Friday, September 28, 2018

Have Salt In Yourselves

Mark 9:38-50 Jesus said that we Christians are the salt of the earth-- but he also warned us that we can lose our “saltiness”.  That is, we can lose the distinctive effect that we are supposed to have on the world around us so that we give no distinctive “flavor” of Christ to our relationships—no distinctive “purifying” effect to the world around us because our lives are no different than those who do not believe in Jesus.
But the “well-seasoned” disciple is different.  These disciples know that they are called to be salt and light in a dark and decaying world by letting the purifying work of the Spirit do its work in their hearts and by letting the “salt” of the Word give a distinctive Christian flavor to the way they live their lives.
As we consider what it means to be filled with salt from God’s Word we will see that this kind of Christian:  1. supports the mission of Jesus Christ 2.  is careful to cause no one to sin (not even themselves) and 3.  is filled with the Word so that their lives always have a distinctive Christian “flavor.”  The Bible says that:
John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 
The Bible says in 1 John that “The Son of God appeared to destroy the works of Satan.”  In other words, the saving mission of Jesus Christ was being accomplished by that man who was casting out demons-- but the disciples wanted to stop it because they weren’t the ones doing it. 
Perhaps there was some jealousy in their hearts because not too long before this conversation the disciples had failed at this very task of casting out a demon.  But Jesus quickly set them straight.  He said: 
“Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  For the one who is not against us is for us.
            The “well-seasoned” disciple takes the Lord’s words to heart and understands that the mission of Jesus is much greater than our own little group--even if that group is the original twelve disciples. 
Jesus has destroyed the power of the devil and broken the bonds of death and he wants every Christian everywhere to have a part in that mission of setting people free from Stan’s dominion by sharing the Gospel.
Far beyond the walls of our own congregation are fellow Christians who are working in the harvest field of souls and we are glad to support the mission of Jesus beyond our own congregation and want to make sure that we ourselves are a part of that mission through our own works of mercy and witness.  Jesus says:
Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. 
            Compared to driving our demons, giving a cup of water to fellow Christian may not seem like such a big thing.  But the Lord’s accounting is very different than ours!  Every work of mercy done in Jesus’ name is remembered by him and will be graciously rewarded by him on the Last Day.
And so when we gather food for the poor and serve meals to the homeless and welcome women in the midst of troubled pregnancies and take a stand for the sanctity of human life, we are doing a work that pleases the Lord. 
The “well-seasoned” disciple knows that they are called to support the mission of Christ through gifts and service.  We also know that we are called to holiness of life so that we do not undermine the salvation of those who are brought to faith. Jesus says:
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 
            When a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ a great spiritual battle has been fought and won.  The forces of death and hell that reigned over that person’s life have been conquered by the Lord of Life.  A prisoner bound by chains of sin in Satan’s kingdom has been set free.  Hell has lost a soul and heaven gained one.
But from that moment on, there is another battle for that person—the battle against sin—the battle of faith.  The “well-seasoned” disciple knows they have been called to walk in newness of life so they do not undermine the faith of a fellow disciple. Let me explain. 
Imagine for a moment a person who has just come to faith.  They know that the way they lived their lives in the past was outside of God’s will and deserving of his eternal punishment.  They want to live a new life. 
But there are Christians around them who engage in the same sins that once afflicted them.  Christians who don’t take seriously the call to live a holy life.  Christians who are cavalier about making use of the means of grace. 
And seeing this poor example in the lives of those who have been Christians for years, their own, new lives of faith are undermined.  They return to the sins that they left behind.  They don’t feed their new faith with God’s Word and Sacraments.  And having little root, they fall away from faith in Christ. 
Jesus says that it would be better to be drowned in the depths of the sea than destroy the faith of a fellow Christian by our sins. 
“Well-seasoned” disciples are called to preserve the faith of those around them rather than cause it to decay by unholy living.  And that is true about our own lives too—we are called to holiness of life for the sake of our own faith journey.  Jesus says that:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’
            If these words of Jesus do not convey to us just how seriously Jesus takes sin and how seriously he calls us to holiness of life—nothing will! 
