Sunday, December 28, 2008

Firstborn of Mary, the Firstborn of God

Texts: Exodus 4:21-22, 13:1-2; 11-16; Luke 2:22-40

I’M IN A COMMUNITY CHOIR, THE Village Singers of the Tri-County Choir Institute, and a popular song in our Christmas repertory is "Mary, Did You Know?" by Mark Lowry. The first verse goes:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would someday walk on water?
Mary did you know
That your baby boy
Will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know
That your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered
Will soon deliver you.
Mary, did you know?

These are good questions for the mother of our Lord! If I could ask Mary anything, it’d be about that day in Jerusalem, forty days after Jesus was born. "Mary, did you know what was happening, when you and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple to be presented to the Lord?"

The obvious answer would be, "Yes, we were obeying the Law of the Lord given through Moses: ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord.’ We were obedient Jews; we did as the Law commands."

And that would have been true. It goes back 1,400 years before Mary’s day, when God set His people Israel free from slavery in Egypt. As it says in our reading from Exodus, on that dark night of the Tenth Plague, the Lord God Almighty punished Pharaoh by slaying all the firstborn of Egypt. Pharaoh thought he was a god, and he refused to let Israel, God’s firstborn son, go and worship the Lord. So the Lord brought judgement on Pharaoh and all the false gods of Egypt. He proved who the true God actually was.

But the plague on the firstborn was on all the firstborn sons dwelling in Egypt; as it says in Exodus 11, "from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well." But, said the Lord, He would "make a distinction between Egypt and Israel." Why? Because Israel was like that spoiled kid who gets away with everything because he’s his father’s favorite? Or because the Egyptians were such terrible sinners who deserved punishment and the Israelites were perfect children who always did everything right?

No, the Lord God caused the angel of death to pass over the Israelite homes that night because of the blood of the Passover lamb that was smeared on the doorposts. The Israelites were just as lost and deserving of death as the Egyptians were, but God in His sovereign grace chose to redeem them by the blood of the lamb. The firstborn of the Egyptians died; the firstborn of Israel were redeemed.

And so God consecrated to Himself all the firstborn in Israel. In Numbers 3:13 it says, "For all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself [or, "consecrated to Myself"] every firstborn in Israel. They are to be mine. I am the Lord." Ever since, the firstborn were set apart, consecrated, dedicated to the Lord.

It’s become fashionable in some denominations today for parents to "dedicate" infants to the Lord instead of having them baptised. But would they if they understood what biblical dedication meant? In the Old Testament, to "dedicate" or "devote" or "consecrate" something or someone to the Lord meant to totally give them over to God, often by totally destroying them. If you’ve dedicated something or someone to God, it or he belongs to God totally. You can no longer claim ownership of it, or enjoy any use of it.

This kind of dedication by death was absolutely the case with firstborn calves and lambs and young goats, all clean animals that could be sacrificed to the Lord. But it could not be so with an Israelite woman’s firstborn son. He was not to die. Firstborn sons had to be redeemed.

Mary and Joseph were good Jews. Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son and that day at the temple she was acknowledging He belonged totally to the Lord. She had to pay the designated price to redeem Him from the dedication of death.

But in the Books of Moses we also read that even though the firstborn sons of Israel were not to die, the Lord still had the right to claim their perpetual service as priests and servants in His sanctuary. This is how Hannah dedicated Samuel to the Lord in Samuel 1:24-28. But ordinarily, God substituted the men of the tribe of Levi for the firstborn Israelite males. The passage I quoted from Numbers 3 actually begins, "The Lord to Moses, ‘I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in the place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine."

But Jewish parents couldn’t take this substitution lightly. When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple, they were confessing that God had the right to require His services there, all His life long. It was only because the Levites were dedicated to that work instead that Mary and Joseph could take Jesus home with them to raise Him as their own.

There’s something else Mary would have known as she dedicated Jesus, her firstborn son: The firstborn offspring of man or beast was like the firstfruits of the vineyard or field. The firstfruits were always given over to priests and Levites as the Lord’s representatives; as it says in Numbers 18:12, "I give to you all the finest olive oil and all the finest new wine and grain they give the Lord as the firstfruits of their harvest." And in verses 14 and 15, it says, "Everything in Israel that is devoted to the Lord is yours. But you must redeem every firstborn son and every firstborn male of unclean animals." The firstfruits were to be the finest and best of the crop so far. The firstfruits demonstrated the power of God working in Israel’s behalf, to bless and prosper them. The firstfruits and the firstborn represented all the richness and goodness that God would give His people thereafter, in crops and cattle and children as well.

So when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus that day in the temple, they knew that their firstborn Son represented the goodness and blessing of the Lord to them. They knew that Jesus stood for the children that would come after. That’s the way it was. That’s something every observant Jew would know.

But Mary, did you know the full extent of what you and Joseph did there in Jerusalem that day? Even after the announcing angels and adoring shepherds, did you realize you weren’t just fulfilling the Law as any new mother would? Mary, did you know that when you presented your Son, it was symbolic of the work of God that one day would change everything in heaven and on earth?

I’m sure Mary and Joseph got some idea of the magnitude of what was happening from the prophecies of Simeon and Anna. But Mary had to wait long years until Jesus had ascended into heaven to truly understand what she had done when she took Him to be presented to the Lord.

That day, Mary and Joseph dedicated her firstborn Son Jesus to the Lord, to acknowledge that God had first claim on Him, even unto death. That day, they paid the redemption price for Jesus and took Him home. But one day, thirty-three years later, Jesus, Mary’s firstborn Son and the only-begotten Son of God, hung on a cross to pay the redemption price for all God’s people. Our lives were forfeit because of sin. We stood under God’s wrath and condemnation, and we could never come up with a payment sufficient to escape it. But like the blood of the Passover lamb in Egypt long ago, the blood of Jesus Christ the Lamb of God interposes between us and the death we deserved. Jesus was and is the Firstborn Son of God, and "God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

This promise is for you! You have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. And so you belong no longer to yourself, but to Christ. In baptism you died to sin and rose to new life in Him, that you should offer your bodies to God in righteousness and thanksgiving. You are no longer your own: you were bought with a price. And lest you think that means nothing but tedium and toil-- I know how the old Adam in us can think!-- remember that Jesus’ blood paid for all of it. Jesus is our righteousness, our health, our hope, our strength. In Him we can do the perfect will of God, for by His death He has set us free.

That day, Mary and Joseph dedicated her firstborn Son Jesus to the Lord, to acknowledge that God had the right to claim His services continually in the temple. But the day came, thirty-three years later, when the Levitical priesthood was abolished. On that day, Jesus, Mary’s firstborn Son and the only-begotten Son of God, ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father. He is there even now, serving God as our eternal and everlasting High Priest and mediator. As it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, "Because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to make intercession for them." One of the most important jobs of the Levites was to make sure that the common people did not approach the Holy of Holies. As it says in Numbers 3:10, "Appoint Aaron and his sons to serve as priests; anyone else who approaches the sanctuary must be put to death." But it is the joy and triumph of our Lord Jesus Christ to open the very presence of God to all who believe. Again as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, "Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God in full assurance, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water."

This promise is for us! Since Jesus the Firstborn Son has become our great high priest, cleansing us by the sprinkling of His own blood, we are consecrated to serve God as priests under Him. As the Apostle Peter says, "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." We offer those spiritual sacrifices as we demonstrate the love and praise of Jesus Christ in all we do and are. We are Christ’s priests as we study His word so we can to tell others what He has done on the cross to rescue us and all sinners from the judgement to come. Not just how He’s made our lives better or happier or more fulfilling. No, how Jesus has dealt with our sin and made us fit to enter the very presence of God.

That day, Mary and Joseph dedicated her firstborn Son Jesus to the Lord, to acknowledge that Jesus was the beginning of God’s blessing of children to them, the finest they could offer. But the day would come thirty-three years later when God Almighty would raise Jesus, Mary’s firstborn Son and the only-begotten Son of God, from the dead; as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came by a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him." And in Colossians 1, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation." And later in the same passage, "And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy." In Jesus Christ God has offered the first and the best to Himself, and Jesus stands as the representative and symbol of all those who belong to Him.

This promise is for us! Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. When He does, He will raise us to be like Him, holy and without blemish, because Christ the firstfruits is holy. As the firstborn of Mary, He shares and redeems our humanity; as the firstborn of God, He gives us eternal life and will transform our mortal bodies to be like His immortal body.

In the Christian life we speak of being "dedicated to the Lord." But friends, we can only speak that way because Jesus Christ, Mary’s firstborn and the Firstborn of God, first dedicated Himself to His Father and to us. He died for in our place, He perfectly serves God in our place, and He is our Elder Brother and Head, so that His life and obedience is credited to us and overflows to our eternal benefit. He dedicated us to Himself when we were called to faith by His Holy Spirit, He confirmed that dedication in our baptism, and by His Spirit Jesus day by day makes us more and more like Himself, a perfect Offering fit for presentation to our holy God and Father. God has not left us on our own, to try to be holy and acceptable by our own efforts! He has given us His Firstborn Son. It is in Christ that we are justified. In Christ we walk in holiness and faith. In Christ and Christ alone we will be exalted and glorified, to the praise of God the Father.

Accept God’s gift to you this Christmastide, and through Jesus the Firstborn may you present yourselves to the Lord, growing in holiness, goodness, and all spiritual blessings, as you give thanks to God for His love, mercy, and indescribable grace. Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Therefore, in View of God's Mercy

Text: Romans 11:33 - 12:8

A FEW YEARS AGO SHORTLY before Thanksgiving I received a donation request from a famous secular charity. Over and over it said that November was the time of year to "give thanks"-- or maybe it was, "be thankful"; I don’t precisely remember which--and therefore I should "give thanks" by giving a healthy amount to their cause.

