January 29, 2018

A Christian Eulogy of Comfort

Theme: A Christian Eulogy of Comfort

A common misconception today is that the church at the time of the apostles was pristine and flawless. Many Christians today who despise the traditions of the Western church call for a return to the ways things were around the time of the apostles. Many paint a picture of the early church as a group of people who didn’t’ suffer from the same problems we do today: things like greed, jealousy, deviations from God’s Word, and petty arguments. In their minds it was a simpler time where Christians joyously gathered in house churches and had no barriers inside cliques and factions that threaten our churches so often today. Much like the trendy movement today of returning to organics in our diet, there is a spiritual movement to seek the organic church, and a promise is given that things will be better if we do so.

Anyone who feels this way should read 1 Corinthians. The letter begins by denouncing petty factions that were currently going on in the congregation. The letter continues by listing fire after fire that Paul was trying to put out. The Corinthian church was a disaster. They were barely a church. They allowed open adultery to exist. Members were suing fellow members. People were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper. Members were denying the Lord’s supper. Much more was happening too. 1 Corinthians is not the most delightful read. A Christian who wants a good pat on the back should steer clear of it, because it’s a thoroughly condemning piece of writing.

But, it was exactly what they needed, and at times what we need too. This is not to say there is nothing to gain from the practices of the early church. Nor is that to assume that everything we practice in our modern church is the best. However, the truth is that there are still many things in our church that mirror the first Christians. The problem is with those who think that the simple, organic practices of the early church are the solution to our problems. God offers one solution for all generations, the gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Being more trendy is not more important than the gospel.

Recognizing the context of 1 Corinthians is important also to understanding 2 Corinthians. Think about all the judgments that Paul had to make in the first letter and then consider these words, from his introduction to the second letter:

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7 Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (ESV)

Ten times in these verses the word “Comfort” is used, both as a noun and as a verb. Paul’s message right away is not hard to detect. The Corinthians had been beaten back by the law of God and now they needed the comfort of the gospel. In fact, the word comfort is used 20 times in 2 Corinthians, the most of any New Testament book and almost a quarter of all the occurrences in the New Testament. Rather than focusing on the Corinthians’ sins, Paul is now looking at the ways in which they are being persecuted for trying to follow God’s will. Things had certainly changed from the first letter, but one thing they still needed was comfort.

The dominant theme of comfort in these verses centers on one word. The very first word of the text: Blessed. Today, people think that to be blessed means that there is something special about you that sets you apart from other people. But, the biblical meaning of blessed indicates a passivity of the recipient. In other words, being blessed is not about you, it’s about the one giving the blessing.

Here, Paul is speaking about blessing God, or praising Him. But, that gift can only be given once we are first blessed by God. This is where comfort comes in. Because of the great comfort we have in Jesus Christ, we are able to bless God’s name.

There’s something else about the word “blessed” that reminds of us God’s activity. In the Greek language, there is more than one word for “blessed.” When you think of blessings in the Bible, the Beatitudes are probably near the top of the list. Jesus began each of those statements with the word, “Blessed.” That Greek word is the most common for blessed, literally meaning a state of happiness or joy.

But this particular word in our text shows us the source of the believers’ joy. It is a combination of two Greek words – good and word. It’s also where our English word “eulogy” comes from. A eulogy is most often given at a person’s funeral. It is a statement that speaks a “good word” about a person’s life. The dictionary defines a eulogy as “a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, typically someone who has just died.”

Paul, here at the beginning of his second letter to the Corinthians, presents the Christian’s eulogy. What is the reason for this good word of praise? He writes, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For Paul, his praise of God is bound up in the comfort that God has freely given through the forgiveness of sins. This comfort is received by faith and then extended to others through the sharing of the gospel. When Jesus broke the sequence of sin that led to death He also established this sequence of comfort so that we would have hope.

In contrast to man-made eulogies, which so often ignore God and focus entirely on the person’s life – Paul’s eulogy is directed first and foremost to God. Likewise, in all moments of life, especially at a person’s death, a eulogy that points only to them holds no comfort. Within this word of blessing itself holds the key to the comfort that the Christian enjoys and shares. This blessing is literally a “good word.” This reminds us of the gospel, the “good news.” In fact, the Greek word “gospel” is almost exactly parallel to the Greek word for “blessed” here. The gospel is literally the “good message” and synonym to the “good word.”

This “good word” blessing was a common greeting in the early Church. It was used by Zechariah during his song of praise to God at the birth of John the Baptist. It was used by Paul to the Romans, Ephesians, and Corinthians. It was used by Peter in his first letter. In each context, God is being blessed and specifically because of Jesus Christ the “well-spoken” One who is the Savior of the world. This eulogy is even an extension of the title “Word Incarnate” by emphasizing the gospel portion of that Word. Jesus is “Word” but even more specifically the “Good Word.”

What a profound lesson we see in this section. In order to properly bless God in our lives, we must first receive the blessing He gives in Christ. Only by faith can we offer the eulogy that glorifies the Father; which is a mirror of the eulogy God has spoken for our comfort in His Son.

How sad, though, that this great blessing by faith is so often forsaken. Like the modern eulogy, very often the praises we think and speak are directed at ourselves. When we complain about the circumstances of our lives, as if God has slighted us – it’s a cry for attention, a plea for someone to offer us “good word” instead of letting all our doings in life point to the Lord.

