Saturday, December 15, 2012

Luke 2:8 - 20 Christmas, Shepherds, and a Few Questions

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from god the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,

The passages from the gospel of Luke we read a few minutes ago invite us to ask a few questions. We’ll find Christian answers for some of them in the next few minutes, starting with a general question.

Since we can’t see God, can we know where he is? Scripture tells us that God is everywhere – in the rocks, in the lakes and the forests, in the crowds at the malls and the crowded Toronto streets. He is in our neighbors and in people on the other side of the world we’ll never meet. We may marvel at the beauty and order of creation, and God is there. We may also conclude that God is present in our consciences. Everyone knows the difference between right and wrong. Everyone has a guiding inner voice that he or she ought to listen to because it is trustworthy.

God is present in all these things, yet we cannot really take hold of him in any one of them. What is God’s nature? Is he on our side? Does he have plans for our lives? To answer these questions, we have the guidance of God’s revelation. God is present with us every day and he is especially present in the Word he sent to us – his Holy Scriptures. That’s where we take hold of him. His message never changes. The Bible is clear and consistent; we can rely on it because it always tells us the truth.

The message we take hold of this afternoon by way of God’s revelation to us is that he is very much on our side. He has a plan for our lives. Her set his angels and the great host of heaven to a group of shepherds outside Bethlehem to proclaim peace on earth and good will to all people.

That must have been a wonderful thing to see – greater than a fireworks display or all the Christmas lights in Toronto. The God who is hidden from our everyday sight broke into the world of nature with a tremendous affirmation of his love and his good intentions for humanity.

It happened only once in the last 2000 years and we can’t expect another visible display of God’s power like that until Christ returns in glory.

Now, here’s another question. We understand why God celebrated the birth of his Son in a public way, but why did he choose shepherds to receive the news rather than powerful and influential folk in Jerusalem? The Heavenly Father knew that the shepherds would listen to him. They were the sort of people to whom he could safely communicate the good news.

God often acts contrary to our expectations. We expect him to deal with the highest and mightiest people. Instead, he reveals himself to very ordinary folks. Shepherds followed a very old calling that had many traditions. They worked close to the earth. They needed to find grass and water and to protect their flocks from bad weather and wild animals. Even though the shepherds Luke tells us about lived centuries ago they are the kind of working people you and I can understand, loyal, devoted to their callings, trustworthy. There are millions and millions of people like that in the world and there always will be. Nations and societies rest on them, so to speak. They are the guardians of values. God wants them to know that he speaks directly to them and that they are included in his plan. God offers them an honored place in his kingdom.

Then, too, in Old Testament times, God referred to himself as the shepherd of his flock, and Jesus told his disciples that he himself is the good shepherd. He is our shepherd who guides and cares for us and is bringing us safely into eternity. It’s fitting, then, for our Heavenly Father to announce the arrival of his Son in an unforgettable way to a group of shepherds.

We want to know, as well, why the shepherds were afraid. They weren’t accustomed to seeing great wonders It’s good for us that God is hidden from our sight, for a passage in the Old Testament says that no human can look upon God and live. The presence of God’s angels and the heavenly host made the shepherds aware of their weakness and shortcomings. The angel quickly reassured them, however. This is always the way. Because we can’t see him, the Lord reassures us about his good intentions toward us and toward all people. He calls us to live in faith and confidence, not in fear. His reassurance is no farther away than Sunday worship and the promises we find in the Bible.

We ask also what was the purpose of the shepherds’ visit to Christ and the holy family. Surely there was more involved than idle curiosity. For one thing, the Heavenly Father wanted the shepherds to visit his son for the sake of their own salvations. The angel called the infant Christ Savior and Lord. God wanted the shepherds to receive the benefits Jesus came to bring. He also wanted them to talk, to spread the word, to glorify and praise God. This is part of the life of every Christian. We are talking people. We gossip about God and the gospel. We pass along the good news. If the church as a whole is to experience a revival, it will take place partly because Christians will share the gospel with their neighbors in millions of private conversations.

Our culture celebrates Christmas every year, and every year it is easy to overlook the true reason for the holiday. So we ask another question. What prompted God to come to earth as an infant?
Somebody said many centuries ago that the human race is so deeply corrupted by sin that only the power of God can save us from eternal damnation. We can’t do a thing to help ourselves. At the same time, only another human being can experience life as we do, with all its ups and downs. There is no barrier between ourselves and another human the way there would be between ourselves and a holy and perfectly righteous God. We can easily approach a God who became fully man. What’s more, since God has made us responsible beings, our sins must be paid for. It takes a human being to stand in our place and pay the penalty.

So God set aside his power and majesty and took on our frail human flesh. He became a servant for our sakes. He suffered humiliation and the death of a criminal in our place and then rose again from the grave.
This is the most important reason that God came to earth as a child. Other than that, we also say that God has nothing to do with evil, so by taking on human life, he shows us that life is good It’s good to be an infant, good to be a teenager, a grown-up and so on. Our world needs reminders of God’s love for human life. One of the themes of the culture that surrounds us seems to be disregard for life. Consider the millions who’ve died in wars in the last hundred years, how much abortion there is, and the number of people who are pushed to the sidelines to fend for themselves because they are different from the majority or can’t keep up with the strong and the aggressive.

Jesus affirms that every life is worthwhile and meaningful. The old, the sick, members of minority groups, the disabled, folks who are challenged in one way or another. God loves them all.

Now, let’s look at Christ’s coming in a different way. There are times when trouble marks our lives. We don’t get discouraged, for we know that our Savior walked ahead of us along a bumpy road. His struggles were not in vain. He passed from this life to a glorious new life in eternity that he promises to share with us. God uses our troubles in his mysterious way to bring honor to himself and good to us and to our neighbors. The endurance of Christians, our faith in tough times, gives glory to our Savior. If he hadn’t come to the earth, the bad side of life would overwhelm us and we would be lost in the world. Christ is our light, the one who unfailingly guides us to safety.

We won’t stop here, though, for we have one final question. Is there a connection between us and the shepherds to whom the angel and the heavenly host appeared? We might not think so at first. The shepherds lived 2000 years ago. They had the special privilege of seeing the heavenly host first hand and Jesus as he lay in the manger. We don’t expect such wonderful events to happen to us, at least not on this side of the grave. 
We may be tempted to think that we’ve missed out on something necessary or at least important.

It’s true that God is hidden. He doesn’t come to meet us face to face. He asks us to live with him by faith. The shepherds also lived by faith and not by sight. A week after the wonderful events in Bethlehem, as far as the shepherds were concerned, they were only events in their memories that they could talk about. They didn’t happen a second time. They had no documentary evidence to back up their claims. They trusted, nevertheless, that some of the people they spoke to would respond to the good news with joy and faith, so they offered their witness, out of hearts full of faith, glorifying and praising God.

The Lord brings the shepherds and ourselves together into one eternal community of faith. No one who has experienced the life of faith ever claims that it’s easy. God sends challenges to test and refine us. Some moments will be rockier than others. We expect that.

At the same time, the Lord sends us powerful resources to help us that the shepherds didn’t have. We have the Bible in full, which tells us about the later life of our Lord and the work of his apostles. We have the full story of what God has done for our salvation and also his church, a well-established Christian community that nourishes our faith.

