Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sermon on Mark 6:45-56, for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, "Take Heart; I AM!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The miracles in today’s Gospel follow just after Jesus fed the 5,000 with the 5 loaves and 2 fishes. While Jesus was dismissing the crowds, He sent the disciples in the boat to cross the lake ahead of Him, and then He took some time alone for prayer. Today we’ll see how Jesus calls us to courage. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Try to picture the situation of the disciples. Jesus sent them out across the lake to Bethsaida late in the evening. Jesus finishes praying and sees that they’re struggling against a strong wind, and were making it across the lake with great difficulty. Their backs must have been bent hard against the oars, their muscles fatigued and failing, their spirits discouraged and distressed by the lack of progress. And it was the 4th watch of the night! That was the last watch of the night, which meant it was between 3-6 AM. This means they’d been attempting to cross since evening! No doubt exhausted and sleepy because of the intense strain and the late hour, they were perhaps a little worried about their safety. The passage doesn’t say that they were caught in a storm, but the heavy wind must have produced strong waves as well.

Did they wonder about the same questions we might ask? Where’s Jesus? Why did He send us out here against this impossible wind? And why did Jesus wait till the last watch to come out to them? Why couldn’t He have intervened sooner? Jesus knew what was happening all along, as the Son of God. Then in a demonstration of His mastery over nature, Jesus set out for a late night stroll, on the surface of the Sea of Galilee! He walked out on the water as if it were solid ground. Who does such a thing? No one but the Son of God. He is the same God described in the book of Job, “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” (Job 9:8), and who “walked in the recesses of the deep” (Job 38:16b). For the God who put the stars in their places and called light and life into existence, nature and all its laws lie fully at His disposal. After multiplying the bread and fish, this should’ve come as no surprise.

But when the disciples saw Him moving across the surface of the waters, this was beyond their imagination. They crossed from clear thinking into superstition as they cried out in fear, thinking He was a ghost. Suddenly terror had drained all of their courage and stamina, and they actually feared Jesus, their friend and master, as a phantom who might harm them. It just goes to show how irrational fear can be. But it’s at this point that Jesus reaches out and closes the gap between fear and courage. He’ll not leave them in fear, but immediately speaks to them. His words are even more arresting in the original Greek than most English translations. He speaks these commanding and authoritative words: “Take heart! I AM! Do not be afraid!”

More than simply telling them, “it is I,” Jesus is actually calling Himself “I AM.” What does this mean? I AM, or YHWH, is God’s Divine Name that He revealed Himself by to Moses and the Israelites. It was the name God gave to Moses out of the burning bush: I AM WHO I AM (Ex. 3:14). Tell them that “YHWH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Ex. 3:15). YHWH, or I AM, is God’s eternal, self-chosen name. And when Jesus said “I AM,” several places in the Gospels, including at His arrest in the garden and His trial before the chief priest, everyone knew He was making the claim to be God. So these are the powerful words that suddenly ended the disciple’s fear and called the driving wind to a peaceful halt. God declares His presence there on the water, and all of nature obeys Him.

They endured a rough ride across the lake, and a strong test of their patience and courage as they struggled alone against the wind. But when Jesus enters the boat, and speaks His Words of courage, suddenly fear is banished. Hope is restored. But now utter amazement filled them. Astonishment seems a natural reaction, but Mark actually points this out as an example of their hardness of heart, because they still didn’t understand about the loaves and the feeding of the multitude. What he’s saying is that they already had the evidence to believe. They had just witnessed an astonishing miracle. Not long before that they witnessed Jesus command a violent storm to be calm on the very same lake. It should’ve been a no-brainer. They knew the power He held. This was one more confirmation that He was true God. It was still a lot to grasp.

How often in life have we felt like God has set us out to row in a sea of uncertainty, and we feel like we’re rowing against the wind? When in life have you felt as if you were straining at the oars, but making no headway? All your best efforts were met with frustration and you were losing the strength and energy to keep fighting. Sometimes we may wonder why God throws challenges into our life that seem to hold us at a standstill. Perhaps we’ve marked a destination in some stage of our life, and it seems that we cannot reach it on our own. Fear can take hold of us like the disciples, and weaken our resolve. It can even make us doubt or fear God Himself. Maybe He’s got it in for me? Maybe I haven’t done enough to please God? Maybe we doubt that God is willing or able to bring the calm to our lives.

But into our small world of failings and fears, of doubts and disbelief, Jesus stands and booms these words into our life, “Take Heart! I AM! Do not be afraid!” “Take heart” is Jesus bolster of confidence and determination, an injection of courage to our heart so that we wouldn’t be discouraged or fearful in the face of difficulties. He’s watching over us, and will see us safely to shore. He declares Himself God in our presence, the Great I AM, still present in our lives, even until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). With Jesus in our lives, we can take heart because we know that whatever difficulties lie ahead of us, Jesus is guiding us safely to shore. His presence in our lives removes the fear and uncertainty, as well as any question of our destination.

But why does God put us through it all? Why does God let us face difficulties in life when it sometimes feels like He’s not with us? It trains us to strengthen ourselves against the challenges and hardships of life. It’s an exercise of our faith, and shows whether we see and know Jesus for who He really is…the True Son of God, and YHWH, the great “I AM.” And it makes us all the more appreciative when we do experience the peace after He has calmed the turbulence of life. As Jesus walked across the waves, so He tramples all the churning worries of life under His feet; so dear Christians, why are you afraid? (Augustine paraphrased). “It is the simple fact of life, a fact which has been proved by countless thousands of men and women in every generation, that when Christ is there the storm becomes a calm, the tumult becomes a peace, what cannot be done is done, the unbearable becomes bearable, and men pass the breaking point and do not break. To walk with Christ will be for us also the conquest of the storm.”

When Christ stands in the midst of the turbulence of our lives, there is a calmness that surrounds Him, and He who can command the forces of nature has complete control over all the trying circumstances of your life. His Word reverberates through our lives: “Take Heart! I AM! Do not be afraid!” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers will be known in every generation as I AM!, the God who saves. Knowing that He stands at your side, that He has declared His presence in your life by faith, He also speaks courage to your heart. It’s been said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it. Christ can master our fears just as He holds mastery over nature.

