A RICHES TO RAGS STORY

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Matthew 20

17 Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, 18 “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21 “What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

 

The story of Tom Canty is fascinating.  Tom grew up in a rough part of London called Offal Court, but he pined for something better.  He was poor and miserable, an unloved son of an abusive father.  One day, while daydreaming of a better life, he ends up outside the palace in Westminster. A palace guard does not approve of this beggar boy being up by the fence and begins to get rid of the boy.  But another boy from inside the palace fence named Edward stepped in to help Tom and invited him into the palace to play.  As Edward hears how terrible Tom’s life is, he feels sorry for him, but he’s also interested in what life might be like on the other side of the palace fences.  The boys exchange clothes to see what it’s like to walk around, literally, in each other’s shoes.  They notice how they look very similar.  They even have the same birthday.  After a while, they go back oustide still looking like the other.  When Edward, who’s dressed up as Tom, starts telling a guard what to do, the guard throws him out.  Tom winds up in the palace as the prince.  It’s a rags to riches story that never seemed possible.

That story is fiction, written by Mark Twain for his three girls.  However, it does accurately describe what is going on today in the Gospel.  The mother of James and John wanted her sons to have what Tom had.  They did not deserve a place of power.  They were sons of a fisherman from Galilee.  They weren’t headed for great things.  I’m not saying they had a bad family life or that they were miserably poor.  Scripture doesn’t tell us that.  I’m saying fisherman from Galilee don’t get to be rulers of a kingdom that often.  But that’s exactly what mom wanted for her boys.

There’s a part of that story we love.  We like the idea that a mother would go out of her way to try and help her boys.  We like the rags to riches stories.  Whether it’s an athlete who came from a rough childhood or a business mogul who built a huge corporation out of his garage, these stories inspire the masses.

But then there’s the other side of this mother’s request, the part that makes the other ten disciples indignant, really angry.  You can almost hear them say,  “What kind of question is that to ask Jesus?  Seriously James and John, you think you are better than us?  You think you deserve that much power?”  You think you can handle it?  How selfish can you and your mother be?”

That kind of self-centered view seems to describe a lot people.  We can see it all over in our world.  At work, at school, in Walmart, out to eat, on the news, in Hollywood – it’s not hard to notice how selfish people can be.  They want the world to revolve around them.  They only care about themselves and their future.  That’s all that matters.

In that story from Mark Twain, Tom Canty wanted more in life.  He only cared about changing his circumstances.  But this isn’t just something that affects characters in novels or people in our self-obsessed society.  This self-centered ideology is so natural for followers of Jesus, too.  Guess who James and John were?  Guess who their mom was?  They were devoted believers in Jesus. They gave up a lot to be followers of Jesus.  John is the one wrote 5 books of the New Testament under God’s verbal inspiration. We’re not talking about opponents of Jesus here.  And still, they were corrupted by their selfish desires for power.  That was one of the disciples’ ongoing discussions: who was the greatest.

And if you’re saying to yourself right now, “Well, I don’t think that way.  I don’t argue with people about who’s the greatest.  I don’t make the world revolve around me. I don’t ask for positions of power.”  Then I have to ask, you’ve never put yourself first, thought about your preferences over someone else’s, or wished people would treat you the way you wanted?  Or maybe put it this way: would you really want to be in Tom’s position?  Would you really want to be the one who has to give up so much while other people are prospering?  Jesus says “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave…”  Does a servant or slave really sound like a great life?  Would you really like being the doormat for people at work?  Would you really enjoy being the beggar?  NO!  I don’t think anyone of us would mind if life would go a little bit more according to my plan?  It would be nice to have a little more control.  Who would say no to a little switch like the one Tom Canty had in Mark Twain’s novel, instead of begging for money and food and going home to a terrible father, he was served hand and foot as prince of England.

It’s totally natural to think that would be great.  It’s totally natural for the mother of James and John to have a self-centered request for Jesus on behalf of her boys.  It’s totally natural for them to think that they can handle themselves on Jesus right and left.   We are naturally selfish, thinking that we are important and deserve good things.  We are born to care about our needs first.  And that kind of selfishness gets us nowhere with God.  In fact, that kind of selfishness originates in us because that’s exactly the way the devil thinks. He’s the one who tempted our great…grandparents, Adam and Eve, to think they were more important than God. When they gave in, they passed that selfishness down to every generation since. The rags to riches story is exciting and inspiring, but it naturally is just not possible for us.

Remember, however, that Mark Twain’s story is not just about Tom Canty.  It’s also about Edward Tudor, the real prince and son of Henry VIII.  See, he was thrown out of the castle.  At the time it seemed intriguing to him to see what London was really like.  He thought he could handle it, but when he was outside those walls, it wasn’t so great.  He met Tom’s terrible father and experienced the harsh reality of life without privilege.   He learned what it was like to serve rather than be served. He went from riches to rags.

There’s someone else who found out what that was like.  And he’s center stage in the Gospel for today.  Jesus was ruler over creation.  He sat on heaven’s throne, but he left that palace.  He wasn’t thrown out against his will like Edward.  He willingly came to the place of selfish sinners.  He put on our clothes.  He went from riches to rags.  He became lowly to the point of being beaten and mocked and killed as a criminal.

All of that wasn’t for an experiment to see what life was like here.  It wasn’t to set a humble and caring example to show us how to earn God’s love.  Jesus took our place to endure what we could not endure.  He suffered the punishment for sin so that we wouldn’t have to.  He gave his life as the full payment for our debts. The Son of God was not served, but he served us.  He was not treated the way he deserved, and he endured it to give us what we don’t deserve.  Our rags are taken away and replaced with his robes of righteousness.  We have free forgiveness because he served us with his suffering and death.

You know, eventually in Mark Twain’s novel, Edward got back to the castle to find that his father had died and Tom, who everyone thought was Edward, was now the king of England.  Well, (I’m summarizing a lot of this) Edward proved that he was actually the rightful king by providing the Great Seal of England.  Edward is restored to his position as king and he doesn’t punish Tom.  Instead, Edward gives Tom a new position as King’s Ward.  Tom is delighted to be in the King’s service.  And as a result of his time spent as a poor beggar, Edward rules England with more compassion and mercy.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus came back, too.  He went from riches to rags, but he didn’t stay in the rags.  He didn’t remain in the tomb.  He came back to life for us so that we would be helplessly lost.  He made everything right and took his rightful spot on the throne so that we would have a compassionate and merciful ruler for the rest of eternity.

And in his mercy, he gives us a position of service.  We get to be in witnesses of the King of kings.  We get to do helpful and beneficial tasks in service to the Savior of all.  We get to tell people how great Jesus is.  We get to tell people that he went from riches to rags and back again so that we could go from rags to riches.  We get to tell people that Jesus isn’t a mean judge, but a merciful ruler who saves his people from harm.  Every once in a while the work might get hard or even dangerous, but there is nothing to fear with Jesus as our Savior.  He has done away with anything that can hinder or destroy us.  He has freed us from all the selfishness that surrounds us.  He has given us a new way of looking at people, not as obstacles getting in the way of what I want but as souls for whom Christ died.

