Saturday, August 12, 2017

Examples for Our Instruction

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 As I read the words from the beginning of our text, I want you to underline the word, “all.”  The Bible says: 
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were ALL under the cloud, and ALL passed through the sea, and ALL were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and ALL ate the same spiritual food, and ALL drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
            Do you know how many folks are included in that word “all”?  Six hundred thousand men over the age of twenty besides all the women and children—certainly over two million people.  Millions of people delivered from slavery to freedom—millions of people cared for--by the powerful, merciful love of their Savior God.
All of them walked on dry land directly through the waters of the Red Sea, led by Moses, while their enemies perished in those same waters.  All of them were miraculously fed in the desert by food from God that came down each day from heaven.  All of them had their thirst miraculously met for decades in that dry land.  All of them were guided on their journey to the Promised Land.  And Christ walked with them every step of the way. 
In every way—in every moment—in material blessings and in spiritual blessings-- the Lord generously, graciously met the needs of all.  Six hundred thousand men over the age of twenty left Egypt as free men.  Do you know how many entered the Promised Land?  Two! 
The Bible says:  With most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.  That has to be the greatest understatement in the Bible!  Most of them!?  Two out six hundred thousand is certainly “most” alright!
God’s purpose in their deliverance—God’s purpose in their freedom—God’s purpose in their provision (to bring them into the Promised Land) was fulfilled in two of the six hundred thousand men who started out on that journey, for the rest were “overthrown” in the wilderness.  In other words, God exercised his temporal judgment upon them on account of their sins.
Under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit Paul recounts this sad history so that we would learn from it—so that the same judgment would not befall us as we journey to heaven. 
We have all been set free from slavery to sin and death (much harsher masters than Pharaoh) by the outstretched arms of Jesus Christ upon the cross.  All of us have been baptized into Christ Jesus, our spiritual enemies washed away.  All of us are fed with food from heaven in Holy Communion.  All of us have our material needs generously and graciously met.  All of us have the abiding, guiding presence of Christ to walk with us through the wilderness of this world on our journey to the Promised Land of heaven.
What more could our Savior God possibly do for us than he has already done- and promises to do in the days to come -just like he did for all of those who came out of Egypt, of whom, two entered the Promised Land!  The Bible says that: 
These things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.  Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.
            Paul was supremely aware from the history of God and his people that it is entirely possible to have been blessed by God in mighty ways and still not enter heaven because of our own abject rejection of his grace and our own stubborn unwillingness to turn form sin. 
In the verses immediately preceding our text Paul speaks of this very thing in his own life and says that he disciplines his body and keeps it under control so that after preaching to others he himself wouldn’t be disqualified from the imperishable crown of eternal life. 
If Paul knew this about himself, how much more should we know the same about our own life of faith!  And so Paul records this story for us so that we would learn from it and take the lessons of history seriously and not repeat them and lose our way to heaven!
What was it that kept all but two men from entering the Promised Land?  Paul says it was:  idolatry; sexual immorality; putting God to the test; and grumbling.  These sins undermined their journey of faith; earned God’s judgment;  kept them out of the Promised Land. 
And so then we have to ask ourselves:  Do I fear, love and trust in God above all things?  Do I attribute all good things in my life to God alone?  Does he come first in my life and is that priority readily seen in how I live my life? 
We have to ask ourselves:  Am I leading a sexually pure and decent life in word and deed?  Do I entertain myself with sexual immorality in movies or TV or the novels I read?  Am I endeavoring in my marriage to love and honor my spouse?  Am I making excuses for- and room for- the sexual sins of those around me?
We have to ask ourselves:  Am I tempting God by turning God’s grace into a license for sin in my life?  Am I excusing some pet sin rather than repenting of it?  Am I continuing to sin with no real sorrow and no real amendment of life, believing that I will still be forgiven?
We have to ask ourselves:  am I grateful for every single blessing of body and soul, large or small that the Lord has poured out upon me or am I embittered by what I don’t have and envious of what others have?
