Sunday, February 24, 2013

God's One-Sided Bargain

Texts:  Genesis 15:1-18; Luke 22:14-30

TWO VERSES FROM OUR READINGS this morning sound the keynote for today's sermon.  The first is Genesis 15:17 and it says,

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 

The second is Luke 22:20, which says,

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. 

One verse that's familiar, one verse we may find to be obscure.  But both have to do with the covenant of grace that the Lord our God makes with us, not counting the cost to Himself, that you and I might be saved.

The making of covenants is fundamental to Biblical history.  Our God is a covenant-making God.  But let's not think that the making of covenants was some special Bible thing off in a category by itself.  No, it was basic to human life and civilization back in ancient times and it still is today.

People make different kinds of covenants with one another, for different purposes.  Treaties.  Bargains.  Marriage vows.  Contracts.  You name it.  All of these involve the parties promising to do certain things for one another.  Very often they stipulate the penalties the parties will face if either of them fail to live up to their side of the bargain.  The general form was, "Do this, and this benefit will follow.  Fail to do this, and this penalty will follow."  As you might expect, if one party to a contract was more powerful than the other, the weaker party incurred most of the obligation and most, if not all, of the penalties.  But what would you think of a covenant where the stronger party took all the obligations and all the penalties to himself, and all the benefits came to the party that was weaker?  That's not how it happened in the ancient world, and it's not how it happens today.  But that's exactly what the Lord God Almighty does for us in the covenant of grace He has made with us for our salvation.

Genesis chapter 15 begins with the word of the Lord coming to Abram in a vision:

"Do not be afraid, Abram.
    I am your shield,
    your very great reward."

At the outset, we see God conferring a benefit on the man Abram.  And who was Abram?  Was he some hero or demigod who had the right to deal with the Lord God Almighty as an equal?  No, he was a nomadic herdsman of Syrian descent whom God out of His own free grace had elected to be the one through whom all the nations of the world should be blessed.  God of His own choice gave Abram the right to expect something of Him.  So to this wonderful assurance Abram basically responds, "How will I know that You will keep your promise to me?  You've promised to make me into a great nation and look, I still have no children and a servant of mine looks to be my only heir."

  And does the Lord say, "Trust Me?"  He could have.  But in grace He responds that indeed, a son coming from Abram's own body would be his heir, and He gives him the sign of the stars of heaven as His testimony that His promise is firm and sure.

Does Genesis say, "Abram did this or that to deserve that God should favor him"? or "God required these actions and good works from Abram as his part of the bargain"?  No, it tells us that upon seeing this sign,"Abram believed the Lord, and it was credited to him as righteousness."  All the action was on the Lord's side; all the passive receptiveness was on Abram's.  Abram simply received God's grace, and by that grace he received the righteousness of God that made it possible for him to walk with God in friendship and peace and receive His blessings forever.

But God has not finished making His one-sided bargain or covenant with this man.  The Lord says,

"I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it."

Again, as in verse 2, Abram asks for a sign that this indeed will take place.  God, being God, had every right to say, "Abram, you trusted Me before; go on trusting Me now.  Isn't My word enough for you?"

But the Lord doesn't do that.  Instead, the Lord God of the universe condescends to a man and grants him signs and seals to ratify the bargain, exactly as if it were one man making covenant with another.

The Lord commands Abram to bring certain animals of a certain age, along with two birds.  Abram obeyed, cut the animals in two, and arranged the halves opposite each other, with the birds opposite each other, though not cut in half.  Then Abram sat down to wait, driving the birds of prey away from the carcasses, waiting to see what the Lord would do, waiting to see what the Lord wanted him to do.

This strange procedure was a standard way of ratifying and witnessing to a covenant in the ancient Near East.  What could it possibly mean?  It might help if we turn over to Jeremiah 34.  There the leaders of Judah have made a covenant before God to free their slaves, but they've broken it and taken the freedmen into slavery again.  So the Lord says,

The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.  The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.

The covenant was sealed in the blood of the animals.  The idea was that the parties making the covenant would walk between the severed animal pieces, in effect saying, "If I break this covenant, may I be like this slaughtered animal.  May my dead body be food for birds of prey, with no one to drive them off."  Typically, it was the weaker party who passed between the pieces.  A weaker king.  The debtor who needed the money.  The people of a god.  The powerful party merely witnessed that all was done properly, to his benefit.

