Monday, September 27, 2010

Sermon on Luke 16:19-31, for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Children's Sunday, "Important News"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Welcome again to our Children’s Sunday, and I want to thank our children for their beautiful singing, and for your support and encouragement for them today. Today I want to talk to you about Important News. Several questions to think about: What is important to me? Am I listening to important news? How would I recognize important news? What do you do with important news once you’ve heard it? As we consider some of these questions, we’ll be looking at the story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

So what is important to you? God? Your children? Your family? Your possessions? Your life? The things that are most important to us are the things that we give our greatest time, attention, and effort to. They’re the things that we want to protect and keep safe, or the things that give us protection and security. So how do we recognize important news? Several month ago we had tsunami warning here, and people had to make an evaluation—is this important news or not? Should I get out of the ocean and go for the hills or not? A little yellow light on our dashboard might light up, and say “maintenance required.” Does our car need attention or not? Our email and postal boxes may be filled with messages saying “URGENT! Respond Now!!”, advertising the newest credit card deal that’s about to expire, or the chance to refinance your home that is slipping away, or the miracle herbal remedy that will re-grow your hair, boost your intelligence and energy. Or that mail might be “Urgent notice: Payment Overdue!” At the airport you might hear “Homeland Security has issued an advisory raising the threat level to Yellow” (or Orange). If you heard that warning, would you know what it meant, and how would it change your behavior?

With so many warnings and messages demanding our attention, it’s understandable that some might feel overwhelmed and panicky, while others might feel jaded and just ignore the whole lot and go on their way. After all, some are false warnings, some are just advertisements. Yet sometimes warnings and threats are real, but the danger passes or is delayed. It might condition us to take the warning less seriously the next time. It can become easy with so much information distracting us daily, to start to tune out; especially those things that don’t seem immediate. While ignoring some so-called warnings might cause us no harm, ignoring others can have dangerous and even permanent consequences. Of course we’d like to think that we’d recognize and pay attention if something truly important came along. But is that always true? Do you find it hard to believe that some people might pay more attention to the “low battery” warning or “no coverage” signal on their cell phone, than to a tsunami warning, for example? It does take being alert and the ability to discern, to recognize whether a message is truly important or not, and whether we should act on it. So how do we know?

The story of the rich man and Lazarus tells about Lazarus, who went to heaven, and the rich man to hell. The rich man in the story ignored the important news of Moses and the Prophets, to his own peril. Moses was the great law-giver and prophet of God, who lead the Israelites to their freedom. He wrote the first five books of the Bible. “The Prophets” refers to the whole group of messengers from God that had been sent to the people of Israel to turn them away from their sins and to teach them to trust in God. They authored most of the rest of the Old Testament, the part of the Bible written before Jesus’ time. Only after the rich man died, did he realize that the message they’d brought was truly important. He might have asked himself, “How did I get to this point and miss such important news?” But by then it was too late. The important news was in fact a matter of life and death, and had consequences for eternity.

In the story he never quite got to the point of regretting how he’d lived his life, and how heartless he’d been to the need of the beggar Lazarus, who laid so helplessly at his gate while he enjoyed his great wealth and extravagant feasts every day. In his life he couldn’t even spare the scraps from his table to care for a man so weakened by hunger that he couldn’t keep off the dogs who licked his wounds before he died. Had the rich man’s life been rewound and he taken the important news of God’s Word seriously, he would’ve lived quite differently. He would’ve used his riches mercifully and shown kindness and charity to Lazarus’ need. He wouldn’t have lived as though his possessions were most important. He would’ve trusted God and realized that all he had belonged to God, and could be returned at any time. You can’t take it with you.

When the rich man finally felt some remorse, he pleaded to Abraham, the great ancestor of the Israelites and father of the faith, and begged for Lazarus to be sent back from the dead to warn his five brothers, so that they wouldn’t come to that place of suffering. His idea was that surely if someone rose from the dead and told them, this would get them to pay attention and realize the message of the prophets was important. But Abraham replied that “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

Wow! If anything should make people get up and pay attention, surely seeing someone come back from the dead should do it, right? Well, that was just the point of Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus. He was coming with important news—truly important news, but people weren’t paying attention. As Jesus told the story, through Abraham’s words He said that if they didn’t believe His words, even if someone should rise from the dead, they wouldn’t be convinced. Jesus was hinting at His very own death on the cross that He’d face. Jesus was alluding to the fact that He’d be betrayed, arrested, and sentenced to death on the cross; but that after three days He’d be raised from the dead. Yet many would still remain unconvinced of the truth and importance of His message. His power and love were dramatically seen in His death on a cross, overseen and verified by Roman executioners; His burial in a grave; and after three days rising from the dead in a complete and restored human body, alive, breathing, and miraculously whole. But even this act didn’t convince them of the importance of His message. And so it remains for many today.

But what is that message and how should we recognize if it really is true and urgent? Jesus at His trial, told the Roman governor Pontius Pilate that “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” Pilate responded skeptically: “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38). That same question “What is truth?” has almost become the slogan of our present day. But Jesus not only said the truth is on His lips, but also that He is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Jesus made the bold and unmistakable claim that He brings the truth and that Truth is bound up with His identity—and that all who belonged to the truth would listen to His voice.

Jesus was more than just one of the prophets, or a spokesperson for God, like Moses and the Prophets before Him. They taught in short, that there was one true God who must be honored above all else, the God who made all things, and that we’re accountable to Him for our life. They taught that God’s people were to reflect His characteristics of justice and mercy, and that they weren’t to oppress or mistreat the poor, the orphans, widows, etc. They taught that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus also reaffirmed. But Jesus wasn’t just the next in line of these prophets. He came with the eternally important message, that He was God Himself in human form. He was the greater one that all the prophets pointed to—God’s coming Savior. Jesus the Savior, the realization of all they’d been waiting for. That was a radical and amazing claim, unlike anything they’d heard before. But He didn’t make that claim without backing it up.