It was and is a worthy cause, I’m not disputing that. But it struck me how the writer kept talking about us "giving thanks," but seemed to turn himself inside so as not to imply there was anyone or any Being we should give thanks to. It didn’t even seem important that the potential giver should be able to think of anything specific that he or she was thankful for. Thankfulness seemed to be an emotion or a state of mind unconnected with anything or anybody in particular, but seeing as how everyone was in America was supposed to feel that way in November, it would be really, really nice if we’d "give thanks" by being thankful with our money and write a check to this charity.

That may be enough for the worthy causes of this world, tapping into an emotion of thankfulness so we’re thankful with our cash or our volunteer service or whatever. But when it comes to the One who alone is worthy of honor, glory, worship, thanks, and praise, when it comes to Almighty God, it’s not enough simply to be thankful with, we have to be thankful for, and thankful to.

In other words, the Thank Offering we receive today is not something that stands by itself, a project that the women of the church do because it’s a good idea and a helpful thing to do. No, it is a joyful response to our Lord and God, for who He is and what He has done for us. It should be offered in view of His mercy.

St. Paul leads us in praise starting in verse 33 of the eleventh chapter of his letter to the Romans. He says, "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!" We can never reach the bottom of what God has to give and what He knows and what He does with His knowledge. There is no way we can figure out what God does and why He does it. We cannot poke, prod, weigh, measure, analyze or comprehend the Triune God and His ways. We can only fall at His feet and give Him the thanks and praise He deserves.

This is true of everything God is and everything He does. But it’s especially true of the amazing salvation He accomplished for us in Jesus Christ. This doxology is the thanks and praise called for by the vision of God’s grace that Paul lays out for us in the first eleven chapters of his letter.

In the first three chapters of Romans the Apostle, writing in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, shows us just how sinful we all are. We are all guilty before God. We’re all lawbreakers, we all deserve the sentence of everlasting death for offending against His holiness.

Wait a minute! Aren’t we pretty nice people? But pretty nice people think and do very wicked things every day of our lives. If we believe God should overlook our sin and not pass judgement upon us, it’s because our sin has blinded us to God’s overwhelming holiness. God could’ve decided to finish the job He started in the days of Noah and wipe humanity from the face of the earth and He’d have every right to.

But the thing is, He didn’t. From the middle of chapter 3 on through chapter 8, the Holy Spirit reveals how the one true and righteous God not only let us, the guilty, live, He also made it possible for us to live forever in blessedness with Him-- by sacrificing His beloved only-begotten Son Jesus Christ in our place. And all we have to do is accept that free gift by faith. And that isn’t a work of our own, for even the faith to accept His grace is another free gift from Almighty God.

Chapter 9 up to verse 33 in chapter 11 is all about God’s mercy in opening up this wonderful salvation to us Gentiles. He didn’t have to. He could’ve restricted it to His chosen people, the Jews. Instead, He has grafted us together with faithful Israel in one living tree, rooted in Christ and bearing fruit for the glory of God!

This mercy deserves endless thanks and praise! Jesus Christ our Savior and God made all this possible by the propitiation He won for us in His blood. He voluntarily took the punishment we deserved, He makes us adopted daughters and sons of God, and now shares with us the inheritance that by all rights belonged to Him alone. As Charles Wesley wrote in his hymn "And Can It Be?":

He left his Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace.
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For, O my God, it found out me!

How unsearchable are the judgements of God! How impossible it is for us mere humans to trace out His paths! It doesn’t make a bit of logical sense that our God would do what He did for us, but He did it.

And He did it without consulting you or me and it’s a good thing for us He did not. As Paul says, "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor?" Some people think they could’ve given God better advice about how to be reconciled with humanity. They say they can do without Christ on the bloody cross. They try a hundred other ways to get into God’s favor; they say No Thanks to the free gift God gave humankind on Calvary and they try to earn their way to God on their own. But we who have been saved by the blood of that cross, we don’t understand it, either, but that only fills us with more admiration, thankfulness, and praise.

But is our thanksgiving designed to try to pay God back? Is that our obligation, to try to reciprocate His great and immeasurable gift to us? No, God is so great and glorious and mighty; what Jesus did for us is so rich and powerful, trying to even things up with God with our thanks would be incredibly foolish and futile and even insulting. We know that. For as Paul says in verse 35, "Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?"

No one has ever given anything to God, to put the almighty Lord of the universe in his or her debt. No one could ever counsel God on how and where and when and how He should do things.

How could we? For everything comes from Him, including us, everything comes through Him, and everything goes to praise Him. That is the where and how and why of everything that is made. All glory belongs to God forever. God is the reason we have everything to be thankful for, and He is the One we are thankful to. And so, He gives us the privilege and opportunity to be thankful with.

So we come to verse 1 of chapter 12: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers [and sisters] in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-- this is your spiritual [or reasonable] act of worship." And in verse 2, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." With our bodies and minds God enables us to give thanks to Him for His awe-inspiring mercy, wherein the eternal and innocent Son of God died to make us who were God’s enemies into His friends and children.

This phrase, "in view of God’s mercy, . . . offer" is so important! A lot of people say they don’t need to bother with theology and doctrine, they’re too busy loving Christ and serving Him. But friends, we can’t love and serve Christ if we don’t know Who He is and what He’s done for us! When we understand the teaching about how Jesus Christ died on a cross for our sins and rose again for our life, that’s what fills us with the gratitude and love that drives us to give and to serve! Otherwise, we’re loving and serving a Christ we’ve made up in our own heads! It is in view of the mercy of God in sending His Son into this world to die in our place, that we offer our bodies and minds in thankfulness to Him! God in His mercy has incorporated us into the body of His Son, in His mercy He by His Holy Spirit is renewing our minds more and more to be like the mind of Christ, and equally due to His mercy we can show our thanks with all He has given us.

A minute ago I said something about serving Christ. Strictly speaking, that is just a figure of speech. Do you realize that neither you nor I or any human being can directly serve God? Again as Paul says, "Who has ever given to God, that God should repay Him?" Rather, we serve God by serving our neighbor, particularly our brothers and sisters in the Church. And so we take up offerings like today’s, to serve our neighbor through ministries of education, health, nutrition, job-training, evangelism, and more. We are thankful with our money for the sake of others, because God in His riches and wisdom and knowledge has been so overwhelmingly generous to us.

But we see here in our verses from Romans 12 how our thankful response transcends mere money. A check or a few volunteer hours may be enough for a secular charity; our God expects us to show our gratitude with our very lives. God has given everyone of us gifts to be thankful with for the good of the Church and the world. God’s spiritual gifts are given not to bring glory to us who have them, but to be a means for us to show our gratitude for God’s mercy in Christ towards us.

It’s striking how Paul prefaces his exhortation about the gifts; he says: "For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you." This phrase, "measure of faith" . . . since the passage concerns the distribution of gifts for service, could this imply that God gives different amounts of trust in Him to different people, such that if, say, you find that your faith is small, your thankfulness through service can be small, too? No, God does not leave us that excuse for practical ingratitude. Rather, "the measure of faith" God gives us is the yardstick of the one faith of the Church, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was raised on the third day and appeared to many faithful witness, and that He will return on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead. Seeing the mercy of God displayed in the humility and victory of Christ, how can we think of boasting in our spiritual gifts, as if we had made them or earned them or as if we had them for our benefit and not for the sake of others? When we show our thankfulness through word or act or material possessions, we’re using only what God has given us to be thankful with.

But He has given us wonderful gifts of grace to be thankful with, and He has given us His marvellous mercy in Christ Jesus to be thankful for and Himself to be thankful to. It doesn’t really take a spiritual gifts survey to find out what your gift is: If there is something that gives you joy in the Lord as you do it, if it builds up the church and you simply must do or burst, where you sense the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding and aiding you as you serve, where you see others as well as yourself overflowing with thanksgiving to God as you engage in that activity or skill, that is a gift of grace you have been given for the sake of Christ’s one body, the Church.

It is good for us to be thankful with our money, as with the offering today. It is better still to be thankful with our lives, our bodies offered as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, and our minds transformed and renewed to agree more and more with the mind of Jesus Christ. In this way God gives us more and more to be thankful to Him for, as we test and approve His good, pleasing, and perfect will, and so He gives us more and more to be thankful with. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things: To the one Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to Him be the glory forever! Amen.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Battle Is the Lord's*

Texts: 1 Samuel 14:47; 1 Timothy 6:12a; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; Ephesians 6:12; Hebrews 3:12, 12:1a & 2; 1 John 2:14b; 2 Timothy 2:22

TOBY, I WANT TO READ YOU something from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It’s from Part Two, the place where Faramir, Captain of Gondor, takes Frodo and Sam into protective custody in the Forest of Ithilien. Faramir is expressing his hopes for future of Gondor and its capital city, Minas Tirith, even as the Dark Lord Sauron prepares to make total war against the Free Peoples of Middle Earth. He says:

For myself, I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens . . . War must be, while we defend ourselves against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.**

Toby, these past few months, I’ve come to know you as a warrior for the cause of our Lord Jesus Christ and His holy Church. So I charge you, as St. Paul charged Timothy, "Fight the good fight of the faith." Defend your flock against the destroyer who would devour all. Make war against the world, the flesh, and the devil. And as you do, fight not for the excitement of battle, struggle not for your own glory and honor, but for the glory and praise of Jesus Christ and the building up of His City on earth.

