Sunday, July 27, 2014

God Works All Things Together For Our Good

Romans 8:28-39 Everyone in the world knows that there is a God.  His power and presence are clearly on display in the created world around us.  Our conscience bears witness to the Law written on our heart by a righteous God.  Everyone in the world knows that there is a God who is holy and powerful and wise.  But what is his attitude towards us?  Is it one of love and concern?  Or is God out to get me and do me harm?
These are questions that cannot be answered by observation or inner testimony or experience.  These are questions that must be answered by God’s own revelation of himself.  And so they have.  The Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write:   
We know that- for those who love God -all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
How devoutly we believe these words when our life is filled with good things!  How we struggle to believe them when it is difficult and hard things that fill our lives!  But whether there are pleasant things or painful things, the promise of God is the same:  in every moment and circumstance of our life, he is working for our eternal good.
You see, God has created us and redeemed us so that we would live with him forever as his children.  Everything he does works together so that we can be confident that-come what may-we WILL reach heaven.  Paul wrote:
Those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
A simply summary is this:  God has always known you and loved you and he has chosen you in Christ to be his children for time and eternity.  Moment by moment, situation by situation—pleasant or painful—God is at work in your life, shaping you into the likeness of Jesus so that you might be called Jesus’ brother and God’s Son.
Before there was time—when there was simply the God WHO IS—you were already on his mind and in his heart.  Paul wrote:
And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
To bring you back into his family, God he predestined you—that is, he chose you in Christ to be his own- and designed a perfect plan for you so that everything that happenes in your life would play a role in shaping you into the image of his only-begotten Son—so that you could enjoy the very same life with the Father that Jesus has. 
A big part of that plan was accomplished when he called you into his family by the power of the Gospel.  Maybe that happened when you were baptized.  Maybe it happened later in life through the preaching of the Gospel.  But however and whenever it happened, the Holy Spirit called you to trust in Jesus—and in that moment, God declared that you were right in his sight—justified by faith in Jesus Christ.
And having justified you in his sight, he prepared an eternal home for you in heaven where his life and presence and glory would shine upon you forever. 
From everlasting to everlasting God has loved you and known you and he has done everything necessary to make you his own precious child for time and eternity.
That is why we can be so certain that all things are working for our good—because God is for us and always has been and always will be.  Paul wrote:  What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?
We may have our doubts about the “ALL” in “all things” that God chooses to work for our good.  We would very much prefer to avoid hardship and suffering and the difficulties of life that rise up against us as enemies of our happiness and ease. 
But there can be absolutely NO DOUBT that even in the midst of trials, God is working for our good because his love stretches from eternity to eternity and standing right smack dab in the middle of God’s eternal love for you is the enduring sign of that love:  his own Son’s death upon the cross.  Paul wrote that:
God…did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
None of us can peer back into the hidden counsels of God when he predestined us--or gaze into the future at the glory to come—they have to be revealed to us for they lie outside of time and space.  But we can know—beyond any shadow of a doubt—in a concrete way—God’s attitude towards us because of the gift of his Son. 
Jesus entered into time and space and took upon himself our own human flesh.  He offered up upon the rough cross of Calvary the one perfect, fully sufficient sacrifice that has reconciled us to our heavenly Father—fulfilling the law’s demands and suffering the punishment for sin we deserved.
The person and work of Jesus are preached to us so that our ears can hear it and they are poured over us in the waters of Holy Baptism so that we can feel it and given to us in bread and wine so that we can taste it. 
And so then, having given us the gift of his own Son—having bestowed salvation upon us in Word and Sacrament—why on earth would God withhold even one good thing from us?!  He won’t!  All things have already been given to us in Jesus Christ.
Some of them we enjoy right now:  forgiveness, peace with God, hope for the future, a family of fellow believers.  Some of them we have to wait for:  a new heaven and earth, bodies unencumbered with sickness and sorrow, and the end of death. 
But having already given us the very best he can give in Jesus—we can be absolutely certain that God will not withhold a single good thing from us—no matter what the world, the devil, and our own flesh have to say about it.  Paul wote:
Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
When we endure hard times our spiritual enemies are right there tempting us to doubt the promises of God.  The world ridicules for believing that there is a divine purpose and plan for our lives.  The devil attacks our identity by tempting us to doubt we are God’s children because hardships have come into our lives.  And our own sinful flesh rebels against the very idea that God can bring good things out of suffering.
But what are these spiritual enemies—with their temptations and accusations and condemnations-- compared to the verdict of Almighty God:  that we are his children through faith in Jesus?  Who can possibly condemn us when God has acquitted us?  Who will dare to accuse us when Jesus is our defense? 
The same One who died on the cross to forgive us and rose up from the grave to give us new life --has ascended to the Father’s right hand where he lives to be our advocate:  and beseeching his heavenly Father to forgive us our sins and bring us safely into the home he has prepared for us. 
It is this eternal plan and purpose of our heavenly Father for our lives- and the work of his Son Jesus Christ for our salvation- that assures us that nothing, absolutely nothing—no matter how terrible, no matter how difficult, no matter how painful-- has the power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Paul wrote:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 
Hardship and difficulty and suffering are real possibilities for the child of God.  Faith in Christ is not a vaccine against suffering and hardship.
Paul quoted a psalm that was written nearly a thousand years before Christ about the suffering those believers were enduring.  The church of Paul’s day was going through that same thing.  And of course we’ve had our own share of life’s difficulties.  
But do these hardships have the ability to destroy Christ’s love for us?  Can they undermine the Father’s plans for us?  Will they separate us from God? 
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What does it mean that we are MORE than conquerors?  After all it certainly seems that we have our share of defeats:  we give in to temptation—we are opposed by the unbelieving world—we have to endure hardship and suffering—and all of us will die one day if the Lord does not come first.  Where is the victory in all this? 
It is in Christ—the One who loved us and gave his life for us.  It is his victory that makes us more than conquerors in our daily battles.
Jesus never gave in to temptation—not even once.  Jesus defeated the devil again and again.  Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry.  Jesus conquered death and the grave.  The crucified, risen, ascended Christ rules heaven and earth at this very moment for our good and through faith in him, his victory is our own. 
We ARE more than conquerors in the hardships of life because the victory that we possess by faith is our Lord’s victory and nothing that we will ever face in this world is greater than his love for us.  His love chose us in eternity.  His love rescued us from our sins and made us God’s children.  His love has prepared a place for us where we will dwell eternally.  And his love is still with us in this waiting time—this hoping time—working all things together for our good.  Amen.

