June 6, 2017

June 4, 2017 - Ezekiel 36:24-28

Theme: May the Pentecost Force Be With You
1) Christ-specified
2) Spirit-driven

Just over 40 years ago, if you would have gone up to someone on the street and said, “May the force be with you” you would have undoubtedly gotten a strange look in return. Today, however, everyone knows what that phrase means. The saga of Star Wars has indeed taken over our culture and the “force” is really the driving force behind it. Star Wars even has its own day on the calendar, exactly one month ago today, May 4, as in May the force(the) be with you!” Actually, though we just passed the 40th anniversary of the release of the very first Star Wars movie (May 25, 1977). For many, it’s hard to believe that it has been that long. For others, it’s simply astounding how popular the franchise has now become, with a new generation of movies coming out. 

The newest of the movies, Rogue One, features a character who is in complete harmony with the force. He’s a monk-like follower of the ancient Jedi ways, but he’s also blind. As you can imagine or as you’ve probably heard, he’s a fan favorite too, approaching an almost Yoda-like devotion. In the movie, he’s known by the poetic phrase he repeats again and again, “I am one with the force and the force is with me.”

The religious metaphor is not lost on the Star Wars faithful. There’s a reason this character is blind. He embodies the faith-based element of the Star Wars “force.” It moves in unseen ways, it is indiscernible to the skeptic, it is mysterious and powerful. Obi Wan Kenobi first defined like this in episode IV: The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together. For many current Star Wars fans, this blind monk has taken on an almost religious, cult-like following. The “force” becomes something real in their minds, a form of positive energy that can keep you focused on the important parts of life. Some, being so discouraged by life around them, take up this character’s motto and actually live by it, “I am one with the force, the force is with me” as if it is actually going to help them.

Witness the blurred distinction between fact and fiction in spirituality. There is a force that is real, one that has absolute power, and it is the Holy Spirit. This Spirit came to mankind in a forceful way, in the sound of a mighty rushing wind. Our text to consider today comes from the prophet Ezekiel’s description of that Spirit, from Ezekiel 36:24-28:  

24 "For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. 25 "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. 28 "Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God.

Part 1: Christ-specific

One of the reasons that the “force” resonates with humankind is because we are feel the presence of God in one way or another, and many have a hard time putting a name or definition to it. God created us with a basic knowledge of His presence. It’s part of who we are by nature. It’s natural that people would gravitate toward different ways of finding Him, that’s why we see so many different religions. Most people want to follow God but follow what they want as well. So you get different smatterings of cultures mixed into religions and different teachings about God. What most people don’t want is to be told what the truth is and to have only one, fixed way of following God. But, if there is only one God, then there is only one truth, and one way of following Him.

The differences between the Bible and Star Wars are many, but these thoughts about the force all come down to one thing, Christ. The force of the Bible, if you would call it that, is Christ-specific. Star Wars…not at all. What do we mean by Christ-specific? Well, first it is all about Christ, and second, it is not a generic faith. The thing about the force in Star Wars is that it is always so undefined and ambiguous. Perhaps that is the point. It is meant to be generic so that people can make of it what they would like. A shot of spiritual adrenaline, if you will, to pick ourselves up and move forward in life.

The truth of Christ, on the other hand, is extremely specific. In fact, that’s kind of the point of the Gospel. The Old Testament books hold over 50 direct Messianic prophecies that give exact details about the Savior such as: where He would be born, what He would accomplish, how He would die, and even what His nature and the purpose of His work would be. Jesus took the time to affirm several of these prophecies while He was on earth, just so that people would not get mixed signals. And Peter preached on the first Pentecost saying, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." (Acts 2:36). There’s no wiggle room for different interpretations there. It is absolutely clear that Jesus is the one and only Savior of the world, according to the Bible anyway.

Part 2: Spirit-powered

Where does the Holy Spirit come into play? He is the promised Helper of believers. He is the real force that keeps the Christian alive spiritually. And just as Jesus is not unclear in who He is, so also the Holy Spirit works in a very specific way.

One might find one of those very specific ways in verse 25 of our text, namely Baptism. The sprinkling of blood in the Old Testament was a very common thing. However, this is the only time water is spoken of as being sprinkled. We wouldn’t fault anyone for seeing Baptism here, although we have no knowledge of whether or not Ezekiel was actually talking about it. We know from the rest of the Bible that the act of sprinkling water in connection with God’s Word is a Baptism, but the Bible also speaks of simply being cleansed by the Holy Spirit, much like one would be cleansed with water in a shower or bath.

Regardless of Baptism or not in our text, it’s what the cleansing of the Lord does that is special. Verses 26-27 are the meat of the matter: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.

The Bible looks at the heart as the center of a person’s emotions. In Biblical terms the heart was equal to the mind. Literally, the heart is the center of our physical existence. It pumps blood throughout our body and supplies each member with the oxygen it needs to live. But, we are more than just material creatures. We have a soul. We have emotions. We use our logic. These things are not made of flesh and blood. We often look at the mind as the center of these immaterial attributes. In the Biblical sense, they are one and the same. To be cleansed in the heart, emotionally, is to be renewed in the mind. To have life in Christ. (David – Psalm 51)
Think of how the Bible depicted Pharaoh’s unbelief during the ten plagues. Time after time it says that he “hardened his heart.” In contrast consider how forgiveness in Christ is described, Ephesians 4:31-32 Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.

