September 26, 2016

September 25, 2016 - Luke 16:19-31 (Part 1)

The “Great Gulf” between the Rich Man and Lazarus 
(1 Samuel 16:7)          
1) Man looks at the outward appearance,
2) The Lord looks at the heart!
Luke 16:19-31 "There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. 20 "But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21 "desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 "So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 "And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 "Then he cried and said, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' 25 "But Abraham said, `Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. 26 `And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.' 27 "Then he said, `I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, 28 `for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' 29 "Abraham said to him, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' 30 "And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 "But he said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'"

Here we are again at the beginning of a school year. Friends reunite. Classes start. Clubs and sports give us things to do outside of the classroom. Learning commences. Not every kid likes school but learning is a great gift. But, at the same time, some tough things come along with the start of school too. Anytime you get a group of sinful people together there are going to be bad things that happen, probably even more the bigger the group you get. That happens at school too.

One friend contacted me this past week and asked if I had any resources about bullying and peer pressure in school. Talk about two major effects of sin that our children are exposed to at an early age. Bullying and peer pressure happen because people judge by appearances. If someone doesn’t fit what they think is normal, there is a natural tendency to be unkind. Pressures are put on younger kids because of expectations by the majority. Again, it goes back to what is perceived as normal. If you don’t fit into whatever that may be, you will be slighted and pressured to conform.

In this story before us today, Lazarus was not a student in school, but he was bullied and pressured by the world around him. Why? It goes back to the very same reason we see today, the Holy Spirit gave us the answer long ago, “Man looks at the appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” We see that lesson come to life in the tale of the Rich Man and Lazarus. As we take up the first part of our series, this was the “great gulf” between the Rich Man and Lazarus. It was the difference between appearance and the heart. May the Holy Spirit, who recorded these words for us, bless our study today.

Appearance is really the first thing we notice in the great divide between the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man not only has great riches, indicated solely by his name, he has the best of the best. For example, not only was he clothed, it was with the finest materials. Not only did he have food, “he fared sumptuously.”  Lazarus’ appearance was the polar opposite. Not only did he have nothing, on top of it all he also suffered from sores. This wasn’t just a picture of fortunate vs. less fortunate. This was a monumental divide. The extreme opposites on both ends of the spectrum.  

But, although much description is given to their appearances, God would have focus on something bigger. The appearance really was just an indicator of the disposition of their hearts. The moral of the lesson here is not that whoever has the most wins. It’s meant to show us that belief in the heart shapes the everyday affairs of life. The rich man was not rich, and Lazarus was not poor, because of what they believed. Faith is not meant to make us rich in material things. But, their beliefs did shape how they understood and coped with their individual circumstances.

We see the same today when we compare appearances. A person’s appearance is really only half the story of who they are, and often the less-important half. Yet, we typically build up so much of our thought based primarily on appearance. What is in a person’s heart is much more important. Faith should show through appearance, by expressions in word and action, but sometimes the picture isn’t always very clear.

Life is very much like this story. We are drawn to make immediate judgements based on appearance because it seems so important. But, the Lord would rather have us look deeper. The rich man and Lazarus were much more than just a rich person and a poor person. Ultimately, they were believer and unbeliever, a much more important distinction and one with a much greater divide.

Part 2

Both the rich man and Lazarus provide examples of the two categories that all people fall into. Setting aside the physical distinctions for a moment, whether someone is rich or poor, well-clothed or living in rages, and so on; all are eventually divided as believer or unbeliever. In this way, the rich man serves as the poster-child for unbelievers. They may or may not be rich, but they are focused on this world and what is happening now. Unbelievers either lack or entirely block out the eternal perspective. Their existence is relegated to the here and now, they do not think about what lies ahead, just as the rich man did not. Lazarus, is the poster-child for the believer. Again, the believer may or may not be rich, that’s not the point. The difference is that no matter what they are here on earth, their ultimate reward is in heaven. The believer not only lives with eternity in mind, it influences everything they do in the present. For Lazarus, that meant keeping hope in God despite his horrible life.

Ultimately, the difference is in the heart. We see that aspect come out in the way that Jesus describes each. The rich man is unnamed. He is just another face in the world. He is generic and unoriginal, an example of those who have no association with God. Lazarus, on the other hand, is named by Jesus. He is an individual to the Lord. We would say that he has been called and has listened to that call. He is known by God as one of God’s children. This is not an unimportant distinction. It helps describe the great gulf between the two.

