Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Child Who Was Lost--and Found

Texts: Hosea 11:1-11 ; Matthew 2:13-23

YOU MAY REMEMBER A COUPLE weeks ago, hearing on the news about three teenaged children who went missing in the Northern California woods, on an expedition to look for a Christmas tree.

They and their dad were lost three days in the mountains, in a heavy snowfall, with no food supplies or special clothing. The reports say the search helicopter spotted them at the last possible time-- the weather conditions were getting so bad all the copters would have been grounded for the next few days. The children and their father could have all died of starvation and exposure.

But at just the right time, they were rescued safe and mostly sound. And the rejoicing was great from their friends and family, because the children who were lost have now been restored to them.

It's always an anxious thing to hear about lost children. It's worse than anxious when that child belongs to someone you know. And I can only imagine the agony when the lost child is your own. And it's a matter of great joy when the lost child again is found.

Our readings from Hosea and Matthew are a story about children lost-- and children found. And the way it turns out should make us rejoice greatly at this Christmastide and all the year through.

We don't think of the child Jesus having His picture on a milk carton with the headline, "Have You Seen Me?" But for around five years, Jesus was lost to His people Israel. Our infant Savior was born, the angels sang, the shepherds saw Him and told everyone the great good news, the Magi arrived and presented their worship and their gifts-- and then due to the murderous cruelty of King Herod, Jesus just disappeared! It was as if He had never come!

And to make things worse, while Jesus is making His escape, Herod slaughters all the infant boys in Bethlehem and all that region!

Whenever a child goes missing or turns up dead because of violence and abuse, it's only natural to ask, "God, what were You thinking? Lord, what could You have had in mind?"

It's hard to find a ready answer. But when it comes to our little Lord Jesus Christ, lost for five years with His parents in Egypt, Scripture does tell us why: Jesus went missing as part of God's plan to find and rescue--us.

Look at verse 15 of our Matthew passage. It says, "And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.'" Jesus was God's Son, and it was essential for God's plan that Jesus go to Egypt and be found from there again. Why? Because of another child of God that went missing in Egypt a long, long time before. Another child, whom God rescued from Egypt, but who somehow, even after he was rescued, wanted to stay lost, and didn't want to be found.

"Out of Egypt I called my son," Matthew quotes the prophet, and that prophet is Hosea, speaking by the Holy Spirit in chapter 11 of his book. What is the story of that missing child?

That child was the whole nation of Israel. They first came to Egypt because of a missing child, Joseph son of the patriarch Israel, or Jacob. Joseph was kidnapped and sold into slavery by his brothers. Many years later, he is found there, prosperous and well, and Israel and all his sons and daughters move to Egypt because there they can get food for themselves and pasture for their cattle.

But you know the story. Years and centuries went by, and the Egyptian rulers began to oppress and abuse the Children of Israel. They enslaved them and forced them into bitter labor, building the storehouses of Pharaoh. God had promised the Land of Canaan to Israel His son, but there the Israelites were, missing in Egypt!

But the Lord God sought them and found them by the hand of His servant Moses. He called them out from their slavery and restored them to His heart by His covenant made with them at Sinai. God brought His son Israel into the Promised Land and lavished on that people every good thing, houses they did not build and cisterns they did not dig and lush hillsides for their sheep and fertile fields for their grain.

But what happened? Israel's body may have been with God in the Promised Land, but their hearts and minds were still lost to the gods of Egypt and to the idols of all the pagan nations around them. We read in Hosea how distressed the Lord is by this, distressed as a father whose child is missing in the cold deep woods with a blizzard coming on. He cries out, "The more I called Israel, the further they went from me! They sacrificed to the Baals, and burned incense to images!"

Why did Israel run away? Was the Lord a hard master or an abusive father? No! He showed every tender, loving fatherly kindness towards them. Verses 3 and 4 describe Him as a tender parent, patiently teaching his little child to walk, supporting it and kissing its skinned knees should it fall. But Israel rejected the Lord's care. They kept wandering off and getting themselves lost again, making alliances with Egypt and Assyria and all the pagan cultures and the pagan gods that could offer them nothing but lostness and slavery.

So the Lord in His loving anger says, "Is this what you really want, Israel, to return to Egypt? You will get your desire! But you won't like how it'll happen. I'll let you lose yourself again through war and famine, through destruction and danger and sword!"

But see the tenderness of our God! Even with all their rebellion, even with Israel's determination to turn from Him and be lost, their Father in heaven will not give them up. His compassion, His love, His faithful promises will stand. He swears by Himself that His wandering child will be found again. As the prophet says, "His children will come trembling from the west. They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria. "I will settle them in their homes," declares the Lord.

The Old Testament is one long report of how God's chosen people Israel kept getting themselves lost and how merciful God was in finding them every time they did. But know this: There's nothing particularly perverse or difficult about the Jews. They simply give us a picture of how all of us behave towards the Lord our God. It's human nature for us to get ourselves lost from the God who made us and loves us. And that includes me and you.

Some of us get lost from God because of the cruelty of others. If you were abused as a child, physically or psychologically, it can be hard to believe in a God who loves and cares for you. It's particularly hard if your abuser did his or her evil in the Lord's name, or in the name of the church. You want to run away and hide from anything that looks like religion or divine authority. Even if you believe that God is good, your abuser may have convinced you that you're so rotten and ugly and undeserving that the Lord of all would never love or welcome you. So you stay lost. You keep away.

Some of us get lost without thinking about it. We just get distracted by the activities and attractions of this world. We go to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, and before we know it, we're far away from our Lord and we have no idea how to return. It's like the young girl in that lost family in California told her mother, "Mom, we just kept going from tree to tree, trying to find the perfect one, and by the time we found it, we were turned around and couldn't find our way back to the road!" We might want to be found, but we can't do a thing to make it happen.

But most of the time, we get ourselves lost from God by our own deliberate fault. We don't believe God when He says He has the best plans for us, when He says He's our only true source of life and happiness and peace. We think we know better than He does what's good for us. The way we naturally are, when the Lord brings us back and gives us another chance and another chance and another chance, we just take it and then go back to doing what we want in spite of Him.

In our hearts, we're all rebellious children. We all wander away from the God whose offspring we are, and we do it on purpose! How can any of us, Jew or Gentile, be found and stay found?

We can only be found and stay found if there should be a perfect Son of God, a new and faithful Child of Israel, who does what Israel should have done and obeys as Israel should obey and who has the power to apply the divine rewards and benefits of that obedience to the earthly, lost Israel. We can only be found and stay found if that perfect Son of God has the power to open up the promises made to Israel to us, who weren't born Jews and who have no natural right to the benefits of God's covenant love at all.

St. Matthew tells us that perfect Son of God, that new and faithful Child of Israel, is Jesus Christ our Lord, born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary. It was essential that Jesus suffer a period of being lost in Egypt, so that when the Lord called Him forth and restored Him to His own, everyone could see how the true Son of God, the Boy who was the new and faithful Israel, would grow and prosper and learn to do His heavenly Father's will.

Incidentally, I can't help but marvel at the trust God had in Mary and especially in Jesus' foster father Joseph. He called on these fallible human parents to be faithful in behalf of their divine infant Son. And through the Holy Spirit's guidance and provision, they carried out the task the Lord laid on them. Even now, if you have small children or grandchildren, the Lord gives you the responsibility to make wise and godly decisions on their behalf, until they're old enough to affirm the promises made in their baptisms for themselves.

What we read today from Matthew sets a pattern for Jesus' career as the new Israel, as He develops as the perfect human Son of God. All through His life Jesus had to lose Himself in order to be found in the glory promised Him by His heavenly Father. Every day He had to deny Himself, to lay down the perquisites and prerogatives of being God, so He could reveal the good news of God's kingdom to you and me. And finally, Jesus God's Child had to be lost-- lost in death-- so we could be rescued from the lostness of our sins and found in God's love and life and remain there always.

But how is our situation different from Israel's? They keep wandering away from God and His law. Aren't we just as likely to wander away from God and His Christ?

No, because when you belong to Jesus Christ, staying put is no longer up to you. You don't have to work and struggle to keep close to God by keeping His law. No, Jesus Christ Himself has bound you closely to Him, and He will never let you go. You might experience times of doubt, times of difficulty, times when your old human nature and the attractions of the world make it tempting to go off and give up this Christianity business altogether. But once Jesus the new and perfect Israel has claimed you for His own, you are a child of God and you can never truly be lost again.

But what of those poor little boys whom Herod killed, the Holy Innocents whose blood was shed while Jesus and His parents escaped to Egypt? Were they lost, never to be found? Will Rachel weeping for her children refuse comfort forever?

No, because the searching eye of the Lord can find and rescue even those innocent little martyrs. They lost their lives in testimony to what the evil ones of this world will try in order to prevent the goodness of God from destroying their power. The infants of Bethlehem died in the place of the Christ Child who would grow up and one day die for them. His death and resurrection are strong enough to give glory to their sacrifice and restore them to life eternal. And so they, too, will be found at home with God and share in His fatherly kindness.

This promise is not only for them, but for you and for me and for all whom our Father shall call. Jesus was lost to earthly Israel for awhile, until it was time for Him to be revealed. Jesus, God's new Israel, was lost for a time in death, until God brought Him forth glorious from the tomb. The Jesus who was forced to hide from Herod for a time has now triumphed over the powers of evil and death. He makes a joke of all earthly powers that would keep us lost in the darkness of sin-- whether that is the power of others, the power of our carelessness, or the rebellious power of our own selfish wills.

It's always a time for rejoicing when a lost child is found! So rejoice and be glad, for now we see Jesus, Lord and King over heaven and earth! Rejoice and be glad, for that same Jesus has rescued us out of lostness, misery, and sin! He has found us and made us the happy children of God.

Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us: unto Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

1st Sunday in Christmastide 2007

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Dinner

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-92; Revelation 3:20-22

ALL OVER THE WORLD THIS coming Tuesday, people will be celebrating Christmas. They’ll be doing it in different ways in different lands. Some nations put up Christmas trees; others don’t. Some nations have house-to-house processions, bringing greetings or carols. Some nations have singing-making contests and even joke-telling contests. In one place, children expect Santa Claus, in another, they look out for Der Kristkindl or La Befana.

But Christmas celebrations everywhere have one thing in common, and people do it whether they actually believe in Jesus or not: All over the world, people will sit down together for Christmas dinner.

It may be a banquet with the whole clan, or an extra-special meal with just the immediate family. It may be a couple dining together, alone. A solitary person can sit down for Christmas dinner with guests who join him only in memory or spirit. However it is, we all sit down to Christmas dinner. We take it for granted that when we get together on Christmas Day, it should be over a plentiful, good-tasting meal.

Of course, that doesn’t apply only to Christmas. Whenever two or three human beings are gathered together to socialize, we seem to do it over food and drink.

A couple weeks ago, I heard a diet doctor on the radio who questioned that. She said, "Food is only fuel to keep our bodies going! When we get together, it should be enough for us to talk or share some activity! Other animals don’t eat to socialize! Why should we?"

That diet doctor can talk like that, but she’s wasting her breath. And not because people are greedy, or gluttons, or because we don’t know what’s good for us.

No, she’s wasting her breath because God Himself has hard-wired the connection between food, fun, and fellowship into His human creation. It’s not just part of our physical and social make-up, it’s part who we are spiritually.

Because after all, we are human beings. We’re not just physical bodies, some kind of organic machines that need fuel only to keep running. No, we’re people! We’re not just one more species of animal, that only eats to survive-- we’re human beings who can relate to one another and to the Lord who made us. All through Scripture, God commands His people to come together to share the appointed feasts, because they remind us of what and who we are. We’re physical, and spiritual. Not one or the other, but both. We don’t "have" bodies, minds, and spirits; we are bodies, minds, and spirits, all wrapped up into one package. God gives us special meals together to satisfy the needs of all these parts of who we are.

In fact, those needs are why God the eternal Son had to be born on earth as a human being. If we were nothing but bodies, we’d just be animals. We wouldn’t need a Savior, or rather, we couldn’t benefit from one, because whatever we did wrong wouldn’t be sin. Sin requires a creature with a mind and a spirit that can rebel and say Me and Mine and I Will This and I Won’t That.

But if we were only minds and spirits, we wouldn’t need our Savior to take on a physical body and be born among us. There are some false religions that claim that that’s how it is, that Christ only pretended to have a body, and that His mission was to convince us that our bodies are just fakes, too, and our real selves are purely spiritual.

But we are truly physical as well as spiritual, and Jesus Christ really was born of the Virgin Mary, as the Scripture says, and lived among us in human flesh. He ate and drank and had fellowship with us, and by what he did in His body; that is, by His life, death, and resurrection, He accomplished everything His heavenly Father gave Him to do.

What He did, in fact, is make it possible for us to sit down and have Christmas dinner with Him.

I wonder, will you will celebrating the Lord’s Supper on Christmas Eve? If you are, remember that above all, that feast is where He meets with us for food and fellowship. Christ has put His special blessing upon His Holy Communion, and He promises to be present with us in that meal in a way surpassing any other way He meets us on earth.

But every meal we share on earth is an echo of that sacred supper, and of the eternal banquet to come. And we can use the ideal Christmas dinner as a symbol of how it is when we share food and fellowship with our risen Lord. So how would it be to have Christmas dinner with Jesus?

Jesus says in Revelation, chapter 3, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with me."

Christmas dinner with Jesus won’t be one of those disrupted meals where the football fans are antsy to go watch the game, and the cooks are lamenting because the meal took two days to prepare and ten minutes to gobble down.

No, it will be an everlasting, continuously joyful feast. Our reading from Isaiah 25 shows us what it will be like when Jesus our Savior dines with us and we dine with Him.

First of all, in verse six the Lord says that He will make a glorious feast for all people. The Lord Himself is the host, He Himself is the cook! We tend to think of Jesus knocking at our hearts’ doors, asking pretty please, can He come in and share our rancid peanut butter on mouldy bread and last week’s dried-out french fries? We think it’s up to us to serve the meal. But this is the risen Lord speaking in Revelation. This is He to whom all power and authority have been given! When Jesus offers to come in and dine with us, He’s got a great big caterer’s truck parked out there by the curb. He wants to bring in a banquet that will make our eyes pop and our mouths water. Isaiah says it will be like drinking the most mellow aged wines and eating the most succulent prime rib.

But the reality will be even better than that, for the food Jesus brings is His very self. It is His body, broken on the cross for us, and His blood, shed to take away our sins. The Christmas dinner Jesus spreads is all the benefits of His being born as a man among us, that is, eternal life and joy and everlasting communion God our Father. You’ve heard it said that heaven will be sitting on clouds playing the harp: Here in Isaiah we taste that heaven is like a continual Christmas dinner!

But Christmas dinners here on earth-- they’re not always about joy and harmony and good fellowship. Just the opposite.

I’ve only just met you. So I’m going to assume that wherever you’re having Christmas dinner, you’ll be glad to see everyone around the table. But you know how it is, the conversations that go on in households all over the world as the holidays come closer. The ones that go like, "Blast it, do we have to go to your mother’s again? She’s an interfering old biddy!" Or, "I hate having to go home for Christmas! My dad bullies me and whatever I do is never good enough." Or, "Son, I don’t care if you think you love her! You are not bringing that little tramp to sit down at our table!" You can be physically present with those you should love, but your fellowship is broken by anger, envy, abuse, strife, and every kind of sin.

But what if the unhappiness at Christmas dinner comes from another cause? What if you don’t feel like eating, let alone socializing, because someone very dear to you has recently died, or is suffering in the hospital, or is away fighting in Iraq? What if you can say, "The Psalmist was right. My tears have been my food day and night, and I just don’t feel like eating turkey and pretending everything’s ok!"?

Then for you Jesus stands at the door and knocks. He not only brings the banquet, He brings the medicine and healing that will enable you to enjoy it. Verse 7 says the Lord will destroy the covering or shroud or veil that covers all people. In our modern parlance we might say He will remove every wet blanket from the party. Not the people we call wet blankets, but every cause of depression and misery, every effect of sin and the death that comes from sin, every negative thing that could keep the Lord’s guests from enjoying the feast He has prepared.

Verse 8 goes on to say that He will swallow up Death forever. Think of that! While we’re swallowing down the Christmas feast of His life, Jesus is consuming the bitter meal of our death. But where His life in us means more and more life, our death in Him means death will be gone forever.

And at this promised feast, the Lord will take away the rebuke and disgrace of His people.

For our sins do deserve His rebuke. We have disgraced ourselves before Him and His holy angels, and we are not worthy to sit and eat in His presence. But our Savior Jesus Christ took our rebuke and disgrace when He hung on the cross. He paid the penalty we deserved for our sins, and made a laughingstock of any creature, human or demon, who would try to hold them against us. By His death and resurrection He has made us worthy to share in the banquet He brings.

In this life we have to go on dealing with the effects of the covering shroud, of death that stalks us and those we love. We have to live with the repercussions of the wickedness we ourselves have done. But we don’t have to be defeated by them. I’m not saying, Try real hard and live the victorious life. No. The Scripture says, trust the victory Jesus has already won. Sit and eat of the provision that He has already made. Rely on Him to give you Himself for food and drink, when you’re starving for hope or despairing over something you have done. He was born for you, He died for you, He has risen for you. Feed on Him, and be at peace.

Jesus says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with me." We tend to think He’s talking to unbelievers who need to be saved. But no, He’s talking to Christians who think they have it all together, to Christians who think they can provide themselves everything they need by their own money and their own efforts. The Christians in Laodicea thought they could feed and clothe and doctor themselves by themselves. We fall into the same trap when we think it’s up to us to make Christmas happen by the presents we buy or the tasks that get crossed off our lists.

Oh, no, brothers and sisters. Christmas will come even if you get nothing done at all. The great Christmas dinner will be spread even if no one touches a pot or a pan. For it is Christ who spreads the Christmas feast. God was born as a Man at Bethlehem to eat and drink and have fellowship with us awhile on this earth, so we might have eternal communion and fellowship with Him when all things are made new. He has provided everything we need, and He dearly desires to come in and feed us with the bread and wine of His body and blood and refresh us with the water of His word.

So since we’re His guests, what should we do? Should we get up and ask our Lord if we can help Him in the kitchen? As you live your daily life, should you work really hard to earn or deserve the Christmas dinner of His salvation? No! You can’t add anything to what Jesus achieved for you on His cross. You have only one thing to do: Sit at His banquet table and enjoy what He has provided for you. Accept the redemption He has bought you by His blood. And be grateful with joyful praise. With all His redeemed people say, "This is our God, we trusted in Him and He saved us! Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation!"

Christmas dinners in this age often can be disappointing. But Jesus our Lord has provided a Christmas feast that will give us eternal satisfaction, communion, and joy. We’ll know that joy perfectly in the life of the world to come. But we can get a taste of it here as we feed on Jesus and what He has done for us. He stands at the door and knocks! How shall we invite Him in?

With trust and humility; with hungry hearts and grateful love. How shall we receive Him? Through His Spirit and His Word, through His holy Supper, Christian fellowship, and prayer.

