Sunday, December 30, 2012

What Now?

Texts:  Isaiah 51:9-16; Matthew 2:13-23

THE PRESENTS ARE OPENED, THE DINNER is eaten, the relatives are on their way home.  You may be thinking about taking down the Christmas tree-- if you haven't already.  For all intents and purposes, Christmas 2012 has come and gone.  But has it made any difference?  What now?

In our Christmastide Scripture readings, Mary has brought forth her Child, the angels have sung, and the shepherds have come and gone.  Even in our Matthew account, today's reading comes after the visit of the Magi.  They've worshipped the holy Babe and returned to their own country by another route.  Christ is born, and what now?

Even in our own time, we ask what difference does Christmas make?  It's a little over two weeks since the atrocious slaughter of twenty innocent children and six brave teachers and staff at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the emotional wounds are still open and raw.  What difference did Christmas make for them?  What about the dozens of innocent children that are victims of random gang violence in cities like Chicago and Boston and even our own Hill District and Homewood?  Not to mention the depredations of cruel rulers like the president of Syria, killing his own people for his political ends.  Shouldn't the birth of the Son of God have changed all that?  He was the newborn King, wasn't He?  He sits in glory at the right hand of God the Father Almighty right now, doesn't He?  So why do we have to put up with evil any longer?  Why are crimes still committed?  Why aren't vicious people restrained?  The night of the Connecticut massacre, I heard a radio commentator insist that atrocities like that have to make you question God and His goodness.  Why didn't God stop that shooter?  Couldn't He stop him?  Christ is born: shouldn't things be all better and different now?

Questions like these have been asked around this country the past two weeks, and they're asked every time a war, a plague, or a crime wreaks its destruction in this weary world.  But I hope and trust that you, my Christian brothers and sisters, know that despair and disbelief are not the answer.  The Apostle Matthew knew they were not the answer.  In the very passage where he recounts the disasters and woes that followed the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ, he also assures us that our heavenly Father was working out His gracious plan even as the powers of Hell were trying to do their worst.  None of these events caught God unawares, and none of them diminishes God's goodness and glory.  To show this, Matthew accompanies each of them-- the Flight into Egypt, the Slaughter of the Innocents, and the retreat to Galilee-- with a citation from the prophets.  The guilt of King Herod and his sons remains on their own heads, but the King of kings in His providence worked through these events, so the mission of His Son could be fulfilled and mankind could be saved.

Mary and Joseph were forced to take Jesus and flee to Egypt.  What a disastrous end to the beautiful scene of royal adoration!  To help us understand, Matthew cites Hosea 11:1.  It says, "Out of Egypt I called my son."  In Hosea the son is God's people Israel, chosen to inherit all the divine blessings and benefits and to be a light to the Gentiles.  But Hosea and the other prophets tell us that Israel failed at being God's son.  They rebelled against Him and broke His covenant.  God cannot go back on His promise, for He has sworn an unbreakable oath to father Abraham.  But He cannot bless a disobedient people.  What can God do?

He elected His own eternal Son, Jesus Christ, to be born into the world to be the holy Israel that Israel could never be.  That's who this Child is, and Matthew wants us to see that from the start.   In Jesus God recapitulates Israel's history, including the sojourn in Egypt, but this time, Jesus as God's human Son gets it right.  And because Jesus gets it right as the New Israel, we who believe in Him can share in all the blessings of divine sonship, too.   It was necessary for the Son of God to be led into Egypt and be called out from there again, so He could identify wholly with God's covenant people.  Our heavenly Father used the threats and paranoia of King Herod to accomplish His goal, though Herod knew it not.

But what of the Slaughter of the Innocents?  Historically, this was only one more of King Herod's tally of atrocities.  It was said it was safer to be Herod's pig than his son, because as a half-Jew he wouldn't eat pork, but he had no compunction about assassinating his wives and children if he thought they might be plotting against his throne.  So the extermination of maybe seven to twenty Bethlehemite infants and toddlers wouldn't give him a second thought.

But the deaths of these innocents gave their parents and families more than second thoughts.  And St. Matthew wants us to grieve with them, even as we continue in hope.  He quotes Jeremiah 31:15, where the prophet writes,

  A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.

Six hundred years before Christ, the Babylonians overran Judah. They slaughtered most of the Jews, and took a bare remnant into captivity in Babylon. Ramah, a town about five miles north of Jerusalem, was where the exiles, including Jeremiah, were assembled for deportation.  Jeremiah in his day used Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife, as a symbol for the entire grieving nation.  All of its dead and deported children were like Joseph and Benjamin, who you'll remember both spent time in captivity in Egypt and were both given up for dead.   Rachel was also identified with Bethlehem, because Jewish tradition said she was buried near there.  Matthew sees the fate of the little boys of Bethlehem and the lamenting of their mothers as a latter-day echo of what happened to the Jewish children during the Babylonian invasion.  But now it is worse.  In Jeremiah's time, the nation was being judged by God for their sin.  But the children of Bethlehem by any human standard were truly innocent, they had done no wrong.

But the passage in Jeremiah goes on to say,

This is what the LORD says: 
"Restrain your voice from weeping 
and your eyes from tears, 
for your work will be rewarded," 
declares the LORD. 
"They will return from the land of the enemy.
So there is hope for your future," 
declares the LORD. 
"Your children will return to their own land."

The innocents of Bethlehem were dead, but they were not removed or exiled from the care of Almighty God.  In Jesus' infancy they died for Him, but in His manhood He gave His life for them and for all whom God has chosen, whether they lived before Him or after, that they might have eternal life in the kingdom of God.

We're naturally appalled at the death of the innocent.  But shall we not be even more outraged at the cruel and unjust death of the only human being who was ever truly and wholly innocent, the sinless Son of God?  Yet He willingly suffered crucifixion for us, the guilty, the rebellious, the condemned, that we might be made innocent in Him.  We question God when young lives are cut off by crime, accident,  and disease, but how much more should we be afraid for those who are heading for eternal death in Hell because they do not know or believe in the Son of God?  Physical death is not the worst that can happen to us, and the souls of the holy innocents of Bethlehem are in the loving hands of God.  And so are the souls of the children of Newtown, Connecticut, and all other innocent victims of human cruelty and injustice.  For God Himself was born on this earth to share our pain.  On His cross He bore all our griefs, even the worst, and His resurrection proves that He is able to bring us through all suffering into the joy and blessing of God.

Jesus shared not only the crises of our lives, He also shared the drudgery and obscurity.  It's hard for us to understand how much the average Judean looked down on people from the north, on Galileans.  Matthew doesn't mention that Mary and Joseph were from Galilee in the first place, because he wants us to understand how God in His wisdom made sure that His Christ would be raised in a place like that.

For if it hadn't been for Herod, Jesus might have grown up in Bethlehem, just a few miles from Jerusalem.  From a human point of view, that could have been the ideal environment for an up-and-coming young rabbi!  Think of all the great teachers He would have had, and how much He could have learned!  Going from the age of the children Herod slaughters, and from the fact that the Magi visit Jesus in a house and not in the stable, we can conclude that the Holy Family remained in Bethlehem for quite awhile after Jesus was born.  Joseph was of the lineage of David, he probably found relatives there once the confusion of the census was over, and as a skilled, industrious man he would logically set up shop there.  But then the Holy Family had to flee.  And even when it was safe to come back to the land of Israel, they didn't dare resettle in Bethlehem because of Archelaus, who apparently was as bad as his father Herod.  So goodbye to being in the center of things near the capital, and hello again to little old remote Nazareth.

About this Matthew says, "So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene.'" This saying is harder to trace than the ones from Hosea and Jeremiah.  But it's very possible that he may have in mind a couple of places in Isaiah.  In Isaiah chapter 9 the prophet writes,

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan--
  The people walking in darkness 
have seen a great light; 
on those living in the land of the shadow of death 
a light has dawned.

Thus beyond all expectation, the prophet predicts that remote and humbled Galilee of the Gentiles will be where the light of God's Messiah will first have its dawn.  And in Isaiah 53:3 it is written,

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.

We read in John's gospel that "Nazarene" was a byword for one who was despised.  And so Jesus was underrated, rejected, and persecuted in His lifetime by the religious and secular authorities, and at last even the people called for His crucifixion.  Jesus knew humiliation and scorn so He could become our sympathetic and gentle high priest.  As it says in Hebrews, He has been tempted in every way just as we are-- yet was without sin.  In His humanity Jesus experienced the everyday trials of human existence, so He can identify with us in all our griefs and bring meaning to all our sufferings.

