December 20, 2017

Advent 3 - 2 Timothy 2:8-15

Keep Your Attention on Jesus
1.     1. As you move ahead look behind.
2.     2. Use and trust the unbound Words

2 Timothy 2:8-15 Keep your attention on Jesus Christ as risen from the dead and descended from David. This is according to my gospel. 9 I suffer for it to the point of being bound like a criminal, but God's message is not bound. 10 This is why I endure all things for the elect: so that they also may obtain salvation, which is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11 This saying is trustworthy: For if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will also deny us; 13 if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. 14 Remind them of these things, charging them before God not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers. 15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn't need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.

A few weeks ago I was cleaning out some old boxes and came across a book from childhood. It’s a “Choose your own adventure” book where you, the reader, gets to decide the outcome. This particular book is called “Super Bowl Sunday” and the reader gets to determine the outcome of the game by picking which pages to flip to. For example, p. 38 ends with this choice, “to put the rookie quarterback in, turn to page 27. To put the veteran in charge, turn to page 52. Each scenario has a different outcome and there are several choices throughout the book.

As a child, these books appealed to me because of the excitement of trying to get it right. If one choice was wrong, you were out of luck. This aspect was certainly highlighted to a greater degree in books that involved imminent danger, like a treasure hunter in the jungle or an encounter with bandits in the Wild West. I enjoyed trying to stay alive but also seeing where all the results ended.

As we continue on our journey through Advent today, we see part of God’s Word that sounds like a “Choose your own adventure” book. Verses 11-13 lay out the options we have: For if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will also deny us; 13 if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. There’s no jumping to different pages in a book to determine the way we are headed. God tells us plainly where each ends up but people are intrigued nonetheless with the options before them.

But, even in this adventure of life, a book is present. In the context surrounding these scenarios the Holy Spirit lays a foundation about that book. It’s the Bible – God’s Word, and it contains the key to finding heaven at the end of the adventure. We think about these things today because Advent is a season of looking ahead. God’s message to us today is that sometimes the best way to see where you are going is to look at where you’ve been.

Our text has elements to that effect immediately, with the very first word in fact. Some translations say “Remember,” ours says “Keep your attention on…” God is telling us to take notice of something that has already happened; something that is a matter of the past, or even a reality in the present. That reality is Jesus Christ. Two things are highlighted about Jesus. First, that He is risen and second, that He is David’s descendent. Here you have a fact about His divinity and a fact about His humanity. Keeping our attention on both is important.

During Advent we’re mostly confronted with themes of Jesus’ humanity. We’re approaching His birth after all, the moment He took human flesh – the period of history when His humanity became reality. But, His humanity was never the end, the completion. Jesus became human to fulfill a divine goal, something that He planned from eternity. The Son of Man was to be sacrificed so that the Son of God could be raised and forevermore exalted. There could be no resurrection without first a death, but once both are complete the resurrection takes precedence over all.

When you consider the choices before us the resurrection makes the difference between life and death. Whenever we are put in danger or are uncertain about where to turn, God leads us back to the fact of the resurrection. Even death, the definite end of any story, cannot stand against the resurrection. This is brought out in the first scenario, This saying is trustworthy: For if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him.

This is why there is a calling back to the past in our text. Verse 8, “Keep your attention on….” Verse 14, “Remind them…” The resurrection is complete. Just as we point back to the birth of Christ as it pertains to His humanity so also we can point to His triumph over death as it pertains to His divinity. To move forward we must look back.

It might seem like an easy formula to follow, but our lives are filled with dangers that would threaten our eternal outcome. We are tempted to deny God. We have sins that cause us to be found unfaithful before the Lord. These are things that either push or pull us away from the Lord. Many have tried to control these dangers on their own. But, there’s a reason why God says in another book, “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed, lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).” Many have tried to control the dangers on their own, none have succeeded.

