SOMETHING TO STAND ON

10.8.17 Week 2

STILL

Nehemiah 8:2-12

2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

 

A man takes a stand.  He sees injustice and abuse that must be corrected, so he protests.  Little by little the protest grows.  Soon political and spiritual leaders are getting involved.  More than a year passes and it still spreads.  One man taking a stand changes the world.

This was going on long before the American flag or National Anthem was even a part of this world.  We’re not talking about NFL players kneeling or a president tweeting.  Nonetheless, this protest that started 500 years ago followed that now familiar pattern.

It was October 31, 1517, when a lone German theologian and university professor in little old Wittenberg took a stand.  He saw injustices and abuses going on inside of the Roman Catholic Church.  The forgiveness of sins was being sold on a piece of paper called an indulgence.  The Pope was clamoring for money and power and was using his religious authority to get it.  Martin Luther started a protest, not by kneeling or tweeting but by nailing 95 theses, statements for debate, to the castle church doors.  Little by little, with the help of a new technology developed by Johann Gutenburg called the movable type printing press, the protest grew.  Political and religious leaders began to take note.  More than a year passed and then in the summer of 1519, Martin Luther squared off with a popular catholic theologian, John Eck, to debate the things Luther stood for.

One took a stand with the church.  That means he had the authority of the church leadership on his side.  He had tradition on his side.  He had the majority on his side.  The other took a stand with  something different.  He had a different, a better authority on his side.  And because of that, he didn’t need the church, the pope, tradition, or the majority on his side.  He had God’s Word, and that was good enough for him.  Because when you have Scripture, you have the power and authority of the eternal and almighty Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And that is all you need.

And so with a brash boldness, this is one of the things Luther said at that debate, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it.”  Realize that in 1519 nothing could have been more controversial than that statement.  Why was Luther willing to make such a claim?  Scripture and scripture alone makes someone able to take that kind of stand.

A long time before this there was another man who took a stand on God’s Word. We hear about him in the Old Testament reading.  His name was Nehemiah.  He was a Jew employed by the king of Persia as his personal cupbearer.

Nehemiah lived during the period in Israel’s history after the Babylonian captivity.  At this time period God was using the Persian empire to plant the remnant of his people back in Judah.  There were different phases of this restoration project.  First, a group went back to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. That was in the 530s BC. Next, about 60 years later, Ezra, a gifted priest devoted to God’s Word and teaching it, came with another group to help the on going rebuild and to focus on the spiritual restoration.

More then a decade passed and it was Nehemiah’s turn.  Negative reports about the walls of Jerusalem had reached Persia’s capital of Susa where Nehemiah was carrying out his role for the king.  That’s where Nehemiah stood up.  It wasn’t a protest, but this cupbearer goes up before the king and asks him if he could go back and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  A pretty bold move, but that hand of God was with Nehemiah and the king agreed, even providing safe passage and materials for the project.

Although there was a lot of opposition from neighboring nations, Nehemiah just kept standing on the Lord’s promises and power and went about rebuilding the walls until they were completed.  And the Lord blessed his work.  The temple had been rebuilt, and although not as beautiful or as extravagant, it was a constant reminder that God keeps his promises, that they were home, and that worship was central to their life.   The walls of Jerusalem were solid again.  The remnant of Israel was safe in their homeland at last.  It wasn’t a large group.  Nehemiah records the number was over 42,000.  And they did have to share their home with the people who had taken up residence in their absence, but they could handle it because they were back.

It was after Nehemiah completed his work when all the people gathered for a special day, a day when Ezra, the devoted priest from the second trip, and Nehemiah stood up with a few helpers – literally, there was a huge wooden platform built for the occasion.  Ezra and his helpers did not stand up to give a motivational speech about how to take advantage of this second (more like 300th) chance.  They didn’t stand up to hand down Jewish traditions that couldn’t go overlooked anymore.  They read and instructed from the Book of the Law (first five books written by Moses) from sun up to noon.  6 hours!  (Imagine if I would try that today?)   And the people watched and listened attentively as if they were watching their favorite show on TV.

And do you know what happens? The people start weeping.  Ezra and the Levites are in front of all the people standing up with God’s Word, and they all start wailing. This really isn’t all so surprising because God’s Word stands out with his power and authority.  God’s Word stands alone.

You see, the people were now face to face with what God says.  Over in exile and even when this group returned up to this point, they did not have a regular diet of God’s Word.  And do you know what happens to people who don’t have regular contact with God’s Word?  You start coming up with what matters all by yourself.  You start to think, “No one gets to tell me what to do or what to believe.  I’m just going to trust my feelings, I’m going to listen to my instincts, I’m going to rely on my reason, I’m going to build on my experiences. I’m going to do what works for me.”   That was the trap that led Israel to the exile in the first place, and you can still see people fall into it today.  The next time you are in a conversation that involves spiritual matters listen to how many times sentences, even sentences that come out of your own mouth, begin with “I think” “I believe” “I feel” rather than “Scripture says.”

I think this remnant of Israel gives us a pretty good idea of what happens when God’s law intersects with people who like to focus on their own ideas and beliefs.  We cannot stand.  We fall down with tears in our eyes. Because what we think or what we try doesn’t work.  Every single person at that gathering in Jerusalem saw that vividly.  Israel tried their own way.  And where did it get them?  Their home was taken away.  The capital was destroyed.  Even the sacred Temple of God was leveled.  They were exiled foreigners.  They couldn’t do anything about it.  They had to wait for the Persians to overthrow the Babylonians.  They had to wait for permission to go back.  They had to rebuild the temple, the city, its walls, and their homes.  The whole thing was a mess because they didn’t care for what God said.

Now, they were hearing it and it hit them hard.  God’s law has a way of doing that to people.  By nature, we are born with this idea that we have to work hard to get ahead.  It’s not a surprise, then, that people want to trust my feelings, listen to my instincts, rely on my reason.  Because it makes sense to us that those things will lead in the right direction.  It’s not a surprise that a whole bunch of churches and religions have come up with something similar, is it?  By nature, we think we have to earn a reward, we have to earn a relationship, we have to earn a better life.  But the people gathered around Ezra and Nehemiah were realizing it just doesn’t work. God’s law was crushing their ideas of what “I think” what “I believe” or what “I feel.”

I find it really interesting, then, how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stand up there in front of all these wailing people and tell them, “Be still, for this is a holy day.  Do not grieve”  Were they just supposed to act like none of it happened?  The generations of disobedience, the annihilation at the hands of foreign powers, the exile, the return to the Promised Land only to find it occupied by others – they were supposed to forget about all of it?  They were just supposed to forget about it all?  Yes!

But how?  Because those words of the law were not man-made traditions or popular ideas.  They were not the commands of an angry judge or a tyrannical emperor. They were the words of the Lord God. The God of power and grace.  The Creator.  The Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The God who delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt.  The God who fought for them against the Egyptian army by walking them through the Red Sea on dry land and leaving all the Egyptian army dead at the bottom of it.  The God who led the conquering tour over all the nations in the Promised Land and gave them this land flowing with milk and honey.  The God who promise deliverance to his people.  The God who loves his people like no one else can.

