June 27, 2017

June 25, 2017 - Numbers 6:22-27

Heritage of our Fathers Part 1
What God wants you to know
1. He will bless and keep you
2. He will look upon you with mercy and peace

How do we understand God? What is the experimental nature of our faith? Comparing it to other fields of study helps us a bit. For example, a Geologist studies rocks. The entire initiative is one-sided. If he does not go and find them, nothing happens. But at the same time, the rocks never run away. Once he finds them he can study them. A zoologist is a bit more expansive. Again, the initiative is the scientist’s. He must go find the animals to study. But, he also needs the animals to cooperate. They can run away. He has to take greater care than the geologist. The person who studies humans has it even harder. Not only can humans run, they can keep you from really getting to know them, even if you are in the same locale. To study one another we must meet on equal levels. 

What does it take to study God, to understand Him? Here’s what makes it difficult for many people. The initiative is God’s alone. He must come to us. He must reveal Himself or we will never learn anything about Him.  

Many people try to dumb down the revelation of God in His Word, because it’s more palatable. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus can’t be true God since He is also human. Easier to understand but also exposed immediately as false because it’s a simplification. People don’t just do this with the person of God, they do it to specific teachings too. Can’t understand how the bread could be Christ’s body or the wine could be His blood? Who can? So simplify it, make it easier to digest mentally, and it becomes easier to accept. But, it strays farther from the truth. All knowledge of God is revealed by God. Therefore, it is going to be more complicated.

The struggle of faith is that while we will never know everything about God here on earth, in order to be with Him we need to know something. In our text for today, one which has endured throughout the ages, God reminds us what He wants us to know: 

Numbers 6:22-27 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 23 "Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying,`This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: 24 "The LORD bless you and keep you; 25 The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; 26 The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace."' 27 "So they shall put My name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them."

We’re familiar with these words. We use them every Sunday as the Benediction, or blessing. Think of them as the care package that God sends you off with each weekend. He wants you to go about your week with full assurance and confidence that He is with you, that He has all things under control, and that He seeks to bless you with mercy and peace. Quite a gift indeed. 

But, because we are so familiar with these words it can be difficult for us to apply them in new ways to our lives, week after week. Very often this section is also looked at as an inference to the Holy Trinity, as God phrases these blessings in three parts, just like the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Therefore, we consider this text around Trinity Sunday and we pair it with the Trinitarian sections of our historic confessions. It is in this connection, between the nature of the Triune God and our understanding of who He is, that we find a great application of this text for our lives. So often we think in terms of what we know or want to know. If matters of life don’t measure up to our basis of knowledge, we often reject them. But, herein is the struggle with God. We don’t know everything, or even close to as much as God does. Our lives in Christ are based on what God says to us, not the other way around. Telling God how we think it should be is the first step toward idolatry. God knows this. After all, He created us. He designed our thinking. He is the author of logic and knowledge. He knows that it is a struggle to deal with the unknown, even though He knows everything. 

But, to help us with this struggle, God says, “I’ll simplify things. I won’t tell you everything because you can’t handle it yet, but I will tell you what you need to know.” This was the same process He took with the Israelites here in our text and it’s the same way He operates with us today. We don’t have it all, yet anyway, but we have everything we need. 

Think about the time when this blessing came into play for God’s people. We know of this benediction as a historic and enduring gift, but for the people at this time it was a new thing. They were in a formative time as a nation, both materially and spiritually. Aaron, the one who God first entrusted with this blessing, was also the first high priest. This was the beginning of organized religion around the true God. Perhaps organized religion existed among the unbelieving nations, but not among believers yet. Before this God revealed His word independently with people called the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For the first time, God’s people were now becoming a community of faith; think of it as the first local church on earth. 

And so, God started them off slowly. He didn’t tell them everything, just a few passages. But slow and simple as it was, God’s Words here are the sum and substance of the Christian faith. No matter the circumstance of life or the person involved, God says, “This is what I want you to know.” It begins with this: that He will bless and keep you. 