So, God tells us, “Remember, keep in mind, Remind one another…” of My Son’s victory for you. If only we had something to keep this truth on our minds. Well, we do, don’t we? The Word of God. Here’s why the Word is present in our verses. As God commands us to remember Him, He also tells us how. We don’t have to walk the adventure on our own. We have a guide. Paul, by inspiration, calls it “my gospel,” “the trustworthy saying,” and the “word of truth.” The Word of God keeps our attention on Jesus and the undeniable truths that He has done for us. In every moment of doubt and peril, we can go back to the Word, and it immediately is “a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.” To move forward, we look back.     

But, even at this prospect, it shouldn’t surprise us that Satan is nipping at our heels at every opportunity to throw us off course. In his cunning manner, one way he does this is to take the very method God has given to bless us and use it against us. Paul tells us, Remind them of these things, charging them before God not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers. 15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn't need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.

Words can be unprofitable too. Words can tear down just as easily as they can build up. This can refer to a person’s own opinions, the thoughts and words that they choose to speak on their own. It can also refer to God’s Word when it is used incorrectly. Think of a pertinent Scriptural illustration as an example. In both the book of Ephesians and Hebrews, God’s Word is pictured as a sword. This sword can pierce through our sinful ways and expose the truth in order that we trust God. This sword can defend us against Satan and his attacks. We can take the offensive against God’s enemies with this Sword, His Word, by preaching it with courage and conviction. But, the sword can be mishandled too, to our own destruction and to the damage of our hearers. This is one reason why Biblical training is so important. The world would have us believe that Biblical training is just a way for our parents to brainwash us into believing what they want us to, that eventually you grow out of God’s Word when you become wise enough to know better.

But training in God’s Word is like learning to wield a sacred and powerful weapon; a weapon that can hurt others if we don’t know what we’re doing. Sadly, many have used God’s Word to this end, as we have all too often. And yet, the power of the gospel has never been overcome. Even in the hands of fallible, mistake-oriented people, the power of the cross and the open tomb is present today. Although we tend to focus on the negatives of the world around us, let us not diminish the amazing miracle that God has preserved His grace for thousands of years by the same Word of truth, used by the same sinful people.

We continue to move forward this Advent with hope and joy in the coming Christ. Let us not forget to look back also, and re-focus on what Jesus has done. In our Gospel reading, we looked back at a stern lesson Jesus taught. He asked the crowds, “What did you come out to see?” This pointed question and the discourse that followed was a stunning indictment of their lack of preparation. When Christ was born, too many were left wondering about what it all meant. Even John the Baptist questioned whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. The people had set up false expectations for the Savior and His Forerunner because they had listened to much to those who “fought about words and led their hearers to ruin.” Jesus pointed them back to the Scriptures for the Word of truth.

We don’t see our Savior today, so perhaps your question should be this, “What did I come out to hear?” As we are involved in our own Advent of preparation, what governs our expectations? Is our path about choosing our own adventure at all costs, instead of heeding God’s call? Have we digested the false opinions of people in the world, about who Jesus really is, what He really taught, and what is all really means; getting past the simple meaning of the Words? Have we been tempted to think the promise of the resurrection, of God’s faithful and unchanging Word, and of the Holy Spirit’s activity through such to just be imaginations and myths that our parents want us to believe?

There are many options to follow – but only two outcomes: Heaven or Hell. God’s Word is not a “choose your own adventure” book even though you are free to make it that if you wish. God’s Word is a call, an invitation to obtain salvation, which is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. That’s the path we are walking by faith. That is on our mind in Advent, Christmas, Easter, and always. That is our joy, peace, and hope. Let’s keep walking in it, forward, upward, to heaven. But don’t forget to look back often. Amen. 

