Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Luke 16:19 - 31. Lazarus and Us

Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
            Why should we pay attention to the beggar Lazarus?  After all, he’s only a character in a parable.  First, Jesus tells the parable, and we take to heart anything he says.  Second, we ask what Lazarus’ situation illustrates for us.
            For one thing, we have a chance to reflect again about what God thinks about the differences between riches and poverty.  The Bible teaches us that laziness, love of pleasure, drunkenness and gluttony can all lead to poverty.  “A little sleep, a little slumber,” one of the proverbs says, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond and want like an armed man.”  At the same time, Scripture assures us that God cares for the poor.  The prophet Jeremiah wrote,  “Sing to the Lord...for he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers.”  God insists on justice for the poor.  Here’s another proverb: “Whoever stops his ear at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself but not be heard.”  Jesus encourages kindness to the poor.  I’m sure you remember what he said to a rich young man: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.”
            But Lazarus is not only poor, he is also very ill and can’t move unless someone helps him, the sort of person who needs support and ought to receive it, but his neighbors neglect him, and so he lives on the street, begging and in pain.  He stations himself in front of the home of a rich man and people ignore him.
            Riches in themselves aren’t evil.  King Solomon wrote: “Every man to whom God has given riches and wealth and has given him the power to eat thereof and to take his portion and to rejoice in his labor, this is the gift of God.”  But riches are fleeting and deceptive.  They can be a powerful temptation to greed and to forgetfulness of God.  Riches can lead to shallowness of life and can hinder entrance into God’s kingdom.  Riches can also disappoint and bring worries.  Psalm 39 speaks of a man who heaps up wealth and doesn’t know who will gather it in.
            The rich man in Jesus’ parable lives in comfort; he has his bit of revelry every day, but his life is hollow.  He doesn’t put his earthly possessions to work in a way that pleases God.  What’s more, as an expert on the subject wrote, Jesus told his parable to the Pharisees, who believed that wealth was a special gift from God to people he highly favored.  The man in our parable was not only very rich, he was also very religious.  He knew God’s teaching about justice and kindness to the poor, but he was proud of his wealth and the life it made possible for him.  He ignored the suffering on his doorstep.
            But God did not ignore Lazarus.  He didn’t make him rich; he didn’t heal his skin disease so that he could work; he didn’t even satisfy his longing for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  Instead, he gave him something else – saving faith, which not only provides the strength to endure the hardships of this life, but also filled Lazarus’ soul with the assurance that rest and peace would come to him in the next life.  Lazarus was like Job, who suffered unspeakable miseries and yet held on in faith; he was like Paul who suffered numerous discomforts – and without complaining – as he served the Lord.  In a physical, earthly sense, he was even like Jesus, who suffered on the cross for all of us.
            Faith in Christ works that way.  Despite all external evidence to the contrary – his abject poverty and the fact that his hunger and pain went on and on – Lazarus knew that God was on his side and would not let him down.  Jesus had wonderful things in store for him that our human imaginations can’t grasp now, and by the grace of God Lazarus was able to hold onto Christ in faith.
            The case of Lazarus reminds us that our own society is turned toward comfort.  We feel deprived if we lack one nicety or another.  When I was in a barbershop years ago, I heard another customer say in a loud voice, “The problem with people today is that they don’t know how to suffer.”  I don’t suppose that’s true, because there’s plenty of suffering in the world and lots of poverty, but the preferences of our day give suffering a bad name.  “If you suffer there must be something wrong with you,” people mistakenly say, “or else God must be mad at you.”
            Lazarus’s story reminds us that the problem was not with him but with the shallow values of a materialistic culture.  Anything inconvenient is to be pushed out of sight.  Lazarus is different.  The neglect he experienced didn’t break his spirit. He didn’t ask to die.  He asked for food instead so that he could go on living, however cramped and maimed his life may have looked to the people who passed by him day after day.  Lazarus, like God, was on the side of life, and Jesus gave him the faith to endure the horrible suffering that came to him.  Better days were coming – much better days, as the parable tells us.  A great reversal of fortune would take place.  The one who lived in heedless splendor would suffer.  He wouldn’t receive even a drop of water to relieve his torment.  And as for Lazarus – we ourselves who stick with Christ by faith will discover firsthand the blessed joys the Lord put before him after the cares of earth had ended.
