Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Count the Cost of Following Christ!

The man who steps into the pulpit today and wants to be faithful to God’s Word so that at the end of the sermon he can say in his heart:  “Thus saith the Lord!” faces a difficult task. 
The words of our Lord Jesus Christ that we hear in the Gospel lesson today call us to hate our loved ones and even our own lives.  They tell us to voluntarily take upon our own shoulders an instrument of torture and death.  They command us to bid farewell to everything that we call our own and leave it behind.
Jesus says that unless we do this hating and taking and forsaking, we cannot be his disciples.  We cannot be his disciples.
If you have your bibles open or the bulletin, take a pencil and under line these words in verse 26:  he cannot be my disciple; and these words in verse 27: he cannot be my disciple; and then these words in verse 33:  he cannot be my disciple.  What does Jesus mean by these words?  He means what he says when he calls us to count the cost of following him!  The Bible says that:
Great crowds accompanied him [Jesus], and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
            When we hear these words of our Lord Jesus Christ we understand why he said that wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are MANY who go in by it. But narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are FEW who find it.  We understand why the people asked Jesus if those who would be saved are few.
            We wonder to ourselves:  is this really the message that we want to convey to the world?  Is this really the best way to get people to join our church?  Are these the words we want on our sign out there on Sunset as thousands drive by each day? 
And yet Jesus spoke these words to the great crowds who followed him—unconcerned for his reputation; unconcerned that his words might be misunderstood; unconcerned about the effect that his words would have on those who heard them except that people would know and understand just exactly what it means to follow him as a disciple so that they might count the cost from the very beginning. 
Jesus spoke these words so that we would understand that being his disciples means that he must come first in our Lives—first in our Loyalties—first in our Loves.  He comes first to such a degree that every other love and every other loyalty looks like hate in comparison and that life apart from him is death.  Now please understand…
When Jesus spoke these words about hating those who are closest to us, he had not forgotten that the summary of the Law is to love our neighbor as ourselves.  He was not overturning the commandment to love, honor and serve our parents.  He was not contradicting the teaching of the apostles who would take the Gospel to the world that husbands must love their wives.  What he was saying—in a vivid, memorable way--is that love for him comes first in the lives of his disciples.  Let me give you an example. 
There is a Lutheran lady here in Texas whose son married a Mormon and eventually he joined the Mormon Church.  You can imagine what a knife in the heart this is for this Christian mother.  And so she learned everything she could about the Latter Day Saints and goes to various churches and conventions warning people about the spiritual danger that is found in that religion.  Because of this, her son and his wife have turned their backs on her and forbidden her to see her grandchildren.
God forbid that something so terrible should happen to any of us but the words of Jesus let us know up front that living as his disciple may mean that a Christian spouse has to leave their unbelieving loved one behind on Sunday morning so that they can attend Church. 
It may mean that Christian parent has to tell their unbelieving child that their live-in boyfriend is not welcome in their home. 
It may mean that we cannot “go along and get along” when a family member tears down Christ and his ways. 
What these words about hating our family mean is that there is a cost to following Jesus as his disciple and that cost is often times comes in the lives of those we love in our families.  As difficult as THAT is, Jesus goes on to say that those who follow him as disciples must even hate their own lives. 
We see exactly what those words look like in the lives of all the faithful martyrs of the past and present.  In Revelation, John is writing about these martyrs and he says that they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death
So it has been down through salvation history-- and even on the pages of the newspaper today:  disciples who love Jesus more than their own lives and so are martyred for the faith.
We may not ever be called upon to bare our neck to the sword and so it becomes easy for us to say that we would.  But our own actions deny those words when we will not make the smallest sacrifice to LIVE as a Christian today to say nothing of dying for Christ someday. 