Jesus’ whole ministry on earth was filled with miracles, but ultimately He offered His resurrection from the dead as the single greatest miracle and final proof that He was the Son of God, our Savior. This was the biggest and most important news, because His death on the cross means the forgiveness of our guilt and our wrongs, and His rising from the dead means our hope for eternal life. When we hear this message, how do we recognize that it’s important news, and decide whether or not to act on it? Back to the examples I started with, of tsunami warnings, warning lights on your dash board, and PA announcements at the airport—part of the way you measure the importance of the message is by being informed. Learn about it or investigate the information. But sometimes, as with a tsunami warning or threat level advisory, you might not be able to gather the information yourself, or know for certain how imminent the danger is. When it comes to the all-important news of Jesus Christ, we should learn and investigate. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Make it of first importance to recognize the importance of His message. We have His words written down for us in the New Testament Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There we come face-to-face through His Word, with the Living Jesus.

Jesus said that if we remain in His Word, we are truly His disciples or followers, and that we will know the truth and the truth will set us free (John 8:31-32). So finally to know the truth and importance of Jesus’ message is something we find in His Word. It’s by hearing that Word of Jesus that we’re finally convinced and persuaded of its truth and importance. Believing in Jesus is the way to be set free—free from our wrongs, our guilt, our past. Believing in Jesus is the way to eternal life. And if we believe in Him, it will begin to transform our lives, though in this life it’s just an imperfect start. But we’ll be marked by the same compassion and love for our neighbor and love of justice, that marked Jesus. May we all hear and recognize Jesus’ words of forgiveness, life and love as important news—but even more than that, as good news that God so loved the world, that He sent His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not die, but have eternal life (John 3:16). 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
Children’s Sunday, 9/26/10

1. What are the things that are most important to you? Do you listen to important news? How do you recognize if a message is important? If you realized a message was important, how would you act on it?

2. What responses do we have to the flood of information that comes to us, claiming to be “important?” How do we sort them out to know what’s truly important?

3. What was the “important news” that the rich man (and his brothers) in the story ignored? “Moses and the Prophets” represented the messengers of God who wrote the Old Testament. They taught of the One True God (Deuteronomy 6:4-6), and what His commands were (Exodus 20:1-21). What did they teach about how to treat our neighbor, and in particular the poor and disadvantaged in society? Leviticus 19:9-18; Deuteronomy 10:17-22; 14:29; 15:7-11; Malachi 3:5

4. What was the consequence of the rich man ignoring that message, and mistreating his poor neighbor? Reread Luke 16:19-31. How was Lazarus relieved from his suffering? How would knowing and believing in God, and reflecting His love change how we would live, and also treat our neighbor?

5. What was Jesus’ purpose for coming into the world? John 18:37-38. Jesus not only witnessed to the truth, but said He was the Truth. John 14:6. How does believing this lead to eternal life? John 3:16

6. Does the death and resurrection of Jesus persuade you to believe in the importance of His message, that He is truly God’s Son and our Savior? Why or why not? How was His death confirmed? John 19:28-37. How was His resurrection confirmed? John 20-21, 1 Corinthians 15.

7. Finally if we hear the Word of Jesus, we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. John 8:31-32. It is through the Holy Spirit that we are convinced of the truth of Jesus’ words, and believe them. John 16:13

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sermon on Luke 16:1-15, for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Merciful Master"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s Gospel reading may strike us as very unusual, because Jesus commends the dishonest manager. We’re familiar with the Bible warning us not to “learn the way of the nations” (Jer. 10:2), or that we should not be “conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (Rom. 12:2). We’re used to Jesus teaching us not to follow the sinful example of the world and it’s desires. So why does Jesus commend this man who mismanaged his master’s possessions, and what application to our Christian life is Jesus getting at? Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Before we can get to the application of the parable, we first need to understand what happened, why the master praised the manager, and what exactly he was praising the manger for. Because there is a big difference between the master commending the dishonest manager for acting cleverly, and the master commending the clever manager for acting dishonestly. In other words, it wasn’t his dishonesty and dishonest actions that were praised, but the cleverness of what he had done. But how was it that the manager achieved this praise?

If we look at the parable from the perspective of the rich master, we realize that he was actually quite merciful and generous to the manager in several ways. In the first matter of firing him because he was wasting the master’s possessions, the master could’ve taken much more extensive action against this wasteful scoundrel. He could’ve pursued him for the repayment of what was lost, could’ve had him imprisoned. But he only fired him, and demanded the return of the accounts he managed. He must have fired him privately, which is why the debtors didn’t know that he was acting illegally. They would never dream of making these arrangements if they knew the manager had been fired (Bailey, 338). Further, when the dishonest manager goes behind his back at the last moment to reduce those debts, the master would have had every right to inform the debtors that these arrangements were illegal and they owed the full debt, as well as to take strong action against this dishonest manager. The reductions in debt were huge amounts of money, equivalent to a year and a half’s wages for a farmer (Bailey, 339). Nevertheless, the master again showed great generosity and mercy, by allowing the reductions in debt to stand, and not destroying the reputation of the manager so that he couldn’t be hired elsewhere, or arresting him for fraud.