Part 1: He will bless and keep you

We’re familiar with the idea that God blesses people. We think of this in terms of the earthly gifts He gives us such as: food, clothing, shelter, family, and so on. Luther explains those in detail in the explanation to the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer – Give us this day our daily bread. God can do the same in spiritual blessings too. The word “blessing” means much more than just giving us some type of gift, though. In the Hebrew, a blessing is a religious term. Very often the same word is used in contexts of people blessing God by praising or honoring His name. Obviously, God is not promising to worship us when He says that He will bless us. But, it should give us pause to see how the word is used also of what we offer God. 

This teaches us about the nature of God’s blessings in our lives. His gifts to us are very often immaterial. Things like: a good reputation, honor by His grace, a status as redeemed. The world scoffs at these blessings because you can’t hold them in your hand or deposit them in your bank account. But, they are far more precious in the long run. The fact that the Lord’s blessing can be a status of honor certainly gives meaning to a passage like: 1 Peter 5:6 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time. 

God lifts us up because Jesus has earned the right to His blessing. The honor Jesus is given as Savior is also reflected to a degree on His followers by faith. We are not His equals but are blessed with His benefits. 

The idea of God keeping us is also used in other religious contexts. Another way it could be phrased is that God protects and treasures us. It’s sort of a spiritual swiss army knife type of word. In other contexts of Scripture, it is used of a watchmen who seeks to protect by keeping a look out on the wall, or of a shepherd who keeps or tends sheep, and it’s even used of an act of reverence or devotion in treasuring a god. Very simply, a person cannot be religious if they do not “keep” or treasure something in life. In that way, I suppose, all people are religious even if they don’t subscribe to a particular creed. There is always something that we revere in life. The Lord wants to be that something for us, by faith in Christ. It starts with His faithfulness to us. Because He promises to keep us, in so many different ways, we can return the same to Him.    

Part 2: He will look upon you with mercy and peace

A mother with her newborn, a husband with his bride, a little boy with his puppy. What do they all have in common? The look of love. You can tell, in each circumstance, that love is present when the one looks upon the other. It’s not a complicated thing. The same is true in the last two blessings from God in our text. In both He promises to look upon us, first by saying “I will make my face shine upon you” and second by saying “I will lift up my countenance upon you.” These expressions essentially mean the same thing. God promises to see you. That may seem to be quite an obvious thing so what does it matter? Well, the hope, much like His blessing and protection, is in the nature of God’s look. It’s one of love. 

It’s wasn’t always that way though, and perhaps that’s a reminder within the blessing for us. Maybe God repeats this promise twice because the very first reaction to sin was much different. When Adam and Eve fell, what did they do? They hid. They were ashamed, as they should have been. They didn’t want God to look upon them. They ran from His presence and they knew they deserved to be punished. That’s quite a different picture than a mother with her newborn or a husband with his bride. 

It’s the same for us too. No one wakes up and thinks, “I’d like to sin publicly today so that everyone can see and know my deepest secrets!” No, everyone hides in one way or another. How foolish to try to hide from God. The Psalmist declares: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. (Psalm 139:7-8).” If God knows who is in heaven or hell, you can be sure He knows who’s on earth and what they’re doing. And furthermore, He promises that all things will be made known in the end. 

There’s no hiding from God, and yet we desperately try because the shame and guilt of sin is so powerful. Here is where we find the true grace of Christ in this benediction. It’s one thing to have the promise of blessing and protection. That means God watches over me when I am sick. That means He will help provide for our families. That means He won’t allow a temptation to come your way that He can’t also help you with. But as one Christian writer says, “Why stop at nickels and dimes? God has tens and twenties too.” 

When speaking to sinners, who shiver and cower in their self-inflicted guilt, God says. “I will look upon you with mercy and peace.” Only the grace of Christ could offer such a gift. We’re talking about the eternal questions of our souls. We’re looking at the weight of hell itself lifting off our shoulders. Surely that counts as more than a mortgage payment or a trip to the ER. Only through Jesus could God look at me in a different way than my sins deserve. Only through His Holy Spirit could I evaluate this blessing as the greatest treasure in my life.   

