Free from the Trap

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6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.

 

 

Aron Ralston was all alone in the middle of the secluded Blue John Canyon in southeastern Utah.  An 800 lb. boulder had pinned his right arm.  He was trapped with no way out and no one around.  It was a devastating conclusion for a promising life.  He had two college degrees, one in engineering the other in French.  He had been an office man with Intel.  He gave that up for the guts and glory of mountaineering.  Now, that was the very thing that was trapping him.  He had about 12 oz. of water and a couple burritos with him.  No phone.  He didn’t tell anyone he was going out that day.  It was just him, the meager rations, and the 800 lb. boulder.  If everything worked out perfectly he could last a week – but even that was carelessly optimistic – and then he would die, trapped and alone.  What he loved so much would ruin him.

Maybe you haven’t been pinned by a boulder in the middle of a desert canyon, but there is a different snare that is just around the bend if we aren’t careful.  There is one thing that beckons people off the trail into a dangerous trap. Paul says, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

Let’s just be clear, the trap is NOT money.  Money is a blessing from a God who loves us and takes care of us.  Money is something we use to provide for the needs of our families. Money cares for the poor and destitute.  Money supports the church.  Money is not bad.  It’s not a sin to have money.  Looking through the Scriptures there are plenty of examples of God-fearing rich people:  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Job, David, Solomon, and many others.  And looking around here today, brothers and sisters, we are wealthy, too.

You cannot even begin to think that you are poor.  You have a place with walls, ceilings, rooms, windows, and even yards to call home.  Most of the people living in the world right now do not have that.  Do you know that the average salary in America right now is over $50,000 a year?  That’s about 137 dollars a day for 365 days of the year. Over one third of people around the world work for about 2 dollars a day.  You are very rich.  God has put you in one of the wealthiest places on the planet.  Kings from Bible times through 1700s would gawk at your extravagance.  You have heating and cooling throughout the whole house.  You have bathrooms and electricity.  You have a place to keep meat, milk, fruit, and vegetables cool and fresh for days and weeks.  You have more entertainment at your fingertips than what you know what to do with.  We are rich.  And that’s ok.  There is nothing wrong with blessings.  Don’t feel guilty because you live in America in the 21st century.  It’s not a sin to be wealthy.

What did Paul say? The trap is “the love of money.”  Loving money is the root from which all sorts of evil grow.  It’s loving money that Solomon warns against in the OT reading.  When the wisest man who has ever lived (who also happened to be quite wealthy) warns against loving money, then you know just how much of a trap it can be.

I think John D. Rockefeller can illustrate this point very well.  He was the guy who started Standard Oil in the early 1900s.  At one point he was the richest person in the world and first ever American billionaire.  Once a reporter asked him, “How much money is enough?”  Do you know how he answered?  “Just a little bit more.” The love of money is such a dangerous trap because when you love it you can never have enough of it, as Solomon says and so, so many more would agree.

Having money doesn’t have to turn you into a greedy money-lover.   I thinking most of us here today would say we aren’t tipping that greedy side of the scale like Scrooge, but what about Rockefeller?  Is there a slight possibility that similar thoughts have entered your mind and similar words have been spoken?  “Just a little bit more and everything will be ok.  If I can loosen the budget just a bit then I will be content.”  It’s that simple thought that seems so harmless but pushes us into a dangerous situation.

It’s like Aron Ralston.  He just wanted an exciting afternoon in the Blue John Canyon. His thrill-seeking spirit never expected to be caught in a deadly situation by one of his adventures.  And yet there he sat, waiting to die, trapped by his own doing.

And isn’t that exactly how greed works.  It starts small,  “just a little bit more.”  But that root can grow into such a huge tree of evil.   It starts small thinking that generosity means less for me.  It’s thinking, “I need” when really, it’s “I want or like.”  It’s thinking, “someone else who has more money can help with that.”  It’s that little bit of greed that confuses my priorities and wrecks my balance.  Selfishness creeps up more and more and service is forgotten, because service is not about me and mine.  It makes me think of my life now rather than my eternity.  And when I live that way, then I’m trapped.

Nothing can do that more than the love of money.  It’s the first thing that newlyweds argue about.  It’s the topic that keeps parents up at night.  It’s the last worry on the hearts of retirees.  Loving money is the quickest way to ruin a family, not help it.  It’s the best way to short-change God and trap yourself in the devil’s snare.

Going over these words from Paul today, I hope you aren’t thinking to yourself this is just another ploy from a pastor.  I hope you aren’t getting the idea that the church is all about money.  That’s not it!  At all!  Paul is trying to help us understand that loving money makes no sense because it never lasts.  It makes no sense because it always leads to the devils trap.  And that trap is not easy to escape, because it’s eternal death in hell.

Paul says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” That’s where Aron Ralston was.  He was about to take nothing out of it.  And that’s where loving money gets us, too.

