Monday, October 05, 2015

Sermon on Hebrews 2:1-13, for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, "Christ is All-Sufficient"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. During this month of October, as we remember the Reformation, the sermons will come from the book of Hebrews. Today we’re warned of the importance of paying attention to the message that we’ve heard, and not falling away from it. The writer to the Hebrews is reminding us of our precious gift and salvation in Jesus Christ. Some messages and some news can go in one ear and out the other, and nothing is really lost. You can forget the latest scores, or the reports about the state building project that got held up, or some other current news item, and you are no worse off for it. But pay attention (!!) the author of Hebrews says. You can’t afford to forget, ignore, or let the message of salvation, or the good news about Jesus leak out of your ears. Our very life depends on it!
God knows so well that we are forgetful, we are prone to ignore, and have leaky ears. Therefore we need to hear that message again and again, to sink deeply into our hearts and lives. God is faithful, with mercies new every morning, forgiving and restoring us from our forgetfulness. By His grace we are preserved, because we simply cannot afford to neglect such a great salvation. To neglect is to be careless or to disregard something. We cannot afford to neglect such a great salvation, because it is our eternal rescue. If those who disobeyed the old covenant, given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, the covenant our reading describes as “the message declared by angels”—if those who disobeyed were justly punished, the writer asks us, how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? What excuse would we give, for turning down God’s free grace in Christ Jesus? There would be none.
But what’s that new message, and new salvation? The whole story of Jesus, sent by God to be our Savior. Let’s explore that message and salvation through today’s reading. Verses 3-4 says, “It was declared at first to us by those who heard”…so the readers of this letter learned about Jesus through the apostles, the eyewitness of Jesus, and disciples who had followed Him—those who heard. “While God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will.” Side by side with Jesus’ message and teaching, were Jesus’ miracles and wonders. God’s confirmation that Jesus was truly sent from Him. And gifts of the Holy Spirit, like speaking in tongues, were poured out on the disciples of Jesus as well.
Next the writer to the Hebrews marvels at how Jesus came for our salvation, quoting Psalm 8: “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” At first, the Psalm seems to be marveling on how God made human beings, and gave us rule and dominion over the earth. What is man that you are mindful of him? In other words, who are we, a tiny speck, that God should pay attention to us and think of us? Who are we in the universe, that God should pay such care and attention to us? And that is an amazing truth. But as we read Hebrews 2:9, we see that even more significant, this is a reflection about how Jesus came as Savior into the world. “We see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death”. Jesus is the one who was made for a little while, lower than the angels, and crowned with glory and honor. The Psalmist was singing about Jesus, prophetically, some 1,000 years before Jesus was born!
Jesus is God of God, Light of Light…being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. As the Son of God, Jesus is eternal, coequal with God the Father, He created all things together with the Father and the Spirit. Nothing can compare to or equal God. God has no counterpart or being that is like Him. But God made His Son Jesus, for a little while, lower than the angels. Our creed says it this way: “who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man.” That word “incarnate” or “incarnation”—means to take on flesh. To become human. God, an eternal Spirit, took on human flesh—became incarnate. Jesus walked on earth as a human being, in the flesh. For a little while lower than the angels.  
Not only is that a divine mystery, that God became man—but also the reason Jesus was crowned by God with glory and honor is amazing. Because of the suffering of death. God became human so that by the grace of God, He could “taste death for everyone.” And from that moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, God not only knew what death was, but He had experienced it Himself. Jesus tasted death, to conquer it. He tasted death, so that in the words of the prophet Isaiah (25:8), God will “swallow up death forever.” Jesus tasted and consumed the bitterness of death, to make a way for us to be set free. This incredible self-sacrifice and love is why God crowned Jesus with glory and honor, because of the suffering and death.
And our passage from Hebrews says God made the “founder of [our] salvation perfect through suffering.” Jesus, the author or founder of our faith perfected or completed His work of salvation at the cross. This has incredible significance for our understanding of salvation—particularly that Jesus’ death on the cross is all-sufficient for us. All-sufficient means that there is nothing we can do or add to Jesus’ salvation, to make it complete. As Lutherans, we take great comfort, as all Christians should, in knowing that Jesus’ death on the cross is the total, final, and complete payment for sin, and entrance into eternal life. It’s not a big boost after which we have to push ourselves over the top; it’s not a job 99% done, and we just have to finish the last 1%; and neither is it that Jesus did all the hard work, and we just have to complete the easy stuff. Jesus has done the whole work of salvation, completely. As Lutherans, we confess this truth by saying we are saved by grace alone—nothing we earned or deserved. We are saved by faith alone—trusting in Jesus, and not our works—and we are saved by Christ alone, in Jesus and no other. That Jesus Christ is all-sufficient is the cornerstone of our faith.
