Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Day Is at Hand

Matthew 13:11-14 “Well, it’s about time!”  You thought for sure that the kids would have been out of bed and ready to open presents at the crack of dawn but here they are rolling out of bed at nine.  “Well, it’s about time!”  You’ve finally gotten around to that home repair that your wife has been talking about.  “Well, it’s about time!”  They call your name at the restaurant, telling you that your table is ready.  “Well, it’s about time!”
We all know what it meant by that phrase—that the time is right—in fact, it’s almost past time—time is as full as it can get leading up the event we’ve been waiting for.
That’s the sense of what we hear today from God’s Word.  It’s about time that we wake up from our spiritual slumber.  It’s about time that we make a radical break with sin and turn to Christ.  It’s about time that we begin to live as the Christians that we say we are.  Paul wrote:
You know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.
            In the beginning, when God called the universe into being and made the lights of heaven to rule the day and night, he created time.  This world had a beginning and it will have an end and the course of the world and the lives of men have been swept along by the march of time and the tides of history.
The manger and cross and empty tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ stand at the very center of human history.  There is nothing that came before and nothing that has come after that does not draw its meaning and purpose from those places and events and that man.  The Bible says that
When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
That is what Paul is talking about when he says that we know the time—that the saving purposes of God have been accomplished by Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit calls every person to wake up from their spiritual slumber and receive him in faith.  And there is even more.
Since Jesus Christ has entered into human flesh and human history in the fullness of time, we know that, day by day, the end of time draws ever closer.  Just as there was a particular moment when the world was created that marked the beginning of time, so will there be a particular moment when this world comes to end and time is no more.
That is the day of our Lord’s return in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Though it lies sometime in the future, that day is a historical certainty as much as the days of our Lord’s birth, death, and resurrection.  The march of time is carrying us ever closer to that day when the fullness of our salvation will be revealed.
When Paul says that salvation nearer now than when we first believed, he is not saying we are not saved right now!  We are!  We are forgiven and right in God’s sight and at peace with our heavenly Father because of Jesus Christ.  But there is even more to come!
There is coming a day when death will be destroyed.  There is coming a day when the enemies of Christ and his people will be punished.  There is coming a day when there will be a new heaven and a new earth unbroken by sin.  Each day the fullness of Christ’s redeeming work comes closer and the dawn of that new, eternal day draws near. 
The Bible says that:  The night is far gone; the day is at hand.  So it is in history and so it is in our lives. 
For thousands of years the people of God hoped in a simple promise:  that God would raise up the seed of a woman who would destroy Satan.  That is all they knew.  It is what they believed.  And it was enough to save them. 
But the fullness of that promise was hidden in prophetic shadows.  Periodically God would raise up a man who would reveal a bit more:  that the Savior would be born of virgin—that he would be born in Bethlehem—that he would be crucified to bring peace.  All of it in the future.
But in the fullness in time, on a dark night---God opened the heavens and caused a star to shine upon a manger and sent angels to proclaim the Good News that the day of salvation had dawned. The world can never return to the way it was before for the light of the world has been revealed.
As it was in the course of history so it is in men’s lives.  All of us are born in the darkness of sin and unbelief.  But God has graciously shined the light of his love into our hearts and we must not return to the dark shadows of spiritual slumber.  The Bible says that we are to:  cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
There are all kinds of sad, unpleasant spectacles to be witnessed at Walmart but one of the worst is seeing a young woman, dressed in her pajamas, with house shoes on her feet, shopping in the middle of the day.  Somehow, someway she never got the message to:  get up, get dressed, and get to work. 
But no matter how sad and unpleasant it is to see an adult out in public in the middle of the day dressed in their pajamas, it is much worse to see those who confess Christ as Lord and Savior continue to dress themselves in the works of darkness.
The day of salvation has dawned, the light of Jesus Christ has shined upon us, sin and death have been defeated but too often we continue to live in their dark shadows.  We make room in our lives for some pet sin.  We convince ourselves that this sin or that is no big deal.  We tell ourselves God always forgives-- but we use that Good News as a cover for our sins.
