Saturday, June 29, 2019

This Is How We Know What Love Is

1 John 3:13-18 I think that most of us have heard the phrase, “Talk is Cheap”.  Or the phrase, “You need to put your money where your mouth is.”  Or the phrase, “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?” 
And we know what is meant:  that words are easily spoken --but the actions that accompany them, that give proof to the truth of what we say-- are costly.
That is the theme of our text today.  John says that we Christians are not to love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.  Now, John is not saying that we shouldn’t speak kindly to one another—not at all!  The Bible is full of counsel on speaking kindly to one another
But what he is saying is that, the way we live our lives, and especially the way that we treat one another, ought to correspond to our confession of faith—that there ought to be a real connection between the love that Christ has for us shown in his sacrifice on the cross --and the love that we have for one another shown in the concrete ways we treat one another.
We Christians know what love is because we know the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross-- but what God wants us to understand today is that the world around us will to come to know what real love is because of the Christ-like way we treat one another.
The Bible says:  Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.  Every year, generally around Christmas, we all become combatants in what are called the “culture wars.”
The checker at Walmart says Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas.  The schoolchildren get a “winter” break instead of a Christmas vacation.  Some little town is sued because of the manger scene on the lawn of the county courthouse.
It’s becoming more widespread.  Just recently a case concerning a one hundred year old WWI monument in the shape of the cross went to the Supreme Court because it was on public land and there were people who wanted it taken down.
And so I want to ask you:  when these things happen, when you hear about them:  how does it make you feel?  John says:  Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.  But we are surprised aren’t we?  Along with outraged and offended and up in arms at the injustice of it all!  But here’s the thing:
I can assure you that the Christians in the Middle East and Africa are not surprised.  They know, and always known the truth of John’s words that the world hates Christians.  They have always taken heart in the words of Jesus that Christians are blessed when they are persecuted and that we ought to rejoice because that persecution identifies us with Christ and his people and that if we are hated, it is only because the world hated Christ first.
The attitude of the world towards Christ and his people us is hatred and we should not be surprised by it.  But what should be our attitude towards others?  Should we return hatred for hatred?  Or is there another way?  The Bible says that:
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.
            Let’s be very, very clear:  the way of hatred is the way of death.  And the measure of our faith in Jesus is found in the measure of our love for others—especially those in the church.
Now, it is not as if we are to only love Christians.  The Bible says that God so loved the world.  Jesus says that we are to love our enemies and do good to those who mistreat us.  But in these verses John is especially focusing our attention on how we treat one another in the church as a demonstration of our faith in Jesus.  If we love them or not.  Now… 
The church ought to be the easiest place to find love-- but too often the opposite is true!  If you don’t believe me, reflect a bit on these questions:  “How do you feel about the people in this place?”  Picture them in your mind’s eye and think about it.
The people sitting in these pews with us today are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have the same heavenly Father.  We have the same Savior.  There is no one closer to us on earth than those in this place who share our faith.  And so we ask ourselves…
Are there people here I avoid because they just set my teeth on edge?  Are there people here I ignore because they are not in my social class?  Are there people here that I am embittered towards because of some past wrong?  Are there people here that I regard as my enemies because they disagree with me about something here at church?  Hear the Word of God:
Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 
            In these words John is simply echoing the teaching of Jesus.  The Pharisees thought that they were in good shape spiritually because they were living outwardly holy lives.  But Jesus called them white-washed graves:  clean and white on the outside but ugly and dead on the inside. 
He went on to explain what he meant:  that it is not just those who actually have an affair who are guilty of adultery but the one who lusted-- and that it was not just the one who took a life who was guilty of murder but the one who was angry—and that living this way, even in our hearts, a person would never enter the kingdom of heaven.
That is exactly what John says here:  that hatred of others, especially our fellow Christians is murder-- and that no murderer has eternal life. 
These are hard words and they are meant to be because God wants to lay bare the truth about our hearts and lives:  that much too often we do not love others as we should because we do not love others as we have been loved by Jesus.  The Bible says:
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
            The truth of the matter is that we haven’t loved others as we should-- but it is also true that we haven’t been loved BY others as we should.  In this broken world, true love is finally and fully seen in only one place-- and that is in the love that Jesus has for us at the cross.
He laid down his life for us out of love for us.  He died loving people who did not know him, for people who hated him, for people who would heap scorn and ridicule upon him, for people who would never accept his love or allow themselves to be changed by his love.
He loved us, not because we are particularly lovable, not because of what he could get from us, and certainly not because we have ever or could ever do anything to deserve that kind of love.  He loved us because he is love-- and he showed what true love looks like as he laid down his life for us upon the cross.
That is what love is-- and the Bible says that, as recipients of his love, as those who have passed from death to life through faith in him, as his disciples, we are to lay down our lives for others, especially for our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Now…
When John talks about “laying down our lives” he is talking about the crucifixion:  of literally laying down upon the rough beams of a cross, of nails being driven into hands and feet, of a crucified body being lifted up for all the world to see. 
