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!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Faith Shown by Works


James 2:14-18 In Romans chapter 3 the apostle Paul says that we Christians “hold that a man is justified by faith APART from the works of the law” and that “by works of the law no human being will justified in God’s sight.”  But today we hear James, the leader of the apostolic church say that “faith without works is dead”. 
Well, which is it?  Are we saved by GRACE ALONE THROUGH FAITH ALONE IN CHRIST ALONE as we Lutherans and other evangelical Christians insist?  OR—are the Catholics of the East and West right when they say that we are saved by faith AND our works? 
This most important question concerning our salvation divides visible Christendom.  Evangelicals and Catholics each claim to take their position on the Word of God-- but sadly end up in very different places. 
And I say sadly because both evangelicals and catholics think that faith in Jesus is important.  Eastern and western catholics do not denigrate faith in Jesus.  Evangelicals think that good works are important and each day are engaged in countless works of mercy and charity throughout the world. 
And yet there is this division among Christians despite our Lord’s prayers that all his people would be one people united in one faith under one shepherd.  And so what then—if any-- is the solution to this problem? 
The solution is found in God’s Word to us today in the epistle lesson where, by the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, James explains the nature of a true and saving faith in Jesus. 
The crux of the matter is this:  is saving faith merely intellectual knowledge of the person and work of Jesus—is it empty words that we say--or is it something much, much more?  And he uses a little illustration to answer that question:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 
            Does the name Dennis Rader mean anything to you?  What if I identified him as the BTK killer?  One of the most evil men who have ever lived—and yet, all those years he was terrorizing Wichita Kansas, he was a member of, and even congregational president of, Christ Lutheran Church—saying in the words of the creed:  I believe in God
While that is an extreme example, most of us, if not all of us, have had the unhappy experience of talking to someone who assures us that they are a Christian like we are-- all the while they are living a grossly immoral, unchristian life. 
They remember bible stories from Sunday School.  They know the details of Jesus’ life.  They can quote the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed right along with the rest of us. 
And it’s a little bit disconcerting isn’t it?  Because we hear them tell us that they have faith in Jesus--and yet we know something isn’t right—that what they are talking about when they talk about their “faith”-- and what we know about our own faith in Jesus-- are two very different things for they lead to two very different lives.
James solves this dilemma for us with the illustration I just read.  A Christian brother or sister stands in real need of food and clothing—the basic necessities of life.  They are met by someone claiming to be a Christian who says: “Go in peace—be warm and full”-- and yet does nor provide them the food and clothing to be filled and warmed.
James asks us:  what then do those fine-sounding words really mean?  And the answer is:  absolutely nothing.  In the same way, James says, “faith without works is dead.”   
You see dear friends in Christ, faith is more—much more—than just words—even the right words.
The confession of faith of the ancient Israelites—the forebears of the folks that James is writing to—is called the “great Shema”:  Hear O Israel, the Lord, the Lord your God is one. 
And in the verse immediately following our text today James asks his Jewish readers:  “You believe that God is one?  You do well!  But even the demons believe that and shudder!”  Faith—a true and saving faith in Jesus-- is more—much more-- than just words—even the right words.  It is more than mere knowledge. 
And for those of us who want to call ourselves the descendants of Luther and tell ourselves that we have saving faith in Jesus because we know his story-- and can mouth the right words-- and define justification-- and yet live like the unbelieving world-- are simply deceived and will never find such a thing being supported by Luther.  Instead, Luther defines a true and saving faith in Jesus like this: 
Faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing!  It is impossible that it should not be ceaselessly doing that which is good. It does not even ask whether good works should be done; but before the question can be asked, it has done them, and it is constantly engaged in doing them…He who does not do such works, is a man without faith.
The faith that saves-- is the faith that lays hold of what Jesus Christ has done in his holy life, bloody death, and glorious resurrection.  From beginning to end, the person and work of Jesus Christ is the sole content of saving faith. 
But that one true saving faith in Jesus is never alone!  It is never just words (even the right words!  But it is always accompanied by the good works of gratitude that come forth from those who are saved so that one true saving faith in Jesus is shown in how we live our life.  James says:
Someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
            James is serious:  show me your faith apart from your works!  Can you take a true and saving faith in Jesus Christ—a genuine, heartfelt trust in the person and work of Jesus—and say:  here it is—here’s the proof I really do believe in Jesus? 
Of course not!  Because faith is finally and ultimately a matter of the heart’s trust in Jesus.  BUT—what we can most assuredly do is show forth the good works that will always accompany and demonstrate that we have a true and living faith. 
