Sunday, November 30, 2014

Darkness and Dawn

Texts:  Isaiah 9:1-7; 2 Kings 15:27-29; Matthew 4:12-17

“REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM of heaven is near!”

Is this good news for you, or bad news, or no news at all?

The kingdom of heaven is at hand, and every kingdom must have a king.  The King is coming!  Will you rejoice, will you cower in fear, or will you ignore Him and go about your business?

But this King you can’t ignore.  A governor or president serves at the will of the people.  His term ends in a few years and then he has to give up his office.  Dictators usurp power and cling to it until they die, but eventually their lives do end and their hold over the people ends, too.  Modern-day kings and queens hold ceremonial roles.  But the King of the Kingdom of Heaven truly reigns over all, He assumes His power by right, on His own authority, and His rule will never, ever end.  Get ready, repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near, and you are a subject of that kingdom whether you want to be or not.

       Nearly two thousand years ago Jesus of Nazareth returned to His home country of Galilee making just that proclamation.  Gradually He would reveal that He Himself was the King of the kingdom, the one to whom, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, every knee must bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord.  But the people of Galilee don’t know that yet.  That is what Jesus is getting ready to prove.

What kind of king will He be?  Will His reign bring joy or fear, darkness or light?

St. Matthew writes his gospel primarily to Jews, Jews who were expecting the kingdom of heaven.  Because he is writing to Jews, who hold the name of the Lord especially sacred, he avoids the term “kingdom of God.”  But we can assume that Jesus used both expressions and they both mean the same.  The coming of the kingdom of heaven or of God meant that everything on earth would finally bow the knee to God, from the widest galaxy down to the thoughts of every human heart.  It’s Matthew’s purpose to prove that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the King of the heavenly Kingdom, the long-expected Messiah who Himself is Lord and God.

To prove this Matthew cites texts from the Old Testament prophets.  “See!” he says, “The Word of the Lord said the coming King would do all these things, and this is exactly what this Jesus has done!”

And so in our passage from Matthew chapter 4 the evangelist cites Isaiah 9, verses 1 and 2.  He paraphrases, he doesn’t quote word for word, but his message is this: For those who were dwelling in darkness, the light has come.  The King comes as the bringer of daylight and dawn.  So repent!

  The first verse of this passage from Isaiah 9 evoked deep and painful memories in the hearts of the ancient Jewish people.  They are our spiritual ancestors and we need to put ourselves in their place and understand what the problem was– and still is.

For that we turn to our reading from II Kings.  The name I want you to notice first is that of Jeroboam son of Nebat, at the end of verse 28.  Jeroboam was one of King Solomon’s officials who rebelled against Solomon’s son Rehoboam back in the later part of the tenth century before Christ.  Ahijah the prophet, speaking in the name of the Lord, had said that God would give the ten northern tribes to him and if he kept God’s commands he would be granted an earthly dynasty as enduring as the one the Lord had promised David.  But even after God kept His promise and Israel was in Jeroboam’s hands, he didn’t listen.  He sinned by setting up golden calves in the northern cities of Bethel and Dan.  He said to his people, “Here are the gods who brought you up out of Egypt.”  And the people worshipped them there, instead of worshipping the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The great sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat was idolatry.  It was blaspheming the Lord by giving false gods the glory for the salvation God alone had accomplished.

And the Israelite kings after him followed his pattern, down to Pekah king of Israel, mentioned in verse 27, who reigned from around 749 to 730 BC.  He kept up the same old idolatry.  It was politically expedient, you see.  Wouldn’t want the northern tribes going down to Judah for Passover and thinking about reuniting, now would we?  On top of that the people committed all the usual sins we human beings commit when we turn our backs on God.

For their sins the Lord God brought the Assyrians against Israel. He had sworn to Moses that if they did not keep His commands He would wipe them out of the land He was giving them and hold them to account just as He had the Canaanites before them.  So as the writer of II Kings tells us,  “in the time of Pekah king of Israel, about 734 BC, Tiglath Pileser [III], king of Assyria, came and conquered the northern Israelite cites of Ijon, Abel Beth Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, and Hazor,” in Zebulun and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and you can see their ruins to this day.  “He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria.”

This was a time of great darkness in the history of Israel and Judah.  Before there had been the darkness of willful sin; now add to that the darkness of war, famine, conquest, exile, and shame.  About this time, down in Jerusalem in Judah, the word of the Lord came to Isaiah the prophet.  God revealed it was not Tiglath-Pileser of his own will who had humbled the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, he had only been an instrument in the hand of the Lord, to execute His just vengeance for sin.

The Lord speaking through Isaiah describes the people remaining in Galilee as “walking” and “living” in darkness.  Matthew in his paraphrase rendered both these words as “living” or “sitting” in darkness.  The point is the same.  Both the remaining native Israelites and the foreign people Assyria brought in were living without the light of the Lord.  They continued on in their sins, or if they were aware of them, they saw no hope of salvation.  The favor of the Lord all seemed to rest on Judah in the south, on Jerusalem.

About ten years later the rest of Israel was deported to Assyria.  Finally in 586 BC Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and Judah went into exile, too.
The Lord had mercy on them, and seventy years later the Judeans, that is, the Jews, were allowed to come back to the land and rebuild Jerusalem.  But things were never the same.  In the days our Lord walked this earth the whole land from south to north was under the control of Rome.  In His day the Jewish people from Judea to Galilee longed for the coming of the Messiah, the One who would save them from the darkness of sin and oppression.

But it was always considered that Judea had the edge when it came to readiness and righteousness.  That’s where the revived religion was the most pure, where the Pharisees were the most righteous.  When God’s Messiah came preaching the good news of the kingdom of heaven, surely He would do it on the streets of Jerusalem, or at least somewhere close by.

John the Baptist preached and baptised in the Desert of Judea, and our Lord was baptised there.  We even read in John’s Gospel that Jesus performed many miraculous signs in Jerusalem during the first Passover of His ministry.  He and His disciples went out into the Judean countryside (John 3:22) and baptised there, at the same time that John was still carrying on his ministry by the Jordan.  Surely it would be Judea and Jerusalem that would be the first to be blessed, not the second-rate, Gentile-infected lands to the north.

But the word of the Lord to the prophet Isaiah came true after John the Baptist was put in prison.  At that time Jesus returned to Galilee, to the land of those dwelling in darkness, to the place traditionally overrun by Gentiles, and made His first formal announcement that the night was over and the dawn had come: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  He didn’t go where people were the most “deserving,” He went first to the place of greatest need.

. . . on those living in the land of the shadow of death,
a light has dawned.

That is the kind of Saviour He is.  But does He say, “There, there, all is well, go on doing what you’ve always done, it’s okay?”  No, Jesus commands the people to repent.  Reject the apathy, the idolatry, the immorality.  Turn back to the Lord your God for salvation and healing.  Stop loving darkness and come into the light.

This is Christ’s message for us today, though the kingdom has progressed since then.  Since then Jesus has died for our sins and been raised for our justification.  Since then He has poured out His Spirit and formed His Church out of all the peoples of the world.  Even so, He commands us, Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is no longer merely near, it is here among us in the Church He has called.  The day is fast approaching when all His elect will be gathered in and the kingdom of heaven will indeed come in its fulness.  At that time every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.  As the hymn says, the Lord our God will surely “come and take His harvest home:

. . . from His field shall in that day
all offenses purge away.

Therefore He calls us His people to live as kingdom citizens, as children of light, as we turn from the sins of this world to the love of Him who died to make us His own.

This world is not as bad as it can be.  But the darkness looms over us and daily it’s getting worse.  Overseas and even in America radical Islamic groups are brutally killing Christians simply because they are Christians. Here in America men we’ve looked up to as models turn out to be the worst of sinners, and our citizens justify riot and murder for the sake of their cause.  More and more, people would rather spend another day shopping and acquiring rather than taking time to give thanks to God.  And it isn’t just other people.  The darkness of sin still keeps a foothold in our hearts, and we, too, need to hear Christ’s message: Repent– for the kingdom of heaven is here.

