Wednesday, March 27, 2019

I Am He

John 18:3-9 During the Lenten season we see Jesus abandoned by his disciples and betrayed by his friends and rejected by his people.  We see religious leaders conspire against him and plot his death.  We see political leaders convict him unjustly.  We see Roman soldiers beat him almost to death and then nail him to a cross.
And when Jesus finally bows his head and gives up his spirit on Friday afternoon, I think we have this sense that-- the hatred of the devil, and the failure of his friends, and the political powers of the day-- have finally had the victory.
Nothing could be farther from the truth!  Throughout the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ there is one person in control, one person who knows how it will all come out, one person who will have the victory and that is Jesus. 
That is why this scene in the Garden of Gethsemane is recorded in Holy Scripture:  so that we can see with our eyes of faith, before these terrible events occur, that Jesus does not go to the cross and die as a helpless victim, but he goes to the cross as our mighty champion who will win the victory over sin, death, and the devil.  The Bible says that:
Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?”
            Jesus knew all that would happen to him and still came forward.  Is that not the most remarkable thing!  I can assure you that if an armed crowd was looking for me in the middle of the night, I would not be coming forward!  I am going the other way as fast as I can!
And there’s even more to it than an armed mob.  Jesus knew ALL that was going to happen.  He knew who these people were.  He knew what they wanted.  He knew that he was going to be accused and condemned unjustly.  He knew he was going to be beaten almost to death and then suffer the worst kind of death imaginable. 
He knew all of it and came forward to meet them.
Jesus did not shrink back in the face of pain and death.  He went to meet it because he knew that this would be the terrible price he would have to pay for our sins and so he stepped forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?’ 
Now think about that just for a second.  Remember, Jesus knew all that was going to happen and yet asked them, “Who do you seek?”  If Jesus knew all that was going to happen-and he did-why does he ask them that question?
It’s exactly the same kind of question that God asked Adam and Eve in the garden, “Where are You?”, and asked for the same reason:  that in that moment of sin and rebellion, the people involved can have a chance to come to their senses and think about what they have done and confess their guilt and turn to God.
With swords and clubs and torches in their hands, hunting down an innocent man, it was still not too late for them to repent.
Jesus knew exactly who the mob was seeking but he wanted them, even in that late hour, to come to grips with what they were about to do to an innocent man who had never been anything other than kind and good and loving and gentle. “Whom do you seek?”  They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.”
Jesus of Nazareth.  An angry mob armed with clubs and swords looking for…Jesus of Nazareth.  Not some violent revolutionary.  Not some terrible criminal.  Not some enemy of the people.  Jesus of Nazareth.  That name tells you everything you need to know about Jesus and about the mob.
Jesus.  The name given at this birth. The God who saves.  Of Nazareth.  That humble man from a nowhere town.  The One who went around healing the sick and feeding the hungry and raising the dead.  The One who taught that real love is love for enemies.  The one who was born and lived in poverty.  The One who embraced and welcomed all those on the margins of society. 
That’s who Jesus was and his name revealed it all.  But it also revealed the truth about those in the mob. 
Guards and soldiers.  Swords and clubs.  Lanterns and torches in the dead of night.  Armed to the teeth in the middle of the night completely focused on capturing:  a teacher, and a miracle worker, and a friend to women and children.
As soon as the words “Jesus of Nazareth” came out of their mouths they should have come to their senses and cast down their weapons and asked themselves, “What on earth are we doing?”  “Have we lost our minds?”  But of course they didn’t.
Greed had gotten hold of Judas who had been stealing form the common purse.  Envy filled the hearts of the Pharisees when the people followed Jesus instead of them,  Fear filled the hearts of the Sadducees who didn’t want to lose their connection to the Romans. 
And all that sin blinded them to the terrible thing they were about to do to the very Son of God.  The Bible says that:
Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he.”
            Have you ever wondered about this?  There were perhaps a hundred people including thugs with clubs-- and armed roman soldiers.  They were pursuing Jesus with a single-minded, hard-hearted purpose.  And yet when Jesus responds to them, “I am he”, to a man they fall to the ground like they were struck by lightning!
