September 26, 2018

Pentecost 18 - 2 John 1:1-13

Guilt or Innocence by Association

2 John 1:1-13 The Elder: To the elect lady and her children: I love all of you in the truth-- and not only I, but also all who have come to know the truth-- 2 because of the truth that remains in us and will be with us forever. 3 Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. 4 I was very glad to find some of your children walking in the truth, in keeping with a command we have received from the Father. 5 So now I urge you, dear lady-- not as if I were writing you a new command, but one we have had from the beginning-- that we love one another. 6 And this is love: that we walk according to His commands. This is the command as you have heard it from the beginning: you must walk in love. 7 Many deceivers have gone out into the world; they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8 Watch yourselves so you don't lose what we have worked for, but that you may receive a full reward. 9 Anyone who does not remain in Christ's teaching but goes beyond it, does not have God. The one who remains in that teaching, this one has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home, and don't say, "Welcome," to him; 11 for the one who says, "Welcome," to him shares in his evil works. 12 Though I have many things to write to you, I don't want to do so with paper and ink. Instead, I hope to be with you and talk face to face so that our joy may be complete. 13 The children of your elect sister send you greetings.     

There’s a 7-Eleven up here on the corner. It’s literally a convenience store. I happen to stop there often out of convenience. And it’s really a land of guilty pleasures. Chocolate bars, donuts, candies of all varieties, ice cream tubs, frozen pizzas, fried chicken, slurpees, and the list goes on. As I thought about it, I don’t think there’s really any healthy options at 7-Eleven. Maybe a fruit cup, maybe? It’s not surprising though, 7- Eleven has its niche and it’s not the same as Whole Foods. They are who they are, and they don’t hide it. But, here’s the point. When I go to 7-Eleven, I always feel a certain amount of guilt. I know that what I’m getting there is not very healthy for me. I know I probably shouldn’t walk in the door. But, it’s convenient and in the end, with moderation, it’s probably not going to kill me.

7-Eleven works, even though everyone knows they don’t sell the best stuff. Even though healthier alternatives exist, and probably more cost-effective alternatives, 7-Eleven works because we have the freedom to choose. We have the right to choose options that aren’t the best for our bodies, even though we know inside that it’s not healthy for us. But what does it mean to our freedom when someone tells us that? What happens if someone warns us that we probably shouldn’t indulge in that “Super Gulp”, that 64 oz. slurpee, or the hot dogs that have been shimmering under the heat lamps all day? Well, even though they have that right warn us, it doesn’t change our freedom. And, in terms of stuff and 7-Eleven, what others say really isn’t a big deal. Yet, at the end of the day, even in a simple example like 7-Eleven, there is still truth to every situation. Freedom does not change the truth even though the truth doesn’t always mean we must change our freedom.

The line between truth and freedom gets more difficult when things involve our souls and not just our bodies. What happens when that warning voice comes from God? What does His truth mean for our freedom? Sometimes God gives us a broad command, like taking care of our bodies, and allows us the freedom to follow that command in our lives when it comes to applying that command – like whether or not to go to 7-Eleven. That’s why, though I may feel some guilt when I enter 7-Eleven, I don’t need to confess that guilt before God. That’s why I can warn myself and others that there are better options, but I can’t judge – because God hasn’t. The truth is obvious – options at 7-Eleven aren’t very healthy for me. No debating there. Yet, God does not judge so I can’t either.  
But, what happens when life presents a situation where God does speak directly? What happens when God restricts my freedom? You see, the world wants to treat these areas the same as 7-Eleven. They want freedom to reign supreme – to change God’s truth.

Today, we see an example where God does judge. And as His followers, God wants us to stand firm in His Word and declare what He says – even at the cost of our own freedom and they way others think about us. This is important because, obviously, God says it is. He wants His children to provide a good witness to the world. But, it’s also important because association matters to God. He says that who we associate with affects our faith. God’s warning is not just given to those who directly engage in wickedness, but also to those who indirectly condone, support, or tolerate it.  

Guilt by association is a familiar concept to us. Take this example, if a group of thieves are caught in the act, they are all equally guilty. It’s not just the guy who enters the bank and holds a gun to the teller. It’s also the lookout guy at the door, the getaway driver, the mastermind behind the operation, and even the one who financed it. They are all guilty of the robbery – some directly, some by association.

