Thursday, July 11, 2019

In This Hope We Are Saved

Romans 8:18-24a It is so very easy--living in this world that is broken by sin and death--to become depressed and discouraged—to lose hope. 
With each election cycle we hear candidates promise that they are different than those who came before—that this time things will be different for our nation. 
Many people find themselves in marriages and families where the future holds out the promise of the same old painful past. 
Those of us who have lived more than just a few years on earth discover that we are not becoming stronger, but weaker, with the passing years. 
It is difficult to be people of hope when it seems as if the future is simply an endless repeat of the same old cycle of brokenness and death that has come before. 
And yet, we are called to be people of hope!  The Bible says:  that love always hopes-- and that there is a hope that is an anchor for our souls—a hope that will not disappoint us.  And so what is that hope for the future that we Christians have?  God the Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to write:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
            Do you see that word “consider” there in your bible?  The Greek word that Paul used there comes from the ancient business world and it means to count up and enumerate and weigh things out carefully.  And so then…
In one column are all the things that tempt us to lose hope:  a nation in moral decline, difficult relationships, frail health, economic difficulties-- and in the other column are the good things of God that are still to come:  an eternal home where sorrow and suffering have no part, relief from the burden of our flesh, a reunion with those we love who have gone before, and a new life in the very presence of God. 
Add up both of those columns and you will very quickly discover that even the most broken earthly life that is full of hardships-- still does not come close to outweighing the wonderful life that God has in store for those who are his children and heirs of all of the blessings Christ has earned for us on the cross.
Many of these blessings are still in the future—they are objects of hope—but they are no less certain than the accomplished facts of salvation history.  We just have to wait for them in hope, looking forward to the day when they will be our own.  And so…
When will, what we hope for as Christians, become our own?  The Bible says:  The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
As we look at the world around us, it is often difficult to distinguish between those who are God’s children from those who are not God’s children.  As the bible says, it rains on the just and the unjust. 
In other words, earthly blessings and hardships are no indicator of those who are God’s children and those who are not.  Sometimes Christians suffer while the evil flourish.
But it will not always be this way.  There is coming a day—the Last Day—when there will be a distinct division between those who are God’s—and those who are not.  There will be reward and punishment on that day—and what we have hoped for and prayed for and longed for as Christian people—what has always been in the future—will become our present possession for eternity. 
And not only do WE long for that day—but even creation longs for that day-- for it too will be restored.  The Bible says:
The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
            When evil entered into our world—all of creation was affected.  Satan took upon himself the form of a serpent.  Adam and Eve ate forbidden fruit.  And their sin not only ruined their lives—but it ruined creation as well.  God said that:
No longer would work be a delight--but creation would work against man every step of the way with thorns and thistles and every other kind of earthly hardship. 
No longer would man and woman dwell in perfect delight with one another but there would be animosity between them. 
Every generation that followed them would come forth into the world through pain. 
And death would enter into the world—beginning with the animals that God used to cover Adam and Eve’s shame.  A broken creation.
So it still is today.  The world that was created to support our life-- takes our life through earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes and disease and drought and famine.  Men commit every kind of evil against their fellow man and bitterness and anger extend into even our closest human relationships.  And death is still the end of every living thing.
That was true even for our Lord.  His blessed mother brought him forth in painful labor.  The knife of the priest on his eighth day of life cause him to cry out in pain.  He labored by the sweat of his brow.  His family struggled to understand him and his friends rejected him.  He too breathed a last earthly breath just like every other person who came before him.
But three days later Jesus did something that no one had ever done before—he rose up from the dead.  His resurrection is God’s promise that the curse of creation that brings death to us and ruins this beautiful world will not endure forever—that the downward spiral of the world -and mankind with it- has been reversed by God and is now moving in a different direction—towards freedom and life.  The Bible says:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.
            When Adam and Even sinned, one of the consequences of that sin was that children would be brought forth in pain.  And yet despite the pain, children are brought forth. 
The love and courage of women and their hope for their children’s future is greater than their fear of pain and new life comes forth into the world.  That is the way that Paul describes the world itself—filled with pain-- but not futility—looking forward to the future and a new life to come.
This image radically changes how we view the brokenness of this world and the terrible tragedies of the natural order. 
No longer do we see an endless cycle of pain and misery and suffering that have no meaning or purpose or end—but we see them as the birth pains of a new world to come—a new creation redeemed by the blood of its Creator and renewed by his resurrection so that the whole world can live again without the stain and punishment of sin—just as we will one day live.  The Bible says:
Not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
            The children of Israel offered up the first part of every harvest to the LORD—as a tangible sign that the LORD had provided for them just as he promised-- and that having begun the harvest he would bring in the rest of the promised crop.  That firstfruit gift connected the past and present and the future.
So it is with the firstfruits of the Spirit.  We have been born again by the work of the Holy Spirit—we confess that Jesus is Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit—the Holy Spirit dwells in our life—and the Holy Spirit gives us his good gifts. 
The Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives is a promise from God—a guarantee, a down payment, on every other blessing of body and soul that he has promised to his children-- culminating in our physical resurrection from the dead on the Last Day.
Now, when we die, our souls go to be with the Lord—and the Bible says that is better by far than what we experience here on earth. 
But that is not all there is to the restoration and renewal of our lives by any means!  We are both body and soul and Jesus Christ has redeemed both body and soul and rose up from his grave—body and soul—glorified, never to die again.  So will we! 
That day is still in the future—it is an object of hope—and until that day we suffer the hardships of the broken human condition.  We age.  We get sick.  We become frail.  And we die. 
But Christians do not see that as simply our own small part in an endless cycle of birth, life and death that has no meaning or purpose or fulfillment. 
Instead, we know that we are moving towards something—that life, real life, life as God intends is getting closer and closer and that knowledge helps us to wait patiently for the day of resurrection that God has promised will come for his children.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

