March 26, 2019

Lent 3 - Ephesians 5:1-10

Synchrony with Our Heavenly Father
1. Based on a Balance between His Work and our Reception
2. Leads to Growth and Development in our Faith and Life

Ephesians 5:1-10 Follow God's example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person-- such a person is an idolater-- has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them. 8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord.  

Social scientists who study childhood development speak of a principle called synchrony. As it pertains to development, synchrony is the shared relationship between an adult and a child, particularly at the infant stage. From the very beginning of life, infants are like sponges, soaking up information from adults, particularly their parents. This information sharing is so vitally important to healthy development for children. When adults are distant, emotionless, or absent there are harmful effects for children that linger for their entire lives.

However, the principle of synchrony goes both ways. The reactions and expressions of little babies also have an effect on adults. For example, it takes several weeks, perhaps a couple of months, before an infant smiles. Statistically, most adults don’t smile much at babies until they see a smile in return. Once a child reaches that stage of voluntarily displaying joy, it almost flips a switch in the adult’s behavior and increases their joy and attachment together. This is synchrony at work and it manifests itself in many other interactions throughout life. 

The principle of synchrony is not just a neat fact – it’s part of God’s design to increase and further healthy development starting from the moment of birth – and even before birth as we know how dependent a child in the womb is on their mother. As parents become more disconnected from their newborn child, we can certainly expect to see difficulties that arise in the child’s life – difficulties that can be hard to overcome because they are rooted at the most basic level of human development.

Today, we see that a similar symbiotic relationship is inherent to our faith. The Bible makes many connections between the physical aspects of development and the spiritual. God is called our Heavenly Father and we are to understand and approach Him as such. We are called children of God by faith. Just as a parent provides for, protects, and nurtures the body of a child; so God does all that and more for our souls. And we see the principle of synchrony at play in our faith lives also. The more we interact with God, the more we develop in a healthy way spiritually. The more distant He is, the greater potential there is for harmful effects.

Paul’s words to the Ephesians, which we consider today, explain this relationship. He is talking about spiritual development as believers. Much of what Paul looks at is the fruits that our faith manifests – abstaining from sexual immorality, filthy speech, and greed; following God’s Word carefully so that we aren’t deceived and led astray, and showing gratitude for what God has done for us. These are all markers of healthy spiritual development. But the greater question we ask is: how can I show these fruits in my life?

The illustration of fruit is really appropriate because it speaks to the natural working of faith. Many people think faith is all about these expressions of what a person does. So, the logical thought is that the more I do these things the greater my faith is. But that idea forgets how fruit is produced. The fruit is the result, the end of the work if you will. It’s not the cause of the growth, but rather the product. Once the fruit is produced, all the work has already taken place long before. Therefore, faith is much more dependent on what God does than what we do. If we are in the right place spiritually, fruits of faith will naturally show themselves. You won’t have to be coerced, or guilted, into following God – in fact you can’t no matter how hard you try, because that’s not how fruit grows. Fruits of faith become evident when a healthy atmosphere for growth is present. And when it comes to our faith, the best place for us to be is firmly in the power and grace of God as displayed in Jesus.

So, when you return to that original question about how you can show fruits of faith in your life, you have to start with what God is telling you about Jesus – not with the description of what those fruits look like. We see that in the other verses of our text. Paul writes, walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

This verse is the most important in the section because it governs everything else. The entire purpose behind walking in God’s will, a synonymous thought with producing fruits of faith, is because Christ offered Himself up for us. Paul points to the Old Testament here with thought of a fragrant offering before God. Incense was common feature in the worship habits of the Israelites since it was a metaphor for acceptable offerings and prayers ascending to God in heaven. Similarly, the greatest example of this pleasing sacrifice was in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

One certainly does not think of pleasing aroma or acceptance when death by crucifixion is on the mind. Part of the effectiveness of crucifixion as a means of capital punishment was it’s gory and horrific features. It was slow, painful, agonizing, and frankly disgusting. What made Christ’s death beautiful, fragrant, and pleasing was not what is looked like but what it meant. It marked the fulfillment of spiritual cleansing and renewal. It guaranteed God’s promise to take away our filthy unrighteousness and cleanse us as white as snow.

This acceptable offering before God is the basis of our faith. It is the nourishment that feeds our souls and allows us to produce fruits of faith, without any effort of our own will. In the fertile soil of Christ’s atonement, the seed of the gospel message can take root in a person’s heart and lead to this spiritual life. Christ’s death on the cross is the foundation for synchrony by faith. Faith is a mutual relationship with our Heavenly Father that grows and develops based entirely on what He does for us.

