Monday, January 26, 2009

Sermon on Jonah 3:1-5,10, for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, "God's Constant Mercy"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is from the book of Jonah 3:1-5,10. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our sermon text begins after Jonah’s famous three day ordeal in the belly of the great fish or whale, a sign that Jesus said foreshadowed His own three day death and burial. Jonah was spit out on the land and called a second time to the task from which he had run. He wasn’t going to escape the work that God had laid for him. Jonah was a reluctant worker, but he learned to obey after his experience with the fish. God’s command was greater than his fear or unwillingness to do his task. He obeyed after the Lord commanded him a second time to go to Nineveh. We also ought to act according to God’s will and word, and not undertake anything without God’s Word.

So why was Jonah so reluctant in his task? A brief word about the city of Nineveh. It was the capital of the Assyrian empire, a people known for their cruelty and brutality in warfare. Their reputation sprung terror in the hearts of all the surrounding nations, including the divided kingdom of Israel—the northern half of Israel eventually being swallowed up by Assyrian conquerors. These were Jonah’s mission prospects. A city of people renowned for their wickedness and their cruelty, and worshippers of an array of idols. The prophet Nahum later described Nineveh as a “bloody city, all full of lies and plunder” (Nah. 3:1). Yet neither were they uncultured barbarians. They had a wealth of fine art and culture, and part of their legacy to archaeologists was a huge library of ancient clay tablets. They were an educated and advanced society, but relentlessly cruel. Can you see why Jonah was more than a little shy to go to them?

For many years, some had doubted whether Nineveh really existed, so thoroughly was it destroyed in the centuries after Jonah. All trace of the city had been lost for more than two millennia, until in the 1840’s, French archaeologists rediscovered it near the modern day city of Mosul, Iraq; a huge site rich with artifacts still being uncovered today. So it was to these people that the reluctant prophet Jonah went. God’s command was greater than his fear or reluctance to go. The story of Jonah reveals his selfishness and unwillingness to go, and even his self-righteous indignation when God spared the city.

Do we unconsciously set parameters in our own minds, for who we should and shouldn’t witness to? Are we only looking for the wealthy, or the educated, or those who look like, dress like, or think like us? Or are there some people who we would begrudge God’s mercy? May that never be! Fear, self-righteousness, reluctance are all things that would stop us from telling God’s Word to someone, when there’s an opportunity but it seems awkward or difficult. Maybe they are stubbornly resistant to God’s word and commandments, and it’s a warning of the law that they need to hear. Like saying the time is short to get right with God. Or that God doesn’t condone that lifestyle, and they might be missing out on the blessings of living according to God’s Word. Or maybe their heart is open, but they’re broken and despairing, having no hope or feeling too unclean to come to God. They feel as if their chances are gone, their life has become a dead end. Then we speak the comforting word of the Gospel, and tell how even sinners like the Ninevites were spared when they repented and believed in God.

Think how unlikely it was to get any response from such an openly wicked city as Nineveh! They needed to hear the law in its full severity. Jonah probably feared for his own life, going to the people and to take the message: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Jonah had just had his own near miss with death, for his willful disobedience to God—and had been spared his life when he repented and called to God for mercy. Shouldn’t he have seen the parallel to the Ninevites? That God could spare them too, if they turned from their sin? Apparently that was the very thing he feared! That God would show mercy, and these pagan sinners would be spared. And what a contrast to Israel! God had sent them countless prophets, countless warnings to turn from their idolatry, from their disobedience to God. Yet they kept on in their sin, and didn’t listen. They should’ve known in the first place, because Israel had been given God’s word and commands, and were His chosen people!

What a surprise then, both to Jonah, and to the Israelites who heard his story, that these pagan Ninevites, who knew nothing of God’s Word, and were renowned for their wickedness, would so quickly repent and believe! It ought to serve as a lesson to us about the temptation to think that God’s mercy is only for those who’ve been outwardly religious, or moral. Or that people who’ve been hardened sinners, or who’ve been far from God’s word and commands cannot have a true change of heart and be fully received into God’s grace. This should stop us to think about how we need to welcome and fully receive anyone who turns from their sin and comes to believe in Jesus Christ, and not to hang their old sins over them. Lest we become like Jonah, who was spared death and shown mercy, only to begrudge God’s mercy to others. Yet how merciful God is, even to Jonah, to use a reluctant worker like himself for a great purpose. So may God also use you and I when we’re hesitant or stubborn about doing His work, and help us to search out and find those unlikely people who are just as much in need of God’s Word.

