Our Real Hope
Sermon: October 15, 2017
Isaiah 25:6-9; Philippians 4:4-13; Matthew 22:1-14
Psalm 23, our Introit Psalm this morning, is the most beloved of all of the 150 Psalms. It is the most used Psalm at funerals, because it is intended to give hope and comfort in a time of sorrow. It is almost always read in the 400 year old language of the King James text. This is what many have memorized, and seem to convey a sense of solidness in language that is suited for grandeur, majesty, and immeasurable grace. It is especially true in its declaration, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.”(vs.4) At the time of a death this is the assurance of life and hope.
The hope of this psalm, and the whole of Scripture is not just for a time of bereavement, but the solid foundation on which we live in the midst of a broken world. The Apostle declares that the hope we have in Christ “does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”(Romans 5:5) It is in this hope, garnered by the presence of God’s Spirit within, that we live.
To be sure, we live in a world of tragedy and pain. Storms devastation, shootings, fire, personal and family trials, and the list goes on. There are untold evils brought into the world by Satan. People and nations have given rein to his leadings. Even the forces of nature are tainted by his presence. And we live in the midst of it. Even so, St. Paul will write “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say rejoice.”(Phil.4:4) Paul doesn’t have his head in the sand ignoring the world’s evils. In fact, he wrote these words while in a Roman prison under the threat of death. He was expressing a kind of joy that was anchored in the Lord. His view was not his immediate crisis, but the truth of what God would establish in the completion of His plan for mankind. In that hope, Paul would live.
Jesus tells the parable of a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. The image of a wedding banquet is mentioned a number of times, and especially at the culmination of God’s in this age, with the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Revelation 21. The banquet in Jesus’ parable was a glorious affair to which many were invited. But Jesus clearly shows the evil that was present. Many snubbed the kings gracious invitation, even mistreating the servants that brought it. Then there was the one man who came in without a proper wedding garment, which was dishonor to the King’s son. Evil would be dealt with, and separated from the good. The banquet would continue with a great celebration.
Isaiah has described this banquet in Chapter 25. “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine– the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces;…”(vss.6-8) That is the truth we know, the truth we can hold to, even in the midst of the trials of life.
There must be a separation of the good from the evil. God will not allow Satan to continue forever. He is still, as he has always been, under God’s control. God allows him to reign only within the limits He sets for His purpose. We don’t understand this in the individual happenings of life, but God never loses control, or ceases to work for His good purpose.
There was the man who came into the wedding banquet without the proper wedding garment. He is removed and cast out into the darkness. We might have cut him some slack. After all he was one that the servant had just hauled in off the street. When would he have had time to change clothes, even if he could have afforded to. But the custom of the time was for the King giving the banquet to provide clean long white robes for each of the guests. Not only did this man dishonor the son, he snubbed the King’s gracious gift of a clean garment. He would enter on his own terms or not at all. He faced the judgment his choice brought upon him.
You see, it is that white garment, that clean white robe graciously offered, that is the beginning of the separation of good from evil. It is the separation that takes place within each individual heart. Something has taken place within us by the marvelous grace of God. Because of the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ we have received the white robe of His righteousness in place of our sin-stained clothes of the world. God has cleansed us. We can stand in the purity of Jesus before Him. We are prepared for a seat at the banquet table. This is an accomplished truth to which we hold, no matter what storms rage.
Paul was more than aware of the storms we face in this world, and the pain they cause. But he also knew the foundation on which we stand in the midst of those storms. It is the gracious life changing work God has done within us that allows us to endure the trials of life. It is, in fact, the trials that strengthen our character for God. He expresses it this way in the Romans 5 passage I used earlier. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”(vss.1-4) There it is again. We come back to hope, a hope that rests on the most solid of foundations, and will see us through all storms.
Paul’s words to the Philippians encourages us to keep our eyes fixed on our source of all hope. Let the eyes of our heart dwell, Paul writes, on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things. … And the God of peace will be with you.”
Music also helps us keeps our eyes on our hope in Christ. I have a CD in my car of hymns by George Beverly Shea. One that I love is Jerusalem which I sing along with him. If I didn’t keep the windows closed they would hear me in the next county. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your voice and sing. Hosanna, in the highest. Hosanna, to our King.” Glorious! And the only place this allows our eyes to look is toward our Lord who is the source of all help.
“Do not be anxious about anything,” Paul declares, “but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”(5:4-7)
Psalm 23 and all of our passages of hope are not an escape from the world, but a truth that allows us to serve to the fullest while we are here. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”… All the days of life, giving strength to endure in the midst of trials, and to be of real service and hope to others.
This is the hope and strength we have in Jesus Christ, and nothing can take it from us. Amen.
Now may the peace of God that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds ever and only in Christ Jesus . Amen
What Does It Matter?
Sermon” October 8, 2017
Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4-14; Matthew 21:33-46
We spend a lot of time in church. We teach people about God, and help them to know Him. What does that really matter? Does it really matter if I know God or not? I can be a good person without going to church. And that is true. By worldly standards one can be a very good person. A person can do many good deeds, helping people, even saving lives, without going to church or knowing God. We have seen many of these wonderful acts of bravery, and self sacrifice just in this past month. People have responded in droves to help in Houston, Florida, Mexico City, Puerto Rico, and now Las Vegas. We have seen wonderful acts of human service, and I believe these will be honored by God.
I don’t know if any of these people are Christian, or if they ever go to church, but does that really matter to the people who are saved? If I’m trapped under a pile of rubble I really don’t care if the one digging me out is a Christian or an atheist. You’ve probably heard the story of the man who was trapped on his roof in a flood. He was convinced that God was going to save him. A man in a small boat came by, but the man on the roof told him to go on God was going to save him. Later the fire department rescue boat came. The man on the roof did the same, waved him off saying God was gong to save him. A helicopter flew over and let down a rope ladder down to him. He didn’t take it. He knew God was gong to save him. Finally he slipped off the roof and drowned. At heaven’s gate, he asked the Lord what happened. Why didn’t He save him? The Lord said, I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What else did you want? God uses all these wonderful efforts of self-sacrificing people for the good. As tragic as these events are, God is still at work through people whether they acknowledge Him or not.
So, really does it matter if people are in church? We say that it does. We say that there is more to life than just trying to be a good person and doing some good works. If this were not true, the church would be no different than the local service clubs, or the volunteer fire department. Unfortunately, that is the way many see us, and they don’t need all of the religious trappings we add. So, while we laud and honor those who work so hard in these tragic situations, or even in routine community service for that matter, we still say that God is calling us to something more, something greater, and something that makes a deep change in life now, and even beyond this life.
There are two parables of vineyards in our lessons this morning. One from the Old Testament and one from the New. Both start with a landowner, God, who did everything possible to plant a good vineyard – proper soil, choice vines, protection from predators. In both parables the land owner looked for good fruit, but unfortunately received none. In the first case the vines grew diseased grapes that were worthless. In the second, it was the tenants, the leaders, who were stubborn, self-centered, and refused their obligations. In both, it led to destruction, either of the vineyard or the tenants. What was the land owner, God, looking for?