All of these miracles, the feeding of the 5,000, the walking on water and calming the wind and waves, and the healing miracles that followed after they landed, are all but a preview of the ultimate miracle that Jesus performed. His mastery over nature, over sickness and hunger, are building toward the display of Jesus’ mastery over death—His own death. When Jesus hung on the cross, the wind and fury of evil was rushing at Him in gale force, and He made headway painfully indeed, as His very life was drained from Him by severe abuse and pain. All the force of sin, death, and Satan was poured out and driving against Him. It seemed that Jesus’ previous mastery over the powers of nature and even against evil had ground to a halt. With His dying breath and death, it would’ve seemed that fear had become reality and the gale force of evil had brought goodness and life itself into futility and submission. But Christ’s death was in fact the calming of the storm. In the death of Jesus, all the gale force of evil had emptied and exhausted itself against Him, and what worse things than death could it bring against Him? Evil had played its trump card and lost. With His following resurrection from the dead, Jesus showed who was the master of death. After His resurrection, His familiar words to the disciples, “Do not be afraid!” (Matt. 28:10) showed that the Great “I AM” once again stood among them, banishing fear, creating hope, and ruling over death and all evil.

This same risen Lord, the same “I AM” who ruled over nature with a mighty hand in the Old Testament, who beat the forces of death in the mighty victory at the cross, this Jesus now speaks courage to your life. Through your Baptism in His name He has entered your life and made you His own. Through the hearing of His Word, He now stands in your life, saying: “Take heart; I AM!” He who rules over the wind and the waves stands next to you, so that you can master your fears, and have courage in the face of the winds and turbulence of your life. Whatever hardships you face now, and however you labor and strain against them, know that there will be a calm. And know that with Jesus steering the vessel of your life, you can be certain that He will guide us safely to the heavenly shore, and that the storms and turbulence of life will all be left behind. Until then, as we still are crossing the sea, have courage and pray “Be still my soul; the Lord is on your side.” 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. Jesus again takes time alone for prayer. If the Son of God took this time, how much more important is it for us to do so? Do you face the challenges of life with prayer?
2. Why did Jesus allow the disciples to struggle so late in the night against the wind? What “driving winds” in your life seem to hold things at a standstill? What challenges leave you discouraged?
3. How is fear irrational? How does it lead us into inaction or even superstition? What do you fear? Impress Jesus’ words on your heart: “Take Heart; I AM! Do not be afraid!”
4. Read Exodus 3. By what name did God reveal Himself to Moses? How did God’s giving of His name to Moses command an end to his fears?
5. Read John 8:57-59; 18:1-8. What was Jesus claiming when He referred to Himself as “I AM”? What connection does this have with speaking courage to the disciples and us?
6. How does the Word of God and Baptism stand as the entry point of Christ and His saving work into our life? How does this presence calm our fears?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sermon on Mark 6:30-44, for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, "They shall be Satisfied"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The setting for today’s reading is just after the disciples returned from their mission to preach the Gospel to the surrounding villages. They were tired and worn from the journey, and Jesus calls them to a desolate place to rest for awhile. Jesus knows that we all need a little time of rejuvenation, and that we need to take care of our bodies, as well as our souls. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Can you imagine what it would be like if crowds of people rushed to church every morning? That they were desperately hungry to be fed by the Word of God? And not only did they hurry, but they beat everyone else there? To be first in line? We have a hard time imagining it. Sometimes just to show up seems an effort. But it does happen. Just because we aren’t always so eager doesn’t mean that people elsewhere aren’t. In Madagascar, for example, the people always gathered extra early for worship, sometimes sitting up to an hour or more praying and singing hymns before worship. And the worship service went on two to three hours after! Just to be gathered among fellow Christians was such a joy for them! Perhaps when you have so little in the way of earthly goods, you begin to treasure people and your faith a lot more. Perhaps we have too many other possessions that replace our hunger for fellowship, etc. We can be entertained or distracted with a host of other amusements, that can leave us inwardly focused, and make other things seem uninteresting or irrelevant.

We can’t know whether the motives of the people that ran ahead of Jesus and the disciples were all good. We know that sometimes they came with people that needed to be healed. Because of the distance and speed with which they traveled ahead of Jesus this particular time, perhaps that wasn’t the reason. A few days after Jesus performed this miracle of feeding the 5,000 and the people were still looking for Him, He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal”(John 6:26-27). While Jesus pointed out the impure motives of those who sought Him, He welcomed the opportunity to speak of the spiritual food that He brings to people.

There was something driving those people to Jesus, and whether it was completely physical or partly spiritual, it made them eager to find Him. But whatever drove them, they knew that Jesus could satisfy it. Psalm 63 describes this kind of soul thirst and hunger for God:

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. (Ps. 63:1-8)

How can a soul get so thirsty? How can someone crave God so badly that they feel their flesh fainting, and to declare to God that His steadfast love is better than life!!! The Psalmist says that he’ll be satisfied in God, and that His soul will cling to God joyfully. How’s this possible? It doesn’t seem like anyone today has such a desperate longing for God.

The Psalmist says it’s like he’s in a dry and weary land with no water. The reason that the multitudes needed Jesus and His disciples to help feed them was because they were in a desolate place. Far from an easy source of food. Life is often a desolate place that creates such hunger! As the world grows faster and busier and more crowded, it seems that people feel more and more alone and disconnected. Even with all the opportunities for “social networking” we have through email, Facebook, twitter, and all sorts of other electronic communication, we can find there is a missing depth in our relationships. It becomes just one more part of our life that’s been electronically compartmentalized. The more entertainment we have the more we feel bored; with hundreds of TV stations to choose from we still can’t find anything to watch. And the more we watch, the less impressed we are, and so everything has to “outdo” the previous edition—more dramatic, more shocking, more explosions, more crude humor, whatever. But for all the things we surround ourselves with and fill our minds with, how come we can still feel so empty inside?

Life can be a desolate place. We may feel that no one else understands the problems or struggles we’re going through. We may feel squashed under a load of responsibilities we don’t feel that we can live up to. We may have deep questions inside us, but cannot seem to express them clearly. Yet sometimes entertainment and pleasure are used as the “buzz” to cover up that empty feeling inside. It’s easier to just be entertained than to think and face these questions and difficulties in life. And the possibilities for distraction are endless. But what if we’re so caught up in distractions, that we don’t even know we’re starving to death spiritually? What if all those distractions are masking the real spiritual emptiness that’s rampant in our world?