That is what Jesus did for us-- and that is the shape of our love for others.  And so what does that look like in our lives?  The Bible says that:
if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?
            You and I are not called by God to be crucified for the sins of the world but we are called upon by God, as followers of Jesus, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices for the sake of those around us.  The Bible says that this is our true, spiritual worship-- and this life of love will show itself in actions that are concrete, sacrificial, and costly.
            John especially mentions the real connection that ought to exist between the worldly goods the Lord has entrusted into our hands as his stewards-- and how we use those goods to help others, especially those in the church.
There are countless opportunities in our world today to help those in need.  To care for persecuted Christians and their families.  To share with our fellow Christians around the world who don’t have the very most basic necessities of life.  To help those whose lives have been turned upside down by the tragedies of life. 
A closed hand and a closed wallet reveals a closed heart where the love of God does not abide and John says very simply that our love for others is not revealed in our words but in our actions.  Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
The Bible is full of instruction and counsel about our speech.  John is not saying that our words do not matter—they do! 
But what he is saying is that there is a particular shape to our love.  The truth of God’s love for the world was shown in Jesus’ death on the cross and so the truth of our love for the world, and particularly those in the church, God intends would look like Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Faith the LORD Counts as Righteousness

Genesis 15:1-6 The verses of Holy Scripture that we have before us today deal with one of the most important men in the Bible and some of the most important events in salvation history.
The Jews of Jesus’ day and Jesus himself used Abraham as an example of what life with God was all about.  Both Paul and James referenced events from Abraham’s life to talk about how a person can be right in God’s sight.
For our own purposes here today we are going to consider this text from the perspective of both, a believer’s life, and what matters in the end.  The Bible says that:  After these things…  Well, what things are those?
If we go back to what happened immediately before these verses, Abram had won a great military victory, rescued his family members from their enemies, and was blessed by the King of Salem who was also a priest of the most-high God.  All of it a high point in Abram’s life.
But if you go even farther back, there is the call of the Lord to Abram to journey to a place he had never seen before and how he stepped out in faith.  There is the lie Abram told to Pharaoh about Sarai to save himself and there is the family strife between him and Lot. 
And so then, After these things… references the great highs in Abram’s life and the great low’s.  These words encompass the great acts of faith and the failures of sinful faithlessness, large and small.  In ALL this we see a picture of the life of a believer.
In our own lives there are great successes:  academic and business and professional-- and there are failures:  the last rung on the corporate ladder we don’t climb, the degree we are not able to finish, the opportunities we missed. 
In our own lives there are spiritual high points:  when we are especially close to the Lord, when our faith-life is deepening and growing, when we see our children take their own place in the church.  But there are also the lows:  the selfishness that makes for conflict in our families, the sins great and small that always remind us that we are not yet all that God wants us to be.
Throughout the Bible, Abram is referenced as the man of faith—and he is!  But he is, still, just a man--subject to all the joys and sorrows of life in this broken world.
That is important for us to remember!  The joys and the successes and the victories are wonderful when they happen but they do not last.  We are not magically immunes from the brokenness of this world, the sinfulness of our flesh, or the temptations of the devil. 
Sin and sorrow was part of Abram’s life and it will be part of ours too but there is a faithful God who is with us and invites to cast our cares upon him.  The Bible says that:
…the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
            These words were spoken to Abram after a great military victory and a great spiritual blessing.  Anybody who was looking at Abram’s life from the outside would have said that he had the world by the tail.  But God knew what was in his heart:  the fear and turmoil that was there-- and he made him a remarkable promise:  the LORD was his shield and his reward.
No matter how fearful and uncertain the future, the LORD was his shield—no matter what great victories he would have, it was really the LORD who would be his reward.  In good times and in bad times, it was the LORD himself who would be his blessing and helper.
So it is for us.  Any victories or joys or successes we have are only for this life and most of them don’t last very long even in this life.  What a comfort to know that the LORD is our reward—our enduring, everlasting blessing.
And when there is fear and uncertainty in our life—even if it is (as it often is) of our own making, what a comfort to know that the LORD himself is the one who will be our shield.  That was the promise of God to Abram and that is the promise of God to us.  It is that love and care and concern that allows us to go to the Lord with all that is on our heart, knowing that he desires only to bless us in the midst of it.  That’s what Abram did.  He said:
“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
            When God called Abram to walk by faith to a land and a future he did not know, he made him a promise:  that the LORD would make Abram a great nation and that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed. 
Years went by- and years would go by- and still there was no child in their family that Abram and Sarai could lay hold of and know the promise of God fulfilled.  They simply had to walk by faith, trusting that God was faithful and could be counted on to keep his promises even when there was no way for them to see it.
They did not always succeed in that—there were real faith failures.  At this moment Abram was planning for his heir to be someone from outside the marriage.  We know that in short order Sarai would come up with her own sinful scheme to produce an heir.