Rather than the works of darkness, we are to put on the armor of God—clothed from head to toe with truth and righteousness and peace and salvation.  This armor has been given to us by the Holy Spirit through the word of God--the sword of the Spirit, the tool that God uses to clothe us with the garments necessary for the spiritual battles we face as Christians.  The Bible says that we are to:
walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.
            These sins may seem far removed from our lives, but there is no reason for this warning if it were not possible for us to be tempted. 
We are still burdened with a sinful flesh.  The world calls us to take part in its evil ways.  The devil still prowls about as a lion, looking for those he can devour.  And the sins that Paul lists are still prevalent and accepted and even mainstream in our culture today.
When it comes to quarreling and jealousy, a recent poll has come out that said two thirds of Americans don’t trust their fellow citizens.  It seems like every other program on TV features a bunch of so-called housewives pulling each other’s hair.  Political and civic discourse is more toxic than they have been in decades.   
Countless people are addicted to drugs and alcohol and pornography and how can they not be when alcohol and sex are glorified and pharmaceutical companies advertise a pill for every ailment.  Sexual immorality.  Substance abuse.  And simmering anger.  This is the culture of our day.  We Christians are to have no part of it.
The difference between the Christian’s life and that of a person who does not know Christ is to be as different as night and day.  But where does that strength come from when we have fight against the devil, the world, and our flesh?  It comes from Christ.  The Bible says:  Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
This is baptismal language and it speaks to our connection Christ and our identity as his people—that we are members of his body and our lives are to look like his life.  This is the purpose of baptism and we can return to it again and again!
The Bible says about baptism that we have died with Christ and been raised with Christ so that we would walk in newness of life—that we are no longer slaves to sin—that we must not let sin reign in our mortal bodies so as to obey its passions.
In fact, the Bible says that we must make no provision for the flesh whatsoever. 
That means that we avoid those places and people and circumstances where we know we are tempted to sin.  It means that we keep up with our devotional and prayer life so that we stay close to God.  It means that we worship regularly and receive Christ’s forgiveness in Word and Sacrament. 
The message that we have from God today is this:  It’s about time!  It’s about time that we wake up from our spiritual slumber.  It’s about time that we make a radical break with sin and turn to Christ.  It’s about time that we begin to live as the Christians that we say we are.   It’s about time.  May God grant us his grace and the help of the Holy Spirit!  Amen.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Watching and Waiting for the Lord's Return

Mathew 25:1-13 Over the course of our lives there are many important days:  the day we graduate--the day that we begin our professional career --the day we get married-- and the day that we retire.
As important as these special days are, all of the days of preparation that lead up to that day are also important.  Did we study enough, make the right career decisions, and invest wisely?  In fact, the way that these important days turn out for us is totally dependent on how well we prepared day by day up to that moment.
Of all the important days in our lives, none is as important as the day of our Lord’s return in glory when we will stand before him and be judged-when heaven or hell are the only two eternal destinations.
As important as that day is, every day that we can prepare for that day, is also vitally important.  The parable of the wise and foolish virgins vividly illustrates how important it is to be prepared—day by day-- for our Lord’s return in glory.
To understand the point of this parable it is enough to recognize that the virgins are the members of the church, their lamps are their individual faith, the oil is the Spirit that enlightens that faith, the bridegroom is the Lord, the wedding banquet is the great eternal feast in heaven that begins on the Last Day for all who have trusted in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. 
But all these details exist to make only one vital point—one thing that Jesus wants us to know and believe and put into practice in our lives:  that it is absolutely necessary to be prepared for the Lord’s return—no matter how long it takes.  Jesus says:
"The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 
The picture that we have before us is that of the believing church—each of the virgins representative of the child of God who is pure in God’s sight through faith in Jesus—each of them with the light of faith burning brightly through the powerful oil of the Spirit—each of them waiting for the Lord’s return.  But there was a difference.  Jesus said that:  Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 
Bible scholars tell us that the word used for lamp in this passage describes a kind of torch used at night with enough oil to keep it burning for only about 15 minutes.  And the only difference between those virgins who are called “wise” and those who are called “foolish" is that the wise ones were prepared to wait with extra oil to keep their lamps burning bright--and the foolish ones were not.  Jesus said:
For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.” 
Not only did the wise virgins have enough oil to keep their lamps burning at that moment-- but they were prepared to keep their lamps lit for a long, long time.  So it must be for us as we await our Lord’s return! 