We must ask ourselves these questions seriously because these are exactly these same kinds of sins that kept all but two men out of the Promised Land and sin will have exactly the same deadly effect on our own life faith.  The Bible says that:
These things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction,
            Most of us have heard the phrase “Those who will not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” and that is exactly why the Holy Spirit wanted Paul to write these words—so that believers in every time and place would learn from the lessons of salvation history. 
Even for the people of Moses’ day, every time God exercised his judgment upon some of them—and there were many such occasions-- all of the rest of them should have learned from it. 
            Paul says that is especially true for us Christians, on whom the end of the ages has come.  All of human history- and all of salvation history- has reached its culmination in Jesus Christ.  He is the alpha and the omega, the first and the last—he is the purpose and fulfillment of all of human history-- so that there is not one thing left undone- that must be done -before the final judgment and the end of the world. 
            From the moment of Christ’s ascension into heaven, the world continues to exist only until that moment the Lord has gathered to himself all of those who are his.  And so it is especially incumbent upon us, that in this late hour, we do not fall victim to our sins and miss the crown of life. 
But how do we do that when so many who have come before us—so many who were blessed by God just like we are blessed by God—have missed out?  The Bible says:
Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.  No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.
            To withstand temptation, to complete our journey through the wilderness of this world, to receive the fullness of God’s redeeming work we must, first of all be on guard in our own lives for those very things that kept so many Israelites out of the Promised Land. 
We must have deep sense of humility that recognizes that we are no different than they were—that their story in the Bible is not recorded so that we can say:  “Those bad Jews”-- but so that we can see ourselves in their story and learn from them. 
We must also understand that the temptations we face are no different and no greater than the people of God have faced in the past—that in this is both warning and a promise. 
We are just as susceptible to Idolatry and sexual immorality and grumbling and tempting God as were the Israelites. 
But we are also just as capable as trusting God as was Daniel when he was thrown into the lion’s den; and we are just a capable of sexual faithfulness as was Joseph as when he fled the temptations of Potiphar’s wife; and we are just as capable of gratitude as was Naaman when he was healed of leprosy; and we are just as capable of repenting of our sins rather than testing God’s grace as was David when he sinned. 
We are capable of the same because the God who has saved us is the same and will strengthen and sustain us on our journey.  The Bible says that:
God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
            When we look at the salvation history of our own lives we can see that our story is the same as God’s ancient people—that it is the story of God’s faithfulness rather than our own faithfulness-- and that is Good News indeed.  God promises that he who began a good work in us WILL bring it to completion at the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And so then with every temptation we encounter, God makes a way for us to face it and remain faithful in the midst of it.  He moderates the intensity and duration of our trials.  He raises up people around us to encourage us when we struggle.  He gives us his Word and Sacrament for spiritual strengthening.  And today he warns us-- in the strongest way--about the dangers of falling away.

God desires that we would live with him in heaven forever.  That is the reason he has created us and redeemed us and provided for us in our daily life.  Let us take seriously the examples from salvation that are written for our learning and walk the narrow way that leads to eternal life.  Amen.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Beware of False Prophets!

Matthew 7:15-23 There are a number of frightening scenes of God’s judgment in the Bible:  Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden with a sword-bearing angel blocking their way back; the flood of Noah’s day destroying every living thing except those on the ark; and the ground opening up and swallowing the disobedient and rebellious at Korah. 
There are many, many others—but for me, this scene of the final judgment that we have before us today in our Gospel lesson is one of the most frightening-- for there is no chance for repentance for those being judged and the fiery punishment is eternal.
On one side is heaven and an eternal life of joy and blessing with God.  On the other side is hell—an eternity of torment in fire.  Before the multitude stands Jesus Christ—not as the babe of Bethlehem—not as the gentle rabbi—not as the suffering man of the cross—but as the king of kings and lord of lords and righteous judge whose holy eyes see directly into souls of those assembled before him for judgment.
The people going into the eternal fire had always—even in that late moment—regarded themselves as God’s people.  They used religious words.  They did religious works.  Jesus said that there are many of these kind of people who saw themselves one way-- while God saw them differently.