Faith is difficult but not impossible. God uses our worship this afternoon to take us away  from the seasonal push and pull and gives us a chance to focus on what’s most important. Jesus intends our hour together today to build up our faith in the God who is hidden from our sight. An old prayer puts it this way: the Lord gives us a new revelation of his glory in the mystery of the infant Christ, the word made flesh. The writer of the prayer asks that we see God by faith in the person of his Son so that we love things that are not seen –the God who made us and redeems us in Christ plus his blessings to us such as the forgiveness of our sins, his love for us, and our eternal home. We become skilled at trusting what we can’t see.

This is a good place to stop. The Bible and the church assure us that the God we can’t see loves us. He sent his Son to prove it. He makes it possible to us to believe that his love for us won’t end today or tomorrow but will last forever and has the power to carry us into eternity. So 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.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Matthew 3:1 - 12 John the Baptist and God's Fire

Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
     We’ll begin with some thoughts about basic teachings of the Bible. All people were born in sin and it is our nature to run from God.  Even so, he didn’t abandon us in our folly, but sent Jesus to live and die for us and to rise again and to make us new people.  He claimed us as his adopted daughters and sons.  He says to us, “You are mine, you are in my family.”  He will love us and bless us.
     As it happens, our preparation for Christmas brings us to reflect on John the Baptist this morning.  He was different from other people of his time and certainly different from folks today.  His example teaches us how worldly and short-sighted our lives can be.  This is one of the messages God wants us to take from John the Baptist.
     A down-to-earth man, he lived close to the soil.  He knew the pattern of the wind and the rhythm of the seasons.  He used word-pictures from everyday life to tell the people what God wanted them to hear – trees, and an axe, a barn, and so on.
     God’s people in those days didn’t analyse   everything as we so often do.  They saw the world as a whole, ruled by God.  They understood what one of the Psalm-writers meant, for example, when he said that rivers clap their hands and hills rejoice.  They believed that the Lord ties everything together into a unity – that life comes from him and is under his direction.  Things that are very different from each other, such as our souls and our bodies, nature and spirit, are all parts of God’s creation and fit together into his plan.
But many of the Israelites strayed from their heritage.  They ran away from God in their hearts and became like the pagans around them.  They were in danger of losing their salvation and needed to reverse direction and return to the Lord who loved them, so the Heavenly Father sent John the Baptist to help them get ready for the Savior who was about to come to them.
     Before they could receive Jesus, though, and appreciate him they needed to hear what God thought of their present spiritual condition.  Using picture language he knew they’d understand, John said that God wanted his people to produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be thrown into the fire.  The fire:  a word picture that the people could easily visualize.  If God’s people don’t turn to him with repentant hearts, sorry for our sins, he will consider us useless and throw us into the fire like rubbish.
     Everyone knows how destructive fire can be – to the wilderness, to homes, to human life.  John is speaking about a more worrisome kind of fire, however, eternal punishment for those who make a lifelong habit of ignoring God and disobeying him.  He forgives; he restores repentant sinners; he forgets.  But he promises to punish impenitence and stiff-necked pride.  Somebody wrote, “to become hell-fodder, a soul must have a pronounced and ineradicable streak of arrogance, a belief that his or her judgment is infallible…anyone who is driven by pride in their own power or skill, their own beauty or genius, or their own unaided intellect is a candidate for eternal damnation – anyone who tries to be like God.”
     Because of our trust in Christ, though, our customary humility before God, and because we accept his forgiveness, you and I don’t worry about the fires of hell.  Heaven is our home and our destination, but Biblical warnings of hell-fire do help to keep us on track. They remind us to trust in God and not our own achievements or the fact that we live in an advanced civilization.  God’s ways are not our ways.  It is wise not to lean on our own understanding, but to rest in him.
     That is not the final word, however.  John used the word “fire” another way, too, that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  John does not mean the fire of condemnation now, but a divine fire that is connected with God.  You may remember that Moses saw God in a burning bush and that when he received the law, God came down to Mt. Sinai in fire, and that a pillar of fire guided the Hebrew people at night as they traveled through the wilderness through the Promised Land. The Holy Spirit came to the apostles at Pentecost as flames that rested on their heads.  Luke wrote in Acts:  “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.”  God also uses fire, then, to guide and protect and as sign of his presence for purification and refinement.
     One of the Old Testament prophets, who was distressed at the way God’s chosen people thought and behaved wrote that God had told him two-thirds would be struck down and perish, “yet a third will be left in it,” the Heavenly Father said, “and this third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.”
     The prophet Isaiah wrote that God would cleanse the blood stains from Jerusalem by a spirit of fire.      
Our Father in heaven cleanses every believer.  St. Peter said that we rejoice in temporary trials of all kinds so that our faith, which is worth more than gold that perishes even though refined by fire, may be proved genuine.  The Lord cleanses all his children with a loving fire.  “Yes, I have refined you,” he said in the Book of Isaiah.  “I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.”  And a faithful man of Old Testament times who suffered greatly said: “the Almighty knows the way that I take. When he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.”
     In other words, God’s fire drives away our complacency, our worldliness, and our self-satisfaction.  His fire clarifies our souls so that we rejoice in him and not the world and so that we think to turn to him every day with our burdens and our needs and the things we’re happy about. Furthermore, God’s fire also lifts up and inspires.  One of our hymn texts for Pentecost asks God to revive our drooping faith, remove our doubts and fears, and kindle in our hearts the flame of never-dying love.  And Martin Luther asked the Lord to inspire every believing soul with his own pure and holy fire.
     God’s fire, then, that cleanses and purifies also inspires us with love for him and our neighbors and zeal for our faith. God’s fire never rests; it prods and guides and invigorates; it lights our path so that we may always find our way to Jesus by faith.
     Now, returning to the Lord is one of the main themes of the Advent season, when the church helps us get ready for the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning,” God said in the Old Testament.  “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate.”   
     Our sins are not great crimes like those of hard-hearted tyrants; we don’t worship false gods like some of the worldly kings of the Old Testament; we don’t lift ourselves up to challenge God, like the Egyptian Pharaohs who held God’s people in slavery.  Still, things of the world can draw us away from the Lord, cares and amusements can infiltrate our souls.  We may grow sluggish. God’s fire comes to our rescue.  It burns up the chaff that sticks to our thoughts and feelings.  It shines with a more reliable warmth than the beguiling light that glimmers from the world.  God’s chastening and encouraging fire assures us that he is at work on us; it keeps our wills focused on him, for he has promised not to let us go or lose us or give up on us.
     John the Baptist warns us not to let the pride and vanity of earthly life deceive us.  The way to truth and strength is through repentance and faith in Christ.  The divine fire that chastens does not harm.  It is good for us.  We don’t rebel but accept the corrections of God.
     To conclude, then, we’ll say that the wise Heavenly Father gave John the Baptist a role in public life.  The church today carries on John’s mission by putting the Lord’s truth before our neighbors and pointing them to Christ.  Though we may not be aware of the results of our work, a member of our family or a friend may see in us the joy and confidence that come with faith in Christ.  A neighbor may learn something from our refusal to take part in the excesses that lead up to Christmas and follow our example by seeking refreshment through rest in the Lord.  We trust that God’s fire will continue to work on us during these chilly December weeks.  May our families and loved ones find in us the warmth that comes from our contact with the fire of God’s love.  In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus, AMEN.   