God's Steadfast Love and Compassion

Micah 7:18-20 Apparently last Sunday’s sermon about loving others like Christ loves us--struck a chord with a number of folks who heard it!  One person, especially close to me, who shall remain nameless, said after worship was over:  “Well, that’s it, I’m not going to heaven”!
That’s exactly what the Law does when it is preached in its fullness!  It shows us that we do not have what it takes (this time in our love for others) to make our own way to heaven. 
Much of the Book of Micah is just like that.  It is full of hard-hitting preaching of the Law.  If you have your Bibles open and flip through the pages of Micah and read the headings you will get a quick sense of how hard-hitting his message was!  “The Coming Destruction!”  “Woe to the Oppressors!”  “The Indictment of the Lord!”  “The Destruction of the Wicked!”
Neither the politicians nor the preachers not the people were spared from the law.  Their lack of faith, their love of money, their immoral lives, their divided hearts were laid bare and shown to be rebellion against God that deserved his judgment in time and eternity.
That’s what we heard last Sunday:  that anger is murder and no murderer has eternal life.
But in defense of my sermon, despite how hard-hitting it was, I also talked about God’s love for us in Christ—that this is what true love is and how Jesus makes all the difference in our life.
So it is in today’s text:  there is woe and destruction and indictment and judgment to be sure!  But there is also the compassion and forgiveness of God who:  Reaches out to people who cannot make their way to him; who Rescues people who cannot help themselves; who Redeems people who deserve only his judgment. 
Then and now:  there is hope for us (not because we get it right) but because we have in the LORD a God like no other who forgives and restores sinners.  The Bible says: 
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? 
            Most Bible experts consider this a rhetorical question that is only asked so that it may be answered by the one who asked it—but I’m not so sure. 
I believe the Holy Spirit inspired Micah to write these words so that we really would consider just for a moment—just exactly what kind of God we have in the LORD who forgives sins so mercifully and completely—and then compare him to the false gods and dead idols of the unbelieving world.  And so I ask you…
Do the false gods of Hinduism or Islam forgive sins by sacrificing themselves for sinners?  No!  Do the countless gods of the pagans act with mercy towards the broken?  No!  Do all of the idols that struggle for a place in our hearts give us the comfort and peace of knowing that we are loved?  No!  And so then…
Who is a God like the LORD?  The answer is no one!  The Bible says that the LORD:  does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. 
Before we go too much farther we ought to be very clear:  God is angry over the sins of mankind.  They are an affront to his eyes; they are a stench in his nostrils; they are an outrage to his ears!  He is absolutely serious when he says that we are to be holy as he is holy and he means it when he says that the wages of sin is death!
The Bible is perfectly clear that the LORD is a God of wrath and we ought to stand in awe of his holiness and fear his judgment.  But the Bible is just as clear that the LORD delights in steadfast love.  DELIGHTS in STEADFAST love!
Now, we learned about ourselves last week that our love for others is all over the place in its sincerity and truth and sometimes it is lacking altogether!  But the LORD’s love for us never changes; his mercies never cease; and he does not hold onto his anger over our sins forever!
But we also need to understand this:  the reason that the LORD does not retain his anger forever is not because his holiness and righteousness have changed-- and it is not because he has changed his mind about his expectations for us. 
Rather, the LORD does not hold onto his anger because he has poured it out upon his Son Jesus Christ!    
Micah had to trust that this was true as he prophesied about the Messiah to come-- but we know it is true because of the accomplished facts of salvation history.