When we get self-righteous about a difficult part of God’s revelation to us and we’d rather ignore it than obey it, we’re showing that we place a higher priority on our thoughts than God’s. We’re trying to scratch out a “good word” for ourselves, rather than trusting that God’s way is best.

When we embrace praise from others over the challenges that faith in Christ presents, we mirror the Pharisaical eulogy that seeks to be proven better than others, and we thereby set up an idol of the self before God. The list could go on. Many and perverse are the ways that we seek to have some praise heaped upon our names at God’s expense.

In a man-centered eulogy there is a glaring lack of comfort. That’s why funerals without the gospel are so shallow. There’s nothing wrong with remembering a person’s life but if memoires are all there is there is no comfort. It can be an offensive thing to hear this message. I have seen that offense at funerals when loved ones of the departed are shocked that we would spend so much time reading and sharing the gospel word, rather than talking about memories. It’s the same shock and offense we feel when the law of God strikes our hearts in the deep recesses where jealousies, grudges, lusts, and all pet sins reside. It’s a blow to the mythical fairy tale of the perfect eulogy for mankind – because no such thing exists.

The unshaken hope that Paul uses to encourage the Corinthians is found in Christ Alone. That sacred fact is not some secret that we Christians alone know and the rest of the world must struggle to find. It is not a security blanket to make us comfortable in our sins. Hope in Christ was not given to us because we were worthy, nor does it remain with us for that reason either. The truth is that we are up against the dangers that threaten our faith just as much as anyone. Those dangers can be brought about by sin, much like the content of 1 Corinthians. Those dangers can come from enemies who want to steal hope away, like the persecution of our text.

We are not immune to these threats. To remain in the faith, we need God’s blessing. We need the “good words” of life in Christ spoken to us each day. We need to receive that blessing daily because the dangers bombard us daily. The life of the repentant and trusting believer is the eulogy directed to God from the eulogy given by His grace in Christ.    

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

January 24, 2018

The Cost of Discipleship - Part 2 (Service)

Theme: The Cost of Discipleship – Service

We continue today from where we left off last weekend, considering the cost of discipleship. Today, we think of service, as Jesus described during His Sermon on the Mount, from Luke 6:27-36:

Luke 6:27-36 "But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 "bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. 29 "To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. 30 "Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. 31 "And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. 32 "But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 "And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 "And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. 35 "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. 36 "Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

In the name of our Savior, dear fellow redeemed.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during WWII. Although he studied in the United States for a time, he returned to Germany shortly before Hitler and the Nazi party gained power. Bonhoeffer quickly saw the intent of the Nazi regime and spoke out against the persecution of Jews and others, as well as the Nazi authority over Lutheran churches. He began to teach that Christians must “not only bandage the victims under the wheel but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.”

In 1937, Bonhoeffer published a book called The Cost of Discipleship, which was an expression of the Christian faith that was based primarily on the Sermon on the Mount – the very topics we are studying this morning. In that book, Bonhoeffer differentiated between what he called “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Within the context of his time, Bonhoeffer argued that too many Christians were standing for “cheap grace,” namely, taking the Christian name but not standing with courage against the forces that were opposed to it. “Costly grace” on the other hand, was exactly what it sounded like – it came at a cost. Christians who opposed the evil of the Nazi party would have to be willing to face persecution. Their message of God’s grace would come at a cost for their personal lives.

Bonhoeffer would eventually follow that very path as he was arrested in 1943 and sent to a concentration camp. He would eventually be executed, a mere two weeks before American forces liberated the camp. Bonhoeffer understood what Jesus was getting at in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount. He lived it. He knew the Cost of Discipleship, both in the context of Sacrifice as we talked about last weekend, and in the context of Service, as we think about today. For Bonhoeffer, his faith in Christ dictated that he owed a higher standard of service to others – as well as to God. That is the nature of discipleship, as we see from the words of Christ today.

The most important verse of our text to keep in mind is the very last one. “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” This is the perfect summation of our text and of the topic of discipleship. The only reason we can follow Christ is because He was first loved us and showed us mercy. The primary motivation to offer service to His name and to others is the mercy He has given us. It is of paramount importance to continually keep this fact in mind, especially in a section that contains many commands.

The mercy of our heavenly Father in Christ allows us to do things that we wouldn’t normally do. Jesus describes a few: Doing good to those who hate you. Blessing those who curse you. Turning your face to the one who strikes you. Giving your shirt to the one who takes your coat. The basic theme of all these examples is being willing to be mistreated. Jesus says that a Christian needs to be ready to do that.

These commands were not just counter-cultural to that time. They are difficult to do for all ages and all cultures. We feel entitled to respond in like manner to those who mistreat us, especially if they started it. Jesus is calling His followers to live in a different manner, we might call it “taking the high road.” But, even for the most devout Christian, it is tough to willingly be mistreated by others and be okay with it. This is why we call it a cost.

Jesus also explains what makes His will different. He says, “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 "And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 "And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back.”

One word keeps coming up in each example – credit. Jesus explains that if we do nice things for others just to get something for ourselves, we haven’t really served them. And it’s really not all that hard to do that either. The more difficult and noble task is to serve without expecting anything in return, and to even serve when being mistreated.

The idea of receiving credit might make us think that we do good things in order to get things God. Some do take this section to teach that we can earn blessings from God by helping others – even attaining His mercy and forgiveness if we’re good enough. But that kind of thinking is no different than the very thing Jesus is speaking against. Remember how important that final verse is. When God showed us mercy, did we deserve it? Absolutely not. If we had, it would not be mercy anymore. The very nature of mercy means that the recipient is not deserving. Furthermore, if we cannot serve others by expecting things in return, why would we think we could do that with God?