Jesus the Son of God was born for you, He died for you, He rose for you, that you might come out of darkness and live in the light of His heavenly kingdom.  He is the King who was to come, the King you can’t ignore, the

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Forever He will reign over you, me, and all the universe, and of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

Nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ came like the breaking dawn to save us, that all who believe in Him might live in His light and peace.  He will come again in the full light of His glory to judge the world.  For those who love darkness, that will be a day of wrath and distress.  But for those who love Him, those whose ears are opened by the Holy Spirit and heed His call, it will be a day of joy and celebration that will last forever.

This Advent season, heed the call of your Lord and King.  Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come to you.  By His grace, may this be the best news you will ever hear.  Amen.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Price of Dedication

Texts:  Exodus 13:1, 11-16; Leviticus 12:1-8; Luke 2:22-35

WHAT IS THE PRICE OF dedication?

Today is Groundhog Day, and you could certainly say those men in the long black coats and tall black hats are dedicated to getting up at the crack of dawn on a cold morning to wake up a rodent.  I sometimes think they’re also dedicated to saying we’ll have six more weeks of winter regardless of the weather, but that’s another story.

  And I don’t need to tell you that tonight the Super Bowl is being played over in New Jersey.  Stick a microphone in the face of any given player and ask him what it will take to win, he’ll say it takes dedication.  By that he generally means wholehearted effort as an individual and as a team.  He means he’ll keep his focus on winning the game and bringing home that trophy, and not let anything distract him from it.

But dedication goes deeper and costs more than football games and folk customs.  On this day, the fortieth after Christmas, the Church has traditionally celebrated the Feast of the Presentation.  It marks the day when, as we read in the second chapter of the Gospel According to St. Luke,  Mary and Joseph took the Child Jesus, their first-born Son, to be dedicated to God in the Temple.

It’s easy for us to get distracted by the cute baby aspect of this scene.  But what they were doing gives us an idea of the price of being dedicated to God.

Verse 23 refers us to a verse from Exodus 13.  There we read that, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Consecrate (or dedicate) to me every firstborn male.  The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal.”  In the name of the Lord  Moses commanded the people, “Redeem every firstborn among your sons.  In the days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal.  This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’”

Ever since the beginning of salvation history, to “dedicate” something or someone to the Lord was to give it up to death.  The only way your firstborn son could live was if he were redeemed by the blood of a lamb.  That’s how the Israelites saved their sons in Egypt the night of that first Passover.  The Angel of death saw the lamb’s blood on the doorpost, and they were spared-- but the firstborn of all the Egyptians were slain.

Blood was the price to get God’s people Israel out of slavery in Egypt.  The price was blood for them to be dedicated to God.  They and their sons deserved to die, but God graciously allowed an innocent animal to die in their stead.

When Mary and Joseph come to Jerusalem with Jesus, they are acknowledging the price of being dedicated to God, by obeying the terms of God’s Old Covenant with Israel.  Jesus is Mary’s firstborn son, and his life is forfeit to God unless He is redeemed in accordance with the Law.

Mary in her obedience is also paying another part of the price of being dedicated to God as a Jew: the cost of purity.  The Lord commanded His people Israel that they were to be pure before Him, in order to come into His presence.  All sorts of things could make you ceremonially impure or unclean, and tops on the list was anything that involved the emission of any bodily fluid, especially blood.  When a woman had given birth to a child, any child, she had to wait a set number of days to be purified from her bleeding, forty days for a son and eighty days for a daughter.  Before that, she could not enter the Lord’s sanctuary.  And even then, there was still a price in blood to be paid, before she could again enjoy the full benefits of being dedicated to the Lord.  Leviticus 12 says, “When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting [later, the Temple] a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. . . . If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering.  In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.”

We see in Luke that by Jesus’ time, the priests were allowing the sacrifice for the woman’s purification to also serve as the sacrifice for the redemption of the firstborn son.  And so it is implied that Mary and Joseph couldn’t afford the lamb, and offered the birds instead.

But even with such allowances, being dedicated to God as an ancient Jew cost you something.  It cost you purity, it cost you obedience, it cost you sacrifices of blood as a substitution for your own life.  In return, you and your people belonged to God as no other nation did.  You enjoyed benefits and satisfactions that no other nation received.  It cost a Jew to be dedicated to God, but the price was worth it.

But now, in this passage, Luke reveals that God is doing something new.  A time was coming and now had come when other nations could and would belong to God, too.  This had been prophesied now and then in the old days; our Call to Worship  passage from Zechariah is an example of it. It says, “‘For I am coming and I will live among you,’ declares the Lord.  ‘Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people.’”

But if a Jew thought about this at all, it never seemed quite real.  That day of the nations being dedicated to the God of Israel was always “someday,” far off in the future.  Or it wouldn’t happen until the Lord came and  judged the nations in power and set up the new age.  But now, on this fortieth day after the birth of Mary’s firstborn son, an old man named Simeon comes up to her as she is dedicating and redeeming her son Jesus there in the Temple.  This holy, Spirit-led old man takes the Child in his arms and declares to all who can hear that now salvation had come.  Now the light had come, that would reveal the Lord and His grace to the Gentiles, and make it possible for them to belong to Him.  Now, through this Child, Israel would find its true glory, because through this Child Jesus Israel would live out the reason it belonged to God in the first place.

Luke says that Mary and Joseph marvelled at what Simeon had said about little Jesus.  They knew what it cost for them as Jews to belong to God.  But how could Gentiles ever belong?  What could their son have to do with that?

What, indeed?  But let’s put that on one side for a moment.  For Simeon is still speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit, and he tells Mary that this change in God’s covenant would cost many in Israel dearly.  For being dedicated to God means also being dedicated to all others who belong to God.  And there are and were many who want to feel that God belongs only to them and their kind.   Simeon says, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”  This baby Jesus, Mary’s firstborn son, would be the means by which God was introducing a new way, a new order of being dedicated to Him.  Those who received Him would rise.  Those who rejected Him would fall.

Simeon says, “The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”  Yes, that’s often how it happens.  Your relationship with some group or someone begins to go deeper, or some change comes in, even a good change, and very quickly you find out if you were really committed to that person or group, or if you were just there for what you could get out of it. You find out if you’re willing to pay the price of continuing to belong!

Mary belonged to God in a very special way.  She pledged to pay the price when she answered the angel Gabriel with “Behold, I am the maidservant of the Lord.”  She did what it took to make that journey down to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant, so the Christ Child might be born where it was prophesied.  She was willing to shoulder the responsibility of raising the Child who was Emmanuel, God with us.  But now Simeon says to Mary, “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”  With these words the Holy Spirit tells her that the cost will be much higher than she has thought or imagined.  The sword will pierce her soul, because she belongs to God and she belongs to the incarnate God who is her infant Son Jesus,  destined to be “a sign that will be spoken against,” given as a light for revelation to the Gentiles.

Which returns us to the question we left off before.  What could this Child Jesus have to do with bringing in the Gentiles to belong to God?

To answer that question, we have to ask another question that is the deepest one of all.  We’ve asked, what is the price for us to be dedicated to God?  The fundamental question really is, “What does it cost for God to be dedicated to us?”

God didn’t have to get mixed up with humankind.  He could have wound up the world and gone off and let it run, like some people believe.  But instead He chose to descend to us in care and love.  And He did that with our sins still on us, with our rebellion and selfishness still making us unfit and unclean in His presence.  The blood of lambs, bulls, and goats really could never take away sins.  But all those years and centuries the Lord graciously accepted that blood to atone for the sins of His people.  Imagine what it cost God in patience and forbearance, dealing all those ages with His rebellious chosen people and the wicked Gentile nations around them!

But He did more than deal with them.  He loved them, too, deeply and earnestly.  He loved them-- He loved us-- so much that when the time was right God paid the price of being dedicated to us by entering into the womb of a young Jewish woman and becoming a human being like every other human being, yet without sin.  God paid that extraordinary price!  As C. S. Lewis puts it, think what it would be like for you to become an ant or a slug!

But that’s not all He paid.  Again, Simeon ends his ominous prophecy by saying to Mary, “A sword will pierce your own soul also.”  Also.  Who else’s soul will a sword pierce?  Who else will bear agony and pain and even physical death, for the sake of the new belonging that God is opening up to all peoples?  Why, it is this Child Simeon holds in his arms.   This Infant is the sign of God’s salvation that will be spoken against.  Jesus who is God in human flesh will pay the ultimate price for God to belong to us and for us to belong to Him.  Jesus who was God among us paid with His life, given for us on the cross.  He became the Lamb of God who made atonement for our sins and paid the price for our purification.  Not just for God’s chosen people the Jews, but for all whom the Lord will call, from every tribe, tongue, and nation.  “I will live among you,” says Christ even before His birth, “and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.”

