Sunday, November 28, 2010

Being Ready

Texts: Isaiah 2:6-22; Matthew 24:36-51

IT WAS OCTOBER 22ND, 1844. ALL THAT day, all over the Northeastern United States, men, women, and children were gathered in fields and on hilltops, ready, waiting. They sang hymns. They prayed. But mostly they strained their eyes to the heavens, expecting at any moment to see the Lord Jesus Christ descending from the skies. They were there on that day because their leader, an amateur theologian named William Miller, had added up dates and times he got out of Scripture and decided that's when the Day of the Lord was to be. But the sun moved on in the sky, the daylight hours faded, the evening darkness marched on to midnight. But nothing happened. The Lord did not return on October 22nd, 1844, or on any day thereafter. This event went down in American history as "The Great Disappointment." Those who'd expected Christ's coming that day were brokenhearted. Some renounced the Christian faith altogether.

Those Christians were ready for Jesus' return. Most of them had sold their land and businesses. They'd given away all their worldly goods and renounced all involvement with this present evil age. Their thoughts and hopes were focussed on Christ alone. They were ready. Why did it go wrong? Was it only because Mr. Miller dared to set a date? Or was it something else as well?

Certainly, we must be prepared for the day of our Lord's coming. Jesus says so in Matthew 24:44. This word He originally gave to the disciples who walked He also intends for us. In the year A.D. 2010 as in A.D. 33, our Lord's warning is the same: "Keep watch! Be ready!" But how?

Isaiah shows us how to be radically unready. We didn't read this part, but the first five verses of chapter 2 show us the perfection of the heavenly Jerusalem in the last days. They tell of the time when all God's people, Jew and Gentile, will be united as one under the word of the Lord, walking in one holy way and worshipping in one holy temple. Hear this good news: That word, that way, that temple is Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God who died for the sins of the world. By His Spirit He calls His Church from every nation and His return will bring about the perfection of God's plan for all mankind.

But in verses 6 though 9 we see how things really were in the earthly Jerusalem. And, sadly, it also points to how things frequently are among those who claim to be Christians today. Isaiah writes:

They are full of superstitions from the East;
they practice divination like the Philistines
and clasp hands with pagans.

Is it not enough for us that Jesus Christ died and rose again for us? Do we have to import Buddhist or Hindu spiritualities and practices into our lives as well? Do we have to talk about "karma" as if that were God's means for judging the world? Dare we reject the Holy Spirit Who has been sent to us to lead us into all truth? Do we need also to consult our horoscopes or quote so-called prophets like Nostradamus? Has not our Lord given us His holy Word the Bible to show us the way of faith and life? Why then do we consult our feelings or experiences or our "inner voice," instead of believing and doing what God says? And why do we "clasp hands with pagans" and pretend that Allah the god of the Muslims is the same as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Why do we even think it's possible to have "interfaith worship" with those who deny His godhead and call His atoning sacrifice a lie? Perhaps you don't do those things, but we all know Christians who do. People who engage in these practices will not be ready for our Lord's coming!

And hear what else the Spirit says through the prophet Isaiah:

Their land is full of silver and gold,
there is no end to their treasures.

I admit: In America today, we can definitely see coming to the end of our treasures. But fear of poverty and ruin can distract us from God just as much as excessive enjoyment of prosperity and wealth. Either way, we stop being interested in who God is and what He has done for us. We stop trusting in Him; rather, we live our lives "bow[ing] down to the work of [our] hands," as it says in verse 8. Isaiah was referring first of all to the actual idol statues that the faithless Jews were making and calling their gods, but this can also include everything we do for ourselves and put our faith in without giving praise and glory to God the Maker of heaven and earth. With such an attitude, how can we be ready and watching for the day of the Lord? With such an attitude, how could we escape the judgment it will bring?

Make no mistake about it: The day of the Lord will be a day of judgment. God has visited His people and the nations with His wrath many times throughout history, but the day of the Son of Man will be the culmination of them all, the day when all that stands opposed to the holiness, righteousness, and love of God in Christ will be shown for the filthy thing it is and will be swept from the sight of God forever. It will be the day when those whose sins have been covered by His grace will receive the glorious inheritance promised to them as children of God and co-heirs with His Son Jesus Christ. To be ready for the second coming of Christ is not a thing to take lightly!.

So we must take warning from what our Lord Jesus says in Matthew 24. He says,

"As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man."

There is nothing wrong with eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. What was wrong in Noah's day is that these ordinary things were going on right alongside of overwhelming, God-defying wickedness. And people figured that as long as they could carry on their everyday lives, everything was all right and they didn't have to worry about what God might do about it all. St. Peter writes in his second letter that Noah was a preacher of righteousness. Noah told the people of his time that God would judge their rebellion, but they wouldn't listen. They were getting along well enough, why should they worry?

Jesus says it will be the same at the coming of the Son of Man. Most people won't be ready. There will be widespread wrongdoing and evil that dare and defy God's judgment to come, but most people will still be managing to live life as normal. They'll think it's not a time when Jesus might return. Does that sound familiar? Kind of like how things are today?

So our Lord says, "Keep watch! Be ready!" For He will come like a thief in the night; literally, like a housebreaker digging through the mud walls anywhere, front, back, or sides. We are to be like a householder who expects that to happen at any time. We are to be that vigilant.

Don't take this little parable too far, friends. The coming of our Lord is not something for God's children to be defensive about. Nor does Jesus want us to make a fulltime job out of predicting the end of the world, like poor William Miller did. The writer George MacDonald, who was a major influence on C. S. Lewis, once said,

Do those who say, "Lo, here or lo, there are the signs of His coming," think to be too keen for Him, and spy His approach? When He tells them to watch lest He find them neglecting their work, they stare this way and that, and watch lest He should succeed in coming like a thief!*

Truly, we who believe in Him should be glad to have Him break in once and for all and take away all the worldly concerns and worry and stuff that keep us from loving Him above all! For we know that when He comes He will replace what we call our treasure on earth with the infinite and eternal treasure that is fellowship with Himself.

Clearly, wallowing in the sins and worries of this world is not readiness. But how shall we avoid that? Is it by retreating from the world into our own Christian ghetto? Shall we read only "Christian" books and watch only "Christian" movies and patronize only "Christian" businesses? Shall we be so heavenly-minded we're no earthly good? That's not much different from what the Millerites did in 1844. They thought being ready meant withdrawing from the world so thoroughly they set a date and withdrew from all of life. And by doing so, they set themselves up for disappointment.

No, Jesus tells us what being ready means. He says,

"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns."

Jesus is our Master who has been away and He'll return when we least expect. Meanwhile, He's given each of us work to do in this world, in His name. Most of the time, this work is not at all what we would think of as "fulltime Christian service." Each of us has a vocation in this life; some of us have several. In those vocations we serve Him by serving our neighbor: Our neighbor in our families. Our neighbor in the church. Our neighbor at work. Our neighbor literally next door. Our neighbor who believes in Jesus and our neighbor who doesn't believe, but who might someday because of what we did for him in Jesus' name. Our Lord calls us His servants and charges us to give our fellow-servants the food of love, encouragement, good workmanship, patience, whatever they need in the relationship we have with them.

Especially, we are to serve all people with the eternal food of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whether it's your own children or some stranger you meet by chance, you have good news to tell them of Christ who came to this earth to save mankind from their sins. You have the testimony of your own life to show how Jesus saves and changes sinners, even a sinner like you. Be faithful to the calling God has given you; serve one another in them, and always be ready with joy to render an account of your stewardship, for He promises to reward you when He comes.

I admit, I don't find it easy to be ready like this. Often I want to run away and play. Not that I'd ever be like the abusive steward that Jesus condemns in this parable, but the sin nature in me would be perfectly happy to get its fun out of life and disregard the fact that my Master will certainly return. Maybe I feel this way most when I try my hardest to keep watch by being faithful.

It's times like that when you and I can be encouraged by what Jesus says at the beginning of our Matthew reading. He says,

"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

Yes, be encouraged. For look, Christ the Son is content to trust His heavenly Father to set the right day and hour for Him to return. And since Jesus can rest in His Father, we can, too. Jesus will help us day by day to be ready. He will see that we are taken up to be with Him forever. He will preserve us in His love and keep us from the fate of the hypocrites, who actually dread His coming.

So in this Advent season and until Jesus returns, be ready. Serve your neighbor in His strength: you can do that, for in His cross and passion He has first served you. Rest in His grace; strive only to feed on Him in His Sacraments, to fellowship with Him in prayer; to hear and follow the voice of His Spirit as He speaks to you and guides you in His written Word. Be ready, but do not fret over your Lord's coming. You are His beloved; in Him you have been made ready for the kingdom prepared for you before the foundation of the world.

I'll conclude with two verses from an Advent hymn by Charles Wesley, called "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending." They go like this:

Now redemption, long expected,
See in solemn pomp appear;
All His saints, by man rejected,
Now shall meet Him in the air:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
See the day of God appear!

Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!

Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus! Amen and amen!
*From Unspoken Sermons, Second Series: "The Word of Jesus on Prayer"

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How Long, O Lord?