That’s a vital principle of synchrony, everything hinges on the parent. When fathers and mothers are reclusive and inactive with their children, development suffers and growth is stunted. When parents take the initiative and are active from the start, it ignites a fruitful relationship that can grow and produce vibrantly for life. Everything for our faith starts with our heavenly Father, but in order for it to be truly synchronous we do need to receive His love. The expressions of a receiving faith are pleasing to God. When we seek to conform our lives to His will and to listen intently to His Word, as described at length in specific situations by Paul, He is glorified and we are blessed. There is a response in our relationship that is directed to God. This response is not the cause, or basis of our faith. It’s not even the starting point, but it is important and does affect our growth as a Christian. 

And so, Paul expresses the importance of receiving by faith with some unique terminology. Verse 1 says, Follow God's example, therefore, as dearly loved children. Some translations use the word “imitate.” This word doesn’t just mean to follow someone, but it’s pointed more at becoming like them – almost like a mirror image. It’s common that many people think of God as more of a model for decent living than a divine being who saves. Many people in the world consider the things that Paul encourages as good and moral things, but also that if someone believes differently it’s their prerogative. A model is a broad guide, where people can pick and choose how to specifically follow. God is calling for more than that when it comes to imitating Him through faith. The very meaning of imitation means that there’s an unchangeable standard which you adhere to; imitation is not a subjective expression which each person chooses for themselves.

Here is where the idea of synchrony is important again. Just as a child learns by imitating their parents, so also, we learn by imitating God. An infant does not decide how to act or what to do. They a molded by what they see their parents do. The same principle applies to faith. A child of God does not seek to choose his or her own course of right and wrong in life. We follow what God has shown us. Children of God do not rely on their own efforts for spiritual development; we pay attention to what our Father in heaven has done.  

Paul also indicates synchrony in the last verse when he writes, find out what pleases the Lord. The thought here is to exercise discernment to understand something. This involves learning from the Lord and receiving the products of His grace. This testing is never done without a purpose though. Within this discernment is also the intended goal of accepting what is pleasing to the Lord. It shows us the purpose of our synchronous relationship with the Lord. He desires that we both understand and accept what His Word says.

If you ever feel out of sync with God, perhaps you’ve been forgetting what He says here. Ask yourself if you’re imitating Christ. Remember that this is more than just following Christ. It is letting Him be who He is – God and Savior, and then learning for your life from that. If God is a Savior, it means we need saving. If God provides what we cannot one our own, it means we shouldn’t choose our own path in life. Just as a child does not imitate mom or dad by changing them, so also we follow God when we listen to what He says and who He is, without trying to add our own change into the mix.

Furthermore, ask yourself if you are discerning the Lord’s work in your life. Again, much like imitating, there’s more to this than what is on the surface. Understanding something by faith also involves trust and belief. It is knowing the truth and also accepting it as your own.

These are the reasons why God reveals Himself to you. He wants you to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” as He tells you in 2 Peter 3:18. He shows Himself to you in His Word and Sacraments so that you can grow in your faith – so that you can develop in a healthy spiritual manner as a follower of Christ. And when you see and trust God, there is a response. You can imitate Him. You can discern His wisdom. This synchrony keeps your faith strong until you reach heaven with God for eternity.  

Do not be deceived by empty words that promise life, meaning, and fulfillment without Christ. Rather, see your heavenly Father and what He has done for you through His Word, and the synchrony of faith will happen. Amen.

March 20, 2019

Lent 2 - Psalm 42

“Hope in God”
1. It demolishes the dualism between faith and feelings
2. It delivers on the unsearchable riches of grace

Read Psalm 42 responsively:

What place do feelings have in Christian faith? The simple illustration in your bulletin is used as one answer. This picture is from the organization Campus Crusade for Christ. It has been used to describe the relationship between faith and feeling for many years and by many speakers. They explain it in this way: “Let us call the train engine "fact" – the fact of God's promises found in His Word. The fuel car we will call "faith" – your trust in God and His Word. The caboose we will call "feelings."