But what is this in Genesis between God and Abram?   It had been nighttime with the stars shining when the Lord first came to him in this vision.  It was now sunset of the day after   As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and "a thick and dreadful darkness came over him."  This was no ordinary darkness and no ordinary sleep, it was a sleep from the Lord.  Abram would not be asked to walk between the pieces; he would not be asked to do anything.  In fact, God wanted to make sure Abram wasn't capable of doing anything.  This treaty, this bargain, was going to be totally one-sided, and the one party making the promises, the one party obligating Himself to them was God and God alone.

In verses 13 to 16 the Lord sets forth the terms of the promise:  That Abram's descendants would indeed inherit the land, but not until the sin of the present inhabitants (here known collectively as Amorites) had reached its full measure and their judgement was due.

Now, we might think that doesn't exactly count.  If you tell me I've won the Publishers' Clearinghouse Sweepstakes but then tell me you'll make the check out to my great-great grandchild who hasn't even been born yet, and I'm getting on in years and don't have any kids in the first place, as a modern individualist I'm likely to say, hey, that wasn't what you promised before.  But our ancient ancestors were much more family and clan oriented than we are, and they understood that they lived on in their descendants.  A man like Abram would have taken no pleasure in receiving a blessing that would die with him.

So as Abram lies in deep vision-sleep, the Lord unilaterally declares what He will do.  And then, wonder of wonders, when the sun had fully set there appeared (verse 17) a smoking firepot with a blazing torch passing between the severed animal pieces. This was none other than a vision of the Lord God Almighty swearing an oath against Himself, saying, "May I be like these dead animals if I do not keep my promise to Abram my friend."

God Almighty Himself is conferring all the benefits!  And taking on all the penalties and obligations!  Most covenants then as now say, "Do this in order to receive that."  But God's covenant of grace says, "Believe this and receive that."  Or maybe putting it better, "Believe Me and receive this." God was witnessing blood against Himself if He should fail in any of His promises to His friend Abram.

What is this to us?  Everything.  Because in His grace, God's one-sided bargain with Abram set in motion the divine plan for our salvation.   He promised him a land to call his own, but the physical land of Canaan was only a sign of the kingdom of heaven that we, God's covenant people, will receive.  He promised him heirs like the stars in the sky, and physically, this came true, but even more numerous are those who are children of Abraham by faith, for all who, like Abraham, believe God and have it counted to us as righteousness.

But the greatest fulfilment of God's covenant with Abram came in the greatest of his descendants, who is Jesus Christ our Lord.  And so we see Him in the Upper Room, sharing a meal with His disciples shortly He is to die, and like God His Father so many centuries before, God the Son of God makes a one-sided covenant with those He loves and seals it in His own blood.  "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you," Jesus said.  For us He became those animals whose bodies were cut in two.  For us He walked the road to Calvary   Jesus did not bleed and die because He failed to keep His covenant of grace with us, He bled and died so that covenant could be put into effect.  His resurrection from the dead proves that this is true; because He rose, we know that we will rise with Him.

In this season of Lent, as we look forward to Easter and Christ's resurrection, let us remember that there is nothing we can do to deserve God's blessings of life and fellowship and forgiveness.  His covenant with us is like His covenant with our father Abraham, totally one-sided on God's part where it comes to action and obligations, totally benefitting us whom He has called to be His own.  Indeed, our new covenant in the blood of Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of God's promises to Abram, who believed the Lord and to whom that was credited as righteousness.  For as St. Paul says in Romans 4 says,

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring--not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.

By faith we are the children of Abraham, the friend of God.  But even better, by faith in the shed blood of Christ, we are the children of God, who makes His extraordinary promises to us, and keeps them all.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Relying on What God Gives

Texts:  Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

DID YOU KNOW THAT NOTHING in the Bible requires us to keep the season of Lent?  That's because our salvation depends on Jesus Christ and not on what you or I do the seven weeks before Easter. Nevertheless, our branch of the Presbyterian Church, along with other denominations of Christ's church worldwide, have judged that Lent can be a valuable time for Christians to think about who they are before God and about what God has done for us in Christ.  That way we can enter more fully into the joy of our Lord's resurrection.  How each of us chooses to observe Lent (or not) is totally between ourselves and God.  Traditionally, this has included periods of fasting, of abstention from the good things of the table or other pleasures of life.  Even unbelievers know enough about it to joke about giving this or that up for Lent, and some of them even do it, regardless of how they feel about God.

So I was surprised when I looked up the Revised Common Lectionary passages appointed for this morning.  The Gospel Reading is what you would expect for the First Sunday in Lent, one of the accounts of Jesus' fasting and temptation in the wilderness.  But the Old Testament passage is from Deuteronomy 26, and it's not about fasting at all, it's all about the good things of the earth and feasting  and rejoicing in the presence of the Lord!

