Monday, August 23, 2010

Sermon on Luke 13:22-30, for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Many or the Few?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In today’s Gospel reading, a person poses an important question to Jesus, that might often be on our minds. “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” As we contemplate Jesus’ response, we’re required to reflect on our own standing in relation to the kingdom of God. “Am I one of the many who will fail to enter or one of the few who will enter?” (Just 550). Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The person who asks Jesus the question is asking not about himself, but others. “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” We’ve probably all asked similar questions. I know I always did as a student in the Lutheran school system. We ask about whether or not certain people will be saved, and we usually have a vague group of people in mind. It’s a safe way to avoid involving yourself in the question. But Jesus directs His answer back to the questioner: [You], “strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Jesus doesn’t permit the person to examine others without also examining himself or herself. If we avoid involving ourselves in this question, we may also avoid repenting of our own sinfulness and putting our personal trust in Jesus. Of first importance is that we know whether or not we are in a right relationship with God. Then our concern for our neighbor logically follows.
Somewhere recently I came across a comment where the author was saying how people ask the broad and generic question about whether all these people who haven’t heard the Good News of Jesus Christ can be saved. His response was, do you have someone in particular in mind? “Give me their address and I’ll go share the Gospel with them!” While of course we can’t possibly share the Gospel with everyone, most likely we do have someone in mind that we can tell. What does it really take to share with them the Good News? It’s as simple as telling them that God sent Jesus to die for our sins out of love for us, and now He desires that we know Him and trust in Him to be saved. Put a face on that generic person whose salvation you are concerned for, and tell them the good news! You don’t have to know beautiful or eloquent words to speak of God’s love for them—as the hymn-writer said: “If you cannot speak like angels, If you cannot preach like Paul, You can tell the love of Jesus, You can say He died for all. If you cannot rouse the wicked With the Judgment’s dread alarms, You can lead the little children to the Savior’s waiting arms.” (LSB 826, v. 2) Every person who hasn’t yet believed or hasn’t yet heard, has a face and a name. If you know their name and face and haven’t built up the courage to say something to them yet, start by praying regularly for them, and that God would open up an opportunity for you to tell them the Good News!
When we look at Jesus’ first answer to the question: “will those are saved be few?,” Jesus speaks of striving to enter the narrow door. What is the narrow door, and how do we enter? If we look in other teachings of Jesus where He uses the same language, this is what we find. In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus directly answers the question: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” So Jesus portrays the way to salvation, the way to eternal life, as being narrow and hard. Few will enter into heaven. But it’s a broad and easy road that leads to destruction. No effort is required to stumble down along the downward path to destruction. This is really the opposite of the popular way of thinking about heaven and hell. People far and wide proclaim the supposedly “tolerant” view that “all roads lead to heaven” or “all paths lead to God” or “all gods are the same God, just different names and ways of relating to him.” In this way of thinking, its nearly inescapable that everyone is going to wind up in heaven. In this popular way of thinking, a person has to really work hard to be unusually evil or exaggerated in their rejection of God to wind up in hell. Practically no one but the Stalin’s, Hitler’s, Manson’s and Dahmer’s end up in hell.
But Jesus shows the road to heaven is not the “default.” Rather, apart from Jesus, all people are headed to destruction. But the amazingly good news is that this is not what God desires. God explicitly says that He doesn’t desire that anyone would perish, but that all would come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth (2 Pet. 3:9, 1 Tim. 2:4). And neither is it truly loving or tolerant to teach that all religions lead to God. Imagine a state roadside information station that gave out maps that completely contradicted each other. You’re traveling on the highway, and you stop and ask for directions to Seattle, for example. The person at the desk then proceeds to tell you, “Go any way you like! Travel North, South, East or West on any highway that you choose, and you’ll arrive in Seattle. And by the way, you can ignore all street signs, and you won’t get lost. In fact it doesn’t even matter if you travel on the right side of the road! Ignore those One Way and Do Not Enter!” What would you think of such a station, or of maps that led to nowhere or anywhere? Obviously none of this would be helpful, and anyone who would follow this advice would be lead only to confusion, getting lost, and even fatal accidents.