We began by asking, how do you understand God? His Trinitarian nature is beyond our wisdom. Perhaps, the struggle is greatest when we ignore the more important question: What does God want you to know? That’s much simpler and much more important. God is straightforward. He wants you to know that He will bless and keep you, and that He will look upon you in mercy and peace. Let us not be so busy fretting and worrying about our perception of God and trust instead that He knows us and what we need and that’s all that matters.

Experiencing God – it’s what we all long for. But, God is not like experiencing a stone, or an animal, or even another human. All the initiative rests on Him. We will know what He wants and what He allows us to know, nothing more. Life on earth is kind of like seeing God through a window. We aren’t fully present. We can’t discern everything. And sometimes, the pane becomes cloudy or dirty. This is where the Word comes in. The teachings of God’s Word work like cleaner on that window pane. Is your vision clouded by doubt and uncertainty? Return to the truth: God reassures you He is in control. Got some of the dirt of temptation and sin in the way. Wash it out with the blood of Christ which cleanses sinners.     

We’ll never have it all here on earth. But, we have more than enough from God. We have what He wants us to know. He will bless and keep us. He will look upon us with mercy and peace. That clears anything up. Amen. 

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

June 18, 2017 - Galatians 1

Galatians Series Part 1
Warning Signs of a “Different Gospel”    
- Trying to please people
- Following human traditions
- Walking the comfortable path.

Galatians 1:1 Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead), 2 and all the brethren who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 3 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

On May 17, 1987 an Iraqi F-1 Mirage fighter launched two missiles at the Navy frigate USS Stark, which was on patrol in the Persian Gulf. The Stark was equipped with two early detection devises for just such an attack. The first was an audible alarm that sounded and the second was a visual alert that would appear on the radar screen. On top of this all, these systems were continually monitored by an electronic warfare operator. In the event of such an attack it was his responsibility to warn the rest of the crew and enact the appropriate defensive measures. Despite this sure-sounding process, the two missiles tore into the side of the Stark, ripping a ten-foot hole in her hull and instantly killing 37 American soldiers.

How could such a tragedy strike without warning? What happened to the early detection process? Those were the questions that a House Armed Services Committee was tasked with answering. Their conclusion revealed the problem. The operator in charge of those defense systems had turned off the audible alarm because there were too many false alarms. Because of this, he was not alerted in time and he missed the attack on the radar screen. Such a simple thing in theory, yet profound in its consequences. Although warning signs are usually irritating interruptions, we turn them off at our own peril. The same lesson could be said about removing the battery from the chirping smoke detector, ignoring our computer’s security software updates, or refusing to fasten the safety belt because it’s just such a chore. Simple things, devastating consequences.  

God has a warning system in His Word for us too, and although it often seems mundane and annoying from day to day, it protects the most treasured and important Gospel truth, the very power of God to salvation. We read the rest of our text from Galatians chapter 1, picking up at verse 6:

6 I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. 10 For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ. 11 But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. 12 For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. 14 And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother's womb and called me through His grace, 16 to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord's brother. 20 (Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie.) 21 Afterward I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea which were in Christ. 23 But they were hearing only, "He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy." 24 And they glorified God in me.

The letter to the Galatians is one of the foremost sections of Scriptures that hits home with present day Christians. Not only is it addressed to those already in the faith, who have at least a working knowledge of the Bible. But it also addresses a modern-day problem. Paul’s words are not prophetical, his initial audience needed this letter just as much as we do. But, it’s quite astonishing how these thoughts reflect what we continue to experience here as Christians.

Speaking of astonishment, that’s exactly where Paul begins. He “marvels” that the Galatians would so quickly turn away from the Gospel. Paul had a hand in establishing the churches in the area of Galatia, which would be the central area of modern day Turkey. He and Barnabas traveled through these provinces on their first missionary trip and started many churches. Paul’s method was simple as seen in the book of Acts. He would go wherever people typically gathered and preach the direct Law and Gospel. Jesus Christ crucified and risen for fallen sinners.

