Saturday, February 23, 2019

Love Your Enemies!

Luke 6:27-38 I had an interesting experience this week.  I sat down at a table with a group of Lutheran pastors, with their bibles open to our gospel lesson today, who did everything in their power, with their considerable intellectual gifts, to explain away these words—to assure themselves and their congregations this week that Jesus did not really mean what he says right here. 
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.
            I want to be very, very clear:  I am not criticizing my brother pastors, not in the least!  I want to explain away these words too!  I want to console myself with some reason why Jesus is not really saying, what he is clearly saying, about love for others.  I want to say…
            Jesus, do you really mean to say I have to give to everyone who begs from me?  What about all of those who are going to misuse my money?  What about all the scammers?
Jesus, do you really mean I have to pray for those who mistreated me and misused me and bless those who have cursed me?
Jesus, do you really mean that I have to love my enemies and do good—active, concrete acts of goodness to those who hate me?  Can that actually be what you mean?
You understand now, don’t you, if you have really thought about these words just a bit, the dilemma of the pastors around that table?  We are made up of exactly the same flesh as you are.  We are no different!  Our hearts and minds rebel at the thought of this kind of love because we know how those around us will misuse us and mistreat us if we love them like that.
Surely this can’t be what the Lord means!  And yet, these are the plain words Jesus spoke.  These are the plain words the Holy Spirit caused to be written down in Luke’s Gospel.  There is no other honest way to read them than as Jesus spoke them and Luke wrote them:  Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  
Our flesh screams out its protest!  And yet, here’s the thing:  this is exactly the same kind of love that we not only wish for FROM others, but expect and demand!  Jesus says:  As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
Don’t we expect and demand that our spouse forgive us and keep on forgiving us no matter how many times we make the same mistake?  Wouldn’t we be, in turns, furious and heat-broken if they said to us, “That’s it!  No more forgiveness for you!  I’ve had it!  We’re done!?” 
Don’t our children expect (as their right) our cloak and our tunic and our goods?!  Wouldn’t we all be appalled and ashamed to count us the number of times we said to our parents, “I want” compared to “I love you.”? 
We may want to explain away the words of Jesus about loving our enemies but we have very clear ideas about what kind of love we want from others:  and that is the kind of love he describes that has no limits.  Now then…
What we are actually able to give to others and what we actually receive from them is something else altogether.
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.
            Here is a “love” that we are familiar with, isn’t it!  Here is a love that we can accomplish!  In fact, here is the love we think we ought to give—the love we measure love by. 
We know all about a love for friends and family.  We know all about social obligations that carefully measures where I am in every personal interaction and moderates my response so that it is proportionate to what I have already received.  We know all about a love where we give to get.
            But so does everyone else know and practice that kind of love—even those who are not Christians. 
And truth be told, even by this low standard of a sinner’s love for another sinner, we don’t always-- or even often measure up.  Who can honestly say that we love those who love us like we should-- to say nothing of loving our enemies?
You see now why my brother pastors wanted some way of escape for themselves and their congregations from Jesus’ words about loving our enemies—because they seem so impossible.  And of course, they are!
And yet they are God’s expectation of us regarding the love we have for our neighbor.  These words are what love really is and when we read those words about loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us-- and even when we measure ourselves the standard of a sinner’s love for another sinner, we begin to really grasp—perhaps for the first time—how lacking love for others is in our lives.
If Jesus is serious—if this really is the standard—if this is really God’s expectation for us in our love for others—we have failed and we will fail again and again.  And that’s true.
But there is one who didn’t.  There is one who loved others just exactly this way and it is the one who spoke these words.  It is Jesus.
Jesus was the one who loved his enemies.  Jesus was the one who cared for those who hated him.  Jesus was the one who spoke blessing from the cross to those who cursed him below.  Jesus waas the one who never turned his back on the needs of others.  Jesus is the one who forgives again and again no matter how often we fail.
Jesus is the one who was stripped of his last earthly possession and was buried in a borrowed tomb. Jesus is the one who bestows the riches of his resurrection upon those who sent him to his death. 