Why the dishonest manager was so clever is this. He saw his dilemma, knew that he was guilty and couldn’t plead to keep his job. He knew he’d be fired, and realistically knew that he was in no position or ability to do manual labor, or to beg for his food. If it became known that he was fired for corruption, no one else would hire him. He knew he had one last chance to show his cleverness and win popularity among the community, so that he could land on his feet (Bailey, 337). The gamble that he took was to stake everything on the mercy of his master, and that the master wouldn’t violate this core value of his identity (Bailey, 341). He lost no time to call up the master’s debtors and privately arrange to reduce their debts, while he still had the appearance of legitimacy. Reducing their debts was the clever part—because it took advantage of the master’s good reputation and generosity, and even enhanced it! His scheme made both himself and his master look good in the eyes of the community. So the debtor’s would’ve been exceptionally grateful to such a generous master who forgave a major portion of their debt—but they also would’ve been grateful to the dishonest manager for arranging this. So after he was fired, they would owe him a debt of gratitude.

If the dishonest manager hadn’t been certain of his master’s mercy and generosity, his gamble never could’ve worked. The master had every right to punish him and to demand full payment of the debts that had illegitimately been reduced. But the master’s reputation had been increased by this—the people would have been impressed by his generosity, and for him to undo the deals would sour the happy mood of the debtors and make him appear unreasonable and stingy. Instead, the master paid the price of this clever scoundrel’s scheme and refrained from demanding the debts or imprisoning the manager (Bailey, 340). The gamble had worked because the dishonest manager truly knew the good character and mercy of his master.

The master in Jesus’ parable praised him for this cleverness, but the following verses make it clear that it was not his dishonest actions themselves that are praised. While Jesus advises us as Christians to learn from the shrewdness of how the world handles money, he condemns the dishonest actions. We’re not told that we should misuse other people’s money, as long as we can be clever enough to get away with it. That is most certainly not the message of the parable. Rather, Jesus says, “One who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in very little is also dishonest in much.” The manager had lost his position because he’d been dishonest. He’s called one of the “sons of this world” who use unrighteous wealth to their gain. Had he used his cleverness in honest and fair dealings with him master, he could’ve been commended for his shrewdness, and kept his job and perhaps even be entrusted with more. But as Jesus said, if you cannot even be faithful with unrighteous wealth—namely to manage the earthly matters of money—who can trust you with true riches?

So also for us, the lesson is that if we’re dishonest in managing earthly affairs, or in being stewards of what God has given us, how will we be trusted with greater things? Jesus teaches that we shouldn’t store up our treasure in earthly things, but in heavenly treasure—which is the true riches that God can give to us. So how should we be faithful in the “little” things that God gives us? Probably the most important thing for anyone who works as a steward or a manager of someone else’s possessions is to realize just that—that it doesn’t belong to me! Jesus says, “If you haven’t been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” All that we have in life, our cars, clothes, cash, bank accounts, land, home, even our very body and life are not our own. That is a huge statement to make, and a logical hurdle that many will never get over. Many will never accept the idea that what they have isn’t really theirs. We like to think that everything we have and we own belongs to us. Either we earned or it was given to us, and now we have exclusive rights to it. Isn’t this how we think, according to our sinful nature?

But to realize that none of it is ours—just like the example I gave some weeks ago about a man walking through an art museum with paintings stuffed under his arms—to realize that we can’t take it with us is a huge realization. Once we have realized that all that we have belongs to God, and not us, we’ll live completely differently. We cannot serve both God and money—we must choose between them. There is no 50-50 deal, we can’t divide our interest between God and the wealth of the world. We must be completely devoted to and love God rather than money. What was commendable about the dishonest manager’s actions was that he used his master’s possessions mercifully to forgive the debt (Just, 618-19). If we follow Jesus’ advice on how to manage and use our Lord and Master’s possessions, we’ll also use them mercifully toward others. We’ll practice charity by giving our help and support to the poor and the needy (Luke 12:31-34). In doing so, in being merciful and generous with money, just as our Lord Jesus is with us, we will make friends for ourselves through wealth. This is the other part of the lesson for what it is to be faithful in the little, earthly things we’ve been entrusted with.

Money can be hoarded greedily and kept to our own destruction, as in the example of the foolish rich man, or it can be used in openness and generosity to win friends and the respect and admiration of others. We can’t buy our way into heaven, and we can’t take what we “own” in this life to heaven either. But the one thing we can take to heaven is our friends. Think of all the people who are helped by the money that is given for missions or for charitable needs, and how thankful those people will be that we shared our Master’s goods with them. Giving our Master’s food, medicine, clothing, or money to those who are in need. Note Jesus’ words—“I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” So that when it fails. This is exactly why putting our trust and security in money and possessions is misguided. It will fail. It won’t last. But the love and appreciation of those who were helped will last forever. And while earthly wealth will fail, God won’t fail, and God will last.

A Christian who knows this will live like everything belongs to God, and it wouldn’t make one difference to them if they had to give it all back at any time, because it’s all His. They would use their possessions faithfully, knowing that the small things God entrusts us with in this life are but training for handling true riches in heaven. We don’t even fully know what that is, but we know that God has richly blessed us in Jesus Christ, and has a truly incredible inheritance in store for us in heaven. A Christian who knew that everything belongs to God would use wealth in the same way that God does, in mercy and generosity. And above all, that person would put their full trust in God’s mercy and kindness. Not because we were trying to swindle God or take advantage of His mercy to our own gain, but because we truly know that we can count on His mercy and faithfulness.

And it doesn’t matter how much we’ve been entrusted with—whether we’re rich or poor. If we’re faithful with a little we’ll be faithful with much. We don’t wish to be found to have squandered our master’s possessions when we’re called to “turn in the account of [our] management.” And truthfully, in the final analysis we all must admit that we haven’t managed what we’ve been given with perfect and unrelenting faithfulness. We have often been wasteful or irresponsible with what God, our Master has given us.