Texts: Revelation 6:9-17; Luke 18:1-8

IF YOU WATCH VIDEOS on YouTube, or if you read online news reports, you've probably noticed a pattern in the comments. Say it's a news story about a pilot who's successfully landed a plane in the worst of conditions. Or maybe it's a video of the old Rescue 911 show, and a family has safely escaped a fire in their house. Some commenters will give God the glory. They'll say, "It was a miracle they escaped! Praise God!" And just as inevitably, ten other people will jump in with "What? How can you praise God for that? If God was good, he wouldn't've let that house catch on fire! And what about all the other houses that catch fire and all the people inside burn to death? Your god is evil! Or he doesn't exist! I don't think he exists and I hate him!!"

But you know what? It's not just atheists and scoffers who wonder how a good God can put up with evil. People who know God and love Him also struggle with the fact that justice seems to be in short supply in this world.

What is Justice, anyway? It's rendering each person what he or she has the right to and what he or she deserves. Sometimes individuals deserve bad things, sometimes they deserve good. Sometimes we forfeit our rights by our bad behavior, and we deserve to lose the benefit of them. However it is, Justice balances out the scales so good is paired with good and evil is matched with evil.

But we don't see it that way on this earth, do we? We see people whom we consider to be good receiving bad things all the time. Often the evil comes from other people, and it seems like our human justice system never gets around to punishing the guilty. Sometimes, the evil comes from nature or even seems to come from God Himself. As when someone we love gets incurable cancer. Or a child struggles with a terrible learning disability. Or a family member loses his home in a flood. And meanwhile, those we consider to be wicked seem to have no troubles at all. Where's the Justice in that? This world has a saying, "Justice deferred is justice denied." Is God unjust? Why doesn't He even everything out now?

But the Bible teaches that a day of Justice is coming in God's good time, a Day when Christ will return as Judge and lay down the verdict on Evil and mete out rewards and punishments according to what each person deserves. Both of our readings look forward to that Day, and they teach us to pray for its coming and to have faith in God, that He will indeed make Justice prevail in heaven and on earth.

In our passage from St. Luke, Jesus tells a parable illustrating how we, His disciples, should always pray and never give up. Yes, let us pray for healing for ourselves and our loved ones. Let's intercede for new jobs for the unemployed and petition God for solutions to our worries. Let us cast our cares on the Lord, for He cares for us. Let us do all we can in this world to live justly and see justice done to our neighbor. But first and foremost, as it says in verses 7 and 8, let us pray persistently for God to bring about ultimate divine justice for His chosen ones-- which is to say, let us pray without ceasing for the glorious return of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. For it is only when He returns that true Justice will have its day.

But how long, O Lord, how long? The widow in the parable knew she was in the right in her case. The unjust judge knew it, too. But he was so selfish, he couldn't be bothered to render the verdict she deserved. Or maybe he'd already ruled in her favor, but he'd done nothing to enforce the decision. This judge had no conscience before God, he didn't care what other people said about him, and he couldn't be bothered to do what he should. But the widow was going to bother him and bother him and bother him until he did his duty. He was a judge; it was his job to make sure that justice prevailed. For some time he ignored her. Maybe she'd go away. But she didn't. She kept bothering him: "Grant me justice against my adversary!" And finally, finally, out of his own selfishness, he finally does what he should have done all along: The unjust judge makes sure this widow gets justice.

Jesus says, listen to what the unjust judge says. The unjust judge finally does right by the widow because she's kept on bothering him with her petitions. So--- if a wicked man can be prevailed upon to do what is right because he's been hammered by a widow's pleas, how much more will the good and gracious God of heaven bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? How much more will He defeat their adversaries and bring them into the good they deserve, at just the right time?

Who are these chosen ones? They are Christ's elect, whom the Father foreknew before the creation of the world, to be adopted as His children through the shed blood of Christ. Brothers and sisters, we are Christ's chosen, and though all the forces of earth and Hell should come against us because we belong to Christ, all the more should we cry out to Him for justice against our adversaries.

Our passage from Revelation chapter 6 shows this from another point of view. St. John in his vision of the End watches as the seven seals of the book of judgement are opened one by one by Christ the Lamb. When He opens the fifth seal, John sees under a great altar in heaven "the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained." These martyrs cry out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" How long, O Lord, until we get justice? Our voices cry out to you day and night! They are each given a white robe-- which stands for the righteousness of Christ-- and are told to wait a little longer, for just the right time. For when? For when the number of their fellow servants who were also to be killed for the name of Christ was competed.

I have to admit that there's been something about this Revelation passage that has bothered me. It's just that, these martyrs are under the altar, and the altar represents the place of atonement, and our atonement is Christ. Moreover, St. John sees this altar as being in heaven. So, if these martyrs have found their refuge in the atonement of Christ, and they're in heaven, why are they so vindictive? Why are they so eager that their blood be avenged? Isn't it time they forgave and forgot?

Aren't Christian martyrs just ordinary human beings whom Jesus redeemed from their sins? Wasn't it the Holy Spirit who made sure they stayed faithful to Christ even to death? How could they claim anything for themselves?

And all the chosen ones of God: We didn't chose ourselves, did we? No. How can we claim to be more righteous or deserving than any other human being? It wasn't our works that got us into God's favor! Without the blood of Christ covering us, we would be just as lost and unholy as anybody else! How can we justify praying for Christ to come and judge the earth?

The answer lies every place the Bible speaks of God's love for His saints and His hatred of evil. It leaps out at us whenever we read that the Church is Christ's body on earth. We are His representatives here on earth, and the Word of salvation we carry into the world is the message of the living Word, Jesus Christ. Whoever persecutes His saints-- that's us, brothers and sisters-- persecutes Him. God has chosen us for Himself in Jesus Christ, and identified Himself with us and us with Him. So it is just and right that the souls of the martyrs should call out for vengeance on the earth. It is right that we His chosen ones should cry out day and night for Jesus to return and sit as Judge over this present evil age. Because ultimately, the One who deserves to have His right upheld is God. God is the ultimate object of justice. It is God Himself who must receive all the blessing, honor, praise, and glory He is due. As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, the time will come when Christ will hand over the kingdom to God the Father, after He has destroyed all (rebellious) dominion, authority, and power. All His enemies will be put under His feet, and the last enemy to be destroyed will be death. That will be ultimate divine justice.

So how can we not pray earnestly and persistently for that day to come? Should we not call out for the justice that will once and for all defeat evil and Satan and all who belong to him will get the punishment they deserve?

But how long, O Lord? Why can't God reach down and deal the evil of this world right now?

That's what some of these scoffing Internet commenters ask. They don't realize that if God were to make an end of evil in this world right away, He'd also have to make an end of them. We humans deceive ourselves when we think we ourselves are good and evil is Out There someplace. Evil resides in each of our souls, and none of us can begin to be free of it until Jesus clothes us with His righteousness and brings us from death to life. Strict justice would mean every last one of us should be separated from God forever, but Jesus paid the full price for our sin, so as it says in Romans 3, God is shown to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Through His blood we are not only justified, we are made holy before God and finally will be presented to Him glorified on the Day when Christ returns.

This is God's will for all His elect. And He is biding His time until all the company of His chosen is complete. There are some who are elect who are still dead in their sins, and one day the Holy Spirit will call them into life. There are some of the elect who have not yet been born. Every last soul whom the Father has given to the Son will come to Him, and every last soul who will have the honor of being killed for His sake will make their testimony in their blood, before the end will come and ultimate justice will prevail.

But how do you know if you are among God's chosen who know their cause is just and right? It's not my place to pry into the secret counsels of God. But if you want to be among Christ's chosen, that's a good sign. If you have a passion for justice and you look to God instead of away from Him to find it, that's a good sign. Jesus asks in Luke, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" Faith is a sign of those who belong to Him, of those who trust Him to make things right in His good time. Faith is a sign of those who love His appearing and who earnestly pray that it will be very soon. Faith is a sign of those who preach and testify to the Gospel of Jesus Christ died and risen again for the salvation of the lost, so that the full number of the elect will be speedily completed.

The sign of those who are not chosen? They are the ones described in verses 15 through 17 of our Revelation reading, the ones for whom the second coming of Christ is hateful, the ones who know they deserve His wrath and have rejected the blood that could have saved them from it. They beg the mountains to fall on them and hide them from the justice of God! Heaven forbid that anyone we love should be in that number! This is the tragic fate of all those who ally themselves with Satan and death and who turn away from the Lamb who was slain.

But you, people of God: Do you love Christ's appearing? Are you looking forward to the day when He will return and all evil, sadness, and death will be wiped away? Let us pray earnestly and persistently that Christ our righteous Judge will come quickly and bring justice to us, His chosen ones. For we belong to Him; and in Him, His cause is ours, and our cause is His own.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sovereign Grace, Healing Love

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-19a; Luke 17:11-19a

HAVE YOU EVER MADE a terrible mistake? I don't mean something ordinary like forgetting to take the meat out to thaw, I mean committing some terrible trespass. You yelled at your spouse in anger and called her a filthy name. You blurted out a secret that wasn't yours. You punished your child for something he didn't do. Maybe you did something that seemed to be really good and helpful at the time, but when you came to yourself you realized it was the worst thing you could have done. Whatever it was, you couldn't just say, "Oops, sorry, didn't mean to do that!" Even if you didn't exactly "mean" to do it, the damage you did was lasting and deep. People were wounded and upset, and they were going to stay that way for a long time.