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

December 11, 2017

Christmas Comparisons - Psalm 117

Theme: God’s Comparison is a Measure of His Compassion

It’s no mystery that tensions can exist between neighbors. Here we’re thinking of neighbors in the way our culture typically understands it, as the person who lives next door to you. Several sayings bear this out: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” “Good fences make good neighbors.” Not surprising, this tension can grow during the Christmas season. Perhaps your neighbor doesn’t shovel his sidewalk as often as you’d like. Or maybe she lets her dog make yellow markings on the fresh snow in your yard. Or maybe they want to have the best Christmas decorations in the neighborhood.

Yes, as surprising, or maybe not, as it sounds, Christmas decorating can quickly turn into a heated competition. Everybody wants to have the best, most noble, eye-catching display. Some people pour hundreds or thousands of dollars into lights and energy costs. I happened to see a news article this week about a woman in Arizona who was so tired of the neighborly competitiveness that she opted for a new and unique tactic. After he neighbor had spent hours getting all his lights in order, both in the yard and on the house, this woman simply crafted a large sign that said “Ditto” with an arrow pointing to her neighbor. It was a light-hearted way to deal with the situation but for some it’s not a laughing matter.

The fires of competition arise when we start comparing ourselves with others. This happens around Christmas, but it’s hardly relegated to just this time of year. While God never directly condemns making comparisons between ourselves and others, He often warns against what it can lead to. Perhaps most often of all, comparisons lead to coveting and discontent. We see what others have. We think the grass is always greener on the other side. We pity ourselves as if the odds are against us. And on and on the discontent grows and very quickly we start to blame God. Why do others get more than me? Why is that person’s life so much better than mine?

This conundrum comes forth in the Bible too. The Psalmist Asaph wrote of comparing his life with the wicked: Truly God is good to Israel, To such as are pure in heart. 2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; My steps had nearly slipped. 3 For I was envious of the boastful, When I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psa 73:1-3)

Asaph was discouraged because of the prosperity of the wicked. He thought they should get what they deserved. It caused him to doubt God’s love in his life. It led him to be angry with God. Quite a different thought we get in our text for today, from Psalm 117: Praise the LORD, all nations; Laud Him, all peoples! 2 For His lovingkindness is great toward us, And the truth of the LORD is everlasting. Praise the LORD! (NASB)

Psalm 117 is an interesting one. It’s the central chapter of the entire Bible and also the shortest chapter. We’re not told who wrote it, but it was contained in a volume of Psalms called the Hallel Psalms, named after the Hebrew word for “Praise the LORD”, where our English word Hallelujah comes from. These Hallel Psalms were special to God’s people. They were sung during the Passover preparation. They were even sung by Jesus and His disciples on Maundy Thursday in the Upper Room. Think of that for a moment. In that most trying of hours, the Lord Jesus most likely repeated the very same words and believed the same truths that are printed before you this morning.

We may not know whom the Holy Spirit caused to record this Psalm, but its message is simple enough. “Praise the LORD” bookends the qualities of God’s mercy, which is great, and God’s truth, which is eternal. The Psalmist worships God for these blessings. He speaks differently than Asaph because he is not concerned with what is going on around him. This unknown author is focused entirely on Who is above and what He has done. We might call this the difference between a comparison of the horizontal (what is going on in the world) and a comparison of the vertical (what is going on with God).

There is no shortage of opportunities to make such comparisons for ourselves. But we must ask, what is going to be best for our lives? Comparisons with others will lead to despair. Comparisons with God will lead to hope and praise.

This may seem like a no-brainer to you but I want to show you why it is so significant. We’re used to comparing our lives with God because He directs us to. He says, “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy.” Jesus said, “Be holy, as My Father in heaven is holy.” Paul describes eternal life, and the completion of love, as knowing God as He knows us today. This is nothing short of astounding. But you’re probably not blown away by it because you know it already. You’ve been living it and trusting it since your baptism. But, for those without Christ, this is a completely foreign concept. But, the key is that God does not just tell us to compare ourselves with Him in His commands, but also in what Jesus has done for us by free grace.