Did you also notice how Nineveh was an example of national repentance? That the king issued a decree, and all of them from the greatest to the least mourned in sackcloth and ashes and fasted. The threat of disaster brought a whole nation to its knees in repentance and prayer. In the past, when a serious disaster hit the nation, churches would have a national day of fasting and prayer, and there are even special services for this. The understanding wasn’t that disasters were a punishment for some specific sin, but rather that these are a call to repentance because we realize life is short. Would we ever see such a corporate act of repentance on the part of our nation? A recognition of our collective sin and need to turn to God in repentance? Unfortunately in the case of the Ninevites’ repentance—however many were saved by Jonah’s message—a hundred years later or so, they had lapsed back into their old ways and the city was finally overturned as the prophet Nahum warned. This too should be a lesson of not taking God’s mercy for granted, and falling back into sin.

But perhaps the most important message from the story of Jonah, is that God is constant in His mercy. The message Jonah preached was of the fierce judgment of God that was coming for their sin. God’s judgment is against the hard-hearted and unrepentant. There seemed little hope for grace. Yet the text says that “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth”…and then “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened” (Jonah 3:5,10). Rather than following through with the destruction He planned, God observed their repentant hearts and actions, and showed His constant mercy to them. It’s God’s delight to show mercy for the repentant and sorrowful in heart. He desires that the sinner turn from his way and live. He would not destroy the repentant.

Jesus declared that the sign of the prophet Jonah—his three-day “burial” in the belly of the huge fish, and his release, was a “type” or you might say a “picture prophesy” of His own three day death and burial, and subsequent resurrection. In Jesus’ own words: “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:40-41). Jesus called the people of His generation to account for not repenting at His preaching. Here Jesus was, the one greater than Jonah—greater in who He was, greater in His sternness, but also greater in His compassion and constant mercy to those who would turn and repent. Jesus pointed out their stubbornness in not turning at His message, compared to how readily the Ninevites believed. They were witness to the fact that God could raise up a people for Himself even from the Gentiles, not only among the Jews. It reminds us that the Gospel won’t always stay with us if we despise it and ignore it.

But this sign of Jonah, the three-day burial and resurrection of Jesus, was to be the one miraculous and confirming sign of who Jesus was. Jesus would be most clearly known through His death and resurrection. Literally brought to the pit of death by God’s wrath, suffering an awful death for sin on the cross, Jesus puts before our eyes the radical penalty of sin and God’s judgment. So we don’t take His call to repentance idly. And from the darkest depths of the grave, God vindicated and raised His innocent Son Jesus to life again. Jonah was delivered from the belly of the whale; Jesus was delivered from the darkness of the grave. Nineveh was delivered at least for a generation from the destruction God had threatened; and God patiently waits for people to repent today, so that they may be delivered from the final judgment falling against them. Jesus delights to show mercy to the broken-hearted, to the poor in spirit, to the sorrowful. The cross is a sign of God’s constant mercy.

Our second reading warns us that the time is short, and the world in its present form is passing away. Believe without delay, for we don’t know when the end will come. Have we been on the run from God and His calling for our lives? Have we been disobedient and ignored His call to repentance? Have we not shown mercy as mercy was shown to us by Jesus? Now is the time to be right with God. Now is the time to repent, turn to God and believe. To mourn our sin, but rejoice in the constant mercy of the only true God—the One who turns away from destroying the repentant. We, like the Ninevites have been spared a great judgment, and by trusting in Jesus, we’re shown mercy. And we’re joined in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus through our baptism (Rom. 6). In baptism we’re joined to Christ, so that in His mercy we’re spared from God’s judgment, and given a new way to live after Him. We’re linked with His mercy and we’re linked with His Life, to walk in new paths, to live as though we’re not attached to the things of this world. For this world in its present form is passing away. Even in our reluctance, fear, and imperfection, we’re being used by God to accomplish His purposes. His love is constantly working on our hearts, renewing us after Him. And the God of constant mercy will safely carry us through to our eternal home.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.