But the question still cries out for an answer: Why do we have to go through suffering in the first place?  Especially why do the innocent suffer?  Couldn't God just stop it?  Couldn't God have stopped Herod, or the shooter in Connecticut, or any of the innumerable human monsters down through history?

We can ask that, but then we'd have to ask why God doesn't stop all evil-- including the evil we do every day.  Why didn't God stop you the time you punched your brother in the face as a kid?  Why didn't He stop you from passing on that cruel gossip against your best friend?  Why didn't He stop me the other day when I screamed at my dog for pulling food off the counter?  Why, oh why, didn't He stop Adam and Eve from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?  Brothers and sisters, whether we understand it or not, God made this a world where our actions have consequences.  Rarely, our Lord intervenes with a miracle, but most of the time the laws of physics keep on working and causes have their effects, even when the effects are bad.  To stop it all would mean stopping the whole show.  One day our Lord will come in judgment and all transgression will cease, but until then it's inevitable that so much of what goes on in this fallen and broken world will be tragic and full of pain.

But the Son of God has been born into the world to redeem the world.  He came to experience our humanity and carry our griefs.  Jesus is God's beloved Son, the New Israel, who invites us to join Him in eternal sonship towards God the Father.  Jesus is the ultimate Holy Innocent, slain by evil but rising from the tomb in triumph over sin, death, and hell.  Jesus was obscure, despised, and rejected, and see, He sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high, glorified forever more.

All this He did for us, by God's eternal pleasure and good will. Christian friends, what now? What now!  Oh, give God glory, live in faith, rejoice in hope, and serve in love, for Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.  This is the difference Christmas makes, and nothing will ever be the same.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Kingdom Not of This World

Texts:  2 Samuel 23:1-7; Romans 1:1-6; John 18:33-37


As good Americans, of course we will reply we don't want a king.  That's why we fought a revolution.

All right, then, what kind of president do we want?  What kind of leader do we want at our head to guide us and guard us and make decisions in our behalf?

Well, taking it from history and recent events, typically we want rulers with the common touch.  We want someone who can sympathize with our needs, aspirations, and desires-- and help fulfill them.  Someone who can identify with us as his fellow human beings. He should be down here and present with us.  We want his kingdom to be a kingdom of this world.

At the same time, we want our leader to be a little better than we are, just like us but more so.  Accomplished and superior enough so we can look up to him, but not so high that he's totally detached.  We want him to symbolize our own aspirations for power and greatness, because we want to think of ourselves as great.

We want our leader to be accountable to us.  Even the most powerful of emperors could be taken down by a vote of his nobles, or by a palace coup.  We want him to bear in mind that with all his power and riches and fame, he's only our ruler as long as we allow him to be.  We want him to reign over a kingdom of this world and answer to us, because we're very much of this world.  That's the kind of king we want.

So how does Jesus Christ fit into this?  Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day when the Church has traditionally celebrated our Lord's exalted status as king of heaven and earth. Is He the kind of king we traditionally want?

In some ways, yes.  In 2 Samuel 23 we have a valedictory psalm of David, his official last words.  In it, among other things, he celebrates that God has made with his house and family an everlasting covenant.  This refers to the fact that the Lord God promised that there would never fail to be a descendant of David sitting on the throne of Israel. And who was David?  He was the despised shepherd boy whom God had raised up to shepherd His people Israel.  And who is Jesus?  As St. Paul reminds us in Romans chapter 1, Jesus is the descendant or son of David.  Jesus has humble family origins.  We can identify with Him.

And also in Romans 1, the apostle speaks of Jesus' human nature. Jesus as He walked this earth and proclaimed His coming kingdom was a human being just like we are.  He was subject to the physical laws of this earth.  He needed food and sleep.  The rain wet Him and the dust of the road dirtied His feet.  Jesus shares our humanity.  Very good, He's like us.

In His ministry we see how Jesus definitely had the common touch.  He gently and tenderly dealt with those who were sick and hungry and hurting.  Mothers eagerly brought their children to Him to be blessed.  He stood up for the poor and oppressed and defended them against the powerful.  His heart was with the people and their needs, and His actions were, too.

In all these ways and more, Jesus seemed to be the kind of king people traditionally want.  A king of a kingdom of this world, taking care of our worldly needs and desires.  Think of what St. John tells us about the crowd after Jesus fed the 5,000, how they wanted to take Jesus and make Him king by force.  They knew a good candidate when they saw Him!

But even in His time, people knew that if Jesus was a king, He wasn't the ordinary kind.  He was also fulfilling the expectations for the great king who would be the special Anointed One, the Messiah of Israel.  Through Him God would work in a unique way.  It was only to be expected that Jesus should identify with the people by performing signs and wonders and miracles for their sake.  At least, they figured it was all for their sake. What else?  The crowds were filled with admiration at how the powers of nature took a back seat to this Man whenever He spoke a word.  They were thrilled at the authority with which He taught.  And they delighted in how He overturned the pretensions of the religious leaders who opposed Him.  Jesus was that ruler who could be looked up to and admired.  As David sang long ago in his farewell psalm, Jesus the Son of David was One through whom the Spirit of the Lord spoke.  He ruled over men in righteousness, and in His day He was like the light of the morning sunrise to those who labored under oppression of every kind.

So far, Jesus was and is the kind of king we humans naturally want.  But there's a problem.  Jesus refused to be bound by our desires and expectations.  Yes, He fulfills our need for a king who is like us and from among us, One who sympathizes with our weaknesses because He has known them Himself.  But Jesus came to be a far greater king than that, and His kingdom is not a kingdom of this world.

We see this starkly in our reading from John 18.  Here we have Jesus standing His trial before Pilate, the Roman governor.   "Are you the king of the Jews?" Pilate asks Him.  Is he asking a serious question?  Of course not.  The idea that this beaten and battered Man before him could be the king of anything is absurd.  Something else must be going on.  So Pilate asks, "What it is you have done?"  And Jesus replies, "My kingdom is not of this world."  And just in those words we have the basis of the religious authorities' charges against Him.  He refused to be the king of a mere earthly kingdom; He asserted ultimate divine power.  His kingdom is not of this world, and as such He and it were an offense not only to the Jewish leaders, He is an offense to what we are in our natural sinful state.

For now Jesus is really claiming to have control and authority even over the terrible situation He finds Himself in.  Pilate has pointed out that the Jewish people and chief priests have handed Him over to him.  Jesus replies that the very fact that His servants didn't fight to prevent His arrest is proof that His kingdom is from another place, and doesn't follow the rules of kingdoms here.  Maybe Jesus was including the disciples among His "servants" in this verse, but much more likely He's referring to the holy angels.  As He reminded Peter in Matthew 26:52-53, when the apostle drew his sword to try to protect Jesus from arrest, "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" But He did not put in the call, because like a good king and general He was working out His plan to bring in His kingdom which is not of this world.  If an ordinary man made this kind of divine claim we'd laugh at him.  And it's true, people laugh at Jesus and His royal talk, too. But they're forgetting the innumerable displays of power over nature, sickness, Satan, and sin He displayed throughout His ministry.  They're ignoring all the times the authorities tried to seize Him and He miraculously eluded their grasp.  No, the very fact that Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested showed that He was in charge of a plan that went beyond simply bringing in a new earthly kingdom.

Pilate, in his worldly cynicism, responds, "You are a king, then!"  Like, "Sure, right, tell me a new one."  Jesus, however, takes the governor's bare words and confirms the truth of them.  "You are right in saying I am a king."  I'm a substitute teacher, and sometimes a kid will say something to be funny or sarcastic that is more true than they know.  You have to latch onto that and confirm it to snap them out of their silliness and bring them face to face with true knowledge.  Yes, Pilate, it's true.  I, Jesus of Nazareth, am a king.  As king my first duty is to testify to the truth.  Those who are on the side of truth listen to me and are my natural subjects.

Our gospel passage leaves out Pilate's flippant reply, "What is truth?"  But it's worth answering.  According to the Scriptures, truth first and foremost is God Himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Truth is all God says and all God does.  Truth is His word communicated to us in Holy Scripture.  And truth supremely is the testimony that, as John records in chapter 3, that "Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil," but "whoever by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."  And how do we come into the light?  As Peter writes in his first epistle, it is God Himself (and God alone) who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light. We need to be ruled by something or someone outside of this world for us to be part of Christ's kingdom, and His divine power reaches in and conquers our souls for our own good.