And since He has paid the price of being dedicated to us, we don’t need to pay anything to belong to Him.  Jesus has borne all the cost in His body on the Tree!  There is no more need to dedicate our firstborn sons to Him and redeem them from death, for God has dedicated His only-begotten Son to us, and His death has brought us all eternal life.  There is no need for us to sacrifice lambs on His altar, for Jesus is the perfect Lamb of God who once and for all takes away the sins of the world.  We don’t have to prove our purity, or pay our dues by exerting our own righteousness, for Jesus Christ is our righteousness, and He has covered the cost of our being dedicated to Him from now to eternity.  Every time we baptise an adult or a child, and every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we affirm our membership in Him and He confirms His unity with us.  The Old Covenant has passed away, the New Covenant in His blood has been made, and a new way of being dedicated to God is open to all peoples everywhere.

Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion!  Rejoice with great joy, O nations of the world!  For the Jesus Christ our Lord has come and lives among us.  He has paid the price, and now He belongs to us and we belong to Him forever.  Alleluia, alleluia, amen!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Joy of Duty, the Duty of Joy

Texts: Genesis 29:14b-20; Proverbs 8:27-31; Romans 5:1-5; Ephesians 6:5-8; Hebrews 12:2-3

HAVE YOU EVER HAD A job you absolutely hated?   Maybe you still have it. Your boss is arbitrary and unfair.  Your duties are repetitious or degrading.  Your pay in no wise measures up to everything you’re required to do.  You’re going crazy.  How can you spend one-more-day laboring at it?  But with the state of the economy, where are you going to go?  And you’re a Christian, so you know it’d be a sin to commit sabotage or tell off the boss to his face.  So you suffer through it, all the while comforting yourself with this thought: “I feel miserable, and in this job I’m going to keep on feeling miserable.  But blast it all, I’m Doing My Duty, and God will give me credit for all the misery I’m going through as I Do My Duty.  In fact, if I enjoyed my job and did my duty out of joy, there’d be no merit in it at all.  So Lord,  look at all the misery I’m going through on this rotten job, and give me the reward I deserve.”

That’s the default attitude for human beings going through difficult, unavoidable situations, whether we’re Christians or not.  It might not be a job we feel trapped in.  Our unwelcome duty may be taking care of an infirm or ill relative, where he or she is ungrateful and everyone else in the family leaves all the heavy lifting-- maybe literally-- to you.   Or maybe the difficult duty you face is keeping a struggling marriage together for the sake of the children.  Or you’ve taken on a task for an organization you belong to and now that you’ve got it, nobody else will step up so you can resign in good conscience.  Or maybe, just maybe, the struggle and suffering you’re undergoing has to do with bearing with ridicule and disadvantage because you belong to Jesus Christ.

In all these situations, we have a natural inclination to believe that God should give us credit for how terrible our duty makes us feel.   In fact, we assume that if we felt joy and love in our duty, it wouldn’t be Duty at all.  Sometimes the object of all our self-sacrifice will even say: “You don’t really love me, you’re only doing this for me out of duty!”  We feel that Duty by nature is something done because we have to, not because we want to or take any pleasure in it.  I mean, if somehow we enjoyed our duty, wouldn’t that be selfish of us?  (I’m speaking according to conventional wisdom).  That means the more reluctant we are to do our duty, the greater the merit there is in it..

But is this what the Bible says about Duty and Joy?  What is God’s will concerning them both?  This morning we’ll examine a few brief passages that shed light on this subject, and by the help of the Holy Spirit may they aid us as we love and serve God and our neighbor in this present age.

We read these verses in the order they appear in the Bible, but I’ll start with the reading from Proverbs 8 first.  The context here might be called “The Song of Wisdom” or “Wisdom’s Manifesto.” In Proverbs Wisdom is personified as a woman, but when you look at the qualities and attributes she demonstrates, you realize that this describes none other than the Lord Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity.  And doesn’t St. Paul call Christ “the Wisdom of God” in I Corinthians?  In our Proverbs passage we see the eternal Son of God, God’s eternal Wisdom, laboring at the Father’s side in the work of creation.  We see this truth confirmed in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where it says that  “by him all things were created,” and in St. John’s Gospel, where it is written that “without Him [that is, Jesus Christ] nothing was made that has been made.”  Jesus our Lord in dutiful submission to the will of His Father labored as the craftsman at the Father’s side, making everything that is.  And what does Christ the Wisdom of God say?  Speaking in the guise of Lady Wisdom He says:

I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.

God the Son did His duty to the Father, and in His duty He took delight and joy!

Now, it might be objected: The work of creation was not Duty for the Son.  But not so fast.  What is duty?  It is what is due to or owed someone.  The Scriptures make it clear in various places that God the Father is owed all obedience, honor, and submission, and from eternity God the Son pays His Father His due.  He does His duty, and He does it joyfully.

We, brothers and sisters, are now children of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, saved by His precious blood.  We follow in His footsteps in rendering all obedience, honor, and loving submission to God our Father, and like Him, we are called to do it with joy.

But another objection might be raised: Yes, but it’s one thing to render joyful duty to God.  What about to other people? That’s where we face all the trouble and hardship that we want credit for!  That’s where duty stops having anything to do with joy and love!  Isn’t it?

But consider the story of Jacob and Rachel in Genesis.  “I”ll work for you seven years, Uncle Laban, in return for your younger daughter Rachel,” promises Jacob.  And so “Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.”  Jacob was doing his duty all that time.  He promised his service to his Uncle Laban, and he owed it to him according to his promise.  He felt that Rachel deserved any amount of service, and he rendered it.  Now, Laban did not do his duty towards Jacob; we all know the trick he pulled substituting Leah for Rachel on the wedding night.  Even so, for Jacob, duty and love were so intertwined for the sake of Rachel and it was hard to tell the difference between the two.

So it should be with us as Christians.  There should be no distinction between duty and love and the joy that flows from both.  Even as we fall short of the goal, we should strive and long for the time when we could so love all those we serve so deeply that the time and difficulties would seem like nothing.

Yes, all right, we can object, but it was Rachel that Jacob was doing his loving duty for.  What if he’d known he was actually serving seven years for Leah with her weak eyes and not-so-lovely form?  In our own lives, we might ask what joy can there be in working for that mean boss or taking care of that ungrateful relative or bearing patiently with that belittling parent or spouse?   We cannot possibly pretend we like being put down and called names and worked to death for someone who thinks we’re only around to serve their purposes.

Christian friends, God does not call us to pretend to like it, let alone to actually like it.  Nevertheless, it is His will that we should find joy in doing our duty, wherever it may lie.

Romans 5 deals with our duty to accept suffering with a joyful heart.  This suffering would be especially what we might undergo for the sake of Jesus Christ, but the passage doesn’t limit it to that.  Verse 2 says, “[W]e rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”  All right, that’s understandable.  But Paul goes on to say, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings.” Why?  Are we supposed to be like those Medieval monks who scourged themselves, thinking they were gaining merit with God by self-cruelty?  No, we rejoice in our sufferings because of the results we can expect from them.  Jacob surely rejoiced in his seven years of labor because they were (supposed to) result in Rachel.  For us, suffering patiently and even joyfully borne results in perseverance: we learn to keep on keeping on.  That produces strong character: We become people who can bear up under hard testing.  And as we develop that kind of character, our hope in God grows all the more.  By hope we aren’t talking about mere wishful thinking, but to a confidence that looks ahead and knows that the promises God makes to us in Jesus Christ He will keep.  We know it because He’s already keeping His promise of love to us even now, pouring it into our hearts through His Spirit.  And refreshed by His love we can rejoice in whatever that rotten job or difficult relationship or physical ordeal throws at us, because our hope in God will never disappoint us.

In the same way, in our passage from Colossians chapter 1,  Paul by the Spirit prays that the Colossians and all believers may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.  Why?  So we may live a life worthy and pleasing to the Lord.  So we can bear fruit in every good work, and grow in the knowledge of God.

