Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Turn to Jesus and Not to Yourself!

Luke 18:9-14 When John the Baptist began his preaching ministry, the first word out of his mouth was:  Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  When Jesus began his public ministry the first word out of his mouth was:  Repent!  For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  When Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg he wrote these words:  When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
In the Old Testament and the New Testament; in the words of the prophets and apostles and reformers; throughout the history of the church, there is but one message for all of God’s people in every place and time—including us here tonight as we begin this this Lenten season-- and that message is this:  Repent!
To repent means to have a change of heart and mind and direction in life.  It means to stop going the sinful, self-directed, self-indulgent, self-centered way that we often go and go in a new direction towards a merciful Savior who stands ready to forgive us.  To repent means to turn to Jesus and not to yourself and in our lesson tonight we see just exactly what God wants  from us this Lenten season and throughout our life.  The Bible says that:  
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt:
            The very setting of the telling of this parable may be the first hurdle we have to overcome if we are to really hear what our Savior has to say to us today and amend our lives accordingly.
We hear that Jesus spoke these words to those who trusted in themselves and thought themselves righteous and we say to ourselves:  “Well, Jesus is certainly not talking to me!  I know that I am not righteous and I am certainly not trusting in myself!  If being a Lutheran means anything, it means that”!
And yet, our flesh is no different than anyone else in believing that our choices and our piety and our lifestyle must surely count for something when it comes to having a life with God.
Even our membership in the Lutheran Church—a church that teaches that we are saved by God’s grace, through faith, apart from deeds of the Law—becomes a sort of “hall pass” to get out of hearing what our Lord has to say about self-righteousness and self-trust.
And then to hear that Jesus addressed these words to people who were not only self-righteous but looked with contempt upon others, our flesh really does have all the excuses it needs to turn a deaf ear to our Lord because we would never look down on anyone! 
But of course we do!  We think we are better parents than others.  We think we are harder workers than others.  We think we are more faithful church members than others just like the Pharisee that day.  The Bible says that“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
When we picture this scene in our mind’s eye, we think we know just exactly how it is going to play out because we know these two broad classes of people.  On one side we have a guy who looks a lot like us:  he knows his Bible, he is regular in worship, he is a good neighbor, he has a good reputation in his community. 
On the other side is just the opposite.  He is not a good neighbor—in fact, he oppresses his neighbors.  The way he makes his living is questionable at best.  Everywhere he goes, even to church, he carries with him the stigma of a bad reputation. 
“Surely”, we say to ourselves, “our judgment about these two men and the judgment of God must coincide:  one of them is good guy and one of them is a bad guy and that ought to be self-evident for anyone with the eyes to see and ears to hear the truth!”  The Bible says that:
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’
            For the Pharisee that day, who he was and what he had done and what he had refrained from was perfectly clear in his own mind and so it ought to be clear to God as well.  His judgment about himself ought to correspond to the judgment of God.
He was an upright, moral, decent person whose commitment to his church was serious.  When he looked at his life and looked at his own piety, it all bore sufficient testimony that he was on the right track spiritually and surely God must agree. 
And then, when he looked at those around him, his judgment about himself was confirmed.  Sure enough, he was better than others!  He wasn’t a criminal or lawbreaker.  He was more pious than those around him—not just among the pagans—but even those in the temple that day.  Surely the God who heard his prayer must agree!
As we picture this scene in our mind’s eye—as we hear his judgment about himself—we tend to agree with him!  He is decent and pious and upright, and so are we! He was better than those around him, and so are we!  That is our judgment about him and that is our judgment about ourselves.
But that’s not really what counts is it?  This decent, upright, moral Pharisee stood there in the temple—in the very presence of the living God—and there in that place—in God’s sight—there is only one judgment that matters and that is not the judgment of our fellow church members or the judgment of our neighbors and it is certainly not the judgment we render about ourselves that matters.
The only judgment that matters is the judgment of God.  The Bible says that:  The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”  And what the Lord saw about the Pharisee was something very different than what the man saw about himself. 
The Lord saw a man turned in on himself—a man who was self-righteous, and man who trusted in himself, and a man who looked with contempt upon others. 
And the Lord saw the truth about another man who stood in his presence there that day—because the Lord sees the heart.  The Bible says that:
The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
            If we were looking on and listening in the temple that day we might say to ourselves:  “That’s right buddy!  You ought to be standing as far away from the decent folks as possible!  You’re lucky to have a place here anyway?  You’re right to keep your eyes on the ground—you ought to be shame-faced given who you are and what you’ve done!  And you’re right, you are a sinner!”
