Friday, April 18, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:9, for Maundy Thursday, "Blessed are the peacemakers..."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Peace is an important word in the Bible, appearing 375 times. Peace is something that seems self-explanatory to us, as the absence of warfare or fighting. I think almost every grade school child has at some point expressed prayers or longings for world peace. So when we read various passages in the Gospels that you heard tonight, we may be puzzled. In particular I mean that Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Doesn’t He want peace? Is Jesus an advocate of war? But then what can He mean by saying “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God?” Or in the Gospel of John, where He says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you”? Which is it? Peace or no peace?
To help sort things out, let’s briefly treat each of the various passages. In Matthew 10, when Jesus says He does not bring peace, but a sword, He’s talking about the (often bitter) division that will occur even between family members, over whether they take up their cross and follow Jesus, or not. Namely, the division between those who believe and those who do not believe in Jesus, and lose their life for Jesus’ sake. The believer in Jesus takes up their cross by turning away from the sinful world and counting everything in this life as loss, to gain the treasure of Jesus Christ. This can spark resentment and even hatred from the world; even one’s own family members. This is the “sword” Jesus brings—that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4). Those who are in love with the sin and rebellion of the world, and will not turn to God, are at enmity with God. For us as believers, to break that “friendship with the world” and to instead be friends with Jesus, is to turn the world against us. This also leads into the next beatitudes on persecution.
So when Jesus says He brings peace, not a sword, it doesn’t mean Jesus is an advocate of war, but that there is no neutrality toward Him. One is either with Him or against Him (Matt. 12:30). This helps us better understand where and to whom Jesus gives peace. After all, the angels sang at His birth, “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, and the prophet calls Him the “Prince of Peace.” So who receives Jesus’ peace? Jesus gives His peace to believers, to His church here on earth. John 14 said that “peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.” Then in John 16:33 He says, “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” So Jesus’ peace is different from the world’s. In Him we have peace, but in the world you will have tribulation. Difficulty, suffering, or distress. So the same person—a Christian, can have peace within and a courageous heart in Jesus—knowing that He has overcome the world—but at the same time face tribulation from the world around them. But to say that it is a peace given within us should not keep us from also adding that it is a peace to be lived outside us as well.
What then does that mean for the one who is not in Christ? God spoke through the prophets, saying that “There is no peace for the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22; cf. Jer. 6:14; Ezek. 13:10). So inside Christ, we have peace with God. Outside Christ there is no peace. Outside of Christ there is enmity with God. But Scripture tells us some amazing things. It tells us that “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10). It tells us that Jesus Himself is our peace, and that He came to us who were far off and alienated from God, and He brought us near and reconciled us to God by His blood shed on the cross (Eph. 2:12-17; Col. 1:20). We were all enemies of God before we were reconciled to Christ, and Jesus is the original “peacemaker” who seeks after the enemies of God to reconcile us to God through His cross. Jesus’ goal is to win over His enemies to bring them to God—which is what it means to reconcile. To restore the good relationship between them, through the forgiveness of our sins.
As Jesus is the original peacemaker, and the only begotten Son of God—we now have Christ-colored glasses by which we can both understand the beatitude and see our own Christian life in His light. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called “sons of God”—means that we are to be about the same peacemaking, forgiving, and reconciling task as Jesus was. We are to take the Good News of Jesus’ reconciling love shown to us through His blood shed on the cross, and we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Matthew 18 is a parable about forgiveness, showing how we who have been forgiven such a great debt of sin toward God, must go and do likewise as we forgive the lesser debts of sin that others have toward us. As many times as our brother sins against us and repents, so many times must we forgive them, without keeping count or record (Luke 17:3-4), for “love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5).
On this Maundy Thursday, the night when Jesus ate His Last Supper with the disciples, and the night on which He was betrayed, He took bread and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This is my body.” He took the cup and gave it to His disciples saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” And so doing, Jesus made a covenant, a last will and testament for His disciples to keep, which marked the shedding of His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. A meal to be kept, not in His distant memory, but as an ongoing action as we live out that forgiveness of sins with one another. The Supper of mutual love and union, of gathering together in Christ Jesus as a fellowship of believers who have had their sins forgiven and are at peace and reconciled with God and with one another. The Supper that we call Holy Communion, as we commune or participate in Jesus’ body and blood offered for our peace, by the forgiveness of our sins. God has made peace with us as Jesus has taken away our sins, and so we are to make peace with one another. This is why we share the peace before the Lord’s Supper, to show we do not hold any grudges, bitterness, or resentment, and unforgiveness toward anyone, but that we are at peace with one another.
He doesn’t say that this job of being “peacemakers” will be easy—as Jesus sent His disciples out on their mission, He said that as they traveled, they were to greet a home with the words, “‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you” (Luke 10:5-6). Sometimes, though they came with peace, their peace would not be received. The apostle Paul later speaks of our peacemaking mission as Christians in this way, as being “ambassadors of Christ” carrying the “message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-21). As I’m sure many of our U.S. ambassadors right now can tell you, being an ambassador is not an easy job. Forgiving sin—especially when we have been sinned against—is not easy. Feeling angry, wounded, sad, or betrayed may all come as a result of someone’s sin against us. Repenting of our sins, and acknowledging our own faults can be equally difficult, as so often we cling to our pride and the felt need to be right.
And we must remember that it was Jesus who overcame all of our sin and enmity with God, and only by His forgiveness taking root and living in us, as forgiven sinners, can we become agents of His forgiveness toward others. But we must certainly do it. By His unsurpassed love, He has equipped us for an incredible and deeply necessary task. To a world hurting and broken because of the countless effects of sin, He sent His Son to bring peace with God, and now He sends us to live lives that spread His peace.
Through our daily interactions with one another, we are to “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb. 12:14), and to “aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Cor. 13:11). For the reward of peacemaking is to be called sons (and daughters) of God. It is to show that we are His children, working in the ministry that He started—making peace and reconciling us through the forgiveness of sins. God in His grace and generosity continues to pour out His forgiveness and love into our lives, so that it overflows to others. His resources of love never run dry.

As “sons of God” we worship and love the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, who reconciled us to Himself, and adopted us into the family of God. And by that adoption we inherit eternal life. Jesus uses the phrase “sons of God” in the plural, in one other place, to say that the “sons of God” are “sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36). By God’s adoption we have a new nature and a new identity as sons and daughters of God; and all those who believe in Jesus are sons of the resurrection or sons of God. For our new life and identity is created and takes shape in Jesus Christ, and one day it will fully be revealed in perfection, when we attain to the resurrection. And until then, we go out as peacemakers with the same message of peace that was first spoken to us—your sins are forgiven through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. He Himself is our peace! Amen. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sermon on Isaiah 50:4-9 and Matthew 27:38-54, for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion, "Death with Dignity"

            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The heart and center of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is the Passion of Jesus Christ. His trial, suffering, death, and resurrection. Yet each Gospel also sees the cross of Jesus from a slightly different camera angle, if you will. A unique perspective. At the cross, Matthew only records one of the seven last “words” or phrases that Jesus spoke: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” The rest of the account focuses largely on His silence and the actions of those around the cross. But the attention of the crowd is continually riveted on Jesus and the strangest way in which He dies.
