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.

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