Pilate made a flippant reply about truth because he was the mighty Roman governor dealing with a prisoner who was totally at his mercy.  But when we in our sin make belittling comments about Jesus and His truth, we show our discomfort that with the fact that Jesus' kingdom is not of this world.  His kingdom of Truth shows up all our dishonesty and lies.  Jesus the King of Truth convicts us of our sins and calls us to repent and believe in Him, who is the Truth.  As heavenly King He has the ultimate right to judge, for He answers to no earthly constitution and is accountable to no earthly court.

This is not like the kings and kingdoms of this world!  And see how Jesus the King ascends to His throne-- through the cross!  The servants of an earthly king would fight to protect His person and His realm.  But Jesus the Son of God goes forward to fight and die alone to win for Himself a kingdom that is not of this world.  As Jesus says in John 12, "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."  Some He will draw for salvation, some for condemnation, but by His death Jesus won the right to be the eternal ruler and King.

In our natural sinful way of thinking, Jesus is not the kind of king we want.  He claims to be in control of the forces of history-- and in control over us.  He claims to personify Truth-- and His truth judges not only our sin, but also our goodness, and finds it wanting.  Jesus claims that His kingdom is not of this world-- and refuses to let us co-opt Him and it for our own earthly purposes.  In short, He asserts that in all His humanity, in all His status as the Son of David, in all His sympathy with us and our needs,.He is more than that and beyond all that.  He was, as Paul says in Romans, "through the Spirit of holiness . . . declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead."  But the glorious and comforting thing is that on His cross Jesus won the victory over sin and death, and that included our sin and our death.  Jesus our King has removed the blindness from our eyes and the stubbornness from our hearts, so that we can recognise Him and long for Him as our true and only King, whose kingdom is not of this world.

What does this mean for our every day lives?  For one thing, it would keep us from confusing our own government or any other earthly system with the kingdom of Christ.  Bad earthly rulership does not tear God's kingdom down, neither does good human government cause God's kingdom to come.  All is in the Father's control, and His kingdom will prevail when every human administration has passed away.

And since we are not merely subjects, but also children and heirs of Christ's kingdom, we know that whatever happens to us in this world we belong to  a heavenly commonwealth that will never be destroyed.  This world is a wonderful place to travel through, but it's even better to know that one day we're going home.

And because Jesus' kingdom is not of this world, we know that He will definitely succeed in His ultimate purpose, to call us with all His saints to the perfect obedience that comes by faith.  We have been called to belong to Jesus Christ, and King Jesus will not fail to transform you into His image, no matter how guilty and sinful you feel you are.  He is the King whose kingdom is not of this world, and He can and will do it.
So let us depend on Him for all things and honor Him in all we think and do and say.  He is your Lord and King-- mighty, powerful, high and lifted up-- but also humble, gracious, and able to sympathize with your every sorrow and need.  Give Him praise and glory, for Jesus Christ is just the King we truly want and truly need.  Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Worth Repeating

Texts: Psalm 136; Romans 8:31-39

       O GIVE THANKS TO THE LORD, FOR He is good:
        for His steadfast love endures forever.

Is this a statement worth repeating?  Our spiritual ancestors the ancient Israelites thought so.  All through the books of Kings and Chronicles, at times of celebration at the Jerusalem temple, frequently when the armies of the Lord go out to war, we read of this call and response being made between priest and people. It stands as a confession of faith for the Old Testament church.  And since the Lord's church is one church, it is a confession of faith for us.  The Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever.  This is a confession we should take upon our lips daily.  We should find it marvellously worth repeating. 

    But what happens when the goodness of the Lord seems to fall short?   What if we feel that His love isn't exactly steadfast, or not exactly what we'd define as love?

    I was moved to preach on these two passages a couple weeks ago, long before a hurricane called Sandy began making its way up the Atlantic coast.  Around here we got off pretty light.  But elsewhere--!  Even now there are still people in New York and New Jersey who are cold and hungry and suffering.  They have no heat and no running water and they're short of food.  Ordinary people just like us in a terrible situation.  What if that was us?  Would we still be able to respond, "His steadfast love endures forever!"?  Would we want to?  Today's readings teach us that not only should we want to, even in the worst of circumstances, but through that same steadfast love of God, we can.

    The first step is to understand what this steadfast love is.  It goes way beyond a feeling or preference, it includes the active kindness and mercy of God toward men.  The word is hesed, and it describes how God is in Himself and also how God behaves as He reaches out to us in grace and favor.

    But here's our problem: We get the idea that if somebody loves us they should give us exactly what we think we want right now, whether it's the best thing for us or not.  And if he or she doesn't give it, it means they don't love us after all.  This attitude can make it hard for us to repeat that "His steadfast love endures forever!"

    I hope you and I aren't so childish as that.  I pray the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see that God shows His steadfast love towards us first and foremost in giving us a relationship with Himself, in allowing us to catch even the reflection of His greatness.  The psalmist proclaims,

        Give thanks to the God of gods,


        Give thanks to the Lord of lords.

Think of it!  Only we among the creatures are made in His image.  Only we are privileged even dimly to recognize who He is. The animals, the rocks, the trees: they worship God in being what they are, but they are totally unaware of the splendor and majesty of their Creator.  But Lord God has granted that we should see His glory, and in His love He has enabled us to enjoy Him in worship.  This is a privilege that nothing can take away from us, for God in His splendor always remains God.

    But as we see from verse 4 through 9, this loving God is more than great in Himself, He is also the Doer of wonders who made heaven and earth and all that are in them.

    And that includes us.  Our very existence is proof of the Lord's steadfast love!  He didn't have to create us.  He wasn't forced to give life to you or me in particular. We breathe and inhabit this earth out of the loving mercy of the Lord, and this should call forth our thanks-- even when that existence is threatened, because even in danger our lives are in His loving hands.

    For He knows our trouble and frailty.  Our God is not a wicked king who takes delight in being a tyrant over his subjects.  Our Lord is a God who shows His steadfast love in saving His people.  Verses 10 through 15 speak of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.  That was the great founding event in the history of the Old Testament church. At the Red Sea God displayed His power and salvation right there in human history and forged the Hebrew people into the nation of His choice. A Jewish friend recently asked me how we could know that the God of the Bible exists.  I reminded him that the God of the Bible has actually acted in loving acts towards real people in real time to real effect.  As a Jew this friend isn't particularly faithful to the Scriptures, so I don't know how much my reminder convinced him.  But for us who are under His New Covenant, these verses about Israel's salvation from Egypt should move us to thanksgiving, for they remind us of the greater salvation the Exodus looked forward to.

    For as great as God's victory was over Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt, even greater was the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ when He triumphed over sin, Satan, and death on the cross of Calvary.  As wonderful as God's love was when He safely brought His people Israel through the Red Sea, even greater was His love when He brought His Son through death to resurrection.  This was love shown to us, for we know that when Jesus rose from the dead, all of us who were chosen in Him from the foundation of the world were raised with Him as well.

    God shows His steadfast love for us in salvation.  But like the people in Staten Island and Queens, we want to be saved now and saved the way we want to be saved.  We can't judge those storm victims for being in the state they're in.  Even if they had evacuated, they couldn't have gotten far and they'd still be in dire straits.  And who of us can really visualize a fifteen foot tidal surge slamming up and washing away homes and taking out the power supply?  But when it comes to my sin and your sin and the sin of all mankind, we must judge ourselves.  I must give thanks for God's lovingkindness in salvation, because I myself am a sinner who needs to be saved.  No, none of us is Adam or Eve who first rebelled against God in the beginning.  But every day by my human nature and by my sinful acts I follow in my first parents' footsteps and I am covered in guilt.

    And so are you, and every human being who ever lived.  We do not deserve God's steadfast love or His favor.  In fact, it was the sin of mankind in Adam that disrupted creation so that superstorms like Sandy are so terrible and devastating.  In our chapter from Romans if we read verses 19 to 22 we see that creation was subjected to frustration and is in bondage to decay, because of the sin of mankind.  God in His steadfast love decreed that the creation should not be freed until we His elect are revealed as His glorious adopted sons.