The credit that Jesus speaks about is glory that God receives when something is done in faith. As Jesus says in verse 35, when you serve others, even your enemies, without expecting anything in return, the Father is well-pleased. When God is pleased, we are too – not because we have earned something special, but because we have shone that we acted in faith. The service we give is evidence that God’s mercy is working in our lives. That credit both glorifies God and proves that we believe what we confess. As James wrote, “Faith without works is dead.” That is true not because faith is earned but because faith is proven to be genuine.

The credit or reward of faith will eventually point to heaven, what Jesus characterizes as being “sons of the Most High.” The promise of eternal life is the end result of faith in Christ. Therefore, every time our faith is proven genuine by service our eternal reward after this life is also proven genuine. And the engine behind all this is the underserved mercy of God.

For Bonhoeffer, his discipleship service consisted in speaking against the Nazi regime in his home country. He took these commands very literally, as he advocated not only for the helpless and defenseless Jews but also for his enemies, the Nazis. By standing for the true Word of God in a time when many Christians were backing down, Bonhoeffer was actually being the most loving of all to his opponents, even those that would eventually kill him for it.

That’s another unique aspect of Christian service. If it is difficult to put into action, it is also difficult to receive. As Jesus describes, it’s as if Christian service operates on a different plane of existence. That’s how foreign it is to our natures. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when the world despises us for loving and serving them as God desires. That is the way things have been since the beginning of sin’s onslaught of this world and it’s the way it will continue until the final day. As difficult as this must have been for Bonhoeffer and other faithful Christians caught in the tyranny of WWII, the stand they took was clear and certain.    

The more difficult question is how this same type of service plays out in our lives. Bonhoeffer had something to say about that as well, in describing the difference between cheap grace and costly grace.

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

We live at a time of relative peace and calm, yet the costs we consider are very much the same. The spiritual warfare of individual hearts has often been translated into public forums, especially within the church. We live at a time when there is just as much pressure on churches to conform to worldly standards. Requiring repentance. Practicing church discipline. Demanding unity and confession before Communion – all things that Bonhoeffer mentioned as necessities in following Christ – are under attack today. It is rare to find Christians and churches that are willing to stand for the truth of God’s Word – even more rare to find those willing to suffer the consequences of doing so.

It is also equally rare to find the pursuit if costly grace today. Hungering to hear the Word of God. Being willing to forsake all to receive forgiveness in Christ. Looking to Jesus above all other treasures in life. These qualities are equally rare. We might look at Bonhoeffer’s life and wonder if we would have done the same. When marching toward the prison doors of the concentration camp, would we have remained steadfast in the faith? But, what we fail to realize is that the same pressures are upon us today – the details are simply different. The only reason Bonhoeffer was resolute in his faith is because he knew and trusted what Jesus had done for him. Once he had that nothing else mattered. The pressures upon us may seem softer than imprisonment and death and in a way they are. But, we, and all Christians, must still wrestle with the bigger issue that Bonhoeffer faced. Not what the Nazis could do to him, but how he could have costly grace, and not cheap grace. 

The cost of discipleship involves service. Service to God. Service to other people – all kinds of people. Instead of worrying about what might be easy or what might be difficult – remember one thing. It takes grace. You can succeed because Your Heavenly Father has been merciful and forgiving to you. When He calls you to serve others, it’s not a requirement you must meet to get to heaven – it is a plea to give as you have been given, that others may be saved as well. Therefore, it’s not really about you at all – but all about Jesus. To give yourself up like that involves a cost – but one well worth it. The cost involves standing firm against false practice and false teaching. It involves repentance and humility. It involves love and self-sacrifice. It involves treating everyone equally, even if they don’t deserve it. When this service is offered, in faith in Christ as it only can be; it gives credit where it deserves to be given – to our gracious God.


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


January 20, 2018

The Cost of Discipleship: Part 1 - Sacrifice

Theme: The Cost of Discipleship – Sacrifice

It didn’t take long for the Christmas excitement of the shepherds, angels, and Simeon and Anna to die down. It wasn’t long before Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were on the run – having to leave their home in Nazareth and flee to Egypt because of Herod’s senseless wrath. It had to be difficult to do this. There had to be questions in Joseph’s and Mary’s mind. How could this be happening if this Child was God’s Son? Why so much difficulty?

It wouldn’t stop after Herod’s death, either. Jesus’ entire life and ministry was difficult. Even in His moments of popularity, crowds and multitudes pressed around Him, not to shower Him with praise but to see, hear, and receive more. It must have been exhausting. One of the aspects of Jesus’ ministry was preparing believers to recognize the same lesson for their lives. Once a person believes in Jesus and follows Him, obeying His Word, things will get tough. The nature of the Christian life is that discipleship comes at a cost. We plan to take up that theme this weekend and next, by looking at two different aspects of that cost. The first, for today, is that the Cost of Discipleship involves Sacrifice. We read from Matthew 8:19-22:

Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, "Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go." 20 And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." 21 Then another of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." 22 But Jesus said to him, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead."