We are to let absolutely nothing lead us to sin—not even the members of our body.  We are to be willing to sacrifice everything if it is leading us to hell—even the members of our body.
Living in sin will destroy our lives eternally.  Hell is real.  It is eternal.  It is terrible.  It is unending, unquenchable, fiery torment—and it is the final destination for all of those who live in unrepentant sin.  We must fight against sin all our days so that we do not fall from faith.  Now, having said that…
Jesus, of course, knew perfectly well that cutting off our hands and feet and eyes and ears will not cure our sin problem because our broken-ness goes to the very center of our being.  But he wants us to see the same-- and so he uses this vivid language about a sacrifice for sin so great that we cannot provide it. 
But he can—and did.
To set us free from sin, his hands and feet that never sinned were pierced for our transgressions.  His lips that never spoke an unkind word were beaten and broken.  His eyes that never looked upon evil filled with blood from a crown of thorns pressed upon his head—and he died for us, in our place—every member of his body an instrument of righteousness for our salvation.
It is not necessary to cut off our hands and feet and pluck out our eyes to be free from sin.  Something much more difficult is required—and that is to be born again into a new life—something that must be done for us by God through his Word and Spirit.  Jesus says:
Everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
            At the beginning of this morning’s sermon we hear our Lord tells us that we are the salt of the earth.  He also said that we are the light of the world. 
Both of these images convey the distinctive difference the Christian is to have on this dark and decaying world.  But what accounts for that difference?  What makes us the salt of the earth?  What gives a Christ-like “flavor” to our lives? 
            The difference is the Holy Spirit working new life in us through Word.  James said that we have been born again through the Word of Christ.  John the Baptist said that we have been baptized—not just with water—but with the fire of the Spirit.  Our lives are shaped and guided by that same Sprit who brought us to life by the Word.
The “well-seasoned” disciple knows the importance that the Word of God plays in the life of faith and how a faith that is not fed by Word and Sacrament can lose its distinctive “flavor”.  And so the “well-seasoned” disciple makes sure that they stay connected to Jesus through the Word so that they are “salted” for service again and again.
We make it a point to study God’s Word and attend church and Sunday School so that the Word of God can have it’s purifying, enlightening effect on their lives and on the lives of those we touch through our service and witness.  Amen.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

True Greatness in the Kingdom of God

Mark 9:30-37 We know how the world works, don’t we?  “You gotta sacrifice to get ahead.  You get what you pay for.  You have to believe in yourself.  It’s not what you know–it’s who you know.  Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make your own luck.  The one who dies with the most toys–wins.”  We know how the world works.
And if we were not Christians, this world-view would pose no moral or emotional or spiritual difficulties for us at all.  We could take our place with the rest of the rats in the race and claw our way to the top of the corporate ladder–or at least as close to the top as our own efforts could take us.
But the fact of the matter is (and the difficulty for us living in the world as we do) is that we are Christians.  And even if we’re not bible scholars, we know that Jesus has said some rather disquieting things about how we ought to live–unsettling because his words stand in direct opposition to how we understand life in this world.
Jesus says that the poor in spirit and those who mourn and those who are persecuted are blessed.  He says that the meek will inherit the earth.  He tells that rich young man with all the toys to sell what he has and the rich, successful, enterprising farmer-- he calls a fool.

That is certainly NOT how the world around us works, but time and time again Jesus makes the point that true greatness in God’s kingdom is not a matter of titles and authority and the use of power-- but of service and sacrifice and self-less deeds of love.  Jesus said:
“The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.  They will kill him, and after three days, he will rise.  But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.”

The words that Jesus spoke were simple enough, weren’t they?  Betrayal.  Death.  Resurrection.  The words are easy to understand.  But what they meant–what they meant for Jesus and for them--that was the difficult part, that’s what was hard for the disciples to understand.
To hear that Jesus would suffer and die and then that his life might have some connection with what they could expect for their own lives as his disciples–that they too would be called to lead a life of sacrificial service--never crossed their minds.  You see–they had bigger plans.
As soon as the disciples recognized and confessed Jesus as the Messiah they began forming a mental picture of what life would be like for them in the kingdom. Jesus would be king of course, but surely there would be positions and power and plenty for them too–after all they were the inner circle–and that’s how the world works.
