November 28, 2017

The Last Day - Matthew 25:1-13

The Vigilant Believer…
1. Waits in Joyful Expectation
2. Stays Watchful and Prepared

Matthew 25:1-13 "Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 "Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. 3 "Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, 4 "but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. 5 "But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. 6 "And at midnight a cry was heard:`Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!' 7 "Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. 8 "And the foolish said to the wise,`Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 9 "But the wise answered, saying,`No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.' 10 "And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. 11 "Afterward the other virgins came also, saying,`Lord, Lord, open to us!' 12 "But he answered and said,`Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.' 13 "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.

Is there a worse feeling in the world than waking up late for something? Have you ever experienced that feeling; perhaps sleeping through your alarm or forgetting to set it? It’s feels terrible. It leaves a pit in your stomach. I can tell you what’s even worse is forgetting to wake up for something you have to do but don’t want to. It’s one thing to miss something you’re looking forward to, it’s an entirely different level of pain to miss something you need to be at but don’t want to.

When I was in college, I would have to wake up for 6 am basketball practices from time to time. That meant in order to be on time I would have to actually wake up at about 5 am, if I wanted breakfast. For some of you that’s normal. Let me tell, for my college self, it wasn’t. I was not a morning person, and even more so when I had a 2-hour practice impending. And when something was coming up the next day like that I never slept well, either. It was just terrible.

Well, one time my first year of playing, I woke up at about 5:55 am. It was a horrible feeling. I didn’t want to go, knowing I’d be late. But, I knew it would be worse if I just didn’t show up. So, I went as fast as a I could, showed up late, received some well-deserved banter from my teammates (who had to run whenever someone was late), and that was it. It really wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and because it scared me so much it never happened again. I was sure to be prepared every time after that.

Jesus describes the same feeling in this parable, but with a much sadder consequence. Imagine how horrible it would feel to be late to heaven, too late in fact. There’s no lesson learned after that. That’s it. The message of the Last Day is fiercely upfront and simple. There is one day, coming in the future, when all will stand before God and face eternity. Of this truth the Scriptures are crystal clear. God expects us to prepare now to face that day. But not one of us can say we’ve been diligent in that task.

Part 1: Waits in Joyful Expectation

I want to ask you something different though. When you think of that Day, are you looking forward to it or not? Are you excited about heaven or is it just too hard to take seriously? Are you secretly hoping it’s not true, that God isn’t going to judge all, that somehow everyone will be saved? It’s not wrong to hope for all to be saved, but it can be dangerous to nullify the reason why Jesus died for sin.

Jesus spoke this parable to help teach His followers about vigilance, especially near the end. And yes, preparation is key, but joy is important too.

The ten virgins were waiting in joyful expectation. This was a wedding after all. What isn’t joyful about a wedding celebration? Jesus speaks about some of the traditions of that culture to show us what vigilance in our faith is like. The typical Jewish wedding took place at night. The groom would go to his home, or his parent’s home, wherever the ceremony was to take place and prepare it. The bride would wait with her bridesmaids at a different location. When the groom came to get her the entire party would travel to the ceremony, the marriage would be sealed, and the celebration would take place.

All of these things were occasions of joy. Preparation by both the groom and bride were necessary, as well as waiting, but it was all in eager expectation. Of course, that joy would be dampened if something went wrong, or if someone was ill-prepared. It’s not by chance that Jesus taught with this analogy. The vision of the Church and Christ being united like a wife to her husband is common in the Bible. God takes the most intimate, sacred, covenantal union known to mankind and says that it’s a taste of what true union with God is like. In the course of the parable Christ is the groom, believers are the virgins. On the last day, the marriage feast will take place; the two will be united forever.

But this happens at midnight, at a time of great darkness. In such a setting light will be especially beneficial and necessary. The entire lamp is faith, divided between the oil and the flame (think substance in the heart and manifestation in action). Notice how all the virgins have lamps, but when the bridegroom comes, not all have light. The claim of being a member of the wedding party is present, but some have tarnished that distinction by ruining the ceremony. They want acceptance but they are left out of the celebration because they no longer have light. Think of how John described Christ’s effect in the world, John 1:4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.