Do you know what happened to him?  Maybe you’ve seen the movie, 127 hours.  See, Aron was trapped in that canyon for 3 days and then 4 days, getting more dehydrated and delirious.  He knew what it would take to get out. He would have to cut his own arm off if he wanted to escape.  He had a multi-tool in his bag and he thought it could work.  He tried sticking the blade into his arm, but he couldn’t get through the bone.  On day 5 he took a video of himself on his camera and carved his own tombstone.  Then on the morning of the 6th day, he had a lucid moment and realized he could just break the radius and ulna using torque against his trapped arm.  And so he did it.  He wrenched his body to break both bones in his arm.  And then he MacGyvered a tourniquet and cut through his own arm for about an hour with a small dull multi-tool knife.

Do you think that something similar is needed for you when it comes to loving money?  Is it going to take that kind of desperate and drastic measure to get out of sin’s trap?  Of course it is!  Sin isn’t easy to get rid of.  It won’t just take care of itself.  The devil won’t just up and leave.  And it’s going to take a sacrifice bigger than cutting off your own arm.  It’s going to take more that you could ever do.

That’s why Jesus came.  He didn’t want you wallowing to death in the trap of greed.  He didn’t want your life to be ruined by your own stupidity.  So Jesus went into the pit for you.  He was trapped by sin and death in your place.  He let you go free.  Not because of how hard you were trying to get out and you just needed an extra push.  Not because of how long you were trapped and how many prayers you said.  It’s because of his grace and mercy.  It’s so unearned and so undeserved and so needed for people like us.

Each one of us feels these temptations.  Each one of knows the dangers.  Each one of us has experienced the traps.  It’s the love of money.  It’s the materialism.  It’s the “just a little bit more” mentality.  It’s lusting eyes.  It’s perverse mouths.  It’s selfish thoughts.  It’s harmful actions.  It’s lazy faith.  It’s mixed up priorities.  It’s sin, and we all know it too well.  And so does Jesus, because he took all of those sins and carried them out to Calvary.  He traveled that path and went out to that cliff to die for us.  We don’t have to free ourselves by making some serious sacrifice.  He made the sacrifice.  He freed us from the traps.  He took them away forever.  You are not going to die trapped by your own sin.  Jesus died for you.

That’s the kind of God you have, a God who didn’t just send out a search party to find where you were trapped, a God who didn’t just try and get you the help you needed, you have a God who found you and freed you completely.  There was no punishment that you needed to endure.  No pain that you needed to survive.

But there is a fight left.  After he freed himself, he could still die in that canyon.  He was free from the death trap, but he still had to climb, rappel and hike 8 miles back to his truck.  Talk about a grueling and punishing fight?  If Aron was going to live he had to keep fighting and keep going.

That’s where Paul is getting at today.  No, we don’t have to free ourselves from greed.  Jesus took care of that for us.  But there is a fight to stay on the right path, not wandering into another one of sin’s traps.  Paul says “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith.”  That’s the best kind of fight you can have.

That’s kind of where our story is different from Aron Ralston.  We didn’t free ourselves.  We aren’t fighting to stay one step ahead of death.  We aren’t waiting for rescue like him. He was a goner if he didn’t get help.  And it came.  Four hours after cutting off his own arm.  After climbing and rappelling and hiking, two hikers happened to see him on the trail.  They gave him food and water.  They called for help.  After 127 hours, Aron Ralston was rescued.  He was going to live, because he fought and because he got help at just the right time.

Our fight against the temptations and trappings of greed is not like his. We are fighting this good fight of faith because we are already free.  We pursue this new life, because Jesus has already given it to us.  We have the freedom from sin.  We have the eternal life that God has given us.  We have this glorious ministry of love and service.  We have this message to carry with us.  It’s not a fight to stay alive and reach safety.  It’s a fight that knows we are already safe in the arms of Jesus; we have life with him no matter what happens.  No one can take that away from us.  This is not the fight for freedom and life.  We have this good fight of joy and thankfulness because we already have freedom and life in Jesus.

So, do you know what this fight of faith is going to look like this week?  It’s a godly life where Jesus is the focus.  We won’t turn from this side to that looking for another trap to catch us.  We keep our eyes on Jesus and the life to which he has called us.  That means you’re going to be a godly employee fighting the good fight of faith, giving your best as if you were working for the Lord.  You’re going to be a godly boss, fighting the good fight of faith to be generous and kind.  You’re going to be godly parents not because of what you buy for your kids, but because of your patience and gentleness.  You’re going to be a godly spouse looking not at what you can get but what you can give, serving with love and humility.  You’re going to be a child of God who’s not trapped by greed but content with whatever the Lord has given.  You’re going to be the kind of person who’s not looking for whatever this world has to offer but to the Savior, Jesus, keeping your eyes on him and in his Word.  That’s the good fight.

You know Aron Ralston is probably pretty happy how things worked out back in the Blue John Canyon.  Your story is better.  Jesus freed you from sin’s trap and has given you a new life.  You have the eternal freedom from the ruin of sin.  You have an eternal life at your Savior’s side.