Through Jesus’ perfect salvation, He brings many sons to glory. He sanctifies us. That means that Jesus brings us into His victory and life, and He sanctifies or makes us holy. He washes us clean of sin, and presents us pure, holy, and acceptable to God. He leads us in a new way of living, away from the old habits of sin. Our reading continues by saying that “He is not ashamed to call [us] brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Whatever your sins, laid down on the cross of Jesus, they are forgiven. Jesus is not ashamed of you. You have put your trust in Him, and He gladly, unashamedly, proudly calls you brothers and sisters. We are the children God has given Him. And what do we hear Jesus say? “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Jesus lovingly teaches His children, His brothers and sisters, about the name and glory of God. We know God through Jesus. He is all-sufficient.
The reading from Hebrews gives us one additional thought—that this Jesus whom God has honored, who was made lower than the angels, and who suffered death for everyone—God has also placed all things in subjection under His feet. It says, “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” There is nothing outside of Jesus’ control. God has given Him all authority in heaven and on earth. But notice, it says we don’t see it yet. It still appears as though much of the world and much in the world does not submit to Him. The peoples and the nations rage against Jesus. Many people hate His name. Evil often seems to take the day, when events like the mass shooting in Oregon take place last week. Death seems to surround us everywhere. We don’t yet see everything in subjection to Him.
But trust in Him. Believe the promise that God has crowned Jesus with glory and honor, and all things are in subjection to Him. The time awaits, and is coming soon, when we will see all things in full submission to Him. We will see the last enemy, death, thrown under His feet. We will see Jesus triumph gloriously over all evil, and deliver His people safely into God’s arms. That reality and promise is already ours. We have been sealed as God’s children in our baptism, and nothing can take us away from the love of Jesus. But we also confidently trust in the final victory that belongs to Him. The return of Jesus to bring all things fully into submission and obedience to Him, so that death is truly swallowed up forever. For that day we wait in eager expectation. Amen, Come Lord Jesus!

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      In Hebrews 2:2, it refers to the “message declared by angels”. What “message” is this referring to? Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:17-19; Deuteronomy 33:1-3. How did that covenant have “just retribution” or punishments for every sin and disobedience? Galatians 3:10
2.      A new message has been declared to us, not by angels, but by the Lord. What is this message? Hebrews 2:3-4; 1:1-2. What are the signs and miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit that confirmed this new message?
3.      Hebrews 2:6-8 quotes Psalm 8. Read the Psalm. How do the quoted verses describe Jesus? How did He humble Himself? What did God do to crown and exalt Him? Hebrews 2:9-10.
4.      How does Jesus’ “tasting of death” express God’s grace to us? What does grace mean? Why did Jesus endure death for our sake?  John 10:9-11, 14-18.
5.      How does Scripture make it clear that Jesus’ death on the cross was all-sufficient for our salvation, and that nothing needed to be added to it to complete the forgiveness of our sins and life eternal? John 19:30; Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:10-14.
6.      How are we sanctified or made holy through Jesus? Hebrews 10:10, 14. According to God’s will, what does our sanctification look like?  1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; 5:12-24. Who will accomplish this sanctification in us? 1 Thess. 5:24
7.      Being sanctified in Christ Jesus, what relationship are we given to have with Him and with God? Hebrews 2:11-13.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Sermon on Mark 9:38-50, for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, "Hell and the Kingdom"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In today’s reading from Mark 9, Jesus speaks to His disciples on a range of issues, from spiritual warfare to the deadly danger of hell.
First of all, Jesus disciples try to stop a man from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Apparently this stranger was not among the main group of Jesus’ followers, but was successfully casting out demons by the power of Jesus’ name. Jesus says that if he is doing these mighty works in His name, he can’t at the same time be an enemy of Jesus. In the same way today having the same earthly leadership and organization is not what matters—but whether one is under Christ’s authority and leadership. Jesus’ true followers are scattered far and wide, and what links them is true faith in Him. Even the smallest act of service for the sake of Jesus Christ, even offering a cup of cold water, will not go unnoticed or unrewarded by Christ. All true service for Christ is honored by Him, not whether or not it is through “official channels.”
