Monday, April 26, 2010

Sermon on Revelation 2:12-17, for the 4nd Sunday of Easter, "Easter Letters: Pergamum--Hidden Manna"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today is part three of our sermon series, “Easter Letters,” and is on the letter to the church of Pergamum. Last week we heard about the church in Smyrna, whose believers faced difficult persecution, poverty, slander, and even death, but were called to endure and not be afraid as they trusted in their conquering Lord. Today in the letter to the church of Pergamum, we find a church that is in the midst of a hotbed of false worship to other gods, and the temptation to live a worldly and impure life. They are called to repentance, and victory with their Lord who fights with them against temptation and idolatry. He promises to the conqueror, to eat of the hidden manna. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The introduction of Jesus in this letter to Pergamum immediately strikes us as fierce. “These are the words of Him who has the sharp, two-edged sword.” This is the same description as in chapter 1:16, where Jesus is described as having a sharp, two-edged sword coming from His mouth, and a face shining with the full brightness of the sun. It’s a rather terrifying picture. Added to that is the warning to the church that unless they repent, that He will come and war against them with the sword of His mouth.

It echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah, who described the coming Lord as judging the poor and the meek of the earth with justice and equity, but striking the earth with the rod of His mouth and killing the wicked with the breath of His lips (Isaiah 11:4). The idea of Jesus standing as the judge of all humanity, at the end of time, was absolutely unbearable to the Pharisees and Sadducees. At His hearing before the Sanhedrin and the High Priest after His arrest, He said that “I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). The High Priest tore his robes in outrage and told the council, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” So they crucified the Lord of glory, the very One who will stand in righteous judgment over all One day.

It is terrifying to think of Jesus in judgment in this way—who can please such a holy and righteous judge? What were the believers in Pergamum to do, to be spared from the Lord warring against them with the sword of His mouth? Well first we need to understand what that sword is. As always, Scripture is its own best interpreter, and if we search the Scriptures we find in Hebrews 4:12 that the Word of God is like a sharp, two-edged sword, which is living and active, sharp and piercing to our soul and spirit, our very thoughts and intentions. It isn’t a physical sword of violence, or of military might, but it’s the far more powerful word of God that comes from Jesus’ mouth. But why describe it as a two-edged sword? The sharp, penetrating edge of the Law can expose our sinfulness, even in our thoughts and intentions. We cannot hide from the Law of God, which speaks what is right and wrong.

But the same sword that can go on the offensive can also be used for defense and protection. Just as the sharp edge of the Law wars against sin and evil, it also wars against the devil and temptation that would harm us. The second sharp edge of the Word is the message of the Gospel that guards and defends us against evil. When we find that image of Christ in judgment as fearful, we need to give attention to whether we stand with Him or are opposed to Him. If we stand opposed to Him, or remain unrepentant of sin, then it is fearful to face the Law-edge of His sword. But if we repent of our sin and stand with Christ, then it is actually a deeply comforting image, that Jesus stands guard against the deceptive and deadly attacks of the devil. That He is the strong shepherd who guards the sheep against the ravenous wolves and lions. For those who hear His voice and follow Him, He is their strength and shield, and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

But just as happened in Pergamum, the church faces the threat of those who would come in and teach it misleadingly. Christ called them to repent because there were those among them who were leading people to eat meat sacrificed to idols and participate in sexual immorality. Today we can face the same pull to divide our allegiance between the true God and other pursuits. Anything from mixing a little bit of another religion into our spirituality, to our pursuit of money. But Christ clearly taught that divided allegiance to God is no allegiance at all. One cannot serve two masters, “for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Likewise, the practice of sexual immorality, using sex outside its God-given boundaries of marriage between one man and one woman, is also not possible for the Christian. It doesn’t matter how easily the society accepts it. The Christian is called not to be conformed to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2).

The church of Pergamum was in danger of succumbing to the pagan influences around them. Jesus acknowledged their challenging situation by saying, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” Calling Pergamum Satan’s throne could have a number of explanations, that fit with the situation here.

First of all, like Smyrna, the metropolis of Pergamum had a strong cult of emperor worship, and it was the pressure to comply with the sacrifices to Caesar that caused Christians to either cave in to deny Christ, or to be martyred. The Roman Caesars were megalomaniacs about their power. Nero carried the title “savior of the inhabited world” and “the Lord of all the world,” while Emperor Domitian insisted on being addressed as “Lord and God.” These outrageous claims of mere men, however much power they held, are nothing but a Satanic parody of the true Savior and Lord of the world. The Resurrected Lord whom Thomas confessed as, “My Lord and My God.”

Whatever fear of Caesar’s sword drove the weak-willed to worship and sacrifice to him, this couldn’t hide the fact from Christian eyes that such worship of men was at the foot of Satan’s throne, not the throne of God. If anything shouldn’t be missed from the book of Revelation, it’s this—that despite all the chaos of the end times, it’s the True God who reigns on His heavenly throne who controls all these events, and who’ll have the final victory one day. Again and again in the book of Revelation, the reader is directed to God’s throne to see who’s ultimately in charge of all things. It’s at His throne alone, and in His name alone, that we’re to worship. You can see this also in the other epistle from Revelation printed in your insert today.

Also, Pergamum had a giant Temple to “Zeus-Savior,” which held a throne-like altar and artwork with serpents—a frequent symbol for Satan. Asclepios, another pagan god associated with serpents, also had a prominent temple in the city, and promised healing as well as some sort of salvation. These and other false places of worship earned Pergamum the description of “Satan’s throne.” Dead and powerless idols promised to give life, healing, safety, protection, etc. This is why false worship is so dangerous and deadly, and why Jesus warns us so urgently against it. But a person who is caught in false worship may be sincere and passionate about their faith. Depending on what their belief urges on them, they may even be moral and upstanding citizens. If so, then why is false worship so bad? Someone might look on that and say that religion has served its good purpose. But false worship is to trust in a god that cannot save. It’s too put your confidence, your hope—whatever you hold to be the highest good—it’s to place that trust in something that is inherently untrustworthy.

Take an analogy for a moment. We’ve had plenty of news about cars having factory recalls lately, and about protecting consumer safety. Imagine what it would be like if people knew that a certain type of car was being sold and driven that had completely faulty GPS systems that always guided you to the wrong destination. And the car’s brakes only worked sporadically, and had an increasing tendency to fail the closer you got to your destination. Now, what if instead of warning people about the useless GPS and the erratic brakes, the thinking that prevailed was this: “Well, people really like that brand of car, and it’s got really great styling and looks like all the other cars. We wouldn’t want anyone to think that something was wrong with their car. As long as they trust the car to drive in it, and as long as they obey the rules of the road and drive safely, nobody needs to tell them anything. Besides, who really knows their destination? Maybe they will get there safely anyway, and we don’t want to interfere.”