So keep fighting the good fight of faith.  Amen.

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IN, NOT OF

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I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. 7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.
8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.

 

 

So, are you in or are you of?  Because there is a difference.

Carson Wentz is of North Dakota. (Although Wikipedia says he was born in North Carolina and moved here when he was 3.) This is where he grew up. He went to school here in Bismarck. No matter where his career takes him, he is of Bismarck, and Century High School, and North Dakota State University.  He can’t change that and neither can you.

“Of” is the source that describes your past, and so “of” can also be a helpful description for who I am and what matters to me.  It can give you characteristics about me.  If I say I am of Watertown, WI then you can understand a few things.  You know that I have experienced all four seasons of the year.  I’ve seen the beautiful colors of fall. I’ve trudged through the biting cold of winter.  I’ve worn short sleeves and shorts that first day over 40 in spring time.  I’ve sweated out a hot muggy stretch in summer.  Being of Wisconsin also helps you understand my fanaticism for the Packers and Brewers, brats and cheese.  If you know anything about our Wisconsin Synod, it began in Milwaukee and Watertown.  So you will also know that I kind of grew up in a Lutheran bubble.  I had Lutheran friends and neighbors.  My family and most of my friends’ families had long genealogies in WELS.  I knew tons of pastors and teachers.  I experienced plenty a potluck in my youth.  I played grade school athletics in a league of only Lutheran schools because almost any town around Watertown had a Lutheran school.

There’s one more way that “of” describes a person.  In Luke 2 we hear that Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem to the town of David, because Joseph was of the house and line of David.  “Of” describes to whom you are connected and related.  That’s kind of how last names started in the Middle Ages.  Rather than saying I’m Tom of the house of Martin of the house of Robert of the state of Wisconsin of the immigrants of Germany of the bowl making clan, I can just say all of that with Moldenhauer now.

“Of” says a lot.  So, what does it mean if someone says, “I am of the world?” Well, it means that they are from here, but it also describes a lot about them and what they care about.   If you say, “I am of the world,” that means you really care about this world and it means a lot to you.  That means that things like the elections this November are a big deal.  You watch the coverage and news reports.  You can’t wait for the debates.  You discuss (it seems that means complain about) the issues and the candidates with family and friends.  If you are of the world, then this election is a huge deal and holds a decisive path for the future of our country and world.

If you are of the world that means peace and quiet is probably a rare guest in your life.  Have you noticed how busy everyone is?  Have you noticed how little time people spend in peace without distractions and devices?  If you are of the world then you are caught in the hurry up and go.  Your schedule is maxed to capacity with work stuff, family stuff, fun stuff, and random stuff to the point where you don’t have much of any time for God and his church.  I mean, honestly, if people are of the world, then that means the relationship with God is strained to say the least, because God is not of the world.

If you are of the world, then where is the truth?  You see a world where people are told what they want to hear.  You can’t offend anyone anymore, so morality, politics, religion, sports, hobbies, food – all that stuff is all in the eye of the beholder.  You have to make your own way and your own truth.  Do what makes you happy and steer clear of other people so that you don’t offend them.  If you have to say something about personal ideas or feelings, do it on facebook or twitter so you can hide behind social media and a screen.  Then, offer a vague apology post a couple hours or days later.  That’s the way of truth if you are of the world.

If you are of the world then, brothers, then you have probably flared your nostrils and had a heated exchange with someone.  Guys get macho like that sometimes, because we think winning an argument with another guy proves something.  We have this this insatiable desire to be right and to win.  You want to be the person who has the answers and knows how to get things done.   You work really hard to “support your family,” which is maybe a cop out that means you want to give your wife and kids things they want and like.  That’s what is important if you are of the world. And that spills over into other aspects.  You want NDSU to get the 6-peat, or you want UND to pull off a huge upset over NDSU.  You want the Vikings to win tonight so you can say, “We got you, Pastor!!!”

And maybe one final thing that really matters in this world is the way you look.  If you are of the world then, sisters, you are all about fashion and hair and accessories.  You’ve got the magazine subscriptions to see what’s hot this year.  You stop at the malls and shops at least once a week to check out the sale racks.  You’re on a first name basis with the salon stylists. If you are of the world you probably have membership at the Y or at some point in life you’ve taken on a popular diet so that you can look good.  Because these kinds of things really matter when you are of the world.

People who are of the world are into all of this stuff.  You’re consumed by it.  You find your purpose for life in all of the worldly things.  But let me ask, does being “of the world” produce any lasting joy?  Is it really a good thing?  Let me ask it this way: will the election change our life?  Will the busy schedule give us hope for a better future?  Will speaking the world’s version of truth help people who are struggling to find some?  Will cheering for the Vikings or Bison or Brewers help us in the fight against Satan?  Do the shopping trips pay the price for our sins?  Can any of our worldliness help others with their sins?  Does being of this world shine God’s light in the darkness?