You see, they could let all the past go, they could dry their tears, their hearts could be still because what they heard that day.  Luther could take a stand because it wasn’t his ideas.  We can still stand on the very same thing today, because it these words are not man-made laws and traditions, but the law of God.  And he doesn’t just give us his law, but also his gospel – faithful promises to fulfill those laws perfectly, to forgive you entirely, and to save you eternally.  This book with its complete fulfillment of all the laws, with its grace and forgiveness, with its Savior sent from heaven to free us from the hell, is  the Word of God.  It is not developed by us, because we know the kinds of things we come up with.  This book is completely unnatural.  It’s something that no one has ever come up with.  And in every generation humanity has proved to be incapable of coming up this kind of thing.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stood up with God’s Word.  Scripture alone stands up and rises above.  It rises above the popular voices and trends in the world around us.  It rises above the man-made traditions and interpretations in the church.  And it stands above the self-centered feelings, reasons and experiences in our own hearts.  That day with all the remnant gathered in Jerusalem, they got a glimpse of how God’s Word stands alone.  Because it showed them their God, his power and authority, his love and forgiveness.

When Luther stood up to what the church was teaching, when Luther stood up at the debate in 1519, he wasn’t standing on his own.  He was standing on the same platform as Ezra and Nehemiah, the authority and power of a God who still speaks.  And so he didn’t budge.  Even though he was declared a heretic and an outlaw really for the rest of his life, he never backed down.  He kept standing on God’s Word.

500 years later, we still stand on that platform.  We stand on the law and gospel.  We stand on the Word of the Lord who rescues his people from sin, death, and the devil.  We stand on the Word of God that wipes away tears and makes our hearts still.  Amen.

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WHOSE FIGHT IS IT?

10.1.17 Week 1

STILL

Exodus 14:1-31

Then the LORD said to Moses, 2 “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. 3 Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ 4 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” So the Israelites did this.
5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” 6 So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. 7 He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. 8 The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. 9 The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.
10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
13 Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
15 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. 16 Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. 17 I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. 18 The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”
19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the LORD swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 30 That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. 31 And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.

 

A quiet, calm lake can be a soothing sight, but this lake was not calming anyone’s heart. The people of Israel had joyously left Egypt behind.  After 400 lost and restless years of slavery, God had provided the way out for his people.  His love for them had not been forgotten.  His unequaled power did not fail them.  The ten plagues were disastrous for Egypt, but while wreaking total havoc for them, the plagues gave the Israelites new hope. Where peace was nowhere to be found, their hearts were put at ease.  They were going back home to the Promised Land of their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… until they reached that lake.

Under God’s instruction, the prophet and leader of the people, Moses, had directed this massive nation of people to an area that was impassible, so they thought, on dry land.  It was at this time that the Egyptians came back into the picture.  Pharaoh and his Egyptian army were hardened with rage against God and his people, and this frenzied foe was now coming to either get them back or annihilate them if they disagreed.  It was a paralyzing situation: the lake on one side and the army on the other.  You can hear them hopelessly crying out against the Lord and his prophet, “Lord, why?”  “Moses, what have you done to us?”

Their struggle to find peace had led the people of Israel to question God, even to levy accusations against him, as if fighting God can help in such grim circumstances.  Isn’t it shocking what people will do when they are afraid and looking for a way out?  People think they can fight against God to achieve the peace they want, but instead they go further into the restless storm.

There was a man who struggled with this same thing.  He cried out to the Lord with the same hopeless taunts as the Israelites.  “Lord, why are you doing this to me?”  He fought for peace.  He even left his course of study to be a lawyer, thinking that a more religious path of service would calm him.  Off to the monastery he went only to find that the church was not helping people find peace.  Instead, this man named Martin Luther found God to be an ominous judge who demanded more and more and more from his people.

It was like he was right there with the people of Israel.  The waves of fear and guilt crashing him on the one side and something like an army of Egyptians was the church crushing him with fierce demands on the other.  No help was found.  God became the accused.

And this was the situation for not just this one man, but for all the people.  The corruption of the church at the time was teaching people to earn God’s attention and forgiveness with more and more good.  It was never enough.  You always had to do more for God, for others, for the church.  God was never satisfied with you.  He was never willing to give peace until you made the effort.  You had to fight for it.

How well does that work?  I don’t think it is that farfetched for us to relate to these struggles.  We do this to ourselves all the time.  Like the Israelites, we levy accusations against God as if we know better.  An illness strikes at the wrong time. “God, why are you doing this to me?  You know I don’t need this right now.”  A relationship with a family member goes sour.  “Lord, what did I do to deserve this?  Why can’t you make them understand things from my point of view?”  A problem arises at work or for your kids at school.  “Lord, you say that all things work for the good of your people.  How in the world is this good for me?” You watch another terrible news report.  “God, you say you are in control, but how can this help our country right now?”  It’s like we are right there with the Israelites crying out against the Lord, fighting him.

And you have learned the results of this kind of fighting, haven’t you?  In the midst of fighting there is no peace.  When God is your opponent, there is no positive outcome.  Do you know why?  He doesn’t lose.  A holy God doesn’t get things wrong and he doesn’t make mistakes.  Sinful people do. We do.  And so how in the world could we ever think that fighting against God is going to work for us?  It’s utter nonsense.  There is no peace for people who think God is the enemy.

That’s why people often go down the road Martin Luther took.  If fighting against God is not going to achieve the peace they want, then try fighting alongside God.  That is ultimately what Luther was learning in the monastery: God is with you when you are doing good things for him and for others.  That is the basics, not of the Bible, but the basics of works-righteousness.  And we can get caught in this trap, too.  If an illness strikes at a bad time, I can pray more and that makes God happier with me and then he heals me.  If a relationship with a family member goes sour, I can put on my humility (people call that being the bigger person for some reason) for a while and ask for forgiveness.  That will get God’s attention and I can trust that he will take care of it.  If a problem arises at work or for your kids at school,  you can practice patience and perseverance just like God wants you to.  That will get you out of the problem and bring the peace you are looking for.  If you watch another terrible news report, you can send money to help the devastated victims.  God says that if you sow generously, you will reap generously, right?

We convince ourselves that we have helped God achieve the calm, peaceful stillness that we crave.  We convince ourselves that the Lord plus my prayers, plus my humility, plus my service, plus my offerings is what gives me hope and joy in life.  It’s like thinking that God needed help from the Israelites to fend off the Egyptians, as if God needed their game plan for crossing a lake on dry land.  This, too, is utter nonsense. This kind of thinking leads to the despair that Luther lived with.  How can a sinful person help a holy God?  You can try.  There are plenty of religions and churches that have told their followers to do exactly that, and many still do, but the result is not peace.  The result is never-ending desperation to help the God who doesn’t need one single thing from us.

So, what happened to the Israelites?  They found peace…on the other side of the lake while the entire Egyptian army drowned at the bottom of it.  Their fight was not against God.  God is not the enemy.  And God proved once again that he didn’t need any help.  He took care of them the way our loving God takes care of us.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.  It was his fight and his alone. Our Lord didn’t lose.

What happened for Martin Luther?  He found peace…outside of the never-ending cycle of works-righteousness.  God was not his enemy either.  And God did not need any good works to love Martin Luther.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.  God simply opened the truth to him that we are saved not by what we do but by what he has done and him alone.

