Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Colossians 2:6-15 The Worthiness of Christ

Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,

       Pauls’ letter to the Colossians encourages us to think about the worthiness of Christ and the value of our Christian faith. That’s our topic this morning – the necessity of Christ and the benefits we receive from the faith he gives us through the Holy Spirit.
       Christ is very dear to us; our faith is precious. The congregation at Colossae had the same high regard for God’s spiritual blessings to them. Paul began his letter by thanking God for the Christian faith and the Christian love they had for each other. He was pleased that the gospel bore fruit in their lives – and also all over the world.
       Paul wanted the Colossian congregation to keep on bearing fruit, so he admonished them to continue living in Christ. You may have noticed four key phrases that Paul used at the beginning of our text this morning to describe mature Christian living. The first is “being rooted in Christ.” We think of a tree with deep roots. The roots anchor and support the tree. They also store food and serve as the means by which the tree receives oxygen and water. If you’ve ever studied biology or tended a garden, you’ll have had first-hand experience of how important roots are. Jesus is our root. He supports us and our spirits receive nourishment from him. He is our source. Just as it’s hard to take a tree with strong roots out of the ground, so it is hard to remove a mature Christian from Christ, since God is everyday rooting us more deeply in him.
       The second key phrase Paul uses is “being built up in him.” Think for a moment of a new house going up in a subdivision. The construction workers build it up carefully piece by piece, according to a plan. So God’s Word builds us up. First by showing us our faults and our need for him, then by convincing us that God exists for us and that we are forgiven in Christ, and then by showing us that God’s forgiveness means our salvation, and then by sending us out to do good works that are pleasing to him. We are built up in Christ.
       A third term Paul uses is “strengthened in the faith”. Everyone experiences buffets and blows. But since we are strong in the Lord, who suffered every calamity we suffer and yet came out triumphant, hardship doesn’t break us. In fact, it strengthens us, because it brings us closer to our Lord’s strength. The faith of the apostles belongs to us. James, the brother of our Lord, said, “As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have head of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” God uses our faith to strengthen us. It’s not an abstract or theoretical faith, but a living faith that will keep us close to the Lord until we reach our heavenly goal, so we ask God to give us strong hearts, not faint ones.
       You may have noticed, by the way, that Paul wrote about teaching. We grow stronger as we stick with what we’ve learned from God’s Word. Excursions outside the Word may interest us for a time, but they weaken us in the long run. Strength comes from the God of scripture. We’ll go back to this point in s minute or two.
       A fourth key phrase is “overflowing with thankfulness”. We Christians are grateful people. I once heard someone say that gratitude releases the power of God. We’re thankful to God for our salvation, for the blessings in our daily lives, and the hope that the Lord will go on treating us as his beloved children. Moreover, we don’t express our thankfulness drop by drop. Instead, it flows out of our hearts. As Paul said in another letter, “In everything, give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” Thankfulness delights God and pleases our neighbors.
       So Paul wants the gospel to flourish in the hearts of the Colossian Christians. They should be mature followers of the Lord, rooted in him like an old pine tree, built up in him like the sturdiest house, strong as Paul and the apostles in the true Christian faith, and overflowing with thankfulness. God will keep on establishing our lives in him, so long as we stick with him, for we are his children, who need daily building up and strengthening in Christ.
       Now, I want to keep our focus on the Colossian congregation for a moment, because they had some difficulties that could happen to anyone. A few of the people paid attention to false teaching that somehow had got into the life of the community. These heresies took many forms. Some said that Christians ought to follow strict rules about food and religious customs. Some encouraged the worship of angels. Others emphasized human traditions and human wisdom, arguing that believers needed secret knowledge to live full lives with God. All of them tried to convince people that salvation required more than the life and work of Christ. Paul was concerned that a few people in the Colossian church had begun to think that something was lacking in the Christian faith, so he wrote to argue against false teachers who were ready to supply what they thought was missing.
       As I say, this sort of thing can happen anywhere. Many features of the modern world tempt us to think that there’s something missing in the Christian faith. Advertising, marketplace values, emphasis on living by the letter of the law – all these features of present day life bring us benefits, but if we live for material things, we’ll come to think that new need more than Christ. Nobody openly persecutes Christians in North America, but trends of the time subtly work on us, so that we may think that Jesus is only for Sundays, and the rest of the week belongs to urgent practical matters.
