Monday, March 20, 2017

Sermon on Luke 11:14-28, for the 3rd Sunday in Lent (1 YR), "Christus Victor"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Early Christians found various ways to speak about the redemption that Jesus Christ won for mankind. They followed the descriptions in Scripture. “What was the center of Jesus’ redeeming work?”, they asked. Of course the cross of Jesus had to be central. But what exactly was happening there? A transaction? A tragedy? A judgment? A battle? An example? The most common description is that Jesus was our perfect, innocent substitute, facing God’s judgment against sin. A similar picture is Jesus as the ransom for our human bondage to sin. A third description found more in hymns than in theology books, is called the Christus Victor Theory. Christ is the Victorious champion who destroys sin, death, and the devil. It’s a more triumphal picture—but really all three images together describe facets of the one reality that Jesus has redeemed us from the power of sin, death, and the devil.
One key idea of the Christus Victor Theory, comes out of our reading today. The whole lesson is about God’s kingdom entering the world and overcoming the power of the devil’s kingdom—but several mini-lessons are tucked into it. Listen again to one of them: Luke 11:21–22 “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; 22 but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” In this mini-parable, there’s a strong man, and then a stronger man, who defeats him. Who is Jesus comparing the first strong man too? Following His miracle, the “strong man” is the devil, whose “palace” is well-guarded. The demon-possessed man, healed by Jesus, was a captive in the house of a strong man.
The devil is like the prince of thugs—he maliciously attacks people, brings evil, violence, and suffering upon our world. Many are bound up in captivity to the devil, through the slavery of vices, false religion, greed, lust, pride, or anything else to keep us in sin and despair, or blind self-security. The devil’s stronghold is not easily broken into; he guards his captives jealously. Satan’s power is no laughing matter. Do we measure sin lightly? Do we hear, or are we attuned to the cries of misery and suffering from those who are in Satan’s bondage? Do we have a sympathetic ear to those who cry for freedom, but don’t know where and how it might come?
The answer to our human bondage comes from the “stronger man” who attacks the palace of the strong man (the devil), overpowers him, takes away the armor that he trusted in, and divides his spoil. Who is that stronger man? Christus Victor! Christ, our Victorious Lord! Jesus portrays it as an epic contest between two powerful men—but He is clearly the stronger—and He defeats and disarms His enemy the devil.
But this isn’t a cosmic boxing match between Jesus and Satan—a brute display of force. Rather, it was His “divine act of righteousness on the cross, where Jesus stripped Satan of his claims against mankind” (Scaer). Innocently offered up for our sins, bound, beaten, and crucified, it appeared to be the devil’s victory. But the humility and apparent weakness of Jesus’ death concealed the surprise victory that He was going to win! As one Easter hymn sings, “In Satan’s domain, did the hosts shout and jeer; for Jesus was slain, whom the evil ones fear! But short was their triumph, the Savior arose, and death, hell and Satan, He vanquished His foes. The conquering Lord lifts His banner on high; He lives, yes, He lives, and will nevermore die” (LSB 480:2-3). Jesus turned the tables on them and routed them by His glorious resurrection! Jesus attacked and overpowered the devil by His cross and empty tomb.
And suddenly the devil was stripped of his most powerful weapon. He hurled sin and death at Jesus, killing Him, but Jesus rose with just a bruised heel, while the old serpent’s head was crushed. Whenever Jesus healed the demon possessed, this was a preview of Jesus’ authority and command over the devil. He drove them out by the Finger of God! With a touch, and with a Word of command, the demons were forced to flee in fear. This was so astonishing to the crowds, that they actually horribly accused Jesus of being in league with Satan. It seemed incredible to them that here was someone more powerful than the devil. They failed to recognize the Son of God, and that the kingdom of God had arrived! Jesus quickly dismantled their bad logic, and showed that neither Satan nor God work against their own interests, and if a kingdom or house is divided, it will fall. Jesus proved He was in command by God’s authority and power, and that He was releasing captives to spiritual freedom.
In Revelation, we read how the devil has been disarmed. He’s cast out of heaven, and no longer able to accuse the brothers. He’s bound on a heavy chain, like a junkyard dog or a roaring lion. Colossians 2:15 says at the cross Jesus, “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” The “rulers and authorities” that Paul writes about are the league of evil spiritual forces—the devil and all his demons. These Jesus has disarmed and put to shame. The traditional Christian understanding of the descent into hell, is not that Jesus endured any further suffering or shame after the cross, but rather triumphed over the devil by announcing His victory—that He has burst even the gates of hell!
Our reading describes figuratively how Jesus, the stronger man, disarms the devil, plunders His palace and divides the spoil. What does Scripture say about this? Ephesians 4:8–10
When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things).”