At various times in the Gospels Jesus reminds us that we are to expect his return at any moment.  But here he reminds us that we also ought to be prepared to wait—that the believer who is truly prepared for his return has a supply of the oil of the Spirit to keep his faith burning bright no matter how long it takes for the Lord to return.
For 2000 years the church has had to wait for that day and the simple fact of the matter is that we don’t know if the Lord will return today or if it will be another two thousand years. 
That’s why Jesus says:  "keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour”.  And so we have to make sure that we keep our faith strong until that day of his return whether it comes tomorrow or in 2000 years. 
Our confidence on the day of judgment depends on the measure of God-given wisdom that we exercise on this day and then tomorrow and the next day and throughout our lives—wisdom that causes us to prepare for his return because not only do we need to have a true and living faith right now--we must persevere in that faith throughout our lives and then die in that faith--if we are to enjoy an eternity with God.  You see…
Our faith in Jesus Christ is not a one-time thing but instead it must be renewed and replenished again and again with the Holy Spirit to keep it burning bright throughout our lives.  So how is faith kept alive in us?   
A big part of that renewal and replenishing of the Holy Spirit is what we are doing right now:  worshiping God—hearing his word—receiving the body and blood of Christ.  These are some of the most important ways that the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts-- and strengthens faith in our hearts --and sustains faith in our hearts.
It is the height of spiritual foolishness to neglect God’s Word and sacraments--the means of grace through which the Spirit works to keep our faith strong-- because we simply do not know how long we will have to wait for Jesus to come again. 
Spiritual sloth is deadly to our life of faith just like the sleepy virgins in the parable. Jesus says that:  As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.
It is so easy to grow complacent in our spiritual life—so easy to lay our head back down on the pillow on Sunday mornings and tell ourselves it won’t matter that much just this once if we miss church. 
It is so easy to grow complacent because, let’s face it, it has been a long time since our Lord’s promise that he will come again to judge the living and the dead. 
It’s also easy to get caught up in the pressures of the daily grind—of the pressing need around us—of the” right now” of today’s deadlines-- that it’s difficult to keep in mind the big picture and take the long view when it comes to our Lord’s return.
This is especially true in a culture where we are never disciplined to wait for anything—where the idea of saving for a purchase is ludicrous if there’s a credit card in hand.  We’re not used to waiting-- and all of us, like the ten virgins in our text today, fall victim to spiritual drowsiness at times. 
But today is the day to remember that, no matter how long it takes, the Lord will return and then it will be too late to prepare.  Who and what and whose we are in that moment when he returns-- will be true for us forever.  Jesus says that:
"At midnight there was a cry, `Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'  "Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.  And the foolish said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil; for our lamps are going out.
The sobering reminder from the Lord to us today is the light of faith can go out.  If our faith in Jesus Christ is not regularly replenished by the oil of the Spirit as he works through Word and Sacrament, it will not be there when we need it the most.
The Bible does not teach that, having “once upon a time” been baptized or confirmed or come to faith in Christ that you are spiritually “good to go” throughout your life without a regular spiritual renewal of your faith by hearing God’s word and receiving Christ’s gifts. 
When we die and depart this world—when we face the judgment of God—we must be found steadfast in faith in that moment to be saved. 
The other sobering reminder in these words of our Lord is that we cannot prepare for another Christian.  Jesus said:
The wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.'   
My parents’ faith or my spouse’s faith or my friends’ faith will not save me.  Each of us, individually, for ourselves, must believe in Jesus and be prepared and ready to face his judgment when he comes because on that day it will be too late.  Jesus said that:
"While they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast, and the door was shut. 
Make no mistake about it, the Lord will come again—whether we are prepared or not—and we will either be welcomed into the eternal feast prepared for those who trust and love Jesus--or we will be left on the outside. 
The bible knows absolutely nothing of an in-between place between heaven and hell.  You are either part of the wedding feast of the Lamb or you are not. 
The bible knows nothing of a time of preparation or second chances after our Lord’s return.  You are either with the Lord on the day that the door of grace closes—or you are not.  Jesus said that:
Afterward, the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  But he answered, `Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.'
