Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Hammer of God

Jeremiah 23:16-29 Jeremiah’s message for the Israelites was primarily a word of judgment.  Because of their sins, and because of their lack of repentance, God was going to judge them by the hands of the Babylonians. 
But almost immediately, as Jeremiah began to preach that message from the Lord, false prophets also began to tell the people just the opposite:  that what they had done wasn’t as bad as all that—that God would not really judge his covenant people—that they had nothing to fear. 
Truth and lies being spoken side by side among the people of God competing for their faith.  But God wouldn’t stand for it!
Thus says the Lord of hosts: "Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 
Truth and lies spoken side by side among the people of God.  So it has always been!  Jesus said to watch out for false prophets because they are ravenous wolves.  Paul said to mark those who cause divisions among you contrary to the apostolic doctrine and have nothing to do with them.  
            In our own day: there are church bodies who say that what the Bible calls sin is not sin at all.  There are movements within the Church that say that if you get “left behind” when the Lord comes again you’ve still got another chance.  There are church leaders who add doctrines never taught in the Bible which they say must be believed for salvation.  Truth and lies being taught side by side among the people of God.
            But now as then, God’s judgment always falls upon those who speak lies in his name.  And to tell people that their sins are not really sins; to tell them that even after jesus comes, they’ll still get another chance; to add to God’s Word the doctrines of men-- is to lead people to hell because these lies provide what the Lord calls “a vain hope”—a hope that things are O.K. between me and God apart from sincere, heart-felt repentance and faith in Christ alone. 
Then and now, these kinds of “vain hopes” are the product of sinful, human thinking-- not the revealed word of God --and very simply God says: Do not listen to them!  Do not listen to them for they are not speaking God’s Word! 
Who among them has stood in the council of the Lord to see and to hear HIS word, or who has paid attention to HIS word and listened? Behold, the storm of the Lord!  Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked.
The Lord’s judgment on false prophets and their words is that they had failed to hear and to heed his Word—because if they had, they would have known what Jeremiah knew:  that judgment was coming for the people of God.
So it is for the Church today!  We too are to preach the judgment of God upon sin!  We too are called to stand for the truth!  We too are to warn folks that there is a day of reckoning and wrath to come! 
And all who deny or downplay that message in one way or another, do not speak for the Lord; and are not sent by the Lord; and are not helping those they speak to, but assuring their damnation because they are robbing them of the God-given means to repentance and faith—which is his Word of Law and Gospel.
God’s judgment can be ignored and ridiculed only for a time.  The lies of the false prophets who tell their flocks that sin is not sin and that even if Christ comes they will get another chance can continue to deceive only for a time. 
And then as certainly as the Israelites were carried into exile at the hands of the Babylonians-- so will God’s final judgment fall without mercy on those who speak lies and those who believe their lies.
But it doesn’t have to be that way for us.  There is still time for us to hear the truth of God’s Word and turn from our sins and be saved.  The Lord says:
If they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way,   
The task of the faithful preacher is very simple:  to speak God’s Word and only God’s Word—not his opinions and not his ideas and not what he would prefer and not what he thinks—but God’s Word and God’s Word alone:  when people want to hear it and when people don’t—when there is good news and when there is bad—when those words hurt and when those words heal. 
The faithful preacher limits himself to speaking God’s Word.  And the task of the people of God is very simple:  that you would demand to hear nothing else.
The Lord’s voice is the only voice that is to be heard among the people of God because it is the only means which God has given to accomplish his saving purpose:  to turn men from evil and to turn them in faith to the Lord. 
That is why he spoke so forcefully to his people through Jeremiah—to break their hard hearts like a hammer upon stone—to get them to see how desperate their spiritual condition really was—that he would not- and could not- abide forever with their sin and faithlessness—but that he would punish them if they did not repent of their sins and believe in him. 
The Lord works the same way through his Word today—to turn us from our sins to faith in him.  To bring that about, we have to hear things about ourselves that we don’t want to hear:  that we too are sinners—that we haven’t listened attentively to God’s Word like we should—that instead we have listened to what our itching ears want to hear. 