Sermon Talking Points
1. What task might God be calling you to, for which you are a reluctant worker?
2. Are there people you have given up on witnessing to, because you assumed they were “beyond hope”?
3. How does God show His constant mercy to the repentant?
4. How is the sign of Jonah related to Jesus?
5. What assurance does Jesus’ constant mercy to us at the cross bring to those who have repented and are troubled of their sin?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sermon on Philippians 2:15-16a, for Life Sunday, "The Word of Life"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today many churches across the country are observing Life Sunday, and putting a special emphasis on the life that God has granted to us, the value He places on it, and the calling He has given to us in living out our lives. The sermon text, as found in the special bulletin insert, is Philippians 2:15-16a: “Be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

First of all, we might ask, “Why be concerned about life issues?” There are a variety of answers to that question. Not least among them is that life is constantly being devalued around us, or not valued at all. But we have been given a calling to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.” Crooked and twisted thinking is responsible for attitudes that devalue life or give excuses for not treating human life with dignity. And this is inconsistent with how we as Christians have been called to live. We have been called to be innocent of this, and to shine as lights in this world—to be examples of not succumbing to the distorted thinking that lowers the value of life. I want you to begin thinking about what it is or who it is that gives human life value.

But first, where is human life threatened? I’m talking about more than just the daily, unexpected dangers from things like travel, unexpected illness, fire, crime, etc. But rather about organized or systematic attacks against human life and dignity. The danger begins in the womb, from the time of conception—the danger of abortion. It continues in life when people’s rights are wrongfully taken away, it continues to the deathbed where some people are pressing for a “right to die” expressed in euthanasia (or so-called “assisted suicide”) laws. In every case where human life is under attack, one common, underlying theme is that “all human lives are not equally valuable.” But is that true? Is the life of one more valuable than another? From a Christian standpoint we know this isn’t true. We believe as the Scriptures teach, that mankind is made in God’s image (Gen. 9:6). And Scripture again and again makes the point that God is no respecter of persons, He shows no favoritism or partiality (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11). God does not esteem the wealthy above the poor, or the strong above the weak, or the healthy above the sick.

One doesn’t even need to be a Christian to understand that all life is equally valuable, though God’s Word certainly makes it inescapable for us. Simple reason and fairness should lead people to conclude that all human life is equal; and many do come to this conclusion, quite apart from being Christian. Unfortunately though, it isn’t always…and hasn’t always been self-evident to all people that these things are true. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, it’s “self-evident that all men are created equal, and are endowed by God with certain unalienable rights;” and what’s the first among those rights? The right to life! Yet throughout history not every nation has recognized that created equality or that right to life. Even with those words in our Declaration of Independence, our nation allowed the horrible practice of slavery to continue for many decades, in violation of that created equality and right to life and liberty. So having the words on paper is no guarantee that we’ll live by them and uphold those ideals!

It’s scarily similar for Christians. Just because the Word of God says something, or our church publicly teaches it, doesn’t guarantee that we’ll live by those ideals. We live in a crooked and twisted generation. We easily absorb distorted thinking from our surrounding society. Think how heavily outweighed God’s Word is, just in the amount of time we hear or take it in every week, compared to the time we give to music, television, movies, internet, etc. How little we hear of the “word of life” in contrast to all the other “stuff” that comes into our eyes and ears. These things influence our thinking in ways both subtle and obvious, at times either mildly or powerfully. I don’t think the answer is to adopt the mentality of “See no evil, hear no evil” and simply insulate ourselves. We do need to interact with the world around us. Jesus didn’t say that it’s what comes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out of their heart and mouth that defiles them (Matt. 15:10-20). But we’re to be blameless and innocent children of God. We’re not to be drawn into the world’s twisted way of thinking, or follow in its actions, or speak it from our mouths. So we do need to guard what messages come into us from society and from media, and process it by God’s Word, to see that we don’t become sucked into false ways of thinking.

Especially in regards to the value of human life. It should be a prominent concern in our minds that 3,000 children are aborted every day in America, and that in the approximately 36 years since its legalization, there have been 48-50 million lives lost to abortion in America alone. By sheer numbers alone, this constitutes the greatest threat to human life today. When you count the mothers, fathers, siblings, families and friends that are also impacted, the number of lives affected is greatly multiplied. So many lives have been affected by this tragedy, that has at its root a disregard for the equal value of human life.

