Friday, August 9, 2013

Hebrews 11 -- On Faith

St. John’s – August 11, 2013 – Hebrews 11:1 – 16,
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
      The passage we read from Hebrews begins with a two-part definition of faith. First, faith is a firm confidence in things that we hope for. We take some examples from everyday life. When a man and a woman marry, they usually have a firm confidence, without any tangible proof they can put their hands on, that their lives together will work out. When people move to a new city or a new country, they don’t move into the unknown with blind trust but with confidence that their preparations will bring good results. Similarly, we’re usually confident that dentists and other experienced people who help us know what they’re doing. We’re often confident as well that we’ll make wise choices ourselves and that rough patches we have to plow through will lead us to a smooth road.
       It seems that some folks are born with this kind of earthly faith. It’s a great blessing and they can benefit others.
       We Christians have an advantage of our own, though. We don’t rely on our own strengths or qualities in ourselves, for these are always imperfect. We trust in God’s promises. We’re firmly confident that he will provide for us, that he’ll bring us good schools and good jobs and long-lasting relationships, that he’ll smooth out rocky roads and lead us to good decisions. We trust, moreover, that he washes away our sins in Jesus’ blood and that he won’t abandon us. He will be our loving God forever.
       This brings us to the second part of the definition – faith is conviction about things we cannot see. We’ll take a couple of everyday examples again. Most of us have loved ones who are far away from us. We don’t see them, but we’re sure of their love for us and our love for them. We don’t see the future, but we’re convinced that our lives will work out, and so by heaven’s grace, we take joy in living each day. We’re glad to be alive.
       The author of Hebrew reminds us in particular that we don’t see God and yet we have faith in him. Our hearts are convinced that his promises to us are true; we trust his good intentions for us. The apostle Peter put it this way: “Without having seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with an unutterable and exalted joy.” Our faith in the unseen is a wonderful thing. It gives us assurance for this life as well as the next.
       The author of Hebrews points out, however, in the chapter just before this morning’s reading, that it’s possible to lose this faith, especially if our problems aren’t solved right away and we think that God has left us to work on them by ourselves. It’s possible not to pay attention, to drift into unbelief – just by being lazy or taking things for granted.
       We need reminders, then, about the value of the Christian faith, and this is what the letter to the Hebrews provides. The author gives plenty of reasons to stick with Jesus and not slip away. The letter describes the superiority of Christ. He is superior to the prophets, to angels, to Moses or any other spiritual adviser we may encounter. And because of the sacrifice he offered, Jesus is superior to Old Testament priests. He didn’t offer a goat or a ram in payment for sin. He offered himself. God promises that because of Christ, he will not remember our sins and misdeeds. The sacrifice for sins has been made once for all.
       To paraphrase the author of Hebrews, since the blood of Jesus gives us confidence for life by the new and living way he opened for us through his flesh, we draw near him with true hearts in full assurance that our sins are washed away in his blood. We hold onto our hope without wavering, for the God who makes promises to us is faithful.
       The letter to Hebrews issues a strong warning. If we stray from God after we receive the knowledge of the truth, the saving gospel, and don’t return to him, then Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t work for us. “What punishment,” the author asks, “do you think will be deserved by the person who spurns the Son of God and profanes the blood of the covenant and outrages the Spirit of grace?” ‘Vengeance is mine,’ God says. “I will repay.’”
       We don’t throw away our confidence, then, our faith, for they will have a great reward. We take hold of heaven’s gift of endurance so that we may do the will of God and receive what he promises when Jesus returns. “My righteous one shall live by faith,” God proclaims, confident of the things we hope for, convinced of the truth of things we can’t see. “If anyone shrinks back,” God says, “my soul has no pleasure in that person.”
       But like the folks for whom the Letter to the Hebrews was originally written, I suspect the people of St. John’s aren’t the sort to shrink back. I believe that you’ll hold on in faith and conviction and greet the Lord with rejoicing when he returns.
       Now, after a long introduction, we come back to this morning’s text, which is one of the most uplifting chapters in the Bible. You see, Abraham and Sarah, our earthly forebears in the faith, received the same buffets and blows that come to us. In response to God’s command, they left comfortable lives in a pagan land, where they were established and respected, and lived as wanderers, in tents rather than pleasant houses. They lived among strangers in a land they couldn’t claim as their own. They didn’t know what would happen to them from one year to the next. God’s promises, especially his promise of a family to carry on after them, were delayed of fulfillment.
       But they lived by faith. They didn’t fall away from trusting God’s promises, even though they couldn’t see either him or the fruits of their steadfastness. They held on in trust; they kept on going; they endured. We don’t know why God sent them on an unexpected journey, but we do know that he tested their faith and refined them and used them as the founders of a great nation of believers that’s still going on today. The same is true for Christians now. To our own eyes, our lives may seem unimportant and full of frustration, but God sees things differently, with meanings we don’t know now but that will be revealed to us in the life to come, so we hold on in faith, for the Lord holds on to us.
