Thursday, July 19, 2018

"The Church Is Built by God"

Ephesians 2:11-22 Every church wants to grow.  I want this congregation to grow.  I want us to have more members and more ministries.  I want to see our school expand.  I want to see our enrollment go up.  I want to add workers.  I want to increase our opportunities for service. 
But not as an end unto itself.  Not so that we can claim to be the biggest church or largest school.  But because growth and enrolment and expansion means people—people who are hearing about Jesus—people who are growing in their faith—people who are taking their place in God’s kingdom—people who have a life with God for time and eternity. 
Growth matters because the salvation of people matters and we want that to be true for as many people in our community as possible.  And so we make long-term plans and begin ministries and buy buildings and call workers and invite people to worship—all of us doing our part to make sure that our ministry in this place is growing and reaching as many as possible.
But what we are reminded of today—what is important for us to remember—is that God is the One who ultimately grows the church—he is the builder of the Body of Christ in this place.  About the early church, the Bible says that, “The Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”  That promise ought to give us a great deal of courage and comfort and confidence, that God can be counted on to grow his church.
What we discover today in God’s Word is that God builds the church with all kinds of different people, all who need his salvation; he builds it in the Lord Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection; and God builds the Church through the Good News of Jesus.  The Bible says:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 
            In the seventh chapter of Revelation we have a beautiful picture of the church in glory.  The Bible says that there are people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, salvation belongs to our God.
            That was a faith challenge for the Jews—to believe that Gentiles could ever have a life with God.  The faith challenge for us is to believe that the great multitude that will live forever in heaven, the great multitude that is clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, that great multitude that joins in eternal praises for the victory of Jesus over sin and death-- is comprised of the people in our community that we interact with each and every day.  Jesus says:  open your eyes, the fields are white for harvest.  He can see it!  Can we?
The young family who have given their children everything except the one thing needful; the bitter old man who has heaped scorn on the church his whole life; the rebellious young person who is caught up in some terrible sin; the countless people whose lifestyles appall us and whose native cultures we have no natural connection to, are separated from God and without hope waiting to take their place in the church.
Every one of them, without exception, are objects of Christ’s redeeming love.  Perhaps we have a difficulty seeing them that way—as people that God wants to see in that great multitude in heaven—because we have forgotten that we were once just like them: knowing nothing of Christ, alienated from God, without hope.  That’s who we are by nature.
That’s why God wants us to remember where we came from, so that we would understand that the divisions between us and others that make those around us seem so foreign to us-- are nowhere near so great is what unites us to them and to every person on earth:  and that is the great need to be brought to God by the blood of Christ.  The Bible says:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
            During his earthly ministry our Lord Jesus Christ said, I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except by me.  No one comes to the Father except by me.  We struggle to believe that-not that he said it, we all know that—but the implications of what it means for all people and the claim it makes upon our own life!
No one will have a life with God, no one will be forgiven, no one will be saved, apart from Jesus.  No one!  Not the young or old.  Not the sincere believer in another religion.  Not the generous or kind.  Not the good citizen or friendly neighbor or brave patriot or sweet little child in our classroom.  No one comes to the Father except by Jesus.  Instead…
Everyone by nature, without exception, is separated from God.  He is holy and we are not.  He has a will for our lives expressed in the commandments that we have not fulfilled and he expects a perfection from us that is exactly like his own, every day and in every way and yet we do not come close.  And so then…
The relationship that sinful mankind has with a holy God by nature is one of hostility and enmity and outright rebellion so that his righteous wrath rests upon every person without exception and would remain for eternity if someone had not come to our rescue. 
Thanks be to God, Jesus has!  God has not changed, in the least little bit, his expectations for how we are to live our lives but Jesus Christ has met that expectation for all of us in his perfectly holy life.  God has not withheld his holy, righteous wrath that punishes sin but has poured it out upon his Son at the cross instead of on us in the fires of hell.  Because of this…
Jesus Christ is the peace treaty between God and man.  He is the narrow way by which the chasm of sin and death is bridged so that we can come into God’s presence.  His is the righteousness that allows us to life in God’s presence and be counted as his children and enter into the courts of heaven, having his victory over sin and death.