       With the power of Jesus on our side, we resist the spiritual temptations of the day and live rooted in him, established and built up in the sturdy Christian faith. In order for this centeredness in Christ to happen, the Lord convinces us that the Christian faith doesn’t lack anything, that Christ is all we need. This is the reason Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians.
       He uses eight phrases in the first chapter to prove the sufficiency of Christ. We’ll look at each one briefly.
       To begin with, Paul says that the fullness of the deity dwells in Christ in bodily form. This means that everything to do with God takes place in Christ. God’s power over nature, his wisdom, his forgiveness and compassion, his indestructibility all occur in Christ. Not a portion of God’s qualities, but all of them, dwell in Christ.
       Paul affirms that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. this means that if we want to know who God is or what he thinks or what his nature is or his intentions for the human race we have only to look at what the Bible tells us about Jesus.
       Thirdly, Paul claims that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation. He came before the stars and the light and all creatures. Everything else came after him.                
       Fourth, Paul tells us that Jesus created everything and that he is before all things. Jesus created all the angels and the rules and the basic principles of the world that the Colossian people were tempted to worship. Paul hints that there is no point worshipping something inferior when the real thing is available to us.
Then Paul states that everything holds together in Christ. The universe isn’t random disorder. It follows a rational plan with a set pattern and certain laws. Actions have consequences; causes have effects; decisions have outcomes. Everything that exists, everything that happens finds its purpose and meaning and place in the universe in Christ. He is like a thread that joins everything together.
       Paul then tells us that Christ is the first-born from the dead. He is referring to Jesus’ resurrection. Paul means that God has power over death and that he uses his power first of all in the case of Christ and then on behalf of everyone who believes in Christ. When we look to God in faith, we look to the source of life and learn that he has conquered death for us. Besides that, Paul wrote that God reconciles everything to himself in Christ. He isn’t angry at the world; he see his creation as good; he takes delight in the people he has made. No barriers exist between God and the human race except the ones we human beings put up without knowing what we’re doing.
       Finally, Paul declares that God has made peace through the blood that Christ shed on the cross. This is the central fact of the Christian faith. Christ’s death reminds us of our own sins. Because of the cross, we have a definite, unvarying approach to God. We lay our sins before him with the assurance that he will cast them away because of Jesus’ sacrifice.
       So these are eight points Paul brings up to instill Christ’s worth in the minds and hesrts of the Colossian Christians and to assure them that nothing is missing from the faith God has given them. The fullness of divinity dwells in Christ. Nobody has done or can do more. To look beyond him is to trifle with the inferior.
Paul doesn’t end his argument here. He tells us that God passes the fullness of Jesus’ deity on to us. He releases us from the sting of eternal death; he puts off our old sinful natures and gives us new lives in Christ.
       The various distractions that tempted the Colossians – ceremonies, strict rules, secret knowledge, and invitation to angel worship – didn’t make people alive. Christ made them alive.
       It’s the same with us. We shouldn’t look for more from the marketplace or technology or advertising than they can provide. These features of our lives help us but they don’t bring us salvation or eternity. We are made alive in Christ. We don’t let the secular ways of thinking that surround us take over our minds. We learn from Paul that Christ is sufficient and that he will get us safely from here to life in eternity with him. In his 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.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Matthew 7:15 - 29 Foundation in Christ

Grace and peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,

       The morning’s gospel text, which comes from the very end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, takes up the question of how Christians should live.
       Jesus expects us to produce fruit for the kingdom – good trees bear good fruit – and he makes fruitfulness  possible for us. Somebody once told me that an experienced person can tell by looking at a sapling whether or not it will produce good fruit later on. Jesus knows us and trusts that we will produce good fruit because of the faith in him that we receive as a gift from the Holy Spirit. He prunes us, of course, for he doesn’t want us to rest on our laurels. He makes sure that our lives are filled with fellowship, purpose, worthwhile activities, and faith. We’re well familiar with the fruits of the Spirit that Jesus mentioned at the start of the Sermon on the Mount: meekness, righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peace. He plants a desire for good Christian fruits in our hearts and he builds them up in us. “Receive good lives,” he says to us. “I’ll see to it that you have the best there is.” He commands us to disregard false prophets who tempt us and bring his promises into our hearts and live by them.