We are in the host of captives, Jesus followers, purchased for freedom. Purchased by His precious blood to receive His gifts to mankind. Every sinner freed from the “strong man” is given freedom, forgiveness, and new life. These gifts are wrapped up and presented to you in your Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, and in the hearing of God’s Word. Gifts purchased at His cross, are delivered to you by the means of His grace.
Reviewing once more: Jesus, the stronger man, attacked, overcame, and disarmed the devil, and then divides his spoil. Isaiah 53, that great prophecy of Jesus’ death on the cross, ends with this verse: (12)
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.

Jesus divides the spoil because He poured out His soul to death. This verse describes how the cross was the righteous act where Jesus conquered our sin. The spoil—all the ill-gotten gain of the devil, is stripped from him. The spoils of this spiritual battle rightfully belong to Christ to give out.
The victory of Christ is something to celebrate, for sure. But as Jesus warns the crowd in the next mini-lesson of this teaching, if a person is set free from the malign power of an unclean spirit, and his “house”—that is, his soul—is “swept clean”, but remains empty—he remains susceptible to another devilish attack. Someone better needs to take up residence in the soul, or it too will be unguarded, unprotected. Who else but our Lord and Savior Jesus, and the indwelling of His Holy Spirit? If God dwells in our house—our soul—if God makes our body His temple, then no demons will be welcome there. The Holy Spirit does not “cohabitate” with unclean spirits. If our soul is indwelt by Jesus, the “stronger man”, then we do not fear that the devil can get inside. Who better to entrust our soul to, than to the One who set us free?
An excited woman in the crowd begins praising Jesus, and essentially says—“Your mother is blessed to have you as a Son!” The Virgin Mary was indeed blessed to have Jesus as her Son—but He proclaims a far better blessing that is given not only to Mary, but to you and me and all who believe in Jesus Christ. “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!”  This is truly our great treasure, to hear and keep God’s Word. For by God’s Word the kingdom of God comes among us, bringing all the saving gifts that Jesus brought that day in ancient Israel. Wherever His name is still proclaimed, the devil must retreat, his armor is stripped away, and captives who cry out for release are freed by the mighty name of Jesus. God’s Word still expands God’s Kingdom, and deprives the devil of all his ill-gotten spoil. Christ is Victorious! And whenever we are downtrodden or fearful, we need only turn our eyes to Jesus our Champion, and know that our victory stands secure in Him. In Jesus’ Mighty Name—the Name above all names, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Frequently during His ministry, Jesus cast out demons, some that were causing physical afflictions. How did the skeptics of Jesus’ healing say that He performed miracles? How does Jesus’ show that their claim is illogical? Luke 11:14-19.

  1. Verse 20 contains strong positive statements of what Jesus’ ministry is, and is bringing. What are they, and what does it mean for them? What is the kingdom of God?

  1. In vs. 21-22, who do the ‘strong man’ and ‘stronger man’ represent? How does this tie in with how our salvation is accomplished? What is Jesus saying about Himself in this? What has He done to the devil? Colossians 2:15; Isaiah 53:12; Ephesians 4:8-10.

  1. For the sake of those who have been purged of a demon by Jesus, what warning does He give for their future condition? Luke 11:24-26. In this mini parable, what does the “house” represent? Who may inhabit this house? Who ought to inhabit this house? 1 Corinthians 6:19

  1. A woman from the crowd praises Jesus and says His mother was truly blessed to have Him as a son. How does Jesus point her to a greater blessing available to her, and us as well? Luke 11:28; Luke 8:21.

  1. Christian theologians have explained salvation in several ways; one of them being known as the “Christus Victor” theory of the atonement. It explains that Jesus was victorious over the devil, and defeating the power of sin and death. How does this passage show His victory? Study the bulletin quote. How did Jesus’ victory come about?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Crumbs from my Master's Table

A new hymn to go along with this Sunday's Gospel reading:

Crumbs from my Master’s Table
Text: Joshua V. Schneider
Tune suggestion: LSB 915 “Today Your Mercy Calls Us” (Anthes)
Meter: 76 76 D

1. Crumbs from my Master’s Table
Are truly all I need
No lavish feast or bounty
But simply to be freed
Lord, break this sin’s oppression
Lord, take Your child to You
That we with glad expression
May serve and honor You.

2. My heart with hunger yearning
A taste of mercy seeks
I felt Your back was turning
As tears ran down my cheeks
But then You showed your favor!
Your countenance did shine
At once I knew my Savior,
Your grace was truly mine!