So why preach about it in church? Because there are countless lives that are broken by this sin, or living with unforgiven guilt, and unresolved grief, and these are at the heart of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ addresses. Along with that is the distinctive message of life’s value that comes from God’s Word. Women across the country who’ve undergone abortion procedures in the past are beginning to speak out and let their voice be heard through organizations like Silent No More Awareness Campaign, and a recent advertising effort called “Abortion Changes You.” I want to share with you one woman’s reflection about her experience with grief after abortion, and don’t worry, it’s not going to be graphic.

She wrote: “I could not find solace from the haunting in my heart. This change within me was everywhere, and nothing I could do would let me escape. So I cried, and cried, and cried. As time passed, the nagging in my heart subsided periodically, as I worked to push those thoughts out of my mind. The efficiency of this tactic only lasted 2 years, until I finally decided to face the music and find healing. I know women who echo my words, some waiting 15 years or more before seeking restoration.” She continued to describe the healing process in this way: “It may be one of the toughest topics to face, but it is crucial for future success. When we don’t deal with issues in our lives, they can taint our future outlook, dreams, and desires. In facing the past, specifically abortion, one can grieve, heal, and move on to enjoy the life God has given them. God has forgiven repentant men and women for the act of abortion, but forgiveness is not healing. Men and women must walk through the process of tackling grief.”

I would just point out that forgiveness certainly is the beginning of healing, even if there still remains grief to be resolved afterward. But her story is repeated by countless women, and even men who regret lost fatherhood. The details and the extent of the guilt or grief may vary; the consequence on their lives may differ, but their common theme is that it does change you. This is why it’s so important that we raise awareness and help people affected by abortion to speak about it, confront their actions, and repent and find healing. Organizations that have been started by women who themselves have gone through this, want to help others avoid making the same mistake, and suffering through the same emotions. And to stop the unhealthy, gnawing grief from pushing people into self-destructive behaviors or despair.

So what we can do is shine like lights in the world, bringing the word of life to people that may be very near to us, people who’ve also been affected. First people need to face the reality that an innocent life was taken, and to own the responsibility. Then to ask and be given Christ Jesus’ forgiveness for this sin, to have His mercy wash over your heart and soul, to know that your sin is covered. To know that you’ve been forgiven, of this sin or any other, is the beginning of the healing of that pain, the fear of guilt, and a burden that you cannot carry alone. And Jesus has taken that burden from you! That is the joy of forgiveness! Finally a person can begin to deal with unresolved grief they feel, or even allow themselves to grieve for the first time. And we should allow ourselves to grieve whenever there’s been a significant loss in our lives, whether the death of an unborn child, or of a loved one, or even to have separation from someone dear to us. But when we grieve as Christians, we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13-14). But “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Our hope is in the resurrection from the dead, of a new life for believers in Christ. We entrust the unborn children who have died to the merciful and compassionate God who has shown His boundless love through His Son Jesus Christ. Our hope is in the word of life.

It’s this word of life that changes our perspective, that helps us to see the value of all human life, to treat all human life from conception to the grave with dignity. It’s the word of life that shows us that God is the one who gives value to life, and that it’s not us who give life its meaning or value. This is how God’s word teaches about the value of our life. First of all human life is valuable because we’re created in the image of God, as I said before. Life is valuable because God is the Creator, and He doesn’t show partiality among people. Secondly, all human life is valuable because Jesus redeemed us or bought us back. How? He “redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death” (explanation to the 2nd Article, cf. 1 Peter 1:18-19). Human life not just in general, but yours specifically, is valuable because Jesus Christ shed His precious blood for you. The only Son of God, whose blood is more precious than gold or silver, was poured out for your life. So never doubt or question the worth or value of your life, since God cared so much for you!

And third, our lives as Christians are valuable because God has sanctified us, He has set us apart for this holy purpose of being blameless and innocent in this crooked and twisted generation. God values us because He has a purpose, a plan, a calling for us. To be lights in a dark world, to be God’s children in all we do, and to live with the joy of His word of life. Our life is valuable because the Holy Spirit has set His seal upon us in baptism, and He has called and gathered us into His church to hear and be nourished by the word of life, by the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. His word of life that enters our ears and changes our hearts to pure and wholesome thought, to a vibrant love for and respect for all human life, and a desire for us to protect and show dignity to life in whatever ways we are able. Jesus died on the cross to destroy the works of sin and death, and rose to show His power to do it. May His word of life be ready on our lips, and permeate our lives, so that we can help break the silence and bring healing to hurting souls, and to speak boldly about the God-given value of human life. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.