Then Jesus begins to teach about the deadliness of sin and hell. The verses may make many of us squirm, because they are so graphic. But the point of Jesus’ warning is that hell is a real and horrible place, and that He does not want any of us to end up there. The first warning is, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” First of all, we should notice that little children believe in Jesus, or have faith. And they are vulnerable to harm. Secondly, Jesus asserts a great protectiveness over children, that no one would dare lead little children into sin. The punishment for causing children, in their simple trust and faith, to stumble and fall into sin, is worse than drowning with a millstone hung around your neck. Obviously, the positive duty we are entrusted with, is to protect and nurture the faith of children, and to lead the little children to Jesus.
Jesus gets more explicit about the danger of sin and hell. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Then same for a foot or eye that causes you to sin. What is Jesus saying? In a simple way, we should understand that as horrible as it is to imagine losing your hand, foot, or eye—hell is far worse. The plain descriptions of God’s Word tell us that hell is the place of unquenchable fire. Unquenchable means that the fire is never extinguished, satisfied, or put out. It burns forever. Elsewhere Jesus says those who are lost, go into eternal punishment. Jesus also describes hell as the place where the “worm does not die.” This is a graphic reminder of earthly decay, and points to the fact that hell is a place of suffering in both and soul.
The point is, hell is a fate to be avoided at all costs. Will amputating an offending hand help keep us out of hell? It should be fairly obvious that this is not Jesus’ intended meaning. He taught that the heart is the root of all sin in us. The actions of the hands, feet, eyes, and all other members, are just a reflection of what’s going on in the heart. We can’t get rid of that. Removing a hand won’t take the sinful desire out of our heart. But Jesus’ very forceful point is that keeping your body whole is no consolation, if it means you enter into hell because of sin. And the alternative, entering life in the kingdom of God, is so incomparably better, that no one would miss a hand or foot if you get in.
But how one gets at the root of the whole problem of sin deals much more with repentance and our heart, than something done to our body. The only treatment that is drastic enough to stop the gangrene of sin, is total repentance. It is crucifying the old sinful nature with Jesus at His cross, by dying to sin with Him at the cross, and being raised anew in Christ Jesus. Repentance is more than just a casual “I’m sorry”—it is turning our heart and mind toward God. Only the Holy Spirit can begin this work in us. On our own, we are incapable of turning to God. But the Holy Spirit actively works a change in our hearts, and raises up a new life in us.  
Jesus clearly shows that there are two possibilities for humans—entering into life, and going to the unquenchable fires of hell. God’s clear intention and will, throughout Scripture, is that we would not go to hell. God desires rather that we turn from sin and live. He desires that we be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. He desires to make us children of light and take us out of darkness.
But if God wants this for us, and since Jesus has so clearly died for the sins of the whole world, and freely gives away the gift of salvation, why does anyone go to hell? John 3:36 tells us, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Then Mark 16:16 tells us, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Both of these verses illustrate that faith in Jesus saves us or gives eternal life. Jesus gives us eternal life—we don’t earn it. And secondly, it is unbelief that condemns us or leaves us excluded from life.
God graciously and freely gives the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ His Son; but not all will receive it. Not all want it. To humble ourselves before God, and to repent of our sins and wrongdoing before God, is very difficult, and for many, pride and stubbornness get in the way. But Jesus in His mercy has suffered completely in our place, on the cross, so that we bear no penalty before God. If we stand in Christ Jesus, we have life. If we forsake His saving work, and stand apart from Him, we have death and eternal punishment in store for us.
So however much it is unpleasant for us to think about hell, we must plainly face that Jesus talked about it more than any other person in the Bible, and His statements make it plain and clear that it is real and it is not somewhere we want to be. And we should consider that the reason He tells us about it, is that it is entirely needless and unnecessary that anyone go to hell, because Jesus has already done everything to secure the gift of eternal life for us, so that we receive it freely by believing in Him.
Jesus wraps up the chapter continuing with the theme of fire, but with a little twist, that seems in a more hopeful direction. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” So after warning us to avoid the unquenchable fires of hell, Jesus says that we will all be salted with fire? What does this mean? A quick jump to 1 Peter 4:12 gives us a clue. Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings.” Christians will experience fiery trial or sufferings in this life. Discipleship or following Jesus is not a rosy path of ease and security. Our faith will be tried and tested. But God warns us and equips us to endure it.