    And this is what God has predestined us to be.  Our God doesn't merely rescue us and let us go where we will; He also guides us to our new home in Him.  This is what we see in verses 16 to 22 of Psalm 136.  Especially significant are the verses about the defeat of Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan.  We can read their stories in Numbers 21.  The Israelites always knew they were going to have to fight the Canaanite peoples on the other side of the Jordan.  But Sihon and Og ruled on the east side of Jordan, and both of them attacked Israel with no provocation.  Oh, no!  Do we see terrible situations coming at us like that and conclude that God's love isn't steadfast and doesn't endure forever?  No!  That's when we like Israel stand strong in the power of the Lord and trust His steadfast love to help us overcome the foe. 

    Verse 23 and 24 tell us how even after Israel entered the Promised Land there were still times when, due to their disobedience and sin, they suffered humiliation and attack by their enemies.  But even then God's merciful love towards them prevailed and He saved them again and again.  And that's how God acts towards us who belong to Him through Jesus Christ.  In His steadfast love He keeps on forgiving our sins and redeeming and repairing what we destroy in our own foolishness.  It is worth repeating: "His steadfast love endures forever!"

    Let us never forget: God's salvation isn't something we deserve, it's something we need.  And in God's perfect timing, there it is for us!  Even as we cry out "How long, O Lord, how long?" we can also affirm that His steadfast love endures forever, because our God is a God who keeps His promises.  Did you know that the Lord told Abraham that his descendants would be oppressed for four hundred years in Egypt, and then He would save them?  Four hundred years!  All that time, God was working out His perfect plan, making the conditions just right.  It was the same in the centuries before Jesus won our salvation on the cross.  But what about all those who died before Moses?  Who died before Christ?  God's loving kindness extends to them as well.  All whom God has chosen are included in His great salvation, no matter when they lived and died.  The One who made the moon and stars is capable of seeing to that!  And one thing we must learn and hold onto: The salvation of God is not limited to this earthly life.  Its goal and purpose is to bring us into His presence in the life of the world to come.

    And so in the midst of storm and trouble; yes, even as "the nearer waters roll; while the tempest still is high" we can respond "For His steadfast love endures forever!"  Because we know that God in His grace and wisdom is working all things out for our salvation; and not only for our salvation, but also to make us holy and wholly glorified in Jesus Christ.

    For as we read in our verses from Romans 8, it is actually in the midst of trouble and persecution that we can lift up our heads and repeat that "His steadfast love endures forever!"  For above all we see His love displayed in His Son Jesus Christ, who suffered trouble, persecution, and death for our sakes.  The loving Father God who has saved us from our sins will certainly not let us be overcome by those who hate and harm us because of our salvation!

    It is sad, tragic, even, that so many Christians have been falsely taught that as soon as you ask Jesus into your heart all your troubles will be over.  And when trouble comes, they conclude God doesn't love them or isn't faithful, and they fall away.  Our unbelieving enemies sneer at us on the strength of this lie:  See, they say, your God isn't so powerful or loving after all!  Will we listen to their trash?  Will we let their attacks and taunts make us doubt the steadfast love of the Lord?  When we suffer  "tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword" for the sake of Christ, shall we conclude that all this means that God has forgotten us?

    No!  "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."  It is no mere mantra or affirmation when we repeat that God's "steadfast love endures forever"; we know it's true because of what Jesus Christ did for us.  In Him God is totally, irrevocably, and lovingly for us, so who or what can be against us?  He has given us His Son Jesus Christ!  What an immense and unfathomable act of enduring love!  Truly, "His steadfast love endures forever!"

    And lest we falter, lest we forget, our Lord has given us this sacrament of the Lord's Supper.  Here at His Table we have physical elements that we can see and touch and taste.  Here God confirms that just as surely as we take this physical food into our bodies for our nourishment, just as surely His Spirit nourishes us with the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ our crucified and risen Lord, to the nourishment of eternal life.  Brothers and sisters, as you partake of this holy meal, remember that no matter what happens, God's love is faithful.  For

    . . . neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.  So give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.  And let God's people repeat: "For His steadfast love endures forever!"

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What Kind of King, What Kind of Kingdom?

Texts: Psalm 75; Mark 10:32-45

    HAS THIS EVER HAPPENED to you?  There's a person you admire, a family member, a teacher, a political figure, anybody.  You know his character, his opinions, the principles he bases his actions on.  You're sure you know what to expect from him as he lives his life.  But one day, you think you hear him say something that doesn't fit with what you know about him.  He'll say something is not a certain way when you'd expect him to say it is.  Well, maybe you misheard.  Forget about it.

    But then he says something else along the same lines.  What?  Well, maybe he just misspoke.  And you let it go.  But then he says or does it again, and it wasn't a slip.  You admire him, you respect him-- gosh darn it, you know him!  So automatically your mind works to make this new, contradictory information harmonize with your image of him.  And you go on like that, until the time comes when you have to face facts: These new, disturbing things really reflect who your hero is, and the image you had of him or her up to now is false, or at least inadequate.  Something has to give: Your allegiance to that person-- or the deficient idea about him you previously held.

    Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance.  That's when two things you think you know are out of tune with one another, but you do your best to make them harmonize because you don't want to give up what you basically believe on the matter.  We've all experienced it at some time or the other.  In our passage from Mark chapter 10, this lack of harmony engulfs the disciples, the Twelve, and especially the brothers James and John.  They think they know all about Jesus and His role and mission on this earth and they want to keep on relating to Him according to that knowledge.  But Jesus knows they don't have the whole story about Who He is and what He came to do.  The entire gospel according to St. Mark records how Jesus worked to make them-- and us-- give up our inadequate image of Him and embrace the real Jesus and His real kingdom, so we can turn to Him and be saved.

    Humanly-speaking, we can't blame the disciples for their deficient ideas.  After all, hear what it says in Mark 1:14-15:

    After John was put on prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.  "The time has come," he said.  "The kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news."

Jesus' basic message was about the kingdom of God: the blessed time when the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked punished and the Lord God Himself would reign in the person of His promised Messiah.  By His proclamation Jesus made it clear that He was the One who was bringing the kingdom in.
    And hear what the Scriptures say in the seventh chapter of the book of the prophet Daniel:

        As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. . . . 

        In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

    Here we see the glorious Son of Man, and by that title the promised Messiah would be known.  The eternal kingdom, that is, the kingdom of God, would be given to Him to rule over, and it would never be destroyed. 

    So what do we hear Jesus of Nazareth calling Himself?  In Mark 2:10 He says: "That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . " And in Mark 2:28: "The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."  And so on through the Gospel of Mark, not to mention many other times Jesus takes that title to Himself in Matthew, Luke, and John.  So Jesus without apology steps into the role of the Son of Man Daniel spoke about, and His miracles and teaching proved He deserved it.  This Jesus was the One who would reign as King over the indestructible divine kingdom, and His reign would have no end.

    That's how the disciples, including the Twelve, saw Him.  And they were right to see the Lord Jesus that way, as far as their perception went.  But their ideas didn't include what had to happen before the Son of Man could be awarded "all authority, glory, and sovereign power."  And when Jesus tried to teach His followers the whole truth, they didn't want to hear it, in a very real way they couldn't hear it, and they went on acting as if He'd never said anything on the subject at all.

    Though they couldn't ignore Him on it altogether. At the beginning of our target passage in Mark, we read that "they were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid."  From the ordinary point of view, they were just heading for Jerusalem as they would every year to celebrate the Passover.  But even the half-committed crowds that went along with Jesus just to see what miracles He'd perform next knew that Jerusalem wasn't a safe place for the Rabbi to be.  And His behavior was so odd!  He wasn't strolling along with them, singing the customary Psalms and anticipating a glorious time in the holy city.  No, as another translation puts it, He was "forging ahead," His head down like a charging bull, a Man on a mission determined to get that mission done.  What could it all mean?

    The disciples were astonished, the ordinary disciples and the Twelve as well.  From their point of view, Jerusalem was the last place Jesus should go at the moment, Passover or no Passover.  How did this seemingly self-destructive behavior fit, how could it fit with His identity as God's elect King and Ruler of the heavenly kingdom?

    And then Jesus turns up the dissonance.  He takes the twelve apostles aside and says,

     "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise."

The Son of Man?  Betrayed, flogged, and killed?  Preposterous! Impossible!  Jesus can't possibly mean it.  Never mind that this is the third time Mark records Jesus making this prediction.  It just didn't fit.  And as for His statement that three days later he will rise, what could that possibly mean?  As we see from what happens on Resurrection Day, that didn't register with the apostles at all.

    No, the disciples' idea of the Son of Man had nothing to do with disgrace, suffering, and death, it was all about ruling and glory.  Right after this, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus.  How have they explained their Master's strange behavior to themselves?