As fuel flows into the engine, the train runs. It would be futile and, of course, ridiculous to attempt to pull the train by the caboose. In the same way you, as a Christian, should not depend upon feelings or emotion [to] live a Spirit-filled life. Rather, God wants you to simply place your faith in his trustworthiness and the promises of His Word (”

What do you think, good explanation or not? Well, like many catchy modern-day proverbs, it depends on what is meant. I think the slogan is used to target the popular notion in America that a person’s faith is an entirely subjective experience. That’s why they have “facts” as the locomotive. Facts are objective and true regardless of how you feel about them. It shows immediately, and correctly, that faith is not a malleable thing that each person determines for themselves. It is indeed based upon the solid, unchangeable, and objective Word of God as Paul wrote, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Romans 10:17).”

Likewise, we would also disagree with churches that emphasize the physical manifestation of feelings such as: speaking in tongues, performing miracles, elevation of one’s pulse, or uncontrollable praise reactions as being required to be sure of having true faith. These notions emphasize the outward response which can vary quite substantially from one person to another.

So, we might conclude that feelings are very distinct from faith. However, Jesus commanded His followers to worship in “spirit and truth (John 4:24).” He condemned the Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs,” things that look good on the outside but are corrupt and defiled inwardly (Matt. 23:27). At the root of hypocrisy is the lack of genuine and sincere belief, and feeling is certainly part of that to a degree. Consider also the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5 – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. You can’t really strip feelings from these qualities. What we see is that there is a necessity to feelings when it comes to true faith. Feelings don’t lead the way; and in that sense the caboose is definitely not driving the train. However, we can’t take feelings out completely either. The proper understanding is that feelings generated and given by the Holy Spirit, which may manifest themselves in various physical ways, are part of faith and should not be forgotten.

We recognize the struggle between faith and feeling here in our text for today. This psalm as been said to be one of the sections of the Bible that speaks to depression. That seems to be the thought indicated in the common refrain, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?” The Hebrew word for “cast down” means to sink down, to be dissolved, or to melt away. The psalmist speaks of this in connection with his soul, or in other words, the immaterial part of his being. These descriptions fit well with depression, which for so many can be an unexplainable ailment of the spirit.

The other aspect here in the Psalm is the duality of the problem. What I mean by duality is two competing forces. Dualism is a common feature in many religions where one recognizes a good element and a bad element at odds with each other. Think of the concept of yin yang in Taoism or the idea of karma in Hinduism. These are dualistic concepts. Here, we see a similar thing, although with a much different purpose, in this psalm.

The dualism is between faith and feeling. The psalmist has knowledge of the true God and he confesses to believe in these truths. He seeks after God for satisfaction as a thirsty deer at the creek’s edge. He earnestly desires the house of God in worship to be reminded of God’s mercy and power. He prays to the Lord with confidence at night and day. He believes in God as His rock. These are the expressions of the psalmist’s faith, which is very much present. This faith also leads to themes of joy, praise, singing, confidence, and hope.

Yet, the psalmist’s feelings turn him in a different direction. His struggles are declared in terms of questions.
·       When shall I come and appear before God?
·       Why are you cast down, O my soul, and disquieted within me?
·       God, why have You forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of my enemy?; the same enemy that asks, “Where is your God?”

The dualistic struggle is a further symptom of depression. Depression is a struggle that exists even when we know and believe gracious and truthful facts about God. We may have full confidence in who God is and what He promises and that He is able to accomplish those things, yet still feel miserable. And it feels like being caught in a trap.

The psalmist described the struggle this way, Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; All Your waves and billows have gone over me. The picture of crashing waves comes to mind. Not only do these lingering questions and feelings of uncertainty cause deep shock and surprise by crashing into our souls over and over again, they also have a way of sucking us out to sea and ensnaring us with further doubts and uncertainties.

When dealing with depression, sometimes we need more than just that fact locomotive leading the way. Simplifying a struggle like this into a neat and tidy formula like facts, faith, and feelings can be more restrictive than liberating. Imagine offering such a thought to the sons of Korah here, who wrote this psalm. Or to King David, who used the exact same expression in Psalm 43. It would be short-sighted and callous.  The entire problem is with the questions of knowing and believing who God is and yet feeling such pain despite that faith.

So, how does this cruel dualistic cycle end? What can we do for help? There are essentially two options. On the one hand, we can stress that “fact” locomotive. This is a common reaction for Christians who rely on the Bible. They either directly or indirectly chastise a struggling believer as if he or she isn’t really a strong enough Christian. They point them back to the simple, objective truths of the Bible and keep insisting that they trust these facts wholeheartedly or they are part of the problem. In the end, they minimize the entangling struggle of depression and thereby they ignore the inherent issue at hand.