But death is exactly that to which we are called.  Jesus said:  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
            The people who heard these words knew Jesus exactly what referring to—they saw it all over the Roman world.  As they traveled up to Jerusalem there was a man crucified by the side of the road for being a revolutionary.  There was another man crucified for being a murderer.  And there on Golgotha was a man crucified under a sign that read:  The King of the Jews.
This was the life that Jesus had come to live. This was the death he had come to die.  This is the journey that every one of his disciples is called to make and the destination to which we are called to go.  We are to accept the judgment of the world that we are fools.  We are to endure the shame and abuse of unbelievers.  And we are to die.  Jesus wants us to understand:
The way of discipleship IS the way of the cross and the way of the cross leads to death.  It leads to the death of self.  It leads to the death of our hopes and dreams and plans that we make for ourselves.  It leads to the death of our will and going our own way. 
Jesus says:  If anyone would be my disciples, this is the journey you will make, this is the life you will live, these are the priorities you will have and if you will not do that, you cannot be my disciple.  Jesus speaks these words plainly so that all of us would understand the cost of being his disciple--up front—before they begin.  Jesus says:
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
            When you travel from San Antonio down to Kingsville there is an enormous house sitting off in the brush on the west side of the road about half way complete.  You can see that it was going to be something magnificent. 
But it has sat there, incomplete, abandoned, empty for almost two decades because the man who began to build it ran out of money and now it is a monument to his inability to finish what he started. 
In the days leading up to Desert Storm I Saddam Hussein told us again and again that if we invaded Iraq, it would be the “Mother of All Battles” and would mean the destruction of the United States.  The entire conflict was over in just a few weeks and Saddam Hussein was shown to be a blowhard and Desert Storm I is a monument to his foolishness and pride.
Those are the kinds of warning that Jesus gives to everyone who follows him as his disciple.  He is not saying that we shouldn’t begin—we should—but we should also understand the cost!  But why on earth would anyone pay that cost?  Why would anyone go the way of hating, and taking, and forsaking?  It is because…
The way that Jesus sets before us and the journey he invites us to travel—even though it most certainly leads to death—is the only way and journey that will also lead to life-- for the way of the cross does not end at Calvary but goes on into the darkness of a tomb and then to the bright shining light of a resurrection morning that will have no end.
That was the way of the cross for Jesus—and that is the way of the cross for us-- and only when we understand that up front can we accept the cost when Jesus says:  if any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. 
            That word “renounce” means to leave behind; to forsake; and bid farewell to.  Jesus is talking about a final break with anything and everything that we would lay our hand to and call:  mine.  We see what that looks like throughout the Bible as people followed the Lord.
When Abraham followed the Lord’s call he left everything familiar to him and went to a land he did not know.  When Elisha heard the call of God he sacrificed his oxen and burned his plow.  When Matthew heard the call of Jesus he left his tax booth behind.  And when the sinful woman was saved from stoning she left her sinful life behind.
To follow Jesus Christ as his disciple is to give everything into his hands—our future, our hopes and dreams, our desires—not so that he can take from us—but so that he can then fill us to overflowing with his blessings, a full measure, pressed down and overflowing. 
The great mystery of discipleship is that we will never receive those blessings until we trust in Jesus’ words to let all things go.  This is the whole purpose of a life of discipleship and Jesus says:
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
            The purpose, the essence, the value of salt is to make things salty and if it does not do that then it has no value at all.  So it is when a disciples loves others more than Christ and forsakes the cross and trusts in possessions. 
That is not discipleship at all and is worse than worthless in the end and Jesus’ point is that no matter how great the cost of discipleship, the cost of not following him is terrible and eternal.

