Thursday, July 19, 2018

"The Church Is Built by God"

Ephesians 2:11-22 Every church wants to grow.  I want this congregation to grow.  I want us to have more members and more ministries.  I want to see our school expand.  I want to see our enrollment go up.  I want to add workers.  I want to increase our opportunities for service. 
But not as an end unto itself.  Not so that we can claim to be the biggest church or largest school.  But because growth and enrolment and expansion means people—people who are hearing about Jesus—people who are growing in their faith—people who are taking their place in God’s kingdom—people who have a life with God for time and eternity. 
Growth matters because the salvation of people matters and we want that to be true for as many people in our community as possible.  And so we make long-term plans and begin ministries and buy buildings and call workers and invite people to worship—all of us doing our part to make sure that our ministry in this place is growing and reaching as many as possible.
But what we are reminded of today—what is important for us to remember—is that God is the One who ultimately grows the church—he is the builder of the Body of Christ in this place.  About the early church, the Bible says that, “The Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”  That promise ought to give us a great deal of courage and comfort and confidence, that God can be counted on to grow his church.
What we discover today in God’s Word is that God builds the church with all kinds of different people, all who need his salvation; he builds it in the Lord Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection; and God builds the Church through the Good News of Jesus.  The Bible says:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 
            In the seventh chapter of Revelation we have a beautiful picture of the church in glory.  The Bible says that there are people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, salvation belongs to our God.
            That was a faith challenge for the Jews—to believe that Gentiles could ever have a life with God.  The faith challenge for us is to believe that the great multitude that will live forever in heaven, the great multitude that is clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, that great multitude that joins in eternal praises for the victory of Jesus over sin and death-- is comprised of the people in our community that we interact with each and every day.  Jesus says:  open your eyes, the fields are white for harvest.  He can see it!  Can we?
The young family who have given their children everything except the one thing needful; the bitter old man who has heaped scorn on the church his whole life; the rebellious young person who is caught up in some terrible sin; the countless people whose lifestyles appall us and whose native cultures we have no natural connection to, are separated from God and without hope waiting to take their place in the church.
Every one of them, without exception, are objects of Christ’s redeeming love.  Perhaps we have a difficulty seeing them that way—as people that God wants to see in that great multitude in heaven—because we have forgotten that we were once just like them: knowing nothing of Christ, alienated from God, without hope.  That’s who we are by nature.
That’s why God wants us to remember where we came from, so that we would understand that the divisions between us and others that make those around us seem so foreign to us-- are nowhere near so great is what unites us to them and to every person on earth:  and that is the great need to be brought to God by the blood of Christ.  The Bible says:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
            During his earthly ministry our Lord Jesus Christ said, I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except by me.  No one comes to the Father except by me.  We struggle to believe that-not that he said it, we all know that—but the implications of what it means for all people and the claim it makes upon our own life!
No one will have a life with God, no one will be forgiven, no one will be saved, apart from Jesus.  No one!  Not the young or old.  Not the sincere believer in another religion.  Not the generous or kind.  Not the good citizen or friendly neighbor or brave patriot or sweet little child in our classroom.  No one comes to the Father except by Jesus.  Instead…
Everyone by nature, without exception, is separated from God.  He is holy and we are not.  He has a will for our lives expressed in the commandments that we have not fulfilled and he expects a perfection from us that is exactly like his own, every day and in every way and yet we do not come close.  And so then…
The relationship that sinful mankind has with a holy God by nature is one of hostility and enmity and outright rebellion so that his righteous wrath rests upon every person without exception and would remain for eternity if someone had not come to our rescue. 
Thanks be to God, Jesus has!  God has not changed, in the least little bit, his expectations for how we are to live our lives but Jesus Christ has met that expectation for all of us in his perfectly holy life.  God has not withheld his holy, righteous wrath that punishes sin but has poured it out upon his Son at the cross instead of on us in the fires of hell.  Because of this…
Jesus Christ is the peace treaty between God and man.  He is the narrow way by which the chasm of sin and death is bridged so that we can come into God’s presence.  His is the righteousness that allows us to life in God’s presence and be counted as his children and enter into the courts of heaven, having his victory over sin and death.
That is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  That is how God builds the Church in Jesus Christ.  That is what God wants to do for every person in this world—to remove that dividing wall of hostility that keeps people form having a life with God and to remove the dividing wall of hostility that keeps us from having real fellowship with one another.
In the early church, the greatest divisions that separated men from one another was the division between Jew and Gentile.  But God wanted them to understand:  the great need that they both had for Christ’ salvation and that once they were members of the Body of Christ through the man of the cross, those human divisions of race and ethnicity no longer mattered. 
They were one man in Christ—no matter how divided one from another they had been before—they were brethren in the same family, citizens of the same kingdom, members of the same body.  That spiritual is to be seen in the church that is built by God in Christ.  And yet…
Martin Luther King Jr. said that, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."  He was absolutely right. 
From the very beginning, God has built his church in Jesus Christ with all kinds of different people taking their place in it.  Our Lord Jesus Christ reached out to Jews and Greeks and Samaritans.  The Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost on people from all over the world.  An Ethiopian eunuch took his place in the church alongside Jewish priests and Greek women and citizens of Rome. 
