Sunday, November 17, 2013

Harvest Home: God's Provision and Our Offering

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Harvest Home is the oldest continuing tradition in our congregation.  It hearkens back to the day when most of the members of our congregation made their living through agriculture.
This celebration is an opportunity to give thanks for the harvest; share a meal together; and give a special offering from the fruits of the harvest.  The folks who began this tradition of Harvest Home understood the deep biblical connection between God’s provision to us and our gifts to him.  The Bible says:
“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there.
From slaves in a foreign land to nomadic wanderers in the Sinai desert God set his people free;  provided for them in the desert; and was about to lead them into the Promised Land. 
Out of the bounty of their very first harvest in that place, the Lord instructed them to take the first fruits of that harvest and give it to him as an offering at the tabernacle. 
That tangible, tactile offering—the first-fruits of the harvest that they held in their hand—would be an enduring sign to them that the Lord is the God of kept promises who protects and provides for his people and leads them safely home.
The offering they gave was to be a first-fruits offering—that is, before they gathered for themselves, before they stored something up for the year to come, before they helped others, they were to give their offering to the Lord at the tabernacle.
The tabernacle was the particular place where the Lord manifested himself to the people—where he heard their prayers and received the sacrifices of the priest and spoke his words and forgave their sins.  It was where God made his gracious presence known in a way that could be laid hold of by faith.
Those are the biblical roots of our very own Harvest Home celebration and our offerings still serve the same purpose. 
Though most of us no longer make our living from agriculture, we are all fed, and clothed, and sheltered by the God of creation from the fruits of the harvest-- to say nothing of the countless other ways that the same Lord generously provides for our daily needs. 
And so when we give our offering we are saying the same thing that the Israelites were saying:  that the LORD is our God who keeps his promises to provide for and protect his people and lead us home.  That is why…
We bring our offering here to the church and give it to the Lord first—before any other bill or obligation—before any other charity—because we know that without the Lord’s provision no one’s needs would be met.  That’s what every offering is, especially our Harvest Home offering—a tangible, tactile confession that the Lord provides.  The Bible says:
You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.’ Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God.
            When the Israelites gave their first fruits from the harvest in the Promised Land, there was more to it than simply handing off their offering.  Each of them not only gave their offering—they made a confession of faith in conjunction with it:  that they were the personal recipients of the Lord’s faithfulness:  I declare that I have come into the Promised Land. 
So it is for us.  That we have in our hands an offering to give the Lord is only because the Lord has already so generously filled our hands with his abundant blessings.  And even if we no longer say something out loud when we give our offering there should be no doubt in our minds:  a confession is being made when we put our offering in the plate.
Here’s the question:  Is that confession given with our offering one of confidence and trust and gladness in the Lord’s provision-- or is it one of doubt and worry expressed in our unwillingness to let go of what we hold in our hand.  It ought to be one of confidence and trust for the Lord has seen our need and come to our aid and he can be counted on to keep his promises in the days to come.  That is what the Israelites confessed. The Bible says that: 
You shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor.  
            When the Israelites brought their offering to the Lord at the tabernacle they made a confession of faith along with it and that confession had two parts:  their great need and the Lord’s gracious provision.
They recounted their sad history as a people:  their poverty as wandering tribesman with no real place to call home and their dependence on God’s provision and then they recalled their slavery in Egypt and all of the humiliations and indignities that went along with it.  Even though it was painful to bring to mind the things of the past it was necessary for them to remember where they came from.
Each Lord’s Day we do the same.  We confess that we are sinners—that we were born under Satan’s dominion, alienated from God—that death is the result of our distance from God.  We confess that the good things we receive are not what are due us, but examples of God’s mercy upon those who cannot help themselves. 
We make this confession so that we never forget just how great is our need- and how far we have come- by the mercy and grace of the Lord who sees his people’s need and comes to their rescue.  The Bible says that:
We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 
            After they confessed their great need and where they had come from, they confessed the Lord’s great provision and the good place he had brought them to. 
They remembered the signs and wonders that accompanied their deliverance—how the Lord’s hand protected them from the judgment that fell upon their enemies—how God raised up for them deliverer in Moses—how the Lord brought them out of slavery and certain death through the waters of the Red Sea that drowned their enemies behind them. 
And in re-telling the story of their salvation they confessed that it was the LORD—Jehovah—Yahweh—that delivered them and set them free and brought them to the Promised Land.
So it is for us.  Our salvation story is the story of our helplessness in the face of enemies much more powerful than Egyptians—our enslavement much more encompassing than making bricks.  The LORD saw our slavery to sin and death—he saw the power of our satanic foe—and he had mercy on us. 
He raised up a Savior for us in the person of his own Son Jesus Christ who by the might of his outstretched arms upon the cross set us free and drowned our enemies in the waters of Holy Baptism.  And as his redeemed people he has graciously provided for all our needs of body and soul.
This is the work of the LORD—Jehovah, Yahweh--not some generic God up in the skies who goes by many names—but the LORD:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the God of our fathers and the God of our salvation and the God of the Harvest. 
That is the confession we make when we bring our offerings to the Lord.  Our offerings are not just act of obedience—though they are that.  They are not just a duty—though they are that.  They are a tangible, tactile confession of what is true about us in our great need and what is true about the LORD in his great provision and as we bring them to the Lord they become the location and substance of our worship just as they were for the Israelites.  The Bible says:
Behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God.
            The first fruits offering that the Israelites brought to the Lord at the tabernacle was not just a confession of their faith—it was an act of worship that flowed from their faith. 
As with God’s people in every time and place, our worship is comprised of hearing God’s Word and responding to God’s word in prayer—there is singing praises and confessing our sins—there is receiving the benefits of salvation upon this altar in the shed blood of the Lamb of God—and there is the giving of an offering. 
No less than any of the other facets of worship, our offering is an expression of our reverence for God and an act of adoration for all he done for us.  In fact, it is one of the most revealing acts of worship.
            Our parents can drag us to church and our spouse can guilt us into coming.  It’s not too hard to stand and sit with everyone else.  We can pray the Lord’s Prayer and listen to a sermon and not have a clue what we just said and heard.  But when we give an offering—that costs us something and there has to be at least some thought involved.
And so what does our offering reveal?  Does it show that we understand that all we have is a gift from God?  Does it manifest our wonder and awe at the greatness of God’s spiritual and material provision?  Or does it reveal the poverty—not of God’s gifts, but of our love? 
Our offerings, if they are truly that, will always be an opportunity for us to rejoice in the greatness of God’s goodness towards us and others.  The Bible says:
You shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.
            The first fruits offering that the people of God brought from the first harvest in the Promised Land was a joyous opportunity for them to confess their faith and worship the LORD for it meant that their faith was not misplaced but that their Savior God had kept all of his promises to them—setting them free and providing for all their needs of body and soul.
The LORD was glorified and magnified by the offerings they brought but those offerings also benefited those around them.  Their place of worship and their priests were supported so that the Good News of salvation could be told to others and their own sins forgiven.  The poor and the needy and those far from home were also supported by these first-fruit offerings.
So it is today.  When we give our offering it is a joyous confession and act of worship for all that the Lord has done for us.  God is glorified and magnified as we give our offerings to him.  But there is even more. 
Our offerings support the Gospel ministry in their place so that our children can be baptized and we can be absolved and receive the fruits of salvation at this altar.  And there is still more.  Our offerings support the work of the Gospel throughout the world and care for those in need.
On this Harvest Home celebration we are blessed to give thanks to the Lord for his gracious provision and offer him the first-fruits of all that he has given to us as a confession of our faith in his goodness and an act of worship that glorifies him and serves others.  May God grant us the gift of joy as we do so!  Amen.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Have No Fear, the Dead Will Be Raised!

