Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Truth Will Set You Free!

John 8:31-36 On Reformation Sunday there is always the temptation to spend too much time talking about what was wrong with the church of Luther’s day—and there was much that was wrong. 
But there was also much that was right in the church of that day.  Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church and that was true of the Christians of Luther’s day as much as it is in ours.
In fact, in some areas they were a lot closer to the truth than much of what passes for Christianity in our day. 
The church of Luther’s day believed that God was holy and righteous and just.  They believed that God hated sin--could not abide with it-- and would not endure it in his people.  And that’s exactly what the Bible teaches about the holiness of God.
In contrast, many modern churches teach that God has changed his mind about what counts as sin.  In many places in the church, God is not much more than a heavenly mentor encouraging us to do what makes us happy. 
But the Christians of Luther’s day knew that God was holy-- and they knew that they were not.  And that was the problem:  how could a holy God let sinners come into his presence? 
The medieval church had an answer but it’s here that they went terribly wrong. 
They said that Jesus had made salvation a possibility–he had given everyone a start–but now it was up to you to do your part.  Your salvation, they said, depends—at least in part-- on your good works.  “Well, how much depends on me?” the medieval Christian might ask?  “We’re not sure” the church would say.
“What happens to me when I die”?  “Well, you can’t go to heaven that’s for sure–after all God is holy and you’re not.  Instead, you’ll go to purgatory where you can suffer the temporal punishment that your sins deserve that you didn’t receive while here on earth.”
Purgatory wasn’t hell-- but it was a place of suffering-- so you would want to avoid spending any more time there than necessary.
There were a couple of options to try to cut your time there short.   After you were dead, your family could purchase indulgences on your behalf to buy you out of purgatory and into heaven. 
Or, if you were pious enough during your life, you could enter a monastery, and through a life of sacrifice and suffering, hope to enter heaven without too much of a detour.  If you were particularly devout and holy (as the church defined it) the pope would declare that you had made it to heaven—that you were a saint and could help others along the way to heaven.
Of course the problem with monasticism was that, even if there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities there for scandalous sins (wine, women, and song being in short supply)–reflective Christians still knew what was in their hearts–they knew that even in the monastery they suffered from lust and greed and pride–things that Jesus said were sins that earned hell.
People in the medieval church had no illusions about their own sinfulness–they knew the truth of what Jesus speak to us today:  the one who sins is a slave to sin.  Even the most devout of men—men like Luther-- had no illusions about their terrible spiritual condition—despite their best efforts to please God and earn his favor. 
Contrast this attitude with the picture of the Jews from our Gospel lesson for the day.  “We are the offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.”  That’s laughable on a number of levels.  First of all, what about the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans?  The Jews’ political history was nothing but slavery!  Surely these learned men didn’t have such short, selective memories, did they? 
No.  They knew that Jesus was talking about spiritual freedom.  But even then they were wrong about having never been slaves.
They thought that being descendants of Abraham somehow gave them automatic, spiritual freedom–that simply by having Abraham’s DNA so to speak--they were good to go with God.  But Jesus said:  Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 
What about us today?  Do we suffer under any illusions regarding our own spiritual freedom?  After all, we are not deaf to a modern culture which says that freedom is the ability to do what I want- when I want -with whomever I want.  And so freedom—even in parts of the church-- becomes just another word for immorality. 
Others deny their spiritual enslavement by pointing to the sinners around them and saying “surely I’m not as bad as all that–surely you can’t include me with those kinds of folks–I’m not an addict or alcoholic--surely I’m not enslaved”. 
Still others, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, point to their heritage as the source of their spiritual freedom.  “I come from a long line of Lutherans—I’m the product of Lutheran schools-I can give the definition of Justification and name at least ten Lutheran acronyms”. 
But they fail to take seriously the words of Jesus that from the stones of the ground he can raise up children of Abraham and children of Luther. Despite modern excuses, the judgment of Jesus stands:  everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
Martin Luther had no illusions regarding his enslavement to sin.  He sat in church more hours in a week than some folks do in a year.  He tried his best to live under the demands of the law.  He did everything the church suggested to earn his way into heaven.  He knew the holiness of God and the depth of his spiritual slavery to sin-- but he didn’t know how to get free.
Somehow the church of that day had forgotten that freedom for those enslaved to sin is why Jesus had come into the world in the first place.  Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”.   He said:  “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed”.