The Lord has put ears on the side of our head so that we can hear his words and take them to heart.  God grant it for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Life of Humility and Hopsitality

Luke 14:1-14 Last week we heard that there is a narrow door that leads to heaven and only those who have faith in Jesus will enter it and take their place in God’s kingdom.  We also heard that-- as wide open as that door is today, there is coming a day when it will be closed-- and those who are left outside--will never enter in.  These folks will claim a familiarity with Jesus (that they ate and drank in his presence) but because they never had faith in him—he will not claim them as his own.
Today we see these faithless people take on flesh and bone.  Jesus was invited to the home of one of the rulers of the Pharisees for dinner with other local dignitaries.  They eat and drink in his presence.  They heard his teaching.  They were familiar with him—but faith in him was absent because the fruits of faith were not there.
What we are going learn from this is that faith in Jesus is MUCH MORE than just a cold, sterile recitation of the facts of his life.  Instead, the true and living faith by which we enter into God’s kingdom has the living Christ as its content—and baptized into his death and resurrection--believing in him—filled with his Spirit--his life of humility and hospitality will be lived out in our own life.  The Bible says that:
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. 
            There had already been conflict between the lawyers and Pharisees and Jesus over his healing people on the Sabbath—a work of mercy that many of them regarded as breaking God’s Law since it was done on the wrong day of the week--and now there was a whole room full of witnesses.  What would Jesus do?
As in so many other instances, the person who was put forward by the Pharisees, was not fully human in their eyes—but a handy object in their plan to trip up and trap Jesus.  But Jesus didn’t see people as props or tools or case studies for applied ethics—they were people who needed his mercy. 
The Bible says that the man had “dropsy” which is the accumulation of fluids in the body—perhaps as the result of congestive heart failure—but whatever the cause, he was desperately ill.  And put forward by the Pharisees to “trip-up” Jesus, Jesus turned it back to them, asking them: 
“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”  But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. 
They had no answer because the Mosaic Law gave no specific answer.  There were various rabbinic interpretations and opinions that differed with one another—but no clear command in the Law of God.  But they all knew what the law was really all about:  to love our neighbor as ourselves.  And that’s what Jesus did.  He healed him --and sent him on his way.
But Jesus wasn’t through with those who opposed him—he still loved them and wanted them to be a part of his kingdom too—and for that to happen they needed to see the truth about themselves.  And so he asked them another question:
“Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” And they could not reply to these things.
Even without their having said a word, the judgment of Almighty God that they wanted to render against Jesus --came to rest upon them.  The Law of God and their own conscience CRIED OUT for mercy to those in need—but they refused.
What about us?  All of us have the power to act mercifully to those in need and the Lord provides us with plenty of opportunities.  But much too often we look like the Pharisees trying to figure some reason why mercy isn’t required of us or why the person before us is the wrong person to help.
Our Lord wasn’t that way—he reached out to help those who needed his help whenever he came across them.  It’s why he came to earth and took on flesh in the first place:  to do for us what we could not do for ourselves—to do what was in his power alone to do—and that is to reconcile us to God by his death in our place.
As those who are the recipients of his mercy, we are called act with mercy towards others—and that relationship between Jesus and us—of us standing in need of the help that only he can give—cannot help but make us humble.  The Bible says that:
Jesus told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.
            There has never been anything on TV as interesting as watching living, breathing human beings interacting with one another.  Of course, when Jesus is the one doing the “people-watching” it’s something else altogether.  It’s a reminder that how we act towards one another is not hidden from God—not even what’s in our hearts.
And so what did Jesus see at that dinner party?  He saw plenty of people seeking out the most prominent places for themselves—each of them trying to get a seat at the head table.  But he also saw their hearts--the exalted view that they had of themselves over against their fellow guests for whom they had little regard.
This is not only a problem with the prominent and the powerful.  On the night when Jesus was betrayed, as he and the disciples gathered in the upper room, not one of them was willing to do a servant’s work and wash the other’s feet.  They may have just been fishermen—but they were certainly not servants!  They had their pride after all!  And so Jesus humbly served them—just as he had come to do for us all.
The ruler of the Pharisees and all his important guests thought that Jesus was the one who should have been honored just to have been invited.  But the truth is that Jesus was the only one there deserving of exaltation-- and he had a very definite opinion about what he was seeing as the guests jockeyed for honor.
He said that what they ought to do (rather than risk the public humiliation of having to move from a higher to a lower spot) was choose the lowest place first.  That they ought to consider, just for the sake of argument, that just maybe, they were not the most important person in the room—that others might come before them. 
Of course Jesus was talking about much, much more than how to conduct oneself in polite society—he was talking about how own life and life in his kingdom—that those who are humble are lifted up.  He said:  Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 
His own holy life is the example of that—making himself a servant so that we could become God’s children—and that is how his kingdom works for us too. 
Who we are and what we are is by God’s grace alone.  There is nothing that we have, that we have not received.  Our high status as children of God is only true of us because Jesus set aside divine honor and glory to humble himself upon the cross. 
This humility of our Lord changes how we view ourselves and how we view others.  No longer do we keep others at arm’s length.  Instead, we reach out to them and invite them to take their place with us in God’s kingdom.  Jesus said:
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.
            Throughout Jesus’ ministry we see him eating with the oddest people:  Pharisees who were his enemies.  Notorious sinners.  Disciples who betrayed him and failed him.  He never kept anyone at arm’s length-- but embraced all people in love and made a place for them at his table. 
It’s in those meals that we can clearly see how the mercy and humility of Jesus came together in a hospitality that welcomed all people to have a part in his life.  No one was kept away by Jesus because they were sinners.  No one was kept away by Jesus because of their social status.  All people are welcomed by Jesus.
In every meal where Jesus gives his body and blood under bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, he humbly condescends to make himself present for sinners and he does this in mercy—knowing that we need the forgiveness and fellowship he gives there but that those around us do too—and so he says to us:
When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
We live in a time and place:  where even in the midst of great crowds, people feel isolated and alone—where families are fragmented—where television and the Internet offer only an illusion of community.  There is an entire world full of broken, needy people just waiting for our invitation to partake of the Lord’s never-ending feast of forgiveness and as we do that we have the Lord’s own promise that: 
No act of mercy or humility or hospitality that we do in faith is ever forgotten by the Lord and it will be rewarded as we take our place in God’s kingdom.  Amen.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Narrow Door