Then we must all the more cling to and put all our trust in the mercy and generosity of our God—confident of His grace. We’re confident in Jesus Christ who has been faithful over all of God’s house as a Son (Hebrews 3:6). Jesus, who was entrusted with much, who was entrusted with the fate of the whole world. He was given the management and care of our souls. He carried out His task so faithfully that He could truthfully answer to God that He kept all those people that God had given Him out of the world, and that He’d lost none of them except Judas, that the scripture might be fulfilled (John 17:12). We can be confident that Jesus is also able to guard and keep our souls, that He who was faithful in all God’s house, faithful even unto death, will be able to deliver our souls to His eternal kingdom. Jesus was the perfect manager of all God’s house because He poured out God’s generosity and forgiveness and the riches of God to all in need. And to plead on God’s mercy in Christ—to trust in His unshakeable reputation of forgiveness and mercy is no gamble—it is a sure thing. Jesus has taken account of all our debts, for all our guilt that we accumulated before God, and He cancelled that record of debt by nailing it to His cross (Col. 2:14). So be confident of God’s mercy, and live every day with the knowledge and trust that everything belongs to Him. 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. How does the Bible warn against learning the ways of the world and adopting them? Jeremiah 10:2; Romans 12:2. Was the dishonest manager actually commended for his dishonesty, or what?

2. What kind of action might it have been reasonable and just for the master to take against the dishonest manager, 1) when he found out he wasted his possessions, and 2) when he found out the unauthorized reductions of debt he had made? What about the master’s character made him resist those actions? How is this a picture of our heavenly Father? Mt. 18:21ff

3. What was so clever about the dishonest manager’s action? What factor did the success of his plan depend on? What was the result for him? For the master? On the other hand, how does the parable show that while his cleverness was praised, his dishonest actions were condemned? See esp. verses 8, 10-13.

4. What are the greater things or the “true riches” we might be entrusted with? Luke 12:21; Matt. 6:19-24; 1 Peter 1:3-8. What is so difficult about accepting that what we “have” is not truly ours? Why doesn’t it work to be devoted to both God and money? Why must we be devoted only to God? Luke 16:13.

5. What will inevitably happen to money and material things? Luke 16:9; James 5:2-3. So in the meantime, what trait of God’s are we to imitate as we use our worldly wealth? Luke 12:31-34

6. Who is the perfectly faithful Son in whom we put our trust? Heb. 3:6. How well did He manage what was given to Him? John 17, esp. v. 12. In what can we trust for our accumulated debts to God? Col. 2:14

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Lost are Found"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s Gospel reading paints pictures of God for us, to describe how the lost are found, and the spontaneous eruption of joy that happens in heaven when lost sinners are found. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

A woman sits alone in a crowded restaurant, staring at the happy faces and animated conversation of other customers, wondering where her joy and laughter has gone. In the few years since her father died, she’s felt disillusioned and angry at God and unable to find peace. Somewhere else, in a high school classroom, a student wears a dark look on his face and buries himself in angry music to hide his pain and toughen himself against emotion. Growing up in a house where his parents just don’t care, his behavior has gotten worse and worse at school, and now he wonders if he’ll get caught and kicked out for drug possession. A few miles away in an executive boardroom, a successful CEO mechanically manages his business meeting while his mind is elsewhere. He wonders if his wife knows about the affair he’s having, and is ashamed and fearful of what will happen if his church finds out.

These could all be the life stories of people who are lost. Stories like them and people much like them could be found all through our island community. Some stories might evoke sympathy, others indignation. People who have wandered far from the sheepfold, and are stuck in a world of loneliness and isolation, despair and hopelessness, or sin and depravity. Their lives may outwardly be successful, or their lives may be a string of bad choices and tragedies. They may have pursued a path of sin and ignored all the calls of a guilty conscience to turn back. They may have convinced themselves that there’s some justification for their actions to silence that voice of conscience. Or they may have been thrust into terrible circumstances by the neglect and mistreatment of others, and lost hope and faith in God. But what they all share in common, whatever their external situations, is that they’re lost. Adrift and wandering, separated by sin and unbelief from their loving God and Jesus the Good Shepherd who longs to have them home in safety. Sometimes getting lost was willful and on purpose, other times it was accidental and unintentional.

The details and faces may change, but do you know someone who is lost? Are you that someone? Then Jesus’ parable was written for you. Perhaps you were the sheep that bolted from the sheepfold, confident of your way and self-sure in your pursuit of greener pastures. You didn’t need the protection of our Good Shepherd and the safety of the pen, so you struck out for those inviting open pastures. Sometimes we despise the sanctuary and rest of church, and the goodness of our Lord Jesus, enticed by the forbidden pleasures of the world, confident that we know better. Until the deceitful pleasures of the world prove to be a bramble or thorny thicket that we cannot untangle ourselves from, and we harden ourselves against returning to the Lord.

Or perhaps you were the sheep that mindlessly wandered out of the sheepfold, peacefully munching on the grass, blissfully enjoying life while you slowly drifted further and further away, until the surroundings began to look dark and unfamiliar, you were left alone, and the howling of wolves echoed in your ears. Sometimes life just cruises on smoothly and we never even notice how far we’ve drifted from God until a crisis appears in our life and we find ourselves off-guard, alone and unprotected. We bleat for help but hear only the growling of unfriendly voices, or worse yet, total silence.