That is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  That is how God builds the Church in Jesus Christ.  That is what God wants to do for every person in this world—to remove that dividing wall of hostility that keeps people form having a life with God and to remove the dividing wall of hostility that keeps us from having real fellowship with one another.
In the early church, the greatest divisions that separated men from one another was the division between Jew and Gentile.  But God wanted them to understand:  the great need that they both had for Christ’ salvation and that once they were members of the Body of Christ through the man of the cross, those human divisions of race and ethnicity no longer mattered. 
They were one man in Christ—no matter how divided one from another they had been before—they were brethren in the same family, citizens of the same kingdom, members of the same body.  That spiritual is to be seen in the church that is built by God in Christ.  And yet…
Martin Luther King Jr. said that, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."  He was absolutely right. 
From the very beginning, God has built his church in Jesus Christ with all kinds of different people taking their place in it.  Our Lord Jesus Christ reached out to Jews and Greeks and Samaritans.  The Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost on people from all over the world.  An Ethiopian eunuch took his place in the church alongside Jewish priests and Greek women and citizens of Rome. 
The picture from Revelation is a church made up of people from every nation, tribe, people and language.  So it must be for us as God builds his church in this place and the Lord adds to our number those he is saving—that our hearts and arms are welcome to all people. 
We are a fairly homogenous congregation when it comes to the ethnic makeup of our membership, but brothers and sisters, our community is not.  38.5% of the population of San Angelo is Hispanic and so as we think about reaching out into our community, we must look at it with the Lord’s eyes who saw every person as someone who need to hear the Good News and come to him in faith.  The Bible says that Jesus:
came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
            Humanly speaking, when it comes to building the church, we can hire the right staff and call the right workers and develop long range plans and adapt our worship style and music choices and especially try to avoid doing things that tear down the church rather than build it up.
But it is God who builds the church with all kinds of people, in his Son Jesus Christ, and he does that in only one way:  through the proclamation of the Gospel of peace that is found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
That’s it—the whole thing—and it always has been.  There may be twenty thousand people sitting in your arena but if they have not heard and believed the gospel of Jesus Christ you do not have, in that place, the church that God is building.
When Jesus commissioned to the apostles to make disciples, he gave them the water and the Word of the Gospel.  And that was enough!  It was enough because God promised that the Holy Spirit would work through these humble means and the humble lives of those who used these means. 
So it continues today.  Through the Words of the prophets and apostles the peace and hope we have in Jesus Christ is being proclaimed in this place and throughout the world so that people ARE being joined together in the church, a spiritual kingdom is growing, and the church is being built by God.
What a blessing it is to know that we are also part of that building and joining together and that growing that the Spirit is doing in this world!  What a comfort to know that we will one day take our place with those who are clothed in the righteousness of Christ and enter into our heavenly home!  And what a challenge we have to make sure that we are doing all within our power to make sure that as many as possible on our community of part of that eternal multitude who can say:  salvation belongs to our God!.  Amen.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Blessed in Christ With Every Spiritual Blessing

Ephesians 3:1-14 God’s plan to save the world through his Son Jesus Christ was not an afterthought- or one option among many -or a stopgap measure when everything else failed.  It was always God’s plan to save the world in this way by giving us his Son at just the right time so that he could redeem the world.
            It is the best possible news for us that in the same patient, wise, loving way that God has planned for and accomplished the salvation of the WORLD in his Son Jesus Christ, so he has planned for and accomplished OUR salvation in particular, blessing us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. The Bible says:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
            What God wants us to know and believe this morning is that all of the promises of the prophets stretching back to the Garden of Eden-- and all of the great events in salvation history-- and all of the works and words of Jesus-- were accomplished so that we would be blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
Forgiveness for our sins.  Peace with God and a place in his family.  Divine guidance for our earthly lives.  Another life to come when this life is over.  All of these and more are the spiritual blessings we have in Jesus Christ.  And they are blessings IN Christ.