And so when Luther re-discovered the God News that God graciously declares sinners “not guilty” in his sight through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary’s cross–when Luther realized that the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ--when Luther recognized that he was saved and set free by God’s grace alone- through faith alone- in Christ alone--he was a man re-born, he was a slave set free. 
Luther said of that moment, “When I understood it, and the light of the Gospel came into my soul, the gates of paradise opened, and I walked through.”  That is what Jesus wants for you and me and all people.
Jesus Christ came into this world to set us free—to set us free from the burden and guilt of our sins, to set us free from our fear of death, and to set us free from the power and dominion of the devil.  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!
Jesus has not just given us a start towards salvation, but he has earned salvation for us completely-- and freely gives it to us as a gift of his gracious love.
The Good News for us on this Reformation Sunday is that, believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we do not have to worry about our salvation or our eternal future.  The sins that have separated us from God, every one of them, great and small, have been washed clean by the shed blood of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross.  Set free by Christ, we are free indeed!
This brings us to an important point, a point we sometimes forget.  We have not only been saved from something–but we have been saved for something.  We have been set free from slavery to sin for a new life as Jesus’ disciples and God’s children. 
The idea that we have been set free to live however we see fit is a satanic distortion of the Gospel and nothing but a return to slavery, this time to our flesh.  Instead, we have been saved so that we can have a permanent place in God’s family as his children--living lives that are guided by his Word.  Jesus said:  If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.
There is enormous pressure in our world today—and even in the church-- to give up God’s Word as the sole authority for the faith and life of the church and her members-- and we see and feel this pressure to abandon the truth of God’s Word more and more every day.
Already during the last fifty years we have seen the outward edifice of visible Christendom begun to crumble as that which is unknown in the Bible and 2,000 years of the church’s tradition now takes place with:  the ordination of women to the pastoral office, the denial of biblical miracles, the acceptance of evolution, and the election of a homosexuals as leaders in the church.
Though we in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod have not fallen victim to this kind of faithlessness, we must not gloat or take pride in our faithfulness–it is a gift of God’s grace and mercy alone. 
And we are not without sympathy for these churches and the Christians found in those pews.  We know that it is difficult to stand fast on the simple authority of God’s holy Word and we grow weary at times from that struggle to remain faithful to God’s Word.
But we also need to be reminded that the battle for the faithfulness of congregations and churches and denominations is won or lost in the lives of individual Christians who abide in Christ’s Word or abandon it.  That battle in won or lost in you.
Five hundred years ago one solitary man—Martin Luther-- was utterly convinced from the pages of Holy Scriptures that his salvation rested safe and secure in the finished work of Jesus Christ and even though he was opposed in this by the entire world and the church of his day he laid his hand upon the Bible and said “Here I stand, I can do no other.  So help me God!”
That is what our Lord is talking about when he says that we are to abide in his Word.   
Faithfulness to God’s Word is not just saying the right things concerning the Bible’s inspiration and inerrancy.  It’s about holding fast to God’s Word—letting our lives be guided by God’s Word—and insisting that our congregation and church body confess it and practice it. 

On this Reformation Day we give thanks to Almighty God that he has sent his Son to set us free by his death and resurrection and we ask for the help of the Holy Spirit that we might always abide in his saving Word.  Amen.

