Sunday, June 30, 2013

One Spirit, One People, One Peace

Texts:  Isaiah 2:1-5; Ephesians 2:11-22

WHEN I WAS A FRESHMAN IN college, I met a guy at a party who introduced me to the concept of world citizenship.  He said he was working with a group who were lobbying the UN to make my hometown of Kansas City a "city of the world."  Somehow, the very mention of this filled me with excitement.  There was something so big and thrilling about the idea, something larger and grander and more hopeful than anything I'd conceived of before, and the thought that I myself might be involved in it made it all the more amazing.

Well, nothing came of this plan as far as I know, and it's been a long time since I thought that humanity united under a single human government is a good thing.  Still, there's something inherently appealing about the idea of human oneness and unity.  How wonderful it would be-- No barriers, no conflicts, just perfect communication and peace between man and man.

But that's not how things are in this world.  In fact, it seems like parties, opinion groups, and factions are more polarized and more in opposition than ever before in human history.  You probably have friends you don't talk to much any more because every time you get together, you end up in an argument about some issue or other.  With some people you can't even talk about the weather without things getting political!  It wouldn't be so bad if people would stick to evidence and facts, but the dividing walls of hostility are erected so high and so thick things too often end up in name-calling and insults.  So we stay in our own camps with that figurative wall standing between us, and human oneness is only a dream-- if we think it's a good thing at all.

With the way things are today, it should give us perspective on the polarization between the Jews and the Gentiles in the Roman world, as we read in St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians.  But their conflict concerned more than current issues; it cut to the heart of created reality, for was over who or what should be worshipped as the true God and what that deity requires of us as humans.

This question is way bigger than the debate over, say, global warming or government-run health care.  In such matters let us take our stands based on the facts as we know them, but allow that more information may prove us to be wrong.  But in this matter of Jew vs. Gentile-- or, rather, Jew vs. pagan, the Scriptures leave us in no doubt as to who was and is right, or at least, more right, in this conflict.  The Jews absolutely were, before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the only people on the face of this earth who worshipped the true Lord and Creator of the universe, while the gods of the pagans were useless idols.  The Jews were the only ones who'd been given His laws to follow, the only ones whom the Lord had made His people through solemn covenant, the only ones to whom He had powerfully revealed Himself with unshakeable promises of blessing. And although the prophets spoke of a Messiah to come who would somehow bring benefit to the nations as well, they were also clear that it was through Israel alone that this Savior would come. When it came to the divisions between Jews and pagans, it was not a matter of each side giving up a little on the human level and coming to a friendly compromise.  Compromise was something Israel could not do and remain Israel.  For whenever Israel compromised with the Gentile nations, that's when they got into deep trouble.

No, as Paul writes in verse 12, time was when we who were born Gentiles were

separated from Christ [that is, the Messiah of Israel], alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

In fact, for many centuries the dividing wall of hostility was a necessary barrier to preserve Israel from total disobedience and dissolution before the Messiah could come.   It was essential that the pagans and their evil influence be kept at a safe distance from the commonwealth of Israel, and the further off the better.  But, Paul says, the time has come for the dividing wall to be taken down.  Better than that, the time has come when it has been taken down, and the two indeed have become one.

How?  By us holding interfaith councils and agreeing that all religions lead to the same god?  By us avoiding controversial subjects and just talking about puppies and kittens and blue balloons instead?

No.  It took Jesus Christ Himself to break it down and bring Jews and Gentiles together.  For as we see in verses 14 and 15,

He is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances . . .

Now when we read that Jesus has "abolished . . . the law of commandments and ordinances," we might conclude that the Jews were wrong all along and we can indulge in and celebrate all sorts of immoral behavior and do it with Jesus' blessing.  That'd save a lot of arguments, for sure!  But we'd be wrong if we did.  For Paul has just finished, up in verse 10, saying that God has created-- recreated, actually-- us in Jesus Christ for good works.  And all the Scripture tells us that a godly life is the only way to please our Creator.  So what is this abolition?

In such a case, it helps to look at the original Greek. The word translated "abolish" literally means "down-un-acting" and, in the case of this verse, scholars interpret it as "made ineffectual or powerless; nullified; invalidated."  So what was the law considered to be effectual or valid for previous to Christ?  Well, the Jews looked to keeping the Law as an effectual and valid way to please God and be justified in His presence.  And that is what Moses had said by the Spirit in Leviticus, "The man who does these things will live by them"-- that is, have life, peace, and fellowship with the Lord of life.  But by the same Spirit he also said in Deuteronomy, "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law."  And who can live up to that?  The Jews never could.  Certainly the Gentiles could not.  We cannot.  The Law which reflected the holiness of God only served to prove how unholy we all were.  But in His flesh-- in His perfect obedience in life and His sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus fulfilled the commands of the Law in our place and set it aside as the way to peace and fellowship with God.