            Jesus’ parable also teaches us that when God dispenses rewards and punishments he demolishes earthly expectations and man-made traditions.  The world separates into categories and classes.  God looks at the heart.  The rich man had the advantage of theological training and knowledge.  The Lord blessed Lazarus abundantly with faith of the heart.  Even in destitution, Lazarus gave a powerful testimony to God’s love.  Jesus intended that Lazarus and the rich man not be divided from each other but to work together to build and expand his kingdom, each benefitting the other and together they would spread the good news of God’s blessings to the world around them. 
            Lazarus reached out to the rich man, not only to receive some of the earthly things he needed but also to offer him the love of God, a sign of friendship from a faithful heart or even a stern warning from the law that the rich man had put himself in eternal danger.  Lazarus may have had in mind a picture of God’s community of faith, but the rich man did not.  He recognized only people like himself as worthy in God’s eyes.
            This was not what Jesus wanted, but even so he used the corrupted situation to serve his kingdom.  He raised a street person up and brought him into the comfort and rest of paradise.  He uses Lazarus to remind us of a basic Christian teaching.  The formerly rich man begged Father Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers as a messenger of warning, but Abraham, wiser, advised the man that if they failed to listen to Moses and the prophets in God’s written word, they would pay no more attention to a special ambassador from heaven.  Faith in God’s Word is the key that opens the door to his blessings – now and in eternity.  It’s one of God’s miracles that a man whose life was in crisis received the gift of faith and lived on it in trust.
            Now, one final point.  Martin Luther once wrote that every believer is a true Lazarus, for we are all of the same faith, mind, and will as he, centered in trust that salvation comes only through what the Bible teaches about Christ.  Anyone who isn’t willing to be like Lazarus will share the fate of the rich man in hell.  We are to trust in God as Lazarus did, subdue our rebellious wills and surrender ourselves to him so that he may work in us as he pleases.  Even though we don’t suffer the way Lazarus did, we should possess a mind like his, cheerfully bearing whatever fate God sends us.
            Luther said that humility of spirit like that of Lazarus may exist even in people who are rich in possessions.  Job, Abraham, and Jacob were all outwardly rich but poor in spirit in the way that pleases God.  David as king owned a lot of land and even large cities, but he said nevertheless, “I am a stranger here, a sojourner as all my fathers were.”  He saw life from a Christian point of view.  Though he was rich, he didn’t cling to earthly things.  His heart was with God.  He valued much more highly the riches he received from the Heavenly Father.  Bodily health, too, for David, was nothing compared with the health of his soul.  He would not have complained if he’d been afflicted with the sores and sickness of Lazarus.  The same is true for Abraham, Luther said, and even of ourselves, for God’s people have one and the same mind and spirit directed toward him, even though our outward circumstances and the degree of suffering that falls to each of us are different.  This is why Abraham recognized Lazarus as one of his own and received him at his side.  The suffering of his saints is precious to God.  He will reward his people in the next life.
            Extreme differences of wealth and poverty are nothing to God.  All of his people are like Lazarus in faith and the willingness to endure trials.  No matter how the times tempt us, we do not cling to dreams of riches or regret the absence of wealth we may not have.  Instead, Jesus opens our hearts and with the astonishing freedom he gives to his people, we become like Lazarus, trusting in the Lord, happy to obey his will, whatever it may be.
            The week ahead may have good times; it may have trials.  I hope that all of us will abide in the assurance that our sins are washed away in the blood of Christ and his promise that he will keep us through every circumstance, as he did Lazarus.  The key is to keep the Bible’s teachings about Jesus in our hearts.  Nothing then can do us permanent harm, for he is our friend and guide and savior.  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.             

Friday, September 13, 2013

Amos 8:4 - 7 -- Living in Kindness, Faith, and Justice

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
       God often uses ordinary people we might not expect to help him carry out his work. The disciples whom Jesus sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel are one example. The prophet Amos is another. Amos was a shepherd who also tended fig trees in the southern part of Israel, which was called Judah in his time. You may remember that Israel was divided into two parts after King Solomon died, with two kings and two governments and two armies. To make his assignment even more of a challenge, the Lord didn’t keep Amos at home, but sent him to the nation in the north, which kept the name Israel.
       Now, Israel was prosperous and strong at that time, the way North America is today. The people were secure and comfortable. They believed God favored them with the earthly blessings they deserved, because of what one biblical scholar  called their extravagant support of official government shrines. They paid their dues and more.
       But there were lots of problems from God’s point of view. It was Amos’s task to deliver his judgment on their way of life to people who were pretty comfortable and didn’t want to be told about their failings.