What is grown in a vineyard? Grapes, of course. And those grapes are not primarily dried to make raisins. They are pressed and fermented to make wine. Both vineyard parables had a wine press. Wine is spoken of often in Scripture. There are many passages that caution against excess and drunkenness, but the main focus is on joy and gladness of heart. Psalm 4 says, “Let the light of your face shine on us. Fill my heart with joy when their grain and new wine abound.”(vss.6-7) And then a prophecy of Isaiah speaking of the consummation God will finally bring about, it is referred to as a great banquet. “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.”(25:6) Jesus provided the best wine at the wedding in Cana, and He speaks of drinking wine anew in the Kingdom. So, the idea of the landowner seeking good wine grapes meant developing something good, something joyous in the hearts of people. This was a deep change of life that the Lord would bring about.
While we laud the heroic efforts we’ve seen in this past month, we know that there is more to helping than meeting the physical needs. Physical needs can certainly never be ignored. They must be dealt with first. James asks, “If one of you says to (a needy person), ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”(2:6) The physical need must be dealt with first, but there is a large area of need that lingers. They come with the questions of the families of the 59 people who died in Las Vegas. And the question of why did a mom and her young kids loose their home in the storm. Or what comfort is there for the parents of a child who was crushed in Mexico’s earthquake, or for the family of the new born who, unexplainably, lived only a few hours. These are all beyond the scope of the those necessary first physical efforts. But there has to be some comfort, some understanding, some hope, something beyond the tragedies of the moment. That is what our Lord seeks to give in the wine of His vineyard. That is why learning to know God matters.
We don’t have all the answers, but we proclaim a God who does. While many things will have to remain a mystery until eternity, we can move forward in hope. God gives us truths that begin to make sense of this broken world in which we live.
In today’s Philippians 3 Epistle Paul speaks of the change the Lord made in his life. After listing all his earthly credentials, which are many and very impressive, he says that he considers them all loss, all refuse, compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus, his Lord. He makes the contrast very sharp with the word he uses. When he says that he considers all his wonderful accomplishments as refuse, the original word is dung, excrement. For Paul the value of knowing Christ far surpasses any honors or accomplishments the world provides. What it meant for him was a complete makeover of his life. That change in his heart showed him who God was, and who he was in the light of God’s glory.
He saw his own sinful nature compared to God’s perfect holiness. He saw that that sinful nature in the hearts of mankind was the reason for all the strife, war, and hatred that exists between people. He understood that rebellion from God brought all of the disasters mankind is subject to. And he saw the great love of God that caused Him to enter this world with the redeeming power of Jesus Christ. Paul saw clearly that he had been like one of the people trapped in the rubble of an earthquake with no way out. It was only the Rescuer, Jesus Christ, who could reach him and free him. That changed his life forever.
Until the Lord comes, there will continue to be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, in various places. There will still be the need for personal sacrifice and selfless giving on the part of many people. But what is ultimately needed is the hope that pain and suffering is not all there is, that there will come a day when every tear is wiped away and all sighing cease. This is not a hope that can be found in psychology, technology, medicine, or the strength of any human arm. That hope is only found in Jesus Christ. It is what we have to share here in Christian support of one another, in the wonderful truths of God’s Word, and the gracious assurance of our forgiveness and cleansing in the Body and Blood of our Saviour. That is a hope, strength, and peace that goes beyond all physical help offered. And that really does matter. Amen.
Now may the peace of God that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds ever and only in Christ Jesus . Amen
The Power of Absolution
Sermon: October 1, 2017
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-18; Matthew 21:23-32
We go through a simple exercise every Sunday we gather here. I invite you to stand and recognize that you are coming before God’s altar. We declare that all we do is done in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are invited to kneel and confess your sins using the words printed in the bulletin. Is that all meaningless rote? Is it heaping up empty words that Jesus tells us not to do? It can be, but I hope it isn’t.
When we enter this sanctuary on Sunday morning, we are here to do serious business. We are coming into the presence of Almighty God. Not that God isn’t everywhere present, but this place is set aside and dedicated for the worship of our God. We call it a Sanctuary, and not just an Auditorium. We have an altar in the front separated by a chancel rail. It is from here that God speaks in Word and Sacrament. It is separated from the rest of the room symbolizing divine holiness and separateness.
We begin our service with the confession of sins recognizing the fallenness of our human nature, and how unfit we are to come into God’s presence alone. The Israelites understood this as they stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses was on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. The mountain was shrouded with a thick cloud and fire. No one dared to touch even the foot of the mountain lest they die. Such was the holiness of God and the realization of the peoples sinful nature.
Do we really believe that we can approach a perfect, holy, and almighty God in any way we feel like? I’m afraid that today’s world has lost much of its sense of God’s holiness, and above all our own sinful nature. We have become so accustomed to the phrase “well, nobody’s perfect” that we excuse ourselves too easily. We know God is almighty, but we like to say that he is a God of love who wouldn’t condemn anyone. That is not the testimony of God’s Word. The New Testament book of Hebrews calls us to “offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.”(12:28-29)
So what we do at the beginning of our service is by no means a rote exercise. It is humbling ourselves before our holy God, and laying before His mercy the things God’s Spirit calls to mind from the preceding week that were an offense to Him. It is not that God is nit picking us throughout the week looking for every curse word, every angry gesture, every evil thought we had about someone. But the things we do wrong separate us from Him, and God really doesn’t want any separation.
You understand separation. If you have an argument with your husband, wife, or close friend, you are separated from them for a time until that disagreement is settled. The young man in today’s Gospel story bad mouthed his father. He was asked to work in the family vineyard that day, but he refused. He and his father weren’t on good terms until the son had a change of heart about his response and did go to work. It is only by repentance and a change of heart that the separation is removed.
Never underestimate the separation that has existed between ourselves and our Holy God. “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” And the few dozen things that have come up in this past week have proven the truth of our statement.
But we do know that God is a God of love. We believe that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. All that is most certainly true, but remember the cost. From the time of the first rebellion in the Garden, God has worked to bridge the separation that man and woman put between themselves and God.
The standard teaching in our educational institutions that mankind has evolved from some chemical slime, and that we are descendants of apes Is false. This theory, and it is only a theory, has been shown scientifically to hold many errors that educators and institutions don’t want to recognize. Darwinism has been disastrous to the self-image of many young people, and is a direct affront to the truth of God. “It is He who has made us and we are His.”(Psalm 100:4) I am not too concerned about the chronology of prerecorded history. I am very concerned with the truth, that at some point in all eternity, God created the cosmos, a planet called earth, and on that planet He made mankind, perfect and without sin. He wanted this new creation in fellowship with Himself, and gave them all they needed for life. Yet of their choice they wanted more.
They listened too the lying voice of the devil and defied God’s good command. In that defiance, in that sin, they separated themselves from their Creator. In that separation they brought all manner of problems upon themselves, and upon all mankind to follow. We see this clearly today when we choose to ignore the clear truths of our Lord. God did not want the separation they had made. He loved them, and us, with an everlasting love. He gave them a promise that one day an offspring of the woman would come to crush the head of the evil one who had led mankind astray.
It took thousands of years, and God’s painstaking work with the Jewish people in order to bring the offspring He had promised. God’s only begotten Son, Jesus, was born to a humble teenaged girl in a small village of northern Israel. We know well the story of Jesus’ life, His ministry, His death on the cross, and His glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. The events of this brief 33 year span of life had been in preparation for thousands of years. Even before creation, the Holy Trinity had determined a plan of redemption in the event that mankind should separate themselves from God.