Instead of a pursuit of material things and pleasure, could it be that seemingly ordinary things like seeking God’s steadfast love in His sanctuary, His place of worship, might actually fill that longing in a way that entertainment can’t? That taking the time and effort required to build relationships might be more rewarding then tying ourselves to a TV or computer screen? It’s sin in this world that makes life a desolate place. Our soul thirsts and hungers, because there is a great spiritual void in us waiting to be filled. Every person has a “God-shaped hole” in their heart. I think the way that we often try to fill that hole by the pleasures and entertainments of life is like stuffing ourselves with cotton candy…its puffed up and looks like it could fill you, and tastes sweet and leaves you feeling “sugary” inside. But just a little bit of water and it disintegrates down to nothing, and you’re still empty.

This will be the same result if we attempt to “create our own spirituality” to fill the longing. When we’re left to measure our own needs, we’ll end up doing what Jesus said, and laboring for the food that perishes, thinking that we know how to satisfy those longings. But if we take our cue from Jesus and God’s Word, we find out that Jesus is the food that endures to eternal life. And unless we’re filling ourselves with Him, we’ll always find ourselves in some way dissatisfied. We ought to be ready and watchful for this longing in people. Maybe it’s not always expressed so clearly. Just like the crowds, the appetite and cravings were sometimes mixed. Sometimes they were there to hear God’s Word, sometimes they wanted to be healed, or to be fed. But Jesus told the disciples to feed them anyway. His heart was full of compassion, because the people were like sheep without a shepherd. And so He became their shepherd and taught them. By feeding them and caring for their physical concerns, He was also able to teach them and so care for their spiritual concerns.

This has really become the work and philosophy of LCMS World Relief and Human Care. They combine the care for the body with care for the soul, in all of their mercy projects. The other week at Bible study I shared this anecdote from Pastor Matt Harrison, the director, about some work they did in Kenya, building a new home for 12 children. A 12 year-old boy expressed his thanks by saying, “I want you to tell the Christians in America that I thank God in Jesus Christ that someone has regarded us as human beings.” What a powerful statement that captures the meaning of compassion, the same compassion that Jesus showed and taught to His disciples. Don’t just send them away! You give them something to eat! He regarded them as human beings, and that they had a claim on His mercy. Do we need anything more than our common humanity to prove that people in need have a claim on our mercy? And is this a reluctant service, or do we see it as joyful service to our neighbor in need?

This is an area I’d really like to see our congregation grow in. I’d really like to see us find a mercy project we can directly support here on island, not just with money, but with volunteer support. In whatever small way we can bless others, we’ll find ourselves blessed as well. Part of the lesson for Jesus’ disciples was to experience giving from their own need, and watching God fill up what was lacking. Their five loaves and two fish must have seemed pitifully small in the face of the crowd. Sometimes I think we might view our own efforts and resources the same way. We have so little money in comparison with the projects we hope to accomplish for our church and school. We have a big dream for serving more students and families.

How could Jesus command the disciples that “You give them something to eat?” when they only had five loaves and two fishes? How can Jesus say to us, “You teach these all these people of my love?” Doesn’t He know our limited resources? Doesn’t He know our weaknesses and limitations? He does. But He also knows that we forget our biggest and most powerful resource of all! God Himself has to be counted into the equation. The lesson for us in this miracle is that 5,000 men plus women and children were fed that day, from 5 loaves and two fish! Impossible, right? No! With God, all things are possible. If this kind of abundance comes from Jesus, then what more can we find in Him? For Jesus it is a small thing to multiply our want into plenty. And there is no cost to share His love.

When Jesus multiplies scarceness into plenty, it says that all who ate were satisfied. Jesus satisfies! The hunger and thirst of a soul wandering in a desolate life, can find full and total satisfaction in Him. That day He satisfied their bellies, because He was concerned about their physical needs. But today He has a much greater task. To satisfy the soul is not simply a matter of multiplying bread or physical necessities. To satisfy the soul is for Jesus to offer up Himself as the very Bread of Life for the life of the world. This took place when Jesus stretched His hands out to heaven when they were nailed on the tree of the cross. There He became the Bread of Life that is multiplied and fed to all believers across the world. Jesus on the cross gave His body for the life of the world. Giving up His life was the price to feed the world with the “bread that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” He’s the satisfaction of the soul. He quenches the thirsty soul and gives rich and satisfying food for the hungry soul.

Jesus is the one who fills those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. His constant presence in our lives is the satisfaction of our loneliness. He draws us into the fellowship of believers through His body and blood offered as the Bread of Life for the world. He multiplies our blessings and takes from the poverty of our gifts, and makes them abound for the spreading of the Gospel throughout the world and here on Maui. It’s through the cross that we discover what is in Jesus. It’s there that we find that the same one who can multiply the loaves and fishes is overflowing with an abundance of generosity in forgiving our sins, in pouring out life for us, and in giving us every spiritual blessing. While He’s able and does give us this day our daily bread, He gives us so much more than the bodily needs of this life. He provides for the eternal welfare of our soul, and a peace that flows back into our lives that satisfies our deepest longings and need. The hunger for the deeper life is satisfied with the Very One who’s Life itself. Jesus Christ. Come, eat and be satisfied! Taste and see that the Lord is good!
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

1. What produces a real spiritual hunger and thirst for Christ? Are we hungry for Him? Why or why not?

2. What serves as distractions from our spiritual needs? How do these things “satisfy”? Or do they?

3. How can life be a desolate place? In what ways do we have a “God-shaped hole” in our life? (see Eccles. 3:11; Acts 17:27; Psalm 42:2; Mark 6:34)

4. How does Jesus respond to those who come to Him with mixed motives? How did Jesus show compassion? How did Jesus call on His disciples to show compassion? Why should we care for both body and soul?

5. What specific way can we as a congregation show mercy to those in our community? Who has a claim on our mercy?

6. What are our “five loaves and two fish?” How can Jesus use them to the expansion of His kingdom? Don’t forget the “God-factor.”

7. How does Jesus’ life abound for us in more than just physical needs and “daily bread” in the earthly sense? How does Jesus satisfy? What does He give? (Psalm 63; Matt. 5:6).