In all of this they struggled to rely simply on God’s Word and walk by faith and not by sight-- and I think that we understand this about our own lives of faith, don’t we?
            God says, I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future and yet how often do we worry what the future holds?!  God says, Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for I go with you; and will never leave you nor forsake you” and yet how often do we feel all alone in the world?  God says that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and for the sins of the world and yet how often do we carry around a load of guilt for sins long since forgiven and forgotten by Jesus?!  We too have faith struggles.  And yet…
Called by God to be his people, we must journey home by faith and not by sight.  We are called to believe his promises even when we cannot see them. 
And there are times in our life, just like there was for Abram when we doubt those promises and try to find peace and hope and fulfillment in some other place than the promises of God.  The LORD knows this about us just like he did Abram.  The Bible says that the LORD:  knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust and so he works in our lives to strengthen our faith in him because, in the end, that is what truly matters.  The Bible says that:
The word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”  And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
            What Abram discovered that day is that the LORD’s promises are true and he doesn’t need our help to bring them to bear.  He is more than capable of fulfilling his promises!
Already in Abram’s life the Lord had made this promise by directing his attention to the dust of the earth and asked him to number the grains of the sand if he were able and so his descendants would be.  From that moment on, in every moment of Abram’s journey home, every step he took on the dusty ground beneath his feet would remind him of the faithfulness and strength of the Lord.
But there was even more to the promise!  The earth that Abram walked upon was the earth the Lord had created and the earth from which the Lord had brought forth the first man.  And so every step of his life’s journey Abram would be reminded that the Lord had the power and faithfulness to keep his word and provide a son by his mighty power .
Now that promise was renewed in the stars above, to remind him again of the creative power of God who called the heavenly bodies into being-- but also to show Abram that his descendants would be much, much more than an earthly people with an earthly home.  They would be a heavenly people who would live forever with God in heaven. 
Every time he lifted up his eyes at night he would be reminded of the promise of God that his descendants would come from his own body and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through them.  That promise would find an immediate fulfillment in the birth of Isaac but its true fulfillment is found in Jesus-- who Matthew calls the Son of Abraham. 
Jesus says about this promise that Abraham looked forward to his day and rejoiced.  Abram didn’t know all the details of Jesus’ work like we do-- but he trusted the promise of God that was grounded in the earth beneath his feet and the stars above his head.
In the same way the Lord strengthens our faith in his promises by connecting them to the fruits of his creation in bread and wine and water and words so that we can believe in him and be strengthened in our faith which is what really matters in the end.  The Bible says that Abram:  believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
There were victories and defeats in Abram’s life and there were spiritual highs and lows.  But the victorious highs were not the source of his life with God and the sinful lows did not destroy that life.  What mattered in the end was the faith Abram had in the promises that God had made.  Believing those promises, Abram was right in God’s sight.
So it is for us.  There are going to be highs and lows when it comes to our life with God.  There are going to be joys and sorrows as we live on earth.  But our life with God does not rest upon anything in us--but rather upon his promises that we lay hold of by faith.
What we see throughout Abram’s story is that the LORD is worthy of that faith!  He is the God of kept promises who raised up the offspring of Abram in Jesus Christ through whom all the families of men have been blessed, including us here today!  Amen.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

For God So Loved the World

John 3:16 On this Trinity Sunday we confess our Christian faith in the words of the Athanasian Creed.  We carefully define and distinguish between the three persons of the Holy Trinity and we maintain their full divinity even while we confess that there is just one God.
We confess that long, theologically precise creed while hearing a sermon on just one verse of Holy Scripture, a verse that the smallest child among us knows by heart: 
For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
While we may be struck by the contrast between the theological precision of the Athanasian Creed and the simplicity of the verse before us for our meditation, what I would have you know, and believe, and understand-- is that there is no conflict, whatsoever, between the two!  They express the same, exact saving truths about the person and work of our gracious God.
Both the Athanasian Creed and John 3:16 deal with the two most basic, fundamental, important questions that any of us will ever ask:  “Who is God”?  And, “How can I have a life with him”?  And the answer to those questions is this:  There is one God in three persons.  A heavenly Father who loves us.  A Son who has given his life for us.  A Holy Spirit who has called us to faith so that we can be saved. 
This one true God is not a theological abstraction, or the academic subject of some dusty philosophical treatise, but is instead the God of our salvation.
Jesus says:  For God so loved the world…  That we are here today; that we have life; that we exist at all-- is only because we have in God a heavenly Father who loves us. 
The Bible says in 1 John that:  God is love.  We are the fruit of the love that exists within the three persons of the Holy Trinity and God created the world and placed mankind at the pinnacle of his creation because he is a God of love.
Not only has he made us, he continues to be involved in our lives, for our good, every step of the way.  He knew us before we took shape in our mother’s womb.  He has provided for every need of our earthly life.  He was watched over every moment of our life and he will bring his children home.