Sometimes we think, “Oh, that would be so easy if I didn’t have all the hassles of daily life to contend with!”  But it’s the other way around.  Bearing fruit for God happens in the midst of the real trials of this earthly life, as we encounter trouble and suffering and hard, boring, ungrateful labor. And so Paul prays that we may be strengthened with all of God’s mighty power so we might have great endurance and patience.

What is this endurance and patience?  Is it gritting our teeth and just getting through it?  No, in all we endure God desires that we should joyfully give thanks to Him.  Why?  Because it is through our hard labor and trials that His glorious might is revealed in us.  Because in them we are more and more driven to trust Him and not our own abilities.  Because He’s teaching us to seek our satisfaction not in the joys and pleasures of this earth, but in the inheritance of the saints He has laid up for us in the kingdom of light.  This inheritance is eternal blissful fellowship with Him, and it’s not something we can earn; it’s already ours through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 6 brings the issue home.  Now, slavery is never God’s ideal for how one human being should relate to another.  Nevertheless, it existed as an integral part of 1st century Greco-Roman society, just as tedious, low-paying jobs exist in ours.  This passage does not advise us on getting better employment, any more than it deals with how a slave might try to become free.  What it does command is that as long as we are under a given boss or master, we should respect and obey him sincerely, just as we would respect, fear, and obey Jesus Christ.  Not going about moaning, “I’m miserable; O Lord, reward me for my misery!” but doing the will of God from our hearts.  Again, Paul says, “serve wholeheartedly.”  Not much room there for keeping a tally of our injuries and expecting God to pay us back for them, is there?

But wait a minute.  Look, here in verse 8, it says the Lord will reward us.  Yes, He will.  But not for how much we hated the whole experience, whatever it was.  Our reward will be for our faithfulness in the situation, for our service to Him no matter how terrible our boss might be, for our wholeheartedness and joy in the Lord as we imitate Jesus Christ-- who did not shirk the dirtiest, most offensive, and most demeaning job of all:  going to the cross to pay the price for our sins.

So in all the hard labors and trials of our life, let us indeed

. . . fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Jesus willingly went through suffering for the joy of winning you and me as His redeemed people.  You belong to Him now; remember that and be comforted whenever you encounter trouble and opposition.  He has brought you out of sin and death and He certainly can give you joy in the midst of whatever hard labor you may go through.

But what about getting credit for our suffering?  If by that we expect God to reward us for having a bleak, miserable, unloving, and joyless attitude towards our work and relationships, sorry, we’re out of luck.  The Son of God rejoiced over us at creation and joyfully went through hell to present us as His workmanship before the Father.  We are now children of God, beloved by Christ who died and rose for us.  Since this is true of Him and true of us, we owe it to Him to take joy in our duty, and we also owe Him the duty of joy, just as He rendered joyful duty and dutiful joy to His Father in heaven.

And isn’t this what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves?  If we were perfect people in this very imperfect world, we would be so filled with love for our neighbor that the worst kind of service for the most difficult person would be like Jacob serving to get Rachel.  And as a very imperfect human being I’m tempted to tell you (and myself) that of course God does not expect that of us. But I’d be wrong.  He does expect that of us, for He expects us to grow up to the fullness of the stature of Christ, who joyfully suffered that we might live.

But take heart, brothers and sisters! He expects it of us through the peace, wisdom, and strength of Christ, not through our own. God loves you: Ask Him to help you love your neighbor.  God rejoices over you in Christ; pray in all things that He will bring you more and more to rejoice in Him.  And pray with all His saints that He will bring us through suffering at last to His kingdom of light, where duty is joy and joy is duty, to the praise of His glorious name.  Amen.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

When Our Hard Work Doesn't Work

Texts: Romans 4:1-25; John 6:22-29

TOMORROW IS LABOR DAY, WHEN we celebrate the efforts and accomplishments of America's workers.  So it was appropriate that recently the actor Ashton Kucher should give an audience of young people a strong exhortation about the value and necessity of hard work.  He was speaking at the Teen Choice Awards, and among other things, he said, "I've noticed throughout my life that Opportunity looks a lot like hard work."  His point was that nobody should sit around passively and then complain when opportunity to get ahead seems to pass them by. Hard work is essential, and the kids need to get that through their heads while they're young, and save themselves a lifetime of disappointment and misery.

That's how it operates in this world, "under the sun," as Solomon put it in Ecclesiastes.  You get what you work for, and if you don't work, you don't get. And if you can work but refuse to, and by dint of welfare and handouts you do get, you're settling for way less than second best, and when the handouts run out, you'll be sunk.  It's the way things are.

But there's a sphere where all these facts are stood on their heads.  Where to stop working is virtue, where to keep on working is to do evil, where being willing simply to reach out and receive good things we don't deserve is to be the happiest of all.

St. Paul speaks of this condition in our reading from the fourth chapter of his letter to the Romans.  Now, in the Bible, context is everything.  So we need to remember that prior to this, up to the first part of chapter 3, the Holy Spirit has convicted us all, Jews and Gentiles alike, of unrighteousness before God.  The Jews have the Law of Moses written on tablets of stone; they don't obey it.  The Gentiles (and all mankind, really) have the natural law of God inscribes on their hearts, and they suppress it and break it, too.  So we're all in the position where the law has declared us all guilty.  God has brought us to this position so that, as Paul writes in 3:19-20,

. . . [E]very mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.  Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

The law of God, whether it's the written law given through Moses or our inward sense of right and wrong, describes the work, the big job we have to do in order to please our Lord and Creator.  Ultimately, whether we acknowledge Him or not, God is our Boss, and if He wants to fire us, there's no place else to go.

And even if we feel we want to do what is just and right and do the work God requires, every day we're putting ourselves more in His disfavor.  We're like incompetent workers who not only don't do our jobs, but even when we're trying our best we break the machinery and alienate the customers and embezzle our employer's funds. When it comes to achieving favor with God, our hard work doesn't work.  This is how it is when we depend on ourselves to gain and maintain our own righteousness by obeying the law.

But the good news, as Paul tells us in the last part of Romans chapter 3, is that God Himself has done all the hard work for us through His Son Jesus Christ.  His blood shed on the cross makes everything right between us and our divine Employer: We are justified in His sight.  His death paid the price to buy us back out of slavery to sin: In Jesus Christ we are redeemed.  His sacrifice of Himself propitiated the wrath that God rightly had directed against us for our sin: He has settled the our sin debt for us and it will never be held against us again.

Jesus Christ did all this for us when He died on Calvary, and His resurrection proves that God accepted His work.  But how do we make the work of Jesus Christ our own?  Do we do it by laboring really hard to love God and our neighbor, so we'll deserve the favor of Christ?

Well, think of the words of Jesus Himself as recorded in the sixth chapter of John's gospel.  The day before He had fed the 5,000-plus on the east side of the Sea of Galilee.  Then somehow He'd transported Himself to the Capernaum side of the lake, though everyone had seen the disciples go off in the only boat they had without Him.  Even though they didn't necessarily know Jesus had walked most of the way across on the water, they certainly were sure that this Rabbi was a special representative of God and they weren't going to lose hold of Him.  They were racing around, working hard not to lose hold of Him.

But as Jesus says, "You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."   He seems to be agreeing with the idea we all have, that spiritual blessings, like earthly ones, have to be earned by our own efforts.  So of course the representatives of the crowd ask Jesus, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"

Now, they knew the Law.  And they knew God expected them to keep it.  But maybe, just maybe Rabbi Jesus would give them some wonderful new tip so they could keep it.

And Jesus says simply, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

That's it.  If they or we want to gain eternal life, if we want to appropriate the work of Christ on the cross for ourselves, we must not work.  We must let God do all the work and simply receive the gift of salvation by faith in Christ alone.  Our work has no place in God's plan to make us right with Him.  In fact, to insist on working for it ourselves is to imply that Jesus and His death aren't good enough for us.

But if you've read your Bible and knew about the patriarch Abraham, you might be inclined to object.  Wasn't Abraham justified by his works when he obeyed God and left Ur and then Haran to go to the land of Canaan?  Didn't God reward him for his deed when he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah?   Abraham pleased God by his works, didn't he? and aren't we to be sons of Abraham and follow in his footsteps?