            What on earth, or really who on earth, could have caused such a reaction that would render a hundred armed men, helpless?  In our English translations we render Jesus’ answer as “I am he.”  But what he actually says is just two words “I am”.
            Thousands of years before this moment, when the Lord called Moses to be his chosen instrument to set his people free, Moses wanted to know the name of the Lord so he could tell the people and their enemies the name of the God he served, the Lord said to him:  I Am.
I AM would set his people free.  I AM would destroy their enemies.  I AM would bring them home. 
The soldiers and guards thought they were on the hunt for Jesus of Nazareth, that gentle kind man who went around doing good—and of course they were –but that is not ALL that Jesus was by any means-- and if anyone had been paying attention they would have known that!
Jesus said about himself:  I AM the bread of life.  I AM the living water.  I AM the light of the world.  Before Abraham was, I AM. 
Who are you seeking?  Jesus of Nazareth.  I AM.  And a hundred hateful men fell to the ground, helpless in his presence. 
Helpless in his presence just like story seas.  Helpless in his presence just like terrible diseases.  Helpless in his presence just like the devil.  Helpless in his presence just like death.
Here’ the point:  There was no amount of money that could ever be paid to a traitor to make Jesus do what he did not want to do.  There was no legion of soldiers that could ever take Jesus somewhere he did not want to go. 
He was indeed Jesus of Nazareth:  the LORD who saves-- and he would go willingly to the cross to die in the place of sinners.  Jesus told them:
If you seek me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.”
            Every one of Jesus’ disciples escaped harm that time because Jesus stepped up and said “I am he.”  The next morning a violent criminal named Barsabbas would go free and Jesus would go to the cross.  And that afternoon Jesus would die on the cross day in the place of every sinner under his Father’s just wrath so that Jesus could say about every one of us:  let these people go free.
            Earlier that night in the upper room Jesus had prayed to his heavenly Father for all of those the Father had placed into his hands, that he would faithfully preserve them all.  That prayer was answered and those words fulfilled as the disciples escaped the death that would have surely come at the hands of an angry, armed mob.
But that promise is a comfort for us too.  You see, it was not just the 11 who were entrusted to the hands of Jesus, it was all of us here tonight as well. 
Our forgiveness, our salvation, our life on earth and our eternal future in a heavenly home—all of that was entrusted into the hands of Jesus, the very Son of God who willingly went to the cross as our champion over sin, death and the devil.  Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Opportunities to Repent and Bear Fruit

Luke 13:1-9 50 people murdered by a madman in their place of worship in New Zealand.  157 people die in a plane crash in Ethiopia.  Half of all farms and ranches in Nebraska destroyed by floods.  Hundreds of people killed by a cyclone in Mozambique.
These are the tragic headlines over the last several weeks of a world that has been wrecked by sin and evil.  And we can’t help but wonder:  why?  Why that place?  Why those people?  Why this moment?
But rather than trying to figure out why some die this way and others do not—rather than speculating about the lives of others and what God is doing in the hardships he allows--Jesus says that we are to view each tragedy as an opportunity for us to repent of our own sins, so that we do not perish eternally.  The Bible says that:
There were some present at that very time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
            The tragic headlines of Jesus’ day were the result of a madman on one hand-- and a construction accident on the other. 
On one occasion Herod’s soldiers came into the temple and murdered people as they worshiped so that their blood mixed with the blood of the sacrifices they were offering.  On another occasion, a building project in Siloam collapsed killing eighteen workers.  In both cases there were victims and there were survivors. 
What the people wanted to know was:  what the difference between those who died and those who lived?  Was God reaching out and directly punishing those who died?  Did they have some secret sin that made them worse than others?  And conversely, were those who were spared, the good folk with whom God was pleased?
To all these questions about others Jesus simply says:  no!  Then and now Jesus does not permit us to delve into the providential mysteries of how God runs the universe.  He does not invite our speculation about the sins of others. 