The great tragedy when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead is that some of those who had every chance to be a part of the great feast of the victorious Lamb—some of those who, for a time, had lamps of faith that were burning bright—will hear from Jesus the most terrible words that can ever be spoken:  “I don’t know you.”
And they will be cast into hell for an eternity of torment and suffering.
There will come a day when the door of salvation will be shut forever and then there is no more time for preparation—nothing that you can do-- to change the verdict that is spoken about you.
But dear friends in Christ, we have this God-given moment, this day of salvation, this time of spiritual preparation to re-commit ourselves to Jesus Christ—to thank him for his life, death, and resurrection that provides the way for us into that wedding feast of the Lamb in his kingdom that has no end. 
We have this day to resolve that, by the help of the Holy Spirit, we will stay close to the Lord throughout our lives, that we will gladly hear his Word and receive him as he comes to us in the sacrament and so stay strong in our faith. 

We have this day and every day until the Lord comes to remain steadfast in our faith so that we are prepared to partake of the feast that has no end.  Watch therefore, for you know neither the day not hour.  Amen.      

Content with the Lord's Provision

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Content with the Lord's Provision

Philippians 4:10-20 What has always been so remarkable to me when I read Paul’s letter to the congregation at Philippi is that this “epistle of joy” was written while Paul was in prison for preaching the gospel. 
He was separated from friends and family members and fellow believers.  He was in a dark and dangerous place.  He didn’t know from one minute to the next what the future held.  And yet it was joy that filled his heart because he knew that the Lord was with him and would provide for him in whatever way was best for him.
How much more can we testify to the same!  We are here in this beautiful place, surrounded by those we love who love us.  All our needs (and the vast majority of our wants!) have been abundantly met by the Lord since we gathered here on this same night last year.
We too can be thankful for what the Lord has provided to us!  We too can be content with the Lord’s provision!  We too can be generous with others!  And we too can be confident that in the same generous way that God has always provided for his people, so he will provide for us in the year to come.  Paul wrote:
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.
            People who were imprisoned in the Roman Empire were not cared for by the state.  If you were to have the necessities of life while you were in prison, if you were to survive, someone on the outside had to care for you and provide for you and meet your needs. 
That is what the saints of God at Philippi had done for Paul. 
Paul thanked God and rejoiced in the Lord for their generosity and care because he knew that they were the means that God used to bless him.
So it is for us on this Thanksgiving Day.  We are fed by the hands of farmers and ranchers.  We are protected by the hands of those who wield the sword in the state.  We are healed by the hands of medical personnel.  It is right to thank God for all these people because we know that it is God who is meeting our needs through them.
It is true that we are not in a Roman prison, but our lives are no less dependent upon the care and concern of others as was Paul’s when he was imprisoned-- and so we are thankful for the work of others on our behalf!
In the same way, we are also thankful that we are able to be of service to others—that our work can be the means that God uses to care for others.  Just think of what it must have meant to the Christians at Philippi to know that God had used them to help Paul! 
And so today we are thankful for our daily work and know that through it God meets the needs of others and cares for them in real ways—that we are God’s hands through which the needs of those around us are met.  Paul wrote:
I am not speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 
            I have learned to be content.  That is what Paul says.  On this Thanksgiving Day can we say the same, that we are content, right here and right now with what the Lord has provided?
Please understand, Paul was not going to die of hunger and thirst and he was not going to freeze to death.  But he was still in prison.  He still did not know from one moment to the next whether he would be executed or not.  He had no idea whether he would ever be released or not.
But he was content, in that moment with the Lord’s provision no matter what the future held for him—whether it was plenty and abundance or hunger and need—he was content because he had learned the secret to contentment.
And so then, what about us tonight, are we content?  Do we even believe in or want contentment.  I’ll never forget a sermon I heard on this text when I was a young man and telling Pastor Wuensche that I thought contentment was a dangerous thing because it made us lazy and complacent. 
I hadn’t lived very long at that point and I still thought that I could move the universe (or at least my own part of it!) by working harder and smarter than everyone else-- and there was no way I was ever going to fall into this trap of contentment!  I didn’t really see that attitude for the idolatry that it was where I was my own sad, petty little god.
