May 30, 2018

More than a Game - 2 Timothy 1:7-14

When Things are out of Your Control…
1. Do no fear or be ashamed.
2. Entrust it to God by faith

2 Timothy 1:7-14 For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. 8 Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, 9 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, 10 but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, 11 to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. 12 For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day. 13 Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. 14 That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.

Lately in our house the board game Life has been a big hit. We’ve had several family games. Most of you probably are familiar with the game. There’s a bit of good Lutheran guilt in the overall goal of the game – making the most money. But, it’s also been interesting because the game involves insurance, stocks, and even a lottery of sorts. It’s been a good learning experience for Micah and Allie as they weigh the choices to go to college or start working immediately or whether they should invest in auto or life insurance.

If you’ve ever played Life I’m sure you’ve also had a moment where you wished real life was just as easy and simple. Sure, there’s adversity in the game of Life. Just last time we played I got hit by a tornado, had to bail an uncle out of jail, and lost my homeowner’s insurance due to negligence. But, if only real-life problems were as easy to fix. In the game, one can just borrow some money from the “bank” until you hit enough pay days to get back even or go back 10 or 15 spaces and try again. Likewise, investments are a sure thing in the game of Life. At the end, you cash in on your stocks and insurance – even getting money for each kid you have. Real-life investments are much more tumultuous, as are our family relationships at times.

The end of the game of Life is about counting up all your money and seeing who has the most. Some people approach real life the same way but the Apostle Paul’s situation was vastly different. Paul’s second letter to Timothy was almost certainly his final letter. He was imprisoned in Rome. Later in the letter he would speak of giving his life as an offering to God, of finishing his fight of faith, and even pleading with Timothy to come and see him one last time.

What kind of thoughts were going through Paul’s mind as he sat in solitude and captivity – knowing that any day could be his last? He gives a look into how he would have answered that question in the verses of our text. Despite the many things that were out of Paul’s control, he speaks with confidence and hope. And so also, when things seem out of control in your life, you can look to the same thing Paul did. First, he did not need to be afraid or ashamed. Second, he could entrust all things, even his own life, to His Triune God, by faith. May the Holy Spirit help us prepare for the unknown and trying situations of our lives through our Savior’s name – because this is much more than just a game. 

Part 1

In some ways our culture is becoming more vulnerable when it comes to control. What I mean by that is that we’re getting better at asking for help. In many areas that are out of our control, there can be a certain stigma attached to those who struggle. So much of life is built on the perception of control and the idea of having everything figured out. But, reality smacks us in the face and repeatedly teaches us that that idea is a misconception. No one has complete control. Everyone has their demons as the popular saying goes. For so many, the sooner you can be honest about that and seek help, the sooner you can actually move forward with some control.

However, this notion of seeking help can be a mirage at times too. The problem is that not all areas of help are actually helpful. Sometimes the prescription offered is based on something we must do. In certain areas of life this is helpful – personal responsibility is the key. But, in areas involving God or our faith, pointing inward is not going to be helpful. Being honest about something that I struggle with should point to a real solution. If sin is at play in the struggle, we need to look to God, not ourselves. Honesty means admitting that we are powerless against Satan – the chief demon that we all wrestle with.

Paul reiterates that there is no need to be ashamed or to fear when things are out of your control – but for a much different reason than your own self-awareness or power. He says of Jesus, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, 10 but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

The believer’s hope, even when life is spinning out of control, is that God is in control. It’s about being honest about our need, being vulnerable like the world promotes, but with Christ in view – not ourselves as saviors of our own destiny. No matter who the expert is. No matter what their level of experience education, there are just some things that are beyond the capability of mere mortals to answer. Paul lists one such thing as a positive through Jesus – death. There will never be a medication, psychological treatment, meditation technique, or anything else that can help us with death. But, Jesus can, and has. He has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.

What help our Savior can offer! But, instead of pushing for Him, the world often makes the believer feel shame and fear for trusting in Jesus. Paul was experiencing that too. He was in prison for his confession of Christ. He knew he would even die for this. Paul could have felt shame and fear at this prospect, but it didn’t bother him because, once again, his focus was on Christ.

Part 2

Instead of allowing intimidation and persecution to rob him of faith in Christ, Paul found confidence and hope in His Savior. For this reason (believing in Christ) I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day. Paul speaks in financial terms – which is common when it comes to faith. Christ has redeemed (bought back) us. Paul’s faith was a deposit to God. Paul was trusting that even though matters were beyond his control, God was guarding his life.

Talk about an investment that is solid! There’s nothing that can damage or steal what we have entrusted to God by faith. This investment is safe. This terminology was common in Paul’s writings, after all, he lived and worked with believers who often on the lowest rungs of society. They didn’t have much as far as worldly money or investments went. Faith was their most precious treasure. Yet they were despised and maligned for their faith. Every insult and attack was hurled at them to instigate shame and fear. But they knew they were protected in Christ.

To the Colossians: Colossians 3:3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.

