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.

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