Likewise, John warns in this letter of guiltiness to false teaching by association. He writes, 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home, and don't say, "Welcome," to him; 11 for the one who says, "Welcome," to him shares in his evil works. These are a couple of the hardest verses to understand in the entire New Testament. A Christian wonders, is it really a betrayal of Christ to say “Hi” to a false teacher? If someone doesn’t belong to my church, am I not allowed to have them over to my house?

The context of these verses is key. John was writing to people who expressed their support of a teacher by having him enter their home. It was a sign of agreement. Perhaps we might call it an expression of fellowship. It was an aspect of their culture. Think of Zacchaeus who invited Jesus into his home. Think of Mary and Martha who regularly hosted the Lord. These individuals were not just trying to be socially polite to Jesus, they were expressing their desire to learn from Him. They agreed with what He stood for, and rightfully so. These were not just casual encounters with no religious significance, which are far more common in our culture. John speaks to this cultural tradition in his letter. If a teacher is preaching falsely, do not show support of His teaching – even indirectly. The parable of the Good Samaritan speaks to the opposite extreme. Certainly, if you see someone in need, help them, even if they’re your enemy. But, that is much different than welcoming someone in your home to teach you and doing a public at that supports the teacher. The language here also specifies something much more than a mere social encounter. Literally, the text says, don’t “rejoice” with one who brings a teaching that is contrary to Christ. This is more than a simple greeting on the street.

John says this is dangerous because there is guilt by association. “He who greets (rejoices with) him shares in his evil works.” Here’s an example where God draws a hard line for us. He’s telling us that this situation is unhealthy for our souls and therefore we should avoid it. Freedom is restricted, the truth is clear. The mere association with evil, even if we think we can control it, is dangerous for our faith and can be a disastrous witness to others.

What we have to ask ourselves is what the modern equivalent to inviting a teacher into our home is.      
-Tolerance and even celebration of sin and false teaching; not just accepting its reality but embracing and supporting it.
-Turning a blind eye to sins in our lives or in the lives of those whom God has entrusted to us.
-Providing financial assistance to churches or institutions that promote false teaching. Having the mindset of, “my church is okay so it doesn’t matter what the synod is doing.” 
-Choosing a church because of their programs, or because your friends are there, or because of location, or because you were married or baptized there. The number one priority that John stresses is the teaching – both what you receive directly and that which you support.
-Choosing a church because the pastor really speaks to me; using that to overlook things you know to be false.

Consider some of the things Jesus said that reinforce the warning:

Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

Matthew 18:7 "Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! (sometimes we think, people can believe what they want, it’s their right. I shouldn’t speak against that. I should respect that. Plus, what can I change, this is their life, there will always be differences? Jesus said similarly, there will always be offenses in the world – things contrary to God and objectionable to faith. Yet, He also warned believers that we should not be part of these offenses. Reality is one thing. What you associate with is another. God wants His followers to speak for Him – to be part of the solution and not to give in just because there will always be sin and unbelief. If we think that way, like Jesus said, Woe to us!)

Mark 3:25 “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

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.”

These are all direct quotes from Jesus. There are plenty of other passages that speak to the same thing. When God is direct, He expects us to be direct too. Sometimes we’re duped by the world into thinking that if someone has the right to do something, we need to support that right. Yet, even personal right can become a self-idol. God makes is clear that when that right conflicts with His Word, we are not even to give them impression that we support it. Our highest loyalty ought to be to God – especially when the given right is not a matter of opinion but an area where He has spoken. Sometimes truth doesn’t affect freedom. But, God’s truth does.

Association is clearly important to God. Obviously, first as a defensive measure – He warns us about guilt by association. That is common. But, here’s where the grace of God takes over. The greater importance here is that with God there is also innocence by association. Logically, this makes no sense. A lawless person does not get off the hook by simply being associated with good people. God is strict too, He says we must be holy ourselves. But, Christ has the power to apply His holiness to us. His atonement gives that blessing by associating us with Him. John says, The one who remains in that teaching, this one has both the Father and the Son. A believer is not holy of themselves. They are simply associated with God through His Son, and by the teaching of the Son.