We get to be involved in this work as individuals and also as a church.  Jesus joins us together in this family of believers where not everyone has the same interests and abilities, but everyone has a job of service to the Savior.  The job is not to be like the mother of James and John, looking for the positions of power.  The job is to serve the Lord.  Maybe it’s with your voice, by singing praises beautifully or inviting those you know to worship or teaching children about their God or praying diligently for so many people.  Maybe it’s with your time to help plan and prioritize our ministry.  Maybe it’s with gifts that make projects and plans possible.  Maybe it’s with your hard work to help take care of our properties.  Maybe it’s with your cooking.

Every one of us has been put into the service of Jesus, because he first served us with his whole life, his suffering and death, and his resurrection.  Now, he rules for us so that we can serve him without fear.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus’ riches to rags story means we have a rags to riches story that never ends.  Amen.

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YOUR EYES ARE OPENED

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John 9

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”

But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

17 Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

34 …they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

39 Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

 

 

Darkness is dangerous.  Just the other night, the kids were asleep and everything was dark in the house when I was heading to bed.  You can probably guess what happened.  I walked down the hallway and crashed into a toy that was left out.  Luckily, the kids didn’t wake up.  But darkness can be dangerous.

And that is true psychologically or emotionally.  When there is no light, your mind can play tricks on you and give you that uneasy feeling.  When it’s dark, you don’t have certainty about your surroundings and it can cause your blood pressure to rise.  What’s that sound when you are camping?  I know a couple weeks ago when it was really windy, Issy was a little tense a bedtime when she asked, “What’s going on outside; what’s that noise?”  Darkness can be dangerous.

That is also the case spiritually.  When there is no light shining for your soul, what do you do?  Where do you find comfort and hope when the dark cloud of guilt is engulfing you?  What happens when the fog of sickness or loss rolls in and cuts out the bright rays of Jesus?  Darkness can be dangerous.

That’s why Jesus went to battle against darkness in this next field of battle.  It takes place on the Sabbath day in Jerusalem. Jesus is with his disciples and they come across a man who was born blind.  This wasn’t someone begging because they were foolish and loss everything because of poor investments or a gambling problem.  This isn’t a beggar because he is too lazy to work or because times are tough and he just can’t seem to get his feet firmly under him.  This is a man who was born to be a beggar.  There were no social services back then for the blind, no community homes.  If your family was gone, your best-case scenario was to find a friend who would lead you out to the roadside where you beg and hopefully you get enough money for food.

Nobody walked by that man without thinking, “He got a raw deal.”  And the popular idea of the day, even what rabbis were teaching, was that sin caused that kind of suffering.  The very logical question that the disciples had for Jesus is, “Who sinned? Was it something that this man did, even before he was born? (That was one of the real arguments that people made.)  Or was it something really bad that his parents did?”  The common misconception was all part of the self-righteous attitude of most religious teachers. “I am not blind, so that means there must be something better about me or something worse about that blind man that made God want to get even.”  It’s a misconception that naturally still comes up today.  When tragedy or heartaches comes into your life or someone close to you, we’re tempted to think God is getting even.

So it’s really important what Jesus says next.  “This isn’t about sin. This man didn’t sin in the womb and it wasn’t his parents either. This happened so the God can work in his life.”  Jesus says God doesn’t get even with people.  Bad things don’t happen to people because they have been bad.  Sometimes “bad” things happen so that the Lord can show his mercy.  Sometimes people have difficulties, really bad ones, so that God has a chance to show his gracious heart.  Jesus explains it kind of like this: sometimes there is darkness in this world that was ruined and covered with sin so that the Light of the world can shine with the only brightness there is.  Then Jesus shows them what kind of Light he is.

The next part sounds a little weird, where Jesus spits on the ground to make mud with his saliva and then puts it on the blind man’s eyelids telling him to wash in the Pool of Siloam.  And when the man listens to Jesus and does what he tells him, his eyes are opened.  Blindness doesn’t have a chance against Jesus. How amazing for a man who had never seen anything to open his eyes and see that water, the sky, people – to see everything like nothing had been wrong.  For decades he couldn’t see; he didn’t have a life.  Jesus changed all that, displaying the work of God in his life.

As amazing as this miracle is, it’s the rather simple miracle in this section.  How about the way this man reacts when he is brought to the Pharisees later to tell his side of the story?  He tells the truth, when it’s pretty clear the Pharisees were not big on Jesus.  Two different times he tells this hostile room that Jesus opened his eyes, that Jesus was a prophet, and that he wanted to learn more about Jesus.   God’s work was on display in his life.

When Jesus hears what had happened, he goes to find the man.  It probably wasn’t hard to find the guy who was wide-eyed and so excited about seeing such normal things.  Jesus gets right to the point and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man (the Messiah, God’s chosen one to bring the light of life to a world that is lost in darkness)?”  The man responds, “Who is he, sir?  Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

The Light of the world then shines for the man who was born in the dark.  Before this, the blind man didn’t see Jesus, but now that his eyes are working, Jesus says, “You have now seen him; in fact, the one speaking to you is he.”

Now, here is where the real miracle happens, in verse 38: Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.  It’s true that the work of God was done the day that man’s blind eyes saw their first views of this world.  But the real amazing miracle happened days later when his sin-blinded soul was given faith to see and believe his Lord and Savior.  That’s when those eyes didn’t just see a prophet or a traveling rabbi from Galilee but the Son of Man who was here to win the war against sin, death, and hell.

Now, it’s time to ask one of those important questions when reading the Bible: where do I see myself in this section?  It’s pretty clear.  I was born spiritually blind and so were you.  We were born not seeing Jesus.  We were born not knowing a thing about our Savior and what he has done.  And when you can’t see Jesus, then you don’t know God very well.  You’ll end up thinking he is the kind of God who tries to get even with people who are bad.  When you don’t see Jesus you may even think that you can make up your own god, and that everyone has the right to choose what they want their god to be.

If you don’t know Jesus, then you don’t know God, and if you don’t know God, you have no idea why you exist on this planet.  You have no idea how to handle guilt.  You have no idea what to do about death.  When you don’t know Jesus, it’s like you are walking around blind in this world.

It reminds me of a story I’ve heard before about 3 blind men.  A guide took them to experience an animal they had never known before. The first blind man was brought to the animal and he felt something that seemed like a big rope.  The next blind man was brought to the animal and he felt a snake like creature.  The final blind man was brought to the animal and he felt a big wall.  So, thee three blind men had three different views of the same animal.  The one said, “It’s like a rope.”  And the other two said, “You’re crazy.” The other said, “This animal is like a snake moving all around.”  And the final man said, “You’re both wrong, it’s like a big wall on tree trunks.”   They were all wrong.  The animal was an…elephant.  They couldn’t see the whole picture.  Each grasped on to what they experienced, but they couldn’t see the whole elephant, and so none of what they said was true.

That’s exactly what people in this world are like whose eyes have not been opened by the Light of the world.  They go around grasping for truth, grasping for knowledge, but they are like blind men touching parts of an elephant.  They don’t see the whole picture.  They can’t.

They try.  They try to come up with explanations.  They write books and blogs.  They teach seminars and classes.  They say life is about self-fulfillment.  They’ll say things like, “The point of suffering is to make you stronger.   When the going gets tough, the tough get going.  If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger.”  And like three blind men talking about an elephant, it’s all a bunch of nonsense because they can’t see the whole picture.  The answers that people come up with don’t begin to win in the battle against sin and evil.  They leave people in blind unbelief.  They can’t see.