       Our spiritual foundation – what we believe is true – has a lot to do with the kind of life we lead, so Jesus says that his teaching is the foundation for wise, fruitful Christian living. We know how important a good foundation is to a building. A bungalow that someone puts up on a sandy beach might collapse in a big storm, while a house built on a rock will stand up to any blast. An old hymn is based on this passage: “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Christ is our rock. If we don’t want to be blow about in the storms of life, we’ll listen to his teachings and abide by them.
       A man who did some writing about 150 years ago described three ways of living, based on three different foundations. Only one of them has to do with Christ. The first is to consider life as something we observe and study but never get directly involved in. An extreme case might be someone who bases his life on playing video games or watching sports on TV. He doesn’t play sports; he’s not on any team. He just watches. The Stanley Cup and the Memorial Cup and the Grey Cup are like Christmas and Ester to him. Folks who adopt an observing approach to life like to collect experiences. They want life to be attractive and base their choices on what is beautiful or pleasing. They stand on the sidelines; they don’t commit themselves to much. The prodigal son who squandered the money his father gave him on what he thought was a good time is another extreme case. Folks who decide that riches or knowledge or pleasure or pleasure or style are worthwhile ends in themselves belong in this category. I’m sure there’s nobody like this at Our Saviour. I bet you don’t base your foundations on the shifting sands of external objects that can be observed or counted. Christ the rock is your base.
       Another way to live is to build one’s foundations on ethical principles, the difference between earthly right and earthly wrong. Another of Jesus’ parable provides an example – the Pharisee who went to the temple and praised God for making him a wonderful person. You remember what he said to the Lord: “I thank you that I am not like other men: extortioners, unjust, adulterers. I fast twice in the week and I give generously from all I possess.” Lots of people, I suspect, who have a bit of worldly good fortune and don’t think about God or come near his church think along such lines. I once met a highly educated man with a very good job who told me that although he didn’t believe in God, he thought that if God exists, he ought to let him into heaven because of the outstanding life he led, full of hard work and good deeds and the respect of everyone who knew him.
       People like that can have many advantages: they understand that we need to live within limits and that decisions have consequences. They are often willing to take on responsibility and make sacrifices for the good of others. They set high standards. What happens, though, when a crisis comes along and they realize they haven’t lived up to their ethical principles? What happens when they understand that like everyone else they’ve fallen short and missed the mark and that they have lived in rebellion against God? And how do they answer questions about death and eternity?
       So we come to a third way of living – the spiritual or religious – when a person takes to heart the Bible’s message that God, who created the universe, rules and governs everything and declares that we are sinners who need his guidance, his strengthening, and his pardon. A person for whom life with God is in first place surrenders to the Lord, willingly lives under him in ways that please him, in repentance for sin, and in joy that Jesus has accepted him or her. Whatevcr the rest of the world may be doing, there are always plenty of people who stick with the Lord, and we praise God for that.
       But we are not perfect. As life moves along from day to day and we see how other folks are doing, we may be tempted to say, “Why shouldn’t I live as an observer, looking out for what pleases me? After all, most of the time, if you make a commitment to something, you will take on problems.” Or: “If I base my life on sound ethical principles and don’t look for anything else, people will approve of me and I will move ahead. The good works I do will bring me a host of rewards.”
       This way of thinking has its appeal and is tempting for some folks. “I go to church on Sunday. I do good every day. I’m okay. I don’t have anything to worry about:”
       But not so. Complacency of spirit is a trap? “Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name?” How easy it is to be satisfied with oneself! “Did we not perform many miracles?” But what did Jesus say? “I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers.” The point is that God’s grace saves us, not our own works. It’s faith in him that makes us righteous before God, and faith is his gift to us, for the sake of Jesus, who died on our behalf. We should never think so well of ourselves that we hold up our good deeds and put them in the place of what God has done for us.
       We keep a rein on our egos; we subdue our pride. We humble ourselves before the Lord who is our foundation and who promises to protect us from the storm he referred to. When we build our lives on him with his guidance, we will never be caught on sinking sand.