But the analogy only can go so far, and breaks down in this way—the city of Seattle may have many different routes that can lead you into the city from each direction. From the North, South, East or West. And while from any starting point you could still get lost, or go the opposite direction, there are various “entrances” to the city. But the picture Jesus paints is different from the analogy in this way—there is a narrow road that leads to heaven, and a broad one that leads to destruction. Two roads. And at the end of the road to heaven is a narrow gate or door. There is one way and one way only to enter. There are not many entrances into heaven, but the only way to God the Father is through Jesus His Son, the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). But there certainly are people that are at different places in their journey. They began in different situations in life. Some have started then stopped. Some have turned back the other way to destruction. Some were barreling down the way of destruction but have been turned back by repentance to the narrow way of faith in Jesus. But all share this in common…we are either on the road to life or the road to destruction. This is why Jesus draws the attention back to your own situation first—you, strive to enter through the narrow door. This is why the Bible urges us to pay attention to the kingdom of God and not to lose our way.
So what exactly is that “gate” or “door?” In John 10 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” Jesus is the door or the gate, and through Him we enter to be saved. Jesus is the one entrance to eternal life. We don’t need to be searching or wondering how to get in. We don’t need to doubt or wonder about alternative entrances. Jesus says loud and clear that He is the door and enter through Him to be saved. Through Christ we find safe pasture, forgiveness of sins, the washing away of our guilt, and eternal life. In other words, all the peace and safety and satisfaction that we ache and long for in a war-torn world, is found in Him. And so long as we live, that narrow door is open. This is a tremendous Gospel invitation. Today, now, Christ calls us to “struggle to enter.” Now is the time to enter. There will be a time when that door is closed, and no amount of regrets after its closed will get us in. The door will be permanently shut when we die and face the judgment, or if Jesus comes back first. The regret of being shut out is truly miserable, with weeping and grinding of teeth.
But some He says will try to enter, but will not. Others will be shut out that thought they would go in. Why is this? Jesus describes some of these as thieves and robbers who tried to “climb in another way” (John 10:1-2). Some heard His Word but never did it or believed (Luke 6:46-49). There are others who spoke falsely in His name, and Jesus does not recognize these. They claim that they ate and drank with Jesus, and He taught among them, but Jesus denies these “workers of evil.” Adding the name of Jesus to your teachings does not mean that you are a follower of Christ if you distort them and teach your own thoughts and dreams.
Jesus says: “struggle” to enter through the narrow door. The struggle of anyone to enter the kingdom of God is to repent. Sometimes we think repentance is nothing difficult at all—just saying, “Oops, sorry!” And then go on our way. But in reality, turning away from our sin and being truly sorry before God is much harder. Everything in our nature rebels against admitting what we have done is wrong. We do what we like and if you don’t like it, we don’t care! With that attitude, it’s no wonder the world has so many problems. Our sinful nature wants to please itself, and the most displeasing thing it can hear is that what we have done is sinful and wrong. Trying to live a holy life is also a struggle. But its far more rewarding.
Perhaps some of you are worried or doubtful right now. You’re not sure of whether you’ll stand among the few or the many. Salvation sounds like a hard road, and you’re not sure that you’re making it. You don’t feel like you’re winning the battle of repentance. You begin to wonder if it all depends on you. So I ask you this: do you know the voice of Jesus, your Good Shepherd? Are you listening to His voice and following His call? If you know Jesus and put your trust in Him, then He is leading you on the path to salvation and it all depends on Him. He is leading you through the valley of the shadow of death, and He knows the way. However soiled you have gotten in your own sins, if you have turned to Him, you are forgiven! Better that our regrets now lead us to repentance and forgiveness, than regrets that are too late, after the door has been forever closed. The Good News is that the struggle of repentance that you don’t feel like you are winning, isn’t one that you win on your own. While we daily wrestle and strive against sin, the battle is already won by Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ teaching about the many and the few, about heaven and hell is ended with a surprise: while the door was narrow and the path was difficult, the banquet of heaven will be filled with people from every direction. Many will arrive there by the grace and blood of Jesus, poured out for the sins of the world. But the surprise is those who were first will be last, and those who were last will be first. It’s not those who put themselves first in line to the kingdom of heaven, who had all the outward appearance and fame of seeming worthy to enter—but the meek and the humble. Those who were last. Not those who were confident of their own goodness and righteousness, but those who were repentant and humble, and confident only of the goodness and righteousness of Jesus Christ. To these, the kingdom is given. Because of Jesus’ death on the cross, because of His limitless righteousness and innocence, we who were so undeserving will be able to stand together with all those whom Christ has called and brought to eternal safe pasture. There we will pour forth eternal praises, forever giving thanks to the One who gets all the credit for bringing us there, Jesus Christ.
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. In Luke 13:23 someone asks Jesus, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” How does Jesus answer direct the person back to first consider their own position before God? Why is it important that we put a name and a face on the people who’s salvation we are concerned about? How can we begin to tell them the good news? Look at Hymn 826, esp. v. 2: “Hark the Voice of Jesus Calling”