To the Corinthians:  20 For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us. 21 Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, 22 who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. 

To the Ephesians: Ephesians 1:14 who (the Holy Spirit) is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.

It’s the work of Jesus, acted upon today by the Holy Spirit through the Word and Sacraments, that instills hope in the believer’s life. It assures us that our investment of faith is protected by God. Our lives our hidden with God. Jesus is our yes and amen. The Spirit is our guarantee. These are terms of absolute certainty. It’s an investment that can’t miss.

But, when is it that we most often invest with God? When are the times that we entrust matters to Him? When they’re out of our control. Of course, it doesn’t have to be only in dire circumstances that we look to God, it’s just that it’s when we most often do. Think of the hope and confidence of faith we would have if we went straight to God in all matters! Think of the return on that investment by Christ!

Satan and the world would rather you be too afraid, too shamed, or too confident in yourself to entrust your life to God by faith. It’s an attractive proposition. You’ll make friends in the world who believe the same thing – that faith in Christ is worthless. It’s also a lifestyle that fits into the world. You’ll save yourself some heartache and persecution. But, as we know in life – it’s not a game. At the end of it all, you can’t up the board game – win or lose, and move on. Your eternity is on the line. Entrust it to someone who has control.

Jesus Christ has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel. He’s been to the point of total loss, and reclaimed it all and more for the entire world. The Holy Spirit is at work today through the Word to lead and strengthen you to invest in Jesus. The Spirit is your guarantee while here on earth until you take possession of eternal life in heaven.

Notice that through each step of life, and your Christian walk by faith, God is leading you. His investment cannot be beat. Let’s be honest about the help your need; but let’s also be honest about the help we have through faith in Jesus - To God’s glory and in Christ’s name. Amen.      

May 7, 2018

Prayer's Effectiveness - Matthew 7:7-12

Theme: Prayer Keeps us From Overreacting
1. By acknowledging our limitations
2. By trusting God’s will in Christ

Matthew 7:7-12 "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 "For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 9 "Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 "Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11 "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! 12 "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

When’s the last time someone overreacted in front of you? We all know it happens, right? People get bent out of shape over things – often things that don’t matter all that much. No one likes when this happens either, whether you’re the person who does it or the one who experiences it. Think of the little kid who doesn’t get exactly what he wanted for his birthday or who doesn’t get picked first for the kickball game. Overreaction. Let’s not just focus on little kids either. Consider the teen who gets their phone taken away as a discipline or isn’t allowed to stay out as late as they’d like to with their friends. Overreaction. And surely, grown adults are not immune either. The weather turns ugly and ruins the long-awaited and planned vacation. People take a little too long in the grocery check out line. Grandma so and so can’t decide what to order in the take-out lane. Overreaction. And the list goes on and on.

Sometimes, we’re so foolish in our reactions that it spills into our faith. We think of such a reaction here in our text during a lesson about prayer. The statement primed for the outburst of reaction comes in verse 11: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”

Think about what Jesus says here. There’s a positive message about the Father’s gifts to His children – no one has an issue with that. However, that positivity is contrasted with the gifts we offer as sinful humans – even the good ones. Jesus is highlighting the Father’s grace by showing the insufficiency of our own gifts. Sure, we know how to be nice to one another, but not even near the level of what God does for us. When Jesus says, “how much more…” He is expressing a greatness of both quantity and quality. God the Father is able to give more than us and give better than us.

The key difference is holiness. No matter how good our own actions are, they are not done in righteousness. We are still evil people because of our sin. We are still limited people because of our sin. The truly amazing aspect of Christ’s work of salvation on our behalf, is that His actions become ours. Therefore, faith offers a way to serve as God serves – to give on His level, in righteousness. But, only through Jesus. Here’s where the overaction comes in. The unbelieving world doesn’t like this distinction because it excludes them. They don’t like the passages of Scripture that tell us, “without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6)” and “There is none who does righteous, no not even one (Romans 3:10).” The world doesn’t like this because it shows that even the best of our actions cannot measure up the treasures given by Christ.   

You’ve heard this overreaction before. You have probably even felt it in your own heart. It goes something like this: “How dare a Christian insinuate that my works aren’t as good as theirs!” Notice, from the start, the focus on the person and not the Savior. What the Word of God tells us about this truth is that it’s all about God. The Christian is simply the vessel through which God works. It’s not about comparing one person to another. It’s about comparing Christ to sinners. And in Christ, we can do His will. Think about it from the other perspective. Who would want to believe in a God whose works are no different from those whom He is supposed to save? All unbelief seeks to lower God down to our level. To fashion Him in our image, instead of being conformed to His.

You don’t have to feel minimized by standing for Christ above yourself. You don’t have to be angry or ashamed at the prospect of not being good enough on your own. Perhaps Jesus puts this statement in here, which is so prone to overreaction, at the topic of prayer for the express purpose of pointing us to our needs. Isn’t that what prayer is for? Jesus says earlier: "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 "For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” Jesus wants us to come to Him and receive, but those who have no needs won’t do that.