One may think of this text as digging into the next layer of Discipleship. Up to this point in Jesus’ ministry, He had expounded upon some simple teachings about the Word of God. Certainly, no teaching of God is ever “simplistic” in the sense of being wisdom, but Jesus taught in a simple way – introducing basic concepts to the people. The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew 5-7 are an example of this. When one digs into this sermon, it is extremely complex and multi-layered. But it is also simple enough for a child to understand the basic points.

Jesus had also performed a few miracles up to this point, but there were bigger ones to come. Here, in this text, He transitions from a simple form of discipleship to one more complex. He is dealing here with two men who are willing to follow Him. This makes sense. What Jesus had presented in His ministry up to this point was not entirely hard to accept. The first man was even a scribe. The Scribes were the colleagues of the Pharisees. The Scribes were in charge of copying the texts of Scripture as well as teaching in the synagogues.

For this man to connect Jesus’ ministry to the Old Testament Scriptures is not out of the question. This is a good thing and something that many back then didn’t do. But, what we see is that even if this was the case, this fledging disciple still had much to learn. One thing he hadn’t yet considered enough was the cost of following Jesus and the sacrifice involved in it.

One might expect Jesus to commend the Scribe’s confession – that he would follow Jesus wherever He went. But, instead of a blessing, Jesus offered this: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." What a strange reply to human ears. At the sound of such a faithful note of being willing to follow Jesus no matter what, the human heart expects to be praised. It’s not of us to say what this Scribe expected Jesus to say, but we must imagine he didn’t foresee his Lord’s response. But, doesn’t this example perfectly describe the truth about being a disciple of Christ – what you expect is not what happens? We may expect life with our Savior to be free of all hardship and pain – to be above all the ills of the world. But, Jesus says that His disciples will actually come closer to those things. He used Himself as an example. His life was one of giving. He didn’t even have a place to lay His head in the evening – often sleeping out in this fields.

His message to the Scribe was not, “What will you do for Me?” Rather, it was a question of if this man was ready to share in the cost of following Jesus? Would he be ready to travel around constantly without a home? Would he be willing to sacrifice the comforts of his life to bring His Lord glory? Those are the questions a disciple asks.

The same could be said of the second disciple. We don’t know his vocation but he also was willing to follow Jesus. He fully intended to – just as soon as he could see to his father’s funeral. There are few moments of life as important as the death of a loved one, especially a parent. That is part of our culture today just as it was back then. However, it was even more important in Jewish culture to bury the dead as quickly as possible. Death was an unclean thing, the sooner the burial took place the sooner the uncleanness could be dealt with. There is both ceremonial and familial distinction here in Jesus’ words. Neither traditions nor family matters should come before Jesus.

The lesson is that the cost of discipleship sometimes involves the most important parts of our lives - traditions, ceremonies, and even family. How many things in life can we think of that would be more important than our parents’ funeral ceremonies? What would you be willing to do instead? Not much, if anything. And yet Jesus instructs this man to leave it behind and follow Him now. That’s the pressing importance of faith. It’s not something we should wait on.  

We don’t know the Scribe’s or the other disciple’s responses. Maybe they were ready and hastening to their Savior’s call. Their responses are not all that important, because the Holy Spirit leaves the thoughts open for us to consider. Both examples end with Jesus’ own words – tough words to consider. Would we follow Jesus above all? Do we? Do the comforts of life, which are much more abundantly available to us, get in the way? Have we considered sacrifice as necessary to being a disciple, or is it something we try to avoid?

It is at this point in our text that it is important to transition now between looking at these two men and looking at Jesus. Obviously, Jesus is part of this text, as the main speaker. But, He also drops a title that is important as well – the Son of Man. We’re familiar with the term, Son of Man. However, it’s rich meaning and it’s import to the issues of this text should not go unnoticed.

First of all, some interesting things about the title “Son of Man”:  
The use of “Man” is singular, not plural and both “son” and “man” are definite in the Greek. Essentially, what these two things mean is that Jesus is being very deliberate, very pointed, when He uses this title. Literally, in the Greek, this title is “the son of the man.” It is anything but generic, even though we often understand it as a generic title relating to Jesus’ humanity. Now, while “Son of Man” absolutely points to Jesus’ humanity, what we must also recognize is that it equally points to His divinity. It is the perfect melding of the two.

Jesus is not a son of men as we are. If this title meant that it indeed would be a pointing to His humanity alone. Rather, Jesus sis THE Son of THE man. He is specific. He is unique. Jesus is the only Son of the Father to be born as a man. And in this way He is the perfect blending of divine and human. To think of it another way, the title “Son of Man” is parallel to “the Word made flesh” of John 1. Jesus is God – Son and Word, but He is also Man and Flesh. Rather than just a marker of His humanity, the title Son of Man is a marker of His complete nature – True Man and True God – begotten of the Father. 

In addition to this, the title “Son of Man” came first in the Old Testament. Daniel prophesied of a person to come called the Son of Man who would institute a universal kingdom for all people. Jesus used this title specifically to allude to the fact that He was the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy. His reign includes all people by faith and therefore, the term “Son of Man” is a gospel title referring to the justification of the entire world. It was wrong for the Jews to claim it only for themselves and when Jesus took this title He was also speaking against the hardened nationalism of the Jews.