God cannot wink at sin. He cannot pretend that it is not so bad. He is not a grandfather who can let little things slide by. He is holy. His perfect justice demands that every sin, all sin, be punished. But that is a debt we cannot pay. God determined that He would take that punishment and lay it on His own Son. Jesus would take the punishment, the very sentence of death, the eternal separation from God, that you and I and all mankind justly deserve, into His own being. On the cross of Calvary, Jesus bore the weight of all mankind’s sins, receiving the full judgment of God’s wrath. Beyond the horrible physical pain and degradation of a Roman cross, He bore the sentence of death and hell we deserve.
Having made satisfaction for God’s perfect justice, He rose again, overcoming the curse of death for all time. We rejoice in the assurance of the eternal life He brings with His glorious resurrection from the grave, but we must never forget the price He had to pay for us to have that life.
So the words at the beginning of our worship are far from meaningless repetition. I don’t know what you have done, said, or thought this week in sin against our Lord. But you brought it here this morning and laid it before God at this altar. Because of what Jesus Christ has done for you, I am allowed to stand before you in His stead, declaring to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.
You are free. The separation between you and your God has been removed. Because of the blessed words of the Absolution, you can go in peace and serve the Lord. Amen.
Now may the peace of God that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds ever and only in Christ Jesus . Amen
It’s Not Fair!
Sermon: September 24, 2017
Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:12-30; Matthew 20:1-16
“It’s Not Fair!” How many times have we heard those words, especially from some of our younger ones who don’t get what they want or think they deserve. “But Johnny’s mom lets him do it.” Both as youth and adulthood we come up against life’s unfairness. So it was in Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard. I read about five different commentators writing on this text in Matthew 20. They all had a different take on what Jesus was trying to say.
One wanted to discuss the unfairness of current immigration policy, and the struggle of minimum wages for workers. Others discussed the impossibility of running a business in the way Jesus describes hiring and paying employees. Another said it was about not coveting the good fortune of another. Obviously this parable has not set well with many, either then or now.
If one wanted to work, the common practice of the day was to go out in the morning to the market place where land owners would come to hire men to work their land for the day. They agreed on the wage, which was usually a denarius, a common days wage. In the parable the first workers agree on the arrangements and went to work. The land owner went out again at the third, sixth, and ninth hours, 9am, noon, and 3pm, hired others that he found in the market place. Well, OK, that is not too unreasonable. It was probably a large vineyard and he wanted to get the crop in today. But then Jesus said that the owner went out at the eleventh hour, one hour before normal quitting time, and found some others that he also hired. He had told all these later workers that he would pay whatever was right.
Some commentators speculated that these last workers were a slothful bunch and really weren’t that interested in showing up to try to get work. Yet the problem with the parable comes at the close of the day when it is pay time. He lines them up in reverse order from the time they were hired, and has everyone receive exactly the same amount, a full days wage. What do you do with that? It strikes right at our center where we holler with those first workers, “It’s not fair!”.
You have seen those images on TV or the newspaper of the line that forms at Best Buy or one of the other retailers when a new IPhone is to go on sale. People camp out all night waiting for the store to open. The line stretches back over a block. Can you imagine what would happen if the store manager came out holding two brand new Iphones, the only two the store was allotted, he walked to the back of the line and sold them to the last people there. He probably would not have made it back to the safety of the store. It’s not fair!
And, very true, it is not fair. As the commentators I mentioned earlier said, both workers and corporate managers have every reason to be offended by this parable. But the offense is just the point of the parable. Jesus began by saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like….” As with others of Jesus stories, this is a kingdom parable. It is about the presence of God’s kingdom coming in the midst of human life. All of the preaching of John the Baptist, and then of Jesus, was “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. With the birth of Jesus the Kingdom of God was visibly breaking into the midst of human life, corrupt and fallen human life. What does it mean when the truth and values of God’s Kingdom enter into a world that is run by the opposite values?
With the entrance of that first rebellion from God in the Garden all life was changed. Men’s hearts became corrupt, and every atom of the world order was tainted. Through the millennia until the coming of Christ, mankind had followed deeply engraved ways of life that were not in harmony with God and His kingdom. It is why God chose to work with one people, Israel, gave them the laws at Sinai, and sent them Prophets time after time. He was trying to curb their wayward hearts and turn them back to Himself. It was always the “I want”, “I need”, “I deserve” that got in the way. It is no wonder then, when Jesus brought the kingdom into people’s midst, there was conflict. It is why the early preaching began with the call to “repent”, to turn around one hundred and eighty degrees and go in a new direction, a direction away from the values of self and back toward the kingdom. The kingdom works by a different standard, one that often strikes us as unfair in our human terms – like turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemy, and doing good to those who hate us, going the second mile, forgiving seventy times seven.
These things are not fair by worldly standards, but they are what love requires, and love is the supreme value of the kingdom. Love doesn’t mean that we are door mats for others to walk over, or so gullible as to accept everyone’s story at face value. It does mean that we set ourselves aside with its justice and fairness questions, and seek to respond to others in a way that is for their good. Putting aside personal questions of justice and fairness takes ourselves out of the equation, and puts another person in.
If we want to talk about justice and fairness maybe that is what we work for in seeking the good of others who are being oppressed or denied.
Another thing we must remember about Jesus’ kingdom parables is its vastness. The kingdom of God is vast beyond comprehension. It cannot be contained within the scope of one parable. There are seven different kingdom parables in just the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, and others throughout the Gospels. Each containing an aspect of the kingdom or expanding an aspect already given. So, this parable of workers in the vineyard is not about fair wages, or good business practices. It is about grace, God’s grace reaching out beyond hours worked, or personal worthiness.
We have talked so much here and in our Bible studies about the wrongness of the balance scale approach to God. But we understand that! It makes complete sense in our world. If I try to be a good person, and do good things for others, then the scale is clearly tipped in my favor – far more so than some other nasty people I know. It makes sense. It’s fair, but it is not grace.
Jesus came to seek and to save those who were lost.(Luke 19:10) Jesus frequently ministered to people whom society considered unworthy of the Kingdom. This was an affront to the good Pharisees and faithful teachers of the law. He told story after story that offended their legal sense of what was right. They railed against Him, and finally put Him to death. But it was in that death the greatest offense was brought to the kingdom of human values.
The cross of Jesus Christ remains the greatest offense the world has ever seen. It stands in the midst of all human life declaring our judgment. It is no respecter of persons. It doesn’t care if you are the wealthiest and most powerful, or if you are a homeless beggar. The cross doesn’t care if you are the most learned of people, or a saint with a long list of good works. The cross declares your guilt before God. It declares your judgment – you are deserving of death and eternal separation from God. That cross is the greatest offense to your personal pride, sense of self worth, sense of justice, and all you consider fair. It doesn’t care if you bore the heat of the day or come in at the last hour.
But it is the One who hangs on that cross who is the owner of all the land. It is He who has chosen to pay you with His own life, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins. The wage you deserve, whether first or last, is death, but the denarius you receive is the gracious gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. And that is supremely unfair, but it is pure grace and the greatest joy of our life. Amen.
