September 18, 2017

September 17, 2017 - Galatians 4:9

Theme: The Lord Knows Those Who Are His
1. By a relational knowledge
2. For a saving faith

Out text for study this weekend is Galatians 4 but we look intently at verse 9:

Galatians 4:9 But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?

Can you imagine losing everything you have or know overnight? Going from prosperity to poverty; from educated to illiterate; from famous to obscure? We all have fears of losing the things which are most important to us in life. Most people would shudder to think about losing the things I just mentioned. Sometimes the idea of hitting the reset button on life is spoken of positively; in times when we’ve cornered ourselves into a bad situation, or when plans haven’t worked out the way we wanted. But, we don’t often think of the other end of the reset spectrum, namely losing what we have. That’s probably because it hardly ever happens. You can lose a lot in life without losing everything.

If it’s difficult to imagine the total loss of your knowledge, it’s well-nigh impossible to imagine the loss of God’s knowledge. Think of God, the eternal One, the all-knowing One, the righteous One. How vast His knowledge is! What if you had that and lost it all? It would be devastating to say the least. Yet, when it comes to people’s fears of loss in life, they often ignore losing out on God’s knowledge.
Maybe that’s because people have a hard time thinking that they could have the same knowledge of God. The honest truth is that even in perfection we will never be fully the same as God. He will always be Creator, we will always be the creation.

But, here in verse 9 of Galatians 4 Paul peels back the curtain of faith and talks about the danger of losing God’s knowledge; not in the sense that we change who God is but that we change who God intended us to be. Paul’s fear for the Galatians was that they would return to the “weak and beggarly elements” from which they came and thereby lose how they knew God and how they were known by God. Paul is describing the gift of faith. It is both a knowledge that we possess and a knowledge that God has of us. But, just like the many fears of people in the world, this aspect of faith is often overlooked by Christians, yet it is the very reason we have hope of life with God.

This is why I want to single out verse 9 today. It is simply too profound to gloss over and its implications are far-reaching in our lives. In a way, verse 9 encapsulates the entire purpose of the book of Galatians. This is the cliff-notes version, the one sentence summary. Everything we’ve covered so far in this sermon series is contained in these words. Paul wrote this letter because the Galatians had brought their faith in Jesus under fire by allowing false teachers to sow lies. These lies, if not checked and destroyed, would bring them back to the same place there before Paul met them – unbelief. 

To show them the seriousness of this prospect, Paul reminds that what they would be losing. First – their knowledge of God. He describes faith as knowing God and that certainly fits. This is the primary way we think of faith. It is a conscious, relational trust with God. Here, the word “know” is used to describe faith’s connection. But, there are always different levels of knowledge. I may know about something, say open heart surgery, but not have a deeper connection than simply knowing it is a medical procedure. Likewise, there are many people who “know” of God, but they don’t have a relationship with Him. Paul writes in Romans 2 about how people know God exists because He was written His law in their hearts. Because of that very fact, Paul says there is no excuse for unbelief. Even more advanced knowledge of God doesn’t guarantee truth faith, either. The Pharisees knew a lot more about God than the average person but they didn’t have faith.

The key for us is in the word itself. The Greek has two words for knowledge. The first indicates head knowledge of facts. The second indicates a more intimate knowledge by association. In verse 9 I’m sure you can guess that the second word is used for both our knowledge of God and His knowledge of us. One commentator describes the difference as knowledge by perception vs. knowledge by relationship.

There are two important distinctions about relational knowledge:

1. There is ownership involved. If I go over to a friend’s house and help him with some yardwork, I may know the ins and outs of his lawnmower or hedge-trimmer better than he does. I may be able to use them more skillfully than he can. But, at the end of the day, they are both his. I do not know them as owner. The first part of chapter 4 talks about God’s ownership of you. You are like a servant to the Master. You are a child to the Father. One of the troubling areas of the Galatian church was that they were excluding Gentiles from this ownership aspect. They had been led to believe that only Jewish people were important to God so if someone wanted to be God’s child they had to live and act Jewish. That was wrong. Christ is the binding link for all people to God.

2. There is an effect to relational knowledge. Ownership sounds like an oppressive thing, but God tells us it’s actually the key to our liberation. Eventually, that servant who becomes an heir receives the inheritance. The free gift of life eternal is something that all believers are waiting for. It is the effect to our faith and only a relational knowledge of Christ allows that effect to happen.

Okay, so heart knowledge is better than head knowledge – that’s easy enough to understand. But, the next question is the one where Christians go in different directions. Once our knowledge of God is introduced the logical thought is, how much? How soon can we start knowing God? How much do we need to know about God? Essentially, these questions all boil down to one – How can I be assured that I am saved? And make no mistake, that is an important question and it’s one that every Christian wrestles with.  

When facing these questions, it’s the relational, effective knowledge that God has of us that makes the difference. There’s more to faith than what we know. The knowledge of faith is not one-sided. Knowledge is required, to be sure, but not ours. It is being known by God that is most important. As Paul writes, it’s almost as if he catches himself. He says, “But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God…” It’s so easy and natural to think that faith is all about what we know about God. But, that’s not even the most important aspect of faith. The word that separates these two realms of knowledge, “rather”, more fully means “to a greater degree” or “for a better reason.” This is not a truth that only applied to the Galatians in their setting. God’s knowledge of who we are is better, more superior reason for believing than our knowledge of Him.

This is the great treasure that Paul warned the Galatians about losing. It is the treasure that he explained in the chapters 1-3 as being created and sustained by the gospel. If they fell from faith it would not mean a loss of perception knowledge. They would still know all the facts about God that they knew while they believed. It would be a loss of relational knowledge, and not only their knowing God, but God knowing them. Ask yourself, what’s the bigger loss?