There’s obviously a lot in play anytime we hear Jesus use the title, “Son of Man.” But let’s think about what it means within the context of our section. Jesus is telling the Scribe, if the perfect blending of God and Man has nowhere to lay His head, you’ll be okay if you have to give up the same in His name. This is the point that prods the Scribe’s conscience but there’s also an element of comfort too. A disciple of Jesus follows and trusts in the eternal, divine Creator, Almighty God – but also the only begotten Son born fully human. This incarnate Savior knows the extent of human suffering. His sole mission in this world to experience and complete that suffering. He has the power and the willingness to help you. Our Savior is not a distant God, but one of us. His love is not foreign, but in our language – in our very being. This is the comfort that the incarnation of Jesus gives us and the ultimate motivation of our desire to sacrifice for His glory.

The second man had his confrontation with an aspect of who Jesus was as well. This one may be more indirect than the title of “Son of Man” but it is just as forceful. At the prospect of going first to bury his father, Jesus said, "Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead." If Jesus said the same to many today, it would be considered offensive. But that’s part of the cost of discipleship. The truth is offensive to a sinner. As Jesus would say in a few chapters, “Blessed is the one who is not offended because of Me (Matthew 11:6).”

What Jesus meant by saying, “let the dead bury their own dead” was a message of priority. He was indicating that all people are sinners and in danger of spiritual and eternal death of unbelief. Even if you are the surviving member of a relationship who buries the dead, you too are dead in your heart and subject to the same fate at any moment. Therefore, make time for Jesus. Follow Him.

But, just like the Scribe, this is not just a warning. It is also a message of comfort. By relating His work to death, the undeniable fate of all sinners and the greatest consequence of sin, Jesus was speaking life into the picture. The very fact that priority, even over a parents’ funeral, rested with Jesus shows that He can offer something greater than death – both spiritual and physical. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Jesus had brought the “more abundant life” of faith and eternity in heaven. That is the real import behind the command, “Follow Me.” Jesus freely offers life.

Go back to the Scribe. He was before the Son of Man. There is no greater contrast between the divine and the human than the difference between life and death. Neither man needed be concerned, whether of the matters of this life or of the honor due their parents. They were with Jesus, Son of Man, Victor over death.

Today we ask ourselves, does the Son of Man have a place to lay His head in our hearts? Do you have time for Him above all other things, even the most sacred moments of life? This is the cost of discipleship. It involves sacrifice. But, Jesus’ message today, to you, is that it is a matter of His sacrifice. The true cost, the payment of your discipleship, was offered up in the stricken, forsaken, and entombed body of the Son of Man – the perfect melding of God and Human. Jesus sacrificed the precious treasure of His life for you.

The true cost, the payment of your discipleship, was completed in Christ’s resurrection. It was then that He sealed His promises to you with 100 percent certainty. That was the receipt of trust that verifies your faith. When Satan tempts you. When the world threatens with doubts. When you backslide in unrighteousness, you can stand secure with the guarantee that you are redeemed. Though all outward evidence points to the contrary, the One who crushed death and hell stands in for you and declares in His Word, the sweet and simple declaration of forgiven.

Our sacrifices of discipleship are mere ripples of our Savior’s love. The true cost was far beyond what we could offer, but also blessedly within our daily reach by grace. In our dear Savior’s name, let us abide with Him. Amen.

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

January 12, 2018

Level Ground in Christ

Theme: The Level Ground of Faith
1.     It is a place of honesty. (Psalm 26:1-3 – Malachi 1:6-7)
2.     It is a place where evil is absent. (Psalm 26:4-6 – Malachi 1:8-9)
3.     It is a place of true worship. (Psalm 26:7-12 – Malachi 1:10-11)

Dear fellow redeemed of God. For our sermon study this morning we use our two Old Testament Scripture readings in a contrasting way – featuring the qualities of faith in Christ from Psalm 26 and the detriments of wickedness from Malachi 1. May it be a blessing for our lives.

In the 1996 summer Olympics, sprinter Michael Johnson set world records in the 200 and 400 meter races. In order to accomplish this feat, he had to train for more than a decade at cutting down his time by the smallest of margins, sometimes a mere second or two in all. Later on he said this of his training, “Success is found in much smaller portions than most people realize. A hundredth of a second here or sometimes a tenth there can determine the fastest man in the world. Life is often compared to a marathon, but I think it is more like being a sprinter: long stretches of hard work punctuated by brief moments in which we are given the opportunity to perform at our best.”

The Christian faith is very similar to that thought of Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson. Practicing Christianity often seems and feels boring. It seems monotonous, doing the same traditions over and over, reading the same words again and again. But what it is is spiritual training. Repetition of God’s truth and promises over and over again so that we grow stronger in faith, we are led to trust in God in even the most unreasonable circumstances, and we are prepared to be tested. Like many other things in life, even athletic competition, success or failure is often determined long before the actual test – before the event. Victory or defeat is defined in the shadows, when you are alone.

We look at the difference between success and failure, between hope and despair, today in two contrasting examples. In Psalm 26 the steadiness of faith in God is pictured a “level ground;” a place of security, stability, and safety. Three aspects of this even ground come into view here – that it is a place of honesty, that it is a place where evil is absent, and that it is a place of true worship. May the Holy Spirit bless this message and implant it in our hearts.

Part 1: It is a place of honesty (Psalm 26:1-3 – Malachi 1:6-7)

Some things never change when it comes to sin. From the very beginning, men and women have tried to cover up their transgressions before the Lord. It was the first thing Adam and Eve did. Logically, we should know better. Who is going to hide from God? But, hiding is actually the rationalistic reaction to breaking the Almighty God’s commands. We don’t want to have to face Him, knowing we have failed.

