A BIGGER PERSPECTIVE

10.22.17 Week 4

STILL

Genesis 15:1-6

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield, 
your very great reward.”

2 But Abram said, “Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

 

Last Sunday was a great day.  God’s grace was on display as we talked about this key concept of Grace Alone.  God makes a bold promise to us that salvation, righteousness, and heaven are not based on who we are or what we do but on who he is and what he does for us.  God’s grace was on display when I poured a little simple water and spoke God’s powerful Word on my son.  God’s grace was present along with the body and blood of our Lord in the miraculous meal we call the Lord’s Supper.  Mandy’s parents were here (there’s a pretty amazing story on how that almost didn’t happen).  My parents were here.  After church and Bible study was the 12 o’ clock football game, Packers vs. Vikings.  The Packers were heavily favored to win and take a pretty good lead in the North division.  Then, the game took a turn when Aaron Rodgers broke a collar bone.  It was just that one player in one game, but in that moment, it felt like a dark cloud descended on the Packers’ whole season.  For Packers fans it’s a devastating loss.

But what if we aren’t talking about Aaron Rodgers, the Packers, or football?  What if it’s life that seems to be overcast by bad moments, bad decisions, bad losses?  Does that happen to you?  Do you ever get blindsided by something that seems to bring a dark cloud over everything?  Do you ever lose sight of what God has done, what he is doing, and what he will do for you?

When we see Abram today, he should have been enjoying this amazing moment in his life.  He had just completed a covert mission that Hollywood would make a movie about.  War had come to the Jordan River valley.  King Kedorlaomer and his allies swooped in on the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and sacked their towns.  They took everything: the goods, the animals, and the people.  Among the plunder was Abram’s nephew Lot and his family.  They were carried off as the plunder of war.

One escaped and reported back to Abram the Hebrew.  And he leaped into action with 318 trained men from just his household.  To have that many in his compound tells you that Abram was a powerful and wealthy man in the region.  He gets together his men and 3 of his allies and heads off in pursuit.  He chased down this victorious army and in the middle of the night God gave him an amazing victory.  Abram recovered everything.  He brought everyone back safe and sound.  And when he was offered a hefty reward, he turned it down because it was all in the Lord’s hands.

That’s when you cue the triumphant music, fade out to show all the rejoicing, and roll the credits, right?  That’s what “after this…” refers to.  Abram had been following God.  He enjoyed so many great blessings from the Lord along the way.  Abram should be at one of those high points in life when you just bask in the glow, like when your son is baptized.

But that’s just it!  Abram is grateful for the victory, but there is no son to share it with.  Abram is worried and anxious and afraid that the Lord has run out of time.  He was old.  His wife was old.  The Lord had made a promise that Abram would carry on the line of the Savior.  Abram had the promise from God that he would have a son, but even after this great victory Abram is caught in a moment where the dark cloud was hanging over him.

One night the Lord appears to Abram and here is what he says: “Don’t be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”  It’s a little bit of a pep talk, kind of like the one that all Packer fans need when you see Aaron Rodgers posting pics from a hospital bed after surgery on his broken collar bone.

But kind of like Packer fans who are looking at the probability of the backup leading the offense the rest of the season, this is how Abram responds: “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?  You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

There are plenty of times when we bring our requests to God.  It’s called prayer and it is a powerful blessing in the life of a Christian.  You never have to be afraid to say anything to God. He wants us to pray and he promises to listen.  You can speak to God as much as you want, but don’t make the mistake of speaking for God.  That’s not faith.

But that’s what Abram did.  He said, “Lord, you are not going to give me a son.  You’ve given me power, wealth, influence, protection, victory. Thank you, Lord, but you have not given me a son.  I will make a servant my heir.”  Abram is now speaking for God.  He’s narrowed in on one thing, one way, one path that God has to follow.  Abram points out his plan as if that is the only one God can use.

Do you think Abram is the only one who has tried talking for God?  Or is it possible, probable even, that there have been a few times or more when we have presented God with the plan for my life.  I’d like this job and this income.  I’d like this many kids and this kind of house.  I’d like me and my family to be this healthy.  I’d like my love life to look like this and my social life to look like that. When a few of the things on the list are missing, what happens?  When there is a cloud hanging over you, is there only one way you see that will get you to brighter days?  These are times when somehow, someway we think we can talk for God.

At best, this way of speaking for God is ignorance coming from our puny brains that have such little perspective in this universe.  At worst, it is arrogance coming from our puffed-up self-righteousness.  Either way it’s not faith.  Faith doesn’t bring my plans for my life to the eternal, the all-powerful, the all-knowing, the perpetually-present Creator of all things.  Faith doesn’t make me bigger than God, it enjoys being so so so much smaller.