Not so fast, Paul says in Chapter 4.  How was it actually that Abraham pleased God?  The Apostle quotes Genesis 15:6:  "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."  It was by faith and faith alone that Father Abraham was accepted as righteous before God!

And is the righteousness that God credited Abraham by faith the heritage only for the circumcised, that is, the Jews?  No, because God created that faith in him and accepted that faith before the sign of circumcision was even given.  The important thing is not whether we are Jews or Gentiles, the important thing is that God does His work in us and credits righteousness to us by faith.  To walk in the footsteps of Abraham, Paul argues in verse 12, is to receive by faith the work that God has done for us and to live our lives trusting that God has done everything necessary for us to be accepted by Him.  Just as Abraham looked forward to Christ and trusted in the work He would do, we look back on the saving work Jesus completed and trust that it is enough and more than enough, apart from anything we could accomplish.

But--!  But--!  Don't we have to do something to be Abraham's true heirs?  The other day I heard that some television host was arguing that if you don't think the impending national healthcare law is a great thing you can't possibly be a real Christian.  The radio host who passed this story along thought this was ridiculous on political grounds.  As Christians, we first and foremost have to reject this statement on spiritual grounds.  We are Christians through being accepted by God in Jesus Christ, and that was due to no work of kindness of ours, public or private.  For as our reading says, "It was not through law--" [And the law is largely about how we should be kind to one another] "--Not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith."

But let's say it were possible for someone to receive the new heaven and new earth God promises by his or her hard work trying to love God and neighbor.  If that were the case, Paul says, "faith has no value and the promise is worthless."  But we've already seen that doing our best to please God-- that is, following the law-- doesn't get us anywhere.  It only puts us deeper into God's righteous wrath.

But being right with God through faith is an entirely different story.  For one thing, it's totally inclusive.  For it says in verse 16;

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring-- not only to those who are of the law [that is, ethnic Jews], but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham.  He is the father of us all.

This is totally countercultural!  The culture says-- what is that song from The Sound of Music?  It goes something like

Nothing comes from nothing,
Nothing ever could;
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must've done something good.1

Human culture says it's all about work and rewards.  But the promise of God comes to us who are dead in trespasses and sins, who are totally helpless and can't do a single solitary thing to work our way to eternal life.  And see! He makes us alive in Christ!  Our God is the God who does call something out of nothing by the power of His Word, and He does it every time the Holy Spirit plants faith in Jesus Christ into a lost sinner, like each of us were before He gave us new life in Christ.

Our God is the God who "calls things that are not as though they were."  And when He speaks, those things spring into being!  How do we know this is true in time and space and not just in theory?  Well, says Paul, look at the whole history of the birth of Isaac.  Both Abraham and Sarah were as good as dead where it came to having children.  They totally didn't have it in them.  But God had promised him a son from his own loins by his wife Sarah herself and no surrogate.  God in His mercy maintained and repeated this promise even after the fiasco with Hagar and her son Ishmael.  And without wavering Abraham believed that the Lord indeed would give him his own begotten son by Sarah.  He had faith that God had the power to do what He had promised, and this faith was "credited to him as righteousness."

So what does this mean for us as we go about our lives as children of God living in an ungodly world?  First, we must resist the Devil's lie that God requires more of us than faith in the finished work of His Son Jesus Christ, or that faith itself is some kind of a work we do, and not itself the gift of God.

We must stand firmly against the world's conception that being a Christian is about doing good deeds, and the more good deeds you do, the better Christian you are.  Yes, God does want us to walk in the footsteps of our Father Abraham, who acted on the divine promises he believed.  But our actions and our work do not make us his children or children of the living God.  That all comes by grace through faith in Christ alone.

And we must utterly reject the falsehood that creeps upon us when we're depressed or in a bad situation, the nasty little voice that suggests we're not good enough to be saved by the blood of Christ, or worse, that somehow the blood of Christ isn't strong enough to save a wretch like you or me.  If we were good, we wouldn't need saving!  And the promise of God in Jesus stands firm and strong.  His cross is more than sufficient to save us from all our sins.

For what does the Apostle say at the end of our reading from Romans?

The words "It was credited to him" were written not for him [Abraham] alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness-- for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.  He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

In the sphere of this world, by all means, work as hard as you can at the vocation God has called you to.  But in the sphere of the world to come, stop struggling, stop your fruitless working, put down your tools and come with empty hands ready to receive.  The Son of Man gives you the food that endures to eternal life, and He gives you the faith you need to take it from His hand.  By His grace, may you cease your labors and rest forever in Him.  Amen.
1  By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, 1959

Sunday, July 28, 2013

When "What Everyone Knows" Is Wrong

Texts:  Psalm 138; Colossians 6:6-23

EVER SINCE WE'RE LITTLE, WE LEARN that certain things are true about life in this world.  Things like, "No pain, no gain," "There's no free lunch," and "You get what you pay for."   We learn that if we want to get ahead there are powers and authorities we have to keep happy.  It might be your parents, your teachers, your boss-- or if we're superstitious, maybe it's Fate or karma or the powers of nature.  The general rule is that you have to give to get, and that's just the way things are.  It's what everyone knows.

And these basic principles don't just apply to our livelihoods and lifestyles.  As children of this fallen world we're born with the conviction that it works the same way in the spiritual realm.  It's what everyone just knows.  Good people go to heaven.   Being good means doing good deeds.  Good deeds and the right kind of worship will earn us the favor of God, however we conceive him, her, or it to be.  And if we're good and do good deeds and worship our god or gods the right way, he, she, or it simply has to reward us with prosperity on earth and heaven, paradise, nirvana, the Elysian Fields, whatever we're looking forward to in the life to come.

It's ingrained into us that that's how things are.  That if we're going to be full and fulfilled we have to keep the powers that be happy and do, do, do.  It even distresses us to think otherwise.

But along comes Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and He says, "Relax.  Forget all that do, do, do.  Trust in who I am.  Rest in what I have done.  Stop listening to what "everyone knows" and live by My wisdom instead."

This message of our Lord Jesus Christ is the message St. Paul was bringing to the Christians in the church at Colossae nearly two thousand years ago, and it's the same message the Holy Spirit is bringing to us in His Word today.  It's a radical message, a message that contradicts everything the world teaches us and everything our gut tells us is true.  But when it comes to teaching and truth, it's always best for us to obey the voice of the Lord who is Wisdom and Truth, and as new creatures in Him we need to leave the conventional wisdom of this fallen world behind.

St. Paul begins our passage from chapter 2 of his letter to the Colossians with these words, "So then, just as you have received Jesus Christ as Lord . . . " Everything hinges on this.  If we don't know what kind of Lord Jesus Christ is, and how we have received Him, we'll never get loose from "what everyone knows" and walk in the freedom of Almighty God.  What kind of Lord is Christ Jesus?  He's the ultimate, mighty, and supreme Lord Paul wrote about in Chapter 1, in whom all God's fullness dwells, as we heard in the Call to Worship.  And how is He to be received as Lord?  Verses 1:22-23 says,

"But now he [that is, God] has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation-- if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel."

God willing, you received Christ as Lord not by doing anything, not even by repeating the formula of a prayer as if that were a kind of charm to make God save you.  No, you were reconciled to God by Jesus' death on the cross, and His blood was applied to you by God's doing alone. All you had to do was put your faith in-- that is, trust-- in the good news concerning what God had already done.  And as we know from elsewhere in the Scripture, even our ability to believe the gospel is a gift and work of God, and not something we have to or can work up on our own.

So if this is the case with you, if this truly is the Christ you received and how you received Him, then, you Christian of Colossae, you Christian of P----, continue, Paul urges in 2:6, to live, walk, conduct your life in Him.  As you live your life, may your roots of faith go down in Christ deeper than the most stubborn dandelion.  Let your knowledge of Him be built up higher than the tallest skyscraper.  Make sure that you are continually strengthened in the faith you have been taught, so you come to grasp more and more who Jesus is and the wonder of what He did to redeem you from sin and death, so you may overflow with thankfulness to your Savior and Lord.

Oh, yes, faith in Jesus is practical.  We aren't saved by what we do, regardless of what conventional wisdom says.  But neither can the word of Jesus that saved us just be a nice story that lives up in our heads and we forget about it most of the time.  We need by the grace of the Holy Spirit to be walking around continually in the wonderful new reality of God's work for us in Jesus Christ.