The first thing we see about the level ground of faith is that it is a place of honesty. You can’t hide from the truth even if deep down you want to. It is simply present through God’s Word. David recognized this which was why the very first words he penned were “Vindicate me O LORD.” To be vindicated is to be put to the test and pass. It’s to win that spiritual race that we alluded to. This is a bold demand for a sinner to make of God. David was famous and mighty but he knew failure all too well. He had the boldness to make this demand of God, because faith operates in honesty.

David was not putting God to the test. David was claiming what was rightfully his through Christ. He went on to say, “For I have walked in my integrity. I have also trusted in the LORD; I shall not slip.” The LORD has revealed to David that he, a sinner, has access to the blessings won by Christ. And this comes through faith, through trusting God.

What a difference we see in the individual that Malachi pronounced judgment on. This man makes excuses. He acts like He doesn’t know what God is saying. He despises and disrespects the LORD and is not convicted of sin in his heart. In summary, this man runs. He tries to hide from God. He tries to play things off like they’re not all that bad. But, the LORD holds him accountable. His is a place of honesty, brutal at times if necessary.

How often do we look at someone else’s life and think – “Man, they’ve got it all together. I wish I could have that.” Be careful of that attitude because looks can be misleading and looks can lead to coveting. But, in a spiritual sense, this is exactly what God is talking about here. The Hebrew word for “integrity,” used in Psalm 26:1, means to be complete. In other words, to have it all together. God offers that in Christ. It doesn’t mean all problems will cease instantly – quite the opposite actually. In faith, you will continue to be tested and tested regularly. But, listen to David, the believer says, bring it on – I know I am complete, I am together in Christ.

Honesty, with yourself, with others, and with the LORD is so vital to this precious gift of faith. Do not hide from the LORD, rather run to Him and be safe.

Part 2: It is a place where evil is absent

The next thing we see about the level ground of faith is that evil is absent. This seems pretty clear to us. God is holy, therefore He abhors all that is evil, and so should we. But, when it comes to putting this into practice, it can get difficult in life. Listen to several examples in Scripture:

James 3:10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.
1 Corinthians 15:33 Do not be deceived: "Evil company corrupts good habits."
Ephesians 5:3 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.
1 John 2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

What do these verses have in common? Well, besides speaking about evil, they are all addressed to Christians – people who clearly know what God’s stance on evil is. The Lord knows how difficult this is for us. We don’t want to completely separate ourselves from the world in a self-righteous way. We don’t want to shun others who aren’t Christian or perhaps not in our fellowship. But, there is also a very real danger to evil of all kinds and we should think twice before we support, tolerate, or allow it into our lives. 

Again, the contrast is stark. David wrote, “I have walked in Your truth. 4 I have not sat with idolatrous mortals, Nor will I go in with hypocrites. 5 I have hated the assembly of evildoers, And will not sit with the wicked.” David put into practice what Paul would write about to the Ephesians – do not let evil even be named among you. For David, he wouldn’t hang around the wicked. He wouldn’t subject himself to things that he knew were harmful to his faith. Was he strong enough to endure these temptations? Probably, but that wasn’t the point. At any sign of danger, David would turn the other way.

The opposite attitude? From Malachi: The unbelieving man doesn’t care about the Lord’s Word. He offers blind, lame, and sick offerings when the Lord requires unblemished. The lines of right and wrong are blurred for this man. Giving offense by being around evil isn’t even on this person’s radar, they are too busy blatantly disobeying the Lord. Their acts are so worthless that the secular leaders wouldn’t accept them, let alone the holy God.   

For most of us, we know well enough that we shouldn’t live a life of blatant sin. But, do we run from it as David did? Are we willing to show the world that we hate it? Are we ashamed even when the thought of evil is named among us? Or, are we busy saying one thing and doing another? Do we claim to be Christian in our confession of faith but then tolerate and support sin? Do we show them that we are concerned or do we prop up the evil right next to a person? I’m not saying we can’t say at the end of the day, the world is going to do what it wants to do. That is definitely true. The question is, what do we show the world about our faith and how does the world affect that faith? If your idea is to support, join along, tolerate, etc,; rather than hating evil and running from it, it will wear down your faith.

So, how do we keep from letting this become a self-righteous venture or giving off a “holier than thou” attitude? Rely on Christ and point to Christ in all things, which leads us to our third point, the nature of true worship.

Part 3: It is a place of true worship

Here in this last point we truly see the greatest contrast. The twisted perversion of the wicked is on full display because they continue to worship God. Yes, you heard me right, their show their wickedness through their worship, and they showed how great their perversion was. Most evil people would naturally give up worshipping God – at least in that way they show a sense of honesty about what they think. But these individuals that Malachi called out continued to worship but only used it as a cover to look good outwardly. It was a heighted perversion against God. Because of this, God rejected their hollow offerings and practices. He was not pleased with their worship because it did not glorify His name.

Contrast this with David’s sentiments about worship. He looked forward to the house of God because of what he would receive from God there – mercy and forgiveness. What David offered God was secondary to this. David likewise describes the same type of man as Malachi. He calls them “bloodthirsty.” He says that they deceive and swindle, they try to take bribes. They are deceitful, even in their religious beliefs. Malachi said this was akin to “kindling the fire of the LORD’s altar in vain.”