Toby, I charge you to fight the good fight against the world and everything in our culture that stands opposed to Jesus Christ and His Church. Bind to your heart as a breastplate the words of 2 Corinthians 10, where St. Paul says, "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." Fearlessly, constantly preach Christ and Him crucified. With all your skill, wield the double-edged sword of the word of God, so your people and your peers may see how it judges and reveals the thoughts and attitudes of man. And remember, you are in the world but not of it. Exercise godly discernment. Fight against the temptation to take sides for or against an issue according to human factions and understandings. Make war on our culture’s sinful tendency to identify Jesus Christ with any human cause or commonwealth, however noble or great. Struggle against the world for the world’s own sake, boldly proclaiming the Gospel of peace through the shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I charge you to strengthen your congregation to fight with you. Arm them with wisdom and grace in the Holy Spirit, that they may prevail against the destroyer who would devour all. Especially in the present economic distress, train them to base their confidence not in material things, but on the Rock of Refuge that is Christ alone. In your war together against the world, I charge you to guard them and yourself against earthly pride. There must be no lording it over other sinners in need of God’s grace, and no thought that the victory is up to you. Remember always: He is the Lamb victorious, Christ the Son of God. In this faith, I charge you to fight, for the battle is the Lord’s.

Toby, I charge you to make war on those attitudes and proclivities that would undermine the Church and her calling to exalt Jesus Christ, especially here at Jefferson Center, in Beaver-Butler Presbytery, and in the Presbyterian Church (USA). When you engage in conflicts with those who live as enemies of the Gospel, do not let it become personal. For as Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." Make war against legalism, libertinism, and laziness in doctrine and practice. Take your stand against cowardice and covetousness in pulpit and pew. Defend the weak, rescue the perishing, build up the saints in the virtues of our Lord Jesus Christ, love both the loveable and the unlovely as Christ has loved you. Lift high the Cross, bow low at the feet of Him who hung on it, and live in hope of the resurrection He has promised all His saints. For, for the joy set before Him our Lord endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Fight in hope for His Church, for the battle is the Lord’s.

And Toby, I charge you to fight against yourself, against your own sin of mind, flesh, and will that so easily entangles. In your personal life, be strong and overcome the evil one by the word of God that lives in you. Flee to it, cling to it, make the word of God your stronghold and high tower, for by it you will find sure refuge in Jesus Christ, the living Word. Be a loving and faithful husband to your wife, and a gentle, just, and strong father to your children. Make war on the temptation to put them second, third, last after your duties and obligations to the church. Be a loyal friend to your colleagues in ministry, as we build one another up in our common faith. Be accountable to others, for without companionship in the Lord, you will surely fall. Again as St. Paul advises Timothy, "Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart." In all you do, lift up the love of Christ as your banner. Before that blood-marked standard the forces of the devil flee, for the battle is the Lord’s.

Toby, I charge you to make of yourself a sharp and shining sword in the hand of the Lord, reforged from brokenness in the fires of the Holy Spirit, ready to be unsheathed by your King. And remember, it is not you who wield Jesus Christ; no, your Captain the Son of God wields you.

Toby, I return you to the passage from Tolkien I opened with. I charge you to look beyond this noble fiction to the marvellous reality we are promised in Jesus Christ. As you fight the good fight, may your every desire be for the day when the white-clad company of the saints will stand like trees blossoming in the court of the King of kings, and the Lamb of God be crowned with many crowns, and the New Jerusalem descend in peace from heaven. Fight such that the Church may be full of light, high and fair, the beautiful and queenly bride of Christ her Savior. As you defend her against the destroyer who would devour all things, love not the battle for its own sake, or your skill in spiritual combat for your own glory. Before God and this company I charge you: Love earnestly the City of the children of God, the Church of Jesus Christ; and above all, love the Lord who rules in her. Love Him for the living memory of what He has done, for His eternal Sonship with the Father, and for His wisdom, light, and love as He justifies us, sanctifies us, and glorifies us by His grace. Fear Him, pledge your best allegiance to Him; in all your warfare, trust utterly in Him. And in Him, with Him, and through Him, this same Jesus Christ will give you the victory, for the battle is the Lord’s.

*Charge to the Pastor, preached at the installation of the Rev. Toby Brown, Jefferson Center Presbyterian Church, Saxonburg, Pennsylvania

**J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Part Two: The Two Towers, Ballantine Books, New York, 1965, p. 355

Sunday, October 5, 2008

God's Unworldly Peace

Texts: Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

TODAY IS WORLD COMMUNION SUNDAY. On this day it’s nice to think of people all over the world, sitting down together in peace and justice at the Lord’s Table, sharing in the communion of our Lord Jesus Christ.

At the same time, we know that peace and justice are in short supply in this world. We’d better get busy and make them happen, right? After all, isn’t is all up to us? God is sitting back on His throne waiting and watching for us to get it right. And we will get it right, won’t we? We just have to lobby and legislate and conference and connect and do all those earthly things sincerely enough. If we can just come up with the right program, peace will come, justice will reign, and like the old song says, we’ll "teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." And God the Father will pat us on the back and tell us how wonderful we are to have accomplished all this; in fact, He’ll tell us He couldn’t have done it half so well Himself.

Time out! Did you believe one word of that? I hope not! I hope you were saying to yourself, "She’s got to be putting us on. Anybody who’s got any sense at all knows you can’t bring in universal harmony and justice and world peace by legislation and policies and thinking happy thoughts! Things are too complicated for that!"

If that’s what you were thinking, you were absolutely right. Things in this world are too complicated for that. We can’t usher in universal peace by imposing it from the outside by our human efforts. And we certainly can’t get everyone in the world to sit down in fellowship together by pretending our differences don’t matter, by overlooking all the very real disagreements and differences human beings have between each other. The peace of God does not come to the world by way of human effort, not even by the human effort of loving Christians like you and me. We do not have everything under control here. If there is going to be universal peace when some wonderful day all people will enjoy sweet communion with one another, it’s going to have to come from Someone else.

True peace does come from Someone else, and it comes in a way this world would never suspect, through a cross and a grave that was filled for three days and has been empty ever since.

It’s ironic that one of the lectionary readings today should be this one from 21st chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Our denomination is urging us to take today to think about peacemaking, and the Gospel lesson is all about violence and conflict! It’s full of thefts, beatings, murder, and retribution, all over fruit from a vineyard. But through--not in spite of-- all this, this parable of our Lord gives us the key to the peace, justice, and prosperity that will one day bring all the world to fellowship at one table.

Jesus begins, "Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard." All His listeners would know that the vineyard stood for the nation of Israel. You can read in Isaiah especially how God’s chosen people were the vineyard He had planted, and how He expected the fruit of righteousness and obedience from them.

Jesus continues, "Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey." Just like the landowner in Jesus’ parable, God delegated responsibility and authority over His people to their judges and kings, their prophets and priests. It was up to these civil and religious leaders to set a good example of righteousness and make sure that the people did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. They were accountable to God to teach and lead Israel so that the nation would reflect the glory of God and cause His name to be exalted among the Gentiles. Jesus’ hearers knew that, too.

But did they? No, you read the Old Testament from Judges to Malachi and it’s one continuous history of conniving kings and pandering priests. Even the prophets, the men and women the Lord sent to call Israel back to His law, more often then not prophesied for money and standing, and perverted the Word of the Lord. And when, as Jesus says in His parable, God the vineyard owner sent His true servants the godly prophets to call for the fruit of righteousness, the tenants, that is, the religious and civil leaders, had them beaten, stoned, and killed.

What if Jesus had wound up His parable by saying, "But things are better now. The chief priests and Pharisees are zealous for the Law. They’re leading the people well, they’re perfect examples of peace and justice, and they’re giving God all the honor and glory He’s due"? No one would have complained about that, the chief priests and Pharisees least of all.

But that’s not what Jesus said. He goes on with His parable like this: "Last of all, he [that is, the vineyard owner] sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said." He describes how those tenants, who everyone knows are the religious and civil leaders of Israel, determine to kill the Owner’s son, how they think that if they do that, they won’t even have to answer to the Owner any more, that the vineyard somehow will become theirs. Maybe they’re thinking the rule of adverse possession will kick in, maybe they think they’re so powerful nobody could come and arrest them for this crime, maybe they’re just deluding themselves. However it was, Jesus depicts these tenants, these leaders as trying to make the vineyard totally theirs.

And that’s ironic, too. Because when the Pharisees first got started as a movement, they did a pretty good job of looking after God’s vineyard. After the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, they led the charge to keep the Jewish nation free from the idol worship and scriptural ignorance that got the people removed from their land in the first place. Eventually, though, they stopped being concerned for God and what He said was due to Him, and focussed more on how they thought things should be. Oh, yes, they’d still tell you they wanted to bring in the kingdom of God, but it was by their methods, their techniques, their rules. And ultimately, it was for their glory, not for the glory of God.

But, Jesus says, the Owner isn’t finished. He doesn’t stay away and let the wicked tenants have the vineyard now that his son was dead. "Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those wretches?"

His hearers said, "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time."

Exactly. That’s the way things would work in their earthly economy, and even more, that’s how it would work in the judgement of God. Jesus caps His story by quoting a couple verses from Psalm 118. He says, "Have you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?" Of course they’d all read that. They’d known that since synagogue school when they were little kids. These verses just rub in the point about something valuable that’s rejected by those who are supposed to be responsible for putting things together. The builders look like fools, but the Lord takes this rejected stone, and makes it the chief element in the whole building and makes everyone marvel at what He alone has done. The rejected son may have been thrown out and killed in the vineyard parable, but the rejected stone does not stay rejected: it brings shame to the builders and glory to God.

And here is our Lord’s conclusion to the matter: The kingdom of God will be taken away from the irresponsible, ungodly leaders and from the faithless people. It will be given, He says, to a people who will produce its fruit. And the rejected stone will bring judgement and destruction upon those who run afoul of it.