The difference between a heart of stone and a tender heart is the difference between unbelief and faith. And the Holy Spirit is the force behind this transformation. The wording of verse 27 is eye-opening to say the least. God says He will give (put) His Spirit in people which will make (cause you) to walk in His Word. Through this you will uphold (keep) His judgments and do them. Let’s simplify it a bit. God gives and does. We keep and do.

God gives and does: The idea of “put My Spirit within you” literally means to give something, as in a gift. Think here of God’s grace, the undeserved gift of love and forgiveness. This comes to us without effort or work on our part. It is a free gift. When this happens, the Holy Spirit “causes us to walk in His statues.” Literally, to do His Word. God doesn’t shortchange what is needed for salvation. He doesn’t cut corners. He upholds it all. So when our record is examined, the gift of the Holy Spirit ensures that we are actually holy through Christ. His works, his doings, become ours. And so the passage continues:  

We Keep and do: Once the gift of God has been given and received by the Holy Spirit, we live for Him. Our lives are dedicated to His honor and glory. The renewed mind of faith allows us to follow God’s Word. We are able to keep His commands, but not because it was in our nature to do so. Quite the opposite actually. We resist this transformation on our own. We need to be changed (think heart of stone vs. heart of flesh). At the very end of this whole process, we do just as God did.

This is what is extremely profound about this verse: Our works are sanctified by Christ and therefore they have just as much merit as the ones He did. The word is the same in our text, except one is applied to God and one to us. The difference is in the one who gives and the one who receives. To trust God by faith is to keep that relationship as it is, with the Holy Spirit as the force, as the sanctifier, and we as the sinners who need His help. Anytime faith or conversion becomes something different, it lessens the work of the Spirit, and it de-rails God’s method of producing life; and the works that we do will not be the same as God’s. Only the Holy Spirit can do that (Hebrews 11:6). 

“I am one with the force and the force is in me.” He’s talking about a union, a relationship. Some people actually believe it to be true, but they know nothing more about this “force” other than that it makes them feel special. The force of Star Wars is certainly a dramatic thing, but it has nothing on the Holy Spirit. He gives us true unity with God by faith in Jesus. With Him working as the force in our spiritual lives, feeding and building on the Word of God, we will keep and do. Think about that. The very same work God does in perfection is done through our imperfect bodies by the Holy Spirit. Should we expect anything less, we are, after all, meant to be His temples. That is true union which means something and which promises a much better future. Amen.

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

May 30, 2017

May 28, 2017 - 2 Corinthians 5:1-10

Theme: God Guarantees You a Home

2 Corinthians 5:1-10 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened-- not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (ESV)

One of the joys I’ve experienced as a parent is getting to read kids’ books that I never read as a child. I’m thinking primarily of books that have been around for a long time, at least since when I was a kid, but ones that I never came into contact with. One of those book is The Sneetches by Dr. Suess. When I was a kid I was familiar with many of Dr. Suess’ books, as I’m sure you were. But, until we rented if from the public library, I had never heard of The Sneetches before. Perhaps this book is new to you as well.

If you’ve never read the story, it’s a quick read, but I won’t delve into the details here. Essentially, it’s a story about differences on the outside are not all that important. What matters is who we really are on the inside. The sneetches had their petty differences based on how they looked, and those jealousies allowed them to be manipulated. A con-artist took advantage of them by playing both sides of their disagreement and ended up swindling them out of all their money. He catered to their desires and guaranteed that he could make them better than the others, only to turn to the other side with the very same promise.

In the end, the sneetches learned from the mess and ended their rivalry, but only after they had lost all their money to this supposed guarantee. When all was said and done, the only guarantee was that they would lose their money. The con-artist’s tricks never changed anything, only the sneetches could make the changes that were needed.

What the sneetches really wanted was a home. Those who were outcasts wanted to be accepted. Today in our text, God guarantees you a home with Him, something we all desperately long for. This is a home that can unite us despite our differences. But, is this promise simply superficial, nothing more than a great hoax and con? Of course not, and it’s the resurrection of God’s own Son that proves the point. Through that resurrection, the Holy Spirit is our guarantee of a home in heaven.   

Having a home is absolutely a blessing from the Lord. But, the attraction can become a bit romanticized in our society. Our culture is full of clich├ęs about home:
·         Home is where the heart is
·         Home sweet home
·         There’s no place like home

The kid’s story of the sneetches is treasured because is plays off our desire for home and community. We saw this connection to Church a couple of weeks ago when we considered the blessing of being part of the “apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the Chief Cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).” We belong to Him and that includes a sense of community.
The words of our text, although magnificent in their own right, are not fanciful. We are also confronted with harsh realities:
·         Our lives are like a tent, fragile and temporary.
·         We groan earnestly for something better.
·         Life has its burdens, the heaviest being our own mortality.