May we recognize the danger of false worship in our lives, but also be ready to confess and repent when we succumb to it. If you think that statement doesn’t apply to your life, then you have already failed. The fact is that even in our lives, we do not come to the Lord’s house to pat ourselves on the back because we’ve been such good people. That’s the equivalent of trying to bribe the Lord. There are many other examples of false worship that we could list. Coming because of family pressure. Coming so that the pastor doesn’t bother you during the week. Coming so that we can add some brownie points with God that we can use later in the week on pet sins. The list goes on. There are many reasons to come to the LORD’s house, but there is only one that leads to the level ground of faith.

That reason is the work of Christ Jesus for you. David was on level ground because he was redeemed by His Savior. This allowed David to show the fruits of his faith – walking in integrity and hastening to God’s truth. His reason for coming joyously to God’s house was to receive this redemption by God’s grace.

Despite the contrast between this and the individual from Malachi’s prophecy, there is a glimmer of hope at the end. God says, “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; In every place incense shall be offered to My name, And a pure offering; For My name shall be great among the nations,” Today, on Epiphany Sunday, we recognize the fulfillment of this promise. God’s salvation in Christ has been extended freely to all nations. Wherever the Word of God is shared in truth the Epiphany promise continues to grow.

Sometimes, the practices of sharing the Word grow old for us. We look for something different, something fresh, something to give us our own identity. The ultimate difference between these two texts is the source of each person’s faith. The quiet, contemplative, listening heart of faith that receives the same Words of God and the same promises of God day after day marks the level ground. It does not shift because it is founded on God and His unchanging faithfulness. The self-merit faith of the person who constantly dips and dodges God’s law is unstable and ever changing. It’s more interesting I suppose, in that sense, because it’s never consistent. But, when it comes to difficulties in life, it offers no stability.

[Follow the advice of the Olympic Sprinter, Michael Johnson. Life with God, too, is about a series of small moments, when you’re examined, tested, and vindicated. But for those moments to mean anything for your life, you need to have level ground beneath them. You need the timeless and unchanging love of Christ and that is why you stay with His Word day after day, week after week.  

We thank our Lord Jesus for giving us a solid and level ground of faith, in His works and grace. Our celebration today of that truth come into our lives is yet another reminder that it ultimately isn’t about us. May our praise and worship be ever centered in God, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

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

January 3, 2018

God's Eternal Truths - Christmas 1

Eternal Truths are Neither Old nor New
1.     For Jesus – True Man and True God.
2.     For the Jews – Objective/Universal Justification
3.     For Us – The Means of Grace

John 6:41-51 The Jews then complained about Him, because He said, "I am the bread which came down from heaven." 42 And they said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says,`I have come down from heaven '?" 43 Jesus therefore answered and said to them, "Do not murmur among yourselves. 44 "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 "It is written in the prophets,`And they shall all be taught by God.' Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me. 46 "Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father. 47 "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. 48 "I am the bread of life. 49 "Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. 50 "This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. 51 "I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world."

The week after Christmas usually holds that annual problem when getting new things. What do we get rid of? You might be someone who packs everything away and never gets rid of anything. You might be someone who throws everything in a box and takes it to Goodwill without a second thought. You might be someone who agonizes over what stays and what goes.

At least from my perspective, and perhaps you think similarly, part of the appeal of a gift is the new factor. The fresh smell, the plastic seal, the neatness of the box, the feel of being the first owner, and so on. But, as soon as that box is opened, the new factor is gone. I’ve even found in the past years that sometimes I will just stack my gifts up and think about using them before I open them. It’s a time to admire them a little bit before they get out in the hustle and bustle of life and a time to plan so that I can use them to their max potential. You might be thinking, wow, Pastor, you’re really overanalyzing the situation – and I totally understand. But I know how quickly something new and valuable can become something old and forgotten. How quickly does that happen for you?

The debate between old and new isn’t relegated to Christmas presents either. It’s the central theme of the New Year’s Day – out with the old and in with the new. But, no matter what time of year, in the church we are confronted with questions all the time that deal with the same things. Should we change that tradition for something that’s more common today? Should we go back to the way we used to do things? Is there ever a time to adjust doctrines and teachings because of a greater clarity of Scripture, or perhaps because our culture and times are changing so much? We face these kinds of questions all the time, as all Christians have since the beginning. What’s better – the new or the old? Well, it depends of who’s definitions of new and old we’re using.

In our text today, we see an intersection of old and new regarding three key teachings of the Christian faith. One that deals directly with Jesus, one that deals directly with the Jews, and one that deals directly with us. And yet, as with all of God’s teachings, they are pertinent and applicable to all peoples. May the Holy Spirit bless us on this journey through His Word.   

Part 1: For Jesus: True Man and True God.

In the verses before us, Jesus is claiming His divinity as God and His status as the One and only Savior of the world. Coming on the heels of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus uses this opportunity of immense popularity with the people to teach them about these three important truths, using the illustration of bread as a starter. His popularity was immense because He had just fed well over 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 3 small fish. For a society stooped in poverty, this power to provide was a difference maker. They thronged about Jesus. John 6:15 tells us that they wanted to make Him a King by force. But Jesus departed the crowds and ascended a nearby mountain to be secluded. After He crossed over the Sea of Galilee the people followed and wanted to know more. Jesus told them in John 6:26-27: "Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. 27 "Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him."

