June 16, 2018

Confirmation 2018 - Psalm 130

Theme: Confirmation is a realistic vision of Faith
1. Faced with questions, we need realistic answers. 
2. Faced with fears, we need realistic hope.

Psalm 130:1-8 Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD; 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. 3 If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared. 5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, And in His word I do hope. 6 My soul waits for the Lord More than those who watch for the morning-- Yes, more than those who watch for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the LORD; For with the LORD there is mercy, And with Him is abundant redemption. 8 And He shall redeem Israel From all his iniquities.

It's been my custom to take the catechism students (from school) out for lunch during the last week of school. This past week as we sat down to enjoy our food we got to playing the game 20 questions. I’m sure you’ve played it or heard of it before. Someone thinks of something – for our game we limited it to a person, place, or thing and the rest of the group gets 20 yes or no questions to try and find out what the person is thinking about.

As we were playing, one question that was often asked, once it became clear that the mystery involved a “thing,” was if the thing was a “concrete” thing. What was meant by this question was essentially whether the thing was real or if it was just imaginary. Could it be seen? Could it be touched. Some might ask if it was tangible. Or was it an idea? Just a thought? Or something abstract?

That kind of question is common in more than just the 20 questions game. It actually comes up a lot in matters of religion and faith, too. I’m sure you’ve heard its variations before. They are posed like this: “Is belief in Jesus actually a real thing or is it just a nice idea?” It applies to the source of our faith as well, “Is the Bible accurate or is it a myth?” And, it applies to the effect of our faith too, “Does faith in Jesus actually change my life or does it just convince me in my own head about something I want to believe?” Each of these questions focuses on the real vs. the merely perceived to be real; between something that is actually true vs. something that is just an idea.

Today, as we consider the Confirmation vows that Ben and Ellie have just publicly declared, we see how vital Confirmation is to our faith. While this particular church custom is just that – a custom, the practice of confessing God’s truth, both publicly and personally, is a requirement from God. Jesus Himself taught, Matthew 10:32-33 "Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. 33 "But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.

Confirmation is necessary in this way because we are confessing realities. Reality is important because we are faced with questions that need answers and we need hope in place of the many fears of life. But, another reality that governs this whole thing is that standing for the truth – making that confession is not easy. Being realistic about our faith means coming to grips with our greatest need. Being realistic means fighting against the temptations and persuasions of the world and also the leanings of our own sinful natures.

The psalm before us mirrors life because it doesn’t curtail these realities. There’s something unique about this Psalm that shows its transparent treatment of reality as well. It is the only Psalm in the Bible to be in two special categories – the Songs of Ascent and the Penitential Psalms. The songs of ascent were Old Testament hymns that traveling pilgrims sang on their way to the Temple in the Jerusalem. They were considered rising, or ascending songs, both because of the geographical proximity of Jerusalem and also because of the anticipation of worshipping God. However, this is also a Penitential Psalm, meaning it looks at the stark and harsh reality of sin. The penitential psalms are unique, often considered somber, because they don’t hold back on describing the nature of sin and its effect in our lives.

This unique status of Psalm 130 comes out in the very first verse, the very first word actually. “Out of the depths…” sets the tone for the rest of the Psalm. Here is where we plunge into reality. And like so many realities in this sinful world, it begins with the unpleasant. You see the Psalm’s nature here too. There is both an ascent, for we can go no lower than sin, but also a humble reminder of how serious our sin is and how helpless we are against it. Faced with the reality of sin from the start, the psalmist, and we readers, need something more than what we can offer. Like being trapped in an actual pit, we can’t dig ourselves out on our own. Sadly, that’s the relief most often given by many people, even Christians, today.  

Some think in this way. They reason that if sin is a real, think concrete, problem; it must require a real solution. So, they turn to what they do for help. Be a good person, they say, and God will be good to you. This thinking doesn’t help us get out of the pit of sin. Others look more to the spiritual side of things. They reason that even though sin manifest itself in physical ways it is ultimately a spiritual problem, and therefore requires a spiritual solution. So, the method proposed to get out of the pit is to overcome it mentally. Associate with things that make you feel better. Value the Christian faith only in so far as it makes you feel better about yourself. This thinking doesn’t help us either.