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Luke 21:25 - 36 Watching and Waiting for the Lord

Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
     Like many churches, our Lutheran church goes by the traditional church calendar, and this is the first Sunday in Advent, the start of a new church year.
     The Lord and his church don’t always take the obvious way, so this morning’s gospel doesn’t refer to beginnings, but to the end of time when Christ will return.  The Lord wants us to have a picture of our goal, the destination toward which he’s bringing us as we continue our pilgrimages under his grace.
When Jesus told his disciples about the end times, he did at least three things.  He issued a wake-up call, he offered comfort, and also guidance for living. We’ll talk about the wake-up call first. A day is coming when the heavens and the earth will undergo radical change.  “The day of the Lord will come like a thief,” Peter said in his first letter, “in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.” Paul wrote that the last day will be revealed in a fire that will test the quality of each person’s work. Isaiah put it this way: “The light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun and the light of the sun will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven days, on the day the Lord binds up the fracture of his people and heals the bruise he has inflicted.”  And again, the Lord said through Isaiah, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create, for behold I create Jerusalem for rejoicing and her people for gladness.”
     A great day is coming, then.  The Savior commands us to be on the watch for it, We don’t know the exact day or hour.  It will come by surprise.  We are to read the signs of the times and be ready.
These signs will be partly physical – eclipses, storms at sea, and falling comets.  They will  also have to do with behavior.  A Christian who lived a long time ago said this: “When the end of the world draws near, the condition of human affairs will change and take on a more evil form.  Malice and wickedness will be so widespread that the age we live in now will be looked on as a happy time.  Then righteousness will become practically unknown.  Blasphemy, covetousness, and impure desires will be common.  Godly people will be a prey to the wicked, who will vex and grieve them.  Justice will be perverted, law overthrown.  People won’t have anything but what they can take hold of by their own strength.  There will be no faith or confidence, no truth or government or rest.  The whole world will be in arms.”  If this man is right, then the time just before our Lord returns will be dark days indeed, much worse than our own time, when most people respect law and government and hope for peace. 
     Now, one feature of the days before the end is that most people will be so absorbed in their work and their pleasures and cares that they won’t be watchful or reading the signs of the times.  Martin Luther, who believed that his own days were the end times, said that the majority of people would give themselves over to surfeiting and drunkenness and the cares of this life.  “The world will continue its carousing,” he said, “eating and drinking, building and planting, and diligently seeking after earthly things, and will look upon the day of judgment as a thousand years and more away.”
     God’s people, by contrast, will be alert and watchful.  They will understand the signs of the times because the Lord has instructed them and they will be ready for his return.
     Luther pointed out that Jesus knows that some folks will identify the signs correctly, but they will faint from terror, fearful of what is happening.  Consciences will be tortured.  This stands to reason, because people will have condemned the gospel, which is the only comfort for troubled consciences, and set up false doctrine in its place that teaches us to overlook sin and earn God’s favor by our works.  There will be countless burdened and distressed minds that can find no rest.  People will want to be pious and do good and be saved, but they’ll find torments rather than satisfaction.  The more people try to do on their own, the more sin there will be and without the gospel sinners will have no refuge to flee to.  Grief and perplexity will overtake them.  They’ll try everything and find no help.
     The situation will be different for believers.  They will stand up and lift their heads, as Jesus says, because they’ll know that the kingdom of God is near.  They’ll not only interpret the signs correctly but rejoice that redemption is at hand.  We have come, then, to the comfort in our Savior’s description of his return.  The last day for believers will be comforting and lovely.  It will bring great joy and a feeling of safety, just the way the gospel brings us joy now when we hear that our sins our forgiven through our faith in Christ and that we are safe in the hands of our loving Heavenly Father.  The pagan parts of the world may rejoice now and collect all kinds of good things, but on the Day of Judgment, Christians who are now afflicted by temptations and penalties will be rewarded with new and glorious lives in the presence of Christ.
     We stay alert, meanwhile, and keep watch.  We pray for Christ’s return, whenever we say the Lord’s prayer, not as empty repetition but with sincerity and meaning.  Many folks wish the Day of Judgment wouldn’t come because they fear the consequences. Everyone has a touch of this fear, of course, because we’re all sinners.  But we can cope with our fears wisely by bringing them to God and asking him to take them away so that we may delight in the expectation of Jesus’ return.  In this sense, fearful people are closer to salvation than hard-hearted ones who don’t pay attention to the signs.  Consuming fear, though, is a bad thing, for Christians look ahead to our Lord’s return with love.  If we ever find that fear gets the best of us, we ask God for the love that drives away fear.  A certain amount will remain, since our weak human natures can’t exist without the fear of death and judgment, but God’s spirit of love rules the minds and souls of his children.  We ask him for the confidence and trust to wait for Jesus’ return with the love that pleases him.
     Luther said that some folks hope that Jesus will postpone his return indefinitely because it will mean they’ll have to stop sinning.  There are folks who delight in life as it comes, who don’t shrink from the sins that displease God, who may even wallow in sin to prove their worldliness.  God’s children, on the other hand, long to be free from sin.  Luther wrote that no one is so prepared for judgment day as the person who wants to be without sin.  They have nothing to fear.  They agree with the purpose of judgment Day, which will come to set the world free from sin.  If we recognize this desire as our own, they we are among God’s children.  We thank him that he has blessed us and keeps the desire for sinlessness alive in our hearts.  God commands us to put aside all fear of the Day of Judgment and take care and be watchful that we truly want to have our sins taken away.
     We watch for Jesus’ return because we trust that he has redeemed us from sin.  Jesus builds up the fainthearted.  Sin will be even more widespread at the end of the world than it is now, as we said, and so will the punishment of sin in the form of plagues, wars, and famine.  Believers will need to be strengthened against evil.  Jesus banishes fear and relieves bad consciences.  He invites us to rest in the redemption he has won for us.  He assures us now that we are ransomed, forgiven, so that if he returns this afternoon or tomorrow, we’ll have the confidence to receive him with joy and thanksgiving.
     The key to watching for the Lord is to hold on to the gospel, to trust deep in our hearts that we’re pardoned, washed clean, redeemed by his blood.  God will use our faith in his goodness toward us to keep us safe, no matter what may happen in the world around us.
      We sometimes hear forecasts about what the future will bring and how we should think and behave.  Although God forbids us from trying to predict the time of his return, the church has a lot to say to us as we watch and wait.  She encourages us not to be absorbed with the world and its cares.  She teaches us that we can’t save ourselves; she brings us relief from the rat race that can make us anxious.  The church offers us the love of Christ, the forgiveness of our sins, God’s gracious promises, and the hope that the future will go well for us.  Heaven’s message will spread and endure so that millions of hearts will rejoice when our Lord returns.
     A Christian thinker I once read invites us to be hopeful about the church and the future.  The horrors of the last hundred years will drive many folks to look for God, for they will make a connection between unbelief and war, turmoil, and everlasting uncertainty.  They will understand the signs of the times.  This writer predicts that the next hundred years or so will see a burst of evangelism unlike anything that has taken place since the 1800's. The church will move out in confidence with her message and people will respond.  Souls will warm up; hearts will vibrate with the thrill of faith; lost souls will take hold of redemption in the Lord.  It’s always a mistake to count the church out.  God’s powerful Word revives hearts every day.
     The future is in Jesus’ hands, not ours.  He calls us to be on the alert, to read the signs of the times.  He commands us to continue walking in faith, as St. Peter’s people are accustomed to doing, and to keep watching for his glorious return. In His name we rejoice. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Mark 5:21 - 24a, 35 - 43 Receiving People