That’s the way the disciples were thinking about how things would be in the kingdom and because all this talk of betrayal and death didn’t fit in with the way they thought things were going to go--they chose to ignore it–and go on planning who got to be the greatest.
It’s easy for us sitting here today who know the rest of the story to say to ourselves, “Oh those silly disciples!  How could they have been so dense?  How could they be thinking about these worldly matters when Jesus was about to die?” 
And yet, can we honestly say, that we, with a much greater knowledge of the Kingdom at this moment than the disciples had at that moment, are really all that different?  Don’t we have our own expectations about what life will be like for us since we are a part of the Kingdom of God?  Expectations that, if we’re honest with ourselves, are not all that spiritual?
We would never admit to wanting to be first, after all, we’ve got too much “aw-shucks” humility for that, but desiring material blessings–a happy, healthy life–an honorable, dignified place in the community–that will be sufficient for me if it’s all the same for you Lord.
And then when Jesus fails to give us our fair share of the spoils–when we are called upon to suffer some kind of loss–when we undergo just a bit of discomfort for being a Christian (never mind persecution-) we scream bloody murder…despite the fact that Jesus said that his disciples must take up their own cross and the servant is not above the master.

Let’s be honest, we know why the disciples didn’t understand, don’t we?  They didn’t want to!  As they walked along together, Jesus knew what the disciples were talking about–what was in their hearts–and he knows what is in ours.
When Jesus was in the house, he asked them, “What were you talking about on the road?”  But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
I guess they did!  Do you see the terrible irony in this scene?  Here they were in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth–the Messiah promised of old–true God in human flesh–and they were arguing about who was the greatest.
With Jesus’ simple question, “what were you guys talking about”, they saw the irony--they got the point—they were struck to the heart--and all they could was hang their heads in silent shame.
Dear friends in Christ, can we do any less?  The petty power plays we engage in our marriages–our families–our workplaces–our churches.  The keen eye we have for making sure we get our fair share.  And dare I even mention our disappointment with God because we don’t have all that we desired or expected from being a part of his Kingdom?
Here today, in the presence of Jesus (no less than the disciples of that day) we too are struck to the heart by our sinful, self-seeking desire to be first.  Our lips, just like theirs are silenced, offering no excuse for our sin-- so that now our hearts are ready to listen to what Jesus has to teach us about greatness in his kingdom.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”    

Let me tell you what this saying of Jesus (about the first and the last) is not.  It is not a subtle strategy about how to really get ahead in the Kingdom of God.  It’s not a business plan to promote yourself so that if you “plan your work and work your plan” you can get to the top of the kingdom.  It is not clever way to “win friends and influence people” and gain power and prestige in the church.
Jesus is not a corporate CEO who is giving us the inside scoop on how to “think outside the box” and “work our plan” on a ride to the top of the kingdom hierarchy.  That’s not what Jesus is saying at all!
Instead, Jesus is telling us the Good News about who really is first in the Kingdom of heaven-- and that is the One who made himself the very last of all–the One who became the servant of all-- the One who suffered the betrayal of friends–who shed his life’s blood and died on Calvary’s cross to take away our selfishness and self-seeking and sinful delusions of grandeur.
It is in this most humble sacrificial service of holy, obedient living according to his Father’s will-- and terrible, bloody dying on the cross-- that true greatness is to be found and the foundation to our own life with God in his kingdom.
Baptized into Christ’ death and raised in his resurrection–fed by his life-giving Body and Blood–filled by his own Spirit-- we Christians share in his life and are filled with his life and are called to make his life visible to the rest of the world in all that we say and do.  But how to do that?
It brings us back to the very beginning, doesn’t it?  The challenge we have as Christians to live in the kingdom of the world as children and heirs of the kingdom of heaven.  How do we do that?  What does that kind Christ-life look like as we live it out day to day?
Jesus took a little child and had him stand among them.  Taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me”.
If you want to make business connections to get ahead–it you want to network to increase your power and visibility–if you want to make sure that you are a part of the movers and shakers and big dogs in your business and community–spending a lot of time and effort on kids doesn’t make much sense. 