So, what has happened for you?  You aren’t up against a lake and the Egyptian army.  You aren’t up against any false teachings in our church.  However, the enemy is the same, still prowling around. Behind that army and behind any false teaching is the serpent who is cunning and crafty and has been ever since he first tempted a man and his wife in the Garden of Eden.  Behind our accusations against God and behind our feeble and frantic attempts to help God do his work is the enemy that has plagued us since day one.

And still…still there is peace for you.  Our Lord does not fight against you.  He does not fight alongside of you, as if he needs your help with the enemy.  Brothers and sisters, The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.

 

That is exactly what happened on Calvary’s cross.  You and I could do nothing against our enemy, the devil.  So, the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, went to battle for you.  He crushed the serpent’s head with his perfect sacrifice.  He removed our sins with his perfect forgiveness.  He closed the doors of death with his glorious resurrection.  Heaven is yours because the Lord Jesus Christ fought for you and it was Christ alone.

This doesn’t mean the battles are going away.  The Israelites had many many many more run ins.  They faltered and failed all over the desert and in the Promised Land.  The disciples had Jesus there, God’s Son in the flesh, and they still struggled.  Luther’s anxiety over sin never went away.  We have the same fight every day.  But whose fight it is?  Who is going to fight for you every second of the day?  Who has given you the dry ground that leads to the other side where there is no enemy, only peace and joy. Who has set your heart at rest and still will for eternity?  It’s Christ and Christ alone. Amen.

GOD’S HOUSE HAS NO WALLS

9.17.17 Pentecost 13A

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Ephesians 2:13-22

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

 

One of the things I notice when I drive around Bismarck is the amount of walls that are going up.  There’s the First International Bank over on the corner of Divide and State.  There’s Simle and Wachter Middle Schools.  There’s the Capital Ice Complex. There’s the Governor’s House. That doesn’t even include all the new houses in the north part of town, the east part of town, the south part of town.  I was doing some research to get ready for this sermon and found out that in the month of August alone there were 43 pages of building permits given out by the city.  With about 4 per page that’s 172.  So I looked for all of 2017.  There have been a total of 309 pages of building permits issued.  With about 4 per page, that is a grand total of over 1,200 permits given so far this year to build up something in Bismarck.  One of those permits were for the parsonage basement, because we had to put up a few walls down there, too.  That’s a lot of walls, physical walls made of steel, wood, brick, cement or whatever.

Now, what about the other walls that are going up in Bismarck, the kinds that aren’t made of steel, wood, brick, cement or whatever?  What I’m wondering is how many walls have gone up because of a grudge or guilt, prejudice or pride, racism or rage, slander or selfishness?  What about the kinds of walls that people build to keep others out of their lives because of something they said or did?  The walls the people put up to stay clear of a certain group because of their differences, what about those?  Well, they have gone up and they still do, not just in Bismarck but also all over the globe.

This is not a new concept.  The Apostle Paul was living during the first century in the Roman Empire.  There were different groups of people in Ephesus and all over the place.  They had different personalities, different politics, and different passions.  They had different backgrounds, different beliefs, different everything.  The walls were up, including the wall separating the Jewish people from the Gentile people.

See, God had given the Jewish people a specific role.  It wasn’t because of their special skills or their holy lives.  He chose them because from Abraham’s descendants God would give this entire world, all people, the Savior.  With that purpose in mind, God had given the Jewish people a specific set of laws to keep every aspect of their life different from the rest of the world, also known as the Gentiles.  The Jews had a different diet and dress code, they had a different calendar and holidays, they had a different worship style and worship space.

Now, all these differences did not make them a better nation in God’s eyes.  The wall was up between them because God intended these differences to be a magnet for Gentiles to bring them closer to the only God and his promise of eternal life through faith in him.

However, the Jews turned the differences into a source of pride.  They loved the wall between them.  The differences of the Jews did not draw Gentiles in but repulsed them even farther away.  And so this wall that Paul talks about between Jew and Gentiles is not the differences between them but rather the hatred and hostility that resulted from the Jewish pride and selfishness.

These kind of walls keep going up today not because of differences but because of what we do with the differences.  Unlike a common idea held in our culture, people are not born with a natural inclination to be good.  We are born to think of ourselves first.  That trait is called selfishness or pride and it is never going to help you with God or with others, because it makes me look inward to try and find the good that God requires.  And if I can’t find the good, no the perfection, that God requires in me, then I start to look for it elsewhere.  And because I am born sinful and selfish, I don’t naturally look for help from others, I look for comparisons to others.  If there are differences with other people, then I will make sure that those differences make me look better in my eyes and to the world.  If the differences make me feel better about myself and make me look good in this world, then they have to shine me in a good light to God, right?  Wrong!  Now anything different from me is not just different.  No, I’ve turned one into the better option and the other into a worse option.  And because I am born with this deep-seeded selfish pride, I make mine better and someone else’s difference worse.  The wall goes up and it isn’t attracting anyone to Jesus, it’s driving them farther and farther away.

For example, the comparisons can be age related.  “What’s the deal with millennials?  They are entitled.  They are lazy and thinned-skinned.  The just care about how many likes they get on facebook; that’s being social to them instead of looking someone in the eye.”  Or maybe the comparisons are political. “Can you believe that they voted for so and so?  How can they have that view about education, foreign policy, immigration, or morality?”  Maybe the comparison is economic.  “You don’t want to live in that area.  The people are lazy and looking for trouble.  Why can’t they get a job?  Or that neighborhood is so uppity and they don’t realize that not everyone was born with a sliver spoon in their mouth.”  The comparisons can crop up in so many ways, and when they do the real tragedy is not what comes out but the pride inside that builds an unbreakable wall.  The real heartbreak is thinking that our identity, purpose, value and appearance before God comes from what I can produce and how it’s better than what someone else can.

Taking a good honest look at how each one of us has put up these kinds of walls gives us a little idea on how these walls are going to come down.  Spoiler alert: I can’t bring them down and neither can you.  And that is exactly what Paul was saying to these two different groups in Ephesus, to Christian churches all over the Roman world, and to us. God’s strategy for tearing down the walls between people is not to make us try harder to see past the differences or to meet somewhere in the middle. God’s plan is bigger.

When a hurricane tears apart a state, when someone is stranded and sobbing on a roof, or when someone doesn’t have the capability to clean up the mess, do you think the differences matter?  Do you think that age, race, political leanings or financial means are the first things that come to mind when you have lost everything?  Does republican and democrat, black or white, rich or poor, old or young mean anything when tragedy hits?  No, then it becomes quite clear what we have in common.  The solution that Paul brings out so beautifully for us is something much much bigger than any of the differences that separate people.  God’s solution is to give all people something in common.

In order to bring down the walls that we build up, Paul does not try to eliminate the differences.  Instead, he points us to a different wall, one that is much bigger and that we all have in common.  He points out the wall that exists between a holy God and sinful people.  Every time we pick up a brick and add it to the wall between someone else, we might think we our adding value or making ourselves look better than someone else to God. But the reality is it’s just another brick in the wall between me and someone much bigger.  When our pride and selfishness builds a wall, it is the almighty God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – on the other side.