But why salt? It seems to come from an Old Testament instruction about how the people of Israel would bring a grain offering to God. They offered to God either flour or baked bread, mixed with oil, and a portion of this offering was to be burned as a pleasing aroma to God. But one other thing had to be added to the grain offering—salt. They were always to make sure to use “the salt of the covenant” with their offerings. It doesn’t really explain why, but since salt was used to preserve food in ancient times, and may have been a reminder of how God would always preserve His people. Salt mixed in the grain offering, was part of the pleasing aroma that was offered to the Lord. So if we will be “salted with fire” by our trials and sufferings, this may also remind us that the sacrifices and endurance of Christians, trusting in and following Jesus, will be a pleasing aroma to God. In fact, St. Paul uses this language to describe the sacrificial life and witness of Christians. As the “aroma of Christ” to the world. And in our trials we are reminded that God preserves us, He cares for and delivers His people, even in trials.
Well what does Jesus mean about salt losing its saltiness? Ancient sea salt was not as pure as the food grade salt we use today. The sodium chloride, or true salt, could be leached out, leaving behind worthless, tasteless minerals. Then it was useless. Jesus calls Christians the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” If we have lost our “saltiness”—this means we have lost our impact on the world because we are no longer bringing the benefit of Jesus’ good news to the world. If we carry Jesus’ good news, and live the life He has called us to do, we can be a winsome and beneficial service to the world—we can be the salt of the earth. But if we lose the Gospel—if we lose Jesus Christ or our life is overcome with sin—we no longer “season” the earth with salt. So “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” This is shorthand for saying, have the gospel and the fruits of the gospel in you! Keep Jesus’ Word in your heart, believe it, and God’s love and peace will overflow from your life to others.
This idea parallels the end of the book of James, in today’s readings, where it says “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Jesus has so freely forgiven us and given us eternal life, and we are able to extend that to those who wander and are caught in sins. We share that good news, so that together with us, they will be saved from the fires of hell, and brought by Jesus Christ into His most blessed life. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      In Mark 9:38-40, individuals who were not part of the main group performed miracles in Jesus’ name or by God’s power. While disciples of Jesus on earth today may not all fall under one visible authority figure on earth, Jesus makes it clear that these other workers are under His authority, and are not enemies. What shows that they are working for Jesus? How does one speak truly of Jesus? 1 Corinthians 12:3
2.      Christ does not overlook even the smallest act of service, done in His name. Mark 9:41. How can we serve those who are in need, and how is this serving Jesus? Matthew 25:31-46
3.      What do Mark 9:42 and Matthew 18:6 both tell us about the faith of little children? Why does Jesus urge such a strong warning, to protect children?
4.      In Mark 9:42-48, in each of Jesus’ examples, what is the worse fate that could happen to someone, worse even than losing a hand, or foot, or eye? What leads down the path to that dreadful place? Why is sin not to be taken lightly?
5.      What is the appropriate response to our sin, that prevents this threat of sin from becoming deadly? Mark 1:15; James 5:16, 19-20.
6.      What does it mean that we will all be “salted with fire?” 1 Peter 4:12-17. Who preserves us in trial? How might salt have reminded Israel of how God would preserve them as a people, in the Old Testament? Salt was included in their grain offerings, which were to be burnt by fire, to make a pleasing aroma to God. Leviticus 2:13

7.      How does the Gospel of Jesus Christ “season us” or make us as Christians of benefit to the world? Matthew 5:13ff; Colossians 4:6. Jesus enriches our lives by what He has done, so we can bless others. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sermon on Mark 9:30-37, 17th Sunday after Pentecost, "From childish to childlike"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today in our Gospel reading from Mark chapter 9, there is a strong contrast set up between Jesus teaching His disciples about His coming death on the cross, and His resurrection—and a petty argument the disciples fall into on their journey along the road. The contrast is between the way of humility that Jesus Himself lived, and the way of selfish ambition or self-promotion and rivalry, that the disciples were acting out in their little argument.
Like children “caught in the act” of doing something they know is wrong, Jesus called out the disciples, who were arguing with each other about who was the greatest. We don’t know quite how it went down. But we do know from other arguments, that they wanted to gain the highest authority and respect in Jesus’ kingdom. We know how it goes—we’re familiar with how people compete for position, for advantage, for recognition, or for power. In a way, it’s very childish and petty—but maybe we should really say it is “adult-ish” because, more often than not, we as adults are the ones who behave this way. People act out this kind of rivalry and self-promotion by pushing other people down or out of the way, by hurting other people’s reputations through gossip or lies, or by manipulating to gain power or advantage. It was that old, familiar tendency toward rivalry that drew the disciples of Jesus into this argument with each other.