Remember how Isaiah described the Lord’s salvation for His chosen people: “But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, O Jacob, And He who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, Nor shall the flame scorch you. 3 For I am the LORD your God, The Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

The hope of the people of Isaiah’s time started with the fact that they were redeemed by God. It had nothing to do with appearance. It had nothing to do with themselves. Their prosperity and hope was from God alone. And because of that, they were known to God by name. The LORD said, “I have called you by name, you are Mine.”

It’s not that God doesn’t know the names of those who refuse to believe, as if it is somehow hidden from Him. He knows, but there’s a difference between knowing a fact and knowing something closely by relationship. We call it head knowledge vs. heart knowledge. God knows the individual believer by name in a deep way. He knows who we are. He knows our skills and abilities. He knows our fears and mistakes. He knows our wants and our needs. He knows us better than we know ourselves. Paul put it another way in his second letter to Timothy when he wrote, “Nevertheless, the solid declaration of God stands firm, the Lord knows those who are His and let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity (2 Timothy 2:19).”

That, my friends, is what it means to be a Christian. We are first redeemed by Jesus. His payment for sins ignites our hearts to belief, confession, and action. God the Holy Spirit then calls each us by name, since He already knows who we are. He calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies, and keeps us in the true faith. And the result of that gift of grace is that now when we walk through the fires of life we will not be burned and when the waters rise, they will now overcome us.

We should ask ourselves then, are we people who care more about appearance or about the heart? We know the right answer. But, to be people who care about the heart we must also care about that which awakens our hearts and keeps them alive. To care about that for others means you must think about what they stand for and what they confess. You can’t ignore it. You can’t just let yourself or someone else do whatever and still say you care about them. Paul wrote, “With the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Romans 10:10).” The heart and the truth of what you confess are inseparable, and eventually both will be revealed.

In Jesus’ story, both characters eventually died. The rich man’s riches meant nothing then. Lazarus’ passing probably went unnoticed by others. But appearances finally faded away to direct reality. The riches, the glory, the attention counted for nothing on that day. All that mattered was whether or not Christ was in the heart. For the rich man that meant torment in hell, for Lazarus it meant comfort in heaven. We will dig deeper in that great gulf next weekend but for now let us remember today’s truth.

Appearances are like a smokescreen that block reality from our observation. In school, the appearances of being weak or unpopular block the truth that all people have value and worth, and that someone whom you treat unlovingly could very easily be your friend. Appearances distort the truth that being disobedient just to fit in or participating in something you know is wrong just to fit is not good for your life. We know these things to be abundantly true.

Do we also recognize when appearance obscures the vision of faith? Must our church be culturally relevant to be true? Must we have “x” amount of members in order to be assured that we are teaching the right thing? Must we cave to the pressures to conform in doctrine and practice? Very easily we can be quite attuned the ailments of appearances in society but not in our church life.

Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. In the end, the only thing that mattered for the rich man and Lazarus is the only thing that matters for you. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” You have been redeemed. You are called by name. You are promised blessing upon blessing and protection for eternity in heaven. Thanks be to Jesus Christ for proof of that hope. He has cut through the false appearances of man’s making and achieved the truth of salvation for you. Amen.

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

September 21, 2016

September 18, 2016 - 2 John 1:6-11

A Modern Message with Eternal Value
1) Be aware of deceivers
2) Abide/Walk in the doctrine of Christ

2 John 1:6-11 This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it. 7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. 8 Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward. 9 Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; 11 for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.

This letter came at a time when God’s Church was very fragile. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ were fresh in peoples’ minds. The Church was a growing Church but it was also small compared to other religions and it was new for many people. It very easily could have been snuffed out like a tiny flame, and there were certainly many present who would have loved to see that happen.

We know of Christians at this time who were imprisoned for their faith. Others who were exiled or killed, plenty were just downright mistreated. Families were broken apart, sometimes even at their own doing. Parents betrayed children. Friends turned on others. It was a difficult time. It was a painful time. But of all the things to zero in on, John chooses to write to these Christians about the spiritual pitfalls ahead of them. It may seem strange that he focuses so much on the idea of doctrine and not all of the other hardships they facing. But, John knew that the things of this world come and go. The true hope that the Christian has is found in Jesus, and He offers a gift that far surpasses any danger of bodily harm.