       Amos delivered God’s message forthrightly. He didn’t shrink from speaking bad news. You see, while God loves justice and righteousness, all the nations of the area gained their wealth and power by unjust means and wrongful behavior. Pagan nations enslaved their neighbors and sent whole countries into exile; one nation pursued her own people with the sword. We ourselves live in blessed circumstances, but if you follow the news – and hardly anyone misses the main facts – you know that in other parts of the world things just as horrible as the crimes and abuses mentioned in the Old Testament take place in our day. Our own laws permit abortion and same-sex marriage, and we know what God thinks of that. Anyway, the world always finds paths of sin and injustice when it refuses to follow the word of God.
       Even Judah, where Amos came from and which the Lord loved, rejected God’s law and lived by falsehood. They would pay a price. God said through Amos, “I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds pf Jerusalem.” Amos especially emphasized the sins of the northern kingdom: They sold the righteous for silver. They trampled the poor into the dust of the earth, and they wallowed in immorality. Above all, they worshiped false gods and practiced automatic religion. They believed that God rewarded them simply because they carried out the prescribed animal sacrifices and made offerings from their rich harvests.
       True religion has to do with the heart and not externals. A heart that is close to God and is moved by him will rejoice and be thankful. Faithful hearts love justice and do numerous good works without thinking twice. They are humble before God and loving to their neighbors. The nations of Amos’ time, including the Lord’s beloved Israel and Judah, practiced injustice day in and day out. “They do not know how to do right,” the Lord said.
       Wickedness and injustice never, never have the last word. God promised to punish heathen nations severely for their crimes. He would punish Judah and his wrath would fall on Israel. He would send drought and famine and a foreign army would surround the land. “I will punish the altars of Bethel and the houses of ivory shall perish.”  Although he had sent plenty of warnings in the past, the nation didn’t return to the Lord. “I know how many are your transgressions,” he said through Amos. They afflicted the righteous; they took bribes; they turned the needy aside at the city gates. But a price must be paid. “In all the squares there shall be wailing,” The Lord said. “And in all the streets they shall say ‘Alas, alas’. Farmers would mourn there would be wailing in the vineyards. “I despise your feasts,” the Lord said. He would not accept their offerings. “Take away from me the noise of your songs.” Instead, the Lord commanded, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” A bad time would come, Amos foretold, if God’s chosen nation continued to ignore his wishes. “I shall raise up against you a nation...and they shall oppress you.”
       Now, nobody wants to hear a message like that, and the leaders of Israel sent Amos back home so that he couldn’t prophesy any more among the wonderful people of Israel. Amos did as he was told, but not before he issued another warning – that there would be violence and division in the land and the leaders would be sent away into exile.
       This is a strong message, and sometimes God needs to speak strongly or else no one will listen, and even then some folks still don’t pay attention. As it turned out, the leaders of the northern kingdom disregarded what Amos and other prophets told them, so a few decades later the nation’s leaders were sent into exile, and Judah’s turn came not too long after. Although Amos delivered his message thousands of years ago, the words he spoke about faithfulness to God and his commands apply to the world today, and if you find yourself taking his message to heart, praise the Lord for giving you wisdom.
       We also praise God that Amos’s message isn’t made up completely of reproaches. For one thing, Amos teaches us that God loves justice. He hates oppression and wickedness and the crimes and misdeeds of people in high places, of which the news is often very full. What a blessing for ordinary folks like ourselves that Jesus is on the side of good and that he will eventually make right every injustice for his glory and the benefit of his people. He punishes unrepentant sinners and lifts up the humble of heart. He helps strengthens us to endure inequities now so that we may rejoice with him when we reach the next life that he has prepared for us.
       He gives us hope in God’s justice and makes us workers for justice ourselves. We are fair and just in our dealings with others. We comfort neighbors who may be victims of injustice or crime. We pray for justice here in the Toronto area and in the world at large. We are beacon lights for the justice and fairness of our Lord. We set examples in our own lives of trust in heaven’s justice. We thank God for making it possible for us to live by his standards rather than the imperfect ways of the world.
Amos prophecies good news as well as bad in still another way. He promised at the end of his book that the God who shakes the house of Israel will also lift her up again. “In that day, I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its branches and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in days of old....I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel...I will plant them upon their land and they shall never again be plucked up.”  The Lord who brings down in order to chasten and teach wisdom also rebuilds and gives back. He replaces sorrow with joy in his own good time. When the Israelites went back home after 70 years of exile, they sang this psalm: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy...He that goes forth weeping shall come home with shouts of joy.” God removes the heavy yoke in his own good time. He sends joyful days even in this life.