These are not images from a children’s book; more like a horror movie. These phrases capture the vivid nature of a life of sin. Sin is not only foolish, it is dangerous. James described it by saying, James 1:14-15 But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. 15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.

We face a much more critical issue than the sneetches did. We are up against sin. But, like them, we long for certainty and hope. Who will be our guarantee? Verse 5 tells us that God gives us the Holy Spirit. But the bigger question is, how trustworthy is the Spirit as our guarantee? The difficulty we now have is that we know what God has promised us, but we don’t quite have it yet. We are asked by God to trust, to have faith. We really have to commit all things to God. As much as we do know about truth and salvation, we don’t know it all, not even close. The Spirit’s trustworthiness is brought out in other portions of the Word.

Earlier in 2 Corinthians Paul wrote, For all the promises of God in Him (Christ) are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us. 21 Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, 22 who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.

God wants us to see possibility through His Son. He phrases that as the answer “Yes” to our deepest unknowns. Life, salvation, eternity, and the like, are all possible through Jesus, even though we don’t always fully understand how that could be the case. And that’s why God says, The Holy Spirit is your guarantee. God knows how hard it is to trust by faith and so He helps you with that struggle by giving you a sure guarantee. The Holy Spirit is our confidence until we get to heaven and fully realize God’s promises. The answer is “Yes” today through Jesus but God also keeps us strong while we wait.

A similar thing was written to the Ephesians, In Him (Jesus) you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory (Eph. 1:13-14).

These verses really help us understand the Biblical meaning of a guarantee. In a way, a guarantee is the counterpart to redemption. To redeem something is to make the purchase for it. We know, dearly, that Jesus is our Redeemer, having purchased life for us at the cross, by His blood. The guarantee is the down payment made on the purchase. Let’s understand this appropriately, because God writes about these things from our perspective. We should absolutely trust that Christ’s payment for sin was fully paid on the cross. But, again, the difficulty for the waiting Christian is that we still wrestle with sin today, and furthermore we are waiting for God’s final promise of coming again to come true.
In the midst of that struggle, God says that the Holy Spirit is the one who makes the down payment on our redemption. He doesn’t do this because something still needs to be paid. That’s not the point. He does it because the Spirit stands in for the promise of Christ while we wait for Christ to return. The Holy Spirit’s work is God’s proof that He keeps His Word, that we are definitely forgiven in Christ. He literally becomes our down payment on redemption; a debt that has already been paid in full, but something we are likely to doubt as we live in a sin-filled world.

This is a great comfort. As Paul writes, we take great courage at this fact. But, there are two things that make it difficult to keep this trust and courage alive.

1) God operates by faith – this means that some (or most) of the things God does defy our understanding. Our relationship with Him cannot exist if we can’t trust these unknowns. As the writer to the Hebrews defines, Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. When something is defined like that, it will naturally be difficult for Christians to follow and accept.

2) What we experience in life seems contrary to what God promises – We talked about this already in the difference of what God says about redemption and how we perceive it in life. God says we are fully forgiven, but life seems to operate as if we are continually helpless against sin and temptation. Paul gets even more serious about this matter when he talks about the difference between death and immortality. To the believer, we are not overcome by the prospect of death because that means we can be present with the Lord. This doesn’t make any sense according to our experiences in life. None of us have tasted perfection or eternity yet. We are continually tempted to disown this promise in Christ. God asks us to wait for something that we have never experienced before and that seems impossible according to what we’re used to.

And yet Paul says, in the face of this struggle between promise and perception, we take courage. This is summarized in the famous phrase, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” This is the simple, yet reason-defying (unbelievable, profound) truth that separates believers and unbelievers.

It’s kind of like the Sneetches. A simple children’s story, but a lesson with deep implications for all people. And, like that story, it’s ultimately about finding a home. Our home is in heaven with God. We may be comfortable to some degree here on earth, but even the greatest joys we have here cannot compare with the plan God has had for us from eternity. We once ruined that dream by our sins. It was dead, defeated, and destroyed. God’s plan for His creation was de-railed.

But hope was sealed, guaranteed, in the smallest of promises. That promise was kept alive through the harsh ages of history, across time and nations, wars and peace, morality and wickedness. God preserved it at all costs – the down payment guarantee was hard at work. And that promise was delivered in the smallest of gifts, a new-born Child. Today, we remember when that glorified Child, God’s own Son, Jesus, returned home to heaven. He ascended to rule on our behalf, to intercede as our perfect substitute. He is forevermore our “Yes” when we ask ourselves if God wants us in heaven.

So continue your walk this day and always, by faith and not by sight. Believe me, God knows how hard it is. He knows what you go through, the struggles you face, and the even the evil you commit. He knew you would have these problems and so He gave you a guarantee – Himself, His won Spirit to assure you along the way. His voice today is through His Word, and by that Word you will make it home. It’s guaranteed. Amen.