Luke 20:27-40 The Bible says that:  There came to Jesus some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection.  Here is the very situation that so many of us dread—confronted in our faith—called upon to confess the truth of what we believe. 
There are many people like the Sadducees in our world today—people who deny some part of what we believe as Christians.  There are people who ridicule our belief in a God who creates.  There are people who reject the idea that all life is precious in God’s sight—even that of the unborn.  And of course there are many, many people who deny that salvation is only found in Jesus.  We know they are out there.
But to be confronted by them—perhaps among our circle of friends or folks at work--to be called upon in that moment to give a defense of our faith and the truths that we have built our life on—that makes us anxious and even afraid. 
Especially when what is being challenged is as fundamental to our faith as the resurrection of the dead.  Eternal life with God is our most cherished hope and what makes this particular question even more of a faith challenge is that often times—truth be told—we have our own struggles to believe in the resurrection. 
To lay a loved one in the grave seems so final.  To conceive of a life other than the one we enjoy right now seems impossible.  But what Jesus wants us to know and believe is that when it comes to the resurrection (whether we are challenged by the world or whether the questions come from our own frail heart) we need have no fear, for the dead will be raised. 
The Bible says that:  There came to Jesus some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died.  In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” 
            Before we talk about the details of the challenge, I want to point out the tone of the question-how it falls into the absurd—far beyond the scope of anything in these men’s experience. 
I point this out because this is still the way that the world challenges our faith—by distortion and ridicule and scorn.  The men who came to Jesus (like so many in our world today) were not true seekers after the truth but people who:  had already made up their mind—had an agenda—and had given a lot of thought about how to undermine our faith.
Those who challenge our faith on the sanctity of life never mention the fact that the vast, vast majority of abortions in their country are simply birth control after the fact—the murder of innocents on the altar on convenience.  Instead, they come up with questions about very rare cases of having to choose between the life of the mother and the child.  Those who challenge our faith on salvation being found only in Jesus never talk about the billions on earth who have heard the gospel and reject him.  Instead they focus on the relatively few people who sadly have never heard the Gospel.  Those who challenge us on creation never ask us about the words from Genesis that talk about the meaning and purpose of the universe and our own human existence.  Instead, they ridicule the old editorial dates placed in the King Jesus Bible and make them normative for what they think Christians believe about creation.
In other words, many of the faith-challenges we face are not the serious questions of someone who is earnestly seeking the truth about God and their own existence-- but instead are the scorn and derision of those who have already made up their mind and have devoted a lot of time and thought to coming up with ways to ridicule our faith.
That’s what was going on here in the question of the Sadducees.  The situation comes from the Old Testament teaching of levirate marriage—the responsibility of one brother to marry his brother’s widow so that a family could be raised in the dead brother’s name.  That’s all pretty straight forward but a situation where there are seven dead brothers and one wife and no children all standing around in heaven trying to figure out who belongs to who is absurd and these skeptics meant it be absurd so they could ridicule the very idea of a life after this one. 
Now I will confess that when I am asked foolish questions like these I fall into two temptations—to ignore it and walk away because of where it’s coming from --or to say “you’re an idiot.”  But look instead what Jesus says and how he says it:
“The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage,
            Jesus knew where these guys were coming from—he knew what was motivating them (not a desire for the truth but to undermine the faith)—but he didn’t roll his eyes and walk away—he didn’t say “You’re an idiot”.  Instead, he answered them kindly but authoritatively. 
            There’s a lesson here for us.  We are going to face faith-challenges from the world about what we believe. We are going to face scorn and ridicule.  But the Bible says that we are to always be ready to give a reason for the hope we have.  That’s what Jesus does.
First of all, he corrects their false assumptions.  He says that heaven is not going to be a continuation of our earthly lives.  It IS life—real life—but much of what we identify with our earthly lives will not be a part of our life in heaven.  No sorrows—no sin—no separation.  But neither is there marriage.  Marriage is for this life—not for the life to come.
Now I know that for all of us who are blessed by God with good marriages this is a hard teaching. But Jesus isn’t saying we won’t know our loved ones.  He is not saying we won’t live with them forever.  He is not saying that we won’t love them.  What he is saying is that marriage is for this life and its purpose is to prepare us for the life to come by teaching us how to love. 
After correcting their false assumptions, then he teaches them the truth about the resurrection—that those in heaven:  cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.
  We do not know everything there is to know about our life to come in heaven but we do know that there are real differences from our life on earth.  Jesus says that our heavenly life more closely reveals that of the angels who live directly in God’s presence and who see God as he is and whose eternal lives are filled from beginning to end with the worship and service of God and are focused on him alone. 
Jesus wasn’t concerned with answering all their questions or our questions either.  Instead, he was focused on teaching the truth about the resurrection and the reality of heaven AND how to have a part in it and a place there by being members of God’s family. 
It is only those who are God’s sons through faith in God’s only-begotten Son who will go to heaven and have a life in God’s presence.  Jesus Christ has conquered death and the grave for this very purpose—so that we would also rise from our graves just as he did from his grave on that first Easter morning. 
The Bible says that he is the first-fruits of an entire harvest of people who will live forever and that because he lives we will also live.  And Jesus says of himself:  I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. 
That is what Jesus taught the Sadducees that day who thought they were so smart and looked with contempt on those who believed in the resurrection.  But Jesus’ answer went even farther.  They were willing enough to listen to Moses regarding levirate marriage as long as they could use it as a tool to challenge the idea of eternal life.  But were they willing to listen to Moses when he contradicted their false teaching?  Jesus said
That the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”
            Like many who challenge our faith, the Sadducees were willing to pick and choose what they did—and didn’t—believe from the Bible.  Still today, people are perfectly willing to quote verses about loving our neighbor and not judging him and caring for the poor but deny those passages from the same Bible about the roles of men and women and the creation of the world and the sanctity of all human life. 
But the authority of God himself stands behind every word—including those that teach a physical resurrection from the dead and eternal life with God.  This is taught throughout the Bible—Old Testament and New.  It is not just taught by Jesus and the apostles, it was taught by Moses as well because he heard it from God. 
When Moses stood before the Lord at the burning bush, God identified himself as the God of the patriarchs—not as the God of dust in the ground—but as their Savior God who would raise them from the dead.  And hearing the words of Jesus and remembering the words of Moses, at least some who doubted were convinced.  The Bible says that:  some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” For they no longer dared to ask him any question.
            Often times we are afraid of having our faith challenged because we think there is not an answer to the questions we are asked or because we will fail to convince the one asking.  But the convincing is not our job—that is the job of the Holy Spirit.  Our job is to simply tell—in a kind way—what the Bible teaches.  All may not be convinced—but some will be.
            That’s what Jesus wants for us today—to be convinced in our heart and mind that the dead will be raised and to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have when our faith in his promises are challenged.  May God grant us the courage and the clarity and the conviction to do so!  Amen.