God Is Glorified in our Giving

2 Corinthians 9:8-11 In the ancient Roman world, charity was viewed as a way to make a name for yourself and strengthen political ties.  For example, a wealthy Roman would pay for an aqueduct or commission a statue in a public place and make sure his name was on it.  Charity was about glorifying yourself.
That kind of “charity” never made it down to help those who were truly in need.  And so when a famine affected Judea in 45 A.D., there was no help for the starving. 
The poor and hungry were completely alone and on their own—except for the poor and hungry among the Christians.  They were not alone in their need.  They were not on their own with their own meager resources to sustain them--because the risen Christ was in their midst through the aid and comfort they received from fellow Christians around the world. 
Then and now, Christians support and help one another generously because we know that is what Jesus would do.
It is a testimony to the power and goodness and love of Christ seen in the lives of his followers, that the most powerful empire of the day, the empire that put him to death on a cross and put to death tens of thousands of his followers, was converted to Christ in less than 300 years from this famine. 
One of the big reasons for this dramatic turn in human history, a change that affected the entire world and continues to shape our world today, is the example of Christ’s people in how they lived their lives—the difference that Christ made in those who followed him.
Pagan historians commented on this difference in wonder.  These Christians don’t kill their unwanted children.  These Christians honor their marriage vows.  These Christians do not fear death.  And these Christians love one another and give to one another, generously. 
While the pagans and Jews of Judea succumbed by the tens of thousands to the effects of famine and hunger, the Christians in Judea were sustained and helped by their fellow Christians around the world. 
And as they were helped, praise and thanksgiving was given to God for the changed lives of those who had come to Christ, and God was glorified in the generosity of those who gave to the needy.  So it is for us, that God is glorified in our giving.  The Bible says that:
The ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. 
            Every day in our world, hundreds of millions of people are fed and clothed and sheltered and healed and educated in the name of Jesus Christ at no cost to them because we Christians give generously to the church. 
The elderly are cared for; the addicted and mentally ill are ministered to; slaves are freed; and jails are safer because of Jesus Christ.  The needs of others are supplied by Christians just they have always been since the days of Jesus and thanks are offered to God because of it.
In our own community the hungry are fed; hurting families are helped, innocent babies are protected and their mothers supported because of Jesus Christ.  And in our own congregation, hundreds of children are educated and the needs of the poor are helped because of Jesus. 
This life of service and sacrifice that generously supports the needs of others, is the life that we are called to live as Christians because that is the life that Jesus led for us-- and the lives of the poor and the weak and the unborn and the sick and addicted and imprisoned are better because of Jesus Christ and the generous gifts of his people.
When we help those around us with our tithes and offerings, we show our love for others not just by what we say, but by concrete acts that put flesh and bone on the confession of our mouth.  And as we do that, God himself is served and praised and thanked because we are doing it in his name, to extend his kingdom, and to bring glory to him.  The Bible says that:
By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others
            The vast majority of Christians in Judea and Jerusalem were ethnically Jews who had come to know Jesus Christ as the Messiah God had promised to their forefathers and sent to earth in their own day.  But the Christians who were supporting them, the Christians who were giving to them to sustain them in their hour of trial, were Gentiles who had come to Christ.  
            Animosity and division and hard feelings that had existed for thousands of years between Jews and Gentiles were done way with in the death and resurrection of Jesus so that in Christ, in his body, the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile was finished and they were now one people in Christ.  And so then…
Rather than calling upon God to judge them and punish them and destroy the Gentiles, the Jews were glorifying God for the sake of the Gentile Christians who loved Christ and so loved all of Christ’s people—including their Jewish brethren in the faith. 
The love of Christ- and the power of Christ- to change enemies into fellow members of the same family was clearly seen in the gifts that were given to help the poor and God was glorified for his goodness in sending Jesus to be the Savior of us all. 
So it is to be for us.  Just like the early Jewish and gentile Christians, our lives are changed forever by our confession of faith in Jesus and our lives reflect that change. 
We believe that God is our Father and so we can give generously to others, knowing that God will meet our needs.  We believe that Jesus Christ is our Savior, who has given his very own life for us on the cross and so we give generously and sacrificially to care for others.  We believe that the Holy Spirit has called us to faith through the work of those who speak the Good News and the Church who sends them, and so we are glad to support the work of the church so that others might come to faith too.
Our confession of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior changes us—just like it did for the Christians in the early church—and as others see that change, and as others receive the benefit and blessings that come from our changed lives, God is glorified.
Around our world today, and in our own community, and in our church, God is praised and thanked and glorified because of the tithes and offerings we give to the Lord. 
When we put our offering in the plate, we are doing vastly more than simply giving money to church.  We are feeding the hungry and protecting the unborn and helping mothers who have nowhere else to turn and educating children and bringing people into an everlasting relationship with God that death cannot end.
When we understand that our offerings are a confession of faith in Jesus, when we know how God is glorified through them, when we see their power to help those arounds us, why wouldn’t we be generous in what we give to the Lord?! 
What better way to bring glory to God through our daily vocation than by using the fruits of our labor to serve Christ and his people?! 
What better investment for our offerings than the lives of his people and the glory of God, both of which will endure forever?! 
What greater gift will we ever receive than the love and thankful prayers of those we help?!  The Bible says of those who are blessed by our gifts:  They long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. 
            The surpassing grace of God has been poured out upon you in Jesus Christ.  He has enriched you in every way.  And he will provide for you and bless you in the days to come! 
And so then, here’s some questions for our reflection:  Are there people who long for you because of your generosity?  Are there people who love you because the kindness of Christ that comes from you?  Are there people right now who are offering up prayers of thanksgiving to God because of the way that you have given of yourself for their good?  Is God magnified and glorified in the lives of others because of you?
Those are the kind of lives that we are to lead as stewards of all that God has placed into our hands.  This is the sacrifice of thanksgiving that we gladly give to God for his gift to us.  The Bible says:  Thanks be to God for his inexpressible GIFT!