That wasn't really a mistake, what you did, it was a sin. As a decent human being, when you realized the enormity of your trespass, how did you feel? You didn't blow it off, I don't think. You apologized, of course. You asked forgiveness. You repented. And repented. And repented some more. But your friend/spouse/child was still so hurt! How could you ever have done that to them? You felt they never could forgive you. That you shouldn't forgive yourself. Maybe you should tear your garments like the lepers of old time and go about in wilderness places ringing a warning bell and calling out, "Unclean! Unclean!" Your guilt seemed to cling to you. It seemed to break out all over you like some loathsome skin disease. How could you merit forgiveness after what you'd done? "Unclean, unclean!"

We have two stories about lepers in today's Scripture readings. As we look into them, let's keep in mind that in Bible times, leprosy and other disfiguring skin diseases were not just a physical illness somebody might get, they were visible symbols of sin. A leper was a walking billboard of the damage sin did and how it separated a person from God and his neighbor. It depicted decay and corruption and a living death.

The laws of Moses about leprosy and so on can be found in Leviticus 13 and 14. If you read those chapters carefully, you'll notice something curious: The problem with these infectious skin diseases wasn't just that the sufferer had a disease, it's that it made him look mixed and mottled. Not uniform. Not whole. Not clean. It even says in Leviticus 13:12-13 that if the disease spread so far that the sufferer was a flat white all over his body, the priest could declare him clean again.

The laws ostracizing lepers were like the laws against mixing wool and linen in your clothing or plowing with a donkey and an ox yoked together or sowing two different kinds of seed in one field. These restrictions seem strange to us, but they were God's way of hammering home how His chosen people Israel had to remain purely dedicated to Him alone. Thoroughly. Faithfully. Cleanly. All those situations and conditions were symbols of mixing with the pagan nations. They were pictures of the false worship that tried to honor Gentile idols side by side with Jehovah God. From the very birth of the nation, God was impressing on them that they were to be whole and pure and devoted to Him alone. The salvation of the whole world depended on it.

And so you had the leper, with his red and white and brown skin, a picture of unfaithfulness to God. You had the corruption of his flesh as a symbol of the corruption of death and sin. You had his enforced separation to be a demonstration of how God's people must separate themselves from sin. It was terrible for the leper, but even more terrible is the effect that sin has in the idolatrous, unrepentant heart. Israel had to see and fear.

But who wants to live life as a negative sermon illustration? "Keep away! Keep away! Unclean! Unclean!" You could do nothing, nothing to help yourself. You could only pray that God would heal you and you could go show yourself to the priest, make your sacrifice, and be pronounced clean again.

And so we come to the story of Naaman, the Aramean (or Syrian) general. You notice first that he still seems to be living in his own house and he is able to go to the palace of the king of Aram. He also travels to the palace of Joram, king of Israel, and to Elisha's house with a large retinue. He isn't under the ban to live separated, for he's a Gentile. You may be thinking, good for them, they didn't have those Hebrew restrictions and rules. Yes, but they also didn't have the glorious covenant promises attached to those restricted and rules. And the Gentiles didn't have the sovereign power of Jehovah God working through the prophets that could heal a leper like Naaman.

So up comes the great General Naaman to the door of Elisha the prophet-- and the man of God doesn't even come to the door to greet him! Don't be mistaken-- Elisha isn't afraid of catching leprosy himself. No, he's expressed his purpose in the previous verses, where he tells King Joram to "Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel." Naaman expects Elisha to "come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy." He wants Elisha to do something. But Elisha wants Naaman to know that he, Elisha, is only God's prophet, the channel through which God works. Naaman has to learn that it is the Lord and the Lord alone who heals.

And so he has the servant tell Naaman to go dip himself seven times in the Jordan River-- the dirty, insignificant, piddling Jordan River. There was nothing healing or magical about the waters of the Jordan! If Naaman was going to be healed there, it would obviously be by God's sovereign grace alone.

The great General Naaman had to show his faith in the God of Israel by following the order, no matter how disappointing it was. Happily for him, he listened to his servants, got over his rage, and obeyed.

And what happened then? We read in verse 14 that "his flesh was restored and became clean"-- that is, healthy, whole, and unblemished-- "like that of a young boy." God didn't just put him back to middle-aged normal, He renewed his skin so it was like the skin of a little child!

That was worth killing his pride for! Naaman hurries back to thank Elisha for what he had done. Thanks to him, he has come to know the Lord Almighty! He says, "Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel." The Lord God Jehovah, the God of Israel, is God alone! So never again will he worship any God but the Lord. He then requests the two mule-loads of Israel's earth. I admit-- the commentators are divided on why he does this. But most likely, like all the Gentiles of those days, Naaman believed that a god or goddess could be worshipped properly only on his or her own territory. With this earth he could make an altar or maybe scatter it in a shrine in his own home, so to make himself a little Israel in Syria, a sacred spot where the Lord was God and would accept his sacrifices. Naaman didn't quite understand that the Lord was God in all the earth, but he understood that the Lord was the only God who was really real, and the Lord honored the intent of his heart.

But there's one more thing Naaman needs before his cleansing will be complete. As commander of the army of Aram he was literally the Syrian king's right-hand man. And one of his duties was to attend his sovereign into the temple of the false god Rimmon and support him with his arm as the king made his reverences to this so-called god. As a Syrian he couldn't exactly go home and announce he wasn't going to do that any more. But how could Naaman bow down to Rimmon when he was now wholly devoted to the Lord as the only God? Would the Lord Jehovah graciously forgive him for bowing down his body in that idol temple, now that he would never again bow down his heart or his mind? He'd have to keep on doing it for a long time. Could the Lord forgive him for that? Might He? Would He?

And Elisha replies, "Go in peace." And Naaman goes, cleansed not only in body but also in spirit. "Go in peace," for by faith he has been made clean and well.

The grace God showed through Elisha foreshadows the greater grace He showed the world through the Messiah Jesus, the Son of God made flesh. Our passage in Luke tells us that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem to be crucified. He was travelling through the borderlands between Galilee and Samaria-- Samaria, where around 925 years before His Father in heaven had healed Naaman through His servant Elisha. On the outskirts of a village Jesus encounters ten lepers, nine Jews and one Samaritan. They know He is a prophet who can heal them. They stand at a proper distance and call out, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!"

It doesn't take the supernatural mind of Christ to know what those lepers wanted. They wanted to be cleansed and healed. They had no hope for healing in themselves, their only hope was that God's prophet Jesus will do it for them.

And He does. "Go, show yourselves to the priests." Leviticus tells us it wasn't the priest's job to cure the leper, it was only his job to declare before God and man that the leper was already cured and therefore had become acceptable and clean. The Old Covenant was still in effect and Jesus honors His Father's plan in it.

All ten of these lepers had faith enough immediately to head for the home of the closest priest they could find. They were sure Jesus could heal their bodies. And He did. "As they went," Luke tells us, "they were cleansed." They became like Naaman after he had bathed in the Jordan River, their skin restored to radiance and health.

But only one was cleansed in his spirit. And ironically, that one was the Samaritan. The despised half-breed. The unkosher foreigner. He immediately comes back to Jesus praising God loudly, enthusiastically, deep-heartedly for his healing. He throws himself at Jesus' feet-- this mixed-race Samaritan-- and thanked Him and thanked Him.

"Where are the other nine?" Jesus asks. Where are the nine Jews? They were all cured. Why didn't they also come back to render Him honor and thanks? Did they take their position as sons of the covenant for granted? Could it be that when the nine Jews obtained the bodily healing they wanted, they no longer needed the Son of God?

But the lone Samaritan has returned, and like Naaman the Syrian he praises the God of Israel and gives Him the glory. And like Naaman, his cleansing was complete. Jesus says to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well." The healing he received extended to his inmost soul, and it drove him to the feet of Jesus in gratitude and praise.

That is what Jesus can do with your sin, and with mine. He can take even the worst of our sins away and restore us to be like little children. We can be wandering around like lepers in the isolation of our guilt, separated from God, from other people, even alienated from ourselves, and He brings us the cleansing cure we never could obtain on our own. He can step into situations where we have wreaked havoc on other people's lives and work a miracle of restoration and hope. He does this by the forgiveness He won for you and me in His death on the Cross. There He paid for all our sins. We did deserve God's punishment. We did deserve God's wrath. But as Isaiah the prophet says, "By His wounds we are healed."

How do we receive that healing, especially as Christians who still sin every day? What do we do when we just want to beat ourselves up, when our guilt tells us how we don't deserve the forgiveness of God at all?

We remember the word of Elisha the prophet. He said, "Go wash yourself seven times in the waters of the Jordan and you will be restored." Let us, you and me, plunge ourselves again and again into the waters of our baptism. As often as we need it, as often as we sin, let us remember how the water of baptism recalls the blood that flowed from Jesus our Master as He hung on the cross. That blood makes a full, free, and complete covering for all our sins, no matter whom they affect, no matter how terrible they might be.

But as we bathe in that precious flood, what are we looking for? Is it enough for us to feel better about ourselves and have our relationships with others restored? Or do we want something more?

Yes, let's want something more. Let's lay hold on how good God is and rejoice in forgiveness He brings. Let's seek to be bound ever closer to Him, so we reject all mixed devotion and joyfully worship Him alone. May we never take His covenant love for granted, but always return Him the thanks He deserves.

Leprosy was a sign of confusion, corruption, and death. But we have been cleansed from the leprosy of our sin, we are healed every day by the blood of Jesus and given wholeness, purity, and life. This is the gift of God through His crucified and risen Son.