Come, Lord Jesus, come and feed us
Come, Lord Jesus, and with us dine.
We starve for your presence,
We thirst for your Spirit.
Come as a Child, born in humility,
Come as a Man, strong in obedience,
Come as a Sacrifice, removing our sins,
Come as the Victor, swallowing death and Hell.
Come, Lord Jesus, set the table, prepare the meat and wine:
For you alone can spread the banquet,
On you alone can we truly feed,
You are, alone, our Christmas feast.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

And Still the Same

Texts: Isaiah 65:1-12; Luke 15:1-10

BACK IN THE SECOND CENTURY AFTER CHRIST, THERE lived a man by the name of Marcion.

Marcion believed that the god of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were two different gods. He taught the false doctrine that the Jewish god was wicked, cruel, and wrong, while the god Jesus preached was loving, good, and right.

We Presbyterians are not Marcionites. We believe that the God of Abraham is the God of Jesus Christ. We believe that the God who spoke through the prophet Isaiah is the God who inspired Luke the Evangelist, too. As two of our hymns today say, "From age to age, He’s still the same."

Sometimes, though, we wonder. Like when we look at today’s Scripture lessons. "Lord, what are you saying here? In Isaiah 65, it’s all judgement and retribution, sword and slaughter! But in Luke 15, Jesus Your Son tells us that heaven rejoices when You recover one single sinner! Aren’t You contradicting Yourself, Lord? How can these both be true?"

If honest questions like this are going through your mind, be assured that your Father God hears you in mercy and love. He wants you to get an answer you can understand. Questions like that aren’t unbelief. Unbelief is doing what Marcion did, throwing out most of the Bible because he couldn’t wait for the Holy Spirit to explain its difficulties to him. Unbelief is running up against some hard or disturbing part of Scripture and saying, "Oh, I don’t want to worship a god that’d do something like that!" and throwing Christianity out the window, without trying to get an answer.

No, your heavenly Father is the giver of good gifts, and especially He will give you the Holy Spirit and understanding if you will ask Him! What can the Holy Spirit tell us to make these passages clear?

Well, first thing, He reminds us not to go off half-cocked. We mustn’t read the Word of God with closed minds or lazy eyes. So let’s look carefully at our verses from Isaiah 65.

In the very first verses, the Lord, the God of Israel, speaks of how He reveals Himself in love to all mankind, Jew and pagan alike. Yes, Israel is His special chosen people. But even to the Gentiles (verse 1), even to those "who did not ask for me," He has revealed Himself. And to some of them, He gave grace to find Him, even though they weren’t even looking for Him at all. Even to a nation-- any nation-- who didn’t call on His name, the Lord has said, "Here I am! Look at Me!"

As for His own people Israel, as the Hebrew says, it’s like He’s spreading out His hands in prayer to them, despite their obstinacy and their wilful ways. Continuously-- "All day long"-- He calls and calls to them to return and know Him and His goodness!

Does that sound cruel to you? Does that sound like a god who takes pleasure in retribution and slaughter? No, that is a God who bends down to His undeserving human creation in patience, mercy, and love.

The teaching that God is love was not something first mentioned by Jesus or the Apostle John! It runs all the way through the Old Testament and on into the New!

But the love of our God is not careless, or indulgent, or weak. God cares how His people treat Him, one another, and themselves. He has a right to be angry when we spit in His face and say we’ll disobey, whether He likes it or not.

And most of the Jews of Isaiah’s time were spitting in God’s face. They offered sacrifices of animals and incense in gardens on brick altars, when the Lord had commanded them that their sacrifices should be offered only in His temple, on an altar of bronze.

Not a big deal, you say? All right then, why didn’t they obey God’s command? Why did they insist on making their sacrifices when and where and how they pleased? If they truly loved the Lord as He did them, couldn’t they please Him in this little thing?

But it was symptomatic of how bad their hearts were towards Him. His people practiced necromancy, telling the future by sitting in graveyards and bringing up departed spirits. Didn’t they have the living Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets to listen to? Of course they did. But they wanted their own word, not the Word of the Lord. As it says in verse 11, they worshipped the gods of Fortune and Destiny, instead of the Creator of the universe who orders everything everywhere by the word of His power!

Their ritual meals were a deliberate offense to the Lord their God. If you have a ham at home in the oven on timed bake, this condemnation of those who eat the flesh of pigs is not directed at you. After Jesus fulfilled the Law, God declared that all living creatures were clean for us to eat, as we read in St. Mark and the Book of Acts. But up until Jesus Christ, eating pork was forbidden for the Jews. God used pork and the meat of certain other animals to symbolize the unclean ways of the Gentiles that they were to reject and avoid. But here His people are happily slurping down pork soup and dog meat and horseflesh and who knows what all else, as part of a religious ritual, and along with it they’re slurping down all the other vile Gentile practices a meal like that would involve.

And to cap it all off, these rebellious souls think their practices make them especially holy! They turn up their noses at those boring, unimaginative people who kept on going to the temple to worship the Lord. They’d say to them, "Keep away; don’t come near me, for I am too sacred for you."

Did you get that? "I am too sacred for you." This, after they'd indulged in every sort of vile, God-provoking practice they could think of! They know what they’re doing is wrong in God’s eyes, but they keep on doing it, they embrace it, they identify with it, they’re proud of it-- and they put down people who won’t join them in it.

So the Lord gives the rebellious ones what they have earned. The wages of sin is death, in the Old Testament and the New. For a long time, our merciful God has been withholding the deadly wages these people have earned. But now, the day of reckoning has come. He will pay them back in full, into their laps, individually, every last penny. They did not reject the sins of their fathers: fine, they will receive their fathers’ back pay as well. All their worship of false gods in gardens and on mountain tops, all the open and deliberate defiance of the Lord their God-- it will be compensated to the full.

But why doesn’t God forgive them? Isn’t He a God of love?

George MacDonald was a mentor to C. S. Lewis, and he once wrote of a person who prayed to God, saying, "I thank thee, Lord, for forgiving me, but I prefer staying in the darkness: forgive me that, too." And the Lord replies, "No; that cannot be. The one thing that cannot be forgiven is the sin of choosing to be evil, of refusing deliverance. It is impossible to forgive that. It would be to take part in it."

That’s what God has to say to any petition like that. There are truly some things God cannot do. He cannot take part in evil. For the sake of His faithful chosen ones He cannot. For the sake of the Gentiles who have found Him He cannot. For the sake of the holiness of His own name, He cannot. God cannot and will not forever endure willful obstinacy and sinful rebellion, or all the world would be swept away and destroyed by it. His love is not a careless indulgence, it is a refining fire. Those who insist on remaining lost, He will give them their own will and let them have the godless life they desire. The horrible thing is, the godless life is death.

But our God is the God of patience and love, the First and the Last, from age to age the same.

And He says:

As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes,
and men say, ‘Don’t destroy it,
there is yet some good in it,’
so will I do in behalf of my servants.
I will not destroy them all.
I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
and from Judah those who will possess my mountains.

In mercy God the Lord will seek those who seek Him. He will give them and their flocks rest in the pleasant places of the land. He will show His love to them, even in their weakness, and forgive their sin. For when He revealed Himself, they found Him. When He called to them, they answered. When He came to seek them, they let themselves be found.

In the Old Testament and the New, our God is a God of love. His love is not alien to His justice, nor is His justice alien to His love. In Isaiah’s time, in Luke’s time, in our own time, He is still the same.

He was still the same as He lived and taught His people in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are truly beautiful pictures of the love of God. At the same time, they depict how terrible it is to stray out of the Father’s love and care.

It’s hard for us to grasp this. We’ve never been a smallholding shepherd with only a hundred sheep or a Middle Eastern woman who’s lost part of her dowry, that she might need to live on if her husband dies. To speak of the seeking love of God is also to speak of the terror of being lost from Him. If there was nothing wrong with a sheep going off by itself, the shepherd wouldn’t bother to recover it. If the woman didn’t care that one coin had disappeared, she wouldn’t put aside all her other chores and sweep and search till she finds it. Jesus is saying that being lost from God is a terrible, terrible thing, and that’s why His seeking, saving love is so amazing.

There is one big difference between the New and the Old Testaments, but it’s not a difference in God. It’s a difference in how He reveals Himself to us.

God revealed Himself to His Old Covenant people Israel through the Law, and called them to obey it. But they could not obey it. Even at their best, they wandered and failed. In the New Covenant, God reveals Himself to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus lifts from us the burden of keeping the Law, for He kept it for us perfectly in our place. As Isaiah says in chapter 53, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him--" (that is, Jesus) "--the iniquity of us all."

In our Luke passage, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law think they’re sheep who’ve never strayed. But they’re just as lost and wandering as those tax collectors and sinners who are repenting their old sinful lifestyles and following Jesus and His word! Our Lord Jesus speaks ironically in verse 7 about "righteous persons" who don’t need to repent. Don’t they realize that none of us are "righteous" in the eyes of God? We are all lost sheep who need to be found! We are all sinful and need to repent. We are all under judgement; not one of us can do the least thing to save ourselves.

The New Covenant tells us, Stop trying! Without Jesus, we’re like that coin the woman worked so hard to find-- senseless, helpless, dead. We’re like dumb sheep going after the next thing, the next thing, the next thing, and straying farther and farther from our Shepherd and God. We need Christ the Son of God to clean away our sins on the Cross to restore us safely to the Father’s treasury. We need His resurrection power to rescue us from death and bring us to eternal life.

The Old Covenant law couldn’t do that for us. But the Old Testament warning remains: If you reject God’s saving love, if you insist on going your own way, provoking Him to His face and worshipping gods of your own making, He will let you have what you want. He will let you have what you want, even if your false god is your own attempt to be good instead of trusting wholly in the saving goodness of Jesus Christ. God will not send you to hell: you head there of your own volition, when finally and forever you say, "My will, not Thine, be done."