Seventy Times Seven
Sermon: September 17, 2017
Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Forgiveness is an action that is central to the Christian message. You have heard the declaration of the forgiveness of all your sins when I spoke the words this morning. “As a called and ordained servant of Jesus Christ I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.” Because of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ you have forgiveness, cleansing, and a new life. That is huge! In Jesus Christ you and I can stand, clothed in the perfect righteousness of Christ, before Almighty God our Father. That is the Good News that has been declared to us. It is a pure gift of God’s amazing grace.
We know that, because we have received this great gift, we are to extend it to others through our words and actions. We share the Good News with those in our circle of family, friends, acquaintances, and even casual contacts. In this way the message of God’s grace is spread throughout the world.
Jesus’ disciple were learning this. They were continually asking Him questions about how they were to be “fishers of men”. On one particular day they wanted to know about forgiveness. Peter asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?”(vs.21) Understanding this question in the Jewish context is important. The rabbis taught that people should forgive twice, maybe a third time for an offense, but not after that. Peter knew that Jesus thought big and always expected more, so he said, “As many as seven times?” But Jesus’ answer went far beyond even Peter’s expectation. Jesus said, “I tell you not seven times but seventy seven times”. Other translations will way seventy times seven. And that is not just four hundred and ninety times, it is beyond ones ability to keep track. You see, that becomes the first point in the lesson. If one continues to keep track of offenses that is not forgiveness.
Let me ask you, do you struggle with some sin that continues to reoccur in your life, as hard as you may try to overcome it? As much as you may hate it, you still seem to give in to it, and must return to the Lord for forgiveness. Be honest, I don’t think I’m alone in this. Are we not glad that our Lord doesn’t keep a tally of our sins? “Well, there you go. You just hit number seventy eight. Too bad fellow. Your out.” The Lord keeps no tally of sins and neither should we.
To emphasize the depth of God’s forgiveness Jesus tells the parable of the Unrighteous Steward. You heard the Gospel lesson. The Steward was forgiven a debt of ten thousand talents. Jesus intentionally made this an astronomically large number that was equivalent to a hundred and fifty thousand years of the average salary of the day. Obviously, the Steward was very grateful for such generosity, but it should have carried through in mercy for his fellow servant who owed him less than one year’s wage. But he did not. The parable ends with the King reimposing the debt on the Steward, and punishing him severely. Jesus concludes the parable by bringing it back to us. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”(vs.35) This is not a threat, but simply an emphasis on how central and necessary forgiveness is for each follower of Jesus Christ.
For us, God’s forgiveness is both extravagant and precious. It is not based on our deserving it. And that, too, is a key for our forgiving another. We are called to forgive even if the other is not worthy of it, or has not even asked for it. Remember Jesus forgave those who were still spitting on Him at the foot of the cross. Since forgiveness is such a central part of our life with both God and others, let’s consider it in more specific terms.
First, we need to be willing to ask forgiveness, and not just of God but from others if we have offended them. This means being aware of our own behavior, and how we interact with people. If you feel you’ve spoken harshly, offended, or cut someone off, be willing to go and ask for forgiveness. Tuesday I was at a pastor’s meeting in Walkersville. I was in conversation with another pastor and something caught his attention that he wanted to take care of. He came back to me later and asked my forgiveness for cutting me short in the conversation. I really wasn’t even aware of it, but he felt the need to apologize to me and to one or two others. We shouldn’t be overly sensitive, but we do need to be aware of how our words and actions are received by others.
If someone has offended you, be willing to speak to them directly. Last weeks Gospel in Matthew 18:15to17 gave steps for dealing with an offense. The purpose is always for reconciliation as much as possible. Even God’s judgment on Israel deliver through the prophets, as harsh as it was at times, had the purpose of turning hearts back to Him.
If an offense has occurred, don’t discuss it with anyone else. Don’t gossip. Keep in mind Paul’s instruction to the Ephesians to speak “only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”(4:29) “Is what I am saying to this other person or group about someone not here, is it beneficial for that person or is it just getting it off my chest? We do certainly share requests for prayer for others, but Paul’s words to the Ephesians are always our guide.
Then we understand that forgiveness is a decision and not a feeling. Feelings are fickle. They can come and go. Forgiveness is a decision we stick to. It is a decision to give up any right to judge or condemn another. Joseph, in our Old Testament lesson today, had the right and the reason to punish his brothers for what they did to him. They clearly meant what they did to hurt him, but Joseph’s decision was to leave it all in God’s hands, and further, to rejoice in the good God brought about from their action. Forgiveness doesn’t deny the offense, but says “ I choose to hold nothing against you”.
Forgiveness doesn’t wait for one to come and ask for it, and it doesn’t mean that the offender is worthy of it. In a sense, forgiveness takes the offender out of the equation. As hard as it may be, forgiveness is first an act between ourselves and God. Any unforgiveness, any grudges held, any bitterness we hold toward anyone, no matter how small, is a block between us and God. And we really want nothing separating us from our gracious Lord.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we are automatically best friends with the offender. It may clear the air, restoring the relationship depending on how the forgiveness is received. But even if it does not, we are still to be cordial with that person in any contact, to wish them well in their life, and to pray for them.
Obviously, there are many different situations in human life, and offenses vary in degree. It is why Peter was looking for an end, for an escape clause, to end the obligation to forgive. But Jesus didn’t give that option. The last of the four steps to reconciliation in Matthew 18 is to put the unrepentant offender out of the church. Sometimes a separation is necessary, but it is not done with malice. It is putting that one into the hands of God, just as Joseph did with his brothers. It is separating them with prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to work in their heart. The Hebrew verb for “forgive” conveys an action. It is an action verb meaning “to take” or “to lift up”. We take our hands off of judgment, and lift that one up into the care of God.
In a broken and sin filled world, frictions between people are inevitable. But those frictions should not be allowed to separate us from the grace of our Lord. And if we really consider the parable of the Unrighteous Steward, we realize that the debt we’ve been forgiven is so far greater than any debt owed to us. In humility we receive this greatest of all gifts, forgiveness, and new life in Jesus Christ, and we seek to extend that gift seventy times seven to others. Amen.
Lord, Help Me To Die
Sermon: September 3, 2017
Jeremiah 15:15-21; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
I will admit that “Assisted Suicide” is a terrible title for a sermon. Especially since we believe that life is sacred from conception to natural death. It is why I added the subtitle “Lord, Help Me To Die”. I hope you will see with me how this applies to our Gospel text this morning.
Peter had just made his great confession of faith. “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God.” Today’s text tells us that from then on “Jesus began to explain to His disciple that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and the he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”(16:21) “No! No! This isn’t right. We’ve just understood that the Son of Almighty God, the long awaited Messiah, the Christ, is standing in our midst. He can’t be mistreated and killed!”
Peter, good old impetuous Peter, took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him. “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” Well, it takes guts, or lack of good sense to begin to rebuke Jesus in the first place, but he always had the habit of plunging in where angels fear to tread. It was a characteristic Jesus would later use in Peter’s ministry once the Lord had changed His heart. That was the key. It would take a heart change to fully understand what Jesus was saying.
The whole concept of death and resurrection was foreign to the Jews. The disciple has seen Jesus raise a couple of dead people, but that was just an extension of His healing ministry, but the death of Jesus, Himself, made no sense. Why would He talk about being killed and then rising from the dead? Jesus needed to be corrected. This would not fulfill the prophecy of a descendent of David sitting on the throne of Israel.