Now listen to what Paul says: But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ…[he] has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.   Christ came not to show us how to take down the walls, not to eliminate differences, but to take down the wall of sin the separated sinners from God.  He took the wall of hostility down by paying for all our sins with his blood and death.  He restored us.  And now there is nothing between us and God.

Well maybe one thing, PEACE.  Paul says, “…through the cross… he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”  In Christ, we have no wall separating us from God.  We have direct access to him and eternal peace with him.

Now, brothers and sisters, the things that define us, that give us our identity, the show us our purpose are not our differences but what we have in common.  We were all born sinful on the other side of that wall.  God had the same love for all of us.  Jesus came and died for all sin.  We all have the same forgiveness that he won.  The doors to heaven are open for all from every nation.  And all of us who have faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior possess in full the things the we try to pursue on our own.  Why in the world do we need to pursue them by being different from or comparing ourselves to someone else?

Our loving Savior does not bring down the walls by eliminating the differences between us.  Instead, he surpasses the differences by making the most important things about us, not our differences but what we have in common.  We have been bought together by Christ’s death and brought together by the his gospel.  So, not only do we have this peace with God, but Paul says this: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household…”   Some might look like foreigners from a distant land where we have no clue what life is like.  Some might be strange to us, but Christ purchased a place where we, differences and all, are fellow citizens of the same land.  Not only are we living in the same land but God’s grace in Jesus brought us all into the same family, members of God’s household.

“In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.  And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”  Do you notice something about God’s house?  It’s not like all the permits that are given in Bismarck.  No, in God’s house, there are no walls.  Amen.

ROCK SOLID

9.10.17 Pentecost 14A

Matthew 16:13-18

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, e and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

The days are getting a little bit shorter.  The mornings are getting a little brisk. Do you know what that means?  It’s football season.  Players, coaches, and fans are getting pumped for that one big game a week.

But you know, it’s not just one day a week for those players and coaches.  Before the offense can gain one yard in a game or the defense can break up one pass, they have to take a step back.  Coaches have to review last season and prep for a new one.  Players rigorously condition themselves for the upcoming season.  Teams have to pick up players and let others go.  There’s training camp practices and the meaningless preseason games.  Then, after all that, they finally get to the good stuff, games that count, games that we love to watch.  And each week before they play on Sundays, they take a step back to get ready for the game.

Jesus did that with his disciples and he does it with us, too.  In our September series, we see Jesus in the third and final year of his ministry, and he is taking a step back with his disciples because the time is coming soon when he will be gone.  He retreats, in a way, from those who want him to be an earthly power and provider and from those who vigorously oppose him to focus his attention on the disciples so that when his departure happens they will be ready to move forward.

And on this little retreat, Jesus has a question that will help the disciples and us to move forward.  He asks, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  And it really shouldn’t surprise us, the kind of answers that were swirling around in that day.  John the Baptist back from the dead, Elijah back from heaven, Jeremiah back from the dead, or a prophet.  All those answers say that Jesus was powerful, helpful, sent for the Lord’s work, and so on.  The same kind answers still float around today.  Who is Jesus?  He’s a great teacher of how to live in a divisive world.  He is the epitome of unifying love.  He is a powerful man who shows us how to live for God.

These answers have transformed over the years and they always will because this world is fluid. That means things fluctuate and change.  We love the Celebrity Apprentice Trump and hate the President Trump.  We need God and prayers during devastating hurricanes and fires, but we can totally ignore him during times of success and happiness. These waves are all over the place and always will be.

However, Jesus pushes through all of those fluid answers and asks the disciples point blank, “What about you? Who do you say I am?” Peter speaks up for the group, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

In a fluid world of do whatever makes you happy and be your own truth, Jesus would have said, “Those are all good answers.  Everyone gets a gold star,” but he didn’t.  Because Jesus isn’t wishy washy.  He does not fluctuate and change.  Instead, he picks one answer and he highlights something that’s still important for us today.  He does not highlight Peter as this supreme spiritual and theological thinker.  He highlights where this answer came from.

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.  And I tell you that you are Peter…” Jesus is saying, “Peter, you did not come up with this answer by yourself, and no one else told you.  This did not come from flesh and blood.”  Notice that one of those actually is a liquid and the other isn’t really solid but pretty flexible and squishy.  The only way Peter could come up with this answer to Jesus’ question is because it came from the Father in heaven.  That made his answer not only right but also rock solid.  And so Jesus said Simon, the flesh and blood son of Jonah, was now Peter, the rock, in whom God the Father had planted this rock solid faith.

In this line of questioning, Jesus is showing us the difference between what is liquid in our lives and what is rock solid. Anything that comes from flesh and blood, anything that comes from within us, and anything that comes from the world around us is going to be liquid.  It will fluctuate and change.  That doesn’t always mean that it’s evil, but it does mean that it’s probably not something on which to build your life.

For example, the things that were important to you as a 7 year old probably seemed useless as a 17 year-old. And those things that you cared about so much as a high schooler didn’t matter much to you as a 27 year-old.  When I was seven, I was thinking a boombox with two tape decks was the jam.  I could record songs off the radio onto blank tapes. I watched Nickelodeon cartoons and wore sweatpants to school, where the conversations were generally about sports and if you saw anyone eating their boogers in class. By 17, iPod was the new jam.  I didn’t have one, but I was jealous of those who did.  You could put your CDs into the computer and then magically all of your music files could be stored on this little device, all your music on one device!  It was amazing.  At 17, we talked about sports and boogers but also girls and dates. Nickelodeon gave way to MTV and ESPN.  I played the drums in a band, wore wide leg jeans, some corduroy and khakis, and had a couple jobs.  By 27, I was married, a pastor, and getting ready for my first kid to be born.  In just 2 decades everything changed.  It was liquid.  I’m sure glad I didn’t build my life on boomboxes and Nickelodeon or iPods and wide leg jeans.

Brothers and sisters, isn’t it possible that 10 years from now we might look back on things that seemed so important and so solid in our lives and realize they were all too fluid and fluctuating.  Anything that comes from flesh and blood is going to be that way.  That doesn’t mean it’s evil, but it is going to change.

In contrast, if anything is going to be rock solid, if anything is going to be absolute and objective, it must come not from inside of any of us but from outside of all of us.  Right at the top of the list is Jesus’ identity.  Jesus is the Son of the living God.  He is the Messiah, the anointed Savior that God sent to pay for the sins of all people and save us from hell.  That wasn’t just what Peter felt about things.  That wasn’t just his opinion.  That wasn’t subject to change.  That wasn’t just a “what does Jesus mean to you” kind of thing.  It’s the rock solid truth for all time.

In fact, you could make the argument that this truth is even more solid for us, here and now, than it was for Peter, because we have something that he had not yet seen during this retreat with Jesus.  The truth about Jesus’ identity is as rock solid as that big giant rock that was rolled away from Jesus’ tomb revealing it to be empty on Easter.  Jesus wants us to see the important difference between what is solid and what is liquid.