We’ve got this perfect, terrible ability to see these things so clearly about others.  But this man had something we often lack—the Spirit-given ability to see the truth about himself.
Standing there in the presence of living, holy God of the universe this sinner knew that there was nothing in him—no good deed ever done—no evil refrained from—no act of piety ever performed-- that could ever justify him in the sight of a holy God. 
He possessed a clarity about himself—that he was a sinner-- and a clarity about God—that he was loving-- that brought him to only one possible place spiritually and that was to confess his sins and throw himself on the mercy of God and beg for God’s forgiveness—and he did and he was. 
There were three judgments rendered there in the temple that day.  The Pharisee judged himself righteous.  The tax collector judged himself a sinner.  And the judgment of God about each of them, beginning with the tax collector.
Jesus says: I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.  The judgment of God was rendered that day and that really is the only judgement that matters and that verdict is read to us sitting here today so that we can know it and understand it and amend our lives according to God’s judgment and not our own. 
It was the man who made no mention of his righteousness, made no claims of his piety, issued no demands to God for services rendered who went home justified in God’s sight.  It was the sinner who repented who was forgiven-- and not the Pharisee who got so much right.
It is important that we understand why this is so.  The problem was not that the Pharisee was a kind, pious, decent, upright, moral man.  God grant that the same thing is said of us!  It was not because the tax collector learned the right formula—like some magical, formulaic “sinner’s prayer”-- that gets God’s attention and guarantees our entrance into heaven. 
But the second man went to his house that day forgiven of his sin and right in God’s sight because of the mercy of God that forgives those repent of their sins.
His sorrow and broken-heartedness over his sin was genuine.  He knew about himself that he deserved no good thing from God and that he had no claim upon God because of who he was and what he had done but could only believe and trust that he had in the Lord a God who loved him and was ready to forgive him and he threw himself on the mercy of God. 
That mercy is found in only one place:  the foot of the cross where our Lord Jesus Christ laid down his life for our sins and an empty tomb that proclaims salvation is accomplished.
John the Baptist said:  Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Jesus said: Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Luther said that our lives as Christian consist only of this:  that we repent.
You see dear friends in Christ, that is the way that the kingdom of heaven works:  Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Standing in the presence of the living, holy righteous God of the universe, there is simply no place for exalting ourselves, lifting ourselves up, or comparing ourselves to others.  The only comparison that matters is our comparison to God and that cannot help but humble us and make us confess that we are indeed poor, miserable sinners.

But the Good News of us is there in that place, beating our breast because of our sins, refusing to even lift our eyes to heaven much less talk about who wonderful we are and how better we are than others, there in that place of humility-- is nothing but the mercy of God that calls us to come to him and receive the free and full forgiveness Christ won for us on the cross.  Amen.         

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Transfiguration of God's Beloved Son

Matthew 17:1-9 All of the Gospel writers record Jesus’ deep and abiding prayer life—that he regularly made time for prayer—that he often sought out solitary places where he could be alone with his heavenly Father, apart from the press of the crowds.  But this day was different.  The Bible says that:
After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
            Why would Jesus take disciples with him this time when he never had before?  It was because he needed, and wanted, witnesses for what was about to happen—people who could testify to what they saw and heard that day on the mountain.
In our epistle lesson today we have that testimony from one of the men who were there, from Peter, who says that:  he and James and John were eyewitnesses of Christ’s majesty—that they heard with their own ears the words of the Father, proclaiming Jesus his Son, because they were with him on the holy mountain.
Jesus never talked about what happened to him that day—he never used these events to strengthen his ministry—he never drew attention to the glory of God that shone forth from his human flesh as he was transfigured—but his disciples (the eyewitnesses) did talk about it—not just to encourage their fellow disciples-- but to encourage every Christian in every time and place, down to the folks sitting in these pews today.
Jesus took Peter, James and John with him so that we could see through their eyes and we could hear with their ears all that happened that day—so that our faith in Jesus and our confidence in the Word of God could be strengthened by his transfiguration.  The Bible says that Jesus:
…was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.
            When Moses came down Mount Sinai after receiving the Ten Commandments, the fact that he had been directly in the presence of God was as clear as the nose on his shining face that still reflected the glory of God. 
It is that same divine light that shines, not on Jesus as it did upon Moses, but through Jesus and from Jesus upon those around him. 