I’m not sure that many Christians today really understand what death and resurrection means. Oh, we are familiar with and believe in the truth that by Jesus dying on the cross in atonement for our sins, and being raised to life on Easter Sunday morning, we have eternal life through faith in Him. We have been reconciled to God, and are able to stand before God in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The free gift of our reconciliation to God is a treasure beyond measure. But there is even more in the concept of death and resurrection that Jesus was trying to open for them.
Jesus had to correct Peter in rather harsh terms. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”(vs/23) Was Peter Satan? Certainly not, but he was taking up a point that is central to the devil’s opposition to Jesus. The devil hated God’s eternal plan for mankind. He didn’t understand how God could love these little human vermin. Any plan for their redemption was abhorrent to him. And really, when we fully understand what death and resurrection means, we don’t like it much better. That’s way Jesus said Peter was taking up the things of men.
But Jesus went on. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”(vs.24) Ok, we’ve heard that and understand it. We know that following Jesus means a change in life, and dealing with some things we would rather not do. Dr. Clayton Schmit of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary put it this way, “We serve on boring church committees, bearing our cross without complaint. We give more than we think is prudent and hope it doesn’t put a dent in our lifestyle. We help out those people who annoy us, thinking we are bearing a burden. The list of little crosses is endless.”
We’ve all heard, or perhaps used, the expression, “I guess this is the cross I have to bear”. And there are certainly larger and more difficult crosses that we do bear in life – the death of a love one, a financial disaster, the loss of a home to a flood. These are all very serious, and we do bear them in the strength the Lord supplies. But Jesus didn’t stop with this thought about bearing a cross. True cross bearing only happens when it leads to death.
He said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”(vs.25) Now He is talking about ourselves dying. To find our true life we have to die for Jesus. That is getting pretty serious. It doesn’t sound like a place we want to go. Each week we pray for the Christians who are being persecuted and dying for their faith in Christ. Is Jesus saying we all have to go out and be martyrs? No. It will be true for some, but there is more than one way of dying. Dying to one’s self, to one’s own nature, is the calling for every follower of Jesus.
This is a progressive and most difficult death. It is giving up to Jesus something we hold important in life. And it is something we can’t accomplish on our own.
We read from the Prophet Jeremiah this morning. He was an obedient and powerful speaker for the Lord. He spoke to the people of Judah at a time they were being taken into captivity by Babylon. He had to tell them they would be enslaved for years to come. Nothing he was called to do was pleasant. In chapter fifteen he gets rather fed up, and begins to have his own pity party. “Lord, I did all you told me to do, and look now how I’m suffering. Look at all the sacrifices I’ve made for you. Why is my pain unending?” How does God respond? Not with very comforting words as we might hope. Rather, “If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me; if you utter worthy, not worthless, words you will be my spokesman.”(vs.19) This is chapter fifteen. Jeremiah has another thirty seven chapters of his life before he finishes his course with the Lord. But the Lord assures him that if he yields himself to God, if he is willing to die to this part of his own nature, God will strengthen him and be with him. “‘For I am with you to rescue and save you,’ declares the Lord”(vs.20)
What God was saying to Jeremiah, and what Jesus was saying to the disciple, is that followers of the Lord are called to progressively die to themselves, and be raised to a new kind of life in Him. The old way of life with a Christian veneer is not all the Lord wants for us. We certainly have our salvation. That has been won for us on Calvary’s cross. We have the assurance of our eternal life with God. But time and again, Scripture speaks of salvation not as a one time event, but an ongoing process of growth in our Lord. And Jesus is saying that growth is a progressive dying and rising with Him. He called the disciples, He is calling us, to die to our old nature and be raised in Christ’s new nature. It is the truth we proclaim with every baptism, and it is a truth we are called to live daily.
When we speak of dying to ourselves no one really expects to die physically, but something does die in us when we are willing to yield to Jesus, to give up control of an aspect of life, and allow Him to change us.
You’ve probably heard accounts of a swimmer who gets in trouble in the ocean off one of our resort beaches. The life guard goes out to rescue them. The swimmer is flailing around so much that it is difficult for the life guard to help. It is only when the swimmer give up control that he can be saved.
Dr. Schmit again commented, “Here is both the challenge and the good news in this text. If we follow Jesus, we will be seriously called to bear certain crosses and lose hold of our lifestyle, if not our life. Yet, in all our weakness and human mindedness, it is Jesus’ own death on the cross that enables us to do what we cannot.”
Jesus knew both the pains and the joys of this life. His path led Him to the cross. It is to that cross He calls us to come. The more of our life we are willing to lay at the cross, the more we find His strength working within.
Dying to self is never easy, but it is where He strengthens us to bear the burdens of discipleship. We do nothing on our own, but he can do much through us. Without him, Peter was no rock, but a stumbling block. With him, Peter was the church. With him, we are not powerless to deny ourselves but able to bear all he may give. Lloyd Ogilvie, a Presbyterian pastor and former Chaplain of the Senate, once put it this way: “We say, ‘But, Lord, I cannot.’ And God says, ‘I’m glad to hear you say that. Through you, I can.'”
Our life in Christ is never about what we can accomplish, but what God can accomplish through us. For Him to work, we, like the swimmer, need to yield our will to His control. This is never easy and it doesn’t happen quickly. There are things we are not yet ready to give up. Yet, each area we able to let go of is an area where we die to ourselves and come alive to our Lord.
Jesus is patient and gracious, and our morning’s Gospel text ends with standing in the glorious presence of our Lord. Amen.
A Firm Foundation
Sermon: August 27, 2017
Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 11:33-12:8; Matthew 16:13-20
What did we do here this morning when we gathered around this piece of furniture sitting in the front of our sanctuary? It is a wooden stand with a bowl of water in it. Called a font. It occupies a very prominent place in this room. We had the family bring little Reagan here. We said a lot of words, prayed a couple of prayers, and poured water over the baby’s head. This is an action we’ve done here many times. Most recently little Will, and then with Darrin. I mentioned at the funeral on Tuesday that we did this to Bill Allen in 1998, and their were others before and since. So it must be something we consider important.
We call it a baptism. It is not a Christening. We Christen ships. We baptize because it is an instruction from Jesus that we follow. He said, “Go teach, preach, and baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”(Matthew 28:19) Further, it is not just a symbol of something Jesus did, but an act that conveys a real blessing. While we bring Reagan, and we pour the water on him, it is God, Himself who does the action. It is the water along with the promise of God’s Word that gives the very real gifts of forgiveness of sins, deliverance from the power of the devil, and eternal salvation to all who believe. It is called “the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit”. (Titus3:5) This is a real gift of God that was given to this little one here today, and has been given to each of us who have been baptized. Even if we don’t remember that time in infancy, it was real, and those gifts were given by God.