Go back to that question all Christians wrestle with – how can I be sure I’m saved? If we only think our knowledge of God we will always fall short of full confidence. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not calling for ignorance among believers. Knowing God is absolutely a part of faith and as faith grows that knowledge is also meant to grow. But, our knowledge of God is not the key to our confidence of faith. The Bible is clear in a number of other places on this matter too:

As our Great Shepherd Jesus says this: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” (John 10:27)

To false believers Jesus says, “And then I will declare to them,`I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:23)

Paul told Timothy that “the solid foundation of God” is this “The Lord knows those who are His.” (2 Timothy 2:19)

And perhaps most telling of all is Paul’s description of perfect love in 1 Corinthians 13, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” Paul’s great hope was that in heaven he would know as God knows now – how God knows him now. That is the completion of faith -  that is the pinnacle of our hope. We know some now. God knows all now. One day, we will be with Him. As great as our knowledge may be in this world, it is nothing but a dim mirror when compared to God’s. What then, should be use to encourage one another in that faith? According to God’s Words, the answer is abundantly obvious. 

As I said before, the implications here are far-reaching. The basis of our faith is God’s grace in Christ. This is almost universally accepted by all Christians. Grace is, by nature, a passive thing from our perspective. We are on the receiving end. Most evangelical Christians will not disagree on this point. However, a great divergence exists when it comes to faith. Christians talk about the same Bible, the same Savior, the same grace, yet there are vastly different teachings and applications when it comes to faith. Why?

I believe that modern Christianity has taken the passive nature out of faith. If we wouldn’t do it the same to grace, why would we when it comes to faith? It makes no sense to emphasize our passivity in grace and but then shift the emphasis to our activity in faith. Not only is the intrinsic nature of faith always the same as grace, namely passive from the human perspective; they are more importantly both the gifts of our Savior Jesus. He fought and died to share His grace and to lead us to faith. He promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to help make that possible in our lives. That is why we confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, nor come to Him, but the Holy Spirit calls me by the gospel…”

The pressing question of how can I be secure in my faith has created a rift in Christianity. Therefore, it still matters that we emphasize true faith. It still makes a difference that we trust in God’s knowing over our own. And it is still important that we practice our faith according to these truths.

The profound truth in this single verse is that God’s relational knowledge of you is greater than your relational knowledge of Him, even though both are involved in faith. But when we apply this to our lives, we understand even more. Our perception of God follows our relationship with God. Therefore, is it really too hard to believe, then, that a 1 or 2 day old infant could believe in Jesus? Is it too much to shower the deathbed at the nursing home with promises of grace and life eternal? In those setting the perceptional knowledge of the individual is absent – but the effective, relational knowledge is ever present in His Word. If nothing is impossible for the eternal God, let us never relegate faith to our realm of knowledge alone. And when we look for something to trust, let us turn to Him, and the fact that He knows us today as we hope, one day, to know Him in heaven.   

To close, I’d like to share a quote about faith with you from prominent American pastor. He says, “Imagine you are on a high cliff and you lose your footing and begin to fall. Just beside you as you fall is a branch sticking out of the very edge of the cliff. It is your only hope and it is more than strong enough to support your weight. How can it save you? If you mind is filled with intellectual certainty that the branch can support you but you don’t actually reach out and grab it, you are lost. If your mind is instead filled with doubts and uncertainty that the branch can hold you, but you reach out and grab it anyway, you will be saved. Why? It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you. Strong faith in a weak branch is fatally inferior to weak faith in a strong branch.”

Would you reach out and grab the branch? I propose even asking that question is wrong. What you should ask is, Has God reached down, of His own accord, and grabbed you hand? Has he entered time and space and conquered the very pit of hell for you? Is Jesus strong enough to save you? Does God know those who are His? Any of those questions are much more appropriate, for if you truly believe everything about you sin yet and then are led to trust that you must reach out and grab salvation, you are just as lost as when you began. 

The truth is this: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Jesus is my hope, my strength, my defense, the sole object of my faith. This matters not only when it comes to how He saved me, but also when I receive that salvation in my heart. This is my boast, not that I have known God, but that He has known me, long before and long after… Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Preached at Redemption, 9-17-17 

September 12, 2017

September 10, 2017 - 1 Peter 1:13-16

A Christ-centered Spirituality…
1. Seeks maturity.
2. Is serious about the serious
3. Hopes completely

“Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide.” Amen.

Today we talk about spirituality. I don’t know about you but I tend to find spirituality to be a difficult word to understand. I think that’s partly because it is such a broad-ranging word in our culture. The dictionary defines it as the “quality of being concerned with the human spirit and soul as opposed to material or physical things.” This definition helps us see that spirituality deals with the areas of life that are beyond our five senses. All humans are spiritual creatures. We know this because God tells us so. We are His creation. He is a Spirit. Therefore, we have a spiritual element to our being.

But, we also know this by experience. We wrestle with feelings and emotions. We have cares and desires. We use logic and reason to think. These are all immaterial things. The rational world alone cannot explain their existence or their ultimate use. Here’s where spirituality becomes a difficult thing. We are talking about the immaterial realm of life, but so often people use the material to learn about it. A person’s spirituality will govern what the immaterial parts of life mean for them – how it shapes who we are. Therefore, it is absolute foolishness to understand one’s spirituality in terms of possessions, money, pleasure, or societal acceptance. How much more foolish to be led spiritually by these things!