God’s love extends to every person in this world and to the cosmos itself.  Whether men know and confess him as their God, he continues, as the Bible says, to cause rain to fall on the just and the unjust.  In other words, he continues to provide for the needs of all his creatures, sustaining the universe moment by moment and providing even for those who are his enemies and wage war against him.
From the beginning of the Bible to the end, the Bible writers have stood in awe and wonder before this mighty God whose love extends to the smallest creature-- and they have marveled at this goodness that sustains and cares for all people whether they acknowledge him as their Father or not.
But such is the love that God the Father has for this world, and every person in this world, that he is never content for any part of it, or any person in it, to be lost to him.  God has made us and all men for himself and he is never satisfied in only blessing us for this life-- but desires to bless for eternity because his love for us has no end. 
It is that everlasting love for all the world and all the people in it that moved him to bestow a gift of love upon mankind like no other.  or God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…
When God created the world in the very beginning, in very short order, man’s disobedience and rebellion against God destroyed everything that God created.  The world and all people were marred by sin and death including our own lives.
From that moment on, all of the earthly blessings of God would not extend forever like he designed—human life would not go on for eternity like he desired.  Life with God in all its fullness came to an end.  And yet…
Such was God’s love for the world that he did not destroy the world and mankind and begin again.  Instead, he promised that he would make things right-- and he did that in the most amazing, marvelous, unexpected way:  he gave his own Son to be the Savior of the world.
The Bible says:  This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and gave his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.  The Second Person of the Holy Trinity, possessing the fullness of God, equal to the Father regarding his divinity, took upon himself our flesh and became one of us. 
He lived our life here on earth in perfect obedience to his heavenly Father.  He took upon himself all of the sins that have been a part of our own broken lives.  He took upon himself the curse of death that God has spoken of each of us because of those sins.  And he died on the cross as our substitute under his Father’s wrath.
But there was even more!  Death was not his end.  He rose again as the new, obedient Adam in whom everlasting blessing and life has been restored.  He did this for us and for our salvation and for the salvation of the world.
The Bible says Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and for ours only, but for the sins of the world.  The Bible says that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins again them.  The Bible says that
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Salvation for the world—bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus…given to Whoever believes in him.  I want you to understand how unbelievably wide and narrow is the salvation that the Father has accomplished for the world in his Son Jesus Christ. 
The word “whoever” means exactly that:  whoever!  No matter your status in this world, no matter the depth of your sins, no matter how far and long you have wandered, the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ are sufficient for your salvation, countless thousand times over.
Christ died for you, to make you God’s child.  But that word “whoever” is also necessarily tied to those who believe that Jesus is their Savior from sin and death. 
Christ died for all people, every sin of every sinner was paid for on the cross, but it is ONLY those who believe in him who will not perish but have eternal life.  ONLY those who believe in Jesus will be saved! 
  That is why God sent his Holy Spirit-- so that people could come to faith in Jesus and be saved—so that they could be born again from above.  That is what Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to understand.  Nicodemus was not going to be saved because he had been born a Jew.  He needed to be born again because flesh can only give birth to flesh.  What was needed for Nicodemus (and what is needed for all people) is spiritual birth.  And as little as Nicodemus caused himself to be born a Jew, just as little would he cause himself to be born again.
The Spirit would do that in his life and in fact did do that in his life!  We learn at the end of the Gospels that Nicodemus did indeed come to faith and n the same way the Holy Spirit continues to do his saving work in the hearts of men who hear the Good News about Jesus and come to faith in him as Lord and Savior. 
The Bible in 1 Peter says that God caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The Bible says in James that God brought us forth by the word of truth.  The Bible says in Romans the faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ and that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to them that believe. 
God the Holy Spirit continues to give spiritual life to those who are born dead in sin and trespass just as he did for Nicodemus:  through the Good News about Jesus and what he has done for us in his death and resurrection.
And so then, the Good News for us on this Trinity Sunday is that we have in the Holy Trinity, revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds of the Church, a God who has known us and loved us for eternity, a God who has lived, and died and be raised so that we could regain God’s eternal blessings, and a God who has called us to faith so that we can believe in Jesus and be saved.  One God in three persons:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And it is indeed Good News for us because the difference his presence and work has made in our lives is the difference between perishing in the fires of hell forever and being saved unto eternal life.  The Bible says:  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Over the last two thousand years of the church’s history, men have fought and died for the truth about God revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds of the church.  They have sacrificed all that they have, not because of some theological treatise, not because of some confessional hair-splitting. 
They have contended for this faith because it is nothing less than eternal salvation for those who believe and eternal death for those who don’t because it is the answer to the most fundamental questions of our human existence:  who is God and how can I have a life with him.
Today we have heard the answer in God’s Word and we confess the same in the words of the Athanasian Creed.  Amen.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

The Help of the Holy Spirit

John 14:23-31 James said that we are to be doers of the word and not hearers only.  John said this the love of God, that we keep his commandments.  Paul said that love is the fulfilling of the Law.  And in all this, the apostles are simply re-affirming what they heard from Jesus, who said:
“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me.