But Reagan is a little kid. He doesn’t realize any of this. Even so, by the parents and godparents bringing him here today they have established a foundation that is intended to last throughout his life. It is a foundation upon which they and we must build. In today’s Gospel reading we heard Jesus ask the disciples who people were saying He was? A question very appropriate for today’s world, and one that gets many answers. Jesus is a nice guy. A good moral teacher. An old time prophet. A perfect example of love. But none of those answers are helpful. None of those give the whole truth or provide a solid foundation for life. It was the disciple, Peter, who answered the question correctly. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”(Mt.16:16) And Jesus responded saying that it was upon this rock that His church would be built. The foundation for life, a life that can withstand the storms, is one that holds to this confession. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus once told a story about two houses. One that was built upon a rock foundation and the other built upon sand. It was only the one on rock that stood when the storms came. We are giving Reagan that foundation set upon solid rock. It is why, before the baptism, we asked the parents and sponsors those pointed questions.
* Do they believe (and I would add we) that man’s nature is corrupt and evil, and he is guilty before God and due His judgment. And that they want to be delivered from that guilt;
* Do they believe that it is Jesus who gave His life to redeem us from sin?;
* Do they want to live in a way that renounces the devil, the glories of the world, and sinful desires of the flesh?;
* Do they believe in the orthodox Christian faith as expressed in the Apostle’s Creed?,
* And do they desire to live a Christ honoring life?
We are all saying two things with each answer. That this is what they believe personally, and that it is the truth they want to use to build upon Reagan’s foundation.
When we are confronted by Jesus in the way the disciples were with that pointed question, “But who do you say that I am?”, the answer alters life forever. You see Jesus in not just a nice addition that makes an already good life a little better. He is the content of life, the One from whom the best of life flows. It is always the difference between a house that is built upon rock or on sand.
A house being built is planned carefully. It is constructed step by step with good materials. Reagan’s family has already begun that building process today by laying the first course of bricks with the confession of their own faith. It is upon that the rest of his house will be built. This is what sets the daily tone and direction of the family. And also for Reagan’s life when he can make that confession his own.
A second course on the foundation is putting that faith into daily use by grace at meals, prayers and reading Bible stories with the child, and husband and wife learning to pray and read the Bible together. This faith is not just for children. Jesus is a real and living companion for life. Our desire is to learn to walk with Him during each of our days.
Another course of brick is being a part of a local church. Can someone worship God outside of the church? Of course. I do it all the time. But I’ve also found that most of those who use this argument usually don’t. We are not lone Christians. We need the strength, support, and fellowship of other believers. Even more, we need the cleansing, growth, and assurance that corporate worship gives. The Apostle Paul said that we are members of one body, and that we belong to one another. We each have different gifts that we bring for the strength of the whole body.
The world is a scary place. Derek can tell you something about that from his time in Baltimore city. We need the prayers and support of one another. But more than that. When one is building a house they are not focusing so much on the difficulty of the work, but rather on the joy the family will have in occupying that house. The same is true in the house we are building on the foundation of our confession of faith. What we are building for little Reagan, what we are continuing to build in our own lives, is a very joy-filled place. It is a place of laughter and good fun for all who enter.
I am often surprised when I hear some of the things our kids remember from their growing years. Even some of the more difficult spots that come to mind are spoken of as good. They are things we shared together, prayed about together, and grew in the love we have for each other and for our Lord.
Paul talks about this construction project in his letter to the Corinthian Church. “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”(3:9-11)
We share together as God’s fellow workers, building on the foundation of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
What is it that we need to be reminded of?
Sermon: August 20, 2017
Isaiah 56:1-8; Romans 11:1,2, 13-15, 28-32; Matthew 15:21-28
On Wednesday I wrote some thoughts in my Good Morning message about the present emphasis on removing statues of confederate Civil War leaders from public grounds. I got a number of comments back offering various points of view. The issue has been highlighted especially this past weekend by the violence in Charlottsville, Virginia where there was a clash between white supremacists and those opposing them, ending in a tragic death. The issue of whether or not we should remove monuments is not a simple one, and it raises a number of questions.
Very basic to begin with is whether these confederate leaders were good men or bad? Were they honorable or dishonorable? Certainly they saw themselves as honest men seeking to do an honorable thing. Was the central issue preserving slavery, or was it about preserving the right of states to set their own direction? One of my friends from Texas wrote that “Lee and Jackson were men of honor and character fighting to stand with their states.” Even today there are cessionist movements in a number of states in the north, south, and west with groups seeking to be free of national government influence. States rights versus federal rights has always been part of the discussion since the founding of our country. If the issue were just whether one people has the right to make slaves of another people it would be fairly simple to decide since slavery is universally condemned. But it isn’t just a single issue. Then there is the question of freedom of speech, and whether there are limits to its extent? So things are not always cut and dry.
I received a thoughtful note in response to my Good Morning from Darrin Ochs. I had commented in my Good Morning message that “maybe we need the monuments to remind us of what man is capable of, and that we can still commit those evils in small and sometimes large ways.” Darrin responded by writing, “Isn’t that what museums are for? If someone had suggested that we build a monument to Hitler instead of the Holocaust Museum to serve as a reminder of man’s capability (todo evil), could you imagine the outrage? … Growing up around Washington, D.C., I was raised with the idea that Heroes get a monument. Bad guys end up in the Museum. Probably too simplistic an approach, but what do we really need reminders of?” Thus, my thanks to Darrin for the title of this message. “What is it that we need to be reminded of?”
We are confronted by numerous complex issues in our world. There are good honest people on both sides. And many of those good honest people claim the name of Christ as Saviour, just as they did on both sides during the Civil War. What is it that we need to be reminded of?
This very diverse world is beset with may evils. Consider the ISIS attack just a few days agoin Barcelona. Spain that killed 14 people. It is one thing to hold and express an opinion, even one we would consider bigoted and caustic, but quite another to act upon that opinion in a violent way. What is it that we need to be reminded of?
In today’s Gospel Jesus and the disciples go to the north west of Galilee outside of Israel’s border into Gentile territory. Now there’s an opposition movement! Jews and Gentiles had nothing todo with each other. In fact, when a Samaritan town wouldn’t receive Jesus, James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven upon them. (Luke 9:54) Jesus had to chastize them for that attitude. When the Greek women in this account kept crying after Jesus for help, the disciples just wanted to get rid of her. It almost seems like Jesus did too with His response about not throwing bread to the dogs, but I think that was rather a test of the woman’s faith, which she passed with flying colors. As the account continued, Jesus saw the depth of the woman’s faith, a depth to which He always responded no matter from whom it came, and He delivered the woman’s daughter from the demon. Jesus was looking for a measure of faith, while the disciple were looking for one’s they considered worthy. What was it that they needed to be reminded of?
It is striking to think about the things that separate us. We want to be with people we are comfortable with, people we consider like us. Look at any gathering. Friends stay in their friend groups. Men gather in one corner of the room, women in another. Ethnic groups tend to gather with their own people rather than mixing together with others. That is human nature, especially fallen human nature. We meet someone with multiple piercings, tattoos, and orange hair we immediately have an opinion, often negative, and usually go the other way. God made the world in a very diverse manner. That is why we used the little song with the children this morning – “red, and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight”. What is it that we need to be reminded of?