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

May 23, 2017

May 21, 2017 - Luke 18:1-8

Theme: Persistence as a Prayer Posture

What posture do you like to use when praying? Perhaps you’ve never really thought about it. Most of us have been trained to use the posture of bowing our heads and folding our hands. That’s fine, but there are many other options too. You could kneel, stand, or go completely prone. It’s interesting that each religion has its own type of prayer posture. Christians typically kneel and fold hands. Muslims have strict requirements even down to the direction one faces. Some devout Jews sway back and forth during prayer. Some eastern religions involve dance in prayer.

The postures themselves seem endless, but what is the point? If your prayer posture doesn’t help the true purpose of prayer, namely to communicate with God, it is worthless. Immediately after our text here in Luke, Jesus spoke another parable about a proud Pharisee who loved to look pious and holy during his prayers. He had great posture of the body, but not the heart. The parable immediately before that serves as our text for today and it shows us that true prayer posture has very little to do with how you look, but a lot with your attitude. From Luke 18:1-8:

Luke 18:1-8 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, 'Give me justice against my adversary.' 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, 'Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.'" 6 And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Parables can be difficult to understand because the truths are hidden in imagery. However, this is one parable that gives us the meaning right away. While we may not know the exact meaning of every detail, we know the main purpose, which is the importance of a consistent and persistent prayer life. Prayer is a barometer of our faith. If we are spiritually healthy and receiving the proper amount of God’s truth and grace, our prayer life will reflect that. If not, will we be led to lose heart.

To explain this truth, Jesus describes a lowly widow and a powerful judge. These two main characters really couldn’t be more different. The judge held all the authority; the widow had none, especially in that culture. The judge cared nothing for God or man. He gives off a cruel and indifferent attitude. When he helps people, it’s not out of kindness but out of constraint and annoyance. The widow, on the other hand, is fighting for a just cause. She has been wronged in some way and is seeking justice. And finally, as the meaning of the parable teaches us, the widow is persistent, while the judge is willing to concede rather quickly. 

Immediately, in this contrast, we see ourselves in light of God’s authority. God controls all things. He alone has authority in heaven and earth. Nothing is more powerful than God. We, like the widow, are helpless. We deserve nothing. Spiritually, we are on the lowest rung of morality. We have fallen from God’s grace, and our sinful flesh and the great Foe, Satan, both accuse us day and night. Not every part of the parable fits perfectly with our relationship with God, but we do see it clearly.

Another way that the parable may have been intended is the see the judge as those in authority here on earth. Remember that the judge was both an unbeliever (he did not respect God) and he cared little for the people. This picture would have fit perfectly with those in authority at that time, the Romans. It was extremely difficult for the Jews to obey the Romans because they were Gentile unbelievers and they were often very cruel. And yet, if they wanted to accomplish anything politically, or make changes to their lands, they needed permission from the Romans.

In both situations, whether before God or before secular rulers, prayer makes a difference. Jesus is impressing upon the people the great benefit He extends to them through prayer and the amazing blessings it can unlock. Given the story of the parable, no one would expect the judge to accommodate the widow’s desires. But he does. So often, we are beset with problems that in life that are too much for us to handle. There doesn’t seem to be a way out. We aren’t powerful or strong enough. And yet, prayer is still effective.

Persistence and confidence go hand in hand with this. In the parable, the judge says that he is wearied by the widow’s continual requests, and so he grants them to her. The idea behind the word for “weary” is literally to strike someone as to give them a black eye. We hardly could think of the widow coming to blows, but there’s a metaphorical way this works too. The judge clearly cared about his reputation. After a while, he felt that the widow was tarnishing it too much. He allowed her request to clear away the annoyance. She was “blackening” his reputation by wearying him, and so her persistence paid off.

It may work this way with secular rulers at times, but it’s different when it comes to God. He isn’t annoyed by the believers’ persistent prayers, rather He rejoices in them. God wants us to approach communication with Him with the same tenacity as if we were trying to be an annoyance, but with a much different purpose. He says, And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.

God gives us justice, not because He wants to get rid of us, but because He wants us as His own. His justice is a product of His love. Sometimes this is tough to see in the parable because this is the absolute contrast to the unrighteous judge, even though he is the “God-figure” in the imagery. And yet, we feel this same confusion in reality too. Very often, when the justice of God touches our lives, it doesn’t feel like a loving thing. Pure justice is simply doing what is right, and as sinners we are full of wickedness and evil. God’s justice shines the bright light of His Law on that sin and exposes it. This is not a delightful process. It’s so unnerving at times that we try to run and hide from the truth. We purposely refuse to do what we know to be right. We blatantly believe lies instead of the truth. All because it’s hard to face true justice.

Sometimes, the process confuses us too. We reason, if God is love, why does He punish sin? If God cares about me, why am I scared of His presence at times? If being a believer is the right thing, why is life so difficult? Faith and reality seem paradoxical at times, just as the divide between the unrighteous judge and Jesus. 

Right here is when prayer proves to be such a valuable asset. In the confusion of this world, God provides a way for us to talk to Him. He says that we can access Him whenever we want. He promises to always listen. He provides what we need. Who do you turn to when life gets tough? We all go to those who love us the most. A lot of the time, we just need someone to listen to us. There’s an element of caution here too because even if these moments we don’t have the license just to say whatever we want, especially about others. But what a helpful blessing, to have loved ones who will listen in our times of trouble.