2. What does Jesus mean by calling the door (to eternal life) narrow? Read Matt. 7:13-14. How does this contrast to the popular idea that “all roads lead to heaven?” Will there be few or many that enter eternal life? Why isn’t it loving someone to say that any road will get you there?

3. What is the “door” or “gate” to heaven? Read John 10:1-2, 7-9. Cf. John 14:6, Acts 4:12; How do we enter by that door? What is found within? When is that door shut? Matt. 25:10; Heb. 9:27.

4. Why will some think that they will enter, but will not? John 10:1-2; Matt. 7:21-23; 25:1-13; 25:41-46; Luke 6:46-49.

5. How does Jesus describe the experience of being shut out of the kingdom of God? Reread Luke 13:27-28. Luke 16:19-31; Matt. 13:41-42; 25:30, 46.

6. How does Jesus describe those who are welcomed into the kingdom of God? Luke 13:29-30; Matt. 22:2; 25:23, 34. To whom will we give all thanks and praise for bringing us there? How long does the feast and celebration last?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sermon on Hebrews 11:24-26, for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Reproach of Christ"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Each of the readings today share a strong theme. The difficulty of holding firm to God’s Word and to Christ’s cross in the face of persecution, difficulty, and opposition. Moses provides a positive example of holding firm in faith against trying circumstances. It says in Hebrews 11, “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Anyone who leads you to believe that being a Christian, a believer in God, is an easy life, free from trouble has plainly misled you, as the readings today show. Being a follower of Christ, and holding to God’s Word in the Bible—not just hearing it, but doing it—is filled with challenges and obstacles. It will lose you the “friendship of this world,” because to be a friend of the world makes one an enemy of God (James 4:4). This may even result in divisions as close as our own family. So no, its not true that following Christ by faith is an easy road. But this “road less travelled” leads us to a far greater blessing than other paths.

Moses faced just this sort of test in life. He had to choose between living in the palace of the Pharaoh, as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and living as an Israelite slave. Moses was born with the silver spoon in his mouth. Secretly taken into the house of the Pharaoh by the Pharaoh’s daughter who found him hidden in the basket in the Nile, put there by his parents so that he wouldn’t die. Moses could’ve easily kept his life of comfort. He could’ve lived a lie, pretending that he was an Egyptian, worshipping the gods of the Egyptians—and he would’ve probably kept great wealth and power. He wouldn’t need to suffer or live as a slave like his own people. He could’ve enjoyed the fleeting pleasures of sin by having the best of a worldly life. But he would’ve been turning his back on his own people, as well as on the God of his forefathers.

But Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and chose instead to be mistreated with the people of God. It says that he considered the “reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” He went from being a member of the royal house to a slave, then lived as a fugitive from Pharaoh, before becoming the deliverer of the Israelites from their slavery. He chose the hard path of following God’s Word and His call. We have the same challenge and call against all the difficulties of life to follow after Jesus and His Word. Jesus warns us that it will be no easy road, and that even division in our family can arise from following Him. When these difficulties arise, will we bear the reproach of Christ, or will we take the easy road?

The temptations are plentiful. The Christian’s path is surrounded by pitfalls. We may hear God’s Word and like it—we may desire the love and forgiveness of God—but decide to continue walking in the fleeting pleasures of sin. We become hearers of the Word, but not doers. Open disobedience to God’s Word betrays a desire to stubbornly follow our own heart. The easy way of the world tempts us to despise God’s Word. There lies a great temptation both for you as hearers, and also to me as a preacher. The temptation for hearers is to decide that we know better than God’s Word. To think in our hearts that what God says really isn’t so, or anyhow, we’ll go our own way. Then the temptation for me as a preacher is what Jeremiah described the false prophets doing: telling people who despise God’s Word and stubbornly follow their own hearts, that everything will go well with them, and that they’ll face no disaster. Basically the temptation to ignore sin’s deadly power, and just give gentle reassurances that everything is going to be ok. To pretend that God ignores it when we flaunt our sin and disobedience to His Word.

But this is to ignore the anger of God against sin. This is to teach you only Gospel or good news, without also teaching God’s Law or commandments. This is to be a doctor that never diagnoses illnesses, but always pretends that all is well—even when the situation is fatal. But a proper doctor diagnoses the illness and prescribes the cure. In the simplest explanation, sin is our diagnosis, and Christ is our cure. God warns us never to listen to the false prophets who fill us with vain hopes, telling their visions and dreams, rather than God’s Word. There is always a tendency to downplay the danger of false prophets, or to act as if there are none. We don’t wish to be divisive or critical of others. But from Old Testament till New, from thousands of years before Christ till thousands of years after, there are false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing who would draw us away from God’s Word. How dangerous are they? God says that they intend to make people forget His name. To turn away from God Himself.