But what makes one better than the other?  Our culture would make it so easy for me to make liquid sound great.  Liquid is flexible. Liquid is adaptable.  Liquid is relaxed.  Liquid is go with the flow. Liquid is like totally easy-going man.  It would also be easy for me to make solid sound bad.  Solid is set.  Solid is rigid.  Solid is hard to handle. Solid is an old standby (emphasis on old).

What makes solid better and something that we need in our lives?  Jesus goes on to tell us. “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” All of us have liquid in our lives, and that’s not bad, but it is essential not only to have something solid in life but to be built on something that cannot fluctuate and change.  We need something that hurricanes and fires cannot devastate or demolish. We need something that death cannot conquer.  Right at the top of the list is the truth that God put in Peter’s heart and on his lips, the truth that boldly confesses Jesus as the Son of God and the only one who saves the world from sin, the truth that cannot be stopped, not even by death and hell.

Liquid is in our lives because we live in a world where things change.  We all have goals and dreams.  We all have hobbies and interests and passions.  There is nothing wrong with that.  And then, we take those liquid things that are nice to have and we turn them into things that we have to have.  Do you ever notice that?  We turn them from things that we could sacrifice to things that we will sacrifice for.  We turn them from things we could easily live without into things we build our lives upon.  Again, it doesn’t make any of those things evil.  The problem is that they are liquid.

Think about all of the damage that liquid can do to us.  I’m not talking about hurricanes or floods but the fluid ways of our world.  They carry us – slowly so that we won’t notice at first and steadily so that we won’t see how far we have gone – a way from God floundering in the storms that crash toward us, crush us down, and destroy us.

So, isn’t it great to hear that God has provided the rock solid foundation for us to avoid the watery ways of this world?  Isn’t it stabilizing that by his death and resurrection Christ has made himself the chief cornerstone for your life?  Isn’t it powerful and inspirational that this truth can bring more people to the solid ground that your life is built upon?  And isn’t it astounding that this rock solid faith can conquer that gates of death and hell?

This is what the Father in heaven has given you, brothers and sisters.  You have this rock solid faith that stands up to the tumultuous waves of the devil, this world, and your own sinful flesh.   You have this rock solid defense that God uses in every situation to keep you safe.  But everyone knows that you need more than defense to win games.  That’s why Jesus is also your offense.  Not even death and hell can stop your faith in Jesus from taking you to heaven and giving others his sure foundation along the way.

Today is the kickoff.  I’m not talking about football.  It’s our kickoff for our various opportunities to grow in God’s Word and to grow in the faith that so boldly professes his name.  Each one of them is really nothing more than a chance to further build our lives on the rock solid foundation of Jesus Christ.  As you look over the bibles studies, the question is really not, “Will I attend?”  It’s not so much, “Do I find these topics interesting or useful?  Will I have time in my busy schedule?”  The question that we will continually ask about every aspect of our life is, “Am I standing, am I building on something solid or something liquid?  Am I standing on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ?”   That ground is rock solid and always will be.  If you want to take any step forward in life, make sure you are standing on Christ the solid rock.  Amen.

GIVE GOD’S GOOD NEWS

Week 12 – 8.27.17

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Matthew 9:35-10:8

35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

10:1 Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

 

 

“Dad, I’ve got some good news!  She said ‘Yes!’”  “Great news, Mom! I made the team.” “All that work paid off!  I got the job!  Let’s celebrate!”  “The Brewers won the World Series!  Can you believe it! We are the champions! This is the best news ever!”

Now, this kind of good news is pretty subjective, meaning it’s good as long as you agree with it.  What if you are the parent who doesn’t like the future daughter-in-law?  What if you are the kid that didn’t make the team because that other kid did?  What if you are the one who wanted that job or you are the one dating this woman who has to move to the new job?  What if you aren’t a Brewers fan (how is that even possible?)?  Then, the news isn’t so good, is it?

When we see Jesus today, he is traveling and teaching throughout Palestine.  He is seeing people in need of good news every day.  And what is his good news for these people who were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd? Is Jesus holding rallies protesting hate, spreading love and unity?  Is Jesus promoting better laws and leaders?  Is he providing superior schools and educational resources?   Does he offer affordable health care and top-notch hospitals?    Does Jesus give them all the money and pleasures this world has to offer?  For so many people, this is the good news they are looking for.  Their ears perk up and their eyes widen when Jesus is healing and providing for people.

But is that really Jesus’ good news?  No! Not even close!  He had the kind of news that was good no matter who he was talking to or helping.  He had news that was good for everyone, no matter their color, creed, or country.  He had news that was good for the sick and the healthy, for the religious and non-religious, for the hurting and the happy – it is good news for every single person, ever.

See, this is where the road splits between giving the kind of news that we call good and our topic today – giving the kind of news that God calls good.  See, giving our kind of good news is good as long as you agree with it.  Evangelism is giving God’s good news, his unchangeable, unconditional, and universal good news.

Do you know what his good news is?  I could stand up here and give you the full rundown for hours, but I’ll keep it short.  It’s not enough for God’s good news to be that you will never feel alone.  It’s not enough for God’s good news to remove sicknesses or diseases.  It’s not enough for God’s good news to get rid of bullies.  It’s not enough for God’s good news to be a relationship, a job, a championship for your favorite team.  And it’s not enough for God’s good news to give you ten steps to happiness.

God’s good news is that he came here to earth as Immanuel.  Remember what that names means?  God is with us!  God’s good news is that you are never alone because he came for you.  God’s good news is that Christ removed sin and death from your record and at your baptism, he replaced it with righteousness and life.  God’s good news is that there are no enemies for his children that he has not completely destroyed for eternity.  God’s good news is that Jesus purchased a home in heaven for you and you and you…

But it’s not just for you.  Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful.”  Our Savior looks out over ripe fields where there are no categories, only souls for whom he shed his blood.  God does not play favorites with this field.  God doesn’t pick spots during all these tense times in politics and society.  God wants all the harvest, all to be saved.  Yes, the racist, the rapist, the liberal, the conservative, the terrorist, the terrorized, the religious, the irreligious, the smart, the simple, the happy, the sad… All are in his harvest field!  He wants all not because of who we are, but in spite of who we are.  He wants all not because we offer him something special, but because he gives us something special.

This good news is the gospel!  And if this good news has come from heaven to our hearts, then what do you do with good news?  “Dad, I’ve got some good news!  Jesus saved me…and you.”  “Great news, Mom!  Jesus brought me into his family… and he’s your brother, too.”  “I was lost, but I have a Savior who searched me out and found me.  He’s looking for more.  Let’s celebrate.”  “He won!  Jesus came back from the dead.  The victory over death is ours!”

Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore to send out workers into his harvest field.”  “Ok, I’ll ask him to send someone else!  I don’t know if I’m the right one to share it.  I go to worship. I pray for missionaries and evangelism efforts.  I support with my offerings.  But when it comes to actually speaking the gospel to others, I’m not up for that.”

Or maybe you’re the type that says,  “I don’t know what to say.  If were are talking about accounting, construction, insurance, health care, then I’m fine.  But I don’t know what to say about Jesus.”