It’s an awful choice, isn’t it? Either you admit your helplessness and receive God’s love and life, or hold onto your godless autonomy and go down into darkness and death.

The Holy Spirit calls you to seek in faith the Good Shepherd who in mercy has sought you. He is the God of justice and of love, the One who was and is and is to be, and still the same. The Lord who made the world, who called Abraham and the prophets, is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And by faith in that same Jesus, this Lord is the God and Father of you and me. He’s been faithful to His promises of love from the beginning and He’ll be faithful to them forever. Let us praise Him for His holiness, let us praise Him for His justice, let us praise Him for His love.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Galatians 5:16-26; Luke 20:9-19


You hear that line, you probably think of the nursery rhyme:

Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

A nice little verse to teach the children, right? But many traditional nursery rhymes started out as the sung version of political cartoons. This one is most likely about Queen Mary Tudor.

Mary was the elder daughter of Henry VIII, who split the Church of England off from Rome. By the time Mary became queen, her younger half-brother Edward VI had been working several years to make England thoroughly Protestant. But Mary was Roman Catholic to the core. Whatever it took, she was going to return England to the Pope and what she saw as the True Faith of the Roman Catholic Church.

But the majority of her subjects disagreed. To them, she was "quite contrary"-- she was trying to reunite them with Rome when they wanted the Reformation. And she was making of England a strange garden. Again there were silver bells: the restoration of the pomp and ceremony of Roman Catholic liturgy, especially to the bells that are rung when the priest is said to be turning the bread and wine into the physical body of our Lord Jesus Christ. There were cockle shells: Cockle shells were the souvenir badge of someone who’d made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain in order to gain forgiveness of his sins. Protestants did not believe in pilgrimages to earn forgiveness. Catholics did.

And Queen Mary planted the "pretty maids all in a row." Some say that refers to the graves of all the Protestant martyrs she caused to be executed. Others say it’s a grim reference to the torture device called the iron maiden. However it was, Bloody Mary sowed quite a crop in her day, and the result was bloodshed, confusion, strife, and economic disaster.

That’s what happens too often when we human beings start sowing our gardens in this world. But when God Almighty plants a garden, then all will be well, right? Any songs about His gardening work will be songs of joy, correct?

Or maybe not.

Children sang of Queen Mary and her disastrous garden in the streets of Tudor England, but long before that, the prophet Isaiah was singing a song of the Lord God and His tragic vineyard in the temple courts of ancient Jerusalem.

How did God’s vineyard grow? Not so well, actually.

The Lord has planted it in an ideal spot with the richest soil. He’s dug the ground and cleared it of stones-- no obstacles are going to hamper the roots of His vines! He’s chosen the best vines available and surrounded it with a hedge and a wall to keep the wild animals out. He's built a watchtower to keep a lookout for thieves, and a winepress that's waiting to receive the grapes at harvest time. The Lord God has followed all the best practices of viticulture-- but instead of sweet, juicy grapes, all He gets is stinky-sour little marbles.

As Isaiah sang his song of the Lord’s vineyard, his hearers would agree, yes, there was something very wrong with those vines. The owner of the vineyard was sorely cheated. Somebody really should pay. But by the end of the song, they’d have to realize that they were the rotten, fruitless vines. They and their countrymen were the cheats, the ones who would pay:

"The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the house of Israel
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight."

At least, they were supposed to be. But the Gentile nations could have pointed their fingers at Judah and sung,

O God of Israel, God of Israel,
How does your vineyard grow?
With oppression and strife and cheapness of life
And murderers all in a row.

But the Lord didn’t plant His vineyard that way! He’d lavished every advantage on Israel and Judah! I’ve read that the only difference between a wild sour grape vine and a cultivated sweet one is the work of cultivation. If a wild vine is cultivated, it doesn’t stay wild. And if a people are graced with the Law and favor of God, they shouldn’t stay godless and self-centered. But the Lord looked upon Judah, the garden of His delight. And where He expected the fruit of justice, He found murder and bloodshed. Not just the murder of the dark alley, not just the slaying of the helpless wife by the drunken husband, but so-called "legal" murder: judges sentencing the innocent to death: the rich cheating the poor out of their houses and lands and turning them out to starve and die. The Lord reached out His hand for the fruit of righteousness: right relationships, kindness and consideration between family members and neighbors, and true worship towards Himself, but pulled it back in horror when it touched nothing but the slugs of oppression, misery, and distress.

The Lord says through the mouth of His prophet, "What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?"

The answer, of course, is nothing. So what will God do?

He will give His people what they deserve for their sins. He will prune them through war and devastation, ruin and exile. He would no longer let them think that He does not demand justice, righteousness, and every fruit of virtue in His garden. He would no longer let them mistake His grace for indulgence and His mercy for approval of their crimes and sins.

About 700 years after Isaiah, another Prophet sits teaching in the temple courts in Jerusalem. It is Jesus of Nazareth, and He, too, sings of God the Beloved, and how His vineyard grows. This time, it seems there is fruit for the Lord to enjoy-- if only He can get what He is due.

For after the Lord purged and pruned His people in the Babylonian exile, He led them back home and planted them again in their own land. He set leaders over them, tenant farmers who were to cultivate the people and lead them in the ways of the Lord. They were to teach the people the Law and see that they bore fruit worthy of His name.

But a long time passed. And priests and scribes and teachers of the Law who were the tenants of the Lord’s vineyard forgot why they were there. They claimed allegiance to their Landlord and His Law, but they got more and more tied up with how they thought things should be. They began to look on God’s people as their own, to prune and cultivate and feed upon as they saw fit. They didn’t appreciate interference from outside, even from God Himself!

In this they were only following the bad example of religious and civil leaders from Isaiah’s time and before--and since. It’s what happens any time that the caretakers of God’s vineyard focus on doing their own will under the cover of God’s name instead of on doing God’s will in God’s name.

So when God the Landlord sent His servants the prophets to claim the fruit of godliness, righteousness, and justice, His tenants did them violence and sent them back with no grapes, only the strange red fruit of blood and wounds.

Jesus knew His hearers would be scandalized in the Owner’s behalf, just as Isaiah’s audience was. Jesus also knew they’d be ripe with fury when they realized His song was about them. At the climax of His parable, He describes a crime against God the Landlord that hadn’t been committed yet but would be soon-- the slaying of the Owner’s own Son who was sent to collect the fruit of the vineyard on His behalf. Did the teachers of the law realize that Jesus was talking about Himself? Whether or not, they seemed very eager to prove they were capable of the enormity He accused them of.

For their crimes, the doom of the tenants is the same as the doom of the bad vines in Isaiah’s song--death, destruction and loss.

That’s how it is. When God lavishes care on human beings, He expects and deserves worship and obedience in return. When God invests anyone with a sacred trust, He expects and deserves that that leader shall render up the fruit of it whenever God requires. God has a right to expect that His vineyard shall grow and bear fruit and be taken care of very, very well.

But we’ve seen that that very seldom happens. It’s not God’s fault. It’s not even a particular problem with the Jews. It’s how things are with humanity in general. The best of us given the best of advantages cannot come up to God’s righteous expectations. It’s the sinful nature and its natural selfishness. It’s the worm of original sin working away in our hearts.

Didn’t God realize that about us when He planted His vineyard? Of course He did. But both our Lord and His prophet Isaiah are speaking on our human level. We’re made in His image and we’re responsible for what we do and are before the Lord. In particular, God’s chosen people from Old Testament Israel to the 21st century church are responsible for bearing good fruit for God. Especially, we who claim the name of our Lord Jesus Christ are the vineyard of the Lord in these latter times. We are the garden of His delight. As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, we’re to bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. God expects and deserves nothing less from us who have been redeemed by His grace.

If I were a preacher of a certain type, I’d start exhorting you under the pain of the fire of hell to work really, really hard to bear all that good fruit. I’d say you’d better hurry up and work on it, or you won’t inherit the kingdom of God, you’ll get the other place. But that’d be stupid. That’d be like--

Well, it’d be like the sweet pepper plants in my garden. I have four of them, but only three have set on any fruit. The fourth one has plenty of flowers, and a nubbin or two, but no peppers worth speaking of. Well, what if I were to go to the store and buy some green peppers and tied them to that plant with string? Wouldn’t work, would it? They’d just rot.

Or what say I go buy some artificial peppers at the craft store and hang them on the plant? Yeah, right. Try eating that in your salad!

It’s the same way if we try to bear the fruit of the Spirit by our external effort. It’d all be fake. It’d all be rot.

So what are we supposed to do? How can our gardens grow?

By remembering whose gardens they are. Remember: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are the fruit of the Spirit. They are the virtues and obedience that God Himself gives. They are the fruit we bear when He has given Himself to us in His Son and we are joined to Him. "Live by the Spirit," St. Paul writes, "and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." In other words, you will bear the fruit the Lord desires.

We have to get it the right way around. If you say, "If I do this I will live," your fruit will be false and rotten and you will die. But if your mind is, "I will live by the Spirit and so do this," that is peace and pleasure and fellowship with God.

The key to it all is Jesus’ words in John’s gospel, chapter 15. No human being, Jew or Gentile, could ever be the fruitful vine that the Lord requires. No human being, that is, except the God-Man, Jesus Christ. He is the true vine whose fruit is righteousness and justice. We bear fruit only when and if we are connected by faith with Him. And no human leader or vinedresser can truly take care of God’s garden the way God Himself does by His Holy Spirit.