They can’t promote you or give you a good recommendation or include you in a business deal or even get you in the door.
That’s the way it was for the disciples too.  Dealing with children was for women and not for dignified Jewish men-especially not for these twelve disciples who would be the foundation of the church.  They had important kingdom business to take care of and couldn’t be bothered with such “small” details.
And yet Jesus, the greatest in the kingdom, stooped down and took a child in his arms and made him feel at home and loved and valued.  That’s what a Christ-like life looks like in this world.  Humble, self-less, simple service for the sake of others.  That’s the life we live.
Even though we live in the midst of a dark and dying and Darwinian world with room only for the biggest and best and brightest–even though we have to go right back into the same job tomorrow with people who have a very different set of values and perspectives than our own–with the Spirit’s help, we can live lives like Jesus by valuing those around us–not for what they can do for us–but for what, God, working through us–can do for them–by humbly serving them in love the way that Jesus has served us.  To this end, may God grant us grace.  Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Power of Our Words

James 3:1-12 “We all stumble in many ways.”  That’s the way we begin God’s Word to us today and how true that is!  We all stumble. We all miss the mark.  We all go astray.  We all sin.  That’s why Christians begin their worship of God with a confession of those very sins and stumbles and wayward ways.
We confess that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed—by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  “We all stumble in many ways.”  That is why our baptismal service includes a renunciation of the devil and all his works and all his ways. 
We ALL stumble in many ways.  That’s what the Bible teaches-- and Christians believe that every word of Holy Scripture is inspired by God and little Lillian is a part of that ALL because she too is part of the human family and so we renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways and we confess about ourselves that we sinned in thought, word and deed.
“We all stumble in many ways.”  I know some of my sins over this last week and I’m sure you know some of yours and at least for me, that the moment of silence between the confession and the absolution is wholly insufficient to number all my sins.
I remember them with sorrow and shame-- and I repent of them—and I rejoice in Christ’s forgiveness and the help of the Holy Spirit to begin again. 
But what particularly grieves me—where I particularly need help and want to do better-- are my sins of speech.  After all…
My “thought” sins are hidden away—known only to myself and God—easily concealed from others.  My sins of “deed” have perhaps, ebbed with the passing of time and the length of years and a lack of energy and enthusiasm for really whooping it up. 
But my tongue and my sins of speech—their power to lead me astray seem unaffected and undiminished by time.
Perhaps you have experienced the same.  Do we still struggle with crude speech and coarse jokes?  Do we talk to our spouses and our children in ways that we hope no one overhears?  Do we gossip about others in the church or speak ill of our co-workers? 
What we learn today from God’s Word is that, the way we speak to others, reveals the evil that still remains in our hearts in a way that few other things can do. 
But what we will also hear the Good News that there is a perfect man named Jesus whose powerful speech forgives us and restores us—a perfect man who can help us use our tongues in a way that pleases God and builds others up in the words we speak.   The Bible says:
The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.  How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
            On this Lord’s Day morning our lips will confess our faith in the one true God.  Our tongues will sing his praises.  Our voices will add their “amens” to God’s Word. 
These are good and God-pleasing things.  But what have we done in the week just past- and what will we do in the week to come- with those same lips, voices, and tongues? 
After this hour of blessing God, will it then be a week of cursing others?
You’ve no doubt heard the old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stone can break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  We of course know better than that and so does any little child with tears in their eyes and hurt feelings who has heard parent or teacher quote that proverb to them after being wounded by words!
Sinful words can hurt us very much indeed!
            Listen to how the Bible describes sinful speech:  a fire; a world of unrighteousness; a stain; restless evil; and deadly poison!  If you have been on the receiving end of unkind speech, you know how apt this description is. 
As small as the tongue is compared to the other members of our body, how devastating, how destructive, how disastrous are the results of sinful speech!  The Bible compares it to a small fire that has the power to destroy an entire forest—or a marriage or a family or a congregation or a friendship.