People of God, remember your baptism. Remember His blood that cleanses you still. Together, let us all return to the feet of Jesus and give Him unending thanks and praise. Amen.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

By All, in All Places, at All Times

Texts: Micah 4:1-5; Revelation 5:6-14

I WANT YOU TO LOOK AROUND. WHAT do you see? The same familiar church sanctuary, right? Look more closely. What do you see? The pulpit's in its usual place; the Communion table is front and center, today with the elements of the Lord's Supper laid out on it . . . But what do you see? Look at each other. All around you are the same old-- or young!-- church friends and family you see every week, correct?

But look more closely. Look with the eyes of the spirit. Look with eyes opened and made keen by the Holy Spirit of God. What do you see now?

It is my hope and desire that you see yourselves gathered together with apostles, martyrs, and evangelists of every time and place, with saints of every nation, race, tribe, and language. I would that you knew yourselves to be worshipping in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. It is my prayer that you see yourself falling down before the spotless Lamb of God sacrificed for the sins of the world; that you experience how He, the Crucified One, has even now raised you up with Him to the very throne of God.

For, brothers and sisters, that is among whom and where we are today, and among whom and where we are every time we worship our holy and living God in spirit and in truth. We are more than just the visible group you see congregated here Sunday after Sunday. The Church of Jesus Christ includes all His people who have ever lived and ever will live, and together with them we join in confessing that one true faith that is to be held by all people, in all places, at all times. We join with them in receiving the life-giving truth of God as He imparts it to us through His Word read and preached. We come to Him with our praises and petitions. We share our Lord's Holy Spirit and receive Jesus' own self by taste and touch as He gives Himself to us in the bread and the cup. What we do this morning is not something restricted to the Dallas Presbyterian Church, nor does it happen only on World Communion Sunday. No, brothers and sisters, whenever two or three or two or three thousand are gathered together in Christ's name, we are one in Him with all His Church. And in this holy meeting we with all Christ's saints know the joy of sacred union with our God and Father through our Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Do you know what your purpose in life is? Your purpose is to find your highest joy and fulfillment in worshipping your almighty, infinite Savior God. But we tramp through this world day after day, and it can be hard to realize that. It's difficult to imagine that receiving God's word and praising Him is our ultimate enjoyment! The troubles and tedium of everyday life simply get in the way.

It's not just that we get distracted, either, or that other good things take up our attention. It's the sin that dwells within us. We're not really inclined to worship God. The natural inclination of every person ever born is to worship his or her own will and desires; actually to worship himself, and what a dead, dark, and lonely worship that is! Our sin cuts us off from almighty God; it makes us liable to His wrath; it keeps us far from His presence. The prophets of old declared the judgement of the Lord against the idolatry of all people, Jew and Gentile alike. And that idolatry continues today. The natural human inclination is to find the worship of God to be a bore. "Pastor, get us out of church in an hour!" people say. "Forty-five minutes if it's a game day!" And that's regardless of whether the true riches of the faith are being proclaimed from the pulpit or not.

But the will and purpose of our Father in heaven for us, is that we should know our greatest joy in worshipping and enjoying Him, both in this world and the next. And that this joy be shared with all peoples from all times and from all places.

So out of all the nations, God called the Hebrew people to be His very own, that He might teach them to worship Him as He deserved. He gave them the sacrificial system in the tabernacle and the temple, not as an ultimate solution to sin, but as a looking forward to the ultimate sacrifice of the Lamb of God, slain before the foundation of the world. And for centuries this special relationship was only for the Jews. For centuries before the coming of our Lord Jesus only Israel had the right and privilege to worship and enjoy Him. The Gentile nations were enmired in the worship of idols and demons opposed to the God of Israel. They liked it that way. If you asked the Gentiles, they would have said that that Lord-- whom they knew as God Most High-- was worth worshipping, sure, but you could get so much more of what you wanted out of gods like Molech or Astaroth. The foreign nations were enemies to Israel and their God and Israel and its Lord were opposed to them.

But the word of the Lord came by prophets like King David in the Psalms, by Isaiah and Micah and others, looking forward to a day when the Gentiles would be included in the glorious worship of God. This would happen after Israel had been judged for their own unfaithfulness to the divine covenant, in "the last days" after the Messiah was revealed and the holy remnant that is the true Israel was called forth.

Micah says,

[T]he mountain of the LORD's temple will be established
as chief among the mountains;
it will be raised above the hills,
and peoples will stream to it.

By this we understand that the time would come when peoples all over the world would recognize that the God of the Jews was not just another national god, but the high and exalted holy Lord of the Universe, to whom all owe devotion and honor. This will not be according to the natural way of things, for look, the stream of peoples is flowing up the mountain of the Lord, drawn there by His majesty and power. This is the same scene we see in our reading from Revelation 5, where every creature in heaven and on earth is gathered around the throne of God praising and falling down before Him. This is not the natural order of things: This can only happen by the hand of God!

Micah goes on to say,

Many nations will come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths."

Here we see that the proclamation of the word of God is basic to true worship! Some, even many, people these days believe that "worship" is all about what we give to the Lord in our songs and praises, and that reading, teaching, and preaching aren't really needed at all. But if we do not first receive from Him, we grow weak and dull of spirit, and we forget what we are praising Him for. When we come together as a church God first of all serves us, and we respond to His gifts with our praise. All true worship of God is centered around the word of the Gospel of Christ, where we hear again how He was born and lived a sinless human being, true God but fully man; how He died on the cross to take away the sins of the world; how he rose again in victory to give us new and everlasting life; how He sits at the right hand of God forever interceding for us. We who have been Christians for years need to hear that good news over and over, too, just as much as the most wandering sinner needs to hear it for the first time. In fact, I think we can appreciate it more, for we've had longer to think about everything Jesus has saved us from! We know better than any new convert what He has done to make us rejoice!

And so in Revelation the divine worship centers around Jesus Christ the Lamb and His infinite worthiness. The scroll symbolizes His judgement against sin. Jesus accomplished it on the earth by the victory of His cross, and it will be totally fulfilled when He comes again in glory. For as it says in the new song of the elders and the living creatures,

"You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation."

Jesus' righteous blood gives Him the right to execute judgement on all who remain in rebellion against the Lord of all; but His blood covers our sins, having purchased us for God out of the evil of this world.

This word of mercy compels us to fall down in worship and adoration! We deserved nothing but wrath, but Christ through His cross has brought us joy and salvation and communion with God forever! And this mercy is not only for us, it's for people of every tribe and language and people and nation!

In fact, we are among those nations who have been streamed up to the mountain of the Lord. Are our ancestors Jews? Were we among the original covenant people? No, we were Gentiles, we represent the tribes and languages and peoples whom Jesus has redeemed for God! As St. Peter says in his first Epistle, "Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy"! So in Revelation it says,

"You have made them to be a kingdom and priests
to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth."

I hope you are struck as I am that we with all the saints have been purchased for God. Together we are a kingdom and priests to serve Him. How does a priest serve? By bringing the good gifts of God to the people and leading the people in praise to God. Our whole lives should declare the goodness of our Lord, shown to us in the cross of our Saviour Jesus Christ. Our whole lives are called to be acts of praise to the Lamb, who was slain, who is worthy

"[T]o receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!"

Brothers and sisters, the glorious worship of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father will be made perfect in the Last Day when we receive our resurrection bodies and see our Lord face to face. But by His Spirit it goes on whenever we gather together in His name. Especially He makes it happen when we gather around the Table of our Lord. Here He gives us the benefits of His broken body and His shed blood in the elements of bread and wine. Here He renews in each of us His life-giving presence and unites us with saints of all times and in all places, while angels look on with rejoicing and awe.

But is our worship then finished? No, as the kingdom of Christ reigning on the earth we take our worship into the world. Micah declares that

They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

This verse has often been applied to the secular sphere; it's even engraved on a monument outside the United Nations building in New York. But unless and until every last UN delegate and every last national leader willingly bows the knee to Jesus Christ, that monument is a waste of real estate. Micah says,

"All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods;
we will walk in the name of the LORD
our God for ever and ever."

And without the grace of our God extended to them, the nations of this world will continue to walk in the name of their false gods. But the Spirit has called us to walk in the name of the Lord and to enjoy the peace and unity destined for the people of God. We are one in Jesus now! So let the old weapons of your warfare with your family, your neighbors, your co-workers become instruments of cultivation and growth! Use your thought and will and creativity to make peace with one another. You have been redeemed by one Lamb into one holy body to be ministers of the one true God! So say No to all racial or ethnic or regional prejudices! Away with economic envy or factional strife! Among our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are all one in Him. And although the world may not respond with peace, we can extend the peace of Christ even to those who do not believe and so show the holiness and grace of God in this fallen world.

Brothers and sisters, together we stand with angels and archangels and all the company of the redeemed in heaven and on earth, singing glory and praise to the Lamb who was slain, the Lamb who is worthy, the Lamb who has purchased us for God. It's no ordinary thing we do here. It's no ordinary life you lead. You are not alone in your most holy faith. You are joined together with the faithful people of God in every time and place, confessing His mighty acts and rejoicing in what He has done.

"To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!"

Let us fall down and worship! Amen and amen!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Cost of Discipleship

Texts: Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14:25-33

DID YOU KNOW WHAT YOU were getting into when you became a Christian? Probably you were baptised as a baby. Most likely you went through Confirmation Class as a young teenager. Maybe you came to faith as an adult.  However it was, there was probably some event or process in your life when you chose to identify yourself as a follower of Jesus Christ. Did you sit down and consider the consequences? Or was being a Christian just the ordinary logical thing for someone in your time and place to be?