It wasn’t the type of death itself that was strange. Crucifixion was common, in a horrible sort of way, and nothing new to the Jewish crowds or Roman soldiers. But what was so remarkable was the manner in which Jesus died, and the events that surrounded His death. Crucifixion was the most notorious way to die, and was carefully planned to steal every shred of human dignity, and to leave a person utterly disgraced, humiliated, and dishonored. And the enemies of Jesus clamored for this. His enemies saw Him as a pretender to the title of Messiah. While some had hoped that He was the “Son of David” and promised King, when He rode into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday, most apparently had abandoned these hopes by the time of Jesus’ trial and death.
But for all the contempt, for all the physical abuse and shame, for all the indignities and pain that were heaped upon Jesus, they were unable to destroy His inner dignity and peace. “Death with dignity” is a buzzword today in the media, and evokes emotional images of how we die, and debates about end of life care and assisted suicide. The idea seems to be that in order to have a “dignified death”—we have to take control of the dying process (assuming that we can), to avoid any number of ways in which we might be robbed of our dignity. While it’s certainly a worthy discussion to have about the ethics of living and dying, and the sanctity of life, my point is not to enter into that—but rather to point out that Jesus was able to transcend all the assaults on His body, His name and reputation, and in a very real sense die with His dignity intact. In an astonishing way, every attempt to rob Him of His dignity failed. And instead of disgracing Jesus, His righteousness, His unwillingness to fight back or to curse, and His love shone out so powerfully, that even a hardened criminal next to Him, a centurion, and many in the crowd finally confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.
The famous poem Invictus by William Henley, provides an interesting comparison and contrast to Jesus’ death on the cross. The poem describes a person facing the brutality of existence with nothing but himself and his defiance and fearlessness in view. The poet skeptically thanks “whatever gods there may be for my unconquerable soul” and then after describing the crushing difficulty his life faces, ends with these famous lines, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” The poem reflects the determination to face death with head held high; but the poem has no hope in view, no help in view. Simply self-reliance until the bleak end of the grave—with the sole reward of having died proudly.
Jesus’ death showed a courage and unconquerable spirit of a different sort. What gave Jesus the quiet determination and inner strength to face the brutality of His existence? How was He able to hold His tongue, while at the same time face no inner rebellion or animosity? Matthew’s Gospel gives us a limited window into Jesus’ inner experience of the cross, as He largely remains silent, except for those few words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 50:4-9, gives an interior window. Isaiah is prophesying about Jesus’ death, and says,
I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. 7 But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. 8 He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. 9 Behold, the Lord God helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.

Jesus faced His death with firm resolve, and didn’t turn away from the disgrace and spitting. And by the Lord God’s help He was not disgraced. It’s a striking phrase, “I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” It pictures Jesus setting His face for the blows that He is about to receive.
But there’s big differences from Invictus; Jesus looks to the Lord God for help, and He has confidence of vindication. In other words, He knows that whatever He may face, God will declare Him innocent. And this is only possible because Jesus is the only begotten, sinless Son of God. And so in death, He was not disgraced, He was not put to shame. Despite overwhelming attempts to assault His dignity, His peace, His honor, Jesus’ love and righteousness shone out radiantly. Even through the bleeding and dying. We can see this clearly both through His forgiving love till the very end, and especially also through His rising from the dead in victory. For to say that Jesus died with dignity—is not just to praise the manner of His death in the same way that anyone else could die with stoic resolve and strength. Because the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is not a celebration of a brave death, but it is the proclamation of Jesus’ victory over death, by His death and resurrection.
The victory and the dignity belongs to life. To Jesus’ unparalleled life. A life not lived merely for Himself, but a life lived for others, and so a death died for others. The dignity of the manner of Jesus’ death was that it was not in any way self-centered, but in every way self-giving. He poured out His life for the life of the world. The irony of the mockers who laughed at Jesus for saving others, but not saving Himself, was that by the very act of staying there on the cross for us, He was saving others.
And the great cost and pain of that self-giving and self-sacrifice is brought home to us in those dying words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the last hour of abandonment by all, in the darkest moments of feeling the full burden of the sin of mankind hiding God’s face from Him, His eyes were still turned to God. My God. In death there was none other to look to. None other to help, but the One who vindicates—the Lord God. And with a great cry, Jesus gave up His spirit. Silence. The breath of life was gone.
And then a terrible tumult and chaos as the earth began to rock and tremble, as the impossible and unthinkable had happened—God’s Son was dead. An innocent death. Creation groaned and trembled, rocks split in two, tombs were opened, and in the Most Holy Place of the Temple, where only the Great High Priest could enter God’s presence to make sacrifice, the Temple Curtain was torn in two. Great and terrible signs with an unmistakable message—something truly supernatural had just taken place. Fear was upon the people, and even the pagan centurion cried out with new found faith, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
No ordinary man dies this way. Not like Jesus died, and certainly not with the accompanying signs and miracles. And while it was an astonishing and incredible weekend for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, we can look back with faith and the testimony of the Bible, and read the evidence to see that God was at work for our salvation at the cross. Jesus’ death accomplished much, and God did vindicate Him, declaring Jesus innocent by raising Him from the dead. And the torn curtain in the Temple marked the entry of Jesus Christ into the Holy Places of God by means of His own blood, as our Great High Priest. Jesus had interceded with God once and for all for our sins, by His death on the cross. And now life has the victory through Him.

Jesus bore all our disgrace, yet was not disgraced by it; He bore our guilt and yet was vindicated; He dies and yet He lives. And all of this He does for you. He does it so that you might share in His honor, in His innocence, in His life; His victory. This is the way the True Servant King dies—in lowly dignity, but with all the power to rise from His grave and give His people deliverance from all the powers that assaulted Him in futility, and could not keep Him in His grave. Our cries of “Hosanna! Save us!” are not in vain—for He is the King. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      The mockery of the crowds is filled with such blindness and incomprehension of Jesus, His words, and His actions. How had they misunderstood what Jesus said about “this Temple” and raising it in three days? Matthew 26:61 What had Jesus meant? John 2:18-22
2.      Whose words were they echoing when they said in Matthew 27:40, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross”? Matthew 4:3, 6.