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ,
      God loves to give – he gives us the earth to live on, he gives food and shelter, happiness to children, the satisfactions of maturity to grown-ups, and rest to our senior citizens. Along with earthly blessings, he also gives spiritual ones – inner strength, hope for the future, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of a better life to come. We praise and thank him for his never-failing generosity.
      We Christians are people who receive. We receive all good things from God – salvation from sin, acceptance so that we don’t feel badly about ourselves, and release from the fear of death. Luther once defined Christians as a people who receive something from Christ and who have Christ within them and who cling to him. We do not become Christians because of good works or pious lives but because we hold onto Christ and receive him by the gift of faith. Christ is an inexhaustible stream who overflows with goodness and grace. He is always giving. He asks for nothing in return except that we acknowledge his kindness and grace, thank him, praise him and love him, even though the unbelieving parts of humanity despise him. Christ is always giving; we are always receiving.
      Now, it isn’t human nature to be willing to receive. People like to do things on their own,  even the most important things that lead to salvation. I once read about an idea from secular thought that illustrates this human preference for self-reliance. Some thinkers tell us that three basic needs govern human behavior – the need for community, the need for power, and the need for achievement. In most people, one of these three needs is supposedly stronger than others. One thinker argues that the most socially beneficial need is the need for achievement, and this is the one we ought to develop, because it’s supposedly best for us and the best for society. We ought to build up our ability to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps and to do good works that benefit society.
      This way of thinking can set up a conflict in the minds and hearts of Christians like you and me. God declares that we are people who receive, while secular parts of society, though they mean well, encourage us to strive and to do.
      Now, there’s nothing wrong with striving to better ourselves and the communities  we’re part of. In fact, our Lord expects us to do good works. Paul wrote: “May our Lord Jesus Christ comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” And again, “Show yourself in all respects a model of good deeds. “And still again: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
      The conflict is resolved as we turn to God and ask him to rule our souls so that the horse is always in front of the cart. We are receiving people first and then people who do. The gospel text illustrates this basic point. The daughter of the synagogue ruler received a second earthly life from Christ. She did nothing on her own to obtain this precious gift. It came from the generosity of God. now she can play with her friends, grow up, marry, raise children herself, live in hope, and have a life of her own – now and in eternity, all through the generosity of God. As a receiving person, and in God’s eyes all of us are receivers rather than achievers, she has a chance to give him thanks and praise and to go on receiving. God’s supply of good things will never run out.
      He continues to reach out to all people through the Bible and the sacraments. He turns no one away who looks to him; he is eager to give the blessings of life.
      As for ourselves, we may ask what the return to life of a young person about two thousand years ago means for us. The death of a child usually brings great sadness. I once chatted with a man who said that he lost his faith because his daughter died. Perhaps you know someone who’s experienced a similar calamity. When a great misfortune comes, it may seem that life has lost all meaning and purpose. At such times humans easily lose the will to achieve. This is the great fallacy in secular models of achievement. The people who make them assume that people are strong and that the path to opportunity will always be clear. The facts of human life cause even the most self-reliant to stumble. The generosity of God shines through and we understand why he has made us receiving people.
      The gospel text invites us to see that in God’s eyes we are all like the daughter of the synagogue ruler. God gives us the earthly lives we now enjoy; we receive everything that’s good from him; we serve him and give him thanks. The story of Jairus’ daughter shows us at least two more things about the Lord’s generosity.
      First, what looks like death to us is really sleep to God. Luther said that none of those who lived and died before our time are dead, but all are alive, just as live as the people we see before us every day. God has determined that all shall live; he holds their lives in his hands. The Lord maintains our lives and when we are asleep he does it without our will or our help. It isn’t hard for Jesus, therefore, in the hour when body and soul are separated, to hold in his hand the soul and spirit of a human being, even though we ourselves neither feel nor see anything, even though the body is entirely consumed. Since God can preserve the breath of life and spirit apart from the from the body, he can also bring the body together out of dust and ashes.
      Luther wrote that we should understand our deaths in the right way, so that we are not alarmed. In Christ, death is a sweet and brief sleep that releases us from this vale of tears, from sin, and from all the misfortunes of this life, and we shall be secure and without care, until the time when Christ calls and awakens us along with his other dear children to his eternal glory and joy. Moreover, since we Christians call death a sleep, we know that we won’t remain in it, but that God will awaken us and we will live. It will seem, then, that the time between earthly life and heaven will be no longer than if we had just fallen asleep. We will suddenly come alive out of dust and ashes, and entirely well, fresh, with a pure, clear, glorified life. We will meet our Lord and Savior.
      Now, here’s a second feature of our Lord’s generosity – that he’s in control of life and he’s waiting to surprise us with the joy of eternity in heaven. We may need to stretch our minds to grasp that this will actually happen, because as we’ve already said, the world influences us to think in terms of power and achievement and the bonds of social life. We help ourselves when we remember that the Lord isn’t limited to our frame of reference. Luther wrote that the Lord doesn’t think in tens or hundreds or thousands of years, nor does he measure the years consecutively the way we do. He sees everything in a moment – the beginning and the middle and the end of the whole human race and of all time. He sees what we measure by time at one glance so that the death and life of the last human being as well as of the first are to him as only one moment of time. Against this, human strivings are meaningless.
      This is why we should entrust or bodies, our souls, and our whole lives with confidence and joy to our Savior and redeemer, just as we turn ourselves over to him before we fall asleep at night. It will be easy for him to awaken us on the last day, just as it was easy for him to awaken the daughter of the synagogue ruler.
But there is a catch. This revelation of God’s wonderful generosity makes sense to us only when we acknowledge that we are receiving people. We can earn some things – status power, the satisfactions of achievement. We can’t earn our lives with God, either our daily walk with him now or the promise of joy in eternity. We receive these as gifts.
      Most of us can imagine how the ruler of the synagogue felt. He was an important man with many resources to call on. One expert I read assumes that he must have consulted several doctors and ordered various medications for his daughter. Jesus doesn’t despise his concern. Instead, he changed him from being a doing ;person into a receiving one. He’s no longer a man who looks only to human methods. Now he finds hope through trust in God. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Don’t be afraid, just believe.” He brings the man assurance and certainty. In Christ, the human race finds hope.
      The same assurance comes to us. Chances are the conflict between the world’s demand for action and achievement and God’s desire that we receive from him will continue. It would be wrong for us either to give way to the world or pretend that we can overcome it on our own. The solution for us is to open our hearts and minds to take hold of Christ and the promise of everlasting life he offers, to humble ourselves and to ask him to help us remember that we are people who receive from him.
      It’s a wonderful thing to be a receiving person when the giver is God. As we take hold of Christ by faith, we find that sorrows vanish and heartaches are healed and empty places are filled. As Jairus" daughter wakened to new life, so do we – and not just once but every morning if we take hold of God’s forgiveness and ask his blessing on the day ahead. It’s a joy to give up our cares to him and acknowledge that he is in control of our lives. It may be hard for us now to let go, so we ask him to build up our trust in him. We seek more and more to be receiving people so that we may be ready to accept the great and wonderful gifts that he plans for us now and on the day of his return. In his name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. AMEN. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Matthew 5:1 - 12, A Blessed Life