The surprise of Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, is the effort that the shepherd and the poor woman in the respective stories go to, in order to recover their lost possessions. We live in a very practical and pragmatic world. People don’t tend to waste their time picking up lost coins off the street when they’re in a hurry. They might stop for a clean, shiny coin, but few would pick up a sticky, dirty coin covered in gum or dried soda. Most people wouldn’t risk losing 99% of their investment to return 1% of their lost assets. We tend to value efficiency and practicality. Losses are inevitable, so cut your losses and move on with life. Do what works and get the most accomplished.

But the shepherd and the poor women in the parable portray God and His unfailing love and compassion to search for the lost. He doesn’t make a practical evaluation or do a “cost-benefit analysis” to measure whether our lives are worth saving. Like a loving shepherd, He scrambles through the dry wilderness in pursuit of that lost lamb, leaving behind the 99 until He finds the one lost sheep. A poor woman missing one of her small stash of 10 meager coins, lights a lamp and grubs around on the dark dirt floor of her peasant’s home until she finds that lost coin. Likewise, Jesus “stripped Himself down to the deepest levels of our poverty and came into our darkness, so that we could become rich in Him and live with Him in eternal light” (Scaer, 237-9). For all those lost, lonely, angry, rebellious, or despairing sinners in this world, the message of this parable is that God has not written you off as a loss. Jesus has not given up the search for those who’ve gotten lost, and is passionately searching till the lost are found.

Some who are lost may be at the point of despair. They may feel worthless and have no hope to be found. They may feel like the dirty coin stuck in the gum on the parking lot, with people walking by unaware, or worse, with looks of disgust. They may consider themselves of no value to anyone. Who would find me? Who would notice the problems in my life and care? But Jesus is like the person who picks up that coin, shines and cleans it off, and shouts with surprise and joy to those around, look at what I’ve found! Jesus finds lost sinners covered in their sin, and He cleanses them by His forgiveness, washing them in baptism from their guilt and sin’s stain, and clothing them anew with His innocence. Jesus finds us like lost sheep, and picks out the thorns of sin and disobedience, washes the mud of sorrow and guilt away, and heals the wounds of tragedies and losses. This is to say that Jesus sees the value in us, He sees the value in what is lost, even if we or others don’t see it in ourselves. Our value exists in the eyes of God. Jesus may be the only one who sees, cares and hears. But we need never fear that if we cry out in need for His mercy, if we bleat for relief, that He won’t listen. Removing the thorns of sin will be painful, and we might resist; breaking the illusion of finding greener pastures elsewhere might be tough, but for the lost sheep come home, it’s a blessed departure from what lies behind.

There’s peace and safety and freedom in returning home and receiving the joyful welcome of our loving and faithful Lord. Repenting of our sin and acknowledging that we’ve gone astray takes humility and accepting that God’s ways are right and good. But it’s so much better to have a conscience at peace, and be found, then to have a distressed and guilty conscience and be lost. See yourself being carried home on Jesus’ shoulders, with His tender words of relief and joy at finding you and bringing you home. It is for you that God did not spare His greatest love, that Jesus gave up His life for His friends. No greater love than this, that the Good Shepherd willingly laid down His life for the sheep that they may have life and have it to the fullest with Him.

And there is nothing but joy—sheer and unadulterated joy and celebration in heaven, when even one lost sinner repents. The one sinner despised and overlooked by the world, the one who was lost, is worth everything in the eyes of Jesus—yes, even worth giving His own life. For the joy of having you and I back as His own, Jesus was willing to endure the pains of the cross, as He suffered for our sins, our wanderings, our rebellion and disobedience. He was willing to become the most lost and forsaken man on the planet when He died on the cross, so that His death would open a way back home for us. And oh, how does heaven celebrate whenever one lost sinner repents and turns back from their way! Can anything make heaven burst into song like that? Just the glimpse of that heavenly jubilance can send our hearts soaring with amazement at the greatest love of God who cares so much for even a sinner such as I. And for all those examples of hurting, lonely, or defiant sinners that I gave before, who knows what dear Christian friend, parent, aunt or uncle, coach or mentor or colleague joins in the rejoicing and celebration when that lost sinner repents and Christ brings them back to Him. How long they have prayed and hoped for their return.

Treasure the images of that joy in heaven and of Jesus rejoicing as He carries lost sheep home on His shoulders, speaking tenderly to them, for these are not merely nice thoughts and sentimental images to be hung on a calendar or living room wall. This is the very truth of God’s plan of salvation that He is carrying out through Jesus Christ, and the real description of God’s active and searching love that risks everything to find us lost sinners and bring us home. It is the very picture of heaven, where celebration truly can’t be contained at a sinner’s return. Treasure this in your heart because we were all, every one of us, lost in sin and error’s way. We all, like sheep have gone astray. But just as you were once lost, now you’re found, and Christ has brought you to His sheepfold where there’s safe pasture. Take every opportunity to rejoice together with fellow Christians and with God and the angels in heaven at our own redemption and the redemption of every lost sinner come home. 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 are the stories of “lost sheep” that you know? Your own? Where is there an opening to share God’s Word with them? In what situation might such a lost sheep need to hear the Word of God’s Law, to reveal to them their sin? In what situation might they need to hear the Word of God’s Gospel, to assure them of God’s forgiveness and a way home?

2. What are the traps for lost sheep in this world? What is the call for those who are entangled in them? Eph. 4:22; Hebrews 3:12-13. What will Jesus do for the lost sheep? Ezek. 34:11-16, 23-24.

3. What’s the surprise in each of the parables—of the lost sheep and lost coin? What is “impractical” about it? Why is pragmatism a poor basis for deciding to help those in need? How does God view the matter differently?

4. To what extent did Jesus go to search out the lost? Phil. 2:7-8; Gal. 4:4-5; What defines the Good Shepherd? John 10:11-18.