Part 2: Be aware of deceivers

John is focused on the only thing that can take that hope away, abandonment by the individual Christian. The spiritual dangers that Christians face are indeed much more dangerous than the physical ones. Yet, we hardly ever treat them that way. John’s message is directed to modern Christians. His words may have been written thousands of years ago, but the world remains very much the same. His message has an impact on us just as much as it did on the original hearers. Partly because our dangers remain the same. But, more importantly because it has eternal value for all people. 

Although the Church seemed fragile at this point in history, John’s message is really one of courage. He wants his fellow believers to stand firm in their faith and not compromise in the least. John speaks with strong language, using some terms that would be sure to offend people in the modern age. When speaking about false teachers, John instructs the Christians not even to greet them or to let them in their homes. John isn’t advocating for a theology of unkindness, rather he’s showing just how easily the danger of error can enter the Christian’s life.

In that culture, to invite someone into your home, especially a teacher, was a sign of respect and desire to learn. John isn’t talking about a simple dinner invitation; his example is tantamount to enrolling in a class. In that setting, John tells the Christians to stay away from false teaching. If you know that something is in conflict with God’s Word, don’t support it. That may be an ancient world example, but it’s a modern day truth. Christians today need to recognize the importance of these words more than any other Christian generation. The reason is because we are often numb to the danger. Not only are differences between churches disregarded, we’re even encouraged the look past the differences of false religions.

Now it’s easy to take the stance that John does in our confession. Our church is one which does that very thing. We talk a big game if you will, in our confession of God’s truth and how important it is to be on the lookout for error. However, it’s an entirely different matter to follow through in action. It’s easy to hide behind our statements of faith instead of genuinely recognizing when the danger is in our lives. As Paul would write to the Corinthians, Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).

It’s very easy to fall prey to the thinking that makes you feel like you are invincible in your spiritual life. A common them among modern Christians is that “I don’t need church or the Bible, I know what I believe,” or “That one teaching isn’t all that important, I still have faith.” Sometimes, in isolated cases, those statements in and of themselves could be true. You certainly don’t have to go to church in order to be a believer. And, yes, ultimately faith in Jesus is the most important teaching of all and the only necessary requirement for heaven.
But all too often these attitudes are used as excuses, and often by those who are weak in their faith as an option out of doing what God wants them to do. All the teachings of God’s Word are meant to work effectively in the hearts of believers and influence the way they think and act. God’s truth is not to be relegated to some cheap excuse to act or believe whatever one wants. Here we see that John’s words point directly at the modern Christian.

We can certainly be thankful that we don’t suffer the types of persecutions that the early Christians did. From an outward perspective, global Christianity is much healthier and far-reaching today than it was at the beginning. Yet, outward peace doesn’t guarantee success in matters of faith. The early Christians were certainly pinned down in many ways, but never was there a time when Christians so boldly believed and defended their faith. That’s a positive by-product of hard times. It can lead to greater trust in God and a stronger faith. These first believers thrived in this sense. They were united in the truth and because of that their witness to the world was abundantly strong.

Our modern age boasts of great outward peace and freedom, but often there is much conflict in the hearts of believers. Wherever a lack of persecution and difficulty exists, there is a tendency for Christians to get complacent. Where complacency is given room to grow, attachment to Christ will suffer. Imagine what the early Christians would have given to listen to the clear word of God read every Sunday without having to hide from the authorities. Yet, today we have that very blessings and so many forsake and despise it. We’re right around that time of year when football stadiums are sold out on Sundays, while churches are dwindling.

John warns the Christians to be aware of deceivers because it’s easy to fall victim, a lot easier that we think. In fact, the danger doesn’t even have to come from a false teacher, it can arise in the individual heart if that person is not driven in some way to the word of God. Complacency is a natural reaction, it’s the virtues of dedication and establishing a habit around God’s Word that are hard to do. It’s not loving to our neighbor, or respectful of God, to ignore the truth of the Bible because the trends of our culture have changed from John’s time to the present. In the same way as the first generation of NT Christians, we too need to be aware of those who would deceive us.

Part 2: Abide/Walk in the doctrine of Christ

We don’t do this just for the sake of doing it, or because of some competitive nature of pride in our church vs. other churches. John reminds us why abiding by the doctrine of Christ is so important, because it gives has eternal value. Ultimately, every part of God’s teaching affects our faith and salvation in some way. Sometimes it’s not really about the actual doctrine by name but instead about our attitude. For example, I could fall into error on the doctrine of angels but that doesn’t necessarily mean I have also rejected my Savior. It is entirely possible that someone could deny the existence of angelic beings and still believe that Jesus is the Savior from sin.