And yet, Paul said that he had learned the secret to contentment, that he could do all things through the one who gave him strength.  But wasn’t he in prison?  He was!  Wasn’t he helpless to escape?  He was!  Couldn’t he be executed in any moment?  He could!
But what Paul knew (and young Allan didn’t know!) is that the Lord was actually in control of his life—that the Lord had a plan for his life and the way it ought to go—that in every moment and circumstance and situation the only thing that mattered was God’s will being done and that the Lord would meet his needs so that HIS will was done.
That was enough for Paul and it is enough for us.  We may not have everything we want.  Our life may not be where we want it to be.  But the Lord’s good and gracious will is being done in your life in this moment—and the Lord’s provision for this moment—is more than enough for us to rest in—more than enough for our contentment. 
In fact, the Lord’s strength and the Lord’s provision is so overflowing that we can share it with others.  Paul wrote:
It was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.
            On this Thanksgiving Day we are thankful for everything we have received.  We know and rejoice in the fact that the Lord has given us every material blessing we have need to support our lives. 
But are we thankful for the material blessings we have been able to give to others?  We should be!
The Philippian Christians were known in the early church for their generosity.  From the very beginning they had supported the work of the Gospel throughout the world and now they generously supported Paul in his imprisonment. 
Paul said that their gifts—given in faith and love to meets his needs—were a fragrant offering and sacrifice that was acceptable and pleasing to God. 
Over this last year we have spent lots of money on lots of stuff that doesn’t really matter and with the Christmas shopping season starting tomorrow we are about to do the same thing all over again. 
We will spend because it is the expected social convention.  We will spend because others are spending on us.  We will spend and end up angry rather than thankful.
But when we give to others to meet their needs—when our giving is part of our partnership in the work of the Gospel—this spending and these gifts are something else altogether!
They are gifts that are ultimately offered to God—they are sacrificial acts of love that are pleasing to God and acceptable in his sight because they are given through faith in Jesus.
Here in a few weeks the calendar year will end and we will begin that happy task of gathering up all the financial information necessary to do our taxes and part of that will be our financial statements from church.  For Caroline and I there is nothing else in our financial life that gives us as much joy and opportunity for thanksgiving as what we have given to church and charities and those in need.
I am thankful beyond measure for the opportunities that the Lord gives me to make sure that the fruits of my labor are not just about some toy or trinket but are part of his work in the world to care for people in time and eternity. 
The generosity of the Philippians has never been forgotten and never will be forgotten because the Lord remembers even the smallest act of generosity on the part of his people and promises that the hand we empty through our gifts to others will be filled by again by him. 
Paul wrote:  My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.  To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.
On this Thanksgiving Eve we look back at our lives over this last year and we must confess that there is not one thing needful for body and soul that our Lord has not graciously, generously, abundantly met since gathered here in this place, on this night, one year ago.  Not one! 

And the same has been true for every year before and we have the promise of God that it will be the same in the years to come.  Amen.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Our Christian Duty to God and Country

Matthew 22:15-22 On November 8th, 2016 we went to the polls and cast our vote for a new president.  How did you feel on November 9th? Did you think that the world had come to an end?  Or did you believe that it was the beginning of a new day?  Did you love the fact that Republicans were in control of the government or did you hate it?  Did you trust that our new leaders would do the right thing for our nation or did you doubt it?  Were you hopeful for our nation’s future or did you despair? 
No matter how you felt on November 9th, you probably felt just the opposite four years before-joy and hope in one election, despair and fear in the other.  But here’s the thing, words such as trust and hope and fear really have to do with our life with God—not the government. 
            In the First Commandment the LORD says:  You are to have no other gods before me.  The Hebrew literally says:  You are to have no other gods before my face.  That is a powerful image, isn’t it?  In other word, when the LORD’s face is turned towards us-- and our life as citizens, and how we think about what politics can and can’t do, and how we act in political victory or defeat, and how we regard our leaders, what does he see? 
Does he see that some part of the love and fear and hope and trust and confidence in the future that ought to belong to him alone, is given over to-- or taken away by-- some candidate for office, or political party, or election result?  Does he hear from us hateful speech for those we didn’t vote for-- or the defense of sin in those we did vote for? 