Jesus put it another way, which is very parallel to our text and which was also recorded by John: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” Home means acceptance and support, just as we see in our text. We don’t want to make a home with those who oppose Christ. Yet, we can’t make a home with God on our own, either. Without a Savior we are God’s enemy! Jesus promises that His Word, the true teaching, has the power to bring God to us and the Holy Spirit will establish the home of faith. God will create a dwelling place of safety where we can support and defend His truth – both for the protection and growth of faith and for the proper witness to others. That home of faith is built on truth and love as John also declared in verse 3:  Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.  

Heed this message. It’s not only the protection for your soul – but the very life of faith for your soul. God’s truth can feel complicated and outdated, but it’s just as important today as it was back then.

Freedom abounds in so many areas of life. Sometimes, we can give our warning and leave it at that. Sometimes, you might be correct – but you don’t have the right to judge. But, there are other times when God is the one speaking. In those situations, we have the command to stand for the truth, not because it’s our opinion against someone else’s, but because it’s God’s divine Word. And not just because the world needs to hear it; but because it’s how we have life with Christ. Amen.

September 17, 2018

Pentecost 17 - Mark 8:22-26

Surprising Silence
1. In the way that Jesus heals
2. In the way that He plans

Mark 8:22-26 Then He came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. 23 So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything. 24 And he looked up and said, "I see men like trees, walking." 25 Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly. 26 Then He sent him away to his house, saying, "Neither go into the town, nor tell anyone in the town."   

Joe Louis was a famous boxer who was known as both a world champion and also a social activist. Many credit Louis with having a hand in helping break the color barrier in American professional sports. Though he was famous for most of his adult life, Louis came from humble beginnings. He knew what it took to succeed by hard work – even when the odds were stacked against him. One of his famous sayings show that humility, “If you gotta tell them who you are, you ain't nobody.”

Joe Louis recognized the value of silence. We might say today, “Actions speak louder than words.” There’s a lot of wisdom in having the ability to keep your mouth shut. Just a couple of weeks ago we saw what James had to say about the devastation of the human tongue. Louis built his success as a boxer on the ability to keep quiet when others verbally maligned him and show with his ability that he could win.

Others have learned the same lesson often in sports. It’s one of the valuable things about competition that mirrors every day life. Sometimes silence is the best option. If you’re good enough. If you’re right, then the truth will come out. Let others declare it.

Jesus followed a similar method at times in His ministry. Mark’s Gospel is filled with miracles that Jesus did. It’s by far the shortest of the Gospel accounts and it’s an action-packed narrative from beginning to end. Here in the middle we see Jesus employing a surprising tactic to complete His plan – silence. Some wonder, why be silent? Didn’t Jesus need to get His message out to as many as possible? How would silence help achieve that end?

The answer to that question is that Jesus also had His Father’s will to uphold. It would do no good for Jesus to be killed before He got to Calvary or to be hailed as an earthly Redeemer in the eyes of His followers. Throughout His ministry, Jesus constantly walked the middle of these two extremes, and silence was important to keeping that middle ground – first of all in how He healed.

Perhaps as you read about this miracle, Jesus’ command to the healed man to be silent isn’t the most surprising part. It’s hard not to wonder about the method. To summarize, there’s really three steps: Jesus leads the man out of the town. Jesus spits in the man’s eyes. And Jesus then completely heals the man by touching his eyes. Why? In other instances, Jesus was able to heal without even speaking or being in the same location. Why go to all the trouble to perform these surprising signs? Well, first of all, Jesus is quite silent throughout. In this context, He heals by action rather than by speaking. So, Jesus Himself employs the very thing He asks of the man. The healing is not accomplished by the verbal declaration of God, but by the activity of God. Similarly, God teaches us that He can use the things of this world to accomplish His will. Just because we don’t hear a loud voice booming from heaven does not mean that God is silent. He still works.

Second, the fact that Jesus heals the man in stages shows there’s a progression to His work. It was certainly within His authority to heal the man in one single moment, but here He took deliberate steps. After the first two steps, the man was able to see partially. The lesson here is that God’s will sometimes takes time. We may think that the wheels of change are spinning in place, but God is actually working.