The oil is symbolic of the Holy Spirit’s presence through the gospel, to keep the light alive and burning. Think of another Old Testament analogy of significance. When a king was chosen by God and crowned, he was anointed with oil, symbolizing God’s calling of that person. In a similar way the oil in this parable represents God’s presence in the heart. The light of faith is certainly helpful in all circumstances, but especially when things are most trying and desperate. Light is needed when it is dark, and Christ alludes the fact that it will be dark when He comes. Things will be difficult. Jesus warned in just the prior chapter, “Because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold (Matt 24:12). In our epistle reading, Peter warned the believers of his day that scoffers will arise and mock them for being followers of Christ, for patiently waiting for the bridegroom’s coming. If Peter needed to warn the Christians 2,000 years ago, how much more so for us. The darkness is upon us. Lawless abounds. Has our love grown cold?

This is why joy is so important to our waiting by faith. It is always easier to wait for something you’re looking forward to it. The joy in the parable is apparent in the attitude of the virgins when they hear that the Bridegroom is approaching. The text tells us they “trimmed” their lamps. Literally, this word means to adorn, or the beautify. We might think of making something presentable. This type of action is done when the activity is important. We don’t bother to adorn things that we deem worthless. We do it when something valuable is at stake. The believer values the coming of the Savior. We desire to be presentable for Him, to adorn ourselves by remaining faithful through His Word. A living, vibrant, active faith is pleasing to God. And the effort behind all of this is because the Bridegroom loves us. John writes in his first letter of this love: Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. 2 Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1John 3:1-3).

Christ’s love for us leads us to joyfully wait for the fulfillment of His promises, for that day when He will return. There is no place for fear or anxiety in the believer’s heart because the Father’s love is there. The flame of faith burns bright with hope, and this hope is pure and pleasing to God.

Part 2: Stays Watchful and Prepared      

The second aspect of vigilance is probably the dominant theme of the parable. Jesus says at the conclusion, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” We are vigilant because we are joyfully expectant but also because there is an uncertainty to the whole matter. God has not seen fit to reveal the exact moment when Jesus will return. No one knows, no matter what they say or predict. This information has not been given to us. Therefore, there is only one other thing to spend effort and time on – preparing.

The first step of staying prepared is to be watchful. The idea here is to be awake, to be aware of what is going on, both by intuition but also by having a healthy respect for the gravity of the situation. It’s interesting to note the way that Christ used the call to watchfulness near the end of His ministry. Back into chapter 24 Jesus introduced it with another parable, by describing a thief breaking into a house. The coming of the Lord is like the coming of a thief – it is unexpected. So, be ready by watching. After our section, the theme comes up in chapter 26 as well. There, in the Garden of Eden, Jesus implored His disciples to “watch and pray” with Him. We know what happened, they fell asleep. One might call this moment a testing of the Lord’s command. He had just instructed them to be mindful of the situation and He then wanted them to put their faith into action. They failed, miserably, in the most important of moments. But not for lack of trying. Jesus summarized, “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).”

Likewise, the distinction of the ten virgins was not based on intention. They all had the right intention. They wanted to be part of the wedding. They wanted to be included. Rather, the result was based on the status of their lamps, and that was based on their action, or inaction, to prepare. Sincerity for Christ will not save you. The dividing line between foolishness and wisdom, between faith and unbelief, is based on the truth. Either your light is burning or it’s not. This is the very essence of the final day. Your standing before God is not about the thoughtfulness or sincerity of your attitude. You can have the best of attitudes and yet still be lacking.

Those who slumber, slumber in the darkness. Keep your light burning. If sincerity is not enough, you will need something more. “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Jesus is the One who first gave your light and He can keep that light bright. When you boil down this parable to the most important take away, it’s that light that matters. The virgins were not chosen or rejected because of how important they were. Likewise, it doesn’t matter who you are today. The virgins didn’t prepare and stay watchful to prove themselves worthy. They were already invited and ready to come to the wedding. Likewise, your sins are already paid for. You’re not to be busy atoning for yourself serving others to earn heaven. Don’t burn yourself with the flame of you lamp. And finally, when the Bridegroom came, the wise virgins did not trim their lamps the catch the fancy and attention of the groom. They did it to see Him; it was the consummation of everything they waited for. Likewise, you do not make yourself presentable to the Lord based on your merits. He is the One for which you wait because He is the One who loves you and has proven that love.

Don’t oversleep for Judgment Day. Heed the Words of Jesus to you: Watch and Pray. Be mindful of eternity. You won’t miss it, of course, but that’s not why we’re staying watchful today. Our vigilance is by faith. Therefore, it is one of joy and excited expectation for our Beloved. Amen. 

November 14, 2017

Risky Church - Acts 9:31

Theme: What does the ideal church look like?