But that was hitting way too close to home for the chief priests and Pharisees in the crowd. Verse 45 tells us they knew good and well Jesus was talking about them and their misconduct when He told this parable. And they didn’t like it one bit. They didn’t like the way Jesus was obviously making Himself out to be the son of the vineyard owner, the Son of God. They didn’t like how He was claiming to be the capstone of the nation. Matthew tells us, "They looked for a way to arrest him."

Ironic, right? It’s like they were determined to make the parable come true, by putting the One who claimed to be the Son of God to death. They refused to take warning and change their attitudes and their ways, and so they fell on the Stone which is Christ, to be broken to pieces.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day did not profit from Jesus’ teaching. But we don’t have to be like that. We can hear, and heed, and become part of the people who will produce fruit for God in His kingdom. We can be the nation that can offer the world true peace in Jesus Christ and invite men and women everywhere to sit down in holy communion at His Table.

Do you want that to be true about you? Then hear what our Lord Jesus says. He says that God is the landowner, not us. His is the kingdom, and power, and the glory, not ours. We hear about the kingdom of God, but if we think that’s something we can bring in by our own efforts, we make the same mistake the chief priests and Pharisees did. For what is the kingdom of God? It is that state of affairs where God is totally in charge, beginning with your heart and mine. It’s a state of peace, justice, and righteousness that only God can give. On this earth it hasn’t come completely or fully yet, and Jesus says that God gives the kingdom of God on this earth to those who humbly acknowledge that it is a gift, and not something they earn or own by right or title. It’s lent as a trust to those who will produce its fruit, the kind of fruit we read about in Galatians chapter 5:22-23. And the greatest of these fruits is total dependence upon God and His ways.

We do not bring forth the fruit of God by using the methods of the world. We give God His due by giving up our human control and abandoning own human schemes--however religious or spiritual they might be-- and turning the ownership of our lives and efforts over to Him.

And isn’t that what St. Paul is saying in our Philippians passage? If any man could claim to be the perfect tenant of God’s vineyard strictly going on his religious pedigree and accomplishments, Saul of Tarsus was that man. But he used his religious power to persecute the church! And let his knowledge of the law convince him He knew better than God.

But our Lord Jesus Christ in His mercy put to death the wretch that was Saul of Tarsus and caused him to be born again by the power of the Holy Spirit as Paul the Apostle. It became Paul’s only goal to produce the fruit of the kingdom in himself and in others, not in his own strength, not through his own righteousness, but through Jesus Christ who had taken hold of him and claimed Paul for His own.

What is true peace, in this world and the world to come? As it says in verses 10 and 11 of Philippians 3, it is to "know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead."

That’s not the kind of peace this fallen world wants or desires. But it’s the only lasting peace God our Father has to give. In Christ’s sufferings we find comfort, in His death we find justice, and in His resurrection we find peace forever more.

On this World Communion Sunday, we can have a foretaste of the first fruits of that great banquet, when people will come from east and west and north and south and sit down at table in the kingdom of God. Each and every time we meet as a church anywhere in the world and set aside bread and wine from a common use to a holy use and mystery in Christ’s name, we join in God’s peace with our brothers and sisters of all times and all places, the peace won for us through Jesus’ violent death and earth-shattering resurrection.

To know Jesus Christ is to know peace, for He is the Prince of Peace. As good tenants of His vineyard and joyful citizens of His kingdom, let us come to His table and share in Him, the Son of God, the Living Stone, and our only spiritual bread.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Our Perception, God's Reality

Texts: Psalm 46; Luke 24:13-35

THERE’S AN EXPRESSION OUT THERE in the world: "Perception Is Reality." I’m sure you’ve heard it. You may even have had it aimed at you. The idea is, it doesn’t matter if something is true or not, if people think it’s true, it may as well be true.

"Perception Is Reality": We see this idea work in the world in economics. The economy may actually be in pretty good shape, but if enough people think it’s bad, they’ll act like it’s bad. We see it in politics. A politician may be a very wise man, but if the Press catches him in a momentary error, the public can perceive him as stupid and treat him as stupid, and never listen to him again.

We see it operating in the world in our jobs. I once served a church in a tiny village in the Midwest, where the executive presbyter told me I should always drive wherever I went, even if only for a block or two, because if anyone saw my car parked at the manse, he said they’d think I wasn’t working. That would jeopardize my ministry, he said, because after all, "Perception Is Reality." And I’m sure you can supply examples of this from your own job.

We see "Perception Is Reality" at work in the world in our relationships. How many couples get married, how many get divorced, how many parents and children become estranged and alienated from one another, due to perceptions each had of the other that might or might not have been true? But when they were in the middle of the situation, it didn’t matter whether their impressions were true, because, after all, "Perception Is Reality."

I hope you noticed: we’re not talking about true perception at all. True perception has to do with really getting to the bottom of things, truly discerning what’s going on. But this kind of "perception" is all about making up our minds by what appears on the surface.

That’s the way we naturally operate in the world. Our whole human-based world system says we should trust the testimony of our senses and feelings, whether we have the facts straight about the matter or if our conclusions are based on a lie. It’s the way of this world to make lies into the truth, or rather, to make decisions about people and things and act on them as if lies were the truth.

But it’s not the way of the Lord our God. And it shouldn’t be our way as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. As followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, we should look to God’s truth, to God’s reality, regardless of what our senses and feelings tell us. For His reality is the only firm ground we have to stand on in this shifting and shaking world.

This is especially true in times of disaster, difficulty, and grief. If Perception is truly Reality, when things go wrong we’d have every right to question God and His goodness and power. "Where is God? Why doesn’t He help me? How can these things happen and a loving, all-powerful God still be in control?" But our human perception is not God’s reality; and if we act as if it is, we’ll miss the comfort and benefits that our Lord would give us in distressing times.

Psalm 46, verses 2 and 3 describe a situation where we might well be tempted to let our human perception influence our view of God. The earth caving in under us! Whole mountains sliding into the sea! Tidal waves in the ocean, undermining and toppling more mountains! Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nothing trustworthy we can see.

When I read these verses, I can’t help but think of events in our recent history.

Like seven years ago, when the mountains of the World Trade Center towers came peeling down like monstrous gray mouldy bananas. And three years ago, when New Orleans and the whole Gulf Coast were inundated, washed away by the wind and water of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Whether we want to or not, we haven’t forgotten and we do remember. We remember loved ones lost, injuries suffered, property and livelihoods wrecked and ruined. Such disasters happen; they happen to us, they happen to people we love, and to people we come to love, when we go to help them pick up the pieces.

When things like this happen the follower of Christ does not rely on his human perceptions. No, he says with the psalmist, "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble." God is our help, even while we’re trapped in the burning tower. He’s our comfort even as the waters are rising and we’re trying to break a hole through our attic roof. He’s there with His hand holding ours even when we learn our teenaged son or daughter has a drug problem, even as the doctor tells us our cancer is terminal. Even at the moment of our death, right there in the midst of trouble, God’s reality is that He is our refuge and strength. Despite what seems like every reason to fear, His truth is that we need not fear at all. He is wholly trustworthy and will never fail us at all.

Some people might say, "What’s the use of that? I’m still in pain, I’m still going through agony, I’m still in distress." Is trust in God just wishful thinking? No, because the trustworthiness of God depends on His eternal character, on who and what He is. He is the Most High, the creator of heaven and earth. He made us to love and worship Him, not just in the time of our earthly lives, but all through eternity. God is He who calls us into covenant with Him and brings us to dwell with Him in His holy city. These verses 4 and 5 are partially talking about the earthly city of Jerusalem, as it was known in the days of the Sons of Korah. But they look beyond that to the eternal Jerusalem that will never be shaken and can never fall. Nations may be in an uproar, kingdoms will fall, but the Lord protects His city and His citizens day after day and forever. He is not controlled by the evil forces of this world: He is Lord over them and He can even use them as He wills to bring us safe through fire and flood and disaster to the holy place where we will dwell always with Him.

We can rely on God’s trustworthy reality despite our human perceptions because He is not a tame god. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not a nice god.

Does that shock you? But think about it. If by "nice" we mean being a pushover, God is not nice. If by "nice" we mean overlooking things that are wrong because He doesn’t want to offend anyone, God is not nice. If by "nice’ we mean He just wants everyone to be happy and satisfied, no matter what we do to each other or to Him, no, God is not nice.

The Lord God is not nice, but He is good. He is good with the purifying goodness that sees sin as a parasite on His creation and judges our sin for our own good. As it says in verse 8, He is good with the overwhelming goodness that will allow hardship and even desolation to come into our lives, if that’s what it takes to get our attention. He is good with the fear-inspiring goodness that commands our foolish warfare to cease, that makes us stop babbling about our shallow perceptions and start facing up to His awesome reality.

These verses 9 and 10 remind me of a fight going on among a group of squabbling children, and dad or the principal walks in and everything just goes quiet. Suddenly whatever it was they were fighting over is no longer important; the important thing is that they have incurred the righteous wrath of their father. His presence straightens out their perceptions. What’s odd thing is how some people misquote verse 10, and show how sinful and human their perception is still. They quote it, "Be still and know," period, the end. Do they believe we can magically gain wisdom simply by quieting ourselves, maybe by practicing some form of meditation? Be still and know what?

But the verse actually reads "Be still, and know that I [the Lord] am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth."

This Scripture has nothing to do with anything we can do for ourselves or perceive for ourselves; it has everything to do with God breaking in from outside of Creation and replacing our misperceptions with His rock-solid reality. Do we think God is somehow low and ordinary until we exalt Him, as if human praises were the gas burner in a hot air balloon? Oh, no, friends, God will be exalted because He is the Exalted One. Exaltation is simply the response His reality commands and deserves. In these days, it is given to us His people to truly perceive something of His praiseworthy power and glory. But there will come a day when all peoples of the earth, all nations will perceive and recognize that He is high and lifted up, and give Him the honor and praise that He deserves.