General Prayer Pentecost 7a Proper 12

Gracious heavenly Father, we remember the wondrous works You have done and so we call upon Your name in prayer, in the glad confidence that You will hear us and answer for our good:

Bless the church here in this place and throughout the world as Your people make known Your deeds among the peoples.  Prosper the work of missionaries; encourage the persecuted; and grant us courage to bear witness to You as You give us opportunities.

Without any merit or worthiness on our part You set Your love upon us and have graciously chosen us to be Your own treasured possession.  By the mighty, nail-pierced hands of your Son Jesus You have redeemed us from slavery to sin and death and the power of the devil.  Grant us Your Holy Spirit so that we would love You and keep Your commandments and show ourselves to be Your people.

No matter what the circumstances of our life, help us to know and believe that you are working all things for our good and that nothing can separate us from Your love.  Grant help and healing to those who are weighed down by the trials of life:  healing for those who are ill; the necessities of life for those who are in need; protection for those who are in harm’s way; and comfort for those who mourn.  Especially do we remember Elsie as she mourns the death of her sister-in-law, Nancy.  Lift them up in the days ahead; grant them Your peace; and surround them with Your love.

When we suffer from misplaced priorities, grant us Your forgiveness and remind us that our life with You must come first for the value of your kingdom is everlasting.  Help us to show in our choices and values and finances that we count our life with as our greatest treasure.

We give You thanks for all of the earthly blessings that make our lives a joy and blessing.  Especially do we thank You for the gifts of marriage and family:  for Opie and Leslie as they begin their married life together and for John and Shana as they celebrate their wedding anniversary.  Grant that their love for one another and You would grow each day.

Whatever else You see that we need; whatever brings glory to You; whatever serves our neighbor and extends Your kingdom; grant to us der Father in heaven for we ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

What Shall We Do About the Weeds?

