September 26, 2017

September 24, 2017 - Romans 6:1-6

Theme: From Death Row to Freedom
1. All people are prisoners of sin
2. Only through Christ is there a “Means” of freedom

Romans 6:1-6 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? 3 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.

As I was reading through news headlines this week I saw an article about a photographer who re-created the last meals of death row inmates. Every individual who receives capital punishment is almost always given a choice in determining their final meal. The photographer remarked that he found it fascinating that a person’s meal choice was so indicative of their personality. Whenever think of “last meals” I can’t help but feel sad. Who would want to gorge themselves before impending death? Could you really enjoy it knowing that this is it? If placed in the same situation I think I would lost my appetite entirely.

It’s also not uncommon to hear death row inmates called “dead men walking.” This title is a constant reminder that their days are numbered. There is no escape from the punishment of the crimes they committed. They will have to suffer the ultimate price, it is only a matter of time.

But, doesn’t that title apply to us all? All people are really “dead men walking.” Whether a person has committed a heinous enough crime to warrant capital punishment or not doesn’t matter. Death is a reality for us all. And even more than that, death is an experience that we have all been through. I’m not talking about physical death, but any kind of separation from life – which is really what all death is. Spiritual separation, or death, occurs long before physical death. Paul said it simply a few verses after our text, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) He wrote elsewhere to the Ephesians, “…you were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience. (Ephesians 2:1-2).   

The story of death row inmates should resonate with us, because God reveals in His Word that as it pertains to our spiritual lives, we are very much in the same situation. We’re living but without escape from death. We are dead men walking.

This prospect is inescapably startling of you truly think about it and take it heart. So startlingly, in fact, that many ignore it and are even offended that you would suggest it. It’s much easier to digest man’s opinion, that while we may not be perfect, there is certainly a host of things that set apart a person on death row from someone who is ordinary. And certainly that difference has to count before God, even if He will require an account of my life when I stand before Him. But, there’s a problem with that line of reasoning because it suggests that God will base His ruling by comparing people with each other. The Bible says the comparison will actually be between the you and God. How you compare with someone else’s merits means very little before God. He is concerned with your righteousness as He is righteous. Given such a comparison, there’s no escaping a sentence of death, of separation from God. Rather, it is a reality that we all must come to grips with.
What connection, then, do the Sacraments and the gospel have to this reality of death? The answer is that they are the means by which God extends forgiveness, or in other words, they free us from death. These means do not circumvent the obligation of death under God’s law. The means of grace are not cheap tricks to escape God’s punishment. They are not “get out jail free cards” that allow us to do whatever we want and have a guaranteed pass from God. Essentially, they do not escape the necessity of death and yet they make us free.

Paul explains as it pertains to baptism. How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? 3 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Baptism is meant to be one of God’s greatest and most comforting blessings and yet Paul says that it causes death. Once again, let us return to the basic meaning of death to help us understand. Baptism causes a separation, a death in that sense. This is not a separation from God, but a separation from sin.

We didn’t have to do anything to die spiritually from God. That death has been the fate for all people since our very first ancestors sinned in the Garden. That death, in a rational way of thinking, is extremely simple. No effort required on our part – we are all sinners. This very first death then leads to the many ways in which we die through sins in our lives. Obviously, as it pertains to our responsibility before God these latter sins are quite damning.

Paul then takes this haunting reality, that we are on death row, and uses it to explain what Christ did. When Jesus came to earth to secure our salvation, He didn’t shortchange His Father’s demands. Jesus died. He suffered the just penalty that we deserved. So often people complain against God and ask why He doesn’t just intervene and stop evil if He is all-powerful. Furthermore, if sin is so bad, why doesn’t God just fix everything and be done with it? It’s a logical argument in a sense, but most people don’t follow it to its logical end. Suppose that God just mystically snapped His fingers and did away with everything evil. Suppose He changes this instantly, in the blink of an eye. On the surface this sounds nice because we would then be back to perfection. But, two other good things would also be radically changed.