     Well, maybe He was going up to Jerusalem to declare Himself Messiah and King.  Yes, that would be it.  By the word of His mouth, with mighty signs and wonders, Jesus would overwhelm the Romans and the Jewish religious establishment.  He would take His stand in the Temple, the Holy Spirit would come down in power, and everyone would fall at His feet and crown Him Lord of all.  Definitely something to be astonished at, but it would fit.

    So since the kingdom must be coming in its fullness very, very soon, the brothers ask Him to grant them the seats at His right hand and His left when He sits enthroned in His glory.  As good Jews they're visualizing the thrones set in place in Daniel's vision.  It wouldn't be mere pomp and ceremony.  What they had in mind was the ruling power and authority and might the Son of Man would wield. James and John want to share it when King Jesus sits triumphant in His everlasting kingdom.  Co-prime ministers of Christ the King, that's what they want to be.  The kingdom, the power, and the glory may belong to our Father in heaven, but they're looking forward to a time in the very near future when a good chunk of it is delegated to them.  Talk of death, suffering, and disgrace is out of tune here; let's keep hold of eternal power and splendor.

    They don't know what they're asking, Jesus replies.  "Can you drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?" 

    Oh, yes, certainly they can!

    Did our Lord look at those two with loving pity when they gave that eager reply?  What did they think He meant?  Yes, there was a cup of the king: It was the cup of joy, the cup of salvation, the cup of overflowing provision.  And though the Bible doesn't tell us a lot about the preparations a king-elect would undergo before he was crowned, we do know from Exodus 29 that before a high priest was consecrated, he was to be thoroughly washed-- baptised, really-- to purify himself for his office.  And certainly the prophets say that the Messiah was to be the great High Priest as well as Israel's everlasting King. Likely there other rites before a coronation, like fasting and prayer and seeking the face of the Lord.  Yes, certainly, James and John could handle that!

    But James and John don't know that Jesus will have to drink the cup of God's wrath, as we read about in Psalm 75.  He will drink it down to the dregs, so that the wicked of this earth, including you and me, might be transformed through Him into children of God.  That cup of wrath was drunk by Christ alone, but the sons of Zebedee and all of us who belong to Jesus must be prepared to suffer for the sake of His name, before we can expect to reign with Him in glory.

    And James and John don't understand that the baptism Jesus will undergo will be the baptism of death.  He will be plunged into it fully for our sake on the cross, and after three days emerge living and glorious as the risen Son of Man.  Only Jesus could die that death for our sins, but all of us who bear His name must put to death our selfishness, our pride, our wills, even our physical lives; all we think we know and all we think we are.  All must be submerged and drowned to death in the blood of His cross.  Only then can we rise with Him to eternal life and kingdom glory.

    Yes, James and John will certainly share in Jesus' baptism and cup, and so will you and I who are baptised in His name.  But as to rewards and places of authority, the humble Son of Man declares that they are the Father's alone to give.  As we read in Psalm 75,

    No one from the east or the west
            or from the desert can exalt a man.
    But it is God who judges:
            He brings one down, he exalts another.

    The sons of Zebedee were looking to the main chance and working for their own advantage.  But in their indignation the other ten disciples were just as far off the mark, and in their situation we'd probably do the same.  Why shouldn't one of them get the best place?  Why not you, why not me?  But Jesus frankly, even ruthlessly destroys their false idea about the workings of the kingdom of God, both now and in the world to come.  He says,

        "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."    

This is the truth about the kind of king Christ is and the kind of kingdom He came to establish.  He's not an earthly ruler and His rulership doesn't follow earthly rules.  "Long live the king!" is the traditional cry.  But Jesus came to be put to death.  Many in the Church today can accept the idea that Jesus came to be a model  of service to our fellow man.  But this idea that the wrath of God was upon us all, and only the shed blood of the sinless Son of Man can turn it away, that doesn't fit.  They explain it away by saying the cross was only symbolic, or just a supreme example of love.  But Christ our King was enthroned upon that cross, and without it there would be no kingdom for Him and none for you and me.  We must accept our need for His death, for only then can we truly be His disciples. 

    It's not for us on this earth to be coveting glory for ourselves in God's kingdom to come.  Rather, let us receive the aid of the Holy Spirit as we humbly walk in the way of the cross.  Jesus has reconciled us to God through His suffering so we who belong to His kingdom can follow Him in humility, patience, service, mutual submission, and love.  It is our glory here on earth to suffer for the name of Christ: sometimes directly in times of persecution; sometimes simply by praising and trusting Him in the ordinary troubles and pains of this life.  There will be transcendent glory to come, but for now, He calls us to drink His cup and undergo His baptism.

    Brothers and sisters, what will you do?  Will you try to minimize your need for the cross?  Will you attempt to explain away Christ's command to be the slave of all, so you can keep your deficient idea of Who He is and what He came to do?  Or will you accept that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give up His life as a ransom for many?  Worship Him as He is, your broken and bleeding Savior.  Follow daily in the path of His sacrifice, serving others for His sake.  And know that by His faithfulness and His atoning death, you will stand before Him in His kingdom, praising the Father in the glory of His resurrection.  Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Newborn from God

Texts:    Romans 6:1-17; John 3:1-14

    IN A LITTLE WHILE WE WILL BAPTISE H-- A-- B--, infant son of H-- and D-- B--.  I was told that H-- was born on the 15th of this past August, so he's not quite two months old.  Once this child was not even thought of, but now he's a little person living here among us.  Even in these past two months he's growing, developing, and gaining strength.  What will he look like when he's big?  What will he be able to do? 

    We marvel at the glory of human life, especially when we find it packaged in a little child.  But human life is not enough.

    And what a miracle H-- is!  If anything on this earth could be called miraculous, it's the birth of a newborn child.  We know from science how minuscule we all start out in our mothers' wombs, but somehow the genetic coding works together and a new human being is born!  And now, see how intricate, how delicate, how marvellously-formed a tiny baby is!

     A child like this is indeed is an earthly miracle.  But earthly miracles are not enough.

    And think of the spirit in this child, already manifesting itself.  Here is a new soul with all its dreams and possibilities ahead of it.  How can we look upon a infant like this and not be inspired to contemplate the mysteries of life and the universe and beyond?

    Certainly, the human spirit is an amazing thing.  But the human spirit is not enough.

    All this is not enough, for we know from Scripture-- and from the testimony of our own hearts-- that we are not what we should be or what we were created to be.  We are sinners who  fall short of the glory of God.  We treat God, our neighbor, and ourselves in ways we ought not, and we fail to give God and our neighbor the honor and consideration they deserve.  St. Paul in our passage from Romans 6 speaks of people who would insult the grace of God by using it as an excuse to sin all the more.  He needs to command even Christians not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies.  So wonderfully formed our bodies are, with tremendous capabilities and strengths, but we have to be warned not to use them as instruments of wickedness.  Paul urges us not to let sin be our master, to stop being slaves to sin-- and by this we understand that having sin as our master is the ordinary condition of human life.  It's the problem we were born with and still struggle with, no matter how old or how young we are.  Because we are sinners, our lives lead to death, our miracles are fleeting, and our spirits end in frustration.  All our human glories are not enough.

    But maybe (some might say), but maybe all this about sin is just Paul the Apostle talking.  After all (people say), Paul didn't want anybody to have any fun.  He just obscured the real Jesus-- the kind, loving, gentle, inclusive, all-accepting Jesus who'd never lower anybody's self-esteem or judge them or make them feel there was anything about them that God couldn't like.

    Oh, really?  That's an imaginary Jesus people make up in their own heads, and not the Christ of the Bible.  We can read what Jesus Himself said about the natural condition of humanity.  In John 3:18-20, He says,

    [W]hoever does not believe [in Jesus the Son of Man] stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.  This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

"Men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil," says Jesus, the Son of God.  Not some men, but all men, and that includes us women, too.  It just comes naturally for us to do what is bad and wrong and to try to hide our guilt in the darkness, away from the righteous judgement of the holy God.  We are born with sin as our master and condemnation is what we naturally deserve-- Jesus has said so.  The tiniest child, the most aged, venerable senior, all of us come into this world as children of darkness and not as children of light.

    So what must we do?  Try harder?  Aspire to please God by acts of charity and service?  No, for even our best and kindest acts are polluted and degraded by selfish motives.  No matter how much we try, we fail to meet the standard of goodness set by God's own righteousness.  It's beyond human capability for anyone by his or her own efforts to have eternal life and not perish under the judgement we so properly deserve.