Does that make any kind of sense? No! We’d be held responsible for negligence and withholding life-saving information! If the car is not trustworthy, it doesn’t matter how sincere the driver’s trust is in it, or how well they obey the traffic laws—it won’t save them from getting in a terrible accident. If our faith is put in something inherently untrustworthy—if we worship something false, whether it be the identified god of some false religion, or the unidentified gods of our own making—then it won’t matter how sincere our faith is. It won’t matter how our lives look outwardly. If we put our trust in something that must ultimately fail, then we are steering for disaster with no brakes to apply. False religion and false worship, however sincere, cannot bring us to heaven.

We need a true and trustworthy ‘vehicle’ to get us to heaven. We need to be assured that our faith is in something that truly can deliver us safely, whose GPS reads true, and whose brakes and engine are properly functioning. The responsible and caring thing for us to do is to warn people of getting into unsafe and unreliable vehicles. Even if the “crash” that they might experience by trusting in a false god may not even happen until after their earthly life—that by no means reduces the danger or the urgency of warning them. In fact it makes it all the more serious. On the broad road that leads to destruction, death is the point of no return. We pray to God that such will hear the call to repent and turn back from that treacherous road. God posts warning signs all along the way, and we need to watch for those who would tamper with those signs. There is ‘one way’ to heaven, and that is through Jesus Christ.

Jesus calls to the church of Pergamum and to us. We’re surrounded by false paths and false worship that tugs and pulls on our souls. But to the one who conquers with Jesus, to the one who takes their stand with Jesus, who bears His living and active Word in His mouth—to this person Jesus promises support for the hard journey home. He promises to them that “I will give [them] some of the hidden manna, and I will give [them] a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Manna was the heavenly waybread or traveler’s food for the Israelites in their difficult journey in the wilderness. So also Jesus promises heavenly waybread, the “hidden manna” to believers. What is the hidden manna? It is the spiritual “bread of Life” which sustains us in the spiritual wilderness of life. Jesus, is the Bread of Life, and He is the true and trustworthy ‘vehicle’ of salvation.

By putting one’s trust in Jesus, we’ll never be misled, and He alone can safely deliver us to the destination of heaven. He is the ‘hidden manna,’ because when we eat the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, the true body and blood of Jesus is hidden there. We participate in a “foretaste of the feast to come” in the holy supper that truly contains Jesus’ bodily presence, though hidden from human eyes. But visible to the eyes of faith is the eternal banquet that is spread before us, the heavenly marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which we already participate in now, at the altar. Visible to the eyes of faith is the body and blood of Jesus, taken in our hand and in our mouth—a spiritual waybread for our journey, giving us the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. And we bear on our foreheads and in our hearts the new name that has been given us in baptism—the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—to mark us as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. As we gather now to eat the heavenly manna from above, we sing our praises to our God above, Alleluia! We pledge our trust to Jesus and the Father and the Holy Spirit, three-in-one, to whom alone we give our worship! 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:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. The city of Pergamum is only mentioned here in the Bible. It was a city full of pagan temples that may explain the phrase “where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is.” A throne-like temple to Zeus and a temple to the god Asclepios both had serpent-like artwork and sculptures, and the title “savior” was used of these false gods. Also, the strong emperor worship cult here set the sword of Caesar against the ‘sword’ of the Lord.

2. Identify the following in the letter to Pergamum: (these basic features are repeated in each letter)
Image of Christ:
Local detail about the church:
What Christ sees: A) Good B) Bad
Call to Repent:
Promise to the One who Conquers:

3. What is the “sharp, two-edged sword” proceeding from the mouth of Jesus? Rev. 1:16; Heb. 4:12; Eph. 6:17. Cf. Isaiah 11:4; 49:2. How does the Word of God have “two edges?” What do they do?

4. Why is it impossible for Christians to “divide their allegiance” between the ‘gods’ and immorality of the world, and the true God and His calling on our life? Matt. 6:24; Rom. 12:2. Where can false worship and false allegiances (faith) ultimately lead us? How can we find safety instead?

5. What is the ‘hidden manna’ that Jesus gives to those who conquer with Him? Cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-4; 16; John 6:22ff. What do we receive in hand and in mouth? Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23. What heavenly banquet does this anticipate and join us to?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sermon on Revelation 2:8-11, for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, "Crown of Life!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today we continue our “Easter Letters” sermon series with part 2: the letter to the church of Smyrna. Last week we heard about the church of Ephesus, which was commended for its faithfulness in testing the apostles and teachers, but was called to repentance for their lovelessness. The reading today addressed a church that is undergoing intense persecution, and is warned to stop being afraid. To the faithful, there is promised the Crown of Life. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The first verse of the letter to Smyrna shows the theme of resurrection, as it describes the words of Jesus who’s “the first and the last, who died and came to life.” Our crucified and risen Lord speaks this word to the churches. This verse is a good example of why it’s important to pay careful attention to the titles and names given to Jesus or to God the Father. These titles that are shared between God the Father and Jesus the Son are a strong statement of Jesus’ divinity as the Son of God, that He shares with His Father. In chapter 1:8, it was the Lord God (the Father) who called Himself the “Alpha and the Omega, who is, who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” He speaks of His eternal nature, that He is without beginning or end. Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet—a parallel to Jesus’ title as the first and the last. Later in the end of Revelation, chapter 22:13, Jesus uses that same title of Himself: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” He is worshipped and identified with the same divinity as His Father—the same eternal nature, without beginning or end.

We have much less historical detail about the church of Smyrna in the Bible, as it is only mentioned here. However, it was known as a prominent city in Asia Minor, and was noted for its beautiful and symmetrical architecture. It had a stadium, library, and the largest theatre in Asia Minor. A strong Jewish community there was in frequent conflict with the Christians, as noted in the letter here. Smyrna was also the first city to build a temple to the goddess of Rome, and was noted for its cult of worship for the Roman emperor. Again, a challenging context for a new Christian community. As I’ll describe further in a few minutes, there was also intense persecution of the Christians there, especially since they would not sacrifice to the emperor.