The strangest part of the miracle has to be that Jesus spits on the man’s eyes. What could possibly be the purpose behind this? Some has proposed that since Jesus was God his saliva must have had some special magical makeup to it. But, we’re not told anything like that, and the Bible is also very clear that in His physical presence Jesus very much human like you and me. A better answer is that Jesus was making a point to that culture. At that time, many believed that human saliva had a medicinal quality to it. It was often used as a remedy to treat ailments. Jesus takes that idea and thrusts the supernatural upon it. By using His own saliva He gives a relevant proof of His power as Messiah. He healed the man in a way that would make the people think – to take notice. Jesus is telling people that He has the power not just to treat, but to heal. The saliva was merely a symbol.

In the previous chapter, Mark records a similar instance, this time where Jesus healed a deaf/mute man. Chapter 7:33-35 reads: And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened." 35 Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly. In the miracle, we see the same three stages. Jesus takes the man outside the city. He uses His saliva in the miracle. And He commands them to tell no one. The main difference is in the man’s ailment. The man from chapter 7 was deaf and mute. The man from chapter 8 was blind. When we put these two accounts together we see important details about how Jesus conducted His work on earth. But, we also see a connection to the Old Testament.

The prophet Isaiah wrote: Isaiah 35:4-5 Say to those who are fearful-hearted, "Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, With the recompense of God; He will come and save you." 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. One of the markers of the Messiah, an indicator for people that salvation was present, was the healing of the blind and the deaf. Isaiah goes on to list other signs which Jesus fulfilled, but for the purposes of our story today we see that Jesus was also fulfilling the Old Testament promises of God – in His way and in His time. 

Many people look at the miracles of Jesus and reflect only on His awesome power as God. Who can deny that? It’s certainly present. But, this miracle, and others, show that there’s much more to be learned when we dig deeper. Jesus teaches that His methods may be surprising to us but they are still part of His plan. Jesus connects to the Old Testament and not only provides evidence of His deity as God through power, but also that He is the long-awaited Son of David, come to earth as one of us to rescue us from sin. But, Jesus also shows us the benefit of silence in our lives. Silence nurtures trust, because in silence we wait for God to act.

In every generation Christians have wrestled with the “silence” of God. Why doesn’t He act sooner? What could His plan possibly be? In moments of intense persecution, a believer has only one option to continue in faith – submit to God’s will. With that submission comes silence, or waiting by faith. Listen to David’s words in Psalm 27: Psalm 27:12 Do not deliver me to the will of my adversaries; For false witnesses have risen against me, And such as breathe out violence. 13 I would have lost heart, unless I had believed That I would see the goodness of the LORD In the land of the living. 14 Wait on the LORD; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the LORD! 

David felt the silence of God in his life. Hunted by Saul. Forsaken by his friends. Betrayed by his own son. David knew the loneliness of trust and submission to God’s plan well. Think of others in the Bible: Joseph – rotting away in Pharaoh’s prison. Job, touched by the hand of Satan. Abraham, called by God to sacrifice his only, long-awaited son. Jeremiah, thrown into a pit of refuse all for proclaiming the Lord’s Word. Stephen, stoned to death for declaring the truth of law and gospel. John the Baptist, beheaded by a childish monarch who didn’t want to be convicted for his sexual immorality. The list goes on. Hebrews calls these individuals the “cloud of witnesses” – Christians who had nothing in life except to wait patiently, in silence for God to give them justice.

Suddenly, the unique aspects of this miracle don’t seem all that important. Who cares why Jesus did it the way He did? At least He acted. The silence of God is a much harder thing to understand. Financial troubles arise out of nowhere and leave us reeling. Health ailments pile up one after another without any explanation. Tough situations at work or school leave us feeling helpless and alone. The loss of a close loved one, perhaps even a child – what could be more unfair than that? Each of those situations and more make us wonder, where is this powerful God who is for me? Where are His generous blessings? Where is His healing hand? What is His plan? He cares for the deaf and the mute and the blind, but does He care for me?