Monday, July 13, 2009

Sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14 for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, "Predestined to the Praise of His Glory"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The reading from Ephesians today is rich and full in counting up the spiritual blessings that we have in Christ Jesus. Among those, it speaks repeatedly of our being “predestined.” Today we’ll take a beginning look at that difficult and often avoided mystery of “predestination.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

God has given us the knowledge of predestination to give comfort and assurance to believers. Yet oftentimes this Biblical teaching is ignored as too “abstract” or “impractical,” or it is sometimes viewed with some fear because we don’t understand it. At worst, it’s denied altogether, though there are many places in Scripture where it’s clearly taught. But first, what does “predestine” mean? It refers to that fact that God chose His children ahead of time for salvation. As verse 4-5 explains: “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ.” So God did His “predestining” or “choosing beforehand” before the foundation of the world! So He knew all along, even before creation, who would be His own.

Another word for predestination is “election.” That God “elected” or chose who would be His own. In this way, we can refer to those whom God “elected” or “predestined” to be His own, as “the elect.” Jesus speaks this way when He talks about gathering the elect to Himself on the Last Day, or cutting short the final trials before judgment for the sake of the elect. And only the elect will be saved. So the elect are the believers in Christ who God predestined from before all time to be His own. Sometimes the word “the chosen” is also used for the elect, although that sometimes carries its own connotation. Sometimes Lutherans or Presbyterians or other Christians who aren’t known for their “expressiveness,” are referred to as “the Frozen Chosen,” because of their restrained emotions. In another way it can have a more negative slant to it, when people make remarks about “They think they’re the Chosen Ones,” or something similar. But we shouldn’t let any negative use of the words elect or chosen prevent us from using those Biblical words. Nor should we be surprised—as though it were any different for the Old Testament believers of Israel—that the world should resent that God has set apart believers for Himself.

Already perhaps there are dozens of questions forming in our minds about predestination. Some may find this idea unsettling, others may find it comforting, and still others may be thrown into doubts. It’s certainly understandable why this mysterious teaching is often “kept on the shelf” for later. Luther said that if you really want to study predestination, follow the order of the book of Romans, and concern yourself first with Christ and the gospel, sin and grace. Then when you have struggled with sin under God’s grace, as the first 8 chapters of Romans describe, then you can learn in Romans chapters 9, 10, and 11 how comforting the teaching of predestination is. The official doctrinal writings of our Lutheran church, which are found in the Book of Concord, give an excellent explanation of this whole matter, in a very comforting, orderly, and Biblical way, if you want to study it further. Those early Lutheran teachers recognized the difficulty of this teaching, and that it can easily cause people to have “strange, dangerous, and deadly thoughts” (SD XI.10).

Those thoughts could lead a person to strengthen their trust in themselves rather than God, or strengthen their unrepentance or hopelessness or despair. But could this be what God’s intention is for giving us this knowledge of His predestination? Not at all! There is no hint of this in the reading, where it says that God lavished upon us the riches of His grace in all wisdom and insight, “making known to us the mystery of His will.” Or that He “predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace.” God has given us this knowledge out of the richness of His grace and to the praise of His glory. So when it’s taught and understood correctly, this should not be a doctrine that causes us to fall into hopelessness or despair, but rather should bring us great comfort. Through the encouragement of the Scriptures we are to find hope! (Rom. 15:4). So it is the misunderstanding of, and the various dangerous ideas about predestination that can cause us trouble—not God’s Word correctly taught.

So let’s try to eliminate a few of the common misunderstandings, and come to a better understanding of how God’s Word teaches on predestination. First, when a person hears that God chose whom He’ll save from before all eternity, they might react in this way: “Since it’s out of my hands, and God has already determined how everything should and will go, then I should just live however I please, and no harm can come of it, and it won’t change anything.” This would be a kind of fatalism or resignation that thinks, if I’m chosen for salvation, it wouldn’t matter how shamefully I sinned and never repented, or how carelessly I disregarded God’s Word and Sacraments, or showed no desire for “faith, prayer, or godliness” (SD XI.10). I could do all this and yet remain one of the elect, all the while despising God’s grace. Or I might have never been chosen and it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. That’s one dangerous attitude that’s really nothing more than a cheap excuse for complacency and comfort in our own sins. As one pastor put it, it’s like having God raise you from the dead and you decide that you prefer to continue wearing the old grave-clothes and rags you were buried in, to wearing the new clothes of righteousness that Christ gives.

This is an ungodly reaction to the knowledge of predestination. It twists things quite badly. One fault is that it assumes that since God predestined things from eternity, that it makes no difference to Him how we live in the here and now. Nothing could be further from the truth or from the Biblical witness. But the fatal fault of this reaction is that it separates this teaching from Christ. It looks only at predestination as an eternal decree, but doesn’t look at how it intersects with our faith in Christ. I think you’ll see that all the errors about predestination in some way or another separate it from Christ.

A similar, but more “pious” response to predestination, is when a person is making serious strivings to do what is good, and yet their thoughts end up like this: “Maybe I’m not predestined for eternity and all my efforts cannot help me.” They look honestly at their efforts, and see that they have failed in living as a Christian ought to, and feel as though they couldn’t make the cut. For them it’s not as much about indifference because God already predestined everything, but more a despair of their own fitness to be among the elect. But the fault in this is that the person has again turned their attention on themselves and their own works, and of course none of us deserve to be chosen or predestined. That’s part of the whole point of predestination, and understanding God’s grace, is that since it did happen before the foundations of the world, there was nothing you or I did to earn or deserve it. It’s not about how many good works you’ve added up or how much progress you’ve made in your sanctification. Again it looks at predestination without Christ in view.

Another reaction to the knowledge of predestination is to simply ask the logical question, “How do I know if I’m among the elect or not?” As people try to answer that question, some might point to a certain “act of commitment” or “decision to accept Jesus” as the proof that they are saved, and therefore among the elect. This can leave a person quite self-confident, but it can also cause those who doubt to wonder if they really committed themselves sincerely enough. Maybe they are still unsure, and they need to recommit again, and again, and again. But if our predestination happened before the foundations of the world, how could it have anything to do with what we’ve done? And aren’t there many who’ve made such commitments who’ve later rejected them?

Or a person may fully acknowledge the pure grace of God’s salvation and predestining us as His children. But to find assurance of whether they are elect they look to the evidence of their changed lives as Christians: the good works they produce, how successful they are in their sanctification, etc. They use their “progress” as a thermometer to determine if they’re truly Christian or not. Such a Christian can get stuck in a similar hopeless cycle of doubt, always struggling to do better, but never measuring up to the standard and seeing the progress they hope for. Their life will never provide the certainty they hope for, to know that they are among the elect. But the problem with both approaches, is that it turns us back to ourselves again for proof, either at the time of our conversion, or on the basis of how good a life we’ve led since. As always, the focus isn’t so much on Christ, as on what we’ve done or are doing.