First of all, Jesus commends the church of Smyrna, saying: “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Tribulation is hardship or testing, especially in the sense of a spiritual testing. And the believers at Smyrna faced poverty and slander by the people of the Jewish synagogue. Why were they in poverty? Was it because their Christian faith had caused them hardship and ostracism by those with whom they once had business contacts? It’s still common today in some strong religious communities, like Jewish or Muslim ones, that if a family member converts to Christianity, they become an outcast from the family and community. We don’t know in this particular case, but apparently they were being slandered by the Jews. In several places in the New Testament, the hatred of the Jews for the Christians was already evident by their persecution and even murder of some of the followers of Jesus. As in our reading, Saul, before his conversion, stood by and gave approval to the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Today it’s hard for many of us to imagine such bitter persecution, as sheltered as we are in America. Yet it’s happening just as much today in persecuted countries around the world, that Christians are losing their businesses, their possessions, and even enduring assaults on their body and life and families. Though we don’t face much outright persecution, there still is plenty of slander, both against the church and against Jesus Christ, just as there was in Smyrna. Slander is the breaking of the 8th commandment, that we should not bear false testimony. Someone who slanders is spreading false or hurtful charges that are damaging to someone’s reputation.

What are some slanders that you have heard leveled against the church today? As a misrepresentation of the truth, slanders do their damage because of their loose connection to some truth. The church may be slandered as narrow-minded, a place for people of blind faith, that religion is a crutch for the weak, that the church is homophobic, sexist, patriarchal, ignorant of science, hypocritical. A common slander against Jesus that is found in the Jewish Talmud was that He was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier, or that He performed miracles by sorcery. Recently, the atheist author Richard Dawkins had his own slew of slanders against God, that I will not repeat here. But in any case, the church must bear up under slander just as Christ Himself endured such mockery on the cross, and did not validate any of it. Those who make such slanders against the church and blasphemies against God are ultimately serving the purposes of the devil, in seeking to destroy and divide the church.

Yet in the midst of their suffering and poverty Christ commends them, saying I know your poverty, yet you are rich. To have faith in Christ, to be persecuted for His name’s sake, is to have the blessedness of the kingdom of heaven. The spiritual richness of having treasure stored up in heaven is something that the hatred of the world, and enduring physical poverty cannot take away. This is especially relevant for us today, in the midst of one of the most significant recessions in our nation in decades, and with unemployment rates and underemployment rising. A lot of people are hurting deeply. Many young couples are out of work. In such a place, one can acknowledge that their physical poverty is insignificant in comparison with the knowledge that we have all the spiritual riches of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in Jesus Christ.

Yet fear can be a very real response to such circumstances—and certainly it was in Smyrna as they faced not only poverty but intense persecution. They were even warned in advance that it was going to get worse for a period of time. Christ spoke: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The command, “Do not fear” is even more literally, “Stop fearing!” The present fear of the church, of what bad might happen to it, was the one weakness Christ called them to turn from.

Fear can paralyze us to inaction, or to silence our witness about Christ. The remedy for fear is to repent and turn to faith in Christ. Christ also told them that the suffering they would endure would be finite, and come to an end. The ten days symbolize a short but complete time through which they would be tested, and would be complete by God’s timetable. God was still in control, though events seemed fearful around them. We too need to be called away from fear, to endure, and to put our trust in God, even to the point of death, so as to receive the crown of life.

I want to share with you a short story about one such Christian living in Smyrna, who faced just such persecution and trial. The true story of one of the earliest Christian martyrs after the time of the apostles, was Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. In the year 156 AD, perhaps 75 years or so after the letter to Smyrna was written, an intense persecution broke out against the Christians in that city. Polycarp was called to the stadium in Smyrna by the military governor or proconsul. It was demanded that he make sacrifices to the Roman Emperor and call the Caesar his Lord. He was told to have respect for his old age, deny Christ and so spare his life. Polycarp responded with tremendous faith, saying, “For 86 years I have served Christ, and He never did me any injury, how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

Again and again they threatened and urged Polycarp to deny his faith, but he remained steadfast, declaring, “I am a Christian! If you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and I will declare them to you.” The governor threatened to throw him to the wild beasts unless he repent of his Christianity. Polycarp answered to call the beasts then, since it was not the custom of Christians to repent from what was good in order to turn to evil, but rather to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous. Since Polycarp was unafraid of the beasts, the governor threatened instead to burn him alive. Again, Polycarp was given words of courage and wisdom by the Holy Spirit, “You threaten me with fire that burns for an hour, and then soon is extinguished; but are you ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly? What are you waiting for? Do what you will to me.”

After this display of fearlessness and immovable faith, Polycarp’s face was filled with joy and peace. Then the astonished governor condemned him to death by fire, and the angry mob of both Jews and Gentiles gathered wood to burn him. While the persecution had escalated to such a height of fury—Polycarp was apparently the 12th such martyr put to death in the two cities of Smyrna and Philadelphia—after his death the persecution died out there. What a tremendous witness of faith to all who saw his death, and an example of the fearlessness and faithfulness unto death that Christ called the believers of Smyrna to have.

Polycarp of course was an imitator of His Lord Jesus, sharing in his sufferings. Christ was the most faithful martyr of all, who had no sin, and died enduring all the slanders that were pointed at Him on the cross. It is Christ’s victory over death, His three-day triumph over sin, death, and the devil, that gives victory and confidence to all His disciples, from Peter, James and John to Polycarp, to every one of us. Though we do not have that courage of ourselves, should the time come when such courage is needed, His Holy Spirit will bless and strengthen us. The resurrection promise that we hold on to is that if we have faith in Christ, even till our death, that we will have the crown of life. What is that crown of life? It is the victor’s crown of given to those who complete the race of this life in faith in Jesus. It’s the crown of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8) that is the perfect innocence of Jesus Christ that we will wear in heaven.

As the Spirit promises to the churches, we who conquer with Christ, remaining faithful to death, will not be hurt by the second death. The second death, is the death of eternal punishment and separation from God in hell. There is no fear of hurt or harm from this second death, for those who have been spiritually raised in Christ. Though time doesn’t permit for a full discussion here, basically the first “death” spoken of in Scripture is the spiritual death to which all human beings are subject to because of sin. It is being spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). But through our baptism we have put our sinful nature to death and been raised to new life with Christ. We are spiritually alive in Christ by faith, and do not need to fear the second death—the eternal death of separation from God. We can face our physical death unafraid, because we have the promise of the physical resurrection of our body from the grave. This resurrection will complete the spiritual resurrection that is begun in us already now by faith. So conquer with Christ! Have no fear of death, poverty, hardship or persecution, but be faithful and know that God will deliver to us what He has promised, and that you one day will receive that blessed crown of life, an imperishable and unfading crown of victory over death. In Jesus’ name, we pledge ourselves by faith to 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:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. The city of Smyrna is only mentioned here in the Bible. Its citizens were proud of its beauty and architecture, and it’s thought that the shape of the city with a hilltop crest in the middle resembled a crown, which was a prominent symbol associated with Smyrna’s beauty. The city had dedicated a temple to Rome there in 195 BC. There was hostility between the Jewish and Christian communities there. In 156 AD, Polycarp, the aged Christian bishop of the city was martyred in the arena.