3.      What was the irony about mocking Jesus for saving others and then challenging Jesus to save Himself by coming off the cross? What was Jesus doing by staying there on the cross?
4.      How do the words of their mockery in 27:34 echo Psalm 22(:8!), the prophecy about the crucifixion? What other significant predictions and descriptions were fulfilled from this Psalm? Matthew 27:46 is Jesus’ quotation of the first line of the Psalm, in Aramaic, but the rest of the Psalm so clearly points to Him and His suffering, but also His eventual exaltation and deliverance.
5.      See Psalm 69:21 for the prophecy about Jesus’ thirst and drink. What other elements of Jesus’ life and crucifixion are predicted in this Psalm?
6.      Crucifixion was aimed at the total humiliation of an individual, to remove any shred of human dignity. How did Jesus endure such suffering and contempt, without losing His own internal dignity and without being disgraced? Isaiah 50:4-9. What motivated Jesus to “despise the shame” of the cross, and be humble and obedient to the point of death? Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 12:1-4.
7.      What miraculous events in Matthew 27:51-54 declared that something truly supernatural was taking place? What message did it send to the observers, and those who at first had not believed?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:8, for Lent Midweek 6, "Blessed are the pure in heart"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. “You’d better clean your act up fast!” We’ve all heard similar words, and if they were directed at us we may either have felt that sinking feeling of failure, or a rising feeling of defiance. I wonder how often they actually produce a willingness in us to accept the correction, and obey. But this isn’t the way the beatitude speaks. It says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Not a command, like “Get out your soap and scrub brushes!”, but a statement of fact, or a description of those who blessed. In our whole series we’ve seen how the Beatitudes give us “Christ-colored glasses” by which we see the Christian life. In other words, our life before God is colored and shaped by the light of Christ. Christ’s life running in and through us, by His gracious working.
But “blessed are the pure in heart” raises a standard that seems incomparably higher than the other beatitudes, which speak of mourning, of humility, of hungering for righteousness, and being merciful. But pure in heart is an absolute. It’s an immovable mark of perfection. How do we get there? And what to do with an impure heart? Jesus tells what makes us unclean or impure in Matthew 15: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person.” If then our heart is unclean because of sin, is all hope lost? Can we be clean again?
Solomon asked in the book of Proverbs, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?’” (Prov. 20:9). The expected answer is that none of us can say that we have made our heart pure or are clean from sin. Furthermore, what could we every use to make it clean, if we are not pure? It’s easy enough to see how we make ourselves impure in heart, but it’s not within our power to make our unclean hearts pure again. We must turn somewhere else for this inward purity of heart. We must turn to the One Man who was pure in heart—Jesus Christ. Jesus, who said, only those who are pure in heart will see God. Here we might remember what Jesus said of Himself: “no one has seen the Father, except Him who is from God; He has seen the Father.” If only Jesus has seen the Father, then only Jesus is truly pure in heart. Truly Jesus is pure in heart as the Son of God, and He sees God the Father face to face in His full glory.
We all want to see God. We all hope to stand one day in His presence, unashamed of sin and pure in heart. We hope for that day when we will enter heaven, and dwell eternally before our God and creator. But to see God we must be pure in heart, and we already established that we ourselves are not able to make our hearts pure. We cannot get rid of our own sin. But hear how the prophet Ezekiel describes the change of heart that God gives His people,
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses,        and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new            spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give   you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my         statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your     fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezek. 36:25-28)
Before Jesus cleansed us, we had a heart of stone. A stubborn, rebellious, and resistant heart of stone. Our heart was stone dead to God, because it was full of impurity. It was the exact opposite of what God requires, a pure heart. We sure didn’t have any way of getting that old stone heart out of us. We needed a heart transplant. Scrubbing and polishing that old stone heart just won’t cut it. In the end, it’s still lifeless.
            But God sprinkles clean water on us, to clean us from our uncleanness, and gives us a new heart. He removes the heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh. He makes His Spirit dwell within us so that we may walk in His statutes. With clean water sprinkled on us in baptism, God cleanses our hearts by the blood of Jesus. Our hearts have been made pure by the cleansing blood of Jesus, shed for us at the cross. Hear from the book of Hebrews, how Jesus opens the way to heaven,
“Therefore brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of      Jesus,” and further on, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with           our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure             water.” (Heb. 10:19,22)
We can see God in heaven one day because we’ve been purified by the blood of Jesus, as our hearts were washed with clean water in baptism. From the only pure heart that ever beat—the heart of Jesus—flows the pure blood that cleanses our hearts from sin. His Holy Spirit gives us the heart transplant for a new life—taking out our stone-dead heart, and giving us a heart of flesh, sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. Truly, “Blessed are the pure in heart” is God’s grace for us. For we’ve been richly blessed with a pure heart, sprinkled clean of all sin, in Christ Jesus. From the One who was pure in heart from the beginning. Born perfect, of the seed of God. And He gives His purity to us, that we might see God.
This truth is reinforced in 1 John chapter 3:2-3, where he says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we will be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies Himself as He is pure.” Do you hear that? When God appears we will be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is! We are promised a heavenly body like Jesus! And we are purified by hoping in Jesus, because He is the One who is pure. Purified in heart by our hope in Jesus, we too will see God as He is when He appears.
The Beatitudes speak of God’s favor to us in Christ Jesus. The words, “they will see God” are astonishing if you stop to think about it. No one has ever seen God directly in His unveiled glory, except for Jesus, His Son. But now through the purification of our hearts through the cleansing blood of Jesus, we have access to the throne of God, and will one day see Him face to face. Seeing God’s face goes beyond all earthly descriptions. We do know that it’ll be the end of all evil, sin, pain, and darkness, as described in Revelation’s picture of the saints before God’s throne. “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in [the city] and His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:3-5).

We have every reason to join with all the saints in singing praise to our great God, for sending His Son Jesus. Blessed is Jesus, the pure in heart, for He has seen God. And blessed now are we, who through Jesus’ purifying blood are also pure in heart; for we too will see God! On the day when we rise with all the saints to join in unending hymns of praise, we will see our God face to face, and all thoughts of past sorrow and hurt will be forgotten. May the Lord bless us and keep us until that day! Amen. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Sermon on Romans 8:1-11, for the 5th Sunday in Lent, "Public Defender"

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Courtroom dramas have been popular for decades, and it’s no surprise why—a person’s life hangs in the balance. Will they be declared guilty or innocent? Did they really commit the crime, or is the real culprit still out there? Will they serve a short sentence? A life sentence? Face the death penalty? For some it strikes painfully close to home. For others it’s a fascination with what it would be like, or the dread of whether it could happen to me. Everything builds toward the verdict—guilty or innocent. After that, the next great concern is the sentencing. What price will they pay for the crime, if they’re found guilty? Once the sentence is given, it must be carried out.