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
            No one can say exactly where in Israel the Sermon on the Mount took place, but crowds of people flocked to Jesus with their bodily and spiritual needs.  He spoke to them in a way they’d never heard before – not doctrine, not a summary of the law or a step-by-step program for pleasing God but the offer of a new community, a new kind of fellowship – the kingdom of God.  He made as a gift right at the start of his ministry what others offer as the end-point – friendship with God, life in his kingdom, which comes not as a result of human striving but as the invitation of the Heavenly Father to live with him by faith.
            With the help of experts on the gospels, we’ll examine the opening of Jesus’ great sermon.
            “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.”  A highly-respected Lutheran scholar said that in this passage Jesus wasn’t referring to folks who must work for a living or who have just enough to get by, but to those who have nothing at all, the destitute, who go from day to day, and yet he wasn’t referring to physical poverty that we hate to think about a but a kind of poverty we gladly accept with profound submission – the attitude of believing souls toward God, when we understand our complete helplessness before him.  We have nothing to bring him other than our emptiness and need.  We are beggars before the throne of grace, in a state of continual repentance. Amazing as it is, Jesus said that people in that condition are truly fortunate, blessed, for the Heavenly Father feeds and comforts the humble and contrite as soon as we turn to him.  The kingdom of heaven is not an earthly set-up but Christ alive in us now, a present-day blessing that each of us claims as our own.  The proud of spirit resist God and his kingdom – and there are always plenty of those in the world, though none that I know of at St. Peter’s – while Jesus uses his powers of grace and strength and glory for the benefit of the spiritually needy. He fills our hands and our hearts with an abundance of grace and pardon.  He has adopted us as his children; he blesses us with the gift of godly living.  We receive his grace every day, every hour, in a never-ending stream as long as we live in a world of sin and sin everyday ourselves.  The kingdom of heaven belongs to us now by faith.  In times to come, the kingdom will bring us everything the father has in mind for us.
            “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Life brings us plenty of joys and sorrows. We pass through times of loss and grief.  We find consolation in God’s Word.  He sends Christian friends to comfort us so that we don’t live forever in a valley of grief.  His word strengthens us to carry the heaviest losses.  What’s more, Christians understand that mourning includes grief for our own sins, which have lots of consequences and inflict losses upon ourselves and others.  Martin Luther once said that the life of a Christian is continuous repentance for our misdeeds.  At the same time, we remember that our Savior says to us, “I will not leave you comfortless.  I will come to you.”  The greatest comfort is the pardon sorrowing sinners receive from the Lord.  His Word lifts us up in times of tribulation.  The promise of deliverance from evil in the coming kingdom of glory comforts us today.   God’s consolation flows down upon us, and so we who mourn are the most blest of all.
            “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  Mild, gentle, patient folks, like St. Peter’s people, testify to the faith the Spirit has put in our hearts by not showing resentment, for example, and refraining from avenging ourselves when we’re wronged.  Bitter people, violent ones, like terrorists and suicide bombers, always attract attention, while the meek usually go their way and follow the Lord without being noticed.  They don’t rise in fury if they see wicked people becoming strong and great, for they live by the blessings the heavenly Father showers on them day after day.  “A little that a righteous man has,” Jesus said, “is better than the riches of many wicked people.”  Because he doesn’t want us to lose salvation, Jesus disciplines covetousness and greed, though he lets his children find a spot, a resting place, that is our very own.  He provides us a supply of earthly goods and earthly happiness.
            “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”  But what is righteousness?  In everyday speech, righteousness means good, law-abiding conduct or what happens when our thoughts and words and actions all go together in one direction.  Integrity.  Many people strive for these and other excellent qualities, even folks who don’t claim to be Christian, but everyone falls short and no one likes to have weaknesses pointed out, because most of us are sensitive and like to have others think well of us.  “I’m plenty righteous,” someone might say.  “I don’t steal.  I’ve never murdered anyone.  I set a good example everywhere I go.”
            Righteousness means something else to God.  The word comes from the legal profession of Bible times and means a verdict of acquittal, a declaration of not guilty.  No human has ever found a way to turn a guilty soul into a righteous one, but God can bring about what is impossible for us.  Christ met God’s demand for righteousness by his perfect life and sacrificial death and he transfers his unblemished righteousness to us as a gift.  He won a “not guilty” verdict for us before heaven’s court of judgment.  The Father pardons the world, redeems it from sin, because of Jesus’ work.  Those who seek his gift, who hunger and thirst for a savior, will be satisfied.  Our Heavenly Father declared us to be righteous at the moment the Spirit worked faith in Christ in our hearts.  As we hunger for his grace and favor, not once but thousands of times, the Father declares that he accepts us and is pleased with us.  We cling to his approval of us now, because it is an advance declaration of the verdict we will hear on judgment day.  Maybe you have seen a wall poster of a smiling face saying that God doesn’t make junk.  That’s an informal way of expressing heaven’s gift of righteousness.  God declares us to be not guilty because of Christ.  We aren’t junk but our Savior’s adopted brothers and sisters.  Heaven’s kindness toward us will never stop overflowing.  Christ’s righteousness feeds our souls every day.  We are highly blessed and chosen of God.
            “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  Jesus invites us to think about how we treat others.  The mercy we receive from God awakens a spirit of mercy in us.  The Father blesses us when we show mercy to others. We pardon them if they offend us; we perform works of charity.  The hard, competitive world needs the mercy of Christian people, who don’t bear grudges or keep a record of wrongs and who help neighbors less fortunate than themselves.  The Lord’s teachings about mercy influence even people who don’t know him as their Savior.  We have Jesus to thank for Canada’s concern for the well-being of her citizens.  The country’s willingness to provide medical care and other forms of social assistance is an indirect result of Christ’s ministry.  We have the Savior’s promise that the gospel light of mercy will not go out before he returns and it won’t be needed after that, because there will be no sin in heaven or want or deprivation.
            “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  Purity of heart means singleness of purpose, the honesty that has no hidden motive or selfish interest, truth and openness in everything.  It’s a common thing for religion to become a matter of routine, a habit that people practice without thinking.  Jesus commands us to give him our hearts in singleness of purpose – to keep faith, do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before him, as St. Peter’s people strive to do. Purity of heart is a great testimony to God, for there is a resemblance, a similarity between God who is completely pure and the pure of heart in his heavenly kingdom. We cherish this resemblance between God’s earthly family and the heart of the Heavenly Father.  We aren’t perfect but we rejoice that God has restored his image in us in Christ. We ask him to nourish the resemblance between ourselves and him.  The greatest joy of heaven will be the vision of God. As his presence delights the hearts of angels and fills them with blessedness, so is his presence revealed to the pure of heart, partly now, completely in the next life.  Blessedness will flood his saints like lights in the vision of the one who is completely pure.
            “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  Because believers are at peace with God, we strive to live at peace with our neighbors, if this is possible, and work to keep the peace when it is threatened and to recover peace if it is lost.  Again, we see a resemblance between Jesus and his people as we follow in the footsteps of the prince of peace.  He makes us messengers of peace wherever we go, not easy-going, sociable peace, not “peace at any price”, but the sturdy peace of the gospel that comes from trust in the merits of Christ’s saving work.  It may be that the Lord will lead us to bring his peace this week to a tangled situation where confused people are looking for a way out.  
            To sum up, then, we say that the beatitudes are about the presence of God in ourselves and in the world around us.  Jesus blesses folks who seek his ways – peacemakers, the pure in heart, the meek, the merciful.  The heavenly Father declares for his Son’s sake that we are the way he wants us to be – righteous, humble in heart, poor of spirit, whom he makes rich in faith.  He sends us out as his representatives.  He teaches us how to comfort folks who are grieving.  He invites us to speak steadying words to people whose expectations are flying too high.  He invites us to show his way to the cynical, the discouraged, and the disappointed.  He enriches us with the blessings of faith so that we may share them with others.  When we affirm that it is possible for wise, believing hearts to live by Jesus’ guidelines even today, we give a testimony to God’s constant activity in the world around us.  In Jesus name we give thanks.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus AMEN   