3. My faith clings to no other
Than Jesus Christ my Lord.
God’s Son became my brother
My life with God restored.
He came with God’s forgiveness
My sins all to erase
This Lord and host so gracious
Prepared for me a place.

4. Kneel at the Master’s Table,
His feast before you spread
Our Lord alone is able
To feed you heavenly bread
In hand and mouth He’s given
His body and His blood,
Flows from His side once riven
This highest heavenly food.

5. Your grace is overflowing
My heart is satisfied
My deepest hunger knowing
You bowed your head and died.
Your life for ours was given,
Oh Extraordinary Gift!
We praise our Lord now risen,
Our anthems to you lift!

Δ 6. Praise Father, Son, and Spirit
To God the Three-in-One
Your grace we now inherit
Through Christ the Blessed Son!
All praise and loud thanksgiving
Your Name in glory rests
For all your grace has given,
To all your mercy blessed!

Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28, for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (1 YR), "Unforgettable Faith"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Gospel reading today, with the Canaanite woman coming to Jesus for help, may stir a variety of emotions in us. Sympathy for the woman and her daughter; confusion or even shock at Jesus’ initial cold reaction. And probably amazement at the woman’s unforgettable faith in pursuing Jesus’ help till she received it. But one emotion might be absent that was present among Jesus’ disciples and the original listeners. Resentment.

You see, she was a Canaanite—not a Jew. The shadowy history of her ancestors included lewd and barbaric practices connected to idol worship. That’s why God drove them out of Israel. That stigma hung over her. The disciples thought she was a nuisance, and wanted to be rid of her, and assumed Jesus would too. She followed them around, crying out loudly, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!” But the most puzzling part of the story is why Jesus seemingly played along at first with the disciples’ desire to get rid of her. It seems harsh and unfeeling. But it’s like today’s Old Testament reading, where Jacob wrestles with God, and demands a blessing. Likewise, this Canaanite woman won’t give up, and wrestles with Jesus for a blessing.

But because she was a Canaanite, whether or not she shared in the sins of her ancestors, she was an “outsider” and the disciples’ prejudices were aimed at her. But right from the start she shows that she and her daughter are trying to escape the clutches of evil, as her daughter was tormented by a demon. Words fail to describe a mother’s anguish over her suffering child. And she is not unaware of who Jesus is, but addresses Him—Lord, Son of David! She called Him by a combined title that confessed He was the Messiah, or promised Savior.

Now just imagine if Jesus had healed her upon the first request. Then she would not have faced Jesus’ seeming refusals, persevered, and ultimately proved worthy of this difficult test of faith. But there’s something else going on in the story also. The disciples are part of the discussion, and are trying to keep her from Jesus. There is a double learning opportunity. They’re in for a lesson too. A triple lesson, actually, if you count us into the mix, which you certainly should! But we’ll get to her lesson first.

She is first of all ignored by Jesus, then at her second request, she is shut out, as Jesus tells the disciples He was sent only for the lost sheep of Israel—seeming to confirm their attitudes. And when, on her knees, she again begs, “Lord, help me!” Jesus says, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s not hard to read this as insulting. He’s put her in a bad light, as though she shouldn’t receive the blessings of His kingdom. Ignored, shut out, and humiliated, it seems like Jesus has closed every door for her entry. Martin Luther wrote that Jesus gave her an “extremely unanswerable reply,” and yet although His answers all sound like “No”, they were still undecided and pending. He’s not yet finally, actually said NO.  

What would you do in such a situation? Give up in despair? Demand a place at the table? Shoot back an insult and walk away? It would have been easy enough to succumb to the flip side of the disciple’s prejudice and shoot back with her own. Prejudice can go in many directions when we isolate ourselves into suspicious groups. But instead of responding like that, she presses on, undeterred. Is it any wonder that she had such an unforgettable faith that her story was written down in the Gospels and is still being talked about 2,000 years later?

While we view dogs as friendly and loving animals; in Jesus’ time and especially among the Jews, they were not pets, but were unclean scavengers. A dog was even less than a pig. But in this impossible situation, ignored, shut out, and potentially humiliated, she surrenders none of her dignity but accepts Jesus’ judgment, and catches Him in His words. Yes Lord, but even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table! It’s a masterful reply to Jesus. She’s willing to take seconds, or leftovers. She’s not trying to assert her rights over someone else, but simply claim ever so small a place for His help. Jesus is her Lord, He is her master, and He must help her! She won’t surrender her right of appeal for His help!