Sermon Talking Points:
1. Why do Christians need to be concerned about life issues? How can we stay informed?
2. Name some specific examples of how human life is devalued. How can we help change those attitudes?
3. What are examples of crooked and twisted thinking about life, and how do we try to justify it? How does society, the media, etc try to justify it?
4. What are the implications of the equal value of all human life, and the right to life?
5. What threefold value does God give to our lives? (hint: think of the Creed)
6. What comfort does the “word of life” bring to us, or others? Who can you share it with? How does it change our outlook on life?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sermon on Isaiah 42:1-7, for the Baptism of Our Lord, "He Brings Forth Justice"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is Isaiah 42:1-7, the first of what are called the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah. The Servant Songs are a series of prophecies where God speaks about His chosen servant, who would bring redemption and God’s work upon the earth. They speak about the Messiah or the Christ, and the description is sometimes referred to as the “Suffering Servant,” because Isaiah prophecies in detail about His crucifixion. Today we’re going to look at how Jesus, the Suffering Servant brings justice to the earth. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

He Brings Forth Justice...Being on the receiving end of justice can produce a variety of responses. Are we getting what we justly deserve? Then justice might evoke resignation or a burdening sense of guilt. Maybe our “justice” is that we’ve made our own bed to lie in; we’ve dug our own pit, etc. Justice can mean the equal application of the law, in a way that doesn’t regard social class or standing, but is the simple, moral and mechanical application of the law. If this is the kind of justice we’ve received, whether we think it’s deserved or not; then to hear that Jesus “brings forth justice,” might not seem too comforting. Is He coming to give us what we deserve? In fact Scripture speaks of this kind of moral justice according to the law—the natural justice that’s based on our merits and deeds, whether good or bad. It says: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Scripture confirms that “no one is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). To receive this kind of justice, to get what we deserve, means that our sins deserve death and God’s eternal punishment, because we have fallen short of His glory and are not righteous.

And if this is the kind of justice that is bearing down on you, and if the burden of poor choices, of remorse over sin, of guilt over missed opportunities to do good weighs on you, then these words in Isaiah were written for you. If that describes your life, then you or I are a bruised reed or a smoldering wick. And we’re the recipients of an altogether different, an altogether high and wonderful Divine Justice, that comes from Jesus, the Suffering Servant. Whether bent down or brought low like a bruised reed, facing our mortality, our weakness or fear in the face of the uncertainties of life…whether the oil of our faith seems to have run dry, and our confidence is like a smoldering wick, our hope like dimly glowing embers…then fear not! Hear the glad tidings of great joy that shall be for all the people! Christ comes to bring forth justice on the earth! What kind of justice then? This kind: “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out. In faithfulness He will bring forth justice; He will not falter or be discouraged till He establishes justice on earth. In His law the islands will put their hope.”

This is not the natural justice of what we simply call the Law, and getting what we deserve. No, this is the justice of One who stands as a light for the Gentiles, the justice of opening the eyes of the blind and freeing captives from prison, the justice of releasing from the dungeons those who sit in darkness. We who have sat in deep darkness, upon us a light has dawned! The justice of God’s suffering servant is the ray of light that pierces through the gathering gloom, that dissolves the cataracts of doubt and fear that blind our eyes. The ray of light that opens the darkest prison and frees those sitting in darkness, captive to sin and the guilt of what we justly deserved. For His Light shines to illumine God’s justice, and Jesus, His servant’s mission to carry out that justice. It describes His determination as well as His compassion and tenderness. In describing His determination it says that “He will not falter or be discouraged till He establishes justice on the earth.” In the Hebrew there is an intended play on words, as “falter” and “be discouraged” are the same words to describe the smoldering wick and the bruised reed. So what it’s saying, is that as Christ carries out His mission, He will not lose heart or be discouraged—He would not fail in His task. Yet there was much to deter Him from completing His mission!