On the other hand, it’s tempting to travel a route that bypasses the Bible. Because something like depression is so deeply personal and connected to faith in God there is an allure to ignore God and hope the feelings go away. There are many other treatment options available outside of the spiritual, and it’s east to trust solely in what those things offer. In this setting, a passage such as Psalm 118:8 is applicable: It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. Notice, it’s not wrong to receive help from one another. It’s not a sin to treat depression with medication or counseling. There is certainly much more that can be offered than only the Word of God. But the danger is when these things become more important than God. The struggle, especially when it is do deeply personal to our faith, will only continue if God is not considered at all.

So, perhaps we can learn a bit for our lives, and where to find help, by recognizing value in each perspective. When we feel cast down in our souls and disquieted within our spirits, there is help from God and from those around us that God puts into our lives. But remember that coping with and recovering from a mental, and even spiritual, ailment does not happen by acting more like a Christian and putting on a good face. There are blessings from the Lord that are given through sound logic and physiological means too. It’s not a lack of trust to seek help in these areas. It’s not unchristian to use what God has given to help you. It’s what He wants and it’s what He provides. But, with any blessing for any reason, never let it be more important than the one who gives. Never trust in the opportunity more than the one who established, created, and brought to existence the opportunity.

The Psalm narrows this solution down into one simple concept – Hope in God. In response to the each question, the psalmist replies – Hope in God. On the surface this may seem like the heartless, simple-minded response as we mentioned earlier. It’s vain to think that we can really help a person who is struggling by throwing commands in their face. But, there’s much more here than a mere command. To tell a person what they already know is insulting and condescending. Certainly, the Sons of Korah knew already that they should hope in God.

But to hope in the LORD is much more than just a command. It’s a reminder of the unlimited grace of God – the untapped potential of God’s power that is easily forgotten and neglected. Those are the thoughts contained in the concept of hope. It’s a word we’re all familiar with, but it also by its very nature contains so much more beyond what we can think or even imagine. That’s always built into hope, no matter how much you know about it or trust in it today. It always contains blessings far beyond what you perceive in present time.

This is why emphasizing the hope we have in God can help depression. For one, it is and objective truth, that is dependent on how you feel in the moment. Whether you’re high or low emotionally, spiritually, or physically, Christian hope never changes. It finds its source of power in Jesus, who remains the same, yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).

Yet, hope grasps even more than the facts. Hope if God doesn’t minimize or make light of the deep struggles of the soul which far surpass facts. Hope is simply the word we use to described the limitless blessings we have in life. For a believer who wrestles with the uneasiness of knowing and trusting God’s Word but also still having inward pain, hope is the ever-present reminder that there is so much more to God than we perceive now. That’s why we should hope whether we’re up or down emotionally. Even if you feel confident and happy, hope still has blessings to offer because you’re promised so much more in Jesus Christ. It’s okay if you can’t see it all now – you have hope in God.

He continues to tell you again and again who Jesus is and what kinds of qualities He displayed for you. Love, compassion, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, faithfulness, gentleness. Yes, Jesus felt all of these feelings for you, and proved it undeniably in the truth of His Word. You know every one of those facts. Hope latches onto those things and gives you a solid anchor of trust in the midst of life’s storms. It gives you the unlimited mercy and power of Christ to hang onto, despite all the other feelings in life that run contrary to it.        

March 11, 2019

Lent 1 - Genesis 22:1-14

“The Scripture Cannot be Broken” (John 10:35)
1. A bond made by a father and son.
2. A bond dependent on respect and trust.

Genesis 22:1-14 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 2 He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you." 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.

7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, "My father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" 8 Abraham said, "God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So they went both of them together. 9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 12 He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, "The LORD will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided."  

It's sad that today’s story is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented in the entire Bible. What makes this so unfortunate is that in reality it is one of more important and endearing portions of God’s Word. Those who oppose God’s Word say that it’s another example of typical backwards thinking displayed throughout the Bible, especially the Old Testament. We hear people say, “How could you follow a God who would demand human sacrifice?!”

But, the entire purpose of this text is that God didn’t require Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The entire text pivots on the importance of a substitute. There are many lessons for us to learn in this story. We see examples of great faith in both Abraham and Isaac. We see an emotional glimpse into the difficulty of following and trusting God no matter what. Most importantly, we see a story of love as God connects what Abraham and Isaac endured (as father and son) to what He and Jesus endured (as Father and Son). It’s this bond, linked together throughout the holy and inspired pages of God’s Word, that makes this story one of the most important to our faith.