To truly know the spiritual, to truly be led in the right direction by it, we need someone who is already spiritual. That’s where God comes in. He is Spirit and Truth. He has existed from the beginning. He controls everything in heaven and earth. And so He is our teacher, guide, and Savior when it comes to spirituality. A Christian’s spirituality is based on the cross of Jesus and what He did for us there. One Christian writer puts it this way: “Spirituality is not any kind of content-free, theologically-vacant quest for transcendent experiences, rather spirituality has to do precisely with content, what fills theology, and gives real substance to the everyday life of the Christian.” Every person is looking for some spiritual fulfillment, but are they looking to Christ? Are we? We see from His Word today, He is more than ready to care for and bless our souls – to fill us spiritually:  

1 Peter 1:13-16 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, "You shall be holy, for I am holy."

Some may tell us that we’re nothing more than mortal and material – that after this life everything is over. But try as a person may, you simply can’t escape the reality of the spiritual. With this reality comes a natural desire to feel satisfied in our souls. We long to do something in life that matters. We take joy in making a difference in someone else’s life. These things all reach back to our need to fulfill ourselves spiritually. A big problem we face, however, is to fill these spiritual longings with worthless fluff. We have a tendency to make unserious things serious, and serious things unserious. It’s fitting that we think about this on the opening week of football season because I have a story to that effect.

About 10 years ago a die-hard Baltimore Ravens fan decided he would sit on the roof of a bar until his beloved team won a game or fired their head coach. As ridiculous as this sounds, he stayed up there for about a week and started gaining media attention and popularity. He was heralded as a loyal fan who deserved better from the big, rich NFL team. He became a local symbol for the Ravens faithful. After the whole thing died down it came out in the news that he was delinquent in his child support payments by several thousand dollars. As quickly as his celebrity had been established it was gone. He was now despised by the general populace. At first, this man’s story perhaps made people chuckle a bit, or even admire him. But, dig a bit deeper, and you feel anger and sorrow over the lack of priorities in his life.

We like to distance ourselves from people like this man, but the truth is we’re not so different. When the facts all came out, what he was in the end was a person who took his football fandom more seriously than his family. Now, I enjoy football just as much as anyone. But, in many ways it has overtaken our culture. As popularity and attendance at stadiums increases, church membership is on the decline in our nation. It doesn’t always mean we have to choose between a game and our Lord, but often we do and often the wrong choice is made. 

Even if football isn’t your thing, I’m sure there are a more than a handful of things in life that you take super seriously, that really aren’t all that important. We often move heaven and earth to get these things because we convince ourselves we need them, when the reality of it is that very often the more material things fill our lives the more empty we feel on the inside. The issue here is a matter of spirituality. We are trying to find fulfillment in worldly things and not in God.

As Peter writes, we need a certain level of maturity in our lives. He describes it as be sober-minded, putting away former ignorance, and seeking holiness. Again, we want to convince ourselves that our worldly lives are separate from our spiritual lives. We try to act like we can strike the perfect balance between the two. Sometimes, we are even offended that anyone would venture to suggest we have an unhealthy ratio in our lives; or even that that could be the very cause of some of the problems we experience.

Let us remember that proper spirituality takes maturity. A sign of maturity is being willing to admit mistakes. Paul wrote elsewhere, Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:12) Little things like football can create big heartaches when they become more serious than they should be. You could apply this to a number of other areas too. Some mornings we would do whatever it takes to get our coffee, even if it meant paying handsomely for it, but do we take a moment in prayer or devotion at the beginning of the day? We check and analyze social media religiously, but are we willing to cut it off if it’s making us self-centered or if it’s giving us an unhealthy outlook on life? You see, we can be disciplined in what we want to be disciplined in, but so often we substitute the unserious for the serious. Most all of us would do anything for our kids. But when they need to talk about the spiritual issues they face in life, the times that they need help in applying God’s Word, are we as disciplined in making sure they get that as we are in getting them to that movie or getting them that cell phone?

All these situations and infinitely more directly affect our spirituality and it takes maturity to make the set the right priorities and provide the proper example. But, the thing about the path of maturity is that it’s a lot like the path to salvation. It’s narrow, difficult, unpopular, impossible for us to traverse alone.

Peter calls for us to be sober-minded. Being sober means more here than just not being drunk. It means being even-keeled, having a temperate, patient attitude. In our culture, that’s often seen as the opposite of spirituality. People automatically equate spirituality with the ridiculous and the supernatural. If someone can do something others can’t, like see visions, or feel the Holy Spirit’s presence, or perform healings, they must be spiritual. Our culture likes to equate spirituality with one’s works. The better you are the more spiritual you must be. Not so with God, though. He wants us to be sober, which is not very fancy on the outside. People don’t often notice the sober-minded ones. Those who stay out of the spotlight aren’t often heralded as the greatest. But it works that way because God operates in the heart.

And doesn’t this make perfect sense with our struggle with spirituality? So far today we’ve reminded ourselves that a major problem we have is making the unserious serious. This happens when we try to find fulfillment for spiritual needs with material things. If this is a problem how does turning to our works help the situation anymore? It will only lead us further into despair and away from the true solution.     

That’s exactly what Peter talks about next by saying, “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The command from God is to “hope.” An adverb tells us about that hope, it is to be a “complete hope.” We are to fully hope in the gift of God’s grace in Jesus. Think about that for a moment. Isn’t the phrase, “hope completely” an oxymoron? Isn’t the very reason we have to hope because we don’t have it completely yet?  Paul writes, For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? Paul writes that if you see what you want, you can’t hope for it anymore because it is there. Your desire for what you seek no longer is hope at that moment. It’s hard to be complete about something when you can’t even see it. It’s hard to believe you have something if it’s not present with you.

This is precisely what spirituality is – confidence in the unseen. Absolute belief about something that is beyond our senses. From our perspective, it does seem contradictory because the only experience we’ve had with reality is in what we sense. God tells us He is more and we are made for more. God says we can hope completely when it comes to His Son, Jesus. The same thing has often been described as the “Now, but not yet” quality of our faith. We have the blessings of Jesus today by faith. Our sins are taken away. We are renewed and forgiven. We have been reborn through Baptism. God has established His covenant with us. Jesus declared on the cross that “It is finished.” All of those things are absolutely true now. And yet, we hope. We wait for the greatest fulfillment. We wait for the final victory over sin and death, at least our ability to fully experience it. Life with God is now, but also not yet. We hope but we hope completely.