The Christians who were in the midst of a famine in Judea were blessed by the gifts of their fellow Christians throughout the world who sustained them in their need.  The Christians who generously gave to meet the needs of their brethren were blessed by the prayers and love of those who received their gifts.  These blessings are part of stewardship and why we give to the work of the Lord.  But it is another gift that is the foundation and purpose of all our giving.  We talked about that gift in our first message on stewardship.  The Bible says: 
You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that YOU-- by HIS poverty-- might become rich.
On the night when our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed, as he faced the cross in the hours to come, our Lord Jesus Christ lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed:  Father glorify your Son that I might glorify you.  St. Paul said: God forbid that I ever glory except in the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ.  Our gifts of tithes and offerings, time and talent, glorify God when they flow from the glory of Christ crucified for the sins of the world.  It is this surpassing gift of God’s gracious love and mercy in the cross that stands behind every gift that we give as stewards of God’s grace.

As we give those gifts, I pray that God would be glorified because his grace is clearly seen in our generosity.  Amen.

God is Able to Meet Our Needs

2 Corinthians 9:8-11 One of the biggest challenges pastors have when it comes to changing a congregational culture of stewardship here in the United States is the fact that many of their members’ finances are just like those of the unbelievers in the world around them.  Here are some numbers that reflect that reality. 
USA Today reports that 70% of households in the United States have less than 1000 dollars in savings.  63% of Americans do not have enough money to cover a 500 dollar emergency.  33% of Americans do not have a dime saved for retirement.  50% of Americans are spending more each month than they make. 
I would hope that the members of our congregation are not reflective of those numbers but I have a feeling that we are a pretty good sample of what is going on in our culture financially.
I do not have to tell you that those Americans who don’t have an extra 500 or 1000 dollars are afraid for their financial future and are hesitant to turn loose of even a dollar because they don’t know what tomorrow will bring—and that includes the dollar they would give as an offering.  I get it. 
But what we need to believe is the Good News we hear today in Holy Scripture, that God is able to meet our needs and because he is able to meet our needs, we can be generous in every way.  The Bible says that:
God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times… 
            When we don’t have 500 dollars for a rainy day and when we have already spent more this month than what we have earned, it is very difficult to see ourselves as people who have “enough.”  What we see instead, is everything that we lack.  I understand.
            But let me give you anther picture of where you stand right now in terms of material blessings.  In his explanation to the First Article of the Creed, Luther says that: 
God has given me my body and soul, eyes, ear, and all my members, my reason and all my senses...he also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have.  He RICHLY and DAILY provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. 
            Who among us cannot say the same?  That we are sitting here today, fed and clothed and sheltered, able to see our brothers and sisters and able hear the pastor, surrounded by people in the church and our family who love us, is a testimony to God’s abundant provisions. 
Several weeks ago we heard Paul tell Timothy that if we have food and clothing we ought to be content and who among us does not have much, much more than that?
Much too often we look only what we lack and that blinds us to the bounty that God has blessed us with!  God has made his gracious gifts abound in our lives and we really do have all sufficiency in all things just as he has promised and he has given us these gifts for this reason:  that we may abound in all good works.     
There is not one person here today, blessed by a gracious God as we are, who cannot serve their neighbor and do good to those around them and give generously to the work of the church.  We have been blessed by God for that very purpose just as he has always blessed his people.  The Bible says:
As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor;     his righteousness endures forever.”
            Besides the testimony of our own lives as to the fact that we have in the Lord a heavenly Father who loves to give good gifts to his children, we ought to believe the testimony of Holy Scripture to that same glorious truth.
Adam and Eve had the bounty of Eden.  The Israelites had Manna and quail and water and survived for decades in the wilderness.  Ruth found help in Boaz’s field.  Jesus fed the multitudes and promised that as his heavenly Father fed the birds of the air and clothed the flowers of the field so he would provide for his people.