They thought they knew God—but Jesus never knew them—and he judged them guilty of lawlessness and sent them into the eternal fires of hell from which there is no escape.
That alone is frightening—but the really frightening thing is that right up until that moment they were cast into the lake of fire—they thought everything was fine between them and God—but they were profoundly deceived about that which is most important—their relationship with God. 
How had they come to that place of fiery eternal punishment from which there was no return?  How could they have avoided it altogether?  These are the questions that Jesus answers for us today.  He said:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
            The Bible says in Romans chapter ten that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God and in the first chapter of James the Bible says that that God brought us forth by the word of truth and in the first chapter of I Peter the Bible says that that we have been born again by the living and abiding word of God. 
That is how important the truth of God’s Word is—it is a matter of our eternal salvation—that we would know the truth rather than lies about our life with God and be born again to a true and living faith in Jesus. 
Conversely, that is the deadly danger of false prophets-- for they do not bring the saving truth of God words--but lies that deceive people to eternal damnation. 
What is truly frightening about false prophets is that they are found WITHIN the church.  Not every person who holds themselves out as a pastor and teacher can be trusted to tell us the truth and lead us to heaven. 
Not only is it possible that someone is a false prophet—Jesus tells us that there WILL BE false prophets that we have to beware of.  Paul said the same thing—that there will come a day when people in the church will not endure faithful teaching but will flock to pastors and teachers who will tell them what their itching ears want to hear.
Jesus says these false prophets come in “sheep’s clothing”—in other words they intentionally try to fit in with the flock of the Good Shepherd—presenting themselves as harmless—cloaking themselves in the trappings of Christianity-- while all the time they are absolutely deadly to our life with God because they do not bring us the truth—but lies that lead to destruction. 
But as dangerous as they are and as deceptive as these false prophets are—they can still be recognized—not by their outward appearance (which they try to hide)—but by what they say.  Jesus says:
You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.
            When it comes to false prophets, Jesus says that we are to do two things:  watch out for them—that is, believe him when he says that they exist within the church and be on the lookout for them—and secondly, we are recognize them for who they are—in other words, we are to be discerning in who we listen to and measure their teaching by the perfect standard of God’s Word. 
False prophets are deceptive and they are dangerous but Jesus expects us to be on guard against them and be able to recognize them by examining their fruit.
The fruit of a prophet—be he true or false—is what he teaches—not how he seems on the outside, not how pious he acts, not how great is his following or how beautiful his sanctuary, not even if he is able to do miracles—but whether or not what he preaches and teaches is exactly what the word of God says—no more and no less—in big things and small.  That is the measure of a prophet.
You will notice that Jesus assumes that his followers will know enough of the Bible to make that determination—that they are to be as familiar with the great truths of the Bible as they are with the everyday things in the world around them.
He used the example of the plants and trees that they were familiar with.  If he were here today he would remind us that we don’t look for peaches on Mesquite trees and we don’t look for grapes on Catclaw and neither should we look for anything good from a false prophet who cannot bring himself to simply teach God’s Word as it is written. 
But many people do that very thing.  There are countless millions of people who call themselves Christians who sit in pews Sunday after Sunday or in front of a Television listening to some false prophet who, in the name of Jesus, teaches lies. 
They listen to him because of the fancy church he preaches in.  They listen because he’s an excellent speaker and draws great crowds.  They listen because he is reported to do miracles.  But no matter how impressive the outward trappings—Jesus knows which prophets are his own and which are not-- and those who are not can only expect his fiery judgment.  Jesus says:
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
            In James chapter 3 the Bible says that “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” and Moses writes in Deuteronomy that the false prophet who speaks his own words in God’s name—even if he is a miracle worker—is to be put to death for he has led a rebellion against God.
This is how the Lord regards false prophets—as destroyers and deceivers of his people—as rebels against his rule—and his judgment is that they should suffer the fires of hell because of their lies that lead men away from God and destroy their souls. 
And so it is not just the false prophets who will be subject to the fires of hell—it is also those who listen to them and believe their lies. 