Jesus said of himself that he is the Light of the world.  John, who was also with him on the mount of transfiguration, said that Jesus is the light that enlightens all men.  These words were literally true that day as the glory of God shone forth from Jesus. 
It’s not as if the glory of God had not always been there in Jesus.  The angels proclaimed the reality of the glory of God in Jesus Christ at his birth when they sang “glory to God in the highest" as the star shone upon his crib.  Every miracle Jesus performed revealed the glory of God. 
But there that day on the mount of transfiguration, in the presence of witnesses, the glory of God was revealed in Jesus in a way that all could see it so that he could be known for who he is:  the promised Savior of us all.  The Bible says that:
There appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. And Peter said to him, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
            There were others there that day besides Jesus and the disciples and they were present to bear witness as well.  They were there to give witness from the past—to identify Jesus of Nazareth as the one whom the prophets had always been talking about when they told of the Messiah to come. 
Moses was there to bear witness that Jesus was the greater prophet he had promised—that Jesus was the Seed of the woman he had written about in Genesis—that Jesus was the living, breathing embodiment of those stone tablets that Moses had held in his hands on Mount Sinai.
Elijah was there to speak for the prophets—to bear witness that:  the suffering servant of Isaiah and the humble king of Zechariah and the refining fire of Malachi were the same person—the humble man who stood between them, clothed in light. 
Later on his ministry Jesus would say that all of the Law and prophets testified of him-- and so it was that day as the past found its fulfillment in Jesus.
But Moses and Elijah were also there to testify about the future—to show by their living presence what Jesus had come to do. 
Sin had brought death into the world for all people—even for those closest to God like Moses and Elijah.  But Jesus came to bring life-- and their presence that day testified to that saving work that Jesus would accomplish by his death and resurrection.
Moses and Elijah were there to bear witness to the fact that in Jesus’ presence death has to give way to life—that death is not the end for God's people--but there is life to come for all who trust in Jesus like Moses and Elijah.
One of these days, we too will take our place there at Jesus’ side along with Moses and Elijah and Peter, and James, and John and all who have trusted in the Lord and we will all testify that life, real life, eternal life is God's gift to all of those who listen to his Son.  The Bible says:
Peter was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
            On the day that Moses went up upon Mount Sinai, there was a great cloud filled with the brightness of lightning, and from this cloud (which was the very presence of God) came the words of God—the commands that he wanted to God’s people to follow-- but also the testimony of his own saving work that he had already accomplished in setting them free from slavery in Egypt.
It is that same divine presence who appears on the mount of transfiguration—also with commands and the testimony of God’s saving works. 
On Mount Sinai God said:  "Listen to me!"  On the mount of transfiguration God says:  "Listen to my Son!" and there is no conflict between these two commands.  To hear the voice of Jesus is to hear what God has to say to us. 
Again and again throughout his ministry Jesus said that he had come to do his Father’s will and speak his Father’s words.  And so then…
All doubts and questions about:  who Jesus is- and are there other ways to heaven- and what does God desire of me as his child- fall by the wayside there on the mount of transfiguration in the bright, shining presence of the transfigured Christ. 
Jesus is mediator between God and man.  He is the way that leads to life.  We are to listen and obey what he says.  Jesus is God in human flesh and to see him is to see God- and to hear him is to hear God- and to know him is to know God.  The bible says:  When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified
There would be other moments like this in Jesus’ ministry—moments when the disciples would shrink back in fear. 
Early on in his ministry when the disciples had the great catch of fish, Peter begged the Lord to depart from him because he was a sinner.  Later on in his ministry, when Jesus appeared before the disciples after his resurrection and their guilt still rested heavily upon them, they shrank back in fear.  It happened in the Old Testament as well when Isaiah came into the presence of the Lord and fell on his face, certain that he would die because he was a sinner.
The reaction of Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration -and the reaction of Isaiah in the presence of the Lord-- is the natural, normal reaction of sinners when they are cast into the presence of a holy God.  But in what happens next we see the perfect picture of what Jesus came to do.  The Bible says that:
Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”  And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
            When Adam and Eve sinned and hid from God in guilt and shame and fear-- he reached out to them- and clothed them by a sacrifice- and covered their shame. 
When Isaiah was struck down by fear in the Lord’s presence the angel of the Lord came to him and touched his lips with a burning coal and purged away his sin. 
When the disciples hid out in shame and fear Jesus appeared before them and proclaimed peace—holding out his pierced hands and side to drive away their fear.