And suddenly all His apparent hardness melts, and He opens His heart completely to her. She wrestled with Jesus and won! And Jesus’ answer gives us an answer to why He put her through this triple learning experience—a lesson that pitted her own faith and determination against suffering and opposition; a lesson for the disciples, and for us as well. Jesus says, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Suddenly, the outsider woman, who was a nuisance to them, became the object of Jesus’ praise! She passed the test, and became a remarkable example to the disciples of faith under fire, that remained steadfast in clinging to Him. Against the odds, she held onto Jesus and came to Him. We’re mistaken if we think that our faith should never face testing or opposition, an opportunity to struggle and prove itself or grow.

But what about the disciples’ lesson? Jesus pretty much verbalized their hidden prejudices and biases, when He referred to the children and the dogs. He let them see what it meant to harbor those thoughts, and to keep away a person in need of His love and help. But then He shows them how remarkable her faith was. On many other occasions He had to chide the disciples, “O you of little faith!” What if Jesus were to do the same to us? What if He were to verbalize our hidden prejudices and biases? What if He cut right to the heart of the ways we consciously or subconsciously elevate ourselves above others, or make judgments about who is deserving of God’s help? Would it be painful and embarrassing? What would we learn from it? Who would we treat as outsiders?

While the main point of the Gospel is not about prejudice, clearly part of the lesson for the disciples and us, deals with their willingness to withhold Jesus’ help from the suffering woman. Jesus tells us that He came into the world to save the lost, to heal those who were sick, to give Himself up on the cross for the world. Part of the lesson here is an invitation to see others with the compassionate eyes of Jesus, and to have mercy on those who need Jesus every bit as much as we do. It’s for the disciples and us to see that Jesus’ kingdom and His mercy is a kingdom meant for sharing, for giving away to even the most ignored, shut out, and humiliated in society. His mercy, sent out into the world, creates sons and daughters of Christ, when it touches and transforms hearts and lives. Even the disciples’ lives needed transformation, in this story. As one commentator notes, that their evil thoughts had to be exposed before they could be redeemed. Likewise Jesus confronts the sin and darkness of our hearts, to expose it with the light of His truth and love. And by driving out the darkness, He calls us into His redeeming light. He aims to redeem both the disciples and the woman through this encounter.

But the major point of the Gospel is she doggedly pursued her faith and hope in Jesus, her master, and that she knew He could help her. Crumbs was all she needed—with that she would be content. But when Jesus opened His heart to her, she received much more than that. She was welcomed like a child at last—no longer an outcast, but a daughter of Christ. The burden of her heart, her daughter’s health, was lifted, and her child was freed of the demon.

We come to Christ with our neediness, with sins and guilt afflicting us, with crosses and hardships that we cannot relieve ourselves. Christ invites us to wrestle earnestly with Him; to cry out for mercy, and grab His promises and hold to them tightly. Sometimes in life our prayers are answered with a “no”, for reasons that only God knows. Sometimes no answer seems clear, but we remain persistent in prayer, like Jesus taught in another place, we should always pray and never lose heart (Luke 18:1). And sometimes the answer finally becomes Yes. But there are prayers that are always answered with a “Yes”. The prayer of confession, that God would forgive our sins. Or the prayer for the Holy Spirit, that God would increase our faith. To these, we already have a promised “Yes.” The prayer for wisdom.

When we come in faith to Jesus, just like the Canaanite woman, Jesus opens His heart to us, and He treats us as beloved children, feeding us with more than mere crumbs. In fact, Jesus taught us that He’s the Bread of Life, come down from heaven—the Bread of Life given for the world. Let me read to you what Jesus says about how He feeds us, in John 6:

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (John 6:35-37).

A couple of notable things Jesus says, in relation to today’s story of the woman. Jesus says whoever comes to Him will never hunger, and whoever believes in Him will never thirst. Our spiritual longing is filled and satisfied in Him. We’re not left starving or hungry; He supplies all we need. Then He says whoever comes to Him, He will never cast out. Though the woman felt the sting of apparent rejection, she never gave up, and she came to Jesus and was never cast out. Neither will Jesus turn us away when we come to Him. He welcomes His children. However deep our needs, if we are at our Master’s table, we’ve found the right helper. We can confidently say we’ve found our Savior, and His grace is ours!