Jesus our Lord says we should count the cost before we commit to being His disciple. Now, on the divine level, from God's point of view, we have no choice at all. He has elected us from all eternity to be His, as it says in Ephesians 1:4 and 5: "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Christ Jesus, in accordance with his pleasure and will." His grace calls us to faith without our being able to resist it, as it says in John 6:37: "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away." His providence, not our works, keeps us bound to Christ for all eternity, as we read in John 6:39: "And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given to me, but raise them up at the last day." But God works out His sovereign will for our salvation on the level of this world. He has us experience it from our human point of view. To those who find the idea of following Jesus attractive, our Lord says, "Take a good look at what believing in Me will mean. Come into it with your eyes open. Count the cost."

Luke says in Chapter 14, verse 25 that large crowds were following Jesus. He was preaching the kingdom of God, something all good Jews were looking forward to, especially in those days with the Romans occupying Israel. The kingdom of God would mean joy and feasting and power, with the saints of God-- that is, the Jews-- supreme over the nations when the Messiah came to rule the world. Jesus of Nazareth was talking and acting more like the Messiah all the time; who wouldn't want to follow him around and be there when He was crowned and king and started handing out the benefits?

In the same way, thousands, even millions of people nowadays are attracted to Jesus and Christianity by what they think it can offer them. Even people who call themselves Evangelicals. At the worst you have the Health-and-Wealth prosperity gospel types who believe that it's God's will that all Christians should be rolling in mansions and Rolls-Royces, you just need to exercise the power of faith. More subtly, and, I think, more dangerously, you have the people who think that being a Christian means discovering "God's wonderful purpose for your life" and learning the formula for having "your best life now." For them, Christian preaching means talks on improving your marriage and how to raise well-adjusted kids. As a lady at a church I used to pastor once said, "We want something nice to take home with us."

Jesus is adamant: None of that is what being His disciple means. He turns to the following crowds (and by His Spirit He turns to us) and says, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters— yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple."

So much for "gentle Jesus, meek and mild"! Does Jesus literally want us to violate God's commandments about honoring and taking care of our families? Is He ordering us to go against every law of human affection? Some cults would have us think so. But no. He is using a form of speech called hyperbole, because He wants to shock the multitudes-- and us-- out of our idolatrous visions of what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. Yes, you are to love and honor and cherish your father, your mother, your spouse, your children, your siblings. But compared to the love you have for God in Christ, that love should amount to hate. Yes, you are to nourish and protect your own body and not recklessly put yourself in the way of disease and danger. But compared to the new life Jesus offers, this mortal life should mean nothing to you at all. And if your love for your dearest friends and relations makes you compromise your commitment to Jesus, you cannot be His disciple. If you would rather deny Him than be persecuted or tortured or killed for the sake of the Gospel of Christ and Him crucified, you cannot be His.

Count the cost, you who would more than His follower be. Discipleship entails self-discipline. Jesus says, "And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Not follow Him around like groupies trailing after a rock band, but walk in His footsteps as He toils up the hill of Calvary. A cross always meant death to those Jews following Jesus. Once the Roman soldier had laid that cross on you, you were going to die. Not all of Jesus' disciples have been called to undergo actual crucifixion or some other death for His sake. But all of us He calls to be dead to this world, dead to our own desires, dead to even the best things this life has to offer, and alive only to His mastership and His will.

What is the cost of being Jesus' disciple? Simply, everything. Everything we have and everything we are. Nothing can be allowed to take precedence of Him.

Jesus hammers the point home by giving us three parables or figures: the builder, the weak king, and salt.

I've gradually been renovating my house for the last seven years. The other day I got a call from a contractor wondering if I was ready to redo my bathroom. No. Not now. The funds just aren't there. Jesus speaks of a man who wants to build a tower. If he's sensible, he'll make the same sort of deliberations. A half-finished tower is really visible and will bring a lot of derision. In the same way, anyone who wants a part in the kingdom of God has to be aware that everyone will be looking at his life expecting it to reflect what they know of Christ and His lordship. Living the Christian life will not bring ease and earthly fulfillment; it'll take everything we've got.

Then Jesus talks about a king. A king with the bigger force is coming at this king's little city-state: what should he do? For attacks are sure to come at us from the world, the flesh, and the devil when we identify ourselves with the cause of Christ. Will we be ready to fight the good fight of the faith, or will we just cave in?

John Calvin, in his Commentary on the Gospels, writes this: "The statements which our Lord makes to this effect must not be applied . . . as if we were to enter into any compromise with our spiritual foe, when our strength and resources fail. It would be idle to treat parables as applying in every minute point to the matter in hand. But our Lord simply means that we ought to be so well prepared, as not to be taken by surprise for want of a proper defense, or basely to turn our backs . . . The design of Christ, therefore, is to warn his followers to bear the cross, that they may prepare themselves with courage." Troubles will come even though we are Christians! Troubles will come because we are Christians! Jesus says we have to give up everything to be His disciple, including the foolish idea that being His will mean everything will be easy and safe and secure with us.

People of Muslim background who become Christians experience this firsthand. For them, letting "goods and kindred go, this mortal life also" is not just a line in a hymn, it's a daily reality. It comes with being Christ's disciple. They know what giving up everything to be Jesus' disciple is all about. If we live our lives thinking belonging to Christ is supposed to be easy, we'll compromise with the world, the flesh, and the devil the first time a real difficulty presents itself.

And then there is the image of salt. Jesus, and Luke, assume that His hearers will know that the figurative salt that preserves and purifies in this present age is the word of God and the people of God who take that word into the world. Jesus says, "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?" Physical salt, sodium chloride, can lose its saltiness by being so mixed in with other elements that it becomes corrupted and impure. Or the salts can be leached out of it by outside influences. Either way, it's no good even for the compost heap. Indeed, it'd do the soil a lot of damage if you put it in.

So if our lives are preaching a false, corrupted gospel, or if we corrupt and falsify the gospel to give an excuse for our unChristlike lives, we are like that worthless salt. No, we have to be ready to stand up for the pure faith once for all delivered to the saints.

What is the cost of discipleship? Taking up our cross in total surrender to our Lord Jesus Christ. It costs us everything we have and everything we are.

But I've noticed: Often we can accept the possibility of physical martyrdom for the faith, at least in theory. There's something stirring and noble about the idea. What's harder is when God calls us to bear the cross in lesser matters, every day of our lives.

Think of the situation of Philemon of Laodicea. Clearly Philemon is a man of position and means. He lives in a commodious house. He owns slaves. Philemon is also a Christian, converted by the apostle Paul himself.

We can assume that his whole household, slave or free, professed faith in Christ at the same time. But not the slave Onesimus. One fine day he helped himself to some of his master's goods and ran off for Rome.

And now he has been found, and has returned to Laodicea, bearing a letter. Philemon had every right to sell such a worthless slave (ironic, since "Onesimus" means "useful") to the salt mines, or to the arena to be fodder for the wild beasts. He had every civil right to demean him as a worker and as a man. Philemon's pagan neighbors would have expected no less.

But the letter Onesimus bears is from Paul himself. Onesimus, he writes, has become his son in their common faith. He now belongs to Christ. So Paul is sending him back to Philemon, "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave-- as a dear brother." And not just as any brother: Philemon is to receive this formerly thieving, useless, runaway slave as he would St. Paul himself!

Did Philemon have any idea that that was ahead of him when he committed to being a disciple of Jesus Christ? What would such unthinkable mercy mean for his relations with his other Christian slaves? What would the pagan neighbors say? Why, if such unmasterlike behaviour caught on, it could disrupt the economic system of the entire Roman world!

But the duty to welcome Onesimus back wholeheartedly and with honor was now Philemon's cross and the cost of his discipleship. Church history tells us he accepted that burden, for it tells us that Onesimus ended up as the beloved bishop of the church in Ephesus.

This is the kind of cross-bearing God demands of us when we heed Christ's call to be His disciple. He doesn't want imaginary dramatic sacrifices we may never be called to make; rather he requires the ordinary, everyday self-denials we may wish were none of God's business. Like saying Yes to service we'd rather shirk. Giving time to others when we'd rather have it for ourselves. Remaining faithful when a loved one dies or when the doctor tells us we have a terrible disease. Saying No to desires and activities and even people when they come between us and the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Because, you know what? When God's good grace makes us Jesus' disciples, we become His slaves. We belong to Him totally, for He has bought us with His precious blood. You might say, "In that case, I've counted the cost and sorry, Jesus, I'm out of here. I'd rather live free." Ah, but if you will not be a slave of Christ and owe everything to Him, you will remain a slave to sin, and your wages will be death.

Humanly-speaking, it's impossible for us to make the total surrender Jesus requires. But God Himself gives us the strength and will to be His disciple, through the merit and mercy of His Son Jesus Christ. His word is His preserving and purifying salt in us, and His Holy Spirit enables us to be salt in this dying world. The price that would be too much for you to pay He has paid for you.

What is the cost of Christian discipleship? All you have and all you are. What is its reward? Jesus and all His riches in glory. I'd say the sacrifice is worth it. And now in the name of Christ I ask, is it worth it to you?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

God at Work

Texts: Romans 3:1- 4:8; John 6:24-29

WHEN I WAS A KID, I COULD NEVER see the point of the Labor Day holiday. The day was about labor, right? So why did people get the day off?