Instead, he wants us to understand that we are not magically immune from tragedy and so we are to be spiritually prepared through repentance and faith—at any moment-- to stand before God.  You know as well as I do…
We live in a broken world.  Satanic activity and human sin have wrecked God’s good creation.  There is moral evil in the form of madmen who kill innocent people.  There is physical evil in the form of hurricanes and earthquakes that destroy cities and nations.  And there is personal evil in the form of the devil and his angels who try to destroy our life with God by tempting us to sin. 
All of us are affected to one degree or the other by sin and evil.  All of us will finally succumb to death—unless the Lord comes first.
It is an exercise in futility-- and sinful speculation—to assign moral guilt to people because they get cancer- or die in car wrecks- or suffer through natural disasters- while others don’t.  Instead, Jesus says that we are to view these events as an opportunity for personal repentance. 
Each time we read some headline in the paper about some violent crime—each time we hear of someone struck down by cancer—each time we see on the evening news some terrible car wreck—right then and there we need to repent of our sins and turn to Jesus in faith.
Rather than sinful speculation about others, we can repent over our thanklessness for God’s mighty provision that preserves and protects our lives. 
Rather than sinful speculation about others, we can repent over our lack of compassion for those who are undergoing the hardships of living in a broken world. 
Rather than sinful speculation about others, we can repent of our judgmental attitude that wants to find secret sins in the lives of others that has caused them to suffer some tragedy.
Each time the brokenness of this world strikes down a fellow human being, we have an opportunity to turn from our sins and turn to Jesus—the One who has truly suffered the fullness of God’s wrath over our sins upon the cross—offering us in their place the assurance that in all things God is working for our good and that no evil thing can separate us from his love.
We should heed these opportunities for personal repentance that tragedy provides because there is coming a day for each of us when the time to repent and believe in Jesus will come to an end.  Jesus said: 
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
            Noah preached for 120 years, calling the people of the world to repentance before the flood.  Jeremiah preached for 40 years, calling Judah to turn from her evil ways before her destruction by Babylon.  Jesus preached for 3 years, calling the people of Israel to repentance and faith before they were destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
An early church father said that God is merciful and “does not bring in punishment silently and secretly but by his threatenings first proclaims them to be at hand, thus inviting sinners to repentance.” 
The Bible says that God is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” and bear fruits in keeping with that repentance and faith.  That is why he has redeemed us and that is what he desires from us—a life of genuine, heartfelt Christianity that shows itself in the fruit of faith.
Farmers plant for a purpose:  to gather the harvest in the fall.  They are not doing because of the aesthetic appeal of straight rows of green plants—they are doing it for what the plant produces. 
And so then, two thousand years later we have no trouble understanding Jesus’ illustration about the fig tree.  The believer is portrayed as a plant—either fruitful in good works or barren. 
The question for us to ask ourselves in all seriousness is this:  when God examines my life of faith---does he find the fruits of that faith?  Am I diligent in doing good works?  Am I bearing fruits of the Spirit such joy, peace, and patience?  Am I walking by the Spirit, guided by God’s Word?
God has created us and redeemed us and sanctified us for that very purpose!  Most of us were born to Christian families and grew up in Christian homes.  We were baptized and heard about Christ at a young age.  We have been in worship throughout our lives, hearing the Good News of the Gospel and being fed with Christ’s true body and blood.  What more could God have done for us than he has already done?
And yet when we look at our lives (and more importantly when God looks at our lives!) does he find a fruitful faith consistent with the care and concern that he has lavished upon us?  Too often the answer is “no” and we need to hear that warning (“cut it down”) that God speaks to us in all seriousness. 
But the Good News for us today is that Christ intercedes for us.  Jesus is that vinedresser who sees more in us, than we could have ever imagined or hoped for from our Christian life, because he sees his own work on our behalf. 
He is the One who stands between us and judgment with his own holy life and bloody death as that which takes away God’s wrath.  He is the One at work in our life, shaping us into a fruitful Christian filled with good works.  He is the One who provides spiritual nourishment to us in Word and Sacrament just like a gardener fertilizes his plants so that we can be the faithful, fruitful Christians God wants us to be.
