Sunday, March 25, 2007

Wholly Holy

Texts: Leviticus 20:7-8; 1 Peter 3:13-22


How many of you are still keeping them?

How many of you are still keeping them, but wish you didn’t have to be still keeping them?

All right, if you didn’t make any special Lenten vows, who all here is sick of winter and wish Spring would come for good?

Most everyone here, it looks like.

All right. How many of you sometimes find it hard to be a Christian?

How many of you wish Jesus would do something to make it not so hard to be a Christian anymore?

Yes, we’d all find that to be a good thing.

All these things-- keeping Lenten vows when you’re tired of keeping them, longing for Winter to turn into Spring, and putting up with difficulties in your Christian life-- all have something in common. They’re all about wishing we could get something unpleasant we’re going through now over with so we can get on to the enjoyable thing we look forward to later.

But the Holy Spirit speaking through the Apostle Peter tells us what we’re going through now is necessary if we want to get what we’re looking forward to later. In other words, a proper cold Winter is necessary if we want the flowers of Spring, and self discipline and endurance are necessary if we want to participate in Christ’s resurrection. When we suffer and endure and discipline ourselves for the sake of Jesus Christ, we are being trained for holiness. We’re learning what it is to be holy, as our Father in heaven is holy.

What is Christian holiness? Is it schlumping around with a long, fake-pious face, telling people what you don’t do and being proud of the fun you don’t have? Do you have to be so above-it-all and unapproachable that ordinary mortals are afraid to bother you with their everyday concerns? Is it wishing you could die right away so you can go to heaven, or floating six inches above the sidewalk because your feet are so pure they don’t touch the ground? If that’s what you think of when you think of being holy, no wonder so many Christians don’t really want to be!

Here’s how Peter describes being holy, up in verse 8:

"Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so you may inherit a blessing."

When you are holy, you’ll be eager to do good, because Jesus Christ has been good to you. You’ll walk around in your every day life treating others the way Christ has treated you. To be holy is to resist the temptation to be disharmonious, unsympathetic, unloving, insensitive, and proud and to practice harmony, sympathy, love, compassion, and humility instead.

Like when? Like when that motorist cuts you off, and you don’t flip him off, instead you feel sorry for him, that he’s in such a hurry to get someplace, and you pray he-- and everyone else on the road with him-- will get there safely. Holiness is when someone has been unjust and hurtful to you, and you calmly and frankly present your case to them, instead of gossiping about them behind their backs. To be holy is to treat your neighbor with the love and grace of Jesus Christ, especially at home and at church-- because sadly, those are the places Christians are tempted the most to let it all go and be as unholy and selfish as they can.

Peter says, "Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?" Well, most people, no. For most people, if you’re a truly holy Christian you’ll be a joy to have around. But there will be those who can’t stand anything truly holy, because it exposes just how unholy they themselves are. People like that will take your gentleness for weakness, your sympathy for gullibility, and if you take any stand for truth-- well, to them that’s just your self-righteous arrogance.

Peter speaks more about this problem in his letter. He mentions the unbeliever who can’t understand how you can possibly believe in this crucified Rabbi. To them, respond in holiness, that is, with the wisdom, reasonableness, gentleness, and respect of Jesus Christ.

Then there are those who charge that if you’re doing anything good as a Christian, it’s all a fake and you really must be a hypocrite inside. I got my copy of the Pittsburgh Magazine a couple days ago, and in it I read about a play being put on next month at the City Theatre called The Missionary Position, dealing in part with, quote, "A Christian activist’s unhealthy obsessions."

Well, of course. If you’re a Christian activist, or an active Christian of any kind, you must have unhealthy obsessions. Not just plain human weaknesses and sins, but active evil inside just because you are a Christian. That’s the malicious attitude you’re going to encounter if you truly try to be holy.

But keep on being holy. Keep on blessing where you are cursed. Keep on hoping and praying that Jesus will open the eyes of those who slander you and take away their sins just as He took away yours.

But it’s hard to be holy! And it’s frustrating. If being good is so good, why can’t it feel good now? Why can’t people appreciate your sweet Christianity now? Why do we have to endure Winter to get to Spring, and why is Lent and its discipline so long before we can enjoy the feasting and joy of Easter?

I’m convinced from the Scriptures that the Lord willed it that way, so we would know that our holiness is not from ourselves, but solely from Him.

In Leviticus He says, "I am the Lord, who makes you holy." He commands us to consecrate ourselves and be holy, but it’s a struggle and we fail time after time.

I was thinking about my own need to be holy last week. I resolved to make a conscious effort to practice personal holiness in my job the next day. And what happened? I got some bad news about a decision the client had made about a project I’m working on and I was so stunned I couldn’t even think about holiness, let alone practice it.

But looking back on it, I can see that God helped me. He kept me from saying the sort of thing that can get a person fired. He gave me work on another project to do until the excess adrenalin had died down. He gave me some good counsel about how I should address the issue. I may not have felt holy, but in various ways my Father God was making me holy.

If it were easy for us to be holy, we’d think it was something we’d achieved on our own and be proud of it. Instead, whatever holiness we have, we have because we belong to Jesus Christ and He clothes us in the holiness that is His alone.