Our faith in Jesus is more than just knowledge—more than just words—more than just intellectual assent to certain dogmatical truths, it is shown in how we live our lives and how we treat others. 
            As people who truly believe in Jesus Christ, we are glad for ways to show our love for him in how we treat one another-- and our lives are guided and shaped and informed by the Ten Commandments by “loving our neighbor as ourselves”.
James calls this the “royal law” because it is the way the King loved us—laying aside his divine dignity and his royal status to serve us in love.  We love one another—because our crucified King first loved us and this Christ-like love is the evidence—for all to see-- of a true and living faith in Jesus.
            In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus talks about what it will be like on the last day—the day of judgment.  He says that all people will be divided into two groups and those on his right will be invited into his kingdom and those on his left will depart into eternal fire. 
And the incontrovertible evidence in that judgment will be how they lived their lives.  Were they merciful to others in Jesus’ name—showing that they had received his mercy in faith?  OR—did their lack of mercy towards others reveal their faithless rejection of Jesus’ mercy to them? 
The Athanasian Creed says that on the Last Day all men will give an account of their works—and they that have done good will go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
Both Holy Scripture and the creeds and confessions of the church teach that a true and saving faith in Jesus is always accompanied by the fruits of that faith—good works.
Those whose faith is mere intellectual knowledge or mere words—those who have shown no mercy to others out of a genuine faith and love for Christ--can only expect to face a final judgment that is also without mercy.
But for all who have looked to Jesus Christ in faith and seen in him the law of God fulfilled and the punishment of God received—for all who know the judgment of the cross as the mercy of God poured out upon them—for all who have been set free from their sins to live lives of Christian love—they can be confident on that day-- that mercy will indeed triumph over judgment.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Stand Firm!


Stand Firm!


Ephesians 6:10-20 In our sermons over the last several weeks we have heard the call of Joshua to choose who we will serve:  the one, true and living God of the universe or the false gods of the world around us and then the answer of Joshua and the people that they would serve the Lord. 
We heard the challenge of Moses that we are to teach our children the truth about God’s great, gracious works and what it means to live as God’s children and the eternal consequences for us and those we love if we fail to do so.
We have seen the greatness of God’s chosen servants and heard the commitment of God’s people.  And yet we know how all this turned out for the children of Israel:  that they did not keep their commitments—they did not follow God’s will—and in very short order their disobedience and faithlessness affected all who followed them.  The Bible says that:
After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel. They abandoned the Lord…
            And if we are tempted to think of them too harshly, to judge them too severely, to think that somehow their story is not our own, the Bible says that:
These things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for OUR instruction, uon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
            And yet, standing firm is the very thing that God calls upon us to do:  to remain steadfast in our faith and constant in our commitment to worship and serve the LORD alone where so many who have come before us have fallen.  How are we to do that?  The Bible says
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.
            All of us have had this experience of failing to be the people we ought to be as children of God—of missing the mark when it comes to God’s expectations for our lives.  What we learn through the lives of God’s ancient people and in the lives of the disciples is that this dilemma of desiring to be the new creation we are in Christ by faith--and falling back into what the bible calls our old self with its deceitful desires-- is not unique to you. 
You are not alone in this spiritual struggle.  It’s not just your life and your marriage and your family where there are spiritual setbacks.  Paul said of himself:  I do not understand my actions.  For I do not do what I want; I do the very thing I hate.  So it is for us!
And so then, what’s going on in our life of faith when we struggle to live out the reality of who we are as a new creation in Christ Jesus? 
What we learn in these verses is that there is a spiritual battle that rages around us—a spiritual battle that we are a part of—a spiritual battle where we must fight against evil forces that are greater and more powerful than ourselves.  Again, the Bible says:
we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil
            It has become intellectually fashionable in our day and time—even within the church—to deny the existence of a personal, evil spiritual being.  But from Genesis to Revelation the Bible is absolutely clear that the devil is real and powerful and is part of an unseen realm of other evil beings like himself.  And so then…
When you combine the evil angels-- with a world that is allied against God-- and our own flesh that’s opposed to God --you have (in the world, our flesh, and the devil) an evil, spiritual triumvirate that we are powerless against in our own strength and resources. 
And yet they have been utterly defeated by Jesus Christ—not by an act of his almighty power—but by his humble life and bloody death and glorious resurrection. 