2. Identify the following in the letter to Smyrna: (these basic features are repeated in each letter)
Image of Christ:
Local detail about the church:
What Christ sees: A) Good B) Bad
Call to Repent:
Promise to the One who Conquers:

3. How does the title used for Jesus: “the first and the last” (2:8) show His divinity? Compare to who else receives this title in the following passages: Rev. 1:8, 17-18; 21:6; 22:13; Isaiah 41:4; 44:6; 48:12.

4. What does it mean to be physically poor, but spiritually rich? How is this greater than all earthly treasure? Matthew 5:2-12; 6:19-24; James 5:1-5

5. What persecution and slander do Christians face? What are some common slanders against the church? Against God or Christ?

6. What is the reward for faithfulness in the midst of persecution—even to death? How was Polycarp an imitator of Christ? What is the second death that cannot harm us? Rev. 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8. Cf. John 5:19-30

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sermon on Revelation 2:1-7, for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, "Easter Letters: Ephesus--Eat of the Tree of Life!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Dear saints in Christ, the joyful celebration of Easter only just begun last week! It continues for the next several Sunday’s of Easter, leading up to the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. For these seven weeks of Easter until Pentecost, I’m going to preach a sermon series created by myself and Pastor Hazel from Trinity Lutheran Church on Oahu. Our series is titled: “Easter Letters” and each week will focus on one of the seven letters to the churches in Asia, in the book of Revelation. Today’s epistle from Revelation 1 provides the preface to each of those letters. We call them “Easter Letters” for several reasons: because the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus speaks these letters to His church; because they speak to the eternal hope of Christian joy, because they speak of living faithfully in the present day challenges of this world, and finally because they promise blessing to all who are victorious and conquer through the Great Victory of Christ on Easter morning. For all of these reasons, they are “Easter Letters.” Today, we hear Christ’s word to the church of Ephesus. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Each of the seven letters follows a basic pattern that I’ve marked for you in your Sermon Talking Points. I encourage you to follow along in a Bible and during or after the sermon, identify the main parts of the letter for each week. Every letter begins with a description of Jesus as the sender, and every letter ends with a variation of the phrase: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Jesus Christ, the faithful witness and firstborn from the dead is speaking. He loves us and frees us from our sins by His blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father.

This is an Easter Letter because Jesus has conquered death for us, and stands as the firstborn from the dead—the first to rise from death, never to die again. Also because the Risen Lord is also the one who shed His blood on the cross for our sins, and now stands as the conquering ruler of all the kings of earth. He stands above all power and authority. Those words He spoke to Ephesus some 19 centuries ago—those words bear repeating for us, His church today. Our Risen Lord speaks to the church who He has made a “kingdom, priests to His God and Father.” He calls and redeems us to be the priesthood of the baptized—people who declare the praises of God and live their sacrificial calling in life by acts of love and service. Notice also the union of Christ’s words to the Word of the Spirit. Every letter begins by affirming Christ is speaking, and ends by saying that this is the word of the Spirit to the churches. The Holy Spirit communicates Christ’s Word.

The church of Ephesus. A significant city in ancient Asia, located in modern-day Turkey, as are all of the seven churches of Revelation. This city was the site of some real controversy over the spread of the Gospel. Here at Ephesus, before an angry mob of people, Paul and his companions were almost killed. A silversmith who made shrines for the Temple of Artemis or Diana, which was in Ephesus, stirred up a crowd against Paul. They claimed Paul’s preaching against the worship of gods made by human hands, would destroy their business. Paul narrowly escaped thanks to a more level-headed government official. But in the years since, the Christian community in Ephesus had grown into prominence. For a few centuries, this was a prominent center of Christianity, and it’s said that John the Apostle was even bishop of this metropolis.

Having a world famous temple to a Greek & Roman goddess, and all the accompanying idolatry, presented a challenge to the Christian church there. Paul exposed the worship of idols as false, and pointed people to the living God—the resurrected Jesus Christ. Possibly a few decades later, when the letter in Revelation was addressed to Ephesus, the church there was marked by a strong sense of discernment and recognition of true and false teaching. Today the church faces an even greater challenge—we don’t have Temples to Artemis in our community…but we do have Mormon stakes, Buddhist missions, Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Halls, Unitarian-Universalist churches, the Church of Christ the Scientist, Baha’i, and other places of worship and religious gatherings that do not point to Jesus, the True and Only Son of God, and the way to God the Father. Some bring an openly non-Christian message—others use the name of Jesus but deny His teachings. We have a great challenge to remain discerning and alert to false teaching.

Jesus commended the church of Ephesus for their patience and how they would not bear with evil. They resisted those who did evil. They rejected the evil deeds of the Nicolaitans, who we know very little about, but apparently were leading people astray and bore evil fruit in their actions. He commends the Ephesians for testing those who came to them as apostles, and found them false. That called for serious knowledge of God’s Word, and the courage to identify and reject what was false. It’s a difficult but necessary job—because just a little false teaching spreads like yeast. Just like a tiny bit of yeast can spread through a whole batch of dough, so a little bit of false teaching can spread and rise and grow till it pervades the whole church (Gal. 5:9). Today the call to test and examine every word of teaching against the Holy Scriptures is an essential call for all Christians! Even my own words and teaching must be held against the scrutiny of Scripture, and you are to study and examine these things for yourself.

It’s common for people to think of a little false teaching as harmless—but how harmless would a few drops of sewage be in your freshwater drinking supply? Would you want to drink something that was 99% pure water, and 1% sewage? 0.1%? I don’t think so! You wouldn’t willingly put your physical health at risk in this way! But somehow we’re willing to put up with that in our spiritual health, which has eternal consequences. We downplay the importance of discernment. Discernment is simply recognizing the difference between right and wrong, true and false. It’s by having ears to hear the Word the Spirit speaks to the churches that we gain this knowledge and discernment. It’s by God’s Word, the Bible, that we test the claims of various religions and sects and find them to be true or false. You may even have people come to your own doorstep, coming in the name of Christ, but bringing false teachings to you. We need to know clearly what we believe about the Triune God, and Jesus Christ His Son, and what His work of salvation means for us, so we know the difference from false teachings. So be patient and don’t grow weary; follow the example of the Ephesians in exercising Godly discernment.

In every letter, Jesus also calls the people to repentance for some sin, or identifies their unique sin or weakness. Jesus does this because He’s both Lord of the church, and also its judge. So as judge of the church, He calls the people to repentance, because of His love and concern for them. He doesn’t desire that His sheep be misled or deceived, but that they would hear His voice and know what is truth. So His warning to the Ephesians is that He has this against them—that they’ve abandoned or forsaken their first love. There are two basic and related possibilities of what could be meant by abandoning their first love. It could refer to them abandoning their love for God and for Christ, or their love for their neighbor. Since the church is commended for its faithfulness to the Word and its patience in trial, the first possibility doesn’t seem as likely.