The surprising silence of Jesus reminds us that His is the kingdom and the power and the glory. He has a plan – always. That plan may confuse us. It may take a few steps longer than we’d like it to. It may contain things that seem unnecessary. But Jesus wants you to know that even in the silence, He is working for. Ephesians says that in His love, Jesus is doing “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, (Eph 3:20 NIV)

Jesus wants you to know this. He teaches the lesson in the subtle details of this miracle and others. There’s far more than just power here. He wants you to know this because it’s part of knowing Him. You think God is silent in your life? Look to the cross. Ponder the deafening silence of God’s only begotten Son – holy, innocent, and just – pleading with His Father in heaven, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Jesus knows what it’s like in a way you can’t fathom. His screams of agony died in silence. His breath gave out before any answer resounded from the heavens. Surprising, unfair, offensive, immeasurable – all these adjectives and more describe the very reason Jesus came to earth, for a much deeper purpose than our own temporary struggles.  

So, when you feel the silence of God – look to Jesus. That’s really what He wants you to learn here. His will is best. He has a plan. Because even Jesus went through that silence to make sure those truths have merit for you.

Sometimes, silence is best – even for the Son of God. There were times when Jesus didn’t have to tell anyone who He was. His actions, even His silent ones, were demonstrably louder. So also, for your life. You don’t have to worry about making sure others know – what you need, who you are, how great you’ve done. Let Jesus tell your story. Even in silence, you are His – and no one can tarnish that gift.

September 12, 2018

Pentecost 16 - Psalm 37:23-26

Lessons on Eternity – Delivered by God
1. An eternity of His faithfulness
2. An eternity of His promises fulfilled

Psalm 37:23-26 A man's steps are established by the LORD, and He takes pleasure in his way. 24 Though he falls, he will not be overwhelmed, because the LORD holds his hand. 25 I have been young and now I am old, yet I have not seen the righteous abandoned or his children begging for bread. 26 He is always generous, always lending, and his children are a blessing. 

“He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” This saying if often attributed to Jim Elliot, a missionary who was martyred for his faith by the very people he was seeking to help. Here’s some background to his story:

On January 8, 1956, Elliot, and four other men, were speared to death on a sandbar in the deep jungle of Ecuador. They were trying to reach the Huaorani Indians for the first time in history with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Research into the circumstances surrounding the martyrdom of these five missionaries has revealed the hand of God in unexpected ways. In the September 1996 issue of Christianity Today, a son of one of the missionaries wrote an article about new discoveries about the events behind the slayings.

The story goes that the missionaries flew over the tribe and announced on the loud-speaker an invite to come to their camp. Upon landing three members of the tribe came. The first was a woman in her 30s who was interested in learning who the men were. The second was a younger woman who was a companion of the first. The third was a man named Nankiwi who was romantically interested in the younger woman. Really, only the first woman actually cared to see who the visitors were.

When the three Indians arrived the missionaries quickly displayed non-threatening acts of kindness. Nankiwi was interested in the men’s plane so one of them took him for a ride in it. At dusk, the older woman elected to stay at the camp and visit more with the men. The younger girl and Nankiwi returned to the village. When the rest of the tribe, including the younger girl’s older brother, saw that they were returning without his sister’s older chaperone, he became incensed with anger. Nankiwi, in an effort to deflect responsibility, lied and said that the missionaries had attacked them. The men of the village decided at that point to return the missionary camp the next morning and kill them. Even the later arrival of the older woman, who assured the tribe that the missionaries meant no harm, fell on deaf ears. The next day the lives of the five missionaries were taken.

The son who did this research penned an interesting observation, writing:

“As [the killers] described their recollections, it occurred to me how incredibly unlikely it was that the [Palm Beach] killing took place at all; it is an anomaly that I cannot explain outside of divine intervention.” What he observed is correct. When you think of all the factors at play in this situation, and the great impact that the death of these missionaries has had on the church at large, it cannot be seen as anything other than the hand of God at work. And Jim Elliot’s saying, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose” became the theme and testament of these men’s lives – a rallying cry to the entire Christian church.

Of course, not everyone knows that this really wasn’t Elliot’s saying. He borrowed it from a 17th century pastor in England named Phillip Henry. No Christian from any time period has exclusive right to the divine handiwork of God – nor is it a gift reserved only for the most pious or the most faithful martyr. From young to old, from pastor to child, from significant to insignificant, we all can boast in Christ that we have received what cannot be lost. This saying is ultimately about eternity, not any single event or happening in life. It’s a reminder that what we have now is temporary – no matter who you are you will surely lose everything that you have in this world. The Bible has its own sayings to the same effect: Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I shall return. “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out (1 Timothy 6:7).”