Dear friends in Christ, let us be very, very clear:  that is you and me.  It is our lack of love, our self-seeking concern for others, our pinched and narrow and limited care for those around us, that led Jesus to the cross where Jesus died for those who did not love him.
This is the love that Jesus has for us and there is no limit to that love.  We can go to him again and again with the same sins and failures and know that we will be forgiven.  We can wander from him again and again and know that he will seek us out each time to welcome us back.  We can go to him again and again in our needs and trust that he will give us more than we could ever imagine or hope for. 
That is the merciful love that Jesus has for us and that is the merciful love that we are to have for others.  Jesus says:
Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 
            Jesus is the Son of the Most High.  He is the only-begotten Son of God.  He is the Son given into death for sinners—the Son given for us-- so that we too would be sons and daughters of the Most High and show that in how we love others.
You see dear friends in Christ, that while the words of Jesus about love were most certainly fulfilled in his life, death, and resurrection, they also still stand as God’s enduring will for us and they have been changed forever by Jesus from words of condemnation, to words of invitation to live a life of genuine, sacrificial, merciful love for others—even for our enemies.
Trusting in this God of mercy we are different people than we were before and we begin to see a way forward, a way of possibility, a way of growth in Christ-likeness.
Joseph knew that way.  He forgave those same brothers who sold him into slavery and he poured out the riches of Egypt upon them.  Corrie Ten Boom forgave the Nazis who sent her to a concentration camp and killed her family and did everything in her power after the war to heal the wounds of her nation.  The Amish forgave the man who killed their little daughters and made it their first concern to care for his orphaned children after his suicide.
I knew an elderly lady in Kingsville who as a child was abused and mistreated by men in her family in ways too terrible to mention.  And yet throughout their life she cared for them and forgave them. 
And here’s the thing:  looking at those folks from the outside I still wonder how anyone can forgive Nazis, and care for those who have destroyed our family, and love those who have hurt us.  There is no human way to understand that love and mercy and forgiveness and care until you have known the same from Jesus. 
He is the one who shows us that the way of love leads to blessing for us and those around us.  He says:
“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
            When we stand, by faith, at the foot of the cross we see God’s innocent Son judged guilty of our sins.  We see the condemnation of a holy God poured out upon his sinless Son rather than us.  And we hear words of forgiveness spoken to a world full of sinners.
Judgment and condemnation do not rest in our hands but in God’s.  We do not get to pronounce it upon others because it has already been pronounced upon the Savior for a world full of sinners—including those who have harmed us.
What HAS been given to us, forgiveness and mercy and love, a good measure, pressed down and shaken down, has been given to us so that it might overflow into the lives of others—including those who have harmed us. 
You see dear friends in Christ, that is what changes for us as we hear these words of Jesus about loving our enemies—not the words themselves, not what they mean.  Never!  But what changes IS US, in hearts and minds that are so full of mercy and forgiveness of Jesus that we say:  yes, Lord, with your help I will love my enemies!  Amen.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Blessed Is the Man Who Trusts in the Lord!

Jeremiah 17:5-8 “Thus says the Lord”.  That is the way our text begins and if that is all there was to it, it would be more than sufficient to profitably occupy our reflection and meditation on God’s Word this morning.  “Thus says the Lord!”  The only question is:  will we hear it as God’s Word to us?
      I hope so because the words that God speaks to us today are words of curse for those who do not trust in him--or blessing for those who do.  Curse or blessing for this life and for the life to come.  Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord.” 
      Just the briefest reflection on those words, and what the Lord says to us through those words, and the point that Jeremiah is making is self-evident:  why on earth would anyone trust in flesh?   The Bible says that:
"All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass.  The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever."
      Andy yet, despite knowing the frailty of man and futility of flesh, how often do we earn God’s curse because we trust in them?
      We think that our security is found in how much money we have saved.  We believe that our success depends upon our hard work.  We imagine that our nation’s future depends on the outcome of some election.
      And because there is the need to save money and work hard and vote wisely, the devil is right there taking those good things and twisting them and tempting us to believe that that is all there is—our efforts—our strength—our flesh.
