TURNING YOUR CONVERSATIONS

Walls torn down

Acts 17:16-33

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ r As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council.

 

 

A place where a ton of ideas about God and religion swirl around every day.  A place where idols are all over the place.  A place where some people spend a lot of time browsing through the latest ideas and popular trends.  A place where disputes among the “smart” people rage regularly.  A place where ones preaching about Jesus can get many differing reactions.  A place where people want to know what things mean.  Do you know what place I’m talking about?  Isn’t it obvious? The place is Athens back in the day of the Apostle Paul.

But doesn’t it also sound like it could be another place at another time?  Doesn’t it sound like this could be right near your home, your work, your school.  Absolutely!  This plays out on Facebook and Twitter every day.  It happens at your family get togethers, the grocery store, the weekend games, the mall, and so many others. This kind of thing is what you and I deal with every day here in 2018.

But this world will make it easy and even demand you to ignore it.  I was on the phone this week for over an hour trying to get an issue with my Microsoft Office 365 fixed.  The man on the other line was from India, literally he was talking with me at 11pm from the country of India, in some city I cannot pronounce that has over 12 million people.  His name was Srinivasan (and yes, it took me an embarrassing amount of attempt to get that right).  There was plenty of down time during our conversation because he was on the remote access to my computer uninstalling things and reinstalling others to make sure my Office 365 worked properly.  So, I was nosy and asked him a lot of personal questions, sports, food, schooling, relationship status – all the basics.    But when I got to religion Srinivasan politely answered my question but then told me that religion and politics are not allowed for these calls.

And that has a way of trickling down into our day to day lives, doesn’t it?  If you want to keep your friends, family, coworkers and everybody else happy, then these two highly-debated topics should come up seldom and when they do come up, try to be quick, discrete and considerate.  However, to be safe you should still avoid them at all costs.

If you avoid the topic of religion in your conversations with people that you care about and know well, you can probably guess what will happen in your conversations with people who you don’t know very well or at all.  You won’t be thinking of God’s Word, faith, or church much in those conversations either.  So, if you have regularly avoided the topics of religion, spiritual life, Jesus, and the Bible both with the people you know and those you don’t know in the past, what do you expect will happen now and in the future?  Are you able to just switch it on?

I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense.  Think of a kid who played soccer in middle school but then gives it up besides watching it here and there until he’s 33 and his kids want to learn.  He might be able to show some simple things like where to kick the ball on your foot and how to pass, but he won’t have much skill or experience.  I found this out first hand when we had our Bible soccer camp this past summer.  Sure I can kick a ball, but it might not go where I want it to all the time.  And I didn’t have any kind of footwork or dribbling or receiving skills.  I could play with the kids, but with soccer players my own age I wouldn’t be able to do much at all.

If that’s the way you are going to treat evangelism and sharing the good news of Jesus with others, then don’t expect to be all that comfortable talking about Jesus, about what he has done for you or about what the Bible says on key issues.  If your faith in Jesus is simply a Sunday thing, then what about the rest of the week?  How can you carry out God’s Great Commission for believers to go and make disciples, if you aren’t thinking and talking about Jesus and what he has done regularly?

I’ve done it.  I’ve skipped the chance to talk about my Savior.  I think it’s safe to assume that we all have.  Whether it was nerves, worry, doubt, fear, lack of skill, lack of knowledge, lack of love, it doesn’t matter.  It was wrong.

But I have a feeling that God might give you another chance. That coworker that complains too much might just be at it again on Monday.  That classmate who looks sad and alone will still be at school.  Your waitress if you go out this week might be new in town and trying to figure it all out.  You might run into a cousin who’s got some difficulties and stress building up.  The neighbor who is a little annoying might come by.  Someone who comes for our Trunk-or-Treat event might have some questions.  The chatty dad at swim lessons might pick the seat next to you.  You get the point. There are and will continue to be people around you who are just like the people at the Areopagus or the lady at the well.