Saving faith must always, finally rest here on Jesus. It looks to Him alone for help, and doesn’t give up or lose hope. It’s the confident trust that the Holy Spirit works in us, to know that Jesus truly is our Savior, Helper, and Friend, and that whatever we may face in this life, we can endure it with Him. For He is our Lord and Master, Son of David. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Matthew 15:21-28 features Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman. The Canaanites had a dark history of lewd and barbaric practices connected to their idol worship. How did that color the disciples’ attitudes toward her? Who are those against whom we harbor prejudices and stereotypes today?
  2. Right from the start, the woman shows unusual faith by calling Jesus, “Lord, Son of David.” What do these two titles confess about Jesus? What does it say about her unfailing hope in finding help from Him?
  3. Both the disciples and the woman interact with Jesus on separate sides. What do you learn by placing yourself in the shoes of each side? In what way does God’s Word “pierce” and reveal what’s in our hearts? Hebrews 4:12-13. One author observes that “evil cannot be redeemed until it is exposed.” What does Jesus want the woman, disciples, and us to learn?
  4. What do Jesus’ disciples want to do with the woman? How does Jesus seemingly agree with them, and start to close the door on the woman?
  5. Dogs were not pets in the Jewish world, but unclean scavengers. What responses might we expect from her, in the face of this? What is the surprise of her response, and how does she catch Jesus in His words?
  6. When the hardness of Jesus’ initial responses finally melts, what does He give and grant to her? What do the disciples learn from this experience and example?
  7. Jesus gives His love to all the world. How can we bring those “outside” His church into His love?

