9.17.17 Pentecost 13A


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.



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.