Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Faith That Jesus Calls Great

Luke 7:1-10 The Bible uses the word “faith” in two different ways.  First of all, the bible uses the word “faith” for what is believed–the content or doctrine of Christianity.  Of this faith, Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  We measure this “faith” by the standard of God’s Holy Word alone.  This then is the first way that the Bible uses the word “faith”–as the substance of what is believed and confessed by Christians.
The Bible also uses the word “faith” in a second sense–as that with which we believe—the act of believing--and that is the kind of “faith” that we are talking about this morning.  This kind of faith has been described as that which lays hold of the substance of the Faith–the hand of faith--trust and whole-hearted confidence in the Lord. 
Of this second use of the word “faith” Paul says that “it is by grace that you have been saved through faith”.  In other words, faith lays hold of God’s grace in Christ and makes it our own.  This kind of faith is summed up in the words, “I believe...” and it is here that many of us struggle spiritually–wondering if our faith is as strong as it should be and needs to be—especially when we compare our faith to that of others.
We read of the faith of Noah that led him to build an ark in dry weather.  We read of the faith of Paul who, beaten within an inch of his life, got up, dusted himself off, and went right back into the same city to keep of preaching Jesus.  We hear stories of martyrs, ancient and modern, and their heroic faith and we say to ourselves–“man! I wish I had that kind of faith–they have a truly great faith.”
Of course it’s not really our judgment that matters, is it?  Only the Lord sees the heart and only the Lord knows whether a person has a great faith or not.  It is his judgment that matters. 
So how does the Lord measure the greatness of an individual’s faith?  What does he say is important when it comes to our faith?  How can we know if we have a great faith or not?  How can this faith be deepened and strengthened?
Only two times in the Gospels does Jesus ever say that a person’s faith was “great”:  the Canaanite woman who begged for her daughter to be set free from demonic possession-- and the story we have before us today of the healing of the centurion’s servant.
These two people with great faith shared some things in common: they were concerned not for themselves but for others–both were marked by profound humility–both put their hope in Jesus Christ alone–and both trusted the words of promise spoken by Jesus.
This then is the measure of a faith that Jesus calls great: a faith that is unselfish and humble–a faith that is Christ-centered and trusts in his Word.  Let’s look at each of these four facets of a great faith a bit more closely in the story of the healing of the centurion’s servant.  The Bible says that:

“A certain centurion’s servant who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die.  So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant.”
The first mark of a great faith is a faith that is concerned for others.  The man in need of healing was not the centurion’s child or parent who was ill, but his servant–one who waited on him–rigidly separated by social class–and yet the centurion was profoundly concerned for him.
Concern for others is a mark of a great faith.  Too often our faith is weakened because we are interested in helping only those who can help us–only those with whom we share a common social or racial or economic background.  Too often we are only concerned with our own spiritual lives so that our Christianity turns into just a “me and Jesus” thing.  This attitude is contrary to the mind of Christ and reflective of a meager faith. 
A great faith is always concerned about others because that attitude is reflective of God.  Out of loving concern for us, God reached out to us with forgiveness and new life and as his children we are to do the same for others. 
Our faith is not just about our relationship with Jesus, it’s also about our care and concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ and especially for those who do not yet know Jesus-- and our faith will be strengthened as we reach out in love to help others in their need.
Secondly, Jesus says that a great faith is not only concerned for others but is also a humble faith.  The centurion got it–the Jewish elders didn’t.  The Bible says that:
“When they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, “for he loves our nation and has built us a synagogue.”  Then Jesus went with them.  And when he was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that you should come under my roof.  Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You.” 
Humility is nothing more or less than knowing the truth about ourselves and the truth about God. 
The elders of the synagogue begged Jesus to come and help based on the worthiness of the Centurion.  In their minds, he deserved Jesus’ help because of what he had done--and based on any human measure, the worthiness of the Centurion was unassailable.  “Surely”, the Jewish elders thought, “God was duty bound to love and honor and help someone like him”.
This, of course, is how the world and our flesh still thinks about our relationship with God and our faith is weakened by this idea that if I do enough, pray enough, give enough-- surely God is obligated to me.  But the true, biblical faith is not based on our works or worthiness but only on the grace of God on account of the works and worthiness of Jesus. 
The centurion’s faith, in contrast to the Jewish elders, was counted as great by Jesus, not because of the things he had done, but because he recognized the truth about himself and the truth about Jesus.  He said of himself:  “Lord, I am not worthy.”
Yes-- he was great and powerful and noble and generous in the eyes of the world-- but he knew exactly who he was in God’s sight–a sinner who deserved not even the smallest measure of God’s goodness and blessing and yet, because of his faith in Jesus, he hoped for everything. 
So it must be for us.  Our faith will be strengthened when we can honestly say with the hymn writers of old, “Just as I am without one plea but that Thy blood was shed for me” and “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.”  A great faith is humble.
The third characteristic of a great faith is one that is fixed on Jesus Christ alone.  That’s the way it was for the Centurion who said to Jesus:
“Say the Word, and my servant will be healed.  For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me.  And I say to one “go” and he goes; and to another, “come” and he comes; and to my servant, “do this” and he does it.  When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!”
The centurion’s faith was great not only because he was concerned for his servant and not only because he was humble, but also because knew exactly who Jesus was and what he was able to do. 
The centurion saw that like himself, Jesus had authority.  But where the centurion only had the power to order men to their deaths–this Jesus had the power and authority to grant life.
Those with a great faith like that of the centurion believe that in Jesus alone there is life and healing and hope.  Sent into this broken and dying world by his Heavenly Father for our sake, Jesus went about doing good–giving sight to the blind, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and delivering from Satan’s power.  He went to the cross as the sinless Lamb of God offered for the sins of the world and he rose up from the grave as the first fruits of our own eternal life. 
It’s not just any old faith that justifies us and makes us right in God’s sight-- but it is faith in Jesus Christ alone as Savior and Lord.  Our faith will be strengthened when we recognize that the power of Jesus has not diminished over these last two thousand years.  He is still mighty and strong to save and he conveys the blessings of Almighty God to us by his word just like he did that day.  The Centurion said to Jesus:
“Say the Word and my servant will be healed.  And those who were sent, returning to the house, found the servant well who had been sick.”  
“Just say the word, Lord!”  That was the Centurion’s faith and it was great indeed because he simply took Jesus at his Word.
Too often our faith is weak, because while we affirm the truth of God’s Word as a matter of church teaching, we are afraid to put it to the test and step out in faith.  Dear friends in Christ, don’t you think it’s time for us to do the same as the Centurion and take Jesus at his Word and build every facet of our lives on it and let it guide every decision that we make?
What is a faith that Jesus calls great?  It is a faith that is concerned for others, a faith that is humble, a faith that looks to Jesus alone, and a faith that takes God at his word.  That was the great faith of the centurion and the Good News for us is that a great faith is not just for the heroes of the faith--God intends that we too would have a great faith. 
He gives it to us by the power of his Holy Spirit working in Word and Sacrament.  He gives it to us as we reach out in love and concern for others.  He gives it to us as we leave our comfort zones and step out in faith according to his word confident that no one who puts their faith and trust in him will ever be put to shame.  May God grant us this great faith for Jesus sake!  Amen. 

Proper 4C General Prayer

Lord God heavenly Father, glory and strength and splendor and majesty are Yours.  As we come to You in prayer, we tremble before You; praise You for Your goodness; and bless Your holy name!

There is no God like You in heaven above or earth beneath for You keep covenant with Your people and show Your steadfast love to Your servants, fulfilling Your promises.  We know that You are not contained in our house of worship but we rejoice that You hear the prayers of all who call upon You here today.  Grant that Your name would always dwell with honor in the holy lives of Your people.