Whatever the crime, whatever the penalty, it’s a grim reminder that the law is not merciful, and that law breakers runs into danger. “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” Paul says (Romans 13:3). “He is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain” (13:5). We are wise to obey the law and do what is good, to steer clear of the law and its punishments. So it is with human courts.
But if dealing with human courts is a serious matter, how much more fearful to stand in God’s courtroom to be judged for our sins? Every person, after they die, will be called to God’s judgment. “It’s appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment”, Hebrews 9:27 tells us. But unlike earthly courtrooms, God has no uncertainty as judge, to what we have done or have not done. There’s no doubt as to our total guilt, because God has perfect omniscience—He knows all—and further we’re told that “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal. 3:10). The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). So how much more serious is it to face a court and a judgment that is inescapable, and in which every one of us would face the verdict of guilty? None of us stand a chance to plead our own case—representing yourself is discouraged in the strongest terms—because there is no one who can plead they are righteous; no, not one.
But here is the crucial difference between the courts of men and God’s courtroom. In human courts, mercy is uncertain. Depending on the judge, depending on your circumstances, depending on a variety of factors, mercy is at best unlikely. Can’t count on it. But with God, mercy is a promise. “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful; slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). But God doesn’t grant mercy due to “extenuating circumstances”, as though it would be just for Him to accept excuses and just “write off” certain offenses as “ok.” Rather, God saw our situation, our helplessness and distress, the sin that required payment, and determined that He would deliver us. And He didn’t resort to cutting corners, finding loopholes, or compromising His righteousness or justice. The way that God delivers us in Christ Jesus maintains not only His justice but also His mercy.
Our reading from Romans 8:3 tells us, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Our situation was that God’s Law, though good in itself, was powerless to help us toward either obedience or salvation. The Law promised life, but because of our sinful flesh the law stirred up our sinful desires and produced death in us (7:5). So what did God do? He did the job that the Law couldn’t do. He sent Jesus in human flesh to fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law—do all the good and righteous things the Law commands. He bore our sin to the cross, and condemned sin “in the flesh.” He is our human substitute, He bore our condemnation as a man, in the flesh, in our place.
Now focus for a moment on that word “condemnation.” What does it mean? Condemnation is the final result of judgment. It’s both the sentencing for the crime, and the execution of that sentence. Jesus was sentenced to die on the cross—a penalty He did not deserve, but accepted willingly. And that sentence was executed, or carried out when He was actually crucified. Condemned for us. This is how God upholds His justice while showing us mercy. And perhaps some of the most merciful words in Scripture are those of Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” No condemnation! In Christ Jesus God has ruled you free from the sentence and execution that your sins demanded. Since Jesus bore your guilty verdict, your sentence, and your death, God grants you by faith His innocence, His inheritance, and His life! It sounds almost too good to be true, but it is! Can you imagine the surprise and disbelief and joy that hits a man on death row, waiting for his condemnation to be carried out, then is told he is free? This is just the sort of joy that is ours when we’re forgiven and set free from the law of sin and death, in Christ Jesus. Our future has been totally changed, God has written a new story for us. God’s judgment is no longer the cause of our fear, but the promise of our deliverance.
Note also that Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Whenever you see a therefore, you should always ask, what is it there for? It’s a sign that he’s wrapping up a thought. What had Paul been talking about in Romans 7? He was talking about the struggle between our old sinful flesh and the new life that God has given us in the Spirit. About the tug-of-war between the sin that still dwells in him, and wants to do what is wrong, and the inner delight in the law of God—the new nature that wants to do what is right. At the end of the chapter he bursts out in frustration against the sin dwelling in his flesh, and cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And he answers his own question, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” Then the next verse is “There is therefore,  no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” So what is the therefore, there for? He’s just declared that our victory and confidence don’t rest on ourselves and our weak human nature and its struggles for obedience, but it rests in Jesus Christ our Lord. And in Him there is no condemnation.
The new story that God has written for us in Christ Jesus is of a life set on the things of the Spirit. A mind set on the Spirit, which is life and peace. God’s rescue to our situation did not stop with declaring us innocent by faith in Jesus and releasing us from the condemnation of sin and death. His rescue also makes a new life in us here and now. The new life can be, as Paul describes in Romans 7, turbulent with the struggle between the old sinful nature and the new spiritual person that we are in Christ Jesus. But when we’re frustrated by that ongoing spiritual war within us, we can take heart and cry out with Paul, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” He delivers us from this body of death, and in Him there is no condemnation. We have been delivered from the penalty of our sins because we are in Him. This keeps us from looking to ourselves for deliverance, and always directs our eyes back to Him.
Because to look to Him for our help is exactly the role God gave Jesus Christ, His Son. Earlier, I had said that it is futile for us to “represent ourselves” when we come before God for judgment. We don’t have a leg to stand on. We cannot defend ourselves against the accusation of the Law. But God has appointed Christ Jesus to be our mediator, to stand in our defense. Jesus is like the “public defender” for all people, only He has a perfect record. If we are in Christ Jesus, His blood and righteousness stands in our defense and there is no condemnation for us—we know our verdict in advance. We know in advance where we stand before God: He has already justified us by faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the best and only defense—He’s never lost a case, and never will. But if we reject His defense, if we’re not in Christ Jesus—if we choose to stand on our own—then we bear the responsibility for our own condemnation. John 3:17–18 tells us “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” So Jesus didn’t come for the purpose of condemning us, but to save us and stand in our defense. But if anyone rejects the help that’s offered, and doesn’t believe in Him, they are condemned already. 
So how do we know if we are in Christ Jesus? Not by measuring our own holiness, not by searching in ourselves for some good or merit—Paul already dealt with that frustration for us. But rather we know we are in Christ Jesus by looking to Him and because God has placed His Holy Spirit within us. A few verses after our reading in Romans 8, it tells us that the Holy Spirit identifies or bears witness with our spirit, our inner being, to confirm with us that we are children of God (8:16-17). The Holy Spirit is God’s guarantee or deposit. His down payment on the promises to set us free in Christ Jesus and to give us eternal life in Him. The down payment that the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is going to “give life to your mortal bodies, through His Spirit who dwells in you.” You know you are in Christ Jesus because you look to Him for your life and salvation, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit living in you. When by faith in Jesus, you begin to walk according to the Spirit, and your mind is set on the things of the Spirit, that is evidence that the Spirit is dwelling in you and is at work. The fruit of the Spirit, however humble it may seem at first, is not a product of our sinful flesh, but it’s proof that God is at work in us doing what we were unable to do.