Not so much!  In fact, that kind of life is a part of the darkness.  Being of the world is a life where nothing lasts and where we can never stop the pursuit of ourselves. That kind of life is serving the devil’s purpose, really.  And we fall into that scary trap too often.  We get caught think about worldly problems and worldly passions and worldly possessions and worldly preferences.  And we may excuse it saying everyone else is doing it, but that doesn’t work with God.

That’s why God sent Jesus.  He didn’t send Jesus to be of the world.  He sent Jesus into the world.  That’s why Jesus’ main purpose here was not to show us the best kind of political leader.  He wasn’t interested in giving worldly wisdom for us and our kids.  And Jesus’ main message was not motivation to make a better life for yourself.  Jesus came into the world to be the Savior from the world.  He gave himself as a ransom for all.  He paid the price so that people wouldn’t think life is always about paying the price to get ahead. Jesus gave his life so that we can have a life that lasts forever.

God does not want people to fritter away in life trying to make this sin-darkened and broken world a better place.  You see, the world is broken and the devil wants you to think that you can fix it.  He’s hoping that you will love it so much here that you won’t think about eternity that much.   The devil hopes you will buy into the “be part of the solution” mentality.  But it won’t work.  The only solution is Jesus.  And if he wasn’t of the world, do you think you have to be?  No.  You have a God who loved you and saved you for an eternity with him.  You have a God who guards and protects you.  You have a God who guides you in the right paths.

That’s where Paul is getting at with this section of his letter.  If we are saved by God’s grace through Christ, if we have been paid for in full by a Savior who loves us and gave his life as a ransom for us, and if we have the truth that being of the world leads nowhere, then you don’t have to be of this world.  Instead, Paul gives us some ways to live in the world and not of it.

He says that you don’t have to think this election is the be all and end all of America.  You can have the right attitude.  Make requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  That’s the right view of government.  Pray for it.  There is not one divinely ordained government in this world.  Every government is filled with a bunch of sinners just like every country is filled with sinners like us, but God works through the government for the purpose of peace.  God doesn’t want heaven on earth, he wants us to have peace while we serve him with a godly life.  So being in the world gives us the right attitude about government and elections; you’ll pray for a government that allows us to share the gospel, for a government that lets us take care of the church.

Because in this world God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.  That’s what matters, the gospel of Jesus.  God wants that to get out.  He wants truth to prevail, because his truth lasts.  If you have been struggling, if you have been running around trying to make life whole again, if you are fed up with everything going on, then the truth is still that God loves you and wants you to live with him in heaven forever.  HE sent his own Son to face hell so that you wouldn’t have to.  There is nothing more powerful than that.

So that changes things for us, brothers and sisters.  We don’t have to be macho men who win arguments, disputes and fights.  We don’t have to be alpha dogs, who everyone is afraid of.  We don’t have to put such an emphasis on being of this world.  We get to be bringers of peace because Jesus brought us peace and we want others to have it to.  We get to be honest leaders because Jesus gave us the truth.  We get to be good examples to our families, friends, and neighbors, because we know that being of this world leads nowhere.  We get to plan out time personally and for the family where Christ is the center.  That might be before or after meals.  That might be before bed times. That might be in the morning.  And that will be every week in church.  That is what a godly man does when he is in the world and not of it.

And for our sisters in Christ, Paul isn’t saying that looking nice and feeling nice is sinful, but there’s no need to find your worth and purpose in how you look or what gossip you know.  That’s being of the world.  God uses you in the world to be the example of decency and propriety.  Our younger girls and daughters don’t need better fashion tips and bigger closets.  They need godly mothers.  And you have a God who makes that possible because he fills you with his grace and mercy through his word and sacrament.

That’s what God has done for all of us.  Because he didn’t make us of the world.  He is using us in the world to be lights where the devil wants darkness.  He is using us to show love, the kind of love that speaks truth and speaks it with such selflessness and humility. All by grace and mercy, God is using us to take care of his church so that people will know their Lord and Savior.

So, are you in or are you of?  Thank God that he sent Jesus into the world to save us from being of the world.  As you go out this week, be in, not of.  God grant it.  Amen.

 

 

 

MIND-BLOWING MERCY MOTIVATES MINISTRY

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12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

The reports were horrific.  The buzz was unnerving.  The images burned into memories like the fireballs burned through those World Trade Center twin towers. What kind of people could do such a thing? Who could hijack a plane and fly it, with innocent civilians, into a building like a bomb? How could this happen?

As the events of 9/11 played out, we learned the shocking and sad answers.  It was a group of Islamic extremists called, al-Qaeda. They were angry with American involvement in the Middle East.  They could not stand how Muslims were being treated around the world.  The teachings and confessions of their Muslim religion only added fuel to the fire.  They wanted to show the world what happens to enemies of their god and his followers.

It’s still sobering to remember that day 15 years ago, that some could be so evil.  But it’s not the first time terror has been unleashed in our world.  It’s not the first time that politics and religion mixed into an explosion of hate and terror.  History is littered with this kind of thing. Today we are listening to someone we know, appreciate and love, who knows a thing or two about being so obsessed with fighting for his religious viewpoint and taking it to the next level of extreme.