Whether for personal gain, or for popularity, notoriety, or whatever reason they ran—God did not send these false prophets. But the true prophets, Moses and Samuel and rest that you’ll find in Hebrew chapter 11—the true prophets who spoke God’s Word—they faced difficulty, persecution and even death. The Word of God that they preached was not popular, but they did as God called them to do: they proclaimed God’s words to His people, and turned them away from their evil deeds.

In the face of so great a task, and all the temptations as a preacher to subtly alter God’s Word or favor my own dreams or ideas over what God has spoken, I can only call out in repentance to God for the wrongs that I have done knowingly or unknowingly. I pray with the Psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any [wicked] way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24). Lord have mercy on me for any time that I have put my own thoughts forward and not God’s pure word. Search out any error and bring your truth to bear in all my life.

It’s my prayer that you also as hearers are diligent to examine every word I
preach and teach to see if it stands up against the scrutiny of God’s Word. It’s my prayer that as you hear God’s Word that you too are turned away from any evil way, and that by God’s strength and patience you would daily resist sin and temptation. That we would together resist the temptation to water down God’s Word, to sanitize it or take away difficult parts so as to refashion God’s Word to suit the shifting winds of the culture. We live in a time when God’s Word is constantly being chipped away at…casting doubt on God’s work of creation, casting doubt on whether we can know right from wrong, casting doubt on the meaning and use of our sexuality and the definition of marriage and family, casting doubt on the way of salvation, casting doubt on whether all life is worthy of our protection. To stand strong against all these eroding forces, we must build on the foundation of God’s Word, and be prepared for reproach or disgrace for the sake of Christ. Many will reject God’s Word and message that we bring.

Where will we stand? Will we stand with Christ, and be divided from the world, even from family? Will we risk hardship and difficulty for the honor of bearing Christ’s name? While Jesus’ primary mission on earth was to bring salvation to all humanity, the flipside of salvation for those who trust in Him, is condemnation for those who don’t. Jesus didn’t ignore this fact, however we might be tempted to do so. He said that He came to cast fire on the earth. Jesus shows how passionately He felt about these words when He describes how earnestly He longs for this to be finished. He was greatly distressed until it was accomplished. The baptism that He was anticipating, the baptism that He was distressed about was His upcoming death on the cross for our sins. He had already been baptized by John before He spoke these words, but now He was facing the baptism of His death, the spark that would “kindle the fire” of His kingdom.

Because it was His cross that would be the point of division for so many. It was His cross that would separate His followers from those who stood against Him. Christ bore the reproach, the disgrace, the insults and taunts of all who rejected Him on the cross. He faced much greater hardship for the sake of God’s Word than we ever will. He like Moses, and like us, could have chosen an easier road. He could have chosen to avoid the path of suffering, to withhold from speaking the difficult and challenging Word of God that called people to repentance. He could have pretended that He belonged to the world, and made a life of ease and popularity for Himself. But instead, Jesus identified with us, a people enslaved. He took the form of a slave and turned away from the fleeting pleasures of sin. He was scorned and mocked for it. He bore up under insults, and answered back with love. Because He sought a heavenly treasure for us. He despised the reproach and shame of the cross for the joy that was set before Him (Heb. 12:2).

Because Jesus faithfully bore those reproaches, insults and death, because Jesus faithfully spoke God’s Word, God raised Him from the dead. God gave Jesus new life, and the power to all who believe in Jesus to become children of God (John 1:12). So whatever opposition we face for the name of Christ; whatever difficulty we endure for the cross; whatever division affects us in life, consider the reproach of Christ a far greater treasure. Consider what He endured so that you do not grow weary or fainthearted. Consider it worth more than all the treasures of Egypt. Pyramids stuffed with gold and jewels, pharaoh’s tombs overflowing with earthly wealth are counted as dust in comparison to Christ. For His reproach purchased us salvation.

Though we may face the scorn, reproach, and ridicule of the world, this is nothing in comparison to hearing the words of Jesus giving His commendation to faithful believers entering into heaven. For all who walked that hard and narrow road, for all who were carried by the grace of God and lead by the Good Shepherd through the valley of the shadow of death with all its pitfalls, Jesus will say: “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23). For those words alone, it is worth it all. 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.

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

1. What would be the two different outcomes of Moses identifying as an Egyptian ruler or an Israelite slave? In the short term? In eternity? What was the challenge about it?

2. Do Jesus and the Bible teach that the Christian’s life will be easy? Reread Luke 12:49-53; James 4:4; Matt. 10:16-42. Why then do we believe? Cf. Hebrews 10:24-26; Matt. 10:39.