And so the Lord warns us (with the same kind of certainty that he warned the Israelites) that judgment is coming.  But he also assures us that there is a way of deliverance—a way of forgiveness and restoration that he alone provides. 
"Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more."
That new covenant that the Lord promised through Jeremiah was based upon the shed blood of the Messiah—a new covenant based upon the forgiveness that Jesus earned for the world by his life, death, and resurrection—a new covenant that is given as a free gift of God’s grace in preaching and Baptism and Eucharist. 
That is what they looked forward to in faith—that is what we know to be the finished work of our Savior and our one true hope from sin and death.
So long as we are living and breathing there still remains a day of grace when we can turn from our sins and turn in faith to the salvation that God has provided to the world in his Son Jesus Christ. 
But for that to happen the church must be about the work of the Lord—speaking his Word of Law and Gospel to the world-- and fighting against the false teachers and their lies that threatens to mute those words of truth and life. 
We are not permitted by God to remain on the sidelines-- or take a “live and let live” attitude to lies that are spoken among the people of God in the name of the Lord.  Instead we are to fight the good fight of faith with the hammer of God in hand knowing that the Lord looks on.
"Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God afar off?   Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord.  I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name,
            When it comes to what is said in the Church, let there be no doubt:  there is a God who hears- and there is a God who sees- and no one who speaks lies in his name will escape his judgment. 
The Israelites had forgotten that the Lord was holy and demanded holiness of his people.  They had forgotten that he was righteous and would judge the evildoer. 
But they had also forgotten that he was merciful and gracious and willing to forgive and so they refused to turn to him in faith for forgiveness.  Instead, by their lies, they turned aside from the one true God to an idol that they could manipulate and mute.
False teachers and their lies still work the same way to try to make us forget about who God really is.  When they tell us that sin is not sin--they deny the holiness of God.  When they tell us that our works contribute to our salvation--they deny the graciousness of God and the sufficiency of his Son’s sacrifice on the cross.  When they tell us that God is not the Creator of all--they deny the power and greatness of God. 
And slowly but surely, the devil uses those lies to try and turn our hearts from the one true God to an idol that can be carried around and rubbed like a rabbit’s foot or Genie’s bottle when we need something.  But I am telling you dear friends in Christ—the One true God will not abide with that attitude forever.  He says:
Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord.  Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? 
            Right up unto the Last Day of God’s judgment there will be tares in the wheat—there will be wolves in sheep’s clothing among the flock of God—there will be false teachers who lie and true prophets who faithfully speak the Word of God. 
There is a difference between the words of God and the words of men and it is as stark and as clear as the difference between wheat and straw—between truth and falsehood—between wolves and shepherds. 
The Good News for us today is that our faithful Lord has the last word and at his word the wheat will be separated from the chaff which will be burned in unquenchable fire and those who have been broken and re-shaped by the hammer of God and filled with the fire of the Spirit will live forever.  Amen. 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Adopted Into God's Family

Romans 8:12-17 In God’s Word to us today, we hear one of the most important, instructive, (and sadly) ignored teachings of the New Testament:  our adoption as God’s children.  The incredible Good News that having been purchased and set free from slavery to sin and death by the blood of Jesus, the Holy Spirit has brought us to faith and made us sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, adopting us into God’s family.
Just think about that for a moment!  You are a child of the living God of the universe—and that royal status, as God’s adopted children, shapes how we understand: God- and our own lives- and our purpose in this world.  The Bible says that:  We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 
In the first eleven verses of chapter eight, Paul very carefully lays out just exactly what God has done for us and our salvation:  that he sent his Son Jesus so that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled--that the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in our lives to empower us in a new way of living—and that when this life is over, we can look forward to being raised from the dead.  And so then…
Because of what God has done for us, we Christians have an obligation—a debt we owe—not to our flesh—not to our old way of life —but an obligation—a debt we owe to the Holy Spirit-- for bringing us back to our heavenly Father when we were lost and adopting us into God’s family 
To him—we owe our very life in time and eternity—a debt that the child of God is glad to pay.  Normally, we don’t like being indebted.  We are relieved when our car and home are paid off. 