Or you are the one that says, “I don’t know who to tell. My parents and kids are believers, my friends are believers, most of my relatives have a church, I think.  My coworkers kind sound religious the way they use God’s name so much.  My neighbors… you know I’m not sure about…”

Or is it possible that you’re the type that puts yourself up on a pedestal looking down on others, “I don’t want to tell them my good news.  When have they ever done anything nice to me?  Why should I care about them?  Besides, I wouldn’t want them in my church, I see them at work or around the neighbor too much the way it is.”

If you fit into any of these groups, join the club. Did you notice the list of Jesus’ disciples? Did he send out religious leaders?  Did he send out wise and persuasive professors?  Did he send out people who were well liked?  NO!  He sent out Peter, the denier; John and James, the proud wanna-be-rulers in God’s kingdom, Matthew, the cheat; Simeon, the anti-government activist, Judas, the betrayer.  He sent out men who were not respected members of the educational community.  Jesus sent out people who had only known him for about 2 years.  As I look around today, I know that you have been with Jesus long enough to know the basics.  You know your sin and you know how Jesus has removed it from you for good.  That’s what makes sinners such good evangelists.  We personally know how God’s good news has changed us.

Do you really think I am a holy man?  Do you think Pastor Wolfe doesn’t sin?  Not a chance! Every single person is in the same harvest field.  I don’t go to people and point out my good life as the good news.  I give God’s good news, “My life would be a wreck if Jesus hadn’t intervened.  Let me tell you what he has done for me and what he will do for you.”

Jesus has answers to all our doubts or excuses.  Jesus tells the disciples to ask God for workers. And do you see the answer to their prayers?  It’s the disciples.  God can make that raggedy band his evangelists, and he can make you speak his good news, too.  If you notice, they went because they had Jesus’ power and authority to speak.

Some of you might still be thinking, “What do I say and who do I say it to?”  Jesus has that figured out for you, too.  “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”  That’s the good news.  Jesus came to us and brought his light of life.  Jesus has washed us clean and made us ready for the perfect paradise.  Jesus has empowered us with his Spirit to be witnesses of his saving work.

Now, who do you tell? Listen to what Jesus says, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Jesus wasn’t saying he didn’t want Gentiles in his church. He did plenty of ministry to them, as well.  Not to mention he died for the sins of all people.  This is what Jesus was telling his disciples, “Guys, as you get started with ministry work, go to your family and your friends.  Go to the people who know you, respect you, and who will listen to you.”  Jesus has put those kind of people in your life, the kind of people that you love to spend happy moments with, the kind of people who you share good news with,  the kind of people that might not have a relationship with your pastor (but maybe they could use that), and the kind of people who won’t bite your head off if you want to talk about God’s good news.  And even if they do, you have the kind of love and compassion Christ has put in your heart to handle that situation with humility and strength.

What Jesus is telling you is that if you are not interested in giving his good news to others, than that needs to change.  It needs to change! But if you’re a little nervous or just starting out, you don’t need to go to the mall or grocery store and tap people on the shoulder saying, “Hey do you know the good news?” You don’t need to go to work with a bullhorn and walk through the halls shouting, “Jesus died for you, your sins are forgiven, and heaven is open for you.”  You can go to your family members.  You can go to your friends and neighbors.  But you have to start with them.

Why?  Why do you have to get into the fields?  Why do you have to give God’s good news?  Is it because you have a God breathing murderous threats down on you if you don’t?  Is it because you will lose heaven if you don’t?  I think you know Jesus better than that.  Jesus says, “Freely you have received; freely give.”  Jesus says you have good news and good news is great when others get it.

When you get engaged, you plan a wedding and a wedding dance, because you want to share your joy.  When you make the team you are happy to be one of the guys.  When you get the job, you celebrate with people because that’s what a celebration is, a bunch of people being happy together.

Doesn’t that kind of sound like us when we are hearing God’s good news together?  Evangelism will be a burden if it’s all about trying to avoid God’s punishment.  The news ceases to be good if that is how you see it.  The only way God’s good news gets from your heart to your lips and to someone else’s ears, is with the power and compassion that Christ used to get it into us.  It was all him and it cost you nothing.

Free stuff is great because it’s easy to share.  Do you ever notice that?  If someone drops off a bunch of food, it’s easy to say to your wife, “We should have some people over to help us eat all of this.”  Or is that just me?  God gave you his good news freely so that you can be free with it.

Do you notice what is not a part of evangelism?  Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to each get 10 prospects.  Come to think of it, Jesus didn’t make any demands for results.  Do you know why?  Because the results can never be up to us.  We don’t save people.  Jesus does.  We don’t change hearts.  The Spirit does. We don’t make God’s children.  He does.

We speak good news!  God’s good news is what changed you and me, and that is the only thing that can help make an eternal difference for someone else.  Good news is good if a person agrees with you.  Evangelism is always good, because it’s God’s good news.

You were made for this. God called us out of darkness into his wonderful light so that we will shine for those who are still in darkness.  Jesus made us witnesses who are filled with his love and compassion, filled with his power and authority, filled with his good news.

And now there’s one little piece of good news left.  It’s time for the…Amen.

 

CHURCH & church

Week 10 – 8.13.17

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John 8

31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

 

 

In East Perth, Australia, there is a sculpture known as the Impossible Triangle. If you approach the sculpture from the north, east, or west, it looks like a field goal post that some giant tried tearing apart. But approach it from the south and you find something impossibly beautiful: a perfect equilateral triangle made from 90 degree corners. Ask any mathematician and they’ll tell you the math doesn’t add up; all the angles in an equilateral triangle add up to 180 not 270.  You just can’t make a triangle out of three perfectly square corners.  But this sculpture does. It is impossibly beautiful. And it works because of perspective.

This is a good way to understand the two perspectives of God’s Church. We have the human perspective, which is like the north, east, or west view.  The human perspective does not always look pretty to us. Lazy pastors, preoccupied members, and hypocrites mixed into the batch. But God has the south view.  What he sees in the church is impossibly beautiful, a group of people, perfect in holiness and destined for heaven.

We describe the difference in perspective as looking at the Church with a capital “C”, and our churches with a lowercase “c.” Knowing the difference helps us appreciate God’s grace and keeps our attention on him.

  1. The Church

We start with the Church as God sees it, that is all true believers who will spend eternity in heaven. And just who is in that group? That’s as basic as John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Who shall have eternal life? Whoever believes in Jesus as the Son of God sent by God the Father and given over to death for the sins of the world. This is the church with a capital “C,” a church without an earthly membership list or any specific building. In fact, only God knows who the members of this church are because only God can look into hearts and see where faith is genuine and true.

For that reason we often call this Church of true believers the “invisible” church. We can’t identify it with any visible denomination or church body. The true saving church of God is not Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, or the Roman Catholic Church or any other denomination. It is a group defined by saving faith in Christ alone for salvation. There is no defining language or roster or location. In fact, this invisible Church is what we confess in the Apostles’ Creed when we say that we believe in the “Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.” We can call the members of this church holy and saints because of the south view that God has.  Washed clean in the blood of Jesus and with his robes of righteousness covering us, God sees every member of this church as spotless, holy, blameless, radiant, saintly.

So by God’s definition there is only one saving Church, the invisible, holy Christian Church. The natural follow-up question is: why are there so many different Christian church bodies? And shouldn’t we be working to bring the churches back together into one church on earth?