3. Explain these pitfalls on the Christian’s road: to be a hearer of the Word but not a doer (James 1:19-27; Ezek. 33:30-33); to stubbornly follow our own heart (Jeremiah 23:17; Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Matt. 15:18-19); to ignore God’s anger against sin and teach that all is well (Jer. 6:13-14; 23:17-22; Hebrews 12:5)

4. What does Scripture warn about false prophets? How dangerous are they and what can they lead to? Reread Jeremiah 23; Matt. 24:23-28; 1 John 2:18-27; 2 John 7-11; How should we examine and test for false doctrine? (see previous passages) & Acts 17:11; 1 Tim. 6:2-10; Titus 2:1; 2 Tim. 4:1-4;

5. Explain the temptation to water down or “sanitize” God’s Word. Why must this be resisted? 2 Tim. 4:3-5; John 17:17; 1 Cor. 1:17

6. How did Jesus identify with us who were enslaved? How did He bear reproaches for us? What reward was He seeking? John 1:12. What is Jesus’ commendation, and why is it worth it? Matt. 25:23

Monday, August 09, 2010

Sermon on Luke 12:22-34, for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, "Seek His Kingdom"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Has endless worrying ever gotten you anywhere? Has being anxious about something accomplished anything? Has the pursuit of food, clothing, and material possessions ever left you satisfied? It’s questions like these that Jesus addresses today, as He teaches us to seek His kingdom, and all these things will be added to us. For where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We’ve been experimenting with some gardening at home. Trying to grow a few cherry tomato plants and herbs in pots and planter boxes on our lanai. Several of our cherry tomatoes are getting large and green and juicy. I’ve been anxiously watching their progress for months now, to the point of being a little ridiculous about it, as my wife can attest. I’m so anxious to see them grow, that I sometimes check on them two, three or more times per day. Examining the tomatoes….did they get larger? Is there enough water in the pot? How can I get more of the flowers to bear fruit? How come there’s not enough little tomatoes forming? Fortunately this “worry” and “anxiety” is fairly harmless, and is motivated by my excitement to see things grow. But it’s become our joke that if I don’t check on the tomatoes enough times during the day, that they’ll stop growing. I have to laugh at myself at how foolish it is. But this is an important lesson that is also seen in our reading today.

Anxiety and worry don’t accomplish anything. Jesus asks: “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” Of course the answer is you can’t. You can’t make tomatoes grow faster or more plentifully by watching them or worrying about them. You can’t make your situation in life change by worrying. You can’t make your finances improve by worrying. We are surrounded on all sides with proof that worry accomplishes us nothing, and yet against all reality, we continue to worry about all sorts of things. Actually, not only can worrying not add a single hour to the length of your life, but it can probably do a good deal toward shortening it, by adding unnecessary stress. Worry and anxiety are so often more than just “non-productive”—they are counterproductive. They actually can interfere with or make the problem worse. They can diminish our health and well-being. They can lead us to irrational actions that make a situation worse—like panicking when calm is needed.

Who doesn’t have a list of things to worry about? Who doesn’t have responsibilities or deadlines? Who doesn’t have expectations placed on them by their work, their family, or their school? You know who doesn’t? The ravens of the air and the lilies of the field. The birds of the air don’t sow or reap, yet God feeds them. The lilies of the field don’t work or worry, but they are dressed more beautifully than King Solomon with his riches. If God cares and provides for these, which are so much lesser in comparison to us, how much more will He provide for all the things that we need!

Seeing how great a glory God has given to the lilies of the field, how could we doubt that God has much greater glory in store for us? He clothes us with eternal righteousness, the pure innocence of Christ. How much greater is the value and purpose of our life than these! We’re unique in that we’ve the ability to see and understand our purpose, unlike the ravens and the flowers, but we also have the negative ability to doubt our purpose! We can so easily fall into despair and doubt about our life and its purpose and meaning. We wonder if our lives will have any meaning or significance, or if we’ll just be here today and gone tomorrow like the grass of the field. This doubt and the worry is a sign of weak faith, Jesus says. To all of us who fret, worry, are filled with anxiety—Jesus calls: “O you of little faith! Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”

It’s quite a blow to our pride to hear Jesus address us “worriers” as having little faith. There’s a sting in the realization that worry and doubt expose our lack of full trust in God. Anxiety over our possessions shows we don’t have full faith that God will provide our daily bread. So what to do? How do we stop worrying? Just telling yourself not to worry doesn’t often help. “If I don’t worry about it, who will? If things don’t work out how I planned, what am I going to do?” We can know the truth that worrying doesn’t help, but still find ourselves stuck in that old habit. But God has an answer and He has a better way. Instead of worrying about our problems, God has given us prayer! A short quote from Luther that I saw in Jeremy Staub’s classroom hits the nail on the head: “Pray; let God worry.” Of course God doesn’t actually worry, because He’s in control of everything, right? That’s exactly the point then—why should we worry when we’re not the one’s in control? Instead we should be praying to the one who is!