I’m sure we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to various misunderstandings of predestination, but now we need to set clear how to rightly understand this and to draw the comfort from this teaching that God intends for us to have. It’s not supposed to leave us doubting or fearful, it’s not supposed to leave us self-confident or unrepentant. No, it is a call to “be holy and blameless before God.” And all the riches of God’s grace are lavished on us. Lavished means that God is extravagant, overflowing with generosity, pouring out more than we deserve upon us. Lavished with grace is having your cup overflowing, the banqueting table spread in the presence of your enemies. And it’s His forgiveness of our sins and the redemption we have through His blood that make it possible for us to live holy and blameless.

All that happens in God’s eternal plan of predestination is carried out and completed in Jesus Christ. This is the vital point. You cannot separate the knowledge of predestination from faith in Jesus Christ. You cannot think that God just cast the die and divvied up humanity into two groups, those saved and not saved, and that all that happens in our lives is irrelevant to our salvation. Nor can we think that it doesn’t make any difference who we tell the Gospel to, because they are either predestined for salvation or not. God’s plan of predestination isn’t a matter of Him just “zapping” us—“You’re a Christian!” God actually works in time, in history, in human weakness and frailty, among sinners, through ordinary means. He creates faith through the ordinary means of hearing His Word, the washing of water with the Word in Baptism, and His Spirit that is active wherever His Word is read, preached, or heard. This is to say that we don’t go directly from being predestined to going to heaven with nothing in between! God has a plan and order for how this all works out. Romans 8:30 describes this order simply: “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

While being predestined happens in God’s eternity, being called to be a believer happens in time and through God’s Word—wherever it was first spoken over you or taught to you. God’s call to you is active through His Word. And hearing and receiving His call we have faith in Jesus Christ, who redeems us by His blood. And when we die in faith and are glorified, we receive the realization of that inheritance that God predestined us for—eternal life. The Holy Spirit is our guarantee—like a down payment or deposit—of that eternal inheritance to come. So the way to answer whether we are elect or not, whether we are predestined—is simply to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. If we have faith in Him, we don’t need to have any doubt about whether or not we are among the elect. If we trust in Jesus, we are. God’s eternal predestination doesn’t mean He’s going to randomly or arbitrarily rule out some people who have been faithful believers in Christ. On the contrary, all who believe in Him will be saved. So the only way to know is by looking to Jesus—not by looking to yourself or your works, nor by pretending that it doesn’t matter because it’s not up to you.

Rather, God is personally and individually interested in you. And His predestination of you is working itself out in the personal way that He has called you to faith through His Word. And what a powerful antidote to the idea so many people have, that God is oblivious to our existence, to our hurts, our pains, our sorrows! Far from being aloof and far off, unaware of our existence, God knew us before we were born, and before the foundations of the world He chose us to be His! And then in time and history He sent His Son to work out that salvation for us on the cross, and to bring it to us through His Word. What can we do with such knowledge? It is too high and wonderful to understand or explain. We can only give thanks and praise God for His glory. We worship the greatness of His love in all its mystery and transcendence. Our reading also repeats that phrase 3 times, “to the praise of His glory” or “to the praise of His glorious grace.” Because for such undeserved love, there is no better response than to praise Him. 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. Do you ever have doubts about your salvation? Why or why not? What things can contribute to our complacency about such questions?

2. What are harmful ways of thinking about predestination? What focus is lost in them?

3. What are the implications of the fact that God chose us before the foundation of the world?

4. Read Romans 15:4. Why can’t it be that one of God’s teachings (such as predestination) should cause our faith harm or trouble? What is the purpose of God’s Word?

5. Does predestination make it irrelevant how I live my life? (reread Eph. 1:4)

6. How does the eternal decree of predestination intersect with faith in Christ in time and history?

To study further on the teaching of Election/Predestination, there is a short summary explanation in the Book of Concord in the section called the “Epitome, article XI”, or there is a more in-depth treatment in the “Solid Declaration, article XI.” Both links are below if you don’t have a book copy.
http://www.bookofconcord.org/fc-ep.php#XI. Election.
http://www.bookofconcord.org/sd-election.php

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Sermon on Mark 6:1-13, for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost. "Honor Jesus with your Heart."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In today’s Gospel we have a picture of Jesus being rejected in His hometown, and later how He prepares His disciples for similar rejection. But we also have a picture of how this rejection gave His Gospel, the good news, the momentum to scatter and spread to all sorts of new places. “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown,” Jesus said. Let’s honor Jesus today in our hearts by receiving His Gospel. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Many people live with a crippling fear of rejection. They won’t act to seize opportunity because they fear that they’ll be rejected. The anticipation of that pain holds them back from action. But thanks be to God that Jesus wasn’t controlled by any such fear of rejection! He faced harsh and real rejection again and again. In His hometown of Nazareth, among family and friends He’d known from childhood, He received a cold shoulder and a scoffing rebuff. When He taught difficult or challenging things, He watched the crowds dwindle and disappear. It seemed miracles drew them in, but when it came to the meat and substance of His Word, they were scandalized and left. But He wouldn’t stoop to just “wowing” and entertaining them with miracles to keep a crowd.

Despite all this rejection, His love and His willingness to reach the lost compelled Him to teach and to act compassionately, and to offer Himself as the True Path to God. Jesus came not in irresistible force and compulsion, driving everyone to believe in Him, but rather came with the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, a humble message, but one that stirred up animosity and rejection. It was a message that they might take or leave—and many did leave it. The people of Nazareth that heard Him in the synagogue (note that they were churchgoers) were astonished at His teaching, but rejected it. So He simply moved on to the next villages when He was rejected. The questions of those who were astonished at Jesus’ teaching were all questions that doubted Jesus or tried to reduce Him to just an ordinary, uneducated neighbor. They were the “Who does He think He is?”...sort of questions. But in every place where Jesus is rejected, it only provides momentum for the Gospel of Jesus to go out to others…to the Gentiles, to other Jewish communities that will receive Him. The last half of the Gospel reading shows us that Jesus wasn’t the only one who experienced this pattern of rejection—that this would be true for His disciples as well, which is true down to this day.

