Saturday, July 29, 2017

Slaves to Righteousness

Romans 6:19-23 Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. 
            The poem is Invictus by William Ernest Henley and while it is a great poem—it really is terrible theology.  “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
There is much in those words that appeal to us—particularly as Americans—but they simply do not tell us the truth about ourselves.
Far, far from being the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls, the Bible says that everyone in this world—without exception-- is a slave. 
You either belong to sin and death OR you belong to righteousness and God.  You either serve sin and death OR you serve God and righteousness.  Sin and death is your master OR God and his righteousness is your master. 
We may love the illusion of autonomy and freedom that is found in the poem Invictus, but it is the Bible that tells us the truth about ourselves and who we truly serve.  Under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul wrote: 
I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 
            Jesus told the Pharisees that everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Peter said that the false teachers of the early church were slaves to corruption.  Throughout his epistles Paul uses this slave imagery to describe our spiritual condition—either as slaves to sin and death OR slaves to God and his righteousness. 
It was a vivid image, immediately recognizable and understandable by people in the ancient world, and he used this word picture so that this biblical teaching would be perfectly clear in our mind-- such is its importance to understanding our life with God.
Far, far from being the autonomous, independent, free people we imagine ourselves to be—every person in this world has a master they serve.  Everyone!  And that master is revealed in the actions of our members, that is, the parts of our bodies.
It’s like we learned in the old Sunday School song:  be careful little eyes what you see—be careful little ears what you hear—be careful little feet where you go—be careful little lips what you say.  Be careful:  because the members of our body reveal the master of our soul.
For those who are slaves to impurity and lawlessness, their master is revealed in the words they say, the images they rest their eyes upon, the places their feet take them, and the things their hands do. 
So it is for those whose Master is God and his righteousness, that their members also reveal a slavery—not to lawlessness and death—but to sanctification and finally, to eternal life. 
That is why we are to be careful about the members of our body because they reveal (not only the identity of our master) but also the direction of our life and our destination in eternity.  There is no such thing as just a little sin because lawlessness leads to more lawlessness and eventually that journey ends in death.  The Bible says that:
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 
            When Paul says that those who are slaves to sin are “free” regarding righteousness, he does not mean that they are free to do righteousness or abstain from righteousness as they see fit, and as suits them, in a particular moment. 
No!  What Paul is saying is that the person who is a slave to impurity and lawlessness is free FROM righteousness altogether!  There is NOTHING in their life that pleases God—NOTHING in their life that God looks upon with favor—and certainly NOTHING in their life that he counts for salvation. 
            Those who are enslaved to sin and death do not have God as their Master and so their lives are completely free from ANY spiritual fruit whatsoever. 
That person who is a slave to impurity and lawlessness may look like they have the world by the tail—they may view their sexual sins as conquests—they may see their money and status as security for the future-- but God says that it all leads to death and because of that-- sin is not something to take pride in-- but something of which to be ashamed.
The Roman Christians understood that.  They could see the deadly direction they were headed.  They recognized the destination of a life’s journey marked by slavery to impurity and lawlessness.  They realized just exactly who their master had been-- because Christ, their new mater, had set them free.  And so should we!  The Bible says:
Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 
            What was true of the Roman Christians in Paul’s day is also true of us in our day:  Jesus Christ has set us free from slavery to impurity and lawlessness.  He has redeemed us with his own life’s blood as the purchase price to set us free.  We HAVE been set free from sin!
But it is absolutely critical that we understand that we have not only been set free FROM something—we have been set free FOR something—and that is to serve God as slaves of righteousness.  He is now our Master!
Right here in these verses is one of the most critically important concepts in the Bible and yet is widely misunderstood and too often ignored to the eternal peril of God’s people:  that the freedom we have in Christ finds its true purpose in the whole-hearted service we offer to God as slaves of righteousness.  Christian freedom and the fruit of good works go together without fail. 
The Bible says:  You were called to freedom, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  The Bible says:  It is by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus FOR good works.
God has not set us free from sin and death at the cost of his own Son’s life so that we can turn around and go right back to living in lawlessness and impurity!  Who would voluntarily enslave themselves to sin and set out on a journey that would, without question, lead to hell?!  No one would do that!
Instead, we have been set free so that we can become what God has created us and redeemed us to be:  people whose only desire is to know and do his will:  slaves of God and slaves of righteousness.