How much more so with your heavenly Father! Paul wrote: Romans 8:31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?

We have a God who promises to give us everything we need in the face of sin, all because of Jesus. Think again of your closest loved ones here on earth. Why do they offer you an open ear? Is it because you always have a perfect track record of kindness to them? Hardly. They do it because they love you, pure and simple, even when you’re unlovable. That’s usually how you sort out those who really care about you and those who just pretend.

Why does God listen to prayer? Why does persistence in prayer pay off? Because he loves you. He did not shy away from sending His own Son to the cross for you, an undeserving sinner. If He did that, how much more will He give you what you need! Truly, with this kind of God fighting for you, what can be against you?

The term out text uses to describe God’s love is avenge. It says that He, as the righteous Judge, will avenge His own. He will take care of the things that bother us in faith, things that hold us back from Him. The thing about avenging something, or providing vindication, is that only those who are worthy deserve it. Think about it. A guilty criminal has no right to vindication. A sinner has no right to claim that someone avenge them. Yet, God says He will do that for us. Why? We are not deserving. We are guilty of hell. True enough, but that is not all we are. We are forgiven. We are holy. We are deserving. Only in Jesus. And so, we have the right to plead to God for vindication. We have a just claim, even as the widow in the parable did. Because we have Jesus. His nature was so loving and compassionate that He had mercy on us in our fallen state, and He chose to rescue us by His death and resurrection. Let us now make full use of that blessing by pleading persistently to the Lord for His grace and mercy in our prayers.

Consider the widow one last time. The only weapon she had was her voice. In this way her persistence was vital. So often, we are tempted to look at just about everything else in life for help before we turn to the Lord in prayer. There’s a lesson here for us. At times, our requests may be to the Lord because of encounters with people like this unjust judge. People who don’t care about God or others, yet we must deal with them because they hold authority. Jesus says, prayer can help – be persistent with it.

In other times though, we are up against foes even greater. Satan, demons, and the like; enemies that seek to rob us of all hope. In those moments Jesus would have us remember who He is. He has all authority in heaven and earth. He loves us more than anyone else and in a way that can bless us much greater than anything else. He says to you, prayer can help – be persistent with it. In a way it’s much simpler than we think. Turn first to prayer and find God’s help from the very beginning of a problem. Let it be your one weapon.

So, what posture do you prefer? There’s plenty to choose from, all with certain degrees of helpfulness. But, don’t get too caught up in how you look when you pray. Think more about your heart. And in that case, persistence is the best posture. Amen.

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

May 15, 2017

May 14, 2017 - Ephesians 2:19-22

Theme: We Belong to Jesus 
1. As Citizens, Saints, and Family
2. As Living Stones on the foundation
3. As a holy temple

We pray: Lord, hear us as we call on Your name and bless us as we call through Your name. Amen.

A famous Christian blogger makes the following assertion about our culture: “a counter-cultural thing you can do is become an engaged member of a faithful local church.” Think about that for a moment. We don’t often consider our church membership to be a very radical or risky thing. Hopefully, we view church and all its aspects as a joyful blessing, not a chore or obligation. But, in our non-committed culture, the author makes a very strong point. It is indeed contrary to modern thinking, and sadly modern Christianity, to commit to a local, Bible-following assembly of believers.

Yet, when you look at the Bible, a committed promise is at its core. That’s why we call it the Old and New Testament. A testament, or covenant, is the strongest of promises known to mankind. God is absolutely about commitment, both in His nature toward us and in His expectation for our lives. And wherever God’s Church has existed on earth, it has been forged through commitment. Our churches today are a lot different than the early Church. We have different customs, practices, traditions, and methods, but what remains the same is God’s commitment to us and our commitment to Him. In just under a month we will attempt to echo that commitment through the annual rite of Confirmation, a time when young members take a vow of faithfulness to the Word of God in which they have been instructed. That practice finds its beginnings in the early Church and it’s one of our links to the first Christians of the New Testament period. And it’s about making a commitment.

Anything worth valuing in life is worth committing to. That’s why we take these matters seriously. Think of other things that you commit to: marriage, your word, your family, promises to loved ones. If we don’t take these things lightly, why would treat our relationship with God as any lesser?

Now, ask anyone who commits to their church membership and the blessing of belonging will be talked about. Church provides a place to belong, to be accepted and treasured by those who share your beliefs. No matter what a person believes, the inner desire to belong is shared by everyone. But, there’s a much greater way that we belong in church, and especially to our Lord Jesus. We belong to Him because He owns us. Consider this Scripture: 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? 20 For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's.