And Jesus’ correction to our problem of worry supplies a positive thing for us to focus on: “Don’t worry…your Father knows what you need…instead, seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you.” The best solution to stop worrying is to seek God’s kingdom. Focus more and more on God, learn of His love for you, be enriched by His grace. Problems will seem smaller as we draw God into our central focus. On the other hand, if we focus on our problems, they will grow larger and larger in our view, and we’ll continue to worry against all advice. God is bigger than our problems, and He is the solution. It’s hard to just remove a negative habit, without putting something positive in its place. But when we seek God and His kingdom, then we will have less and less to worry about. This is what it means to become rich in our heart, rich toward God. As we talked about in last week’s sermon, which came from the reading immediately before today’s—the rich man was rich in possessions, and rich toward himself—but he wasn’t rich toward God.

Seeking God and His kingdom is the way to become rich toward God. The good treasure that makes us rich is to have Christ fill our heart. Having this richness toward God replaces and takes up all the space that we’ve filled with worry. Worrying about possessions and having doubt toward God is like having emptiness in our heart. You can’t “take out the emptiness”—you can only fix the emptiness by getting filled. Sometimes we’re more empty, sometimes we’re less empty—but the solution is to be filled up with God. By seeking His kingdom, that emptiness is filled, and God “adds all these things” to us also. God gives our daily bread and makes His kingdom come even though we don’t always ask for it. But we pray for it to come to us also, and that we realize it, so that we may be filled with thanksgiving for it.

And it’s almost funny that this whole passage that talks about our worries about food and clothing and material things—that Jesus says if you’re worried about that, then sell your possessions and give to the poor! If you are worried about not having enough, try giving some of it away! What?! Give the very object of my worry away? YES! In 2 Corinthians 9:7, it says that “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Don’t give grudgingly or because you feel forced to—but give willingly as you have decided in your heart. Did you know that the word “cheerful” is hilaros in Greek? As in hilarious? Did you know that God encourages the “hilarity of giving?” Why would God do such a thing? Are we expecting something in return? Do we give so that God can repay us an even bigger amount? No, we give out of cheerfulness and joy, with no expectation of reward, because of the sheer blessedness of giving. The return that we get is not material, but the spiritual gain of learning the joy of giving. This is how we acquire what Jesus describes as “moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Have you ever given someone something completely unexpected? Did you see the joy and delight on their face? In that moment, did you know the hilarity, the joy of giving?

Finally the reason we can give so joyfully, the reason we can live without fear or worry or anxiety is because it is God who calls us tenderly: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid. Fill your heart with God. Come to His table with hunger and be filled. Come to the wellspring of His Word with thirst, and be quenched. Come with fear and be filled with courage. Come with anxiety and worry, and be filled with a peace that the world and circumstances cannot take away. God’s good pleasure is to give us the kingdom—and if it weren’t His good pleasure to do it, we couldn’t have it. But God so earnestly desires and wants to bring us this very courage, peace, contentment, and wealth of heart. God desires it with the fullest goodness that words cannot express. The goodness that is expressed in the sacrificial giving of His Son Jesus for our sins on the cross. The goodness that is expressed in the daily outpouring of our needs of food and clothing. The goodness that is expressed in God filling up our empty hearts with the treasure of Jesus Christ.

God is filling you up with an eternal store of forgiveness that you can freely and cheerfully give to others, as Christ has forgiven you. God is filling you up with a strength and courage you never knew, that you can boldly give to others in fear and weakness. God is filling you with a peace that spills over from your life into the lives of others, as they see what it means to live as a redeemed child of God. Truly if we seek God’s kingdom, all these things will be added to us, for it is our Father’s good pleasure. 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.

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

1. Recount at length all the times when worrying actually got you somewhere or helped solve a problem.  Why doesn’t worrying help? List examples where worry or anxiety was actually harmful or counterproductive to you or the situation. Cf. Matt. 14:22-33.

2. Who doesn’t worry or need to worry? Who (or what) doesn’t have responsibilities? Reread Luke 12:24, 27. How can we learn from these examples?

