to be the associate pastor of outreach and evangelism and the Lord is sending him to be the associate pastor of outreach and evangelism.  The language in that call is important.              He and I will not be splitting the pastoral duties down the middle.  I have zero interest in doing half as much work as I am doing right now.
            Instead, his exclusive focus will be on helping ALL OF US do those things that reach out to people who don’t know Jesus; helping ALL OF US understand how we can take our place in the saving ministry of Christ in the world; and equipping ALL OF US for that service.
            That was a strategic ministry decision because we know that what one person can do is nothing compared to what 500 people can do.  It was a biblical decision because we believe that the Body of Christ is made up of many members who are all working together to accomplish the saving mission of Christ in the world so that his church grows as he adds to it those who are being saved.  It was a loving decision in your best interest so that you can be built up into the Christian that God wants you to be. Amen.