We have a tendency to look at our spiritual lives and see only what we lack but we also need to be assured that we can be better Christians in the future than we have in the past because of Christ’s ongoing work in our lives.
In Jesus’ story, the vinedresser goes to work with purpose and hope—not in futility and despair.  He knows better than the plants what they can become when they receive his care. 
And so the Lord is at work in our lives—speaking his words of law that rebuke and correct us and his words of Gospel that comfort us and encourage us and build us up. 
The Good News for us today is that Jesus has given us this day of salvation—this period of time in our life-- to hear and heed his call to repentance and faith-- and be fruitful in that faith so that do not perish. 
But we also need to realize that this opportunity of grace is not unlimited so that we do not squander it or postpone our repentance but turn from our sins and trust in him.  Amen

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Watch and Pray!

Matthew 26:25-46 Peter said to him, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” And all the disciples said the same.
            There is no telling how many times I have heard those words in my life!  At least for 56 Lents and how many more times, who knows?  And every time I hear them I cannot help but shake my head and wonder to myself, “What on earth was Peter thinking?” 
How could he have been so blind to his own pride?  Had he never heard the old proverb that “pride goes before a fall” and that “the one who thinks he stands should take heed so that he does not fall”?
Did he not remember the moments before these words when the Lord had to rebuke him because he refused to let Jesus wash his feet? 
Had he forgotten them time he slid beneath the waves because he took his eyes off the Lord or the time the Lord called him Satan for trying to divert him from the cross? 
Didn’t he understand his own role as the leader of the disciples and how his actions would influence the others who made the same rash promise right along with him?
And once again hearing these words from Peter and knowing how it all turned out—how he and the others denied the Lord and fled from his side in his time of need—I find myself up on my moral high horse with my arms raised in self-righteous indignation. 
If there was ever anyone who needed to hear the words of Jesus, watch and pray so that you do not enter into temptation—the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak—surely it was Peter.  If only the Lord had spoken these words to him before he faced temptation and discovered how weak he was!
That’s what I think to myself and say to myself for about a second before I remember that the Lord has spoken these words to me two thousand years ago!  Two thousand years before I faced and failed my last temptation.  Two thousand years before I discovered all over again how true it is that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
These words of our Lord Jesus Christ to watch and pray so that we do not enter into temptation were not just intended for Peter and other disciples-- but for all of Christ’s disciples in every time and place, including us here today.    
And so as we hear these familiar words one more time here today, I want you to hear them anew in the context of the temptations that Peter and the disciples and we all have to face.
What is it there in the Garden of Gethsemane that the Lord wants us to watch for?  What does he want us to pray for so that we can stand fast in times of temptation?  The Bible says that:
Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.”
            The first thing that Jesus wants us to watch for is the power of our enemies.  Sin, death, and the devil are terrible enemies. 
We may be filled with self-righteous indignation at the betrayal of Judas, and the denial of Peter, and the cowardice of the other disciples, but dear friends in Christ the spiritual enemies they faced were terrible and powerful.  Even our Lord Jesus Christ (as he faced these same enemies) was troubled and sorrowful and filled with dread at what was ahead. 
Not only would Jesus face these same enemies but he would bear the cost of all of our failures to remain steadfast in the spiritual battles we face against those same enemies.  The Bible says that:
going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
This “cup” he was referring to was God’s wrath over all our failure to stand firm against temptation.  For Peter’s denial and Judas’ betrayal and the disciples’ cowardice and for all the times we have sinned and failed and given in and gone along, Jesus took that cup of God’s wrath and drained it to its last bitter dregs so that we would never have to taste God’s fury over our failures.
That is what Jesus wants us to watch for in the garden and he wants us to pray the prayer he prayed there the next time we are faced with temptation:  Father, not my will but yours be done.  Not the will of the devil, not the will of the world, not the will of my own flesh, but Father, thy will be done.