Why do we need this reminder?  Because, Paul goes on in verse 7, it's so easy for us to be taken
"captive again through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends upon human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ."

This phrase "basic principles of this world" carries several layers of meaning in the Greek, and you'll see it rendered various ways.  "The rudiments of this world" (KJV); "the elemental spirits of the universe" (RSV); "the elementary principles of the world" (NASV), to quote a few.  It mingles the ideas of rules to be followed, of facts about "the way things are," and of spirits or entities--"gods" as Psalm 138 puts it-- that have to be kowtowed to and placated.  The Holy Spirit wanted all these meanings to be included, so we His people will understand that nothing is to take the place of Jesus Christ as we live and serve Him in this world.

The Lord our God created the world and set its basic elements in order, but we are not to be subject to our chemical natures.  He created the angels and all principalities and powers, but we are not to fear them or worship them-- especially when they rebel against God and claim to be greater than or more relevant than He.  God Almighty established the basic rules of right and wrong and wrote them on the hearts of every human being, and He gave His people Israel the written Law to show them how to live in His presence.  But even the holy Law given to Moses is not the way to fullness and satisfaction in this world or the next.

All these things throw us back on ourselves for hope and peace, but there is no hope or peace there.  No, only in Jesus Christ does "all the fullness of the Deity live in bodily form,"  and only in Christ is fullness given to us.

By warning us against the "basic principles of this world" Paul draws an uncrossable line between both pagan practices and Jewish legalism on the one side, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ on the other.  The church in Colossae would have faced pressures from both camps.

There would have been Judaizers telling them that to be real Christians they had to be circumcised and become Jews.  As you know, circumcision was a private sign of cutting oneself off from pagan gods and pagan practices and covenanting to worship the Lord alone.  But it bound a man-- and his affiliated household-- to obey all the Law and find his life and hope in it.  But now Christ has come, and He has fulfilled the Law for us.  Our circumcision is now spiritual, not physical, as Christ cuts off from us our old nature that could never please God.  Baptism is the sign given to us who have received fullness in Christ.  It is a public sign that our old sinfulness, our old allegiance to doing things our way has been buried in His tomb.  And our new selves have been raised with Him through faith in the power of God.

All God's power, all God's doing in Christ!  For "when you were dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ."  Dead equals helpless!  This term "the written code" in verse 14 literally means "handwriting" and it carries the sense of a legal indictment against us.  And isn't that what the Law ended up to be?  The decrees and ordinances that expressed God's holiness became a writ that put us on trial and condemned us to death!  But Jesus Christ took our sentence under the Law and made it His own!  And in the process, He also dealt with the forces, the powers and authorities that had us locked up in fear.

We aren't in the habit of worshipping gods and goddesses identified with forces of nature.  At least, I hope we aren't.  But we can still be bound up in superstition.  We can still feel a compulsion to check our horoscope before deciding anything important.  We can still be pulled towards believing some prophet who claims to have a source of special spiritual knowledge separate from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and is revelation in His word.  But by the best divine irony in history, Jesus Christ as He hung on the cross dying for our sins made a public spectacle of all of that.  Even as He was mocked and ridiculed He turned the tables and showed how foolish and powerless all those so-called gods really were.

You as a man or woman redeemed by Jesus Christ are no longer held captive by the basis principles of this world!  You have been freed from the clutches of the elemental spirits of this universe!  Therefore, let your mind be free of false guilt and needless fear.  The Colossians were under pressure to observe the Jewish festivals and the seventh-day Sabbath.  No, says Paul!  Those things were only shadows and pointers to Christ who was to come.  Christ is the reality, hold on to Him!  Some people even today will claim to have special visions and revelations, and try to make you feel you're second rate as a Christian because you just go to church and hear the preaching and receive the sacraments and do "unglamourous" things like that.  Others will go on and on about their guardian angels, as if it were wrong to trust directly in God.  Ignore them all.   You're running a race greater than any Olympics; don't let anyone get you off track and disqualify you for the prize.  People like that, Paul says, are proving they have forgotten the identity of the Lord who has saved them.  Jesus is our only Head; we, His body the Church, keep growing only as we stay connected to Him.

You have died with Christ to the basic principles of this world.  So don't submit to living as if they still governed you!  Don't go thinking that God is going to save you or keep you saved by certain things you do and enjoy or don't do and enjoy.  Paul illustrates the problem in terms of the Jewish kosher laws, but all religions set up foods and practices that are artificially taboo, even if they are good in themselves.  For us in our day, it might be rules about alcoholic beverages or watching movies or what car we drive or whether we're ecologically sensitive enough.  All these things belong to this world, which is passing away.  They can't save us, and abstaining from them can't even make us moral.

We as Christians live in this world, but our reality is in Christ.  We feel pressure to conform to the rules of this world, but they have all been subverted and turned on their heads by Christ.  "No pain, no gain"?  Christ's pain is our gain.  "There's no free lunch"?  Christ Himself is our free lunch, and we feed on Him by faith forever.  "You get what you pay for"?  We get what Jesus has paid for, eternal life, and we no longer need to fear the death we deserved.  We no longer need to fear Fate or those nameless forces that seemed to be out to get us, for we have died in Christ to them all and they no longer have any power over us.

Brothers and sisters, everyone wants to feel satisfied, to be fulfilled, to experience fullness in their lives.  Everybody knows how to get that-- that is, they think they do.  But in this case, what everybody knows is wrong.  No, bad people don't go to heaven, but our God has found a way to make bad people good, through no effort of their own.  For in Christ lives all the fullness of Almighty God in bodily form, and by His cross His fullness, power, triumph, and joy are ours.  Live each moment of each day rooted and built up in Him, keep on being strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and may your thankfulness overflow towards God for doing for us what we could never do for ourselves.  Amen.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

One Spirit, One People, One Peace

Texts:  Isaiah 2:1-5; Ephesians 2:11-22

WHEN I WAS A FRESHMAN IN college, I met a guy at a party who introduced me to the concept of world citizenship.  He said he was working with a group who were lobbying the UN to make my hometown of Kansas City a "city of the world."  Somehow, the very mention of this filled me with excitement.  There was something so big and thrilling about the idea, something larger and grander and more hopeful than anything I'd conceived of before, and the thought that I myself might be involved in it made it all the more amazing.

Well, nothing came of this plan as far as I know, and it's been a long time since I thought that humanity united under a single human government is a good thing.  Still, there's something inherently appealing about the idea of human oneness and unity.  How wonderful it would be-- No barriers, no conflicts, just perfect communication and peace between man and man.

But that's not how things are in this world.  In fact, it seems like parties, opinion groups, and factions are more polarized and more in opposition than ever before in human history.  You probably have friends you don't talk to much any more because every time you get together, you end up in an argument about some issue or other.  With some people you can't even talk about the weather without things getting political!  It wouldn't be so bad if people would stick to evidence and facts, but the dividing walls of hostility are erected so high and so thick things too often end up in name-calling and insults.  So we stay in our own camps with that figurative wall standing between us, and human oneness is only a dream-- if we think it's a good thing at all.

With the way things are today, it should give us perspective on the polarization between the Jews and the Gentiles in the Roman world, as we read in St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians.  But their conflict concerned more than current issues; it cut to the heart of created reality, for was over who or what should be worshipped as the true God and what that deity requires of us as humans.

This question is way bigger than the debate over, say, global warming or government-run health care.  In such matters let us take our stands based on the facts as we know them, but allow that more information may prove us to be wrong.  But in this matter of Jew vs. Gentile-- or, rather, Jew vs. pagan, the Scriptures leave us in no doubt as to who was and is right, or at least, more right, in this conflict.  The Jews absolutely were, before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only people on the face of this earth who worshipped the true Lord and Creator of the universe, while the gods of the pagans were useless idols.  The Jews were the only ones who'd been given His laws to follow, the only ones whom the Lord had made His people through solemn covenant, the only ones to whom He had powerfully revealed Himself with unshakeable promises of blessing. And although the prophets spoke of a Messiah to come who would somehow bring benefit to the nations as well, they were also clear that it was through Israel alone that this Savior would come. When it came to the divisions between Jews and pagans, it was not a matter of each side giving up a little on the human level and coming to a friendly compromise.  Compromise was something Israel could not do and remain Israel.  For whenever Israel compromised with the Gentile nations, that's when they got into deep trouble.