But we can! God’s work through the Word and Sacraments opens our eyes.  The gospel light pierced the blindness of our hearts.  God’s grace makes us see our purpose in life plainly.  We get to walk the path of God.  We enthusiastically praise our God and Savior, just like the man did when Jesus opened his spiritually blind eyes.  We speak his name in worship, not just in this place but in our lives out there.  We don’t have to walk around in blindness anymore

So the question is, my brothers and sisters, the important question to think about is why in God’s green earth do we keep acting like we are still blind?  …We?  Would members of Our Saviour’s do that?  Would leaders and pastors do that?  Yeah…we do.

We are living in the dark when we think pain and suffering in my life isn’t fair.  We are living in the dark when service for Christ is a burden. We are living in the dark when worship interrupts my weekend plans.  We are living in the dark when the Christian life is carried out grudgingly.   We are living in the dark when we treat others as those Pharisees treated this man.

Do you know how Jesus dealt with our darkness, our blindness?  He loved you so much that he refused to let you stay in the darkness of unbelief.  He found you and me. He poured on us the water of life in baptism.  He opened your eyes so that you could see your Light.  Now he lets you see things for how they really are.

That’s why we can say things like, “I never would have seen how forgiving God is, but Jesus opened my eyes to see the love of the cross and the glory of the empty tomb.  I never would have made it through this rough patch, but Jesus opened my eyes to see how God’s power is made perfect in weakness.  I never would have known what a fulfilled life is, but Jesus opened my eyes to see the satisfaction of serving in ministry.  I never would have seen the blessings God gives in worship, but Jesus opened my eyes to see worship as the food my faith yearns for and the place where God keeps the blindfold of sin off my eyes.  I never would have seen the joy of the Christian life, but Jesus opened my eyes to see how following his ways is such a benefit to those around me.”

Jesus opened your eyes so that you see it all.  You see everything he has done for you and all that he continues to do for you.  You see that there is still daylight and the night hasn’t come yet, so you can shine with the light of Christ.

God grant it.  Amen.

 

THIRSTY?

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John 4

4 Now he had to go through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”

 

A battleground for water, does that sound familiar?  In North Dakota? Absolutely.  Today, that is exactly what God sets before us at this next stop in our Fields of Battle series.

Jesus is at a well in Samaria.  He’s tired and thirsty from traveling. Going north from Judea to Sychar is around 30 miles.  That’s not a one-day hike, and this is desert we’re talking about.  One thing you need in the desert while you’re on a journey is… water!  It makes sense that a very human and tired Jesus would stop at a well for a drink and some rest during lunch hour.

But not at this well. This well, Jacob’s well, is in the middle of Samaria.    Jews tried to avoid Samaria like the plague.  Jews do not associate with Samaritans, we’re told.  To say it plainly, Jews were racist against Samaritans.  They were half breeds, part Jew but part foreigner.  And this was unacceptable to Israelites, the pure descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They hated Samaria so much that they went around it while traveling north to Galilee.  So a man like Jesus, being from the clan of Judah, a descendant of King David, really wasn’t seen in Samaria all that often.  So this really isn’t the kind of place where Jews would be normally found.   

But that’s not what makes this a field of battle; it’s not the Jew vs. Samaritan fight.  The Savior of the world isn’t a racist. And it’s not a field of battle because Jesus runs into a woman who had such an “interesting” (immoral) past, someone who has different lifestyle choices than Jesus and different religious practices than Jesus.   No, this isn’t a field of battle for those things.  Jesus had to go through Samaria.  This is a field of battle because she’s a thirsty woman struggling unsuccessfully to quench her desire for peace.

Jesus is the one who asks for a drink, but it’s the woman who is really thirsty.  She thought her first husband was her soulmate. Maybe it wasn’t really love but passion and romance, or maybe he got abusive, maybe it was a mix and match of mistakes by both, maybe she was unfaithful.  Who knows the reason?  We know the outcome; it didn’t last.  She had that divorce on her record, and God hates divorce.  It ruins families and the fabric of society.  It draws dividing lines and makes more battles.

She thought the second man was better.  He wasn’t going to be like the first one, but maybe she rushed it.  The third one, maybe she took her time to find the kind of man her family would approve of.  It didn’t matter.  Who knows what it was for each failure?  But 5 marriages went down the drain.  And each time it made her realize just how thirsty for peace and fulfillment she was, and how it was always out of her grasp.  Sex, romance, companionship, family, those things can’t quench the heart that is thirsting for peace.

So she gave up on marriage and just started shacking up with another man.  If she couldn’t make a commitment work, then she would just do whatever she needed to get what she wanted.  But you know what? This woman was still thirsty. That’s why he had to be there in Samaria, where Jews just didn’t go.  He had this field of battle by a well, a battle of thirst, a battle of what the law does to us and what the promise does for us.

Do you know what that’s like?  Do you know what happens in the battle of the law vs. the promise?  Do you know what it’s like to make poor choices because you are thirsty for peace, thirsty for love, thirsty to fit in, thirsty for success, or thirsty for fulfillment?  Have you ever compromised on what God says because you were more interested in your own desires?  Like this woman, she had given up on marriage but she still wanted a man in her life.  Her own desires were more important than anything else.  Being thirsty can make a person do desperate things like that.

Now you haven’t gone through 5 marriages, but we sometimes make the same desperate compromises. What kinds of compromises are they?  “As long as I don’t live together with my boyfriend or girlfriend, we can do pretty much whatever we want, and no one will know.”  “I might have a foul mouth, but at least I don’t struggle with drinking or drugs.” Sometimes it gets a bit more desperate. “I’ll try anything to cover up my mistakes.  If I have to lie, I will.  If I have to drag others down, I will.  If I have to carry a heavy load of guilt, I have enough strength.”  Whatever it is, we try to find ways to quench our thirst.

But the law doesn’t allow that, does it?  The law never makes anyone – from a train wreck of a woman who had given up on marriage to people like us – the law never brings peace, fulfillment, or contentment.  The law makes our thirsty souls desperately aware of just how bad our condition is.  The law says you are just as immoral as this woman even if you haven’t sifted through men like her just by the kinds of thoughts you might have.  The law says your foul mouth makes you foul to God.  The law says you can’t hide mistakes with lies, cover ups, or ignorance.  The law says you are thirsty and the search for water is never-ending and never-satisfying.

Jesus wanted the woman to acknowledge this.  Do you see how Jesus whittles away to get to it?  First, he asks for a drink.  When she is confused that a Jewish man would ask a Samaritan woman, Jesus says, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”  He is trying to get her to see her thirsty situation.  But she doesn’t see it.  She only sees her own thoughts and desires.  Jesus says this physical water isn’t what you need.  You need living water.  She still doesn’t get it.  She thinks not having to make the trip to the well will help her.

So Jesus takes it a step farther. “Go, call your husband and come back.”  She responds trying to cover up her failures, but she doesn’t realize the stranger talking to her knows everything.  This is why he’s at the well.  As her Savior, he loves this woman and wants her to see just how thirsty she is.  And so he says something that hurts.  He lets her taste the truth.  Sometimes when you love someone, you have to hurt them to help them.  It’s like a spanking.  Or it’s like taking a teenager’s cell phone away.  You love your child so you do something that will hurt them now, knowing it helps in the long run.