Today people despise Christianity and Jesus Himself because they assume some reputation for Him that is inaccurate or less than the real thing. Just like the people of Nazareth reduced Him (in their minds) to just an “ordinary Joe.” Today many people think Jesus is the equivalent of the Christians’ favorite “self-help guru.” In this way He’s hardly different from Buddha or Confucius, or some other moral teacher who wants to lead us on the path of self-improvement. It’s no wonder that people think this way about Jesus, because so many parts of Christendom have acted as though this were Jesus mission and goal—to give us better self-esteem, to be more successful, to realize all our dreams, etc. And for all the people whose lives are rather well-adjusted and successful, and AREN’T drawn to self-help, then why should we be surprised that they don’t feel a need for Christ or Christianity?

We’re trying to “scratch an itch” that many don’t have. Jesus as a self-help guru is too mild mannered and unnecessary for most people to need Him. And so He’s easily brushed off as irrelevant to their lives and goals. They can get along quite well without Him, thank you very much! But is that an accurate picture of Jesus? No!!! His teaching shook people up. It awakened them to the fact that He was the presence of God’s kingdom among them, and that their hearts were woefully unprepared for God’s coming. They lived in self-security and contentment, thinking that their needs were met and that they were just O.K. with God. Even the synagogue—people who we might assume would be spiritual and right towards God—they turned away from Jesus too. They wanted to know and obey God on their terms. They thought Jesus was just an intruder and had nothing to teach them about God. But He was God Himself among them! Though they thought they were right with God, they were far from it! They had the outward appearance of believers, but they were lacking in faith. They attended the synagogue; probably considered themselves the “true” worshippers of YHWH, but wouldn’t honor God’s Prophet or hear His message.

But Jesus wasn’t and isn’t offering self help. In fact part of the problem is that we CAN’T help ourselves! That’s why God sent His Son! If we could solve our own problems provided that we were given the proper instructions, then Moses would’ve been all we needed! John 1:17 says, “The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” It’s precisely our inability to keep and follow God’s Law and commands that made Jesus’ coming necessary. However, some of us may recognize no real problem within ourselves. The Jews of Nazareth apparently thought they had everything pretty well in order, since they turned away the Prophet Jesus. But it was sin and the unbelief in God that Jesus came to address. And these are problems that self-help cannot address. These are problems that undercut all our efforts and attempts at self-improvement. And the dangerous symptom of sin and unbelief is the spiritual blindness that hides this deficiency and weakness from our own eyes. The blindness that would cast the Son of God out of a place of worship, with no thanks for Him, and that would send His disciples packing from their villages. Blindness of heart that had no room for the message of repentance and self-denial, the recognition of our helpless condition before God. Spiritual blindness causes us to imagine our own life is good, while is considers God to be bad. Only a few in Jesus’ hometown had faith, and so were healed by Jesus on that day. Only a few opened their eyes, acknowledged their dependence on God, turned to Him and were healed.

So did this mean that Jesus was powerless in His hometown because they didn’t believe? No, it does say that He healed a few sick people. But Jesus marveled at their unbelief, and took His message elsewhere. I suppose that it would take a lot to astonish Jesus. He’s “seen it all” as the Son of God. But to meet such open and unrepentant unbelief despite His miracles, words, and wisdom, was truly astonishing. What more could be done for them to bring them to faith? Nothing, apparently. To do more miracles among them would’ve been wasted effort and He wasn’t out to gain a reputation of a magician or miracle worker. Faith was His goal.

Faith is His goal for us today. Jesus could’ve easily perpetuated the church by endowing it with the command and the power to do miracles. But even Jesus didn’t make that His primary goal. Rather He countered unbelief with teaching and acts of compassion. He moved on from places where He was rejected to new villages, and sent His disciples out to surrounding towns. His Word was the effective tool that the disciples carried to create faith and bring salvation to new people. They would find out whether people honored Jesus in their hearts by how they treated the disciples. If they rejected Jesus’ Word, and wouldn’t listen to them, they were to shake the dust from their feet, so as to have nothing to do with that village, and move on. But if they showed hospitality and receptiveness to hearing God’s Word, then the disciples were to stay in that home until they left. They weren’t to try to “upgrade” for better accommodations when they stayed in a town, but were to be satisfied with what they were given. They traveled very light, to depend on the hospitality of believers, and not become concerned with material things.

Today Jesus works in our hearts through His Word, creating in our hearts a place of hospitality and receptiveness for Him. We’re to honor Him in our hearts by believing in Him, and acknowledging Him for who He really is—the Son of God, the Prophet and Savior. Whether we’re self-secure like the churchgoers of Jesus’ hometown, and don’t see any need for the Gospel…Whether we think like them that we’re already right with God, and that our life is in order…Or whether we are the person who searches out self-help solutions and thinks that we can correct our own problems…we are in every case a person who needs to hear and believe Jesus’ message of repentance and forgiveness. Sometimes we feel that deep, longing need for God’s grace very sharply—other times we’re spiritually blind to it and feel quite self-sufficient. But it’s a simple fact that we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are justified freely by His grace. May we never be scandalized or take offense at Jesus’ death on the cross as the way of our salvation. May we never take offense at the simplicity of the Gospel, and think of it as irrelevant to our lives. Instead, pray that God grant us receptive hearts for Jesus and His Word.

Thanks be to God that despite all the times we have ignored or rejected His Word, we’re gathered here to hear Jesus calling us through His Word, and that He still desires to grant us faith. May our prayer always be that He create in our heart a fitting dwelling place, receptive and hospitable to Jesus Christ. Keep us Lord from turning from you, or living in self-security. Take not your Holy Spirit from me, but restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me (Ps. 51:11-12). Guide us to always look to you in humble repentance, for you supply all our needs and bring us salvation. In your name we pray. 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 kind of rejection did Jesus often experience in His ministry? What did He do when people wouldn’t listen?

2. What sort of people rejected Him, and what reasons or excuses did they give? What are some reasons people reject Jesus today? How have they “reduced” or misunderstood Him?

3. Why is the Gospel, the “good news,” something very different from “self-help?” If self-help were sufficient, what wouldn’t we need? (cf. John 1:17; Eph. 2:1; Rom. 5:6, 8:3).

4. What was Jesus’ real goal as He carried out His ministry?

5. In what way can we honor Jesus with our hearts? What will we do and how will the evidence of this be shown in our lives?

6. How does the example of the disciples teach us simplicity and contentment? While we aren’t given the same command to leave home and possessions, what does it teach us about what things are important in life?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Easy Does It??

