Sunday, December 16, 2018

Rejoice in the Lord Always!

Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  These words from Philippians chapter 4 come before us twice a year in the lectionary:  on Thanksgiving Day and on Gaudete Sunday.  I have had nearly fifty opportunities to preach on them and each time I have made a conscious, deliberate decision NOT TO until today.
Terrible, isn’t it?  And so why is that?  It’s because these words have seemed to me like one of those well-meaning but annoying people who tell us to smile-- without a clue as to what is going on in our lives at that moment. 
But since I’ve preached on the ministry of John the Baptist about twenty times, I was “forced” to deal with them this week.  And I have to say that I am glad the Lord dragged me kicking and screaming to actually listen to what he is saying and I hope you will be glad too.  The Spirit says to us today:  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 
What changed for me this week regarding these words is the realization that the Lord is not asking us to put some dopey, fake smile on our face.  He is not asking us produce an emotion that we cannot manage. 
What he is asking us instead to do is simply receive a gift that he very much wants to give us. 
That’s what joy is after all:  a gift of the Spirit.  A gift.  Not something that God demands of us-- but something he freely bestows on us as an act of his gracious love.  When we hear those words and understand them that way it really does change everything they direct us to the goodness of God!
Our Savior God has poured out his mercy and love upon us.  There is not one good thing that he has withheld from us.  He has given us our life and all the blessing of that life.  He has given us his Son Jesus who died for us and was raised for us to give us a new, eternal life without end.  He has given us his Spirit so that we can receive these gifts in faith and he wants to give us the gift of joy that is fixed (not upon the hardships and difficulties of life) but fixed upon this God of blessing and abundance who loves us with an everlasting love.
That’s what joy is—it is a deep, heartfelt understanding of who God is and who we are as his children that results in deep contentment and peace and happiness that is not diminished in hard times. 
I want that gift of joy for myself and I want you to have that gift of joy too.  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.
It’s a slight exaggeration but almost for as many English translations of the Bible as there are, there are that many different interpretations of the word “reasonableness”.  Some say “moderation”.  Some say “forebearance.”   Others says “graciousness or mildness or gentleness”. 
The reason for the variety of translations is because there is not a good English equivalent for the original Greek words or even a good Latin equivalent. 
So let me describe what the Spirit wants us to show in our lives.  Let me give an analogy.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, I have been avoiding this text for decades.  I dug my heels in and refused to preach on it. 
And yet for all the time that God’s servant and son (me) was acting like an unreasonable child, his heavenly Father was kindly, graciously, gently asking him to receive a gift that he desperately needed, and what’s more:  what his flock needed too.
That attitude of gentle, patient love is what the word means and we can only see it and understand it clearly in the way that our heavenly Father and his Son Jesus treat us. 
The Bible says that God deals kindly with us because he knows that we are merely dust.  The Bible says that Jesus will not blow out a flickering wick.  And so then, when our heavenly Father patiently forgives his wayward people again and again; when Jesus takes little children into his arms and cares for the sick and sad, there that words is.
What joy it gives us to know that this is the tender, gentle, patient, heartfelt love that our Savior God has for us-- and he calls us to extend that same gentle, patient, heartfelt love to others.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.  The Lord is at hand…
These words stand at the center of our text and they point backwards and forwards in helping us to understand what God wants us to know today. 
First of all, these words serve as a reminder that God is near to us and sees how we treat others and he wants us to remember to treat them with the same gentle, patient love we have received from him.
Second of all, these words also point forward in our text to assure us that we can rejoice, no matter what we are facing, because the Lord is near.  We are not alone with the troubles of this life.  We don’t have to bear overwhelming burdens on our own.
Our mighty Savior God who loves us with an everlasting love is right there with us in every moment of life, comforting us with his presence.  The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything.
In the United States, one in every five people, 40 million people have anxiety severe enough to be treated medically.  That is staggering!  I am thankful to the Lord that he gives doctors and medicine to help those in need. 