The Savior born in Bethlehem of whom Micah prophesied died on the cross, in our place, with the wrath of his heavenly poured upon him, because of our sins-- and the Father abandoned his son, our substitute, to death and hell and the grave. 
He did this FOR US and Christ sacrificed himself FOR US because he saw our great need and was moved to come to our aid, knowing that we were helpless to make our own way to him.  The Bible says that:  He will again have compassion on us;
Throughout the Bible, compassion is not just a feeling of pity that God has from on high upon those down below-- but a heartfelt concern that moves him to help those in need. 
There were hard times ahead for the people of Judah but Micah knew, and he wanted God’s people to know, that the Lord could be counted on (no matter how dark the days, no matter how well-deserved the discipline) to have compassion on his people and come to their aid.
And that is exactly what he did for our greatest need of all—our need of forgiveness.
Micah uses two vibrant word pictures to show us just how completely the Lord has dealt with our sins.  First of all he says that the LORD will he will tread our iniquities underfoot. 
            There is only one person who has had the complete victory over temptation and sin and the devil and that is Jesus.  He rose victorious over death and he grave and he reigns as the King of kings and Lord of lords while all of heaven sings his eternal victory song.
            The experience of the rest of us when it comes to temptation and sin and the devil is very different indeed.  We know about ourselves how difficult it is to go even a short time without some sin of thought, word, or deed.  We know how often our love for others is not like Jesus’ love for us.
If you have every struggled against a besetting sin particular to you, you know how humiliating it is to fall victim to that sin again and again.  Oftentimes, in various ways, we are defeated by our spiritual enemies.
   That is why it is the best possible news for us that the LORD himself treads our iniquities underfoot!  The image comes from a battlefield in the ancient world where an enemy has been so utterly defeated and brought to ruin that their conqueror can walk upon them unafraid and unchallenged. 
That is God’s own truth about the sins in your life:  they lie defeated under the nail-pierced feet of your champion, Jesus Christ. 
And then Micah goes on to offer us another picture of how completely, how totally the LORD has dealt with our sin.  He says that the LORD will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. 
In the ancient world, when ship and a crew and their cargo was lost at sea—it was lost—along with everything in it.  There was no recovery effort—not way to bring it back.  It was simply gone forever, never seen again.  Even today, if you take a cruise and throw something overboard, it’s gone for good!
That’s how completely the Lord has dealt with our sins.  They have been cast into the flood of Jesus’ blood that poured out from his sacred veins upon Calvary’s cross.  Covered by his blood, they cannot be found, they will not be recovered, they will never again see the light of day!
That is what the LORD says about your sins of the past and that is what the LORD says about you in the days to come.  The Bible says that the LORD will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.
What about this new week that we have entered into today?  We know that there are going to be faith challenges.  We know that there are going to be temptations.  We know that there are going to be some spiritual defeats and some sin.  How do we face the future knowing this about ourselves without despair?
We face the future trusting in the promise that we hear today:  the LORD WILL show faithfulness to his people!  He has sworn on oath by himself (for there is nothing greater) that he will always be the God of steadfast love and compassion who will pass over our transgressions and pardon our iniquity and cast ALL our sins into the depths of the sea.
In this week to come, and in every day of Your life as his child, you can trust that this is who the LORD is and this is what he will do for you!  Amen!