Our 2nd reading for today, from James, paints the ugly picture of selfish living. Jealousy, fights, disorder, and worse come from it. But to live by God’s wisdom from above, is to be pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. This was just the thing at stake, when Jesus had this wonderful little “teachable moment” with His disciples. They were on track for the path of jealousy and quarrelling, and the ugly things it leads to. Jesus steers them toward His better way—the way He Himself walked.
If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Not a way of “getting ahead”. Not the path for worldly fame or achievement. But the way of greatness in God’s kingdom, by God’s measure. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” Being “last” usually means “failure” in our everyday language. But here, being “last of all and servant of all” means to put others before you. To think of the needs of others, instead of putting yourself first. Serving others, happens when you helping and caring for each other; not when you push your way ahead of them, or ignore them. God’s way of being “first” and of finding greatness in His kingdom, is by being a servant to all.  
Jesus continues His point by taking a child, holding him in His arms, and saying, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” What does a child teach us about the call to be “last of all and servant of all?” Children are dependent on their parents. Infants and toddlers need you for almost everything. Feeding, clothing, diapering, washing, reading, and all around caring. Their very life depends on us receiving them, welcoming them, and serving them. Gradually they grow and gain greater and greater degrees of independence.
But rather than being overcome with selfishness that our children need so much from us, we should give thanks that God has given them, and that our children turn to us for help, for love, for their needs to be provided. What more beautiful thing than to nurture and raise a wonderfully made child? You can shape their life for good; see that they become faithful followers of Jesus, and generous and kind servants to their neighbors. If God has called you to be a parent, He has called you to serve your children in this wonderful way. Their needs draw on your love, compassion, and support.
Jesus says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” To receive a child in Jesus’ name is to welcome that child for Jesus. Jesus disciples, on another occasion, got upset when people were bringing their infants to Jesus to hold and bless them. They felt Jesus was too busy and had more important things to do. They were not welcoming these eager parents and their children to Jesus. They tried to turn them away. But Jesus scolded His disciples. He welcomed the children, and said the kingdom of God belongs to children like these. So welcome the children for Jesus’ sake. Give thanks to God for the blessing of children—whether they are yours or somebody else’s. A welcome reception of children for Jesus’ sake, shows you are right at the heart of Jesus and of God the Father. Jesus came to us in just such a humble way, as a child. God sent Jesus to rescue us who were lost, and to give us a place in His family. He came through lowliness and humble service. Rejecting this is rejecting God’s own way.
So bring your children to Jesus, so He can bless them. Bringing your children to Emmanuel Lutheran School is an excellent way that they get to hear about God’s love and what He has done for us in Jesus Christ. Bringing your children to church every Sunday, wherever your church home is—or here, if you need one—gives them an opportunity to grow in their faith and knowledge of God our heavenly Father. Not to mention you as well!
When Jesus addressed His disciples on that occasion, He also said that in order for them to enter the kingdom of heaven, they must receive it as little children. People always joke about never growing up, or about keeping their “inner child” alive. Mostly they mean don’t lose your sense of fun, playfulness, or curiosity. But here, in a very real and significant way, God wants us to remain “child-like.” Not “childish”—fighting about petty things with selfishness or rivalry—but “childlike”. Having the simplicity of trust in Him, and placing our worries and troubles in His capable hands. Having a humility that doesn’t need to seek a place above everyone else, but is content to simply receive. Being totally dependent on God. While our children largely grow out of their dependence on us when they are old—we never outgrow our dependence on God. In fact, we always remain as dependent children, looking to God for His free grace, love and favor.
Unfortunately, even when we want the best for our children, so often we struggle with setting a good example in the lives of our children. They learn by imitation to follow our example—even when we regret it. They imitate our speech, our emotions, and our actions—especially when they are bad—much to our dismay. Saying “Do as I say, not as I do” is a poor cover for our bad behavior. Our actions usually speak louder than words. But what do we do if this is true of us? You certainly aren’t looking for more pressure, as if that would help. We aren’t proud of our failures, and don’t want to hear about them. But like a student who is struggling to understand, we need to see and understand our failures if we are to learn and overcome them. So where is the learning? Where is the overcoming?