But she is still trying to find answers to her questions.  All she cares about is herself.  And the law doesn’t help people who only care about themselves.  It continues to make them thirsty for more.  Now, the question isn’t about water or a well.  Now, that she thinks she is talking to a powerful prophet, she wants to ask about the right rules of worship.  “We like this mountain in Samaria where, back in the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they built altars here for worship, but Jews keep saying the only place to truly worship is in the Temple.”

That’s like the person who says, “I can worship on my own.”  Or the one who says, “I like to worship God by enjoying his creation.”  Or some who say, “The only thing the church cares about is money.”  Or there’s people who say, “I like God, the Bible, and all that, but I know it’s not that popular at school or at work.  I’ll just be a Sunday Christian and God will understand.” Anyone who talks this way is trying to quench their own desires.  They are fixated on themselves and their own rules.

And that doesn’t work.  Do you know what happens to people who try to make compromises on what God says?  Do you know what happens when we try to fit in with the world?  Do you know what happens when we try to quench our thirst in our own ways?  The law crushes us.

That’s where this woman is at.  When Jesus says, worship is not about the building or the place but worship is about truth and it is done in spirit (the truth of God in his Word and the spiritual faith in God’s promises), that’s where she finally reaches that critical point.  “Someone is coming.  He’s the Messiah.  He’s the one who has answers.  He’s the one who will quench my thirst.”

That’s why Jesus was at the well that day, for a battle of the law vs. the promise.  The law leaves people thirsty and dying.  The law exposes us to the point where we have nothing to hide and nowhere to go.  The only thing we can do is throw our hands up in anguish, saying, “Someone has to figure this out!  I’m lost.  I’m thirsty. I’m dying. Someone needs to save me from this.”

Jesus says, “I, the one speaking to you – I am he.”  He says he’s the one for the job to fix our thirsting soul’s problem, because he has living water.  It’s not the kind of water that quenches earthly thirsts – like people who are looking for peace on earth, success in their career, contentment in their family, fulfillment in their marriage.  He does give those blessings, but those blessings flow from the living water not the other way around.

The law makes us thirsty like this woman, and Jesus has a promise that quenches our spirit.  Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.  Jesus decided that he would do everything to make this water ours.  He would come here, he would make the full payment, and then he would distribute it without bias and favoritism but with love and compassion for all, even people like this woman, who live a thirsty life.  That is for whom Jesus came, the thirsty.

His promise is that his water will satisfy and sustain us not just for a lifetime but for eternity.  And he can make that promise, because his life didn’t end here on earth in a tomb.  He is the living one forever.  And so this water that he gives last just as long, for eternity.  Faith in Jesus will refresh our thirsty souls forever.

Jesus’ promise gives us this eternal faith.  And do you know where our faith is watered?  It’s not on a specific ancient mountain.  It’s not in a tabernacle, temple, or cathedral.  It’s here.  Here God has his truth for us.  Here we are in the presence of God.  That’s how we are starting each service during lent, with those words, “we have come into God’s presence.”  It’s not because of this building, it’s because God has his truth for us in his word.  With this truth, our faith is watered and will never be thirsty.  Our spirit will be with the Lord now and forever.

Jesus is here right now with us just like he was at the well.  He is quenching our thirsty souls with his living water.  Do you know what happens after Jesus tells the woman who he is?  The guy who wrote this down for us under inspiration from the Spirit happened to be there.  John was one of the disciples who had gone into Sychar to get food.  Well, he came back with the other disciples to eat with Jesus.  They saw this woman, and this is what John writes down, “leaving her water jar, the woman went back to town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.  Could this be the Messiah?’”

Jesus’ promise got to work in her right away.  His living water quenched her thirsty soul.  And the thing is when a thirsty person gets a drink, it changes things.  They aren’t thirsty anymore.  In fact, it can make such an impact that they tell other thirsty people where to get water.  If you have ever been thirsty on a hike, people will tell you where the water is.  That’s what this woman did.  And it didn’t take her time to get a degree or go through a seminar.  It was natural.  “My thirsty soul isn’t thirsty anymore, I can tell this to other people so they won’t be thirsty like I was.”

Brothers and sisters, if you are weary and worn down by life.  If your soul is thirsting for water, Jesus has a promise for you.  He has the living water that gets rid of your thirst forever.  You might know someone who needs some of his water.  Don’t be afraid to pass it on.  It’s a lifesaver.  Just ask that woman at the field of battle by the well.  Amen.

 

IN THE BATTLE OF GOOD VS. EVIL, TEMPTATIONS HAVE MET THEIR MATCH

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Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

              “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
                   and they will lift you up in their hands,
                   so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

 

History is full of fights.  Now, some of these are better than others.  What I mean is Coyote vs. Road Runner is not necessarily as important as The United States of America vs. England in the Revolutionary War.  Ali vs. Frazier might be a favorite of a boxing historian and Olympic fans might recall 1980 USA vs USSR hockey – the Miracle on Ice – but those fights don’t carry as much influence as the Axis vs. Allies in two World Wars.  We could bring up so many more; history is full of battles.

In our Sunday worship series during Lent (the next 6 weeks), we will see the epic war of good versus evil play out on many different fields of battle.  This is the one fight that means the most for us.  Today, God’s Word takes us out in the desert where the devil takes aim at Jesus.

Jesus had just been begun his public ministry. Before this, Jesus had been living in Nazareth where he was known as the carpenter’s son. But the time had come.  John the Baptist had paved the way.  Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan where God had announced to the people just who Jesus was.  And then, the first thing Jesus had to do was face the devil for forty days in the desert.

I remember when my public ministry started back in August , 2011.  If my first job was to go mano y mano with Satan himself for the first month, I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t be a pastor anymore.  But that’s where Jesus and I are different.  His job on earth was to face off against the devil every day.  He was here for battle, battle against our sin, battle against temptations, battle against our old evil foe. On top of that Jesus was God on earth.  If anyone could go toe to toe with the devil, it was Jesus.  But that didn’t make it easy for Jesus.  His fight wasn’t a walk in the park. Remember, he was God and also man.  Being on earth means that he gave up full use of his divine characteristics.  It meant he would face what we face.

The devil is cunning and crafty.  He knows how to bring the right kind of temptations at the right time.  When you are feeling healthy, comfortable and content the devil knows you aren’t desperate so he’s not going to tempt you with something simple like bread, although he can sure find ways to make even things look tempting when it isn’t needed, right?  But then there are times when we are starving spiritually, emotionally, even physically, and the devil knows what to do then, too.

That’s the first temptation we hear about in our lesson. “Hey Jesus, if you are the Son of God, you’re going to have to prove it.  Sure, the baptism was cool with the Holy Spirit as the dove and the heavens torn open with God’s voice of approval, but now you have to do something for me.  You’re hungry, so make these stones bread for yourself.” By the end of those 40 days, Jesus was hungry. Who wouldn’t be?  So notice how the devil made this temptation specific for Jesus at this specific time.  And it’s so reasonable: bread for a starving man.  What could be wrong with that?  But Jesus wasn’t sent here to do miracles for the devil.  The only reason Jesus did miracles was to help people and confirm his powerful saving message.  There was nothing he could do to help Satan.  Plus, Satan already knew who he was.  But that’s how he works; he’s tricky and opportunistic.