Jesus says to all who would follow him:  you WILL recognize them by their fruits.  Whether it is because of moral laziness or doctrinal laxity, the Lord will not excuse those pew sitters who listen to-and believe-false prophets.  Jesus says:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
            Jesus tells us plainly that every person won’t go to heaven.  Not every person who uses religious words or does religious works is going to heaven.  The fact of the matter is, not even every person who calls Jesus “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.
            And so who can be confident about going to heaven?  Who is the person who can be absolutely certain that they have a place in God’s kingdom?  Jesus says it is the person who does the will of his heavenly Father.  And what is his heavenly Father’s will? 
As Jesus travelled up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles the crowd of pilgrims asked him:  “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?  And Jesus answered them, “THIS is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  He went on to tell them:  “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him, should have eternal life.”
The will of the Father in heaven for you—the way that leads to eternal life—is to believe in Jesus—to trust that his death and resurrection is the way to heaven—that his righteousness counts in God’s sight for your salvation. 
That is the only way of salvation and those who trust in Jesus have nothing to fear-- but those who have listened to the lies of false prophets—those who do not believe in Jesus—those who do not do the Father’s will--will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus said:
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
            These people who are cast into the eternal fires of hell are people who thought they knew God.  They used religious sounding words and they did religious seeming works. 
When they discover that they are headed for hell rather than heaven you could knock them over with a feather so completely have they been deceived about what life with God is all about.   
            We should take this warning from Jesus to heart! 
We live in a religiously pluralistic culture where we are told that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you believe, and that way of thinking has infiltrated the church. 
We live in a time and place where the truth is considered relative rather than objective so that even in the church people are embarrassed to take up the Bible and say “this is what God’s Word teaches and if you believe differently you are mistaken and if you teach others differently you are misleading them.”
Jesus calls us to resist these cultural forces and the lies of false prophets with all our might and do the will of the heavenly Father by looking to Jesus and believing in him as our one and only Savior from eternal death in hell. 

It is only these who can be certain that they have a place in the kingdom of heaven.  Amen.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Slaves to Righteousness

Romans 6:19-23 Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. 
            The poem is Invictus by William Ernest Henley and while it is a great poem—it really is terrible theology.  “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
There is much in those words that appeal to us—particularly as Americans—but they simply do not tell us the truth about ourselves.
Far, far from being the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls, the Bible says that everyone in this world—without exception-- is a slave. 
You either belong to sin and death OR you belong to righteousness and God.  You either serve sin and death OR you serve God and righteousness.  Sin and death is your master OR God and his righteousness is your master. 
We may love the illusion of autonomy and freedom that is found in the poem Invictus, but it is the Bible that tells us the truth about ourselves and who we truly serve.  Under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul wrote: 
I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 
            Jesus told the Pharisees that everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Peter said that the false teachers of the early church were slaves to corruption.  Throughout his epistles Paul uses this slave imagery to describe our spiritual condition—either as slaves to sin and death OR slaves to God and his righteousness. 
It was a vivid image, immediately recognizable and understandable by people in the ancient world, and he used this word picture so that this biblical teaching would be perfectly clear in our mind-- such is its importance to understanding our life with God.
Far, far from being the autonomous, independent, free people we imagine ourselves to be—every person in this world has a master they serve.  Everyone!  And that master is revealed in the actions of our members, that is, the parts of our bodies.
It’s like we learned in the old Sunday School song:  be careful little eyes what you see—be careful little ears what you hear—be careful little feet where you go—be careful little lips what you say.  Be careful:  because the members of our body reveal the master of our soul.
For those who are slaves to impurity and lawlessness, their master is revealed in the words they say, the images they rest their eyes upon, the places their feet take them, and the things their hands do. 
So it is for those whose Master is God and his righteousness, that their members also reveal a slavery—not to lawlessness and death—but to sanctification and finally, to eternal life. 