Jesus was such a patient teacher with His disciples. He didn’t let them escape the hard lessons, but He stuck with them and loved them through each lesson. Jesus does the same for us. He’s not going to leave us stuck with our failures, but is patient to love and teach us, if we’ll listen. This lesson for His disciples wasn’t really going to sink in completely for several months. Not until Jesus’ actions spoke so loud and clear, and His words were just a few dying gasps. The lesson I’m talking about, the lesson Jesus gave His disciples, when they were so caught up in measuring their own greatness, was about His coming death on the cross. There were blank stares in the disciples’ eyes when He said: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” Delivered into the hands of men? Killed? After three days, he will rise?
They didn’t understand. They must have thought Jesus was talking in riddles. Who’s trying kill you? You are going to rise? Three days? They hid the fact that they didn’t understand Jesus. But then came that incredible weekend when all His teaching crystallized and made sense. When the light came on. The weekend when Jesus’ actions spoke louder—or at least as loud—as His Words. I say that because Jesus’ few words were tremendous on the day that He died. In the midst of suffering and dying on the cross, He spoke awesome words, just as His emotions and actions were incredibly powerful as well. He was nailed to a cross, an awful instrument of torture. And His words spoke forgiveness: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” His words spoke of completion: “It is finished!” His words spoke of life to a dying man who dared to trust in Jesus: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” So Jesus’ words and actions did not compete or conflict with each other, but were in perfect sync. And actions were the living shape of those words.
He had completed what He came for. He died on the cross, forsaken and alone, to pay the price for our sin. For all our selfishness, rivalry, fighting, self-promotion and pride, for our unkind thoughts, words, and actions. For all the good things that we didn’t do when we could have. Jesus died for those sins too. He humbly took the last place, and became the servant of all, by suffering in our place on the cross. All of our need fell completely upon His love, forgiveness, and compassion. And now it was finished. His Rescue was a success. But it wasn’t over! Three days later, on Sunday, Jesus rose, just as He told the disciples. Lights of understanding slowly started to come on. Words and actions were meshing together and making sense. Jesus was living out His servant way of life to the fullest extent possible, becoming our ransom, our Savior. And now He was alive again. Jesus conquered death and the grave, walking out of the stone cold tomb alive and in the flesh.
In other words, the servant way of humility and self-sacrifice, that Jesus lived and died, and now lives again—that servant way of Jesus—is God’s victory over our sin. So where does this leave us? We have a gracious and loving Lord Jesus, who sacrificed Himself in our place, for much more than just errors in judgment, our failures, or little mistakes. He is the Savior who has forgiven our every sin. Who has taken our every act of rebellion and disobedience toward God, and paid for it at His cross. The Savior who took all of our hurts and the wrongs that we have done to others into Himself, and endured the just penalty for us on the cross. But sin and death did not defeat Him. It did not end Him. So the story is not over and His forgiveness comes to you. He rose to a new life, and promises to raise you also.
Learning from your sins and failures and finding His forgiveness, is what Jesus does best. He has overcome our sin, and He promises us that we can live in Him by faith. It doesn’t matter if you are a parent or not a parent, a child or adult. Jesus did what He did, so that He could set you free from whatever sins are present in your life. Jesus creates a living relationship with us. So God would be your Father, and that you would turn to Him as naturally for love as children do to their parents. The openness and trust of that relationship to God, is to be mirrored in our reception and welcome of children. This is how Jesus redeems us from our sins, and teaches us to walk child-like, in full dependency, in His servant way. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      In Mark 9:30-37, Jesus found a “teachable moment” with His disciples. What is the contrast between the way that the world seeks after greatness, and the way in which Jesus says that greatness comes in the kingdom of God?
2.      What is the result of “rivalry and selfish ambition” in our pursuit to get ahead of others? See James 3:14-16; 4:1-4. Why does this bring out the worst in our human nature?
3.      By way of illustrating His way of humility, Jesus takes a child into His lap. What does the example of a child teach us about the way the kingdom of God should be received? What does it teach about the way we should be? Mark 10:13-16
4.      How do we “receive a child” in Jesus’ name? Mark 9:37; 10:14; Acts 2:38-39. Why do children make the ideal example for Jesus, as followers of Jesus? What does it mean to be “childlike” in the way that Jesus praises? On whom are children dependent?