He knows how to do that against us, too.  He knows your weaknesses.  If your weakness is worry, then he’s going to find all sorts of things for you to fret about.  If your weakness is lust, there a plenty of tools at his disposal to stoke the fire.  If your weakness is anger, every day he will find something to ignite your temper. If your weakness is selfishness, he will find ways to make you feel more important than you actually are.  But these are not reasons to give in to him or to stop fighting against his temptations.  We can’t just say, “Well, it’s my weak spot, there’s nothing I can do about it.” Is that what faith in Jesus says? I just don’t think you’ll find anywhere in the Bible where God says, “Oh well, at least you tried.”

How about the second temptation? “Hey Jesus, I’m not sure about you. If you are God’s Son then God should keep his promises for you.  He’ll protect you against harm, right? Here’s a Bible passage to prove it. So jump, Jesus.  Take a leap of faith and let’s see what happens.”  In this fight, the devil knows your doubts and fears.  He will come convincing you that God doesn’t care about you, that he can’t seriously be listening to you all the time, that his power has a limit, or that he could never love someone like you.  The devil is even willing to twist Scripture.  He’ll question your footing on the rock-solid truth of God.  He’ll question everything God says to try to change your view.

Then there is the last temptation. “Hey Jesus, you are a powerful person.  You should have power here in this world. Bow down to me just once and I will make it happen.”  During our battles, the devil knows your desires, too.  He knows the things you want – even the good, God-pleasing desires.  The thought that Jesus should rule the world is not a bad thing.  Jesus had every right to rule the earth as King of kings.  He made the world, after all. There’s nothing wrong with Jesus ruling.  But to receive the throne by worshiping Satan?  No way!

Sin has a way of warping the good desires we have.  Yes, it is good to be happy.  Yes, it is good to be fulfilled and content.  Yes, you should enjoy this life that God has given you.  Those are good desires.  It’s just that sin and temptations want you to arrive there by taking the wrong route.  Happiness is not found in a bottle or in shopping mall.  You don’t find fulfillment by breaking your marriage vow. You can’t find contentment by filling your bank account.  And no matter what you think, this world is not a personal amusement park for you and your toys.

But that’s what Satan wants us to think. And to get us thinking this way, he makes promises that he cannot deliver. Because as soon as we give into sin – every time – we see how we have lost the fight against the devil.  We realize that he is lying.  The bottle doesn’t bring happiness, just the sad reality that you have found a new master for your life. Breaking your marriage vow doesn’t bring fulfillment but leads to empty hearts and empty homes.  A bursting bank account doesn’t bring contentment but creates more cravings that can never be satisfied.  Thinking that this world is a great place for me and my toys directs us away from the joys of heaven.

The devil makes these promises, and he cannot deliver them.  Did you notice how he does that to Jesus? He speaks as if he is the owner of all the kingdoms of the world? “All this I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.”  No, that wasn’t true. And all too often, we find out that his half-truths are empty and destructive.

Satan is fighting hard against Jesus here, and he fights hard against every one of us.  I think we all realize that the battle we have against Satan often doesn’t happen the way it should. I’m not sure we always put up much of a fight against the devil and his temptations. Sadly, rather than fighting off temptations, we give in.  And we may even start to like some of them.

Today, I would love to give you a guidebook on how to get the devil out of your life.  I’d love to have a booklet that you can pick up after church giving you the 7 steps for fighting off temptations. But I don’t have that.  I don’t have a promise for you that if you just believe enough, pray enough, and do enough good you will be able to fight off all the devil’s temptations.  I don’t have a guidebook, a self-help manual, or an empty promise for you.

I have something better.  I have someONE better. He’s able to keep every commandment and fend off every temptation. He’s the one who came to fight our battles against sin.  He has the love and the power to save you.

There was a time when our perfect life and perfect relationship with God was lost because a man and his wife lost the battle against Satan.  They ate what the devil wanted them to eat.  But this time it was different.  Jesus didn’t give in.  He used the Word. “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God.” That was the first shot in the historic battle against the devil.  Jesus was here to change things.  He was not going to give in.  Jesus was here to rescue the lost and bring life to this place of death.

When the second temptation came, the devil tried to use God’s Word against him. Jesus said you can quote Scripture all you want, but you can’t change what it means or twist what God says.  Jesus made it known that he would follow God’s plan to the end and he would follow it perfectly.

When the third temptation came, Jesus knew that Satan was making an empty promise. Jesus was going to sit on the throne and rule all things, but it wouldn’t happen because of an unholy alliance with the devil.  He would take his rightful spot after he finished his work on the cross and rose triumphantly from the grave.  Jesus said, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”  That is the place where a Christian has power and peace, in the Lord’s presence in his house.

These were the first shots that Jesus took in this historic battle to prove the devil wrong.  He came to do what we couldn’t do.  Jesus came to be what we couldn’t be.  And God says the Jesus did it all in our place.  The victory that Jesus won against the devil that day, God gives it to you.  You can fight all your temptations knowing the Jesus fought them for you.

But the war wasn’t over on that day.  There is more to come as we look at different fields of battle, but we know who is fighting.  Jesus Christ is God in flesh.  He is the Savior and substitute.  He is the one that the devil fears.

With that kind of Savior doesn’t that change the way you fight against temptations.  Knowing that your Savior fought that battle, doesn’t it help?  But he didn’t just fight that day in the desert, he won!  And it wasn’t just one battle that he fought, he fought them all, and he won!  All the times when the devil’s temptations took advantage of weaknesses, all the times when you doubted God’s power, all the times your desires were used against you – for all your sin, Jesus’ victory over the devil was given to you.

Today, we see Jesus at war against the devil and his temptations. We see the battle of good vs. evil, and temptations have met their match.  That’s not just true for Jesus.  It’s true for you.  Jesus went to war against the devil’s temptations as your perfect Savior.  Jesus went to war for your forgiveness. And he won!  He’s the strength and courage you need in your battles, and he’s always with you.

Amen.

 

GLORY THAT NEVER ENDS

sermon-on-the-mount

(This week, Jesus’ sermon is not so much in the form of his words, but from his appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration and from the Father’s lips.  As we finish the season of Epiphany and get ready for Lent, we get a glimpse of God’s glory in the person of Jesus.  Only a man with power from heaven could save us.  He gives us the message we need from this mountain: God is here to give his people salvation that came from heaven and provides an eternal home for us.  Listen to him and you will not be disappointed.)

Matthew 17:1-9

1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

 

It’s all about the glory.  That’s how a lot of these competition shows work.  I’m no expert, but I think most of the intrigue is wrapped up in the glory.  Who’s going to be left standing at the end of the episode?  Who’s going to have the best voice?  Who lost the most weight?  Who will she choose?

I think they’re all a bunch of nonsense, because there’s one huge flaw: what happens after the glorious reveal?  What happens when it’s all done? After fighting over one man and doing anything, and I mean anything, to get him, the Bachelor never has love.  What he has is someone who won a competition.  He doesn’t have someone who will get a bucket for him when he is sick or make his favorite meal once a month.  After the dress is picked and the wedding day comes, then where does this fancy and pricy dress go?  I know in my house it sits in a box in the back of a closet.  When all the pounds are shed, then what happens?  This person who just lost 200 pounds is out of the spotlight.  There’s really no glory in maintaining a diet and exercise plan.  No one watches that show.

