Monday, September 26, 2011

Matthew 21:33-46 New tenants of the Vineyard

Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
            Things that can be hard for us are easy for God.  Patience, for example.  It’s hard for a lot of people to wait for something good to happen.  We want results right away.  God is different.  The Heavenly Father knows how to wait.  This morning’s parable describes his patience.  He made a covenant – or agreement – with Abraham and Jacob and their descendants.  He loved the people of Israel and blessed them when they followed him and trusted him and obeyed his commands.  The Old Testament tells the story of many faithful people: Ruth and Boaz, King David most of the time, the prophets and a few of the kings of Judah.  Most of the people and their leaders, however, did as they pleased and served their own interests.  They oppressed the poor, they worshiped heathen gods, they offended the Heavenly Father.  But he was patient with them.  Instead of destroying them, he sent prophets to warn the majority who strayed and to encourage the ones who stuck with him.  He gave them plenty of time to turn to him and kept hoping they would take hold of his outstretched hand.  He didn’t want to believe that they were as wicked as they seemed.
            This morning’s parable illustrates the patience of God.  The owner of the vineyard kept sending his servants to collect the payment they owed him.  He didn’t give up hope.  He even sent his son, thinking that the tenants would surely respect him.  The Heavenly Father puts the best construction on actions and events.  He looks for a favorable outcome.  He trusts that his actions in the world will produce the results he wants, so he is patient.
            The parable reminds us as well that his patience is not infinite.  The tenants who kill the son end up paying a great price, for the son is ruler of everything – the cornerstone of the building – and the ones who reject him will be crushed to pieces.  The Heavenly Father provides, he nourishes.  In the words of Isaiah, he gives drink to his chosen people, the ones he formed for himself.  But he expects a return – the heartfelt devotion of his people, who proclaim his praises.  If they desert him, he will crush them.  A terrible fate in eternity is waiting for people who harden their hearts and refuse to turn to God when they have the chance.  This is a hard saying: tender minds don’t like to think about hellfire and damnation.  But the Heavenly Father who nourishes and provides and saves also has a secondary plan – eternal punishment for the hard and the cruel, flames of hell for the unjust and the faithless.  Jesus wants us to know about these things so that we have a full picture of heaven’s way of working.  Threats of hell never saved anyone, but God terrifies so that we’ll pay attention to him and he can make alive and console.  He wants us to know, besides that, that he is just and righteous.  He will punish blasphemers, the faithless, the unrepentant, those who are blood-thirsty and tyrannical, who oppress the helpless, while people who endure in faith, who persist in loyalty to God, however humble and unnoticed they may be, will receive a great reward.
            Jesus main mission, you see, is to comfort, to make alive.  He had planned a wonderful work of outreach for his Old Testament people to carry out under his guidance – to believe in the coming Savior themselves and to carry the good news of salvation t the gentile nations.  But the leaders of the day rejected God and his message.  They refused to take up the mission, but Jesus didn’t die in vain.  The Father found others to help him.  He turned the vineyard over to new tenants, who spread the Word about the hope of salvation in Christ.
            People in Mediterranean countries were in spiritual turmoil at that time.  Melancholy was widespread.  Millions had lost their trust in the old pagan religions and were hungry for a new faith, which the apostles and the disciples brought to them along the efficient roads of the Roman Empire.  Hearts awakened; spirits renewed; slumbering souls revived with the hope of new life that would last forever.  Folks who’d never heard of Abraham and Noah or King David now looked to Christ for salvation.  They head the gospel, learned what it meant for them, and held onto it.  The Lord had found new tenants for his vineyard who were willing to offer him the return of faith he wanted.
            To put it another way, the parable shows us that God defends his Word.  He takes the gospel away from people who distort it or abuse it for their own purposes and gives it to folks who will be grateful for it and will use it the way he wants.  He keeps the Bible’s message fresh and new, so that it’s as powerful today as in the time of the apostles.
            It’s important to keep in mind that God doesn’t work in obvious ways.  He brings down the proud and the great and lifts up the lowly, who will provide him with the kind of return he wants.  The parable helps us understand the Lord’s way of working and the kind of fruitfulness he creates in his vineyard and when the owner will return.
            The vineyard is the church which has existed for the comfort, guidance, and salvation of God’s people since Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise.  The church has had many ups and downs, but her Lord has kept her a place where weary men and women who regret their sins may find relief for troubled minds and restoration to life and favor.  The church brings us forgiveness in Christ’s blood, guidance for daily living, hope for the future, and the promise of happiness in eternity.  The church takes away our fear of death.  God’s vineyard is a place of hope and joy and love.
            The church is very simple.  It exists wherever God’s Word is preached in its purity and where the sacraments are offered according to his Word.  The church doesn’t need great buildings or a fine show.  In fact, these sometimes get in the way.  Jesus has placed his gospel here, and so St. Peter’s is as much the church as any place, and we offer our Lord the kind of return he is looking for.