So we don’t live in a courtroom drama with fear and dread over what our verdict will be, uncertain of our future, uncertain of mercy. We do wrestle and struggle with our sin, but the Holy Spirit continually leads us to repentance. And because we have the Holy Spirit in us as God’s guarantee, we know that in this struggle, it is the Spirit who will win out because our victory is in Christ Jesus. And in Him there is no condemnation. So far from facing uncertainty, we have the confidence that God is merciful and just, and He has sent Jesus Christ to accomplish everything that the Law requires. We know the verdict that will come at God’s judgment in advance, that we will be justified or declared righteous by faith, because we have believed in Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Defender, in whom is all our righteousness, our inheritance, and life. In His name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Romans 8:1 begins with a “therefore”. This signals us that he’s putting forward a conclusion about something he’s discussed before. Read chapter 7. What is the struggle that he (and we) faces, and where has he found victory? What is the victory? When have you felt discouraged and defeated? Did you find strength and comfort in Jesus’ good news?
  2. Condemnation here in Romans 8 refers to the sentencing and execution of our judgment in sin. To be “condemned” is to have your guilty verdict declared and to be sent to your punishment. What condemnation did the law demand because of our sins? Romans 5:12; 6:23; Galatians 3:10. How marvelous is it that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? How can you describe this good news for you?
  3. Paul talks at length through Romans about how the Law is powerless to save us. Why is this so? 7:7-16; 8:3, 7. Is it a flaw or failing of the law? How has Christ Jesus done for us what the law could not do? Romans 8:2-4; Galatians 4:4-5.
  4. The mind of the flesh and the mind of the Spirit set themselves on contrary things, and are not compatible with each other, giving rise to the struggle described in ch. 7. Even while this is so, why can Paul say that the Spirit rules over and gives us life, peace, and the confidence of final victory? Romans 8:12-17. What particular sins do you struggle to overcome? Where do you look to find courage and victory?
  5. How does Jesus’ death and resurrection give confidence to Christians, not only concerning the resurrection of our bodies in the future life, but also about the daily strength of His Spirit to work in our mortal bodies in this present life? 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sermon on Ephesians 5:8-14, for the 4th Sunday in Lent, "Children of Light"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In a world that is so thoroughly electrified, it’s rare that we get to experience true darkness. The constant glare of streetlights surrounds us, and the hazy glow of light pollution hangs over anyone who lives even close to a city. I’d bet even your bedroom is not completely dark—with little LED lights from your alarm clock or computer, or a power strip glowing in the dark. Total physical darkness is not much of a thought in our well lit modern life. Before electricity, things were very different. But have modern lights really changed what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 5, where he tells us, “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord?”
Of course he’s not talking about physical darkness, as if flipping on the light switch brought us out of darkness. It’s spiritual darkness he’s talking about—and that is the same today as ever. But it should catch our attention that he doesn’t say you were “in darkness” and now you are “in the light”—but he says “you WERE darkness, but now you ARE light in the Lord.” Being in a room with the lights on or off doesn’t change anything about who you are. But this speaks much more strongly of our identity, our being—that we were a PART OF the darkness, or even that the darkness was inside us. Sin, after all, is not just something outside us, or part of our surroundings, that simply moving or changing our circumstances could get rid of it. Sometimes we do need to flee from sin that is around us or outside us, but we should not forget that sin is also inside us. When the Bible talks about our “flesh”, its talking about that sinful nature that is part and parcel of how we were born into this world. We carry sin with us in our heart and our desires. So being darkness because of sin, we need a far deeper cure. We need a total transformation of our being. Ephesians 2:5 tells us, “5even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”
Our reading in chapter 5 echoes this by saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Our darkness of death and sin has been overcome by the Light of Christ who calls us forth from the grave. It reminds us of Jesus calling Lazarus out from his tomb, waking from the dead, walking back into the light of life. As profound as our darkness was—reaching to the depth of our being, so much more profound is the Light when Christ has called us out from death! You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord! Again, not just you are in light, but you ARE light. The Light of Jesus has shone into the very depths of our being, our soul, our nature, and made us a new person. As sin once held sway, now light holds sway in our hearts and in our life. And the Light of Christ drives out the darkness.
All this is completely by grace, not of our own doing, so that no one can boast. Salvation is nothing of our own doing, but all of God’s doing. But the fact that nothing we do gets us into heaven doesn’t mean that God has nothing for us to do. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. We do good works because it’s God’s will and plan for us, and because it’s a natural outcome of our new identity. Not to earn His favor, but out of thankfulness for new life in Him.
So our passage today from Ephesians 5 sets out the shape of the Christian life. “Walk as children of the light”. To “walk” refers to total conduct of our life. Our whole walk is to be as children of light. That means keeping away from “unfruitful works of darkness” or shameful things done in secret. That is not the way of the light, it’s not the way of Christ, and Scripture warns against returning to the old ways of darkness, so that we don’t endanger faith and salvation. The way of the light and of darkness run in opposite directions, and you can’t stay on both paths. The rest of Ephesians chapter 5 gives examples of the unfruitful works of darkness to avoid: sexual immorality, impurity, and covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among the saints. No filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. No empty and deceptive words, no drunkenness.
In order then to walk as children of light, we have to be able to “discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” If our walk means staying on the right path, then God’s Word as a Lamp to our feet and a Light to our Path shines the way to go. It keeps us from stumbling into sin and error, because we’re especially vulnerable when we fall into the darkness, away from the Light of Christ and His Word. But discernment isn’t an easy task. Sure, sometimes sin is obvious and blatantly wrong—but more difficult and more common is when Satan comes to deceive us on the sly. When he first tempted Eve, he didn’t take the direct approach, but was sneaky and tried to get her to doubt and question God’s Word. Then he tried mixing a little of God’s Word with some lies, to give those lies the “flavor” of truth. But it’s no truth if its mixed with the lie. It is a lie, plain and simple. Deception and temptation require discernment and the Light of God’s truth to expose, because they are rarely straightforward.
The Christian, wanting to do what is good and pleasing in the sight of the Lord, listens to God’s Word, learns His commands, and hears the pleading of the Holy Spirit in our conscience. We apply God’s Word to the multitude of situations we face in life. Knowing what is the right thing to do in a given situation may take study of God’s Word, prayer, and perhaps discussions with your pastor or a fellow Christian who is mature in their faith. Better to live with a clear conscience, knowing that you are striving to walk as a child of light, than to ignore conscience and do whatever seems most convenient, most comfortable, or most enjoyable. Quite often sin comes in attractive packaging. The devil is a good marketer. But seeking what is pleasing to the Lord means striving to know and do God’s will, just as Christ did.