The glorious moments on TV are just that, a few fleeting moments.  The glory fades and life gets back to normal. Do you think that is how Peter, James, and John felt as they walked down the mountain?

They had seen his miracles before.  They all knew who Jesus was.  He was God’s chosen one.  He was the Savior of the world.  But they had never seen Jesus glorified like this.  Even during all the big moments of Jesus’ life, he didn’t morph like this.  Sure there were angels singing at his birth, but he was actually quite a normal baby lying in the manger.  The people of Nazareth saw a little boy grow up like little boys normally do (except without any of the mischief).   The miracles were certainly out of this world, but at those times Jesus didn’t change.  He changed the lives of other people with his divine power, but his appearance never resembled God on earth… until now.

Peter, James, and John witnessed something that wasn’t even a little bit normal.  We say that a bride shines on her wedding day. We use the expression that expectant mother glimmers during pregnancy. When a child is born with an elevated bilirubin count (that’s called jaundice) we might talk about the orange glow.  Those things aren’t really happening; it’s a metaphor.  But on this day, it did happen.  Jesus’ face actually lit up like that big ball of hot mass that we wish would make it warmer right now.  His shining face and clothing brought grown men shaking to their knees.

And then, Moses and Elijah showed up, too.  Moses and Elijah both had their own glorious moments.  We heard about Moses on Mount Sinai today.  He witnessed the glory of God as he received the Ten Commandments. God’s prophet, Elijah, saw God’s power on Mount Carmel, when fire from heaven consumed his burnt offering.  Elijah saw God’s glory when the fiery chariots took him from this earth.

These two didn’t show up to give Jesus a pep talk, but it was all a part of the glory that Jesus was given.  Moses is the one who was given the Law.  Elijah is one of the most powerful prophets of the Bible.  Do you see what’s going on here?  Jesus’ eternal identity is revealed in all its glory.  He is the Almighty God.  But along with his power, Jesus is also the one who fulfills all of the Old Testament laws and prophets.

On the top of that mountain, God shows us what kind of Savior he sent to us.  Can you blame Peter for saying, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one fore Moses, and one for Elijah”?  I would want to stay in that moment as well.  But they didn’t.  After this gush of glory, after seeing Moses and Elijah, and after hearing God voice his love and approval of the work Jesus was doing, everything went back to normal.  The glory and the grandeur, the big reveal was done.

Do you ever feel that way?  You know, like those shows on TV.  The glorious reveal is exciting and uplifting, but then it doesn’t last.  Do you feel like the disciples walking down from the mountain, just wishing you could stay longer and get another glimpse?

Let me tell you what I’m talking about.  Life as a Christian starts out great.  Whether it happened when we were baptized as a baby or, for some, when a friend, spouse, or neighbor introduced you to the God who saved you.  God’s glory was bursting as he opened up our hearts and minds to a love that we didn’t think was possible. God’s Spirit planted faith in each of our hearts.  We were changed from darkness to light.  We learned things about our God and our Savior that opened up a completely new life for us – a life that isn’t about rules or opinions or making up for past mistakes, but a life of grace, good news and forgiveness.

But then the glory of it all started to fade.  It happens after confirmation, as if studying God’s Word regularly is only for kids. It happens when life gets really challenging at the loss of a job or a loved one.  It happens when friends and family start to make you the butt of their jokes.  It happens when rumors start to tear God’s family apart.  It happens when temptations come at a fever pace. It happens when guilt keeps you up at night.  It happens whenever we fail to regularly see and hear what great things our Lord has done.

Getting farther and farther away from the glory of the Lord, we become convinced that it is less and less exciting to be a part of God’s family.  Like defiant children we start to plow our own path beyond where we should be.  We start to find more acceptable or more pleasurable avenues. The wonder of the Christian life fades.  We start to say things like, “Lord, maybe it isn’t so nice to be here.”

Today, Jesus clears up some of those misconceptions about the glory of being his follower.  And it happens after his glorious reveal.  While the four of them are coming down the mountain, Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”  Jesus isn’t being selfish here.  He’s not the type of guy to keep good news to himself.  What he is doing is telling us that his job isn’t finished.  You see, God’s plan isn’t about earthly glory.  Sure it would be nice to have a fatter bank account and a life filled with earthly honors, but God doesn’t need you to have those things now because he has something better waiting for you. Jesus came down from that mount because there was something more important than earthly glory and power.  Jesus had to finish his work.  That’s what made him leave the glory and power of heaven and live in a place that was lacking it.  God loved you so much that he set aside glory and power so that your eternity could be filled with it.

Today as we have a brief glimpse of the power and glory of God and hear his voice boom from the clouds, we get a preview of what’s coming.  We get a preview of what Jesus has won for us.  And he didn’t do his saving work with power and glory.  He did it with the most brilliant display of love and humility.  Just think of his betrayal, his anguish, his arrest, his “trial,” how he was used as a punching bag, how he was stripped of his dignity.  Think of his physical pain and suffering, and then think of his mental pain and suffering as his Father abandoned him to suffer for the sins of the world.

You and I are allowed to witness Jesus’ glorious reveal along with those disciples because God wants us to know that Jesus is the right one for the job.  What’s the job?  It’s not bringing you glory and power for your lives on earth.  Jesus’ job wasn’t to make people afraid of God’s power.  Jesus’ job was to save you from darkness of your sin.  Jesus’ job was to remove your guilt forever.  Jesus’ job was to restore our broken relationship with God.  Jesus’ job was to give us a home in heaven.

Did you remember those words Jesus uses? “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”  Unlike the participants in those TV shows, who have to keep the results quiet until the show airs and unlike the disciples who had to keep this transfiguration silent for a while, we get to speak up because we know what happens.  We know that Jesus’ work didn’t end with suffering and death.  It ended in life.  He rose from the dead.  We are about to start that journey this week as we walk with Jesus down from this mountain to Mt. Calvary.  But let’s never forget that his journey ends at the empty tomb.

So take note of what’s going on today.  Pay attention to the sights and sounds.  God has a message about Jesus for us, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”  Listen and learn from Jesus over the next 6 weeks during Lent.  We are going to see him do things for us that no one else can do.  And don’t worry about your problems and guilt.  Jesus calmly reassures us, “Don’t be afraid.” This is not like one of those garbage shows on TV, where the glory wears off in the weeks and months that follow.  This is God showing us the glory of our Lord Jesus.  He is your God and your Savior.  And always will be.

This is the kind of show that will never get old.  Yes, Lord, it is good for us to be here. Amen.

 

Is Christianity Broken?

sermon-on-the-mount

Matthew 5:38-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

Love is in the air.  You felt it this past Tuesday, right?  That’s the day we’re all supposed to acknowledge people we love with gifts, cards, and flowers, and the people who love you do the same.  Now, it’s not a good idea to keep this kind of thing hidden until February 14.  That’s not what love does.  When you love someone you find ways to show them that fact every day.  Love isn’t butterflies in your stomach, that’s nerves.  Love isn’t that feeling of walking on the clouds, that’s infatuation or fixation.   Love is giving your time to make a meal and clean up so that your wife doesn’t have to.  Love is taking him out to get a grill or a new hunting accessory.  It’s giving your wife some time away from the kids.  It’s letting your husband go to the game or on the fishing trip.  It’s cleaning up your room before your parents ask.  It’s being honest and helpful. It’s letting your little brother have the last scoop of ice cream.  It’s all that kind of stuff that you do for someone you care about, not really looking for something in return.  That’s what love does.