5. What gives us value, even when we often have a low opinion of ourselves? How does Jesus make us presentable to God? 1 Peter 3:21; 1 Peter 1:13-23

6. How does heaven react at the return of every single lost sinner? How can we participate in this joy and celebration? How can we bring more joy to heaven? James 5:19-20

7. In what way is every believer a sinner who once was lost, but now is found? Rom. 3:23-24; Isaiah 53:6-7

Monday, September 06, 2010

Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart

In the past month I’ve done a number of funerals and memorials, one for a former member Joan, who used to attend in Lahaina, and another for Janet, who was a frequent vacationer in Lahaina. A month or so earlier we said goodbye to Ben, who was a member here in Kahului. While these departures and farewells from loved ones are often difficult and sad, it is a great privilege to share the blessed good news with families who are mourning the death of loved ones. The knowledge that Jesus Christ defeated death and opens the way of everlasting life for all who trust in Him, is the sweetest comfort one has in the bitter loss of a loved one.

I want to share in this article a hymn that is probably not very well known, but has come to be my personal favorite. It’s words are perfectly fit for a funeral. In our Lutheran Service Book (LSB), the hymn number is 708: “Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart.”

Lord, Thee I love with all my heart; I pray Thee, ne’er from me depart, With tender mercy cheer me. Earth has no pleasure I would share. Yea, heav’n itself were void and bare If Thou, Lord wert not near me. And should my heart for sorrow break, My trust in Thee can nothing shake. Thou art the portion I have sought; Thy Precious blood my soul has bought. Lord Jesus Christ, my God and Lord, my God and Lord, Forsake me not! I trust Thy Word!

This whole hymn is really a prayer, and is sung like a prayer, as the opening verse prays for God never to depart from us. Having Jesus Christ as the treasure of our heart is the greatest defense against sadness and sorrow. The writer says that earth, yes even heaven would seem empty if Jesus were not near us. But Jesus has purchased our soul by His precious blood, and we pray that He would never turn away or abandon us, for we trust His Word. This is an unshakeable trust, because God is the one person who always keeps His Word.

Yea, Lord, ‘twas Thy rich bounty gave My body, soul, and all I have In this poor life of labor. Lord, grant that I in ev’ry place May glorify Thy lavish grace And help and serve my neighbor. Let no false doctrine me beguile; Let Satan not my soul defile. Give strength and patience unto me To bear my cross and follow Thee. Lord Jesus Christ, my God and Lord, my God and Lord, In death Thy comfort still afford.

Here we pray in thanksgiving for all the blessings of this life, just as the First Article of the Creed confesses that “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” We believe that “God has made us and all creatures, given us our body, soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them” (Luther’s explanation to the First Article, Small Catechism). We pray for God to teach us thankfulness to glorify Him for such generosity and love, and that this would move us to obey Christ’s great command to love our neighbor as ourselves. At the same time we pray for deliverance from evil, from being misled by false teachings or the temptation of the devil. Finally, the crosses and suffering that we bear in life throw us on the mercy of Christ who gives us strength and patience to bear what we could not bear on our own. The end of verse two transitions from this earthly life to facing death, which is the focus of the final verse.

Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home, That I may die unfearing; And in its narrow chamber keep My body safe in peaceful sleep Until Thy reappearing. And then from death awaken me, That these mine eyes with joy may see, O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior and my fount of grace. Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend, And I will praise Thee without end.

This is my favorite verse, because of the comfort and power it speaks to our death and resurrection. The faithful believer is carried to heaven by the Lord’s angels to Abraham’s side. This metaphor of coming to heaven is found in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in Luke 16:19-31. Our dying prayer is to be carried safely to heaven to rest in God’s arms. With this confidence, we can face death without fear, and look at the “narrow chamber” of our tomb like a “bedroom” in which we sleep peacefully until the Lord awakens our bodies in the resurrection of the dead. (Note: this is not a reference to “soul sleep,” but as the story of Lazarus makes clear, our souls are immediately taken to heaven or hell and remain conscious. It’s our bodies that await the reawakening of the resurrection on the Last Day.) The glorious sight that our eyes will see when they are awakened from death is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Our heart’s treasure and portion, our greatest gain is Jesus our Savior. The hymn concludes by urging God to hear our prayer, and we will praise Him for eternity. May we always treasure Jesus with all our heart, and take comfort at His Word so that we too can face death unfearing. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

P.S. For a more in-depth study of this hymn, and to hear it sung, listen to Rev. Paul McCain’s discussion of it at http://issuesetc.org/podcast/553081110H2.mp3 , the Wednesday August 11, 2010 show.

Sermon on Luke 14:25-35, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, "Count the Cost"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our message today comes from the Gospel reading, Luke 14. It would be hard for us to ignore the obvious importance of this passage to our congregation’s own building program and the plans that we have laid ahead for a potential new church and school campus. Jesus advises that if one is planning a major undertaking, like building a tower or some other major project, they should first count the cost and be sure that they will be able to complete it. Make sure that the necessary resources are available and that they have the strength to carry the project through to completion. Today we’ll consider what Jesus taught about counting the cost. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

One could look at our campaign to build the new campus in Waikapu as simply a business matter, like any other company or business planning an expansion. Get the right workers on the job, the architects, engineers, contractors—get the timetable and budget planned out—raise the necessary capital or funds to build the project, and make it a go. Well, that would be fine if we were just any other company or business planning an expansion. But as a Christian church and school, we must realize that we face this plan not as simply a business decision, but that there’s a uniquely spiritual dimension behind all of our considerations. While there is and must be much “business work” to be done, there is also much “spiritual work” to be done. We must count the cost, lest we begin to build, and are not able to complete our project. But you might say, “counting the cost” isn’t anything spiritual. That’s just common business sense, like the examples Jesus gave—a man building a tower, or a king going to war. Nothing spiritual about calculating building materials and labor costs, or counting of troops for battle and estimating the strength of your enemy. What’s spiritual about counting the cost?