Christians have another responsibility as children of light, and that is to “expose” or “convict” those “unfruitful works of darkness.” How do we do this, if its “shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret”? Obviously we live in a time where there is little shame about sin, and in the day of the internet and social media, and where practically everyone has a camera phone, there are few things that are secret any more. Dozens of TV shows and tabloids are fully dedicated to gossip and rumors and scandals. So how do we expose or convict sin, without delighting in what is shameful? There are a number of ways. One is that we strongly oppose sin, for we know what it is, and are not ignorant of the devil’s schemes. Another is to speak the truth in love, winsomely persuading people to turn from error, and using “divine power to destroy strongholds; destroy[ing] arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and tak[ing] every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). We can show the emptiness of sin and error by the truth of God. And, not only by word, but also in action, we can show the better way, the fruit of light that is found in all that is good and right and true. And setting a positive example of living by God’s design, may show what is good, right, and true to those who may never have known or seen anything better or different in their life.
But most importantly, the way we convict or expose the works of darkness is the same way that they are convicted in us—when Christ shines on us. When the light breaks into our darkness, it drives back all the shadows, no less in us than in anyone else. The very Word of God by which we practice and train for discernment, is the same Word of God that is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The Word of God’s Truth examines and exposes all the thoughts and intentions of our heart. Every sinner must be convicted of their sins, and that continues in this life as long as we are still alive and sinning. And the cure also remains the same. Convicted of sin, exposed by God’s Light, we again hear the call to resurrection and new life, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!”
As the Light of Truth convicts our sins, so also the Light of Jesus’ Life shines forgiveness and cleansing on us. Once forgiven and set free, that Light of Jesus purifies and cleanses us from all sin. Only the Lord Jesus who went to the cross for our sin and rose from the grave to defeat death can call us up from darkness to live anew with forgiveness. Jesus calls us to arise daily, and His life, His forgiveness, His power calls us out of the grave and darkness of our sins. And more faithful than the rising sun that greets us each day, is the great faithfulness and mercy of Jesus to daily rise and shine on us. Light of the World, Light of our Life, Jesus shines on us and makes us Light in Him. He makes us to walk as children of the Light. So all our life is filled and illumined with the glory and greatness of His grace, to the praise and glory of the Father’s name. Amen.

  1. Read Ephesians 5:8 carefully. Note that it doesn’t say “you were in darkness”, but rather, “you were darkness, but now you are light.” Why is this difference significant? What does it tell us about who we were and who we are now in Christ Jesus? How thorough is the original corruption of sin? Ephesians 2:1-5, 11-12; 4:17-20; 5:3-7
  2. This passage describes how we live as “light in the Lord.” Can you identify in these verses what actions we are to take, to live as children of light? How does this new life flow from and remain in Christ?
  3. The “fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true”. There are limitless possibilities for the good that we can do in our life, and in the various callings or vocations that God has given us in life. But they are found in all that is good, right, and true. What similar thing does Paul say in Galatians 5:23, after describing the fruits of the Spirit?
  4. Why is learning to discern what is pleasing to the Lord an essential task for the Christian who is walking as a child of the light? What makes it challenging to discern what is right and wrong? What is the nature of deception and temptation? Genesis 3:1-6; 2 Corinthians 2:9; 11:13-15. How do we discern what is good and pleasing to the Lord? Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:12-16; Philippians 1:9-10; Hebrews 4:12; 5:14.
  5. We are called not to participate in “unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them”. What sinful practices do you know that you need to avoid or leave behind? What makes sin so alluring? How does seeing a better way to live—God’s way—help to convict us concerning sin, so we can leave it behind and come into the new life Christ has for us?
  6. How is the new identity that we have in Christ? How is this pure gift and new life? Whose power is it, by which we both live and bear fruit? Describe the joy of being cleansed by Jesus of all sin. How can God use you now?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:6, Beatitude 4, Lent 4, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness"

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Tonight we reach the fourth beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Physical hunger and thirst are easily recognized, and “hunger pangs” in the stomach or dryness in the mouth or throat inform us whether we are hungry or thirsty. The sensations are pretty easy to recognize—although people who talk about dieting say that even these ordinary sensations of our body can sometimes be misread. People say that sometimes when we feel hungry, a simple drink of water can satisfy us. As a parent (or maybe it’s just dads), you are sometimes uncertain whether your baby is crying because they are hungry, or just because they need your attention, or have some other need to be attended.
If physical hunger is felt in the stomach or thirst in the throat, where do we feel spiritual hunger or thirst? What are the “spiritual hunger pangs”, and do we ever misread or misunderstand them? The heart or conscience is where we experience unrest or disquiet when we are guilty or when we witness injustice and unrighteousness. Our heart or soul is what longs for God, and desires Him and His attention, His gifts. As we hear this past Sunday, “My soul thirsts for God, for the Living God.” But do people always know or realize that God and His righteousness are what we thirst and hunger for? Don’t we often find the wrong answer for our longings, or seek satisfaction from empty pleasures, spiritual “junk food”, or false gods? While there are plenty of bad things we try to “fill up” on, nowhere does the Bible tell there is such a thing as getting “too much” of God’s Word. As one of my college professors would say, “There’s no such thing as spiritual overeating, and while some people are spiritually starved, there is no one who is spiritually overweight.”
Jesus felt physical hunger and thirst when He fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted by the devil. He related His physical hunger and thirst to spiritual things when He answered the devil, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” God’s Word is a deeper source of food, and greater satisfaction than any earthly food can provide, and it was God’s Word that sustained Jesus through that period of fasting, but also through His whole life. This past Sunday when we heard the story of the woman at the well, Jesus was again thirsty and hungry, asking for a drink from the woman, and then speaking to her about her spiritual thirst, she was at first unaware of. In the verses we did not hear on Sunday, but that you just heard read from John 4, Jesus’ disciples come back from town with food for Jesus. He tells them that He has food to eat that they don’t know about, and while they are puzzling over what He means, He explains: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” Though He may still have hungered, Jesus found satisfaction and fulfillment in carrying out the will and work of His heavenly Father. He did so by bringing a thirsty woman and a village of Samaritans to come to Him, the promised Messiah.
Yesterday’s Portals of Prayer had a good devotion about noticing Jesus’ response to various things. What made Him sad, what made Him rejoice, etc. If we pay attention to what makes Jesus satisfied, what fills Him, it is to get God’s work done, and to live by God’s Word. If we hunger and thirst for righteousness, then Jesus says we are blessed and shall be filled. This is the kind of hunger craving God wants us to have, and wants to satisfy in us. To know and do His will and to hungrily eat His Word. To thirst for and drink from the Living Water, Jesus Christ, poured out in spiritual abundance in baptism, in the washing of the forgiveness of sins, and in the refreshing renewal of new life.