Here’s the point, some of God’s promises require a bigger perspective. It’s like the floor at the Bismarck airport.  If you stand in one spot, you see some meandering pieces of blue tiles among the tan and brown leading nowhere.  You may also notice some names here and there.  Up close it isn’t much. But if you go up the stairs to get a bigger perspective, you see that it’s the Missouri River and the whole floor is laid out almost like a map of central North Dakota.

Brothers and sisters, the Lord has made some huge promises to you.  This powerful Creator, this unchanging Redeemer, this grace-pouring Spirit has said, “I will be with you always.”  He has assured you that he is your shield and fortress.  He has dedicated himself to work everything in life for your good.  He promises things like joy, peace, hope and eternity.  These are not little promises.  We can’t measure some of these promises over a few days or months.  To see the beauty, we need to step back for a bigger perspective.  We need to see just how big and beautiful God’s promises are.

That’s faith.  It’s not clinging to our plans.  It’s not focusing on little snapshots of my life.  It’s trusting that God is much bigger than you are.  It’s believing that he has a plan much better than mine.  It’s resting still on what Jesus has done.

That’s why God said, “Abram, get out of that tent.  I’ve got a promise that is bigger than you can understand in there.  Come outside with me to the stillness of the night sky.  Abram, you are worried about me giving you one son.  You are talking for me about this one little detail.  Abram, look up at the stars.  You are worried about one son.  You can’t even begin to count them all.  Abram, this is what I’m going to do for you.  This is how big my promises are.”

I know some of you are here today in the same situation as Packer fans, with a cloud hanging over you just wondering how it’s going to turn out.  I know some of you are worried about where your life is going.  I know some of you are wondering about health problems for you or a loved one.  I know some of you are worried about your kids, how they’re doing at daycare or school and how you’re doing as a parent.  Some of you are praying and praying wondering if God is hearing you.  And when God’s promises seem to contradict your plans or the cloudy circumstances surrounding you right now, it’s easy to stop speaking to God and start speaking for God.  But that’s not faith.

That’s why God takes us out of our natural and narrow view.  He works on us like he did for Abram when he took him out to the vast sky full of stars.  He works on us, taking us out into the vastness of his holy Word.  He works to give us the bigger perspective.

Do you know what you are going to see?  Your Father says, “You are going to see that before this world began I knew you by name.  Before I set the stars in the sky, I made the plan and the promise to make you mine.  You will see what happened 2,000 years ago when I gave you the Savior to take all your sins away.  I gave you my Son to free you from the gates of hell.  Get the bigger perspective and see that years ago I did the work to wash you and cleanse you.  I connected you.  I brought you into my family.  Take a step back and see my plan for your future.  I have plans to give you a life that stretches beyond the decades you have left on this earth.  I have plans to cure your cancer.  I have plans to stop your pain.  I have plans to fix your loneliness.  I have plans to give you peace and joy forever in my home for eternity.”

When you have a God who promises that, then you see things differently.  You get a bigger perspective.  When you have a God who does that kind of work on your behalf and in your life, it changes you.  It’s called faith for a reason.  Because it is not based in your plans, on what you know, or on what you do.  Faith is based on God’s plan, on what God knows, and on what God does.

Abram believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness.  God changed Abram’s perspective and gave him a bigger view of his promises.  When you have a God who steps into your life with his promises, then you have a bigger perspective, too.  With that trust solely worked by God and grounded solely in him, look what God does.  He puts his righteousness on you.  You look like Christ to him through faith alone.

That’s a word that once caused so much anxiety 500 years ago.  Luther hated righteousness, because it was something you had to work for.  The church told you that to be right with God you had to make yourself right. But God took him out from that canopy the church had erected. God took him out into the vastness of his Word.  God worked through the Word to show Luther a man like Abram, who did not get righteousness by following his plan or even doing God’s work but by trusting God had the plan and God does the work.  God took Luther out into the Word, and there he saw that righteousness is a gift given though faith in Christ. And faith is not what you do.  Faith is not talking for God.  Faith is God taking you out to get his perspective on your life.  Out there God shows you something different than your work or your plans.  Out there he shows you everything he has done for you.  He shows you his promises.  He shows you the Savior providing the full price for forgiveness.  He shows you the Spirit working through Word and Sacrament.  He shows you the new life that is yours forever as his child, a new life that loves to leave things in God’s hands trusting that he has it all worked out for me.

That kind of perspective is bigger than anything we could come up with.  It’s from the God who loves you and rescued you.  It’s from the God who has done the work to make you his through faith alone.  Amen.

 

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CHURCH & church

Week 10 – 8.13.17

LL pic 2

John 8

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

 

 

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

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

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

  1. The Church

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

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

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

  1. church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God grant it. Amen.