That we are free in Christ and that we are slaves to God is certainly paradoxical-- but these two teachings are not opposed to one another because the true purpose and meaning and value of our lives can only be found in our connection to God—a connection that is always fruitful unto good works. 
Jesus said, I am the vine and you are the branches and in me you will bear much fruit.  And so it is that as we walk with Jesus- and as we are filled with his Spirit- and as we are fed with Word and Sacrament--our lives begin to take on the shape they were meant to have—no longer turned in on ourselves—no longer focused on satisfying the desires of the flesh—but now turned towards our neighbor who needs our care—now growing in Christ-likeness as we receive his gracious gifts—now desiring to make God’s will, our will.
This is the life on earth that leads to eternal life---not because we have earned it by doing God’s will or walking in his ways—but because it has been given to us as a gift.  The Bible says:
The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
            It is in this verse that we see a profound difference in human slavery and in spiritual slavery—whether to sin or to God.  Earthly slaves earn nothing—they are paid no wage for their service--but those who are spiritually enslaved to sin and impurity earn, for themselves, eternal death. 
Everything they have lived for—everything they have devoted themselves to:  their much vaunted autonomy and independence is torn away as they enter into hell to be tormented forever with the one who has truly been their master.
Earthly slaves are given no gifts—they are unloved by their masters—they are regarded as property.  And yet, slaves to God and his righteousness are given the status as God’s children- and are counted as heirs of the living God- and are given eternal life as a gift through faith in Jesus.
We have to admit that the words, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul” appeal to our flesh but the Bible says that there is a way that seems right to men but in the end leads to death and that is it.

Instead, the way to true and lasting riches—the way to a life of meaning and purpose—and most importantly, the way to eternal life is the way of slavery to God and his righteousness.  Amen.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Righteousness Needed for Heaven

Matthew 5:17-26 There was a man in the early church named Marcion who taught that the God revealed in the Old Testament (the God who spoke from Mt. Sinai and gave the Law to Moses) was incompatible with the God of the New Testament who forgave those who broke the Law.  He believed that they were opposed to one another—the God of the Old Testament being a harsh, demanding God of wrath-- and the God of the New Testament, Jesus, being kind and merciful and forgiving. 
His teaching was condemned as heresy and he was excommunicated-- but his ideas are still around. 
You hear people saying that because Jesus never specifically addressed abortion that it must be acceptable to him.  You hear people saying that what Jesus really cares about is not who you are intimate with-- but that you love that person.  You hear people saying that the Holy Spirit is leading the church away from the old morality contained in the Ten Commandments-- to a new way of approval and acceptance.
And these modern followers of that ancient heretic appeal to Jesus as their authority—they tell us that surely if Jesus were still here on earth he would agree with them.  But he would not!  Jesus upheld the Law as the unchanging will of God for mankind and he bound all of us to that Law until the end of time.  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.
            Those who look to Jesus for their authority to cast away the moral Law of God cannot appeal to his words or to his life.  They will find no support from him for their heresy that denies the moral Law as being from God.  Jesus said of himself again and again:  I came to do my Father’s will.  I speak my Father’s words.  The command I give you was from the beginning. 
Jesus’ entire life was lived—not in opposition to the Law of God—but in perfect fulfillment of the Law of God.  In thought, word and deed he was careful to do his Father’s will and keep his Father’s words and live in holiness like his Father—and he called people to leave their sins-- rather than leave them in those sins.
Jesus cannot and must not be pitted against his heavenly Father when it comes to the moral Law because he and his Father share the same divine nature and have exactly the same divine holiness.  And Jesus and his Father are also perfectly united in their expectation of how we are to live until the end of days.  Jesus says:
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.
Besides appealing to Jesus for a new understanding of morality, you will hear people say that times have changed-- and we Christians have to change along with them when it comes to what is right and wrong and accept what has always been a sin. 
Well, they are right in that times have changed—but what is right and wrong in God’s sight cannot change -because it is grounded in the unchangeable will of God.  God’s will, expressed in the Law, flows from his own holiness --not from what we think is right and wrong at some given moment in human history. 
The Law comes from God—it is written on the human heart and it was written on tablets of stone on Mt. Sinai and people can try to ignore their consciences- and they can break stone tablets- and they can enact legislation that goes against God’s law-- but not for one moment can they change God’s law.
God has not changed his mind about the necessity of worship or the sanctity of life or the definition of marriage-- and he stands opposed to those who claim to speak in his name to set aside his commandments—and so does Jesus.  Jesus said:
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.