The picture from Revelation is a church made up of people from every nation, tribe, people and language.  So it must be for us as God builds his church in this place and the Lord adds to our number those he is saving—that our hearts and arms are welcome to all people. 
We are a fairly homogenous congregation when it comes to the ethnic makeup of our membership, but brothers and sisters, our community is not.  38.5% of the population of San Angelo is Hispanic and so as we think about reaching out into our community, we must look at it with the Lord’s eyes who saw every person as someone who need to hear the Good News and come to him in faith.  The Bible says that Jesus:
came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
            Humanly speaking, when it comes to building the church, we can hire the right staff and call the right workers and develop long range plans and adapt our worship style and music choices and especially try to avoid doing things that tear down the church rather than build it up.
But it is God who builds the church with all kinds of people, in his Son Jesus Christ, and he does that in only one way:  through the proclamation of the Gospel of peace that is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
That’s it—the whole thing—and it always has been.  There may be twenty thousand people sitting in your arena but if they have not heard and believed the gospel of Jesus Christ you do not have, in that place, the church that God is building.
When Jesus commissioned to the apostles to make disciples, he gave them the water and the Word of the Gospel.  And that was enough!  It was enough because God promised that the Holy Spirit would work through these humble means and the humble lives of those who used these means. 
So it continues today.  Through the Words of the prophets and apostles the peace and hope we have in Jesus Christ is being proclaimed in this place and throughout the world so that people ARE being joined together in the church, a spiritual kingdom is growing, and the church is being built by God.
What a blessing it is to know that we are also part of that building and joining together and that growing that the Spirit is doing in this world!  What a comfort to know that we will one day take our place with those who are clothed in the righteousness of Christ and enter into our heavenly home!  And what a challenge we have to make sure that we are doing all within our power to make sure that as many as possible on our community of part of that eternal multitude who can say:  salvation belongs to our God!.  Amen.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Blessed in Christ With Every Spiritual Blessing

Ephesians 3:1-14 God’s plan to save the world through his Son Jesus Christ was not an afterthought- or one option among many -or a stopgap measure when everything else failed.  It was always God’s plan to save the world in this way by giving us his Son at just the right time so that he could redeem the world.
            It is the best possible news for us that in the same patient, wise, loving way that God has planned for and accomplished the salvation of the WORLD in his Son Jesus Christ, so he has planned for and accomplished OUR salvation in particular, blessing us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. The Bible says:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
            What God wants us to know and believe this morning is that all of the promises of the prophets stretching back to the Garden of Eden-- and all of the great events in salvation history-- and all of the works and words of Jesus-- were accomplished so that we would be blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
Forgiveness for our sins.  Peace with God and a place in his family.  Divine guidance for our earthly lives.  Another life to come when this life is over.  All of these and more are the spiritual blessings we have in Jesus Christ.  And they are blessings IN Christ.
There is no forgiveness apart from Jesus-- there is only guilt and shame.  There is no peace with God or a place in his family without Jesus-- there is only rebellion and warfare and God as our enemy.  There is no divine guidance for our earthly lives without Jesus-- there is only darkness and finally despair.  And there is no heaven without Jesus-- there is only the terrible specter of eternal punishment in hell.
The blessings that God gives to us in Jesus Christ have changed everything for us and how can we not join our voice to Paul and all of God’s faithful people to bless him for his goodness and praise him for his mercy that has led to our salvation—a salvation that he has planned for us from before the foundation of the world.  The Bible says that God:
chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love [God] predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
            The Good News for us on this Lord’s Day is that what God has graciously accomplished for our salvation:  by sending his Son Jesus Christ and calling us to faith and guiding us to heaven--God has purposed and planned to do for us from before the foundation of the world.  We are chosen in Christ to be right in God’s sight and predestined to be God’s children.
It has always been God’s purpose for us that our sins and guilt and shame would be taken away by the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross so that we could stand before him in time and eternity holy and blameless. 
It has always been his plan for us that Jesus would set us free from the devil’s dominion and restore us to our place as beloved children in his family, adopted as sons and daughters in the waters of Holy Baptism. 
It has always been his will to bless us with every spiritual gift in Jesus Christ so that all of eternity would be filled with the praises of God’s people for his gracious love.
At the center of God’s purpose, plan and will to save the world and God’s purpose, plan, and will to save us personally and individually stands Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, in whom alone are all these blessings of life and salvation are found.
How can we ever thank and praise God enough for his undeserved mercy and love and saving will in Jesus Christ that extends to us—not in just some general way—but for us, personally and individually?! 
It is in Jesus that we can know beyond any shadow of a doubt that God’s purpose, plan, and will towards us is one of love.  The Bible says that:
In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 
            God has revealed his saving will for the world in general and for us in particular in Jesus Christ.  When our eyes of faith gaze upon the Christ Child; when our eyes of faith are turned to the cross; when our ears of faith hear the words of the risen Christ:  Because I live, you also shall live; how can we ever doubt God’s love for us?!  It is only in Jesus that we can begin to understand the love God has for all people and for us personally and individually. 