We thank and praise You that You have sent Your Son Jesus Christ who gave himself on the cross to deliver us from this present evil age.  Help us to remain steadfast in this Good News and work against those in the Church who would preach a different Gospel.  Give us courage to seek Your approval alone in what we believe and practice as a congregation. 

Raise up faithful, godly men like the Centurion who will work for Your kingdom and care for those under their authority.  Especially do we pray for the men of this congregation that they would understand and live out their leadership role in marriage, family, church, and nation.

On this Lord’s Day, we remember and rejoice that, at the word of Jesus, healing came to rest on the servant at Capernaum.  In the same and by the same powerful word grant healing to all of those who are ill.  Especially do we remember…

Lord grant us a faith that Jesus calls great.  Deepen our concern for others.  Make us ever more humble.  Help us to look to Jesus alone in all our needs and lead us to trust his word of promise.

Revive our nation and its leaders and our fellow citizens with a renewed fear of You.  Rid us of every worthless idol that has gained an altar in the hearts of our people.  Lead us as a nation to ascribe to You the glory and honor and strength that is due Your name.

Especially do we remember with thanksgiving those who have laid down their lives for our country and we pray that You would give us and our fellow citizens the same spirit of self-sacrifice for the good of other.

Whatever else You see that we need; whatever is good for our neighbor and brings glory to You; whatever will work for our final salvation grant to us dear Father in heaven for we ask it all in the name of Your Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Holy Trinity: God For Us!