There is no forgiveness apart from Jesus-- there is only guilt and shame.  There is no peace with God or a place in his family without Jesus-- there is only rebellion and warfare and God as our enemy.  There is no divine guidance for our earthly lives without Jesus-- there is only darkness and finally despair.  And there is no heaven without Jesus-- there is only the terrible specter of eternal punishment in hell.
The blessings that God gives to us in Jesus Christ have changed everything for us and how can we not join our voice to Paul and all of God’s faithful people to bless him for his goodness and praise him for his mercy that has led to our salvation—a salvation that he has planned for us from before the foundation of the world.  The Bible says that God:
chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love [God] predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
            The Good News for us on this Lord’s Day is that what God has graciously accomplished for our salvation:  by sending his Son Jesus Christ and calling us to faith and guiding us to heaven--God has purposed and planned to do for us from before the foundation of the world.  We are chosen in Christ to be right in God’s sight and predestined to be God’s children.
It has always been God’s purpose for us that our sins and guilt and shame would be taken away by the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross so that we could stand before him in time and eternity holy and blameless. 
It has always been his plan for us that Jesus would set us free from the devil’s dominion and restore us to our place as beloved children in his family, adopted as sons and daughters in the waters of Holy Baptism. 
It has always been his will to bless us with every spiritual gift in Jesus Christ so that all of eternity would be filled with the praises of God’s people for his gracious love.
At the center of God’s purpose, plan and will to save the world and God’s purpose, plan, and will to save us personally and individually stands Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son, in whom alone are all these blessings of life and salvation are found.
How can we ever thank and praise God enough for his undeserved mercy and love and saving will in Jesus Christ that extends to us—not in just some general way—but for us, personally and individually?! 
It is in Jesus that we can know beyond any shadow of a doubt that God’s purpose, plan, and will towards us is one of love.  The Bible says that:
In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 
            God has revealed his saving will for the world in general and for us in particular in Jesus Christ.  When our eyes of faith gaze upon the Christ Child; when our eyes of faith are turned to the cross; when our ears of faith hear the words of the risen Christ:  Because I live, you also shall live; how can we ever doubt God’s love for us?!  It is only in Jesus that we can begin to understand the love God has for all people and for us personally and individually. 
It is a love and care and concern that does not change or diminish with time.  It is not pinched or narrow or sparse.  It is abundant and overflowing and everlasting.  We can draw from God’s love again and again without ever worrying that somehow, some way, someday, our trespasses will cause it to run out.
God reveals the mystery of his saving will for us which began before the foundation of the world so that we can be confident in every moment and circumstance of life—in joys and sorrows—in plenty and in want—that we have always been loved and will always be loved.  The Bible says that:
In [Jesus] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.
            There are so many comforting truths found in our text today!  We have been redeemed from Satan’s dominion not with gold or silver but with the blood of Christ.  We have been adopted into God’s family through faith in Jesus.  Clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ we are holy and blameless in God’s sight.  And God has always intended to lavish upon his unending mercy and grace.  How can we ever praise him sufficiently for his goodness to us in Jesus Christ?!
But in my mind, what we heard just now is perhaps the most comforting of all:  that God works all things in accordance with the purpose of his will.  And so what does that mean for us?
It means that:  the God who has loved us with an everlasting love—the God who has sent his son to shed his life’s blood for us—the God who has graciously made us one of his children—the God who has given us an inheritance of life and hope and peace—is, at this moment and every moment in our lives, working all things according to the purpose of his will to save us and bring us safely to our heavenly home.
Let’s be clear, that phrase “all things” means just exactly what it says.  In other words, this same wise, good, loving God who has planned, not just for the world’s salvation, but for our salvation, is wisely, lovingly working ALL things in our lives for that same, saving purpose—so that we would be saved.
And so then, we can be certain that:  in every moment, every circumstance, every situation, every decision, every relationship--the God who loves us with an everlasting love—the God who gave his Son to die for us-- is working all of it so that it will ultimately lead to our salvation.