Now, you might think that I am embellishing the truth a bit, but listen to him as he explains his life: I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.  This is none other than the Apostle Paul.  Once known as Saul, he was a student of the Old Testament in the tradition of the Pharisees.  At that time he thought he had it all figured out.  He thought he knew what God was like and what God wanted.  He was all about laws, traditions and being good.  As Paul studied and learned from his teacher his passion only grew.  He became the cream of the crop among his peers.  His zeal and feistiness was second to none.  It got to the point where he could not stand hearing about Jesus from his followers.  Paul knew how hate can boil in the human heart.  He knew what it looked like when the hate could not stay hidden anymore and came lashing out at innocent people. He knew what it was like to spew venomous words at people who were not like him.  He knew all of it so well.  And he did it all in the name of God –  who he thought God was, anyways.  His self-fulfilling work at that time, was to find Christians and shut them up.  Whether that meant in prison or lifeless in a pile of rocks, he was all for it.

It’s shocking when you think about it: Paul’s life wasn’t all that far off from these terrorist groups. How could Paul be so bad?  A blasphemer?  A man who spoke slanderous and defaming lies against the message of Jesus and his followers?  A persecutor?  A man who loved to see Christians suffer?  A violent man whose passion was to get his hands dirty with the blood of those who were not like him?  How could it happen?

I think I know.  This week, I went on YouTube to watch some of those 9/11 reports and interviews.  One of them was a tell-all interview with President Bush, recalling the events of those days.  A couple things that he said kind of hit the nail on the head.  As he visited Ground Zero he recalled that “there was a palpable blood lust from the workers at the site.  They were interested if we were going to find the enemy and bring them to justice.”  And I know exactly what that feeling is like.  You probably do, too.  When President Bush spoke from Ground Zero only a few days after the attacks, I was cheering, too, as he said, “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”  A few years later, as I saw the reports and videos of the “Shock-and-Awe” bombing campaign of Baghdad along with all the other steps our nation took to defend our freedom and bring justice on our enemies, I was watching in approval.

It’s really not that hard to see myself as a blasphemer, persecutor, and violent man.  I’m not in a better category because these hands have never been responsible for another person’s death.  When I have that same “palpable blood lust” as the workers at Ground Zero, that makes me just like Paul, who wanted to get rid of Christians.  It doesn’t matter if we call it terrorism or persecution or hatred, do you want to know what God calls it?  Murder!  Plain and simple.  “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer.”

And do you know something else?  It doesn’t matter if it’s rape, or having sex with someone who is not your spouse, or looking at pornography, God calls it adultery.  It doesn’t matter if it’s stealing from a store, forgetting to return something you borrowed, selfish jealousy, or discontent with what you have, God calls it theft and coveting. Or maybe this summarizes it the best: “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” In other words the problem is not only the terrorists from al-Qaeda or ISIS.  The problem is not only with the blasphemers, the persecutors, and the violent people out there.  The problem is in these sinful hearts of ours.  The problem is me and you. It sounds harsh, but it’s the truth:  terrorist, violent persecutor, and pastor are all the same.

Maybe you’re shocked and stunned by that. Maybe it’s hard to connect these dots just like it was September 11, 2001. Maybe you’re realizing that it’s impossible for people like us to adequately care for this ministry because we are consumed by things like selfishness, slander, and hate. Maybe you’re realizing and have realized for a long time now that the only thing that is really easy for us is sin.

And yet this blasphemer, this persecutor, this violent man Paul says, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service.”  How could God do that?  How could he give Paul strength?  How could he consider Paul trustworthy?  How could he appoint a man filled with such hate and cruelty into his service?  How could God make Paul a missionary to reach others?  I mean, there had to be better options?

But there is no better.  There is only best and worst.  And here’s the reality for all of us who are with Paul lumped into that same category.  This is the part where Paul wanted every ear to perk up.  This is the part where you pay attention because God is about to blow your mind.  This is the part where you elbow your husband and tell your kids to sit up straight.  Here’s a trustworthy saying:  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”  God looked down at a world filled with terrorists, murderers, rapists, thieves, racists, gossips, and liars.  God looked down at a world of disrespectful, selfish, arrogant, and sometimes just dumb people. God looked at Paul and he looked at you and me.  And he had mercy.  He could have and should have burned us all in a fire that is much hotter and much more eternal than the fires that brought those towers down.  But he showed mercy.  He looked at the worst and gave us his very best.

It’s not that you and I had some spark that set us apart from the rest.  It’s not that you and I had a something great to offer God.  It’s not that our works are better than others.  What happened is that there is a God who loved the unlovable.  Jesus longed to give us what we could not earn for ourselves.  Jesus saw lost people like us and went on a mission to find us.  It’s all because of him.