Thursday, October 25, 2012

John 8:31 - 38 Some Thoughts for Reformation Sunday

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
            The reformation of the church is a continuing process.  Numerous reformations took place in Old Testament times, when God chastened his people and brought them from spiritual wanderings to renewed appreciation for basic truths.  Jesus renewed the church during his earthly ministry when he called people away from stale human traditions to life and salvation through faith in him.  Reformation continues today, not in the experiments that we humans love to indulge in, but wherever people come to faith in Christ through receiving God’s Word. Reformation in the church always begins with a rediscovery always of basic truths.
            The specific Reformation the Lutheran church celebrates today was very dramatic, with far-reaching consequences for secular life as well as the church.  The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther, its first great figure and probably the most famous of all reformers.  Most people know about certain public events in his life, such as the time he nailed a list of 95 complaints to the door of his local church or when he stood up to defend himself before high authorities or when the pope excommunicated him.  But we need to know about the private side of Luther’s life, too, for his public actions took place only after a profound and sometimes painful inner spiritual journey.
            Even as a boy, Luther had a strong feeling for God and the church.  Although his father objected, he became a monk, and he was not satisfied with being your average monk.  He wanted to be the best monk possible.  He submitted himself to various exertions to win God’s favor, but a curious thing happened.  The more he tried to please God with prayers and fasting and numerous good works, the less certain he became of God’s favor toward him.  He knew that God demanded perfect righteousness and total obedience to his commandments, yet the more Luther pushed himself, the further away he seemed from righteousness.  It must have been an intensely frustrating experience.  A person who exerts himself above the call of duty expects to achieve results, but Luther felt driven to the point of despair.
            No one outside Luther’s monastery would have heard of him, though, if God hadn’t stepped in and directed him to a new understanding of Scripture.  Luther looked with new eyes on certain passages that discuss God’s requirement for righteousness.  One was Psalm 31: “In you, Lord, do I seek refuge; let me never be put to shame; in your righteousness, deliver me.”  He found similar words in Psalm 71: “In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame!  In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me!  Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.”  The Holy Spirit comforted him also with a third passage, from the first chapter of Romans.  “In the gospel, the righteousness of God revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘He who is righteous through faith shall live.”
            Luther discovered that his own overheated exertions didn’t make him righteous before God. God demands perfection, and no one except Christ is perfect.  We’re in a hopeless situation if we try to stand alone before God.  We need an advocate, a mediator, a friend in court.  This friend is Jesus.  Not only did he fulfill God’s law completely so that he lived a perfectly righteous life but he took our sins upon him and died in our place.  He paid the price for our sins so that now because of our faith in Christ, which we receive as a gift, God sees us as perfectly righteous.  He gives us as a gift the righteousness God requires.  He calls us saints; he says we’re his adopted children; he clothes us in robes of righteousness that aren’t visible to us now, but our Heavenly Father sees them.
            This is the great discovery Luther made.  If you want a simple way of understanding the Reformation, here it is.  Where can we find a gracious and loving Heavenly Father?  Through faith in Christ.  That’s what the Reformation was about.  Hearts turned away from human effort and human traditions and structures and found certainty in Christ.  God is a refuge, a rock, a fortress for those who believe and trust in him.  Luther’s ferocious battle ended in peace; the outcome was certainty and joy in God.  Luther was a gifted communicator, and as he told others about the truth to which the Spirit had led him, his discovery resonated in the souls of millions of people.  Having learned the truth about our sins and Christ’s actions to deliver us, our hearts are able to dance in freedom before the Lord.
            This fundamental insight about the grace of God to sinners, the certainty of the kindness of the Heavenly Father, has several benefits for us right now.  First, the mercies of the cross bring relief to our consciences.  Guilt doesn’t haunt us; the memory of our sin doesn’t persecute us.  Instead, as we trust that God has declared us righteous for Jesus’ sake, we find that a burden has been lifted from our shoulders.  Our confidence grows.  As the Lord says, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
            In the second place, the grace of God empowers us to live more and more in line with what God expects.  Our righteousness becomes more visible the longer we live with God, not because we’re busy improving ourselves, but because the good Lord acts in us.  Earthly life offers few satisfactions.  There are many ambiguities and unfinished projects.  As one writer put it, every blessing on earth is a mixed blessing. But we Christians experience the deep satisfaction of knowing the Lord is remaking us.  He builds us up not so that we may pat ourselves on the back but to give him glory.  We rest in his ability to transform us, just as we rest in his ability to provide for us.  The faith that our Savior is at work on us makes us hopeful and brings us joy.  To paraphrase the words of Jesus, if the Son transforms us, we will be transformed indeed.
            Thirdly, the grace of God delivers us from the fear of death.  “Truly, truly,” Jesus said, “if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”  A 20th century pastor wrote that although sin is a problem for us, death is an even greater trouble.  Our main problem, in fact.  Working against our fears, the resurrection of Christ is a sign to us that death is not a terrible end but the gateway to life in Paradise, where our souls will await in peace the second coming of our Lord.  Luther said that the whole purpose of the Bible is to deliver us from the fear of death.  Jesus frees us from the grip of our worst enemy; faith in his victory gives us boldness and courage now.  As our Lord says, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”
            Relief for our consciences, increasingly visible righteousness, deliverance from the fear of death.  What wonderful blessings from our Lord, concerning which the reformers of the 16th century sharpened our understanding.  Now, suppose we ask: what must we do to keep these gifts?
            Our Lord’s answer is to stay in his Word.  “If you continue in my Word,” he said, “you are truly my disciples.”  We hold onto Jesus and his blessings by staying in touch with his Word in public worship and reading the Bible regularly.  Luther found God’s grace in the Bible.  So do we.  The Bible is our guide to life and truth and salvation.
            The Lutheran reformers recovered two basic truths, then, that we find the grace of God though Christ and that Scripture is the source of our life with Him.  These principles govern the life of our church today.
            Some people say that it’s been many years since the reformers lived, and folks ask different questions nowadays.  Instead of wanting to know how to find a gracious God, for example, some ask where God is and even if he exists.  However we ask the question, the answer is the same as ever.  God is gracious and merciful, actively bringing millions of people to salvation through faith in his Son.  He reveals himself and the truth about him in Holy Scripture.
            These are the fundamental insights of every reformation in the church, which the reformers uncovered for us.  They are eternally valid, for they are the truth, and as our Lord says, “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.  In his Name we rejoice. AMEN The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus.  AMEN.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mark 10:17-30 Jesus Meets a Rich Young Man

Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
            Sometimes we’re like the man in this morning’s parable – we’re seekers, willing to work and stretch our horizons, we’re not looking for simple answers or nice-sounding words. We want substance. We need the truth and we want to know what the truth means for us.
            This morning’s gospel text concerns seeking the truth about eternal life. The man who meets Jesus, whom Luke described as a rich ruler of the temple, says he wants to know what he needs to do to find a place in eternity. Jesus’ disciples are also seeking and they’ve traveled some distance toward grasping the truth about eternity.  Mark says that Jesus loved the man who sought him out, first because he’d done his best to follow the ten commandments and also because he wants to learn more than he already knows.  He wants to advance.  Both he and the disciples  learn that God is eager to give them as a gift the eternity they are looking for.
            What an astonishing facet of the truth.  Some very important things do actually come as gifts, not rewards or earnings, but gifts from someone who loves us.  Maybe a relative gave you a present one time you never expected or a door opened to a wonderful new opportunity.  I’m sure you’ve received the gift of love from another person and also given love to someone else.  Eternal life, salvation, the forgiveness of sins, new life – all these are gifts from our loving God that we couldn’t possibly earn on our own.   A person who seeks these blessings simply holds out his or her hand, so to speak, to receive God’s gracious gifts.  And after we seekers have found them – or to put it more precisely, once God has found us to put his gifts in our hands, he then teaches us how important eternal life is for us and moves our hearts to follow Jesus, as our Lord instructed the rich man who came to him to do.
            The problem is it’s hard for us to accept gifts.  We prefer doing things on our own. We like the feeling of self-satisfaction that comes with our achievements.  Sometimes, we’re too proud to receive.  We start thinking this way when we’re children and we hear that Santa Claus makes a distinction between those who are naughty and the ones who are nice.  We don’t like to think that anything is given to us.  The problem is not our culture or the ways of society or the Protestant life-style.  The problem is our human nature.  We like to earn what we have.
            The rich man in Jesus’ parable is a perfect example.  He had many things a lot of people covet – money, comfort, the respect of his neighbors.  He lived an outwardly righteous life, having broken none of the major commandments in a serious way.  He was pleased with himself; he believed that his prospects for the future were good.  He wanted to top things off by learning what he had to do to inherit eternal life.  He was sorry when he learned that God didn’t esteem the life-ways he valued.  The Lord wishes to give us as a gift what we can’t earn on our own.  When we go seeking, we sometimes find things we don’t like. It’s no surprise that the rich young man couldn’t absorb the lesson about dependence on God the first time he heard it.  We can hope that he went home to mull over what Jesus had told him, for the word of God is powerful and active, but for now he is a seeker outside the Christian flock.
            We note, as well, that even the disciples were pleased with their own achievements, for Peter boasted that they’d given up everything to follow him.  Even though the Lord brought them to complete devotion to him later on, at this point, admiration for riches still tainted their hearts.
            We’ll digress for a moment to about the relationship between a Christian and worldly wealth.  There’s nothing wrong with riches themselves.  Abraham , Isaac, and King David were quite well-to-do.  The question is – what importance do we attach to wealth?  We can take from rich people the impression that they are superior beings, while there’s something deeply flawed about the rest of us.  Sin touches everyone, but God sees value in all his creation.  He died to redeem everyone from sin.  Our good Lord hasn’t established a minimum income for salvation.  Emphasis on riches keeps people from doing their best.  A person who grubs for money or strives to keep up with his or her neighbors isn’t seeking very hard.  We’re at our best when we’re creative and independent and rejoicing with thankfulness for what God has given us. 
            Let’s take the case of Luke the evangelist as an example, since next Thursday is his day on the church calendar.  We don’t know if he was rich or poor, but we do know that the Lord gave him a full life.  He was a physician; he traveled widely; he was a friend of the apostle Paul; he expressed himself well and was a gifted student of history, and even secular scholars admire the Book of Acts, which Luke wrote as a companion piece to his Gospel.   And, of course, he was a devoted servant of the risen Lord.                
            Luke could have used his talents to build up his earthly standing, but he knew that life is a gift from God, who brought him to serve him.  Luke’s secret was the same as every Christian’s secret: he knew that he was a receiver, not an owner.  His received all good things from the Lord – his friends, his good life on earth, his zeal for seeking the truth, and his salvation.  Christianity changes all God’s people, and this transformation is one of the things that makes us a community of believers, living under one God, awaiting the return of our Lord.
            While waiting in faith, we share similar experiences.  First, the Holy Spirit shows us our sins and awakens our consciences.  Jesus held up God’s law to the rich man in our reading.  The man said he’d kept the Ten Commandments all his life.  This isn’t true, of course, because every heart wanders.  We don’t escape our flesh and the temptations of the devil as long as we live on the earth.  The rich man didn’t respond as a believer, and this, not his wealth, distinguishes him from you and me, for we are aware of our sinfulness.  We never boast that we’ve kept God’s law.  Instead, we confess our failures.  Our shortcomings are often before us.
            But that’s not the only experience we share in common.  We take hold of God’s pardon, which opens the door to salvation.   Forgiveness renews and changes us.  If we find that we’re guilty of coveting riches, for example, then instead of tormenting ourselves or fretting about our weakness, we take hold of forgiveness in Christ and lean back and rest in God, who helps us to live joyfully the days he has given us.  We’re receivers, as we said, not earners.  We receive life when we receive forgiveness.  Chastened and restored, we return to following the Lord and live in the glow of eternal life.   
            We don’t say, as Peter did, that we have sacrificed everything for Christ, but that the Lord has drawn us to appreciate the value of sacrifice.  What’s more, we don’t really make sacrifices in the sense that we permanently give something up, because the Lord replaces in his own way anything we may have lost.  One missionary I read about who spent a lot of time away from home said that he’d never made a single sacrifice in his whole life.  He experienced in a personal way what the Lord meant when he said that anyone who gave up home or relatives or lands for his sake would receive a hundred-fold from the Lord in return, along with persecution, of course, for we Christians often pay social penalties, but rather than complain about the unfairness of life, we praise God for his wonderful generosity toward us and the whole world.
            To digress again for a moment, some folks outside the church may say that Christian living is all denial and austerity on the margins of society and guilt-feelings about everything that’s enjoyable.  This isn’t the case at all, as the people of St. Peter’s can testify.  Christians are grateful receivers of God’s gifts.  We rejoice that all good things come from him and we give him back thanks and praise.
            Jesus’ list of possible sacrifices is a case in point.  He spoke of leaving a house or family or friends.  He used the word “or” not “and”.  Nobody is called to leave the whole list behind, just a part of it, and the Lord replaces what he takes away – and sometimes in a better form.
            So, to conclude, we remember that there are many good things for Christian pilgrims like ourselves to seek, especially a deeper faith through the forgiveness of our sins.  Times come, though, when the good Lord leads us to give up seeking and simply receive.  This is the key to our blessedness before God – not to think of ourselves as doers but receivers. Some of us may be tempted to seek earthly riches for their own sake – an unnecessary quest, dear friends, because the Lord sees us as kings and queens already, a high status we receive now by faith.  Why try to look further?  Our standing in God’s eyes will be perfectly visible to us later on in heaven. 
            The world and the devil will surely put many temptations before us, including the temptation to believe that we’re so wonderful that God will automatically reward us with eternal life.  The truth is that he is wonderful and calls us to live with him in faith and love.  Our lives testify to his generosity and our trust that it will go on and on even after we have received the fulfillment of his promise of eternal life.  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.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Hebrews 2:14 - 18 Sticking with Jesus