Christ’s servant Peter knew how hard a struggle it is. He knew how tempted we are to be afraid when we should strive for holiness instead.

What is the solution to fear? "In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord." These words "set apart"-- in the Greek they literally mean "make holy." In other words, when you are struggling to do what is good, gracious, and right, remember the holiness of Jesus Christ. Treasure who He is and what He has done for you. Embrace the fact that He is far more than a great teacher, or a good example-- He is the Son of God who died on the cross to take away your sins. He is the Holy One of God, and He makes you holy.

How can you be assured that Jesus really makes you holy? He assures you in your baptism. This is what the Holy Spirit wants us to understand when St. Peter reminds us of the story of Noah and his family. In the days of Noah, God sent the floodwaters in judgement and wrath on the sins of humankind. But through the waters Noah was saved. On Calvary, God poured out His judgement and wrath on His innocent Son. But through Jesus’ outpoured blood, we are saved! In baptism we are plunged into the death of Christ, who was plunged into death for our sins. The risen body of Jesus is our ark, that saves us alive through all the struggles and evils of ourselves and this fallen world.

When you struggle to be holy, it seems always to be Lent and never Easter. Too often, the devil, the world, and your own nagging conscience seems to be telling you to give it up. But against all that you can come back this ringing affirmation: "Do not bother me, for I Have Been Baptised."

Say that to yourself, again and again. "I have been baptised, and the holiness of my Lord Jesus Christ is now my own." Remember it next week, when we will baptise a man into the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ during the first service. Whether you will be attending that service or not, I urge you to take that as an opportunity to reaffirm your own washing into holiness. Confess again that your sins were washed away by the blood of Christ, just as water washes away the dirt from your body. Baptism saves you by confirming to you that Christ’s resurrection will be your resurrection. That His place in heaven will be your place in heaven, as well. That the authority He exercises over angles, principalities, and powers, He exercises for your sake, to defend and keep you and make you holy in His sight.

Because holiness on this earth is about hope. Winter will turn to Spring, struggle will result in triumph, and the long, slow weeks of Lent will be crowned with the glory of Easter. Walk in the awareness that Jesus Christ is in you, with you, and all around you, making you holy as He is holy. Rejoice in His love for you, and be at peace. Amen.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Divine Do-Over

Texts: Genesis 3:1-19; Matthew 4:1-11

WHEN YOU WERE A KID, AND YOU messed up while playing a game, did you ever ask for a "do-over"? I believe grown-ups have the same thing in golf; it’s called a mulligan. So many times in our lives, we wish we had a do-over. We want our mistakes and our foolish acts to be wiped out. We want things to go back to the way they were before we said those terrible words or committed that awful deed, so we can try again and do the thing over right.

But we saw from our reading from Genesis that there aren’t do-overs like that in this life. God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They ate from it anyway. "God, couldn’t You cut us some slack? Couldn’t You ignore our sin just this once? We want a do-over!"

The Lord God had said that if they ate of the Tree, they would surely die. This wasn’t God being arbitrary. It was the way the Universe works. When Adam and Eve disobeyed, they rebelled against the source of all Life. They set up on their own as their own little gods. God was still ruler over them, no doubt about that, but the peace, the wholeness, the spiritual life was gone.

So God couldn’t give them a do-over. Their sin had real consequences, for them and for us their descendants. Curses in childbearing. Curses on marriage. Curses on work. Curses on the land and curses on the serpent. No do-overs. Not then. Not ever.

Or is that totally true? Did God hold out the possibility that humanity could try again and do things over right?

In verse 15, God says to the serpent, "I will put emnity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel." God is saying that someday a man born of woman will come along and get the better of that old tempter Satan. That this "seed of the woman," as some translations put it, will get a do-over for obedience and he will do it over right, though at great cost to himself.

Centuries later, the Lord God chose a people for Himself. He led them into the wilderness, out of slavery in Egypt, and gave them His law at Mount Sinai. God willed that Israel would be obedient to Him. They were follow His covenant and show the nations what human life was like lived in glad obedience with the Lord of all Creation. For forty years He proved them in the desert, to see if they would indeed follow Him. You might say that in Israel, God was giving humanity a do-over.

But Israel failed the test in the wilderness, and with rare exceptions, they kept on failing throughout their history. They got their do-over and they did it over wrong again and again.
And you know, Israel was just like you and me, and we’re just like Israel. We would do just the same in their position, and in many ways, we have.

And God wasn’t surprised by Israel’s failure. From the very beginning, the Lord declared to His servant Moses that the people would disobey. But God was working out His purposes in Israel. He made them to be the channel through which the Seed of the Woman would come into the world, the Son of Man who would get the cosmic do-over and do it over right.

We know who this Promised One is. He is our Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel writers record that as Jesus was baptised in the Jordan River, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit of God descended like a dove and a voice from heaven proclaimed, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." Jesus was about thirty years of age when this happened, and in all that time He had never needed a do-over, because in all those years He had always pleased His Father; He had always done what was just and good and right.