But our Lord reminds us today that there is no need whatsoever for us to be anxious about anything because he is near us.
 He is near us when we are struggling in our marriage.  He is near us when our children have gone in a frightening direction.  He is near us in money problems and health problems.  He is near us throughout our lives and in the moment of our death.  
He sees what is going on in our life.  He knows what burdens us.  And he knows best how to help us. 
Do not be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 
You have heard people (who ought to know better) say about some difficult trial, “Well, there’s nothing left to do but pray”. 
Brothers and sisters in Christ, prayer is not the last the last resort!  It is not the thing to do when there is nothing else left to do!  Prayer is the first line of defense in dealing with the sorrows of life and it is bulwark against everything that would make us anxious and rob us of joy.
Just think about prayer for a moment:  the one, true and living God of the universe, the one who is powerful and wise above all else, the one who created you and supports you day by day, the one who gave his Son to rescue you for time and eternity, invites you to speak to him about anything on your mind and promises to hear you and answer you for your good!
Prayer is just the opposite of worry and anxiety.  Worry comes from having a conversation with yourself about events that you have no control over.  Anxiety is utterly self-defeating, and unproductive.
Prayer is just the opposite!  Prayer is talking to the God who is mighty and powerful and strong to save and trusting that he will come to your aid.  Prayer is the source of deep and abiding peace and joy because we know that the Lord is so near to us that he hears the even the unspoken sighs of our inmost heart. 
And along with our requests for what we need, we are to thank God for what we already have.  This too is a key to joy.  So often in our life, our trials and difficulties blind us to all the good things God has already given us. 
But when we combine our requests for what we need, along with thanksgiving for what we have, we are reminded what a powerful, loving God we have and how he can be trusted to come to our aid because he always has!  Knowing that, worry and anxiety have to give way to joy and peace.  The Bible says that:
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
            Here is what the Holy Spirit wants us to pictures with these words:  a marine standing guard at the entrance to a military base.  Here’s the point: 
That we are God’s children, that we are reconciled to our heavenly Father by Jesus, that he sees and meets our needs, that he is with us in every moment of life—these promises stand guard over our heart and mind against every spiritual enemy of worry or anxiety that would rob us of joy and hope. 
And so then, God says to us today:  Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again I say rejoice!
Friends, these words are not a burden that we cannot bear-- but they are a blessing we cannot be without.  God grant you joy and peace in this holy season and always!  Amen.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Our Partnership in the Gospel

Philippians 1:2-11 Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi has been called “the epistle of joy” because the Spirit’s gift of joy colors and shapes and informs every word he writes.  Next week we will hear him say, “Rejoice in the Lord always!  Again I say:  Rejoice! 
What is so remarkable about his joy is that as he writes these words, he is imprisoned for preaching the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. 
He did not know how his case would turn out—whether he would be released or executed.  He was literally chained to a guard.  He had to depend on the support of friends for food and clothing. 
And yet it is joy and thanksgiving that fills his heart because he knows that he is not alone but there are thousands of Christians all over the world who love him and are concerned for him and are praying for him and who will help him—thousands of Christians who are partners with him in the Gospel. 
Today we are going to hear from a letter he wrote to some of them in Philippi and as we do so we will learn what a blessing it is—what a source of joy and thanksgiving—that we too are partners in the Gospel with all our fellow Christians.  Paul wrote:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.
            Last May, the healthcare giant, Cigna released a study they did on loneliness.  The results are sobering.  54% of Americans identified themselves as lonely and isolated even when they were not alone. 
What that means is that the majority of Americans, even when they are surrounded by people, have no real connection to them at all.  Quoting from the study, respondents said that “their relationships were not meaningful” and they were “isolated from others”.
And yet Paul, separated from those he loved—having not a clue what the future held for him—surrounded by people who were violently opposed to everything he loved—is filled with joy and prayers of thanksgiving to God! 