       Now, joys come because of the goodness of Christ. We find joy in his justice. Human justice is flawed, but God is perfect. We know how it works. Every sin of people and nations must be paid for, but not even death can make amends for the depth and height of the world’s sin. So God sent his son to die in our place and to take our penalty upon himself. He loves life and his creation, and so he died to bring us life and abundance.  When we read about the trespasses of God’s Old Testament people, we think of our own. When we hear about the wrath that came upon them, we are reminded of what we ourselves deserve. The Lord took our sins upon him, however, and endured the wrath of God in our place. His justice includes mercy and pardon. All he asks of us in return is faith in him.
       The unbelieving part of the world is hard of heart and turns away from the God who loves it. Jesus calls us to walk along a different path – of tenderness and mercy, faith and justice. We’re kind to the unfortunate. We don’t oppress. The earthly goods we have come to us by honest means. We don’t practice a religion of show; we worship Jesus with purity of heart. We rejoice that God’s justice rolls down upon us like a river and we freely offer it to others – to children, to old people, to folks in need who can’t do for themselves. We share with others the good news that God has shared with us – with friends who may be discouraged at the way the world works, with loved ones who feel the unfairness of earthly life. The Lord’s justice is strong; it won’t fail. It reaches out to everyone.  The proud will be brought down, the lowly raised up. And sinners are forgiven, for God’s justice includes mercy. He is just to everyone, and so are we, thanks to Jesus, who clears the way for us. If Amos were at Our Saviour this morning, he would encourage us to keep on walking alongside our Lord, who will continue to shower the blessings of his justice upon us. In Jesus Name, we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.   

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Luke 15:1 - 10 A Lost Sheep and a Lost Coin

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ  
       The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are well-known to us. If we take them seriously, we’ll learn something from them about God and about ourselves. To help us get at what they mean, we’ll lean on the thinking of some wise Christians of days gone by, though I’ll try to put their ideas into present-day language so that our sermon-time doesn’t seem like a trip to an old warehouse.
       Our first point is that God seeks sinners. He takes the initiative and comes to us. His active seeking surprises us, because our human minds like to think of God as remote and demanding. We naturally think that God has nothing to say to sinners, that we need to be truly sorry for our faults first and then divine justice will reward us. The Pharisees and the scribes were shocked when they learned that Jesus spent time with sinners. Their ideas about faith create rigid minds and cold hearts, the sort of personalities that make us feel guilty. There are dangers in thinking that we are good; there’s no joy in lifting ourselves above others. Jesus never did that. He came with forgiveness, with an invitation to enter his father’s kingdom and the assurance that salvation takes place now, in the present, and not after a period of arduous penitence. It goes without saying that Jesus doesn’t approve of sinners. He comes, instead, with an offer of love and friendship and the hope that his power will work on our behalf and that life will be better in the future than in the past.
       God is a seeker. He looks for lost souls even more diligently than a shepherd looks for a lost sheep or a needy housewife looks for a lost coin. A Christian poet once referred to God as the hound of heaven, who pursues his quarry until he catches him. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” Jesus said. He’ll keep on finding us until the last day.
       The two parables also teach us what the Lord does with the lost when he finds us. He doesn’t reproach sinners or force us to walk along beside him. Instead, he carries us on his shoulders to the better life he has prepared.
       Now, we need to know what means he uses since we can’t be content with vague or sentimental images.
       God’s law reproaches us. The law always accuses. It shows us our sins, because our flesh needs the reproaches of the ten commandments and the prodding of the law to love our neighbors. It also drives us to seek the mercy of Christ. But the law is external, outside us. It doesn’t save, neither does it help us meet its demands. As a result, the law frightens us. But Christian hearts aren’t filled with terror and self-reproach. We live by trust in Jesus. This is what it means to say that he carries us. He lived and died and rose again so that we would receive heaven’s forgiveness. We are sinners, we do wrong, but we don’t despair or run away from God in fear, for we take hold of Jesus, who comes looking for us and claimed us in our baptisms and promises all his blessings and benefits to us through our faith in him. As Christians, forgiven by our Lord, with Jesus in the center of our hearts and minds, we command the accusations of the law and the threats of the devil to be silent. Even though we haven’t followed it and can’t because of our weakness, the law has no right to make demands on our souls. We have all things in abundance in Christ – everything we need or lack.