Luke 13:22-30 We are inundated—and too often influenced-- by the religious voices around us:  TV preachers, friends and family members, and media personalities.  Let there be no doubt, by their words they intend to teach us--to shape our thinking-- on the eternally important questions of:  who is God and how can I know him and have a life with him. 
            But God did not leave us to the opinions of men when it comes to knowing the answers to these questions.  Instead, he sent his Son to teach us the truth.  The Bible says:
Jesus went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem.

            This is what Jesus came to do:  to teach us the truth about God and our life with him by leading us to Jerusalem—to the place of the cross and the empty tomb where our questions about life with God, and forgiveness, and eternal life are answered in Christ’s death and resurrection. 
God does not want a single person here be confused by the voices of the world that would mislead us.  He doesn’t want us to be deceived by our own flesh.  God wants everyone to know the answers these questions.  That is why he sent us Son to teach us the truth about how to get to heaven.  The bible says that:  Someone said to Jesus, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?"
            Jesus really never does answer this person’s question (about how many will be saved) because that is Jesus’ business, not ours--and the way that Lord dealt with this question is a helpful reminder that the Lord teaches us what he wants us to know—not necessarily everything that we want to know. 
Instead, he answers the question in such a way that WE CAN BE SAVED by knowing the answer he does give.  That is always his priority:  not to deal with our speculation --but to provide for our salvation.  He answers the salvation question this way:  "Strive to enter through the narrow door.  
The Lord pictures heaven as a huge house with just one entrance:  a narrow door that is Jesus Christ!  He is not only the teacher sent by God to instruct us concerning salvation—he IS our salvation—he is the narrow door to heaven. 
In stark contrast to all of those who would have us believe that there are many paths to God, the Father’s heaven-sent teacher tells us that there is just one way:  Jesus. 
He alone has atoned for the sins of the world by his death on the cross.  He alone has risen from the dead destroying the power of the grave.  He alone has fulfilled all righteousness by his holy life—he alone is the one mediator between God and man-- and no one—no one—will come to the Father and enter into heaven except by him. 
Jesus is the narrow door to heaven—but we are the ones who have to enter in.  How do we enter through that narrow door?  It is by faith.  Jesus said:  “this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life.” 
Jesus says that we are to STRIVE to do this.  We strive for all kinds of things in life—money and success and recognition and good marks--but those things will not save us-- and to have them all and not have Christ is to have less than nothing.  STRIVE to enter through the narrow door because many will fail.  Jesus says:
For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.  When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then he will answer you, 'I do not know where you come from.' 
            Why will so many fail to enter by the narrow door and be saved?  It is not because they do not know it is there (they do!).  It is not because they have not heard how they are to enter it (they have!).  It is because they will have waited too long. 
For all who are living and breathing on the earth at this moment—there is a remarkable day of grace that God has given to us today—a day when the door to heaven stands wide open to all who will enter in by faith in Jesus.  But Jesus also warns us that there will come a day when the door will be closed—never to be opened again. 
The Lord’s words call to mind the days of Noah when there was ample opportunity for everyone who heard the preaching of Noah to take it to heart—repent of their sins—trust in God’s promised deliverance-- and enter in through door of the ark of salvation.  Plenty of time right up until there was no more time-- and door to the ark was closed and the judgment of Almighty God began to fall. 
In the same way today, Jesus points the world to the open, narrow door of eternal life and invites all people to come inside-- but he also warns us that the door will one day close—after which no one will be able to enter.  Jesus warns us:
 Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.' 
            The people who saw Jesus’ miracles—the people who heard his teaching—the people who were fed by him-- numbered in the tens of thousands.  But not all of them believed in him and not all would be saved simply because they were familiar with him.  Then and now:  Familiarity is not enough—FAITH is what’s needed.
There are all kinds of people who are familiar with the story of Jesus—but that is not enough.  There are all kinds of people who are familiar with the things of the church--but that is not enough. There are all kinds of people who have family members who are Christians-- but that is not enough.  YOU must believe in Jesus Christ to be saved.
It is necessary to know Christ as your Lord and Savior to be known by him on the Last Day.  It is necessary to confess his saving name if he is to confess your name before his Father in heaven.  On that day, Jesus will say to those who have not believed in him:   
“…I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!' 
            Jesus is not saying that on the Last Day that he will somehow lack the omniscience to know those who have rejected him.  Just the opposite is true—he knows them better than they could ever know themselves—every ugly, sinful detail. 
The kind of knowledge that Jesus is talking about is the intimate knowledge that exists between a husband and wife in a love relationship.  In effect Jesus says to all those who have not entered by the narrow door:  “we’ve never had a relationship and now it is too late to have a life with me because you are evil and will remain so forever”.
We tend to think of people being evil on the basis of what they do or don’t do—and certainly there is some truth in that.  But the measure of Jesus’ judgment on the last day is whether or not we have entered through the narrow door by faith in him-- or rejected him and remained outside.  That is the evil that damns! 
It’s important for us to remember—that no matter who “good’ we think we are—no matter how “good” we think someone else might be—the judgment of Christ is that apart from faith in him-- individuals are evil and can never live with him in heaven and instead are sent by him to hell.  Jesus says that:    
In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 
            Jesus plainly taught that hell is real- and it is terrible- and it is eternal—and utterly unnecessary because there is a way of salvation.  The prophets and patriarchs all knew that there was one way of salvation which is the narrow door of faith in God’s Messiah—a door that is open wide to all people.  Jesus says:
People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."
            God wants everyone to have a place at his table.  For the Jews this was a shock.  They thought that simply by being Jews they would be saved—but they were wrong.  Yes—they had every advantage: they had the temple and the Torah and circumcision and sacrifice—but apart from faith in Christ these advantages would not save them.
Others of that day had none of these things—no natural advantage owing to their birth among Jews—they were Gentiles from all over the world-- but they believed in Jesus when he promised that through faith in him they would be saved—and they took their place in the kingdom of God.  The first, last—and some of the last, first.
The same thing is still true today.  There are people born into Christian families and raised in the Church—people who have every advantage—and yet they reject Christ.  Others have no such advantage—they were born to unbelievers and were brought up that way—and yet by God’s grace they heard Christ preached and believed in him and entered through the narrow door to eternal life.  The first, last—and some of the last, first.