What’s spiritual is that as a Christian church and school, we’re working to advance God’s mission of making disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching. Plainly, our mission is to reach people here on Maui with the love of God shown in Jesus Christ. We’re currently doing that in our church and schools, and by God’s grace we aim to keep doing that and even increase our efforts. And while our resources may be small, what’s spiritual about counting the cost is that we can never “count out” the biggest resource that is available to us, and that is God. God, who has limitless resources, always should be counted into the equation—but not as sort of a “fudge factor.” What I mean by that is that we must constantly be in prayer about such an undertaking, and do the spiritual work of seeking God’s guidance, watching for His timing, calling on His resources for our blessing. But at the same time, we don’t do the one to the neglect of the other. We don’t focus on the business side to the neglect of the spiritual, and vice versa.

To neglect prayer is to find ourselves doing and doing, planning and fretting, counting and struggling to carry out our plans without the aid and blessing of God’s Spirit. If we leave God out of the equation, we’ve forgotten our biggest resource! To neglect work is to expect that God will do everything for us, without our effort and striving. It’s to head into a project without diligent study and preparation, and then expecting God to bail us out when we’re in trouble. That is to put God to the test, rather than to put our trust in God. As St. Augustine famously said, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

So have we done our work? Have we carefully counted the cost? We’ve done much planning and estimating, but there’s much more work to be done. Now is a critical time for our congregation to gear up and make sure we’re ready for this building project. Do we know the cost of completion and the sources of all the necessary funds? If we receive offers on our current property, which could happen any time now, do we have a plan for the major transition to take place? We’re also at the end of our three-year pledge cycle, and the commitments that you as congregation members gave to support the building fund are coming to a close. People have been very faithful in paying their pledges, and you’ve brought us this far. I pray that you each consider individually whether you’re able to continue with that same level of commitment. Whether it was $10 dollars a month, $50, or $200. Has God blessed you so that you are able to increase that commitment? Have things changed so that you need to reduce it? Whatever you are able to give, the Bible encourages us to give our “first-fruits”—that is to give “from the top” or of our best, and not just our leftovers. And further the Bible advises us to give whatever amount we have decided in our heart, and to give cheerfully, because God loves a cheerful giver.

To give from our hearts and give cheerfully of our best is something that requires trust in God that He’ll bless and provide us. We should give as we are able. As Wally our treasurer likes to say, “We give by faith. We don’t spend by faith.” So trusting in God to provide and being able to give generously is a product of faith, but that doesn’t translate into spending more than we have or being irresponsible with what we have. So again, our work and planning go parallel with prayer and trust in God. Both the business work and spiritual work are essential. And we can never forget that our biggest resource is God—who can do more than we can ask or imagine, if only we’ll pray and ask Him.

But I’d miss the mark widely if I failed to point out that Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel reading is about much more than teaching good wisdom for construction projects and other plans. The greater meaning that Jesus is driving home in these parables is about counting the cost of discipleship. Counting the cost is about having the wisdom to know the challenges and sacrifices involved in being a disciple of Jesus. Just like the example of the builder and of the king going to war, we don’t want to begin following Jesus only to find we’re unable to complete the path of discipleship. Being a disciple of Jesus is the biggest undertaking of one’s life, and the cost is immeasurably greater than the costs of building a multi-million dollar school campus, or of a king facing an army of 20,000 soldiers. The greater cost and sacrifice of discipleship raises the importance of each believer “counting the cost” of following Jesus.

But wait? Isn’t it free to follow Jesus? Yes it is! Salvation is a free gift by God’s grace and Jesus’ love, but there’s a cost. Now you’re probably confused. Which is it pastor? Is it free or does it cost a lot? Well, Jesus described the cost of discipleship in this way. In the Gospel reading there are three things that a follower of Jesus must do: first to hate family, second to bear our cross, and third, to forsake our possessions. Probably nothing causes us greater surprise and astonishment then Jesus saying: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” What could Jesus mean? It sounds so unlike Jesus to say this, when He teaches elsewhere that we’re to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. What can He mean by hating our family, even our own life, in order to be His disciple? Doesn’t Jesus honor marriage and call it a union made by God, and also teach positively of the love within family, as in the parable of the prodigal son? Yes Jesus does.

So how do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements of Jesus? We find some help from the Gospel of Matthew, where in a similar statement Jesus says that anyone who loves family more than Him is not worthy of Him. Have you heard people say “family always comes first?” That’s a statement we usually admire, but Jesus is here saying that He must come first. A proper and healthier arranging of our priorities is God first, family second. Nothing, not even our family should come between us and God. If Jesus is our highest and only good, then we will never run into the conflict of choosing between God and family. And certainly family is a good and noble thing, so it would seem natural for family to rise so highly in importance—but Jesus clearly shows that following Him goes above all other earthly commitments. If blood is thicker than water, then faith in God is thicker than blood. Our relationship with fellow believers is a community even stronger than family ties, as many people have experienced in their own lives. Jesus Himself said that His mother and brothers were those who “hear the Word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). So Jesus isn’t teaching that we should literally hate anyone, but that we should never allow even family to be an obstacle to our faith by loving them more than God.