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 In the world today there are two billion people who identify themselves as “Christian”.  All of us know that there are hypocrites in that number who are not Christians at all.  All of us know that there are those, who despite their self-identification as Christians, deny the same by their false confession of faith.  But for the purpose of our sermon let’s say that there really are two billion Christians in the world today.
That still leaves five billion people who are not Christians--more than twice the number of those who are.  This may sadden us or horrify us but it should not surprise us.  Jesus said:
“The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
We also know that the “many” who are on the way to destruction are not content to go quietly on their way to hell-- but instead are intent on making life miserable for the “few” that are on the way that leads to life.
Across our world today Christians are persecuted and martyred for their faith and driven out of homelands they have occupied since the days to Jesus.  Western nations that were once Christian have allowed Muslims to almost become a majority so that now in England more people attend worship in mosques than in churches.
Closer to home, there are 33 million people in our country, who, when asked about their religious affiliation answer:  none.  And on this Lord’s Day there are four times as many Americans sitting at home than there are gathered to worship. 
Is it any wonder that the faithful few on the road to life are persecuted and oppressed and even martyred?
All of us can understand the temptation to strike back—to believe that the world would be a little better off if there were more of “us” and less of “them” however we made that happen—and, it probably would! 
Peter tried to do that with a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The crusades and the Inquisition attempted the same.  The Moral Majority tried to do it politically here in our own country in the 1990’s.  We understand the temptation.  We want to rid ourselves of the evil men in our world who make our lives as Christians miserable. 
But what about Jesus?  What would he have us do with these weeds that have grown up in his field?  The Bible says that:
He [Jesus] put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field…
In the beginning, God created a perfect world.  It was a reflection of his goodness and wisdom and power.  It was a world where a perfect, holy God could look upon it with joy and satisfaction and call it “good.” 
But this created world was not the pinnacle of his work—it was not the end goal—it had no purpose in itself.  It was made for man.  God created man in his own image so that we could live with him and have fellowship and enjoy him forever.
That is what Jesus is talking about in this verse.  The world God created is the field in the parable and the good seed that Jesus sowed in that field were Adam and Eve and now, all those who are his son and daughters through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. 
That we feel ill at ease with all of the evil that surrounds us, that we feel that something is not right when we think about all of those in the world who do not acknowledge the LORD as God and confess Jesus as their Savior-- is perfectly natural.  Of course we should feel this way!
This world belongs to God.  It is his for he made it.  It is his perfect, holy, wise will that we would live with him forever in a perfect heaven and earth.  That is the entire creative, redemptive, purpose of Almighty God.  And to think that there are billions of his creatures who do not know him or worship him or thank him for their lives and his gifts-- is an outrage! 
But that is the world in which we live.  The question is: how did it get to be this way?  Jesus tells us that:
while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away.  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.  
All of us know what happened next in the very early days of our world after the creation of man.  Into the midst of God’s perfect creation, where there was no suffering or want or death, where God and man dwelt in perfect fellowship, an enemy—a deceiver slithered in.  He did not come as he was—as evil and darkness and death—he came as a creature, a destroyer of everything God created and the ruin of man.
The devil tempted Adam and Eve and his evil words took root in their hearts and what God had created and called good became evil—filled death and sorrow—characterized by alienation from God and animosity towards others.  Into God’s fruitful, abundant, living world, noxious weeds of evil and death were sown.
The very next person mentioned in the Bible after Adam and Eve was their son Cain who murdered his brother—noxious weeds right alongside God’s good wheat—and they multiplied from there.  By the time that Noah came along, the weeds had so taken over that there were only eight stalks of wheat left in a world filled to overflowing with evil men.  That is why the world is like it is.  Jesus says that:
The servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’
When we look out at the world around us it’s easy to become discouraged like Elijah and believe that we are the last believer left in a world that is trying to kill us.  But the Son of God has not abandoned his world.  He is still sowing the good seed of believers everywhere his cross and resurrection is preached.  It may not be the majority-- but there is good seed in the world.
But we also have to admit that there is plenty of evil too!  Everywhere the Son of God is doing his sowing work in this world, there our enemy the devil is doing his work as well—planting the seed of evil men right alongside of us.  We must come to grips with this reality and call it what it is:  the evil work of our enemy the devil.
It has become fashionable in some part of visible Christendom to discount and outright deny the existence of a personal evil being called the devil and he is quite pleased with this for it gives him free reign to do his destructive work.
But the Bible and Jesus are absolutely clear that such a being exists and throughout history the devil has been intent on destroying God’s “purposes and plans” by planting evil seed everywhere Jesus is planting good seed.  We Christians know this and believe this and we are tempted to fight back with the arm of flesh just like the believers in the parable: 
So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.
Before we discuss what Jesus is talking about, I want to make sure we understand what he is not talking about. 
In this parable, the field is the world, not the church, and so Jesus is not talking about letting evil go unaddressed or unchecked in the church.  Jesus tells us to treat those in the congregation who are unrepentant as if they were a tax collector or Gentile-- and Paul says that we are to remove the immoral person from our fellowship and mark those who cause division among us and have nothing to do with them.
Neither is Jesus talking about what nations ought to do when they are confronted by evil.  It may be in our national interest to go to war against some nation like Iran—not because they are Muslim and we are Christian—but because they are violent savages bent on the destruction of those around them and we are a democracy that believes in life and liberty for all people.
Instead, what Jesus is talking about is the very real temptation we believers have to hurry along God’s judgment of evil men.  James and John wanted to call down God’s judgment on those who rejected the Gospel but Jesus told them no.  Peter took up the sword against Jesus’ enemies but Jesus told him to put it away—that he could call upon legions of angels if and when he needed them.  There have been others attempts by Christians to get rid of evil men down through the centuries—the Inquisition and the crusades come to mind--actions that Jesus forbids to his followers.
The point is this:  the judgment of evil men is the business of Jesus and he will deal with them.  We do not have the ability to see into everyone’s heart.  We do not have the ability to act with perfect justice.  We do not know who will be converted.  And so our salvation and the salvation of others is at stake when we take upon ourselves the judgment of evil men. 
Right now, Jesus’ goal is our salvation and he does not want us to do anything that will imperil that- which is why wheat and weeds will grow together until the Last Day.  Jesus says:
Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Jesus knows just exactly what is going on in our world today.  He sees the evil that surrounds us.  There is not one wicked act that escapes his eye.  He knows better than we ever will how the devil roars about looking for those he can destroy.  He faced him at the cross and had the victory on Easter and he will deal with it fully and finally at the harvest on the Last Day.
Later on in Jesus’ ministry, when he was teaching on the signs of the end,  he said that all the tribes of the earth will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call and they will gather. 
They are the reapers that Jesus speaks of in this parable who gather all the evil from throughout the world for eternal destruction in the fires of hell.  Too often we think of angels as tiny cherubs sitting on a cloud when we ought to think of them as the destroying angels executing God’s terrible, fiery wrath upon the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah and slaying the firstborn of Egypt without mercy.
The judgment of the Son of Man by his holy angels against all the evil in the world means that we can put way the sword of our anger and animosity and trust that evil will not win out.  The devil and his angels and the sons of evil will be tormented and punished eternally in the never-ending fires of hell.
But there is another gathering that will take place on the last day.  The angels will gather the elect from all over the world.  The good seed Jesus has planted will not be lost.  The fruitful wheat of believers will be gathered unto the sower who planted them and not one and not one good deed done by them will be forgotten and they will shine like the stars in heaven.
Jesus concludes this parable the way he did last week:  he has ears to hear, let him hear.  In other words, reflect on this lesson for yourself and apply it to your own life.  Am I among the good seed that the Lord has planted and caused to grow through his Word?  Do I trust his promise that he will deal with all in the evil in the world?  Am I looking forward to that day when Jesus will gather me to himself, safe and secure in my heavenly home?  God grant that it is so!  Amen.       