            The natural, normal reaction of sinners to the presence of God is fear—but Jesus came to take that fear away.  There on the mount of transfiguration was a preview, a prophetic picture of his saving work:  Struck down by fear—unable to rise under the load of their sinful weakness—Jesus came to the disciples, touched them—and lifted them up.
So he would do for us all at the cross.  We could not come to God and so Jesus condescended to come to us.  He took upon himself our flesh and became a servant to us all—God in flesh laying down his life for us on the cross—taking away our sins so that we have nothing to fear from entering into the presence of our holy God. 
The words he spoke that day are spoken here today:  Rise and have no fear.  Rise up from the burden of your sin for I have taken it upon myself.  Have no fear of death for there is only life in my presence.  Rise and have no fear.
And just as Jesus put flesh and blood on those words that day by reaching out and touching the disciples, so he does the same for us here today—feeding us with the same body and blood that was there that day on the mount of transfiguration—the same body and blood present on Mount Calvary—the same body and blood that came forth from the tomb on Easter morning.  The bible says that:
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
            Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John so that there could be witnesses as to his true identity--that he was God in human flesh--but what that meant for the world had not yet been reveled--that would only come after Jesus’ death and resurrection. 
            It is only when Jesus has gone to the cross and suffered and died for our sins—only when he has risen from the dead-- that we understand the greatness of God’s love in sending his Son—that he was sent to live and die and rise again for us and for our salvation. 

            Who Jesus is—and what he came to do—are the whole story of salvation and that story still needs to be told.  May God empower our witness to what we have seen and heard in Jesus Christ!  Amen.  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Foundation of Our Faith

1 Corinthians 3:10-23 Last week we heard the Good News that we are God’s building—that far from abandoning us or giving up on us when we do not progress in our Christian faith as fast and as far as we should—God continues to patiently build us up just like a construction manager raising a building from the earth one girder at a time.
Today we hear just exactly what kind of structure God is building out of our lives:  that we Christians are the temple of God—the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit!  As we meditate on God’s Word, we are going to talk about the foundation for that temple—and how it is built—and what it means that we are the temple of God.  Paul writes:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
            Earlier in our sermon series we heard Paul say that he consciously made a decision to proclaim nothing else than Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world.  This “word of the cross” was the necessary foundation for everything else that would follow and without that foundation of Jesus’ blood and righteousness a dwelling place for God could never be built in our life! 
The irreducible minimum for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is a confident faith and trust in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for the sins of the world—that in him, we have a life with God.  The foundation for that life was laid by Jesus 2,000 years ago and it still stands today and to try and build a life with God apart from this foundation is impossible.
Just like with any building—if the foundation is not sound—the structure itself cannot remain standing.  That is why Christian pastors are so insistent that Jesus Christ is preached and taught to God’s people—because the foundation must be true if the spiritual temple built upon it is true.
Not only must the foundation be sound—but the living, breathing temple of God that is built upon it in our lives must also be constructed out of those things that are true and beautiful and precious and lasting.  Paul writes:
If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done
            Paul laid the foundation for the temple of God that was being built out of believers’ lives there in Corinth.  He showed himself to be a skilled, master builder.  But he could not stay there forever—other pastors would be responsible for the spiritual building project in that place and throughout the world as the Church grew. 
The pastors who followed him in Corinth—and the pastors who serve God’s people today-- have the same responsibility to choose spiritual bricks and mortar and girders and beams that are the best. 
None of us would intentionally let a contractor choose cheap building materials when it comes to our homes.  How much more do we need to hear and heed these words of Paul that what our living, breathing, eternal temples ought to be built out of-- is the very best—what Paul calls gold, silver, and precious stones!
Paul is using a word picture for those things that are true and beautiful and good and lasting.  In other words, pastors have a responsibility to build on the foundation of Jesus’ blood and righteousness by faithfully using the Word and Sacraments to build up the people of God into a beautiful dwelling place for God. 
But you folks also have a responsibility to insist that, when it comes to building up your spiritual life, your pastor preaches the Gospel faithfully and administers the sacraments according to Christ’s institution.  You have a responsibility to use of the means of grace and study his Word.  You have a responsibility to avoid those things that can tear down the temple that God is building in your lives. 
Paul calls these of things wood, hay, and straw and they are being used all over Christendom.  Marketing strategies and gimmicks—sermons that could just as easily be delivered at self-improvement and self-empowerment seminars—lies and false gospels nowhere taught in the Bible.  None of this rubbish is suitable to build up the people of God for it will not endure his judgment!