      But what we need to remember is that God stands behind it all!  It all depends upon God!  He is the One who daily and richly provides us with all that we need for this life.  He is the One who has created us and given us our strength and intellect.  He is the One who guides the forces of history.  It is God alone—not our flesh-- who must be trusted.
      And it is not just our physical life where we are tempted to trust in man and flesh—it is our spiritual life too. 
      We are think that because we belong to the right church --and because we lead an outwardly moral life-- and because we do what we are supposed to do-- that we are in good shape spiritually.
      And because it is important to go to a church where the truth is taught and because God does want us to lead a decent life-- the devil is right there, twisting those good things and tempting us to believe that that is all there is. 
      But there is a God who stands behind it all who is totally responsible for our salvation and it is he alone—not our flesh-- who must be trusted in all things spiritual.  And so we too need that lesson and that warning that God speaks today:  “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength.”  
      Why is that?  Why is trusting even in our best works cursed by God?  It is because trusting in ourselves: turns our heart away from the Lord.”  
      If you are trusting in yourself—in your hard work, in your intellect, in your good deeds, in your own righteousness—your heart has turned away from the Lord—and that earns God’s curse on your life in time and eternity.
      The sin that Jeremiah is warning us against is the sin of idolatry—of trusting in something or someone other than the LORD—and it is always brings curses into our lives because it cuts us off from the LORD who is the one true source of our life in this world and our life in the world to come. 
      Oftentimes we tend to absolve ourselves of this sin of idolatry because we think of it only in terms of things like pagan worship.  We tell ourselves that we don’t pray to statues or worship false gods and so we are keeping the First Commandment.
      Not so!  And because the temptations we face are much more subtle than a statue-- we must be on guard even more when it comes to trusting in ourselves. 
      Behind our physical efforts is the God who creates and sustains-- and behind our spiritual efforts is the God who calls, gathers, and enlightens his church-- and so we must always look beyond ourselves to the LORD and find in him ALONE the source of our faith and trust and life because a life lived apart from God is small and dry and unfruitful.
“He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”  
      This is one of those places where the necessity of hearing these word--s as words from the LORD-- is readily apparent. 
      When we look, with our physical eyes, at the world around us, we see people who seemed to have escaped this curse and are making it just fine without God.  But what we cannot see-- and what must revealed to us-- is what these lives lived apart from God look like to God. 
      No peace.  No joy.  No hope.  No faith.  No trust.  Nothing but an endless catering to the flesh until the flesh is no more.  That is not the life of a human—it is the life of an animal—and for an animal it is fine.  When their life is over they are simply no more.
      But we are not animals and we are not meant to live like animals.  We are human beings-- and we were created for life with God --and a life that is lived apart from him in this life will result in a life lived apart from him under an eternal curse.
      But there is another way that God sets before us this morning—a way of blessing.  “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust IS the Lord.”  Where the end of each human life—billions of time over—from our very first parents until the obituaries in today’s paper--have shown the futility of trusting in man—God has shown again and again that he is worthy of our trust. 
      He always has been and always will be the God of salvation and deliverance and provision and through it all he was pointing the way to the greatest sign of his steadfast love and trustworthiness—the sending of his own Son Jesus Christ so that not only do we trust IN the Lord-- but now our trust IS the LORD.
      Jesus Christ is the content of our faith—he is the reason for our hope—he is the substance of our trust. 
      His death:  the redeeming price of our sins.  His resurrection:  the bridge between God and us.  His gift of the Holy Spirit:  God’s life in our heart.  Jesus is the blessing of the LORD in our life and when we trust in him we are planted and rooted in his person and work like a tree rooted in rich, life-giving soil.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.  He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” 
      Driving through west Texas during the summer months you have a sense of how hot and dry and desolate this area is—except alongside the rivers.  You can go for miles and never see anything green but when you come to banks of the Colorado and San Saba and Llano and Concho things are lush and fruitful and alive.
      That is the power of water in a dry land.  That is the power of the living water Jesus Christ in our lives—the difference between life and death—blessing and curse.