But what if the love that they have abandoned wasn’t their love for God, but only their love for the neighbor and zeal for doing good? John writes in His “epistle of love,” 1 John, that we cannot claim to love God if we don’t love our brother. So the loss or abandonment of love for our neighbor is no less serious, and this loss of love leads to the greater loss of love in God. But in either case, the situation was dire. Jesus warned them: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” Their lack of love was endangering their place as one of Christ’s churches, so He called them to turn back—return to the works they did at first.

So we need the same urgent reminder, that faithfulness to God’s Word is not enough, by itself. Love must also follow our faith—actions must follow our words. As Paul wrote about love: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-2). Love for one another is rooted in the Love of Christ living in us. The fruit of love is born in a repentant life that turns from selfishness and lovelessness, into a life that is reborn in baptism to a new identity—a new you(!) that has the deep love of Christ shining through your actions. Saying the right things outwardly does not excuse us from the debt of love we owe to one another in Christ. Being ‘in the right’ doesn’t excuse harshness, impatience, or demanding your own way. Love should cover all our actions—even times when ‘tough love’ is called for.

But as with each of the churches, Jesus also holds out hope and promise for them that they will turn from their errors and repent. He promises great reward to those who repent and hear the Spirit’s Word for the churches. We’re called to that same repentance from our lovelessness. We’re called to the same fervor and discernment that sees what is right and wrong, and carefully avoids the wrong. And what is the promise? Jesus promises: “To the one who conquers, I will grant to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the Paradise of God.”

What was the Tree of Life? Remember back to the first chapters of Genesis, when Adam and Eve first dwelled in paradise? There was a Tree of Life, which bore fruit that gave eternal life. But Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, and barred from eating of that tree, because they had sinned and disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Humanity was cursed with death on that day. But here in the Easter letter to Ephesus, the Easter victory of Christ reverses the curse of death! He unbars the way to Paradise, and our resurrected Lord who has freed us from our sins by His blood invites us to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life. All of the curse and effects of sin—death, pain, suffering, the evil deeds, the false teaching that would lead us astray—all that surrounds us in a sinful and broken world, is unraveled and undone by Jesus’ death and resurrection victory. Finally, the way to Paradise stands open again—Christ beckons us to repent, hear the Spirit’s Word, and to become conquerors through His victory. Celebrate that victory: Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleuluia!

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


Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. For background on the church at Ephesus, read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Read Acts 18:18-19:40; 20:17-38; 1 Cor. 15:32; also 16:8; 1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 1:18; 4:12. How do you evaluate the reception of the Gospel in Ephesus? By the time of Paul’s letter, the church seems quite commendable. What positives are mentioned in Paul’s letter? In Jesus’ letter? What negatives?

2. Identify the following in the letter to Ephesus: (these basic features are repeated in each letter)
Image of Christ:
Local detail about the church:
What Christ sees: A) Good B) Bad
Call to Repent:
Promise to the One who Conquers:

3. How discerning are we as a church? What is the basis for determining who are true and false apostles/what is true and false teaching? See Matt. 24:3-14; 7:15-23; 2 Peter 2; 1 John 4:1-6; 2 Tim. 3:16-17. How is hatred of evil works and false teaching different from hatred of the person(s) who are caught up and deluded by them? Eph. 6:12; 1 Cor. 5:9-13; 1 John 2:15-17; Psalm 5:4-6. How should we help those who are caught in error? Gal. 6:1.

4. What is the “first love” which we are to return to as a church? Cf. Jeremiah 2:2ff; 1 John 2:15-17. How is our Christian life and walk changed when we return to our first love? See esp. Rev. 2:5.

5. What promised blessing is there for faithful endurance and conquering? Through whom do we have victory? How is the promise to eat of the Tree of Life a reversal of the original curse in the garden? Cf. Genesis 3 and Rev. 22:1-4. How is this a promise of resurrection?

Monday, April 05, 2010

Sermon on Luke 24:1-12, for Easter, "Death's Greatest Failure!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

When you think of the greatest blunders or failures in history, what comes to mind? Do you think of certain individuals who set out with great plans and were met with disastrous failure? Their names probably didn’t stick around so long, precisely because of what they didn’t accomplish. Though some have rebounded from devastating failures to great success. When you think of famous failures, do you think of great projects that went awry? The supposedly unsinkable Titanic, that struck an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic? Perhaps in Bible history, the failed attempt to build a monument to human glory, the Tower of Babel. Perhaps you would name famous failed inventions or marketing ideas, or even famous failures in battle or war.

Some failures are tragic, others are humorous. Some are memorable, some are not. But rarely are failures celebrated. But today, on the day of our Lord Jesus’ resurrection, we celebrate the greatest failure in human history. Death’s greatest failure—the failure to keep Jesus in the grave! And Jesus’ name will stand through all time; who delivered death its greatest failure.

Failures often are noted because of their great cost. Sometimes that cost is literally measured in dollars—huge advertising campaigns that flop or costly products that never sell. Sometimes the cost of failure is measured in the huge damage to property—floods or oilspills caused by human negligence, disasters that could have been averted. Sometimes the cost is measured in the loss of human life or health—the spread of preventable diseases, failure to inform people of hazards, the huge death tolls of various wars and conflicts. Oftentimes these failures also shared in common the discovery of some significant advance in knowledge, engineering, or safety. Oftentimes the leader’s in such failures gained priceless lessons that served them well in the future.

When we consider death’s greatest failure, there was truly an immeasurable cost. It was the precious life of Jesus, lamb without spot or blemish that died. That horrible cost was the price tag for sin from every human generation. Yes, our sin had that awful cost, to bring death on the innocent Son of God. The joy of Easter did not come without the pain and suffering of Good Friday. But while the cost was so great that no human could pay it, the immeasurable value of Jesus’ life far exceeded that cost. As the perfect, sinless Son of God, His life alone was able to pay that awful price. He paid that price willingly.

But the wonderful news this day of Resurrection, is that death never recovered from that failure! Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Death had no further recourse after Jesus rose from the tomb. Sin, of course, is the fatal sickness that has a 100% mortality rate. Death had experienced a number of short-lived reversals, mostly at the hand of Jesus, but no one had ever risen from death to never die again. Death had always been successful…the track record numbers in the billions. It might seem like a significant measure of success, since death has extinguished so many lives. But that’s what makes the colossal failure of death so incredible this Easter morning! That there was one single life, one person who couldn’t be kept in the grave—this marked death’s greatest failure.