There is coming a Day when what has been used to build living, breathing temples for God will be shown for what it is:  that which can endure the purifying fire of God—or--that which will be burned up as chaff on the Last Day.  Paul writes:
If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Pastors and people who have made use of that which is valuable and good and lasting will receive their reward.  Those who have used what is cheap and temporary will see their life’s work reduced to ashes—though God promises to save even those folks if only the foundation of Jesus Christ remains true. 
But those who have ruined that foundation—those who tried to build on something else—will be destroyed.  Paul writes:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.
            When we understand who we really are, then we will understand everything that Paul is teaching us today about the importance of using the spiritual building blocks of life.  We ARE God’s temple:  the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit—our lives set apart for the living presence of God—each part of it holy to the Lord.
The only way for that to be true is to be built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ and the only way for us to endure the fire of God’s judgment-- is for each part of our spiritual life to be built out of spiritual building blocks that God himself gives in Word and Sacrament.  God desires that this living, breathing temple that he has made out of our lives would endure forever.  
To destroy that temple by tearing down the foundation of Jesus that it is built upon —is to engage in outright warfare against the purpose and plans of God himself—and with that rebellion will come destruction.  Paul writes:
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”  So let no one boast in men.
            The world regards the word of the cross as foolishness and weakness--and yet the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection is really the strength and wisdom of God.  We know this and believe this to be true!  But none of us are immune from the temptation to set that rock-solid foundation aside. 
The devil tempts us to boredom when it comes to hearing about the death and resurrection of Jesus each weak and gives us itching ears to hear something new. 
Our own flesh regards the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood as an occasional extra rather than an essential building block of faith that builds us up as a temple to God.
Pastors and congregations and church bodies want to treat the church as a business, and employ the methods of the world to accomplish its mission rather than step out in faith with the values and ways and tools of the Kingdom. 
Paul calls this so-called wisdom:  folly—with the only cure for it a return to the cross and the man who died there.  There in that place and in that man is where we find all that we need for this life and the life to come.  Paul writes:
For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's.
            For the child of God, there is no need to pick and choose which pastor to align ourselves with-- for they are merely servants to bring us to Christ and bestow Christ’s gifts upon us.  There is no reason to pick and choose which events and circumstances to regard as blessings from God-- for all things work for our eternal good and are a part of the temple he is building in our lives.
Joys and sorrows are written into the blueprint of our lives as a necessary part of the dwelling place he is constructing in us.  Even death now serves his purposes as the tool God uses to move us from this earthly life to our eternal heavenly life.  All things become part of his construction plan for the sake of Jesus who has chosen to make us his dwelling place and earthly temple.
The Good News for us today is that we are the temple of God.  A rock-solid foundation for our life has been laid in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God himself has appointed workmen—his fellow servants to build us up spiritually through Word and Sacrament. 

And God is carefully working out his perfect plan for our lives so that they would be a shining, glorious example of what it means that God chooses to make his dwelling with men.  May God grant this to be true of each of us for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

God Grant Us a Growing Faith!

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 Paul once said about his own life of faith:  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.   God expects the same of us-- that we would “grow up” spiritually into the mature sons and daughters that he created us, redeemed us, and sanctified us to be. 
Over the course of our lives, God wants us to become more mature in our Christian faith—more mature in our Christian worldview—more mature in our Christian life.  That’s what we’re going to talk about today:  what spiritual immaturity is- what undermines our spiritual growth -and how we can “grow up” spiritually into mature believer in Christ.  Paul writes:
Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready…
When someone tells us to “grow up” it’s difficult to hear that in any other way than as an insult—and we quickly get defensive.  That’s why I want you to focus on that one little word that begins our text and let is inform us as to how we are to hear these words to “grow up”—and that is the word “brother.” 
Paul addressed the Corinthian Christians—and he addresses the San Angelo Christians—as brothers and sisters in Christ—members of the same household of faith—children of the same heavenly Father.  And so God’s command through Paul to “grow up”-- is spoken out of genuine love and concern for our spiritual well-being—that there would be growth and progress and maturity in our spiritual life.
When people in Corinth began coming to faith in Jesus and then joined together in a Christian congregation—they were infants in the faith—they were newly re-born believers in Jesus—just beginning to learn what it meant to be children of God.    