It didn’t take long for the power of this Word to fade in the peoples’ hearts. But, it wasn’t the Law they forsook, it was the Gospel. They had plenty of laws, even though not all came from God. Paul describes their plight by saying that they had turned to a “different Gospel.” The word Gospel simply means good news. The Bible’s Gospel is all about the good news of sins forgiven in Jesus but every person has their own opinion about what constitutes good news. The Galatians had slipped into following a false good news, a different Gospel. It’s no coincidence that the Greek word for different is where we get the word “heterodox,” meaning different teaching. There is one, divinely inspired truth of God’s Word and all other beliefs are different. And so, immediately, Paul sounds a warning for their lives. Don’t turn from the true Gospel to a different one, no matter who preaches it! Think of it was very much the same as that initial audible warning on the USS Stark. We see in this first chapter, three points Paul stresses about what made this new gospel different, and for our lives they apply just as much.   

Part 1: Trying to please people

We may think that trying to please people is a noble thing. Aren’t we called to this as Christians when we’re told to “love of our neighbors as ourselves?” Don’t we want to be “all things to all people” as Paul wrote elsewhere? What about being kind and caring to others? Those things are all true, but that’s not the kind of service Paul is speaking about. He tells us that trying to please people puts us at direct odds with God. You can’t please men and honor God.

The kind of service we offer our neighbor is to flow from the service God has offered us. In other words, “we love because God first loved us.” Paul’s rebuke of the Galatians’ heterodoxy could have easily been taken as an unloving thing. The same charge is often leveled against Christians today. People say we hate others for calling for repentance. Opponents say we think we’re better than others for trying to live according to God’s commandments. Even sincere Christians pick away at the Bible in a vain attempt to fit in better with the world. Paul brings the matter to light, do we care more about pleasing God or pleasing others? We should think carefully about the answer because the wrong choice may put us at enmity with God. Paul calls it a direct attack on the Gospel and the first step toward hastening after a different Gospel.

True love for one another is hidden in Christ and revealed by the Holy Spirit. Truly pleasing our neighbor will never be at odds with God’s revealed truth. In fact, anything opposed to the Word that claims to be love is a most dangerous lie.

Part 2: Following human traditions 

Each warning gets more personal for Paul. He now shifts in verse 11 to talking about how he received the Gospel. It wasn’t a human invention. It was a direct revelation from Jesus Christ. Anyone who claims to speak for God will always have to give their reasons why people should listen to them. Paul appeals to the absolute truth that God had called him for this purpose. He’s talking about his conversion, the details of which are listed in three separate sections of Acts. You can tell that Paul cared deeply about his validity as a minister. He was well-educated. He was knowledgeable of the Bible. All indications point to his ability to speak. But, he never listed any of those qualities as a reason for people to listen to him.

In fact, to the Corinthians, Paul said this: And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2, 5)

The direct human tradition that the endangered the Galatians will be expanded upon as our series continues. We have our own pitfalls in our culture and in our churches, too, but they all come back to one thing – putting man’s word above God’s. Modern day Christians, included us, often like to point these examples out in the Bible, especially as they pertain to the Pharisees. After all, Jesus said to them, 7 Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said: 8 These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. 9 They worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the commands of men." (Matthew 15:8-9)

Paul was a student of this school and didn’t hesitate to admit it saying, And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. It’s easy to point out these glaring inconsistencies with the true Gospel; it’s often harder to see how the Pharisaical hypocrisy affects our hearts. Have you ever thought, “I don’t need to go to church because it doesn’t hold my attention enough; I never get anything out of it anyway? Have you ever seethed with anger in your heart because your brother or sister rebukes your sin of pride, or gossip, or greed; and they just don’t understand how complicated things are? Have you ever worried about what will become of our church in an ever-changing society and after years of seemingly no interest from our community? If you have then you have fallen prey to the same problem Paul had – trusting human words over God’s.

For such sins we daily confess our repentance and ask for the Lord’s mercy to renew us. Confidence in only the true Gospel gives pardon and peace, for it reminds us that no matter how we fail, Christ restores us freely by His grace. This is how little problems that have no direct relation to the Gospel actually prove to be quite important. This is why Paul doesn’t back down from his warning call. Anything that leads you to trust something over God is a direct assault on the Gospel because it minimizes not only the Word of God but the need for Jesus Christ as Savior. Simply put, the Gospel changes you, you don’t change the Gospel.      
Part 3: Walking the comfortable path

Paul’s final warning is his most personal one. Once God called him to faith it’s not as if things simplified in his life. Actually, his walk of faith was a complicated one, and often Paul didn’t understand the purpose. But, regardless, he trusted God. He was led to Arabia before Jerusalem. How it was three years before he saw Peter. How many of the Christians didn’t know who he was. He had a need for personal training in his own heart before God used him as the super-apostle he would become. We think of Paul as the great missionary but it took a lot of behind the scenes work before he got there.