Part 1: An eternity of His faithfulness

This sad outcome is a well-known reality. Though we often try to avoid it, or we live like we’re trying to avoid it, no one can escape it. This is confusing for us. The bigger question is “why?” Why is life like this? Why does God allow this pain to exist – for the evils to happen? What was His purpose in allowing those five men to be killed, in allowing what seem to be much greater evils to occur? Psalm 37 is David’s song about this question. If you read it in its entirety you’ll notice that much of it has to do with that question of why?

I’ve singled out the verses of our text because they are David’s answer. They reveal his confidence by faith – despite the many lurking unknowns swirling about in his mind. And within this struggle of time and space here on earth, of being a finite creature with limitations trying to comprehend the divine, David points to eternity. An eternity of God’s faithfulness. An eternity of God’s promises fulfilled.

Perspective matters when it comes to appreciating faithfulness. David wrote earlier in the Psalm: Commit your way to the LORD, Trust also in Him, And He shall bring it to pass. 6 He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, And your justice as the noonday. We’re conditioned by the world to see death as defeat. Where’s the justice and righteousness for the Christian who dies, especially for the Christians killed in the name of Christ? It feels like God is cheating us – when our perspective is earthly. God wants us to see eternally. In the context of eternity, death is liberating. Death ushers us to the gates of heaven. Death becomes a victory.

The eternal perspective gives this meaning because each of the things that now apply to us through death applied first to Jesus. His death liberated the world from the shackles of law’s curse. His death opened the gates of heaven. His death was the victory over hell and Satan. The death of a Christian is a mirror of Christ’s atonement on the cross, just as we were created in the beginning in God’s own likeness. Death is not something to run from or to cower from. Death has meaning for the Christian, an eternal meaning.

So David concludes in our text: 25 I have been young and now I am old, yet I have not seen the righteous abandoned or his children begging for bread. God is faithful and because of that we can find meaning in even the hardest of life’s situations.

Part 2: An eternity of His promises fulfilled

One of the reasons why it’s easy to lose sight of eternity is because God’s language of blessing is contained in human terms. For us to understand His divine truth, it must be brought to us – on our level. This does not mean that God’s blessings are common, ordinary, or earthly. They certainly have His divine signature. But, they are easy to misunderstand. Such an example is prominent in our text. One of the central themes of this psalm is inheritance of the earth. David writes,
v. 9: Those who wait on the LORD shall inherit the earth.
v.10: The meek shall inherit the earth.
v.22: Those blessed shall inherit the earth, but those cursed shall be cut off.
v.29: The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell in it forever.  
v.34: Wait on the LORD, and keep His way, and He shall exalt you to inherit the land.

As soon as we reach beyond this world to the heavenly and eternal blessings of Christ, we seem to be brought back down so quickly. Surely, we’re also reminded of one the Beatitudes that Christ taught – “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).” How can this thought be reconciled with an eternal perspective? What about when Christ also said, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; 20 "but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Mat 6:19 NKJ). What about Paul’s words, Colossians 3:1-2 If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.  

If God promises to bless us with an inheritance of the earth, shouldn’t we hasten to receive it? How can this be done while keeping the eternal perspective? Verse 23 reveals the key: A man's steps are established by the LORD, and He takes pleasure in his way. Those who are the LORD’s are led by the LORD. This doesn’t just refer to where we walk, but also how we think and what we believe. God is not intent on blessing us with an earth that will be destroyed. God’s blessing is speaking of the renewed heavens and earth. Isaiah described this through prophecy, Isaiah 65:17 "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.

God’s promise is about the earth as it was created in the beginning, as He intended it to be – righteous and without sin. Isaiah goes onto describe this gift: “Be glad and rejoice forever in what I create… The voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her, Nor the voice of crying.” Heaven is God’s eternal gift, but it only comes to those who believe in Christ. Believers have the renewed mind of faith to discern the Lord’s promise and fulfillment – both in what it means and how it is received. They are blessed to be led by the Lord. 