In the meantime, we who belong to Him, we who bear His name can be confident that no matter what happens, no matter what our perceptions might be, "The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress." He is called the "God of Jacob," for by that name we are reminded of the covenant He made with His chosen people Israel. We are the heirs of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham, and the promises God made to them He also makes with and keeps to us.

We inherit those promises through the new covenant sealed in the blood of His Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Whenever your perception tempts you to doubt God’s faithful reality, remember what happened on the Road to Emmaus. Cleopas and the other disciple thought their perception was reality. Once, they’d perceived that Jesus might be the Messiah, but that’d been destroyed by His crucifixion. So they replaced it with another human perception, that their hope in Jesus was over and done and they may as well give up and go home.

But our Lord comes alongside them and replaces their faulty human perceptions with God’s perfect reality: "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?" Yes, He did. It was ordained for our Lord to die for our sins and to be raised for our life. The death of Jesus Christ calls us truly to perceive God’s view of our situation. For whatever sorrow or trouble we might experience in this world, our worst trouble is our own rebellion and warfare against God. It was always planned by God that the sacrifice of Jesus the Lamb of God would propitiate the wrath that God justifiably felt against our sin. God had willed from the beginning that the heinous murder of the incarnate Son of God, the worst disaster in human history, should result in the greatest and most lasting and most glorious blessing for the children of Man, eternal life and unity with God.

The crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord call us to recognise how God brought life out of death, strength out of weakness, and joy out of sorrow. The world’s perception could never discern that divine reality, not in a million years. We could never perceive it, if the Holy Spirit did not invade our lives and turn us from our own lying perceptions to God’s holy reality. We need to be still and know how Jesus willingly allowed Himself to be judged for our sins that we might become citizens of God’s holy city. Our perception must be divinely cleared and corrected, that we might recognize the risen Christ and enter His presence and have fellowship with Him.

The beautiful thing is, Jesus Himself makes sure this happens. He will not appear physically and walk with us along the road. But He gives us His Scriptures, that tell of Him from Genesis to Revelation. And He gives us His Holy Sacraments, where we can truly perceive Him in the living waters of Baptism and the bread and cup of Holy Communion. He is here with us, guarding us, guiding us, redeeming us. Our human perception does not create that divine reality. Rather, the Lord Himself has promised that He will be present in the witness of His Word and in the breaking of the Bread. The Holy Spirit blesses our hearing of Christ’s Word and the receiving of His Body and Blood, sanctifying our perception, that we may lay hold of the truth that is our crucified and risen Lord.

Human perception is not necessarily reality, and believing a lie does not make it the truth. But beyond all our limited perceptions lies the reality of God: Who He is, What He is, and what He has done for us in Jesus Christ. Be still, and know that the Lord is God. He will be exalted among the nations, He will be exalted in the earth. And may His holy Church say amen, and praise and glorify Him with confidence and joy, now and forever.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Revelation, Recognition, and Reckoning

Texts: Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 10:5-17; Matthew 16:13-20

HOW WELL DO WE KNOW the men who are running for President of the United States this year? One candidate, we know a great deal about his public career, but maybe not so much about his private life. The other candidate, we’re still learning who he is as a policy-maker and as a private citizen. One thing good about the way our American presidential campaigns seem to go on and on, it’s more likely that we’ll find out what we need to know about the candidates before the first Tuesday in November.

How are we going to find that out? I doubt any of us here know Senator McCain or Senator Obama personally.

Well, we can listen to their speeches and interviews, and to how they do in the debates this Fall. But how do we know if they really mean what they say, or if it’s all just political rhetoric?

Maybe we’ll rely on our gut feelings about how each man looks and how he carries himself. But haven’t we all known times when somebody who seemed really impressive at first turned out to be a real disappointment? How are we going to get to the real, honest, behind-the-scenes truth about our presidential candidates?

I guess we’ll have to rely on third party sources. Like the newspapers. And the TV news. And talk radio. And Internet bloggers. These sources have revealed a lot about these two men since they first started running-- when was it, sometime in the Teddy Roosevelt administration?-- and hopefully we’ll get enough reliable information from them before it’s time to vote.

But what do we do when there’s something we absolutely have to know about a certain Person, but there’s no earthly, human way we can find it out? What if it’s desperately important that we get a particular answer concerning this Man, and we don’t even know enough to ask the question? What if our very lives and futures--not just for the next four or eight years, but on into eternity--depend on knowing who this Man is and what He is doing? And what if the truth about Him were so cosmic, so unimaginable, that we’d never think or dream of trying to discover it for ourselves?

We’d really be stuck, wouldn’t we? Our own intellect couldn’t tell us what we needed to know. Our instincts and gut feelings couldn’t lead us to the truth. Human authorities and pundits would be no help to us at all. We’d go to our doom and die and rot in dark ignorance unless something more than human, something beyond the circles of this world comes to us and opens our minds and reveals to us the identity and true character of this most important of men.

There is a Man like that, and for the last two thousand years He has been asking men and women of every race and country, "Who do you say I, the Son of Man, am?" Jesus of Nazareth confronts us with His person and His work and demands that human beings confess and acknowledge who and what we understand Him to be. Our whole fate into eternity depends on getting the answer right, and our of our own human knowledge and initiative we never, ever can.

But, we protest, is it really like that? After all, isn’t Jesus like our presidential candidates? Can’t we just be reasonable about Him, too, if we’re deciding if this Man Jesus really is the Savior and Christ? It’s like, the Press gives us the information about the candidates, we make a choice. Same way, the Bible tells us about the teachings and miracles of Jesus, and we say, "Yes, on that evidence, our reason tells us that He is the Messiah and Lord of all." Isn’t it as simple as that?

Afraid not. In our passage in Matthew 16, Jesus and His disciples are making a retreat in the hills around Caesarea Philippi. As they sit there, Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Could they honestly answer that the people recognised Him for who and what He really was? No! All those crowds had heard the glorious teaching from Jesus’ lips. The people has seen the miracles our Lord performed. Countless many of them had benefitted from His wonders themselves. Did the crowds get the answer to Jesus’ question right?

No. The disciples had to answer, "Some say you’re John the Baptist raised from the dead. Other people say you’re Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets, brought back to life." The people had all the evidence about Jesus right in front of them, but their reason and gut feelings and human ability all rolled up together could never bring them to the deep truth of who the Son of Man is.

But then Jesus says to His disciples, "But who do you say the Son of Man is?"
And Simon Peter immediately declares, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!"

No human reasoning could have brought Peter to that conclusion. For one thing, Peter as a good Jew, who knew good and well that the Lord, the living God of Israel, does not have sons and daughters the way the pagan so-called gods were said to. The idea was totally beyond his imagining. But he declared it: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!" and it was the eternal truth. As John Calvin puts it, "Though Peter did not yet understand distinctly in what way Christ was the begotten of God, he was so fully persuaded of the dignity of Christ, that he believed Him to come from God, not like other men, but by the inhabitation of the true and living Godhead in His flesh."

How did Peter know? How was he persuaded? Jesus says this: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven!" God alone, by the power of His Holy Spirit, was able to reveal to Peter and the other disciples who and what Jesus of Nazareth was and is and always will be. Not the opinion of the crowd, not the judgement of the religious leaders, not even the reasoning of Peter’s own mind could have brought him to recognise that truth, only the revelation of the Father in heaven.

Our Lord goes on to say, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."

The name "Peter" means "a rock," like we might call someone "Rocky." So is our Lord now saying that He will build His salvation community, His church, on the flesh-and-blood man Peter? Some Bible interpreters think so, and they give pretty persuasive answers why. But others point out that everywhere in Scripture only God is described as the Rock of our salvation, and upon Him alone must we ground our faith, for by Him alone we are saved. Jesus has just blessed Peter for recognising what His Father in heaven has revealed to him, and does Christ now undo that and give His glory to a mortal man, however enlightened? Does He say, "You are Peter, Rocky, and on you I will build my church?" No, our Lord says, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church," that is, upon the Holy Spirit-revealed recognition and declaration that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Jesus says, "The gates of Hades"-- all the powers of death and the grave-- "will not prevail against" His church. How will He effect this? He says to Peter: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

This word "you" is indeed singular. For Peter is the first representative of how God would use His power on earth to open the kingdom of heaven to mankind. Peter was the first in the church to receive God’s revelation of Christ as God and to confess that it is so. Peter was appointed by God to be the first to preach the word of Christ crucified for our sins and risen for our new life, on the day of Pentecost when he commanded the people to repent and be baptised for the remission of sins. Peter was the first to declare to the Jewish authorities that the name of Jesus Christ is the only one given under heaven by which we must be saved. He was the first to enter a Gentile’s home and open up to him and his household the riches of grace that seemed to be reserved for the Jews.

In all these things, Peter uses the power of the keys, which is nothing less than the preaching of the Word of God, calling people to believe and be saved. It is by the preaching of the Word of God that the Holy Spirit opens the minds of sinners and reveals the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Peter was the first to do this, but he was not the last. What does it say in our Romans passage? "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" For "faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ." Through the preaching of the Word the Lord our God goes on revealing to His elect people who and what His Son Jesus Christ is, and what He has accomplished on our behalf. With His Word preached comes the blessing of His Holy Spirit, to bring people from unbelief to belief, from self-righteousness to the righteousness of God.