Our theme is pointed at that bond. A bond between Father and Son and the qualities they displayed. But also a bond in Scripture that connects these thoughts with the suffering and death of our Savior, Jesus – the only Son who was not spared. So, we center our thoughts on a single passage where Jesus described the unshakeable unity of His Father’s Word – “The Scripture cannot be broken.”

It was a tense moment in Jesus’ ministry when He spoke those words. He was conversing with the Jewish leaders. Jesus had just taught that famous speech about being the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep and promises them eternal life. Immediately, in response to that promise we’re told that the Jews took up stones to kill Jesus. They thought He had blasphemed by claiming to do what only God could do. And so, Jesus pleads with them to examine the record. Had they really thought this through or were they being led by emotion? Because, the Scripture cannot be broken. Jesus taught them that when they examined God’s Word, they would find an inseparable bond between the Father and the Son.

This same principle was at play long ago on Mount Moriah. Consider for a moment all that was at stake for God in this story. God hated the heathen religions that demanded human sacrifice. Although His people Israel were not a unified nation at the time of Abraham, we know from their subsequent history where God stood on this matter. Jehovah was not the God who demanded human sacrifices. That’s one thing that separated Him from other false gods. At no other point would the true God demand a human sacrifice. And yet, this is the very thing He required of Abraham. Would God betray His very nature?

Another thing at stake was God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. Think of how long Abraham had waited for Isaac to be born. That process alone was a tremendous test of Abraham’s faith. Finally, the fulfillment had come and God now wanted Abraham to kill his son. How could it be? Killing Isaac would negate the established promise that God provided. It would have turned all the prior tests of faith into pointless exercises – cruel expressions of the divine playing games with mortals.

And perhaps greatest of all, the salvation of the entire world was at risk here, for Isaac was also the heir of the Messianic promise. If he died, so also would that promise die, unless God either raised him from the dead or gave Abraham another heir. What agony must have been on Abraham’s heart and mind – seemingly pulled in two impossible directions; love my son, or follow my God.

Each of these results threatened the bond between father and son; not just between Abraham and Isaac but also between the Father and Jesus. As impossible of a situation as this seemed, the bond remained. As Jesus declared, the Scripture cannot be broken. That was true that day in Jerusalem and it was true that day on the mountain. As impossible as it seemed, God would not allow the bond to be broken – between father and son, and between the promise of His Word.

When everything seemed like it was about to fall about – a substitute enters. And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. God sent a substitute so that the bond would remain. God sent a substitute so that Isaac would be spared. God sent a substitute to vindicate His own merciful nature and to preserve the promise of salvation. Everything in this story surrounds the substitute. The horrific notions of this text only endure when the substitute is ignored. Listen to what God is describing. The terrifying shock of all the extremes we mentioned earlier is a glimpse into what life is like for deserving sinners when there is no substitute. Who doesn’t shutter at the thought of human sacrifice? Who doesn’t cringe at the thought of Abraham losing the very purpose and meaning of His life? Who is not angered at the thought of the innocent being condemned to death? Without a substitute, we would be left with these feelings and emotions.

Likewise, just as the bond between Abraham and Isaac remained, so also the bond between the Father and the Son remained. The Scripture would not be broken that day, nor would it be broken on Good Friday. As the righteous substitute for sinners, Jesus would ascend the cross in our place. He would carry our punishment so that we could go free. Yet, despite the many parallels, there is one difference. God’s Son would not be spared. The heavenly Father’s comparison with Abraham is fitting except in this one point. The materials would be gathered. The altar prepared. The Father would bind His Son, His only son, to the edifice of expiation. The implement of divine wrath would be yielded. Yet for Jesus, there was no escape as there was for Isaac. The death blow of God’s justice over sin would be fully met in His Son’s body upon the cross. Jesus was the Substitute.

Isaac needed to be spared to preserve the bond of father and son – and the bond of Scripture. In contrast, Jesus would need to be sacrificed to achieve the same end. The bond of Jesus and the Father was at stake on Calvary’s mountain. And as it pertains to you, so also was your bond with the heavenly Father as sons and daughters; rightful heirs of salvation. There was no other way to preserve the Scriptures. And so, as Jesus concluded with the Jewish leaders in His plea to consider the truth, He said, “…believe the works [that I do], that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.” Jesus held together the bond of His Word, so that sinners could believe that the Father is in Him, and He in the Father. A bond between father and son.