There are many in the world who believe it’s a childish dream to trust in God. They believe it’s foolish to forego what you have now in order to gain something that is unknown at the time. Yet, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” This is the eternal perspective. No amount of money, goods, fame, pleasure, comfort, or security of this life can be taken with you at the end of your days. So, prioritize what is important today. Yet, in so doing, don’t just be willing to give something up. Receive what Christ freely offers! Gain eternity by faith. The blessing is yours for the receiving. Likewise, the answers to life’s most perplexing questions are found in God’s Word. And you do not need to fear losing these heavenly treasures because God is faithful. They are yours because He loves you. They cannot be taken away because He loves you. Your eternal hope and perspective in your heart and mind is solid through the merits of your Savior Christ.     

September 2, 2018

Pentecost 15 - James 3:5-18

The Paradox of Peaceful Speech
-To conquer earthly strife, God sends heavenly gifts-

James 3:5-18 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. 8 But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh. 13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. 16 For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. 17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. 18 Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

Human communication is accompanied by several interesting paradoxes.

-        The more familiar with are with a saying or passage, the more subject you are to missing its intent.
-        The more educated a person is the harder time they have explaining things in a way that makes sense.
-        The greater technology grows for communication the less social we become and less ability we have to talk face to face.
In an article from 2014, a school teacher explained that he was forced to teach his students how to talk with each other. They had become so accustomed and dependent on texting that they were too anxious and nervous to speak directly to others. In an interesting twist of a paradox within a paradox, the teacher found that by having his students use technology, namely recording themselves in a podcast, he was able to help them build their direct communication skills. In his words, the teacher summarized: “It might sound like a funny question, but we need to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation?” (

-        The closer a relationship is, the more likely there is for the potential of violence.
Consider these points from a report in 1997 by the US Justice Department. When analyzing the 1.4 million cases of violence or suspected violence in emergency rooms, almost one quarter of these cases were between friends. Half of the cases involved people who knew each other. How is it that so often the closer the relationship the more harm people cause? Human speech is the ignition switch. James tells us that it can be used to bless or curse.

-        And finally we see the paradox in our text: Christians who curse and bless. (fresh water vs. salt water, fig tree and olive tree or grape vine).
This aspect of communication that James writes about is especially important for us to learn. The things we say can be extremely harmful for another person. And it’s a sin that’s so easy to do. Very often we sin in this way by speaking behind another person’s back. And it’s an easy sin to make excuses for. We tell ourselves that as long as we don’t physically hurt a person, it really isn’t all that serious. But more often than not, it’s the secret, subversive sins like gossip and verbal abuse that are the hardest to overcome. The words we speak will often make their way to the one we’re talking about, even if it’s not our intention. The hurt they cause can linger for years and even for a person’s entire life, often because the one who said them has no idea they were ever received. We need to be careful with our speech because it can cause great harm.

But, more importantly because our speech can bless. The truly debilitating effect of hurtful speech and unnecessary cursing is because speech is the means through which the gospel is communicated. When we speak carelessly, we’re not just hurting others; but we’re taking the very vehicle that God has given us for communicating salvation and we’re using it for the opposite effect. Our careless speech can cause others to become resistant to the good speech of forgiveness in Christ – simply because both come from the same vessel.

We see why Proverbs tells us: Proverbs 10:19 In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise. In our text, James likens the tongue to a fire, an untamable beast, and a deadly poison. And yet, God also says in His Word, How will people believe Christ unless someone preaches (Romans 10:14)? A truly troubling paradox indeed.

Given the ease of sinning by how we speak, we can quickly be led to despair. What good does it do to try when I fail so much? Maybe I should forgo speaking anything about God just in case I might mess up. Such thinking comes naturally. We might say it’s right in front of us each day. But, God introduces His own paradox as a solution and a help. And God’s way comes from above. James writes,  
15 This wisdom (of the world) does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic.
17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.

James speaks about a wisdom from God which comes from above. We think of God’s realm locally as above, and certainly James has this in mind. But, God’s wisdom also comes down from above because its nature is righteous. It is not a wisdom of this world. God’s wisdom is not something we possess without Christ. It’s like the rain and snow. We can’t control when it comes, but we live in its blessing and God is able to provide what we need. James described this same process earlier in his letter. Most people think of James as the apostle who emphasizes works. Luther struggled with James’ letter because he didn’t see James dominating with theme of justification in Christ as Paul’s letters do. But, most people forget that before James even spoke about our works, he introduced what God alone can give. From chapter 1: James 1:17-19 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. 18 Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. 19 So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.