Everything that the Lord has provided to sustain our lives-- and everything he has done for all people and all creatures since the beginning of time-- is a sufficient testimony as to his righteousness, that he has called this world into existence and created all things including us, not to abandon us in our need, but to graciously and generously meet our needs.  The Bible says:
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 
            Last week we talked about the context of these words, that there was a severe famine cross Judea and especially in Jerusalem.  Obviously the people in these areas were affected-- but so were the Christians who were coming to their aid.
When we hear about the hard times that others are having we say to ourselves, “I’ve got the get my house in order”.  “I need to make sure I’ve got my ducks in a row”.  “I’ve to get my budget back on track”.  And we are right back to the same old attitude that says, “I don’t have enough to take care of myself much less help somebody else out!”
In the midst of that fear God says:  “You CAN help out your neighbor and you CAN give generously to the church because I am going to take care of you.  And I am going to do that so that YOUR righteousness would increase”.
Did you notice how in the previous verse God talks about HIS righteousness that provides for the needs of his creatures and now in this verse he is talking about OUR righteousness that provides for the needs of those around us?  There is a reason for that!
We are right in God’s sight through faith in Jesus Christ.  By faith we possess the righteousness of Christ.  But God intends that Christ’s righteousness would be lived out in the way that we treat those around us.  It’s like when Joseph was convinced that Mary had sinned against him and the Bible says that because he was a righteous man he decided to put her away quietly to save her reputation. 
Those who are righteous through faith in Jesus, those who possess the righteousness of God by faith, always live out that righteousness in their own lives. 
God wants to see that harvest of righteousness in our lives.  That is why he was leading the Christians around the world to give generously for famine relief.  As they gave, they had a God-given opportunity to show the world who they were and whose they were-- and God gathered a harvest of righteousness in their lives from the seed of the Word he had planted in their heart.
So it still is today.  We are right in God’s sight through faith in Christ Jesus.  The seed of the Gospel has been planted in our hearts and we are born from above.  And God wants to gather a harvest of righteousness from us and so he gives us opportunities to show our love for him and our love for others by the offerings we give, generous in every way.  The Bible says:
You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 
            This week in chapel I asked the children what it means to be rich and they answered that it means to have lots of money—and certainly that’s the way the world sees it and it’s true enough.  But there is more. 
To be rich means to have more than others and by any measure the people in this sanctuary are far, far richer than billions of other people on this planet at this moment.  The lives that the poorest among us lead are immeasurably richer than the vast majority of the world’s people.
But there is even more because the Lord has enriched us in EVERY way.  He has sent his Son to die on the cross for us, taking away our sins.  Has given us his own holiness as gift and in his resurrection he has given us eternal life and promised us mansion in heaven and by his Spirit he has given us faith that we can believe it.  Every one of us are rich beyond measure through faith in Jesus.
And then I asked the kids, why has God done this?  Why has he blessed our earthly life with so many gifts?  Why has he given his Son Jesus Christ to live and die for us?  Why has he caused us to be born into believing families and brought us to Holy Baptism and taught us his Word? 
Has he done all this for us and graciously given us his gifts so that we can turn our backs on the needs of others and the needs of the church?
Of course not!  He has enriched us in every way so that we can be generous to others.  God intends that his mercy and compassion and generosity and concern for the lost would show up in our lives as the same—that we would be merciful and compassionate and generous—that we would be willing and glad to take those gifts he has entrusted to us and share them with others, believing that we will not be impoverished in our giving, but blessed.
As we do this, as we live these kinds of lives, not only is our neighbor served and the mission of the church supported, but God himself is glorified by the by the praise and thanksgiving he receives for what his people do for others. 

What a blessing it is to know that God is able to meet our needs and because he is able to meet our needs, we can be generous in every way, serving our neighbor and glorifying him!  Amen.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

God Loves a Cheerful Giver!