For most Christians who are grounded in the Biblical theology confessed in the Reformation, we have a distinct awareness that we are incapable of properly keeping God’s Law. Rather than taking a view of God’s Law that it is partly achievable, or that we can in some way satisfy its demands to God’s pleasure, if we only try hard enough—we acknowledge that we utterly fail to keep His Holy Law. Rather than water-down the demands of the law to make it a low-enough-hurdle so that we can jump it—we acknowledge that the demands of God’s Law are far beyond our reach. Lutherans and other Reformation-minded Christians are accustomed to hearing this preached. When we hear Jesus say, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), we know this is unachievable by human effort. When we hear Paul write that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), or “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal. 3:10), we know that we are under this verdict.

So…if we can’t keep the law, then why bother even trying? This is easily (and perhaps often) our response to such a verdict. “Easy does it…no sense burning yourself out trying to do what can’t be done!” “The Law tells me to love, but I can never love as I should, so why waste the effort?” I can never obey the commandments perfectly, so what’s the use? After all, even St. Paul said that where “sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:20-21). So Paul, anticipating what we will reply, says, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:1-4). Paul says that this idea, to go on living in sin and disobedience to the Law, is impossible for us—because of what God has given us in Christ Jesus.

The purpose of this recognition that we can’t keep God’s Law isn’t to move us to inaction and indifference or apathy. It isn’t to give us an easy excuse for disobedience. Rather it is to show us our utter dependency on Christ Jesus for everything. So when we hear the Law as Christians, we will not respond, “Impossible! Easy does it! Don’t expect that from me, you know I can’t!” Instead we will recognize the newness of life that has been graciously given us in our baptism into Christ, and that in Christ we are able to do even more that we thought we were capable of doing.

Because the love of Christ liberates us from servitude under the law which is impossible, and puts us in His service instead. He fulfilled His servitude under the law perfectly, in our place. Now, He, who can and did keep the law lives in us through our Baptism, and enables us to walk in God’s Law. Through Him we can love our neighbor as we never thought possible, we can serve in ways that once seemed beneath our dignity, as Christ humbled Himself voluntarily and became a servant to all (Phil. 2). Through Him we can live and obey, and do so joyfully, knowing that salvation is already our free gift, and that works add nothing to it. But our works can freely be given to our neighbor for their help and benefit. With Christ living in us, we do not live lives of passive indifference, but of active faith that lives and bears fruit! And we will discover that in Christ we can exceed the bounds of what we thought was possible, and how true it is, that “with God, all things are possible!” So…Easy does it? No way!! Let’s take on some challenges together with God!!

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15, for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost. "Growing in the Grace of Giving"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s text from 2 Corinthians 8 might surprise us with how Divine Arithmetic works. We might be surprised at how things add up when God is involved. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about the grace of giving; about charity. And he shows a positive example in the Macedonian church. But what’s surprising is the kind of Divine Arithmetic that was at work among the Macedonians. This is the equation that Paul describes in Macedonia: Severe affliction + abundance of joy + extreme poverty = believers overflowing with a wealth of generosity. How does it all add up? Today we’ll see how God helps us to grow in the grace of giving. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Certainly severe affliction combined with extreme poverty should add up to little or no giving at all! Since when does extreme poverty produce a “wealth of generosity?” Perhaps now is a particularly good time to think about that, with the way the worldwide economy has so many in a panic. While probably none of us could say that we’re in extreme poverty…especially when you consider what that means in some third-world country…probably everyone is feeling the pinch in some way. Some of us have lost jobs, or experienced pay cuts, others have less hours to work, some have lost significant savings or retirement investments, while at the same time seeing costs of living and other expenses rising. Financial security seems to be in doubt for so many people. And these are real concerns for us.

But shouldn’t we count our blessings? As great as some of those losses may seem in our perspective, there are billions around the world who can only imagine the luxuries we enjoy. Having a permanent shelter over our heads, having a car, having the promise of regular meals on our table—even if we only had mac-and-cheese! Even the thought of having any money in savings at all! This alone ought to make us realize how blessed we are, putting our “losses” in a global perspective makes us realize they’re not quite so large. Yet at the same time other afflictions may hit us. Whether related to the stress of those concerns or not, we may experience tension in relationships, health problems, loss of a loved one. It’s not hard to find people who face severe tests of affliction, like the Macedonians. So how could such circumstances possibly be accompanied by an abundance of joy and an overflowing wealth of generosity?

While we don’t know the details of the Macedonian church’s severe affliction or their extreme poverty, we read that they actually earnestly begged Paul to let them participate in giving to support the relief of the saints. So Paul and Titus had come to the Corinthian and Macedonian churches to collect a freewill offering for the saints in Jerusalem, who were apparently in worse straits and in desperate need of help. The Macedonians were so eager to help, that they gave even out of their extreme poverty. It was as if they said to Paul, “Please don’t leave us out of this opportunity to give generously to those in need!” Paul says they gave “not as we expected.” But he doesn’t mean that he expected more of them, and they gave less. Rather he was surprised to find that they gave not only according to their means, but gave well beyond their means—out of their own free will. They gave so generously it was beyond what he thought they could afford to give.

Paul showed this example to the Corinthian church, not to command them to give in this way, not to make them feel guilty about their own amount of giving, but so that they might witness the genuineness of the love and Christian charity of other believers. So they would see how their poverty welled up to a wealth of generosity. But this grace of giving that the Macedonians excelled at was because they gave themselves first to the Lord, and then by the will of God to Paul and Titus and the others. It was their commitment to the Lord that had allowed them to grow in this grace of giving. If guilt is driving your giving, then it’s better not to give at all! God loves a cheerful giver, not a stingy or reluctant one. It’s always amusing to me that we would think that God depends on our giving, as if He couldn’t accomplish what He wants without it! Don’t forget that God is the one who uses the widow’s mite to accomplish great things! Don’t forget that God owns all things, and that all that we have is a trust from Him, a stewardship of His gifts! Don’t forget that God is an expert of making scarcity turn into plenty!