Only God could lead us to trust something so profound, so unlike the world we live in. That’s why Peter calls it the “revelation of Jesus Christ.” He gets to enlighten us. It’s His truth to share because He claimed the victory. And so also, the spirituality to live in that faith comes through Jesus. If we are seeking fulfillment for that inner need through worldly things we will always be let down. If our priorities are misplaced we will lack fulfillment. If the best things in life are always right in front of us, like football, or coffee, or shopping or whatever else it is that gives us happiness, we will never have to hope. We can easily be disciplined in seeking these things because it won’t require hope. But spirituality without hope is not of Christ. If we are seeking first kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, then we will always be seeking by faith while we are here.

We seek maturity, sober-mindedness, and wisdom not because they increase our spirituality. We avoid our former ignorant beliefs and we repent of our sins not because do so makes better or more suited than others. We do all those things because they lead us to Christ. They are the patterns that are established when the Holy Spirit is leading us to center our lives on grace of Jesus. And His grace is and always has been the only source of spirituality. May we always be filled by it. Amen. 

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

September 5, 2017

September 3, 2017 - James 1:2-12

Theme: Proof of Your Approval
1. Trials are not pointless
2. Prayer is not worthless

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, our Lord. The portion of His Word to share with you today, and apply to our hearts, comes from James 1:2-12:

James 1:2-12 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. 9 Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation, 10 but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away. 11 For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits. 12 Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.

This week was a big one in our household. For starters, Micah learned how to tie his shoes. Any parent who has been through this before knows what a highlight it is. It’s not easy, I can remember when I learned. I had to keep on reminding Micah that it wasn’t an impossible task. I kept having to remind Micah that anything worth having is worth the work. It was also a big week for Gretchen, who has been taking several nursing classes for continuing education in the past weeks. This week she finished and could renew her license. It didn’t take quite as much encouragement as Micah to keep her on point, but it was difficult nonetheless. She needed to work to earn that title of Registered Nurse and more week was needed to keep it.

Anything worth having is worth working for. We know that to be true by experience in life. Think of other accomplishments like: getting your driver’s license, graduating high school or college, or getting through a piano recital. Life is filled with those types of tests. It might seem nice to have a life without tests and work but actually having it that way wouldn’t be all that fulfilling. We reflect on work and tests this Labor Day weekend, as we remember the blessing of work. Work, and even tests, were part of God’s original, perfect creation. And in a fallen world where people seek every advantage over others, even through fraudulent, greedy, and corrupt means, tests are needed more than ever. In a way, it’s how we separate the good from the bad.

But, when we think of work or tests our good Lutheran consciences cringe a bit. Let’s be careful about making too much of work. How can it be true that anything worth having in life is worth working for? Even as said that to Micah I was taken back a bit in my mind. Is it really true? I know what experience has taught me but should I really say it? If salvation is free in Christ, should we really be talking about work?

If you’ve ever felt this way before, do not be alarmed. It’s precisely this element of our faith that James addresses in today’s text. In addition to emphasizing salvation by works, there lies an equally dangerous pit on the other end of the spectrum that would minimize the importance of works or the reason God tests us in our faith. If our reliance upon grace and faith alone in Christ has caused a misunderstanding of the testing of our faith, we should reexamine our beliefs. If we expect life to be straightforward, even our faith, because we have freely received it without effort from God we should think again. Faith is a path of constant testing, both to keep us strong but also to give us proof that we are approved.

Part 1: Trials are not pointless

It doesn’t take James long to get to the point in this letter. He greets the Christians in verse one and then bam, right away in verse 2 he starts talking about trials. The word for “fall into” in verse 2 literally means to run head-on into something, to have it strike you in the face without time to react. Doesn’t that fit perfectly with many of the trials we face in life? So often, they are unexpected. Life seems normal. Time seems to slow for a moment, and then another trial smacks us in the face.

Surprising as trials often are, James’ first thought is that they are not pointless. He explains what God plans through trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. Peter stated a similar thing in his first letter, In this (salvation) you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 8 whom having not seen you love. (1 Peter 1: 6-8)

God has a plan for your life in all trials. This simple truth is so important to continuing in the faith. What we suffer through in this life is not a product of blind chaos – there is always a purpose and always a plan. Sometimes that plan can be part of God disciplining us for a certain sin. Sometimes He may be sharpening our minds for something coming down the road. Sometimes He wants to increase our empathy for others. Sometimes He has a lesson for us to learn. No matter what the specific reason is, nothing happens outside of God’s bigger plan of salvation.

God’s singular goal for our lives is to bless us. As James says at the end of verse 4, that we would “lack nothing.” That sounds good, doesn’t it, but it often comes in unexpected ways. God can bless our lives by taking something away. Sometimes, when we lose a treasured possession or even a loved one, it can re-focus our perspective on heaven, and away from this sinful world. That’s a blessing. Sometimes, when we’re punished for a sin or we receive difficulty because of the circumstance we created, humility can lead us back to the cross for forgiveness. That’s a blessing. Sometimes, when we cry out in anguish because there’s nothing we can do, the only path forward is to trust in the power of our Savior. That’s a blessing. In every trial, a rich blessing is waiting at the other end. James urges us to remember that. God wants to you have no lack of blessings. Just as David wrote in Psalm 23, our expectation should be to have our “cup run over” with God’s goodness.