It is a love and care and concern that does not change or diminish with time.  It is not pinched or narrow or sparse.  It is abundant and overflowing and everlasting.  We can draw from God’s love again and again without ever worrying that somehow, some way, someday, our trespasses will cause it to run out.
God reveals the mystery of his saving will for us which began before the foundation of the world so that we can be confident in every moment and circumstance of life—in joys and sorrows—in plenty and in want—that we have always been loved and will always be loved.  The Bible says that:
In [Jesus] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.
            There are so many comforting truths found in our text today!  We have been redeemed from Satan’s dominion not with gold or silver but with the blood of Christ.  We have been adopted into God’s family through faith in Jesus.  Clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ we are holy and blameless in God’s sight.  And God has always intended to lavish upon his unending mercy and grace.  How can we ever praise him sufficiently for his goodness to us in Jesus Christ?!
But in my mind, what we heard just now is perhaps the most comforting of all:  that God works all things in accordance with the purpose of his will.  And so what does that mean for us?
It means that:  the God who has loved us with an everlasting love—the God who has sent his son to shed his life’s blood for us—the God who has graciously made us one of his children—the God who has given us an inheritance of life and hope and peace—is, at this moment and every moment in our lives, working all things according to the purpose of his will to save us and bring us safely to our heavenly home.
Let’s be clear, that phrase “all things” means just exactly what it says.  In other words, this same wise, good, loving God who has planned, not just for the world’s salvation, but for our salvation, is wisely, lovingly working ALL things in our lives for that same, saving purpose—so that we would be saved.
And so then, we can be certain that:  in every moment, every circumstance, every situation, every decision, every relationship--the God who loves us with an everlasting love—the God who gave his Son to die for us-- is working all of it so that it will ultimately lead to our salvation.
Our joys and sorrows—our gains and losses—our successes and failures—every bit of it God is working for our good so that it all comes together for our salvation.
God has accomplished our salvation in this way—from a plan in eternity he made-- to a sacrifice in time he gave-- to the individual particulars of our life that he orders-- so that he receives all the glory. 
When it comes to our salvation, it is God’s work alone, a gift of his inexhaustible grace received by us in faith, worked in us and sealed in us by the Holy Spirit.  The Bible says that:
In [Jesus] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
            The Bible says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God—that God has chosen to give us birth by the word of truth—that we have been born again through the living word of God—that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all of those who believe.
The point is this:  our place in God’s plan to save the world, a plan that includes us personally and individually, was accomplished in us personally and individually as the Good News of Jesus was preached to us and the Holy Spirit converted us and came to dwell in our lives.
That we can say Jesus is Lord—that we know the mystery of God’s saving will—that we have been adopted into God’s family-- is only because of the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, who has brought us to faith, and who will keep us in faith until we go to heaven.
Dear friends in Christ, it is the best possible news that God’s plan to save the world in his Son Jesus Christ includes us personally and individually!  May God grant us his grace and the Spirit’s help to believe it for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.    

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Thus Says the LORD God!

Ezekiel 2:1-5 The LORD spoke to Ezekiel and said:  “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak to you.”  When the heavens are opened and Ezekiel sees the glory of God, Ezekiel lay with his face in the dust before the LORD because that is the only position a sinful man can take in the presence of a holy God.  God is God and we are not and the Bible says, “If thou LORD shouldest mark iniquities, O LORD who shall stand?”
            Sinful man may not stand in God’s presence as if we are equals and Ezekiel is indeed a son of man—a part of the human family that is, by nature, broken by sin, riddled by guilt, and consumed by shame—and so is every other man who is called to preach.
            Certainly members of this congregation understand that!  That I have very real, sinful failings surely does not come as a shock to anyone who has been paying attention over these last four years of my ministry here at Trinity.  I too am a son of man!
But it doesn’t hurt for both pastors and people to be reminded of the fact that those who preach-- are called out from the exact same sinful people of those whom they are called to preach to—they are no different and certainly no better!
            For preachers, this text is a healthy remedy and corrective for any temptation to pride of position: that somehow preachers are a little bit better than everyone else or have a step up on everyone else because of their calling.  It’s simply not so. 
            And for those who are hearers of the Word, the call of “sons of men” to preach is an important reminder that no preacher has a right to hold himself up as the standard for his congregation and no preacher ought to have an expectation to be heard on the basis of his own holiness or experience—but only because he brings God’s people God’s Word through which the Spirit does his work of raising us from sin and death.  The Bible says:
Then the Spirit entered me when He spoke to me, and set me on my feet; and I heard Him who spoke to me.
             Ezekiel had to be lifted up by God’s Spirit who worked through the Word that was spoken so that he could stand in God’s sight unashamed and unafraid. 
That is true not just for Ezekiel- and not just for those who preach- but for every one of us here today!  It’s exactly the way that God continues to work in every sinner’s life!  We can stand in God’s presence ONLY when he himself has raised us up from the death of sin by his Word in Baptism, Preaching, Absolution, and Eucharist.