We will face temptations over and over again, our spiritual enemies will never give up.  That is what Jesus wants us to understand as we continue to watch with him in the garden.  The Bible says that:
Jesus came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour?  Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
            Less than an hour after making a solemn promise to the Lord to die with him if needed, Peter was sound asleep after the Lord asked him (not to die!) but to simply watch and pray.  Less than one hour!  We may be appalled by his weakness but…
How long do we go without sinning?  How long can we keep our commitments to God to do better?  How long before we have to ask for forgiveness one more time?  How true the words of Jesus, that our human flesh is weak.
            Even our Lord Jesus Christ, GOD in human flesh, got hungry and grew tired and shed tears of sorrow.  He felt the pain of rejection and the frustration of being misunderstood. 
How much more can be said of the weakness of our sinful flesh! 
We are defeated by our eyes which linger where they should not.  We are conquered by our tongue that we never seem to control.  We are vanquished by ears which love to listen to gossip. We are overthrown by our minds and their evil, faithless thoughts. 
Jesus wants us to watch the weakness of the disciples (not so that we can criticize them or stand in judgment over them!) but so that we can see the truth about our own weakness and so that we can pray that we would not even enter into temptation. 
How important it is to pray this prayer:  “Deliver us from temptation!  Keep us from the hour of trial!  Lord, you know how weak and frail I am, guard and protect me from my enemies and keep me from those place and people where you know I will fall!” 
And how important it is that when we have prayed that prayer, that we ourselves avoid occasions for sin, that we know our own weaknesses and stay away from what tempts us, that we make every effort to do our Father’s will because we have seen what our failures have cost the Lord.  The Bible says that:
For the second time, Jesus went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy.
            The track record of Peter and the disciple that night was one of failure—again and again.  We are tempted to believe that we could have done better—that we have would have had more humility than Peter—that surely we could have obeyed the Lord for an hour when he needed our support so much. 
But we don’t really imagine that about ourselves too long, do we?  We know our own track record.  We know our broken promises.  We know our own weakness and sin.  And certainly we see than anew in the garden.
But there is one more thing that the Lord wants us to watch for and see and that is his complete faithfulness, his complete submission to his Father’s will, his complete willingness to face rejection and betrayal—suffering and death—so that you and I could be forgiven for all of the times that we have and will give in to temptation.  The Bible says that:
leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again.  Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
There in the garden Jesus knew that moment was at hand.  His enemies were armed to the teeth.  His betrayer would give him the kiss of death.  His disciples would flee from his side.  A crown of thorns would be placed upon his head, nails driven into his hands and feet, and a sword would pierce his side.  And he would die.
Jesus knew every bit of what lay ahead and yet he said, Rise, let us go.  Jesus wants us to see our sin in the garden but much more importantly he wants us to see his commitment to save us from those sins even at the cost of his own life and so he says to us, Rise let us go. 
Go with me to the cross:  where you will see my deep and abiding love for you; where you will see the forgiveness that is found in my blood; where you will see the victory that is yours in my death.
And as we accept that invitation to go to the cross and see our salvation, we offer our prayers of praise and thanksgiving for the victory of Jesus and ask our heavenly Father to grant us faith to receive that salvation as our own.  Amen.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Follow the Apostolic Example!

Philippians 3:17-4:1 The question I am about to ask are not intended for our speculation but for our self-examination as Christians and a congregation. 
Would Paul recognize us as fellow Christians?  Do we share the same faith and live the same lives as the early church?  Would the apostles recognize our congregation as one where they would feel at home because we have the same priorities and practices they had?
Even though two thousand years separates us from the apostles, I hope the answer to those questions is “yes” because that is exactly what the Holy Spirit calls us to do and believe.  Paul says:
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
            Each week in the words of the Creed we say that we believe in one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church.  It is unfortunate indeed that we do not confess the creed as it was originally written “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” because that is exactly what we are talking about today:  the catholicity of the church.
The word “catholic” simply means that we believe and practice what Christians in every time and place have believed and practiced and that is what we have received from the apostles. 