And as small as the tongue is, how much it reveals about the evil that still remains in our heart and the sin that still clings to our flesh.  The Bible says:
Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
            And the answer is:  of course not!  Ugly speech is a sign of ugliness within.  These words are nothing other than what we heard Jesus tell us two weeks ago about what really defiles us in God’s sight.  Jesus said:
what comes OUT of the MOUTH proceeds FROM the heart…defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.
According to our Lord’s own words, sins of speech are counted no differently in God’s sight than murder, adultery, and theft.  They defile us—they render us unclean—they stain us with sin.   
So it has been from the beginning.  Eve used her mouth to talk to the devil and tempt Adam.  Adam used his mouth to blame Eve and accuse God and so it has been for all their children down through the ages. 
As James say, “We ALL stumble in many ways”.  That is, save one of us.  On perfect man whose speech brought only blessing.  James speaks of that one who “does not stumble in what he says…a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”  He speaks of Jesus.
Jesus said, “I came to speak my Father’s Words.”  Jesus said, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples…"  Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”  Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him…"  Jesus said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Jesus said, My words are spirit and life”.
And so they are!  Jesus is the perfect man James speaks of whose holy life stands in place of our own sinful one.  He is the perfect man whose kind and loving speech God counts as our own.  He is the perfect man who offered up the perfect sacrifice for our sins, speaking in those dark hours on the cross, words of care for others and confidence in his heavenly Father. 
Jesus is the crucified, risen, ascended, glorified perfect man who powerfully speaks to us today and says: you are loved and you are forgiven and you are empowered from this moment on by my living presence in your life to change for the better the way you speak to others.
We are not perfect men and women but we have a perfect Savior who has transformed our lives by his life-giving, life-changing words so that now we can begin to use our tongues to not only praise him-- but to bless one another.  James uses this example:
If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
            James wrote at length—and we have spoken at length—about the destructive power of the human tongue.  But that sad, sinful story is not the whole story about us by any means!  As children of God who have been born again by the power of living and enduring Word of God, who have been forgiven by the spoken word of the cross, we now have the power of Christ to speak well of others and build them up by our speech.
            The Bible says that we are to ask ourselves regarding our speech?  Is it true?  Is it kind?  Is it necessary for building up another person? 
All around us in our world today are those who hearts and lives and emotional well-being have been destroyed by unkind words and false accusations.  What a powerful blessing we can give them by the things we say-- to encourage them and lift them up.  The Bible says:
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.  The Bible says:  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  The Bible says:  Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.  And in summary the Bible says:  Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, there is power in the words we speak as children of God who are led by the Spirit.  There is power to share the love of Christ.  There is the power to lift up and encourage.  There is the power to teach and forgive and lead and comfort. 
When the disciples were challenged by Jesus to decide whether they would continue to follow him or not, Peter spoke up for all of them and said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the word of eternal life!”  And so he does! 
His powerful word has forgiven our sins and raised us up from spiritual death to life and as his people we are blessed and empowered to use our words in the same way, to bless the lives of those around us.  May God grant us his grace and the help of the Holy Spirit to do just that!  Amen!

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Faith Shown by Works

James 2:14-18 In Romans chapter 3 the apostle Paul says that we Christians “hold that a man is justified by faith APART from the works of the law” and that “by works of the law no human being will justified in God’s sight.”  But today we hear James, the leader of the apostolic church say that “faith without works is dead”. 
Well, which is it?  Are we saved by GRACE ALONE THROUGH FAITH ALONE IN CHRIST ALONE as we Lutherans and other evangelical Christians insist?  OR—are the Catholics of the East and West right when they say that we are saved by faith AND our works? 
This most important question concerning our salvation divides visible Christendom.  Evangelicals and Catholics each claim to take their position on the Word of God-- but sadly end up in very different places. 
And I say sadly because both evangelicals and catholics think that faith in Jesus is important.  Eastern and western catholics do not denigrate faith in Jesus.  Evangelicals think that good works are important and each day are engaged in countless works of mercy and charity throughout the world. 
And yet there is this division among Christians despite our Lord’s prayers that all his people would be one people united in one faith under one shepherd.  And so what then—if any-- is the solution to this problem? 