3. If the lilies of the fields are clothed in splendor, how are we clothed? Rev. 7:9-14; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 3:1-17

4. What should we do if we have weak faith? Luke 17:5; Mark 9:24. What replaces doubt, fear, and worry?

5. What’s Jesus advice for getting rid of worry over possessions and material things? See again Luke 12:33-34; 2 Corinthians 9:7;

6. How have you experienced the “hilarity” or joy of giving? What is an opportunity for you to do it now? How does giving produce joy and cheerfulness, and help drive worry away?
7. How can we share in such an abundance, that we can give away joyfully? Reflect on the phrase: “It is the Father’s good pleasure”.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Sermon on Ecclesiastes 2:18-26 and Luke 12:13-21, for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, "Rich Toward God"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The rich man in the parable thought to himself: “my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul.” This is the refrain of the rich man who thinks that all his possessions and wealth, yes even his own life or soul, belongs to himself. The sad story of a lonely, miserly, rich man, who laid up treasure for himself, but tragically found out that none of it belonged to him. Not even his life. He thought that by storing up his surplus, he could secure both his possessions and his life of leisure. But when his life was suddenly taken from him, he found that he’d secured neither possessions nor his life. This lesson Jesus told to a man who was seeking after his family’s inheritance. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

A man wanted Jesus to help settle a family dispute. Normally the oldest brother controlled the father’s estate after he died. So probably this younger brother was trying to get Jesus to take his side to convince his brother to give him his fair share. Jesus, as a well-respected rabbi, would be an impressive authority to back up his claim. Just imaging if Jesus would’ve done so, what would have been the result? Probably it would’ve pushed this family dispute over an inheritance to an even higher level. Either the older brother could grudgingly cave in and give his brother the share he wanted, or he could stubbornly refuse and escalate the fight. Either way the relationship would be pushed further apart. Jesus taking sides would’ve solved nothing.

Instead, He exposed the danger in making life consist in the abundance of your possessions. Suppose the man gave up the fight for the inheritance, and accepted Jesus’ teaching, he may well have lost all chance at his inheritance. The older brother may have taken everything, but he would have the opportunity to be rich toward God. As Augustine put it: [the man] “asked for half an inheritance on earth; the Lord offered him a whole inheritance in heaven. The Lord gave more than asked for.” Most of us probably know of family situations that turned into bitter disputes over possessions and the inheritance of a loved one. Sometimes those grudges last for years and years. Most of us probably also know of family situations where the opposite happened, and the death of a family member brought the family back together, and reconciliation happened as old wounds were healed, and disagreements faded into insignificance.

What’s the difference? Their attitude towards the things of this life. These attitudes often begin long before death, and they consider only the things of this life. The attitude that was brewing in the young man is seen in its fullest expression in the rich fool of Jesus’ parable. An attitude of greed and selfishness. My, my, my, me, Me, ME! A self-destructive attitude of privilege; demanding what I think I deserve. An attitude that can tear grieving families apart as they squabble over what their loved ones left behind. Rich in things and poor in soul (LSB 850).

So instead of siding with the young man, Jesus warned to guard against all covetousness, because our life doesn’t consist in how many things we have. What is covetousness? The 9th and 10th commandments tell us not to covet our neighbor’s house, his wife, or any of his possessions. To covet is a sinful desire for what our neighbor has. A discontentment with what we have and a greedy desire for what we don’t have, or what someone else has. Coveting can quickly turn into deceptive ways of trying to get what doesn’t rightfully belong to you. Jesus warned against this sinful desire of covetousness because it is a consuming desire that is never satisfied. Never satisfied because there’s always something more that we want. Or if we have everything that we want, we’re filled with anxiety and worry to protect it. Nothing will reassure us that our possessions are safe.

The exact opposite of this attitude of greed and coveting what we don’t have or doesn’t belong to us, is the attitude of contentment, and being rich towards God. This attitude can start very early in life and shapes how we live our life and manage our possessions. For those families who’ve seen reconciliation around the death of a loved one, they’ve discovered that forgiveness, relationships and love were more important than quarrels over things or dwelling on old wounds. Take care to avoid covetousness and greed, and instead seek to be rich towards God. Find satisfaction in what God has given you, and don’t forget that you’re accountable for it to Him.

The rich fool in the parable thought he was living the philosophy of Ecclesiastes, heard in today’s reading. He said: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry!” If we find ourselves rich and well-supplied, we might also be tempted to think the same. Flaunt our wealth, kick back, splurge on expensive toys and things, and enjoy the good life! Isn’t that what Solomon meant when he wrote: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil?” Solomon did acknowledge that it was good to enjoy life and our work, but there’s a crucial difference. The all-important next phrase in Ecclesiastes tells it all: “This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” Enjoying your wealth and the good things that God has blessed you with is not wrong in itself, but the rich fool was rich in things and poor in soul. He wasn’t rich towards God because he thought he was the one responsible for his bounty, and he counted everything, even his life as his own. He didn’t recognize as Solomon did, that all these things he had were from the hand of God and apart from God we cannot have enjoyment.