No, as Paul writes in verse 12, time was when we who were born Gentiles were

separated from Christ [that is, the Messiah of Israel], alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

In fact, for many centuries the dividing wall of hostility was a necessary barrier to preserve Israel from total disobedience and dissolution before the Messiah could come.   It was essential that the pagans and their evil influence be kept at a safe distance from the commonwealth of Israel, and the further off the better.  But, Paul says, the time has come for the dividing wall to be taken down.  Better than that, the time has come when it has been taken down, and the two indeed have become one.

How?  By us holding interfaith councils and agreeing that all religions lead to the same god?  By us avoiding controversial subjects and just talking about puppies and kittens and blue balloons instead?

No.  It took Jesus Christ Himself to break it down and bring Jews and Gentiles together.  For as we see in verses 14 and 15,

He is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances . . .

Now when we read that Jesus has "abolished . . . the law of commandments and ordinances," we might conclude that the Jews were wrong all along and we can indulge in and celebrate all sorts of immoral behavior and do it with Jesus' blessing.  That'd save a lot of arguments, for sure!  But we'd be wrong if we did.  For Paul has just finished, up in verse 10, saying that God has created-- recreated, actually-- us in Jesus Christ for good works.  And all the Scripture tells us that a godly life is the only way to please our Creator.  So what is this abolition?

In such a case, it helps to look at the original Greek. The word translated "abolish" literally means "down-un-acting" and, in the case of this verse, scholars interpret it as "made ineffectual or powerless; nullified; invalidated."  So what was the law considered to be effectual or valid for previous to Christ?  Well, the Jews looked to keeping the Law as an effectual and valid way to please God and be justified in His presence.  And that is what Moses had said by the Spirit in Leviticus, "The man who does these things will live by them"-- that is, have life, peace, and fellowship with the Lord of life.  But by the same Spirit he also said in Deuteronomy, "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law."  And who can live up to that?  The Jews never could.  Certainly the Gentiles could not.  We cannot.  The Law which reflected the holiness of God only served to prove how unholy we all were.  But in His flesh-- in His perfect obedience in life and His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus fulfilled the commands of the Law in our place and set it aside as the way to peace and fellowship with God.

And as Paul writes in verse 13, in Christ Jesus we (and we're included with the Gentile Ephesians here) who were far off from Israel and alienated from God's promises have been brought near by the blood of Christ, shed for us all on Calvary's cross.  In Christ the vision of Isaiah is fulfilled, when the nations would miraculously stream up to Mount Zion and know peace walking in the ways of the God of Jacob.

I've heard that outside the United Nations building in New York there's a sculpture called "Let Us Beat Our Swords into Plowshares," frankly taking its title from the verses from Isaiah 2 that read,

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks.

In other words, let's bring about peace on earth.  Well, people, if you're trying to achieve that by what goes on in that building, good luck.  You'll be at it a long, weary time.  No, the Scripture is clear: Man cannot end hostility: Our peace is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone.  In Him is the one and only peace that can make Jew and Gentile one and create one new man out of the two warring peoples.  It took the Son of God made Man to make peace between God's covenant people and those who before had been excluded from His covenant, and He did it by His atoning death.

But His death accomplished even more.  As wonderful as it was that Jesus should make one people out of the warring human factions of Jew and Gentile,  He also reconciled humanity to Almighty God.

And we all needed reconciliation to God.  Because as we can read in Ephesians 2:3, by nature-- fallen human nature-- we are all children of wrath.  In our natural sinful state we are at war with God and God is at war with us.  But in Christ and through Christ and because of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God who is rich in mercy chose us in love to be saved through Him.  And so now, as verse 16 says, He has reconciled both groups "to God in one body through the cross, bringing the hostility to an end."

But how does this come to be true for you and me?  Verse 18 answers that question: it is the work of the Holy Spirit who gives us access to the Father through Jesus Christ our mutual Lord.  By His gracious work we're no longer illegal aliens who deserve no amnesty; God Himself as in Psalm 87 has declared us to be born citizens of the heavenly Zion and by Christ His living Word it is so.  In Jesus we are made fellow-citizens with the saints-- and by that Paul would have meant the holy men and women of faithful Israel-- and members of the household of God.  In Christ the earthly nation of Israel is redeemed and rebuilt together with the elect Gentiles into the spiritual Zion, founded upon the apostles and prophets with Jesus as the head and cornerstone.  The dividing wall has been broken down, and in its place one building rises under His power.  Together we are that building, and it is no ordinary house: it is a holy temple intended for the dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

I hope you have a sense of how beautiful this is!  But beyond that I want us all to understand the power these beautiful truths must have for our lives in this fallen world.

First of all, we were not saved to be lone-wolf, individualized Christ-followers.  Back up in verse 11, the apostle begins this passage with the word "therefore."  In the previous verses he was reminding us of our salvation in Christ and God's will for our lives in consequence of that.  But we are not on our own.  God raised us up in Christ to be incorporated into one holy people by the ministry of one Spirit.  It is absolutely false that you can be a perfectly good Christian without being part of Christ's church.  Membership in Christ's church is a fundamental part of what you were saved for.  Indeed, everyone who has been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ is a member of His Church whether he or she is able to sit in a pew or not.  Therefore, let us support and build up and act in love towards one another, for Jesus Christ is our peace.  In Him and in the power of His Spirit we can demonstrate that we are one new man, as we look out for the good of on another just as we would for ourselves.

Second, we cannot take our position as citizens of the heavenly Zion for granted, as something that simply comes with our living in our particular time and place.  No, for if things had kept on going as they had for hundreds of years, we who are not ethnic Jews would have remained strangers and aliens, unforgiven sinners, with no hope and without God in the world.  It is by grace you have been saved, just as it is by grace that the Jews who believe in Jesus as their Messiah have by grace come to know that reality.  This should give us all a sense of humility before God and a heart of compassion towards our unsaved pagan neighbors.  For we were once as they are, and the blood of Christ that brought us near to God will, in His mercy, one day bring them in as members of the household of faith, too.  So let us conduct our lives in the power of the Spirit so Christ indeed will be seen in us, that through us others might also be reconciled to the God who made them.

This brings us to the third and final truth I believe we should take from our Scripture readings today.  Despite our compassion, there will always be plenty of people around us who are perfectly content to be without God in this world.  We Christians, they charge, are the ones who are unenlightened.  Indeed, when we conduct ourselves as citizens of God's holy nation and stand up for His righteousness in this world, we will be reviled as fools, bigots, even as enemies of humanity.  It can be hard living as a Christian in this world, the way things are going.  It may threaten your position, your income, and your reputation.  But you are members of Christ's one holy nation, and our heavenly citizenship takes precedence over all other loyalties.  Yes, let us be good Americans, good members of our political parties, good trade union members, good service club members, good members of our families.  But when any direction or practice or mindset of our nation, party, union, club, yes, even of our own families contradicts the will and nature of God as we know it from His revealed Word, He calls and commands us to stand firm in the Spirit and hold fast to the truth of Christ.

It won't be easy, but we can do it.  We can do it because we are God's one new people through His one Holy Spirit.  And the one peace we rest in is Jesus Christ Himself.  He is the Peace that will always last and never fail.  He has already accomplished the cosmic work of making peace between Jew and Gentile, and between both of us and God.  And so we can find our peace in Him, no matter what our conflict with the world may be.  Rejoice, Church of God!  We are His people, bought with His blood and brought together by His Spirit.  We are God's holy temple, His dwelling place on earth, and He will see to it that His temple, His spiritual Zion, stands forever, to the glory of His name.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What Is God For?

Texts:  Isaiah 40:18-31; Ephesians 1:3-14

I'M SURE YOU'D HEARD that tornados hit the Oklahoma City area again Friday night.  We prayed for the victims during our prayers this morning, for those who were hurt, for those who lost property, for those who lost loved ones.  But we know that as sure as this world turns there are going to be tornados in the Midwest in the spring, and sure as that world is fallen and sinful, there will be those who use that fact as an excuse to insult and mock God and those who believe in Him.