When such divisions arise between Christians, it’s often argued that the difference really isn’t that big of a deal because faith in Christ is still present. But, the key point here is that the danger isn’t always just with the actual teaching. It may be about a lot more and something much more serious than just the area of angels. Any division that goes unheeded, or is underestimated, can wreak havoc in attitudes and actions. Our lives as Christians are about much more than just confession of faith. If that confession has no bearing on our lives, what good is it?

A difference in a seemingly insignificant doctrine like the existence of angels can create animosity and hatred in the heart. It can lead us to treat our fellow Christians in an unloving way if they disagree with us. It can lead us to shut off communication with those who try to show us the truth. This happens a lot in the way that divisions affect personal relationships. Again, the actual argument may be over just one doctrine that is not binding on faith in Jesus, but it so often leads to hurt feelings and refusal to communicate and forgive. We remember here what Jesus warned about when it came to forgiveness. Upon concluding the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus said, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart (Matthew 18:35).” It’s kind of interesting that the other major thing that Jesus spoke about in Matthew 18 was how we communicate with those who have wronged us. It’s sad that refusal to communicate and refusal to forgive often go hand in hand when it comes to divisions. An error may indeed seem to be about something insignificant, or in the least something that we wouldn’t expect to threaten our faith, but if it leads us to refuse to talk to others or if it leads us to refuse to forgive, it automatically becomes the most serious danger. As Paul once again echoes, “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed, lest he fall.”

The way that error can affect our attitudes is just one example why the true teaching remains so important for us today. We could list other reasons, such as the fact that God simply says His truth is important. Really, if we had nothing else on the matter, that alone should be good enough. If God says it, we should trust it. But what we see today is how quickly something that begins as a small thing can become much bigger than we imagine and much deadlier. Any error can affect the eternal value that Jesus put on us through His death and resurrection. We are people who have great worth, both to one another and to the eternal and almighty God. He loves you so much and considers you worth enough to lay down His own life for you. That’s pretty special and worth fighting for, just as the fragile early Church did.

The slope away from this eternal value is shorter, steeper, and closer than we think. We live in a modern age that doubts the truth of God’s Word. It’s easy to buy into these arguments, or in the very least, let them affect the way we practice our faith. We keep coming to church, we remain members, but we stop pursuing the truth. We begin to let a few teachings slide. First, in our hearts, then in what we say to others, and before you know it we begin to stray from time with our fellow members or the strength of the sacrament in the public assembly. Frustrations with other Christians build, either because of some sin or other offense, or because we no longer believe something they do. We ignore the difference at first, we shut off that communication that Jesus pleads us to practice in Matthew 18. We let it build and divide us in our heart, until it manifests itself in public. Where hard feelings exist combined with an unwillingness to work on the issue, there will quickly follow a refusal to forgive. Refusing to forgive others is really the most despicable action a Christian can do. It really verifies that the danger that started so small has become so big, because it allows us to hide under the shadow of Christ’s forgiveness of our wrongs, while refusing to offer the same shelter to others. We boast of the value that Christ put on our life, but act like that doesn’t apply to someone else.

What gives us the right? Tell me what we did to earn Christ’s love and favor. What did we do to prove we deserved to be forgiven? Absolutely nothing, yet Christ didn’t hesitate to forgive us.

Take heed of this message. Take heed of how easily one error can become something more than you can control. But, also take heed of your Savior. No matter what kind of sin you may be involved in. No matter how indifferent you may have been about the danger at the door of your heart. No matter how big of a grudge you may have or have had, your life always has eternal value in Jesus Christ. There is no sin that is greater than forgiveness in Jesus. That’s comfort for you and comfort you can share with others. That’s why He implores you to live in Him and not in the ways of the world.

Doctrine is one of those words that people don’t like to hear nowadays. Doctrine sounds to stodgy, too old school, not relevant enough.


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

September 13, 2016

September 11, 2016 - Exodus 32:7-14

Mercy Allows Us to Be Bold
1. Bold with God through a plea for forgiveness
2. Bold with others through a plea for repentance

Exodus 32:7-14 And the LORD said to Moses, "Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. 8 "They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!'" 9 And the LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! 10 "Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation." 11 Then Moses pleaded with the LORD his God, and said: "LORD, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 "Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, `He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth '? Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. 13 "Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, `I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" 14 So the LORD relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.