Part 2: Prayer is not worthless

How interesting, though, that immediately after laying out this goal, James proceeds to write, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God...” Right after declaring that God’s hope is for us to lack nothing, James picks us by telling us what to do when we lack. Hence, the ironic life of the Christian faith. We know and trust what God wants for us, we believe it, but we so often don’t have it. Our hope is that we have a God who is indeed able to supply everything we need, but we also know that our sins and transgressions will get in the way. So, James must address both perspectives, both the truth of what God promises and the reality of our situation as ones who have fallen from holiness.

But, even in this setting God does not leave us to fend for ourselves in the world. He throws us a lifeline, a direct line of communication with Him, the power of prayer. The connection is unmistakable, the path to a truly carefree life is through communication with our heavenly Father.

Diving into the nature of prayer gives us insight into its power. “Ask” in our text is not only a command, it means a type of request that reaches the point of demanding something. Here’s a picture to give you an idea about the tenacity of the word. It’s the same one used to describe how the mob “asked” Pilate to crucify Jesus. This is not a timid request where a person says the words but doesn’t anticipate a result. This word is not used for a person who is willing to back down quickly. This is bold call, used by someone who knows without doubt that they deserve to have what they are asking for.

This is the kind of confidence we should have before God; it’s what He commands of us. This is how we should pray. James says, let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. Paul said similarly to the Ephesians, that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ. There is no room for doubt in our faith. This is the truth. Yet, just as James wrote when it comes to lacking nothing, truth doesn’t always become reality in our lives; at least not immediately. So often we do doubt in our faith.

In moments of doubt, James would again point us back to our confidence. The source of your confidence has a lot to say about whether or not you will doubt. James describes the Christian’s confidence this way, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach. This statement tells a lot more than just that God wants to bless us. It is a look into the nature of God. He is defining Himself for us. We are taught to pray to God, but not just any God. He is the God who “gives liberally and without reproach.”

The word used in our text for “gives” is a participle. In the Greek this means an action that keeps on going. Pair this with “liberally” which means out of abundance or generously and we see that we have a God who is continually giving generously to us. But, don’t forget about the end of the verse, either. Reproach is an attitude that looks down on others. How easy it is to reproach others when we give them something. We know it’s right to give so we do, but we do it with a bad attitude. We give with reproach when we say things like, They didn’t work hard enough so they need help. They didn’t do things right, so they need help. They were lazy so they need help. This is an especially dangerous sin because we feel justified in our reproach because we’re giving.

How amazing then, that God gives without reproach. He’s the One being in the entire universe who would have just cause to look down on others and He chooses not to. He keeps on giving generously without disparaging those who receive His blessings. This is the nature of our God and this is why prayer is not worthless. The human reaction is to think that the value of prayer is based on its length, or the beauty or properness of its words, but none of that matters in the end. Prayer is valuable because it goes to our powerful God, and His nature is such that He delights in blessing us even when we don’t deserve it.

A prayer that trusts in the nature of God is powerful in the face of trials. A prayer that trusts is a prayer made in faith, as James writes. What more powerful example of the goodness of God than the image of His own Son bearing the reproach of our sins on the cross? His death is the greatest example of trust in the face of trial because He submitted Himself to the Father’s will as recorded in the Word.
That’s what gives us approval. That is what allows us to demand that God bless us as He has promised, to pray in the manner of expectation that we deserved what we are asking for. Not because of our works, but because of Christ’s. It’s absolutely true that anything worth having is worth working for. Jesus Christ did the work.

God asks us to mirror the same trust our Savior showed on Calvary by coming to Him in prayer. The beauty of our lives is that Christ did all the work for us. The same one who daily blesses us is the one who unlocked those blessings for us. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

August 28, 2017

August 27, 2017 - Colossians 2:6-10

Theme: A Complete God means a Complete Believer

One of the first major doctrinal attacks upon God’s Church was the uprising of Gnosticism. Gnosticism comes from the Greek word for knowledge. As a religious belief it is a mixture of several different religions of both Western and Eastern influence. Gnosticism was around even before Jesus came to earth but it reached its height in the late 100s AD, just as the Christian Church was also growing and coming into its own.

According to Gnosticism, the greatest evil in the world is matter. Salvation consists in separating oneself from matter. According to Gnosticism, evil entered the world when wisdom entered the world and created a union with matter that gave birth to a Demiurge, or lesser god. To Gnostic teachers, this demiurge was Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament. According to their beliefs, Jehovah claimed to be the only divine, but was really ignorant of the greater truth that He was simply in charge of this fallen realm. Here’s where the main connection to Christianity comes. Gnosticism teaches that through Christ, the chosen one, redemption came. This chosen one entered Jesus at His baptism and left Him at His death. Christ was the Gnostic Savior in that He taught true Wisdom while He was on earth, not that He died for sins. For Gnosticism, the great evil of matter was conquered through the spiritual wisdom. Not surprisingly then, Gnosticism denies both the true humanity and true divinity of Jesus. To them, He was simply the vessel through which their chosen one revealed wisdom. In fact, it was taught that Jesus’ own body served as insulation against the true chosen one coming into contact with evil matter.

What we see under this carefully crafted and complicated lie is a direct attack against our Savior, leveled against God’s Church at a time when it was extremely fragile. The lies of Gnosticism continue to be promoted today in various forms. Therefore, let us not take for granted the precious truth that our Savior Jesus is both man and God, and in that way is our only perfect Savior. Against the backdrop of this context, consider the words of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, from chapter 2, verses 6-10. 

Colossians 2:6-10 As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. 8 Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; 10 and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.

This is one of those portions of Scripture that reminds us, having the true God is so important. But that’s not what we often hear today. We hear, “Be a good person, that is what really matters.” We hear, “Correct doctrine is not what saves a person, don’t be such a stickler.” We hear, “Don’t judge others or even dare to tell them they’re wrong, let each person believe what they want.” We don’t often hear, at least from world, “I believe that Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, is my Lord.”