Jesus became the sacrifice, suffering the very torments involved with a father offering up His only Son, so that you could believe and know. Believe and know what exactly? The same thing Abraham declared, that “the LORD will provide.” That’s why the bond of Scripture is important. That’s why the bond between the Father and the Son is important. So that you and I can believe that God will provide.

We see how that works in our text also. Faith takes an obedient, trusting attitude with God. Three times we see that displayed by Abraham, who upon following God’s will responds, “Here I am.” When the LORD calls, Abraham responds. When God’s plan is in motion, Abraham listens. This is the trusting obedience of faith. Abraham knew and believed what God said even though his entire being must have been filled with sorrow and shock. When all else seemed gone, Abraham still had his faith. This is the listening ear of faith, not the accusatory shout of defiance. And as Abraham clung to His LORD, he would witness the miracle of God’s mercy upon that mountain.

And so, we continue to believe and trust that God will provide. You know, the actual Hebrew of this phrase is that “God will see.” The same idea can mean that God looks upon or even visits. He sees with intention, with purpose. This is a common Biblical expression for blessing. Think of the familiar Benediction – “The LORD make His face shine upon, and lift up His countenance upon you.” Abraham and Isaac were not alone that day – God was watching. God saw. God provided. And Abraham believed and memorialized that gracious thought.

In the pain and the suffering, you experience, whether at your hands or someone else’s – the same blessing is in effect – God sees. God looks upon you with intention – to provide. Never forget why. Never forget the bond that will never be broken; a bond between a Father and a Son. Never forget, that because Jesus was forsaken; because no substitute was given for Him; because darkness reigned on the day of His crucifixion; because your Father provided for you and not for His own Son – you are saved. You are now His Child, and He made good on His promise – The Good Shepherd will lay down His life for the sheep - and no one can snatch you from His hand. Amen.

March 5, 2019

Pre-Lent 3 - Asking the Right Question for the Right Reason

Theme: Asking the Right Question for the Right Reason
The Question - Not: What was God thinking? But: What is God planning?
The Reason - Not: To Leave you in Doubt. But: To Give you Hope

We open our service in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Message One: 1 Samuel 16:7
But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." (ESV)

1 Samuel 16 begins with God telling Samuel that He has rejected Saul as king of Israel. Saul had resisted the LORD’s will. He had turned His back on God. He was no longer listening to God for guidance as a leader of the people. And so, the LORD tells Samuel to go to the house of a man named Jesse and “anoint the one I name to you.”

So, Samuel makes his way to Bethlehem and finds Jesse. Seven of Jesse’s sons stand before Samuel but none are chosen by God. The youngest, named David, was out in the fields tending the sheep. When they finally contacted David and he arrived before Samuel, the LORD told him, “Arise, anoint him; for this is the one.”

This was a frustrating exercise for Samuel. The events leading up to David’s anointing were not easy on God’s servant. Samuel had to try to handle the frustrations brought upon the kingdom by Saul while also doing the Lord’s work. Now God was calling him to this oft-forgotten, backwater village of Bethlehem. Was this really where Israel’s next king would be found? When Samuel arrived at Jesse’s home he immediately thought that the eldest son, Eliab, would be the one chosen. Eliab must have fit the outward characteristics that a king would have – confident, strong, experienced.

But the LORD sent a message to both Samuel and Israel in choosing David and that message is given in the verse before us. “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” If you remember, Saul was accepted as king largely because of his appearance. It’s true that the LORD chose Saul as well, but the people accepted that choice because Saul matched their expectation. Not so with David. It’s almost as if God was saying, “I’ve tried doing things the way you wanted, now it’s time for Me to show what is really important.”

As Samuel inquired of the LORD’s choice, there was a personal lesson for him also. The LORD wanted Samuel to trust. Samuel was seeking the LORD’s will on his own terms, with his own eyes. His dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs caused him to rush to judgment about the LORD’s plan. Samuel was not asking the right question for the right reason. In this moment, the LORD did not allow Samuel to see what was going to happen. David’s anointing did not take place as smoothly as Saul’s had. There were questions in Samuel’s mind. The LORD allowed him to have this temporary absence of understanding for a reason, to build Samuel’s hope in the LORD’s power and ability; to get Samuel to stop thinking of himself and his plan, and consider the LORD’s will.