What does this look like in everyday life? I’m learning it’s primarily a matter of faithfulness. It’s putting ourselves under the authority of Scripture and letting the Holy Spirit its Author interpret it to us, and not our own desires.

It’s a matter of union and connection: Union with God in Spirit-led prayer and connection with fellow-believers who can encourage us to keep in step with the Spirit, even when it seems hard.

And it’s a matter of attitude. It’s the Spirit reminding you that Jesus has already borne the perfect fruit of justice and righteousness and that He wants to bear it in you. It’s remembering that Jesus obeyed God perfectly in all He said, thought, and did, and trusting Him to work out His obedience in you. It’s feeding on the most precious fruit that ever hung on a vine or a tree, the fruit of the broken body of our Lord Jesus Christ, dead on the cross for our sins and raised glorious, whole, and shining for our life and exaltation.

Don’t believe it when people tell you that the bad fruit of the sinful nature can be sweetened up by prosperity, education, and good examples. If that were the case, ancient Israel would never needed a Messiah. If that were the case, modern America would have no need for a Saviour now.

But Israel needed Jesus the Christ and so do we. And He’s here, by His Holy Spirit, ready to give you life, ready to cause you to bear fruit, ready to make your garden grow: to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

God's Sovereign Timing, God's Faithful Plan

Texts: Genesis 15:1-21; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

AS YOU HEARD WHEN I WAS introduced at the beginning of the service, I worked in architecture before I went to seminary.

For me, getting into Architecture was a call from God. I started college as an art major, but towards the end of my second year, all sorts of things came together that proved to me that God wanted me to do Architecture instead.

The way I understood it, I was called to do what’s called Advocacy Planning-- work with cities to build low-cost housing for poor people. Or I was going to rehabilitate rundown urban neighborhoods so they could be safe and habitable again.

But I graduated from architecture school in the mid-’70s and the economy was bad. I moved to Philadelphia--a lot of urban rehab was going on there-- but even there I couldn’t get a job doing it. Ten years later, I was back in my home town working for a small firm that did custom-designed house additions for extremely wealthy clients. I’d be at my drafting table crying out to God, "Lord, I thought You called me to work in behalf of poor people! Then why am I sitting here drawing up marble bathrooms for the filthy rich?!"

So I can understand Abram’s feelings here in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis. About eight years before this the Lord had called Abram and his wife Sarai out of Haran in Syria, to go to the land of Canaan, which is the land of Israel today. The Lord told him,

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

When Abram and his family got to Canaan, the Lord told him, "To your offspring [or, ‘your seed’] I will give this land."

But here it is eight years later, and Abram and his household still don’t own a square inch of the real estate! What’s more, Abram’s about eighty-four years old, Sarai’s about seventy-four: they have no children and no prospect of begetting any!

"Lord," cries out Abram, "I thought You called me to become a great nation and be a blessing! I thought You promised that my offspring would inherit this land! Then why am I sitting here, an old man with no children? Why will everything I have go to Eliezer my servant?"

I can sympathize!

What does God say? "Oops, Abram, I goofed"? Does the Lord say, "Sorry, Abram, I got distracted elsewhere and forgot to give you kids before Sarai’s biological clock timed out"? Or worse, does the Lord say, "Ha, ha, tricked ya! You came all that way from Haran in Syria and before that a thousand miles from Ur of the Chaldees for nothing! Ha, ha, ha!"?

Does God say that? Of course He does not. And praise His name, that He does not.

No, the God who is Abram’s Lord and ours replies, "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." And the Lord draws Abram outside the tent and tells him to look up at the stars in the sky. I’ve never seen the night sky in the desert, but I’m told the stars will hurt your eyes, they’re so many and so bright. The Lord says, "Count those stars. I challenge you to try. Your offspring will be like that. Millions upon millions!"

People of no faith would complain that that’s no proof that God’s promise was true. Just more words from an invisible being. Maybe just some crazy thought going through Abram’s own head.

But Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord credited his faith to him as righteousness.

Abram took God at His word. He didn’t say, "All right, God, I’ll go have relations with my wife tonight, and we’ll wait a month or two and if she’s expecting, I’ll believe You." No, Abram believed the Lord right away. He believed that when God makes a promise, He means it. He believed that when God gives His word, He’ll keep it. And Abram believed that the Lord has the power to keep His promises, no matter how impossible the circumstances may seem.

And so, as we read in Hebrews 11, God was not ashamed to be called Abram Abraham’s God. Abraham was called "the friend of God," because he took the Lord at His word and obeyed Him.
The Lord then says, "I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it."

Abram replies, "O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?"

Now, I’m looking at that, and I’m thinking, "Hey, wait a minute, Abram, what happened to your faith?"

But there’s a difference between skepticism and wanting a solid foundation for your faith. Abram wanted confirmation of God’s promise. Perhaps he wanted to make sure that the words he heard were truly from the Lord, and not just the noise of his own desires. So he asks, "How can I know?"

And the Lord our God responded with an amazing sign.

I wonder, what did you think when we read these verses about the animals and the birds cut in two? Here’s Abram’s deep sleep and the dreadful darkness, and the firepot and the blazing torch passing between the pieces! Did it all seem like fantasy? Did your mind disengage till we got back to something familiar? Or would you agree it was an amazing sign indeed?

Well, actually, a lot of it wasn’t amazing at all. At least, it wouldn’t have amazed anyone in Old Testament times. What’s happening is, the Lord God is cutting a covenant with His friend Abram. It’s the way it was often done. When two people or two towns or two nations wanted to make a solemn agreement, the chosen animals would be cut in two and arranged a certain distance apart, wide enough so two people could walk between them. The terms of the covenant would be recited or read, then the parties to the covenant, or their representatives, would walk together between the pieces of the dead animals and birds. The meaning was, "If I break this covenant with you, may I become like these dead birds. May I be cut in half like this heifer, this goat, and this ram."

Nothing amazing about that, for Abram’s day. Covenants were ratified that way all the time.

No, here’s the amazing part of the sign the Lord gives:

He put Abram into a deep sleep or trance, so Abram couldn’t walk between the pieces. The Lord alone, represented by the smoking firepot and the blazing torch: the Lord alone passes between the dead animal halves and swears on His own life that His promise to give Abram and his descendants the land will be kept. Abram didn’t need to promise anything! All he had to do is believe that the Lord would be faithful to His word and that the Lord had the power to keep His promise.

But still, didn’t Abram ask, "How shall I gain possession of the land?" After all, the Lord had said, "I brought you out . . . to give you this land to take possession of it." And in the Hebrew, the word ‘you’ is singular. But as the Lord cuts the covenant, He repeatedly speaks of Abram’s descendants possessing the land. In fact, the Lord says they won’t really get it for over four hundred years, not till after those descendants have suffered bitter slavery in a land not their own. How does this fulfill God’s promise to Abram?

Before we get upset on Abram’s behalf, we have to notice that there’s no record that he was upset about this at all. This shifting of beneficiaries bothers us because we are a very individualistic culture. We Americans band together in families and clubs and societies as long as it benefits us, but ultimately we each identify with ourselves, with our individual wants and needs.

But in Bible times, it wasn’t like that. In ancient culture, you identified with your family and your family with you. If disaster was prophesied for your grandchildren, it was a disaster for you, even if you should die in bed. If riches and blessings were ordained for your great-grandchildren, that was riches and blessings for you.

I’m not saying that people were more altruistic in those days. They could be just as selfish and self-centered as we can be. But the circle of what a person considered "mine" was a lot bigger. Your identity was with your tribe and your household. So when God promises the land to Abram’s distant descendants, Abram is satisfied. What benefits them, benefits him.

And I hope we’re satisfied with that promise, too, because that promise and the way it was made also affects us.

Yes, us. God chose that Hebrew culture and their way of thinking on purpose. He chose it because those covenant promises weren’t just for Abram Abraham and his blood offspring, they were also for us, who are his spiritual descendants through faith in God. We are the descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. We are the children as countless as the sand by the sea.

How can that be? Abraham’s legal offspring are counted through his son Isaac, and then through Isaac’s son Israel. Aren’t they all Jews?

Yes, Abraham’s blood offspring are all Jews. But it’s not Abraham’s blood offspring that God ultimately has in mind. It is Abram’s spiritual descendants, whether Jew or Gentile, who will finally inherit the promises.

(And when I say "spiritual," I mean born through the Spirit of God. Be certain of this: when the Holy Scriptures speak of something being "spiritual," it’s something more real and more lasting than anything on this temporary and decaying earth could ever be.)

But how do we become Abram’s spiritual offspring? By pretending to be Jews? By working really hard to show God how good and deserving we are?

No, we join the family of Abraham by faith in his offspring, the Israelite Jesus Christ.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he makes this statement: "The promises were spoken to Abraham and his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds," meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ."

Now, technically, this Hebrew word meaning ‘seed’ or ‘offspring’ can be singular or plural. It’s like the English word ‘sheep.’ But the Holy Spirit is driving St. Paul to make an important point: That when it came down to it, the only absolutely true and faithful descendant Abraham ever had was Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, the Son of God. He was the only one who truly followed and improved on Father Abraham’s example of obedient faith. He is the true and only heir of the Patriarch, and all of us, Jew and Gentile alike, all of us inherit the promised land only through faith in Him. Through faith in Him we become Christ’s brothers and sisters. Through faith in Him we become descendants of Abraham. Through faith in Him we are reborn as children of God.

Jesus Christ made it possible for our God to keep the solemn covenant He made with Abram. For, time and time again, God’s people Israel were so faithless, so disobedient, so wicked that God could not keep His promises and still be the holy and righteous Lord. But God had pledged that if He ever broke His promise to Abram, He Himself would die.