       There are many kinds of storms, of course, and we need to know what tempests Jesus had in mind. Some troubles we hear about aren’t storms in the strict sense of the word, but they have the same effect as storms –epidemics, failures of technology, plane crashes wars, and so on. Also daily troubles like illness or relationship tangles. Jesus gives us and all his people the wisdom to cope with stresses, the strength to endure, and the hope to keep on going. But the storm that Jesus spoke about in this morning’s gospel was something else. He promises to protect us from the stormy consequences of being human – the sinfulness that leads to death – the outcome of our mortality, which no one can avoid.
       Great achievements in medicine add years to our lives and science has brought us wonders. We’re grateful for these advances, not least because they extend our ability to give testimony to our faith. But they are very little compared with what Jesus offers  – everlasting happiness with him in the kingdom of heaven, without pain or misery, sickness or death—eternal blessedness in his presence when he returns.
       As we said, our neighbors find various patterns of belief to build their lives on. Christ calls everyone to receive him as his or her foundation. Those who answer his call are blessed. We appreciate the beauty of God’s creation and take advantage of it, but we don’t stop there. The difference between right and wrong is important to us and we cheerfully follow the commandments that God has set down. But we don’t claim that ethical principles or efforts to behave well make us right before God, for we can never measure up to his standards. Only Jesus can do that. We ask for his pardon and receive it. He takes away our burdens. He puts joy in our hearts and makes us so strong of faith that no storm – not even the winds of death – can tear us away from our foundations in him. We cling to him day after day in the assurance that he is our rock. In his name we give thanks. AMEN.     

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20: Jesus Sends Out 70 Messengers

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
       Have you ever gone on a trip or taken on a temporary assignment and learned much more from the experience than you thought you would? This is what happened to the 70 messengers whom Jesus sent ahead of him to towns and villages he hadn’t visited before. It was the third year of his ministry. He was making his last trip to Jerusalem, where he would be arrested, tried, and crucified. Then he would rise back to life from the grave. He had preached to many people during his ministry and he had a lot of followers, some of whom he trained to help him spread word of his visit to people who’d never heard him speak. The seventy needed to do their work quickly.
       In the next few minutes, we’ll examine Jesus’ instructions to the messengers by examining a few words and phrases. “The harvest is plentiful,” he said. When he used the word “harvest”, Jesus wasn’t referring to the multitudes of curious people who would come to see him. He meant the people who would welcome him and who by God’s grace would receive him. The Holy Spirit creates countless believers. Many would be saved then and many have been saved since that time. And if Jesus doesn’t return immediately, many more will be saved. Jesus and his gospel have always had a lot of appeal. There will be plenty of people in heaven. God doesn’t force himself on anyone, but he blesses abundantly those who receive his promises.
       “But the workers are few,” Jesus said. “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.” Jesus instructed his helpers to pray for workers, our prayers join God’s concern for the harvest; they make our will the same as his; our minds and hearts are united with him. We are partners with Jesus. We notice, however, that Jesus didn’t tell his messengers to go out and get workers. The harvest is God’s, and he provides the workers. He doesn’t force anyone into his service or call someone who is reluctant, as we would likely do if the task were left to us. Jesus finds the right people to help him and in his infinite grace, he hears our prayers and unites our wills with his. This is a miracle. The Lord blesses our walk with him.
       “I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves,” Jesus said. Now, nobody would ever do such a thing – send a single lamb into a wolf pack. Jesus told his messengers not to worry – to be brave, to get rid of their fears, and to keep him constantly in mind. He will protect them. Somebody described Jesus’ lambs as people who have lost the viciousness that comes with sin. They can’t defend themselves against the evil of the world. Jesus who rules the world will keep them safe. He will never abandon them. Never.
He gave his messengers instructions about the details of their mission – what to take with them – they will travel light – and how to behave and what to say. They shouldn’t give way to distractions or spend their time in idle conversation. They are to devote their time and energy to the work Jesus gives them and gratefully to receive the good things that are given to them, for the worker deserves his wages.