    Human life, human spirit, and earthly miracles are not enough.  We need divine life and the Holy Spirit, given to us by heavenly miracle.  It's not enough for us once to have been newborn-- we need also to be newborn from and by and through God.

    When Nicodemus, the member of the Jewish ruling council, came to Jesus by night, he wondered whether Jesus' presence marked the coming of the kingdom of God.  The coming of the kingdom was an event all good Jews eagerly awaited.  Jesus has been doing miraculous signs in Judea and Galilee, and Nicodemus recognizes by this that Jesus is a teacher sent from God, and the Lord is with Him.  Plainly, the next question is, "Rabbi, are You the Messiah, and will we see You inaugurating the kingdom of God very soon?"

    Nicodemus was expecting the time when God would fulfill all His covenant promises to His chosen people, an unending time of blessedness and joy for those who belonged to Him, with a simultaneous experience of punishment and woe for the enemies of God and Israel.  To a great extent, Nicodemus and his good Jewish countrymen were right.  But it's more than that.  The kingdom of God also has to do with the condition of every human heart.  Is God our Sovereign and Master-- or will we continue to be enslaved by sin?  Jesus gets right to the point: In order to see the kingdom of God-- that is, to be able to experience it, live in it, and enjoy the eternal life that only God can give-- it wasn't enough to have been born of the bloodline of Jacob.  No, "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

    For Nicodemus this is such a bizarre thing for Jesus to say that he tries to imagine an adult man crawling back into his mother's womb and having her deliver him all over again.  Absurd and impossible!

    But Jesus is not talking about anything natural or anything of this earth.  This new birth is from first to last an act of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.  In order to participate in the kingdom of God, we must be newborn from God.  Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit."   Elsewhere in John's gospel the Evangelist records how Jesus promised the Samaritan woman living water that would become a spring welling up to eternal life.  When He preached at the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus spoke of "streams of living water flowing from within" those who believed in Him, by which He meant the Holy Spirit, which believers would receive.  Repeatedly in Scripture water, especially flowing, running water, is used as a means of physical cleansing and refreshing, and as a symbol for spiritual cleansing and revival.  John the Baptist baptised people in the Jordan River, so they might be ready to accept the Messiah when He might be revealed to Israel.   Behind the physical element of water stands a powerful truth about what God does in the human heart so each of us can be fit and ready to see the kingdom of God.   

    And you and I can't do or be a single thing to bring the kingdom of God to us, or to make ourselves clean enough to see and enter it.  Jesus won't allow Nicodemus or us to delude ourselves.  We must have a spiritual rebirth, and that can happen only by the will and pleasure of the Holy Spirit Himself, who is God.  Can you or I control the wind?  No, we only see its influence and feel its force.  And so it is with the new birth from above-- it's totally up to God and His sovereign will.

    But we can take heart.  "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life."  God has provided the way for us to be born again and to have the life and Spirit that is more than enough.  Jesus Himself is the way, and as we believe in Him through the work of the Holy Spirit, we pass from life to death, from condemnation to adoption as sons, from darkness into light.

    Baptism is God's divinely-ordained sign and seal of this tremendous heavenly reality.  We take a common element, water, plain old H2O, and as we in faith invoke the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our Lord promises to apply His promises to us and our children.  Our Christian baptism is our initiation into new and eternal life-- because, St. Paul says (again, in Romans, chapter 6), our baptism into Jesus Christ is our baptism into His death.  In John 3:14 and 15, Jesus says that "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."  By this He looks towards the death He was to suffer on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.  His death washed away the guilt and stain of our sins in His own blood, and in the waters of baptism we are symbolically plunged into the blood of Jesus, that we might arise cleansed and purified and worthy to enter the kingdom of God.

    No one who refuses to come to God through the medium of Christ's atoning death will see life.  But if we are united with Him in His death, as Paul says, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.  With Christ in death, with Christ in newborn life-- this is our hope and our glory.

    But we also rejoice that when we are baptised into Christ, our old sinful self stays dead so we are no longer slaves to sin.  Oh, yes, that old sin nature still hangs around within it us, nagging us and tempting us to go back to what we used to be.  But now that we have been baptised into Christ, we are no longer what we used to be.  We are newborn from God-- truly innocent, truly perfect, truly holy-- because we have been united with Jesus Christ, the truly innocent, perfect, and holy one.

    As we baptise H-- A--, we express our faith that God will do for him what He has promised in Jesus Christ.  He is only a tiny child, and will not be able to express his faith in Christ as His Lord and Savior for many years.  But it was in our very helplessness that God took the initiative to revive and quicken us and raise us up in the power of the Spirit so we might call Jesus Master and Lord.  The Word of God written will teach H-- about Jesus and His death for him, and through the ministry of Christ's church as you surround him with your love and godly example, this child will come to  acknowledge and confirm the blessing of newborn life God gives to him and all of us in Christ. Young or old, whether you are a recent convert or a long-standing pillar of the Church, let us reaffirm our own baptisms, and humbly accept the what God has done for us through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For God so loved you that He gave His only-begotten Son, that if you believe in Him, you will not perish, but have everlasting life.  By His sovereign grace you are reborn into eternal life.  God has done it, let us receive it, and praise His name forever and ever.  Amen.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Father, Give Us This Day

Texts:    Proverbs 30:7-8; 1 Timothy 6:3-10; Luke 11:1-13

    WITH THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION JUST a few weeks away, there's a lot of debate over the sorry state of the national economy.  Both sides disagree on who's to blame for it all, each claims it's the other side's fault.  This morning we won't get into who's right and who's wrong on the question, but one thing I think we can agree on is that the economy is still in trouble.  People are still losing their homes, their jobs, their savings.  Experienced adults are having to make do with part time and occasional work, and it's not enough to live on.  Many people having given up on finding gainful employment altogether.  People are scared, even panicking.  Some of those people might be folks you know.  Some of those people might be you.  We hear about the working poor.  Our times have given us the hidden poor-- those who still appear to be middle class, but they're desperately hanging on by their fingernails, knowing that if something doesn't develop, if something doesn't change, they'll soon slide down into ruin.  What do our Scriptures for today say to people in that condition?  What do they say to us as we struggle with our own financial worries, or worry about the struggles of those we love?

    We could be superficial.  We could take our passage from 1 Timothy with its verse about the love of money being the root of all kinds of evil, and conclude we should feel guilty about wanting to provide materially for ourselves and our families.  We could imagine we're being told that money doesn't matter at all and we shouldn't bother to provide materially for ourselves and our families. 

    And then our passage from Luke 11.  As it winds up, Jesus seems to be saying that whatever we want, we can ask God for it and He'll give it to us.  That's what the prosperity gospel preachers say.  That you can have anything you desire-- houses, cars, wealth-- if you just ask God with enough faith.  So if we don't have the material things we want and need, does that mean we don't have enough faith?  Is that what Luke is teaching us?  And are St. Luke and St. Paul at odds with each other, one saying God wants us to have money and the stuff it'll buy, and the other telling us that money and possessions are somehow evil?

    We know better than that.  The Holy Spirit is the Author of Scripture and He does not contradict Himself.   And it's not the purpose of the revealed Word of God to give us financial advice.  No, these passages and all the verses of the Bible that talk to us about money and material things speak with one voice, and they all intend that we should have the right attitude toward these things, because we first have the right attitude towards our holy Father God. 

    Lest we should say great riches are always a sign of God's blessing, or conversely, in case we should claim that poverty is  good in itself because God only favors the poor, let us take our verses from Proverbs 30 as our keynote.  They say,   

    Two things I ask of you, O Lord;
            do not refuse me before I die:
     Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
            give me neither poverty nor riches,
            but give me only my daily bread.
        Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
            and say, ‘Who is the Lord?'
    Or I may become poor and steal,
            and so dishonor the name of my God.

    You probably remember the Prayer of Jabez fad a few years ago.  We were told that the formula to a happy, God-blessed life was to be found in a prayer prayed by an otherwise unknown Judahite mentioned in 1 Chronicles.  I suggest that we in our times might take this prayer of Agur son of Jakeh especially to heart.

    "Keep falsehood and lies away from me," he implores, and aren't we surrounded by untruth and even active opposition to the Truth every day we live?  But beyond this, see what Agur prays regarding material possessions.