            Throughout more and more places in the church today there is a wholesale apostasy from the faith and morals of Christianity that sets aside the Law of God and teaches others to do the same.
The unbelieving world, of course, looks on with glowing approval.  Look how loving they are!  Look how accepting they are!  Look how open and welcoming they are!
And by contrast of course the world judges those who hold fast to God’s word as unloving, judgmental, and angry.
But what matters, is not what the world says-- but what God says-- and he says that those who hold fast to his commands will be called great in his kingdom. 
And so why does Jesus put such a high priority on upholding God’s Law and making sure that it is not diminished in the least but taught faithfully?  It is because, only through the rigorous preaching of the demands of the Law, can we know of our need for God’s salvation in Christ.
To tell someone that their sin is not a sin is the most loveless thing that anyone can possibly do to another person because it leaves them in their sin and condemns them to hell and to do this- from the church- in the name of Christ is an outrage! 
Rather than diminishing the law, the church needs to uphold it in all its moral rigor so we can see our need for a righteousness that lies outside of us.  Jesus 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.  You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
            Jesus in no way, shape or form diminished the requirements of the law like so many do today in his name.  Instead, he pointed out that the righteousness requirements of the Law (what God expects of you and me) go far beyond what most of us think. 
The law doesn’t just demand of us that we never commit adultery so that we can pat ourselves on the back if we have never been divorced or have never had an affair—the law demands of us that we have never, not even once lusted in our heart. 
The law doesn’t just demand of us that we do not bow down before idols or worship a false god-- but that we have never, not even once failed to trust God perfectly by worrying. 
And the law doesn’t just demand of us that we not murder so that we can congratulate ourselves on not being thugs--but the law demands of us that we have never, not even once been angry or called someone a bad name. 
The fact of the matter is, that, according to Jesus-- just one of these sins against God’s law will keep us out of the kingdom of heaven and make us subject to the eternal fires of hell! 
That is the way that Jesus wants the Law upheld and taught among his people for this reason:  that we would see our great need for a righteousness that is far beyond what even the most devout and decent people can offer up in their lives.
The righteousness that God counts as salvation is found in only one place and that is Jesus Christ who came into this world—not to do away with the law---but to suffer our punishment on the cross and fulfill the Law for us, in our place-- so that through faith in him, his righteousness can become our own. 
And because this righteousness of Christ is ours by faith, Jesus expects us to show it in how we live—not returning to sin, but living in holy obedience to the Law.  He said:
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
            Jesus’ expectation for you and me is that we would take seriously what God has to say in his Law and live our lives according to it—and that we ought to be careful that we do not fool ourselves into believing that things can be right between us and God while we are living in unrepentant sin.
The example he gave is one of interpersonal conflict.  Maybe harsh words were spoken between these people—maybe there was an angry disagreement—maybe there was some kind of business deal that was not on the up-and-up—but whatever happened--there was conflict and he says that before there can be worship --there needs to be repentance and reconciliation.
Jesus used the example of interpersonal conflict as a sin that comes between us and God but he could have used any of the Ten Commandments.  When we are living in unrepentant sin, actively, purposefully going against God’s will—we must not believe that things are right between us and God (because they are not!) until we repent and receive Christ’s forgiveness.
God promises the blessings of forgiveness for those who love him and keep his commandments.  But he also warns us that there are curses and consequences that come with disobedience.  Jesus said:
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
            There are consequences to sin—God has built it into his Law:  abusing drugs and alcohol wrecks your health—sexual immorality ruins marriages—constantly bad-mouthing others makes others keep you at arms-length and anger and bitterness destroys families and friendships. 
A lack of repentance hurts us and those around us and it also hurts our relationship with God.  The man in Jesus’ example had every chance to be reconciled --but if he wouldn’t- he faced jail.  We have an opportunity today to repent—to change the direction of our lives, be reconciled to God, and to go a new way.  To turn our backs on this moment of grace is not to face a lifetime in jail but an eternity in hell.
Jesus has fulfilled the law’s demands and he has paid, with his life’s blood, every last penny that we owe on account of our sins.  There is no reason for anyone to go to hell when he has paid to set us free. 