But with this revelation there comes a reckoning. The Word of God preached can bind as well as loose. For as Paul says in Romans, "Not all have obeyed our good news." When the word of God is preached, not everyone recognises that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. They go on thinking He’s only a human prophet. Or a Great Teacher. Or a Good Moral Example whom they can come up to, if they just try hard enough. Sadly, there are those who keep wanting to pull Christ down out of heaven to their level. Others feel Jesus needs their help, as if they needed to pull Him up from the dead. At the end of days, the Word of God will witness against such people in the judgement.

In the days before Moses was born, the King of Egypt stopped recognising the greatness of Joseph. He was blind to the special blessings the Lord had laid on His chosen people, the Hebrews. In fact, he was jealous of God’s people, and set out to destroy them as a separate nation. He certainly wouldn’t have recognised anything special in the infant Moses. But God was working in the Hebrews and He was working in the life of Moses, preparing him to be the one who would reveal God to His people and to all who would recognise the Lord and believe. At the same time, the word spoken by Moses brought judgement to Pharoah and all Egypt with him.

Even more, now, God calls us to hear Him as He reveals Himself in His Son Jesus Christ through His Word read and preached. By His word He brings us to recognise Jesus Christ for who He really is, and to become like Peter, ready to confess with our mouths that Jesus is the only Lord, risen from the dead for our salvation.

It is on the rock of divine revelation recognised, confessed, and proclaimed that Jesus Christ builds His Church, such that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. God reveals Himself and opens the kingdom of heaven by the means He has established, now and forever. Not by the church’s good works. Not by praise bands or well-rehearsed choirs. Not by meetings and conferences and general assemblies. Not by dressing up or dressing down, not by candles and incense or by the latest sound systems or high-tech extravaganzas. These things can support and promote the Word-- or they can detract from it. Despite all our human devices, the God of power and might still reveals the truth of Christ in the way He always has: in the preaching of His word by fallible, erring human beings like Simon Peter, human beings who have been inspired by the Holy Spirit to confess before the world, "You, Jesus, are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

God gives this message to everyone who believes. We’re not all called to be ordained preachers, or Bible study leaders, or Sunday School teachers. But God instills in every Christian the word that is near us, on our lips and in our hearts, the word of faith that Peter and all the apostles and every faithful preacher has always proclaimed: Jesus Christ is Lord, and all who call upon His name will be saved.

Who do you say the Son of Man is? Believe the good news that your Father in heaven has revealed to you! Recognise your Savior in love and obedience, and may it always be reckoned to you as blessedness, now and in the world to come.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Great Physician's Diagnosis

Texts: Ezekiel 36:22-32; Matthew 15:1-20

WE'RE A VERY HEALTH-CONSCIOUS nation. One way we raise health awareness is by dedicating certain weeks or months to some disease or other. Like, February is National Heart Month. So all through every February the Heart Association runs public service announcements urging us to take care of our hearts. You'll hear about the symptoms of heart attack and heart disease and congestive heart failure, and always you'll be urged to go see your physician to get checked out if you're experiencing any of these.

In the same spirit, how would it be if a nonprofit action group-- let's call it the Church-- would run a PSA something like this (cue the ominous music and the caring and serious announcer):

"Sluggishness in doing good. Rebelliousness against God. Evil thoughts. Evil deeds. Murder. Adultery. Sexual immorality. Theft. False testimony. Slander. These are all symptoms of Hard and Dirty Heart. Think you don't have any of these symptoms? That's a sure sign of Pride--the most dangerous symptom of all.

"100% of all people everywhere are infected with Hard and Dirty Heart, and without treatment, the condition is 100% fatal.

"But there is hope! Make an appointment with Jesus Christ the Great Physician at your local church this coming Sunday. He has the medicine to cure Hard and Dirty Heart and make your heart clean towards God and soft towards your fellow man. Don't delay! Remember, without Jesus Christ, the death rate is 100%. With His treatment, your cure is 100% guaranteed!

"This announcement has been brought to you by the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church."

Think that'd go over on KDKA or Froggy 104? Or would the listeners think it was over the top?
They shouldn't. And we shouldn't. Of all health awareness announcements, it's the one where we can be assured that the statistics are totally accurate and the advice is sure.

Jesus Christ is known as the Great Physician. That's largely because of His healing ministry when He walked this earth. But even more, Jesus is the Great Physician because He's the only one who can diagnose our basic human sickness-- without error or mistake. He's the only doctor who can deliver an absolutely effective cure.

And every last human being is or ought to submit to His care and be His patient.

When you're a patient, you're the one being acted upon. The physician is the agent. He's the one giving the medicine, running the tests, performing the surgery. Now today, we're urged to be "partners" in our medical care, and not just patients. And to a great extent that's a good thing. But there comes a time when you're a patient, pure and simple, and there's no arguing about "partnership." When you're under anesthesia, you're not cooperating with your surgeon, it's all up to him or her.

If that's so for our human physicians, how much more is it true for the Great Physician, Jesus Christ, the Son of God!

Our reading from Ezekiel should open our eyes to the truth of this. The Lord God of Israel, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is speaking to the exiles in Babylon. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, He's also speaking to us. Notice this: all through this passage it's all about the Lord and what He will do and why He will do it. He will show the holiness of His great name. He will take His people out from among the nations and bring them back into their own land. He will make them clean. He will put His Spirit in them. He will cause their land to be prosperous. And so on and on. The Lord God is the Great Physician of His people Israel, and the only role they have as His patients is to loathe themselves for their disease, for their sins and their detestable practices.
There's a joke that goes, "What's the difference between God and a surgeon?" Answer: "God doesn't think He's a surgeon." Well, here in Ezekiel 36, the Lord God begs to differ. He is Israel's surgeon, and He's taking on their case strictly for the sake of His holy Name. With a human physician that would be insufferable. For God, it is only just and right. He alone is worthy of all honor, glory, and praise. The universe will be healthy and whole only when every creature gives God the worship due His name. But here, God's own chosen people have caused Him to be blasphemed among the Gentiles. The pagan nations were saying, "Ha! The Lord God of Israel, He isn't much! He took on that miserable people, He gave them His laws and covenants and put them in that fine and fertile land. And all they've done is disobey Him and make Him look weak! Those people were so bad, He couldn't keep His promises to them and had to kick them out of their promised land! He must not be so holy as He claims!"

Do we think we're better than our ancient ancestors the Jews? We don't dare. How often do unbelievers say that kind of thing about Christians today? Is the Lord's name profaned in the world because of our hard and dirty hearts? I'm afraid too often, it is.

But the Lord our God is holy. He is able to cure Israel of their deadly disease, and He is able to cure us. And He will do it, not for our sake, but for the sake of His holy Name, so all the nations round about, so all the unbelievers who doubt His power will know that He and He alone is the great and Sovereign Lord.

The Great Physician diagnoses our problem and its cure in verses 25 and 26. He says, "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols." The Pharisees in Jesus' day were concerned to the point of panic with ritual uncleanness: God Almighty is concerned with the dirtiness of our thoughts and deeds. Our hearts and minds are filthy with idols and their worship. True, we don't physically bow down to idols of wood and stone. But we're still idolaters. You know what idol every one of us worships every day? The idol of Self. It's the idol Satan set up in the hearts of Adam and Eve way back in the Garden of Eden, and we humans have been burning incense and making sacrifices to Ourselves as gods and goddesses ever since.

The Lord knows we need to be cured of the dread heart disease of Self and Sin, because it's 100% fatal. The Lord says in verse 26, "I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."

Think what it means to have a heart of stone. Can a heart made of stone beat? Can it pump blood through the body to keep it alive? Can it feel compassion towards its neighbor? Can it swell with joy towards its Lord and Creator? Can a heart of stone even be alive? No, no, no, no, no, and no! A heart of stone is dead. A heart of stone can do nothing, simply nothing to change or soften or cure itself.

And a heart of stone is what every man, woman, and child ever born on this planet starts out with. We all are born hard-hearted and unclean, caring only about ourselves and what will make us happy and fulfilled. And if anyone else gets in the way, watch out!

Our only hope is the merciful intervention of the Great Physician. Our only help is the Lord God making us His patient and giving us a new hearts of flesh instead of our old hearts of stone.

And here is the good news! The operation doesn't depend on me or you! The Holy Spirit comes to us while we are still dead in our sins and makes us alive in Jesus Christ. God Himself takes all the initiative, He does all the work, God in Christ suffered all the pain. The Word of God is the Great Physician's scalpel that cuts away our disease. The shed blood of Christ is the medicine that washes out our impurities and makes us healthy and whole.

The new heart God promised the house of Israel in Ezekiel 36 is the same one He gives to us-- it is the new and clean heart of Jesus Christ Himself. His heart is the one that makes us alive. His heart is the one that now beats in us with compassion towards our neighbor. His heart is the heart in us that we lift up with joy, thanks, and praise towards our Father in heaven.

Some people might say, "I don't want the new heart of Jesus Christ in me. I'm offended because God says He's going to save me only to vindicate His own holiness. I'm insulted because He says there's nothing special or good or deserving in me that forces Him to come and cure me. I'm going to be saved on my own terms, or not at all!"

Oh, you silly human! Don't you realize that you can't be saved on your own terms? Don't you understand that when the Great Physician operates on you for the sake of His holy Name, that's the best and most wonderful thing He can ever do for you?

The benefits of God's surgery were wonderful enough under the Old Covenant: Plentiful crops, prosperous towns, plentiful livestock, and a burgeoning population. Under the New Covenant in the blood of Christ, it's even better! We have gained nothing less than eternal unity with the holy heart of God! For now for Jesus Christ Himself keeps God's laws and decrees within us. Jesus Himself, by His new and clean heart working within us, does in us what is pleasing towards God, and brings us every blessing of obedience.