That’s what Paul is talking about today—that all of those who are his brothers, that’s us along with Christians in every time and place, imitate his apostolic faith and practice and follow the example of those Christians and congregations who are also walking in his footsteps.
It is critical that we do that because already in Paul’s day, when he and the other apostles were still alive and teaching, there were those who claimed the name of Christ and yet had abandoned their apostolic example.  Paul write:
For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.
            I wonder what Paul would say about so much of the church today?  If already in his day there were MANY who had departed from the faith and practice of the apostles, what would he say about the church today? 
What would he say about us and what would he say about our congregation?
It’s important that we ask that question about our lives as individual Christians and our life as a Christian congregation—and it’s important that we are discerning about what we see throughout visible Christendom-- because to depart from the apostolic example is to be counted as an enemy of the cross of Christ!  An enemy of the cross of Christ!
Can you imagine a more terrible thing that could be said of anyone or any place (claiming the name of Christ) than what they actually are is enemies of the cross? 
And yet that is exactly what we see in so many places in the church today.
There are churches where the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the salvation of the world is denied, churches where the members are told that they must do something to add to what Christ has done, if they are to be saved.
There are churches that allow their pastors and teachers to question and raise doubts about the historicity of our Lord’s birth and his miracles and his bodily resurrection from the dead. 
There are churches where the great saving works of our Lord Jesus Christ in his death and resurrections are rarely if ever mentioned and then only as the starting point to you getting what you want in health, wealth, happiness, and self-fulfillment.
There are churches where God’s good gifts of marriage and family that are rooted in the creation of mankind as male and female are twisted and distorted and where the gift of children can be destroyed by the whim of their parents. 
And there are churches where the operating principle when it comes to God’s Word is nothing other than that of Satan in the beginning:  Did God really say?
Let there be no doubt in your mind whatsoever, these churches and those who follow their teaching have abandoned the apostolic example, forfeited the name of Christ, and have made themselves enemies of the cross to their eternal shame.  The Bible says about them that:
Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
            During Jesus’ earthly ministry he said about himself:  I am the way and the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father except through me. 
The ministry and message of the apostles after our Lord’s resurrection and ascension was to set that “way and truth and life” before the eyes of people who had never seen or heard the Lord in such a faithful, Spirit-filled way that they too could come to know and trust Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
The salvation of sinners only takes place when they believe in the Jesus of the Bible witnessed to by the apostles and so to depart from that witness and example is to be destroyed forever in the fires of hell. 
And so then when there are churches and teachers who tell their people (in the name of Christ) that their life with God is all about earthly things-- and when there are church and teachers who (in the name of Christ) glory in some sexual sin and in the destruction of innocent lives—and when there are churches and teachers who tell their members (in the name of Christ) that their salvation is found in the works of their own flesh-- their end can only be eternal destruction.  
That is how serious the apostolic example is:  eternal death if it is abandoned --but eternal life if it is followed.  The Bible says that for those who follow the apostolic example:
our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. 
            As we have considered Paul’s words and the eternal implication of Paul’s words, perhaps you have asked yourself:  why on earth would anyone who claims the name of Christ for themselves and their congregation even think about abandoning the apostolic example?  Why would anyone make themselves an enemy of the cross of Christ? 
It’s a good question and there are a number of answers but at least a part of it is that so often in life it is easier to go along to get along rather than standing fast on the truth of God’s Word.
When I was in Kingsville I had a friend who was pastor of a local church whose denomination had made a church-wide decision to change their teaching and practice on marriage and sexuality.  And I remember visiting with him after this decision and asking him what were they thinking.  And he said that in his opinion the Holy Spirit was doing a new thing—in other words, that God had changed his mind about what Jesus and the apostles had taught.
And I was taken aback for a moment but then I said that it didn’t sound like God at all but sounded like the culture around us was driving that decision.  And he said yes, but sometimes the culture has to lead the church. 
Dear friends in Christ, as individual Christians and as a Christian congregation our citizenship is in heaven; our faith is founded on the unchanging words of the holy apostles; our hope is found in the finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. 