Of course, I learned in time that Labor Day doesn't celebrate labor, it celebrates laborers. Especially workers who often were taken for granted for long centuries of human history. It was established in 1894 to highlight the achievements of men and women who worked in the mills, the factories, and the mines of America.

And America's workers have a lot to be proud of. Historically, we have the most productive labor force in the world. It stands to reason that labor should have a day to boast in what they've done for America and the world.

But it's not just America's workers who want to take pride in their accomplishments on the job. Everywhere in the world laborers want to feel that their efforts count for something. We have a basic human need to stand on our own feet and know we've got things under control for ourselves and our families. As it says in Ecclesiastes 2:24, "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God . . . "

That's how it is in this world. We can say that's how things should be in this world; "under the sun," as Solomon puts it.

But human labor and human capability has a limit. There's one job only one Worker can do, and that's the job of reconciling lost and sinful humanity to the almighty Creator of heaven and earth. That one Worker is God Himself, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We humans can do a lot in this world to keep body and soul together and find fulfilment doing it. God gives us the time and talents and strength to make our living, and we have to put our backs into it ourselves if we want to get along. But only God Himself by Himself can accomplish the work of salvation and sanctification that brings us into His kingdom of everlasting life. Only He can overcome the sin and wickedness that separates every human creature from Himself.

But as we know, human history has been one long process of mankind disagreeing with that principle. We think that when it comes to our salvation, God helps them who help themselves.

From the dawn of time, every tribe and nation in this world from has been aware that there is a High God to Whom they owe worship and right moral behaviour. Every person ever born has it written on his or her heart that certain things are right and certain things are wrong; that there's a good way and a bad way to treat God and our neighbor. It teaches that God has the right to expect good behavior from us. This is called natural law, or conscience. It's not the possession of any particular faith or religion; it's what God has put within us because we are human beings made in His image.

Then there's also a distinctive people, the Jews, and the Lord God revealed to them His spoken and written Law. They didn't have to guess at what they had to do to please God and live; they had it down in detail.

But Jew or pagan alike, humankind has always distorted the law of God and watered it down into something they could manage. They felt that they could do enough to please God, and God would reward them for their hard work with prosperity in this life and maybe even eternal blessedness in the world to come.

Was the Creator of heaven and earth impressed? Did He look down on humanity and say, "Oh, my, you're doing your best, you should be so proud of yourselves! You've worked so hard, I'm going to give you a Labor Day parade!"

No. Rather, in Romans 3:19, the Apostle Paul, speaking by the Holy Spirit, says "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God." The pagan peoples stand guilty because they've perverted and departed from the natural law written on the heart. The Jews are convicted because they have disobeyed the Law revealed through Moses. What's just as bad or worse, when they were supposedly trying to work to please God, everyone to whom Paul writes has been trying to earn their own righteousness by observing the law according to their own version of it. But the Scripture says that no one can stand righteous in the sight of God by doing that, no matter how hard they work.

But what about us, citizens of the United States and the western world? We live after the cross of Christ. Even if we don't actually belong to a church, our ethics and morals are pretty much based on the law of love that Jesus preached, right? If we just follow Jesus as our good example, and do the things He would do, won't that will be okay with God?

All the time we hear people say, "I work hard to do what's right. God will let me into heaven because of that." People say, "God knows I'm doing my best. He knows my heart, that'll be enough."

But even for us today, that is not enough. "Doing our best" and "making a good effort" is still us trying to justify ourselves by works of the law. We've lowered the standard for what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves and to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but even so, we're still laboring to earn God's favor, so we can boast that we deserved it.

The Scripture, however, is clear. We are all defendants in God's courtroom, and every mouth is silenced before Him. The whole world is accountable before God, including ourselves. No one will be declared righteous by works of the law; rather, the law-- the revealed law and the natural law-- the law full and forceful from the hand of Almighty God-- shows us what great sinners we are. Jesus Himself proclaimed that the fountain of wickedness is us is the very heart that we think will earn us our ticket into heaven. And once the law makes us truly conscious of sin, we won't be boasting that God will accept us because He knows our hearts. We'll want to run and hide from His righteous anger.

What can we do? Our condition is nothing to have a parade about! Not unless it's a parade to the gallows.

The answer is, we can do nothing. God, the great Worker of salvation, does it all. As Romans 3:21 says, "But now--" Now, that we have been declared guilty and worthy of condemnation-- "Now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known." The law and the prophets all testified that this righteousness was coming. It came to us through Jesus Christ our Lord; He brought us perfect redemption through His sinless life, His atoning death, and His glorious resurrection. God Himself has worked to give us access to His own righteousness through faith in Jesus, and not even that faith was a work of ours. As it says in Ephesians 2, "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast."

Our salvation is God's great labor from start to finish. Only He could have done it. The righteousness and justice of God demanded that sin be paid for. We couldn't pay it. No matter what we did, we could never be good enough to ward off the wrath of God that we deserved for our sins. But it was also the loving will of God that He would justify His elect. What was God to do?

What only God could do. God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, came into the world as a perfect Human Being and died as a sacrifice of atonement to God. His blood covers all our sins. That way, God's holy justice is satisfied and He is able to say to those whom He calls to faith in Christ, "You are perfect and righteous in My sight."

This is what God did for you when He brought you to faith in Christ by the voice of His Holy Spirit. This is what He may be doing for you even now as the power of His word works in your life, convicting you of your sin and convincing you to trust in Christ alone for your salvation. This is God at work! This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, may His name be praised forever!

But you may have noticed something about yourself; I'm sure I've noticed it about me. It's that even after God has called us to faith in Jesus Christ, there's still that old sin nature hanging around in us. And it whispers, "You really did part of the work in your own salvation. God must've saved you because of something good you did or were!"

And isn't that what unbelievers think we Christians believe about ourselves? That we think we deserved to be saved because we're actually holier or better than other people? Heaven help us, sometimes we give them good excuse to think that. Let me ask you this, what is your attitude towards flagrant sinners? What do you think about homosexuals and drunkards and bitter-tongued gossips and adulterers? What's your attitude towards corporate CEOs or government officials who apparently are cheating the public? Does that immediately drive you to pray for their salvation? Or . . . ?

Let's admit it. The temptation is to say, "Thank God I'm not like that! Those people should try harder to do what's right! God should punish them and give them what they deserve!"

I hope you resist that temptation. I hope you flee it with every fiber of your being. It's true, people like that don't deserve God's mercy. Neither did you or I. Romans teaches that none of us has the right to boast of being holier-than-thou. We are not, not, not justified by our works of righteousness, or by anything we earned or deserved. No, we were saved by Christ's work of righteousness imputed to us by the one God of all.

We don't used this word "imputed" or "imputation" every day, but it describes what God does for us. Think of somebody who's horribly in debt. And a kind and rich person comes along and credits the entire amount of the debt to the debtor's account and totally pays it off. That money is reckoned as his and he gets the good of it. What he can't do is boast that it's his own money or that somehow he deserved it.

That's what God did for Abraham and what He does for us. Abraham simply believed that God had accepted him and he believed God's promises of blessing to him. Ultimately, Abraham's faith looked forward to the Messiah Jesus who was his many-times-great grandson. In the same way, it's not up to us to earn our righteousness, but simply to accept the righteous sacrifice of Christ in our behalf.

The Galileans who saw Jesus feed the 5,000 chased Him back to Capernaum because they wanted more of the physical bread He'd given. Jesus says, No, that's not the bread you should be working for, but the food that endures to eternal life that He, the Son of Man, would give them. These people were like us. They wanted everlasting happiness with God and they wanted to know what they had to do to get it. We'll work for it, Master, we really will! That's what we say, too. "What must we do to do the works God requires?" And Jesus answers, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

This isn't "your work" that you have to do. It's the work of God that He does within you! God is the one worker of our salvation, He is responsible for it all. He saved us and He can save the most flagrant of sinners, regardless of who or what they may be.

And it's His work, not ours, that keeps us in His grace. Maybe you've picked up the idea that you were saved by Christ's death on the cross, but now it's up to you to make sure you stay saved. Brothers and sisters! It's all a gift! It's all God's workmanship! We can't brag about our salvation and we can't brag about how He's making us holy! Right now He's working in you by His Holy Spirit, forgiving your sins, making you more like Christ, drawing you to love your fellow-Christians and also all the poor dying sinners who need the Savior just like we do! It's all God at work!

So now, take a holiday from your own works, because God has put in all the labor for you. As you do His will, know that it's His Spirit working in you. With all God's justified and grace-imputed people, sing with King David that

"Blessed are they
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the Lord will never count against him."

Blessed of the Father, rest in the work He does for you. And if anyone wants to boast, let him boast joyfully in the Lord.

To whom be all honor and glory, wisdom and strength, now and forever. Amen.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Different Gospel-- No Gospel at All

Texts:  Jeremiah 2:4-13; Galatians 1:1-10
AS YOU CERTAINLY REMEMBER, in 2008 the president campaigned on a platform of "Hope and Change." But it wasn't just the Democrats who took that approach. My Republican state representative over in Beaver County ran with the motto "Change Is Good." And change isn't attractive only in politics. Young and old, we've all been through times when our lives seems so monotonous, so ordinary, so stifling that we just wanted things to be different. There's something alluring and refreshing about the idea of change, especially when things aren't going so well. Not about any particular change, just "change" in general.

And if we go for a different phone or alter the way we dress or vote in a new politician to represent us, maybe it works out and maybe it doesn't. Sometimes it doesn't make that much difference, and sometimes it seems to makes all the difference in the world. But when it comes to changes involving the Lord our God, it makes a difference not only in this world, it effects our lives for all eternity.