Is there any connection?  I think there is.  In both these  readings the Holy Spirit reveals some wonderful things to us about the trustworthy provision of God, and can and must rely on Him totally, no matter what our situation might be.

But that can be difficult, managing to trust in God and what He provides for us.  Some of us are inclined to feel we don't need him when things are going well.  We say to ourselves, "My job is secure, I work hard and earn good money, my family and I have everything we want and we deserve it.  God, I'll call you when I need you, but not right now."  Others of us distrust the Lord when things are going badly.  We're sick, we're broke, the kids' toes are poking through their shoes, we hardly know where our next meal is coming from.  At such times, even Christians are tempted to ask, "Hey, God, if You're so great, why haven't you given me everything I need to live?"  Or we might say, "Yes, God, I know You're the great Provider, but it's my fault I'm in this mess.  I should have been smarter and more capable.  I can't ask You to help me until I've dug myself out of this hole myself."

But no matter which of these temptations you're pulled towards, our readings this morning are God's Word to you, calling you to depend on Him and what He gives, whether you feast or fast, whether you seem to have everything or feel you have nothing.

In Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing the people of Israel on the east bank of the Jordan shortly before they're to cross over and take possession of the Promised Land.  During forty years wandering in the desert they've had to depend on the Lord for pretty much everything. They've lived primarily on manna and quail sent straight from the hand of God.  They didn't even have to clothe themselves-- God made sure the garments they wore out of Egypt would not wear out and could be handed down to the next generation.  It was all God's provision all the time.  But Moses by the Holy Spirit looks forward to the time when the Israelites will have driven out the Canaanites and settled down on farms and grown crops of their own.  He sees the potential for danger.  What a temptation it will be for those Hebrews to say in the future, "All right, Lord, thanks for giving us everything we needed in the wilderness.  But see what I have produced for myself by the sweat of my brow!  Look what I've accomplished for myself!  Look how strong and capable I am!  Thanks, Lord, I'll call you if I need anything.  Bye!"

We can identify with that.  It's nice to have friends and family help us over a tough spot, but it feels so good to be past it and stand on our own two feet and owe nothing to any man.  But, Moses says, the children of Israel aren't to take that attitude.  They are to understand and acknowledge that, in the desert or in the Promised Land, they are totally dependent on what God gives.

To drive this lesson home, they are to observe particular ceremony which will involve doing and confessing certain things. They-- that is, the head of each household-- are to take some of the first of their harvest, put it in a basket, and take it to the high priest at the place where the Tabernacle is pitched, the place He has chosen as a dwelling for His name.  To the priest, as God's own representative, they are to say, "I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us."  Lesson No. 1: The land is a gift of God.

        After the priest has taken the basket and set it down before the altar of the Lord, the man was to confess before God his helplessness and the helplessness of his ancestors, and how he did not deserve that God should favor him.  "My father [that is, Jacob, called Israel] was a wandering Aramean."  Or as the NKJV puts it, "a Syrian about to perish."  This is lesson No. 2.  Abraham was pasturing his flocks in Chaldea (Iraq) when God first called him, but the family headquarters were in Syria at Haran.  And before Jacob and his sons followed Joseph down to Egypt, they were about to perish, because of the famine in Canaan.  All this time they were sheepherding nomads, without an inch of ground to call their own.  Who were they, that they should be self-sufficient and proud?

       And the head of household is to recount all the saving acts that God performed for them in Egypt, things no man could do, let alone the Hebrews, who were slaves.  And now (verse 9), the Israelite is humbly to acknowledge that God "brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey."  God gave it!  They didn't earn it!  It was all God's gift!  And in token of this fact, the man is to say, "And now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me."  Not, "I've brought these crops to pay You back," or "to show now what I can do for You, Lord."  No, even in the Promised Land the fruits of the soil are God's good gift.  All the Israelites are and everything they have are from His hand.

That's something for them to be glad about!  Verse 11 speaks of rejoicing, which is more than just having a thankful attitude, just like our Thanksgiving Day involves more than just thinking grateful thoughts.  For the ancient Hebrews, and really, for all human beings,  communal thankfulness meant eating and drinking and feasting.  The fact that the Levites and aliens are mentioned points this up.  They had no land to bring firstfruits from.  All this bounty was to be shared in a glorious feast in the presence of the Lord, because all of it represented the good things the Lord their God had given to each man and his household.

Here in Deuteronomy the faithful response to God's provision was feasting.  But with our Lord in the wilderness, trusting obedience meant continuing to fast.