            That a sinful man can be used of God and speak his Word and administer his sacraments is a sure sign of God’s grace that none are beyond God’s ability to save.
            Now, having said that there is absolutely no difference between pastor and people when it comes to their standing before God—no difference in their sinfulness and need for salvation--there is, nevertheless, a difference between them in their vocation and responsibilities.
That difference is found in the pastor’s call to go and proclaim God’s Word in a particular place to a particular people.  The LORD said to Ezekiel:  “Son of man, I am sending you to the children of Israel…”  Ezekiel was sent by God!
            No less than Ezekiel, every pastor’s call comes from the Lord.  Ezekiel received his call directly from the Lord without any mediating groups or individuals.  Pastors today receive their calls via congregations or church bodies who gather to ask the Spirit’s blessing and guidance in choosing a pastor. 
But whether they are prophets or apostles or pastors, they are no less calls from the Holy Spirit to go to a particular place and people and preach the Word.  The call of the Holy Spirit is the basis of the preacher’s authority!
            Ezekiel had absolutely nothing in himself to commend him to the people of Israel—in and of himself he was no better than the next guy.  But what he did have was much more important than his own personal gifts and abilities and worthiness!  He had the call of God the Holy Spirit to go and preach! 
That was his authority and that was the foundation of his ministry and so it continues to be today.
            I am more thankful than you will ever know that God has blessed me with this congregation.  I can honestly say that I love you in the Lord as your pastor—as I am called to do—and that I also genuinely like you and enjoy your company and count my service to you a joy. 
But my preaching- and your hearing- is not based upon our liking one another but upon God’s love for us all and his desire to save us from our sins which is why the ministry of the Word exists at all.  The LORD said to Ezekiel:
I am sending you to the children of Israel to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day. For they are impudent and stubborn children. I am sending you to them. 
The “them” that Ezekiel is sent to, are described by God as “rebellious, impudent, and stubborn” and of course we know from the biblical history of the Israelites that was exactly the case!  God was absolutely right in his judgments!
            Despite knowing God’s expectations for their lives—despite having witnessed some of the greatest miracles recorded in the Bible—despite having promised countless times to “straighten up and fly right”—the Israelites continued on a path of disobedience and sin.  They were indeed “rebellious, impudent, and stubborn.”
            But their story is the universal story of humanity—of our waywardness from God’s path, our resistance to God’s correction, and our unwillingness to put our whole-hearted faith and trust in God.
            We may have trouble seeing ourselves as “rebellious, impudent, and stubborn” but according to our sinful flesh that is exactly what we are—just like the people of Ezekiel’s day. 
And yet God loved them and us and wants all people to turn from their sinful ways and put their whole-hearted trust in him and be forgiven and restored in his sight and that is why he sends preachers to say:  ‘Thus says the Lord GOD.’  
Ezekiel’s ministry of the Word—his proclamation of God’s enduring, steadfast love-- was the means through which God accomplished his saving purpose in the lives of his people—turning them from their sin and renewing their status as his sons and daughters.
            Ezekiel, as a prophet of God, had but one purpose and that was to give voice to God on earth—to tell all who would hear:  God’s correction and rebuke to be sure!  But more importantly to assure them of God’s love for them and his promise to deliver them from their slavery and restore them in his sight.
            The content of every pastor’s message today must be exactly the same:  to say to those to whom he is called:  thus saith the Lord!  To preach the law of God in all its severity-- but also to preach the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. 
Business success is gauged by an owner’s ability to give the consumer what they want in an ever-changing marketplace but the preacher has no right to change God’s Word or tailor it to fit his audience—his success is measured by one criteria alone—his faithful proclamation of God’s Word.  That’s what Ezekiel did.
            The promise of deliverance and freedom that Ezekiel preached to the people of Israel was true indeed—they were set free from slavery in Babylon--but it was still only a picture/sign/promise of what was to come in God’s ultimate deliverance-- of not just the Jews but the whole world in the Messiah—his own Son Jesus Christ. 
            You see dear friends in Christ, Jesus Christ was the true prophet of God from whom all other prophets and priests and pastors derive their office. 
Jesus not only spoke the Word of God, he was the Word of God incarnate, and he is the content of every preacher’s message today and he is the means by which God reconciles the world to himself.  The Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.
            But then and now, what the Lord says must be believed if we are to be saved from sin.  The LORD said to Ezekiel: 
As for them, whether they hear or whether they refuse—for they are a rebellious house—yet they will know that a prophet has been among them. 
The exiles saw the promises of God through Ezekiel come to pass as they returned home from exile.  We know the promises of God fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
And so when we come into God’s presence each Lord’s Day to hear and study God’s Word, we ought to have the glad confidence that we have heard nothing less than the voice of God himself and willingly give him our faith and obedience.  Amen.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Grace of Giving

2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15 Last Sunday in our adult bible class we were talking about various aspects of basic Christian piety:  prayers before and after meals, prayers at the beginning and ending of the day, a daily bible reading plan and daily devotion, doing good work in our vocation, worship and bible study on the Lord’s Day, and Christian giving.