The same thing happens with all Christians. God has a distinct plan for each of you. If you feel nervous or uncertain about that plan; if things seem out of your control, don’t panic. That’s completely normal when the true Gospel is at work. There’s always a steady uneasiness with the true Gospel. It should make us feel on edge a bit because we are still sinners. If we don’t feel this edginess, we are probably changing the true Gospel. By nature, we don’t want to hear the Gospel message, even though it is a wonderful message. We are corrupted. We are rebels of God. There’s always a tension with the Gospel inwardly even though it is an absolutely liberating thing.

The person who is always in control is not walking by faith alone in the Son of God. Faith is trust, and that often involves the unknown. The Gospel of Jesus is the energy behind that walk of faith. Those who must have control at all costs, even if it’s only in their minds and not in reality, are following something different.

How much more unlikely a story could there be than that God sent His own Son to suffer a divine punishment even though no human deserved it. How unknown a message it is that the Father would touch His perfect, holy Son with the eternal wrath of the righteous judge? Would any human think such a thing could be possible unless the Bible had indeed revealed it? Never. And yet, that’s the precious Gospel, so simple, so spot on, so true to this life, that even a tiny child can get it. If the trade-off to not knowing everything or how God always leads you is eternal life in heaven, is it not worth it? Beware of this final warning call, the Christian life is not always straightforward and comfortable. Don’t change the truth just to make it easier. This is a different path than God’s. 

Although warning signs are usually irritating interruptions, we turn them off at our own peril. Beware of shortchanging God’s warnings in His Word and falling into a different Gospel. Paul took this so seriously that he would condemn anyone who changed it, saying whether man or angel, let them be cursed. This was not an overreaction, for one’s stance on the Gospel of Christ is the very dividing line between heaven and hell. With all that Christ has won for us and the joy that is ours through it, there is just as much that can now be lost. God grant us the strength by faith to persevere in this life and to receive the next. In His Son’s name, Amen.

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

June 11, 2017 - Confirmation Sunday

Build Your Endurance with Strength and Understanding
1. Recognize Your Weaknesses
2. Trust God’s Power

I think that most of the adults here wish that they had the energy they had when they were younger. I think most young people here wish that they had the respect or independence that older people have. What we may not think of is that there is a connection between strength and understanding. It is true that young people generally have more strength or energy, and older people usually have more understanding or wisdom. The key to a successful life is finding the balance between both and using each gift appropriately.

Most youthful energy is wasted on foolish pursuits or not appreciated until it is gone. And most adults lack strength simply because it fades with time. I look back on some of the things I used to be able to do and I wish I still had the same energy. I wish I could run around outside all day during the summer and fall asleep immediately at night for 10 hours straight. I wish I didn’t have to drink a cup or two of coffee in order to feel like I can function in the morning. I wish I could spend a summer’s day shingling a house and then play softball or basketball with my friends in the evening. That would be a tough task nowadays. Many of the adults probably have similar memories; many of the kids are probably thinking, “What are you talking about?”

The thing is, when it comes to strength, you can build your endurance by being smarter at how you approach the task. You can apply understanding. This is how a person grows. Think about it in terms of exercise. As a really young kid, I used to think that running around the outside of the house was a far distance. As I grew I started to realize that it wasn’t a big deal, running 4 laps around the track for PE was a much harder task. That was a piece of cake, though, once I entered Cross Country in high school. Then I was running miles every day. Each race was 3.1 miles. That was a long distance. Then college came and I played basketball. When training in the fall we had two-a days, which are exactly what they sound like that. We would have two training sessions, 2 hours each, each day for 3-4 weeks. The first shift was 6-8 am, then 4-6 pm. I thought I knew exhaustion in Cross Country, and I found out I knew nothing. Life comes into perspective a bit more when while running hill charges you see your friends vomiting up their breakfast. But, as it turns out, I still hadn’t learned everything about endurance, for I’ve never been more exhausted then when I ran a full marathon at age 26.