Our section is very parallel to chapter one. In each, James speaks of what God gives from above and how it impacts our lives – especially in what we say. Only after God has blessed us of His own free will, by the word of truth, are we led to speak in wisdom and righteousness. Notice how much James says about the uncontrollable nature of the tongue in chapter three. No one can bring it under control. But, that’s directed at us. God is able to control the human tongue. God is able to subdue it under the power of His own voice. And He promises that blessing to all who heed His Word.

Here is the paradox of God’s grace in action. The human tongue is responsible for so much damage on earth. It’s the fire that kindles the forest into a blaze, wreaking havoc and destruction on everything. It’s the untamable beast. Nothing on earth can bring it under control. It’s the deadly poison, no one has an antidote. And so, God brings something from above. God brings healing outside of this world. God, Himself, comes to us just as Jesus Christ came, once for all.  

This healing in Jesus is punctuated by peace. James writes at the end of our text: Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. Good speech is a habit that a person either develops or neglects. James likens it to gardening. Peace grows where it is sown. Peace is lacking where it is not sown. Every person is either busy sowing peace or not by how they use their voice. Unwillingness to communicate or to learn about communicating peace in Christ also leads to a negative outcome. Peace is not sown where believers refuse to sow, either. God wants us to be active in Christ, so that we may be active in Christ’s peace.

And this peace is a special gift. In a few moments, I’ll remind you once again as I do each week, that Christ’s peace is the one that surpasses all understanding. His is the peace that is superior to human wisdom. And it’s precisely this way because the peace of Christ offers us gifts from our Father in Heaven. James says that this these gifts from above are first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.

These are the qualities that mark the peace of Christ. It is first pure. Holiness matters to God. He will not condone any sin, no matter how much our world adjusts to the wickedness of the human heart. In addition to purity, we also see Christ’s self-sacrificial nature. His blessings are willing to yield, they are gentle and merciful, they are without partiality and hypocrisy. Faith in Jesus does not seek to serve the self anymore than Christ came to die for Himself. Our Savior’s blessings are always directed outward – first to us, as repentant sinners, and then from our hearts to others to whom we are privilege to witness. This peace marks the end of uncontrollable destruction. No more consumption, no more back-biting, no more gossiping, no more tearing down, no more strife, no more hurt.

How come we don’t see more of that peace today? Perhaps Christians aren’t speaking as much. And perhaps people aren’t looking above as much. We have a very pertinent example of this in our own culture. There is a hardly a greater virtue in America than a person’s right to free speech. That blessing, and it is a blessing and a right that all should have, has become so important to some that it becomes a form of idolatry. You’ve seen the headlines. People are so quick to argue and fight for their right to speak, that they rarely think about the value what they have to say. They rarely think about the effect their words will have on someone else. This is just as dangerous for Christians as it is for any other group. More dangerous, in fact, since the keys of the kingdom of heaven, delivered by the words of God’s grace, have been entrusted to Christian voices.   

We fight and fight for our right to speak and the destruction keeps on going. One has to wonder, what’s the point of being free if we have destroyed the beauty of our freedom in the process? See how great a forest fire the tongue kindles. It is a world of iniquity. No man can tame it. True peace comes through Jesus. Jesus is from above. He freely gives our heavenly Father’s blessings from above. Look not to this world. Jesus Himself sacrificed His own life for yours. His love, though unconditional and free, always will be self-sacrificial. It does not seek its own interest, but the interest of others. It did not come to be served, but to serve. Jesus is merciful. Jesus is willing to yield to others’ needs. Jesus is gentle and pure. This is the paradox of paradoxes. The almighty God subjects Himself for us. And because of it, in Jesus you are blessed. This gospel can help the way you speak. To have is not chief of all; Jesus shows us that giving something up, foregoing what we have to right to say, can be the path of peace – His peace. Because with words Jesus blesses you. And with words you can bless others. Amen.