To those who have the advantage of having grown up in the church, Jesus says: use it!  Put your faith in me and be saved.  To those who had no such advantage Jesus says the same:  today is the day of grace that God has provided for you to enter through the narrow door and take your place in the Lamb’s great eternal feast.  May God grant us all the faith to enter into eternal life by the narrow door of Christ!  Amen.  

Proper 16c General Prayer

Gracious heavenly Father, You have promised us in Your Word that if we call upon You in the day of trouble You will deliver us so that we might glorify You.  Hear us now as we call upon You in prayer:

We ask Your blessing upon the mission of the Church throughout the world.  Help Your people to declare Your glory among the nations.  Watch over our missionaries and their families and empower their work with Your Spirit.  Especially do we pray that You would help us here in San Angelo bear faithful witness to You as we have opportunity.

We offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving for the years of marriage that You have granted to Erwin and Carolyn as they celebrate their anniversary.  Continue to bless them in body and soul all their days.  We also give You thanks and praise for the rain that You have sent upon this dry land and pray that You would continue to bless the work of farmers and ranchers.  We also thank You for the good test results that You have given to Virginia.

When we experience hard times and difficulties and struggles help us to understand and believe that we are undergoing Your fatherly discipline that You give to those who are blessed to be Your children.  Cause this discipline to produce in us a harvest of righteousness and peace.  According to Your wise fatherly will grant healing to those who are ill, especially Ann, Barbara, Sue, and Kay.  Comfort those who mourn, especially Lena’s family.  Watch over and protect expectant mothers and their children even as You comfort those families who have suffered miscarriages.

Strengthen us by Your Spirit so that we can fight against sin and walk in Your ways and strive for peace and live lives that are holy in Your sight.  When the root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble in our marriages and families and congregation bring us to repentance and make us ready to forgive from the heart.

Heavenly Father, we confess and believe and trust that Your Son Jesus Christ is the Mediator of a new covenant of forgiveness and peace in his shed blood on the cross.  We give You thanks for his body and blood on the altar this morning that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel, assuring us that we are right in Your sight. 

Remind us that we have before us today a day of grace and salvation by which we can enter into eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ and help us to hear and heed Your warning that this day will not last forever so that we do not cast Your grace underfoot.

Whatever else You see that we need; whatever serves our neighbor and brings glory to You; whatever extends Your kingdom and works for our final salvation, grant to us dear Father in heaven for we ask it in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.