If so, he looks upon Christian citizens who have not done their duty either to him or to the state.   And so then…
How is the person who is both a citizen of the kingdom of God and a citizen of the United States to live out their lives in a way that gives to both God and the state that which is their due?  This is not a new question or a difficulty unique to us—believers have always faced this pull that comes from being part of two different kingdoms.  The Bible says that:
The Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle Jesus in his words.  And they sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians…
            It’s hard to imagine two groups farther apart on the political spectrum as were the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Both groups were Jewish but the Pharisees saw the secular rulers as enemies of God’s people and dreamed of a religious Jewish kingdom. 
The Herodians were essentially secular Jews who (even though they were no fan of the Romans) had made peace with the powers of the day and enjoyed the influence that came with their political support of Herod. 
As far apart as they were politically—what united them was their opposition to Jesus because he pointed the people (not to a political agenda and earthly power which is what both of them were all about) but to the one thing needful:  a life with God. 
The Pharisees wanted to throw off Roman rule.  The Herodians were happy to go along to get along.  Both groups were mistaken because they saw life primarily through the lens of politics and power.  So it still is today among too many Christians in our own country.
A few years ago the religious right seized power in the Republican Party using abortion is the catalyst.  These days, we are told by those in the religious left that Christians should support the welfare state and immigration reform because Jesus says to care for the poor and the outcast.
People are still trying to use, and misuse, Jesus Christ for their own political ends-- just like the Jews did that day.  They said to him:
“Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.
            Even if their motive was impure—their words about Jesus were true.  Jesus embodied the truth- and he taught the way of God faithfully- and did not change with the times or the person that he was speaking to.  He did not adapt himself to a sinful culture.
What that means is that, if you want to know the truth about:  marriage and the value of all human life--about God’s concern for those on the margins of society—about God’s expectation on how we are to live our life as citizens--listen to Jesus. 
Jesus’ guideline that we are to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” is the truth about Christian citizenship because his words ARE God’s Word to us.  The Jews asked him:  Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
When the Jews asked him:  Is it lawful—what they were really asking was:  is it right in God’s sight to pay taxes?  Taxes were already the law of the land.  The Pharisees hated them and saw them as pagan oppression.  The Herodians supported them because it increased their political power.  Both parties had political reasons for their actions and attitudes.  But what was God’s perspective on the whole thing?  That was their question.
Now we know that they didn’t really care one way or the other.  They weren’t willing to change their politics because of the words of Jesus.  They just wanted to trick Jesus--to use him, if they could, for their own political purpose.  If Jesus told the people not to pay their taxes the Herodians would have Jesus arrested.  If Jesus told the people to pay their taxes, the Pharisees would accuse him of siding with Rome.
Both parties had no use for Jesus because he upset their political goals.  But what they received a real answer about what God thought about Christian citizenship.  The Bible says that:
Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 
You will notice that even though they claimed to despise Roman rule they certainly weren’t above benefiting from it.  They had a Roman coin readily available. 
Rome’s currency was a stable, fixed form of economic exchange backed by the greatest power of the day.  Their earthly, economic life was built upon it.  They may not have liked seeing that coin come out of their pocket and go to Rome in the form of taxes --but they sure weren’t opposed to having it in their pocket.  There’s a lesson here for us.
The state is given to us by God for our temporal benefit and no matter how much we may dislike our government and her leaders—no matter how much we may kick and scream about our taxes--we all benefit from the government.  There are countless blessings that come from God’s good gift of the state. 
When Jesus asked the Pharisees for the coin he made an important point about Christian citizenship:  that we ought to be thankful to God for all of the temporal blessings we receive in the gift of government-- even when there are hardships that come with living under the rule of imperfect men like Caesar-- and our own leaders of both parties.  The Bible says that:  Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.”
Here was the face:   of the man who was their conqueror—a man who despised their religion—a man who looked upon them with contempt.  We can understand what that answer cost them when we think about our own visceral reactions to either Obama or Trump.
We live in one of the most politically divided, acrimonious times in our nation’s history.  American citizens—including Christians-- on opposite sides of the political spectrum do not trust one another.  The growing hatred for political opponents in our country is sinful. 