As the free children of God we live our life like that of Jesus:  upholding the Law and fulfilling God’s commands and walking in newness of life.  Amen.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Word of the Cross Is the Power of God

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Many Christians have had the experience of feeling like strangers to the world we live in.  We discover that the things we value- and the God we believe in- are rejected by more and more people.  We can’t figure out why everyone does not believe what seems so obvious and important to us.  But they don’t.  The Bible says:  The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing…
What is this “word of the cross” that Paul is referring to?  It is the basic proclamation of the Christian church:  that Jesus of Nazareth was God in human flesh and his life, death, and resurrection are the only way for sinners to have a life with God.
So why does the world around us reject this “word of the cross” as foolishness?  It is because this “word of the cross” cannot be seen in nature- and it cannot be discerned by our intellect- and it cannot be measured scientifically. 
It cannot be known in any way except by revelation from God—and that is the height of foolishness to the unbelieving world around us.  And yet for us Christians, the “word of the cross” defines:  who we are- and why we’re here- and where we are going when this life is over.  For us, the “word of the cross” is the power of God.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ has rescued us from sin and death and made us God’s children. 
How can there not be a division between those who believe this message--and those who reject it?  The truth of the matter is that God has ordained this very thing:  that man cannot “think” or “reason” his way into heaven.  God says:
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 
            These words are a quote from the prophet Isaiah and Paul uses them to make the point that God has ordained that our human intellect is an insufficient means of knowing him as he desires to be known—as a God of love and mercy. 
You see, not only has sin rendered us incapable of having a life with God on our own terms—but our Creator has placed limits on our intellect so that we can never “think” our way into heaven. 
The human mind is a great gift from God.  The breadth of human knowledge is vast.  The technological achievements of mankind are staggering.  But all of it together still cannot bring us to God.  And that has been proved true again and again down through history. Paul writes:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
            There is a division between those who believe the message of the cross and those who don’t and that dividing line cuts across human religions and human philosophies.
Hinduism and Islam and Judaism look very different from one another-- but at their heart they are exactly the same:  they are religions that tell their followers that they can have a life with God-apart from Christ- based upon their own efforts. 
The various moral philosophies of mankind have the same message.  And they leave their followers in exactly the same place—alienated from God—incapable of knowing God as he desires to be known. 
No matter how pious these religions might be—no matter how earnest the followers of some human philosophy—no matter how subtle and sophisticated their arguments:  God counts it all as foolishness because they cannot do what he has done through the cross—and that is to reveal himself as the God who loves us.  Paul writes:
Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
That there is a division between those who believe the message of the cross and those who don’t—that it is impossible for mankind to come to God on the basis of his own works or intellect—is not an accident.  God in his wisdom has made sure that we cannot have a life with him on the basis of human wisdom. 
Certainly we can know some things about God:  we can know that he exists by looking at the creation around us—we can know that he loves good and hates evil by the testimony of our conscience to our actions. 
But we cannot know him as he truly is-- and desires to be known.  That has to be revealed to us in what Paul calls “the folly of what we preach.”   
When Paul calls the word of the cross “folly’ he is talking about the judgment of the world about the message of the cross.  He recognized the same thing that we recognize as we interact with the unbelieving world around us:  that what we regard as the highest wisdom--the world regards as the worst kind of foolishness. 
And yet… believing that message is the only way to salvation.  Right there is the great dilemma and difficulty for mankind—the human roadblocks to faith.  Paul writes:
Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The dividing line between Christians and the world is nothing new--Paul experienced it also.  Jews didn’t believe in Jesus because they wanted some indisputable sign that he was the Messiah.  And even though he did miraculous sign after miraculous sign—they weren’t the signs they wanted.  They wanted the Romans overthrown and Israel restored. 
For Greeks it was unimaginable that God would take on human flesh and die.  They believed in the immortality of the soul, but a bodily, physical resurrection was seen as ridiculous.  And so the “word of the cross” was a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles. 
But it was also true that the Christian congregation at Corinth was full of both Jew and Gentile believers.  As great an impediment to faith as was the demand for signs and the human intellect—the wisdom and power of God to save them was even greater.  Paul writes that: 
The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 
In the years since these words were written, mankind has plumbed the depth of the atom and unraveled the building blocks of life and stood upon the moon.  The wisdom and strength of mankind is great indeed! 
And yet, in all those years, no one has come to God in any other way than by the cross.  What we cannot do in our wisdom-- and what we cannot do in our own strength—the foolishness and weakness of Christ crucified can do, and has done, in bestowing the title “child of God’ upon the lowliness of men.  Paul writes:
Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
            The true power and wisdom of God that is found in the weakness and foolishness of a crucified Jew could be clearly seen in the members of the Corinthian congregation.  Very few of them were wealthy or powerful.  They were just regular folks God had chosen to make his children through faith in Jesus.