It strived mightily, took a painful and ugly toll when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, died on the cross. That death was tough as nails, piercing as thorns, and true as the blood and water that poured from His pierced side. As the noble heart of our Savior throbbed slower and slower, until it ceased to beat altogether—life receded into the darkness. Death marched on, tallying yet another victim—but this one bigger than all the rest. Even the one man so many disciples had put their trust in…even the one who seemed stronger than death when He raised Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and the son of the widow from Nain—even this man finally succumbed to death. All who had hoped for some miraculous escape from the cross—some last minute rescue from death, were disappointed. They hung their heads in despair, conceding apparent defeat to mankind’s ruthless enemy, and lost for where to turn. And death would have succeeded. It appeared as though even the human Son of God, couldn’t win against this enemy.

But death’s greatest failure was that it was powerless to keep Jesus in the tomb. After death had done its worst…well…it had done its worst! When the most powerful weapon in the devil’s arsenal slew Jesus, and He came back from the dead in three days—death had met its match. The devil’s bag of tricks was empty, and Jesus is alive. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Score one for God! Score one for humanity! The greatest failure of death is that one single man—and no ordinary man, but the true God-man Jesus Christ—rose from the most brutal pummeling death could dish out. And in that one extraordinary man, Jesus Christ, life starts anew for every one of us.

We’ve seen what death can do—it can take the life of every man, woman and child. But we’ve also seen what death gloriously cannot do—it cannot defeat the Son of God. And if we are in Christ Jesus, we also shall live—and whatever death may do to us, the eternal life and victory are ours in Christ Jesus. Take the colossal failure of death to be your comfort and your shield today. Sing out and ring out the songs of Alleluia, praise to our Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! Never was there a failure so sweet, and a victory so divine.

Angels stood watch at the empty tomb of Jesus to proclaim to the women who were looking for the lifeless body of Jesus—“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how He told you, while He was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”

Death may have had its greatest failure, but too many live as though death is undefeated! Too many hang their heads in despair. Many consider it impossible that Jesus could have risen from death to eternal life. The women at the tomb looked for Jesus among the dead. Many think that death has never failed. The pessimistic best we can hope for is to hold death off as long as possible and enjoy life while it lasts. So we put our trust in medical cures to diseases—but new diseases, strains, and genetic maladies spring up faster than the cures. Or we try to anesthetize ourselves to the darkness and pain of life by any of a variety of sedatives. Alcohol, drugs, partying, thrill-seeking, pain meds, cutting, deafening ourselves with angry or despairing music—whatever methods people seek to face a world of sin where death is the final destination. But none of these can lift us from despair. Too many live as though death remains unconquered!

But it hasn’t! And skeptics and doubters, and people who just plain weren’t looking for it, were all witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. But once they saw and confirmed with their own hands and eyes that Jesus our Savior had experienced a flesh and blood resurrection from the dead, to a glorified and immortal body—they couldn’t be stopped from spreading the news! Even persecution and death couldn’t persuade these once cowardly men from holding steadfast to the truth that they were eyewitnesses of death’s greatest failure. They saw that death could be beaten. Because the one man who beat death paved the way for the rest.

So do we live as those death has never failed? Do we live in fear, or without hope? Do we find dissatisfaction in life and regret our own mistakes and failures? Longing for something better? Then we’re living like those who were looking for the living Jesus among the dead. We’re living like the down-trodden women who sought meager consolation for losing their Lord and Master, through attending to His body. The only consolation they sought was to prepare His body with spices. When our gaze, like theirs, is fixed too low—when our hopes are shattered and death seems the inevitable victor—we must remember death’s greatest failure. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Our consolation is not in burying our dead. Our consolation is not in staving off death as long as possible. Our consolation is not finding the cure to every disease—as much as we work and pray for medical advances. No, our consolation is the far greater news that if we’ve died with Christ, being buried with Him through baptism into His death—that we’ll also be joined to His resurrection. In Christ, we can beat death too! We can hand death yet another failure! Because Christ’s resurrection was not a onetime victory, but rather is the multiplier that set the stage for an exponential increase of defeats and failures for death, going backward and forward through history. All who put their trust in the One True God, and His Son who overthrew death, are participants in His resurrection life. ONE—tens… thousands… millions… billions…there’s no limit to the possible human victories over death that will one day be achieved on the final day of resurrection.

All who hear this incredible news, all who believe and hope in the resurrected Lord and attach themselves by baptism and faith to His resurrection power, will stand in the victory that day. Countless faithful believers, including our loved ones who have died throughout the ages. Their names have already been counted to the seemingly invincible record of death. They and every other who has succumbed to death have contributed to the apparent success of death. But every faithful believer will stand in victory one day, because of the power of the One man Jesus Christ. The one death of Jesus, that resulted in resurrection, is enough to undo death forever. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

If Easter really matters—how will we go out from service today? How long will it take before we return to life as usual, business as usual? Will we simply coast on the emotional high for a few days, relish the festive brunches and dinners, and soak in the beauty of the flowers, eggs, and music, and eat our chocolates? Then it will all be gone for a whole year when that fades. Or will we realize the weight of this message, the essential truth of Easter that life and death are forever changed through Jesus’ resurrection—and carry it on to every person who longs for a victory over death? Will we share with others how Jesus gave us hope in the face of despair and loss? If Easter really matters to us, and I know that it does—it will transform our life together as a caring Christian community. Because the rewards of Jesus’ victory over death are not just saved for the “not yet” of heaven. They also are present in the “now” of daily life. His resurrection life and Easter hope dwells in us to create caring, compassionate people who are on the constant watch for who and where help and hope are needed.

If we live like Easter matters, and speak our Christian hope, people will get curious. They will want to know, “What makes you the way you are? Why are you always helping people? How do you face such difficulty with patience and hope?” And the simple answer will be: “The Resurrection hope of Jesus lives in my heart. Our greatest enemy, death, has failed! This matters to me, and I pray that it will matter to you too!” In Jesus’ name, Amen.

And if any of you again feel the sheepish need to rub that failure in death’s face—Go ahead! Christ has Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. Name the greatest failures you can think of in history. What made them remarkable? What personal failures have been most troubling to you? How have other’s failed you?

2. What was the great cost of these failures? What was death’s greatest failure? What did that failure cost Jesus? Read John 1:29; 1 Peter 1:17-19; 2:4-6; Luke 23:26-49.

3. What was the cost of our sin, for which Jesus paid? Romans 6:23; 5:12-21. Why was He willing to pay this price? Did it cost us?