            In these verses we have the marker and the measure of our love for Jesus:  that we keep his word, guard his word, hold fast to his word, and obey his word.  According to Jesus’ own words, love for him is not primarily found is some feeling that we have, it is not found in some emotional, ecstatic experience.  Love for Jesus is found in our keeping his word.
Conversely, where his word is not kept, where it is unguarded, where it is not obeyed, Jesus says that in that person, there is no love for him at all. 
And he goes on to say that if there is no love for him (shown in our lives in keeping his word) then the love of Father and fellowship with the Father is not there either-- for the words that Jesus spoke are nothing other than the voice of the living God of the universe.
These words of Jesus about the nature of true love for him shown in our attitude and actions concerning his words-- and the consequences in our life with God when they are not there in whole or part-- ought to get our attention!  They ought to make us examine our lives!
 Now, I think that all of us, if asked, would say, “yes, of course I love Jesus!” But according to Jesus, the proof of that love is not found on our lips—but in our lives. 
Do we make it a point to read the word of God and hear the word of God preached and study the word of God?  Is there some part of our life where we are living in open rebellion against the Word of God:  regarding our sexuality or our lack of forgiveness or our speech or the place that money has in our lives or any other facet of our lives?  Do we entertain ideas that are contrary to the words of Jesus regarding salvation by faith or some other teaching?  Do we have an expectation about our life with God that is different than what Jesus described as a cross that we must all bear?
If any of this is true of us then the judgment of Jesus is that we do not love him as we should- and our fellowship with God is not what it ought to be.  The fact of the matter is that we are incapable (in ourselves) of being the people that Jesus has called us to be. 
The judgment of Jesus is that we must have help if we are to love him as we should and live with God as he desires.  The Good News for us on Pentecost is that help will be given.  Jesus says:
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
            These words were spoken by Jesus in the upper room on the night he was betrayed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In just a few days he would die on the cross and rise again and in not much more than a month he would ascend to heaven.
The apostles were commissioned by Jesus at his ascension to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching all that Jesus commanded.  All!  But how could they ever hope to keep and guard and hold fast and obey ALL that Jesus had taught over the last three years?!
The heavenly Father would help them.  He would send the Holy Spirit to teach and guide them and help them to remember everything Jesus had taught so that it could be written down and passed on to every Christian in every time and place.
That promise was fulfilled on Pentecost as the heavenly Father poured out the Holy Spirit so that people gathered in Jerusalem from around the world could hear the message of Jesus in their own language and come to saving faith-- and that promise is still being fulfilled as we open our bibles and hear the words of Jesus recorded by the apostles and the Holy Spirit does his sanctifying work in our hearts and minds and lives. 
That is especially what Jesus was talking about when he said that the Father would send the Spirit in his name. 
It would be his saving works especially that the Spirit would bear witness to—to assure us that salvation is found in Christ alone, to remind us that Christ bore our burden upon the cross, to set before our eyes of faith again and again the promise of life for us that is found in the empty tomb, and to help us hold fast to his words of promise. 
It is the Spirit’s teaching and witness to the salvation we have in Jesus that strengthens our obedience and calms our fears and brings us peace.  Jesus said:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
            Isaiah called him the Prince of Peace.  On the night of his birth the angels proclaimed peace on earth and goodwill towards men.  After his resurrection he appeared to his disciples and said peace be to you.  Jesus came to bring peace between God and man.  That was his mission.  He did that by removing the wrath and judgment of God on account of our sins by taking that upon himself on the cross. 
Peace as the world gives comes and goes.  Peace as the world gives depends of the honor and integrity of men.  Peace as the world gives never lasts. 
But the peace that Jesus brings rests not upon us or our faithfulness or our commitment-- but solely upon the peace treaty between God and man that was signed in Jesus’ blood.  It is real and lasting and complete and passes all human understanding.  The Bible says that having been justified by faith, we have peace with God.  The Bible says that Jesus has made peace through his cross.  The Bible says that this peace is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  
That is why there is no need for us to be troubled or afraid—anxious or worried.  No matter what trials we face—no matter what hardships we undergo—Jesus has made peace and the Holy Spirit has given us peace with God—even when, and especially when the road of faith we travel becomes dark and dangerous and difficult.  Jesus said:
‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe.
            Throughout this long conversation that Jesus is having with his disciples in the Upper Room, he is explaining what is about to take place:  he will be parted from them by death on the cross but united to them once again by the resurrection—but that reunion will not be for long as he ascends and reclaims the heavenly throne that is rightfully his. 
And even though they and every disciple who follows them will never experience that kind of life with Jesus they have enjoyed over the last three years, nevertheless—they should be glad for Jesus and glad for themselves that Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father.