The solution is found in God’s Word to us today in the epistle lesson where, by the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, James explains the nature of a true and saving faith in Jesus. 
The crux of the matter is this:  is saving faith merely intellectual knowledge of the person and work of Jesus—is it empty words that we say--or is it something much, much more?  And he uses a little illustration to answer that question:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 
            Does the name Dennis Rader mean anything to you?  What if I identified him as the BTK killer?  One of the most evil men who have ever lived—and yet, all those years he was terrorizing Wichita Kansas, he was a member of, and even congregational president of, Christ Lutheran Church—saying in the words of the creed:  I believe in God
While that is an extreme example, most of us, if not all of us, have had the unhappy experience of talking to someone who assures us that they are a Christian like we are-- all the while they are living a grossly immoral, unchristian life. 
They remember bible stories from Sunday School.  They know the details of Jesus’ life.  They can quote the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed right along with the rest of us. 
And it’s a little bit disconcerting isn’t it?  Because we hear them tell us that they have faith in Jesus--and yet we know something isn’t right—that what they are talking about when they talk about their “faith”-- and what we know about our own faith in Jesus-- are two very different things for they lead to two very different lives.
James solves this dilemma for us with the illustration I just read.  A Christian brother or sister stands in real need of food and clothing—the basic necessities of life.  They are met by someone claiming to be a Christian who says: “Go in peace—be warm and full”-- and yet does nor provide them the food and clothing to be filled and warmed.
James asks us:  what then do those fine-sounding words really mean?  And the answer is:  absolutely nothing.  In the same way, James says, “faith without works is dead.”   
You see dear friends in Christ, faith is more—much more—than just words—even the right words.
The confession of faith of the ancient Israelites—the forebears of the folks that James is writing to—is called the “great Shema”:  Hear O Israel, the Lord, the Lord your God is one. 
And in the verse immediately following our text today James asks his Jewish readers:  “You believe that God is one?  You do well!  But even the demons believe that and shudder!”  Faith—a true and saving faith in Jesus-- is more—much more-- than just words—even the right words.  It is more than mere knowledge. 
And for those of us who want to call ourselves the descendants of Luther and tell ourselves that we have saving faith in Jesus because we know his story-- and can mouth the right words-- and define justification-- and yet live like the unbelieving world-- are simply deceived and will never find such a thing being supported by Luther.  Instead, Luther defines a true and saving faith in Jesus like this: 
Faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing!  It is impossible that it should not be ceaselessly doing that which is good. It does not even ask whether good works should be done; but before the question can be asked, it has done them, and it is constantly engaged in doing them…He who does not do such works, is a man without faith.
The faith that saves-- is the faith that lays hold of what Jesus Christ has done in his holy life, bloody death, and glorious resurrection.  From beginning to end, the person and work of Jesus Christ is the sole content of saving faith. 
But that one true saving faith in Jesus is never alone!  It is never just words (even the right words!  But it is always accompanied by the good works of gratitude that come forth from those who are saved so that one true saving faith in Jesus is shown in how we live our life.  James says:
Someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
            James is serious:  show me your faith apart from your works!  Can you take a true and saving faith in Jesus Christ—a genuine, heartfelt trust in the person and work of Jesus—and say:  here it is—here’s the proof I really do believe in Jesus? 
Of course not!  Because faith is finally and ultimately a matter of the heart’s trust in Jesus.  BUT—what we can most assuredly do is show forth the good works that will always accompany and demonstrate that we have a true and living faith. 
Our faith in Jesus is more than just knowledge—more than just words—more than just intellectual assent to certain dogmatical truths, it is shown in how we live our lives and how we treat others. 
            As people who truly believe in Jesus Christ, we are glad for ways to show our love for him in how we treat one another-- and our lives are guided and shaped and informed by the Ten Commandments by “loving our neighbor as ourselves”.
James calls this the “royal law” because it is the way the King loved us—laying aside his divine dignity and his royal status to serve us in love.  We love one another—because our crucified King first loved us and this Christ-like love is the evidence—for all to see-- of a true and living faith in Jesus.
            In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus talks about what it will be like on the last day—the day of judgment.  He says that all people will be divided into two groups and those on his right will be invited into his kingdom and those on his left will depart into eternal fire. 