So it is today.  Those who have great wealth and great power and great intellect are more often found outside the church than within.  There are exceptions of course and those folks have the ability to do great things for the cause of Christ.  But by and large-- power and wealth and great intellect are hurdles that have to be overcome to have a life with God-- rather than helps to faith in Christ.
That is because power and wealth and intellect lift us up rather than bring us low and that is what God has to do to save us.  So long as:  we are trying to come to God on our own terms—based on our own knowledge and strength, we still don’t know the way of salvation that comes as a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus.  Paul writes:
Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
God the Father has chosen us form eternity to be his own.  He has sent his Son Jesus Christ to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  And his Holy Spirit has worked faith in our heart through the Gospel so that we can believe in Jesus and be saved. 
He is our wisdom—the only way that we can truly know who God is.  His holy life is our righteousness before God.  He is our sanctification—his resurrection life within us that is the ongoing power to live a holy life.  And he is our redemption—the one who has paid the price, in his own blood, to set us free from sin, death, and the devil.

There simply is no room in God’s salvation for the boasting of mankind.  But there is a place for boasting in the Lord!  The rest of our earthly life and all of eternity is not enough time to sufficiently thank God for the power and wisdom of Christ crucified for us—but we can begin today to serve him and praise him as he deserves.  Amen.   

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Merciful Father and His Merciful Chldren

Luke 6:36-42 In the words that Jesus speaks to us today we hear one of the funniest and most familiar images in the Bible—the person with the log in their own eye trying to get a speck out of someone else’s eye---Jesus’ point being that we are often times blind to our own faults but have perfect 20/20 vision when it comes to the faults of others.
That log in our eye (which is really self-righteousness) blinds us to our own sins—blinds us to our need for God’s mercy—it blinds us to the truth about others.  What Jesus wants to do for us today is to take that log out of our eye so that we can see our own need for God’s great mercy but also see that others need the same mercy from us. 
In other words, God wants us to know and believe that we have in him a merciful Father and that he expects us to be his merciful children.  Jesus says:  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 
What do you want from your life with God?  What do you want your relationship with God to be based upon?  Justice or mercy?  We may not phrase it as justice, but isn’t justice what we really want from God? 
That God would recognize what a great person I am, much better than the rest of the folks around me, and reward me accordingly for being such a fine fellow.  That God would take a little bit closer look at those around me and punish them for their failures.
The fact of the matter is, we wish God were a little bit more exacting in his judgments because surely then we would be lifted up above those around us.  So says our sinful flesh that does not recognize the depth of our sinfulness or the height of God’s holiness. 
We may want justice from God-- but Jesus tells us that what we really need is mercy.  He says:  Your Father is merciful.  Those words tell us something about ourselves—that we need his mercy.  And they tell us something about God—that we can count on his mercy.
The fact of the matter is, we have an elevated view of how good we are because we measure ourselves against the standard of other men.  But that is not God’s standard.  God’s standard for us (what we think and how we live and the things we say) is himself-his holiness and goodness.  And by that standard none of us can stand under God’s justice—all we can do is cast ourselves upon his mercy.
And he has had mercy on us in his Son.  Jesus was the One who met God’s standard in all that he said and did -and what was in his heart- and how he lived his life.  And yet the justice of almighty God fell upon because he came into this world to take our place under God’s judgment at the cross so that all we would know is God’s mercy.
We are God’s children because of his mercy Jesus Christ and because of that mercy we are called to be merciful towards other people—to have compassion on them-to take pity on them—to empathize with their plight—and reach out to them with forgiveness and love.  Jesus said:
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.
            So far we’ve asked:  what do we want from God for ourselves?  And now the question is what God does want from us when it comes to others?  The answer is very simple:  as his sons and daughters he wants us to be like him:  merciful and generous and forgiving. 
The verse that we have before us about not judging is one of the most often quoted and yet misused and misinterpreted verses in the Bible.  When Jesus says that we are not to judge he is not contradicting himself and the rest of the Bible when it comes to spiritual discernment and the moral judgment of the church.  When we measure behavior against the standard of the Bible we are not judging—God is. 