   They should be glad for Jesus because at this ascension he would once again be in fullness who he truly was as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 
As he ministered upon earth he was hungry and sorrowful and weak and beaten and broken for our salvation.  The greatness and glory he shared with the Father and the Holy Spirit was hidden in humility.  But he was returning to heaven and the praise and worship of all creation would never be exhausted in his presence.
He was also ascending for their good and for the good of every disciple who would come after them including us here today. 
He would rule heaven and earth on behalf of his people, causing all things to work for our good.  He would stand before the Father’s throne as our great high priest, always holding up his sacrifice between God’s wrath and our sin and interceding for us before his Father’s throne.  And he would send the Holy Spirit as he promised so that we could believe in him and show our faith through our obedience to his Word.  He said:
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.
            We began our meditation on God’s Word today by talking about how our love for Jesus is to be shown by keeping, guarding, holding fast to, and obeying God’s Word.  We made the point that often times our life’s witness to our love for Jesus is not what it should be.
That is why these verses are such good news for us.  In these last few moments in the upper room, Jesus knew full well all that the devil had done and was going to do in the hours that followed in the lives of those around him.  He saw the betrayal and the denial and the rejection and the cowardice and the cruelty.  He knew all of it and came to destroy it by becoming obedient unto death, even death on the cross.
You see dear friends in Christ, Jesus loves his heavenly Father with a perfect love that keeps and guards and holds fast to and obeys his Father’s words.  Jesus said very simply, very humbly:  I have come to speak my Father’s words.  I have come to do my Father’s will.  And he makes that plain for the world to see as he accomplishes his Father’s saving will by going to the cross.  Jesus says:
Rise, let us go from here.  Those words are spoken from an untroubled heart that has no fear because he knows that he is acting in perfect concord with his Father’s saving words and will and in this he shows us what true love really is.
It is an example that we cannot follow in our own strength or resources but that we are called to nevertheless, and so Jesus sends us a helper in the Holy Spirit so that in our own lives we can show this same holy obedience to the words of our Lord.  God grant it for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Faith Comes from Hearing the Gospel

Romans 10:14-17 Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!  What good news this is!  What hope there is in this promise that the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Paul to write in Romans 10:  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved! 
These words of promise and hope are just like the words of St. Peter to the Philippian jailer who fell at his feet, asking him what he must do to be saved.  And the response of Peter was this:  believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.
That we are saved from the holy wrath of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the central teaching of Holy Scripture and the central teaching of our Lutheran Church and the central teaching of Romans.  It is our hope and peace and confidence in the courtroom of a a holy, righteous God! 
We confess, along with the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther:  that one is justified by faith apart from deeds of the Law:  declared right in God’s sight.
That is how important faith in Jesus is!  Faith in Jesus is our salvation.  Faith in Jesus is our justification.  Faith in Jesus is our peace in time and for eternity.  And… 
Everything that Paul has written in his letter to the Romans up to this point has been written so that we would know and understand that most important teaching that is faith in Jesus that saves.
In our text today there is a necessary transition from the absolute importance of saving faith in Jesus, to the way in which we come to possess that saving faith in the first place. 
And Paul asks us three rhetorical questions to help us understand how faith in Jesus has come to reside in our heart.  Since everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
            And the answer to each of those rhetorical questions is:  they can’t!  How can people call on Jesus if they do not believe in him?  They can’t!  How can people believe in Jesus if they have never heard of him or his saving works?  They can’t!  How can people hear about Jesus if no one preaches to them?  They can’t!
    Do you understand the point that Paul is making about the importance of the Gospel ministry of Word and sacrament?  It is that ministry and those gifts that connect us to Jesus by faith.
Our Lord Jesus Christ took upon himself our flesh and became man, born of a woman, born under the Law to redeem those under the Law at a particular moment in history. 
He lived a holy life, died a terrible death on the cross, rose again and ascended into heaven on particular days in history some two thousand years ago.  A real historical person.  A real historical life.  All of it to redeem the world from the curse of sin and death and the power of the devil.
And here we are on June 2, 2019 living our own lives at a particular in moment in history, two thousand years separating us from the historical person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We ask…    
What is there that connects us to Christ?  What is there that bridges that span of time and place so that we can come to faith in Christ?  It is the Word of God! 
It is the Gospel that is preached and taught in this church!  It is the Good News that in Holy Baptism we died with Christ and were raised in Christ and that in Holy Communion what was offered up for the salvation of the world upon the cross in Christ’s body and blood is given to us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. 
The promise of Holy Scripture is that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved and the Good News for us is that:  we can call upon Jesus because we believe in him-- and we believe in Jesus because we have heard of him -and we have heard of Jesus because someone has preached to us. 
That is just how important the Office of the Holy Ministry is to our life of faith and our salvation!  Our saving faith in Jesus has come from preaching!  The Lutheran reformers understood this and confessed this biblical teaching. 
In the Augsburg Confession, after confessing that we are “justified as a gift on account of Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ suffered for us” they immediately go on to say that to obtain such faith “God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments”, that through these means, “God gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel”. 