            He isn’t looking for great and mighty works, but sorrow for sin, faith and trust in Jesus, the assurance that his mercy applies to us, and the good works that flow from faith in him.  Christian fruitfulness isn’t grand or imposing.  It sticks close to the earth; it doesn’t draw attention to itself.  We lead wonderfully fruitful lives simply by sticking with Jesus in gratitude for his friendship and doing the works of faith he sets out for us.
            No one’s life of faith is perfect.  We sometimes fail to repent; we let Jesus go; we give way to laziness; we can be ungrateful and selfish, like the tenant farmers in the parable.  But God has designed his vineyard specifically to increase the fruitfulness of imperfect people like ourselves, for the church is a hospital, where wounded people may find rest and confidence for the future.
            We remember, too that we aren’t here this morning because of our own actions, but because God has summoned us to St. Peter’s, so we trust that he’ll keep on pardoning us so that
awareness of our imperfections doesn’t break our spirits.  Jesus equips us with confidence that we’ll be fruitful.  How often have we felt that he’s lifted us up and carried us through some trial that we couldn’t have borne on our own.  Our gratitude is the return he’s looking for.  He commands us to trust that his blessings to us will continue, so we cling to him by the faith he gives us.
            Now, a few words about heaven’s timing.  The world is restless, always looking for something new, while God is patient, never in a hurry.  All good things come according to his plan.  He knows that the new tenants of his vineyard are waiting – for a certain blessing to reveal itself, for pilgrims to turn to the church, for Jesus’ second coming, so he gives us the patience to wait in hope, as we wait faithfully for his return in glory, when he will judge the wicked and call his beloved children to praise him in heaven.     
            God is doing a marvelous thing and he isn’t yet finished.  What may seem like delay to us is not delay to him.  Peter wrote that Jesus’ sense of time is different from ours.  A thousand years for him are the same as a day, and a day is a thousand years.  “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness,” Peter wrote, “but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that anyone should perish but that all should reach repentance.”  Our Lord postpones his second coming to give his Word a chance to spread.
            Meanwhile, in some ways, we’re like the tenants in the parable.  The world, the devil, and our flesh tempt us to stray.  How can we be sure we’ll behave better than they did?  The Lord who brings us here will keep us in his vineyard.  He protects his chosen tenants from harm.  We don’t worry.  He will guard our faith and maintain us in the kind of fruitfulness he wants.
            To sum up, then – the Lord’s Christian people are the new tenants of his vineyard.  He expects a special kind of fruitfulness from us: sorrow for our sins, reflecting minds, the humility to accept forgiveness, and the good works that flow from faith.  The Lord who brought us into his vineyard will keep us there, so we don’t chafe at what looks like heaven’s delay.  We’re patient.  We rejoice at what God has done for us and for the whole human race.  He knows our situation.  He hears our prayers.   He gives us hope that we’ll call on him as long as we live and that he’s waiting to receive us in the next life.  In Jesus’ Name.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Philippians 2:5 - 11

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from god the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
            The epistle text from Philippians has inspired a lot of thought and devotion among Christians.  It’s one of the great passages in the Bible.  We can’t possibly exhaust its riches this morning, so we’ll settle for looking at it from two points of view – first as a commentary on Jesus’ mission, especially his suffering and death and also as a guide for Christian living, for St. Paul says that we are to have the same attitude or frame of mind as Christ.  Basically, he expands on something our Lord said during his ministry: “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls.”
            Paul described Jesus in his state of humiliation.  It’s easy to follow what he wrote, step by step, because he expressed himself in a logical way.  Christ by his very nature is God, Paul said.  He didn’t have to reach out or struggle to acquire a high status.  He was already God through and through.  When he took on human flesh, he voluntarily laid aside the benefits and glory of his divine status.  Although he performed miracles to demonstrate his control over nature and gave the penitent thief who died beside him on Good Friday the promise of paradise, he didn’t for the most part act like God.  He didn’t amaze the people of Israel with his almighty power.  Instead, he took on the very nature of a servant; he performed his works for the benefit of his needy neighbors.  He didn’t seek his own advantage or ask people to serve him.  He might have lifted himself above other folks, but he didn’t.  He didn’t seek riches or power or honor.  He came to earth as an ordinary working man so that no one would feel intimidated and anyone could approach him.
            Since he was found in appearance as a man, as Paul put it, he lived as people always do, eating, working, needing rest, companionship, and communion with God.  As a man, he had the same relationship to God and society as other people.  What’s more, he humbled himself.  He made himself even lower than others so as to be a servant.  He lowered himself even to the point of giving his life.  And not only did he make himself lower than most human beings, he also put himself under the curse of the devil, sin, and death and carried them for us.  He accepted a humiliating death as a base criminal; he gave up even the respect that is due to servants and placed himself among the outcasts.  He took on those burdens, Paul pointed out, not because we are worthy of his sacrifice, but out of obedience to his Father.  The Heavenly Father had planned from eternity that his Son would suffer and die for the sins of mankind.  Jesus acted from obedience, as Paul said.