And so Paul taught them simply:  he told them about their sin and need for God—he told them about the Savior God had given in Christ—he told them how the Spirit had worked to bring them to life.  It’s the same thing we do in Sunday School & confirmation & new member classes.  And through the word of the cross we became children of God.
Five years had passed from the founding of that congregation to this letter—five years from when they came to faith in Jesus-- to where they found themselves spiritually when they received this letter.  The problem was:  they hadn’t progressed much at all in those five years—they were still infants in the faith—they hadn’t grown up or matured.
When it comes our children’s physical growth and maturation—five years is a phenomenal amount of time—a newborn baby that is absolutely helpless, incapable of communication, and barely aware its surroundings, five years later has become a little boy with lunch box heading off to the first day of school.  Fantastic progress and growth!
But those five years between the Corinthians being born again- and the occasion of this letter- had not yielded five years worth of spiritual growth and maturity.  Yes, they were saved—yes, they were Christians—but they hadn’t grown up in their faith.
What about us?  What positive changes have the last five years brought in our life of faith?  Do we have a deeper knowledge of the things of God?  Have we grown in Christ-likeness?  Are we more spiritually mature today than we were back then? 
That’s what our heavenly Father wants to see in his children.  That’s why these words from Paul about the need to “grow up” spiritually-- are spoken to us too. 
And so what was the problem that was impeding the Corinthian’s growth in the faith?  What is it that keeps us from becoming mature Christians?  Paul writes:
You are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? 
            In our previous sermons on these opening chapters of First Corinthians we talked about how there was division in the congregation stemming from their individual attachments to some pastor who had served them—how, what should have been a harmless preference-- had turned into a hurtful problem in that place. 
In their hearts, they were jealous of one another.  Each wanted the prestige that came from being attached to some great pastor.  And this attitude showed up in how they treated one another—fussing and fighting and failing to get along.  Jealousy and strife was the sinful attitude and behavior—but what was at the root of it went much deeper.
            The Corinthians were living according to the flesh.  In other words, they were living like the unbelieving world around them—living according to their old, sinful nature-- living as if they had never come to faith at all. 
The new person that they were through faith in Jesus was nowhere to be seen.  What about us?  It doesn’t have to be strife or jealousy or divisiveness that reveals an immature Christian faith. 
 Anytime some facet of our lives looks like the unbelieving world rather than Jesus—anytime our actions and attitudes are guided by our flesh rather than the Spirit—there is a lack of spiritual maturity in that part of our lives and we need to grow up.  And so how does that happen—this spiritual growth that God is looking for in us?  Paul says:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.
            The solution to growing up spiritually begins with knowledge--that we know and understand what God’s will is for our lives-- and what he teaches about each part of our lives as his people.  We don’t chastise kindergartners for only knowing their A, B, C’s but neither are we content that they possess only that knowledge when they get to fifth grade.  They should have matured in the things they know and their ability to do them.  Their knowledge ought to have expanded. 
That’s what Paul was doing for the Corinthians in these verses.  He told them that, not only was their thinking about the pastors who have served them incorrect and sinful, he also explained how they ought to think about their pastors—that pastors were merely servants who did the thing that needed to be done for the people of God in that moment. 
The same process is needed if there is some facet of our lives that has not attained spiritual maturity.  We need to learn what God wants from us and what he forbids to us.  We need to search God’s Word for what our heavenly Father has to say and order our lives accordingly.  But to do that—we need God’s help. 
Our heavenly Father is the One who caused us to be born again and he is the One who helps us grow up in our faith to reach spiritual maturity.  Paul writes:  For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building.
            Earlier in the sermon I mentioned how important it was that we hear this call to “grow up” spoken in the context of that word “brother”—that Paul has our best interests at heart when he tells us to “grow up”.  I hope these closing words will provide the same comfort—even if you are an infant in Christ. 
When we look back at the last five years of our lives of faith, maybe we don’t see a lot of spiritual growth—maybe we haven’t become more Christ-like—maybe our knowledge of the things of God hasn’t really deepened all that much-maybe we are not the spiritually mature Christians we ought to be by now. It’s easy to become discouraged. 
But Paul reminds us:  We are God’s field.  We are God’s building.  In other words, the God who saved us by the blood of his Son hasn’t given up on us anymore than we give up on our children when we are teaching them to tie their shoes or ride a bike. 
Like a farmer plowing a field or a craftsman constructing a building—God is at work in us.  He knows what he is looking for in us and so he patiently works through pastors (his fellow workers) to shape us into a finished product:  the mature Christian who is fruitful in good works and whose life is beautiful monument to the glory of God and the goodness of Christ.