Why is that?  Because of the partnership—the fellowship—he shared with his fellow Christians.  Even though he was alone—he was not lonely because of the connection-- the life-- he shared with his fellow Christians.
He knew that there were Christians who are praying for him.  There were Christians who shared his faith in Jesus.  There were Christians who would come to his aid.  There were Christians who loved him.  Their partnership in the Gospel gave him joy.  So it is for us.
            We spend a great deal of time in workplaces with people who do not share our faith.  We live in culture that rejects our values.  Many of us will spend time alone in a hospital room or nursing home.  Most of us will go through a trial that is deeply painful.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to feel depressed and downcast—isolated and lonely.  But we are not alone!  Dear friends in Christ, we are not alone! 
We have one another:  fellow Christians who share our faith and values—fellow Christians who are praying for us—fellow Christians who will help us—fellow Christians to whom we are joined together in the Body of Christ—partners with us in the Gospel that has changed our lives for time and eternity.  Paul wrote:
I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
            Paul, of course, was inspired to write these words by the power of the Holy Spirit but they were written with a deep personal conviction of their truth that was born out of his own experience at the moment. 
From the very beginning of his apostolic ministry, Paul had a desire to preach throughout the Roman Empire and especially to preach in the very heart of Rome.  But how could he make that happen?  What he discovered in a personal, powerful way is that God would make it happen!
The violent persecution of the Jews and the self-serving, self-interest of petty government officials had all served God’s purpose for Paul to bring him to the very center of the greatest empire of the day so that the Gospel could be preached to all people. 
Yes, he was bound with chains!  But the Gospel was not bound and was being preached and shared in places that Paul could never have envisioned it going. 
The good work begun by Jesus in Jerusalem at the cross; the good work begun in Paul as he met the risen Christ; the good work begun in people from all over the world at Pentecost; was being brought to completion as more and more people—including those in Philippi—heard the Gospel and were baptized and came to faith in Jesus.
Paul had absolute confidence (born of the promises of God fulfilled in his own life) that the saving purposes of Jesus Christ would not be thwarted by anything in this world.
So it is for us.  We are partners in the Gospel:  with Paul and the other apostles; with the early Christians; with the saints that we have known in our own life, all of who testify to us with their own lives that the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ, begun in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, will continue to work in us until God’s saving purposes for us are fulfilled and we live in his glory and peace forever. 
The testimony of God’s people from generation to generation is that God is faithful!  God is faithful!  God is faithful!  We are a part of those people.  We share their faith and we have fellowship with them in the Body of Christ. 
And so no matter what we face or the hardships we endure, our partners in the Gospel assure us that God will accomplish his saving purposes in our lives and that the complete fulfillment of his eternal love for will be accomplished in us as we stand before our Lord Jesus Christ on the Last Day with all our fellow saints.  Paul wrote:
It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.
            The local church is an interesting place.  It’s a lot like a family in that we are bound to people that we would not necessarily choose for ourselves as friends.  And the Lord has a purpose in this in both church and family:  that we would learn to love others like Jesus loves us. 
We are loved by Jesus—not because we deserve it—not because there is something in us that draws him to us—but we are loved by Jesus because of who he is in grace and mercy.
So it is for us and our fellow Christians.  All of us are children of God by his grace.  Our place in this congregation is secured, not by who we are, but because of what Jesus did for us in the cross.  We all stand there by faith as beggars with open hands, waiting for our Lord to pour out his merciful love upon us.  That is true for us and that is true for everyone sitting around us.
And so we love one another and hold them in our heart and desire the best for them because they are partakers with us of God’s gracious love in the Lord Jesus Christ. 
We are not always going to agree with one another on every issue.  Some of us will always be oil and water.  But those human emotions and personalities have absolutely nothing to do with our life together in the church. 
We are all in this together—loving one another and helping one another in good times and in bad—just like for Paul and his partners in the Gospel.