We belong to Jesus, both in that He accepts us by faith and He owns us through His death and resurrection. Church membership gives us a place to receive that blessing as: citizens, saints, and family; a place to be constructed on the foundation as living stones, and a place to grow into a holy temple. We mediate on these truths today from:

Ephesians 2:19-22 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

Part 1: As Citizens, Saints, and Family

The three stations of life mentioned in our text kind of comprise every role that life offers. All three, citizen, saint, and family member, apply to the believer. The Holy Spirit is telling us that the love of our Savior extends to all areas of life and the place we learn about that love, church, holds value for every aspect of life. This was especially needed in the early church. A major division and cause for offense at the time was the ethnic differences in the church. The issue involved Jewish / Gentile relationships because of the emphasis of God’s chosen people in the Old Testament. A majority of Paul’s letters address this problem and you can see him getting at it here. He says, “You are no longer strangers and foreigners, but citizens.” Citizens of God’s kingdom by faith. This was extremely encouraging to these early Christians. 

In a way, we could say that not a whole lot has changed. Our world today wrestles with divisions involving race and ethnicity too. Even in America, the model of freedom in the world, these divisions create polarizing conflicts. Obviously, the same could be said of family problems too. It’s always sad and disheartening to hear of grudges that last for 10-20 years, or even a lifetime, among close relatives. In a sinful, fallen, broken world like ours, there’s simply no shortage of problems that seek to destroy God’s intended harmony. Every person is touched deeply by these problems, sometimes they are so pervasive in our lives that they shape where we choose to live, go to church, how we spend our holidays, or who we call friends.

What a powerful message the Spirit has for us here! Through Jesus, we have a citizenship, sainthood, and family life that is greater than anything of this earth. There’s no escape here for the problems sin causes in these areas, but God beckons us to look onward and upward to a greater calling. Troubled and frustrated by politics? Gain some perspective by trusting in God’s kingdom. Problems and headaches at home? Remember you are a child of the Heavenly Father. Beaten down by a cruel and vindictive world? Trust in your Savior’s promise that you are His holy one.

In fact, there’s a neat thing about that word “saint.” It’s a common term in today’s Church but back at the time this letter was written it was a new concept. The Greek word actually applies only to a deity, something divine that deserves the status of holy. It’s a testament to the power of Christ’s atonement that the Holy Spirit now creates this new application by calling you, the believer, a saint. Through Christ, you have all the very same blessings He has as God. Not because you deserve it, but because you belong to Jesus. That’s a precious gift in the face of sin.

Part 2: As living stones on the foundation

Belonging to Jesus also means you are a living stone. This is really where we see an application to Church. The imagery of our text is pretty clear. Jesus is the Chief Cornerstone, the foundation of our faith. The purpose of this foundation is to create a holy temple, which we’ll get to in a second. But, what you really see here is the construction plan for a church building, but as a metaphor for the Christian faith. Jesus employed a similar image before, when He used the literal temple building in Jerusalem as a picture for His body and a message of His death and resurrection. Here, the temple is a picture of the Holy Christian Church in the heart of each believer.

Where do we, as living stones, come into play? Well, in the book of 1 Peter actually. There he writes, “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Jesus is the foundation, and like any church building, the walls, windows, doors, and whatever else is in it rests of that foundation. When a person comes to faith in Jesus, they become a stone in that structure, in the Church. But, not just any stone, a living stone; one that has been sanctified by a Savior who came back from the dead. A living stone is also active in faith and holiness, not stagnant or dead.

Our link to the cornerstone, the foundation of Jesus, are the ones who came before. Our text says, the “prophets and apostles.” This is certainly an indication of believers from the past, but also the very believers whom God used to record His holy Word. We stand onf the legacy of Christians who came before us. We have what we have today in large part to their ministry and example in the past. Likewise, Christians of the future will stand on our legacy. It’s a humbling thing to consider, what are we leaving to the next generation? Will we be the salt of the world that preserves the truth?

But it’s the Word of God that holds everything together in this structure called the Church. It doesn’t matter if the stone is right next to the foundation or at the very top, if it is held by the mortar of God’s Word it is part of the structure, and it serves a purpose.

We get a sense of the Church’s strength in v. 21 when Paul writes that it is “fitted together.” Christians, as living stones, are placed by God into the precise place where they fit the best. But there’s even more to this thought. There’s one word used in the Greek for the translation of “fitted together.” The thing is, this word is unique to the Bible. A variation is used in other Greek writings, but a new twist was put on it here in Ephesians (it comes up again in Ephesians 4:16). Very literally, the typically Greek word is simply a combination of the words, “join” and “together.” That’s how the word commonly reads, but another thought was added in verse 21. The Holy Spirit also added the word “logew” on the end. Literally, to “join together through speaking or words.” Most Christians are familiar with logos from John 1, where Jesus is called the “Word made flesh.”

Put it all together and what you see is that the Christians are held in God’s Church by His Word, His logos. The mortar that binds living stones to other saints and to the Savior is all about the preaching of God’s grace. We belong to Jesus because He comes to us in the Bible. We know who to follow and what to trust because it is true in His Word.

Part 3: As a holy temple

Our final point is that goal that we mentioned earlier, to become a holy temple. We belong to Jesus because He wants to dwell in us. Through sin, we are separated from Christ. Paul wrote earlier, Ephesians 2:14 For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, 15 having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace.” The hatred of sin had to be destroyed. There was a division, a wall, that existed between us and eternal life. Christ abolished it through His death and resurrection and now, we are not only with Him, but He is in us. We become His temple by faith, so that we are “always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body (2 Corinthians 4:10).”