            Then he received his reward. He set aside the form of a servant he’d taken on, and God raised him to the highest place.  Not humbled any longer, he has the name above every name.   We don’t see his exaltation now, except by faith, because our vision is obscured, but the Holy Spirit grants us faith to confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of his father.
            Jesus humbled himself, then.  We do the same.  “He who is greatest among you,” our lord said, “let him be as the least, and he that is chief, let him be as he who serves.”  Jesus calls us to serve – in our work, in our family lives, in church and our relationships with others. Christians are servants – like the Lord.  It’s easy for us to forget our callings, though, because the human mind loves to assert its own dignity.  We want to be acknowledged, lifted up, to be like God.  Jesus commands us to set aside our ambitions and imitate him.  He had a rightful claim to all the prerogatives of God, but he gave them up, while human nature, which has no right to think of itself as God, wants to be just like him in power and status.  The serpent tempted Adam and Eve to think he could make them like the Almighty, the people who built the tower of Babel wanted to assert their wills.  The violence that comes to us in the news comes from the same source – human pride that doesn’t recognize limitations.  We ask our Heavenly Father’s forgiveness for our own lack of humility and pray that he will help us set aside the pretensions and illusions the devil sets before us.  The search for humility is an excellent exercise, for when we purposely lower ourselves, we seek the truth about our situations and the truth brings joy and rest.
            God loves humility; he blesses those who have it and seek it.  “By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life,” says one of the Proverbs, and another says: “A man’s pride will bring him low, but honor shall uphold the humble in spirit.  “Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly,” says a third Proverb, “than to divide the spoil with the proud.”   God loved the humility of Moses, whom the Book of Numbers says was very meek, above all the men who were on the face of the earth.  And Paul wrote in his Romans: “Be subject to one another and be clothed with humility, for God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.”
            It’s the Christian way to seek to walk humbly before God and others, and we learn from those times when God arranges external circumstances so as to humble us.  Afflictions of all kinds bring us low – illness, personal misfortune, uncertain times.  It’s important for us to see the heavy parts of life with Christian eyes.  They’re not punishments from God, but inducements for us to turn to him.  The Lord doesn’t wish to deprive us of good things, but he insists that we look to him for all blessings and to receive our lives from him.  During times of hardship, we understand that God is developing in us the mind of Christ and after we have learned the lessons he wants to teach us, he will raise us up, not necessarily in an earthly way, but according to his plan and his time schedule. 
            Life humbles everyone in many ways.  Dreams are trimmed, opportunities reduced, egos deflated.  How often do we hear the word “cutback”?  We learn that no one is very important in the long run and that we can live without special privileges – a trip to the South Pacific, say, or the fifteen room house we may have dreamt about when we were young. 
            Even the church seems pared down these days.  We may look enviously at larger church bodies whose members seem to stream through the doors.  But we shouldn’t be depressed.  God has his reason for humbling his church, just as he has reasons for humbling you and me.         
           For one thing, there is great strength in humility.  This is one of the secrets of the Christian way.  It’s common for us to moan about things we don’t have, but we can grow weak and lax if we let whining get the best of us.  As Jesus gave up the privileges high earthly status, so do we.  We make a sacrifice to God of the things we don’t have – new appliances for the kitchen, a winter palace in the Caribbean, a high position in the community.  We turn these things over to God and allow him to dispense them as he pleases and we even turn the desire for them over to him, knowing that he will provide abundantly for our needs.  We are wise to the devil, who knows how to strike at our weak points.  We ask the Lord to bring us contentment with what we have.  He’ll answer us and make us strong in our humility, as Jesus was strong.  God puts his people in a position to thrive inwardly when times are tough.
            As well, a spirit of humility reminds us that we are servants, concerned about the welfare of others.  The details of our service are different for each of us, but in general we say that we bring the mind of Christ to the people around us.  We show concern for their well-being and pray for them. 
            It’s also wise to remember our limitations, not to overestimate our abilities.  It’s best to concentrate on only a few things.  Nothing contributes to burn-out like a pile of disconnected tasks.  We’re not called to solve everyone’s problems or stick our noses where they don’t belong.  We need to take time for ourselves to recharge our batteries with Bible reading and prayer.  Time we spend with the Lord is also service, for he loves to heal us and put us back into shape.