No matter how exhausted a person is, there’s usually another level that they’ve never felt. A marathon is a lot, but not more than a doctor who works every day for a month straight, or a Navy Seal who trains without sleeping for an entire week, or a mother who spends 36 hours or more in labor. The point is, we learn as we grow. We get stronger through trials. What once seemed impossible to us we look back on years after as simple. This is endurance. The same holds true for spiritual growth. God builds endurance through strength and understanding. Think of it as applying wisdom with ability. We study this truth today from Isaiah 40:25-31:   

"To whom then will you liken Me, Or to whom shall I be equal?" says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high, And see who has created these things, Who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name, By the greatness of His might And the strength of His power; Not one is missing. 27 Why do you say, O Jacob, And speak, O Israel: "My way is hidden from the LORD, And my just claim is passed over by my God "? 28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, The Creator of the ends of the earth, Neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. 29 He gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength. 30 Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall, 31 But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.

Part 1: Recognize Your Weaknesses

When considering goals and obstacles in life, we immediately think that big problems are too much for us to handle. Exercise certainly fits this. Others examples come to mind too. Learning how to swim, how to ride a bike. Even something as simple as potty training for toddler. These all seem like next-to impossible tasks in the moment. Yet, once we learn, we hardly remember the great struggle. These skills become habits and second nature.

It’s usually the opposite way when it comes to God, and especially how He works in our lives. As Isaiah writes, so we believe. God is all-powerful. He has no equal. He can do anything. Because of this, the Christian doesn’t usually doubt God’s ability to do anything, they doubt God’s desire to do it for me. Verse 27 states, Why do you say, O Jacob, And speak, O Israel: "My way is hidden from the LORD, And my just claim is passed over by my God "? Doesn’t that perfectly summarize one of the great logical conundrums that smacks us directly in the face day after day. If God can do anything, why doesn’t He do everything I need right when I need it? Why does He pass over my problems?

A lot of answers float to the surface of the discussion, most of them from the cess-pool of the sinful human nature. Some say, God’s got too much going on to concern Himself with your life. Don’t you know that there’s poverty, hunger, crime, disease and more throughout the world? What could God care about your 1st world problems? Others say, once you help yourself, God will help you. He wants you to show a little initiative. You can’t expect Him to do everything. You need to prove yourself worthy. Still others say God is only an idea that helps direct your moral beliefs. You can’t ever take Him at His word, nor should you ever try to convert anyone to Christ. Keep your Christian faith just so  long as you keep it to yourself. The world’s answers all come down to three options. Either God doesn’t care, wants you to do something, or doesn’t even exist. A lot of hope there right?

The Bible’s answer is entirely different. It says, if you struggle in your spiritual endurance, or in understanding something about God, recognize first and foremost your weaknesses. The world never wants to look inward, but that’s exactly what God tells us to do. Because once you recognize, you can repent. One Christian writer used this illustration about the sin of bitterness. He said the world has two options for bitterness. Keep it in and poison yourself. Or spread it around and poison others. God says repent. Think of yourself as a cup. You can be filled with either bitter water or sweet water. The tribulations of life, the tests from God, jolt you. They shake the cup and either bitterness or sweetness flows out. You see, the problem is not with the test. Everyone gets jolted in life. The cup can’t point at others or God and say, “it’s your fault that bitterness came out.” Tribulation only brings out what is already in the container. When others sin against you, no matter how grievous and unwarranted it may be, it will never corrupt you unless you allow it to. God says, spill out the sweetness of the Gospel in the moment of trial and others will be blessed through it.

Likewise, God uses repentance to give you endurance. Isaiah’s words are simple and true. God has no equal, that includes you and me. In addition to that, we are weak and faint on our own. We need help. There is a freedom from repentance in Christ because it replaces our weakness with His power and gives us the strength that is equal to God’s, Who has no equals.