Since God’s Word and the life of the Spirit promises to fill our emptiness, where does that spiritual emptiness come from? I think you already know that it comes from sin. Guilt and shame are like hunger pangs that cry out to God for the forgiveness and holiness that only He can provide. Sin is not how we were made to operate, and when we do sin, our “system malfunctions” and sends out warning cries. If only we can recognize the warning signs and get to God for help. Or rather He comes to rescue us. Sin is the rebellion and opposition to God that turns away from His will, from His commands, and from His Word. Sometimes that hunger comes when we go on a “spiritual hunger strike” and deprive ourselves of God’s Word; like a person starving themselves in the midst of a feast. We only hurt ourselves. We are not in a time and place where there is any shortage of God’s Word or that our access is cut off to Him.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Amos once spoke of God sending a spiritual famine on God’s people, a famine of the word of God. They would no longer hear God’s Word and prophets, and would hunger and crave for what they had once despised. Some places in the world do suffer from a famine of God’s Word—in some cases due to persecution, in some cases from a shortage of missionaries and willing messengers of the gospel, in some cases because of persistent resistance to and rejection of God’s Word. Then it may be harder to find that spiritual nourishment—though not impossible. But we are surrounded by God’s Word, and millions of homes have multiple copies of the Bible, and yet many sit unread. Churches are on near every corner; worship and Bible study opportunities abound. And yet one also must be discerning to see that what is taught is faithful to the pure Word of God, and be watchful for false teachings. But no one should go unfed, and no one should be spiritually starved for the life God is so eager and willing to give.
But what specifically does it mean to hunger for “righteousness?” Righteousness can mean several things in Scripture. Certainly Jesus does not mean here that we should hunger for the self-righteousness or civil righteousness of our own works, which everywhere falls short of the glory of God. So what righteousness? The righteousness of the kingdom of God, in the broadest sense of God’s justice, righteousness and salvation unfolding as Jesus brings the kingdom of God to earth? In this case, it would mean the Christian’s hunger or longing for God’s kingdom to unfold on earth, for His justice to overtake wickedness, and for the goodness and peace of His reign to take hold in place of evildoing and strife, of wars and contention. That also would include God’s righteousness transforming our lives as well. The Scriptures certainly echo this longing of believers. Or could the “hunger for righteousness” mean more narrowly the spiritual righteousness brought as gift to us by Jesus’ death on the cross? This is the perfect righteousness of Jesus, His obedience to God, His life of pure goodness, and His suffering on the cross in our place, by which He grants to us His perfect innocence. It’s the righteousness of Jesus that makes it possible for us to stand in God’s sight and in His judgment as forgiven and redeemed, cleansed and made new. I cannot rule out either of these possibilities of what Jesus means. In both the coming of God’s righteous kingdom, and also in the gift of Jesus’ righteousness to believers, we are most certainly blessed and deeply satisfied.
And we’re here to feast on His Word, to drink deeply of His forgiveness and life, and to find satisfaction in His gifts. So we truly give thanks and praise Him for Jesus Christ, that He hungered and thirsted for us. That He hungered for the will and work of His Father to be done—and He did it. Faithfully and obediently going to the cross, destroying sin and death so that we can have righteousness and life. Jesus hungered for God’s Word and found in it rich consolation and strength, even as a man enduring great physical hunger, thirst, grief, loss, and suffering. He lamented the brokenness of the world laboring under sin, and grieved for those harassed and helpless, but was not powerless in the face of such evil. He came to shepherd us and deliver us from it with His mighty hands and His outstretched arms. As Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross, His hunger and thirst were satisfied in knowing that the Father’s work was being done, so that at the end, Jesus could say with all boldness and confidence, “It is finished.” And as Jesus felt the loneliness and forsakenness of death, God’s Word was still His comfort, to cry out with trust in God, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.”

Just as Jesus’ hunger and thirst were not left unsatisfied, but His soul was satisfied with the rich food of God’s Word and will, He has done this all for us. He lives so that we can live in that blessing and never need to hunger or thirst again. His richness and blessing He freely and mercifully pours out on all who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Sermon on John 4:5-26, for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, "Living Water"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Last week we read in John 3 about Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus about being born from above, of water and the spirit. Jesus said that just as the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from or goes, so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. So Jesus taught that the work of the Spirit was recognizable, but moved by the unseen. Today the breath of the Spirit and the Living Water move yet again in an unexpected way, to restore and refresh a parched and thirsty soul, who did not even know her thirst at first.
You ordinarily escape indoors from the hot noontime sun when you live in the Middle East, I understand. Before indoor plumbing, the women ordinarily went to the community well in groups during the cool morning hours, to avoid the heat and avoid going alone. So this Samaritan woman either had a reason to be, or wanted to be alone, even if it meant going out in the uncomfortable heat. And Jesus knew this was just where to find her. Of all the people in the village He could have chosen to meet, He wanted to meet her. With total purpose, Jesus placed Himself and His thirst, within reach of her help—even as He was bringing her undiscovered thirst into reach of His help. She would have water to quench His physical thirst; He would have Living Water to quench her deep spiritual thirst.
But He wasn’t supposed to be here—at least not according to Jewish custom. And it shows in her surprise. Jews and Samaritans were half-blood relations, but they had a bloody history between them, of idolatry, hatred, the destruction of a Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim, and retaliation by defiling of the Temple of Jerusalem. About 500 years of back and forth history was simmering with animosity between them. To find a Jewish man sitting by the well was suspicious enough—His request for water from a lone, unfamiliar, Samaritan woman was even more so. But Jesus wasn’t there to grind old axes and dwell on what divided them—He was here to bridge the chasm between Jew and Samaritan, and through the unlikeliest woman. As the Spirit blew that day, it rested on a woman who was the talk of the town, and the picture of isolation—whether it was self-sought or imposed on her.
Stop for a moment and consider what has changed from then till now. How different are communities today, than they would be if we had to go to a community well to draw our water? How different would our communities and our isolation be? Might we be forced to more face-to-face conversations, as opposed to conversing behind screens? Would we know one another better, and also be better known? But while indoor plumbing may have eliminated physical thirst and the toil of carrying water, the spiritual thirst of every soul is the same today as it was then. The loneliness and isolation that people feel today may be for different reasons and take different forms, but we all still need loving community. Jesus had divine foresight to plan His meeting with a thirsty and empty soul, but even with mere human sight can’t we see some of the places where humanity is crying out in loneliness, from guilt or pain? Are there ways we can intentionally respond? Do we see our vocations or stations in life as significant places for us to meet others and witness Jesus’ love to them? While our encounters might be unexpected—where Jesus knew what was coming—we can still be willing servants at Christ’s disposal. We can pray for opportunities to arise, and for us to be given the right words to say. Scripture promises us that the Holy Spirit is able to bless and lead us in this way.