When we listen to God’s Word and study the Bible in Sunday School and receive the Sacrament of the Altar—there in those moments-- and through that man-- and by those humble means—God is at work in us, helping us to grow up in our faith in Jesus. 
And God wants us to put that faith into practice.  It’s fun watching our kids learn to walk.  There are a lot of bumps and bruises but they don’t give up and eventually they leave crawling behind.  So it must be for us when it comes to stepping out in faith, putting away childish things, and growing up in our faith.
Most of us have seen the bumper sticker:  “Be patient—God’s not finished with me yet” and usually we can add our hearty “Amen!  You need more work!”  But the good news is that slogan is true of us too. 

We’re not as mature a Christian as we ought to be.  We haven’t grown up into all that God wants us to be.  But the Lord’s not finished with us yet and he will help us to grow up in our faith as we hear his Word and receive the sacrament.  Amen.

Friday, February 3, 2017

We Are Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-20 If you have been in my Sunday School class you have heard this story but you are about to hear it again because it so beautifully illustrates what Jesus is teaching us today about our place and purpose as Christians in this world. 
When I was in seminary I remember asking Professor Saleska this question:  “Wouldn’t it be better if, after we came to faith, the Lord would simply call us home so that we would never sin again or run the risk of falling away from faith”?
And he kind of gave me this withering look and said:  “Well yes, that would be better if you were the only person whose salvation he cared about!”
Despite the fact that I felt like an idiot (or probably because of it) I have never forgotten that lesson:  our lives as Christians, so long as we walk this earth, are to be lived in service to others, especially when it comes to their salvation.
We know and understand that when it comes to bearing witness to Jesus to those we meet.  We heard President Henning talk about an opportunity he had at Whataburger to speak of Christ’s love to a man who had just lost his wife of 65 years.
But what Jesus teaches us today is that not just our speech bears witness to others for the seek of their salvation, but so do our entire lives—that the way we live our lives as Christian people has an important role to play in our world today as we bear witness to Jesus, not just with words but with deeds.  Jesus says:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.  “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. 
That is the summary of everything we are going to learn about today:  that the purpose of our lives and how we live our lives is intended by God to point those around us to Jesus so that they too—along with us—would glorify our heavenly Father.
To teach us this vitally important role that our day to day lives serve in his work of salvation, Jesus uses a couple of simple illustrations.  First of all, he says that we Christians are the salt of the earth.  In our day, that saying has come to mean a person who is just a plain old person without pretensions-- but that is not what Jesus meant.
The people of the ancient world understood Jesus’ illustration because their lives depended on the purifying effects of salt.  It was really the only way to preserve the wholeness of food and keep decay at bay. 
That’s what Jesus means when he says that we are the salt of the earth—that the holiness and purity of our lives are to stand as a bulwark against the moral decay that is all around us.
In our world today, particularly here in the west, virtually every moral restraint has been cast aside so that now it is only those members of Bible-believing Christian churches who stand up to the evil of our day that undermines and destroys marriage and family and life.  It is only the Bible-believing Christian who stands up to perversion and says:  this is wrong! 
And not only is that to be our proclamation it also must be our life.  It does those around us not one bit of good to speak up for the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of life if we are living out something different in our own lives. 
It is critically important to God’s work for those who do not know him to see in us and our marriages and our values something that is truly appealing and that is the beauty and holiness of Christ’s life—and if they don’t because we are living just like they are, then we have lost our purifying purpose in the world. 
Jesus says that if the salt has lost its saltiness it is no good, in other words if we have lost that particular characteristic of being different than the world around us, we are no long have any purpose in this world—a sobering warning to those people, who in the name of Christ, want to go along with the world on the road to hell.
Second of all Jesus says that we Christians are the light of the world.  We have been rescued from the darkness of sin and death and the devil by Jesus who is the light of the world.  Into all of those dark places of doubt and despair in our lives, his light has shined. 
And now as his people we are to shine that light of Christ out into the world around us where so many people continue to live in spiritual darkness.
Jesus wants our lives to be shining examples of the same mercy and forgiveness and love that has transformed us.  He wants this dark world to see there things that matter beyond the next possession—that there is a peace beyond simply the absence of conflict—that there is real hope for the future, not because of some piece of technology or some political leader, but because Jesus stands at the end of human history with a new heaven and anew earth.