How can the Lord keep His promise despite our wickedness? How can the eternal God die?

He keeps His promise by sending His divine eternal Son to earth to be faithful and obedient. In His perfect, sinless life our Lord Jesus Christ was and is the faithful descendant of Abraham that no ordinary human being could be.

And God dies in the body of that same divine, incarnate Son, who paid for our faithlessness and rose again to fulfill God’s promises in all those who believe in Him. In that one faithful act of our Lord Jesus, the Lord’s covenant with Abraham is both kept and renewed.

God in Christ kept the covenant; God in Christ died for the covenant; and God in Christ is the perfect Offspring and fulfillment of the promises of the covenant. In Him we have hope of more and greater things than we can even imagine.

It took a long time for God to reveal His Christ. Abram and millions of his descendants were already dead without seeing the how God would keep His word. And we have not yet seen how God will finally keep all His promises to us. But we can believe in Jesus Christ and what He did for us, and our Father in heaven will credit it to us as righteousness. Because we know God and hear His voice, we can look forward in patience and hope, to the day when our elder Brother Jesus Christ will come in glory and we and father Abraham and all our numberless brothers and sisters will inherit the country He has prepared for us.

And meanwhile, we can have faith that whatever happens to us in our lives, however long it may take, whatever suffering it involves, however much we may not understand what God is doing and why He’s doing it, that the Lord is working out His sovereign plan for our lives. We can have faith, because all those plans are centered in His Son Jesus Christ, and in Him we are assured that all God’s promises are faithful and true.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

How to Get Rich Quick (or, Making a Living vs. Having Life)

Texts: Colossians 3:1-4, 12-17; Luke 12:13-21

I MAY HAVE MENTIONED WHEN I was here before that I did my theological training at an Anglican seminary.

It was an excellent education. But one thing was deficient about it: We never learned how to come up with sermon titles. Anglicans and Episcopalians don’t bother with sermon titles. I wish I didn’t have to bother with them, either.

I really wish I didn’t have to bother with them because of events like this past week’s.

The sermon title in the bulletin is "How to Get Rich Quick." That made a lot of sense when I was planning worship two or three weeks ago. But things have changed. If you like sermon titles, allow me to make a substitution. This message should better be called, "Making a Living vs. Having Life."

Our reading from Luke deals with both those basics of the human condition: Making a living and having life. Or, looking at it from the other side, not being able to make a living and not having life--that is, death. The events of this past week brought those realities home to us in a gut-wrenching way.

Last Wednesday in Minneapolis, there were maybe 150 cars on the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River. Most of those people were returning home after working hard all day making their livings. Some of them, truckers and delivery men and the bridge construction workers, were hard at work even then. They were doing what they needed to do to keep body and soul together, to have something left over to be comfortable, and maybe end up wealthy besides. They were taking the road they thought they needed do to accomplish that. And for them at 6:04 PM on August 1st, that road literally meant the I-35W bridge.

But for some of them, that course in life, that bridge, led them to death. They just wanted to make a living! But they ended up dying instead.

It doesn’t take a bridge collapse for that to happen. In fact, it happens all the time. We see it in our passage from St. Luke.

Luke 12:13 begins with someone in the crowd yelling out to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!" There it is: death and the need to make a living. This man’s father has died. And he can’t make a living, because his brother won’t divide the inheritance.

The longstanding rule in ancient Israel was that the eldest son inherited a double portion of his dead father’s property, and the rest of it was divided equally between any younger sons. The land itself couldn’t be sold outside the family; that was against the law of Moses. In extreme circumstances, as in the case of the Prodigal Son, land and livestock could be sold off, ideally to a relative, and the younger brother would get the cash proceeds of his share. But ordinarily, the eldest son was supposed to partition off part of the family farm for his younger brothers and give them their share of the sheep, cattle, and so on, so they and their families could live.

But in this case, the eldest son hasn’t done his duty by his younger brother. He’s hogging all the land and livestock to himself and won’t give his brother the wherewithal to make his living.

Don’t know about you, but before I studied this passage, my reaction was, "You silly man, what are you bothering Jesus about that for? Hasn’t He just been talking about how you can trust the Holy Spirit to keep you and preserve you when you’re being persecuted for following Him? Didn’t He just say you can rely on Him even through death and the end of the world?"

That’s my first impulse. It might even be a right impulse. But it’d be a hypocritical one. I’m unemployed myself just now, and if anyone should be able to sympathize with this man’s predicament, it’s I. This man has effectively been fired by his brother. With no land and no livestock, he has no work to do. There’s a good chance his brother has tossed him off the family homestead altogether. Or has told him he can stay-- if he’s willing to work for slave wages. Maybe he’s got a wife and children to feed. What are they going to do? This man in the crowd is worried. He’s distressed. He’s afraid.

Humanly-speaking, he’s got a right to be afraid. Lack of material sustenance, the lack of a living, is the next worse thing to lack of life itself. Lack of material sustenance is a little death. Lack of material sustenance can lead to actual death.

Looking at it that way, I now want to say, "Jesus, how could You be so insensitive! You say you refuse to be a judge or arbiter between this man and his brother, but then you go on and make this judgmental statement about him being greedy! I heard you! You said, ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his material possessions’! Lord, that man didn’t want anything extra, he just wants what he needs to make a living! He just doesn’t want to starve and die!"

But if I say that, I haven’t heard my Lord Jesus. I haven’t heard Him at all. I-- you-- all of us had better listen to Him more closely, listen carefully to the parable He now tells.

He tells of a rich man who does very well out of his land. He’s got so much yield he can sell it for cash money and put it away in his treasury. He can buy goods and merchandise far over what he needs for survival and decency. He’s got so much, he can build two miles of grain elevators and put his excess grain in them and live off the proceeds for the rest of his earthly life. And by gad, he plans that that life shall be easy, well-fed, and fun.

This rich man has made a fatal error. He has confused his living with his life. He has confused life on this earth with Life itself.

And you know what, God almighty agrees with him about him having everything he’ll need for the rest of his life. God’s Spirit speaks to his heart and says, "You fool! You equated material goods with life, did you? You thought you’d have enough to last you till you died, did you? Well, you were right. You’re going to die tonight, and never need any material goods again. Tonight I will demand your earthly life from you, and you will discover just how frightfully poor and lifeless and dead you are."

Let’s understand what Jesus is saying! He's telling the radical truth when He says it’s not His job to arbitrate the dispute between the man and his brother. There were civil magistrates for that! His job on earth was to be a judge and arbiter between mankind and God. His job was to show us our sinfulness compared to God’s perfect holiness-- and to make a way for that sin to be overcome.

The man in the crowd was infected with the greed of poverty. Maybe he imagined that if he were as rich as the man in the parable, he’d be set up for life and never have to worry about making a living again. The fool in the parable was guilty of the greed of abundance. He thought life and all its goodness were forever his.

Greed is the inordinate desire to have and possess. It’s a deadly sin that separates us from our God. Have we misunderstood it? I think we have! To hear Jesus, real greed, deadly greed, is equating material goods or making a living with life. It’s confusing this earthly life with life in God. Friends, you can be rich as Bill Gates and be utterly poor towards God; you can be poor as the most destitute refugee in Darfur, and be revelling in the wealth and life of your heavenly Father.

But what does this have to do with the bridge collapse last Wednesday? Am I saying those people died because they were not rich towards God?

No, I’m calling all of us to look at ourselves because people did die unexpectedly and suddenly in that bridge collapse, people who were only trying to make their livings.

It’s inevitable at times like this to say, "God, why were those people killed? Why didn’t you save them, as You did the children on that bus? It’s so unfair!"

It was inappropriate for Jesus to be judge over that man’s inheritance. Even less should we try to be judge over God. We are ignorant and blind; He is all-knowing and all-seeing. We are sinful; He is utterly righteous. Someday all of us will die; He lives forever. God knows the lifespan He has set for every last one of us. If there is human fault in that bridge collapse, it will be discovered and perhaps punished. But whatever human agency may have been at work, God had every sovereign right to demand the souls of those people last Wednesday evening.

The real question for you and me is, "Am I rich towards God? If God should demand my soul of me tonight, will I be ready?"

There are bridges all over these three counties. A lot of them are rated "Structurally Deficient." If one of them gave way under you tomorrow, could you stand before God Almighty and claim your share in His eternal kingdom? Or for you, does making a living equal "life" and does "life" only mean what happens to your body?

Speaking from our dead, sinful souls, that’s exactly what it does mean. But that’s not what life and riches has to mean, or should mean. Hear what Christ’s apostle Paul says in his letter to the Colossians:

"Since . . . you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, . . . not on things below." Things below-- that’s the greed of poverty and the greed of riches; that’s letting worry and fear drive wedges between us and our brother and between us and our God. No, there’s nothing wrong with making an honest living! It’s our duty in this world, and can give us honest joy. But we’re not to "set our hearts" on it. We are not to confuse making a living with having a life, and we’re not to confuse this temporary life on earth with the eternal life God will give us through His Son!

No, the Holy Spirit invites us to be rich towards God! To set our hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand!

But how can we? What am I going to do if I don’t have a new job when the unemployment runs out? What are you going to do if your retirement funds aren’t enough to cover taxes and medical and all? We all fear death. And if we can’t support ourselves, we’ll die!

But it’s simple, really. You overcome the fear of death by realizing that you have already died.

Yes, that’s right. You’re dead. If you have been crucified with Christ, your old self has been put to death on His cross--that old sin nature that frets and worries about not having enough. The old sinful Me, Me, Me that thinks everything will be all right if it can just get rich enough. The old flesh that’s sure that this life is all there is and rebels when the body fails and it’s time to go.