But there is still one big problem, of course. Our new and true heart is the heart of Jesus Christ, yes. But our old dead, dirty, stoney hearts keep wanting to push Jesus aside and go back to running the show. They tell us all sorts of deadly lies about how things can be. And here's the deadliest lie of all: It's when our old sinful hearts whisper, "Hey, I've got it under control! Jesus has saved you, but now I can handle it by myself! I can keep God happy with you. I'll just use Jesus as a Good Example and make sure you keep all the rules about how to be good and acceptable to God, no sweat! Whaddya say?"

This is a lie from the pit of Hell. This was the false cure the Pharisees were perpetrating in Jesus' day. They thought they were the nation's spiritual physicians, but their prescription was all wrong. They thought people could be holy before God by following outward rules. Wash your hands a certain way before you eat! Set up a trust to send all your spare cash to the temple fund, even if it means Mom and Dad will starve! No, you can not haz cheezburger--that's milk and beef in the same meal! The Pharisees were pushing all these outward practices like magic pills to make the people pleasing to the Lord. They'd totally forgotten that the outward laws and ordinances given through Moses were always about what a person was like on the inside. It was always about having a clean and loving heart before God and man. The ceremonial laws were never supposed to be a substitute for true inward spiritual health. But that's what the Pharisees had made of them.

Jesus calls the Pharisees "blind guides." He could've called them "quack doctors," too. He told Peter and the other disciples not to follow them, and He tells us, His modern-day disciples, the same thing. We don't need rules and regimens for holy living, we need the radical heart surgery performed exclusively by the Great Physician, Jesus Christ.

Once Jesus has done His work in us, the only follow-up directive is for us to wholly rely on Him. He is in us, by His Spirit, living His pure life of obedience within us and through us. Always, continually, refer all your troubles, all your temptations, all your fears back to Him and His finished work on the Cross. He will make sure that the fruit of a clean heart, like pure thoughts, affirmation of life, faithfulness, sexual purity, respect for others' property, truthfulness, gracious speech, and every other virtue-- that all these will proceed out of you without your being able to stop them!

For Jesus did not save you then just walk away. No, He sustains His new life in you by the power of His Holy Spirit. He ministers to you by His means of grace; that is, by the preaching of His holy Word and by partaking in His Holy Sacraments. Maybe you'd never thought of Holy Communion as a health tonic. But it is. Here at the Lord's Table Jesus feeds us with His body and cleanses us with His blood. Here our hearts are lifted up to Him and we and all His saints are joined more closely to His eternal life. Here we are filled with a new sense of what our Lord did for us when He died for our sins on Calvary and what He keeps on doing for us, day after day after day.

Believe the Great Physician's diagnosis. Accept the new heart He died to give you. Live in the joy of His Holy Spirit. Jesus lived and died and rose again to make Hard and Dirty Heart a disease of the past. In humility and thanksgiving, for the sake of God's holy Name, come, receive the Cure He offers you, and be healthy and whole, alive and utterly, joyfully clean. ________________________

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Giving What We Have Received

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-8; Romans 11:25-36; Matthew 14:13-21

THERE’S AN EXPRESSION THAT goes, "You can’t give what you haven’t got." It’s used a lot in business and education. It stands to reason: If, say, you don’t know beans about differential calculus, you can’t teach it. If you have no authority to give orders, you can’t give someone else the authority to give orders.

But there’s another side to it: It’s not just that you can’t give what you haven’t got, you also won’t and don’t and can’t give what you don’t know you have! I imagine a lot of job seekers sell themselves short telling interviewers they can’t do something they’re perfectly capable of, if they only knew they had it in them.

But once you know what you have, and you know there’s a need for it, will you give it? That’s the question that faces us in our Gospel lesson today.

St. Matthew begins by saying, "Now when Jesus heard this." That is, He’d heard that King Herod had cruelly and unjustly put to death John the Baptist. John was Jesus’ own cousin, and Jesus Himself said John was the greatest prophet God had ever sent to His people Israel. Jesus knew He needed to get away and mourn for John, and to think and pray about what John’s death would mean for the next stage in His own ministry.

But the crowds didn’t care about Jesus’ loss or Jesus’ needs. Poor souls! They were eaten up with needs of their own. So they ran around the margin of the lake, and by the time the boat got Jesus there, there were all the people, waiting for Him.

Matthew tells us that Jesus our Savior had compassion on them. If He were merely human, He might have said, "This is too much! I have nothing left to give." But Jesus continually received power from His Father in heaven. The Holy Spirit was One with Him, empowering Him, strengthening Him, giving Him the divine patience He needed. Jesus knew what He had, and He was able to give the crowds what they needed. And so throughout that long day, Jesus healed their sick, and as Mark and Luke tell us, He taught them about the Kingdom of God.

But then it was evening. The hour was late, past time for supper. "We’re done here!" our Lord’s disciples say. "It’s time for the crowds to go away and buy themselves something to eat!"

That wasn’t a breach of hospitality; it was simply facing reality. The crowds weren’t the disciples’ guests; they weren’t even a properly assembled congregation. Each person was there to get his own needs and wants met, not to be part of a unified group. In the ordinary way of things, the disciples had no obligation to these people whatsoever. In fact, the disciples were actually being kind to them, by asking Jesus to dismiss the crowds and let them go.

But Jesus doesn’t do things in the ordinary way. He responds, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."

Whaaaattt??? The disciples are supposed to give all these people supper? How can Jesus ask that? It’s a good chance the disciples had planned to buy food for this retreat in the villages, themselves! How can Jesus tell them to give what they hadn’t got?

They reply, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." That’d be something like small pita breads, and the fish would have been dried and salted and pretty small, too. But what is that among so many? You can’t give what you haven’t got, and when it comes to feeding maybe 15,000 people all told, five little loaves and fishes are like nothing!

The disciples had nothing to give! That was the problem! Or was the real problem that they weren’t giving something they didn’t know they actually had?

Jesus said, "Bring them [that is, the loaves and fish] here to me." And He orders the crowds to sit down on the grass.

Let’s not rush by this. First of all, Jesus is giving the people rest. The custom in that time was that the teacher sat to teach, and the learners stood to hear him. Only if you were crippled or absolutely infirm did you sit down when the rabbi spoke. If you want to get an idea of this, attend a Greek Orthodox service. Even the most elderly will stand for hours, out of respect for the divine Word given them in the liturgy.

So Jesus gives them rest, by ordering them to sit down. But He gives them something else. By commanding them to sit down in His presence, He makes of them a single family, sitting down to table with Jesus Himself as the father of the family presiding over the meal. Before they’d had a single bite to eat, Jesus gave these people something they didn’t have before: Community, oneness, family unity in the presence of God. It’s something He could give, for He has known it from eternity in the communion of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

They sat, and Jesus took the bit of food into His hands. Our translation says "He blessed and broke the loaves." But there really should be a comma after "blessed," because by the original Greek and by the ancient custom of the Jewish father at a family meal, Jesus surely blessed God for the food and for God’s power that was about to be demonstrated in and through this food. We must not visualize our Lord saying some sort of special holy words over this bread and fish, that magically caused them to multiply! No, what Jesus did here He did in the power and communion and fellowship of His Father in heaven.

And once Jesus had broken the bread and the fish, He gave it to His disciples. And now, they had something to give and they knew they had something to give! And they gave, and gave, and gave, until every last man, woman, and child had eaten his or her fill and every disciple was in charge of a full basket of leftovers to take home.

But did the disciples understand then and there what it was they really had to give, there in that deserted place on the other side of the Sea of Galilee? Do we know what we have to give, when Jesus sends us into the world as His church?

After our Lord’s death and resurrection, they knew. They knew they had much more to give than mere physical bread. No, beyond any physical food, the disciples learned they possessed and could give away the most nourishing Food of all: Jesus Christ Himself, the Bread of heaven. This is the Food which if anyone eats of it, he will never hunger again. This is the eternal food that we and all Jesus’ disciples have received to give to the world.

Isn’t that what the Holy Spirit says through the prophet Isaiah? He says,

"Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live."

Jesus Christ is the banquet to which we are called. Jesus Christ is the heavenly Bread sufficient to feed the hungry soul. His blood is the heavenly wine that washes away the thirst of desperation and sin. His body was broken and torn on Calvary’s cross to offer us eternal food that truly satisfies; His blood was poured out to gives us salvation and peace without money and without price.

As Jesus commanded the disciples that evening long ago, so now He commands His Church: "You give them something to eat." And God has given us such an abundance to give away! Jesus Himself is the One we have received, and He is the One we give. Jesus Himself nourishes us through His Word and Sacraments, and with Him we nourish the lost and hungry people of this fallen world.

We don’t have to belong to big churches with money and members and ministries tumbling out the windows in order to satisfy the deepest needs of the crowds at our door! People of God! Every church where Jesus Christ is faithfully preached as crucified for our sins and risen for our life has something to give! Every church where the feast of God is spread in the royal banquet of Holy Communion, every church where sins are shown to be washed away in the waters of Baptism can satisfy the needs of the hungry world! Every church that knows that the living Christ dwells among them, every church that faithfully believes and proclaims Christ and Him crucified-- that church has all it needs to offer the crowds in its time and place. For it is giving what it has received: Jesus Christ, the Bread of heaven.

What is more, that church can offer the sin-sick, heart-hungry crowds community in Christ. That church-- no, this church can offer the lost, hurting, and hungry people of Butler County membership in a family, where Jesus Christ sits at the head of the Table and breaks and gives His own body to satisfy and heal us all.

You don’t have to send people away to be fed elsewhere. And you don’t have to work and labor to buy the bread your soul needs. Jesus Christ has paid for it by His blood. Jesus Christ is the Bread that satisfies the hungry soul. He is here among you, given to you by grace, received by you in faith. Delight in Him, feed on Him, and turn and joyfully give what you have received.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Treaty of Calvary

Text: Romans 4:13-17; 5:1-11

WHEN I WAS A KID IN SCHOOL STUDYING American History, we learned about April 19, 1775. That was the date of the famous "shot heard round the world." That’s when our colonist forefathers stood up to the British troops at Lexington and Concord, and the Revolutionary War was begun.