You can picture the scene, I’m sure you’ve all been there before. A young child grows defiant with a parent and barks outs a trite demand. It’s a moment of anger and emotion, but nonetheless, something recorded for all to hear. Whether the child regrets it or not, the natural response from the parent is, “how dare you talk to me like that!” And they have a point. Parents do so much for children. Some of the most important things go continually unnoticed and without thanks or even recognition. For that child to be disrespectful and ungrateful is a major breach of good conduct and common sense.

We get that picture today in this account from the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. After all God had done for His people: leading them out of slavery, destroying Pharaoh’s army, and keeping them safe and well fed, they react like this. They create a molded image, a baby cow of all things, and they bow down and worship it. What apostasy! What disrespect! We can surely understand why these words keep on telling us that God’s anger burned hot against them.

But here’s the real kicker. When God informs Moses that He is going to destroy the people, Moses intercedes. He pleads, almost to point of demanding, that God not bring this strict judgment. We kind of feel the same way here as we did with the story of the disrespectful child. What gives Moses the right? How dare He talk to God like this! In a sense, that natural reaction is correct. Moses had no right to address God like this. In a different context this might have been considered out of line. But, in another sense, Moses not only had every right, it was demanded of him to address God like this because of Moses’ calling and office.

Moses was the peoples’ intermediary. He was specifically given this task by God. God wanted him to plead for these people. Perhaps this was really the first time in his career as God’s prophet that Moses actually did the right thing right away without looking for an alternative. Ah, yes, good old soft-spoken Moses. The one who was too nervous to go before Pharaoh because he wasn’t a good enough speak. Moses, the one who hemmed and hawed, looked for every opportunity out of God’s calling. This Moses, was now challenging God directly. What a change!
It all goes back to mercy. Both Moses’ right to speak and the way in which he spoke stemmed from his trust of God’s merciful nature. Let’s be clear, if God wanted to destroy these people, or in the very least severely punish them, He had every right. By nature, people often think that God owes them something; that He isn’t allowed to do whatever it is He wants to do. But, this is just another lie and ploy of Satan. God is holy. Whatever He does, even a strict punishment, is indeed right and just. Once a sinner, you have no right to shake your finger at God and complain, “no fair!”

Now think about this also. Moses seems calm and collected here, but perhaps even he doesn’t fully understand the situation. As soon as he came down from the mountain and saw what was happening, he cast the freshly scribed stone tablets to the base of the mountain where they broke. Like God in our text, we’re told here that Moses’ anger burned hot. The punishment that was levied against the people that day was given by Moses, not God. He was the one who commanded that the idol be ground into powder, mixed into the water, and drunk by the people. In addition to this, Moses declared to those present that they needed to declare their allegiance to the LORD. Those who refused were killed; and 3,000 died.

Remember that these events of chapter 32 began all the way back in chapter 20. From chapter 20 to chapter 32, Moses is on the mountain receiving instructions from the LORD. By the time chapter 32 rolls around, most people forget what the Israelites promised in chapter 20. Before ascending Sinai, Moses said (directly from God), “If you will obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people, and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The peoples’ response? “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” A monumental promise made and an even bigger betrayal as chapter 32 arrives.

Both Moses’ anger and God’s was just. We call it righteous anger. God doesn’t condemn all anger as sin. There is a proper way to be upset about something. Think of Jesus’ driving out the merchants in the temple as another example. When we consider the entire context there was nothing for the Israelites to fall back to as a defense for their actions. So, what right did Moses have to be bold? The only answer was in the merciful nature of God. Only because God was loving and compassionate did Moses have the right to intercede for the people. At first glance we may think that God finally came to His senses and realized He was overreacting, like we so often do when we get angry. But, God wasn’t in the wrong. He had every right to respond the way He did.

We’re told in verse 11 that Moses “pleaded” with the LORD. The sense of this word helps us understand the attitude in which Moses approached the LORD. Moses was not arrogant or defiant. He was humble, yet bold. The word for “plead” contains the idea of becoming ill over something that is so distressing. It conveys the attitude of someone who is so overcome with grief that they show it physically in their body. That was Moses’ disposition as He approached the LORD, and it is the true attitude of repentance. We don’t know if Moses became physically ill. That’s not the point. What we do know is that he so loathed what his people had done that he was offering repentance on their behalf.