In everything Jesus does, He acts as the New Israel.  He was and is the faithful Son of God the sinful children of Jacob had failed to be.  He kept His Father's covenant perfectly for Israel's sake, and for the sake of all whom God would choose to belong to His redeemed people-- including you and me.  So it's appropriate that Jesus should fast for forty days in the wilderness, for He is recapitulating Israel's wilderness journey, but without the quails and manna.  Luke tells us that at the end of that period he was hungry.  Starved or famished might translate it even more sharply.

And now Jesus faces a temptation for Jesus that's actually very similar to the one confronting the new Israelite farmer in Canaan 1,400 years before. Wasn't He entitled to reach out and take what He wanted and claim it for His own?  Forty days He'd withstood the temptations of the devil, and won every time!  Surely the trial was over now, and Jesus could enjoy all the privileges that came with being the Son of God in human flesh, including eating whatever He wanted.  He'd earned it, hadn't He?

And that's just what the devil tempted Him to do.  Satan renewed his onslaught.  Jesus was hungry, wasn't He?  "All right, Jesus, use Your power as the Son of God and transform a stone into bread."  And, "Hey, Jesus, Your mission in life is to bring forth a kingdom for Yourself, right?  Bow down to me, Satan, and I'll give You all the kingdoms of the world, with no trouble to You whatsoever."  And, "Well, Jesus, You want people to know God is with you.  Throw yourself down from the Temple and make God send His angels to save You.  He will, won't He?  And then everyone will follow You.  Isn't that what you want, Jesus, isn't it, if You're really the Son of God?"

After a forty days' ordeal, why not?  Why not prove one's power to oneself and all the world?  Trust in yourself and do it!

But Jesus didn't give in to it.  He was going to rely wholly on what God gave.  And so He confesses the truth about His Father and His relationship to Him.  Pervert creation and turn stones into bread?  Jesus responds, "It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.'" That's Deuteronomy 8:3, and it goes on to say, "but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."  The Word of God is our ultimate food, the only thing in existence we truly cannot do without.  Worship the devil to gain the kingdoms of this world?  No, Jesus answers, "It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'" Having God as our king is worth this world and all its splendor.  Force God to act in our behalf to gain glory for ourselves?  No, says Jesus.  "It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" We trust in God and what He chooses to give us; we don't demand outrageous miracles so as to make us proud of having the Lord of the universe at our beck and call.

This perhaps is hardest of all, because it forces us to have God and His gracious will as our greatest desire.  Relying on God for what He gives is one thing when we secretly hope He'll grant us the most glittering desires of our hearts.  But what if He says No?  What if He says, "You must fast a little longer, My child, whether you choose to or not"?  What if God says, "A cross is in your future, and without it you do not come to Me"?

The cross was in Jesus' future, and that hour of total deprivation was God the Father's way to give us everything we really need.  The reward and provision for God's Old Covenant saints was the land of Canaan and all it could produce.  Our reward and provision, our Promised Land, is Jesus Christ the Son of God, crucified for our sins and risen for our life.  He is our home and shelter; He is the firstfruits we offer to God; He is our provision and our Bread of life.  He is what God has given to us, and without Him all feasting is dust and all fasting is in vain.

This Lent, if you fast, fast to see beyond the gifts of this earth to the Gift from heaven.  Discover how weak you are and how dependent on Him for life and salvation.  If you feast, see and taste and know the Lord your Provider in every good thing you enjoy, and long for the day when you will enjoy Him face to face.

Until that day, let us gratefully receive what He has given us at His Table.  For this is the Table of the Lord, spread for you.  A bite of bread, a sip of wine: What is there here that can compare with the splendor of the kingdoms of this world?  But here at the Lord's Supper our God has promised to confirm to you all the bounty of the universe, everything you truly need, all found in His Son Jesus Christ.  Here eat His body and drink His blood as your spiritual food, and trust that in them God has given you victory over your sin, Satan, and death itself.  The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is trustworthy and His promises are sure.  Participate in this fast; partake of this feast, and rely on Him the Father gives.  Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The More Certain Word

Texts:  2 Peter 1:16-21; Luke 9:28-36

WHICH IS BETTER: TO KNOW JESUS, OR to know about Him?  Is it more important to learn from the Bible learn who Jesus is and what He has done, or should we focus on knowing Jesus personally in our hearts?

Surveys have been taken of evangelical Christians, and the great majority say the essential thing is to feel Jesus living in your heart.  The Bible is important in telling us how to live, the majority responded, but it's not that crucial in helping us experience the Jesus we should be living for.  "Heart knowledge" trumps "head knowledge" every time, and "Word" constantly takes a back seat to "Spirit."