Here, Jesus was speaking to the common people – during His sermon on the Mount. This was no judgment upon the hypocritical Jewish leaders, just ordinary people like you. However, Jesus did say something similar to the Pharisees: Jesus answered and said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Luke 5:31-32)."

The truly hypocritical Christian is the one who spends time making themselves look good but is dishonest about needing Jesus. The world despises hypocritical Christians. Yet, at the very same time, they despise the truth that protects us from hypocrisy, that our works and not as good as God’s. You see, the height of unbelief is playing the comparison game with other people. Without God in your life, it’s a constant rat race to try to be the best. Therefore, the world overreacts when Christians speak about serving in righteousness by faith as the higher call. Yet, by the same token, they despise Christians, who do the opposite, who talk good but don’t practice their faith. The world does both because it is fueled by comparison.

Jesus, in contrast, wants us to look to Him. Look to Him to compare, not to others. Look to Him for help, not to yourself. Jesus is above the struggle and toil of this world. Jesus is not caught up in the never-ending quest to prove Himself better than others. Don’t be misled, Jesus is better than others. But unlike sinful humans, He doesn’t spend His time trying to constantly prove it and show it to the detriment of other peoples’ lives. He proved it once for all, in complete love, when He offered up His life for everyone in the world.

Prayer is the gift that Jesus now gives to keep us attached to Him. Look at the certainty with which Jesus speaks. He wants His children to have confidence that He will hear their prayers and bless them. But the nature of a Christian’s prayer is like its blessings – both are unique in Christ. Both the nature of prayer and what God gives us through prayer are built around Jesus. This tells us that a devoted faith and prayer life, which trusts Jesus above all things, will be different than the things we do on our own. To say that we trust in Jesus and we desire to communicate with Him through prayer, yet defiantly hang onto the justifying our own actions against His makes no sense – and God’s point here is that it impedes our prayer life and faith. The very confidence we have in faith stems from the fact that it is Jesus alone whom we trust – even over ourselves.

Therefore, in faith and in prayer, there is no need to overreact. When we overreact because of the glaring contrast between God’s holiness and our sinfulness, it hampers the gospel’s effect in our hearts. The apostle James writes in his letter about prayer, saying, “You do not have because you do not ask (James 4:2).” Think of how many Christians limp along weakly in their faith simply because they do not communicate with God – they fail to even ask. Too many of these situations are borne from an overreaction to the Word of God, when it tells us about the honest, but unpleasant truth about my sin.

When we get upset at God for telling us that our works are less than His, it implants a death trap in our minds that is directed at our faith. It’s one thing to believe a lie – that’s dangerous enough. But, some lies we feel justified in believing. If we are self-righteous in our actions, even to the point of thinking we are as good as God or that we don’t need God, we are committing idolatry. And why pray to another God when you control and dictate the matters of your life?

Jesus is focusing on something greater than mere human morality – what we might call civil goodness. Jesus is talking about the “Law and Prophets” morality – the type of goodness that only comes from through the Holy Spirit working through the Word. Jesus says at the end of our text: "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus paired this thought with loving God above all things as the summary of God’s will. This is the higher morality. What God deems as righteous comes down to not only what is done but how it is done. Basic human nature simply looks at what is done and deems it right or wrong, but it never considers the source. Therefore, human morality changes and is often dictated by the majority in the culture. Jesus, here, when showing the difference between our works and God’s, points to the source as well – the Law and Prophets. The difference between works done in faith and those done without faith – comes down to both the nature of Christ and the source through which He reveals and shares Himself with us. On our own, we have neither the nature of Christ or the source of His Word, whether we call our actions good or not.

Prayer gives us confidence in God’s blessings through Christ, and dispels the insecure fear of losing our own power in the situation. The uniqueness of faith and prayer is that to have them we have to lose something first. Most people never get past this because they overreact about what they lose. Confessing sins. Getting rid of anger and pride. Trusting in God’s will. Leaving all control to Him. These are things we give up from our own hands.     

But, if our God is the only one. If He is better than anyone else. If He can bless in ways no one else can even imagine, is it worth hanging onto our control at the expense of our faith? Should we not strive to serve a God that is higher than us, and that can grant blessings in greater supply and quality than us? There’s no need to fear in our faith about what we might miss out on – for all the treasures of heaven are found in Christ Jesus.

Be confident in your Savior. Don’t go without simply because you didn’t ask. Don’t limp along in faith because you’re wrestling with God for control. There is security and confidence in trusting Jesus – trusting Him over the threats and temptations of the world, but even more so, trusting Him over the fears of your heart. Your heavenly Father knows you. He knows your needs. He knows your desires. He knows your mistakes. He knows your fears. And He’s given you His Son in place of them all. Faith in Jesus and operating by prayer is about living in reality – the good and the bad. It’s about being open and honest with God in all matters. And through faith, those blessings of our Lord and Savior are unrivaled. Amen.

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