That is why we are to be careful about the members of our body because they reveal (not only the identity of our master) but also the direction of our life and our destination in eternity.  There is no such thing as just a little sin because lawlessness leads to more lawlessness and eventually that journey ends in death.  The Bible says that:
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 
            When Paul says that those who are slaves to sin are “free” regarding righteousness, he does not mean that they are free to do righteousness or abstain from righteousness as they see fit, and as suits them, in a particular moment. 
No!  What Paul is saying is that the person who is a slave to impurity and lawlessness is free FROM righteousness altogether!  There is NOTHING in their life that pleases God—NOTHING in their life that God looks upon with favor—and certainly NOTHING in their life that he counts for salvation. 
            Those who are enslaved to sin and death do not have God as their Master and so their lives are completely free from ANY spiritual fruit whatsoever. 
That person who is a slave to impurity and lawlessness may look like they have the world by the tail—they may view their sexual sins as conquests—they may see their money and status as security for the future-- but God says that it all leads to death and because of that-- sin is not something to take pride in-- but something of which to be ashamed.
The Roman Christians understood that.  They could see the deadly direction they were headed.  They recognized the destination of a life’s journey marked by slavery to impurity and lawlessness.  They realized just exactly who their master had been-- because Christ, their new mater, had set them free.  And so should we!  The Bible says:
Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 
            What was true of the Roman Christians in Paul’s day is also true of us in our day:  Jesus Christ has set us free from slavery to impurity and lawlessness.  He has redeemed us with his own life’s blood as the purchase price to set us free.  We HAVE been set free from sin!
But it is absolutely critical that we understand that we have not only been set free FROM something—we have been set free FOR something—and that is to serve God as slaves of righteousness.  He is now our Master!
Right here in these verses is one of the most critically important concepts in the Bible and yet is widely misunderstood and too often ignored to the eternal peril of God’s people:  that the freedom we have in Christ finds its true purpose in the whole-hearted service we offer to God as slaves of righteousness.  Christian freedom and the fruit of good works go together without fail. 
The Bible says:  You were called to freedom, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  The Bible says:  It is by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus FOR good works.
God has not set us free from sin and death at the cost of his own Son’s life so that we can turn around and go right back to living in lawlessness and impurity!  Who would voluntarily enslave themselves to sin and set out on a journey that would, without question, lead to hell?!  No one would do that!
Instead, we have been set free so that we can become what God has created us and redeemed us to be:  people whose only desire is to know and do his will:  slaves of God and slaves of righteousness.
That we are free in Christ and that we are slaves to God is certainly paradoxical-- but these two teachings are not opposed to one another because the true purpose and meaning and value of our lives can only be found in our connection to God—a connection that is always fruitful unto good works. 
Jesus said, I am the vine and you are the branches and in me you will bear much fruit.  And so it is that as we walk with Jesus- and as we are filled with his Spirit- and as we are fed with Word and Sacrament--our lives begin to take on the shape they were meant to have—no longer turned in on ourselves—no longer focused on satisfying the desires of the flesh—but now turned towards our neighbor who needs our care—now growing in Christ-likeness as we receive his gracious gifts—now desiring to make God’s will, our will.
This is the life on earth that leads to eternal life---not because we have earned it by doing God’s will or walking in his ways—but because it has been given to us as a gift.  The Bible says:
The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
            It is in this verse that we see a profound difference in human slavery and in spiritual slavery—whether to sin or to God.  Earthly slaves earn nothing—they are paid no wage for their service--but those who are spiritually enslaved to sin and impurity earn, for themselves, eternal death. 
Everything they have lived for—everything they have devoted themselves to:  their much vaunted autonomy and independence is torn away as they enter into hell to be tormented forever with the one who has truly been their master.
Earthly slaves are given no gifts—they are unloved by their masters—they are regarded as property.  And yet, slaves to God and his righteousness are given the status as God’s children- and are counted as heirs of the living God- and are given eternal life as a gift through faith in Jesus.
We have to admit that the words, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul” appeal to our flesh but the Bible says that there is a way that seems right to men but in the end leads to death and that is it.

Instead, the way to true and lasting riches—the way to a life of meaning and purpose—and most importantly, the way to eternal life is the way of slavery to God and his righteousness.  Amen.