            We talked more in depth about what Christian giving is because we are about to start 2 Corinthians and much of this letter deals with giving.  And we said that Christian giving has several important features.
Christian giving is first-fruits.  In other words giving for the work of the Lord is our first financial priority.  We said that it is proportionate—that it is reflective of the gifts that God has first given us.  We said that our giving as Christians is to be intentional—that we are thoughtful about what we give and have a giving plan.  And finally we said that it is sacrificial—that it costs us something significant, that we can feel it in the pocket book, and that we could spend much more on ourselves if we did not give so much to the Lord.
That is what Christian giving is from God’s perspective.  Those are some ways to describe and measure pious Christian giving. 
But what we hear today from God’s Word is where we gain a heart and mind and will for that kind of giving—that hearts and hands that are glad to give generously to the Lord come from his gift of salvation in Jesus and from the gift that he gives us when he allows us to share in his saving work in this world with our offerings.  The Bible says:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.
            I want to take just a moment to explain what was going on in the early church.  Throughout Judea there was an extreme drought and over three years every harvest failed.  We know from ancient historians that millions died.  There were no helping agencies to bring relief.  If people were going to be saved from starvation, everyday people were going to have to do it.
And so throughout the Roman Empire, Gentile Christians came together to send financial aid to their Jewish brethren in Judea. 
These Gentile Christians who gave to those in need were not rich people—for the most part they were common folk-- and the Bible says in these verses that they themselves struggled under extreme poverty.  But in the midst of their extreme poverty the Lord gave them a gracious gift.  Do you know what that gift was?  The grace of giving. 
Their hearts were filled with joy that came with their life with Jesus and all they needed was a way, an opportunity, to let that joy overflow into the lives of others.  And so the Lord gave them a gift—the gift of giving—the gift of seeing how richly they had been blessed (despite their poverty) through the gift of sharing with others.
I want you to mark in your Bibles the contrast between “their extreme poverty” and their “wealth of generosity”.  Here’s the point:  Being of limited means was no impediment to their generous giving.  Paul shares this example with the Corinthians and with us here this morning to encourage us in our own giving. 
He wants us to ask ourselves:  Is there an abundance of joy in my heart for the life I have with Jesus?  Does that joy overflow with generosity towards supporting his work in the world?  Do I see my Christian giving as a gift that God has first given me, a privilege to work with him?  And if severe affliction and extreme poverty was no barrier to the Macedonians giving generously, what is holding me back from doing the same?  The Bible says that:
They gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—
and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.
            In every aspect of a sincere, heartfelt Christian piety there are people, fellow believers, saints of God who we can look to as an example to follow.  That’s what Paul is doing here.  He is saying:  if you want to know what Christian giving looks like you need look no further than the Macedonians whose first priority was love for the Lord and his people. 
They begged Paul to give to this work.  They gave far beyond their limited means.  They regarded their gifts as a favor that Paul was doing for them!  They knew that their gifts were much, much more than money-- but a sure and certain sign of an entire life given over to the service of Christ and his Church. 
How about us?  When there is some financial need at Church do we hope and pray that no one calls on us?  If we do give, is it some small sum that really doesn’t stretch our faith?  And then, when we do give something, do we get all puffed up at the great thing we have done for God?  In our Christian giving, do we show that we are giving ourselves FIRST AND FOREMOST to Christ and his church?  We should.  The Bible says that:
We urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.  I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.
            The Corinthians were in incredibly gifted congregation.  God had showered them with material and spiritual blessings and in many, many ways they reflected that giftedness in their lives as individual Christians and as a Christian congregation.  Paul says that they “excelled” in everything related to their life in Christ. 
But there was still one more part of the life of faith that needed their attention and their commitment and that was their Christian giving and Paul wanted them to excel in this too as a sign of the genuineness of their faith.  Their giving proved their faith.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are a gifted congregation.  It is hard for me to even convey to you how blessed we are! 
We are in such a remarkable position in terms of location and facilities and opportunities and stability and peace and workers that the vast majority of congregations can only dream of.  God has blessed us and guided us and provided for us for a purpose:  that we would be a blessing to others—that we would trust this God who has blessed us in the past to bless us in the future—that we would help others in this community to know and love the Savior we know and love.
And that is really the key to this part of our Christian life.  There is, in the New Testament, no specific command regarding what the faithful child has to give to the Lord.  No command.  No law.  No rule.  There is only the sacrifice of Jesus, freely, completely, graciously, generously given for us that fills our hearts and minds and wills and changes everything for us, including how we think about money and giving.  The Bible says that:
You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
            The Macedonians knew it.  The Corinthians knew it.  We know it:  The incredible gift that God the Father has given to us in his Son.
Our Lord Jesus Christ who is the one, true and living God of the universe took upon himself our broken flesh, was born in a trough to peasant parents, earned his living by the sweat of his brow, had no place to lay his head, took upon himself every one of our sins:  our fear, our lack of trust, our grudging giving-- and carried that terrible burden to the cross and died under its weight with the curse of God upon it, stripped of every earthly possession and even his own life.