  Saving faith in Jesus comes to us personally and individually through the Gospel and sacraments that are given to us in the Office of the Holy Ministry.  How thankful to God we ought to be that, through the church, the Lord calls and sends men into the gospel ministry of Word and Sacrament so that we can hear the Good News about Jesus and receive his gifts and be saved.  That is what Paul is reminding us of when he asks us one more rhetorical question:
How can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
            How can anyone preach unless they are sent?  Again the answer is, they can’t!  It is Jesus who gives gifts to the church of pastors and teachers.  It is the Holy Spirit who continues to direct men to particular places and fields of services.  It is the Lord of the Harvest who graciously and generously answers the prayers of his people when they ask for workers.
Nearly 60 years ago the Holy Spirit called the Rev. Thomas Sorensen to be the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Brownwood.  I will be forever grateful that he did because on November 4, 1962 Pastor Sorensen took me in his arms and baptized me in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Thirteen years later at Zion, Ft Worth the Lord called Pastor Socha to lay his hands on me and confirm me in the Christian faith and another 7 years after that Pastor Wuensche united me in marriage to Caroline and a decade after that Pastor Franke ordained me into the Holy Ministry.
Here is my point:  my life of faith is told in the names of the pastors who have been sent into my life by the Holy Spirit to serve me with God’s good gifts-- and so is your life of faith told in exactly the same way—through those who have served as your pastors.  And so then…
As of today the next chapter in your faith story will be told with the name of Pastor Middelstadt attached.  Just like all the faithful pastors who have come before him in this place, pastors who have served you with God’s good gifts of Word and Sacraments, now the Holy Spirit has sent Pastor Middlestadt.  The Holy Spirit has sent him! 
He is your God-given pastor.  He is the God-given Shepherd of your soul.  He is God’s own man in this place who has been sent to give you all the gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation that Jesus has won for you in his death and resurrection. 
What a precious gift this pastor is!  This scene right here is what led Paul to exclaim:  How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News!
Now Pastor Middelstadt, I have not seen your feet nor do I want to!  Much can be said of men’s feet but beautiful does not ordinarily come to mind—especially in the ancient world! 
But that is the very word that the Holy Spirit caused St. Paul to write about the feet of those who come to us bearing the Gospel because they bring us salvation itself.  And yet, that still does not mean that everything will always go smoothly.  Paul wrote that:
…not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?”
            Until the return of our Lord Jesus Christ we will continue to live in a broken and dying world and the work of the church will go forward under the cross.  There will always be sorrows along with the joys as we are about the Lord’s work.
The very people of God (including those in this place!) are not magically immune from the temptations of the world and the assaults of the devil and the burden of their own flesh.
And so there has never been a preacher who ever lived who at one time or the other did not wonder and worry with Isaiah, “Lord, is there anyone who is listening and believing what we say?” 
But there is a wonderful  promise that God makes to you Pastor Middlestadt and to the members of this congregation that sustains us and keeps us from losing heart:  Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.
Faith comes from hearing the message of Christ!  What a comfort and encouragement that promise is!  As you conduct your ministry in this place, preaching Christ and giving his gift—faith will come to those who hear it and receive it.  As you do the work of an evangelist in this community, preaching Christ and giving his gifts—faith will come to those who hear it and receive it. It is a promise of the Lord of the Church!
And so then, as you begin your life together as pastor and people, I pray especially that the Lord will richly bless the message of Christ in this congregation and community!  Amen.

The Beatific Vision

Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Beatific Vision

Revelation 22:1-6 None of us likes the idea of dying.  This is the life we know.  Most of us are so blessed by God with countless earthly gifts that it is very hard to imagine a life better than the one we have right now.  Oh, we might change a few things here and there—but for the most part we are richly blessed by God and we love our earthly life and we are grieved to be parted from it.
            But for the child of God, death is not “goodbye” to life.  Death is not “farewell” to God’s blessings.  In fact, the Bible says that death is not loss-- but gain.  That Good News is not something that we could think our way into-- or reason out for ourselves.  It must be revealed to us—and so it is in God’s word to us today.  St. John writes that:
The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
            When we stand beside a loved one who is dying, all we can see with our eyes is their departure from this life.  All we can experience is our loss.  All we can hear are our sad “goodbyes”.  But there is much, much more going on in that moment. 
Our loved one is leaving a place of death and entering a place of life.  Their eyes that are closed in this life are opened to the wonders of the mansion God has prepared for them and their ears that no longer hear our voices, are filled with the glad “welcome home” of those who have gone before-- and the “well done good and faithful servant” from God. 
We cannot hear or see or experience that—it has to be revealed to us.  That is why God sent his angel to John the show him what awaits us all when we die.  That is why these words are written—to assure us that for the child of God, death is truly gain.
The picture of heaven that John reveals to us in his revelation is very similar to the Garden of Eden.  There is beauty and light and fellowship with God.  It is a place of life—of the rich, abundant overflowing life that Jesus came to give. 