It’s not like you have to come out and tell every single person that you run across in a day that Jesus is their Savior from sin and hell.  You could, God bless you, you could.  But I think it’s good to remember who you are when you are out and about with people.  You are a Paul. You are an Ezekiel.  You are a person who, at one point in life whether it was for a couple of days or decades, was against God.  Sin and unbelief are a real part of your past.  You were on the natural born path to hell, but God stepped in to remove your sin through faith in Jesus.  Jesus changed your heart with the power of the gospel in Word and Sacrament.  You were baptized, brought to faith, connected to Jesus and his eternal gift of life.  You were adopted by God into his family.  The Holy Spirit took up residence in your heart.  You were purchased by Jesus.  Faith took root and gave you a new home in heaven and a new outlook in this life.

When God did this for you with the power of the gospel, the faith he planted was not a 1/7 kind of faith.  What I mean is, faith was not planted in your heart so that you could think about it, talk about it, treasure it, confess it, share it only on Sundays.  It was planted there for 7 out of 7 days.  The God-given gift of faith is in your heart to be there for your entire life.

And that faith that God gave you is not the selfish type.  It’s not timid and lazy.  It’s not nervous and weak.  The same power of the gospel that changed your heart is at work to make you look and talk to others the way God looks and talks to you.

So how do you navigate in an environment where there are a ton of ideas about God and religion swirling around?  How can you boldly speak up about Jesus where idols are all over the place?  How can you bring up spiritual matters when they seem to get many differing reactions?

Look what Paul does. (quote a couple things from 22-31)

Paul is a Christian who walks through a city with Christian eyes, seeing that there are obviously some things that aren’t quite in line with God.  And yet, he doesn’t bash their superstitions and idolatry but uses them as a launching pad into evangelism.  He doesn’t say, “Well, you have your beliefs and I have mine.”  No, he uses their popular religious views, the words from their own poets, and the cultural philosophies to point to the truth of God.

Paul saw how people were creating their own ideas of God, distorting and distilling the Lord of heaven and earth down to the size their brains could handle. Instead of walking away from it, Paul uses a very logical progression.  It’s almost like he is saying, “If God is bigger than us and hard to figure out, then why would it work for us to turn God into something smaller than us that we can make?  That doesn’t make sense.  But what does make sense is that the God of everything wants people to believe in him.  And he even rose from the dead to prove how powerful, and how much he cares about you.”  Paul uses simple law that points out idolatry as sin.  Paul uses simple gospel that points to Jesus power over death for us.  He goes from what is common to us to describe what is unique about God.

And he doesn’t worry about the results.  Sure, some sneered at him, but others were interested.  And Paul didn’t let that stop him, because the power of God’s good news works.  We can’t control where and when – that’s up to God – but we can control our use of it.

Brothers and sisters, you can do the very same thing with the Christian eyes, heart, and life that God has given you.  You can see things from the spiritual, eternal perspective. You can use the love God has placed in your heart that is willing to help others.  You can use the Word God has given you in the Bible regularly.  You can speak to others using simple every day examples to turn conversations to what matters most.

So when the weather comes up, you can talk about the creator of the world and all its weather.  When negative news comes up again, you can bring up the one who gets rid of the negativity of sin and death.  When someone is going through a rough patch, you can identify with that, right? And then talk about the one who brings peace and joy.  When a storm rages and destroys some part of the country, you can talk about the only shelter you have from the storms.  When your sports team isn’t doing that great, you can talk about the victory Jesus has won.  And on and on.  Jesus is right there in any conversation because he is right there in your heart.

It doesn’t take a genius to do this.  Paul was no philosopher.  He had the gospel and he had God’s promise.  That’s what you have, too.  Amen.

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GOD’S HOUSE HAS NO WALLS

9.17.17 Pentecost 13A

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Ephesians 2:13-22

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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