Our joys and sorrows—our gains and losses—our successes and failures—every bit of it God is working for our good so that it all comes together for our salvation.
God has accomplished our salvation in this way—from a plan in eternity he made-- to a sacrifice in time he gave-- to the individual particulars of our life that he orders-- so that he receives all the glory. 
When it comes to our salvation, it is God’s work alone, a gift of his inexhaustible grace received by us in faith, worked in us and sealed in us by the Holy Spirit.  The Bible says that:
In [Jesus] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
            The Bible says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God—that God has chosen to give us birth by the word of truth—that we have been born again through the living word of God—that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all of those who believe.
The point is this:  our place in God’s plan to save the world, a plan that includes us personally and individually, was accomplished in us personally and individually as the Good News of Jesus was preached to us and the Holy Spirit converted us and came to dwell in our lives.
That we can say Jesus is Lord—that we know the mystery of God’s saving will—that we have been adopted into God’s family-- is only because of the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, who has brought us to faith, and who will keep us in faith until we go to heaven.
Dear friends in Christ, it is the best possible news that God’s plan to save the world in his Son Jesus Christ includes us personally and individually!  May God grant us his grace and the Spirit’s help to believe it for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.    

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Thus Says the LORD God!

Ezekiel 2:1-5 The LORD spoke to Ezekiel and said:  “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak to you.”  When the heavens are opened and Ezekiel sees the glory of God, Ezekiel lay with his face in the dust before the LORD because that is the only position a sinful man can take in the presence of a holy God.  God is God and we are not and the Bible says, “If thou LORD shouldest mark iniquities, O LORD who shall stand?”
            Sinful man may not stand in God’s presence as if we are equals and Ezekiel is indeed a son of man—a part of the human family that is, by nature, broken by sin, riddled by guilt, and consumed by shame—and so is every other man who is called to preach.
            Certainly members of this congregation understand that!  That I have very real, sinful failings surely does not come as a shock to anyone who has been paying attention over these last four years of my ministry here at Trinity.  I too am a son of man!
But it doesn’t hurt for both pastors and people to be reminded of the fact that those who preach-- are called out from the exact same sinful people of those whom they are called to preach to—they are no different and certainly no better!
            For preachers, this text is a healthy remedy and corrective for any temptation to pride of position: that somehow preachers are a little bit better than everyone else or have a step up on everyone else because of their calling.  It’s simply not so. 
            And for those who are hearers of the Word, the call of “sons of men” to preach is an important reminder that no preacher has a right to hold himself up as the standard for his congregation and no preacher ought to have an expectation to be heard on the basis of his own holiness or experience—but only because he brings God’s people God’s Word through which the Spirit does his work of raising us from sin and death.  The Bible says:
Then the Spirit entered me when He spoke to me, and set me on my feet; and I heard Him who spoke to me.
             Ezekiel had to be lifted up by God’s Spirit who worked through the Word that was spoken so that he could stand in God’s sight unashamed and unafraid. 
That is true not just for Ezekiel- and not just for those who preach- but for every one of us here today!  It’s exactly the way that God continues to work in every sinner’s life!  We can stand in God’s presence ONLY when he himself has raised us up from the death of sin by his Word in Baptism, Preaching, Absolution, and Eucharist.
            That a sinful man can be used of God and speak his Word and administer his sacraments is a sure sign of God’s grace that none are beyond God’s ability to save.
            Now, having said that there is absolutely no difference between pastor and people when it comes to their standing before God—no difference in their sinfulness and need for salvation--there is, nevertheless, a difference between them in their vocation and responsibilities.
That difference is found in the pastor’s call to go and proclaim God’s Word in a particular place to a particular people.  The LORD said to Ezekiel:  “Son of man, I am sending you to the children of Israel…”  Ezekiel was sent by God!
            No less than Ezekiel, every pastor’s call comes from the Lord.  Ezekiel received his call directly from the Lord without any mediating groups or individuals.  Pastors today receive their calls via congregations or church bodies who gather to ask the Spirit’s blessing and guidance in choosing a pastor. 