We were once separate from God because we are unholy. But, renewed by faith, we are made into a holy temple, a dwelling place worthy of a holy God. And with the Lord Jesus, we grow. You know, a lot is made these days about spiritual growth, or church growth. Several things immediately get mentioned: an attractive property (I get flyers all the time about how a beautiful new church sign will increase membership), a welcoming atmosphere, a healthy fundraising program, beautiful new music and worship styles, an inclusive approach to preaching, an entertaining message. All these really end up becoming “What I want.” If church can be that for me then I’ll come, if not I’ll find something else.

But, when God talks about growth, it only starts when the holy temple is present. To get to that point, a person needs forgiveness and cleansing from the Chief Cornerstone, not whatever their heart desires. True growth is not about any of those things that are so often mentioned. Growth happens wherever the Word of God is present.

Growth without Christ and His Word is like trying to belong without belonging to anyone. If belonging in a church is all about the acceptance type of belonging, the kind where I fit in so I feel okay, there will be no room for the Cornerstone, for His all-strength mortar of Word and sacrament, and for living stones of all shapes and sizes; stones that don’t necessarily fit in without a common bond. Belonging is also about being bought, owned by God, paid for, redeemed by the blood of the righteous Lamb. You are not of yourself. Christ is your Lord and Master and you need not fear.  
You belong to Jesus. You are His own and His Church is your home. In all areas of life. In a living and active way, and in a way you will grow. Amen.

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

May 10, 2017

May 7, 2017 - Mark 2:18-22

Theme: Spring Cleaning by Jesus
1) Out with the Old: Commandments and Condemnation
2) In with the New: Fulfillment and Forgiveness 

We pray: Dear Holy Spirit, enlighten our hearts today through Your Word. Cast out the old and implant the new hope of the Gospel.

Mark 2:18-22 The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. Then they came and said to Him, "Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" 19 And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. 20 "But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. 21 "No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse. 22 "And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins."

By now you’re surely underway with Spring cleaning plans. It seems like Spring cleaning is an annual rite by which we purge our homes and garages of unnecessary items. Things build up over the winter, projects are put off for nicer days, and when beautiful Spring hits, it’s time to get going. There’s also something about Spring that reminds us of freshness. The warm weather allows us to open our windows and let fresh air in. The blooming flowers and budding trees show new life. Part of the cleaning process is due to trying to keep up. You don’t clean your house or your car for no reason, you do it because it looks better; it keeps up with the beauty you see around you.

Some even believe that our practice of Spring cleaning is based in Biblical history. It was in the Spring that God commanded the Jews to clean their houses in preparation for the Passover. The purpose was to get every bit of leaven out, thereby symbolizing purity in thought and word before God. Perhaps our customs are a carryover, much in the same way as the seven-day week that God gave His people.

Today, we think of another Old Testament concept in connection with our annual cleaning, but not one about leaven. In our text for today, Jesus gives us a lesson on cleansing the heart, or more specifically, a lesson about the old and the new. 

The Pharisees, and even some of John the Baptist’s disciples, were puzzled by Jesus’ reluctance to command His followers to fast. Fasting is still a strong tenant of Middle-Eastern culture and there are many examples of its prominence in the Bible. Fasting was most often used as a tool of repentance. It was an outward sign of sorrow and guilt. Think of David, who fasted when Nathan admonished him about Bathsheba, Uriah, and the fate of his unborn child (2 Samuel 12:23). Fasting was also used as an act of worship before the Lord. It was a way for the people to offer something to God in praise and honor to His name. Joshua commanded this type of fast when the people of Israel finally reached the promised Land (Joshua 22:5).

In these ways we see the benefit of fasting but not as a perpetual commandment from God. The Pharisees and disciples of John were upset because they understood fasting as a required act by God. However, in the Old Testament there was only one annual occasion on which fasting was commanded and that was the Day of Atonement. Jesus’ insistence on initiating this discussion was not coincidence. The Day of Atonement pointed to His ultimate sacrifice on the cross. Jesus transitioned His disciples away from the command of fasting precisely because He was going to fulfill it. In fact, verse 20 of our text could rightly be called the first time in the Gospels when Jesus foretold His coming death. "But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. Jesus was doing some cleaning here. But, what exactly was He getting rid of?

Well, you need only look at the surrounding passages of the Gospels to see. Jesus was constantly confronted with false notions and teachings. In this immediate context, the Jews had tested both what Jesus taught and who Jesus taught. In verses 6-7 they were upset that Jesus forgave the sins of a paralyzed man. In verses 16-17 they were upset that He associated with sinful people, as if there are any other kind. And here in these verses they confronted Jesus directly about the topic of fasting. Essentially, Jesus was doing away with anything that which was blocking people’s view of salvation.