All the way back in the Garden of Eden, when the devil and our sin ruined the world, God promised that he would send a Savior—the Seed of the Woman—who would crush Satan.  That is what Jesus did—robbing the devil of his tyranny over our lives by taking that terrible burden upon himself—ruining the devil’s accusations against us by standing guilty in our place.
Yes, the devil is real,  Yes he is powerful—but he is not greater than the One who defeated him by suffering and death on the cross and it is this risen and ascended Savior who gives spiritual gifts to his people so that we can face our own spiritual battles unafraid and unbroken and unbowed.  The Bible says:
Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
            Every one of us will face spiritual battles.  The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.  Many who begin in faith do not end that way. 
Each of us are combatants in an unseen, but very real war.  We cannot, and must not, give up and give in to the desires of our flesh and the temptations of the devil and the ways of the sinful world around us.  Rather, we must stand firm in our faith with the spiritual equipment the Holy Spirit gives God’s children.  The Bible says:
Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,
            The picture that the Holy Spirit sets before Paul’s eyes (and before our eyes of faith in these verses) is that of a Roman soldier—the greatest fighting man of the ancient world.  Roman armies defeated the Greeks and the Gauls and the Carthiginians and countless others over hundreds of years and they ruled the greatest earthly empire of the day. 
Their strength and power was the reason for the peace that existed in the ancient world.  But for all their strength and for all their weaponry and for all their fighting spirit, they were still no match for the devil and his angels.  Spiritual victories are accomplished by spiritual means.
That is why the Spirit equips us with the belt of truth.  How desperately this is needed in our world today!  We live in a place and time where little babies are called medical waste and men are called women and evil is called good.  The truth of God’s Word equips us to call these lies what they are and order our thought life according to the truth of God’s Word.
The breastplate of righteousness covers our heart with the promise that despite the wounds we suffer from the spiritual conflict that rages around us—despite the fact that we have stumbled and fallen in the heat of battle—the perfect, complete righteousness of Jesus Christ is ours by faith and avails in God’s sight for salvation. 
The shoes of Gospel readiness are given by the Spirit so that every time we are ready to retreat—every time we are ready to run as far and as fast as we can from the heat of battle--we are equipped instead to take the battle to the enemy and go where the peace of Christ is needed the most in our homes and schools and communities.
And in the heat of battle we fight on with the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation so that no matter what kind of accusations the devil makes against us we can believe that we are forgiven by Christ-- and no matter what kind of spiritual blows fall upon us we can know and that God has saved us and claimed us as his own. 
Spiritually equipped in this way we fight on with the only offensive weapon that we Christians can yield and that is the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. 
Much too often you hear Christians talk about how the next election or the next law or the next Supreme Court nominee holds the key to what ails us as a nation and people.  You hear the same nonsense in the church when ecclesiastical elections come around. 
But the only way that spiritual progress can made --and the only way that spiritual victories can be won-- and the only way that hearts can be changed-- is by wielding the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God spoken to us by our heavenly Father. 
And hearing his voice over the clamor and confusion over the spiritual battle that rages around us, we cry out to him in prayer, asking God to help our brothers and sisters who are locked in the same battle as we are.  The Bible says:
Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. Keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
            The spiritual battle that rages around us—the spiritual battle in which we are combatants—also encompasses our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. 
In our world today, in this moment when we are gathered together in the safety of the Lord’s house, there are people who will face torture and slavery and rape—there are people who will be imprisoned—there are people who will die-- for no other reason than that they confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. 
We must never forget our brothers and sisters in Christ who are persecuted for their faith but instead lift them up to the Lord in prayer, asking God to protect them and keep them strong in their faith and confession.
But as terrible as is what happens to persecuted Christians in our world, what is still worse is what happens to all of those who will die this day without saving faith in Jesus Christ.  There is nothing worse—nothing—than an eternity of separation from God in the fires of hell!
And so we pray especially for all of those who are dead in their sins and trespasses—who are deaf to the call of the Holy Spirit—who are blind to a God who loves them and has sent his Son to die for them—we pray that the same Holy Spirit who has brought us to faith through the Gospel will bring them to faith as well 
And we pray for all those faithful missionaries like Paul who serve in places where we cannot go, that the Holy Spirit would help them to speak boldly of the salvation that is only found in Jesus so that the battle for lost souls is won by their Savior.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, there is a spiritual battle that rages around us.  Each of us are combatants in that battle.  None of us will emerge from it unscathed or unbloodied-- but we can be victorious in the victory Christ has already won for us in his death and resurrection.  We can fight on in his strength, equipped with the spiritual armor he provides!  Amen.