The thing is, repentance doesn’t work if mercy is not on the other side. We only have opportunity to plead and repent because God is merciful. Somewhere along the line in his dealings with the Israelites, Moses understood how merciful God was with them time and time again. There were plenty of times to learn this lesson as this was not the first time Israel fell into sin, nor would it be the last. Along with understanding God’s mercy, Moses also realized that that very mercy demands bold action. And so, Moses was able to demand that the LORD forgive His people. Seems a bit out of line at first, but truly understanding faith in Christ and what that means for our relationship with God means that we can be bold and persistent in demanding that forgiveness.

Moses listed his forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as examples of the LORD’s mercy in the past. Each of their lives were full of depictions of God’s mercy. Abraham was called from obscurity to be the father of all believers. He was given the ultimate test when called to sacrifice Isaac, yet received a tremendous reminder of mercy through the bigger promise of the Substitute, Jesus Christ. Jacob was renamed, because he boldly wrestled with God and persistently demanded the blessings of mercy that God had promised.

This story is really synonymous with the Parable of the Persistent Widow which Jesus spoke in His ministry. God’s mercy allows, and even demands, that we be bold to receive blessings through our Savior’s name. The widow had to go again and again to the judge to have her case heard. God wants us to seek His grace with the same tenacity and need in our lives and not to give up the moment we make a mistake or the moment adversity hits us in the face.    

It is not disrespectful to hold God to His promises, rather it’s an act of faith. We trust that God will keep His word to us. This means that we not only show this boldness in our relationship with God, but also as Moses did, we show it to one another. Sometimes that involves pleading for others before God. At other times it means bringing a message of repentance to someone who is caught in sin. We hardly can say that we care about someone if we turn the other way when they rebel against God. But it’s also tough to exercise the love of admonishment. It takes boldness.

Though the message of repentance begins in the law, it should find its completion in the gospel. No one likes hearing the initial call to deny themselves of whatever sinful activity they are doing. But, much like Moses and the Israelites, there is hope on the other side of repentance because there is mercy from God. The true motivation behind repentance is not being able to say, “told you so,” or showing yourself to be a better person than someone else. If it was all about the condemnation of the law then those things would be true. The real motivation is in the love of God. It’s in the truth and hope that we can announce forgiveness as mediators just like Moses, because we have an eternal, righteous Mediator in Jesus Christ. It takes boldness to preach repentance, but it is an act of love.

A very striking part of our text comes right at the beginning of the description of Israel’s idolatry. From verse 4-5: And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" 5 So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, "Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD."

From these verses it seems as though Israel hadn’t completely forgotten about the LORD. Instead, what they wanted was to see God on their terms; to have God express Himself in the manner that they chose. They still claimed to believe in the LORD who had rescued them from Egypt. Aaron proclaimed a feast to Jehovah, the I AM God, yet they had relegated Him to their creation, a golden calf. Refusal to repent works the same way. It doesn’t necessarily deny God’s existence. It simply tries to put a human image on Him. People say, I believe in God, I show love, I know the Bible; but I won’t repent. People find ways to put their own stamp on things that God has long-called sin by saying, that’s the old interpretation, that was for that culture, that was archaic, and so on. 

In contrast, God wants to have all of the effect on us. He does not need us to put our identity on Him, for He puts His identity on us. A well-known hymn verse speaks to that effect: “On my heart imprint Thine image, blessed Jesus King of Grace, that life’s riches, cares and pleasures, have no power Thee to efface, this the superscription be, Jesus crucified for me. Is my life my hope’s foundation, and my glory and salvation.

To have God’s image on our hearts, to have His identity means that we must change. That means repentance and forgiveness. We can be bold to request that before God and one another. Amen.

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

September 10, 2016

September 4, 2016 - Pentecost 16

What it means to have a Christian Vocation
Onesimus: Return despite the natural right for freedom
Philemon: Forgive despite the legal right for punishment

Anyone paying the slightest attention to the media recently knows well that there has been plenty of social and political unrest lately. It’s a heated and polarizing election year for our country. The topic of race relations has seen a steady rise. Most recently, the choice of a professional athlete to sit during the national anthem has caused a great stir. These events awaken discussions and opinions about what is proper, especially in the way we practice our freedoms and respect others.

It’s pretty fitting that we think of these things during Labor Day weekend too. At first glance, we don’t often associate polarizing topics with Labor Day. Labor Day is a relaxing holiday, a time to take break from the every-day stress. But, we should also take time around Labor Day to consider our occupations. What is it that we do in life and what kind of impact do we have through it? That question essentially is the same one discussed through all of these highly emotional political topics of the time. No one seems to doubt the freedom that we possess to speak our minds, but it’s the exercise of that freedom in the proper manner that is so polarizing. What kind of activity crosses the line and why does it?

