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.