When the Lord God Almighty rescued the children of Israel out of Egypt about 3,500 years ago, they were ready for change. For long years they'd been laboring under the heavy yoke of Pharaoh and his taskmasters. They were groaning for relief and the Lord God of their fathers heard their cry and rescued them. He sent terrible plagues on the Egyptians and brought the Israelites through the Red Sea with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. As it says in our passage from Jeremiah chapter 2,

[The Lord] brought [them] up out of Egypt
and led [them] through the barren wilderness,
through a land of deserts and rifts,
a land of drought and darkness,
a land where no one travels and no one lives.

Ultimately He

brought [them] into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.

That was a tremendous change! And definitely a change for the better. Out of slavery He brought them, to a wonderful land rich with produce and abundant with fruit, where they lived in houses they hadn't had to build and drank from cisterns they hadn't had to dig. But that wasn't the best part of the change God made for them. In Egypt, they were just that Hebrew rabble. But now, the children of Israel were the people of God, the dearly-loved possession of the Lord of the universe! They were His covenant nation, endowed with His laws and protected by His faithfulness! What a glorious difference! What a marvellous change!

So you'd think they'd be happy with their new situation and want to live in it forever. But as we know, in the wilderness it wasn't long before the Israelites started complaining that freedom equalled certain death and they'd be better off going back and being slaves again in Egypt. And pretty soon after the Lord brought them into the promised land-- well, let Jeremiah tell it:

Has a nation ever changed its gods?
(Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their Glory
for worthless idols.

God's own chosen people turned their backs on Him, who was their Glory! They exchanged Him for the do-nothing, no-good, ersatz gods of the Canaanites they'd driven out! Yes, human beings have a hankering for change, but who ever heard of something like this, that a nation should change its gods as the Israelites had changed theirs? Go across the sea to Kittim, says the Lord through Jeremiah; that is, go to Cyprus and the Greek peoples there. Do they stop worshipping Zeus (though he is no god at all)? Send to Kedar; that is, to the Syro-Arabian desert where the Bedouin nomads live. Do they forsake their idols (though they're only wood and stone and cast metal)? So how could Israel and Judah forsake the Lord Almighty, God Most High who made heaven and earth and saved them to be His very own?

The clue is in verse 13:

"My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water."

"They have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water." There's a saying that goes, "The Jews are like everybody else, except more so." We have no standing to cast stones at our Old Testament predecessors or at their modern-day children. If we'd been in their place, we would've done the same. We would have turned from the good change that God had brought us into and gone after a situation where we were in control. It's our fallen, sinful human nature.

A cistern is a good thing to have in a dry climate. I've wished I had one buried in my backyard this dry summer. Then when it rains I could store up enough water to take care of my garden. But it'd be even better if I had a fresh, flowing spring on my property! Cistern water is okay for the crops, but for drinking and cooking and even for bathing, it's a far-back second place.

The Lord our God is like a spring of living water to His people. We don't control Him; He's simply there for us with His goodness and grace. But we and our spiritual ancestors the Jews wanted gods they could control, that were like cisterns they'd dug and lined themselves.

When I was in college, I took a course or two on North American Indian Anthropology. And I remember my Anthro professor telling us that the gods and totems of the various tribes were expressions of how they wanted to see themselves. A tribe wanted to regard themselves as fierce like the bear or all-seeing like the eagle or cunning like the fox, so the bear-spirit or the eagle-spirit or the fox-spirit were what they worshipped. Yes, there was the idea of a Great Spirit, just like the nations of the ancient Near East acknowledged a God Most High. But for pagan peoples throughout history, that Spirit or God wasn't the One you really worshipped. No, you made your offering to Baal, the storm god, or Ashtoreth, the goddess of sex and fertility. And you could feel proud of yourself, because your nation was strong like Baal and prolific like Ashtoreth. And even when you feared your deities, you could bribe them to do what you wanted by offering the right sacrifices-- like burning one of your own children alive in the ritual fire, then the deity really had to listen. Besides, wasn't it great to worship gods where sleeping with temple prostitutes was part of the liturgy? I mean, talk about a worship experience!

So if you're an Israelite with this going on all around you, your inborn human desire for novelty and change and control could and did lure you away from the Lord. Even though He was the One who really did give you all that was pleasant and good. Even though you were throwing yourself right into the dead metal arms of worthless idols. Even though you were deserting the One who'd saved you and turning to different gods, who were not gods at all.

How could the Lord not judge His people? How could He not take them into exile? They had to learn that He alone was Lord and God, that He was their Life, their Hope, and their Glory. Not for their sake alone, but for the sake of all of us who would one day come to believe in Jesus, the promised Messiah of Israel. God had to change them from idolatry back into His people.

And in the fullness of time, our Lord Christ, the Son of David, the promised Savior, was born into this world. And things were better, in a way. At least Jesus didn't have to combat open idolatry as Jeremiah or Elijah did. No, the anti-God change in Israel was more subtle. The Jewish leaders in Jesus' day didn't worship Baal, but something even more deceptive: They worshipped their own ability to keep the Law of God. They depended on their own capacity to be righteous as God is righteous. Their teaching was that if every Jew could keep all the ordinances of the Law all day for just one day, the kingdom of God would come. But here comes Jesus proclaiming that now that He's here, the kingdom of God has arrived! And preaching and pronouncing and doing miracles as if He Himself is the divine King! That was a change they couldn't accept, and it got Him crucified.

But you know, that was God's plan all along. And far from being a victim, Jesus Christ took His throne on that cross and shed His blood to pay for the sins of you and me. He took the punishment for all our idolatries, for all our disobedience, for all the times we turn our back on the Lord our God. In His rising again we have new and eternal life through Him. This is God's one and only plan for the salvation of mankind. This is the Gospel St. Paul and all the apostles preached throughout the Roman world and beyond. Repent and believe that Jesus perfectly kept the Law for you! Accept the forgiveness that He won for you on the cross! If you're Jewish, turn from your failed attempts to follow all the ordinances and statutes of Moses and depend on Christ alone! If you're a Gentile pagan, turn from your worthless idols and believe in the Son of the one, true, and everliving God! This change is good!

This message was for the Galatians and it's for us today. We, too, were in the slavery of sin until Jesus saved us by His blood. We, too, worshipped worthless idols of our own making. We needed and every day need the change only Christ can give.

But somehow we all keep hankering after the kind of change we can control. Paul is upset and angry with the Galatians because they have "so quickly desert[ed] the one who called them by the grace of Christ and [have turned] to a different gospel-- which is really no gospel at all." This gospel is what we read in verses 3 and 4: It's the good news of "Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father."

Now, who is this one Paul says they've turned from, in verse 6? Some might say it's the Apostle Paul himself. But the following verses contradict that. Paul says that even if he himself should come preaching a gospel other than redemption and forgiveness of sins in the shed blood of Jesus Christ, "let him be eternally condemned!" Or, more bluntly-speaking, may he go straight to hell! No, verse 3 of chapter 3 tells us it was God the Holy Spirit who had called the Galatians into faith in Christ, and He's the One who calls us. It says, "Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?"

Ah. There it is again. Abandoning the Spring of living water and digging out leaky cisterns that can't hold a drop to drink. The different so-called gospel the Galatians were running after is the same one too many Christians go after today. Perverters of the gospel had come to Galatia, preaching that to if you wanted to be really saved you had to keep the food laws, the feast day laws, the handwashing laws-- all the parts of the law of Moses that Jesus Himself had already fulfilled and abolished by His perfect righteous life and death. But the Galatians were ready to set His sacrifice aside to observe all that, just to "make sure."

Today we don't aspire to keeping all the kosher laws. But we're still tempted to desert the Holy Spirit and change over to the false "gospel" of human effort. For instance, do you believe that Christianity is fundamentally about loving your neighbor as yourself and being good so God will reward you in this life and the next? If so, welcome to the land of leaky cisterns. Welcome to the approval of men instead of the approval of God.

Brothers and sisters, loving your neighbor as yourself is the result of the gospel of Jesus Christ! We love our neighbor because God has first loved us in the death and resurrection of His Son. Through Christ He changes us so we can truly love God and our neighbor. It is not our own effort that produces good fruit for God, but the Spirit working in us. Even our trust in Him is not something we work up on our own; our faith itself is a gift from our Father in heaven.

Jesus does it all! That's why Paul has to remind the Galatians-- and us-- that his apostleship is not from man or by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Christ from the dead. Because there are teachers even today who claim Paul got it wrong. That all his preaching of the blood atonement was just a distraction from the "simple, pure gospel of walking in Jesus' footsteps" that the Savior "really preached." I don't know what so-called Savior these people are talking about, but he's not the Jesus Christ who shed His blood on the cross to reconcile you and me to Almighty God.

The idolatrous so-called "gospel" of salvation by our own efforts has been popular since the Garden of Eden. But the good news is, you don't have to be drawn away by it. You don't even have to depend on your own efforts not to be drawn away by it! Believe God in His word: Jesus has paid for all your sins. Trust Him and know that you have the Holy Spirit living in you, to lead you in the paths of righteousness, for His name's sake. And when you stray, as we all do daily, accept the forgiveness He has won for you.