Christians, take comfort! For you, that old sin nature is history! You’re already dead! Death cannot hurt you ever again! Your old sinful nature is dead and buried in Jesus’ tomb; at the same time, your new life in Him is risen and is sitting in heaven with Him at God’s right hand in glory! Jesus Christ Himself is your life! Jesus Christ Himself is your riches towards God!

How rich are you? This rich: You are God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved by Him. Jesus your Elder Brother will certainly divide the inheritance with you, on the great day when you appear with Him in glory.

You may go through times when your outer clothing is old and unfashionable. But inwardly you can be clothed with every rich virtue that belongs to Jesus your Lord. Your life may be plagued by trouble and grief, sickness and physical death. But the peace of Christ can rule in your heart. You may be tempted to be angry with your brother, your neighbor, your fellow-Christian. But you are a member of the one Body of Christ who sits enthroned in heaven, and you can show His heavenly peace to anyone who troubles you. You can be rich towards God and have no fear of death, because Christ your Life has claimed you as His treasure and keeps you for His own.

The table spread for us today is proof that His promise is sure. Come to this table in peace with your brother and sister. Come taste the bounty of death overcome. Come, be renewed and enriched in the life and living Jesus won for you on His cross. His body is your sustenance. His blood is your life.

Whatever happens to you, to your living, or to your life, sing with gratitude! The inheritance is yours! Your storehouse is full to bursting! You are rich towards God-- through Jesus Christ: our life, our living, and our glorious crown. To Him be all power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing, now and forever. Amen.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Perfect Marriage

Texts: Hosea 2:2-20; Luke 11:1-4, 9-13

YOU’VE HEARD THEM BEFORE, those sad love songs they play on the radio.

I’m thinking especially of the ballads from the ’50s and ’60s. Like the Supremes singing in "Baby Love":

But all you do is treat me bad,
Break my heart, and leave me sad.
Tell me, what did I do wrong,
To make you stay away so long?

Or the Hank Williams’ song that goes:

Today I passed you on the street
And my heart fell at your feet;
I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you.

Somebody else stood by your side,
And he looked so satisfied.
I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you. **

When I was a kid I thought heartbreak songs like this were sad in a romantic, far-off sort of way. Singing them was a bittersweet indulgence. But then I got older and found out what heartbreak was all about, first hand. I found out that real heartbreak was about as sweet and indulgent as starving or being smothered to death. I found out that the pain in songs like this wasn’t sentimental and romantic, it was ugly, miserable, and hard.

The Old Testament book of Hosea is that sort of heartbreak song. It’s the story of love gone bad, of a good husband done wrong and hurt mortally by his no-good, cheating wife.
It’s about a wife who only loves her husband for the luxuries he can give her, and when she thinks he’s not keeping her in the style she wants, she finds other lovers she thinks will. It’s a song about a woman who’s unfaithful because she doesn’t have faith in a husband who is always faithful to provide her everything she needs, about a husband who loves her too much to finally let her go.

The book of Hosea is a heartbreak song about God’s love for His people Israel. The marriage of the prophet Hosea himself was that heartbreak song acted out for all Israel and Judah to see. God said to Hosea, "Go, marry a woman who is known to be promiscuous." Hosea obeyed, and married Gomer the daughter of Diblaim, and she started having children that didn’t look like him. I imagine people laughed at the prophet, and said, "Well, what did you think would happen if you married a slut like her? Aren’t you the sentimental fool!"

But those people were the fools. They and their countrymen were the faithless, adulterous wife who’d cheated on their husband, the Lord God of Israel. Our passage cries out with Israel’s sin. She has been shallow, vain, greedy, and selfish. She is faithless, because she had no faith in her husband who was always faithful to her.

Verse 5 says,

She said, "I will go after my lovers,
who give me my food and my water,
my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink."

But in verse 8 the Lord says,

She has not acknowledged that I was the one
who gave her the grain, the new wine and oil,
who lavished on her the silver and gold."

The Lord was taking care of Israel all along! All along, God was keeping His covenant promise to provide for His people and make them prosperous and strong. But Israel hankered after the gods of other nations. They wanted gods they could see and carry about and touch. They wanted gods they could control and bribe, gods like the Baals, who were gods of the forces of nature, gods of wind and rain and fertility.

The Lord says,

[I] lavished on her the silver and gold--
which they used for Baal.

They used God’s gifts to serve Baal!! You married people, those of you who are engaged to be married-- how would you like it if, say, you gave your spouse an expensive car and he or she took the keys, picked up a lover, and drove off to Cancun? Gentlemen, how would you like it if on top of that, your wife called that lover her "master and husband"? After all, that’s what the word "Baal" means! You’d be hurt, heartbroken, and angry, wouldn’t you? And ladies, you’d be angry and upset if your husband did the equivalent thing to you.

These days, the adult thing is for you to control yourself, keep calm and try to work out a reconciliation. If that doesn’t work, you get a quiet divorce and get on with life without the one who was so unfaithful. Only the socially immature engage in revenge and public jealousy.

And that’s right for us humans. Because when any marriage goes bad, the right and wrong are never all on one side or the other. Any stones we throw at our spouses are likely to bounce back and hit us.

But when it comes to the marriage between God and His people, God has a right to be publicly angry. He has a right to punish. The Lord our God is completely faithful and true. He is the source of all goodness; He is Goodness itself. No matter how difficult our lives become, we cannot honestly say, "God, I stopped worshipping You because You abandoned me." God never turns His love from those who belong to Him. He never stops being faithful to His covenant with His people.

But willful sin on our part is not part of the covenant. God’s holiness will not let Him put up with sin. If God’s people are going to do evil and throw it in His face, He has to do something about it in order for the marriage to go on.

The Lord says,

Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes;
I will wall her in so she cannot find her way.
She will chase after her lovers but not catch them;
she will look for them but not find them.

God was going to make unfaithfulness so frustrating to Israel that she’d get sick of it. He was no longer going to let it pay. The Lord declares that He will show Israel it was His hand that had really given her all her good things:

I will ruin her vines and her fig trees,
which she said were her pay from her lovers;
I will make them a thicket,
and wild animals will devour them.

In the day of His judgement He will take all her luxuries and sustenance away, and no so-called Baal will be able to keep her from losing it all.

A human husband would have no right to do what the Lord does to Israel. A human husband would have sins of his own to atone for, whether his wife had cheated on him or not.

But God has the right to punish us for our sins, down to the last unspoken evil thought. He made us, He keeps us alive, He determines the exact length of our days.

But does God punish Israel’s sin because He’s standing on His rights? No, God punishes Israel because otherwise He’ll lose her to the false gods altogether. She has to be shocked into realizing that He has been her provider all this time. Israel has to learn that her covenant with God isn’t about getting stuff out of Him, it’s about knowing and loving God Himself. It’s about the faithfulness the Lord would show to Israel His bride and the utter trust she should have in Him, about the perfect marriage she will have if she lives with Him in faithfulness and love.

And so, after punishing her, says the Lord, He will court Israel all over again, as if they were back in the wilderness in the days of the Exodus. He will speak tenderly to her, and she will again sing Him love songs of pleasure and joy.

"In that day," declares the Lord,
"you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master.’"

That is, Israel will no longer call Yahweh "my baal." Technically, Yahweh was Israel’s particular divine master or "Baal." But when they called Yahweh their ‘Baal,’ it was too easy for them to confuse Him with all the other ‘baals,’ with all the other so-called masters or gods of the nations round about.

This was not to happen any more. The Lord God was and is the only lord, and His people are not to confuse Him with any other deity, ever again. Never again shall they call Him ‘my Baal.’ From now on, they are to call Him ‘my husband.’ In Hebrew this word is ‘Ishi.’ And in everyday Hebrew this simply means ‘my man.’

I call this astounding. The Lord will not play the domineering master to Israel His bride; no, He will be ‘her man’! As it says in verses 19 and 20,

I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the Lord.

That is, Israel will know Yahweh her God--and it’s significant that this word ‘acknowledge’ or ‘know’ in Hebrew is also the word for the knowledge a husband and wife have of one another in their most intimate moments.

But now, what about us? Are we just looking at someone else’s marital troubles, that have nothing to do with us? Is the song of Hosea like those golden oldie love songs we listened to when we were very young and didn’t really understand?

No, what God says to Israel He says for our benefit. When He talks to Israel, He speaks also to us, His Church. When He rebukes Israel for her unfaithfulness, He rebukes us also for going astray after other gods. When He promises to bring her back to Himself in faithfulness and love, He makes that promise to us as well.

How can this be? I’m sure it hinges on that one little word, "ish,’ or man. God said His Bride was to call Him "my Man." And so we do. God Himself came down to all humanity as the Man Jesus Christ, who was and is the Lord God in human flesh. And we are His bride, the new Israel, the Church. We have not replaced the old Israel the Jews; no, we have been joined in with them and made new and clean by the gift of Christ’s human blood, shed on the cross. We have been engaged to Him by His perfect obedience and love.

Christ the Son of Man came to us to show us that ultimately, life with God is about more than the good things God can give us: the grain, the wine, and the oil, the wool and the linen, the cars and the houses, the continual health. It’s about knowing Him in faithfulness and love. It’s about trusting Him to give us the highest gift, the only gift we really need-- which is Himself. It’s about the bliss of perfect unity with Him.

And so, in Luke’s Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. "Lord, teach us how to ask for the things we really should ask for."

And Jesus teaches them the prayer we pray over and over, the Lord’s Prayer we so often rattle off and take for granted. See what our Lord is telling us to ask for. This prayer is for the things that will keep us in faithful relationship with God and our neighbor. This prayer trusts God to give us what we really need: Food for our bodies, protection from sin and wandering after false gods, and most of all, a joyous knowledge of who God is and of His gracious will.