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Sermon on Genesis 3:1-21, for the 1st Sunday in Lent (1 Year Lectionary), "The Conscience under sin"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Genesis 3 is one of the foundational events in the Bible. We often call it “The Fall” or the “Fall into Sin”. It was a turning point in very early human history. God had just completed creation, and Adam and Eve were in perfect harmony with Him. They tended the Garden of Eden; had access to the Tree of Life. But they had one command: to avoid the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If they ate of it they would surely die.
But how quickly paradise came unraveled, as the devil whispered doubt into Eve’s ear: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’? And doubts of God’s Word and commands have plagued humanity ever since. If we could only trust that the wise and all powerful God actually knows and tells us, His creatures, what is best for us, we would be infinitely better off. But ever since Eve first gave room for that doubt, and began to agree with Satan’s deceitful twisting of God’s Word, mankind has continued on that track. Again and again we question, “Did God really say…you shall not…?”. “Did God really say…In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth?” “Did God really say, He made them male and female, and the two shall become one flesh?” “Did Jesus really say, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me?” Piece by piece humans try to dismantle God’s Word. And by dismantling the truth, we fall over and over for the devil’s lies. We lift our reason above God’s Word, and substitute our “better ideas” for His Word.
This is coupled with the seduction of the devil. He made Eve think that God was holding out on them, and that there was something delightful to be gained by eating the fruit. “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” At the same time that the devil made it sound wonderful and appealing, she was forgetting her identity—she was already like God, because God had made them in His image! The dreadful lie hid the fact that opening their eyes to the knowledge of evil would open them to a world of selfishness, sin, death, suffering, and pain. The world would never look the same again. They would never look the same again. Eating together, they suddenly became aware of their nakedness, and felt the shame and guilt of their sin. Not so delightful after all…to have eyes opened to evil. Now afraid that God would find out, they foolishly attempted to hide.
Temptation is often seductive, appealing to our senses—something beautiful, something clever, something all too persuasive, something we just have to have, something irresistible. But like bait on a fishing lure, we’re blind to the hook that will reel us in. God’s Word, however, trains us to be discerning, to have wisdom to judge what is right and wrong. The Holy Spirit teaches us self-control, to resist temptation when it comes, to see through lies; to eye the real danger and avoid the hook.
The sad thing is that Adam was not off doing something else while Eve was being tempted, but standing right alongside her, the silent abettor to the devil’s deception. He watched as she ate, and said nothing. 1 Timothy tells us that while Eve was deceived by Satan’s temptation, Adam was not. He knew what was happening, and he let her sin, and then followed her, when he took the fruit and ate. No small wonder that God held Adam chiefly accountable for the sin, and that the Bible says sin entered through this one man, Adam.
While some people accuse God of unfairness, that we are saddled with Adam’s sins—Scripture reminds that we’ve all sinned like him; adding to the rebellion and offense against God. Our patterns of sin follow Adam and Eve’s, ever so closely. How often have we silently stood by while our spouse or a friend or loved one was about to swallow sin—hook, line and sinker? How often have we been lured by a clever lie, and followed headlong, with no regard to God’s warnings or the consequences?
But we also imitate our primal father and mother in how they responded after they sinned. Though the verses don’t mention their conscience, clearly they are playing out the first familiar motions of a guilty conscience. Before their sin, they had no guilt or shame. Their relationship with God was open and loving, with no element of fear. Once they sinned, the guilty knowledge of their conscience changed everything. Now they cowered in fear at the sound of God approaching. Now they felt guilt and shame, and hid their nakedness with fig leaves. Now they jumped to blaming and rationalizations to excuse or defend their behavior.
We have the same conscience, and it responds the same way under sin. It’s the God-given voice that warns us we’re about to do something bad. It tells us right from wrong, and convicts us of guilt when we do wrong, or affirms us when we do right. The healthy conscience helps steer us on the right path. But the guilty and afflicted conscience, when we’ve violated God’s Law, sounds the alarm bells. Then comes the danger that the conscience will, as Luther says, try to adopt “illicit defenses and remedies.” Unlawful defenses and bad medicine! That’s what we try to take when we’re caught in sin!
And the trouble only gets worse. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. No one takes responsibility. When we play the “blame game” we are really just pushing our responsibility off to someone else. God desires that we own up to our sin; take responsibility by admitting what we have done wrong, and not trying to hide it. This is what it means to confess our sins, or to repent or turn away from them. We see our error for what it is, and reject our sin as something wrong, harmful, and deadly to us. But all too often, instead of doing that, as God would have us, we cling to our sin, or persist in it. We try to hide it under the radar with our fig leaves, thinking that God won’t see.