But what good did that do us? Jesus didn’t need a second chance; He’d never rebelled or disobeyed His Father’s will. Israel was the son who’d displeased the Father. Adam and Eve were the children who tried to set themselves up in the god business. We’re the ones who’ve been following in their crooked footsteps ever since! Jesus’ goodness does me no good unless He is good for me.

And God has willed that Jesus should be very good for you and me. He took what was wrong between us and God and went back and did things over on our behalf. That’s exactly what Jesus is doing as He is tempted in the wilderness. Like Israel, Jesus is led into the desert to be tempted and tried. Like Adam and Eve, the Devil offers Jesus food, glory, and power. Jesus has been fasting for forty days and nights. He’s famished. Exhausted. Perhaps light-headed. What an excuse to make a foolish decision! What a justification to reach out and grab what was desired, regardless of how God said things should be!

But Jesus resisted the Tempter, and passed the test. You’ve heard it preached that Jesus was tempted to show you and me how to resist temptation when it confronts us. Like, just memorize the right Bible verses and you’ll be fine. I’ve probably preached a few sermons like that, myself. But if that’s all this is, we’re missing the point and we will fail. No, here in these forty days in the desert, Jesus is taking our do-over for us, and He’s doing it over right. He’s the new Adam, and He says No to Satan’s offers of perverted food and perverted glory and perverted power. He’s the new Israel, and instead of rejecting God’s word, He affirms it and confirms it and lives by its light. He’s doing what Adam couldn’t do, what Israel couldn’t do, what we couldn’t do. Jesus does it for us, and God accepts His offering in our behalf.

God demonstrates this most fully when Jesus is dying on the cross. We would not submit to the Father’s rule and authority: Jesus submits to a death He does not deserve in order to bring many sons and daughters to the glory of God. We did not obey the word and Law of God: Jesus keeps to the letter what is written and fulfils God’s promise of triumph over evil for us. Jesus gives us His obedience that we might obey; He gives us His death that we might have life.

As Protestants, we know we’re under no obligation to given anything up or take anything on for Lent. If you’ve chosen to, it’s between you and God alone. Nevertheless, as a minister of our Lord, I do call upon you to do whatever you have vowed to do, in the Spirit of Christ. Between now and the Feast of the Resurrection, I call on you to learn the meaning of Jesus’ fast and temptation in the wilderness. I call on you to take a tighter hold on the meaning of His cross.
If you have made a special vow, you’ve already learned it’s harder to keep it than it was on Ash Wednesday! That struggle is exactly where Jesus’ temptation and cross come home to you.
Maybe the Tempter is whispering, "True, you did tell God you’d read your Bible every day. But it’s so hard to find time, and nobody’s making you do it! You can drop it now if you want!"? Maybe you’re being tempted to lie to God!

Or worse, maybe that "Me-voice" in your head is saying, "Oh, I’ve given up chocolate every Lent for the past ten years! I am so successful at this! Temptation has no hold over me!"? Maybe the Devil’s tempting you to give up a mouthful of candy for a bellyful of pride instead!
But you have promised God, and you know you mustn’t take His name in vain. And you know God cares about the attitude of your heart as much or more than He cares about your outward behavior. But your behavior is bad! And your heart is wrong! You’re locked in mortal struggle--and that struggle is the very wilderness that the Spirit of God has driven you into.

When you’re earnest about your Lenten discipline, you discover you can’t do things over right for yourself, you have to have Jesus do it for you. You’ll learn how absurdly dependent you are on silliest habits and indulgences. Me, I find it helpful to give up computer games for Lent. And it’s frightening how the childish, old-Eve self in me keeps whining, "But I want to play Spider Solitaire! I can’t be happy this evening until I can play Spider Solitaire!" That’s when I have to cry out, "Lord, I can’t do this! Do it in me!"

And I’m sure you’ll find it’s the same with you in your Lenten discipline. In fact, it’s the same whenever we make any covenant or promise to do something to please God, whether it’s big or small. We cannot do it right, unless Jesus does it in us. In a few minutes, we’ll be receiving new members into this church fellowship. These new brothers and sisters will be making vows before God and the church and we will reaffirm our own membership vows right along with them. They’ll actually be making a commitment to be and do something they cannot be and do on their own. God will accept their promises. He’ll expect them to keep their promises. And He wants them to know they really can’t keep those promises, not as mere sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.

That’s exactly where God wants them, and where He want us. It’s good for us to understand how weak we are. It’s good for us to admit we can’t keep our church membership vows unless we are members first of the Son of God. It’s good for us to realize we can’t resist the smallest of temptations outside of the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s our wilderness. It’s there we discover for ourselves that only Jesus the sinless Son of God could do over humanity’s cosmic error of rebellion against God and this time, get it right.

The Cross of Jesus is the supreme do-over of history. On that one dark Friday afternoon Jesus wiped out all the mistakes, all the foolishness, and all the crimes humanity would ever commit and wiped our account clean. In this season of Lent, look to the Cross and what Jesus did for you there. Commit ourselves anew to God and let Jesus work out that commitment in and through you. And rejoice in hope: In Christ we have done things over, and in Christ we do all things well.