And as Paul writes in verse 13, in Christ Jesus we (and we're included with the Gentile Ephesians here) who were far off from Israel and alienated from God's promises have been brought near by the blood of Christ, shed for us all on Calvary's cross.  In Christ the vision of Isaiah is fulfilled, when the nations would miraculously stream up to Mount Zion and know peace walking in the ways of the God of Jacob.

I've heard that outside the United Nations building in New York there's a sculpture called "Let Us Beat Our Swords into Plowshares," frankly taking its title from the verses from Isaiah 2 that read,

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
And their spears into pruning hooks.

In other words, let's bring about peace on earth.  Well, people, if you're trying to achieve that by what goes on in that building, good luck.  You'll be at it a long, weary time.  No, the Scripture is clear: Man cannot end hostility: Our peace is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone.  In Him is the one and only peace that can make Jew and Gentile one and create one new man out of the two warring peoples.  It took the Son of God made Man to make peace between God's covenant people and those who before had been excluded from His covenant, and He did it by His atoning death.

But His death accomplished even more.  As wonderful as it was that Jesus should make one people out of the warring human factions of Jew and Gentile,  He also reconciled humanity to Almighty God.

And we all needed reconciliation to God.  Because as we can read in Ephesians 2:3, by nature-- fallen human nature-- we are all children of wrath.  In our natural sinful state we are at war with God and God is at war with us.  But in Christ and through Christ and because of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God who is rich in mercy chose us in love to be saved through Him.  And so now, as verse 16 says, He has reconciled both groups "to God in one body through the cross, bringing the hostility to an end."

But how does this come to be true for you and me?  Verse 18 answers that question: it is the work of the Holy Spirit who gives us access to the Father through Jesus Christ our mutual Lord.  By His gracious work we're no longer illegal aliens who deserve no amnesty; God Himself as in Psalm 87 has declared us to be born citizens of the heavenly Zion and by Christ His living Word it is so.  In Jesus we are made fellow-citizens with the saints-- and by that Paul would have meant the holy men and women of faithful Israel-- and members of the household of God.  In Christ the earthly nation of Israel is redeemed and rebuilt together with the elect Gentiles into the spiritual Zion, founded upon the apostles and prophets with Jesus as the head and cornerstone.  The dividing wall has been broken down, and in its place one building rises under His power.  Together we are that building, and it is no ordinary house: it is a holy temple intended for the dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

I hope you have a sense of how beautiful this is!  But beyond that I want us all to understand the power these beautiful truths must have for our lives in this fallen world.

First of all, we were not saved to be lone-wolf, individualized Christ-followers.  Back up in verse 11, the apostle begins this passage with the word "therefore."  In the previous verses he was reminding us of our salvation in Christ and God's will for our lives in consequence of that.  But we are not on our own.  God raised us up in Christ to be incorporated into one holy people by the ministry of one Spirit.  It is absolutely false that you can be a perfectly good Christian without being part of Christ's church.  Membership in Christ's church is a fundamental part of what you were saved for.  Indeed, everyone who has been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ is a member of His Church whether he or she is able to sit in a pew or not.  Therefore, let us support and build up and act in love towards one another, for Jesus Christ is our peace.  In Him and in the power of His Spirit we can demonstrate that we are one new man, as we look out for the good of on another just as we would for ourselves.

Second, we cannot take our position as citizens of the heavenly Zion for granted, as something that simply comes with our living in our particular time and place.  No, for if things had kept on going as they had for hundreds of years, we who are not ethnic Jews would have remained strangers and aliens, unforgiven sinners, with no hope and without God in the world.  It is by grace you have been saved, just as it is by grace that the Jews who believe in Jesus as their Messiah have by grace come to know that reality.  This should give us all a sense of humility before God and a heart of compassion towards our unsaved pagan neighbors.  For we were once as they are, and the blood of Christ that brought us near to God will, in His mercy, one day bring them in as members of the household of faith, too.  So let us conduct our lives in the power of the Spirit so Christ indeed will be seen in us, that through us others might also be reconciled to the God who made them.

This brings us to the third and final truth I believe we should take from our Scripture readings today.  Despite our compassion, there will always be plenty of people around us who are perfectly content to be without God in this world.  We Christians, they charge, are the ones who are unenlightened.  Indeed, when we conduct ourselves as citizens of God's holy nation and stand up for His righteousness in this world, we will be reviled as fools, bigots, even as enemies of humanity.  It can be hard living as a Christian in this world, the way things are going.  It may threaten your position, your income, and your reputation.  But you are members of Christ's one holy nation, and our heavenly citizenship takes precedence over all other loyalties.  Yes, let us be good Americans, good members of our political parties, good trade union members, good service club members, good members of our families.  But when any direction or practice or mindset of our nation, party, union, club, yes, even of our own families contradicts the will and nature of God as we know it from His revealed Word, He calls and commands us to stand firm in the Spirit and hold fast to the truth of Christ.