While there are certain truths to each way that the world sees this problem, neither method offers real hope. Sin is both a physical and spiritual problem, but not one we can overcome on our own. When faced with uncertainties, questions, and even our own feelings that would betray Christ, we need realistic answers. Here is where Confirmation and confession of faith comes in. They are tools designed to base us in reality. There was a time for you, and for Ben and Ellie, when spiritual dangers were overcome by simple answers. Think of the little child who answers “Jesus” to every question. How can you argue with that? Even the Bible says that Jesus is the “yes” to every question we face. However, God also teaches that we should grow in our faith. We should strive for spiritual maturity.

Even Jesus taught that those who truly follow Him heed His Word and seek to grow in it. God gives us this path because He knows what we will face as we grow older. Life gets more complicated. You take on greater responsibilities – even being put in charge of other peoples’ lives when you start a family. The dangers to your faith grow too. As you increase in knowledge in other fields of study, the arguments and criticisms of God and His Word will increase as well. You need protection and God offers that in His Word. Catechism instruction through that Word is about living in reality. You need more than your feelings in life. Even the best of feelings are often very shallow and they often leave just as quickly as they came. For Ben and Ellie today, I’m sure you feel pretty good about your faith. As you finish you Catechism instruction and move forward into mature faith by taking their Confirmation vows, we certainly hope you don’t feel like you are in the pit. But, feelings can change quite quickly. If your faith in based in feelings, it will change too.

God offers you a realistic vision of faith that is based on truth from His Word. It’s not easy to learn that truth – it is a lifetime work – but it is priceless in its value for your life because it will offer you steady ground – and a way out when you are caught in the pit of sin.
Notice how the Psalmist speaks to the Lord. He speaks with action words – cry, stand, fear, wait, hope, and watch. His faith is about more than just how he feels. It’s about action before the Lord – we might say, concrete activities. These are things based in reality, not just abstract thought. Notice, also, how the Lord responds – hear, mark, and redeem. The Lord takes realistic action as well when we are in need. He will mark our sins and not let us off the hook for the dangers we create for our lives. But, He’s constantly present to redeem us from sin also. He offers real hope for deliverance no matter what kind of pit we find ourselves in.

These action words could be considered the “verbs of faith.” They describe how a believer and God interact. And each verb is connected with something definite and real. We cry to God. He marks sin. We wait and hope in God’s Word. The Lord redeems us from our iniquities. Dear friends, this is reality. The world wants to say our faith is just wishful thinking – cultural and familial conditioning at its best and nothing more. In essence, they claim that God’s Word and promises in Christ are not real. Sometimes, we feel the same way too. We don’t feel like God loves us. We don’t feel like its possible that His Word could be trusted. We don’t feel like we can be certain about anything involving God.

Yet, today is Confirmation Sunday. Literally, the confirming Sunday. At some point we have to come to grips with whether this is real or not. We are dealing with God. We are dealing with the divine. We are working with things that are unknown to humans. Yet, we are claiming to be firm in our beliefs. We are making a confession. Is this real or is this just a wish? One’s answer to that question has a lot to say about their faith. Sadly, ours is a world where many followers of Jesus have capitulated on this division. Under the guise of uplifting feelings and social acceptance they have deteriorated their solid foundation on God’s Word. That’s not living in reality. 

This is a message to you all, not just to Ellie and Ben. No matter how “confirmed” you are in your faith, the struggles that accompany it will always be present. Until you get to heaven, you will never escape the fact that you have to approach God as a sinful human – and that’s tough. Just because it’s tough or miraculous doesn’t mean it’s unrealistic. Reality means what is actually happening. In reality, you are communing with an almighty, righteous, and divine God as a mortal, unrighteous, and fallible person. That’s tough, but not impossible. You can be with God and you can be confident in God.

The confidence of your faith is expressed in this psalm with the word “hope.” Having started in the pit, the Psalmist describes hope as the place of refuge that he seeks. He wants to be able to hope in the LORD, because with the LORD he has mercy and abundant redemption. Hope is the place of confidence but it’s also the process. You may not see it from the English, but the Hebrew words for hope and wait (another theme in this psalm) essentially mean the same thing.

Waiting or hoping by faith – this place of security for the Psalmist – is what it means to follow and trust Christ. It is the very same thing each Christian commits to when they are confirmed. Waiting and hoping contain both elements of expectancy but also the unknown. How apt a description of our dealing with God. We trust in Him. We publicly confess His truth. We rely completely on His will and grace – all as realities. Yet, these very blessings seem so far away because of our sin. Each step forward in confidence in Christ is also a step into the unknown as far as we are concerned. But, hope is waiting and waiting is hope.