But the obligation we have to God, for what he has done for us in Jesus, and the place the Holy Spirit has made for us in his family—is something altogether different!  That debt is not a burden-- but a pleasure to pay and the purpose of our lives.  To live for God—not the flesh is life as God designed it.  The Bible says that:
If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
            There really are only two ways to live life here on earth:  to gladly serve our heavenly Father who has done so much for us at so great a cost—or to live our lives indulging ourselves.  The first way leads to life—the second way, to death. 
And so rather than living this way, the child of God puts to death the deeds of the body. 
Putting to death the deeds of the body is not a one-time action!  It has to be done again and again so that we do not return to a life of sin and forfeit our place in God’s family through disobedience.  And so what exactly does that mean—to put to death the deeds of the body?
First of all, it means that we accept the judgment and verdict of the law regarding our sin.  The activities and behaviors that God calls sin—are sin-- and will remain sin until the end of days.  God has not changed his mind about right and wrong.  Secondly, it means that we recognize that sin leads to death and so we are quick to repent when we have done wrong.  And finally, it means that we ask the Holy Spirit to help us live a holy life and that we make regular and faithful use of God’s Word and Holy Communion to that end. 
This is how the Holy Spirit works repentance in our hearts (moment by moment- and day by day) so that sin does not get the upper hand and destroy our faith and our life with God.
Please understand, dying to self—crucifying the flesh-- putting off the sin that overtakes us at times—cannot be done in our power-- but has to be done in the power of the Spirit who lives in us, guiding us into the way that leads to life. 
In fact, it is only those who are led by the Spirit who can count themselves a part of God’s family.  The Bible says that:  All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  When we hear those words, we must ask ourselves: Am I led by the Spirit? 
Since it is only those who are led by the Spirit who can count themselves a child of God, am I a person who is led by the Spirit?  Do I share God’s perspective on life?  Are his values and his purposes and his priorities my own?  Is the testimony of the Spirit more real and compelling to me than the voice of the world and the desires of my flesh?
Christians get confused about this ‘leading of the Spirit”.  It is not some mystical experience that the Bible is talking about.  Instead, it is the voice of God as he speaks to us in his Word, and impresses that truth upon our hearts, so that we know the direction that we should go in life because we are God’s children and we know our Father’s heart.
That is the leading of the Spirit-- and if we find ourselves going in a direction other than the way that he leads, we know that direction in life doesn’t lead to the glorious freedom of the children of God—but is return to the slavery from which Jesus set us free.  That must not happen!  The Bible says that:
You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”
            The world is full of people who think that they are free because they are doing what they want, when they want.  But they are not free at all!  They are slaves!  They are either enslaved by their flesh- or they enslaved by what others think about them- or they are enslaved by the devil. 
They are anything but free and they live in fear:  fear of growing old, fear of not having enough money, fear of not being pretty enough or handsome enough, fear of being rejected by others, fear of being alone.  Lives of fear. 
But that is not what God wants for his children!  He has laid claim to us in Holy Baptism and made us his own dear children.  Our adoption into his family is the pinnacle of our life with him:  that we would know him as our Father—that we would have such an intimate, loving life with him that we would address him as Abba—the name that little children called their father in the days of Paul.
God has created you and redeemed you and adopted you into his family to have this kind of life with him.  You are his child.  He loves you.  You do not have to fear him as a slave—cowering and trembling before him, afraid of being punished.  Respect him to be sure!  Stand in awe of him, certainly! 
But even then our respect and awe shouldn’t make us cower in fear-- but lead us to trust him and come to him no matter how difficult the situation—no matter how great the obstacle—to cry out to him in our need, knowing that the living God of the universe is our Father and he loves us and will help us.
This is who you are.  This is the kind of life that God wants to have with you and this Father/child relationship is what shapes our lives of faith and leads us in the paths of holiness and obedience. 
We do not obey God because he is going to strike us down.  We do not obey God so that we can make a place with him on our own.  Jesus has already been punished for us.  The Holy Spirit has already adopted us into the family of God through faith in Jesus. 