4. What did Jesus’ victory over death look like? What hope did it bring? Romans 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13

5. How can we help in spreading that urgently needed message of hope and victory? Who is someone you know that is in need of the message of hope and victory over death? Luke 24:47-48; John 20:29; Acts 1:8; 1 Peter 2:9.

6. What “consolations” that people seek have no ultimate power to comfort? What consolation have you sought in life, instead of trusting in God and the message of Jesus’ resurrection?

7. Why does this message make it impossible to merely go on with “life as usual?” What should our Christian life together look like as a result?

Sermon on John 19:30, for Good Friday, "Beginnings and Endings...and Beginnings"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The death of Jesus Christ has a power and gravity all of its own. It has a way of wrenching us out of our own existence, our busy worlds, our self-absorbed lives—and plunking us right down in the middle of holy history. (paraphrased, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 53-54). Refocusing our attention on Christ crucified on the cross. In all other parts of history that we might choose to study or consider, we’re more or less spectators on the outside looking in. We played no active role, we merely witness what history has recorded. But the Good Friday story pulls us right out of our particular time and place and sets us down nearly 2,000 years ago outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem, and shows us that we are participants in this story.

Here we stand, at a hill far away, beneath an old, rugged cross. A scarred and ugly hill, marred by bloodstains of criminals; the wind scraped by the harsh gasps of suffering. Familiar only through the retelling of this story, we look on this barren scene of anguish and wonder—how can we be participants? Certainly none of us would want an innocent man to die—certainly none of us would approve this barbaric form of torture and capital punishment. No, here we must merely be observers to the story. Not participants. We did not cry for His death. We did not hammer the nails into His hands. Like I mentioned in the sermon on Palm Sunday, we would like to presume ourselves innocent of the matter. Disassociate ourselves with His sufferings.

I mean, at least God could forgive us if we weren’t the guilty parties that nailed His Son up there, right? If we can just free ourselves from that blame, then God would be able to love us, wouldn’t He? We weren’t really there when they crucified our Lord, anyhow. But the story of Good Friday pulls us with irresistible force to see our own guilt, our own participation there. And it teaches us that the way to forgiveness is not excusing ourselves from participation. God’s love and forgiveness isn’t limited to those who had no direct hand in His death, but Jesus forgave even those persecutors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We find that our participation in Jesus’ death is far-reaching.

We’re participants in these ways: first, whether we wanted Him to die or not, it was our guilt that made His death necessary. Our sins were laid on Him at the cross. “He has born our griefs and carried our sorrows…He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.” Seven centuries before Jesus was born, as Isaiah penned the famous words of this prophecy about Jesus—he felt the same compelling force of Good Friday that placed him and all of Israel as participants in this event. Our…our…our…we…So we must claim our responsibility, our participation in His death, if we are to be forgiven. Do not fear the guilt that is being taken away from you!! It is no longer yours, it is His! He bore it!

The second way in which we are participants in the cross, is how St. Paul writes: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” More than just being actively responsible in His death, we participate in His death! How is this possible? Through our baptism, through which we are crucified and raised with Christ. We find that our participation goes much deeper than our guilt. It goes also to the putting to death of our old sinful nature and desires at the cross. It goes to receiving Jesus’ innocence in exchange. His chastisement, the whipping, the punishment, the scorn—this brings us peace. His wounds and the stripes left by the whip and nails and spear bring us healing.

And this second aspect of our participation brings us insight into why we call this Friday “Good.” It gives us insight into why we can give thanks for such a terrible “ending.” Why the dying words of Jesus: “It is finished!” hold such freeing power and hope for us. Normally we celebrate beginnings and mourn endings. We celebrate births, baptisms, marriages, inaugurations, etc. We mourn job terminations, divorces, closings, death. So why isn’t this just another sad and mournful ending? “It is finished!” What is finished? What? Jesus’ life? The bitter wine He drank from the sponge?

What is finished is His suffering for our sin. The death-payment for our guilt and wrongdoing. The whole dark scene of sin that envelopes the world is finished. That Friday was consumed in darkness, both physical and spiritual as He hung on the cross. It was as if you had passed from broad daylight into a dark tunnel with no light. You know when you travel through a very long tunnel under a cold dark mountain, and there’s no visible daylight from either end? The closest thing we have in Hawaii is the Pali or H-3 tunnels on Oahu. Once you’ve entered, you can’t see daylight from either side—imagine all the lights off, and complete blackness. That was the darkness that Jesus entered into that day, because of sin. Everyone had lost hope, and couldn’t see the light of day on the other side. But He passed under that crushing mountain of sin, and came through to the other side, into the daylight, into the life on Easter morn.

When Jesus cried out into the dark abyss that surrounded Him: “It is finished!”, He had singlehandedly defeated sin. He had created a cosmic upset of powers, overthrowing Satan’s deathly grip on humanity because of our sin. With His dying gasps, He sacrificially wrenched us free from sin’s grip, and took the fall for us. “It is finished”—a single word in Greek: “Tetelestai”—means also it is “accomplished” or “completed.” There was nothing more to add to salvation, no human effort or achievement. Your salvation was finished on that tree, in that moment. Have you received that salvation by faith? Have you trusted that it’s now yours? When Jesus finished off the whole dark scene of sin, He opened our eyes to see a new life.

That turning point of history that inevitably draws us into participation at Jesus’ cross, opens our eyes to the light that comes through the other side. It clears our mind of the dark sin and guilt, and enables us to witness the vision of glory that Jesus has prepared for those who love Him and participate in His cross by faith and their baptism. On dark Good Friday, we see that this ending is not a mournful ending, but rather a new beginning. We’re given a vision of a brighter future and we see that God’s presence with us spans the dark times. Just as Jesus made it through the darkness and night to the light of day on the other side, so we are promised a new hope and a resurrection from the dead, when our bodies die and decay one day.

So we will be at the same time mournful of our participation in Jesus’ death and also joyful that we participate in His death. Mournful of our sins and the suffering it caused Him. Desiring to lead better lives in thankfulness to Him. But joyful that we participate in His death, because we have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us! Joyful that this ending—this “it is finished”—does not mean our end…but rather our new beginning. Tonight the dark scene begins to brighten. It is finished. Our tears glisten with hope, knowing that He who promised is faithful. In Jesus Name, Amen.