Is the church dead? Is there such a thing as the perfect church? Is the current model of congregation and membership really viable in our modern age?

Mark Zuckerberg suggests that Facebook, now with over 2 billion users, can become the new church. It can fill in for giving a person a sense of community and togetherness that the decline in churches has left vacant. This line of thinking illustrates several problems:
1) The idea that church is only valuable if I get what I want out of it. Becomes self-centered.
2) The idea that church is only about giving people a sense of togetherness and something to share with each other.
3) Much more is lost in church decline than is gained in Facebook popularity.

The sad thing is that many Christians are the ones who first introduced these ideas about church. Like those closest to us, parents and siblings, church has become the easy scapegoat for pent up anger and bitterness. It’s always easiest to lash out against those closest to us and ever since America has existed we have had the church right beside us. People are taking advantage of this and apathy is the result. Churches now have to compete for attention and end up selling theology like used-car salesman. Factional rivalries between denominations often overshadow the gospel. People join and leave churches over petty, non-doctrinal issues, while ignoring the actual substance of soul-care they receive or leave.

Some are so fed up with all this they just choose a path of isolationism. Like progressive monks and nuns they still claim to be Christian but they isolate themselves from church. They say things like: “I can be spiritual without being religious.” “I don’t need to go to church to be close to God.” In their minds, the church has failed, and often they have a point, even if their response is foolish and dangerous.

Is the church viable? I continue to say yes, and not just because of my title or this robe I’m wearing, or because I’m standing here talking to you. I say this because we know the church has worked in the past, under much harder circumstances, and I say this because God willed the church into existence as His model. To summarize the ideal church, we look at a single passage from the book of Acts:

Acts 9:31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.

The book of Acts tells us about the formation of the Christian church after the Ascension of Jesus. There are several sections we could look at when contemplating what the church should be like. The verse before us came a transition point. The church had been firmly established in the regions that are mentioned: Judea, Galilee, and Samaria. However, this was still a relatively small section of the populated world of that time. God had bigger plans.

One of the main reasons why the church’s global growth was stunted was because of Jewish persecution, led by Saul. This verse from chapter nine came immediately after Saul’s conversion. Now that God had brought Christianity’s foremost enemy into the fold, the time was right to expand with missionary work among the Gentiles. And God would use Saul, who became Paul, to do this work. But, despite the persecution that the Jewish Christians endured, they still had strong churches. They would use their model to bring the message of Christ into Asia Minor, North Africa, and eventually Europe. Soon enough, a new form of persecution, this time from the Roman Empire, would arise. But, just like the persecution of the Jews, it would only serve to build the resolve of the Christians.

This was certainly a tumultuous time for believers, but God used these circumstances for their benefit. They were strong. They relied on God for everything. They were eager to serve others and the share the gospel. To summarize, they knew what was important in life. The church was a simple thing for these Christians. It was a spiritual haven. For many who were beaten down in life, both physically and spiritually, the church was a welcome relief and comfort.

In our age, we are thankful to be spared of major persecution. Many Christians still face it today, but not in America. But, there’s a tradeoff to this blessing. We often get lazy and apathetic in our faith. We tend to forget what is most important in life. And as a result we often lose the true vision of what the church is. In the book we’re using as the basis for our sermon series, the author lists several things that church is not, but what many people think, or what many churches promote. Listen and see if any of these resonate with you, or if you’ve ever experienced any:     

·         Church is not a social club for gossip, albeit with pews and a slightly odd smell.
·         Church is not a place where you go to observe a whole bunch of rules that have no connection to everyday life.
·         Church is not a political organization dedicated to the preservation of “what America used to be” or to a social agenda overturning traditional beliefs.
·         Church is not primarily about feeling better, thinking more positively, achieving your best self, spiritually “winning,” or getting healthier.
·         Church is not a place where some people go during the week to observe some old rituals that nobody understands but that are considered valuable because they create togetherness and make people feel special.
·         Church is not a place where people who look like one another congregate and do all they can to keep others who aren’t like them out.
·         Church is not a spiritual smoothie bar where you go when you have a sudden and unexplainable rush to get close to God, only never to return.
·         Church is not a money-raising organization or a series of weekly seminars on success. The church is not a personal improvement organization such that you can climb the economic ladder, get a better job, and become fabulously wealthy just by going there.[1]

I think that in some way, all of these false perceptions of church apply to our current culture. Some more than others perhaps, but they all give us insight into why we have such a difficult time determining what church is, and why many opponents claim that the true church can never exist or is no longer relevant today. Each of these misconceptions take away from what God intends church to be, what He intended it to be from the beginning. When these modern thoughts about church are compared with God’s description in this single verse from His Word, the simplicity of church becomes quite clear. Simply put, it is to be a place where the Word of God is preached, for the peace, joy, and safety of believers.