The One who was rich in every way became poor in every way so that in what theologians call The Great Exchange we could become truly rich.  And that is what each and every one of you are:  rich beyond human imagination.
You are sons and daughters of the living God of the universe.  Your sins are forgiven.  You possess the righteousness of Christ.  And you will live in an eternal home prepared just for you that the most magnificent earthly castle cannot begin to compare.  That is who you are.  That is what you possess.  That is your eternal future. 
And that is why you can open your mind and your heart and your hands and give generously to the Lord and his mission joyfully and generously, without fear, knowing that the God who has given you Jesus and eternal riches will not then withhold anything from you in this life—not the joy of giving a gift, not the comfort of receiving a gift.  The Bible says:
I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.”
            Throughout our lives and there are giving times and there receiving times.  God has ordered the life of the church in the Body of Christ in such a way that we all work together for the common good and for the salvation of the world—giving and receiving.
When we are children, when we are in need, when we are in our later years we may be more on the receiving side.  But even a small child can share and a person in need can give their thanks and appreciation and an elderly person confined to a nursing home can pray for their pastor and church.  We don’t like to think about being on the receiving side but that is one of the ways that God helps others grow in their faith when they care for us.
For most of us here today, we are on the giving side of life.  We have been blessed materially-- so that we can be a blessing to others by helping them when they have a need but especially so that they can come to know Jesus through the mission of the Church and we have nothing to fear in giving generously because they One who has given us Jesus will meet our needs.  Amen.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

God's Answer to "Why?"

Job 39:1-11 A tsunami in the Indian Ocean.  A tornado in Texas.  And the question that everyone has—from the people who are affected, to the aid workers on the ground, to the millions of people like us who watch it unfold on TV is:  “why”?  Why did this happen?
            I think we all understand that what IS NOT being asked about are the geophysical causes of these disasters (earthquakes on the ocean floor and colliding currents of warm and cold air) is not the answer that people are looking for when they ask “why”.
            We understand that because we have asked our own questions of “why”.  Why did my grandchild die in that car wreck?  Why was my wife stricken with cancer?  Why was my child born with a birth defect?  Why was my home destroyed by fire?  And the answers that we are looking for have nothing to do with car safety or cancer cells.
            When that question of “why” is asked, what we want to know is the cosmic meaning of what had just happened—especially the “why’s” of why me—why my family—why here—and why now? // 
            This question of “why” is a believer’s question--not that all of those affected by tsunamis and tornadoes believe in and know the one true God as he has revealed himself in the Bible.  But they do understand that there is a Creator who brought this world into being and sustains it day by day. 
And recognizing that there is a powerful Creator, those affected by tragedies wonder what God is doing when the earth’s foundations were shaken-- and why the limits of the sea ceased to exist--and why it happened to them and theirs-- just like we wonder why tragedy and trials befall us and those we love.
            Atheists do not ask this question of “why”.  They are satisfied with the material and physical answer because they believe that is all there is. 
            But the vast, vast majority of the world’s people have always known that there is a God of power and wisdom who rules this world-- and because of that knowledge-- have asked the question of “why” when trouble and trial and tribulation happens to them.//   
            The story of Job deals with that human question of “why”.              Job was a believer in the one true God and knew him to be much more than an anonymous. He knew God as we know him—as he is revealed in the Bible--as the LORD:  the covenant God of love and goodness who from the beginning promised to rescue the world from evil.
            Job was richly blessed by God—he had great possessions, a wonderful family, and good health.  And yet over a very short time all these blessings were taken away.  His possessions were destroyed, his family was killed, and his health was ruined.
            And yet, he did not curse God.  In one of the greatest confessions of faith found in the Bible—a confession of faith that captures the great theme of his story (that God is God and we are not) Job says, “The LORD gives and the LORD takes away, blessed be the name of the LORD.   And he was right-- and that should have been enough. 
But as Job was visited by three friends who came to console him, doubts and the questions took over his life as he and his friends try to make sense out of “why”.
            They said:  Maybe God is punishing you Job.  What have you done wrong?  Maybe you haven’t done anything wrong and God has dealt with you unjustly.  Maybe God is using this whole experience to make you stronger. 
And on and on—question after question—treating God as if he were an object for their examination—questioning his ways in the world as if they were an intellectual or philosophical exercise that exists for human speculation.
            That is where we find ourselves in our lesson for the day as God speaks to Job out of the midst of a storm and reminds him in the strongest possible way that his ways in the world are not objects for our human examination or subjects for our speculation and he will not be treated in that way. 
The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:  "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.  "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements—surely you know!  Or who stretched the line upon it?  On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?  "Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, 'Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed'?
            After all their questions and musings and ponderings, it is not an idea or a force or an object or a theory that answers Job and his friends-- but it is the one true and living God of the universe—the Creator and Sustainer of all that exists—the LORD who has shown himself time and time to be good and just and merciful.
            And who is it that has presumed to question the LORD?  A mere man!  In this divine dialogue between God and man, there is one who will be called to give an account!  There is one who will answer questions!  There is one who will be put to the test!  But it is not the Creator—it is his creature.  It is not the LORD—it is man. //
            Where was Job when the LORD called the world into existence—when he created all that is?  Job didn’t exist and what’s more, you and I didn’t either.