Literally all hell was bent against Him, trying to cause Him to stumble! But on a simply human level, He daily faced the incredible burden of human suffering, and felt the sadness and loss of so many lives. He was constantly surrounded by those who were afflicted by leprosy, blindness, deafness, other diseases and troubles. Often we’re able to simply walk away from suffering, or change the channel, but God cannot. He sees and knows the greatest horrors humanity has inflicted on itself throughout history. The depth of His sadness is immeasurable, exceeded only by His redeeming love and willingness to enter our messy world to restore creation. Jesus faced the real human fear of death and pain when He prayed in Gethsemane for His Father’s will to be done. He was genuinely weighed down by sorrows, but He didn’t falter or become discouraged till He established justice upon the earth. He was steadfast.

To accomplish this Divine Justice, this high and exalted justice that goes beyond our simple experience, Jesus submitted Himself to God’s own Law, becoming God’s servant to mankind. God equally applied His own law to Himself. He took upon Himself the world’s troubles so that we can be delivered from them. He began His public ministry, His public service to mankind with His baptism by John the Baptist. When He stepped up from the Jordan River, after being baptized, two things confirmed that Jesus was God’s servant prophesied in Isaiah. First, the Holy Spirit lighted on Him as a dove; God said through Isaiah that He would put His Spirit on His chosen one, as He brings justice to the nations. Secondly, God the Father confirmed that Jesus was His Son whom He loves, “with Him He is well-pleased. In the words of Isaiah, He is the chosen one in whom God delights.

His life was marked by compassion and gentleness, not of boisterous shouting in the streets or proud demonstrations of His power. He did not need to. The message of His justice was compelling enough in itself. The goodness and even boldness of His words and life drew people to Him. He tended to the poor and the suffering, the sick and the guilt-laden as a gentle shepherd, God’s chosen servant. But neither was He weak or uncertain in His mission. He gave hope to the smoldering wicks and the bruised reeds. So how could the justice He brings forth be so different from the natural justice of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; from the natural justice of getting what you deserve, which is called karma in some religions?

Because Christ fulfilled God’s righteousness perfectly. By submitting to His own law in every way, by becoming one with sinners in His baptism, by taking on mankind’s sin to become sin for us, He got what we deserved. He ate and drank with sinners, inviting all in repentance and need to come to Him —the bruised reeds that He would not break, the smoldering wicks that He would not snuff out. Numbered among sinners in His death, He bore our shame on the cross. The guilt of no sin remained unattached to Him, so that He could truly say at His death: “It is finished!” There He atoned for all sins, not only ours, but of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Here is the source and the basis of the high and exalted Divine Justice which we receive. At the cross of Jesus, justice was fully met in His death; a Great Reversal took place. Jesus who lived a perfect, sinless, spotless life, was the recipient of all the punishment that we deserved. The Reversal is that we, who deserved all this, were forgiven instead, and given the perfect innocence of Jesus our substitute. He changed places with us, with sinners, so that all our deserved guilt would fall to Him, and His deserved innocence would fall to us.

So this is the source of His Divine Justice, and the reason He did not snuff out the smoldering wick of those whose faith was dimly lit, whose souls were fainting under the dread load of sin. This was why He did not break the bruised reeds of people facing the consequences of poor choices they had made, or pits they had fallen into. Instead He gave light, and hope, and life to those who were at their “wick’s end.” He has entrusted to us this same merciful Divine Justice to shine to others. As Christ crucified on Calvary is the Light for the Gentiles, the hope and life of the nations, so He has given us His Divine Justice—what is called the Gospel, the good news—to shine to others. So that when we find someone burdened and weighed down by sin, someone whose oil of faith may soon run dry, and they’re smoldering in the fear and uncertainty of darkness—we can speak to them of God’s Divine Justice. The Gospel of Jesus’ compassionate life, His sufferings and death. Of the Great Reversal He has undertaken to put Himself in our place, so that we could be in His place. His Word to fill our hearts with the oil of faith and gladness (Is. 61:3), so that our faith may burn brightly, trusting in Jesus, God’s chosen Servant. We then will be glowing lamps that give His Light to the Gentiles. To be recipients of such lofty and merciful Divine Justice is certainly cause for rejoicing! Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
1. What is the natural kind of justice that we speak of as the Law? How does it work?
2. What is the divine justice that Jesus brings? How does it work? What does it look like in action?
3. How are we bruised reeds or smoldering wicks?
4. How or when did God place His stamp of approval on Jesus, marking Him as “my servant, whom I uphold” referred to in Isaiah 1:1?
5. What is the basis for the Divine Justice that Jesus brings forth?
6. How was Jesus a light for the Gentiles, and how can we be also?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Sermon on John 1:1-18, for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, "The Light Shines in the Darkness"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the introduction to the Gospel according to John, chapter 1:1-18. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Holy Spirit inspired John to begin the Gospel with words that clearly echo another well-known passage of Scripture. John wrote: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What does John 1:1 echo? Genesis 1:1, the first words of the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” What are we to make of this connection? This is teaching us that the Word, [Capital ‘W’], was together with God at the very beginning of creation, and thus is eternal. The Word, is also at the same time together with God, and in fact is God. Yet they are in some way distinguished from each other, because John makes it clear that the Word was “with God in the beginning.” As an individual, you don’t speak about being “with yourself.” But if you’re talking about more than one person, you may say, “He was with so-and-so.” Obviously we’re treading on the edge of a mystery that’s too deep for any of us to grasp—namely, how God is One God, yet at the same time is three persons in one.