For the times when our hearts will filled with hate, Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  For the times when we lashed out with blasphemy against our God or those around us, Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  For the times we persecuted people who are not like us, Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  For the times we broke God’s law and his heart with our sins, Jesus came into the world to save sinners…of whom I am the worst.  That’s why it’s called mercy.

Mercy is what changed Paul so much.  He didn’t deserve any of it.  He’s not the shining example in this section.  Jesus is. Jesus was willing to look for people who didn’t want to be found.  And he never stops.  Paul says, “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” Paul had a Savior with never-ending love who found a violent, blasphemous, persecutor of the Christian faith and actually turned that man into a Christian.  He had a Savior who not only brought him to faith, but also then enlisted him into his service.  Paul was unworthy for such a task, but the Lord made him worthy.  Paul was powerless to serve with the kind of heart and help that was needed, but the Lord gave him the strength.

Paul’s Savior is also your Savior, and so what changed Paul so much is also what changes you.  You may look in the mirror and see an ugly sinner, but your Savior sees someone for whom he died to save.  You may see someone who is worthless and powerless, but your Savior sees the limitless power and heavenly worth he has given you.

This series about ministry could not begin on a better note.  When it comes to taking care of a church you and I aren’t the focus, but it’s the mercy of our Lord.  When all common sense said not to, he went out to look for the rebels and the rejects, the haters and the blasphemers, the violent and arrogant, the lusters and the liars.  His unlimited patience showed mercy to us.  We are no longer lost.  We are saved.

It’s that kind of mind-blowing mercy that changes our ministry.  The job of taking care of our church is not hard when we realize God’s mercy is taking care of us.  It’s not hard when we realize, we aren’t touting our own names around town, but his.  It’s not hard when we realize his mercy is producing the results.  It’s not hard when we remember that his mercy is unlimited.

You know, there are a lot of motivators out there.  On September 11, 2001 it was hate and evil.  I’ve been there before, so have you.  Other motivators are rewards, if you do a good job you will get something in return.  Guilt is a motivator that we use too often.  I feel bad about something I did or said, and I’m trying to make up for it.  The list goes on.  Well, today God says you can throw that list out of the window.  He’s got one thing that will motivate you.  It’s called mercy.  Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.  You are not lost anymore.  You are not bound for hell anymore.  You still struggle with sin, yes, but your sins are all taken away from you – past, present, and future.  Christ came to change the worst into the best.

That kind of mercy motivates us to do one thing – thank the Lord.  That’s really what ministry is, it’s finding ways to say thank you to a God who saved you.  Not everyone is a Paul.  Not everyone will be able to travel around talking to any and every one about Jesus.  Not everyone will start churches wherever they go.  God used a persecutor and violent man to do that work.  So God will find ways to use you. He’ll use you to plan projects.  He’ll use you to say “Hello, welcome to our church.”  He’ll use you to make food for others.  He’ll use you to listen to someone who needs an ear.  He’ll use you to fund new activities.  He’ll use you to show mercy to someone who is lost.  How mind-blowing is that!

There’s really only one response that seems fitting, and Paul wrote it down for his young colleague, Timothy, and for us so that we wouldn’t forget it:  Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

 

DISCIPLESHIP TAKES A TOLL

warning

25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. 27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? 29 For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.

 

Tim Tebow’s in the news again.   It’s not because he’s praying in public. It’s not because he’s trying to make it in the NFL again. It’s because he wants to make it in baseball.  Yeah, you heard right.  The former Heisman Trophy winner, the former college football national champion, who couldn’t get the job done on Sundays is now all in for a different career.  He hasn’t played in a real baseball game since high school.  He’s hoping some team will give him a shot in the minors.  Most prospects and draft picks are 18, 19, maybe 23; Tim Tebow is 29.  Most ball players and scouts talk about the daily routine and grind. In the minors, that means buses, hotels, eating out, distance from family and friends. They talk about keeping your mechanics of a swing or a throw over the long hall.  If you want to be good you need to know how to handle these things.  Tim Tebow just picked up at bat and got serious this past May after 11 years off.  Most people think he’s in la-la-land. Some think he’s got a shot, but it’s a looooong shot.  It’s going to take unwavering determination and total dedication and devotion.  You could say it is going to really cost him if he wants to make it.

In this Warning series Jesus has been warning us of spiritual dangers.  These warnings help us and encourage us to be ready and alert in faith.  They help us the same way the long list of warnings are motivating Tim Tebow. Warning 1) His Word is not supposed to create a utopia here on earth.  His Word will cause some divisions and those divisions might hit close to home, but the truth will always set us free from sin and bring us the eternal peace and unity. Warning 2) The door to heaven is narrow.  There is only one way to heaven and his name is Jesus.  Believe it or leave it. Warning 3) Be humble in this life.  You can’t puff yourself up with pride because you have nothing to be proud about except Jesus.  His humility saved us so that is how we will be exalted on the Last Day.