If this is true, if all these Christian brothers and sisters are right about this, we can expect that the Apostle Peter would be right at the forefront leading those who would say experience is better than knowledge.

For who had an experience of Jesus Christ like the Apostle Peter?  Three years walking with the Savior, starting with seeing Him baptised in the Jordan.  Imagine, witnessing that miraculous catch of fish in the Sea of Galilee!   Being one of Jesus' inner circle along with James and John!  Getting out of the boat at Jesus' invitation and for a few steps actually walking on water!  Being the first to seriously confess Jesus as the Son of God!  Even the horrible experience of denying Jesus three times surely affected Peter in a deeply-felt way, especially when Christ later forgave and restored him.  And then Peter saw Jesus after He was raised from the dead, and witnessed His wondrous ascension into heaven.  And perhaps most impressive of all, Peter the ex-fisherman, alone among the disciples along with James and John, beheld the Lord Jesus Christ revealed in divine glory and majesty on the mount of Transfiguration.

Think of it!  Peter had the ultimate experience of Christ a man could have on this earth.  He saw and spoke with Jesus shining forth bodily as the eternal Son of God!  Imagine how he and the other two disciples
must have felt!  What cold historical facts, what writing, what words could ever compete with that?

But the amazing thing is, in his second letter to the churches, Peter does not base everything in the Christian life on his experience, even his experience of Jesus' transfiguration.  He doesn't urge God's people (including you and me) to strive to get a mountaintop experience of Jesus like his.  Instead, he cites his mountaintop experience as evidence of the power and authority of the Word of God that witnesses to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  He wants all who read this letter to know and understand who Jesus is, not because we have some spiritual experience or feeling about Him, but because we have received and believed reliable testimony to Christ through the prophets and apostles.

To see this more clearly we need to go back to the start of Peter's letter.  So if you have your Bible open look at verse 2.  Peter writes: "Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ our Lord."  Grace and peace come through knowledge of Christ.  This word in the Greek, to quote Bible commentator Norman Hillyer, "denotes exact and full knowledge of God and his ways, which follows as a consequence of conversion to Christ."  In the next verse the apostle writes that we have everything we need for life and godliness, again through our knowledge of God (same Greek word) who called us.  He has given us his very great and precious promises (verse 4), promises given to us in His holy Word, including those spoken through the prophets concerning the coming Messiah.  In verses 5-7 Peter urges us on to the practice of many active Christian virtues.  Why?  Because (verse 8), these qualities will keep us from being ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge (there's that word again!) of Christ.  This knowledge of Christ is the good news of the gospel, telling us what Jesus did for us on the cross and how He has saved us by His own precious blood.  No experience of ours could ever tell us that!  It takes the word of Scripture ministered by the Holy Spirit to get this good news into our minds and into our hearts, and there it bears its fruit.

This knowledge of Christ and His finished work is so important that Peter says (verse 12) that he's going to keep on reminding us of it.  Even we who have heard and believed the gospel need to have our memories refreshed about these things.  It is so important that Peter is going to argue from his apostolic experience to prove to us that the Word he speaks is trustworthy.  So as we read in our epistle selection,  "We [apostles] did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus." 

Now, right here we see a number of things.  By bringing up "cleverly invented stories" Peter introduces the fact that there were those claiming to be God's prophets who were spreading that very thing.  Later in chapter 2 he will warn us against them and their corrupting influence.  The testimony of Peter and the other apostles isn't like that.  They are giving the church the true word about Jesus Christ, the facts about Him and His ministry on earth.  In our passage we also see that the truth the Apostle is emphasizing goes beyond salvation through the cross and to the time when Jesus will come again in glory.  How can we believe Peter's word about this?  He saw a preview of it.  He, James, and John were eyewitnesses of Jesus' majesty on the sacred mountain.  They saw Him receive honor and glory from God the Father.  They heard the voice from the Majesty Glory-- that is, from God Himself-- declaring "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."  If Peter tells us that Jesus Christ is coming again in power and great glory, we should believe it.

Having heard Peter recount what he heard and saw of the glory of Jesus, it would be good for us to turn to the gospel of St. Luke and read what the Holy Spirit has recorded for us there.