Of course we also learned about July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was ratified in Philadelphia. And October 17, 1781, when the British surrendered at Yorktown. And of course, we learned about September 17, 1787, the day our Constitution was adopted by the Constitutional Convention.

But somehow we never heard much about September 3, 1783. Anybody here remember what happened that day? No? That’s the day of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, when Great Britain and the brand-new United States of America agreed to terms of peace. That’s the day the Revolutionary War officially came to an end, and we had won.

It’s easy to overlook the Treaty of Paris. For one thing, it happened, well, in Paris, France. Here in southwestern Pennsylvania, it’s not too hard to visualize the battles and struggles of the Revolution itself. We don’t have to go that far to see where they took place. And every time we travel the Washington Trail, Route 68 in Butler County, we remember the exploits of the man who would later lead our forces to victory. But Paris, especially Paris in 1783 is so far away-- it’s hard to get our imaginations around anything that happened there.

And then treaties are basically about politics and diplomacy and legal affairs. Terribly dry and boring, not exciting like battles and sieges and deeds of heroism. No wonder September 3, 1783 doesn’t stick in our heads!

But the Treaty of Paris was essential for the birth of our nation. Without the Treaty of Paris, we’d still be at war with Great Britain. At the very best, we’d only have a cease-fire. And if the Crown of England ever felt it was worthwhile to resume hostilities, they could do that. It would just be the same war going on and on.

George III agreed to the terms of the Treaty of Paris because we, the American colonists, had won the war. He was the head of the greatest nations in the world at the time. But after six and a half years of struggle, he simply couldn’t keep pouring in men and money and materiel and munitions to put down those pesky colonials across the Atlantic. So he had his ambassadors sign the Treaty.

Like most treaties, each side got something out of it. We got the best of it, of course: We got our independence and the rights to the land claimed by the thirteen former colonies. But the British got some benefits, too, like the right to navigate on the Mississippi River, the right of pro-British combatants to be free from American prosecution, and the right of pro-British colonists to sue for the recovery of confiscated property.

But suppose a rabble of rebellious revolutionaries and terrorists declared war against a great superpower, a high and glorious Emperor or King. Suppose unlike our colonial ancestors, these rebels had no excuse or cause for war. Suppose under the King’s rulership, they’d been free and responsible citizens with everything they could ever want or need, but they rebelled anyway. Suppose even that the great King had delegated much of the rulership of His empire to these ungrateful wretches, but it wasn’t enough for them, they wanted to put down the King and be kings and queens themselves.

Suppose this war of rebellion had gone on for years, decades, centuries. Suppose the cruelty, brutality, treachery, and desecration of these terrorists was without boundary or limit. And suppose the great King had all the men, money, materiel, and munitions to put down the rebellion whenever He wanted.

Will such a King conclude a treaty of peace with such a gang of bloody rebels? Will He not stop waiting for them to surrender and destroy them altogether, just as they deserve?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? You’d think He’d bring all His power to bear and be done with this war, once and for all. He could. He’d have the right to. He’d have the power to do it. Let Him wipe them out those terrorists, and let His loyal subjects stand up and cheer!

But what if that’s not what the great King did? What if, instead, He drew up a treaty of peace with those rebels, and it was all in their favor-- life and health and property and riches and high places in His kingdom forever more! What if He sealed it with the blood of His beloved and only Son?

And what if-- what if-- the only thing required from the rebels was that they lay down their arms and accept all the good things promised by this amazing treaty? What if they’d be breaking the treaty if they insisted on trying to do good things in order to deserve the King’s offer of peace?

You’d think that King was either out of His mind-- or that He was the most loving, gracious, caring, merciful, and glorious King the world has ever known. But surely, such a King, such a superpower, has never existed-- has He? And such a treaty, could it ever be offered? How could anything like that be imagined?

St. Paul answers these questions in his letter to the Romans. In the first three chapters, the Apostle convicts all humanity of being in vicious, unexcusable rebellion against our Lord and King. That includes every man, every woman, every child; rich and poor, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, knowing God’s law and not knowing God’s law. We are all guilty of waging war against our gracious Lord, and He has every right to destroy us in His wrath.

But beginning towards the end of Chapter 3, Paul reveals how the Lord God Himself intervened to end the hostilities between Him and us. In Chapter 4, he gives an example of one man who accepted the King’s terms and inherited His promises-- our father Abraham. And in our portion of Chapter 4, Paul outlines the glorious terms of the treaty of peace our Lord and King has made with us, for our benefit and His eternal glory.

We can call it the Treaty of Calvary, and by all calculations, it was ratified at 3:00 in the afternoon on Friday, April 3rd, in the Year of Our Lord 33. On that day and at that hour, Jesus Christ the Son of God died on the cross of Calvary to seal our peace with His own innocent blood. And simply by laying down our arms and accepting His grace through faith in Him, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The rebellious world looks on and says, "Impossible!" And it is amazing, overwhelming, almost too good to be true. As St. Paul says in Chapter 5, verses 6 and following,

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

"While we were still sinners Christ died for us"! While we were still rebellious, blaspheming, self-righteous, cold, cruel, careless sinners, our God and King made a unilateral treaty with us and signed it with His own blood!

Amazing, but not incredible!

Something you may have noticed, that's going around these days in popular American culture: The constant use of the word "incredible." "Incredible" means "not to be credited" or "not to be believed," and people use it for everything. I’ve even heard Christians use it, about things that you’d think they’d want you to believe. The other day, I heard an advert telling me to send for "This incredible set of Scripture cards!" Excuse me, if it’s unbelievable, why should I bother?

The marvellous love that God offers us in the Treaty of Calvary is not incredible. In fact, the only requirement laid upon us is that we do credit and believe it. The only thing we have to do is be like Abraham and reach out in faith and simply accept God’s promises offered to us in Jesus Christ.

And yes, God’s promise to Abraham that he would inherit the world finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The promises of the Treaty of Calvary are better than a pledge of earthly territory and property and fishing and commercial rights. They extend from this world to the world to come, and their blessings and benefits to us will never end.

Let’s look at the terms of this treaty, here in Romans Chapter 5.

First of all, now that we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Peace with God! That means your sins are forgiven! That means that your conscience can be calm and clear!

I know what it’s like to remember some past sin, and feel unsettled about it. Maybe I’ve asked forgiveness of the person I offended, but I just don’t feel forgiven. The Holy Spirit here tells me and tells you to believe God, not our feelings. The blood of Jesus has covered our sins. We have God’s peace-- let’s enjoy it!

And through Christ we have access to God’s grace and we can stand in it. We can stop acting like it’s up to us to please God in our own paltry power. We can stop trying to put God in our debt by observing the law. Our standing with our King is all by His grace. It comes simply and solely because we belong to His righteous Son, Jesus Christ. He fulfilled the law perfectly for us, and makes us worthy to come into His Father’s presence.

And through Christ, we may boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. This boast has nothing to do with what we are or have been in ourselves-- it totally has to do with what Jesus did for us.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Calvary, we can even boast in our sufferings. For now our sufferings have meaning. Now we are fighting on the side of our Lord, the most glorious and gracious God and King, and our wounds come in His service. In Christ, our suffering does not defeat us, it makes us more like Him, in endurance, character, and hope. For in all our sufferings, the Holy Spirit pours the love of God into our hearts, the love that Jesus knew when He bore the sins of the world for our sake.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Calvary, now that we have been justified by Christ’s blood, we have been saved through Him from the wrath of God. It’s not nice or popular or modern to talk about the wrath of God against sin. But deep inside, we all know our rebellion against Him deserves it. So we excuse ourselves. Or we try to heap up good works to balance out our bad ones. Or we try to run away into pleasure or depression or busyness, anything to escape facing the wrath of God. But in Christ, that threat is removed! For the sake of Jesus’ shed blood, God our King has ceased His war against us and we have nothing to fear from Him, ever again.
That reconciliation came to be while we were still God’s enemies! So now that we have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son, how much more will we be saved by His resurrection life!

For under the Treaty of Calvary, peace with God gives us so much more than His war against us being over. He doesn’t just march away and leave us on our own. No! Peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ makes us heirs of all the gracious promises first offered to our father Abraham, for all those promises are Yes and Amen in God’s crucified and risen Son. Power and glory, wisdom and strength, honor, glory, and blessing: All these are ours through Jesus Christ, who defeated death and brings us with Him to His Father’s throne.

We can boast in God, because He is no longer our divine Enemy; rather through Jesus Christ, He is our Father and our eternal Friend. He has reconciled us to Himself, He has concluded His treaty of peace with us, and nothing will ever be the same.

Think what this can mean for your every day life and for mine! We have peace with the great King: how can any enemy now have any lasting power over us? And that includes the enemies that attack us within our own thoughts and minds! God has reconciled us to Himself: now we can courageously and lovingly offer reconciliation to others. He has converted us from rebels and terrorists into His loyal subjects and royal children: now we can serve Him humbly, gladly, and willingly. We can take His direction and offer the love and peace of Jesus Christ even to people we think could never deserve it.

For we did not deserve for God to make peace with us, yet He did. We didn’t force Him to give us these blessings by winning the fight against Him or by earning them by our own good works. Yet here we are, enjoying all the joys of life and hope and peace with Him.

Rejoice in that peace! Live in it! Boast in it! And more than that, offer and extend that peace to everyone you know. For when you do, though Jesus Christ your Lord you are ratifying and keeping the Treaty of Calvary.