      Jeremiah presents us with a powerful contrast between those who trust in man and those who trust in God—it is the difference between a desert shrub having to scrape by just to live and a fruitful tree that has no fear of the drought around it because its roots are fed from directly from the water beside it.  Jesus promises,
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 
      Every time we hear the Good News about Jesus preached—every time we hear in absolution that in him we are forgiven—every time we come to Holy Communion and receive his body and blood-- our spiritual lives are renewed and fed and watered again and again by the living water of the Holy Spirit which flows from Jesus Christ.
      Rooted in him we can be confident and courageous even in hard times—and those will come.  There is no promise that there will never be times of heat and drought.  Trials and struggles come to the Christian too. 
      But there is all the difference in the world between the way that we face these hard times—trusting in the LORD--and what happens to those who do not know Jesus.  We have God’s never ending strength and presence to depend on—and they have only their own frail flesh.
      That is why the Christian’s life remains fruitful even in times and trial and tribulation.  Rooted in the living God—our lives fed by his life—our spirits sustained by his Spirit--there is still peace and joy and hope and trust in our lives even when there is no earthly reason for this fruit-- but only because we trust in him. 
“Cursed in the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD.  Blessed is the man who trust in the LORD, whose trusts IS the LORD.” 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord of Hosts

Isaiah 6:1-8 We picture heaven as a peaceful English countryside full of beautiful flowers and green grass because we have seen some illustration or painting that shows it that way.
We picture the angels as Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  Or we picture our dear, departed relatives with beautiful wings and white gowns and serene smiles because that is the way that Bill Keane portrays them in the “Family Circus” comic strip.
Many of us picture God as some kindly old fellow up in the sky with a twinkle in his eye always ready to pat us on the back and say “there, there–it’s not as bad as all that”.  Someone, who, if we are really honest with ourselves, looks a lot like Santa Claus.
Of course none of this is true at all.  We’ve created it in our minds.  We design a heaven and a god and heavenly beings that is really nothing more than a projection of ourselves and there is a grave spiritual danger in this because what happens in these scenes is that we then become the gods of this little heavenly world that exists only in our imaginations.
Heaven becomes a place that we like–where we would feel comfortable.  Angels become creatures whose primary purpose it is to serve us-- not God.  And God becomes someone whose job it is to approve of us and to welcome us no matter what we’ve done.
If this is the way that we picture these heavenly realities–then the devil is pleased because this is nothing other than a satanic lie that is given in the place of the truth which is found only in Holy Scripture-- particularly in our text today–through the eyes of Isaiah who saw the truth about heaven and reveals it to us.  He says:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above him stood the seraphim.  Each had six wings: With two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.

Seraphs, a type of angel, are not chubby little children, but mighty beings with six wings whose complete focus is the worship and praise of God–beings who serve humanity only at God’s direction–beings, who must hide their faces in the presence of the Lord’s holiness and glory.
Heaven is not fluffy clouds or a peaceful English countryside but a majestic throne room like no other with the thundering sounds of worship and the smell of incense.
And the focus of heaven is not you or me-- but God alone whose holiness and glory fills it all.  How must Isaiah have felt to see and hear these incredible things?  How would we feel?   Where do we fit into that biblical picture of heaven?
Let me give you some mental pictures to impress upon you some sense of how he must have felt.  When Caroline and I visited Niagra Falls I remember being stunned by the raw power of water rushing over those falls–to fall in and go over the falls is almost certain crushing death.  Others of us have stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and been amazed by the sheer magnitude of something that large.  Others of us have flown on airplanes and have seen in a mere glance hundreds of square miles and thousands of people below. 
When we experience these things in the natural world we begin to get a sense of how small and insignificant and weak we humans really are–and then to realize that there are billions of us on the face of the earth at this moment and human history extends back in time with the countless generations that have gone before us--we begin to see that in view of space and time-- we humans really are a mist that is here today and gone tomorrow.

How much more do we see the truth about ourselves in the unapproachable light of the One who created space and time?  How much more do we see the truth about ourselves in the very presence of the living God surrounded by his holy angels who said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory”.  And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
Holiness–the perfect holiness of the Triune God-- is the defining feature of heaven and the LORD can never be praised enough for it.  The praise of men and angels for all of eternity will never be enough to sufficiently praise God for his holiness. 