As she questions His motives for asking a drink, Jesus begins a conversation about living water, and turns toward spiritual things. Still not tracking with Jesus, she points out that He has no bucket. When Jesus tells her that the water she is drinking is going to leave her thirsty again, and that He offers water that will never leave you thirsty, and wells up inside you to eternal life—He has her full attention. But she still has not understood her own thirst. She’s still thinking of physical thirst and the work it took to get her daily water supply. But Jesus sees a still deeper, unrecognized thirst in her.
What was that thirst, that Jesus’ “Living Water” satisfies? In Jeremiah 2:13 God said to Israel, “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Both Jesus and Jeremiah talk of water spiritually. In Jeremiah God tells Israel that the false gods that they worshipped as “replacements” for the One True God were “broken cisterns”—empty storage pits that could hold no water. They were seeking from false gods what only the One True God could provide. The deepest thirst of the soul is to be in fellowship with God, our Maker. Psalm 42:2 says, “My soul thirsts for God, for the Living God.” Augustine, the famous Christian theologian of the 4th century, came to Christ after spending much of his life pursuing fulfillment in excessive pleasure, false religions, philosophy, drunkenness and distractions,[1] and found himself empty and worn. Years after his conversion and baptism, he wrote of his search and his longing, saying to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” This expresses the same thirst and restlessness of the soul that does not know God. Some people describe this as the “God-shaped hole” in us, that only God can fill.
As Jesus gently but resolutely opened her personal life in this private conversation, her suspicions and fears continued to melt away. While she was startled by His knowledge of her past, she also saw that He did not press on this to humiliate or wound her, but to direct her away from empty promises of fulfillment to the source of Living Water. In telling her to call her husband, he exposed the fact that she had no true husband, but five men who had divorced her, and now she was living with a man without marriage. Though only Jesus saw the full dimensions of her spiritual thirst, it’s a big enough hint for us that He had struck on the key point of her painful past. In doing so, He showed her that He knew her thirst, and that her sins were not hidden from Him. He knew what brought her here at this time of day, alone, where He knew He could meet her. And He was the answer to that thirst, not in the empty ways she sought it before, but in bringing her forgiveness and new life.
We approach Jesus, not at a well, but through His Word, and in His church where we gather to receive His gifts and blessings. Do we come unsettled by the thought that God’s Word will expose in us some sin or hidden shame? Do we fear what God’s Word has to say about our past, or even our present? Instead we can trust that as Jesus sees the full truth and knows our sin and thirst, so also will He be gracious and merciful to turn us away from the false and empty promises of the world, and back to Him. We can trust Him, as He has shown in countless ways His love and forgiveness for sinners; and we can follow Him on the path of new obedience. Knowing that His knowledge of our sin is not a weapon to wound us, but the scalpel in the hand of the good surgeon to heal us. Knowing that His faithfulness does not end in forgiving our sinful past, but continues  in leading us out of the captivity of sin in our present walk in new obedience. He is the Living Water that refreshes us for journeys and trials in this desert of sin, into His new life and freedom.
As the Samaritan women’s perception of Jesus continued to change, she soon saw Him as a prophet, and moved to genuine questions of worship, even if it was a convenient escape from her past. They were not far from the shadow of Mt. Gerizim, the center of Samaritan worship, where the Jews had destroyed their temple made to false gods. “Since you are a prophet, explain to me where is the right place to worship?” Jesus doesn’t point her to the Jerusalem Temple—because as He explains, very soon the worship of the One True God will no longer be centered there. In fact, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and Truth.”
Jesus is saying that the new covenant (which He was inaugurating), would be a landmark shift from the Old Testament to the New. It would not decentralize worship from Jerusalem, where God had declared His name and presence—but it would recentralize in Jesus Christ. You have to take in the context of the whole Gospel of John to realize this, but Jesus is the New Temple of God, and the center of all true worship. True believers will worship God in Spirit and Truth. He tells her that the Samaritans had worshipped what they did not know; but we worship what we know, for salvation comes from the Jews. Jesus is that salvation, and bit by bit His conversation was leading her to that Living Water and salvation in Him. Bit by bit the conversation moves from physical thirst to spiritual thirst, through her past to questions of worship and the true God, and culminating in her asking about the Messiah. “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ)”; when He comes, He will tell us all things.” Jesus answers, “I who speak to you am He.”
Suddenly the conversation has reached its climax, and she discovers this thirsty Jewish man, who she eyed suspiciously at first, is entirely more than she realized. How He had stirred her heart and soul, and given her the first refreshing drink of “water” in her memory! Something far deeper than any earthly refreshment she had known, the Holy Spirit filled her with joy and with faith. And forgetting her water jar, she ran to tell anyone she could that the Messiah was here—forgetting even her isolation.
Jesus is the Christ, the Living One, and when our soul thirsts for God, for the Living God, it thirsts for Him. And once He has poured out His life-giving Spirit and Living Water on us, we thirst no more. For there is none other who can quench our thirst; there is none other who can satisfy our soul. Our life reverses direction from an irresistible march toward the day of our death, with sin and empty pleasures drying us up and leaving us craving more, to a life that wells up inside us to eternal life. The life that drinks from and flows from Jesus, the Living Water who is never exhausted and never runs dry. And when we have found our rest and our refreshment in Him, our hearts can be at peace at last, reunited with the One who made us for Himself and whom Jesus redeemed to Himself. Amen.

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  1. The Jews and Samaritans had some 500 years of violent history and animosity between them, including the Jews destroying the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim (128 BC), and the Samaritans retaliating by desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem on the eve of Passover, some years before Jesus was born. See the sins of Jerusalem and Samaria compared in Isaiah 10:9-11; Jeremiah 23:13-14; Ezekiel 16:51. Does Jesus allow the grudges and bitterness of the past stand between Him and this Samaritan woman? When she tests the water by referring to those things, how does He respond?
  2. Why do we think the woman was alone at the well? What is the likely cause of her isolation? Who are the lonely and marginalized people today? Where can they be found? Do we seek to bring the Gospel of Jesus to them? Are we available for God to bring us into significant encounters with them, to share the love of Christ?
  3. How does Jesus use her ordinary thirst to think about and discover a deeper spiritual thirst? How did He gently but inescapably expose her thirst? What is that thirst, and what satisfies it, and what things cannot? Jeremiah 2:13; Psalm 42:1-2; 63:1ff; Isaiah 55:1; Amos 8:11-12; John 7:37-39. What do we sometimes try to substitute for God? Why will this always leave us empty?
  4. How did her perception of Jesus grow and change, and what did she finally discover about Him? John 4:25-26, 29. What did she do with this discovery? 4:28-30, 39-42. How did people respond?
  5. How does the theme of not knowing, and then knowing appear in both the story of Nicodemus and the woman at the well? John 3:11; 4:21-24. Where (or to whom) does this new knowledge lead?