            Where was Job when God was bringing order out of that which was formless and void—setting the cornerstone that holds the world together—and fixing the boundary for the land and the sea? Job was lifeless dust and so were we.
            What right did Job have to question God about anything that happened to him when he couldn’t even begin to understand the simplest things about the creation of the world?  Job didn’t have a right to question why and neither do we.
            How could Job doubt God’s purposes and plans for him when the entire universe revealed a Creator who knew and upheld and ordered the smallest detail of his creation?  How could there be any doubt in Job’s mind that this same LORD had also perfectly planned each detail of every human life? 
There couldn’t be any doubt as to the wisdom of God for Job and there shouldn’t for us either. //
            These questions that God asks were not meant to mock Job or belittle him or crush him under their weight.  They were meant to remind Job, and his friends, and all of us --who we are and what our place is in the world—that God is God and we are not. 
            But this heavenly reminder given to Job that “God is God and we are not” doesn’t really answer the questions of “why” that Job has, does it?  It doesn’t answer the question of why those terrible things happened to him.  And God does not promise to answer our questions of “why” either when it comes to the tragedies that befall us.
            Still, the answer that God does give is enough:  there is a personal God who is present in the world—a loving LORD who is powerfully working to bring his good purposes to bear in his creation-- including in the lives of his people.
            In that knowledge Job was content and secure and even joyful in his creaturely-ness because he knew the truth about God and the truth about himself.  At the end of God’s questioning Job says,
“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."      
            So it is for us.  We rest in the fact that God is God and we are not—that the LORD who has perfectly ordered creation will perfectly order our life and the lives of those we love as well—even in the midst of trials and tragedies and tribulations.  But there is even more comfort for us than there was for Job.  //
            Many years after these events in the book of Job, a teacher and his disciples were out sailing on the Sea of Galilee when a furious storm came up threatening to overturn their boat and drown them all.  The disciples had questions too.
“Don’t you care if we drown?”  (And he did!)  He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet!  Be still!”  Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.  They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?”  //
            The questions posed to Job as to the identity of the One who laid the foundation of the earth and set the boundary of the sea-- and the questions of the disciples as to who it is that can even command the wind and waves-- are not questions that invite our speculation.  They are questions with an answer—and that answer is:  it is God alone who rules all things-- including every detail of our life.
            He is the creator of the world—he is the teacher in the boat who stills the storm—and most importantly of all-- he is the man of the cross who suffers and dies because he cares for each of us.
            The God who called Job to account for his questions and invited him to trust in him simply because he was God-- showed himself, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, to be worthy of Job’s trust, and the disciples’ trust, and our trust as well—even in, and especially in, those situations that cause us to question “why”.
            The LORD did not keep us or our suffering at arm’s length—our trials and tragedies are not a matter of his uncaring, disinterested observation from far above.  Instead, he took them upon himself—he was as Isaiah says, a man of sorrows because there is nothing in our broken human existence that was unknown to him. 
Jesus also took upon himself our doubting questions and our sinful worries and our faithless fears and all of the broken-ness and heartache that weighs us down-- and he carried them to the cross and left them behind forever in the empty tomb never to burden us again. //
            All of us will face those tragedies and trials that tempt us to ask “why”.  Our comfort and peace and solace does not come from a heavenly answer to our specific questions but instead comes from the cross and empty tomb and the simple, glorious promise of Holy Scripture that the One who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all will along with him give us all things-- and that nothing, no trial or trouble or tribulation can separate us from his love.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Our Heavenly Dwelling

2 Corinthians 5:1-10 Caroline and I have lived in Ft. Worth and Ft. Wayne and Kingsville and San Angelo and every time we have returned from a business trip or vacation, we say:  I’m glad to be home.
But what we should have said is:  “home for now”—because none of those places were our permanent address.  Maybe you’ve moved around a lot more than the four or five times we’ve moved—maybe you’ve moved around a lot less than we have-- but all of us have at least one more move to look forward to—a move to our heavenly home-- for no place on earth is our permanent address.
Unless the Lord comes first, our earthly lives will come to an end and we will journey on from this world to our true dwelling place in heaven.  The Bible says:
For we know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 
            No matter how long we live in one place, no matter how attached we are to our own little corner of the world, our lives on earth are like a tent.  I have spent many nights camping out in tents and they serve quite well-- for a time.  But eventually they wear out and get musty and smelly and torn and full of holes and they no longer serve their purpose-- which is to shelter us temporarily.  So it is with our earthly lives.
That is why it is such Good News for us to KNOW that there is another dwelling for us in heaven that Paul says is a building built by God that will last forever
Bible scholars are divided as to whether Paul is speaking of our resurrection bodies that we receive on the last day-- or our heavenly dwelling place in the glory of God.  But there is no contradiction between them—instead, they are complementary.  Our earthly bodies will die and earth itself will be destroyed.  But our resurrection bodies and our heavenly homes will endure forever. 