This thought is best captured in verse 5, the centerpiece of the Psalm. This one verse encapsulates what confirmation and faith in Jesus is all about: I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, And in His word I do hope. To wait is to hope. But, to hope and wait in the LORD is to hope and wait in His Word. More than a feeling. More than fears. More powerful than temptations or persecutions. Yet, entirely dependent on Jesus Christ. This is the reality. This is why we commit and confess – because we know these truths to be real through Jesus. We are confident in Him even though by doing so we are also in the unknown from our own understanding.  

At times, there are more inspiring messages than God’s Word. People will tell you things in life that will make you feel better, or that will be more attractive or attention grabbing. As you grow and mature in your faith, you will receive greater tests. The pressure of conforming with the world will grow as well. But no matter where you are in life, your faith in Jesus is the same, because it’s faith in Him – the unchangeable one. It will come by hopeful waiting – a great struggle in and of itself. But, your assurance that Jesus is with you comes from His Word – that very reality that you continue to confess.

A Monumental Act of God - 2 Chronicles 6:17-20

Theme: The Monument-al Way that God Dwells with Humans. 

Dear friends in Christ,

What is the most important place you have ever seen? What parcel of land have you stood upon that is most historically significant? As a student of history, the meaning of certain places resonates with me. I enjoy witnessing historical sites and putting myself in the shoes of those who made those places significant. When I wonder, what is most significant place I have ever seen – I have a hard time answering.

Having just come off Memorial Day weekend I think about the many sacred sites dedicated to the fallen warriors of our nation. Arlington cemetery in Virginia. The various monuments in our nation’s capital. Pearl Harbor. And even many sites in overseas on foreign soil.

Two very significant hallowed-ground sites that I have been to are both in Pennsylvania – Gettysburg and the Flight 93 memorial. There’s a certain aura of respect that comes over a person when you contemplate the monumental events that took place at sites like these. It gives you an appreciation of the people who made them famous and also an importance of remembering the significance of their memory.

Outside of our nation, I’ve haven’t seen much around the world. From a Christian standpoint, I haven’t been to the great cathedrals of Germany, the catacombs or shrines of the early Church in Rome, or the various sacred sites in the holy land. One such monument of the Christian faith is mentioned in our text today –which has since succumbed to the sands of time and is now lost for people today: The Temple of Solomon. Listen to Solomon’s words before us today, as He dedicates the Temple he built to the LORD almighty: 

2 Chronicles 6:17-20 And now, LORD, the God of Israel, let your word that you promised your servant David come true. 18 "But will God really dwell on earth with humans? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 19 Yet, LORD my God, give attention to your servant's prayer and his plea for mercy. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence. 20 May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night, this place of which you said you would put your Name there. May you hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.

Immediately in these words we are struck with the awesome significance that God would dwell with mankind. For generations this fact has fascinated people and led them to wonder where they could connect with the Divine. Human nature provides multiple answers to those questions and they all seem to make sense. It tells us that God’s dwelling place must be magnificent. It must be awe-inspiring. It must have a supernatural element to it. It must truly feel spiritual. One can hardly argue with these thoughts even when you look at the Biblical testimony. The many ways that God did reveal Himself in times past were often through miraculous ways. We think of the burning bush, the pillar of fire and cloud, and even the Ark of the Covenant which Solomon would mention later in our text. Solomon’s temple itself was a wonder of the world in its time. Adorned with precious cedars and gold plating, it was the envy of other nations. One would certainly feel that God was present when they entered such a magnificent place.

But as Solomon stands before the LORD and the people of Israel he doesn’t emphasize the magnificence of the temple, in fact, he points away from it. Solomon realizes that there’s nothing about the building or location that brings God to dwell with the people. In faith Solomon confesses that not even the beauty of the heavens can contain God. And yet, in full view of his own unworthiness, Solomon has the audacity to call upon God to dwell in their temple and to trust that God would do so.

The question we ask ourselves is what reason God would have for dwelling with sinful men and women. By definition, it literally and figurately is beneath God to do so. In fact, God can’t do that because by His holiness He cannot intermingle with sinfulness. What is it that Solomon knows about God, that not only allows God to be with us but assures that God will be with us?

The answer is not all that elusive for it’s the very thing we continue to know and trust about our own worship. It’s not about where but what. God’s dwelling with men has nothing to do with how magnificent or sacred the ground is. It’s about what God has done for us, wherever we may be, that makes the difference.