Jesus says, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find." Too often, we think that means "ask for obedient children or a bigger car," and immediately, that's what we'll have.

Well, maybe God does want you to have obedient children or a bigger car. Maybe. But focussing on that in these verses is like ancient Israel treating the Lord like one of the Baals, using Him only to get earthly physical stuff. No, when Jesus tells us to "ask and it will be given to you," He wants us to trust God for a much better thing than that.

Jesus likens it to a human father looking out for his son. He says, "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

That is the gift God wants to give us: The gift of the Holy Spirit. That is the gift we are to desire and pray for: The gift of knowing Him personally, truly, intimately, and faithfully, like a husband and wife know one another in a perfect marriage.

I dislike having to admit this, but I read Jesus’ words and I think, "Yeah, Lord, the Holy Spirit is great, but give me a high-paying job first." And I see just how unfaithful and mercenary I am.

May the Lord forgive me for that, and may He forgive us all when we want anything or anybody more than we want Him.

The good news is that Jesus knows our weakness. He knows our greediness and our lack of faith. He took it all on Himself on the cross. He covered Himself with our sin and God in that one terrible eternal moment turned away from His Son the way a good man would turn away from his sluttish, cheating wife. But Jesus’ obedience and goodness overcame your sin and it overcame mine. Jesus engages us to Himself in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. He joins us to Himself so fully that when God looks at us, He sees not our sin, but the faithfulness of His crucified and risen Son.

God does want to give you good things. He wants to give you everything you need to bring you to His side to live with Him forever. Most of all, He wants to give you a perfect marriage with Himself. That is His will for us; may it be done on earth, as it will be done in heaven. Amen.

*"Baby Love," by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Edward Holland, Jr., 1964

**"I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)" by Hank Williams, 1962 (?)

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Water from the Rock

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; John 7:37-44

HOW MANY OF YOU HERE came to Vacation Bible School last week?

This message is for you. But we’ll let the grownups listen in, won’t we?

It was a wet week, wasn’t it? You explored the "Great Bible Reef"!

On Monday, you learned about how the mother of Baby Moses put him in a basket in the Nile River so he wouldn’t be killed, and how he was rescued by the daughter of King Pharaoh.

On Tuesday, you heard how General Naaman was sick with a terrible skin disease, and how God healed him when he plunged seven times into the Jordan River.

On Wednesday, you discovered how Jesus sat in a fishing boat and taught the people on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And how afterwards, He told the fishermen to let down their nets to fish. And how an enormous catch of fish came up, so the fishermen were really scared, and Jesus said, "Don’t be afraid, but come with Me, and I’ll teach you how to catch people!"

On Thursday, you saw how Jesus healed a blind man by putting mud on his eyes and having him wash it off in the Pool of Siloam.

And on Friday, you found out how if you build on sand, the floods will come and wash your house away. But if you lay your foundation all the way down to rock, your house will stand firm. Was Jesus just talking about houses to live in? No, He was teaching us how to live. That if you listen to God and do what He says, even if you do have trouble, He will make sure everything comes out all right for you. But if you don’t, the bad things that happen in life will crash down like a terrible storm and your life will be ruined.

So what is that? Two rivers, one lake or sea, one pool, and one terrible flood. That’s a lot of water! And you had one rescue, two healings, one calling of disciples, and one lesson on how to listen to God and live. That’s a lot of things happening with water!

But do you ever think about what it would be like to go without water? I mean, to have no water at all?

You might say, "I’d drink Coke or Pepsi instead!" But what if there was no water to make Coke or Pepsi? What if there was no water, so the cows all died and there wasn’t any milk? What if the trees all dried up, so there was no orange juice or lemonade?

That would be horrible, wouldn’t it? You’d be so, so thirsty! And if you didn’t get something to drink, you’d die, too!

Well, a long, long time ago, God’s people Israel were really thirsty. They were afraid they were going to die. I’ll tell you how it happened:

Remember Baby Moses in the Nile River in Egypt? The Egyptians were really mean to God’s people. The Israelites had to work as slaves all day in the hot sun. They didn’t get to rest and their Egyptian masters whipped and beat them and treated them cruelly!

When Moses grew up, God told him to go tell King Pharaoh to let God’s people go free. Moses foster-mother Pharaoh’s daughter was dead, and her father the old Pharaoh was dead, and the new Pharaoh didn’t want to listen to Moses and he didn’t want to listen to God. But God did all sorts of awesome and marvellous miracles and He showed the Egyptians He meant business! So Moses led God’s people Israel out of Egypt.

God promised that He would bring them to a new country were they would be free and have everything they needed. But first, they had to go through the desert. A great, dry, terrible desert. The Israelites couldn’t find water anywhere. No water for themselves, or their children, or for their cattle or their sheep.

So they complained. And griped. And moaned. They said, "Moses, why did you bring us out of Egypt to make us and our children and our livestock die of thirst?" They were so mad, they wanted to kill Moses!

Would you have complained, too? Would you have been mad because you were thirsty? That would have been very foolish! All those people knew what God can do! He defeated the Egyptians, and the Egyptians were the strongest people in the world back then! If God can do that, He surely can get His people a drink of water!

And He did. He told Moses to walk ahead and take some of the elders with him. Do we have any elders here today? Raise your hands! Moses took people like that with him. God said, "Go to the big rock at Mount Horeb, and I’ll be standing there in front of you. Strike that rock with your leader’s staff, and water will come out of it for the people to drink."

Moses obeyed, and that’s what happened. Enough water came out of that rock for everyone to drink as much as they wanted, and their sheep and cows drank all they wanted, too.

God told Moses, "Every Fall, I command the people to celebrate a special holiday. It will be called the Feast of Tabernacles ("tabernacle" is another word for "tent"), because I had My people live in tents in the desert." God wanted His people to remember how He’d taken care of them in the desert.

So God’s people came into their own Land, and every year they would get together in Jerusalem and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This holiday lasted eight days. On the last day, the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem would pour out a great big jar of water, all down the front steps of the Temple. The people would see the running water and be happy and joyful. They would remember how God gave them water out of that rock in the desert. They would thank God for giving them rain in the Promised Land, so they could grow food and eat. They praised Him because He gave them water so they could have life.

Do you ever remember to thank God for the gift of running water? You can just turn on a faucet, and there it is! But if God doesn’t send the rain and the snow, there wouldn’t be any water in the pipes! We should always thank God for giving us water, so we can drink and live.

But God has another kind of water for us, too. He gives us water for our spirits, so our spirits can live. He calls it "living water." Do you know how to get living water? Listen, and I’ll tell you how.

One year at the Feast of Tabernacles, something very exciting and different happened. Jesus the great Teacher was there, teaching at the feast. Now, those people didn’t really know who Jesus was. They didn’t know He was the Son of God. They didn’t know He was going to die for their sins, because He hadn’t done it yet. But they knew He was special, and the people liked to listen to Him tell them about God.

Well. On the last day of the feast, the priests were about to pour the water down the front stairs, to celebrate the water coming out of the rock in the desert. And Jesus stood up and called out really loud, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!"

Jesus was telling everybody, "I’m like that rock at Mount Horeb that Moses hit and the water came out for everyone to drink! Come to Me, and you’ll have water for your souls!"

You’re young now, and maybe you don’t know yet what it’s like to be dry and thirsty in your soul. It’s like you want something, but you don’t know what. Nothing can make you happy. You’re sad a lot. You work and work, but nothing seems to matter and nothing seems to do any good.

Everybody gets dry and thirsty in their souls, and only spiritual water can make that thirst go away.

And Jesus is the only one who can give you spiritual water. "Come to Me and drink!" He says.
Do you know how to come to Jesus? You say to Jesus, "Jesus, I believe that You are the Son of God. I believe You died to take the punishment for my sins. I trust You to love me and take care of me all the rest of my life. I believe that someday You will bring me to live with You in heaven, no matter what happens to me here on earth." Jesus is like that great Rock in the desert, that Moses hit and the water came out of. He will give you His living water, so your soul feels like you’ve just had a long drink of cold, clear water.

But Jesus promises you more than that! He also said, "Whoever believes in me, . . . streams of living water will flow from within him!" Jesus’ disciple John (he wrote our Gospel lesson today) says Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the living water we need for our souls. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to us when our hearts are thirsty and dry and the Spirit gives us life. He’s like a cold drink of water on a hot summer afternoon.

And what do you think? When the Spirit gives us Himself to drink, is there only enough for us, or is there plenty of the Holy Spirit left over?

There’s plenty left over, of course, because the Holy Spirit is God and you can never run out of God. Jesus says, "Whoever believes in me, streams of living water-- [that is, the Holy Spirit]-- will flow out of him." You get the living water Holy Spirit from Jesus, and the Spirit flows out of your heart and helps other people, too. He gives you His love and peace, and then you can tell other people about His love and peace, too.

God reminded His people Israel at the Feast of Tabernacles how He’d taken away their thirst in the desert. Can you think of two ways God uses something wet to remind us of what He has done by sending His Son Jesus to die for us?

Yes, He gave us the water of baptism, to show how Jesus washed away our sins and to remind us that He has given us the living water of the Holy Spirit.

And He gave us the wine of the Lord’s Supper. We drink it and we know that Jesus takes away the thirst in our souls. He is the living Rock that gives us the living water of the Holy Spirit, so we can believe in Him and live.

I’m glad God gives us ordinary water, aren’t you? But I’m even more glad that He gives us the living water of the Holy Spirit. Believe in Jesus. Drink the water He gives, and your soul will never have to be thirsty again.

(Preached on Vacation Bible School Assembly Sunday)