    First of all, he does pray regarding material possessions and his prayer is recorded in Scripture as an example to us.  There is nothing shameful or guilt-inducing about wanting our material needs to be met.  God created us with physical bodies.  They were part of us when Creation was still "very good," and our heavenly Father knows we need food and clothing and shelter from the elements.  He knows it's good for us to have and enjoy things to delight the eye, to stimulate the soul and to rejoice the heart.  Of course we are in need of material things, and it is right and holy that we should ask the Lord God for them.  For when we ask, we're acknowledging that we depend on Him, that we know that every good gift comes down from Him in heaven, even our life itself.

    But what shall we ask?  Shall we ask to win the lottery and be rolling in cash?  Shall we beg God to give us a higher salary than anyone else in our company, not because our work earns it, but because we want to feel how much more important we are than anyone else there?

    No.  By the Holy Spirit Agur prays, "I may have too much and disown you and say, "Who is the Lord?"  That is the snare in riches.  That is where the love of money proves to be the root of all kinds of evil.  It's when money and possessions come between us and God.  Money can so easily become an idol, especially when one has so much of it he believes he is entirely self-sufficient and no longer needs his Lord.  Indeed, in his letter to the Colossians St. Paul frankly labels greed as idolatry.  The person who on an earthly level has earned his or her fortune is particularly in danger of falling into this pit, for if he will not exalt God as the Giver, he begins to raise up himself as the author and perfecter of all he has acquired.  You may have heard the expression: "He's a self-made man, and he worships his Maker."  But rich or poor or in-between, we have only one Maker, who is the divine Creator of heaven and earth, and only one Provider, who is our Father in heaven, and only one Master, who is the triune Lord.  And if we deny Him; if we stand on the highest pile of possessions the world has ever seen and stick our paltry human noses in the air and proclaim that we are the captains of our fates and the masters of our souls, we are poorer than the frailest, sickest, most starving Christian child in the refugee camp at Darfur, for we, unlike that child, have lost God.

    At the same time, Agur prays that the Lord not give Him poverty.  God certainly is described in the Bible as the special Defender of the poor, but there's nothing noble or virtuous about poverty in itself.  Like riches, it offers its own temptations to idolatry.  Agur feels that if he should become poor, he might be driven to steal.  And what is theft?  It's another way of refusing to trust God, of preempting His right to give you what He wills for you in His good time.  Theft, too, is driven by greed, which is idolatry.  When a child of God descends to stealing to provide for himself, he dishonors God not only in the crime itself, but in what the theft says about God's ability to provide.  It declares that the Lord is not to be trusted.  But when one is poor and desperate, waiting on the Lord is a difficult thing to do.  "My family and I are hungry now!" we might protest.  "I have the right to take what I need!"  With Agur we pray we will never be led into such temptation.

    In all of this prayer, the main thing is not the petitioner's material state, the main thing is his relationship to Almighty God.  Agur knows his weakness.  He also knows God's strength: up in verse 5 he writes, "Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who trust in him."  But how easy it is in our weakness not to trust!  And so, he prays that the Lord will give him "neither poverty nor riches, but only his daily bread.  "Give us this day our daily bread," O Lord.  Assure me that I will have enough for my needs, and may I trust You to do the same thing for me day by day,  tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, not because I see the provision, but because I see You.

    And so, hundreds of years later, when the Son of God walked the earth in human flesh, His disciples came to Him and asked Him to teach them how to pray.  What comes first in the prayer our Lord taught?  It is that we may be given to acknowledge who God is and be fully submitted to His will.  He is our Father: kind, loving, benevolent-- and in charge.  May we always hold His name holy-- that is, may we realize that God is never a means to an end; rather, He is the end and purpose of all things in Himself.  May His kingdom, His everlasting dominion come, and may it be established here and now in me.  Once we understand the greatness of God, we can properly ask Him to fulfill our material, spiritual, and emotional needs.  Like Agur, our Lord teaches us to pray each day for our daily bread and for preservation against temptation to sin against God.  And Jesus teaches us to pray for our greatest need of all: for forgiveness of our sins, and for grace to forgive those who sin against us.

    Jesus commands us to pray believing in the goodness of God, trusting our relationship with Him.  He tells two parables to illustrate this.  We haven't time this morning to examine them in detail, but the point is clear: If a friend will bother himself to help a friend in need, how much more will our loving God open the door to us and give us relief.  If a human father, even an evil one, will give his son good things, how much more will our Father give good gifts to us, the children He has adopted in His Son?  And not just good things, but the best thing-- The Holy Spirit, who is His very presence with us.  If we have nothing else in this world, if we're being starved to death in a prison someplace but have the Holy Spirit living in us and ministering Christ and His benefits to us, we have all we need.

    I pray that you and I can get our hearts and minds and desires around this.  This same truth is what the Holy Spirit through Paul teaches Timothy-- and us-- in the First Letter to that young pastor.  "Godliness with contentment is great gain," he writes.  "For we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that."  "Godliness" is far more than an aspect of our own character or personality.  It's not walking around being holier-than-thou or bragging about all the things we don't do.  No, godliness is a state of being in continual fellowship with God in Jesus Christ, continually seeking His will and trusting in His love.  If that is how you know and walk with your Provider, if you have learned the happiness of trusting Him for your daily bread, you are way ahead of the game when it comes to material wellbeing.  If the Lord should grant you more than food and clothing-- and I suspect He has favored all of us this way-- rejoice in His gifts and thank Him for all He has done.  But wanting to get rich for the sake of getting rich can cause us to fall, as Paul and Agur son of Jakeh say, into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that can plunge us into ruin and destruction.

    Brothers and sisters, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful at our work.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be compensated fairly for the labor we do and the work product we produce.  St. James in his letter condemns those who withhold wages from the workman, and the executive in his suite is just as much a workman in what he does as the lowliest sweating ditch digger.  The hazard, again, is lusting after wealth for its own sake, so you can sit back and rely on it and not on God.  The danger is learning to despise the riches that is God's Holy Spirit living in us.

    But how shall we stand in this world of lies and falsehood, in these times when financial uncertainty tempts us to try to get rich quick or to take matters into our own hands and steal?  We stand on Jesus and His death and resurrection for our sakes.  God gave up His Son for us: is there any other needful thing He will withhold from us He loves?  As Paul says in Romans 8, "He who did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all-- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?"

     Not all at once, and not everything we are convinced we need, not necessarily even what we think is best.  We may pray the prayer of Agur son of Jakeh in faith, and the Lord may say No, and give us riches and the responsibility that comes with them.  He may will that we taste poverty, and learn to trust Him not merely for our daily bread, but for our very breath hour by hour.  In all our prayers, may we seek to know God, His graciousness and His glory.  May we desire above all things to be found in Christ, who died for us.  May we rejoice in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, now and in all eternity.  For however the economy is going, whatever our fate on this earth may be, that is a prayer that our Lord will always answer with a gracious, loving Yes.  Amen.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Faithful Worker

Text:    1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

    TOMORROW AMERICA CELEBRATES the Labor Day holiday.  Kids and comedians like to joke, "Hey, it's Labor Day, why aren't we all laboring?"  But of course the day is set aside to honor all those whose hard work makes America as great as it is, and to give the workers recognition and a well-deserved special day of rest.  The idea that Labor Day is a day of rest would come as a surprise to workers in retail stores and car dealerships and other enterprises that use the long weekend as an occasion to attract customers.

    But there's a group of people who should never stop working, no matter what the day is, and that is the members of Christ's Church when we're doing His business for the sake of His kingdom.  God calls us to be faithful workers for Him, day in and day out, for He has chosen and elected us to be like the one supreme faithful Worker, Jesus Christ our Lord.

    You, the members of the Calvin Presbyterian Church of N--- City, are in a crucial position in your work in the name of Christ.  I know nothing about your now-former pastor or his time here (though I hear he's a pretty good bagpipe player), only that this past Sunday was his last time in this pulpit.  I know nothing about your time with him, the successes and failures, the plans accomplished and the ideas that fell flat.  What I do know is that from this Sunday on you will be starting a new phase in the work of this congregation.  However you choose to proceed, whether you will be going on with pulpit supply for the foreseeable future, or hiring an interim pastor, or whether you hope to begin searching for a new pastor as soon as possible, there are both possibilities and pitfalls in your way, that will have a strong effect on the work and future of this church.

    It might be tempting to come up with scenarios.  But it will be more useful, more edifying for us to examine how the work of this church should proceed as God our Father has laid it out Himself in our reading from 1 Thessalonians, chapter 5.