Simple enough, but is it possible? Even in the churches that treat the Word of God with the utmost respect, failures are abundant. Yes, it is not only the mega-churches which emphasis entertainment over substance that have problems. Every church is operated by sinners, no matter how kind and sincere they are. Every pastor mishandles the preaching and application of God’s Word at times. No church has perfect leadership that never steers the congregation in the wrong direction. And there are plenty of opportunities to work for the Lord and to increase His kingdom that regular members fail to capitalize on.

In reality, the church seems to be a very broken institution. For many, that’s reason enough to not be involved. As we said earlier, it doesn’t mean people see no value in confessing Christ, just not in making that confession with others. Isolation is becoming more and more popular. But, it’s the very brokenness of sinful people that caused God to create a place for them to gather together.

It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for church simply means an assembly, a group that gathers together. Contrary to modern conceptions of church, you don’t need a magnificent building, hymnals, organs, potlucks and coffee, or community oriented projects to be a church. A church is just a group of people who gather. What separates the church from other groups that gather is what they gather around – the Word and Sacraments. Historically, these two things have been known as the “Marks of the Church,” that is to say that wherever the Word of God and Sacraments are used, church is happening – whether that takes place in a cathedral or in a person’s basement; whether 200 people are present, or only 2.

The more we focus on what we gather around at church, instead of all the other details about that gathering, the better vision of church we have. Take Zuckerberg as an example again. His view of church is that it is present to create a communal atmosphere. In his mind, church gives people an avenue to serve others by being kind to one another. And so, naturally, communities on Facebook could indeed supplant the church so long as they can do a better job of creating this communal vision.

Zuckerberg’s understanding of church is completely void of what we gather around. It’s more about what we do. Therefore, in his vision, there is no place for the substance – for the Word of God and Sacraments. But, notice what God tells us about the original church’s source for peace and edification. It was based on the fear of the Lord and walking in that fear. Whenever fear is mentioned, we need define whether we mean that in positive or negative sense. Negative fear is terror, positive fear is respect. Well, how do we fear the Lord?

Both. It is proper to feel terror from the Lord because He is righteous and we are not. God demands that sin be paid for and if we have no Substitute we must answer that on our own. But, we also have a reverence and respect for God because He reveals that we have a Savior who offered up that payment for us – because He loved us. Depending on what aspect of our lives we are looking at, there is a place for both kinds of fear.

This is where we get the division of law and gospel in the Bible. The law leads us to recognize the terror fear of God because it exposes our sins. The gospel leads us to fearfully respect God because of the great lengths He went to to save us. Christians need to hear both the law and gospel and that is why church must be a place to hear both. They are the what that we center on as we gather together.   

The fear of God is also the reason why God desires Christians to walk together. One pastor described church like a campfire. When the coals and embers are together they stay hot, but if you isolate one on its own it quickly dies out. If the proper fear of God through both law and gospel is our goal as a church, we can only do that together. The Christian who believes that they are warmer and stronger on their own is finding strength from something other than God because that method is completely the opposite of what God has designed.

The final aspect of our description of the ideal church really solidifies the need for individual Christians coming together. We’re told in the final word that the church multiplied. The fact that the church grew shows that Christians coming together is important. We are not meant to be isolated; we are meant to grow. You can’t do that on your own. Some today make more of growth than they should. They make growth the mark of the church, rather than the Word and Sacraments. They make growth the what that we gather around. Equally important to being on guard against isolationism is making growth more than it is, or having it be a higher priority than God’s truth. Only after the first Christians had proper fear of the Lord, which led them to walk in the Lord’s Word and receive comfort of the Holy Spirit, did they have growth. The same continues to hold true for us.

Can the church continue to exist today? Sure, if we want it to. If we are willing to listen to what God calls church and how He designed it. If any of those misconceptions we mentioned have dampened your desire to be in church, remember this simple description from Acts. Wherever the Word of God is used the ideal vision of church is possible. Let us humbly recognize our weaknesses as a congregation and where we can give a clearer witness to the true purpose of church, the eternal Gospel of Jesus. Let nothing get in the way of that and let God lead us where He wills. Amen.

[1] Strachan, Risky Gospel, 140-141.