Yet here we have it simply, that God and the Word are together eternal, together creator of all things, together God. “Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.” We go on to the rest of the verses in John 1, and we find out the identity of this mysterious eternal Word. And that Word is described both as the Light that came into the world, and as the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. This Word is of course Jesus Christ, who was with God in the beginning, who was together eternal, together creator, and together God. But who was also now uniquely born into human flesh as the baby Jesus. Not the Father, not the Holy Spirit, but Jesus, the Son became incarnate as a human. The Christmas season is a celebration of the Father sending the Son to become incarnate. Since Christmas is a season of light, I want to focus today especially on how these verses speak of Jesus as the Light.

Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s light. The darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is the winter solstice, around Dec. 21 or so, and yet as the darkness encroaches and creeps around us, we fight back with the illumination of light. People decorate their houses and streets with Christmas lights, keeping the darkness at bay. It’s as though we’re unwilling to succumb to the increasing darkness of winter. Here on Maui, closer to the equator, it affects us less than others, but in the more northern parts of the hemisphere the darkness and cloudiness is accentuated even more in winter. But light brings comfort in the darkness. A candle, a tiny flame of light has such power that it can be seen across miles of pitch darkness. In fact the deeper the darkness the more the light stands out; even a small ray of light gives comfort and hope. Light illumines our path so that we don’t stumble. And so Jesus is the Light that illumines the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the true Light that gives light to every man.

Speaking of how even a tiny candle flame is not drowned out by the darkness, John 1:5 says that “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” For Jesus as well as the apostles and prophets, darkness portrays the physical absence of light, but even more significantly the spiritual darkness of sin and separation from God. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about the light and darkness this way: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:19-21). Jesus judged the world that men loved darkness instead of light, because their works were evil, hid them under the cover of darkness. We’re all guilty of doing things that we wish would never see the light of day. The light shames our wickedness. Not because there’s anything bad about the light. No, the light is pure and good, but when it shines on our lives, whatever sin we have is exposed.

But returning to John 1:5, we heard that “the Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” Our sin-darkened hearts don’t immediately grasp the light as something good, to be desired, but we flee from it for shame. We don’t understand that it’s for our good that Jesus came as the Light into the World. We retreat into caves of sin, blinded by the light. But there’s more to the verse than just that the darkness didn’t understand the light. English translations are roughly split even between translating the word here as “understand” or “grasp,” and “overcome.” So the word could also be read as “the Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” Just like the candle that can’t be extinguished by the darkness. Jesus also said of Himself later in the Gospel of John, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light” (John 12:35-36). Jesus urges us to walk in the light, to believe in the Light, so that the darkness will not overtake us. It’s the same word we’re talking about: “the Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.”

The spiritual darkness of sin is always trying to overtake and overcome us. It would drive us into hiding from the light, so that we think our sinful actions are covered by the darkness. As if we really could hide from God. But if we turn to the darkness, instead of the often painfully revealing and cleansing light, we’ll simply lose our way. Because the one who walks in darkness doesn’t know where he’s going. Christ our Light gives us our bearings, shows us where to walk so that despair and solitude and hiding don’t keep us from confession of our sins, and the forgiveness that brings hope. So we Christians can become like thousands or millions of tiny mirrors, reflecting His light. Even as we turn away from the darkness of sin, turning our back on the sinful paths we’d been walking, so now we turn our mirrors toward those who’re still dwelling in deep darkness and the shadow of death. We turn our mirrors to reflect the light of Jesus to those who have lost their way, who wander in a dark maze of life, with darkness and sadness as their companions. To those who’ve lived under the false notion that their efforts would lead them out of darkness, that enough searching and groping around in the darkness without the Light, would eventually lead them out of it.