Jesus said that “God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only Son that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.”  Jesus said that it was the devil who came to rob and steal and destroy but that he had come to give us abundant life, a full measure, pressed down and overflowing.  Our passing from this earthly life is the gain of that eternal life. 
There in heaven is a river of life, a never ending source of living water that Jesus promised the Samaritan woman at the well.  Just as in the Garden of Eden, here in Paradise there is a tree of life with twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month, with leaves for the healing of all our sorrrows—a tree of life that we can eat from and live eternally.
When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, God kept them from the tree of life so that they would not live forever in sin and broken-ness and shame.  But on the tree of the cross, sin has been atoned for and the curse of death has ended and fellowship between God and man has been restored.  The Bible says that in Paradise:
No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it,
            When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, the world and everything and everyone in it was cursed.  Nothing and no one escaped God’s judgment.  But in the Paradise there is no curse—there is only rich, abundant life. 
What accounts for that dramatic change from the Garden of Eden to Paradise?  Our crucified and risen Lord!
            When Jesus died on the cross he called out “It is finished!”—and it was.  Everything necessary for our salvation had been accomplished.  The curse that God pronounced upon the world, he charged to his Son Jesus Christ who suffered and died so that it is blessing not curse that we receive from God when we die.
Death must now serve God’s will as the means to deliver us from this place of tears to Paradise where we will worship God and the Lamb who has taken away our sin.  The Bible says that his servants will worship him.
  When we think about heaven, we not only wonder what it will be like-- but we wonder what we will do.  Our lives here on earth are busy and the days are filled with things to do, and people to see, and places to go.  We have this kind of unspoken worry that we will get bored in eternity. 
We don’t know all the answer to that question about what we will do in heaven but we do know some it. 
A big part of our life in heaven will be worshiping the God who has saved us and made us his own by the blood of the Lamb.  We will worship with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven—we will worship with the saints who have gone before and the four living creatures and all of those beings who are real and yet unseen.
It will be worship like we have never experienced on earth—filled with sights and sounds and smells that we have never experienced in our earthly worship. 
When we hear a beautiful solo- or when we join our voice to hundreds of others in a large worship service- or when we are particularly moved by what the beauty we see in a majestic cathedral- we begin to get some sense of what worship will be like in heaven except infinitely more. 
Far, far from being bored in heaven or tired of worship we will rejoice eternally for the blessing of being counted part of God’s people—a kingdom of priests and kings.  The Bible says those in heaven:
Will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. 
            St. Augustine once said that God has made us for himself and our hearts are never at rest until we find our rest in him.  Whether we realize or not here on earth, these verses describe what we were made for-what we long for—what theologians call the “beatific vision” of God.
Over the course of our earthly lives we can have many successes and reach many of our goals.  We can become rich and famous.  We can marry the person of our dreams. 
But it will never really be enough to satisfy us completely because we were made for something more.  We were made by God- for God- and we will never be satisfied with anything else than God. 
When we enter Paradise, that longing will be fulfilled as we gaze upon the unveiled glory of God.  What we have hoped for and prayed for and longed for during our lives (even if we could never really put a name on it) will be fulfilled as we look upon the Holy Trinity:  the One who has known us and loved us for eternity—the One who gave his life for us on the cross—the One who has called us and kept us in faith.
We are his.  We belong to him.  He has placed his name on us in the waters of Holy Baptism where he rescued us from the darkness of sin and death and shined his light and life into our hearts and minds. 
We have nothing to fear from the darkness of death and the grave because the moment we close our eyes in this life we open them to the glorious light of heaven.  We can count on that and build our lives upon that promise!  The Bible says that:
“These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”
            It is normal to mourn the death of those we love.  The Bible says that even Christians grieve—but not as those who have no hope.  It is normal for us to dread our own death.  Jesus wrestled with that very thing in the Garden of Gethsemane. 
But in these verses from John’s Revelation, God pulls back the curtain that hides Paradise from our eyes here on earth, so that we can face death unafraid and so that we can rightly order our lives right now according to his Word.
You see, the promises of God are true.  He has spoken to us in the Bible and told us the truth about all that matters here on earth and in the world to come.  He has revealed his holy will for our lives and made known to us his salvation in Jesus.
We cannot see God or touch him or experience heaven right now-- but he is real and so is heaven-- and as we live our life here on earth, God wants those realities shape how we live.
God wants us to face the challenges and temptations and sorrows of this life with our eyes of faith full of the glories of heaven so that we do not lose heart and give up and give in to the ways of the world.
He wants us to know that the challenges and temptations and sorrows of this life will not last forever—that this life will end—but there will another, glorious, eternal life for us in heaven—and that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory to come.
            The promise of Eden was that God himself would restore, by the Seed of the Woman, all that sin and Satan destroyed.  In Paradise we see that God has kept his promise.  Once again there is life for us with God that death cannot end.  Amen.