 There were times of great joy for Paul and the Philippians as they saw their congregation begin with the conversion of Lydia and her household and then spread far and wide as the Spirit did his saving work. 
And there were times of sorrow and suffering as Paul was imprisoned for the faith.  But no matter what, in every moment, they were partakers together of God’s grace and had the best interests of each other at heart and in their prayers.  Paul wrote:
It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
            Many times over the course of my ministry I have been asked by the elderly and those in nursing home and hospital beds:  why am I still here?  What’s the purpose of my life?  What can I do? 
And I always say the same thing:  pray for me.  Pray for your fellow Christians.  You are still my partner in the Gospel!  You still are united to others in Christ!  We share a common faith.  We have a common hope.  Pray for us!  And Paul tells us how.
Pray that we may have an ever deeper love for one another and God.  Pray that we may grow in our knowledge of God and his will.  Pray that we may be filled with the righteousness of Christ.  And especially pray that we may stand before Christ, holy and blameless on the Last Day.   Just imagine if we were all praying this prayer for one another—for greater love of Jesus and deeper knowledge of God and more abundant fruits of the Spirit—what a difference that would make in our life together as members of the Body of Christ! 
It was this deep understanding of his connectedness to every other Christian that gave Paul joy even in the midst of suffering and hardship for he knew that it glorified his Savior God.  God grant it to us in our day as well.  In Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Righteous Branch

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Righteous Branch

Jeremiah 33:14-16 The covenant that God established with his Old Testament people was a two-sided covenant—God would do his part—and the people would do theirs.  God did his—but they didn’t do theirs.  They broke their part of the covenant again and again.  In mercy God took them back again and again—to no avail.  They never really changed—and by this time in their history, they made no pretense of even wanting to change.
Jeremiah was sent to them to let them know that God was going to execute that part of the covenant that the people had ignored—the covenant curses for disobedience.
That message should have led the people to repent—but it didn’t!  Instead they surrounded themselves with false prophets who promised them what their itching ears wanted to hear:  that there would be peace and plenty—that there was no need to change the direction of their lives-- and that they had nothing to fear from God’s judgment.
How wrong they were!  In that terrible moment, when thousands of Babylonian soldiers surrounded Jerusalem—they knew that Jeremiah was right and that the judgment of God was at hand and that there was nothing that they could do to change it—they knew that they were beyond human help.  That is the context for the words that we hear tonight from the prophet Jeremiah: 
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” 
What a comfort these words of promise must have been in that dark hour!  To know that just as surely as God had kept his word and was poised to bring judgment—so he would keep his promise to raise up a deliverer for them—that as bleak and as desolate as things were—there was still hope in the Righteous Branch that God would graciously raise up from David’s line.
The challenge for us is to hear Jeremiah’s words as God’s Word to us no less than it was to the people of that day—for they truly are.  The same message of judgment and salvation is intended for us too.  PAUSE!
Each week we confess that, because of our sins, we justly deserve God’s punishment in time and eternity.  Those words are intended to make us realize that what we really deserve for our sins is what the Israelites in Judah received—the destruction of all we love and hold dear—in this world and the next.
I think that most of us struggle to believe that our sins are really as bad as all that—especially since, for the most part, we live outwardly upright lives.  I think that most of us struggle to believe that God is really as demanding as all that-- since nothing in this world can reveal or measure the true holiness of God.
And what the devil, the world, and our flesh tell us is the same message of the lying prophets of old:  peace, peace where there was no peace.  That God really won’t judge.  That things are not as bad as all that.  That we can continue on as before.
But the truth of the matter is that God is holy and righteous in a way that we can’t even begin to comprehend and our sins ARE as bad as all that.  In fact, our sins are really not much different at all than the sins of the people of that day.
We too struggle with idolatry—maybe not the obvious kind of bowing and worshiping before an Asherah Pole like the Israelites engaged in--but the more subtle and sinister idolatry of trusting in our money and efforts for our security or making an idol of our health and recreation and family.