Saturday, June 29, 2019

This Is How We Know What Love Is

1 John 3:13-18 I think that most of us have heard the phrase, “Talk is Cheap”.  Or the phrase, “You need to put your money where your mouth is.”  Or the phrase, “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?” 
And we know what is meant:  that words are easily spoken --but the actions that accompany them, that give proof to the truth of what we say-- are costly.
That is the theme of our text today.  John says that we Christians are not to love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.  Now, John is not saying that we shouldn’t speak kindly to one another—not at all!  The Bible is full of counsel on speaking kindly to one another
But what he is saying is that, the way we live our lives, and especially the way that we treat one another, ought to correspond to our confession of faith—that there ought to be a real connection between the love that Christ has for us shown in his sacrifice on the cross --and the love that we have for one another shown in the concrete ways we treat one another.
We Christians know what love is because we know the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross-- but what God wants us to understand today is that the world around us will to come to know what real love is because of the Christ-like way we treat one another.
The Bible says:  Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.  Every year, generally around Christmas, we all become combatants in what are called the “culture wars.”
The checker at Walmart says Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.  The schoolchildren get a “winter” break instead of a Christmas vacation.  Some little town is sued because of the manger scene on the lawn of the county courthouse.
It’s becoming more widespread.  Just recently a case concerning a one hundred year old WWI monument in the shape of the cross went to the Supreme Court because it was on public land and there were people who wanted it taken down.
And so I want to ask you:  when these things happen, when you hear about them:  how does it make you feel?  John says:  Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.  But we are surprised aren’t we?  Along with outraged and offended and up in arms at the injustice of it all!  But here’s the thing:
I can assure you that the Christians in the Middle East and Africa are not surprised.  They know, and always known the truth of John’s words that the world hates Christians.  They have always taken heart in the words of Jesus that Christians are blessed when they are persecuted and that we ought to rejoice because that persecution identifies us with Christ and his people and that if we are hated, it is only because the world hated Christ first.
The attitude of the world towards Christ and his people us is hatred and we should not be surprised by it.  But what should be our attitude towards others?  Should we return hatred for hatred?  Or is there another way?  The Bible says that:
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.
            Let’s be very, very clear:  the way of hatred is the way of death.  And the measure of our faith in Jesus is found in the measure of our love for others—especially those in the church.
Now, it is not as if we are to only love Christians.  The Bible says that God so loved the world.  Jesus says that we are to love our enemies and do good to those who mistreat us.  But in these verses John is especially focusing our attention on how we treat one another in the church as a demonstration of our faith in Jesus.  If we love them or not.  Now… 
The church ought to be the easiest place to find love-- but too often the opposite is true!  If you don’t believe me, reflect a bit on these questions:  “How do you feel about the people in this place?”  Picture them in your mind’s eye and think about it.
The people sitting in these pews with us today are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have the same heavenly Father.  We have the same Savior.  There is no one closer to us on earth than those in this place who share our faith.  And so we ask ourselves…
Are there people here I avoid because they just set my teeth on edge?  Are there people here I ignore because they are not in my social class?  Are there people here that I am embittered towards because of some past wrong?  Are there people here that I regard as my enemies because they disagree with me about something here at church?  Hear the Word of God:
Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 
            In these words John is simply echoing the teaching of Jesus.  The Pharisees thought that they were in good shape spiritually because they were living outwardly holy lives.  But Jesus called them white-washed graves:  clean and white on the outside but ugly and dead on the inside. 
He went on to explain what he meant:  that it is not just those who actually have an affair who are guilty of adultery but the one who lusted-- and that it was not just the one who took a life who was guilty of murder but the one who was angry—and that living this way, even in our hearts, a person would never enter the kingdom of heaven.
That is exactly what John says here:  that hatred of others, especially our fellow Christians is murder-- and that no murderer has eternal life. 
These are hard words and they are meant to be because God wants to lay bare the truth about our hearts and lives:  that much too often we do not love others as we should because we do not love others as we have been loved by Jesus.  The Bible says:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
            The truth of the matter is that we haven’t loved others as we should-- but it is also true that we haven’t been loved BY others as we should.  In this broken world, true love is finally and fully seen in only one place-- and that is in the love that Jesus has for us at the cross.
He laid down his life for us out of love for us.  He died loving people who did not know him, for people who hated him, for people who would heap scorn and ridicule upon him, for people who would never accept his love or allow themselves to be changed by his love.
He loved us, not because we are particularly lovable, not because of what he could get from us, and certainly not because we have ever or could ever do anything to deserve that kind of love.  He loved us because he is love-- and he showed what true love looks like as he laid down his life for us upon the cross.
That is what love is-- and the Bible says that, as recipients of his love, as those who have passed from death to life through faith in him, as his disciples, we are to lay down our lives for others, especially for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Now…
When John talks about “laying down our lives” he is talking about the crucifixion:  of literally laying down upon the rough beams of a cross, of nails being driven into hands and feet, of a crucified body being lifted up for all the world to see. 
That is what Jesus did for us-- and that is the shape of our love for others.  And so what does that look like in our lives?  The Bible says that:
if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?
            You and I are not called by God to be crucified for the sins of the world but we are called upon by God, as followers of Jesus, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices for the sake of those around us.  The Bible says that this is our true, spiritual worship-- and this life of love will show itself in actions that are concrete, sacrificial, and costly.
            John especially mentions the real connection that ought to exist between the worldly goods the Lord has entrusted into our hands as his stewards-- and how we use those goods to help others, especially those in the church.
There are countless opportunities in our world today to help those in need.  To care for persecuted Christians and their families.  To share with our fellow Christians around the world who don’t have the very most basic necessities of life.  To help those whose lives have been turned upside down by the tragedies of life. 
A closed hand and a closed wallet reveals a closed heart where the love of God does not abide and John says very simply that our love for others is not revealed in our words but in our actions.  Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
The Bible is full of instruction and counsel about our speech.  John is not saying that our words do not matter—they do! 
But what he is saying is that there is a particular shape to our love.  The truth of God’s love for the world was shown in Jesus’ death on the cross and so the truth of our love for the world, and particularly those in the church, God intends would look like Jesus.  Amen.