Acts 2:14a, 22-36 This morning we confessed our Christian faith in the words of the Athanasian Creed.  We confessed that “we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.”  We confessed that Jesus is one Christ “not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God.” 
As we did so--as the lines of this Creed went on and on, carefully distinguishing between, and defining, the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, perhaps there was the temptation to say to ourselves, “What on earth does this have to do with me?”
Hopefully we will felt a little bit of guilt and unease in thinking that way because at the beginning and end of the Creed we affirmed that those who do not believe in the Christian Faith confessed in the Athanasian Creed—those who do not keep it whole and undefiled—those who do not hold to it faithfully and firmly—cannot be saved-- and will instead perish eternally.
That’s a sobering thought-- and it is meant to be-- for the Creeds deal with the questions at the center of our human existence:  who is God- and how can I know him- and what must I believe to be saved? 
The Creeds of the Church answer those questions this way:  1. There is one God in three distinct, yet equal persons and 2. Jesus Christ, the God/Man is the only Savior of the world and 3. we must believe in him and what he has done to be saved.
The truth about the Trinity and the truth about Jesus as they are confessed in the creeds are the two irreducible biblical truths that must be believed for salvation. 
In stark contrast to the religious pluralism that is so prevalent in the world today, and especially in our own country, the Christian Church confesses (and has always confessed) that those who do not believe in this one true faith confessed in the creeds—no matter how outwardly pious or kind or religious they might be—will not be saved.
You see, it matters eternally what we believe—salvation is at stake--which is why for a lot of Christians Trinity Sundays makes us a little bit uneasy. We want to believe that these things about God and Christ are true—but the Athanasian Creed in all its careful details seems difficult to understand.  We can’t quite get our minds around the central mysteries of the faith.
That is why it is important for us to recognize and remember that the ecumenical creeds—even the Athanasian Creed--are simply a summary of what the Bible teaches-- and so long as we believe what is written in the Bible we can be confident that we are abiding in the Truth and will be saved.
 In our lesson from Acts we have a beautiful picture of the truths about God and Christ that we confess in the Creeds, that:  the gift of the Spirit was given by the Father so that the world could call upon the Son and be saved.  The Bible says:
Hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.  God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 
            If you knew nothing else from the Bible, if you had never heard of the Athanasian Creed, it would be enough for salvation to know what the Bible says in these verses:  That God loves you and that he has sent his Son Jesus Christ into the world to live and die and rise again so that you might have eternal life through faith in him. 
God is not content that even one of his children should not live with him forever --and so before we were ever born—God knew us and loved us and planned for our salvation—and to do that, the Father sacrificed that which was most precious to him—his own Son—so that WE could be his sons and daughters through Spirit-worked faith.
And so, in light of the Holy Trinity’s saving work, let me ask you a question in all seriousness:  Since our salvation is GOD’S first priority for our lives—shouldn’t it be ours too—shouldn’t every thing we do and say and hope for and plan for--be done with a view towards strengthening our life with God? 
We have all kinds of plans for our lives—all kinds of things that we want to accomplish—so many things that compete for the first place on our “to-do” lists—but God has only one:  that we live with him as his children for time and eternity—and everything else that he allows in our lives and accomplishes in our lives is done for that one, loving purpose:  that we would be his own precious children in time and eternity.
When we live apart from his purpose—when we show with our decisions that we are headed in a direction away from God—when we break our fellowship with him through our sinful choices—when we are unconcerned for taking care of our spiritual life--what we discover about ourselves is that it is not just Adam’s disobedience that has wrecked our lives and broken our relationship with God—but our disobedience as well. 
That is why God sent Jesus—to be that obedient Son he desired each of us to be and to restore what we have destroyed by our sins. 
The words of our text are such a wonderful summary of what Jesus did to save us from sin and death—a summary that is beautifully mirrored in the Creeds:  that by Jesus’ birth to the Virgin Mary he was the promised heir of David--that he was crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men—that God raised Jesus from the dead-- and at his ascension the Father exalted him to his right hand where he rules over the world for us. 
That is what Jesus has done for our salvation and for the salvation of the world and God has made him both Lord and Christ.  In other words:  our Savior and our master. 
The question for us on this Trinity Sunday:  Do we believe it?  Not just the historical data about Jesus—even the devil knows that is true.  Not just that we can say the words of the Creed—even atheists can do that. 
But do we believe that this Jesus of Nazareth that the Bible reveals and the creeds confess-- is our one and only Savior from sin and death?  Do we believe that Jesus is our one and only King-- who has the right to rule over every part of our lives? 
Do we believe that is was for us men and for our salvation that Jesus came down from heaven?  Or do our lives reveal something else?  Sadly, often times they do.  The Bible says: 
“Know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”  “WHOM YOU CRUCIFIED.”
The Jews to whom Peter is preaching, thousands of them assembled for the harvest feast of Pentecost, may have been in Jerusalem for the previous Passover when Jesus died—but many of them were not.  Some of them may have raised their voices when the crowds called out to crucify Jesus—but many of them did not.  Some of them may have mocked the Lord as he died—but many of them did not. 
And yet by their sins they crucified Jesus just as surely as Judas and Caiphas and Pilate and the soldiers who drove the nails—and so did we! 
From God’s perspective the consequences of our sins is not just that we have harmed our neighbor—not just that we have hurt feelings of others- but that we have offended the Almighty God and contributed to the death of his Son by our sin. 
This is why the words of the Creed must never be for us a dry recitation of the facts of ancient history or a testimony of what some Christians believe or merely one perspective among many when it comes to who God is.  No!  The words of the Creed are the story of God’s saving work for sinners.
God the Father knows our helplessness in the face of sin and death and has planned for our salvation.  God the Son has accomplished our salvation by his death, resurrection, and ascension.  The Holy Spirit has called us to faith in Jesus and has joined us together in a confessing community known as the Church where that same saving faith in the Holy Trinity is confessed and taught and lived out.
The truth about God and the truth about Jesus confessed in the Creeds is not some theological abstraction that has nothing to do with our lives.  But rather, it is the truth about God revealed in the Bible—truth that changes our lives for time and eternity.
In that light, I hope that when we confess our faith in the word of the creeds you will give them your thoughtful attention because the biblical doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the most wonderful and comforting doctrine in the Bible.
It tells us of the Father who has known us and loved us from eternity.  It tells us of the Son who has saved us by his death and resurrection.  It tells us of the Holy Spirit who has brought us to faith and into fellowship with one another in the church.  Father-Son-and Holy Spirit.  One God in three persons:  the Holy Trinity.  Amen.