Grace and Peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
            Nobody knows for sure who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, but most experts think it was written around 70 AD and that the author was addressing Jewish converts to Christianity who  knew  the Old Testament and were tempted to go back to their old faith, or else make the Christian gospel conform to Jewish understanding of the law.  None of this applies to us, but Christians have loved and respected Hebrews for almost two thousand years because of the profound way it discusses the person and nature of Christ.  The author wrote that Jesus is sufficient and supreme as the one who reveals God and brings his grace to us.
            The verses we read a few minutes ago describe in a few sentences what it means for us that God himself took on our flesh and blood.  Hebrews offers powerful arguments and strong encouragement to stick with Christ.
            To help us think about this text, let’s suppose we’ve received a letter from a friend who has moved to a new city.  This friend writes first of all that their family hasn’t been going to church, because they haven’t found a warm and friendly congregation.  It’s obvious they haven’t stumbled on St. Peter’s yet.
            We reply in a cordial way that we may attend a certain congregation because we like the people there or because our family has roots there, but these aren’t the main reasons we go to church.  Jesus is, and His Heavenly Father calls us to spend time with him. He sets the example for us. He attended worship faithfully during the years of his ministry in Israel.  When we come to church, we meet our Lord.
            Our friend also writes that work has been going well, and the family is happy.  The church doesn’t seem necessary.  What’s more, some people at our friend’s new job make fun of folks who practice the Christian faith.  These people are highly intelligent.  Maybe they have a point.  There are, moreover, many approaches to faith.  Our friend wants to experiment.
            We reply that social pressure can be powerful, but we don’t have to give way to it.  Every Christian is tempted at times to drift from the faith.  What holds us is our understanding of who Jesus is.
            He is God, who became flesh and blood.  He made himself lower than the angels and took on our mortality.  He calls himself our brother.  He lived as we do, though in perfect obedience to his Heavenly Father and without sin.  He knows what makes us joyful and sad.  He knows the weaknesses and strengths of each one of us.  He understands what we want.  He knows what we’re afraid of and what we need.  He acted on behalf of humanity throughout his ministry, and especially when he died on a cross and took the sins of the whole world on his own shoulders and died to make the payment we owe.  He redeemed the whole world from sin; he defeated the devil; he calls everyone who trusts in him his sister or brother.  He makes balanced, steady, joyful, confident living possible for everyone who sticks with him.
            Our friend includes news of the day in the letter and tells us, with a touch of pride, that the children are enjoying school, they spent two weeks in the mountains to end their summer vacation.  Our friend is looking ahead to a promotion at work and even more money coming in and says again that they have a few good friends and work associates who will be offended if they attach themselves to the church.
            We think for moment before we respond to this part of the letter because we know we’re likely to turn our friend away from us with what we’re about to say, but we decide it’s important to be true to God’s Word.  We write that life in the world is like a roller coaster, up one day, down the next.  Not one of life’s material blessings comes with a guarantee of permanence.  Friends may come and go.  Institutions rise for a while and then drop down with a crash.  Wise people stick with Jesus, who carries us through the ups and downs.  He protects us from the influence of the devil, who rules the world.  Faith in him brings countless blessings.  He rewards folks who stay with him and who let the light of faith shine out, like the people at St. Peter’s.
            We mention, too, a subject we don’t often talk about – the reality of death, which comes to everyone.  The Bible teaches us that God created the human race to live in harmony with him forever.  But our first parents sinned when they surrendered to the serpent’s temptations, and everyone since then has fallen into sin, and God’s Word teaches us that the wages of sin is death.
            We say we’re glad that life is going well for our friend, but we hope the family aren’t trying to create a kind of earthly immortality by building up a pile of things to leave behind them.  That won’t solve the problem of death that frightens so many people and puts them in lifelong bondage, as the author of Hebrews says.  Jesus does solve the problem of death, however. He broke through the grave not just for himself but to bring the hope of eternal life to everyone who receives him.
            We point out to our friend that the fear of death crushes our souls and turns us into slaves, while Jesus makes us free.  He strengthens and enlarges our souls.  He gives our lives meaning.  He makes us brave.
            We finish our letter and send it off.  We aren’t surprised that a long time goes by – months and months – before we hear from our friend again.
            Then a letter arrives.  Our friend admits reading our letter quickly and putting it away, because it wasn’t what the family wanted to hear just then.  Life went along smoothly for a while, then they struck a rocky patch.  The company our friend worked for began to lose money and had to lay off workers.  “Then there’ve been illnesses,” our friend writes, “especially my mother-in-law, who’s come down with a heart disease and that news has hit us all hard.  I took out your letter and read it several times, especially where you reminded us that Jesus conquered the fear of death for us.  We started going back to church again for a while and reading the Bible.  I would have written sooner, but other things have come up.  One of our sons has got into trouble with the law. I haven’t been able to find work, and I’ve developed a cough that won’t go away.  I had a minor traffic accident yesterday.  I can’t imagine what will come next.  I don’t know how I can possibly cope with the troubles that have landed on my doorstep.  It isn’t right, but I’m starting to think that God has stopped protecting us.  Maybe he’s even picking on me.  I feel like giving up.  Can you help me?”
            This is exactly the sort of question we know how to answer, but we take a moment or two to think.  We don’t want to shoot from the hip.  We have another look at the passage from Hebrews.  We write to our friend that when Jesus shared our flesh and blood, he didn’t take on just the good side of human life.  He also took on our suffering.  He knows what it means to be alone, to be scorned, and to be hungry.  He also knows what it’s like to be tempted.  You recall that Satan tempted him in the wilderness and again in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before he was arrested and taken to trial.  “My soul is very sorrowful,” he said.  We remind our friend of the anguished prayer he offered.  “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”  He is well-qualified to be our savior, because he suffered as we do, even in the temptation to turn away from living with God, and yet he overcame – by the strength of God that was in him.
            We tell our friend that he strengthens everyone who believes in him to overcome the temptation to drift away from the faith.  He will steady our friend and carry the family through this rough period.  He will refresh and strengthen their faith.  He will wipe away their sins and declares them to be clean and pure.  He will make them ready for his return.
            We close our letter by saying that we wish for our friend the salvation that God has prepared in the presence of all people and the peace that Jesus brought when he came to save mankind.  We invite our friend to trust that Jesus will grant our wish.  In his name we rejoice and give thanks.  AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ 
Jesus. AMEN.