We see that Jesus took the three disciples and went up onto a mountain.  We're not told which of the mountains of Israel it was, and that's a good thing.  Otherwise we'd all be trooping up it trying to get the same experience for ourselves, and totally missing the point of what God revealed there.  We are told He went there to pray; that is, He entered into intense communication and fellowship with God the Father.  Jesus had gone up into the hills to pray before, but on this occasion "the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning."  And then, "two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus."  Why Moses and Elijah?  Why not David and Abraham?  Because together Moses and Elijah represented the Law and the Prophets.  In their glorified persons they stood for all the promises and predictions God had sent to His people Israel throughout the Old Testament.  They represented the Word of God that had always pointed towards the Messiah who was to come.  And now that Messiah, that Christ was here, and the two blessed Old Testament saints were speaking about His departure.

Departure?  What does it mean, "His departure"?

It might help to know that the word in the Greek is "exodus," which for Greek-speaking Jews and God-fearers would raise the echo of the exodus from Egypt.  It would remind them-- and should remind us-- of the great day when God led His people out of slavery under the leadership of Moses.  And now Jesus the Son of God was about to lead His people out of a greater slavery, the slavery to sin.  The befuddled disciples didn't understand it then, but soon they would know that Jesus would accomplish that through His sacrifice on the cross.  Jesus was about to depart in a particular way.  By His death He would perform the divine act of liberation that the law and the prophets had predicted.  Everything that had been written in the Scriptures led up to that crucial event.

We read in Luke what Peter said on the occasion, and it's significant that he doesn't mention it in his letter.  I don't think it was because he was embarrassed to.  Rather, how Peter felt about the Transfiguration wasn't important.  What was important was the fact of Christ's glory and the revelation of who He was.

Luke tells us something more that was said by the voice from the Majestic Glory.  The voice of God also said about Jesus, "Listen to Him!"  Listen to His word!  Listen to what He tells you about your need for His atoning death!  Listen when He tells you He is coming again to judge the living and the dead!  Moses and Elijah represented the Word of God, but Jesus Christ was and is the living Word of God, standing there transfigured before the terrified disciples.  The Law and the prophets all give witness to Jesus.  Listen to Him!

Peter personally heard the voice of God testifying to Jesus' divine Sonship when they were with Him on the mountain.  But should we believe Jesus is the Son of God only because of Peter's experience?  Well, in a way, yes, because he was one of Christ's holy apostles and the Spirit spoke the word of God through him.  But Peter adds this as well: "And we have the word of the prophets made more certain."  That is, "We have more than my apostolic experience; we have the fact that Jesus fulfilled all the prophets spoke about Him."  The Greek in this phrase literally means, "we can take a most firm hold on the prophetic word."  You and I can rely on what the prophets said in the Old Testament and take our stand on it, because in Jesus Christ it all came true.  We should and must pay attention to what the Scriptures say to us, because they are our light in this dark world and will help us see our way "until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts"-- that is, until Jesus comes again.  We can rely on what God's New Testament prophets, the apostles and evangelists have written by the power of the Spirit, because they have written by the power of the Holy Spirit.  For Old Testament or New, prophecy-- by which is meant the entire Word of Scripture-- never was a matter of human beings making up things out of their own heads.  No, true prophecy, the authentic Word of God that points to Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen, is from God and God alone.  It is to be believed and trusted and by it we should direct our lives, until the day of Jesus Christ.

The Word is essential; our feelings aren't enough.  Our personal experience of Christ won't save us and won't preserve us-- unless it's based on a true knowledge of Jesus Christ and what He actually said and did, as recorded in the Scriptures.  This world is very dark, squalid, and dismal, and if we rely on our emotions to assure us that we are saved, we will stumble and fall.  If we trust our feelings to guide us in what we should do, we are in grave danger of going astray.   But we have the truth of Christ recorded for us in God's written Word, and it shines as a light to all who have been called by God's own glory and greatness.

Let us thank God for those times when we feel especially happy or joyful in Him.  Let us praise Him for seasons of blessed peace and comfort.  But do not lose heart when trouble and distress and darkness come.  We have the prophetic word made most certain, for it testifies to Jesus Christ and what He has done.  He did it for you, to give you hope and everything you need for life and godliness through knowledge of Him.  He is the Word of God Incarnate, the Word made flesh.  He is the bright morning star, the same Jesus who was transfigured on the mountain, the Son of Man who died on the cross and rose for you in glory.  This same Jesus has promised to return and take you to live with Him in blessedness forever and by the testimony of the apostles and prophets we know His promises are good.  By the power of the Holy Spirit may His glorious word be established in your heart and may you grow in grace and knowledge of Him until He comes again.  Amen.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Where Weakness Wins

Text:  1 Corinthians 1:18 - 2:5

WELL, TONIGHT'S THE SUPER BOWL, AND it's too bad the Steelers aren't in it.  They just weren't strong enough or smart enough or healthy enough to make it to New Orleans.  It's a real disappointment, but that's the way it works in this world.  To get to the big game you have to be smart and fast and accomplished, and that doesn't go just for football, but for all areas of life.  To really succeed, it takes smarts-- or, shall we say, wisdom-- and it takes strength.  Weaklings and fools need not apply

But in our Scripture reading for today, we have the Apostle Paul extolling the virtues of weakness and foolishness.  What's going on?  Have we been wrong all along about how the world runs?  Does he want us to see that in this life it's the weak fools who really win?