We are God’s children and it is because this is who we are that we WANT to know what pleases our heavenly Father!  We WANT to know what his wisdom says is best for us!  We WANT to talk to him in prayer, confident that he is listening.  We WANT to worship him and WANT to spend time with him and we expect blessing and protection and provision from him because he is our Father and we are his children. 
This is not my opinion—this is not wishful thinking—this is what God himself says about us.  The Bible says that: 
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Everyone who has Jesus Christ for their Savior has God for their Father and his message to you today is this:  Dare to believe what the Holy Spirit says about you in the Bible!  Know that the promises of God are true!  Rejoice in the place that the Father has made for you in him family—not only as his child—but as an heir of all that he possesses!  The Good News for us is that…
God does not treat his adopted sons and daughters any differently than he treats his only-begotten Son Jesus.  The fellowship they have together—the life they share—the eternal future that is theirs—the place in heaven they enjoy—this inheritance of grace-- is for all of God’s children who have faith in Jesus and follow him as his disciples—even when that means hardship and suffering.
            Jesus’ journey back to the Father went through suffering and the cross and how can it be any different for we who are God’s adopted children than it was for Jesus?  But the promise that is found in Jesus’ life is also true of our own—that the way of the cross leads to glory for all of God’s children.  Amen.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Parable of the Rich Fool

Luke 12:13-21 Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me."   But Jesus said to him, "Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?" 
            It is important to remember that Jesus does not speak to us so that we can use his words as a tool to manipulate others.  Instead, he speaks to us so that we might be changed.  That’s especially important for us to remember as we hear Jesus speak to us today about the place and role and importance that money has in our lives.
We are tempted to tell ourselves that this parable of the rich fool really doesn’t apply to me because-- after all—I’m not rich—or at least not as rich as some.  We are tempted to look around the sanctuary to make sure that others are listening. 
But in these temptations we are just like the man that Jesus rebuked who wanted to use the authority of the Lord’s words as a tool designed for others.  But it’s not—it’s a word of divine authority--from God--for us—to change us.
Jesus speaks these words to each of us today because greed and coveting is not about how much money we have—it’s about what’s first in our hearts.  The parable he tells is not really about what we possess—but about what possesses us.  Jesus said:
"Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." 
            Sin begins in the heart and it is for that reason that God forbids coveting that which belongs to another.  Adultery begins in the heart with a lack of appreciation and thankfulness for the spouse that God has given to us and a sinful desire for another’s spouse.  Stealing begins in the heart with a lack of satisfaction for the material gifts that God has given to us and a sinful desire for other’s things.  Idolatry begins in the heart with a lack of satisfaction that we are creatures and a sinful desire to be our own god.   
Covetousness is a spiritually deadly sin.  James writes in chapter 4 of his epistle:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?  Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?  You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”
The man who came to Jesus out of the crowd that day thought he had an inheritance problem that a proper disposition of money could fix.  But he didn’t.  He had a spiritual problem that only Jesus could fix—and that spiritual fix began with recognizing that the problem was in his own soul.  It begins in the same place for us—with recognizing and confessing the sins of our heart.
Jesus says, “…be on your guard against all covetousness.”  We do have to be on guard because this sin can sneak up on us.  There are economic disparities.  There are differences in people’s gifts and abilities and resources. 
And the shift in our hearts from thankfulness and satisfaction for what we do have-- to resentment and covetousness for what we don’t have-- can almost be imperceptible until we’re overcome by this sin. 
That I why Jesus reminds us that:  “Life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.”   We know this don’t we—at least intellectually?  We know that:   no matter how rich we are or successful or powerful we are, life itself is much more than mere things.  We know that all of the wealth in the world will not extend our life one breath or beat of the heart beyond that day that God has already ordained for us. 
We know the truth of what Jesus says (that life does not consist in the abundance our possessions) but how hard it is for us to remember it and re-order lives accordingly!  And so Jesus tells us this parable of the rich fool to illustrate in a memorable way his point about the place and importance of material things in our lives.