       God does not offer his assurances, though, to satisfied consciences, to folks who feel secure or to people who are rebellious or shallow. He makes his promises to lost sheep, whose consciences may be in torment and in terror because of their sins. Jesus deals tenderly and gently with wounded consciences. As Luther said, he takes us dear sheep upon himself with all our distress, our sins and anxieties; he calls us by the gospel in the most friendly way so that we will come to him to be taken up and carried on his shoulders and stay as his dear sheep. So, renewed and refreshed, with Jesus alive in our hearts, we take up the good works that God’s law asks of us, not to win his favor, but to give glory to the Shepherd who has saved us.
       So we come to another lesson from this morning’s parables – the importance of a clear understanding of Jesus’ intentions toward us. Some folks think of God as a task master, a tyrant who frowns at us from dawn to dusk. Jesus shows us that he rejoices when he finds a lost soul. He delights in his faithful people, he takes pleasure in his kingdom. We are the apple of his eye. He won’t let us go.
How much we benefit when we hold onto the promise that our Shepherd rejoices and that he comes after us – not to frighten or strike us, but to help us and bring us home again and to share his joy with us. The devil likes to afflict our minds and to fill our hearts with self-doubt. Jesus does the reverse. He makes our hearts joyful and fills us with a strong confidence, not in ourselves, but in him.
       God is a seeker, then; he carries us on his shoulders; he rejoices over the lost when he finds us. Martin Luther put it this way: he lays us on his shoulders, carries and defends us, so that we’ll be safe from all the dangers of sin, death, and the devil, even though they terrify us and look as if they want to devour us. Christ’s act of carrying us is our salvation; we remain safe from every peril and don’t need to fear a thing. He carries us home, rejoicing. Heaven will receive us with joy.
       The parable teaches us that Jesus looks for lost souls more diligently than any human looks for earthly things. If we want true comfort and joy, we take hold of the gospel’s promise that we find them in Jesus and nowhere else. The most important thing for us is to believe him, to trust in him, for we are the lost sheep and the lost coin whom he diligently seeks and over whom he rejoices.
       The seeking work of the Lord continues in the church today. He commissions his people to find the lost and bring them the law and the gospel. Where do we fit in? Each of us has a few others whose spiritual welfare concerns us. The parables show us how to proceed – we persist in seeking, we carry the lost on our shoulders, we rejoice with them when they turn to the Lord.
       Luther said that it’s our Christian duty, for love’s sake, to serve our neighbor in all things. Outward works of love are important, such as times we share material goods with others. It’s more important, though, to share spiritual goods. We surrender our own righteousness, as Luther put it, and make it serve for the sins of our neighbor. We point out their sins and vices, if need be, but we love the sinner and become his or her friend to cover her or his sins with our righteousness. “We descend and get mixed up,” Luther said, “in the mire of the sinner as deeply as he sticks there himself, taking his sin upon ourselves and floundering out of it with him, not acting otherwise than as if his sin were our own. We should rebuke him in earnest, yet we don’t despise but sincerely love him. If we are proud toward the sinner and despise him, we are utterly damned.”
       It’s against God to become so proud and harsh that we can’t show any love at all. It’s wrong to think: “This person isn’t worthy to untie my shoes; therefore, don’t say to me that I’m supposed to show him affection.” Pride can be a great problem, as we know, but fortunately God takes action to solve it. He lets the proud receive a severe shock.  They fall into grave sin, despite their pretensions, and find themselves saying, “Keep still and restrain yourself, you’re made of exactly the same kind of flesh as the person you look down on.” Luther said that in God’s eyes there is no greater sin than when virtuous people build themselves up at the expense of their neighbor’s sin.
       Instead, we look for our neighbor as we might look for a lost sheep. We use our honor to cover his shame, our piety to cover his sins. We don’t backbite to prove how virtuous we are or cause wounds we can’t heal. A good reason for speaking well of others is very near at hand: Jesus commands us to do unto our neighbors as we would have them do unto us.
       We follow the example of Jesus, who was an expert at bringing sinners to the Lord. Paul wrote that he emptied himself and took on the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of man. More than this, he was obedient to his Father’s will and accepted death on a cross. He gave himself to be our servant. His righteousness stood in the place of our sins, and his fullness for our weakness. Our method is the same. We befriend our neighbors, we pray for them, we stand beside them. This morning’s parables encourage us to keep on the path we’ve been following, trusting in the depths of our new-born hearts that we are sheep in Jesus’ flock and that he is carrying us on his shoulders. AMEN.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.