Pentecost 6 proper 11 General Prayer

Lord God heavenly Father, as we come to You in prayer, we ask that You would be gracious to us according to Your promise:

When the cords of wicked men ensnare us, protect our lives, goods, and reputations through those whom You have appointed as Your ministers in the state.  Give wisdom to our leaders and protect our military men and women.

The earth, O Lord, is full of Your steadfast love and yet there are many who lack the necessities of life because of their own foolishness and the greed of others and the wickedness of evil men.  Give to those who stand in any material need the gifts to sustain their earthly life and lead us to be generous to meet those needs.  We especially ask that You would watch over the young people who are crossing our border and give our leaders the wisdom to meet this crisis in a just and merciful way.

We confess and believe that there is no god besides You and that all that is worshiped apart from You are idols.  Bless the church here and abroad as we seek to bear witness that You O Lord are the God who created us, redeemed us by the blood of Your Son, and calls the world by the Holy Spirit to repent and believe your promises.

Always set before our eyes the blessings that only You can give so that when we are tempted to depart from Your ways we would be reminded that the things of this world are not worth comparing to the blessings of life and salvation we have in Your Son Jesus Christ.

Grant us patience to endure a life that is lived in the midst of our enemies and remind us that the day of judgment is still to come.  When we feel angry at the troubles and injustices that we experience on account of being Your people, remind us that we are safe and secure in Your almighty hands.  Set before us again and again the example of Your Son Jesus so that we too would find the strength to forgive our enemies.

We thank You for the gifts of marriage and family.  Raise up godly spouses for our children.  Bless those who are beginning their married lives together.  Keep our children in the faith and give them every spiritual and bodily blessing.  Especially do we ask Your blessing upon Jim’s grandchildren, that You would keep them close to You and work all things together for their good.

Be with us throughout our life so that at the close of the age we would be found to be those fruitful sheaves of grain who are gathered into Your barn and shine forever like the sun.

Whatever else You see that we need; whatever serves our neighbor and extends Your kingdom; whatever gives glory to You, grant to us dear Father in heaven for we ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.