And the incontrovertible evidence in that judgment will be how they lived their lives.  Were they merciful to others in Jesus’ name—showing that they had received his mercy in faith?  OR—did their lack of mercy towards others reveal their faithless rejection of Jesus’ mercy to them? 
The Athanasian Creed says that on the Last Day all men will give an account of their works—and they that have done good will go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
Both Holy Scripture and the creeds and confessions of the church teach that a true and saving faith in Jesus is always accompanied by the fruits of that faith—good works.
Those whose faith is mere intellectual knowledge or mere words—those who have shown no mercy to others out of a genuine faith and love for Christ--can only expect to face a final judgment that is also without mercy.
But for all who have looked to Jesus Christ in faith and seen in him the law of God fulfilled and the punishment of God received—for all who know the judgment of the cross as the mercy of God poured out upon them—for all who have been set free from their sins to live lives of Christian love—they can be confident on that day-- that mercy will indeed triumph over judgment.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Stand Firm!

Stand Firm!

Ephesians 6:10-20 In our sermons over the last several weeks we have heard the call of Joshua to choose who we will serve:  the one, true and living God of the universe or the false gods of the world around us and then the answer of Joshua and the people that they would serve the Lord. 
We heard the challenge of Moses that we are to teach our children the truth about God’s great, gracious works and what it means to live as God’s children and the eternal consequences for us and those we love if we fail to do so.
We have seen the greatness of God’s chosen servants and heard the commitment of God’s people.  And yet we know how all this turned out for the children of Israel:  that they did not keep their commitments—they did not follow God’s will—and in very short order their disobedience and faithlessness affected all who followed them.  The Bible says that:
After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel. They abandoned the Lord…
            And if we are tempted to think of them too harshly, to judge them too severely, to think that somehow their story is not our own, the Bible says that:
These things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for OUR instruction, uon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
            And yet, standing firm is the very thing that God calls upon us to do:  to remain steadfast in our faith and constant in our commitment to worship and serve the LORD alone where so many who have come before us have fallen.  How are we to do that?  The Bible says
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.
            All of us have had this experience of failing to be the people we ought to be as children of God—of missing the mark when it comes to God’s expectations for our lives.  What we learn through the lives of God’s ancient people and in the lives of the disciples is that this dilemma of desiring to be the new creation we are in Christ by faith--and falling back into what the bible calls our old self with its deceitful desires-- is not unique to you. 
You are not alone in this spiritual struggle.  It’s not just your life and your marriage and your family where there are spiritual setbacks.  Paul said of himself:  I do not understand my actions.  For I do not do what I want; I do the very thing I hate.  So it is for us!
And so then, what’s going on in our life of faith when we struggle to live out the reality of who we are as a new creation in Christ Jesus? 
What we learn in these verses is that there is a spiritual battle that rages around us—a spiritual battle that we are a part of—a spiritual battle where we must fight against evil forces that are greater and more powerful than ourselves.  Again, the Bible says:
we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil
            It has become intellectually fashionable in our day and time—even within the church—to deny the existence of a personal, evil spiritual being.  But from Genesis to Revelation the Bible is absolutely clear that the devil is real and powerful and is part of an unseen realm of other evil beings like himself.  And so then…
When you combine the evil angels-- with a world that is allied against God-- and our own flesh that’s opposed to God --you have (in the world, our flesh, and the devil) an evil, spiritual triumvirate that we are powerless against in our own strength and resources. 
And yet they have been utterly defeated by Jesus Christ—not by an act of his almighty power—but by his humble life and bloody death and glorious resurrection. 
All the way back in the Garden of Eden, when the devil and our sin ruined the world, God promised that he would send a Savior—the Seed of the Woman—who would crush Satan.  That is what Jesus did—robbing the devil of his tyranny over our lives by taking that terrible burden upon himself—ruining the devil’s accusations against us by standing guilty in our place.