    The Thessalonian church of the 1st century A. D. was in pretty good shape as to doctrine, ministry, and practice.  It was dear to St. Paul's heart as one that didn't need a great deal of correcting and rebuking.  In chapter 1, verses 2 and 3, he writes,

    We give thanks to God always for you, making mention of your in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus in the sight of our God and Father.

The Thessalonians were faithful workers in the Lord, and the Apostle wanted to encourage them to stay that way. 

    In our passage from chapter 5, the apostle puts first things first.  In verse 12, he writes (as we have it in the New King James Version), "And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you . . . " Now, I usually preach out of the New International Version, 1984 edition.  But with this text, I've found that the NKJV gives a more accurate and stronger rendition of the original Greek. 

    This word "recognize," for instance.  As in English, this word (which literally means "to see") urges us rightly to perceive the worth of pastors, elders, and teachers, and to pay close attention to them.  Why?  Because first and foremost, whether you have an installed pastor or in this interim time, the preaching and teaching of Word of God must take priority.  My seminary field-education pastor impressed this one thing upon me especially: That the laypeople of the church could carry on most of the work of the ministry, but the one indispensable job of the pastor, the one thing the laity could not do, was to be the theologian of the parish.  It is the pastor's job to set a faithful course in interpreting the Scriptures so Jesus Christ is glorified and the saints are built up in sound doctrine and practice.  In turn, the elders take their lead from the pastor as they teach the Word (and the Scriptures say that elders must be able to teach), and they guide all other teachers by overseeing curriculum and so forth. 

    As Paul says, pastors and elders are over you in the Lord.  That's "in the Lord"-- for His sake and His glory, not for their own power or pride, but to nurture the church in holiness and service.  You elders must resolve not merely to rule over the church and administer its business affairs, but along with that to be concerned about your brothers and sisters in this congregation, to care for their spiritual well-being, and give them all necessary aid in their Christian lives.  This you primarily must do by encouraging and admonishing them with the good news of Christ and Him crucified.  For without your labor in the Word, your labor in the Lord will be faithless and in vain.

    As a congregation, you're in a very delicate position for the next few weeks.  Without an ongoing pastor, it can be difficult to ensure that your work here is grounded in Christ and His work as recorded in Scripture.  You must do all you can, in cooperation with the presbytery, to make sure that the good food of faithful preaching and teaching continues to come to you.  Never let yourselves believe for one minute that it's not important or that you can get along without it.  As a former pastor of mine would say, a church without the faithful preaching of the Word is just the Rotary Club with hymns.

    Verse 13 reminds us we are to esteem or honor those who labor in the Word very highly for their work's sake.  You honor the surgeon who successfully treats your diseases: how much more highly you should rate the man or woman who week after week applies to you the holy medicine that brings you spiritual health and eternal life! 

    And be at peace among yourselves.  Nothing destroys a church faster than gossip, backbiting, and arguments.  Defend what is right, by all means, but always in a spirit of love and graciousness, knowing that the Lord Jesus who made peace between God and us with His blood is the only Head of the Church, not we ourselves.

    But what about difficult people in difficult circumstances?  Verse 14 addresses this issue.  We don't notice it in the English, but all these situations are taken from military life.  And isn't the church of God like an army under His command?  The exhortation-- that's a good old word we need to use more often-- is a combination of command, encouragement, and advice we'd better follow-- this exhortation is primarily addressed to pastors and elders, but all of us have a part in this work.  First of all, the unruly must be warned.  Some translations say "the idle,"or "the lazy," but it's "idle"or "lazy" as in "Idle hands are the devil's workshop."  Think of a soldier goofing off in the ranks.  Or a disruptive student sprawled out in a desk in the back of a classroom, mouthing off at the teacher.  Inevitably will be some who think the commands of Christ to live holy, upright, and moral lives do not apply to them.  They must be warned-- based on Scripture, not on our particular preferences-- that they may shape up and stop abusing the grace made available to them, lest their Christianity be revealed as a sham. 

    But the timid or fainthearted are not to be warned, they are to be comforted and encouraged.  Here we see a picture of the recruit the night before the battle, worried about what's going to happen, afraid lest he prove to be a coward and turn tail and run.  For the Thessalonians and many Christians today around the world, this fear is real.  Anti-Christian persecution is rife and our brothers and sisters are losing their lives daily for confessing Jesus as Lord.  Our own culture is making it clear in many ways that the less we say about Jesus as God, the safer we'll be from damaged reputations and lost friendships.  The temptation to timidity is there.

    So let us comfort the fainthearted.  How?  By telling each other it's okay to be afraid?  Certainly not!  Let's remind one another of who Jesus is and what He has done for us.  Let's commend one another to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who applies the steadiness of Christ to us through the ministry of His Word.

    And the weak must be upheld and built up.  Think of a new and flabby recruit who can't possibly run the obstacle course the first time through.  But gradually, he undergoes strict physical training, his muscles are made hard and powerful, and he gets so he can carry a 200-pound pack for twenty-five miles and ask for more.  In the church, again, we grow our spiritual muscles and overcome weakness by reading, hearing, and meditating on the Word of God.  We stop being flabby Christians.  But Paul makes it clear that the church leadership is to make sure this happens, not simply to hope everyone is taking care of it on their own.

    And this, as we see, takes patience.  It can be frustrating always to be warning, or encouraging, or trying to strengthen the same people over and over.  Never mind.  Keep on doing it, in the love, serenity, and peace of your Lord, knowing how patient He has been with you.

    Don't be looking out to get revenge, whether against fellow Christians or against nonbelievers.  Pursue, strive for, seek after, aspire to what is good for all people, for this is how Jesus has dealt with you.

    Verses 16 to 18 go together.  "Rejoice always," Paul says.  Why?  Because events and conditions in this world are so wonderful all the time?  No.  Rather, because Christ our God is so wonderful all the time.  Keep Him by your side in prayer all the time.  Refer every problem, every difficulty, every joy to Him at every moment.  Be in constant inward conversation with Jesus, and so in everything you will be able to give thanks, for you will be focussing on Him who is the Giver and Provider of all that is good, lovely, and meaningful.

    And do not quench the Spirit.  We think of this in terms of pouring water on a fire, and yes, that applies.  But think also of putting out a candle's flame, or turning off a light.  We can quench the Holy Spirit by refusing to pay attention when the Scriptures are being read and preached, for His special work is to shed light on the Word.  We can quench the Spirit in one another, when we refuse to listen to what might be His inspired ideas for new ministries and new possibilities in the church.  "Do not despise prophesies," Paul writes.  In our day, the canon of Scripture is closed and God is not giving us anything new to add to it.  Very rarely does He give a message that foretells the future.  But whenever the Word is faithfully told-forth, there is prophecy for our day.  There are churches who think preaching is dispensable, that if you want to get the crowds in you have to have loud music! smoke! mirrors! light shows! not some individual up front talking from the Bible.  But preaching is the means that God has ordained to bring sinners to salvation; do not despise it.

    But even as you hear the Word preached, make sure the preacher is preaching the Word.  "Test all things," says verse 21, and do so by the revealed Word itself.  The Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, and He does not contradict Himself.  And once you know that what you have been taught is the genuine article, hold onto it with all your strength.  There is no virtue in being open-minded about matters the Spirit has proven to you.

    And in all your labor for the name of Christ, as a congregation and as individuals, abstain from every form-- or, more specifically-- even every appearance of evil.  We represent Christ in the world.  This is our job for His sake.  Let's not associate Him with anything dubious or shady. 

    All this is a lot of work!  When will we ever get any rest?  Is it all up to us to do it ourselves?

    No, brothers and sisters, it is not all up to us.  In a way, it's not up to us at all.  For as we read in verse 23, God is the God of peace, and He has already given us rest in the blood of Jesus Christ.  It is He who makes us holy and enables us to live holy; as it says in Philippians, He works in us both to will and to work according to His good pleasure.  He Himself sanctifies you completely, and He will preserve your whole being: spirit, soul, and body, blameless when Jesus our Savior comes again.

    For isn't that what we are working for in the church?  The day will come when we will sit down with Jesus in His kingdom and enjoy His everlasting feast.  We will hear Him tell us, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"   We will rest and rejoice forever in His love.  He will throw away the wages of sin, which is death, and give us instead the pay He has earned for us, the riches of eternal life.  On this Labor Day weekend and always, celebrate the finished work of the One who died and rose again for you, the Master who keeps His promises.  In His sanctifying strength, keep on working, for Christ is the faithful Worker, and He will do it.