Suppose your next-door neighbor was Gnostic. The brief overview I gave of that religious belief probably sounded quite outlandish. If not much of it made sense, hopefully you at least gathered that a Gnostic denies the true Jesus. So, suppose your neighbor believed this. Would you say anything to them? Suppose the majority of people in our community, in our nation, believed it. Would you stand firm against it? Would you defend Jesus, knowing that it is a direct attack against Him? The right answer is abundantly obvious, of course we would take a stand; absolutely we would tell others the truth.
But, there’s a great temptation in desiring to conform, no matter how ridiculous the majority opinion is. Our actual culture is currently filled with equally dangerous beliefs, things that are not hypothetical for us but reality. As we think of the beginning of the school year it reminds us that the evolutionary tale and the sinful lifestyles that develop out of it are taught and promoted widely to young children in our nation. Kids are learning that they are not made in the image of God but rather are highly developed animals.

We are all know how easy it is to hasten after riches in this life instead of invested our time in spiritual treasures from God’s Word. God’s truth is that neither success nor happiness is measured in material terms. Everyone knows this, yet so many continue to fall into the same trap.

The world tells us to despair if our surroundings and circumstances don’t give us pleasure or make us happy. That it must be someone else’s fault if things don’t go our way when we pursue our dreams. But, God says our own personal goals are not the measure of our fullness. These examples are all real beliefs that shape our culture today, yet is substance they are just as foolish and dangerous as Gnosticism.

The point here is that when you are rooted and established in the truth, you will overflow with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving gravitates toward service, and in our Christian lives that means service to God first and foremost. And to God, the greatest service you can offer is to obey His Word. The circumstances you are in do not determine the reaction of faith, rather the substance of your life determines the reaction.

The early Christians had to endure the danger of Gnosticism, and much more. The religion of the majority was based on the mythical false gods of the Romans. At this time, there was intense physical persecution, which lasted longer than the United States of America has currently been in existence. Think of that, a period in which the authorities sanctioned, and even promoted mistreatment and murder of Christians that was longer in existence than our own nation’s history. On top of this, a direct attack on the core teaching of the Christian faith, on the very central figure of the faith. These early Christians, including the Colossians, were up against a lot. We are today – in different ways. And we share the same hope – the person of Jesus Christ.

Despite all the hardship against the early Church, by the time Christianity was legalized in the 300s AD, over half the population of Asia Minor, Greece, and Egypt confessed Christ. No wonder the early historians said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. No wonder Martin Luther remarked that the ability to endure persecution is one of the necessary traits of a believer. The Church flourished despite these perils because their hope was never about themselves, or about the circumstances they were in. Their hope was that they were complete in Jesus, who is a complete God, and nothing could separate them from this.

The main theme of our section is that Jesus is a complete Savior and therefore those who believe in Him are complete Christians. The same word is used in our text to describe Jesus being fully (completely) God (v.9) and Christians being full (complete) in Him (v.10). This pertains to more than just redemption though. It contains a message for today, as well as for eternity. In Jesus we are completely restored, forgiven, and cleansed of sin. But, it is also in Jesus that we find the most complete measure of who we are. Because He is who He is, we are who we are.

Therefore, we see an inescapable connection between the person of Jesus and our lives. If He is not God, we have no hope. If He is not man, we have no hope. Paul is as clear as possible when he says, For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. In that simple phrase we have everything about the person of Jesus. We see the lie of Gnosticism exposed. Jesus is man, with a body. He came and took flesh. He assumed matter as part of His existence, not as a barrier to cover up who He really was. But, He is also the fullest, most complete expression of God.

It’s all there, but remember also the very first word, “For…” Paul stated this not as a simple point of fact, but as a reason for what he said in the prior verses. We could also say, “Because in Jesus dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” What was Paul defending? The Colossians’ hope, that they would be firmly rooted and built up in Christ. Both of these thoughts are metaphors for faith and both were taught by Jesus too. The idea of being rooted makes us think of the image of Jesus as a vine and believers as branches. Only through Him can we bear fruit. Only through Him does that fruit mean anything. Being built up is another thought of growth, a construction term. We think immediately of Jesus’ saying that the wise man builds his house on the rock; that rock being the teachings of Jesus. Suddenly, despite what the world tells us doctrine starts to matter quite a bit. Again, we see a hole exposed in Gnosticism and any other belief that exalts itself against Christ Jesus. True wisdom is in God’s Word, not in a conglomeration of man’s opinions.  

Paul used the plant and construction imagery to state the positives of faith. But, the humanity and deity of Jesus also serves as a warning about the negatives. Verse 8 reads, Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. The basis of Paul’s warning here is that if the Colossians did what verse 8 describes, they would be in danger of losing Jesus. You see, Jesus does not rise and fall in the gospel portions of the Bible alone. So often, we set up this imaginary scenario that we can think less of or even ignore certain parts of God’s Word, as long as they’re not the gospel. We think that somehow that attitude won’t be quite as dangerous. But here Paul says that any philosophy opposed to God, any empty deceit, any tradition of men, any basic principle of the world could directly threaten what we have in Jesus Christ.

The idea of “cheat” in verse 8 is to literally carry something away captive. The warning is to avoid becoming the world’s slave by letting it control your thinking and dictate your faith. The phrase “empty deceit” is also interesting. Why would Paul feel the need to qualify deceit? Wouldn’t warning against deceit itself be enough, we know that’s not a good thing. Why does he warn about empty deceit? Well it’s a difference between perception and reality. Another way to think of deceit in this sense is pleasure. Don’t we often seek pleasure because it’s enjoyable, even if it’s something that is sinful? Aren’t we often encouraged by the world to think that pleasure isn’t all that bad, that we’re designed and programed to have it so we shouldn’t say no?