Now today is the fourth warning and Jesus wants you to know the toll of discipleship.  Is it like Tim Tebow chasing a lofty dream?  Does it take unwavering determination and the highest effort?  Jesus wants to help us figure that out in this last warning in the series.

We hear that large crowds were following Jesus at this time. We’re still in this same timeframe of less than a year before makes his last entrance into Jerusalem.  And tons of people were interested in Jesus.  Many were following the great teacher and miracle worker.  Many others were intrigued by the popular and polarizing fanatic.  Some were following God’s Messiah, the Savior of the world.

Which category are you in?  Duh! Of course that third group!  I’d sure hope so.  Being in those first two groups doesn’t do much.  It would be like following a political candidate, an athlete, or some motivational religious speaker every day online.  What does that really do for your life, give you something to talk about when you’re out getting coffee?  Jesus wants us to know that following him like that is doing nothing for you.  It’s the same as if you weren’t following him at all.  He doesn’t want us in either one of those groups.

That’s why he turns to the crowds and says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”  Wait a minute!  That doesn’t even sound Christian.  The Bible says love your enemies. How could a follower of Jesus do that?  Well, Jesus is using a hyperbole.  It’s a comparison to draw attention and prove his point that discipleship is not easy.  Jesus is telling us that nothing can compare to him.  The parents, who took care of you and nurtured you, the spouse, who is your supportive rock, the children, whose smiles, hugs, and laughter bring so much joy into your life… love Jesus more than all of them.  Jesus needs to be the first, the supreme, the most important – not just one day a week – every day of your life.

So, if your brother says, “I know God doesn’t approve of the way I live my life, but I’d like you to stop reminding me about it.”  The thought of not sharing God’s law and gospel with him makes your insides turn.  Your child says, “Daddy, Daddy, can I please play soccer. Pretty please.  My friends are playing and it’s going to be so much fun.”  But the league games are Sunday. The thought of sitting on the sidelines watching your kid on the soccer field rather than being in worship with your kid makes you nauseous.  Your spouse says, “I appreciate your willingness to serve and the gifts you are giving to church, but it’s getting a little bit much don’t you think?”  Your response as a disciple of Christ is, “I love you, dear.  I will do anything for you.  But if you ever ask me to choose between Jesus and you, you won’t like my answer.”  That’s how serious Jesus is.  “But my kids need me and my spouse is everything to me.  Jesus, you are right up there with them, but come on! It’s my family.  They are with me every day, all day.”  Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, ok.  You can be a second tier disciple.  You won’t be a Peter, James, or John, but you can still tag along.”  No!  He says, “If you don’t love me more – I’ll even say this very clearly with a metaphoric hyperbole, if you don’t hate them – you cannot be my disciple.  It’s my way or the highway.”

What group are you in?  Are you the follower of the miracle worker?  Jesus provides what you want sometimes and the rest is up to you.  Are you following Jesus like someone on Twitter or Facebook, like a political candidate or an athlete?  He’s popular and you want to know about him so that you can chat with your friends.  Or are you willing to put everyone in a lower position so that Jesus can be #1 all the time?

Discipleship is not easy.  It takes a toll.  The way Jesus sounds, it takes more to be his disciple than it does for Tim Tebow to make it as a baseball player. You need determination like you’ve never had before.  But Jesus isn’t done, yet.  He talks about how you think and feel towards others, but he also has something to say about how your life will be very personally affected. Can you handle this?   “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

And what is this cross?  Do we have to carry a huge chunk of wood around with us wherever we go?  Is a cross some form of punishment because we are sinful?  No.  Simply speaking a cross is something that brings pain and hardship into your life of faith.  Think of Joseph or Job from the Old Testament. Think Paul in the New.  These men weren’t being punished.  They were being trained and tested. This cross is never the same for every disciple.  It’s heavier for some.  It’s last longer for some.  But the purpose of our crosses is to get the focus off of me and directed to Jesus, the only Savior from pain and suffering.

Normally, a cross was for those who deserved death.  Criminals were forced to carry the cross that would kill them.  But Jesus says that his disciple will carry it willingly.  It’s not optional.  This cross of pain and hardship that each disciple has must be carried. If you are not willing, one of those other groups will not work and you can’t slide down a scale of discipleship that is a little less serious.  Jesus simply says you are not his disciple.

Some may go along with the relationship thing.  Yes, we love Jesus above our family.  But when Jesus says that a disciple must face pain and struggle, must make some huge sacrifices… then people start to leave.  Because you can look around and see plenty of people that are not struggling.  You can find plenty of friends and families that are healthier, happier, and more successful.  And that sounds a lot better than being crushed under a heavy load.

And Jesus isn’t done; there’s one more thing.  Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.  Whatever you have that gets in the way of following Jesus, wherever you look to find your worth, it has to be tossed aside, because it cannot compare to Jesus.