That this is our future, Paul says we can KNOW.  And so why is he so confident about our eternal future?  It’s because of Christ’s resurrection. 
If ever an earthly tent had been destroyed, it was Christ’s body on the cross.  But he also knew that Jesus had been raised—he met the resurrected Christ and saw his glorified body.  He knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that there was something greater than the best earthly life still to come for the Christian after their death-- and he looked forward to it rather than feared it.  Paul writes:
For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.  For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened--not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed… 
God created us to live without sickness and disability and death-- but our sin brought that to an end-- and now our earthly lives are marked by frailty-- and they will eventually be destroyed by death as easily as tent pegs being pulled from the ground.
Until that day, our temporary, earthly lives are often filled with groans.  There are aches and pains and illness and disability.  There is the pain of separation when loved ones pass away.  And then there is the burden of our own sinfulness and how far we are from the glory of God.  All of these and more are “part and parcel” of our earthly lives and bring forth groans from our inmost hearts.
And so we long to be delivered from all of it.  Not that we want to die, but we have a deep sense that even the best, most blessed earthly lives are not-- and can not be-- all that there is—that there must be more to life than temporary, fading joys and finally death.  The Good News for us is that there is more—much more.
There is another life to come for us and another place for us to live.  The Bible says that what is mortal is swallowed up by life.
The ancients saw the grave as that which swallowed up life—that no matter how long life was—no matter how successful in earthly terms—no matter how prominent and powerful a person—in the end the grave swallowed life whole. 
As Jesus was laid in the tomb, it certainly seemed as if there was no escaping the grave for anyone-- but three days later the grave suffered its first defeat as Christ rose up victorious—his life swallowing up death itself.  And on the Last Day the grave will suffer defeat after defeat as our bodies are raised from our graves by the same Almighty power that raised Christ from his grave.  The Bible says that:
He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage.
            That we have a heavenly home and another life to live when this brief time on earth is over is completely God’s doing—it is the work of his hands.  He has chosen us for this very purpose and has sent his Son to deliver us from sin and death.
But God has done even more.  He has given us his Holy Spirit as a sure sign that this hope that we have of another life and another dwelling place is not just a pious wish but as real and concrete and certain as the physical bodies and homes we live in right now.  Paul calls this gift of the Spirit:  a guarantee-- and for the Greeks this word described a down payment or earnest money that secured a financial deal. 
That you believe in Jesus Christ—that you confess him as your Lord and Savior—that you desire to live a life pleasing to him even though at times you fail—is a sure sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life which is a guarantee from God himself that when you pass from this life you will enter your heavenly home. 
All the things that tempt us to fear:  an unknown future—separation from our loved ones—economic downturns—and our own mortality—are completely changed because we know our ETERNAL future and ETERNAL home.
We long for that day even while we entrust the timing to the Lord and strive to live with heavenly values and priorities and purposes right now.  Paul writes:
We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 
            One sure sign that we are not yet home is that we live by faith rather than by sight.  We trust God’s promise about our heavenly home even though we cannot yet see its fulfillment.  But there is coming a day for us when we will see it with our own eyes.
Certainly we would like to be home right now!  What a blessing to see the One who has loved us throughout our lives with an everlasting love.  What a joy to see our loved ones who have already gone to be with the Lord!  But we’re not there yet. 
Until that day we make it our aim to please Jesus where we are in life right now.  The word that Paul uses there means that we make it our AMBITION to please the Lord.  Ambition is what drives our life—the goal that is always before us that orders our lives.  Pleasing the Lord in all that we say and do—this is our aim—this is our ambition—this is the goal that orders our lives until the day that we make that final journey home. 
Those who live life on earth yearning for their heavenly homes—those who make it their ambition to please the Lord-- have absolutely nothing to fear on the day when we called forth from this life to stand before the LORD.  The Bible says:
We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
            That we must first appear before the judgment seat of Christ before entering our heavenly home, may cast a shadow on our journey home.  But they shouldn’t! 
Those who trust in Christ for salvation have absolutely nothing to fear in the judgment to come because the One who judges us—has already passed through that judgment in our place.  He was counted guilty of our sins and sentenced to death—for us.  He suffered the pains of hell upon the cross-- for us.  And he died-- for us.  But he rose again and is seated at God’s right hand and he will judge the world.
We have nothing to fear on that day when we journey from life on earth to heaven- for we have already died with him and been raised with him in Holy Baptism-- and God counts his life and death as our own through faith in Jesus.  And because of that, his judgment is actually something to look forward to. Let me explain:
The pictures your children colored in Sunday are probably not great works of art.  There may be color outside the lines or the colors were all wrong.  But they are proud of what they did and as their parent you are proud too—simply because they are your children.  And that picture goes up on the refrigerator and is still probably stored in some box if your wife is like mine.
That’s what the judgment will be for God’s children—an opportunity for us to show God what we have done for him while we lived on this earth. 
And when he looks at our halting efforts—when he sees those times that we didn’t quite get it right—what he really sees is the perfection of his Son Jesus who always got it right—and that makes all the difference in the world as we prepare for that final move to our heavenly home.  Amen.