Not at all.   But St. Paul isn't talking about the game of this earthly life.  He's talking about a game that's much, much, bigger than that.

When it comes to understanding the Scriptures, the first rule is "Context, context, context".  That means first of all how the verse or passage works in the book its in and in the Bible as a whole.  Then it means understanding the historical and cultural context of the passage, what it would have meant to its first readers.  After that, we can begin to apply God's eternal Word to ourselves.

So even though you have the Scripture readings projected up on the screen, I hope you won't stop opening the Bible in the pew or bringing your own Bible to church and having it open during the sermon.  It will help you understand the context of what's being preached.

So what's the context of our reading from 1 Corinthians?  First and foremost, its context is the entire Bible, and entire Bible is the record of how God the Father brought salvation to a lost world through His Son Jesus Christ and how the Holy Spirit applies that salvation to the ones He has chosen.  As Jesus taught the disciples on the road to Emmaus, all of Scripture is about Him.  The first letter to the Corinthians is in the New Testament, which deals with how God brought the good news of Christ's salvation to the world and how His church worked through what that would mean in their lives.  In this letter the Apostle Paul responds to some misunderstandings that had come up in the church at Corinth, so they could live before God and with each other in a way that glorified the Lord who had saved them.  And the immediate context for what we read today starts at verse 10 of chapter 1 and goes all the way to the end of Chapter 4.  It has to do with wisdom and foolishness, weakness and strength, and being united in Christ instead of divided like those in this fallen world.

So if you do have your Bibles with you, I ask you to look over at verses 11 and 12 of chapter 1.  There Paul writes,

My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this:  One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas [that is, Peter]"; still another, "I follow Christ."

Over in chapter 3, verse 5, the Apostle writes,

What, after all, is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Only servants, though whom you were called to believe-- as the Lord has assigned to each his task.

All right, what does this have to do with strength and weakness?  Just this: In the 1st century Grecian world, the teams (you might call them) that were the most looked up to and admired were not always the wrestlers and runners and chariot racers.  They were the schools of the philosophers.  The philosophers were the wise ones who could teach enlightenment and help you gain the ideal life in this world and in the next.  Now, these schools weren't like a college classroom with a professor up front lecturing.  Rather, think of a group of men (and a woman or two) gathered in a shady colonnade in the market place discussing and debating the latest ideas on wisdom and the ideal life.  The different schools of philosophy didn't agree on this, and so of course there were divisions between them.  Which one was the wisest?  Which one made the strongest, most noble case?  It was important to the Greeks.    Even the lower classes looked up with envy and admiration to the philosophers.

Before they were saved, the Corinthians might have said, "I admire the Stoics"; or, "I favor the Epicureans"; or "I follow Pythagoras."  But now, listen to them: "I follow Paul!" and "I follow Apollos!"  They were treating the Good News of Jesus Christ like just another worldly philosophy and seeing the apostles as leaders of different, opposing schools.  They were quarrelling about who was the wisest, the strongest, the best!

We don't have that exact problem in our day.  But sadly, we do have Christian leaders who will take their stand on some secondary point of doctrine, like social justice or worship styles or women in ministry, and insinuate that those who don't feel the way they do on it probably aren't saved.  We have everyday ordinary people-- maybe ourselves, God help us!-- breaking up into factions of one, each picking and choosing what bits of Scripture we'll emphasize and worshipping a Jesus of our own making.  As we can tell from verse 17, this partisan spirit threatens to empty the cross of Christ of its power.

Why is that?  Because, as we read in 1:18, "[T]he message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

Again, is Paul getting ready to tell us that weakness and foolishness is the real, true way to triumph in this earthly life?  Not at all!  Rather, he's telling us that what God has done for us in Christ has nothing to do with the world or its strength or wisdom at all!  He quotes from Isaiah 29:

"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; 
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."