            What’s more, we must be sure not to set standards of perfection for ourselves.  Perfectionists always have a hard time.  They criticize themselves and they invite criticism from others, who are quick to point out chinks in other people’s armor and to find fault with those who usually do well.  Be gentle with yourself; take things easily, one step at a time.  There is only one perfect human being.  Our task is not to compete with him, but to seek his help – with humility of heart.  God forgives the imperfect.  He invites us to be still in his presence.  He transforms us gradually, but first he forgives us.  The great reward of Christian humility is rest in God’s presence, the inner delight that comes with knowing that he is available to us.
            The reward for humble Christian living, Paul suggests, is that God will exalt us – a raising up that takes place partly now and in full on the last day.  Today, as Paul urged the Philippians, we live blamelessly and innocently as children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.  Living God’s way, holding fast to the word of life,  we shine as lights in the eyes of God and also in eyes of worldly people, though they may not recognize God’s light for what it is.  Forgiven, declared innocent for the sake of our Lord, washed clean in his blood, we shine like stars.  Worldly minds never seek the kinds of rewards that Christians treasure, but we rejoice in what the Lord makes of our lives.  We cherish the light that shines through us, for it is a foretaste if the light that will shine in heaven.  May we keep on seeking the mind of Jesus and continue walking in the humble paths he shows us. In Jesus’ name we give thanks.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.

Job 19:23 - 27

Grace, Mercy and Peace to you from God our  Father and Christ Jesus our Lord,
               I suspect everyone knows that the book of Job is about suffering, especially unjust suffering.  Job asks why he, a righteous man, should suffer while the evil prosper and grow strong.  His situation causes him to wonder about God.  Job asks an important question.  “If I am suffering, does this mean that God is not all powerful?  Or does it mean that he may be all powerful but that he is not good and just?”
            People ask the same questions about God today and we always will.  Folks all over the world are put upon and injured unjustly.  Many must have a strong sense of their innocence.   Life treats lots of people unfairly and we wonder why.  Someone may try to lead a decent, upright life but calamity comes along in the form of illness or financial reverses or malicious gossip and that person may think that God has forsaken him or her.  Bad times may cause us to wonder about God’s care for us.  The lesson of the Book of Job is that God is God and that he is concerned about the welfare of every single human being, no matter what appearances may suggest.  God cares about all of us, and he is available to all.  No problem is too great or too small to bring to him with the confidence that he will work it out for our good.   Because of Christ, we have access to God 24 hours a day.  He offers us a permanent, long-standing, never-ending relationship, not simply with his laws and his justice but with himself.  The Lord himself appears to Job at the end of the story.  No greater privilege can come to us.  God restores Job’s good fortune, and this is important, too.  But first the Lord makes himself known.
            The story of Job illuminates our own relationship with God. As we walk along with Job in our imaginations, we find that our understanding of God and what he does for us through Jesus increases.  Job stands for all of us as we encounter the loving and gracious and all-powerful God.
            Scripture says that Job was not one of the Hebrew people; he wasn’t raised in the Old Testament covenant.  Still, he was an important man, the greatest of all men who lived east of Israel.  He was rich.  He owned 7000 sheep and 3000 camels.  He had ten children and a large number of servants.  He wasn’t like one of the characters in a TV serial, though, because he was blameless and upright.  He feared God and shunned evil.  He was a good man who happened to have a lot of property ad a high social standing.  Such people exist, even in today’s world, even though we don’t hear about them in the news.
            A series of misfortunes befell Job in the midst of his prosperity.  He lost his wealth and his family.  He developed a terrible disease of the skin.  He falls into disgrace and his neighbors love to point out that he must have done something wrong or else these calamities wouldn’t have struck him because God protects the righteous and punishes only the wicked.  It seems that these comments from his friends are the hardest of all for Job to bear.  At one point, he says, “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?  Ten times you have reproached me; shamelessly you attack me….Though I say, I’ve been wronged, I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice.”
            Job goes so far as to say, like Christ  on the cross, that even though he is innocent and upright, God has forsaken him.
            His predicament was intense, but there’s something we need to keep in mind about Job.  His claims to innocence and righteousness are genuine.  He was a truly godly man.  He fell into sin from time to time like all of us, but he avoided serious transgression and he lives with God.  He cries our angrily; he is full of bitterness and grief; his misfortune leads him to say things he later regrets.  He doesn’t desert God, however.  He clings to the Lord even though he no longer perceives God’s abiding care. He says that even though God may slay him, he will still trust him.  “I know that my Redeemer lives,” he says, “and in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him wit my own eyes.  I, and not another.  How my heart yearns within me!”    
Job is truly a person of faith.  Though well-meaning, his accusers are wrong.  Job lives before God with an open heart.  He doesn’t try to hide his sorrow and his disappointment.  He doesn’t try to run from God.  He wants the Lord to see everything about him.  He doesn’t know why God has afflicted him, yet he continues to trust him. 