       The passage from Hebrews describes four features of the life of faith to help us persevere. First, as we’ve been saying, the countless spiritual offspring of Abraham and Sarah do not receive the fulfillment of all God’s promises in this life. We ourselves see the fulfillment from afar off. In the words of Isaiah, “Their eyes shall see the king in his beauty; they shall see the land that is very far off.” We abide in God’s promise that we will see his face.
       Secondly, the faithful people of Bible times believed that God’s promises are true. This is the case for us. We trust that God is able to perform everything he promises. Some familiar words of St. Paul apply: “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor things present nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” He will not abandon us, in other words. He will bring us to him.
       Thirdly, God’s faithful children welcome and embrace his promises. We live by them. David wrote in Psalm 62: “For God alone, my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.” And we find these words in Psalm 123: “Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he have mercy upon us.” God’s promises are a part of our souls. By the grace of God, they are always present with us, like our breathing or the beating of our hearts.
       In the fourth place, faithful people confess that we are strangers and pilgrims on earth. We don’t have an earthly home that will last forever. Our home is with God. We accept this situation, as hard as it is for our human flesh, and we come to rejoice in God’s will for us. David confessed to the Lord in psalm 39: “I am a passing guest, a sojourner like all my fathers.” And the author of Hebrews wrote in the last chapter: “We have no lasting city; we seek the city that is to come.” We take part in the joys of the earth without clinging to them. We’re ready to let go whenever the Lord calls us, and he calls to us every day in his Word.
All these signs of faith show that God’s people look for a different country from an earthly one, a better life than the one they would leave behind. Faith in God’s promise of a heavenly city to come keeps us from pining for the good old days. We may have plenty of wonderful memories, but the past doesn’t rule us. Like the faithful people of Bible times, we live in Christ and work for the good things he promises.
       As a result, God accepts us. He isn’t ashamed to be called our God. He strengthens us. He gives us the power to endure and the blessings of faith. Like believers in all times, we have confidence in what we hope for, we’re convinced that things we can’t see are true. So 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.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Luke 12:13-21 -- Earthly Wealth and Riches from God

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God the Father and our lord Jesus Christ,
        This morning’s gospel text brings up questions about money and possessions that are important to most of us. Material things play a big part in our way of life. Some days we might think that money runs everything. This isn’t true, of course: God is the ruler. But the rush for material abundance is very powerful, and it’s easy for people to put secondary things in first place.
       The Bible doesn’t teach us that money and material goods are wrong in themselves. Abraham was rich, and after he became King, David had a lot of material resources at his disposal. People with riches have often benefited the church. The key question is this – what do riches mean to the person who has them or wants them?
       The passage from Luke gives us two examples that Jesus encourages us not to follow. We have a glimpse into the soul of a man who wanted more of an inheritance than he was entitled to. This was all he could find to talk about even with Jesus, who claimed no authority when it comes to questions like that. By the grace of God, it was not too late for this man. He had a chance to think again about what was most important to him. Jesus wanted him to be rich in God, not obsessed with earthly things. It would be much better for him to take hold of the pardon, peace, and salvation that Jesus offered him. He would be happy, content, and at ease, if he lived in union with God, day by day.
       I have a pretty good idea that no one here is like this man nor do Risen Christ’s people resemble the rich fool in the parable that Jesus then told. Christians are content with what God sends us. We make sure to thank him for the blessings with which he fills our lives. We thank him every day. He delights in our thanksgiving and is disposed to continue his generosity toward us.
       The man in the parable is highly respectable, an outstanding citizen – maybe in today’s world he would own a car dealership or a chain of stores. There’s no suggestion that he gained his riches in an unjust way. Many folks must have admired him. Were it not for the teachings of God’s Word, his values would seem right and worthy of being copied. But God has higher things in mind for his beloved children, so Jesus teaches us by revealing this man’s soul.
       For one thing, we see what he thinks about life. Life equals possessions for him. He believes that the more stuff he has the bigger his life will be. Church and Bible teach us, though, that the things we need and use sustain our lives and not extras that may look nice but gather dust.  The man had enough to secure a very fine earthly life – good food, expensive clothes, interesting friends, a chance to explore the world. But he wanted even more luxuries, because he thought that life requires excess. For him, you weren’t really alive if you didn’t have more than you needed or could use.
       Besides this, he was a speculator. When he looked ahead, he saw an even greater supply of riches, so he made big plans. He lived by wishful thinking. He said that good times would multiply, even though there might be famine, war, depression, or political upheaval. It’s wise to prepare for the future, but this man made a mistake when he supposed he already had what might never be his. He counted his chickens before they were hatched. He based his plans on thin air.
       People like that often get a lot of attention. They sometimes arouse envy. Satan uses them to start us thinking: why do the ungodly have all the good fortune, while Jesus’ brothers and sisters struggle along from day to day, unrewarded and unnoticed?  Jesus will answer all our questions when we get to the next life. In the meantime, we don’t let our questions lead to envy or covetousness. We cling to the Lord. We turn our wishes over to him. He uses us as witnesses to good sense and balanced living in a world that’s often awash with greed and foolishness.