Look at any other world religion and God is a distant, sometimes unnamed, unknowable force. Even if a religion gets specific about god it’s certainly not for the purpose of comparing yourself to him. Take Islam for example. The goal in Islam is to follow Allah, the deity they call God. But, a person is forbidden to compare him/herself to Allah. It’s offensive even to depict Allah or his prophet, Muhammad in art. The disciple is continually told to keep a certain distance from Allah. The path for following him is to show greater devotion in following his commands; in the terminology of our thoughts today, to compare your obedience with others. Whoever is better is more devoted to Allah.

Now think of the great difference between those principles and the gospel of Christ, especially as we prepare for Christmas. We are looking forward to observing the moment in history when God entered the world, and not only that, when He became human. There is no closer comparison to us than that. God didn’t consider it blasphemy to be depicted in human terms; He chose it. He belittled His eternal, immaterial, holy presence to become exactly like us – people who struggle and strive in the filth of this temporary world. This is amazing and absolutely one of a kind. No other faith system has anything like this.

And the thing is, as soon as we get stuck in comparing ourselves to God, we are met face-to-face with Christ in the Scriptures. God dispels our fears and uncertainties about measuring our lives next to His perfect nature by using His own Son as a comparison of His own. That’s what the birth of Jesus was. God was stepping down into humanity and becoming one of us. But, just like all comparisons, when this one was made, several contrasts became apparent too. Jesus was like us, indeed. This surprised people. It continues to fascinate us with curiosity today. We sing hymns about the sublime majesty of God being in the body of a helpless baby.

But, Jesus was different too. With that great comparison of the Father’s mercy also came an honest realization of why this Child was born. We who were once made in the Father’s image, had fallen from His righteousness. Jesus came to right that wrong as well. Hebrews sums it all up in one verse: For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was like us in all things, except sin. And even in that point, He knew what sin was, He experienced it through He never committed it. Peter wrote: 1 Peter 2:24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.
This is the great mercy for which the psalmist praises the LORD. But mercy means nothing without truth. The harsh truth is that we caused the innocent Son of God to be nailed to the cross of divine punishment. We are not innocent by-standers in this great sacrifice. He came for our sins and our lives. When God promised the great comparison of His Son’s incarnation into this world, to be made human like us, He was thinking of you and of me. That Savior born in Bethlehem was here to walk my path, to carry my sorrows, to suffer my punishments, to extend the hand of compassion that I withheld. My life is compared to His in all points because He bought me back from the dead.

Now, we see the amazement. It’s one thing to compare the truths of the gospel with the other religions of the world. It makes an impact. It’s quite another thing, quite another plane of appreciation and thanksgiving, to know that I today have been redeemed by Christ. Everything I read about in the Bible that He did, He did for me. That is the comparison God wants me to make each day of my life. When I feel self-righteous, compare with Christ. When I feel beaten down, compare with Christ. When I am stubborn and indignant in my sins, compare with Christ. And when I make that comparison I see great mercy and eternal truth. I see Him for me, both in the standards which I failed to keep and the blissful promises I eagerly expect. This, my friends, is the vertical comparison – the purpose of the Christmas season when this comparison began and the simple theme of the shortest chapter of the Bible.      

Come back the 73rd Psalm. When Asaph compared his life with others, what conclusion did he come to? He said, “When I thought how to understand this, It was too painful for me-- 17 Until I went into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood their end. 22 I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You. 23 Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. 24 You will guide me with Your counsel, And afterward receive me to glory. (Psalm 73:16-17, 22-24)

His conclusion was that he needed to go back to the fact that God was with him no matter what. Foolishness and pain were the results of comparing his life with others. This is true whether you think you have it good or not. As Luther once said, “We are all beggars.” The hope of the Christmas season and of life in general is not that I have more than others, not that I can do more than others, or not that I look better than others. The hope is great mercy, and eternal truth – wrapped not in paper and bows, but in swaddling cloths.

God is with you. God holds you in His hands. God guides each every day. God will receive you to glory. His gifts through the greatest gift – His Son. Praise the LORD! Amen.

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