5.      Jesus’ lesson on humility would be illustrated with His own actions in the coming months. What did Jesus predict would happen to Him? Mark 9:31. What would it take for the disciples to finally understand what He meant? Mark 16:6-8; John 20:19-23.
6.      How was Jesus’ death on the cross the ultimate example of humility and service? Mark 10:42-45; Philippians 2:5-11.
7.      How does His cross bring us forgiveness for our selfishness, rivalries, and failures?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sermon on Mark 9:14-29, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, "Faith, Prayer, and Spiritual Warfare"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Last week we heard how Jesus healed a man who was deaf and mute. But there was no hint that his condition was anything but physical problems with his ears and tongue. Today, Jesus commands a “deaf and mute spirit” to leave a young boy, who is being tormented and abused by this demon. Both the boy’s desperate father and Jesus also, clearly recognize the demon is causing the boy’s physical afflictions. Comparing the two readings seems to show that some physical illnesses have simple physical causes in the body, while at other times, a spiritual cause can produce physical symptoms. The skeptic in us might already say the young boy was just an epileptic. We’re not to assume that everyone who has epilepsy or seizures is demon-possessed, are we? That would certainly go beyond what the passage is saying. But on the other hand, are we ready today, to acknowledge that some afflictions may have a deeper, underlying spiritual cause? Is what we see in this world understood only through “what meets the eye?”
The people of Jesus’ day had no trouble recognizing that there was a spiritual world of demons and angels at work behind the scenes in everyday life. People in Africa, where Christianity is growing fastest, have no trouble believing that there is a spiritual world. In our modern, “scientific” age, we all but dismiss the supernatural, or limit it to the extreme exceptions or the world of the bizarre. But does Jesus’ frequent encounter with the demonic world challenge our assumptions? Might we actually be ignoring or unaware of how real and present the spiritual world is?
This passage gives us a glimpse of the spiritual landscape, of the spiritual warfare going on beyond our senses. It shows the effects of this spiritual warfare spill over into the physical world. We learn some important things. One is that Satan and his evil spirits are bent on the destruction, the misery, and the harm of the human race. The devil has no love or compassion, but is a liar, a deceiver, and incites people to evil. We also see that unbelief in God aids and abets the Evil One in his purpose. Unbelief assists the devil by keeping us divorced from God and His help. It makes us idolaters who worship something other than the One True God. We further learn that Satan’s forces do not fold and run easily. This unclean spirit resisted the disciples’ first attempts to cast it out. And when it finally was cast out by Jesus, it departed so violently that the boy appeared dead. Finally we also learn that prayer is powerful and necessary in winning this spiritual battle. Without faith in Jesus and prayer to Him, we don’t stand a chance against the devil’s attacks. But with Him, we have victory.
Jesus expresses His frustration with the disciples: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” Faithless. Unbelieving. Trust in God was absent. Faith in Jesus could transform this situation. Faith would confidently hold onto Jesus for help. If anyone of us had said “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”, instead of Jesus, we might read those words like someone ready to throw in the towel. Like someone who didn’t have any more patience for our slowness. But of course we know that Jesus had incredible patience, divine patience, and that He bore with and loved His disciples to the very end. And Jesus doesn’t thrown His hands up in despair, but calls for the child and heals him. He is frustrated by the lack of faith in His disciples, but He acts decisively and with authority to change the situation.
If we are honest, we’re a faithless and unbelieving generation. We’re slow to hear and slow to learn Jesus’ word. We need to hear it again and again. We are so much like the disciples. We face up to a difficult challenge, a spiritual challenge, and our half-hearted, half-believing efforts fail. The apostle James describes a person who asks God while doubting—as being like a wave tossed about by the wind, and that such a person shouldn’t expect to receive anything (James 1:6-7). Instead, like Jesus, he admonishes us to ask in certainty and faith. Faith is central to being a disciple of Jesus, and it’s central to the work of Jesus’ kingdom, over against the kingdom of darkness, the rule of the devil. Faith is God’s shield in our hands, to block the fiery arrows of the devil.
So is faith a power we summon up from within ourselves? Or does faith come from somewhere else? Is the success of the spiritual battle that rages around us measured by the strength or weakness of our faith? Or where does the power of faith rest? We can turn back to Jesus’ conversation with this poor boy’s father for some answers. The father is deeply distressed that the boy seems beyond a cure. The disciples failed. It’s one more disappointment. Probably lifetime of dashed hopes for his tormented child to be healed. Low in hopes and expectations, he turns to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion and help us.” Your heart breaks for him and for every other person who has cried out in the same distress for someone with a chronic affliction. And his suffering was compounded by the evil, demonic nature of this torment.  