Another “illicit defense” is excuses or self-justifications for our sin. “The woman you gave  to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” “It wasn’t my idea.” “She told me to do it.” “You put us together.” Going further than Adam and Eve, we sometimes even try to argue for the “rightness” of our wrong actions. We try to convince ourselves, God, or others that a certain sin or act of disobedience was really OK. We twist ourselves up to make excuses. You may be lucky enough to have an honest spouse, friend, or co-worker who calls you on it when you are making excuses, so that again, you take the real responsibility for the wrong.
You see, our conscience cries out for some quiet, for some comfort, and it readily jumps to bad solutions, unhealthy remedies. But these can never truly quiet the conscience. We don’t want our conscience to “go rogue” or malfunction. Guilty knowledge plagues us and can propel us further into sin, or despair, or more excuses. But what we truly need, and what Adam and Eve also truly needed, was God’s own remedy for our conscience. For a lawful defense of our conscience. For a  way out of the sin-ridden, guilt plagued mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into. It was too late for Adam and Eve to return to the garden. They couldn’t repair that damage. But God was preparing a remedy.
The first glimmer of that hopeful promise is in Genesis 3:15—the protoevangelion, or “first Gospel”. God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” In mysterious words, God said that the offspring of Eve would bruise (or crush, in some translations) the serpent’s head, but that the serpent would bruise his heel. In other words, one of her own descendants would defeat the power of the tempter, who had led them into this horror of sin. Centuries and millennia would pass, with the faithful among Adam and Eve’s descendants, holding to and clinging to that promise of God sending a Deliverer. Down through the ages, God unveiled more and more details of His plan, pointing ahead to the Messiah, His anointed One, who would defeat the devil.
All through that history He never abandoned His people, and bore with them through all their wanderings and failures, but continued to hold before them His Commands and His Promises, His Law and His Gospel. He was faithful to them, even when they were unfaithful. And always pointing back to the promised Savior. And one day in the waters of the Jordan River, the long awaited One emerged from His baptism, was anointed by the Holy Spirit, and went into the desert to be tempted and tried by the devil, just as Adam and Eve once were. Just as the Israelites in the wilderness were. Just like you and I are. Only He faced the temptations and was victorious. He was not deceived or seduced by the devil’s clever words, even in His great hunger and weakness. And Jesus would go on to teach all the words of eternal life, that we may believe, and be rescued from the devil’s destructive plan. Jesus would teach the truth that exposed the devil’s lies. He would shatter our illicit defenses, self-justifications, and bogus remedies for a troubled conscience, and in their place He speaks true and lasting comfort to the conscience.
First He makes us own up to our sins in repentance. Then by creating faith in Him, He gives us forgiveness—a full and free absolution or pardon of all our sins. Finally, He ensures that all this is a just and legal defense of our conscience, by taking all the guilt and punishment we rightfully deserved on Himself. At the cross. With the head of the serpent lying crushed beneath. Jesus came as the Messiah, the true cure and defense of the conscience, the true deliverer from the power and might of sin, death, and the devil. And in Him, God restores to you a clean conscience. A conscience that is clothed and covered in the garments, not of animals, but of Christ’s own righteousness, A conscience that does not tremble in fear at God’s presence, but that stands humbly and gratefully in the presence of God who has acquitted us of our sins, and counted His Son’s good record to our favor, by faith. The good conscience knows these things rightly—God’s Law, our sin, and our Savior. And in our Savior Jesus, our conscience finds it’s true and legitimate peace. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read Genesis 3:1-21, often called the “Fall into Sin.” What is it that Adam and Eve “fell from”? What was their relationship with God, before, and after they sinned?
  2. In verse 1, what was the key way that the devil undermined God’s Word to Adam and Eve? Why did she fall for it? What does 1 Timothy 2:13-14 tell us about the difference between Adam and Eve’s realization of what they were doing?
  3. Read Genesis 3:6. Where was Adam while Eve was being tempted? What did he say to stop the devil from tempting her? In Scripture, who is held accountable for first bringing sin into the world? Romans 5:12-14.
  4. Viewing the story from the standpoint of conscience—what was the condition of Adam and Eve’s conscience before and after they sinned? What different techniques did they begin to use to deal with this new guilty knowledge in their consciences? Why didn’t it work?
  5. In Genesis 3:15 God declares a future remedy for this deception of the servant. Who would come, and what would happen to defeat the old lies of the serpent, and defeat His power? 1 John 3:8; Romans 16:20; Hebrews 2:14; Revelation 20:1-3, 10.
  6. What consequences of sin and curses upon the earth, fell on Satan, Eve, and Adam? How do we share in those consequences? Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12; 8:20-23.
  7. In what ways does our sin corrupted conscience mimic the behaviors of Adam and Eve? What is proper way to deal with a guilty conscience, according to Scripture? Luke 24:47 . How did God take care of Adam and Eve as they were forced to leave Eden? Genesis 3:21. What does this foreshadow, and how are we clothed? Galatians 3:27