In 45 A.D. a Christian man named Agabus, who had been gifted by the Holy Spirit with the gift of prophecy, promised that there would be a famine all across Judea. 
This was a dire prediction because the vast majority of the people in the ancient world lived from one day to the next by that day’s labor and the last harvest.  When one harvest after another failed for several years in a row, the prophecy of Agabus came to pass and there was a terrible famine all across Judea and especially in Jerusalem.
We know this not only from the Bible but we also know it from history.  The Roman historian Tacitus and the Jewish historian Josephus both mention this famine with details not for the faint of heart, including mothers killing and consuming their own children.  Tens of thousands of people died from hunger during the years that followed the prophecy of Agabus. 
Christians in Jerusalem, the very heart of the early church, were not immune from the effects of this famine simply because they were God’ people.  And so their fellow Christians from across the Roman Empire banded together to gather a collection to save them from starving to death.
That is the context for the words we will be hearing over the next three weeks that form God’s guidance on Christian giving and in the verses leading up to our text, 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul lays the very foundation of all Christian giving:  You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
What more does any Christian need to know when it comes to giving for the work of the Lord than this Great Exchange when Jesus Christ made himself a servant of us all, giving everything for us, even his own life, so that we might have all the riches of heaven?!  Having the riches of God, we cheerfully show ourselves his servants by giving sacrificially to the church.
This is the foundation for Christian stewardship and what we are going to be hearing over today and the next two Sundays is the guidance of the Holy Spirit from God’s Word on what the Christian stewardship of financial resources will look like as it is lived out in the life of a child of God as we give our offerings to the Lord.  The Bible says that: 
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 
Can you imagine what it must have been like for ancient people, whose lives depended on the fruitfulness of the soil, to watch the harvest fail?  Can you imagine what must have been going through their minds when it came to their children and loved ones? 
Not only would they go hungry, but where would the seed come from to plant for the next year’s harvest? 
It is a basic agricultural principle that any farmer or home gardener can attest to: if there is not much seed that is planted, there will not be much harvest that is gathered in.  People in the ancient world knew this and their fellow Christians in Judea were experiencing it first hand as one harvest failed and the next harvest was lessened because of little seed.
But these ancient Christians knew something more.  They knew that the lavish riches of God’s grace had been poured out upon them in Jesus Christ.  They knew that God had not held back one thing of value from them to save them and bring them back to him.  They knew that the seed of God’s Word had been planted in them by the Holy Spirit (and in their brethren around the world) and it was producing a harvest of lives that were changed for time and eternity.
The undeserved, overflowing, abundant generosity of God was what guided their giving-- with God’s Word of warning and promise to encourage them:  that those who sowed sparingly would reap sparingly and those who sowed generously would reap generously. 
This warning and promise is twisted completely out of shape by the false prophets of the false gospel of health and wealth who turn it into a way to manipulate people to give to the church-- who then in turn try to manipulate God to give to them-- with the lie that if you give a lot of money you will get a lot of money, completely forgetting about Jesus Christ. 
There are no get rich schemes in the Bible.  Instead, there is the simple promise of God that what we invest in our spiritual life will bear fruit far beyond what we give.  For example:
When we begin to seriously study God’s Word our joy and wonder at the Lord’s goodness grows.  When we step out in faith at his commands we discover that our faith matures.  When we devote ourselves to prayer, we life with God deepens. 
That’s just how it works in the kingdom of God—you can’t out give God-- and so it is, in the same way, when it comes to the spiritual practice of giving to the work of the Lord that, as we give generously, we harvest much, much more than the seed we planted.  As we give…
We learn that God can be trusted to meet our needs-- and our faith is deepened.  We begin to understand what a privilege it is to be a co-worker with God here on earth-- and our self-worth grows.  Our perspective and values mature and grow—and money finds it proper place in our lives as simply a tool that we use to serve our neighbor and glorify God, giving to him freely, from our heart.  The Bible says that: 
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion.
It is hard to overestimate the need of the people in Jerusalem.  They were literally starving to death.  It is hard to overestimate the authority of the apostle Paul and the other apostles.  They literally ruled the early church by their word. 
And yet despite the great need-- and despite their great authority—the apostles do not command anyone to give-- and they did not demand a certain amount or percentage.
Our Lord Jesus Christ gave no laws for what we are to give.  He simply held up the example of the poor widow who gave all she had because it was a reflection of what he would do for the world on the cross by giving all he had to restore us to God. 
He trusted that his example and his generosity would be more than enough to encourage his followers to do the same, giving generously and sacrificially for the work of the church
The apostles followed his example, laying down no laws in the New Testament for Christian giving, only the guiding principle that each Christian must give from the heart.
As Paul and the other apostles and pastors began to gather the offering for the saints in Jerusalem, they were astonished and overwhelmed at the generosity of the Christians who gave. 
What they never could have accomplished by demanding or commanding—was accomplished by hearts changed forever by Jesus Christ and led by the Holy Spirit. 
So it is for us in this place.  You will never be presented with a bill for receiving the body and blood of Christ or hearing the good news of salvation in Jesus.  There is no charge for the pastor and elders visiting you and your loved ones in the hospital.  You will never get a letter in the mail with an overdue notice for our prayers for you at this altar.  The gifts of God are freely given to us in Jesus Christ. 
But all of us need to be reminded of this Good News of God’s grace.  And all of us need a fresh view of the great opportunities that lie before us to reach the lost in our community for Jesus and serve our fellow Christians with our giving.  And all of us can benefit from a renewed understanding of what an incredible privilege it is to be trusted by God with his gifts.
When we come to that place in our life of faith, where we step out in faith upon the promise and guidance of God in his word, our offerings will take on a different shape.  No longer will we put them in the plate thinking about what all else could have been done with that money.  No longer will it be the same old ten or twenty or fifty dollars that we have always given despite the fact that God has blessed us more abundantly over the years.  No longer will we give with a grimace.
Instead, we will give generously and freely because that is the way that God has given to us in Jesus.  We will cheerfully offer up to him just a small part of what he has already placed in our hands as an act of worship to the God who loves us.  The Bible says that:  God loves a cheerful giver.  
2 Corinthians 9:6-7 Throughout the Bible the Lord reminds his people that he cares very much not only about their external worship but about what is in their hearts.  He once said, These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.
The Lord desires our offerings, our first and best, not because he needs them—but because he wants to bless us even more in our giving them.  And he assures us that it really is possible to place our offering in the plate cheerfully, with joy in our heart. 
That joy begins when we really understand what we have talked about today in terms of stewardship foundations:  the God who has given us his own riches as our inheritance through the faith in Jesus-- and the great opportunities that are before that God graciously condescends to invite us to help him with.