And this kind of love is not only key for a marriage and in a family, but also for Christians and a congregation.  God has so much to say about love in the Bible and most of the time it is not in the context of a marriage.  Most of the time, he is telling us how we can care about our brothers and sisters in the faith.

But today, Jesus takes it even a step farther than that. “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”  He says love is also for people that don’t love you back.  He says love is for your enemies. This isn’t the kind of person that annoys you at work. This is the kind of person who lies about you, trying to ruin your career.  Jesus isn’t talking about the quiet outsider but the loudmouth protester who’s trying to wreak havoc. This isn’t the talkative kid who sits behind you at school. This is the bully who keeps verbally and physically putting the hurt on you.

What do you want to do to people like that?  The natuarl human reaction is…to get even, or worse! Just look at kids.  When a brother steals his sister’s toy, she gets mad and takes it back with a little shove.  Then, the brother trips her.  Then, world war III breaks out.  To keep that natural reaction in check, God gave civil laws to his people in the days of Moses so that people wouldn’t go crazy with retaliation.  The civil government would levy just and appropriate punishments.  If someone’s eye got hurt by another person it wasn’t the death penalty.

Jesus recalls that rule. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  Jesus is not saying that you can’t defend yourself from an attack to your home or family.  He’s not saying that you must be a scrawny passivist with no gumpiton.  Jesus is saying that for his people there is something much more important than your idea of personal justice.

Listen to his next example. “And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” The tunic was the shirt, the garment right next to your body and the cloak was the outer garment. Of the two, the cloak was more expensive and more important. In the Old Testament, God made a special point to say that if you were borrowing a cloak you had to return it by sunset so that the owner could have it for sleeping.  Jesus is saying here that if someone is suing you for “the shirt of your back,” then give them your more expensive and most important garments, too.

Is Jesus saying this is what your enemies deserve?  Not at all! Really Jesus is saying there is something more important than your personal rights and feelings.  Jesus wants our primary concern directed to others, not just the people who care about you but also those who are mean to you or who are trying to take advantage of you.

Jesus loves being really clear for us, so here’s another example: “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Maybe your dad used that experession, “Go the extra mile.”  Mine did. This is where we get that from.  Here’s the background to that phrase.  In Jesus’ day, Palestine was under Roman rule. There were Roman soldiers there to keep the peace, which the Jews weren’t thrilled about.  Romans soldiers were permited by law to compel civilians to carry their baggage for one mile.  How do you think Jews felt about such a rule?  They hated it.  And you would, too.

Let’s just say we live in a country that is under the rule of another nation.  You’re driving down the expressway and a soldier of that foreign nation can stop you, put his bags in your trunk and tell you a new direction.  And you have to do it!  How would you feel about such a rule?  You’d hate it.  And you wouldn’t be so fond of the soldiers either. Even if it was legal, it doesn’t seem fair.

Jesus says, “Don’t just do what is expected, but go beyond what is asked of you. And do this for people who you don’t care for.” Why is this something that Jesus wants us to do?  Well, he says there is something more important than your idea of fairness.

What’s more important than your personal justice, what’s more important that your personal rights and feelings, what’s more important that your personal idea of fairness?  Jesus tells you.  It’s love.  Jesus says his people will sacrifice our own personal feelings, attitudes, and even our personal possessions in the name of love, because love is more important.  Demonstrating Christ-like love to another person is more important, even if that person is your worst enemy.

Is that how you live?  Is that what you teach your children, not just with your words but also with your example?  Is that what Christianity is known for?  Are we known for how much we love people?  Are we known for how much we will sacrifice for others who might even hate us?

Reading this section from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount made me ask a few times this week: is Christianity broken?  Because for a lot of people,  the answer is “Yes.” Christianity is not the answer but a problem.  You may know people personally that think Christianity is not doing anyone any good.  Churches are filled with hypocrites who learn about love and peace and serving others, but refuse to practice it.  Churches that preach Christ don’t follow his example.  Christianity just gives people a superiority complex and a license to do whatever they want, because God’s always going to forgive.

Is that the message you are sending? Are you failing to give up your own desires, opinions and preferences for the sake of others?  Are you too interested in your comfort zone and the way you like things to show love to people who need it?  Are we willing to love people with the kind of love Jesus is teaching us?

You know, this is a section of Scripture that can be down right offensive to us.  “Lord, I’m trying.  I come to worship.  I give offerings.  I help out for different church things.  I wear a smile on my face.  I try to be as positive as possible.  But ‘Love my enemies.’  I just can’t.  They have hurt me too much.  I don’t want to have anything to do with them.  It’s not going to work.  They’ll never change.”  If you have ever had those thoughts, then do you know what you are doing?  You are saying, “Thanks, Jesus, but no thanks.  I love what the Bible says, but not this part of it.”  And do you know what God says to people who treat his Word like that? “If anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city…”  If you can’t be perfect, if you can’t love your enemies like Jesus teaches here, then you don’t get to live with a perfect God in his perfect home.

Who can?  Who can do this?  Who in this world can love people, even enemies all the time?  Who can prove that Christianity is not broken?  I have to admit today, I can’t.  You can’t.  Not one person in the world can have this kind of love perfectly.  Not one person can hold up themselves or their church and say, “I’m not broken.  I’ve got it right.”

But listen to this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”   Did you hear that?  God causes the sun to rise on good and evil people.  He sends rain for his believers and unbelievers.  God says the only person who can have this perfect love for enemies is him.

So God decided to come here for people who were not on his side.  God came down to live in a place filled with evil people.  And he showed them love.  When he was rejected by so many, he did not give up.  When plans were made to get rid of him, he did not stay away.  When he was arrested, he didn’t argue.  When he was on trial he spoke the truth in love. When he was mocked, spit on, and beaten, he turned the other cheek.  When he was crucified, he prayed for them.  When our sins caused all of this to happen, Christ willingly and lovingly decided to take it all for us so that we would never face the punishment we deserve.

Christ did this for us while we were sinful and evil opponents to God.  He died for us.  The Spirit washed our sins in the blood of Christ with the water of Baptism when we were still hostile to God.  God loved you, even when you were not lovable so that you would be a child of the Father in heaven.

Is Christianity broken?  Not a chance with Christ at the center.  When Christianity starts to be about me and my feelings and my preferences, it’s doomed.  But when Christianity is about the love of Christ, when it’s about showing others the sacrifice that Christ made, when it’s about the home Christ has won for sinners, then nothing can stop it.

Brothers and sisters, you have a God who loved you and made you his very own when you weren’t on his side.  Now that he has brought you in and made you his child, what does that do to you?  It makes you live every day for him.  It makes his love show up in your life.

A really nasty coworker, protestors with different political viewpoints, bullies at school, and every other enemy there may be has a God who loves them, has a Savior who died for them, and has a Christian just like you who cares for them.  That is what God’s love has done to you.  He has made you like his Son.  He has filled you with his love that is not partial or restricted, but it’s for all.  It’s that kind of love that puts others first because Christ put us first.  Last week was about showing love to those you care about and the people who love you.  Now, Jesus gives us a different focus with our love, to those who don’t care so much for you.  And you can do it because God’s love fills you and then it works through you.