In a far greater way than a mere candle, Jesus’ Light isn’t overcome by the darkness, it isn’t overwhelmed by the darkness, and the darkness has not and will not prevail over His Light. For a brief three days, His Light was extinguished from the world, and darkness would’ve seemed to have prevailed, when Jesus was crucified on the cross. In a divine sign that foreshadowed this, there were three hours of unearthly darkness as Jesus suffered His last hours on the cross. There if ever, it seemed as though darkness had won. It seemed as if the Light had been snuffed out. Thinking a few months ahead in the church calendar, can anyone tell me what we traditionally do at the end of the Good Friday tenebrae service that symbolizes this? Every light is extinguished as we gather in darkness, except for the lone light of the Christ candle. And then for a brief time, the candle is carried out of the sanctuary and it’s light is hidden from our view. Jesus lay in the tomb. Then long moments later, the candle is brought back into the sanctuary before we quietly dismiss, the light shining in the darkness, a reminder that Jesus rose again on Easter morn. And so the light reminds us of Jesus’ resurrection.

In Jesus we have the Light that gives light to every man. The Light that came into the world. By believing in the Light, in Him, we become sons of light so that we won’t become overtaken by the darkness. His light guides us and keeps us from stumbling. He leads us so that the encroaching darkness won’t take hold of us and wrestle us from Him. Our sins whisper to call us back to the darkness, hide from the light, as if our sins won’t be seen in the darkness. But He brings light to every man.

But let’s also consider how Jesus came as the Light. John says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And later he says, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The eternal Word of God brought God’s glory to show to us. But how? God could’ve burst onto the scene of earth with the sheer, blinding light of His glory….but infinitely brighter than the sun, His holiness would’ve incinerated us with our sin. God is described as “alone [having] immortality, [He] dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). Moses learned from God that “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). God couldn’t come with His unclothed Light and Glory, or we’d perish in our sinfulness.

Even though the darkness had to be overcome, it’d be too great of a shock to eliminate it all at once. We would’ve been the casualties, the collateral damage of that kind of arrival, of that kind of redemption. It would’ve been a hostage crisis where the hostages were killed in the rescue. Incidentally, this is part of the reason why a good and holy God allows evil and suffering to continue in His world, and God doesn’t just instantaneously intervene when bad things happen. Sin and the spiritual darkness that drapes over the world is so pervasive that every man, woman, and child is born sinful. No matter how good our outward lives appear, every one of us has inherited sin from Adam, and is a poor, miserable sinner. So to call down God’s judgment on evil in this world, for Him to intervene in all the bad things that happen, would be to call down judgment on our own heads too. In order that we wouldn’t be the collateral damage of God’s shining into the darkness, God in His wisdom saw fit to preserve our lives for His redemption.

So instead of coming in the blinding brightness of a million suns and the fearsome holiness that would cause us to perish in His presence—God clothed Himself like a candle. Clothing His light and glory in human flesh, the eternal Word became mortal flesh and dwelt among us, so that when God came among us to overcome the darkness, we would be able to see His Light. God’s Light wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, the Light shining in the darkness. The Light of Hope, of Peace, of Forgiveness, of Comfort. His Light that would guide us, cleanse us, and shield us from the darkness—the darkness that cannot and will not overcome His Light. Christ our Light has made God known to us. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1.What does John’s introduction to the Gospel tell us about “the Word” and who or what it is in relation to God?
2.What does it mean that Jesus is the “Light shining in the darkness”? What’s the darkness?
3.What particular darkness do we find in ourselves? Clouding over our lives?
4.Why couldn’t God come to earth in His unclothed glory and light? How would that affect us? Why?
5.How did God instead choose to reveal His Light? How does Jesus’ Light guide and lead us? In what way does it cleanse us?
6.How does the world and the darkness in it, fail to understand, and also fail to overcome the Light?
7.How did Jesus in turn overcome the darkness?