When we give our offering we are confessing both: that we understand what a precious gift of forgiveness we have been given and that we are blessed to have a part in sharing that with others as we support the church.  The grace of God who has given us all things.  The gift of Jesus Christ who has forgiveness our sins.  The greatness of the mission before us.  How is it possible to NOT give cheerfully in gratitude for all that God has done for us?!  Amen.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Increase Our Faith!

Luke 17:1-10 Jesus said that when our brother sins against us, we are the ones who have to go to them and make things right.  Jesus said that we are blessed when we are cursed and reviled.  Jesus says that we must love our enemies and do good to those who hate us and bless those who curse us and pray for those who abuse us.  Jesus said that we must take up our cross and follow him.
There is nothing easy about being a Christian and the life that Jesus calls us to live cannot be lived in the strength of our own flesh or in our own personal, intellectual, emotional, mental or spiritual resources.  We simply cannot do it.  That is what led the apostle Paul to say:
The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  
            The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God.  By faith in the Son of God.  So it is for every person who follows Jesus in the way that leads to eternal life, that we must walk by faith--and that is why we join our voice with that of the disciples when they pray:  Lord, increase our faith!  Jesus says:
“Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!
            We live in a world that is broken by sin and like the frog in the pot of boiling water we are so accustomed to it that we barely notice it anymore—and that is a very dangerous thing indeed because temptations to sin are all around us!
            Our culture has been coarsened to the point that, what barely got past the censors in “Gone with the Wind”, now passes for wholesome family entertainment.  Sexual sins that were once hidden under the cover of darkness are now celebrated and honored at the White House. Clothing that was once suitable only for the world’s oldest profession is now worn to graduations and dinners and even on Sunday morning to church. 
I could go on and on but you know exactly what I am talking about.
It is not only the world out there, of course, that is to blame for people being led to into the fires of hell.  Our spiritual enemies include our own flesh which is all too willing to take its cue from the world rather than the Word of God-- and the devil who still roams about looking for those whom he can destroy.
That is the world we live in—a world broken by sin and death—a world held in thrall to the devil and his angels.  That is why Jesus says, “Temptations to sin are sure to come.” 
Until the Lord calls us from this vale of tears to the safety of our eternal home you and I are going to have to fight against temptation every moment of every day of our lives and we are especially going to have to make sure to pay attention to ourselves so that we are not the ones who are tempting to others to sin.
The Lord calls each one of us to holiness of life and he places us in Christian marriages and families and congregations so that we can help others also lead holy lives rather than tempt them to sin.  But often times that is exactly what happens. 
A Christian husband tempts his wife to break the Third Commandment when he says, “Let’s just stay home from church today.”  A Christian lady tempts her sister in Christ to break the eighth commandment by talking about another lady at church.  Coarse language and crude jokes are shared among Christian men and the sixth commandment is broken.  Congregation members are at odds with one another and choose sides and let anger fester and the fifth commandment is broken.
It is a spiritual tragedy when the very places and relationships and people that God intends would strengthen our faith in Christ and help us to live lives of holiness-- become places and times and people who tempt us to sin.  Jesus says that in those cases: 
It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”
That is just exactly how seriously Jesus takes our responsibility to make sure that we are not leading others to sin:  that it would be better for us to die a horrible death rather than to lead someone else to sin, especially if they are what he calls “a little one”.
Parents, God has entrusted into your hands his child.  His child—not yours.  You are responsible to the living God of the universe for that child—for its life and health and well-being here on earth—but most especially for that child’s eternal life.  You are charged by God to lead his child to heaven and teach them the way of salvation.
As parents, we must ask ourselves:  is my example in the home—my priorities and decisions and values—my speech- leading this child ever closer to heaven and life with God-- or am I undermining their eternal life because I am showing them that life with God is not what is most important in my own life and what I value by what I say and do and decide? 