Of course, if something is sinful it’s never good for us. That’s the bare truth. But, we tend to convince ourselves otherwise. The Holy Spirit knows this, so he takes this deceit, which the sinful flesh longingly desires to be innocent, and he qualifies it. He calls it empty, vain, worthless, just so we know exactly what we’re dealing with. No matter what the world calls it. No matter what mental gymnastics we might do to convince ourselves it’s okay, the Spirit tells us clearly, it’s worthless – stay away from it.

The last warning of verse 8 deals with what is called the “basic principles of the world.” Think of this as describing the building blocks of knowledge, the ABC’s of why we believe what we believe. The point here is that the little things matter. Every evil starts somewhere. The kinds of philosophies that lead away from Christ are based on tons of tiny beliefs. Even the littlest of things that would detract from Jesus matters. We have to constantly heed this warning because that compendium of beliefs that serves as the foundation for world-based philosophy is always changing. There is no fixed truth for unbelievers; they will change their beliefs and follow whatever they feel like. Not so for us. Our faith has always been the same and always will be the same. It never changes because the One it is based on never changes. Hebrews 13:8 

Everything that Paul addresses here in this context comes back to one thing – the complete Jesus: True Man and True God. It is because of this central truth that he states both the positives and negatives that we should be thinking about in our lives. The truth about Jesus matters, not because it is some obscure fact in history, and not because our faith is measured by our correctness. The truth about Jesus matters because it is the very source of the truth about ourselves. Just as He is complete so are we. If we fracture His nature, it will fracture ours.  

The early Christians were confronted with a serious threat on this front right away. Through the Lord’s guidance and by relying on His Word of truth, they prevailed. Jesus Christ, true Man, true God, crucified for our sins – becoming matter and flesh for us, so that we could become more. But, Satan’s arsenal is simpler than you think. For generation after generation he has waged the same battle is different forms. The singular goal is this – to destroy Jesus in your heart. That can happen in several ways. For today, let us be on guard against this one in particular – changing who He is and what He did.

It is fact that He is man and God. It is fact that He needed to be both to win salvation. It is fact that our completeness, both here and in eternity, is contingent on His. May we never change those truths for the mere sake of personal convenience in this temporary world. And may God’s Spirit continue to root us and build us up with thanksgiving, in our blessed Savior. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

August 22, 2017

August 20, 2017 - Galatians 3

Galatians 3: A Beginning of Division, an Ending of Unity

Grace and Peace be to you in the name of your righteous Substitute, Jesus Christ.

Many people are discouraged and concerned at the division that currently exists in our nation. The news outlets have been flooded this past week with stories of racial divide stemming from protests and violence in Charlottesville, VA. We often wonder why such evil continues to exist in our country. We marvel that ignorant beliefs which were conquered years ago in war keep on being perpetuated publicly. And perhaps most alarming of all, we fear for the future of our families, our nation, and our world.

Even with racial tension aside, we still have plenty of vexing dangers. Terrorism, digital crime, and nuclear war all loom on our minds. Fear is still very much alive in our 21st century. And fear thrives on division. How fitting then that we encounter chapter 3 of Galatians this morning in our Lord’s Word. For this chapter is all about division, and yet the lasting thought is one of unity. Is this not what all people today desperately long for? Can we not then give them strength as we ourselves are also strengthened by the Holy Spirit? We ask Him to lead us today in that portion of His Word which we read as our second Scripture reading.

And we pray: guide, uplift, and sustain us through Your Word, O Lord; for it is truth.

To begin, let us list the many divisions we see in this chapter (printed in bulletin).
·       Law and Gospel
·       Spirit and Flesh
·       Works and Hearing
·       Beginning and Ending
·       Curse and Promise
·       Mediator and Guide
·       Jew and Gentile
·       Slave and Free
·       Male and Female, and certainly more could be driven out of the text.

By God’s grace, the chapter ends with this promise: “You are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is ultimately the lasting theme. As dreary as the divisions sound, their severity only serves to highlight the insurmountable love of your Savior. At the end of the day, they are all surpassed by Christ. For the believer, divisions are no longer sources of contention and stress. They are mere evidences of all that Christ has overcome. This is all that needs to be said, but to learn a bit more let us dig a bit deeper.

As painful as it is, division is a reality of life. The simple, straightforward truth is that life will never be close to perfect in a sinful world. And God is very upfront about that truth. That’s why so much of this chapter is spent on describing the negatives. That’s why so many examples are listed. And Paul gets right to the point in talking about their effect upon the Christian. He calls the Galatians “foolish.” He says that they were “bewitched,” literally led away by sorcery. What made this all the more painful was that they knew very clearly what they were straying from. Paul says that the message of Christ crucified was laid bare before them. Like a gigantic billboard on the highway, there was no missing the Gospel. The Galatians plight, as we have seen over the course of our series, was not born out of ignorance, but rather out of indifference. They knew the great treasure that they had and they let it slip away.

How sad this must have been for Paul, who helped found this congregation. But, he also knew that the situation was not beyond repair. And so we see the first round of our divisions. Paul asks, Galatians 3:2-3 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Here we see a clear distinction between the Law and the Gospel. The Law is always paired with works. The Gospel is always paired with hearing. Hearing may seem like a work on the surface but it is an entirely passive activity. The person who is hearing a message is not contributing anything to the substance of the message. Likewise, when a believer hears the Gospel and believes, it is entirely the Holy Spirit’s doing, based entirely on the work of Jesus Christ. For the Galatians, there was no doubt that this was the way they came to faith. In fact, it’s the same way all Christians come to faith, regardless of church denomination; regardless of generation. It always happens by hearing the Word of God.