Pentecost 25 proper 27 General Prayer

Lord God heavenly Father, You are our help and shield and so we come to You in prayer in Jesus’ name, trusting that you will hear us and answer us for our good:

In these days when it seems that easy familiarity passes for fellowship with You, remind us that here in this place we are standing on holy ground for it is here that You have chosen to make Yourself present in Word and Sacrament.  Help us to worship You in Spirit and truth.

We thank and praise You that You are the God who saves.  You looked upon the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt and You raised up Moses and led them to freedom in the Promised Land.  Even more wonderfully You looked upon a world held in bondage to sin and death and had mercy on us, sending Your Son into our flesh to be our Savior and lead us to heaven.

As we wait for our final deliverance at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, grant us spiritual discernment so that we would not be misled by false teachers.  In every place in Your church where men have assumed the place that belongs only to You, let Your truth ring out that Jesus alone is our Lord and Master.

As we have been chosen by You to be Your own and called by the Gospel into the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, continue to bless and prosper the teaching of your Word so that others might have a place in Your eternal kingdom.  Empower our witness to our friends and neighbors.

Grant that we would never having itching ears willing to listen to false prophets or be swayed to and fro by the changing winds of false doctrine, but that we would stand fast on what we have been taught from Your Word.

When we are challenged by the world around us regarding what we believe, help us by Your Holy Spirit to give a reason for the hope that we have.  Give us the words that we need at that time and bless them with your Spirit’s power so that mockers would be transformed into Your disciples.

We give You thanks the we are sons and daughters of the resurrection and that You are the God of the living.  We remember with thanksgiving our departed sister Caitlynn and the promise of Your word that she rests in Your presence until the day of resurrection when we will be reunited with her and all Your saints around the throne of the Lamb in his kingdom.

Hear the cries of Your people who stand in any need and grant them Your help and aid.  Especially do we pray for J.A., Emma, and Kathlene who need Your healing and for the people of the Philippines affected by the Hurricane.

Whatever else You see that we would; whatever would serve our neighbor and bring glory to You, grant to us dear Father in heaven for we ask it confidently in the name of Your Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.