  1. church

Let’s answer the first question first. Why so many different Christian churches? Well, in our 2nd Lesson we heard the Apostle Peter warn Christians that there would be false prophets who would sneak in among Christians distorting the truth and that “they will secretly introduce destructive heresies.” We know that Peter wasn’t the only one who gave these warnings. Jesus called these false teachers “ferocious wolves” who come to us “in sheep’s clothing.” In other words, Jesus knew that false teachers would come in his name, try to gain a following, and infiltrate the church. They would hide their destructive teachings and gather people for themselves instead of for him. Jesus even said some of these false prophets would come with counterfeit signs and miracles so convincing they could almost deceive anyone!

Now, I don’t think the pastors at any non-denominational or at a Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, 7th Day Adventists (and on and on down the line) actually think they are being deceptive or destructive. But that doesn’t change the facts that tweaking God’s Word is harmful eternally.  Yes, even a little change to make it more palpable, more socially acceptable, or helpful for numerical growth is destructive for people.  Sure, these false teachers want to help people.  But mostly they want to help people cope with life, help people see the good in others, and help people better themselves. They make God’s Word point out how doing those things will make God happy and you will gain heaven.  But that’s a me first religion.  It’s a false teaching.  It’s using God’s Word in an incorrect, deceptive way.

Our ferocious enemy Satan knows that the surest way to drag someone into hell is with lies, big or small doesn’t matter to him. It’s what he did to Eve by whispering to her, “Did God really say…?” It’s what he continues to do today in churches and pulpits whispering, “Is it really so bad to go against what God says in this one little way?” Or “Does God really mean you can’t have any fun, can’t make a good living, can’t be popular, can’t associate with any unbelievers?” and so on… Satan knows that if he can deceive people into just one or two errors, that he’s got the foothold he needs. When the Apostle Paul talks about false doctrine, he compares it to gangrene. It starts small and grows to infect the whole body.  And if false doctrine is left to grow, it can even destroy saving faith.

So why so many churches? Because false doctrine divides. Either the false teachers separate themselves from the true church in order to grow or the members of the true church identify the false doctrine and force the false teachers out. Paul was so convinced of the need to protect God’s truth that he told the Christians in Rome to keep away from those teaching false doctrine. Romans 16: “Watch out for those who continue to cause divisions and put obstacles in your faith that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.”

This is where we (finally) get to the words of Jesus in John 8. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  The truth of God is freeing from the false teachings and their eternal destruction.  The truth of God is freeing from a bunch of visible churches that clamor for you have a real relationship with God.

Brothers and sisters, the one thing – the only thing – that can save souls is the truth that Jesus brings.  It’s what we have been studying all summer: God’s total grace for mankind’s total sin; Jesus’ innocent sacrifice to pay for our debt of guilt; the Holy Spirit’s work to call us by the gospel and set us apart as people who serve the Lord. These truths are everything our Lutheran heritage embraces about God’s love for us sinners.

This is also the only truth that can bring believers into unity with each other. Not just some of the things Jesus said or taught. Not just the outlines or basic concepts. No, every truth that God reveals to us in Scripture. If God says it, then it’s important. His truth, and our holding to it all in faith, show us to be true disciples of Jesus and members of the one, true invisible Church with a capital C.

If what Jesus says is true, then we need it all the time. We must read, hear, study, learn, memorize, sing, and pray about those teachings, in home and here in worship. We must dedicate ourselves to holding to those teachings, even if a cool preacher in Bismarck or on TV says differently.  We must continue to hold on to Jesus and his Word even when tons of other “Christians” say things like, “we all have the same God and we all love people.  That’s all that matters.”

It’s not just the pastors that need to hold the truth.  You know that in almost every case in church history, it was the pastors who led faithful laypeople into false doctrine, don’t you? False doctrine sneaks into the church more often through the seminaries than through the farmer’s fields or the office breakroom. You are the ones who must know the truths of Jesus that set and keep us free. Because it will be men that look and sound like me who will come to carry you away from Christ.

And that brings us to the second question I asked a few minutes ago. If there is indeed one Holy Christian Church in God’s eyes, then shouldn’t we be working to bring the churches back together into one church on earth? The answer is absolutely, yes! But we have to remember that unity must be based on the truth of Jesus that sets us free from sin. We have to remember that unity cannot be established between visible churches if it is not based on the Word of God.  We have to remember that unity cannot exist outwardly if it doesn’t first exist inwardly in what we believe. We call this teaching fellowship.

This part of our Lutheran, our Christian, heritage has never been more important for us to remember. Around the world there are people calling themselves Christians holding to some of what Christ taught. They are the ones who look for outward unity between churches without being too concerned about unity in what God says. Jesus said that those who don’t hold to his teachings are not really his disciples. How can we be united with those who Jesus wouldn’t even acknowledge as disciples?

Here is why all of Jesus’ teachings, why the Bible is so important. In a world dominated by evil darkness and death, Jesus’ words are light and life. Jesus’ words are the only thing that breathe unconditional love in a world filled with hatred. Jesus’ words are the only thing that confer holiness in a world ruled by sin. Jesus’ words are the only hope in a world of doubt and despair. Jesus’ words alone tell us the truth in a world of deceit and lies. Jesus’ words are the only free gift of salvation in a world where everything comes at a cost.

So how do we hold to his words? Well, we do it by faithfully learning, studying, and sharing God’s Word. By teaching the Word to our children. By seeking out churches that preach this truth. By warning each other when we see or hear some straying. By holding your pastors accountable. And by rejoicing when we find others who do indeed teach the truth. Because when unity is based in truth it’s an eternal joy. That unity crosses borders, transcends languages, and overcomes every human difference.

It’s the joy of knowing I share the same Savior with someone who is not the same as me. It’s the joy we have when we kneel at the altar together for communion, confessing to the same need for Christ’s forgiveness and receiving it from him as members of his body. The world, and other churches, may not understand the joy of fellowship but we do. It’s a part of our heritage of faith as Lutherans, part of our joy in the truth that Jesus teaches, a truth that sets us free from division and protects us in the unity and peace of God’s Holy Christian Church.

In a way it’s like that impossible triangle in Australia. We see true unity in a way that others simply cannot. Our congregation (our church) may not be the one Church of God on its own, but here we know and confess the one true faith. Hold it. Treasure it. Spread it.

God grant it. Amen.

FEELING LIKE FOREIGNERS NOW, BUT NOT FOREVER

Week 9 – 8.6.17

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1 Peter 2:11-25

11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.
18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

 

You are a foreigner and exile.  You look different.  Talk different. Think different.  Act different.  Sure, you celebrate the 4th of July and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before every kind of ballgame, but you are living as an alien in this land.  Do you know how I know that?  Here’s what God says: you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

See, brothers and sisters, when Jesus called us to faith, he gave us a new life that encompasses all of life, not just certain days or select portions of days.  You aren’t just a child of God on Sunday morning or at home, but he made you his child all of the time.  That’s what we want to review todays and we listen to what Peter has to say about Christian life in society.