Part 2: Trust God’s Power

Here’s where it gets though, because repentance demands humility and trust. If we don’t understand everything on our own, we need to follow someone who does. If we aren’t strong enough for the journey we need to be carried by someone who is. In every stage of endurance training or learning, you have to trust. The kid learning to ride without training wheels has to trust mom and dad; that they’ll hold the back of the seat, that they can actually balance enough to stay up, that it’s actually possible. The college grad needs to trust that maturity pays off over cutting corners; that eventually you can get that job to support yourself and begin a family, that the mortgage, however daunting it may be, will eventually be paid off with persistence. 

The world often tells us that trust is unique to religions, but in reality it is at the very core what it means to be human. Every person trusts, even if they are too insecure in that trust to actually admit it. But, the real thing that makes trust difficult, especially with God, is that when combined with repentance it means change. Our text says that very thing, 31 But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint. We often read this verse and think of the grand splendor of soaring like an eagle, but the actual Hebrew word for “renew” means to change.

Most people want God’s blessings without the change of repentance, but that’s not the way it works. They say, Christianity is good and useful because it fills me with hope through beautiful imagery like eagles’ wings and running without being tired, and Christ’s power, and love, and acceptance of everyone, and the hope of a utopia here on earth. My friends, that’s the great lie of our culture and nothing short of idolatry and the worst hypocrisy of taking the name of Christ.

Christianity is useful because it changes sinners. Jesus didn’t die under the weight of His Father’s justice because all we needed was a better feeling in our hearts and more hope for a better society. Talk about passing over a truly just claim! Jesus died because all people were infected with a deadly disease; an incurable one. A condemning rift existed between God and His highest creation. Change was needed and that change came about through a cross. That’s why the Pentecost Church said this about the way to salvation, “Repent therefore and be converted (changed), that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19).”

Friends, change and trust go hand in hand and they are abundantly difficult for sinners like us. But, we learn. We grow. We endure through Christ and with Godly endurance comes greater understanding. In Christ, we have access to God’s very own ‘no-equals’ understanding. This is a very blessed gift indeed for it means more than just IQ or knowledge about the truths of God. It also means understanding in character, in the quality of my thoughts, words, and actions. This is God’s gift of grace to you through Christ Jesus. It is the pinnacle of the struggles, tribulations, and tests you endure in life. It is the mark of a mature believer. It is the blessed product of faith. But, to have it you must be changed. Converted in the heart by the Holy Spirit. Assured of the eternal promises of God but also renewed with a burning desire to resist sin and follow the truth in humility.  

If we agree with or support the false philosophies of the world which tell us repentance is cruel and archaic and threaten us to be Christians who are neither seen nor heard in society then we are not enduring, we are regressing. Peter forcefully spoke about this very thing saying, 2 Peter 2:20-22 For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. 21 For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: "A dog returns to his own vomit," and, "a sow, having washed, [returns] to her wallowing in the mire.”

Brothers and sisters, young and old, and especially dear Yanet and Brendan. We are about our heavenly Father’s business of the Gospel and that is a pursuit of understanding and endurance, not regression to the former ways. Don’t return to the world’s moral vomit. Don’t wash in the muck and mire of your sinful flesh. Rather, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” It’s an uncommon path for many people. It runs contrary to modern thinking. It takes the combination of strength and understanding applied together – the qualities of youth and age. And, most daunting of all, it means you must daily change through repentance.

This is an intimidating thing and not to be taken lightly. But, it’s not just tough for you, it’s absolutely terrifying to Satan. He hates to see people who have been changed. Because that’s about more than just self-denial and Godly restraint. It also means you are blessed with the strength of God. It means you are raised as on eagles’ wings. It means you are washed by the blood of the Lamb. It means you feed on the living and active Word of God. Satan rages in terror against such change. He stops at nothing to impede it in your life, even if that means tempting you to be afraid of it yourself.

Don’t give in. Don’t regress. Build your endurance with the strength of Christ and the understanding of the Holy Spirit. May your lifetime be one of continual reflection on the grace of God, seeing with clarity and humility everything He has brought you through which you were too weak on your own to face and looking forward with joyful hope to the life of no tears, sorrow, pain, or death. Amen.

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

Preached at Redemption, 6-11-17    

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.