So if it’s not guilt that drives our giving, what then? And how do I overcome my reluctance or unwillingness to give? As Paul wanted the Corinthians to excel in every way, in their faith, speech, knowledge, earnestness, love, and also this grace of giving, so also God wants us to grow in this grace along with those other things. We at Emmanuel have done well in giving for a small church, and have often shown extra generosity at the end of the year when things are tight. But that doesn’t mean we don’t still have much room to grow, both as individual givers, and as a congregation. In order to grow in this grace, we first need to break free from our old sinful patterns of thinking, and second, we need the grace of God to come in and shape our lives. We need the infinite, intangible, inexplicable abundance of joy that God gives, that makes His Divine Arithmetic work. We need God in the equation to throw the balance from empty to overflowing. Without God, poverty remains poverty, and empty remains empty. And I mean more than our financial resources…I mean our hearts!

The grace of giving is something we grow in; we aren’t naturally very generous givers. Giving can be painful to our sinful flesh. We feel tied to the money we have, no matter how much or little we have. There’s always something more important to put that money toward: some bills, an extra furnishing around the house, some new clothing item we want to splurge on, the latest technology or book or movie, whatever it might be. God can have what’s left at the end of the month. So we practice “last-fruits” or “leftover” giving, rather than “firstfruits” giving.

But on the other hand, we can resolve to practice “firstfruits” giving. One way is to set aside a certain amount of money, a percentage of every paycheck, before we do all our other spending. And there can be a sense of release in giving it, knowing that it was never really ours in the first place. It’s a recognition that the whole reason we can give at all is because God blessed us, and it’s all His anyway. “We give Thee but Thine own, what e’er the gift may be. All that we have is Thine alone, a trust O God from Thee.” (LSB 781) When we give from the top, as firstfruits giving, we begin to learn the joy of giving, and understand the “abundance of joy” that overflowed in a wealth of generosity from the saints of Macedonia. And we’ll find that we begin to grow in this grace of giving, and will desire to seek ways to help others who are in need. That we won’t want to be left out of the opportunity to help other saints in need. We’re still free to give whatever amount we choose, and should do so according to how our heart moves us.

Someone has said that the way we give is an indication of how much our personal wealth matters, and can reveal whether it has become an idol for us. So what does your giving reveal about the spiritual richness or spiritual poverty of your heart? Even large sums of money can be given from a spiritually poor heart, if they are given reluctantly, selfishly, or as our “leftovers.” Again the example of the widow’s mite shows that even pennies can be given from a spiritual richness of heart filled with open generosity. I know that for me it was hard initially to form that regular habit of giving, and that there’s still always that little questioning voice that wonders what extra things I could have or would be able to buy if I hadn’t given this to the church. But once you determine in your heart what you want to give, and set your mind to giving it, then you can begin to experience the joy of giving and not worry about what you would have spent that money on. And you may even find yourself opening up to new opportunities for giving that you hadn’t seen before, but that you participate in because of that growing grace of generosity.
God rewards giving, but the reward isn’t that we will be richer physically, but we will be richer spiritually. We can discover the joy of giving and seeing someone else helped. But we should also do our giving in such a way that others don’t see it, or that we don’t do it for show. Our giving should be an act between us and God. You cannot fully know the grace of giving until you experience the joy of giving.

As God breaks down our old patterns of self-centeredness, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ builds up this grace of giving within us. For we cannot know or truly understand giving apart from God’s giving to us in Jesus Christ, and how Christ gave Himself for us. Paul describes where this grace comes from, the grace that filled the Macedonian church. He says, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.” Again, the miracle of Divine Math! From Jesus’ poverty, we become rich! Though He was rich, Jesus became poor, for our sake. So the Macedonians’ genuine love was really just modeled after Jesus’ love, who overflowed with a wealth of generosity from His own severe test of affliction, from His extreme poverty, and most of all His abundance of joy. He emptied Himself of every earthly possession (Phil. 2:1-11) and all His heavenly glory, to walk the earth in dusty sandals and to sleep in deserted places or borrowed beds, all so that He could give His riches to us.

Not that He wants to make us materially rich, and give us more money and possessions—the very things we’re so prone to idolize. But rather He wants to make us spiritually rich—to have the blessings of salvation and life that only come from Him. He wants us to know the kind of abundant joy that is the intangible factor that can change what seems like a hopeless situation of poverty or affliction into a time where we can count our blessings, and even overflow with generosity to those less fortunate than us. I would suggest that we as a church identify some pressing need here in our own community, so we can join together to help those less fortunate than us. We have been made spiritually rich! Many of us have also been made materially rich! God has given this for us to share and to use in the service of our neighbor, whom we’re to love. Whether in poverty or in supply, we can still give from our hearts as Christ has moved us.

This grace of God is simply His undeserved favor and love for us. We did nothing to earn or deserve His love, but He generously pours it out for us. He forgives when we do wrong, even though we don’t deserve it. And this is the grace that He gives us, the grace that motivates giving. Even the kind of Macedonian giving-beyond-our means. The kind of giving that trusts in God and His provision for us. Of course God cannot give beyond His means, because He is the possessor of all things, and His generosity is endless. But He alone can create that kind of giving in us, because He can supply everything beyond what we could ever ask for or imagine.

When we’re wrapped up and surrounded with the amazing generosity of God, when we have Christ’s riches pouring out through all our life, drowned in the forgiveness of sins in Baptism, dwelling on the riches of His peace, and growing in His grace for us—then we’ll experience the abundance of joy that the Macedonians knew in their poverty and affliction. We’ll experience the overflowing wealth of generosity that moves us to give from the spiritual richness of the heart. By giving in this way, we’ll become participants in the generosity of God, as our hands are extended to help beyond even our ability to do so. For with God in the equation, joy and generosity are bound to happen! 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 surprise of “Divine Arithmetic?” How did in show among the Macedonians? What explains how they “begged” Paul to let them participate in giving even beyond their means?
2. What are the struggles and afflictions you face in today’s economy? What are your blessings even in the midst of this? Name them or write them down. Read Phil. 4:12-13
3. How did God turn scarcity into plenty in these Biblical examples? Who was it that provided when there was need? Genesis 41-46; Exodus 15:22-17:7; 1 Kings 17:1-16; Mark 5:30-44; Mark 12:41-44.
4. What does our giving reflect about our hearts? Is guilt an acceptable motivation for giving? How do we grow in the grace of giving then? What turns the tables (and our hearts)?
5. What’s the difference between giving from what’s left and “firstfruits” giving? What steps can we take to move in that direction?
6. What is one nearby human need in our community that we could support as a congregation?
7. How does Jesus’ becoming poor make us rich? What is the wealth He offers to us? Define “grace.” John 1:17; Rom. 5:15