In order to talk about our life in society, we first need to address the way we view humanity as a whole. To do that, we need only go to the well-known passage, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son…” Jesus lived a holy life for all. Jesus shed his lifeblood for all. He did not die for some more than for others. The umbrella of his redeeming work did not leave some out in the rain.

Jesus gave his life for all humans because God made mankind in his image, perfect and in holy harmony with God.  He intended that to continue for eternity. So when mankind ruined that harmony, God sent his Son to restore that harmony for all humans. If Jesus gave his life for all, that means that God has imposed the same value on all people, regardless of color, ethnicity, language, ability, age, or any other qualifier. That value, that price tag is this: worth the expenditure of the precious blood of his own Son.

You have never encountered anyone – I don’t care how much they rub you the wrong way or how curmudgeonly they conduct themselves – you have never encountered anyone worth less than you. You have never encountered anyone for whom Jesus did not shed his blood, anyone whom God does not love with an all-surpassing love.

So if God loves everyone, what should be our attitude toward everyone? We should love them too. The most basic command when considering God’s will for our life in society is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Loving them does not mean we have to feel good about them; it means that we regard them as people for whom Christ died and that we always seek to do what is best for them, regardless of how we feel about them. Help and befriend them in their bodily needs. Help them improve and protect their property and means of income. Defend them, speak well of them, and take their words and actions in the kindest possible way. Set a good example for them in the way you act and speak. Honor, serve, and obey them if they are in authority over you.

Also remember that your goal in doing all these things isn’t just to make the world a better place, or even just to make Christ happy. Peter told us what our goal is: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Your goal is to win souls for heaven. People can and do argue with doctrine and slander organized religion, but it is extremely difficult to argue with love. It is extremely difficult for someone to say to you, “Your religion is worthless,” when you consistently treat them in a fundamentally different way than most, treating them in a way that reflects the value and worth God has given them as souls for whom Christ shed his blood. Little else so attracts people, especially skeptics, to the Christian Church and the gospel of Christ like Christian love does. That’s why God made you a foreigner, living with this selflessness and loving servant heart

Secondly, in order to talk about our life in society, we need to realize what holds sway in society, what makes it go, so to speak. Here we need to talk about the doctrine of the two kingdoms of God. First, there is the  kingdom of the word.  That’s the kingdom that cares primarily for souls, the kingdom of the Church.  And there’s the kingdom of the sword.  That’s the kingdom that cares primarily for bodies, the kingdom of the State. In the Church, the gospel holds sway, but in the State or civil government, the law holds sway, because society is also made up of unbelievers and people who care nothing for God. Thus, if there is to be any good accomplished in society, society needs to be forced and compelled to do it by reward on the one hand and threat of punishment on the other.

The godless employee does his job well not because he cares about others, but because he gets money if he does it well, and fired if he doesn’t. The godless politician supports beneficial legislation because the voters are watching. Rape, robbery, and murder are restrained because people don’t want to get fined, imprisoned, or the death penalty. Some have been swayed from divorce because of the legal and financial ramifications.

Here we should note, before going on, that this is precisely why your Christian love in society has such a huge impact. In a world where most are doing the right thing because they have to, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter Christians doing the right thing because they want to. In a world where mechanics are fixing your car because they want to feed their family and not get sued, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter a Christian who fixes cars because he is genuinely concerned about your possessions and your transportation ability. In a world where employers give their employees fair pay and benefits because it’s mandated by law, it is a breath of fresh air to encounter a Christian employer who gives his employees fair pay and benefits, perhaps even more than what is mandated, because he is generous and genuinely cares about their lives and their families outside of work.

Nevertheless, civil government with its law-based system is a valid institution of God. Here’s our God-given attitude toward civil government: Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  It’s makes us look like foreigners to be willing subjects of the government no matter who is ruling, but it’s a good thing.

One application of this, that I need to remember just as much as anyone else, is the way we speak about our president and other elected officials. We often equate conservatism with Christianity. While there are certainly elements of conservatism that are Christian, the two need to be distinguished. Conservatism is a political ideology; Christianity is a religion. Fox News is conservative, but when they disrespectfully rail against our elected officials, that is not Christian. If we have a problem with our elected officials, there are better, godly ways to address those problems than simply railing against them over a cup of coffee. We can call them. We can write to them. And ultimately, we can go to the voting booth or run for office ourselves.

While we’re on the topic of voting, let me say a brief word about that.  We just heard that God has established every government. Ours happens to be a government by the people. To vote, then, is to uphold the government that God has established in our country. So voting is a good thing, but remember that every vote is always going to be a choice for sinful human beings.  Elected leaders can never change the real problem that plagues this world.  They will do their best to keep peace and prosperity, to help our nation on earth. So do your research and use your conscience.

When you are researching the candidates, it is good to look for those who will, as much as possible, uphold God’s moral standards. We heard last week that marriage should be honored by all. We heard in the First Lesson that righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people. Our first concern should not be, “How will this candidate’s ideology affect my wallet?” Our first concern should be, “How will this candidate’s ideology uphold the standards of God’s law and benefit the country at large?”

After doing all of this, pray that God would bless your vote and the outcome for his purposes. And then remember that Jesus still reigns on the throne of heaven, no matter who gets elected.  His kingdom operates with the power of his Word and that shall be our chief endeavor.   That makes us look like foreigners and that’s a good thing, a godly thing, a heavenly thing.

We should also say something about serving in the military here. Since we do uphold the civil government and its rule by law, that means that we also uphold its God-given right to have an army, to wage war, and to execute criminals. Peter said the authorities punish those who do wrong, and when the soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do, he did not say, “Leave the army.” Not all killing is hateful murder. If God has given authority to kill within a legitimate government and you are working for that government in the armed forces, then you may kill within your sphere of responsibility to the glory of God.  War is a part of a sinful world, not God’s design, so governments will have to make those tough decisions and God has given them the job of making those decisions.  As Christians, we honor those decisions. We need to give our Christian soldiers the benefit of the doubt. Even if we ourselves do not think a war is just, we have the benefit of looking in from the outside. Once a soldier is enrolled in the armed forces, he does not have that benefit to the same extent. Once he is enrolled, it is his job to trust his superiors and follow their orders, because if he does not, he is putting the lives of his fellow soldiers at risk.

The last thing we need to say about God’s other kingdom, the civil government, is what Peter says in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than men.” If the government explicitly mandates something that is contrary to God’s will as clearly expressed in his Word, then we not only may, but also should disobey it. That doesn’t mean we riot and rebel. It means we simply disobey. If we know it will mean consequences, we have two choices – humbly accept the consequences or move to a different country.

In closing, thank God that we not only live in the kingdom of the law, like all people do, but that we also live in the kingdom of the gospel. Thank God that he has given us the motivation through Christ to want to do what others must be forced to do. Thank God that we have the good news of life eternal beyond this earthly life of sweat, tears, and death. Thank God that he has placed us in a kingdom of the law that, up to the present, has protected our right to promote the kingdom of the gospel and preach the full and free forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. Thank God that he has equipped us not just with the ability to make our society better, but also to save the souls within that society by telling them of our ultimate king, Jesus, who gave his life for you and for me and for the whole world.

A Christian life in this society makes you look like a foreigner now, but not forever.

To God be the Glory.   Amen.