Jesus seizes on that word ‘if’! “If you can!” Jesus exclaims. That little ‘if’ expresses all your doubt and unbelief! Jesus challenges the wavering man, “All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Faith is the ticket! Believe, and all things are possible! But Jesus, where can I get that faith? I know I need it, but you yourself have just seen that my faith is lacking! “I believe; help my unbelief!” What a prayer. What a prayer! God, my faith is faltering—but you strengthen me! Help my unbelief! Turn that doubt into trust in you. My child needs your help, and everything else has failed me.
And the faith and prayer of this father is answered! His child is healed by Jesus. Jesus answered the prayer by granting faith to that father. Jesus helps our unbelief and turns it to trust. So what’s the answer to where faith comes from, and what is its power? This faith that is so necessary, the faith that shields us against the devil’s attacks, the faith that engages in the spiritual warfare with the strength and weapons of God, the faith that stands in Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and Satan—that faith all comes right from God. It’s His free gift. The prayer for more faith is always gladly answered with a “Yes” and God generously provides it. Our difficulties aren’t always automatically lifted though—and at times may increase. Paul’s famous example was the thorn in his flesh, that he prayed God would remove, and God answered by giving Paul more grace to sustain him.
But the point is, that faith isn’t something we dig up from inside ourselves, like finding more courage to ride a rollercoaster or go skydiving. No, the faith that faces down demons is a gift of God, and the access to this faith is as simple as hearing the Word of Jesus Christ, and believing it, by the work of the Holy Spirit. Straight from God’s mouth to your ears and heart. So the father’s prayer was just the thing—to ask Jesus to help his unbelief.
I’ve prayed this prayer—“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Perhaps you’ve prayed the prayer, or should. If faith is wavering, if you are feeling like that wave tossed about by the wind, or you fear that a spiritual war is waging, and you’ve dropped your armor. And Jesus is glad to answer that prayer. He’s glad to give us faith, and to teach us how to pray. You see Jesus won the war and sealed the victory of His kingdom, when He died on the cross and rose from the grave. Jesus forever changed the battlefield, by removing the sting death, by forgiving our sins. He’s absorbed all Satan’s deadly accusations. And so when we’re in the spiritual battle, Jesus hasn’t abandoned us, He hasn’t left the battlefield, but He has equipped us and fights by us with weapons of His Spirit. With faith in Jesus and prayer to God in our arsenal, we don’t need to fear the attacks of the devil. And we can stand strong and resist them.
So often we forget the power of prayer—which is really to say we forget the power of God. We forget that He is the One who answers prayer. Because prayer, like faith, only has power because of the One in whom we trust. Prayers and faith turned to a false god are of no help—however sincere. But prayers and faith in Jesus and the One True God find the One who truly can help.
Let today’s reading be a reminder to us that Jesus supplies us faith and that He answers prayers. That spiritual warfare and demons are real, and that today as much as then, the devil is seeking to create doubt, disharmony, and destruction. And that we are not helpless in the face of evil, but that we stand under the shelter of the Almighty One, the God who is the helper of the helpless, and who sent Jesus to bring His kingdom and will to earth as it is in heaven. Faith and prayer bring victory because we stand in Him. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Read Mark 7:32, 37 and Mark 9:17, 25. What did these two people who were healed have in common? What appears to be different about their situations?
2.      Why are people today not inclined to see any spiritual causes behind some physical conditions? Does the Bible teach that the spiritual and physical are connected? Yes or No? 1 Corinthians 15:44-49.
3.      What is Jesus frustrated with, in Mark 9:19, and vs. 22-23? Who can help with our unbelief? Mark 9:24; Romans 10:17.
4.      What unbelief do we struggle with? When is our faith challenged by doubt? When this happens, where must we turn to have our faith strengthened?
5.      Jesus demonstrates His power and authority over unclean spirits, and the kingdom of darkness. What access to Jesus’ help and authority had the disciples ignored? Mark 9:29. Who makes prayer powerful and effective? Mark 10:27
6.      Why is faith so necessary for discipleship, and for the kingdom of God to exist in the world? Who does faith look to? When we are looking to other things or powers, or even giving a door for the evil one to enter our life, what may happen to our faith? What are some dangerous influences we should avoid?