Take a pause here from Solomon’s speech, and consider a few things Jesus said about this. During a conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (which was a pretty significant Jewish historical site) the woman was confused about what the believe because she was hung up on location. She told Jesus, John 4:20 "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain (in Samaria), and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship." Jesus explained to her that what was more important than location was worshipping God in “spirit and truth.”

Think also of Matthew 18:20, when Jesus gave His disciples the office of the keys and the steps of church discipline. There Jesus reminded them that His Work, and the location of His presence, is often going to simple and rudimentary from a human perspective. Jesus said that wherever two or three are gathered around His Word, He is with them. The miracle of God’s presence with people is not in where it happens but in what takes place there.

How do we know WHAT is significant then? It seems that even churches today struggled to answer this question. What should we be doing? What does it take to be with God, for Him to come to us? Is it about community impact? Things like helping those in need, collaborating with civil leaders, improving the world in which we live? Is it about lineage? Must our church be traced back to the apostles to have authority in reaching God? Some would say so. Does it matter what we say? Can’t we leave the purpose of church up to each individual, let them find God on their own terms and in their own way?

For us the answer, as with all questions about God, is found in the Word of God. In His Word, God emphasizes repentance and forgiveness of sins. That’s the WHAT that should be taking place. Without that, God does not dwell with us. Those other things are important, but emphasizing them as the way to God at the Word’s expense is like putting more stock in the look of your building and the beauty of your property than in what Jesus has accomplished for us.

In our text, Solomon pleads with God to dwell among the people – but not because of the magnificence of the Temple. The rest of the chapter shows us exactly WHAT Solomon was concerned about. He went on to say,

2 Chronicles 6:24 "Or if Your people Israel are defeated before an enemy because they have sinned against You, and return and confess Your name, and pray and make supplication before You in this temple, 25 "then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of Your people Israel, and bring them back to the land which You gave to them and their fathers.

2 Chronicles 6:26 "When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against You, when they pray toward this place and confess Your name, and turn from their sin because You afflict them, 27 "then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of Your servants, Your people Israel, that You may teach them the good way in which they should walk; and send rain on Your land which You have given to Your people as an inheritance.

2 Chronicles 6:36 "When they sin against You (for there is no one who does not sin), and You become angry with them and deliver them to the enemy, and they take them captive to a land far or near; 37 "yet when they come to themselves in the land where they were carried captive, and repent, and make supplication to You in the land of their captivity, saying,`We have sinned, we have done wrong, and have committed wickedness'; 38 "and when they return to You with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their captivity, where they have been carried captive, and pray toward their land which You gave to their fathers, the city which You have chosen, and toward the temple which I have built for Your name: 39 "then hear from heaven Your dwelling place their prayer and their supplications, and maintain their cause, and forgive Your people who have sinned against You.

Notice the theme? Solomon’s hope was that when the people sinned, they would be ready to repent and God would be ready to forgive. That was what gave Solomon confidence that God would dwell with His people. It was, and still is today, all about God’s mercy for people. And it’s no different in the rest of the Bible, either. We saw what Jesus said on the matter. He came to us, as the literally Immanuel (God with us) to help us in our sin. He is with those who repent no matter how many they are or how ornate their dwelling is.

Isaiah said also, For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, With him who has a contrite and humble spirit, To revive the spirit of the humble, And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

The apostle Paul stated, Acts 17:24 "God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. 25 "Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. 17:30 "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent,  

Throughout the Bible, this stunning miracle that the Triune God would dwell with mankind is not so stunning after all. It’s readily accepted by believers because of WHAT our God says and WHAT He has done. Repent of sin and receive forgiveness in Christ. That is the effect of God’s work for us. That is what it means to unite with God through faith and to have Him in your life. 

Let us never discount the sacredness of God’s Word – wherever it is used. It could be here in our beautiful, yet humble sanctuary. It could be in the Sunday School room. It could be at your dinner table. It could be in a park by yourself. It could be at the hospital bed, or the death bed. It could be anywhere. It’s not the location that makes something beautiful to God, or sacred to us. It’s what happens there. Each place where the Holy Spirit is working through Christians using the Word, a monument to Christ’s grace and mercy is in place.

That God would dwell with sinful mankind is a miracle, solely because God in His mercy through Christ, has forgiven us and established a way to be with us. This is truly unbelievable from a human sense perceptive but it’s what takes place here each day.