And this is not just a one-time thing.  Discipleship is never done.  For Tim Tebow, this newest journey won’t last, just like his college career ended and his NFL career ended, his baseball hopes will end.  But discipleship doesn’t have an end date during your life. Throughout this whole section Jesus is using the present tense.  That means whatever is current, right now in your life.  And that changes from year to year, even from day to day.  Before you had a spouse there was no need to lower that relationship beneath Jesus.  Before you had a career there was no need to put that in its proper place behind Jesus.  And so on.  Every day as a disciple is a day to put relationships in their proper place below Jesus.  Every day you have to take up the struggle.  Every day you have to give up whatever creeps up to take Jesus’ place.  It never ends.  You will never say, “I have carried my cross of sickness, sorrow, emotional pain, or persecutions and now I don’t have to do that anymore. I’m done with my cross.”  Jesus says if you are going to be his disciple, it never stops.  Every day there will be a toll.  Every day will be a battle.

Is it worth it?  That’s kind of the real question here.  Jesus uses two examples to explain that point.  A person wanting to build something great has to plan it out and consider all the costs and the sacrifices so that they can finish the project.  Someone who didn’t think it through and cannot finish the project is laughed at.  A king going to battle against another king considers if he can carry out his plan and come out victorious.  If he can then the battle ensues.  If he cannot he sends up the white flag and negotiates for peace.

A follower listening to Jesus say these kinds of things will inevitably ask, “Is it really worth it?”  I don’t know too many people who look over this section about discipleship and think to themselves, “Sounds great!  Sign me up!”  I mean this is tough.  This is not for the faint-hearted.  Discipleship with Jesus is not going to be easy, ever.  Who is up for this?

But there’s one final thing that jumps out of this section.  It’s not in the words, but you find it in the One speaking the words.  He’s known as Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.  Did you notice how every one of these things is exactly what Jesus has done?  In his earthly life he put his heavenly Father first all the time.  He carried his cross willingly.  He considered the high cost and still followed the plan to the T.  He left everything and everyone behind so that he would be the perfect Savior and substitute for us.

Just think, when he came down from heaven and was born in a barn, God was first.  As he submitted himself to his earthly parents, God was first.  When he was 12 in the temple, God was first.  As he began his ministry by being baptized by John, God was first.  Every day of his ministry carried out the will of God.  At one point Mary and his family showed up where Jesus was wanting to talk with him, but Jesus put God’s work first.  His love for God was always more than his love for his family.  That doesn’t mean he disowned his family or harbored ill will towards them at any time.

And then Jesus was willing to carry his cross.  He didn’t deserve that torture, but he carried it for us.  And when it came time to die, he didn’t back off but he went the whole way, even saying farewell to his earthly mother. Jesus didn’t let anything stop him.  He considered the high cost of your forgiveness. He saw the war with the devil, the world, and each of our sinful natures that only one could fight, and so Jesus went to war and won our victory.

Why did Jesus do it?  You were worth it to him. Jesus loved you and could not bear the thought of you flounder away thinking that your eternity, your salvation in heaven, was based on your discipleship.  It’s not.  Discipleship and salvation are two different things.  Never once in this section does Jesus say that discipleship will save you.  Discipleship can’t save you, because discipleship is all about your crosses and your sacrifices.  If your discipleship saved you then how would you ever know that you had done enough?  How would you ever know if the sacrifices you make would atone for all your sins?  You would go through this life with no peace and no joy.

But your salvation is no dependent on your crosses and your sacrifices.  Your salvation depends on Jesus’ cross and his sacrifice.  He does not let you down.  He didn’t skimp on anything for you.  He made every sacrifice.  He took the full weight of the cross.  He died for your sins and rose to prove that his work defeated all your enemies.  Jesus saves you.

No one can love you more than Christ Jesus. No one can love your spouse, your parents, and your kids more than Christ Jesus.  You know that’s true because as much as you care for them, you could never take away their sins.  You could never give them what Jesus has.

Jesus’ love, his willing sacrifice, is what changes the way we think of discipleship.  Instead of thinking that we have to make all sorts of unfair sacrifices in order to live with Jesus forever, we get to make these sacrifices so that we can understand his love for us more, so that we can have a deeper relationship with our eternal Savior, and so that we can love and serve those around us more.  We get to be disciples even though we could never live up to these requirements because Jesus met every one of them perfectly for us.

Doesn’t that make you want to live for him?  Doesn’t that make discipleship a joy and not a burden?  For Tim Tebow, his journey to the MLB is going to be grueling and it may not even pan out.  It’s going to take a heavy toll on his life.  It’s going to cost him.  And for what?  A few years of maybe making it to the big time and proving that he can hack it as a professional athlete.   But for him it’s worth it.  But you know, there’s something else about Tim Tebow.  He’s a follower of Jesus.  So, he understands that the biggest sacrifice was already made.  Jesus died for his sins….and yours and mine and the sins of the whole world.  He did that so you would never think that you have to earn his love by following him like this.  Jesus paid for you.  He washed you and purified you.  He made you God’s own child.  Now, he says, “Be my disciples.”  And no matter what the cost or the toll, it’s worth it for a Savior who loves you that much.

Amen.