Now, there’s something Job didn’t know but that he knows now and that you and I know through the revelation of Scripture.  A third force enters the picture along with Job and God.  This force is Satan and once we understand Satan’s role, we begin to find answers for the questions we asked earlier about God’s goodness and power.  We begin to trust that God is what he claims to be even though his world is shot through with evil.
You see, Satan wishes to destroy harmony between mankind and God.  He can’t attack God, so he attacks the human race.  He is full of accusations; he tempts everyone; he sows enmity of all kinds.  He brings sickness and sin and death into the world.  In accordance with his evil nature, then, and you can read this for yourself in the first chapter of Job, Satan waltzes up to God one day and says, “Listen, that man Job who appears to be so righteous and in whom you delight is righteous only because he is rich and comfortable.  But he will turn away from you if you take all his good things away from him.”  Satan argues that Job’s righteousness is really evil, since he is good only because goodness is profitable.  He challenges God to allow him to conduct an experiment.  Satan bets that Job won’t be righteous once his prosperity is removed. Even though God takes the other side, he can’t deny Satan his challenge, because it goes right to the heart of God’s actions in the world. So he lets Satan have his way with Job within certain limits, intending that both he and Job will be vindicated while Satan the accuser is silenced.    
Though Job wasn’t aware of it at the time, his suffering was part of a gigantic struggle between God and Satan.  The Lord turns out to be right about his righteous servant Job and Job receives a bountiful reward for his faithfulness.
The story of Job points to a few things about God.  First, our Lord trusts his people.  He trusts that we will uphold his honor in the crucible of suffering and temptation.  The Lord has a high opinion of us, higher than we ourselves have.  Job’s case also reminds us that God is deeply concerned about us even when it looks as if the opposite is true.  Job shows that though it is incomprehensible to us, our suffering is part of God’s plan.  The faith we exhibit in times of strife glorifies God before his enemies.  He will reward us in due time.
Job’s story teaches us something about our own world.  News reports of economic troubles and dire food shortages in parts of the world, not to mention wars and terrorism and civil strife may get us to wonder what has happened to God’s goodness.  We see in Job that such calamities are Satan’s work in a sinful world.  He constantly tries to disrupt the relationship between mankind and God.  He achieves his purpose when disaster causes people to question God’s goodness or his power.
Our Lord is not helpless against Satan, for in the long run even Satan is under his control.  He doesn’t battle Satan with force, though, but through the life and death of his Son Jesus.  Job lived in hope of the Redeemer.  Nothing could provoke him to surrender this hope – not severe pain and loss of the well-meaning insults of his friends.  God defeated Satan through Christ when his Son resisted the devil’s temptations in the wilderness and again on the Cross when he suffered the penalty that Satan demands of all people in payment of sin.  God the Father accepted his Son’s sacrifice, and so Satan has no further claim on us – unless we renounce our faith.
Christ’s victory over the devil is our victory.  We pray that calamity doesn’t strike us, but if it does we are well-prepared to cling to Jesus, just as Job did, trusting that the Lord will deliver us from every difficulty and preserve us from eternal harm.
God’s goodness and power, then, don’t work by logic, as in a court of law, but by divine action.  Job’s story illustrates one of the ever-lasting truths of Scripture – that God works good out of evil.
Is there a situation in your life that causes you to feel a kinship with Job in his troubles?  If so, then trust that God is not punishing you.  he has a purpose for your affliction, which he will reveal in due time.  He will turn evil into good for you.  So cling to Christ, for like Job you have a victorious Redeemer who lives.  Jesus invites you to share every grief and joy with him, for he will build you up and one day he will appear to you in person and call you to your heavenly home.
Because of Jesus, his people live in assurance about big questions like goodness and justice and God’s power.  Jesus sums up these qualities and all others in his person.  He has condescended graciously to declare himself our friend and brother, and we respond with gratitude that he plants in our hearts the same faith he gave to his servant Job.  In Jesus’ Name, we rejoice.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.                                       

Luke 10:25 - 37

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
            The parable of the good Samaritan is one of the best-known stories in the Bible.  How marvelous it would be if we older people  could read it this morning with the same freshness of mind we had when we first heard it years ago.  Some of the young folks with us this morning may be able to open their minds with wonder and appreciation for Jesus’ picture of what it means to love our neighbors.  What promises the parable inspires.  “We’ll try to be like the Samaritan and not like the so-called religious people in Jesus’ story who wouldn’t stop to help one of their own who was in difficulties.”   Decisions like that please the Lord, and I hope the younger people at Christ our King this morning will let this parable guide their thinking about relations with others.           We older people have two things going for us now even if mental freshness isn’t one of them. The years have brought us deeper understanding  for one thing, and for another we have God’s grace and compassion that washes away our sins in Jesus’ blood.  The Savior gives us a chance to make amends and start again.