It won't be easy, but we can do it.  We can do it because we are God's one new people through His one Holy Spirit.  And the one peace we rest in is Jesus Christ Himself.  He is the Peace that will always last and never fail.  He has already accomplished the cosmic work of making peace between Jew and Gentile, and between both of us and God.  And so we can find our peace in Him, no matter what our conflict with the world may be.  Rejoice, Church of God!  We are His people, bought with His blood and brought together by His Spirit.  We are God's holy temple, His dwelling place on earth, and He will see to it that His temple, His spiritual Zion, stands forever, to the glory of His name.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

What Is God For?

Texts:  Isaiah 40:18-31; Ephesians 1:3-14

I'M SURE YOU'D HEARD that tornados hit the Oklahoma City area again Friday night.  We prayed for the victims during our prayers this morning, for those who were hurt, for those who lost property, for those who lost loved ones.  But we know that as sure as this world turns there are going to be tornados in the Midwest in the spring, and sure as that world is fallen and sinful, there will be those who use that fact as an excuse to insult and mock God and those who believe in Him.

If you ever want to get totally fed up with that, go online and read the comments after any news article about any natural disaster. You'll have people writing that tornados and floods and hurricanes prove that God could not exist.  If the disaster takes place in the Bible Belt, they'll say with great glee that God must be punishing those stupid Christians, or insist that the disaster shows God can't be relied on, since He didn't come through as expected and protect His believers from loss and harm.

What can you say to such people?  Assuming they'd even begin to listen?  As believers in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can say that if that's the kind of god they believe in, these scoffers and mockers are right, because that kind of God doesn't exist.  If they think God is the Great Vending Machine in the Sky that's there to make sure our lives remain prosperous and comfortable, providing we drop in a few dollars worth of good works from time to time, that's a figment of the human imagination and it should be made fun of.

Atheists and people who believe in other religions have a distorted view of what we Christians think about who God is and what He is for.  No surprise.  The real problem is that too many Christians-- or people who call themselves Christians-- carry around the same false ideas about God and live their lives according to those false ideas.

It's gotten so bad that studies have shown that the majority of Christian teenagers-- and many, many Christian adults as well, don't really believe in classic Christianity; they hold to a religion that's been called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  This modern faith says yes, there's a god, of some sort: that's the Deism part.  What this god is really like in him or itself doesn't really matter, the thing that matters is that he or it is benevolent and kind and well-meaning towards human beings and wants them to be happy, however they define happiness.  If I'm a believer in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, I'd tell you this deity expects people to be nice and fair to other people, but he pretty much leaves it up to each person to decide what niceness and fairness is.  And so when I'm nice and do nice things, I can expect to be rewarded with this god's protection and favor.  That's Moralism.  And the most desirable way for him to reward and protect me is for him to solve all my problems, get rid of all the trouble, turmoil, and stress in my life, and make my sojourn here on earth comfortable and uncomplicated.  That's the Therapeutic part.  This god-- this false god-- makes no demands for his own sake; what he's for is to make me feel good about myself.  Otherwise, what good is he?

Brothers and sisters, is that what God is for?  Is that the deity we should be raising our children to pray to and depend upon?  Does the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism bear any resemblance to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?  What do the Scriptures say?

The Lord God had a lot to say about Himself in chapter 40 of the prophecy of Isaiah.  We read that God is incomparable and unique.  He is high and holy.  To Him, people are like grasshoppers and the whole expanse of heaven is like a tent you might live in on a camping trip.  Governments and rulers reign only as long as He allows them; the mere breath from His mouth sweeps them away like chaff.  He marshals the stars and maintains them in their courses; nothing is outside His rulership or beyond His control-- and that would include tornados, floods, and hurricanes.

Does that sound like the spineless god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, that deity who is at our beck and call, that we obligate and control by our good works?  Not in the least.  However, the Lord certainly is benevolent and merciful towards His people Israel.  He assures them that their trouble is known to Him.  He reminds them that He is the God who gives strength to the weary, even when the young and the strong are collapsing by the roadside.  He tells them that those who hope in the Lord will

. . . renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Is this like the therapeutic relief so many expect from God these days?

No, not really.  For as we've seen, the modern expectation is that God is supposed to be good to me for my good.  The eternal reality is that God is good for His own glory.  And it is not our good, moralistic works He wants, it's putting our hope in Him; that is, our total dependence on His greatness and power.

But maybe that's just the Old Testament talking.  Many people will tell you that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are two different beings.  Or maybe that the Old Testament writers got God wrong, and all this business about His holiness and majesty can be discarded; what we really want to concern ourselves with is His love and affection and how wonderful it makes us feel.