And Jesus wants us to shine the light of his truth into hearts and minds that are darkened by sin and unbelief—that the people around us would know the truth of salvation because they can see in our lives the difference that Christ has made and then they would glorify God for his goodness and take their place with us in that bright, shining city known as the Church that makes the righteousness and light of Jesus known in a dark and dying world. 
Jesus says:  Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
That is what it means to be salt and light—not to stand in judgment over the world around us because our holiness and our knowledge of the things of God (that was not the way of Jesus!) but to let our transformed lives bear witness to the Savior who changed them.  Jesus said:
 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 
            The smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet is the “yod”.  It’s just a tiny little mark.  Someone with a lot of time on their hands has counted them up in the Old Testament.  There are 66,420 “yods” in the Old Testament.  You begin to see the height and depth and breadth of what Jesus is talking about when he says that there is not even the smallest part of the Old Testament that he doesn’t fulfill.
Every promise that God ever made to the patriarchs and prophets of old, Jesus has fulfilled.  He has destroyed the work of Satan just as he promised Adam and Eve in the Garden.  He is the true prophet of God who speaks his Word faithfully just as God promised Moses.  He is the true King of the world as God promised David.  He is both the Virgin-born Child and the Ancient of Days as God promised Isaiah.  Every moment of his life was a perfect fulfillment of God’s promises.
All of the holiness that God demands of his people, Jesus has fulfilled.  Every law and precept Jesus kept.  The perfection demanded at Sinai—the holiness that is like that of God himself—Jesus gave.  The love of God above all else and the love of neighbor as self, Jesus offered every moment of his life.
And all of the sacrifices that God demanded of his people on account of their sins, the sacrifices that reconciled them to God and reconciled them to one another, the sacrifices they made for their own sins and the sacrifices they made for the sins of other, Jesus made at the cross.  He is the scapegoat upon which the sins of all people were placed.  He is the perfect sacrifice that atoned for not just our sins but for the sins of the world.  And he is the Lamb who was slain so that we might take refuge in his blood from the Angel of Death.  Every drop of blood that ever flowed on account of sin finds its meaning and fulfillment and power in the blood of Jesus shed upon the cross. 
Jesus has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets and this means two things for your lives.  First of all it means that every promise that God has made—every promise that you are counting on—can be trusted.  He is with us always—as he promised.  He is working all things for our good—as he promised.  We are the forgiven children of God—as he promised.  Death is a defeated enemy—as he promised.  We have a home for us in heaven—as he promised.
The promise of God can be trusted because they have been fulfilled by Jesus.  Secondly, his righteousness that is ours by faith means that we are called to live out the reality of his faithfulness and love and obedience in our lives—because we possess his faithfulness and love and obedience by faith.  Jesus says:
Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
            During his earthly ministry Jesus said of himself, that he came, not to do his own will or speak his own words, but the do the will of his heavenly Father and speak his words to the world.  As it was for the incarnate Son of God, so it is for God’s adopted sons and daughters. 
We don’t have to wonder what it means for us to be salt and light because God has revealed exactly what that means in his Word and exactly what that looks like in Jesus.  The will of God is made known in his word-- and the will of God is fulfilled-- in Jesus and our calling as God’s sons and daughters is to do the same in our day—taking our stand upon the Word of God and walking in the footsteps of Christ.
Throughout the visible church today there are countless people who have set aside what God has said about marriage and sexuality and the value of life and the roles of men and women-- and even worse, there are pastors and teachers in these places teaching others to do the same. 
Their disobedience and their false teaching may not strike immediately at the heart of faith in terms of who Jesus is and what he has done, but it certainly does not strengthen faith—and in fact, it undermines faith over time destroys it and that is why those who teach live as if God’s word and will no longer matter will be least in the kingdom of heaven.
But those who hold fast to the Word of God, those who are unashamed to go against the cultural tide, those who strive to live out the fullness of God’s Word in their own lives as salt and light in a dark and decadent world have a wonderful promise that God himself sees their efforts and will reward their faithfulness.
But for all of us—great or least—Jesus reminds us that we need a righteousness outside ourselves, a righteousness greater than we could ever achieve in our own.  He says: 
I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

            The Good News for us today is that we have that righteousness that is required to enter heaven—not because we have always fulfilled our calling as salt and light—not because we have always borne faithful witness to Jesus—not because we have always kept his word—but we have that righteousness required for heaven because Jesus has given it to us as a gift through faith.  Until that day we enter heaven, we live our lives as salt and light in a dark and dying world.  Amen.