Yes, the devil is real,  Yes he is powerful—but he is not greater than the One who defeated him by suffering and death on the cross and it is this risen and ascended Savior who gives spiritual gifts to his people so that we can face our own spiritual battles unafraid and unbroken and unbowed.  The Bible says:
Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
            Every one of us will face spiritual battles.  The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.  Many who begin in faith do not end that way. 
Each of us are combatants in an unseen, but very real war.  We cannot, and must not, give up and give in to the desires of our flesh and the temptations of the devil and the ways of the sinful world around us.  Rather, we must stand firm in our faith with the spiritual equipment the Holy Spirit gives God’s children.  The Bible says:
Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,
            The picture that the Holy Spirit sets before Paul’s eyes (and before our eyes of faith in these verses) is that of a Roman soldier—the greatest fighting man of the ancient world.  Roman armies defeated the Greeks and the Gauls and the Carthiginians and countless others over hundreds of years and they ruled the greatest earthly empire of the day. 
Their strength and power was the reason for the peace that existed in the ancient world.  But for all their strength and for all their weaponry and for all their fighting spirit, they were still no match for the devil and his angels.  Spiritual victories are accomplished by spiritual means.
That is why the Spirit equips us with the belt of truth.  How desperately this is needed in our world today!  We live in a place and time where little babies are called medical waste and men are called women and evil is called good.  The truth of God’s Word equips us to call these lies what they are and order our thought life according to the truth of God’s Word.
The breastplate of righteousness covers our heart with the promise that despite the wounds we suffer from the spiritual conflict that rages around us—despite the fact that we have stumbled and fallen in the heat of battle—the perfect, complete righteousness of Jesus Christ is ours by faith and avails in God’s sight for salvation. 
The shoes of Gospel readiness are given by the Spirit so that every time we are ready to retreat—every time we are ready to run as far and as fast as we can from the heat of battle--we are equipped instead to take the battle to the enemy and go where the peace of Christ is needed the most in our homes and schools and communities.
And in the heat of battle we fight on with the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation so that no matter what kind of accusations the devil makes against us we can believe that we are forgiven by Christ-- and no matter what kind of spiritual blows fall upon us we can know and that God has saved us and claimed us as his own. 
Spiritually equipped in this way we fight on with the only offensive weapon that we Christians can yield and that is the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. 
Much too often you hear Christians talk about how the next election or the next law or the next Supreme Court nominee holds the key to what ails us as a nation and people.  You hear the same nonsense in the church when ecclesiastical elections come around. 
But the only way that spiritual progress can made --and the only way that spiritual victories can be won-- and the only way that hearts can be changed-- is by wielding the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God spoken to us by our heavenly Father. 
And hearing his voice over the clamor and confusion over the spiritual battle that rages around us, we cry out to him in prayer, asking God to help our brothers and sisters who are locked in the same battle as we are.  The Bible says:
Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. Keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
            The spiritual battle that rages around us—the spiritual battle in which we are combatants—also encompasses our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. 
In our world today, in this moment when we are gathered together in the safety of the Lord’s house, there are people who will face torture and slavery and rape—there are people who will be imprisoned—there are people who will die-- for no other reason than that they confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. 
We must never forget our brothers and sisters in Christ who are persecuted for their faith but instead lift them up to the Lord in prayer, asking God to protect them and keep them strong in their faith and confession.
But as terrible as is what happens to persecuted Christians in our world, what is still worse is what happens to all of those who will die this day without saving faith in Jesus Christ.  There is nothing worse—nothing—than an eternity of separation from God in the fires of hell!
And so we pray especially for all of those who are dead in their sins and trespasses—who are deaf to the call of the Holy Spirit—who are blind to a God who loves them and has sent his Son to die for them—we pray that the same Holy Spirit who has brought us to faith through the Gospel will bring them to faith as well 
And we pray for all those faithful missionaries like Paul who serve in places where we cannot go, that the Holy Spirit would help them to speak boldly of the salvation that is only found in Jesus so that the battle for lost souls is won by their Savior.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, there is a spiritual battle that rages around us.  Each of us are combatants in that battle.  None of us will emerge from it unscathed or unbloodied-- but we can be victorious in the victory Christ has already won for us in his death and resurrection.  We can fight on in his strength, equipped with the spiritual armor he provides!  Amen.