But whether they are prophets or apostles or pastors, they are no less calls from the Holy Spirit to go to a particular place and people and preach the Word.  The call of the Holy Spirit is the basis of the preacher’s authority!
            Ezekiel had absolutely nothing in himself to commend him to the people of Israel—in and of himself he was no better than the next guy.  But what he did have was much more important than his own personal gifts and abilities and worthiness!  He had the call of God the Holy Spirit to go and preach! 
That was his authority and that was the foundation of his ministry and so it continues to be today.
            I am more thankful than you will ever know that God has blessed me with this congregation.  I can honestly say that I love you in the Lord as your pastor—as I am called to do—and that I also genuinely like you and enjoy your company and count my service to you a joy. 
But my preaching- and your hearing- is not based upon our liking one another but upon God’s love for us all and his desire to save us from our sins which is why the ministry of the Word exists at all.  The LORD said to Ezekiel:
I am sending you to the children of Israel to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day. For they are impudent and stubborn children. I am sending you to them. 
The “them” that Ezekiel is sent to, are described by God as “rebellious, impudent, and stubborn” and of course we know from the biblical history of the Israelites that was exactly the case!  God was absolutely right in his judgments!
            Despite knowing God’s expectations for their lives—despite having witnessed some of the greatest miracles recorded in the Bible—despite having promised countless times to “straighten up and fly right”—the Israelites continued on a path of disobedience and sin.  They were indeed “rebellious, impudent, and stubborn.”
            But their story is the universal story of humanity—of our waywardness from God’s path, our resistance to God’s correction, and our unwillingness to put our whole-hearted faith and trust in God.
            We may have trouble seeing ourselves as “rebellious, impudent, and stubborn” but according to our sinful flesh that is exactly what we are—just like the people of Ezekiel’s day. 
And yet God loved them and us and wants all people to turn from their sinful ways and put their whole-hearted trust in him and be forgiven and restored in his sight and that is why he sends preachers to say:  ‘Thus says the Lord GOD.’  
Ezekiel’s ministry of the Word—his proclamation of God’s enduring, steadfast love-- was the means through which God accomplished his saving purpose in the lives of his people—turning them from their sin and renewing their status as his sons and daughters.
            Ezekiel, as a prophet of God, had but one purpose and that was to give voice to God on earth—to tell all who would hear:  God’s correction and rebuke to be sure!  But more importantly to assure them of God’s love for them and his promise to deliver them from their slavery and restore them in his sight.
            The content of every pastor’s message today must be exactly the same:  to say to those to whom he is called:  thus saith the Lord!  To preach the law of God in all its severity-- but also to preach the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. 
Business success is gauged by an owner’s ability to give the consumer what they want in an ever-changing marketplace but the preacher has no right to change God’s Word or tailor it to fit his audience—his success is measured by one criteria alone—his faithful proclamation of God’s Word.  That’s what Ezekiel did.
            The promise of deliverance and freedom that Ezekiel preached to the people of Israel was true indeed—they were set free from slavery in Babylon--but it was still only a picture/sign/promise of what was to come in God’s ultimate deliverance-- of not just the Jews but the whole world in the Messiah—his own Son Jesus Christ. 
            You see dear friends in Christ, Jesus Christ was the true prophet of God from whom all other prophets and priests and pastors derive their office. 
Jesus not only spoke the Word of God, he was the Word of God incarnate, and he is the content of every preacher’s message today and he is the means by which God reconciles the world to himself.  The Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.
            But then and now, what the Lord says must be believed if we are to be saved from sin.  The LORD said to Ezekiel: 
As for them, whether they hear or whether they refuse—for they are a rebellious house—yet they will know that a prophet has been among them. 
The exiles saw the promises of God through Ezekiel come to pass as they returned home from exile.  We know the promises of God fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
And so when we come into God’s presence each Lord’s Day to hear and study God’s Word, we ought to have the glad confidence that we have heard nothing less than the voice of God himself and willingly give him our faith and obedience.  Amen.