            We’ll examine the text this morning by looking at three of the characters.  We’ll have each one speak for himself, starting with the expert in the law.  We meet him some years after his encounter with Jesus and we’ll suppose that he has had a change of heart.  “The Scriptures tell us,” he says, “that if you rebuke a wise man he will take your words to heart but you never have much success with a fool.  I’d heard Jesus speak and I wanted to question him, to tempt him, tom see if I could catch him in a trap, but it was he who caught me and he taught me a lesson that helped me for the rest of my life.  The question I asked about eternal life is a good one if you were steeped in teachings about the law as I was.  I lived by a misunderstanding – that if people are to be saved, we need to do the work ourselves.  God will help us, but it’s we who need to learn the law and abide by it.  Like many people, I had created a religion that focused on my own doings and my own good work.  I didn’t look any higher.  When Jesus asked me about the law, I had an answer ready.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and with all your strength and your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.  This is a marvelous summary.  Can anything better be required of us human beings?  Love God and our neighbors, and you will achieve eternal life.
            “I expected Jesus to praise me for answering correctly or at least to reward me with a lengthy explanation, but he didn’t.  He surprised me; I was disappointed.  He answered very simply.  “Yes, that’s right.  Go and do it and you will live in eternity.”  I understood later that he was telling me that although I knew the words of the law, I had never once carried them out.  Not one time.  I’d hoped to be able to present God with a long list of deeds on the day of judgment and that these would open the door to heaven.  But he wanted much more than that – what I really needed was to keep all the law all the time and with my heart and soul and mind and strength.  And this I’d never done and couldn’t do.  I thought Jesus was asking too much of me.  I was one of the best people of our time and wanted to be even better, but Jesus was letting me know that I was a hypocrite.  I believed one thing and did another.  I was angry.  I would answer differently now.  I would humble myself.  I would say, “Be not a terror to me, you are my refuge.”  I would say: “Correct me, but with your grace and not in anger so that you don’t bring me to nothing.”  I would say what Daniel said: “We do not present our supplications before you because of our righteousness but for the sake of your great mercy.”  At the time, though, I didn’t understand that God’s law exists so that we poor sinners will be terrified and seek his mercy and not rely on our own good deeds or our own self-righteousness.  I saw the law only as a goad to drive us to do better.  I did not understand that I couldn’t do better, that my better was worse in God’s eyes.  Instead of asking Jesus who my neighbor is, I should have understood the great trouble I was in ad ask who God is.  I know better now.  I’m not such a fool that I can’t learn a useful lesson when it comes my way.  But I never learn enough really to please God.  I still need his grace and mercy.”
            We see from the Lord’s encounter with the expert in the law that no one can get the best of Jesus in a debate, especially when it comes to what God requires of us.  The Spirit of Christ teaches us who God is and how we should honor him and thank him and who our neighbors are.   The church teaches us that the world loves to create its own gods and never worships the true one.  The world is also blind and like the priest and the Levite in the story passes by the neighbor whom it sees and lets him suffer in his distress and want, while it acts generously and produces great works in other ways.  The situation is different with Jesus and his people, so we listen to the testimony of the man who was robbed and beaten.    
            “I met two contradictory ways of behaving, ” he says.  “The road between Jerusalem and Jericho passes through a rough stretch of uninhabited mountains.  There are often bandits and thieves there, so I knew I was taking a risk.  I wasn’t surprised when a band of robbers set upon me, but neither could I protect myself.  They beat me up pretty badly.  No love for your neighbor there – completely the opposite.  I was only partly conscious when the priest and the man who served at the temple passed me by.  It wasn’t my place to criticize them, but they did have a command from God to help me, and it was only their desire to serve their own convenience that kept them from stopping.  You might have expected better of them.  Still, I didn’t lose hope that someone would come to my rescue.  God answered the prayers I offered in my semi-conscious state, and not in a way I would have imagined.  He sent a Samaritan, a member of a nation that we Israelites looked down on.  There was always bad blood between us.  You know from the reading that this Samaritan did everything he could have for me in the circumstances and more.  I don’t know what was in his heart but he obeyed the commandment to love his neighbor fully and cheerfully.  As for me, I know what it means to receive help, and I am grateful.   
            “Now, I’m only a character in a parable, but this episode in my life has a lot of meaning.  I’m like all the human race – every man and woman.  We struggle and something knocks us down – the world, the devil, our sin.  We need someone to help us.
            As the Samaritan came to my aid uninvited, so comes Jesus, the good Samaritan for everyone.  He came down from heaven.  He loved us all and still does.  He shed his blood and gave us hope.  He kept the commandments the way no one else ha s been able to.  As someone put it, the command to love our neighbors is only partially fulfilled among Christians in this life, but in the life to come we will constantly and forever have love for our neighbors in our minds and our hearts.  We scarcely know now – maybe a little – what those words mean – to love God with our heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbors as ourselves, but Jesus does know and we taker hold of him by faith.  We receive the comfort and power of God’s love in times of need, when we are tempted, when we say our prayers.  We receive a taste of God’s love now in a world  that is surrounded by sin and death.  Things will be much better in heaven, when God’s love – and the love of our neighbors and our love for them – will surround us like the rays of the sun and fill our hearts.  A good Samaritan came to my rescue one day.  Jesus is my Samaritan every day.”