We too are part of a culture that murders its children—and even if we have not engaged in abortion ourselves—how many of us have failed to lift our voices to stop it—how many of us have worked to end it?
We too are a part of a culture that has reduced God’s gift of sexuality down to its basest forms.  And even if we have never committed adultery—even if we have been married for decades-- how many of us can say that we have never lusted—how many of us can say that our entertainment is not filled with filth—how many of us can say that our moral compass has not been badly skewed by what we see and hear and read.
And just like the tribes of Judah who turned a blind to what happened to their kinsman in the north at the hands of the Assyrians, and refused to see it as judgment from Almighty God, and a warning to leave their own lives of sin—we have done exactly the same thing—failing to recognize the temporal judgment of God in the circumstances of this world that befall us.
It didn’t use to be that way.  In our parents and grand-parents day, when they experienced a severe drought or terrible storm or the curse of war, the church would begin her prayers for deliverance by first asking for forgiveness for themselves—knowing that God does indeed exercise his judgment in time to rebuke and warn and correct his people.
Now we regard these events as some else’s fault-- or the luck of the draw for an unfortunate few-- or merely “natural” disasters with no cause or purpose-- rather than recognizing them for what they are—a sign of the broken-ness of this world and God’s impending, final judgment on mankind on account of sin.
When we see these things for what they are—when the truth about our own lives is revealed for what it is—when our half-hearted confessions and past resolutions to do better have not brought us very far in turning from sin and to the LORD-- we are struck with the same kind of emotions and thoughts as the Israelites who looked over the walls of Jerusalem and saw their destruction at hand—that we are beyond human help.
That is why these words from the prophet Jeremiah are just as true and meaningful and important to us as they were to the people of that day.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
Just as Jeremiah prophesied, the “days to come” came to an end some 600 years later, and in the town of Bethlehem, the city where David was born, a baby was born to a virgin named Mary and her husband named Joseph, both direct descendants of David.
            That baby’s name was Jesus and he was the fulfillment of that gracious promise of God made through the prophet Jeremiah–he was the Righteous Branch who would execute justice and righteousness in the land and save his people–a newborn King who would reign on the throne of David forever.
            This child, unlike any born of a woman before or since, was righteous in God’s sight.  The holy perfection of the Living God was his own for he was not only the Blessed Virgin’s son but was also God’s Son through the power of the Holy Spirit.
            And yet in every other way he was just like us--real flesh, real bone, a real human soul.  He was part of the human family–born under the righteous demands of God  in the Law.  But he was never touched by the stain of original sin and he never failed at even one point of the Law to please his heavenly Father as he lived out his life.
Jesus the Righteous Branch came into the world to bring life and salvation for all people—to deliver us from God’s judgment in time and in eternity--and that is what he did. 
Jesus Christ took upon himself the sins of his ancient people the Israelites and our sins and the sins of the whole world and the One who was born possessing the perfect righteousness of Almighty God was judged a sinner and punished, in our place.
By his death, the dead tree of the cross became the “tree of life” as God grafted in it the Righteous Branch of his son Jesus so that everyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ receives his perfect righteousness in place of their sins.  As Jeremiah promised:  “The LORD is our righteousness” and through faith in him our “hearts are blameless in holiness before our God and Father.”
            God fulfilled his gracious promise made through his prophet Jeremiah to do what was just and right in the land through the work of his own Son, the Righteous Branch, Jesus Christ. 
That promise fulfilled changes our life in this world.  Yes, we are still surrounded by enemies on every side.  But we have the promise of Jeremiah that there is a day coming when, “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely.” 
The people of Jerusalem had to wait for that promise to be fulfilled and we do too—for it is the day of our Lord’s return in glory.  But that day will come and when it does all the threatening enemies of God and his people will be destroyed—once and for all—and we will dwell securely in the Lord’s presence.  Amen.