1. We would no longer be free. God specifically created people as free creatures. He gave us a mind and senses to think for ourselves. He designed us to serve Him of our own will, not be forced into it as the animals were created. While this freedom today is corrupted by sin, it is still a blessing and is meant to enrich our relationship with God by faith. Simply changing everything would eliminate this freedom. 

2. The second thing that would change is the nature of God. If God supernaturally intervened to change everything in the world through His sheer power He would cease being God. This example is parallel to a skeptical question you’ve probably heard before. Can God create an object so big that He can’t move it? On the surface this question sounds good to the unbeliever because in their minds it shows the limitation that even an all-powerful God can have. But, in reality, it is a useless question, because although God is all-powerful he would never do anything that contradicts who He is. Therefore, God would never solve the problem of sin in a way that betrayed another part of His nature. Here we focus on God’s justice. It would certainly be a loving thing to take care sin with a flash of His magical wand, but it wouldn’t be just. Justice means doing what is right, what is perfect. From the very beginning God has clearly said that sin demands a punishment. The height of that punishment is where we are led in our text, death. God could not eradicate sin without dealing with the penalty for that sin. If He did He would not be God and it wouldn’t matter what else happened because there would be nothing left for us.

This is why what Jesus did is so important. God intervened in our affairs by sending His Son in our place, not by doing some supernatural reversal of sin. For this mode of salvation to work Jesus would have to uphold every attribute of God while He was in our place. All of these attributes could be narrowed down to love and justice. The way in which Jesus secured salvation had to perfectly satisfy God’s nature of being all-loving, but also being completely righteous. Therefore, to be a sinless Savior Jesus had to keep all of God’s commandments and He had to pay our penalty for not.

Jesus did it. He died on the cross. He was buried in the tomb. He walked our path on death row and received, in His own body, the ultimate price for our sins. Every step He took in this manner was absolutely necessary. It was the only way we could be saved. The fruit of this sacrifice was the resurrection. Because Jesus did it all perfectly, death had no claim on Him. He defeated it and paved the way for all who believe in Him to likewise be rescued from it.

The Sacraments and the gospel Word are important for us because they flow from this work of Jesus. Just as God could not circumvent the means that were necessary for obtaining our salvation, so also we cannot circumvent the means necessary for receiving salvation. The two go hand in hand and so Paul appropriately fleshes out the illustration: Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.

When someone is baptized, God wants us to recognize that they have died and been raised in the same manner as His own Son. It’s a continual testament to the fact that God did not just overlook the problem of sin. It is also a continual reminder of everything Jesus has defeated for us to get to heaven. The same can be applied to the Lord’s Supper, when Jesus promises, “This is my body given for you, and my blood shed for the forgiveness of sins.” In both instances, God does not ignore the reality of death – rather He purposely embraces it both in His justice and in His love.

I believe there is a connection in our culture between the popular attitude of calling for only love, not justice, and also diminishing the means by which God brings His grace and forgiveness to us. And why wouldn’t there be? If people ignore the tragedy and reality of death there is no need for divine justice. If people want God to miraculously intervene in life and immediately make everything better they won’t want to receive His blessings by His methods. But, to ignore the separation that sin has caused is like death row inmate ignoring the impending future. We are all trapped in that dire reality. But, as Jesus Himself said, “Be of good cheer.” For our death has been defeated by His death.

Be confident that through baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the gospel Word, you are united in your Savior’s death and resurrection. Your sins of past and present are buried and gone. Your loving Father’s righteous justice has been met and you will be able to stand before Him. Amen.

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

September 18, 2017

September 17, 2017 - Galatians 4:9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two important distinctions about relational knowledge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preached at Redemption, 9-17-17 

September 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 5, 2017

September 3, 2017 - James 1:2-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1: Trials are not pointless

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

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

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

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

Part 2: Prayer is not worthless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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