These little ones are not just children—they are those who are new to the faith—they are those who are struggling in their faith—they are those who are wounded and broken.  Every one of us are called by God to be concerned for the spiritual welfare of our fellow Christians and help them to walk the narrow road that leads to heaven.  Jesus says:  If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him,
            Spiritual care and concern for our brethren in the faith begins with telling the truth about sin and that is not always easy to do.  It happens occasionally that Christians will overlook or make excuses for or justify the sins of fellow Christians who re their friends or family members. 
They do this because they have ignored the words of Jesus that we must love him above others.  They do it because they think they are being compassionate and helping the one the love.
But to overlook, excuse and justify the sins of our fellow Christians is to destroy their faith; break their relationship with God; and murder their souls!   Unrecognized, unconfessed, unrepentant sins always, without fail leads to spiritual death.  Always! 
The family may be at peace.  The fellowship may retain good feelings.  But the one they love is robbed of eternal life because of their silence in the face of sin.
Instead, we are to speak the truth in love and call sin—sin.  We do this not to stand in judgment of our brother or humiliate him and make ourselves feel superior but we do it so that he can say:  “I am sorry” and then be assured by our words of forgiveness that he is forgiven, just like us, by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus shed for us on the cross. 
This is true of every sin but it is especially true of those sins committed against us.  The Lord does not want us to go through life bitter, angry and resentful and so we are to confess our sins to one another and forgive one another again and again and again.  Jesus says:
if [your brother] sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
            Please understand, Jesus is not limiting us to seven times—he is not saying we have to forgive one more than six and one less eight.  Jesus forgives us without measure and that is why we are to forgive—and keep on forgiving-- as often as he repents which is why the disciples say:  Lord, “Increase our faith!”
            We understand why they say that, don’t we?  “Lord, you mean that to be your disciple I must live such a life of holiness that I never lead anyone to sin?!  That I must be the one who always strives to make peace with my brother?! That I must leave my comfort zone and talk honestly with a fellow Christian who has sinned?! And then when he repents of that sin I must forgive him not matter how often he asks?!”  Called to this life: 
Our prayer too becomes, “Lord, increase our faith!”
We understand immediately that this kind of life will not be accomplished in our own strength—by our own resources.  We recognize that we are utterly incapable of this kind of life except by faith in Jesus and yet we consider our faith lacking.  But Jesus says:
If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
            I will spare you the fancy grammatical niceties in the original Greek except to tell you that what Jesus says is this:  If you had faith like the grain of a mustard seed (AND YOU DO!) you could say to this mulberry tree (BUT YOU DON”T) be uprooted and planted in the sea (AND IT WOULD!). 
Using a word picture not easily forgotten, Jesus says that believing in him we have plenty of faith to do just exactly what he has asked us to do--which is not Palestinian landscaping-- but living holy lives and forgiving others as our Master has asked us to do.  Jesus says:
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’?  Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?  Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
            Often times when we pray for more faith what we are really doing is making an excuse for not doing what our Master has commanded-- and laying the fault for our failure at the feet of Jesus.  But if we have enough faith to say that Jesus is our Savior (faith the size of a mustard seed) then we also have more than enough faith to serve him as our Lord and Master. 
            To every Christian who has prayed for more faith, here is Jesus’ answer:  do what I command you to do, do what is your duty to do—and see your faith grow as it used in service to me, your Lord and Master. 
Strive to live a holy life that is an example to others and see your faith grow.  Speak up when you see a fellow believer on the wrong track and see your faith grow.  Forgive those around you and keep on forgiving and see your faith grow. 

            Yes, it is true that you are unworthy to be my servants but by my grace -and the sacrifice of my Son -and the power of the Holy Spirit that is exactly what you are and having called you to come and work in my kingdom, I have also equipped you sufficiently for that very thing.  Amen.