       “When you enter a house,” Jesus told them, “first say, ‘Peace to this house.” Peace between God and man. The Lord said in Isaiah that he that he would extend peace like a river. Jesus brings peace so that life may flourish and all people may receive consolation and happiness from God. The gospel creates peace. God is our friend and we are his children. The peace he gives us is our permanent possession and is the source of our feelings of peace. Our emotions zigzag and go up and down, while God’s offer of peace is steady and will never change. He creates a desire for peace in us and renews our feelings again and again. The 70 were to offer Christ’s peace as if it came from him, and in this way they would help to extend the kingdom.
       They would also heal the sick, for these miracles would prove the power of Jesus. We pray for the sick ourselves, of course, and very often – in church on Sunday and in our private devotions. We spend time with ailing friends and relatives and help take care of their needs as best we can, making a quiet, faithful witness to our Lord.
       Jesus also instructed his disciples to preach that the kingdom of God is near them. He intends that everyone who hears this message will accept his rule of grace and let it bless their souls in time and in eternity. They shouldn’t spend a lot of time with people who refuse them. The destruction that took place in Sodom is a sample of what will happen when Jesus returns to folks who reject him.
      The 70 messengers went out, then, equipped with Jesus’ instructions. Their journey went much better than they thought it would. Nothing happened to disappoint them and nothing came up to cause them to fail. Even demons submitted to them. The messengers were highly pleased with themselves, even giddy, and a bit off-base. Jesus needed to correct them.
       He said that he saw Satan fall from heaven, which is a much greater deed than casting out demons in his name. Jesus himself, in fact, had caused the downfall of the head of the kingdom of demons. Jesus wasn’t referring to a specific event that he saw with his physical eyes, for Satan is a spirit, and his fall took place in the supernatural world, where time and space don’t exist. Satan fell from supernatural blessedness. His power, which was once as high as heaven, was corrupted and became ungodly. Jesus defeated him, I’m sure you remember, when he resisted the devil’s temptations in the wilderness. He crushed Satan’s power, so he could give his disciples the ability to cast out demons in his Name.
       “I have given you the power to trample on snakes and scorpions,” he said. These are samples of the spiritual strength Jesus gives his people. He doesn’t mean that his people may disregard forces that might harm or destroy them or that we may act toward danger in a foolhardy way. He doesn’t take us out of the natural world, with all its perils and potential for destruction, but he does protect us and give us wisdom. “He will give his angels charge concerning you, “Psalm 91 says, “to guard you in all your ways. They will bear you up in their hands.” Jesus and his angels protect us so that the devil can’t inflict misery and death whenever he pleases. One of our Lutheran authorities put it this way: “Only when Jesus himself wants us to suffer and die in the interest of his kingdom do such things come upon us. Then we accept them as being sent by him as did all the martyrs who died in triumph and by dying that way defeated Satan. The symbolism of snakes and scorpions extends to all the deadly delusions, deceptions, and poisonous falsehoods of Satan…The defeated enemy constantly shows his defeat before the divine Word in the hands of Christ’s messengers.”
       The returning messengers rejoiced at the wrong things. A person may have the ability to cast out demons and yet not escape the devil himself. Joy may lead to pride and to false notions of talent and merit, so we rejoice in everything that has been done for us and not something that we ourselves do. We rejoice that our names are written in heaven, which means that we are justified before God, accepted as one of his children, permanently enrolled among the elect, awaiting Christ’s return in glory when he will claim us.
Someone said that our joy that our names are written in heaven is to increase until in heaven itself we see our names written there, which is the greatest of all victories over Satan.
       In the meantime, right now, we are like Jesus’ 70 messengers. Our journeys teach us more than we expect them to. We learn not to take our faith lightly and to cling to the Lord every day. We seek his mighty power so that we may stand against the devil’s schemes. Paul wrote in Ephesians that the life of Christians isn’t a struggle against flesh and blood but against the rulers of spiritual evil. Jesus protects us and equips us with spiritual armor so that we may be strong and stand our ground in faith, if a particularly evil day arrives. Jesus equips us with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith and other spiritual equipment. We have the same blessings he gave his 70 messengers, that is, every quality we need – truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and God’s invitation to pray to him. We call on his help and welcome the support of the One who strengthens us. He encourages us as we spread the good news in his Name. We rejoice that he has claimed us and that our names are written in heaven. In his 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.