As we think about that in our given occupations, we shouldn’t forget to look deeper as well. What we do in life is much bigger than just a job title or a wage bracket. Though we often forget this, God designed labor to be about much more than punching the clock day after day and drifting along through life. As we consider the impact of our labor on our lives and the lives of others, we understand it more as a vocation than just an occupation. A vocation is a calling. It is something that defines what you do but also, who you are and what your value in this world is. No matter what your job is, you have a vocation from God. Perhaps, our nation struggles with so many stressors and arguments because we set up so many high expectations for occupation, but not for vocation. On Labor Day weekend, this morning, consider your calling from God, as we read an example of this in a letter from Paul:   

Philemon 1:10-21 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother-- especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it-- to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

The letter to Philemon is far from the most impressive book in Scripture. It’s only one chapter long, 25 verses in all, most of them printed out before you. Philemon was a prominent Christian in the early Church, most likely from the town of Colossae. He was certainly a beloved friend of Paul’s, perhaps even brought to the faith by Paul. Paul took the time while he was in prison to write this very personal letter. But, the letter itself doesn’t speak about Philemon that much. It’s more about another person by the name of Onesimus. Onesimus was a runaway slave from Philemon’s household. Like most slaves on the run back then, Rome was a convenient destination for Onesimus. There he could fit in among the crowds.

But, in God’s bigger plan, it was also in Rome that Onesimus would come into contact with Paul. Through this seemingly random occurrence Paul was able to share the gospel with Onesimus and help him see the folly of his ways. The purpose of this writing to Philemon was to notify him that Paul was sending Onesimus back, and that Paul requested Onesimus be received with forgiveness and mercy. From the way the letter reads it sounds like Onesimus not only left his master, but stole some of his goods along the way. Even despite this, there was more than sufficient legal backing for Philemon to dole out a strict punishment.  

Onesimus was a slave, but perhaps for our understanding the term “servant” would be more appropriate. We tend to have a particularly negative impression of slavery because of our nation’s history. However, slavery in this context and at this time was quite different. The slave was still considered to be the master’s property but he wasn’t normally treated inhumanely. Slaves in Roman culture could often own property and possessions, enter into contracts, and own slaves for themselves. The normal age of discharge from slavery was 30. Most non-Romans would enter into slavery in the hope of one-day become a citizen.

Sounds pretty different from our typical view of slavery; but at the same time, it’s clear that any institution of slavery is against the very way that God created mankind. It’s very clear that all people are fashioned by God from conception and carry the remnant of His image that was originally bestowed upon Adam and Eve. All people have equal access to God’s grace and salvation through the universal Savior, Jesus Christ. Anytime an institution is set up that unfairly subverts someone under another, sin is involved.

Paul’s plea to Philemon was difficult because there were several considerations to be made. On the one hand, Philemon had every legal right to severely punish Onesimus. If possessions had been stolen the punishment could have been even worse, perhaps even death. On the other hand, surely Onesimus could make the case that he had a God-given right to freedom, no matter what man said about it. These are the tricky questions that confront us at times, and vocation is at the heart of the matter. If we fail to consider our situation in life in light of God’s word and His calling for us, we will end up choosing whatever suits our intentions best, regardless of the consequences. 

Paul’s letter is an appeal to Christ-centered vocation. He wanted both Philemon and Onesimus to see the Spirit-sanctified response that would flow from the gospel and seek the preserve the gospel for others. Despite Onesimus’s natural right to freedom as a created child of God, Paul sent him back to his master to fulfill his legal debt of service. Onesimus’s vocation, in the present time, was to serve Philemon. That was God’s calling for his life. The best way Onesimus could serve his Lord and Savior was to bear this burden as an act of love for Philemon and as a testament to the power of salvation in Christ.

Anytime we faithfully follow the vocation that God has put in our lives, especially when it may be an unfair calling from a human standpoint, we give glory to God. We point others to the power of His kingdom and the amazing change that Christ’s grace has made in our lives. But, the opposite is true of when we resist our vocation. When we choose to complain, or to neglect our responsibilities through laziness or indifference, we make the choice to serve ourselves. Both our fellow neighbor and God suffers when we do this.