When Christians engage in hateful rhetoric against the government and elected leaders they show that they do not understand God’s word about the state:  that those who govern are God’s ministers for our good. 
This does not mean, and God has never promised, that we will be ruled by those we like- or those who share our faith- or even by those who are admirable.  We won’t!  Nevertheless, God expects Christian citizens to give them that which is their due. 
Jesus says:  Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's.  And so what do we owe the state as Christian citizens?  First of all, we pray for our leaders and those in authority over us.  We do that every Sunday here in this place. 
Second of all, we give our obedience.  There are limits to that—but unless the government commands us to do something that God plainly forbids, we obey our government.
Thirdly, we pay the taxes and revenues and fees required of us.  Finally, we give the honor and respect that is due to those who serve as God’s servants for our temporal good even while we refuse to give them that which is due to God alone.  Jesus says: Render to God the things that are God's.”
Christian citizens must not give the state that which belongs to God.  We are to fear, love, and trust in him above all things—even above the country we love. 

And so then, our hope for the future is not in the next election or the promises of some political party—it is in God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth.  Our faith and trust is not in not in some political candidate—it is in Jesus who died and rose again for our salvation.  And our love—our first love—is not for our nation, it is for the God who has given us this good land and expects us to live in it as pilgrims and aliens—fearing, loving, and trusting him above all else. Amen. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

We Are Blessed to Be God's People

Matthew 5:1-12 There is a distorted view of Christianity out there right now that says we have every right to expect that God will make us rich and healthy and successful in all we undertake.  These false prophets of health and wealth say that this is what it means to be blessed by God.
But truth be told, the vast majority of Christians on earth right now—to say nothing of our fellow Christians who have come before—were not, and are not, rich and healthy and successful.  They are poor.  They suffer persecution.  They are anything but powerful.
And so then, are they not blessed—these saints who have come before us and our fellow saints who endure hardship and suffering?  Is their faith somehow insufficient or deficient?  Do they just need to pray harder and trust more?  Or is the real problem a mistaken view of what it means to be blessed by God?  If so, where can we learn the truth?  The Bible says that:
Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.  And he opened his mouth and taught them... 
            All of us have our own ideas about what it means to be blessed by God.  All of us know the kind of blessings we want.  The question for us today is, are we willing to put all of those presuppositions aside and let ourselves be taught by Jesus?  Are we willing to set aside our preferences and our expectations and let Jesus teach us what a life of God’s blessing is like?
            We should, for Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves.  He loves us so much that he has given his life in exchange for ours.  If there is anybody that we should listen to when it comes to our life here on earth and the blessings we can expect from God it is Jesus.
            So what does Jesus teach about a life that is blessed by God.  What does that kind of life look like?  Jesus says a life of God’s blessing is a life where our spiritual needs for forgiveness and salvation are met; a life of purpose in which we are called to live as God’s children; a life lived in such close fellowship with Jesus that we too will bear a cross.  Jesus said:
 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.   “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 
            Everyone in the world understands the necessity of food and drink and clothing and shelter to support this earthly life.  Everyone wants material blessings. But for so many people that is as far as their understanding of what life is all about goes. 
They are blind to their need for a life with God.  They are deaf to his call to come to him and be saved.  And so they live their life as if this life is all there is, never really understanding that there is a chasm of sin and guilt and shame that separates them from the only One who can give their life meaning and purpose.
That is why it is such a blessing from God to know—as painful as it is—what our real condition is:  poor, hungry, helpless.  In this knowledge of our own spiritual poverty and grief over our lost condition- there is the beginning of a new life blessed by God.
That is why Jesus teaches us that those who are poor in spirit and those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed by God—because it is there in mourning and poverty and hungering that our spiritual needs are abundantly met by Jesus Christ.
He is the One who pours out upon our poverty the riches of his grace; who satisfies our hunger and thirst for righteousness with his own holy life and reconciling death; who changes our mourning into rejoicing as he forgives our sins and brings us back into God’s family. 
We have nothing to fear by valuing spiritual blessings above material blessings or in putting his kingdom above the kingdom of this world because Jesus promises that those who are meek and humble will not only have their earthly needs met—they will inherit the earth.