 "The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?'  And he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' 
            One of the very first words our kids learn is the word:  “mine”.  Children have to be taught to share.  It doesn’t come naturally to them anymore than it does to us because our sinful flesh is turned in on itself-- and we see the truth of human self-centeredness so clearly in the rich fool’s words.  My crops—my barns—my grain—my goods—my soul.
Mine!  But how wrong he was!  As much as he thought all these things were his—Jesus tells us the truth about the real source of his wealth.  Jesus says, “…the LAND of a rich man produced plentifully.” 
The truth about farming is that no matter how smart you are and no matter how hard you work and no matter how much modern technology you bring to bear in your work as a farmer—a crop simply will not be produced if there is not adequate sunlight and rainfall and fertile soil and dry weather for harvest—gifts only the Creator can give.
Most farmers know this and have a humble faith in God’s provision in God’s provision.  But there are exceptions—and this man was one of them--for he left God out of the picture.  He said:  What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?'
I want you to notice what he didn’t ask.  He didn’t ask:  “Lord, what would you have me do?”  “Seeing as how you have so abundantly and richly blessed me, how can I serve you and your people with these your blessings?”  God never even enters into his thinking.  It simply never occurs to him that the God who has blessed him-- might have something to say about the blessings he has bestowed.  What about us?
When we get a raise or a promotion or a bonus, is our first thought:  “Lord, what would you have me do?”  Or is it, “What will I do with more money?”  It is so easy for us to forget that, behind our hard work and behind our intellect and behind our wise investing is the God who gives it all.  Much too often it is pride that fills our hearts over what we have done—just like that fool in the parable who said,
'I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.    
Once again I want you to hear what he doesn’t say:  “I will do this.”  “I will return a tithe to the LORD as the Giver of it all.”  “I will help those in need around me”.  “I’ll do give an offering for the temple of God.”  Instead, he planned to build a monument to himself that would show everyone around him how rich he was.
But what his plan really revealed was the poverty of his soul and the emptiness of his life.  He said to himself. Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'   And of course he was right!  He had every thing he needed for many years—EXCEPT—the many years.  Only God can give those years.
 We can deceive ourselves into believing that the material things we have are of our own making-- but that illusion will come to an abrupt end when we come face to face with the real Giver of those gifts.  We can delude ourselves into believing that we are the captains of our souls and the masters of our destiny-- right up until we face God.
The rich fool and the people around him thought he was the brightest, most successful, and wisest man they knew.  But God thought differently.
God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God."
            The fool went to sleep that night just as he had every other night of his life believing he had the world by the tail—but that night was not like every other night—it was his last night.  He had not-- and would not—entrust his soul into the hands of his Creator and Redeemer and so his soul was taken from him in eternal death in hell. 
With that most precious possession lost—all that remained of his life—all the things he called his own—all he valued above God-- was be given to others-- who would fuss and fight over them just like the man at the beginning of our lesson.  Such is the end of all those who lay up treasures for themselves and are not rich toward God. 
But thanks be to God, that moment has not yet come for us!  Today is a God-given opportunity to re-evaluate our lives and turn in repentance from greed and covetousness—a day to topple the idol “mammon” off the throne in our hearts and receive in faith what truly counts as treasure in God’s sight—and that is Jesus.
The Good News for us today is that our Lord Jesus Christ did not fail to keep “first things first” as we so often do.  He came to do the will of his Father—and he did it—perfectly.  He came, not to be served- but to serve.  And he did not count his own life too high a price to pay to secure the salvation of our souls and to free us by his resurrection from the fatal bondage to the things of this world.
Life does not consist in the abundance of our possession—but it consists—from beginning to end-- in Christ-- who is our life.
All of the riches of Christ are set before us today—his Word that calls us to repentance and faith—his body and blood which assure us that his death and resurrection are for us individually and personally—his abiding presence that makes our lives-- no matter how humble-- very rich indeed. 
When we lay our heads down tonight—even if it is our last night—we can commend our souls into the hands of our merciful, forgiving Father and sleep at ease-- knowing that in in Jesus we are rich beyond measure.  Amen.