The wise ones of the Jews said the way to salvation-- that is, the way to power and glory with God-- was by making an effort and perfectly keeping the Law of Moses.  The wise Gentiles, especially the Greeks,  said it was through philosophy and enlightenment.  But God confounds them all with the fact of the cross, with a stripped and beaten Man hanging in agony on a shameful instrument of execution.  How foolish that seems to the unbelieving world?  Who could ever believe that one Man's death as a low, despised criminal could be the one and only way to divine fulfillment, happiness, and peace?  Through its wisdom the world could never know it.  If we thought about it ourselves for a thousand years we could never imagine it.  Even today, we have people in the church, in our denomination, who say the Cross of Christ is foolishness and we should forget all about it if we want to bring in the kingdom of God.  If you read news articles online or watch YouTube videos, you'll see how many people make fun of the idea that salvation from sin comes only through Christ and Him crucified.  The idea that we need to be saved in the first place makes them laugh even more.  Not only is the cross not obvious, it goes against everything the world knows is true.

But, as Paul says in 1:25, "[T]he foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength."  By the weakness and foolishness of the preaching of the gospel of Christ dead and risen again for our sins, God the Holy Spirit brings into our lives eternal wisdom and never-ending strength that we could never have imagined before He came and transforms our hearts and minds.

But how can we know this is true? Well, Paul says to the Corinthians, look what has happened to you:

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are . . .

Does Paul want them to start feeling proud of their lowliness?  Does he want them to compete for the title of Most Humble the way they've been competing over whose party is the greatest?  Certainly not!  Besides, the slaves and laborers of the Corinthian church knew there was nothing grand or glorious about their lot in life.  It was a dead-end, miserable existence.  Rather, if they should ever doubt the greatness of the cross, he wants them to think like this: "Hey, you know, that's right.  I'm only a slave.  I could never go near those groups of philosophers in the marketplace, except maybe to wash their feet.  I could never learn the path to enlightenment.  But here I am and I know the truth of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe!  To me, a mere slave, the eternal Creator has given the gift of speaking in tongues!  My fellow-slaves and I can prophesy in His name!  We can heal people and cast out demons!  We can do all these amazing things the greatest philosophers never dreamed of doing, and it's all because of what Jesus Christ did for me when He died on that cross over outside Jerusalem."  If God can transform our lives like that by the cross, don't you think He could cause the cross to become the means of transformation in the first place?  Or to put it the other way around, since God was able by the out-of-this-world foolishness of the cross to raise up His church in power and wisdom, can't we see how able He is to transform and glorify you and me?

Why did God do it this way?  Why go so opposite to what the world desires and expects?  The answer is in verse 29.  God wants to make sure that no one on earth can boast before Him.  He wants to make sure that none of us can say, "Here I am, Lord, standing in blessedness before Your throne,  because I made the effort and earned it!" or "Sure, that was all my idea, how to get myself saved."  No, Christ and Christ crucified alone is our wisdom from God, our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption.  If we're going to talk big about anyone's greatness, let us magnify the amazing greatness of the Lord.

It was to forestall any human boasting that, when Paul came to preach the gospel in Corinth, he made every effort not to sound like one of their hero philosophers.  He didn't claim to have special, hidden, higher wisdom and he didn't use the eloquent rhetorical devices the great lecturers would use.  Paul knew the Corinthians' yen for human strength and wisdom, and he wanted to distinguish the gospel from all that, so the transforming power would be that of the Holy Spirit alone.  So, he says, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified . . . so that your faith might not rest on man's wisdom, but on God's power."

"I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."  That is the message of the gospel.  That is the message of all the Scriptures.  Of course there are other things we need to know about God's dealing with us.  We need to know about God's righteousness and our sin.  We need to understand our need for a Savior.  We need to learn how to live our lives in thankful service to the Lord who has saved us.  We need to know about His return and how His righteousness and justice will prevail over all creation.  But the central thing is and must remain the cross, that foolish, weak, and shameful thing Jesus Christ submitted to one day outside Jerusalem.

Before all else, we need to realize how through it He has given us God's nobility, wisdom, and strength.   Whatever you do, especially whatever you as a church, be it the most routine meeting or fellowship dinner, do not ignore the cross, or depart from it, or forget its power.  For if you do, you'll wander blind in your human weakness and you're bound to lose.  If the preaching you hear from this pulpit gives you the idea that the Christian life is something you live by your own wisdom or strength of character, it is leading you to failure.  If any so-called Christian author would lead you away from the cross by reducing Christ's death to a mere good example, reject his or her false wisdom and return to the wisdom of God recorded in Holy Scripture.  Keep your eyes focussed on Him who in foolishness and weakness died for you.  He is Christ, for you the wisdom of God and the power of God.  And when it comes to a contest between the strength of man and the weakness of God, the weakness of God always wins.