If you ever want to get totally fed up with that, go online and read the comments after any news article about any natural disaster. You'll have people writing that tornados and floods and hurricanes prove that God could not exist.  If the disaster takes place in the Bible Belt, they'll say with great glee that God must be punishing those stupid Christians, or insist that the disaster shows God can't be relied on, since He didn't come through as expected and protect His believers from loss and harm.

What can you say to such people?  Assuming they'd even begin to listen?  As believers in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can say that if that's the kind of god they believe in, these scoffers and mockers are right, because that kind of God doesn't exist.  If they think God is the Great Vending Machine in the Sky that's there to make sure our lives remain prosperous and comfortable, providing we drop in a few dollars worth of good works from time to time, that's a figment of the human imagination and it should be made fun of.

Atheists and people who believe in other religions have a distorted view of what we Christians think about who God is and what He is for.  No surprise.  The real problem is that too many Christians-- or people who call themselves Christians-- carry around the same false ideas about God and live their lives according to those false ideas.

It's gotten so bad that studies have shown that the majority of Christian teenagers-- and many, many Christian adults as well, don't really believe in classic Christianity; they hold to a religion that's been called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  This modern faith says yes, there's a god, of some sort: that's the Deism part.  What this god is really like in him or itself doesn't really matter, the thing that matters is that he or it is benevolent and kind and well-meaning towards human beings and wants them to be happy, however they define happiness.  If I'm a believer in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, I'd tell you this deity expects people to be nice and fair to other people, but he pretty much leaves it up to each person to decide what niceness and fairness is.  And so when I'm nice and do nice things, I can expect to be rewarded with this god's protection and favor.  That's Moralism.  And the most desirable way for him to reward and protect me is for him to solve all my problems, get rid of all the trouble, turmoil, and stress in my life, and make my sojourn here on earth comfortable and uncomplicated.  That's the Therapeutic part.  This god-- this false god-- makes no demands for his own sake; what he's for is to make me feel good about myself.  Otherwise, what good is he?

Brothers and sisters, is that what God is for?  Is that the deity we should be raising our children to pray to and depend upon?  Does the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism bear any resemblance to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?  What do the Scriptures say?

The Lord God had a lot to say about Himself in chapter 40 of the prophecy of Isaiah.  We read that God is incomparable and unique.  He is high and holy.  To Him, people are like grasshoppers and the whole expanse of heaven is like a tent you might live in on a camping trip.  Governments and rulers reign only as long as He allows them; the mere breath from His mouth sweeps them away like chaff.  He marshals the stars and maintains them in their courses; nothing is outside His rulership or beyond His control-- and that would include tornados, floods, and hurricanes.

Does that sound like the spineless god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, that deity who is at our beck and call, that we obligate and control by our good works?  Not in the least.  However, the Lord certainly is benevolent and merciful towards His people Israel.  He assures them that their trouble is known to Him.  He reminds them that He is the God who gives strength to the weary, even when the young and the strong are collapsing by the roadside.  He tells them that those who hope in the Lord will

. . . renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Is this like the therapeutic relief so many expect from God these days?

No, not really.  For as we've seen, the modern expectation is that God is supposed to be good to me for my good.  The eternal reality is that God is good for His own glory.  And it is not our good, moralistic works He wants, it's putting our hope in Him; that is, our total dependence on His greatness and power.

But maybe that's just the Old Testament talking.  Many people will tell you that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are two different beings.  Or maybe that the Old Testament writers got God wrong, and all this business about His holiness and majesty can be discarded; what we really want to concern ourselves with is His love and affection and how wonderful it makes us feel.

And the New Testament does tell us how much God loves  us.  But so does the Old.  And the Old Testament does tell us about God's glory and majesty.  But so does the New.  Both parts of God's holy Scriptures tell us who God is and what He is for.  And what it all says together might be a surprise to the self-satisfied atheists who comment on news websites and YouTube videos, and to many Christians as well.

What did we read in Paul's letter to the Ephesians?  Who is God, and what is He for?

First of all, He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom all praise is due.  Jesus Christ the Son of God is the One who died to take away our sins by the express purpose and will of His Father in heaven.  No concept of God that leaves out Jesus Christ the God-Man can claim any kind of reality.  Beside the triune God of the Scriptures there is no God.

This same God has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  No, we are not promised an easy life on this earth.  God never says He will divert tornados to keep His people out of their path, or always let us have the job we want, or grant us continual good health and prosperity on this earth.  What He does promise, what He is for, is our sharing in His very nature through Jesus Christ our Lord.  He's for us knowing union with Him: tasting a little of it now in this life, but enjoying it perfectly in the life to come.

We who believe in Jesus were chosen for this.  Before the creation of the world, St. Paul writes, God chose us-- not to be privileged, not to be perpetually safe and secure, not even to be serene and without turmoil in our minds-- but to be holy and blameless in His sight.  I don't know about you, but I know that in myself I am not holy and blameless in the sight of God.  I suspect you know the same about yourself.  So has God's choice failed, or are we outside His choice?  Not at all, for it is in Christ and Christ alone that we lose our guilt before God and deserve to stand in His holy presence, and God has ordained, He has predestined us to be in Christ, to be adopted as His very sons and Jesus' own siblings.  Being in Christ!  Sharing in His nature and His union with the Father!  You can't get more holy and blameless than that.

And what for?  God does it all for and according to His good pleasure and will.  Just think, God is pleased when His elect people are joined in union with His Son Jesus Christ!  But see, it is God's will and pleasure that come first, not ours.  If the it were left us to us to determine what would be the highest good for ourselves and the universe, how shabby and shallow that good would be!  But God has done everything according to His will, not ours, that His glorious grace might be praised as it deserves.

This grace is not some vague benevolence, it is that salvation He has granted us in Jesus Christ, His beloved Son.  It is the redemption we have in Christ's blood and the forgiveness of our sins.  The modern world isn't too big on the concept of sin: if people talk about sin at all, they define it as things like eating chocolate or not approving of any and all sexual relationships or praying in a public school.  But according to the riches of God's grace lavished on us in His wisdom and understanding, the blood of Christ purchased for us forgiveness of real sins, the ones that had us under God's righteous wrath and kept us from fellowship with Him.

What is God for?  God is for working out the mystery of His will-- again, according to His good pleasure.  Not just His will to save us but more than that, His will to exalt His Son Jesus Christ to the highest place, bringing all heaven and earth together under the sole headship of Christ.

And yes, God is for us.  He is for us in Christ.  He is for us because He is first and foremost for Himself, for the purpose of His will.  God's purpose for us is that we might be for the praise of His glory.  By birth, by sin, by our natural bent we were not for God and we did not want to serve Him.  We were for our own glory, and we expected Him, if He existed, to serve us.

But by the power of the gospel preached to us God changed our hearts and turned them away from our own purposes and raised them up to love and appreciate His.  God gave us His Holy Spirit so we can know by fellowship with Him that the spiritual blessings promised to us are faithful and secure.  God has promised us an inheritance in Christ, and the Spirit is our guarantee that it surely will be ours.  When?  When all God's chosen possession, His predestined saints, shall have been redeemed.

That day surely will come, and as it does, what is God for?  Again, He is for the praise of His glory.  If God were an ordinary human like you or me, this would be obnoxious.  Insufferable.  How full of himself that person is! we'd say.  But God is God:  High, majestic, holy and incomparable.  He is no vague deity whose sole purpose is to tell us what good children we are and make things all better for us.  He is worthy of all praise, honor, and glory; He acts and operates according to the highest wisdom, understanding, and might. He has not left the welfare of the universe up to us and our sinful wills; rather, His good and gracious will works everything out to His good pleasure, and we can know that in His good pleasure we will receive everything we need for hope, purpose, and fulfillment in Him.

What is God for?  God is for Himself, and therefore in Christ God is for you.  Even in the worst of times, even when your life has been flattened and the mockers of God and the mockers of His people are shouting their insults and lies at full volume, you can have faith that the true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is your Help and Redeemer.  What He chooses nothing can discard; what He predestines nothing can change; what He wills, nothing can sway from His purpose.  Trust in Him, for He who is the Creator of the world also raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and He will do for you all His has promised, to the praise of His glory.  Amen.