The verses after our text expand on this even further. Starting at verse 23 the Pharisees get upset at what they perceive to be Jesus’ breaking of the Sabbath restriction on work. But, Jesus used it as an opportunity to remind them that something better, something newer, had come that was greater than the Sabbath. He said, “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” By focusing on the Old Testament restriction, the Jews were missing the New Testament fulfillment.

This all would come to a head in Mark 7, when Jesus exposed the underlying problem - He answered and said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: `This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. 7 And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' 8 "For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men-- the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do." 9 He said to them, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition (Mark 7:6-9).

The Jews who rejected Jesus were too happy with the old way of doing things to even consider the new. They were too busy living in the past, with all the restrictions of the Old Covenant. Therefore, they were offended when Jesus welcomed sinners, because they thought sinners should be kept separate from God’s people. Therefore, they were upset when Jesus shifted away from old customs like fasting, because they thought He was despising the past. You can sense the piety that the Jews had. In a way, one could say that they were trying to follow God’s Word. But, as soon as they lost Jesus, their actions became wicked and frankly, despicable.

So it is whenever the old letter of the law is held over the renewal in the Gospel. The two only make sense in their proper relation to one another. The old covenant condemnations and commandments are only profitable in our lives if they are understood in relation to Christ’s forgiveness and fulfilment.  

And so, we see where the picture language that Jesus used come into play. The old covenant restrictions were meant to keep the people of God focused on the coming Messiah. Therefore, they had to be strict and narrow. God couldn’t leave any room for straying away because the people would if He let them. Think of the law as the directions to the wedding feast. If you don’t follow them closely, you’ll miss the event. Even if you follow all of the directions, but ignore the final one, you will not arrive as required. However, once you’re there, and as Jesus said, in the presence of the bridegroom, you leave directions behind. They have served their purpose and now the focus is on the celebration.

The Jews and certain disciples of John wanted to hang on to the Law. Jesus’ message to them – the fulfillment is before you. I, the Messiah, am here! Celebrate and share the forgiveness of sins.
Cleaning something up doesn’t mean you have to despise it. Just because you clean out old clothes, shoes, furniture, and other things doesn’t mean you never use clothes, shoes, and furniture again. It simply means something better is present. The same applies to the old covenant. God’s truth as revealed in the Old Testament is still God’s truth. His warnings against sin are still valid and certain. His advice and wisdom is still as applicable today as it was then. But, we no longer emphasize those things over what Christ did. Christ’s atonement – which included suffering but also keeping the law of God perfectly, was the greatest act in the history of the world. Nothing is of higher precedence or importance in our lives.

And God would have it no other way. Living to His glory through the new covenant in Christ today is exactly what God wants. It’s exactly what He planned when He led the people of Israel for all those years in the Old Testament by the old covenant. Why does all this matter today?

Well, here’s where Jesus’ other illustrations come into play. Improperly using the old or new covenant has disastrous consequences. Christ completes all. 2 Corinthians tells us that believers in His name are made a “new creation.” They are changed. And so, our faith is not like patching a hole with new cloth while keeping an old garment. Our faith is not like pouring fresh wine into an old container. These things describe the Jewish attitude in our text. They wanted to lay claim to the new blessings of God, but not according to how He planned it. And in that system, everything fails. The garment tears. The container bursts.

You see, if both old and new covenant are not used in the Christian’s life in their proper ways, nothing matters. The law won’t make sense, nor will there be any need for the Gospel. Everything in its proper way. And the will of God makes the work of Christ the highest thing in the Christian life. We could indeed accomplish a lot, from human terms, if we held high the commandments of God. We could use guilt as the great motivator for faith. We could threaten people into submission. We could increase our attendance and offerings by bringing God’s hand to bear upon the person’s heart. This happens all too often in the name of Christ, even in the most modern, relevant, and welcoming worship atmospheres. And, from a human perspective, it works.

Likewise, we could also use the Gospel without the law. We could find a way to excuse any sin. We could create an atmosphere where everyone gets to do what they want, and no one is ever admonished. We could preach love and acceptance and never warn of God’s judgment. And, from a human perspective, that works.  

But, if those methods were our approach, at the end of everything what would we have gained? When the Pharisees by law-motivated standards Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves (Matthew 23:15).” If, at the end of our labors, a person is not more fully convinced of their free forgiveness in Jesus Christ, and their great need for that as a condemned sinner, what have we accomplished?

Jesus calls us to clean out the old and focus on the new. That’s not a command to do away with the Bible as an ancient and archaic document and to follow whatever we feel is right. That’s not a call to allow the public to dictate what is right and wrong. Quite the contrary, Jesus’ new covenant leads to a greater respect and appreciation for the Scriptures. If you are following Jesus, you will have a desire to follow all of His Word. But, not as a code book for self-achieving salvation. Rather, a message of Good News. A Message that reaches from the very beginning of time and shows how God has preserved the promise of forgiveness throughout the ages and ultimately how His only-begotten Son perfected it in our place.        

As you do some Spring cleaning this year, think of the cleansing your Savior offers. Don’t be offended by it when it comes to your heart and becomes real in your life. Don’t resist it because He asks you to change from your old ways. With Him is fresh, new, eternal life. Amen.

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