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

Friday, April 02, 2010

Sermon on John 13:1-35, for Maundy Thursday, "Finding Ourselves"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In the last several weeks, we’ve talked about how God shows us that a self-seeking and self-centered life isn’t God’s desire for us. We’ve been called to “Life Together”—a caring community of believers who are willing to hand our lives over to God’s leading and His purposes as we extend that care and concern to others. Tonight, we’re going to consider how Jesus’ last supper with His disciples helps us to learn about what it means to be followers of Jesus, and the impact of our witness and message. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Take a moment to recall when the last time was that you shared your Christian faith with another person. Perhaps a stranger, perhaps a friend or even a family member. What did you say, and what was their response? Perhaps it was someone living a worldly life, and you’re faced with the uncomfortable fact that it’s not a God-pleasing life. Perhaps they didn’t believe in God, the Bible, or right and wrong. What did you learn from this conversation, and what did you find out you didn’t know? Maybe they had a clever reply that cut the conversation short or left you stumped. Maybe they rolled their eyes and acted like all they heard was blah, blah, Christian, blah, blah. Maybe they politely listened. Maybe they were even respectful and interested. Whatever we may have learned from these experiences, it calls us to ask a very important question of ourselves. Is there something about our church’s life together that will make critics think twice? Is there something about our witness and our way of life that compels people to listen—or do they have any reason to discount our message and not pay attention?

Now of course, the message of Jesus Christ crucified carries a whole offense in itself, that means that many will be unreceptive to hearing it from the start. There’s nothing we can change about that, and still remain faithful to the Word. The Word must remain unchanged and true and bold—but it may be our lives that are due for a change. Do our lives cause people to stop and think (in a positive way) about what it is that we believe? Or do they convey hypocrisy, or arrogance, or indifference and complacency? Why ask these questions on Maundy Thursday, the night Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper? Because on that night, Jesus taught His disciples a very important lesson. They learned something important both about themselves and about God’s will for their lives.

That evening meal was no ordinary celebration of the Passover. The Passover meal, which recalled the deliverance from Egypt, always involved eating a sacrificed lamb, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. This Passover meal was unlike any other night, because at this meal, with Jesus and His twelve disciples gathered in a private room, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world was awaiting His sacrifice. Jesus was anticipating His death in a matter of several hours. The Bread of Life for the world would endure the bitter sufferings of death on the cross. So why was this a context for Jesus teaching them and us about ourselves? It was remarkable that Jesus, preparing for His own death, chose to show His love for His disciples by doing the most menial task—washing their dirty feet. Here the King of the Jews, the Promised Messiah from the line of David, and the Lord of Lords, took on the form of a servant, and humbly washed their dust-stained, sweat-dried feet.

Peter drew back when Jesus knelt down and wrapped Himself in a towel, taking a basin of water to clean their feet. Peter thought he knew how to relate to Jesus, and since Jesus was His Lord and master, there was no way He was going to touch his smelly, dirty feet! That’s a job for the household servant, not for the Lord! Peter said, “You shall never wash my feet!” Peter, the good-hearted individualist, wanted his own will to be done, rather than Jesus’—after all, it seemed commonsense not to allow such a humiliating task to be given to Jesus. This wasn’t something even a disciple would normally do for their teacher, let alone the other way around! But Jesus challenged Peter’s individual judgment. Tonight Jesus challenges you and me: Do you choose how you will relate to Me? And if you think you can relate to Me in any old way you choose, is that how you’ll relate to one another?

Individualism is part and parcel of American culture, and it has crept into the church in less than helpful ways. American individualism says you can do what suits your best interests and you can express yourself in any way you want. You are free to find the true you! In the church this can show itself by everyone seeking their own way or doing what seems best to them. But Jesus goes against this do-your-own-thing individualism. “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Our life together as a church is not a voluntary association of independent individuals. It’s not for us to decide how we relate to Jesus or to each other. Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16). We were not chosen for self-service, but for service to one another. We were not called to think only of our own interests, but also those of others (Phil. 2:4).

When Jesus answered: “If I do not wash you, you have no share in me”—Peter backpedaled immediately. He was led to a new discovery of what discipleship meant for him, and he was now gung-ho to go all the way—“Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus answered, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.” This washing of their feet was a reminder of their cleansing—and also an example of how they were to serve one another. How were they cleansed? They were cleansed, as are we, through their baptism into Christ—a washing that cleansed their conscience and freed them from sin. They were going to be cleansed with the forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Supper that He was about to establish and serve to them. Both our baptism and the Lord’s Supper ultimately cleanses us because these sacraments join us to the cleansing death on the cross that Jesus underwent for us. Here was the most demeaning act—the most humbling yet noble act of servitude that He was to perform for all mankind. The crucifixion was a far greater humiliation then donning a towel and washing feet. But His love for us and His desire that we be clean—totally clean, led Him to that awful death for us.

Similar to how Jesus said that the one who has bathed needs only to wash his feet—we as Christians have been spiritually bathed in our baptism, cleansed of sins because of Jesus’ cross. Just as a traveler needs a regular foot-washing, so we need a daily life of repentance and forgiveness. Our sins are forgiven in baptism, but we continue to sin daily, and need constant forgiveness. We take the Lord’s Supper to continually get forgiveness for daily sins.

So Maundy Thursday—this Last Supper of Jesus with the disciples—teaches us a lot about ourselves as well. It helps us to “find ourselves,” not in the individualistic way we are used to, but in the communal way that Jesus showed. What God does this evening is to show us who we are. We sit together to hear His Words, and gather together to receive His Holy Supper—visible signs that our life together is not one of autonomous individuals, each seeking their own way—but rather we are made one body, washed by our servant Savior. A social commentator, Robert Bellah, made the observation that we don’t get to the bottom of “who we are” or “find ourselves” in isolation from one another. Rather, we discover who we are “face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning.” We cannot forget that we are parts of a greater whole, or imagine ourselves to be so without a great loss. Ultimately there in community and in relation to others, we discover the most about ourselves. It’s no accident that Christ intentionally placed us in community—in life together.

“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” If our own Lord and Master humbled Himself to be a servant, is there any task that is so unworthy of us? Can we serve each other, even to the point of menial tasks of service and unexpected kindness, like that of the washing of feet?

Remember how we started by asking if there was something about our life together as a church that would compel critics of Christianity to think twice? How about this kind of loving service? How about showing such a deep compassion and willingness to serve, that it makes even a “Peter-esque American individualist” jump back and say: “Wow! You would do that for me?! How come?” Or maybe, “You really care to hear about my struggles and problems? What’s in it for you?” If our lives together as Christians can display that same loving service and community concern that is so perfectly modeled in Christ’s washing of His disciples’ feet—in His death on the cross—then maybe people will think twice about what we say. And our lives can display that love, not because we have it on our own, but because Christ’s love lives in us. And when people do think twice, we’ll have the opportunity to share with them the most incredible message of forgiveness and self-discovery that has ever been given—that God became a servant for us by dying for our sins—and so we are to be in love and service toward one another. The story of Christ crucified, that truly helps us find ourselves. May God bless us each in our witness and calling to those around us. In Jesus’ name, Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.