            The wounded man tells us a lot more, but we leave him now and turn to the Samaritan himself.  We have to  coax him because he is shy and slow to speak.   “I usually like to keep my thoughts to myself, and that’s why people say I’m bashful, but this is a famous parable, and I understand why some folks would like to hear from me.”  He pauses for a moment and then speaks again.  “I am an unprofitable servant.  I haven’t kept God’s law perfectly – not one day or one hour of my life.  You should know, though, that this understanding of myself is not a heavy burden.  It doesn’t weigh on my soul and weaken me, but it happens to be true.  I did nothing more than my civic duty and my pleasure as a believer in God.  The world can be a miserable place, and I like to relieve suffering if I can.  You probably noticed that my small deed of charity  didn’t take up a lot of time or cost very much money.  I like to think that someone will help me if I’m ever in need.  And it’s true – many folks have helped me during my life.  I’m grateful that God has sent them to me.  I have plenty of good neighbors, and I try to be one myself.
            “The question the law-expert asked about who his neighbor was is an important one.  In a sense, everyone in the world is our neighbor, and we can help them by making our prayers big enough.  But we don’t know everyone.  We know only a few people, so Jesus put the question differently in a helpful way – to whom do we act as neighbors?
            “God’s love for us inspires us to imitate Jesus wherever we are.  We want what God wants for the people who come our way.  We help them carry their burdens.  We are patient, gentle, and forgiving.  Each of us answers the question – to whom am I a neighbor?  How will I represent Jesus to this person?
            At the same time, we don’t dwell on ourselves and our imperfections.  We give our attention to Jesus.   Want to share with you some ideas from a believer who lived after my time, who found a parable inside the parable.  When I see by the law that I am condemned and half-dead and that the devil has stolen my soul along with all my faith and my righteousness and he has left me noting but bodily life that will soon be wiped out, Jesus comes, he helps, he offers his mercy, and he says: “You are indebted to God and have not paid your debt.  Now believe in me. I will give you my sufferings.  This will help you.
            “Here Jesus lifts me onto his donkey, his beast of burden which is himself and brings me to the inn, which is the Christian church.  He pours his grace into me, which gives me a quiet joyful conscience.  Even then, I am not perfectly well.  Health has been poured into me, and there is a turn for the better, but I am still not perfect.  Jesus serves and justifies me by the grace he pours into me.  Day by day, I become purer and chaster, gentler, milder, and more believing until I  die, when I shall be entirely perfect.
            “So when we come before God the Father and he asks us whether we have believed and loved God and have wholly fulfilled the law, Christ, our Samaritan, who carries us lying on his breast will come forward and say, “It’s a pity, Father.  Although they haven’t wholly fulfilled your law, I have done so, and my merit is to their benefit because they believe in me.”   All of us saints, even the most pious and holy need to lean on Jesus’ shoulders, which are plenty broad enough to carry us.  So if we want to know who our neighbor is, we remember Jesus, who is right next to us.  And what a neighbor he is.”  Amen.  The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.          .   

Monday, September 19, 2011

 Luke 19:42 – 47
Grace and Peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
            Some of you may have heard that I made a trip to Israel earlier in the year.  Our tour group went to Jerusalem last, where we spent three days. We visited the Mount of Olives one chilling morning and retraced the path Jesus followed on Palm Sunday.  There are numerous churches and church buildings on the Mount of Olives, and one of them has the Latin name “Dominus Flevit,” which means the Lord wept. It’s a new church by Jerusalem standards, built in 1955 and something in the shape of a teardrop.    It commemorates the event Luke describes at the beginning of this morning’s gospel, where Jesus expressed his sadness over the sins of Jerusalem’s people, in particular that they ignored the one who had come to save them and bring them peace.   
            After stopping at Dominus Flevit, for a few minutes we made our way down the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane, where our guide told us that 8 of the many olive trees growing there were also growing in Jesus’ time.  We then crossed the road entered the Old City of Jerusalem through the gate Jesus used on Palm Sunday.  Later in the day, we went to the Western wall which is all that remains of the temple where Jesus taught and drove out the money changer and men selling animals for sacrifice.   Others found the temple corrupt, too, the Essenes, for example, who left Jerusalem to get away from the temple and establish a purer walk with God.
            We’ll switch gears now and look at the church and God’s people from a different viewpoint.   Our Lord expresses his intention to heal and to save in the Bible and through his church.  The church is the assembly of all believers who worship God and walk with him in faith and holiness.  God makes us wise and builds up our understanding through Scripture and the church.  He strengthens our ability to persevere through our worship at Our Saviour.  He heals our spiritual ailments and sometimes our physical ones, too, through the faith he builds up in us through the church and our Scripture-reading at home.