But what Jesus is talking about- and what is absolutely forbidden to the child of God- is the self-righteous, self-exalting judgment of those who make themselves the standard for everyone else—the kind of judging that always seems to acquit us while condemning others. 
This kind of judgment and condemnation ALWAYS earns God’s condemnation because it removes God from the judgment seat and places us upon it.
Instead of being judgmental and harsh, we are to be forgiving and generous towards others just like the Father has been forgiving and generous to us--with the promise of Jesus that we will receive his abundant grace.  Jesus says we can expect that:
[A] Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
            This picture comes from the ancient marketplace.  A woman goes to the market place and makes her purchase of grain.  But a generous merchant refuses to use an exacting scale and instead fills her order with an overflowing abundance—far beyond anything that she had any right to expect—far beyond what was merely just.
That’s the way God has dealt with us.  His overflowing grace has been poured into our lives.  Not only has he given us life—not only has he provided for our material needs—but he has forgiven our sins and given us a place in his family and promised that we will live with him forever.
Unexpected, overflowing gracious generosity—that is what we have received from our heavenly Father.  And because we are his children—he expects us to use the same generous measure in our dealings with others.
Our forgiveness is not to be grudging.  Our giving is not to be pinched.  We are gracious, generous, forgiving people because we have a heavenly Father who is gracious and generous and forgiving and Jesus is the one who puts flesh and bone on what that kind of life looks like: 
Jesus also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.
            When Jesus calls us to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful-- and to be as forgiving and generous to others as God has been to us--he is calling to live a life for which there are no earthly parallels or analogies.  
While the world may know something of mercy-- it knows nothing of mercy that reaches out again and again to lift up those who are avowed enemies.  While the world may know something of forgiveness and generosity-- it knows nothing of forgiveness without limits and generosity that extends to the giving of one’s own life.
But this is the mercy and forgiveness and generosity that we are called to live out in our lives as children of the heavenly Father and the only place to learn of it—the only place to see it in action-- is in the life of Jesus Christ. 
Jesus called the religious leaders of that day “blind guides” because they knew nothing of the true nature of God-- and all of those who followed them could expect the same fiery judgment that they would receive in the pit of hell. 
But Jesus came to open the eyes of the blind—to give us the ability to see God for who he really is through his own life.  And so Jesus is the God-given teacher who leads us in the ways of mercy and forgiveness and generosity. 
We come to him with our sins and he forgives us.  We come to him for assurance that we are really his people and he feeds us with his body and blood.  We come to him needing guidance and direction for our lives and he speaks to us in his Word.  And though his word and through the sacraments he is forming and shaping our lives to be like his own.
This training in Christ-likeness doesn’t take place overnight—all of us are growing in our faith and we need his ongoing help—but day-by-day we are becoming more like Jesus until that day we stand in his presence with the burden of sin and selfishness cast away and we will be like him for we will see him as he is.
Until that day we need to recognize the limits of our own righteousness while we do everything in our power to be merciful and forgiving and generous to those around us when they don’t quite measure up to our standards.  Jesus said:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye.
            Occasionally Caroline or I will get an eyelash in our eye and we will get the other one to help us out--which is like a Three Stooges skit because neither one of us can see all that well. 
“Can you see it?”  “No, I don’t see anything!”  “Well, I feel something.”  “Look up--now look down!”  “There I think I got it!”  It’s hilarious!  But imagine how ridiculous—how absurd it would be if one of us was trying to help the other with an eyelash in their eye while we had a wooden fence post sticking out of our own eye!  There’s something not quite right with that picture.
But Jesus says that’s the way it is when we look with judgment on the shortcomings of others—constantly focused on their little failures-- all the while we are blind to the big problems in our own lives that need to be recognized and confessed and forgiven by Jesus. 
Jesus doesn’t say that we are not to help our friends and family and fellow believers with the problems in their lives anymore than Caroline or I would not try to get an eyelash out of the other’s eye.  But we begin, not with the failures of our loved ones, but with our own failures—asking God to help us see what our sins and shortcomings are so that we can get rid of them through repentance and faith.
It’s only that person who recognizes how good God is to take those fatal logs of sin out of their eyes, who can clearly and compassionately see what needs to be done in the lives of those around them.  Then the help that we give to others doesn’t come from a place of self-righteousness and judgment--but from the mercy that was first given to us.

And so let us turn away from self-righteousness and hard-heartedness and rejoice in the Good News that in the Lord we have a merciful Father who calls us to be his merciful children.  Amen.