       In the case of the rich man in the parable, folly is not just silliness or childish behavior. It’s contempt for discipline and God’s truth. The man had no thought for God at all, only for his own comforts and his pile of stuff. It’s not that he denied God, but that he loved the world and its glitter so much that he had no room in his heart for God. He seemed to have no living, saving tie with his maker. He thought that life would automatically go on as it always had. It didn’t occur to him that he would die that very night. He wouldn’t surrender his soul gladly and joyfully as a believer does. No, he was so much in love with earthly life that terrible angels would have to wrestle his soul away from him.
       By the grace of God, this rich man’s story is a powerful warning, but it is not the last word. Jesus died to save sinners. Even the most worldly, courteous, wealth-obsessed person, of which there are none at Risen Christ, can be saved. We thank God for protecting us from the evils of worldliness and keeping us in the kingdom of faith. We praise him for turning our hearts away from the ravages of greed and covetousness to rest confidently in him.
       The Bible and the church, and we ourselves, too, of course, have a lot of wisdom about money and possessions. We’ll review some of it now to encourage us to stick with the Lord.
       First off, as we’ve already said, life doesn’t consist of material things, though some people think it does. I once heard someone say that he wanted many millions of dollars, because life is money and money is how you measure a person’s value. Not so. Life comes from God. It’s a mystery that consists of breathing and eating and also intangible qualities like faith, hope, and love. The body dies, but the existence of the soul continues and one day God will reunite our bodies and souls and believers will pass into everlasting glory with God, who gives us a chance now, with his help, to nourish our spirits in harmony with him. Material things help, but they can get in the way if we take them too seriously. Folks who have what they need and maybe a little bit more are often the happiest. It’s good for God’s people to share in the abundance of the present time, and we receive his blessings without an everlasting craving for more, because we know that life comes from him and he’ll continue to provide for us.  
       In the second place, material well-being is uncertain. Economies flourish and shrivel up. We hear reports in the news about a high unemployment rate in the U. S. and cutbacks in many areas of life. Lots of folks are feeling a pinch right now. Who can say for sure what the next year will bring? Better to stick with God and trust in him than a pile of stuff we may have now or think we’ll have in five years.  How fortunate are those who live with Jesus. We’re not isolated from the world. It’s ups and downs touch us. We live by trust that while he won’t set us up in a mansion with a limousine in the driveway, neither will he abandon us. He’ll give us just what we need, and maybe a bit more, and he’ll continue to make daily joy a reality for us.
       Thirdly, what’s the point of spending our best efforts piling up things, when death can strike at any time, as the man in the parable discovered? God often grants long life, and we may pray that this be the case with us. The parable reminds us, however, that human life is fragile and that earthly structures are impermanent. We’re wise to attach ourselves to God, who is permanent and who promises that even though the joys of earthly life are fleeting and its glories pass away, he will shower the blessings of abundant eternal life on those who stick with him
       Lastly, satisfying work can be one of the best parts of life, but working to pile up stuff for its own sake is meaningless. We don’t know what will become of the fruits of our toil after we are gone. King Solomon put it well. “A man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who hasn’t worked for it.” What does a person get for all his or her toil and anxious striving? What will the folks after us do with the heritage we leave them? Best to stick with Jesus, who gives meaning and purpose to the smallest of our actions. Labor for him is never in vain.
       The world and the devil encourage us to seek riches and to give up our souls for gain. God and the church bring us a different message: Hold on there. Are you sure that’s wise? Think before you surrender yourself to anything you can see or touch or add up. If you insist on living as a fool, live as a fool for Christ, as Paul put it. “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom...God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise...we are fools for Christ.”
       How often we see greed and covetousness, maybe even in ourselves, and wish that things were different. The materialistic values that surround us awaken lust for gain in fragile hearts. Many do not resist. We praise God for the Holy Spirit, who brings us to repentance. Where human flesh falls many times, Jesus remains steady. He didn’t give way to covetousness, but always obeyed the will of his Father. He passes on the results of his obedience to us. He pardons; he washes away our sins. He strengthen us; he shares with us the fruits of his perfect, God-filled life.
       He tells us, as he told his disciples, to be rich toward God – or as one translator put it – to be rich in God. This doesn’t mean that we gather no earthly treasures at all but that earthly blessings don’t keep us from gathering riches of the spirit. To be rich in God, according to one student of the Scriptures, means to have the wealth that is found in God – pardon and peace, as we said, and salvation in union with him. To be rich in God means to be in faith. To quote again: “The person who is rich in God has the saving gifts that God gives; she or he takes hold of them with gratitude and by faith as his or her own. This person is truly rich, however little he or she may have of earthly goods.” Believers who receive earthly blessings from God won’t let these blessings interfere with their true spiritual wealth, since they will treat them the way Abraham and David treated their riches – as tools from God to be used for heaven’s purposes.
       We praise God for showing us his values and giving us the confidence to trust that even we may live by his guidelines. We thank our Savior for carrying us through valleys of materialism to safety at the foot of the Cross. We rejoice that he gives us a chance to gather heavenly riches as he brings us day by day to the wonderful life that is coming. In Jesus’ Name. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.