On the other side, Paul wanted Philemon to recognize his vocation as a gracious master. Rather than think first of his relationship to Onesimus as master-slave, Paul wanted Philemon to think of his servant as a fellow brother in Christ and co-heir of salvation. Although, Philemon had every legal right to seek recompense, Paul asked him to move on and to show forgiveness. In truth, it was a plea to recognize Onesimus as a human and not as property. With Paul’s encouragement and the Spirit’s blessing, we have no doubt that Philemon followed through with this request.

If only we would recognize the same principles in our vocations. We may have God-given freedom to do something, but if we can serve our neighbor better by refraining why wouldn’t we willingly give that up. We may have legal precedence for a belief, attitude, or action, but if it takes away from Jesus what’s the ultimate goal? These are questions which are difficult to face and answer, and many of the struggles we have as a nation are about living in one’s vocation, a calling from God.

One of the unique things about Christianity is that God calls us to difficult things. It’s part of the guarantee we have by believing in Jesus. Life is sure to be filled with hardships. As Paul wrote to the Romans, the Christian is a “living sacrifice,” dedicated to point others to God’s word and work of salvation. Be assured, no one enjoys being the sacrifice. It’s not an outwardly noble calling. But, that’s what it means to follow Christ. To carry His name is to carry His cross. To carry the cross is to be a living sacrifice.

Take confidence, that no matter what your vocation is or will be, you have the strength to accomplish the task through Christ. When Paul wrote those famous words, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” he wasn’t talking about any odd activity that we try. He was talking about those things to which God calls us. Our vocation. We have this promise in Jesus because He was the ultimate sacrifice. He was the only one to perfectly deflect all the hatred and evil of the world and bear it to the point of death on the cross. He followed His vocation, the task that He was called to by His Father in heaven, however unpleasant it was. He empowers you now to do the same.

Yes, life as a Christian can be tough, but it is also the most rewarding. Setting aside the ultimate reward of eternal life in heaven for a moment, we have plenty of opportunities for joy and happiness in life. There is a deep, intrinsic joy to fulfilling our duty before God and our fellow neighbor. Where does that come into play in your life? Your vocation is found in the place that you presently occupy. It may not be where you want to end up, but it is where you are now. For the Christian, God is working through you now because you have a vocation. It is not just pastors or teachers who have a calling. All Christians do. God puts others in our lives, parents, friends, relatives, pastors, to help us see our vocations. Use the advice they give you. Like Solomon wrote in our Scripture reading, be the wise one who is willing to listen to advice and even to admonishment.   

Keep these three things in mind, though.
1) Your vocation is not your occupation. There is a difference between what you do for a living and what God is calling you to do in this world. Life is about much more than finding a “practical” career that will yield an outwardly prosperous life.

2) Your vocation involves sacrifice. Both Philemon and Onesimus were called to give something up, something that they had every right to, in order to show love and mercy to others, and to let the light of the Gospel shine in their lives. We’re following Jesus here, it’s not a surprise that we’ll be called to sacrifice something.

3) Your strength and power is in Jesus. The Christian worldview works because Jesus died on the cross and rose again for victory over sin. You are assured of a calling from God today, whatever that station in life may be, precisely because you are first a redeemed child of God who is destined for life in heaven. The reason we seek to recognize our callings in life, however humble and unseemly they may be, is because they are all a fruit of the Gospel. When sins are a forgiven, there is a natural desire to share that gift of mercy and love with others, no matter what the personal cost of freedom may be. Jesus give us the ability to do this.

What is your vocation? You have many. You are a son or daughter. Some of you a father or mother, husband or wife. You are members in this church, part of a bigger community of believers who believe and confess God’s truth. You are a citizen of the United States of America. You have a responsibility to your fellow citizens, and a spiritual obligation from your Heavenly Father to all people. Sounds a bit daunting when we start to list everything. God has high expectations for us. But, in a greater way it is exciting. Think of the impact you can have right now! At home, at school, at work, at church. You can serve one another and your enteral, almighty God. You don’t have to wait until you are someone more important or more qualified from the world’s perspective. You have a vocation now.         

Martin Luther famously wrote about this letter, “we are all Onesimus’s.” We have all squandered our relationship with our Lord. We have run away, tried to hide in the shadows. But God calls us back to the light of His grace. He doesn’t need to use some supernatural miracle. He uses His everyday Word as it comes to us in our everyday lives; in our callings here on earth.


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