Likewise, there are times when the LORD does not let you in on the plan. There’s always a reason behind His choice and it’s always for your best interests. Maybe something you’re going through, at home, at school, at work; maybe something with friends or family, or even in your faith – maybe something along those lines needs the same reminder Samuel got: Man looks at appearance, the LORD looks at the heart.

Sometimes God leaves you in the dark to build your trust in Him. When you’re in the dark, you need a guide, you need help. This gets even more compounded as we consider the darkness of our sins. It’s not easy to be on the outside of God’s wisdom, looking in. However, the LORD allows us to enter His understanding when we need to and when it is best for you. While on the outside, He can help you trust more and build your faith to be stronger in Jesus – the one who fulfills your needs. And when your faith is strong, so is your hope.    

Message Two: Luke 18:34
The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about. 

Our second message for today speaks of another time when God’s plan was hidden from believers. This time, it was the twelve disciples. Our single verse tells us that they didn’t understand what they had been told, but also that the meaning had been hidden from them. Again, we ask why God would conceal such a matter? Let us back up in the text to learn what the disciples had been told. In Luke 18:31-33, we’re told: Then He [Jesus] took the twelve aside and said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. 32 "For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. 33 "They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again."

Jesus told the disciples a simple summary of what the gospel is. But, the disciples did not understand what Jesus meant by this. However, the more perplexing aspect of this section for us is that we’re told that the meaning was hidden from them. Only God could do such a thing – but why? Why did He conceal the meaning of His suffering, death, and resurrection from them? A couple of important points come to mind as we answer.

First of all, this was the third time Jesus had made the same prediction to the disciples. Three times, at least, throughout His ministry, Jesus stopped what He was doing to explicitly foretell what was going to happen to Him on the cross. But He also reminded the disciples that He would not stay in the grave. He would rise from the dead. We learn a lot as we consider the disciples’ reactions to these three predictions.

After the first prediction, Peter boldly rebuked Jesus saying, “Far be it from you, Lord. This shall not happen to You (Matthew 16:21)!” Jesus had to remind Peter that he was following Satan by saying such a thing and that he was causing offense to God. So, not a good reaction to Jesus’ prediction.

After the second prediction, the Gospel of Mark tells us that none of the disciples understood what Jesus meant, and none of them asked Jesus for an explanation. Again, not a good response by the twelve.

And, after the third prediction, James and John took the opportunity to request that they be given a greater status in heaven than the rest of the twelve. Once, again, not a good look.

So, why would Jesus conceal the full meaning of His death and resurrection at this time? The short answer is that the disciples weren’t ready for it yet. Not only would the suffering and death of Jesus be hard for them to accept; it would be a shock to their faith, as evidenced by what happened on Good Friday; the disciples had also shown a lack of spiritual wisdom and a lack of desire to learn. On top of this all, they had proven that they would manipulate the true will of God into their own desires. Peter wanted to stop Jesus from dying for the sins of the world. James and John cared more about their selfish pride than the humble work of the Savior. They were a threat to holding Jesus back from His true mission and purpose.

Jesus knew that the twelve disciples needed to be led along gently, and that it would take time for them to fully understand and appreciate why Jesus needed to die and what His resurrection from the grave would mean. Like all of us, it was a learning process for the disciples. So, Jesus gave His three predictions, to remind them; but He concealed the full implication of what He was saying until the disciples were able truly accept it.

This is another example where it’s second nature for us to question God. It’s easy to imply that God didn’t know what He was doing. Human nature grates against the idea that God would withhold wisdom for a time. We naturally wonder at times, “What is God thinking?” We sympathize with the disciples in their struggle. But, the reality for us is that there are times when we’re not ready to receive God’s plan. He covers the end plan for a time to protect and lead us gently. We, too, like the disciples, have a tendency to get headstrong and the danger is present that we would veer off the path of God – thinking we know better. God conceals at times for our good, out of love for our fragile faith and existence.

As we consider the disciples, we bring to mind another word that comes from the same root – discipline. The book of Hebrews gives us insight into this question by saying, Hebrews 12:5-17 My son, do not take the Lord's discipline lightly or faint when you are reproved by Him, 6 for the Lord disciplines the one He loves and punishes every son He receives. 7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

The Lord has a purpose for your life, even when He conceals the plan for a time. That purpose is always for the blessing of your faith and the goal of leading you to eternal life. That’s Christian discipleship, or discipline – and it’s a product of God’s love. As we seek to understand His will, let us remember to ask the right question and look for the right reason – and both come by faith in Jesus.   