We DO NOT take our direction from the godless culture around us when it comes to matters of faith and life.
And while it is possible now for Churches and their leaders and their members to lie and deceive and mislead in the name of Jesus Christ-- and distort or deny outright the example of the apostles--that day will come to an end with the return of Jesus.
On that day Jesus will destroy his enemies-- and all that they have gloried in apart from the apostolic example-- will be used as evidence against them to their eternal shame. 
But for all of us who have followed the apostolic example and have held fast to the faith once delivered to the saints, the days of our battle against sin, death and the devil will be over as Christ raises us from the dead and gives us an eternal life that is forever free sin and sadness.
That is what Paul and the other apostles were hoping for as they preached Christ- and taught his ways- and called Christians in every place and time to do the same.  Paul wrote:
Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
            Following the apostolic example is not adopting the dress and food and clothing of the first century A.D.  It is not an end unto itself simply because these men knew the Lord. 
Instead, following the apostolic example and walking in the faithful footsteps of Christians who have come before us is nothing less than standing firm in the Lord.  That’s how important this is!
            Each generation of Christians has to claim the apostolic example for themselves as their own—not just for the sake of their own salvation—but for the sake of those who follow after them so that they too might have a living reminder of what it means to stand firm in the Lord and walk in the ways of the apostles.  And so then…
We ask ourselves again:  Would Paul recognize us as fellow Christians?  Would he feel at home in our congregation?  Would he call us his beloved brothers in the faith?  God grant that our answer is always “yes” by the grace of God and the help of the Holy Spirit!  Amen.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Be Reconciled to God!

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 I don’t think that any of us set out to do it but it happens anyway—we begin to go our own way rather than God’s way.  As the hymn-writer says, we have a heart that is prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. 
We begin to make room for some pet sin.  We make excuses for it or we rationalize it away.  We become embittered towards someone and it’s easier to avoid them rather than resolve it.  And our hearts begin to harden.
            Before long, our prayer life and worship life and devotional life is not what it should be and the distance between us and God has grown greater than we could have ever imagined. 
We know it’s not right.  We know we can’t continue on in the same direction.  But how do we make things right? How do we begin again?  Can we return to God at all? Isn’t he tired of forgiving us again and again? 
The Good News for us tonight is that we can begin again and we can return to God and he stands ready to receive us to himself with arms of mercy and love and forgiveness.  Paul says:  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
            What Good News it is for us on this Day of Repentance that the way back to God doesn’t begin with us at all-- but it begins with a gracious God who calls out to us just like he did to Adam and Eve and says “where are you”? 
Now of course the Lord knows just exactly where we are in our life of faith just like he knew with Adam and Eve. 
But he calls to us tonight so that we might recognize where we are—so that we might understand just how quickly and just how far we have departed from the narrow road that leads to eternal life—so that we might return to him.
The Holy Spirit speaks across the centuries- on Christ’s behalf -through the words of Paul -and begs each and every one of us to be reconciled to God. 
Can you imagine such a thing!  That the one, true and living God of the universe who is holy and righteous—who is offended and grieved by our sins-- is also the very one who calls us to be reconciled to him so that we do not live our lives on earth alienated from him and spend eternity apart from him?!  Can you imagine such love?!
What wondrous mercy and grace it is that reaches out to sinners going their own way with no thought of God-- and desires only that they would turn from their sins and return to their Father’s house. 
But perhaps there is some nagging doubt as to what kind of reception we will receive.  Perhaps we tell ourselves that it is no use, that there is simply too much water under the bridge; that we have wandered too long, that our sins are too many or too great.  Hear what your Father says to you:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 
            Have you ever heard more joyous, wonderful news than that!?  For OUR sake, Jesus came.  For OUR sake God sent him.  For OUR sake! 
Can that possibly be true?  That for the very ones who have wandered away; for the very ones who have made room for sin in their life so often that it crowded God out; for the very ones who have rationalized their rebellion; God sent his holy Son.