This context sets the stage for the verses before us. The people wanted Jesus to be an earthly King – someone to rescue them from the Romans and to give them everything they needed in life. Jesus told them, your faith is weak because it is based on what you ate, not even the miracles, and because it is expecting the wrong thing. For the crowds, the miracle of the feeding marked an opportunity for something new. A time to usher in a new era for their nation and a time to have new blessings from God. But, in their fervor for something new, they had forgotten the age-old problem they suffered from. Their greatest need was not food or drink, but the bread from heaven – God’s own Son, sent to suffer and die for their sins. This was the eternal promise of God from even before the beginning of time. It was the constant theme of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Messiah would be exactly what Jesus claimed at the beginning of our text – True God and the only Savior from sin. A Messiah who would not bring new blessings or restore old rights, but usher in the eternal era of faith and heaven.

The principle stumbling block for the people was that Jesus was a human, like them. To the people, Jesus was the son of Mary and Joseph. For many, they had grown up with Jesus. They were familiar with Him – perhaps even common to them. If He truly was God, wouldn’t He be much different? He certainly didn’t look like He came down from heaven. Well, He was different, but not in appearance. Jesus captured the issue well in verse 40 when He said to the people. "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." We often talk about faith as being able to believe withouth seeing. That’s true for us, but the people of Jesus’ time wrestled with a different problem. They had to believe even though they saw. Jesus tells them that the key to heaven is being able to see Jesus and trust in Him. It seems like a no-brainer for us but we didn’t grow up with Jesus. He was not our contemporary, our neighbor, or a citizen in our culture.

Part 2: The Jews – Objective/Universal Justification

Some people were confused at Jesus’ words. Some perhaps taken a back a bit. Others, were outraged. The very first verse tells us that the Jews complained against Jesus because He said that He came down from heaven. This doesn’t mean that every Jewish person present resisted Jesus. The title of “the Jews” was commonly used to refer to Jesus’ opponents – those individuals of the Jewish community that were so upset with Jesus that they eventually killed Him. They were led, of course, by the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders. Without a doubt, this particular event would prove to be crucial to the eventual crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of the Jews.

But the true lesson for the Jews was in the consequence of this thought. Just at the physical aspect of Jesus was a stumbling block so also was their own physical lineage. The hardened, nationalistic Jews believed that they alone were God’s people, and therefore they alone would be saved by God. They knew nothing of Christ’s mission to justify the entire world – all peoples and all nations. Jesus gets to this point in our text when He says, "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 "It is written in the prophets,`And they shall all be taught by God.' Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me. [Verse 51 as well]

Jesus states plainly that “everyone” who hears and learns from God can be a believer. He even quotes the Old Testament as evidence, that God had promised to teach all people. The notion that Gentiles could come to faith in the true God was just as offensive to these Jews as the idea that Jesus had come from heaven. But, they failed to realize that by rejecting the latter, they missed out on the former.

The lesson that the Jews remind us of is that what you believe about Jesus is closely connected to how you treat others. The new philosophy of our age is similar to the old Jewish lie that they alone were saved. Today, people believe that it doesn’t matter what God you believe in. It is said you can be a moral, upstanding person to all people regardless of your profession of faith. In a certain way that is true when it comes to human justice, but God says there is only one way to perfect, complete universal justification from sin, and that way is through Christ alone. Any boast outside of Christ is a self-righteous claim.

Part 3: For Us – The Means of Grace

The final teaching recording in these words looks most directly at our lives. We believe in Jesus as true God and true Man. We confess that He came to save the world and succeeded in the task. We wrestle with how to follow those truths today. Jesus gives us just as clear an answer as He gave to the Jews. “It is written…” “Everyone who hears and learns…” “The one who believes has everlasting life…” There is the key for our lives. We call it the Means of Grace.

God has recorded His truth in His Word. Therefore, the path of the Christian is a path of hearing and learning. It’s easy to be a weekend warrior Christian who takes the name of the Savior but doesn’t invest in growing or learning in God’s truth. It takes time, effort, and intention to make the Word of God a priority – not because of lack of access but because of scarcity of time.

Because of our short attention spans and our one-click, get it now culture, we are tempted to turn to new ways of receiving God. Some say it comes through the feeling of community and fellowship of church, or the excitement of worship – those moments when you feel “on fire” for God. Others say it’s about keeping our faith manageable – not going out on a limb by trusting things that confound our understanding. They try box God up into a little package that fits their reason so they never have to trust anything that makes them uncomfortable or invites a change in heart or attitude – or dare we suggest obedience.

How soon, though, before those new things become old? How soon before the feeling wears off; before the packaging is stripped away. If we are the voice of authority for our lives, how do we decide what to keep and what to discard? Jesus tells us He alone has eternal truths, where one doesn’t need to worry about old or new. Often, there is value in both old and new, depending on how you approach them. To the Jews, He called them to discard some of their old beliefs that stood in the way of the gospel. But, in so doing He was also warning against making their faith into whatever they wanted it to be, by not staying focused on the Old Testament.

The lesson is alive in today. God’s truth is not about old or new or anything in between. It’s eternal. We shouldn’t change His teachings because we feel like there’s something better to be had. Neither should we rely and trust in them because that’s what those before us did. The value and validity of something is not about when it came in history or when it was (or is) most popular. It’s about WHO it came from and WHAT it means for our lives. The truth of God’s redemptive promise in Christ Jesus is eternal. It predated our existence and it will be around long after we leave this world. That is what we trust in, grace from God, for us, from His Son, Jesus. Amen.

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