Message Three: 1 Corinthians 13:11-12
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 

Our final reading for today has the same theme as the others. God holds back His wisdom from us for time. But, in this portion of 1 Corinthians it’s for a different reason than it was for Samuel or the disciples. For Samuel, his expectations got in the way of God’s plan. For the disciples, they weren’t ready to receive their Savior’s understanding. Paul tells the Corinthians here that God’s wisdom is withheld because of their inability to understand it. In verse 11, Paul speaks of growing in maturity just as a child grows into an adult. In verse 12, Paul speaks of being able to see something partially, but the overall picture is blurred. These descriptions fit because we’re sinners.

Ultimately, no matter how strong in faith we are, or how mature, or how wise – we cannot see the full picture because we’re not holy like God. It’s a harsh reality that we need to accept. No matter how much we think we know about God – our picture is blurred. In this sense we’ve come full circle in our study this morning because we started with the same thoughts from Psalm 14, right before we confessed our sins.

The thing is, most people don’t think of these thoughts in connection with 1 Corinthians 13. Maybe you’ve pondered the same thing, knowing what the majority of the chapter talks about. This is the famous chapter of love. It’s most often used on joyous occasions, like weddings. It’s true that in all the verses prior, Paul describes love. Some of his thoughts are the most memorable depictions of Biblical love.  Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in sin, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails.

These things are all true. And often this chapter is used as a model for our lives, as it should be. But every sentiment of beauty and love in this chapter is governed by one single sentence: 1 Corinthians 13:9-10 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (1Co 13:10 ESV)

Paul’s entire point in describing love is not so we can pat ourselves on the back for living up to it. Instead, it’s a reminder that we cannot measure up to this level of love until as he says, that moment “when the perfect comes.” God’s requirements of love, no matter how memorable or lovely they sound, are still aspects of His law. They are requirements that we must meet and that becomes a problem when we realize that our abilities are a fuzzy representation of what they should be. We are waiting for the perfect to come – and that’s Jesus.

Paul’s lesson here about why we struggle to ask the right question, for the right reason, goes back to the same thing described by David in Psalm 14. We can’t because we’re sinful. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially because we want to insist that we can love as God commands. We want to assume that we’re better than the rest of those who don’t know God’s love – those who obviously can’t love as God demands. We want to be considered better, and we are, but not in the way that we think.

We have access to God’s love through Jesus, not through ourselves. And because of the need that we have for Jesus as sinners, the path and plan of God will be dim in our understanding. That fact is a basic reality. It’s tempting to avoid it – but don’t. Embrace your need in Jesus because He always delivers. Notice how Paul describes that, in verse 12: For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

In Jesus, we don’t get to claim that we’re better than everyone else – because the whole world is in the same boat. Rather, we rejoice that we will know ourselves, not in the way we want, but as Jesus knows us. That’s what heaven is. That’s how we know “the perfection” which Paul described has come. It’s about knowing what Jesus knows – in totality. Don’t you see that we, meaning what we think, what we want, what we expect, and all the other trappings that lead us away from God’s word; don’t you see that those things are completely separate from our hope? Everything centers on Jesus – both in His actions and in His wisdom. To know the perfect is to know Him. It is independent of who we are. 

So, yes, you will be outside the loop at times. You will have moments when you can’t perceive God’s will. Jesus might keep you in the dark for your own good, as a protection from what you might think or do or say in response to God’s eternal will. And, you are a sinner who, on your own, is very far away from God. Those harsh truths can sometimes cause us to ask wrong questions, in the wrong ways, and for the wrong reasons. Throughout the whole Bible we see the same things in the lives of other believers.

And consider especially those whom we covered today – David, Samuel, the twelve disciples, and Paul – they all had a direct, sometimes visible, connection to God. Some of them were inspired writers of the Bible through the Holy Spirit. And you know what? They struggled to ask the right question for the right reason. If it happened to them; if they felt those emotions, it will happen to you too. Hope is not about receiving a direct revelation from God. Our hope is not even about walking and talking with Jesus directly here on earth. Hope is not about having every question answered. Hope is not about prosperity, either in material or emotion things. It’s about finding Jesus in His Word. When you look there you’re going to see your needs, as raw and unforgiving as they are. But you’re going to see a path to salvation that doe not depend on you – that fills in your weaknesses. That’s Jesus. Hope is about the faith to trust that His way is best, even when unknown to you. It’s about looking toward perfection in heaven, when all wisdom will be known, just as Jesus knows you today – a sinner redeemed by His grace. Amen.