Rest and rejoice in the change the Lord has made in you, and never change from the true and only Gospel of Jesus Christ, who gave himself for your sins to rescue you from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Living in the Salvation of the Lord

Texts: Isaiah 26:1-15; Titus 2:11 - 3:11
TOWARDS THE END OF MY 3rd grade year, my parents split up. My mom moved herself and us kids to our grandparents'. That meant starting at a whole new school for 4th grade, and, let me tell you, things did not go well. My new class liked games I hated and had strange rules about what new kids should and shouldn't do and I didn't figure out which end was up till it was too late. At my old school I was one of the popular kids, I had lots of friends, and I was in on everything. At the new school, most of the time during recess, when I wasn't actually being bullied, I found myself alone on the hill next to the playground, just sitting there thinking. I thought about God and why He was letting all this happen to me. And I decided it was because the year before at my old school I'd helped tease a new girl whose mother had died and who only had her father to raise her. I never teased her about that, no, but I was ready as anybody else to make her feel uncomfortable. Because she was, well, different.

Frankly, I thought God was overdoing it with the punishment. I'd say, "Lord, I wasn't that mean to her!" But I never questioned that I was getting divine retribution for my sins. I was a church-going kid, and I knew I was supposed to be good. And if I wasn't good, God would punish me for it.

Because that's the way it's supposed to work, isn't it? If you're a Christian, you read the Bible to find out what God wants of you, and you do your best to follow His rules? And if you do, He'll reward you with salvation, and if you mess up, He'll punish you for what you've done wrong. And hopefully your good works will outweigh your bad and you'll make it into heaven in the end. Why shouldn't we believe that about Christianity? That's what every religion in the world teaches, why not ours?

But that's not what the Bible teaches about Christianity. Not at all. And our reading from Titus shows us how amazingly different our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ really is, so we can joyfully live in His salvation and never have to be afraid again.

If belonging to Jesus were about our human efforts to be good, the ancient Cretans would have been total failures at it. As you probably know, Crete is a large island in the Mediterranean Sea, about a hundred miles south of mainland Greece. About thirty years after Jesus died and rose again, Paul and Titus made a missionary journey there, and successfully planted churches in many of the Cretan towns. Paul returned to Athens, but as we read in chapter 1, he left Titus on the island that he "might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town." All churches need good leadership, but the Cretan churches needed it especially, because they were going to have to live in opposition to a very difficult, very wicked culture. All sort of sins abounded all around the pagan world, but the Cretans were a special case. Paul writes, "Even one of their own prophets has said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.'" Yikes! Not exactly what you'd call ethnically-sensitive or politically-correct, is it? But many writers of the time bear out the truth of the statement. Cretans were infamous for being habitual liars. I don't mean fish-story liars, but cheat-you-out-of-house-and-home liars. They were known around the Mediterranean for being vengeful and vindictive, men who'd cut your throat if you looked at them cross-eyed-- that is, when they weren't lying about feeding their faces and refusing to work.

And now many of these people had become Christians. Their lives needed to demonstrate the holiness and righteousness of God. What if Paul had written to Titus something like, "Titus, my son, you have many Cretan Jews there in your congregations: you make them elders so they can teach the Gentile believers the Law of Moses. That way they'll know what's right and what's wrong. The Law'll make honest, gentle, and industrious citizens out of them"? Would that have been the way of Christ? What if he'd written, "Titus, tell them that Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself and to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If the Cretans can get that behavior down, they'll be good Christians and God will be pleased with them"? What if?

But Paul didn't write that, because that's not the Gospel. Paul does direct Titus to teach the church members good and godly behavior, according to sound doctrine. But what is that sound doctrine? Here it is, as it's written in Titus 2:11: "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men." Or, as the Greek says, to all persons. All our good Christian behavior comes after what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. All our striving to please God is how we live in the salvation He has provided for us.

God's grace that brings salvation comes first! Our Isaiah 26 reading shows us that salvation has always been a work of the grace of God. Isaiah writes, "You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast [or, him whose mind is stayed on You], because he trusts in you." Even from of old, God's people were called to keep the Law because first of all God had proved Himself to be gracious and trustworthy.

Isaiah looked forward to the time when the gracious salvation of God would be perfectly revealed to all humanity in the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Now Jesus has come and has perfectly kept the Law that we could never fulfill. Now He has died to ward off the wrath of God that we deserved for our sins and risen again to give us new and everlasting life. Now Jesus has put His Spirit in us so that we can say "No!" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and "Yes!" to self-control, uprightness, and godliness.

Could the Cretans do that without Christ saving them first? Could we? Of course not. For as Paul writes in verse 3 of chapter 3, "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another." Paul includes himself and Titus in this guilty verdict, and when we look at ourselves, we have to admit it's true of us, too. We've never physically taken someone's life, but we certainly have dehumanized others, refused to forgive, or wished someone was dead in our hearts. We've all been led astray by what we felt like doing, so we failed in our duty to God and our neighbor. We've been rude and proud; we've gossiped and envied; we've disobeyed our parents, our teachers, the law of the land, and the Law of God itself. Not one of us can claim to be worthy to stand before a holy God, and He's not interested in our stories that what we've done isn't "that bad" or that He should punish somebody else who's so much worse, instead. Even when we try to do good our motives are mixed, our deeds are polluted, and we can never meet the standard He has given us in His holy law. How can we possibly please God? What can people like the Cretans or people like ourselves do to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly in this present age?

Nothing. We can do nothing at all. Left to ourselves, we can expect only judgment. "But," says Paul, "when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy." As the hymn puts it, "'Tis mercy all, immense and free! For O my God, it found out me!" We didn't deserve it, we could never earn it, God would have been perfectly justified in letting us all go to perdition as our sins deserved. But in His mercy "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior." Our triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, poured out His salvation on us so we no longer have to fear the judgment of the law! By His free, unmerited, boundless grace He has justified you and me, declaring us Not Guilty and giving us credit for Christ's righteousness. He did this to make us heirs of His, looking forward in hope to all the riches of eternal life. As it says in chapter 2, verse 13, we now wait for that blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He has already redeemed us from the power of wickedness, and now He is in the process of purifying us, making us fit to be His very own, worthy to live with Him forever. Now, through His finished work, Jesus Christ is making us into people who are eager to do what is good.

Not fearful of doing what is bad, but eager to do good! Now through the grace we have from God, we can live in the salvation He gives and do what is godly, righteous, and self-controlled because we are thankful to Him for what He has done for us. Because He's put a new heart in us and we want to, not because the Law has forced us to!

So do we just lie back and let the Spirit work? No, God gives us the means of grace in His Word and Sacraments and we must not neglect them. So Paul tells Titus to be sure to teach these things. Titus, teach the salvation we have in Christ and the new life that flows from it! Titus, teach the sound doctrine of salvation in Christ alone through faith alone! Titus, "encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you." We ministers and elders are charged to encourage those who are doing good, to rebuke those who are doing evil, and to help people to know the difference. Some might read "Do not let anyone despise you" as giving the pastor license to throw his or her weight around. Not at all. This command assumes that the minister first has submitted himself to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and is teaching and guiding according to God's truth. When the faithful pastor is rightly teaching the revealed Word, to despise him or her is to despise God and His mercy.

And so, as it says in 3:8, the minister of Christ is to stress what the Lord has done for us and what He has rescued us from. We have trusted in God, and so now with joy we can be careful to devote ourselves to doing what is good. Now we can reap the benefits of a holy and righteous life, which is excellent and profitable for everyone.

This is the reward of our faith. Because Jesus has saved us, we can live in our salvation and please God through the Holy Spirit He has given. But the Lord knows we're often tempted to go back to our old ways. The old Adam and the old Eve in us are like weed seeds in a garden plot wanting to sprout up and choke out the good plantings again and again. It's our responsibility as Christians to keep running to Christ, to keep reading His Word, to keep calling on His Holy Spirit to enable us to say No to what is hateful to God and harmful to our neighbors and ourselves.

And it's the responsibility of the pastor and the elders swiftly to deal with problems that can disrupt the church and make our life in Christ more difficult. In verses 9-11 of chapter 3 Paul calls Titus to go against the Cretan culture of his time. This command is for today's church leaders, too. The world tells us to "celebrate diversity." But not when that diversity means departing from the truth that comes in Jesus Christ. We don't have many people today teaching we should return to keeping the Jewish kosher laws. More frequently our modern heresies say we should integrate Hindu or Muslim or nature-worshipping elements into our church services. Or believe in special revelations from the Holy Spirit that have nothing to do with God's revealed Word. We see it when Christians promote popular authors who allege that Christianity used to involve goddess worship or who invite their readers to doubt the truth of Scripture. When false teachers like that show up in the church, the leadership should warn them once, twice. Who knows, they may be sincerely mistaken and willing to repent. But if they will not listen, Paul says, have nothing to do with them. They have rejected the saving grace they were offered in Jesus Christ. They are warped, sinful, and self-condemned.

But you have received the grace of God that brings salvation. This is His good news to you whether you've been a Christian for sixty years or if the Holy Spirit is working in your heart to save you, today. Enough with fretting over being good so God will reward you with heaven! Believe in Jesus Christ: He has taken the punishment for your sins on the cross. Trust in His goodness: He has been good in your behalf. Receive the riches of His grace that He pours out upon you by His Holy Spirit, and live in the salvation of the Lord. Serve Him in true humility and joy, knowing that it is Christ who is working in you, both to will and to do. For as Isaiah the prophet says, "LORD, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us." All honor, glory, wisdom and strength be to You, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever more. Amen.