Life is complex, and we are all different, but we are dealing with two different issues. One is the beliefs and opinions we hold, and the other is how we decide to act on those beliefs. My son-in-law ,John, also responded to my morning message and summed up the problem pretty well. He wrote:
“I really struggle with this. Not when seeing poor people, or people from other cultures, people of a skin color or tone of voice that is different from my own. Or different faiths. And gay people. That seems to come easy for me. It’s the people who want to marginalize, minimize, even eliminate those people. The bigots, the hatemongers, the judgers, the violently ignorant, those who lust for power, the self-righteous, those who want their share and yours, those who feel this is their country and everyone else is a guest, on and on. These people fill me with anger. I will always be resistant to their message and their crusade. I will never become tolerant and patient with that. But they are God’s children, too. Their willful harm of others, in all the ways they bring harm, makes it hard for me to love them. And that is my failing, not theirs.”
We are called to love our enemies. And be sure, such as these that John lists are enemies, enemies of what God’s word teaches and what He wants for all people. What is it that we need to be reminded of in dealing with such as these?
We can and should hate the message of White Supremacists, Neo Nazis, and the like. Regardless of what they claim, they have nothing to do with the Christian faith. Jesus hated. We always emphasize that Jesus loves all people, and that is certainly true. But when Jesus entered the Temple and saw the money changers and those selling animals, He knotted a rope driving them all out. He hated what they had done to His Father house of prayer. When Jesus went into the synagogue and wanted to heal a cripple on the Sabbath, the text says that He looked at the leaders with anger because of their hardness of heart. He hated their attitude of denying a good act because it conflicted with their strict laws. Jesus hated the attitudes that blocked people from receiving the grace God wants to bestow on all.
So we need to be reminded that God created all people, red and yellow, black and white, and that His love extends to all equally.
We need to be reminded that we are all sinful in nature and apart from the saving grace of Jesus Christ we are all lost.
We need to be reminded that we are called to humility before God, and given the charge to count others better than ourselves.(Philippians 2:3)
We need to be reminded that loving our enemy mean that we do not respond in kind to their actions, that we guard our own hearts, motives and actions, and that we seek to forgive as we have been forgiven.
We need to be reminded that we are our brothers keeper and need to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.
We need to be reminded to pray. Pray for those in authority to be guided by God’s wisdom and not their own; to pray for our enemies that God’s Spirit may touch and soften their hearts; pray for those who are suffering because of hatred that they would be comforted and find strength in their faith; pray for wisdom for ourselves to know how to think and act according to our faith in Christ; and pray for our Lord’s soon return for He alone will bring peace to the world.
And we need to be reminded that when God came to earth in human form He chose to occupy a Jewish body, one of the most outcast groups of all time. He really was telling us something we need to remember. Amen.
Now may the peace of God that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and mind sever and only in Christ Jesus . Amen
Take Courage It is I
Sermon: August 13, 2017
Job 38:4-18; Romans 10:5-17; Matthew 14:22-33
Each week we read three lessons from the Scripture using the lectionary series appointed for the church. Over a three year cycle we have read through almost all of the Bible. We believe Scripture reading should be a central act of our worship service. The Bible holds a central place in our faith. We say that it is God’s revealed word. It is food for our souls, a balm to sooth our pain, a guide for our understanding, a sword for our confrontation with evil, a judge for our own sins, and above all the word of God’s redemptive love for His people.
This year beginning with the Advent Season we have been reading through the Gospel of Matthew. We have followed Jesus from His birth, to His baptism by John in the Jordan, His temptations, and the beginning of His public ministry. We’ve read of the crowds flocking around Him, the jealousy and animosity of the Jewish leaders, and the various things He said and taught. Now, in Matthew 14 a multitude of over 5000 is fed with five small loaves of bread and two fish. Today’s lesson is something of an interlude, a 12 hour period, where we see something of the dynamics going on within Jesus and His disciples.
It begins after the crowd had been fed, Jesus dismissed them to return to their homes, and told the disciples to start back across the Sea of Galilee. I say it is a twelve hour period because the text tells us that when the disciple’s boat was in trouble it was the fourth watch of the night. By the Roman reckoning that would be between 3 and 6am in the morning. Jesus’ dismissal of the crowd was in the early evening, say 5 or 6pm. So about a twelve hour period. I call attention to this because when we read the Bible things seem to happen quickly, while, in fact, hours or days elapse between verses. We will see why this is important and what it says about the people involved. We get a glimpse into their hearts making God’s Word so much more real and relevant for us.
The account begins with Jesus going up on the mountain to pray alone. We know He did this frequently, but the time frame here would indicate that He was praying for perhaps 6 to 7 hours. Some may conjecture that He took a nap for part of that time, but I doubt that was the case. I’ve heard of people praying for lengthy periods of time, but I’ve never been able to do it myself. But when we think of Jesus getting alone with the Heavenly Father for that length of time it causes us to reflect on His nature and what He is going through for us. Thank about this. It is impossible for us to know all that went on in the heart and mind of this One who was truly man and truly God. Yet, meditating on this a bit opens up a whole new appreciation for the grace of God poured out to us.
St. John assures us that Jesus is God, and the author of all creation. He is God’s divine Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, eternally existent. Yet, out of love for creation the Son became a man, fully human. He became one of us to bring about God’s plan for redemption. St. Paul wrote, “being in the very nature of God, (He) did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross!”(Philippians 2:6-8)
Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, had willingly set aside His godly attributes accepting the limitations common to each of us. Out of the deepest love He experienced all of the pains and pressures, joys and sorrows, that face us in this fallen world. He also knew the perfection and beauty of God’s Kingdom, and all the good that God truly wanted for mankind. Yet, He saw around Him the tragedy that sin had wrought. This was the burden Jesus carried, and what He took into His time of prayer on the mountain. He prayed for the people He loved, and for their growth in faith. For the nation, Israel, His people by birth, that God had used for centuries to bring His good will, and whom He grieved over because of their hardness of heart. He prayed for His own physical strength, and resolve to continue the redeeming task for which He had come. He knew it would lead to His suffering and death.
I only highlight this so we think more deeply, and come to appreciate more fully what God has done for us in His Son, Jesus Christ. Not just the cross, but the burden He carried for us all throughout His time on earth.
Now, to continue with the account. The weather had turned foul as it can quickly do in the hills around Galilee. His disciple were struggling at the oars in these early morning hours, fearful for their safety. The text tells us that Jesus came walking on the water. The wind was raging, the sea stirred up to a foaming caldron, and visibility limited. The disciples seeing Jesus thought it was an apparition, a ghost. This terrified them the more, and they cried out in fear. Jesus called out, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”(vs.27)
The text tells us that later on, after Jesus got into the boat, that everything became calm. But it is important to note that this was not the first thing Jesus did. The storm was there when He was on the mountain. The storm was there when He took His first steps on the water. And the storm was still there when He invited Peter to get out of the boat and come. The storm raged until Jesus finally got into the boat.
Did He know the storm was coming when He sent the disciples away on the Sea? We don’t know. That text doesn’t say. But we do know that He didn’t still the storm. The disciples were experienced fisherman, and they knew well when things were beyond their control. Fear raised in their hearts, and now seeing the “spirit”, fears changed to terror.
Even the 2000 years that separates us from them doesn’t change the human emotions we feel when life gets out of control. Every storm cannot be anticipated or planned for. We’ve been there in that boat in the sea, wondering where the Lord is, and why the storm is not stilled.