The rich fool became the embodiment of Solomon’s warning that the one who pleases God will be given wisdom, knowledge, and joy, but that the sinner will given the business of gathering and collecting only to give it to the person who pleases God. The rich man lost everything, when he failed to realize that even his life was on loan from God, and that God could demand the return of that loan at anytime. All that he stored up for himself in his barns was gone in an instant. If we make life to be merely a matter of our possessions, then our own desire will consume us and we will lose both possessions and soul when we die. We’ll forget that our life is on loan from God. But if we live for God and are grateful for every day that we receive as a gift—if we realize that all is from the hand of God—then we will find enjoyment and satisfaction in our work. Then when we die, we can go in peace and good conscience.

Changing that attitude toward our life and possessions makes a world of difference. The difference between hoarding our possessions, tenaciously guarding them for fear of losing them, and giving away generously from the bounty that God has blessed us. The difference between being lonely and having no one to celebrate with, and having friends and loved ones to share in our joy. The difference between being blindly unaware that God may call for the return of everything, and living as a steward who can in good conscience give everything back in full at anytime that God should call us from this life. It’s realizing how God wants us to use our possessions in this life.

Augustine made this beautiful observation: [the man] “did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns.” He could’ve used his surplus for the good of others. Andrew Carnegie, while not a Christian, was a famous philanthropist who thought the same. He famously said: “surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” For the wealthy to use their excess to provide for the good of the poor and those in the community is a great trust and honor. How much different would the rich man’s situation have been if he’d used that surplus to feed the poor? If we would see our wealth, our possessions as God’s trust to us to give, use, and spend wisely? If our hearts were moved by openness and generosity, and not selfishness or greed?

Finally, to be accounted by God as a good steward of all that we’ve been given, we need to be rich toward God, as Jesus said. Becoming rich toward God is something that only God can work in us. Being spiritually poor on our own, we cannot create this wealth on our own. But Jesus tells us to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. We do this by laying hold of the treasure of Jesus Christ and His heavenly riches toward us. Jesus became poor so that by His poverty He might make us rich. His precious blood that flowed on the cross for our forgiveness is called more precious than gold or silver (1 Pet. 1:19). There is no greater wealth to be had than to have the impossible debt of our sin erased, and to be given in exchange the heavenly inheritance of Jesus. This is why our faith also is counted as more precious than gold (1 Pet. 1:7).

Faith is the willing reception of all God’s gracious gifts, and the active trust that clings to Jesus in all things. Faith receives the treasure of God’s Word to enrich and enlighten it. Faith moves us to live as though everything belongs to God and may be returned at anytime. Faith moves us to live with generosity and openness, knowing that our life doesn’t consist in the abundance of our possessions, but in the abundance of our God. Faith sees and lays hold of all God’s abundant promises, and treasures them as from the hand of God. To be rich toward God is to have God Himself as our greatest treasure and desire, and to seek to put nothing else in His place. Take God up on His promises, and be assured that a full and overflowing heavenly storehouse prepared by God is worth more than all the earthly wealth and possessions that gold, silver, and any money can buy. In Christ Jesus, we truly are rich toward God.

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. What was the “refrain” of the rich fool? What was his attitude about his possessions and life? How was the young man in danger of developing this same attitude? What is tragic about this attitude?

2. Why didn’t Jesus offer to settle the dispute in the way the young man suggested? What was the deeper problem? Explain in your own life what it means to be “rich in things and poor in soul.” What is the contrasting attitude that God desires? Cf. Phil. 4:11-13

3. See the small catechism explanations for the 9th and 10th Commandment. What does it mean to covet? How should we look at possessions instead? Matt. 6:19-21; Ps. 89:11; 50:10-12

4. When loved ones have died in your family, did it result in squabbles and hurt feelings over things, or did it bring reconciliation between family members? What made the difference? What was the heart of the problem (or the cause for reconciliation)?

5. Reread Ecclesiastes 2:18-26. What is the difference between Solomon’s attitude toward riches in vs. 24-25 and the rich fool’s? How does one find enjoyment?

6. How does realizing that all our possessions and even our life are on loan from God change the way that we live and manage our life? When can God call for the return of those loans?

7. How should we use our excess wealth or surplus? How do we become rich toward God? Matt. 6:19-21; 1 Peter 1:7, 19. How is Jesus our greatest and everlasting treasure?