God grant it.  Amen.

 

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

sermon-on-the-mount

Matthew 5

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Adultery
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Divorce
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

Oaths
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Last week Jesus preached a portion of his Sermon on the Mount, telling us to be who we are.  He said God has made us to be salt in a rotting world.  That means he uses us in the preservation process until Jesus comes back at the end of time.  We preserve this world not with great acts of ingenuity nor with promoting individualism but by listening to Jesus’ word and following his example. He said God has made us light to shine in the darkness of sin and unbelief.  We shine with the light of the gospel not to bring attention to ourselves but so that God is glorified and others see the eternal light that Jesus has provided for us.

In summary, we could say that Jesus’ sermon last week was an encouragement to Christians.  He said if you are a child of God, then live like it.  Be who you are so that others can see it.  Again, that encouragement is not to show us how to earn a place in heaven.  Instead, Jesus is telling us that when a loving God chooses to bring you into his family that changes how you live.  God gives you the power and purpose to be salt and light in a rotting, dark world.

Jesus finished up that portion of his sermon last week by saying, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”   The disciples and followers that Jesus was preaching to knew all about the Pharisees and their extreme devotion to obeying the Book of the Law.  Pharisees were so religious about all of God’s Old Testament Law that they even made up more rules and regulations just to be safe.  But that kind of righteousness is still missing something isn’t it?  Even with their strict obedience, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were still not completely right to God.

That’s why Jesus continues his sermon with these next few sections recorded in Matthew 5. When someone thinks getting into the kingdom of heaven is about following God’s laws, then Jesus says you’d better know what all of God’s laws are…and there’s still more to it than that!  It’s not enough to simply obey God’s laws.

Jesus gives us a few examples of that.  He starts off with the 5th Commandment, murder.  Obeying the 5th Commandment means that you will not kill anyone ever.  That seems reasonable.  God wants us to value human life. He wants us to treat it like the gift it is.  And I think we all get that.  Murder is not good. So we don’t do it.  That is obeying the 5th Commandment.

But Jesus says it goes beyond that.  If God wants us to value human life, then the 5th Commandment doesn’t just deal with taking a life, but the 5th Commandment also deals with how we talk about and what we think about human life.  If you are mad at someone, if you hold a grudge against someone, if you say something with anger in your heart, if you call people hurtful names, all of this is breaking the 5th Commandment, too.

Do you see what’s going on here?  Jesus is getting to the heart of the matter.  He wants us to understand that the law is about a lot more than our actions.  That is all the Pharisees cared about.  They wanted to be seen as the moral, upright citizens who were so good at living according to God’s laws.  But they forgot one thing about God, he sees the heart.  And from these religious leaders who were so conscientious about their actions, Jesus saw hearts that were full of the wrong kind of righteousness: self-righteousness.  That means they did not receive righteousness from God as a gift of his grace, but they were trying to get it from themselves, which is really no righteousness at all.

Let me say that another way.  They thought being seen as moral and upright religious people was going to earn themselves a place in God’s kingdom.  So they neglected and ignored God’s promises and paid all their attention to his laws.  The problem with that is it ignores the heart of the matter.

You obey the 5th Commandment by not killing another person.  But you break the 5th Commandment by trying to hurt someone, by saying hateful things to another person or about another person, or by being angry with another person.  The heart matters just as much as the words that come from your lips and the work that comes from your hands.

And the same thing is true for the 6th Commandment, adultery.  You can try to say that you have never had sex with someone other than your spouse.  You can try to plead your case, saying, “I never had sex before I was married.”  But what have your eyes seen?  What has your heart felt?  If you have used the internet for impure purposes, then Jesus has a title for you: adulterer.  If you have thought of someone in an impure way, adulterer.  If someone treats marriage like it’s not a full-time loving commitment between a man and a woman for life, if someone ends a marriage because they just don’t have the passion anymore or they are giving up on their spouse, then Jesus says that leads to adultery.

Finally, in this section, Jesus brings up the way you talk.  He says during your conversations, do not say things like, “I swear by heaven that it’s true.”  And really his point is don’t color your conversations with any improper language.  “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ No.”  And if you struggle with that, Jesus says it’s like the devil is inside you speaking for you.

Now, to a lot of people this doesn’t make any sense.  It’s even offensive to our human nature to think that if I harbor anger in my heart it’s the same as murder.  No one who is angry will get sentenced to life in prison.  It’s so contrary to popular opinion to say that looking at porn is the same as sleeping around.  In the eyes of the world, just because someone is vulgar doesn’t mean they are from the devil.

But for the God of all creation, he sees the heart of the matter.  He sees sin and it doesn’t matter to him if the sin is an action, a word, a thought, or an attitude.  Sin is sin and it’s unacceptable.  Sin is sin and it’s damnable. Living like the Pharisees, with a really good outward appearance, cannot get you to heaven. A good outward façade cannot change the condition of your heart.

But I know someone who can.  I know someone who can change the heart of the matter.  I know someone who can obey the 5th Commandment.  He didn’t murder.  He didn’t hate or hurt.  He didn’t call people names.  He didn’t hold grudges.  I know someone who obeyed the 6th Commandment perfectly.  He lived a pure life.  His eyes never wandered.  His heart never lusted. He never gave in to passion or pleasure.  I know someone who kept his conversations pure and decent.  He didn’t think the colorful language was necessary.  And he did all of that for you.

Jesus came here not just to preach a good message, but to live it, too.  He had to because God knew that we could never earn righteousness for ourselves; it would have to be a gift of his grace.  God knew that our hearts would never be made pure by ourselves so he would do it for us. And so Jesus came to be the perfect Savior and substitute for us.  His perfect life gets to the heart of the matter.  His perfect life gives us the kind of righteousness we need.  And on the cross, he willingly handed it over.  He gave his perfect life as the sacrifice for our sins.  The perfect and innocent Son of God gave up his life for sinful and guilty people like us.  Jesus removed the broken pieces of the 5th Commandment, 6th Commandment, and all of God’s laws, and replaced them with the pure and perfect life that God expects from his children.

By faith in Jesus we have been purified.  And do you know what pure people do?  They don’t sin.  They don’t do sinful actions.  They don’t say sinful words. They don’t think sinful thoughts.  They don’t have sinful attitudes.

It’s hard to think that way, I know.  It’s hard to look at my life that is tainted by sin as pure and holy. But, brothers and sisters, if the perfect Savior has removed sins against the 5th Commandment, 6th Commandment, and all of God’s laws, if he has made us pure with his righteousness, then that’s the way God sees us.  He sees his own children who have been washed clean in baptism.  He sees a soul where the Holy Spirit has taken up residence and continues to keep us in faith.    That’s the heart of the matter.

With that kind of heart, do you know what kind of thoughts, words, and actions are going to follow? Good ones, holy ones, and God-pleasing ones.  The Pharisees had it backwards.  They thought their top-notch obedience would work its way to righteousness in God’s eyes.  But they didn’t see the heart of the matter.  Only a heart that has been cleansed by the blood of Jesus, only a heart that clings to the cross of Jesus, and only a heart that listens to Jesus can live for God.

So that’s what you will do.  You will live a holy life because God has made you holy.  It’s his power, it’s his grace, and it’s his holiness.  That is the heart of the matter.

Amen.