And the New Testament does tell us how much God loves  us.  But so does the Old.  And the Old Testament does tell us about God's glory and majesty.  But so does the New.  Both parts of God's holy Scriptures tell us who God is and what He is for.  And what it all says together might be a surprise to the self-satisfied atheists who comment on news websites and YouTube videos, and to many Christians as well.

What did we read in Paul's letter to the Ephesians?  Who is God, and what is He for?

First of all, He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom all praise is due.  Jesus Christ the Son of God is the One who died to take away our sins by the express purpose and will of His Father in heaven.  No concept of God that leaves out Jesus Christ the God-Man can claim any kind of reality.  Beside the triune God of the Scriptures there is no God.

This same God has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  No, we are not promised an easy life on this earth.  God never says He will divert tornados to keep His people out of their path, or always let us have the job we want, or grant us continual good health and prosperity on this earth.  What He does promise, what He is for, is our sharing in His very nature through Jesus Christ our Lord.  He's for us knowing union with Him: tasting a little of it now in this life, but enjoying it perfectly in the life to come.

We who believe in Jesus were chosen for this.  Before the creation of the world, St. Paul writes, God chose us-- not to be privileged, not to be perpetually safe and secure, not even to be serene and without turmoil in our minds-- but to be holy and blameless in His sight.  I don't know about you, but I know that in myself I am not holy and blameless in the sight of God.  I suspect you know the same about yourself.  So has God's choice failed, or are we outside His choice?  Not at all, for it is in Christ and Christ alone that we lose our guilt before God and deserve to stand in His holy presence, and God has ordained, He has predestined us to be in Christ, to be adopted as His very sons and Jesus' own siblings.  Being in Christ!  Sharing in His nature and His union with the Father!  You can't get more holy and blameless than that.

And what for?  God does it all for and according to His good pleasure and will.  Just think, God is pleased when His elect people are joined in union with His Son Jesus Christ!  But see, it is God's will and pleasure that come first, not ours.  If the it were left us to us to determine what would be the highest good for ourselves and the universe, how shabby and shallow that good would be!  But God has done everything according to His will, not ours, that His glorious grace might be praised as it deserves.

This grace is not some vague benevolence, it is that salvation He has granted us in Jesus Christ, His beloved Son.  It is the redemption we have in Christ's blood and the forgiveness of our sins.  The modern world isn't too big on the concept of sin: if people talk about sin at all, they define it as things like eating chocolate or not approving of any and all sexual relationships or praying in a public school.  But according to the riches of God's grace lavished on us in His wisdom and understanding, the blood of Christ purchased for us forgiveness of real sins, the ones that had us under God's righteous wrath and kept us from fellowship with Him.

What is God for?  God is for working out the mystery of His will-- again, according to His good pleasure.  Not just His will to save us but more than that, His will to exalt His Son Jesus Christ to the highest place, bringing all heaven and earth together under the sole headship of Christ.

And yes, God is for us.  He is for us in Christ.  He is for us because He is first and foremost for Himself, for the purpose of His will.  God's purpose for us is that we might be for the praise of His glory.  By birth, by sin, by our natural bent we were not for God and we did not want to serve Him.  We were for our own glory, and we expected Him, if He existed, to serve us.

But by the power of the gospel preached to us God changed our hearts and turned them away from our own purposes and raised them up to love and appreciate His.  God gave us His Holy Spirit so we can know by fellowship with Him that the spiritual blessings promised to us are faithful and secure.  God has promised us an inheritance in Christ, and the Spirit is our guarantee that it surely will be ours.  When?  When all God's chosen possession, His predestined saints, shall have been redeemed.

That day surely will come, and as it does, what is God for?  Again, He is for the praise of His glory.  If God were an ordinary human like you or me, this would be obnoxious.  Insufferable.  How full of himself that person is! we'd say.  But God is God:  High, majestic, holy and incomparable.  He is no vague deity whose sole purpose is to tell us what good children we are and make things all better for us.  He is worthy of all praise, honor, and glory; He acts and operates according to the highest wisdom, understanding, and might. He has not left the welfare of the universe up to us and our sinful wills; rather, His good and gracious will works everything out to His good pleasure, and we can know that in His good pleasure we will receive everything we need for hope, purpose, and fulfillment in Him.

What is God for?  God is for Himself, and therefore in Christ God is for you.  Even in the worst of times, even when your life has been flattened and the mockers of God and the mockers of His people are shouting their insults and lies at full volume, you can have faith that the true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is your Help and Redeemer.  What He chooses nothing can discard; what He predestines nothing can change; what He wills, nothing can sway from His purpose.  Trust in Him, for He who is the Creator of the world also raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and He will do for you all His has promised, to the praise of His glory.  Amen.