Martin Luther said that there were three aspects in our Christian life that help us to grow in an understanding of our life with God. The first is prayer – earnest God seeking prayer. The second is meditation – reading, studying, and thinking seriously about the Bible, God’s Word. And the third was suffering – the trials, and testings we go through in life. Perhaps this third aspect gives us some insight as to why Jesus didn’t or doesn’t immediately still the storms of life. His invitation to Peter was “come”. In your faith step out of the boat and come. It is in the storm that we cry out “Lord save me”.
It is just here, in the midst of the storm, that He says, “Take courage! It is I.” Here is where looking at the original language of the text is important. The simple little phrase “It is I” are two Greek words “ego emai”. They are words Jesus used a number of time in the Gospels to refer to Himself. They are the words that almost got Him stoned to death when He said to the Pharisees “before Abraham was born ego emai.” That is “I Am”. Jesus was taking the most sacred and holy name of Almighty God for Himself. Yahweh in the Hebrew. It is the name God told Moses to tell the captives in Egypt who was sending him to them.
Jesus said, “Take courage”. The I Am, the eternally existent God, is with you. Do not be afraid. In the other account of a storm at sea when Jesus was asleep in the boat, He questioned why the disciples were so afraid.(Matthew 8) Even if we perish the eternal I Am is there. This has always been what has caused the martyrs through all the centuries of the church to go to their deaths with a joyful song on their lips.
Of course, uncertainty, pain, and fear attend us in this life. The storms do not stop when we want them to. Jesus understood this as He prayed for those hours on the mountainside. He was underlining to His followers what the Psalmist had said hundreds of years before, “He who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”(Psalm 121:3-4)
And so we find ourselves in all the storms of life. There are storms inside with temptation and sins; with questions, doubts, and fears. There are storms on the outside of trials that seem endless. Yet the word of the Lord is still the same. “Take courage! It is I.” Ego emai, I AM, I will never leave or forsake you. I will ask you to get out of the boat while the storms are raging, but I will bring you through to calm seas. Amen.
Now may the peace of God that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds ever and only in Christ Jesus . Amen
Pastor Irvin F. Stapf, Jr. Christ Lutheran Church, AALC
Invitation To The Banquet
Sermon: August 6, 2017
Isaiah 55:1-5; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
Last week I said I felt the need to speak about all the conditions that are tearing our society apart. Sometimes I get overwhelmed at the sin that has gripped the world and the battles the devil is winning. We do need to be aware of the spiritual battle Christians face, to know where we stand, and to be more urgent in prayer. Sin has been in the world since the Fall, but it is becoming more intense, open and universal. Our prayers for the Lord’s return are urgent.
However, there is something else in the world that has been here ever since Jesus came forth from the tomb on Easter Sunday. He brought with Him an invitation to a banquet. And not just any banquet, but one over which Jesus, Himself, presides. The Prophet Isaiah describes what has been put into our hands. An invitation on cream colored card stock with gold lettering.”Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” (55:1) This is Jesus’ invitation to all, and He doesn’t skimp on the preparation or the food. Even when He fed the multitude on the hillside over Galilee all ate and were satisfied. There were even leftovers for people to take home for the next day.
In Revelation 19 the banquet is spoken of as “the marriage supper of the lamb”.(vs.9) Nothing can be more glorious, and it is held out as a promise for those who love Him.
Isaiah 55:12 declares “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” If such a banquet is true then the expression of Isaiah is very fitting. We walk forward in joy and are led by the hand in a depth of peace. This is what the Lord wants for each one who lives in Him. It is why peace is the central message of the benediction used at the end of each sermon, and at the end of each service. God wants us to come to His banquet table and know His peace.
Peace is the Hebrew word Shalom. It is one of the richest words in the Old Testament. It was the word the priests used to bless the people, and the word the people used to greet one another, and do to this day. It is a word that conveys the desire for complete wholeness to the hearer. It means that the full covenant blessing of God is being extended, and that one is wishing the other the full enjoyment of all of God’s promises. It is what Jesus was giving to the disciples on Holy Thursday when He said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”(John 14:27)
The people of all nations want peace, as do their governments. Of course, they all want it on their own terms. Peace can’t be found by politics and armies. It can’t be found just by saying we should following the golden rule, or try more to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Somehow pride, self interest, greed and the rest of the sins that infect mankind block every effort. Have you ever read of the preparations for one of the major peace conferences? The country’s representative will argue for weeks beforehand about the shape of the meeting table, and the seating arrangements. Each group has to be seen as a power player. Or those working in the law firms, or in the halls of congress, image is everything. Ok, that may be understandable in the natural world, but it only underlines how deeply mankind is infected with sin. The one thing that people truly want is the one thing they are unable to achieve.
Isaiah chapters 54 and 55 are marvelous images of what God wants for us, and what He will ultimately achieve. However, those chapters are preceded by chapter 53, the appearance of the Suffering Servant. The peace that we so desperately desire can come only by being brought back into a right relationship with God. God saw us in our need reaching out when we were incapable of reaching out to Him. He must provide the way to peace. Isaiah was shown the only true path when he wrote, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, …. he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”(vss.4-5) It is Christ’s work alone that prepared us for the banquet table and the full measure of peace that is served.
Jesus told a parable about a king who was giving a wedding banquet for his son. The gold embossed invitations had been given, and the hour had come. Some of the invited guests began to make excuses. They had other commitments. They had business transactions to conduct. There were pressing family matters. This angered the gracious king, so he sent his servants out into the streets and neighborhoods, even some of the roughest in the town. Finally the banquet hall was filled. The king came in to greet his guests, but there was one man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. We might think this excusable considering that they had just been called off of the streets. But this was not an excuse. It was the custom of the king to provide a festive garment for each guest who came. So there was no excuse. This fellow had simply refused the kings gracious gift. He was escorted from the table into the outer darkness. The banquet continued with great joy for those who wore the beautiful robe of righteousness provided by the king.
The good hand of our Lord is extended to us in Isaiah’s words. “Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.”(vs.3)
When one faces a difficult situation, or illness in the family, or sees the pressures that confront us in society, there is the constant tendency to think ahead. What if this happens? What should I do if it goes this way? These are the questions insurance companies make their money on, but they are questions we simply cannot answer. We simply do not know, and there are a hundred directions life can take. Yet, the invitation is still there. “Come to Me.” There is nothing wrong with being prudent, and doing some proper planning, but there is much that we must leave in God’s hands. We have to trust that the invitation to the banquet is absolutely true.
When one sits down to a festive banquet they don’t worry if the food has been properly cooked, or if there will be enough to go around. All that is left in the hands of the host.
In this world we have not yet come to the table, but the invitation is in hand. It has been delivered to you by God’s Spirit, Himself. Paul said that we have the Holy Spirit as our guarantee. We have seen His hand working in many ways throughout our lives. We have been given the wedding garment of Christ’s righteousness. We can come, stand before the King, and be seated at His generous table. We don’t know what is ahead, and we cannot answer or prepare for all of the “what ifs”. But we have the certainty of all that God has done for us throughout our lives, and we can trust Him to lead us through whatever stumbling blocks may yet get in the way until we are seated at his table. This is the truth to which we hold, and in which we can be at peace. Amen.
Now may the peace of God that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and minds ever and only in Christ Jesus . Amen
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + Pastor Irvin F. Stapf, Jr. Christ Lutheran Church, AALC Germantown, Maryland