This word for holiness in the original Hebrew not only means his sin-less-ness but it also means “set apart”—that which is wholly other than everyone and everything else.  God is holy.  In the beginning, man knew this.
Mankind was originally created in the image of God—knowing him as he desires to be known—wanting to do his will--righteous and holy in his sight.
But on account of the Fall, now we have a sinful tendency to make God into our own image of him.  You hear people say things like: “You have your god and I have my god”–or-“my god would never do this or do that”.
But the True God is not a reflection of ourselves.  He is not a puppet on a string who serves at our command or a lucky charm we pull out in hard times expecting a miracle.  He is holy-- and completely set apart from us-- and we will never have God on a leash or locked up in a box.  We can not and must not demand of him:  justice or love or care as we see fit.  God is God–and we are not. 
To stand in the presence of the Holy Living God of the universe is to lose-- once and for all-- the silly and self-serving pride and pretentiousness of our human nature and Isaiah’s words capture this awareness. 
“Woe to me!” For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
This is God’s judgment upon all people and standing in the presence of the Holy Trinity, Isaiah knew it.  He was struck down by his own sinfulness and wickedness.  All pretense of his own goodness or holiness dissolved in the presence of perfect goodness and holiness that is found in God alone.
We too are people with unclean lips and unclean hands and unclean hearts and unclean minds-- and to stand in the presence of God is to know that painful truth about ourselves and cast aside all foolish notions of self-righteousness.
Isaiah knew it in that moment.  Peter knew it that day in that boat–Go away from me Lord I am a sinful man!  And we know it about ourselves as well.
Between us and the Holy Living God of the Universe is a chasm of sin that we can not traverse.  We can’t stretch out our hand and grasp onto God.  We can not cross that divide by our own efforts.  We can not bridge it by our own self-righteousness for in God’s sight that righteousness is nothing but filthy rags.   

Woe to me–I am ruined!” is the cry of despair of every sinner who see his own efforts to come to God on his own-- crumble into dust.  But the Good News for us today is that what we can not do for ourselves–God does for us.  Isaiah says that:
One of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.  And he touched my mouth and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
All Isaiah could do was cry out in horror at his own sin–he couldn’t demand that God do anything–he couldn’t choose to do anything–it was God alone who, in mercy and grace and love, brought atonement to him.
The angel was sent by God to mediate Isaiah’s atonement.  He brought purifying fire from the altar of God’s grace and removed Isaiah’s guilt and covered his sin.  Atonement–the task of bridging the gap from God to man–the task of making the two one, is the work of God alone.
What we see God do for Isaiah in these verses is a picture and a promise of what God would do for all people. 
Out of love for world, God sent his Son Jesus into human flesh to make atonement for the sins of all people.  He alone is the mediator between God and man.  Christ alone is the refining and purifying fire that Malachi prophesies.  He is the One of whom John speaks when he says that:  the coming One will baptize you with fire.  It is in Jesus’ shed blood alone that our guilt is taken away so that we can now serve him in his mission.  Isaiah says that:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send?  And who will go for us?”  Then I said, “Here am I.  Send me!” 
At the atoning touch of God, Isaiah was no longer the man he was before.  The one who cried out in fear “Woe is me–I’m lost!” is now the one who unashamedly answers God’s call and exclaims in joy and gladness “Here I am send me”!  The one who cowered in fear approached the throne of God’s grace with confidence.  His sins taken away and his guilt covered-- he was a fit instrument for the Lord’s use.
The same is true for us.  On account of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we are not the same kind of people as we were before.  Courage replaces our fear. Willingness replaces our unworthiness.  We don’t have to live our lives in shame over the past.  God does not want us to carry a load of guilt or let it hinder our life in him because it has been covered forever in the shed blood of Jesus. 
And because of God’s gift of cleansing—because the holiness of the Lord himself is bestowed upon us as a gift through faith in Jesus-- we too can answer God’s call and say, “Here I am–send me”  
“Here I am—send me” into all the places and relationships where he calls us to be his people.  Amen.