It is this promise (that there can be no loss for the child of God) that frees us to live our lives for him, walking in his steps, and making him manifest to others.  Jesus said:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.   “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 
            The Bible says that through faith in Jesus Christ we are children and heirs of God—that in Holy Baptism we have been buried and raised with Christ—that we have been transformed by the renewing of our minds.  We have been purified by the cleansing blood of Jesus. 
This is the change that the Holy Spirit has worked in by bringing us to faith in Christ and that is the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in us right now by conforming us into his image.
Our life as God’s children is not about a list of “do’s and don’ts” –it’s not about fear of punishment if we get something wrong because Jesus has already suffered that for us on the cross.  Instead, we are blessed by God to make Jesus known by how we live our lives.
We are merciful to others because Christ has been merciful to us.  That word mercy has to do with the powerful acting with kindness.  Now you may not think that you are in a position of power—but you are. 
That person who waits on you in a restaurant—that person who works for you—that student in your class—that person who is much younger than you or much older than you or much poorer than you—that child in your home or your wife--all of them are in some way less powerful than you as a consumer and a boss and a parent and a teacher and a husband. 
In the same way that Jesus used his power to help us—so are we to mercifully serve others.  In these relationships and in all our interactions with others we are to be people of peace.
That we have a life with God—that we stand under his blessing-- is only because Jesus Christ has made peace between us and him by his blood shed on the cross and in the same way we are to be people of peace who extend his peace to others.
In all this we are called by the Spirit to live out Christ’s life in our own life in such a meaningful way that those around us can come to know Jesus through us but as we do that we should also understand the hardships that come with living a life like his.  Jesus says:
 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
            Jesus was merciful, holy, righteous and peaceful.  You would think that the world would have welcomed him with open arms.  And of course many have.  Today we remember and give thanks for all those saints who have confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior. 
But for every one of those who have loved and served Jesus there have been countless more who have rejected him.  We cannot forget that Jesus’ holy, righteous, merciful life led to the cross and so it will for all those who walk in his ways.
That is why Jesus says that those who are persecuted and reviled for his sake are actually blessed because these hardships and sufferings reveal (in a way that nothing else can) the truth of their confession:  that they are actually God’s people and Jesus’ disciples—saints of God.
And so when we go through some hardship because of our faith—when we are rejected by others because we hold fast to the truth—when others speak ill of us on account of our love for Jesus—we can count these as divine testimonies that we are destined for heaven. Jesus said:
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
It may seem odd to many people in the world today—and even those in the church who have bought into the false gospel of health and wealth—to hear Jesus teach that mourning and hungering and thirsting and persecution are occasions for rejoicing and gladness but it is only because they do not understand that a life of God’s blessing is (finally and in the end) a life that is connected to Jesus Christ. 
And because the servant is not above his Master, how can our lives as Christian people be any different than his?  Both in the hardships and difficulties-- but also in the joys!
Jesus’ rejection by his own people and the betrayal of fiends and his death on the cross was not the end of his story and hardship and persecution will not be the end of our story.  Yes, Jesus died but he was also raised from the dead and ascended into heaven to take his place with God in glory and beauty and joy that has no end.
So it will be for us!  We can be glad for earthy blessings but our hope for the future ought to be directed to what is still to come when we go to be with God and the saints in heaven—a place where there is no suffering or sorrow or separation—but only peace and joy.
We don’t have to worry that in following Jesus as Lord and Savior we are somehow missing out or that it is not worth it.  We don’t have to worry when we go through hard times that somehow the blessings of God have left us. 
Instead, the hardships of being a disciple of Jesus Christ are a sure sign that we are on the right track—that narrow road that leads to heaven. 
Those false prophets in the church who say that a life blessed by God is nothing but health and wealth and earthly success simply cannot account for the millions and millions of Christians who were martyred for their faith—Christian who had to endure a lifetime of suffering—Christians who were weak and despised by the powers of this dark and dying world.

Instead, Jesus tells us that God’s blessing rests upon his saints even when they suffer because they are forgiven by his blood and walk in his ways.  What a blessing on All Saints Days to be reminded that a life that is truly blessed by God is a life where our spiritual needs are met; a life filled with the holy purpose of making Christ know to others by how we live; a life that is so close to Jesus that we too are called to carry our cross.  Amen.