Monday, February 27, 2017

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, for Quinquagesima (Fifty) Sunday, "The Greatest Gift is Love"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. [Welcome to all of our Grade School children and families this morning! It’s a blessing to have your voices joining us in praise to Jesus our Lord! ] Today is the last Sunday before the church starts its season of Lent, beginning this Ash Wednesday. If you’re not familiar with it, Lent is the more somber season of reflection on the cross of Jesus, and why He had to go to the cross to suffer for our sins. It’s a time to renew the call to confess our sins to Him, humble ourselves, and to seek His forgiveness, but also a time to marvel at the greatest story of God’s love for us. In the Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples are amazed and confused that He would have to suffer shamefully and die, in order to accomplish God’s plan. He told them this beforehand, but they couldn’t really grasp it till later. The season of Lent is also our preparation for Easter, when the mood changes from more subdued and reflective to overflowing joy at the celebration of Jesus’ victory over the grave! Both the sad and serious account of His death and the joyful celebration of the resurrection are essential to the story of Jesus’ love for us.
1 Corinthians 13 is our sermon text today, and it’s often called the Great Love Chapter, and is a favorite passage at weddings. It’s not hard to figure out why people love this chapter, because it’s such a lofty and beautiful description of love. But when we listen closely and reflect on it, some things become painfully apparent. Do we have this love? Try substituting the word “I” for love in verse 4-7. Does it fit? Do we dare say that “I do not insist on my own way, I am not irritable or resentful…etc?” Is the chapter a perfect description of our love? Not just when we might be at our best, but always? I have to admit right off, that my own love falls far short. Yes I aspire to this love, but I cannot claim that I even come close to reflecting that perfect love.
But try this instead. Try substituting the name “Jesus” for love. [Jesus] is patient and kind, [Jesus] does not envy or boast; [He] is not arrogant or rude. [Jesus] does not insist on [His] own way; [He] is not irritable or resentful; [He] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. [Jesus] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Does Jesus have this love? Yes, in full measure. Isn’t that just what He showed by perfect patience and suffering on the cross, with no bitter or angry words towards those who tormented Him—but only forgiveness and love? And this is just what the Bible tells us, “God is love.” But what becomes painfully obvious is the huge gap between God’s love, and ours. How to close that gap? How to get God’s love in our life?
The prayer in your bulletin reflects on the fact that God’s love isn’t something He can separate from Him. If we desire His love to live in us, He needs to live in us. And the amazing thing is that God wants to do this very thing in our lives. God doesn’t want love to just be a high and lofty abstraction that nobody actually lives or practices. He doesn’t want love to be something we just talk about in beautiful words, but never do. Rather He wants love to be flesh and blood, real, tangible, expressed in our daily lives. He wants it to take shape in real actions, living kindness, acts of service, humbly doing what is good, not for our own gain or praise, but because it is the good and right thing to do. Just as Jesus, in His own flesh and blood, came and loved the world so much that He gave Himself for us on the cross—to die that we could live. Jesus is the living flesh and blood actions of God’s love in the world; for us.
This chapter of the Bible is also surrounded by the talk of other spiritual gifts of God, but it elevates love as the essential gift—to borrow another Bible verse, love binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:14). So consider how much more important and greater the gift of love is. Verse two could read like a math problem: All prophetic powers + understanding all mysteries + all knowledge + all faith – love = what? Equals nothing! He describes how we could do great and noble things, have knowledge, have power, give away everything we have—but if it’s without love, it amounts to nothing! Subtract love from the equation and you are left with zero! That’s astonishing, because with our school minds and grading scales, we feel like there should be some credit, right? Partial credit? No! Paul says without love “I am nothing; I gain nothing.”
And then those remarkable words about what love is, and what it isn’t. Love won’t  achieve its goals by self-seeking, insisting on its own way. Just consider what that means. It’s not love to manipulate others to get what you want, even if it’s done with smiles and flattery. It’s not love to take what you want or to serve your own desires. Love, if it is not self-seeking, must truly be seeking after the good of the person whom we love. Without a promise of something in return. A generous, self-giving desire for the good of someone else. This is the kind of love that isn’t irritable or resentful, that doesn’t chalk up every bad thing done and keep the scorecard as a weapon of bitterness and resentfulness. This is the kind of love that bears and endures all things. A love that bears with injuries without contemplating retaliation or revenge. A love that breaks down the walls of hate by showing honest and sincere intentions, and that builds up love by the genuine acts of good.  
If we do not see this kind of love in evidence in our own lives and relationships, not just husband to wife but parents to children and brother to sister and friend to neighbor, and yes, even Jesus’ reminder of friend to our enemies…If we don’t see that kind of love in evidence, can we at least recognize how desperately we need it? If not, I fear we are too cynical or jaded about our own selfishness or the treatment we have received others. But the point of this chapter is not that love is some fiction or fantasy, but that this is the real shape and form of God’s own love. And that love is in evidence in the teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And His love is a living love that He is still giving, whenever He gives us the very gift of Himself. To begin to see His love in evidence in our lives, in this way, is to be in living fellowship with Him.
Scripture gives us this other beautiful description of love: “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins…We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:10,19). The first-love of God is Jesus sacrificing Himself for our sins. We won’t start to truly love the way that God does until we receive His first love. He teaches us that self-sacrificing, self-giving love, that starts to transform and shape our lives. His Spirit takes hold in our lives so that we begin to be aware of the times and ways that we act or think in ways that are not love, and to confess these as sins that only He can take away.
If we are believers in Christ, and have earnestly been seeking His love in our lives, but find ourselves discouraged by our lack of progress, or frustrated by our failures, we won’t find the answer by navel-gazing, and looking to ourselves. Rather, the only answer is to continually fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. When our eyes are on Him, He will continue to transform us into His image. What we see in this life, as the last verses of the reading describe, is only something partial. We see now in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Life with its troubles, and we with our sins, are like a dirty mirror that gives an imperfect picture, a cloudy reflection. But Jesus has in store for us the perfection which will come, and the time when we shall see Him face to face. All will then be clear, all will then be clean. There we shall know fully what we have only understood in part. We will know God perfectly as He already knows us now.
It is a great privilege and amazing blessing to be known and loved by God. Even with the imperfect example of our love for our children, we know how deeply we love them, even at times when they don’t seem to see or realize it. Sometimes they may fight against our love. But in love we still pursue what is good for them. How much more, how much greater is it to be known by and loved by God, who doesn’t suffer from any of the imperfections of love that we do, but who loves us fully and perfectly for our own good. He pursues what is good for us at any cost—even the greatest cost of dying on the cross for our sins. The greatest story of love is truly the story of God sending Jesus to save us lost children, and to give us the gift of His eternal love. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. 1 Corinthians 13 is known as “The Great Love Chapter” as it beautifully describes love. Read 1 Corinthians 12:31, which introduces this chapter. With what honorable title(s) does he name the gift of love?
  2. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-2, what do we amount to if we are lacking love, but possess other great gifts? Why is that?
  3. Review the positive descriptions of love and the negative descriptions (what it is not) in verses 4-7. How does this force us to take an uncomfortable “look in the mirror” at ourselves? Do we often find our love matching this description, or falling into the descriptions of what love is not?
  4. How do we normally define “love”, in everyday life? Do we think primarily about what we want or how we feel? Notice how anything like those descriptions are missing here. 
  5. What causes our “love” to fall short? By contrast, the love described here is not self-seeking. Whose love does this love best describe? John 3:16; 15:13-14; Romans 5:8-10. How was Jesus’ love a perfect love?
  6. Read 1 John 4:10, 19. Who initiated love? How does that love have its effect in us? If we are to have the love described in 1 Corinthians 13, who must we be joined to?
  7. Why is love different from the other spiritual gifts, in that it will endure forever? Why is love the greatest of the spiritual gifts of God?
8.      Read Luke 18:31-33. When Jesus died on the cross, He endured incredible abuse and hatred. And yet how did He perfectly show love even as His enemies mistreated Him?