For OUR sake God sent Jesus Christ into the world to bear our sin.  Just think of it!  The holy, innocent, perfect Son of God took upon himself our sin so completely, so inclusively that Jesus Christ became sin in his Father’s eyes.
He went to the cross bearing the burden of our sins.  The sins of which we are particularly ashamed.  The sins that are known only to God.  The sins that we have made room for.  The sins that we have excused. 
Every sin, of every sinner, placed by God himself upon his perfect Son who died in torment upon the cross, under his Father’s wrath, forsaken before the world.
This is what Jesus meant when he said, For God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son.  It is only there at the cross that you can begin to see how much God loves you—only there that you begin to understand the lengths that God went to so that you can be reconciled to him.  Now then, you should understand…
There is a purpose in this sacrifice—not so that you could continue to go your own way, not so that you could carve out a little place in your life for sin, not so that you could exercise lordship over your own life-- but so that you could become the righteousness of God. 
In other words, Christ died in your place, bearing your sins so that you could be washed of your sins and forsake a life of disobedience and be reconciled to God and live as his child in righteousness.
That is God’s purpose in his saving work that forgave your sins and he gave you faith to receive that forgiveness:  that you might be righteous and holy in God’s sight. 
That is why God calls you to be reconciled, so that the work of Christ on your behalf might bring you blessing and a life with him.  Paul says:  Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
You may be hearing the voice of Pastor Eckert-- and you may be reading the words of the Apostle Paul-- but you should be very, very clear in your own mind that it is God’s own work that is being done and God’s own word that is being spoken as we work with him! 
And God is imploring you and appealing to you so that his saving work in the Lord Jesus Christ would be received by you in living faith and produce in you the purpose for all of it: that you would turn from sin and turn to God in faith and restored fellowship. 
That is what Paul is talking about when he warns us about receiving the grace of God in vain. 
That word means hearing this call to be reconciled in a way that does not penetrate our inmost being-- and remaining in a dead, inactive “faith” where we are hearers only and not doers of God’s Word.
This call to be reconciled to God-- and the wonderful promise that God has made his own Son to bear our sin-- has a purpose in our lives:  that his gracious love would make us new, different people than we were before, people who are willing to walk in his ways and do his will in every part of our lives.  That is why God speaks to us today and says:
“In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”  Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
            Just as Christ promised, the disciples were his witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the very ends of the earth as they knew it.  Even in Corinth, a city filled with pagan temples, there was a Christian Church just as there was throughout the cities of Asia Minor.
But look at those same place today.  The church is almost extinct in what is a Muslim world—the favorable time has passed
In Luther’s day the Gospel swept through Germany and Scandanavia and Great Britain and Europe and countless souls were delivered from falsehood and superstition.  But in those same places today church attendance is in the low single digits—the favorable time has passed.
The same thing can happen in the life of an individual believer.  It does us no good to start strong and fall away.  It is only those who endure unto the end who will be saved and Jesus says that if he did not cut short the last days even the elect would be lost if that were possible.
That is why this call from God to be reconciled to him goes out to us on this day of salvation-- and he is speaking to every one of us.  None of us can says that we have walked with God is such a faithful way that we do not need to stop and return to him.
And so the Lord has appointed this moment for each of us where we can hear his voice and where we can be reminded of the sacrifice of his Son that makes our return to him possible.
The Lord knows just exactly where we are in our life of faith.  He has seen our sins and he has heard our excuses. 
But rather than condemning us as we deserve, he has promised to help us in (what is for us) no less than a day of salvation—a favorable time when we can hear his voice and draw near to him in faith.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, these Gospel-filled, grace-given moments are precious.  You are living and breathing and present here tonight because you have in the Lord a gracious God who desires only your salvation and has done everything necessary for you to turn from your sins and turn to Jesus in faith and be reconciled to your heavenly Father.
This is your day of salvation!  This is the favorable time that God has appointed for you and you and I have absolutely no idea whether or not there will another and so be reconciled to God for he made him who had no sin to be sin for you so that in him you might become the righteousness of God.  Amen.