            The passage from First Corinthians emphasizes the part the Holy Spirit plays in God’s work of healing and salvation.  He goes about his work quietly and does not call attention to himself, but the Spirit is a vital part of the way God carries out his intentions.  He brings us to faith in Christ.  He enlightens us, makes us holy, and keeps us true to God’s Word.  He gathers the Christian church and will raise us believers up on the last day to eternal life in Christ.
            Besides this, God’s Spirit empowers us to carry out our tasks for the church and her Lord. When Jesus once spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth, he said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him.  Since we are his sisters and brothers, God’s Spirit also rests on us.  He empowers us with special gifts.  By means of these gifts, God uses his people to help him carry his intentions for the world.  Our epistle text focuses on these gifts.
            Every Christian confesses that Christ is Lord.  We all have saving faith and love and the opportunity to turn to God at all times.  The Spirit also grants us special gifts.  Paul lists nine of them in this morning’s epistle text:  wisdom, knowledge, sturdy faith in God’s actions, and so on.  In other passages Paul mentions other gifts, such as teaching, leadership, the ability to administer church affairs, and the ability to give.  There are many gifts.
            While Jesus possesses all of them, Paul wrote that each Christian possesses at least one.  We should be encouraged, then, if we feel inferior or think we’re too old or too tired or too frustrated or even too young to be of use.  The fact that God has given us at least one gift reassures us that he has a place for us in his kingdom and that he’ll use us to help carry out his intentions for the church.  We can also find out more about our gifts and identify with the Spirit’s help the ones he has bestowed on us.  
            Discovering our particular gifts may take time.  We pray and try out different activities to find what suits us and that we enjoy doing.  We may need to read articles or talk to others. If we have a gift, chances are we’ll find a use for it to help the Lord and his church.  Others encourage us when we use our gifts rightly. 
            Now, a spiritual gift is not necessarily the same thing as a talent.  It may be that you have a talent for baking or singing or climbing ladders, which I do not.  At the same time, God may have blessed you with the gift of wisdom, which one Lutheran defined as the ability to understand God’s will and his work and to apply your understanding to the lives of other Christians.  Similarly, you may have a talent for making friends, and at the same God may have given you the ability to grasp the great truths that he reveals to us in the Bible along with the enthusiasm to share the gospel with others.  Then, too, it may be that you have a talent for working with figures or working out complicated plans as well as the gift of listening patiently to others and finding words in your own heart and the Bible to help them come to the Lord in faith.
            There are countless possibilities.  What counts is that God has given each of us at least one gift, and he will energize us to use it.
            I suspect that our congregaton is like others I’ve known that the lord has blessed with gifted administrators, teachers, folks with a keen eye for Scriptural truth, and many with a sturdy faith that God will resolve all challenges for his glory and the good of his people.  From what I’ve seen, I know that Our Saviour has people who like to provide for the physical needs of others and folks who make sure that the church property is well-cared for.  The congregation has gifted musicians and leaders and people with generous hearts that never fail.  The various gifts God has given our people bring balance to community life and enrich it.  Like other congregations in the LC-C, the Lord has made Our Saviour sturdy, vibrant, and faithful.  We give thanks that he has found a place in his kingdom where each of us may serve him.  Paul wrote in the passage after this morning’s epistle text that just as the body is made up of many parts – feet and ears and eyes, so does the church need administrators and helpers and people with a strong faith that every circumstance will turn out well.  Every gift, every spiritual aptitude helps build the kingdom.  We give thanks for the faith that the Lord will continue to use each of us and that he will continue to bless our Saviour and the Lutheran Church-Canada with gifted Christians.
            We also remember the reasons that God gives spiritually gifted people to his church.  The first is to build up each other in the faith and to maintain the church, so that believers have a place to hear the word of God and receive the sacraments.  The other has to do with spreading the gospel of truth.
            I once heard an artist say on the radio that there is a wound in human life that can’t be healed. No matter what people do, nothing can fee us from spiritual or emotional pain.  I suppose many folks think the way he does, as if they moved through the darkness of night with a flashlight that keeps flickering on and off to guide them.  The gospel, by contrast, is a bright floodlight that shines through darkness and lights up the path ahead for miles and miles into eternity.  The Lord equips his people with various gifts so that we may help him bring the light to travelers struggling through darkness. We help lost and wondering folks learn about God’s love for them and his intentions for their lives.  This is another reason why he blesses his church with capable teachers, helpers, administrators, and folks attuned to God’s wisdom.  The Spirit calls us to high and joyful service.  We rejoice in our trust that the light will continue to shine in our midst and that the Spirit will continue to equip us to serve God and his church.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.