But, as they continued in their faith, the Galatians were trying to move forward with their works. Paul’s stern reminder is that both the production and the progress of faith come from hearing. Take this bit of wisdom to heart. If you think you’re a Christian and claim to be a Christian, yet are distant from God’s Word, your faith is not progressing and it may very well be dead. Usually, when such a warning is given the first response is, “But, look at everything I’m doing.” I am loving to others. I don’t break the law. I feel very connected to God on my own. And the reasons go on and on but you’ll notice that they all deal with works and not with hearing. For the non-hearer, faith becomes their own creation. They produce it and they progress it to their liking and according to their definition. As we saw last weekend, in the case of the young rich man, this is simple idolatry.

For the Galatians, this foolishness of works began when they allowed false teachers to convince them that they needed to retain the old ceremonial restrictions of Israel – things like circumcision, Sabbath-day laws, tithing, etc. The Galatians were told that if they did not do these things, they could not be saved. To drive his point home, Paul gave them an example. If the Galatians wanted to be like Jews, Paul would go back to the father of the Jews – Abraham. Here we see the next divisions of our text.

God gave Abraham a promise. That promise was the coming of a Savior, who would enlarge the family of Abraham. This was not a physical promise. Abraham is known today as the father of the Jewish nation, but more importantly he is the father of all believers. God’s promise was more important than a long line of earthly descendants – because the Seed of Abraham was Jesus. Just as Jesus’ kingdom was not of the earth, so also Abraham’s family was not of the earth – at least in connection with this great promise.

In order for that promise to be kept, something had to be done with the curse. First, the curse of sin brought into the world. But, also the curse of the Law which binds all people under God’s strict commandments. Against these two curses we are helpless. But, Christ stepped in our place, became our Substitute, and redeemed us from the curse. Notice the complete exchange. We deserved to be cursed, righteously, yet Christ became the curse for us. He completely took our place, and He fully paid for our sins. If this redemption is truly complete, then it is eternally true that no work is needed on our part. Not only was this the point of God’s promise to Abraham, it was the very way that Abraham himself was saved, as Paul writes, just as Abraham "believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." If the Galatians really wanted to be more like Abraham, they were doing a pretty poor job at it.

For the Galatians, the struggle was about OT works. For us, it is different but the point is the same. Many of us have begun our faith in the same simplicity, by connecting to the Holy Spirit through the simple waters of Baptism. There was no struggle there. There was no effort on your part in the slightest. Yet somehow, later in life things get more complicated. We begin to think that we must do something and that somehow God couldn’t operate without our help.

That’s the kind of thinking that leads the Christian, who began in the Spirit to tell others they must choose their Savior or invite Him into their hearts or they must be make a confession of faith before they can be assured of heaven.

That’s the kind of thinking that leads a person, who began in the Spirit, to believe that they don’t need church because they can be close to God on their own.

That’s the kind of thinking that tells a person, who began in the Spirit, that they can find more spirituality in nature than they can from the pulpit.

Each of those thoughts leads further away from hearing, and closer to works. As Paul would say, What foolishness! Don’t be led astray. If you began in the Spirit, why are you being perfected in the flesh?

But, at times, the truth hits even closer to home, especially in the current divisions of our nation. How often people think that human kindness and generosity will end world conflicts. If we could just be more loving, more wise, more educated, the world would be a better place. A utopian peace of this world is the perpetual lie of Satan, sown explicitly so people will no longer hunger and thirst for a heavenly country. Every person who trusts, promotes, or believes this lie has no more reason to keep on hearing by the Word of God for growth in faith by the Holy Spirit. The ideas of world peace, tolerance, love of others are all noble pursuits, to be sure. They emanate from God, the Creator of all good. But they are not more important than God. And they are never attainable in a completely holy manner outside of God’s Word.

The Galatians had their problems, we have ours. Our nation’s current conflict with racial tension will never be mended by tearing down statues, or ostracizing the opposition. Verbal wars on social media only serve to widen the division. Protests and marches often serve to heighten the conflict, rather than deter it. In any human endeavor, there may be minor improvement, but the sinful hatred that gives birth to racism, and every other evil, will always exist in a sinful world. No amount of human works or effort will ever eradicate it. And most important for our own hearts, no amount of human works will make us any better than anyone else. If you can grasp that truth, you have taken a huge step past the deluge of Satanic lies that are thrown your way in this world. You will show yourself to be a student of God’s law, to understand a part of His righteousness. The Law can certainly tell us a lot about ourselves but even the Law falls short of salvation. Paul writes, if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. (Gal 3:21 ESV) the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, (Gal 3:24 ESV)  

The path to salvation is through the Gospel. It is the Gospel that can indeed change a person’s heart. The Galatians were going through their own racial tensions but Paul didn’t prescribe any of the world’s solutions to their problems. He told them: so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (v.14). This thought was completely unheard of at that time. No one, outside of God’s followers, were teaching that Abraham was connected to Gentiles in any way. It was the Pharisees who appealed to Abraham as their father as a reason why they didn’t need a Savior (John 8). It was through Abraham that God instituted the Old Testament ceremonial laws which they Galatians had become so entangled with. Paul could preach something so revolutionary because salvation had nothing to do with Abraham’s works or anyone else. It was not a matter of earthly ethnicity. It was completely about faith in Jesus Christ – the one who did everything. And that faith came through the hearing of the Word of God and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. 

The divisions of sin continue to hit our culture hard. We want to offer some kind of hope and we can. Let us strive for something greater and more powerful than mere human works. We can offer eternal unity to all people. Unity through the blood of Jesus. But, this gift does not come being silent or by hammering the opposing side harder. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” Having begun in the Spirit, let us be made perfect in the Spirit. No matter the division, we are all one in Christ Jesus. That is not of this world. That is not defined by the world. That does not come by works. If we are trying to attain that gift in any of those ways, we have strayed from the truth just as the Galatians did.

Only in Jesus Christ do the many superficial divisions of life become superseded by true unity. For this unity we now wait for by faith, and we eagerly expect in eternity in heaven. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.