The second cost of discipleship was to take up our cross. As I’ve said before, the life of a Christian is never promised to be a primrose path, or free from trouble—despite what some best-selling authors and TV preachers might sell you. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that God wants you to be fabulously wealthy and the envy of all your neighbors because God has made you so rich. Nor does it mean that we’re immune to the ravages of disease or other sufferings in our body and soul. Bearing our cross is not an easy road—so count the cost! Be prepared for the troubles that may come by being deeply rooted in God’s Word, so that we won’t fall away. In several recent sermons I’ve talked about the reproach of Christ, and how believers may face ridicule, laughter, and scorn for what we believe—but that this is incomparable to the great treasure that we have in Jesus Christ.

Finally, Jesus says that anyone who does not renounce all that he has cannot be His disciple. One cannot follow Jesus while clinging to all our earthly possessions, as if those things give us security or hope. A sermon that I listened to recently gave an analogy to the attitude of thinking that “the one with the most toys wins.” Some people spend their life accumulating all the material things they can grab. The pastor likened this to a person going through a famous art museum pulling their favorite paintings off the wall and walking through the museum arms full, headed for the door. Someone tells them that they can’t take those things with them, but they respond, “oh no! I can! And look at all I have—people are going to think I’m so cool when I show them all I have. But when they get to the doorway, will they be able to leave? The same way with life, God has given us a beautiful world to live in with beautiful things to appreciate and enjoy—but when we exit through the door to eternal life, we don’t get to take any of that with us. Who owns it all? Who owns the museum, our life and all our possessions? God! So we can’t very well follow Jesus and put all our trust in Him when we’re blind to that truth and make material things our god and our highest good.

So becoming a disciple of Jesus, following after Him by faith, is something that costs you nothing but costs you everything. Salvation is the entirely free gift of God through Jesus Christ, not something you can merit or earn or buy. But the path of following Jesus may mean departing from earthly ties of family and possessions, as well as enduring hardship and difficulty. Counting the cost of discipleship that way makes it seem like no one is ultimately worthy to follow Jesus, and we might question whether we can follow it through to completion. It’s true, the path of discipleship is completely impossible without Jesus Christ. But the good news—the joy and delight is that just like counting the cost with earthly projects—we’re not done in our estimation and planning until we’ve counted God into the equation. Where human resources and earthly strength run short…throw God into the equation and I like to say you’ve got “divine arithmetic.” Counting God in the equation puts His limitless resources into the equation. Where we cannot follow Christ on our own strength, if we lay hold of the grace, mercy and strength of God, we’re able to bear up our crosses and follow after Jesus. For Jesus is the trailblazer and the one who has walked the road before us, as He dragged the heavy cross and the load of our sins to His cross. By bearing the heavy load of our sin, Christ makes our crosses a light and easy load that He shoulders with us. The eternal reward of heaven is already secured for us completely by Jesus victory on the cross. The call for us now is to pray and work our way through this life, trusting in Him, following His path, and counting it all gain for the sake of the kingdom of God. Count the cost and count it all gain! 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 are the practical implications of “counting the cost” for us in our building program at Emmanuel? Why is it so important? What sort of things must we take into consideration?

2. What is unique about planning our undertaking, that requires a two-fold approach—involving both “business work” and “spiritual work?” Describe each of these and what we should be doing to attend to them.

3. What happens when you work at a task without also praying? What happens if you pray but don’t work?

4. How does planning our personal giving help us to “count the cost?” How should we take care to be good stewards of what we’ve been given?

5. What is the much greater undertaking that Jesus is teaching about, that requires us to “count the cost?” Is salvation something free or something we work for? Romans 4:1-8; 6:23; 11:35.

6. What does Jesus mean by “hating” one’s family in order to follow Him? See Matt. 10:34-39. Who becomes the family of Jesus? Luke 8:21. What are the implications for the Christian of “bearing their cross?”

7. Why must a believer also forsake their possessions and the love for the things of this world? 1 John 2:15; Hebrews 11:25-26; Luke 8:14;

8. When we count the cost of discipleship, it may seem impossible. Indeed without Christ it is impossible! But what factor must we always count into the equation? Hebrews 12:1-2; Phil. 3:8; James 1:2; 2 Pet. 3:15

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Sermon on Hebrews 13:9-16, for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, "Leaving the city, Going to the City"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our sermon text is a portion of Hebrews 13:9-16,

“Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

The reading today calls us to leave the city, to seek another city. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s astonishing how rapidly the world is becoming urbanized. In 1800 only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities or urban areas. But in 2008, the world population apparently passed a historic milestone. Now more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities. In other words, the last 200 years have seen an overwhelming migration of people to the cities, away from the country. Earthly cities promise opportunity and jobs and success. But our reading today speaks of another migration—a migration out of the earthly cities and onto a journey toward the heavenly city. We’re called to leave behind our earthly cities because they’re inferior and impermanent. Those buildings will decay, those streets will not last, and those opportunities will fade away. So we’re called to secure our citizenship in a better place. To secure our citizenship in our heavenly home. Still a city, but the heavenly city of Jerusalem.

How does one do this? How do we secure that heavenly citizenship? Well, first we should understand that our citizenship in heaven isn’t a right we deserve or have earned by our dedication to some rules or code of life, but rather our citizenship in heaven is a privilege or gift given to us by Jesus Christ. He opened up the access to God the Father for us, so that we would no longer be strangers and aliens, but rather fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph. 2:18-19). Our reading from Hebrews goes into greater detail about how Jesus opened up that access for us, how we participate in it, and what the results are.

First, we must know that we were unfit to enter God’s presence because of our sin. We must be holy and clean to see God. So there had to be a payment or a reckoning for our sin. Animal sacrifices were offered as an imperfect substitute for sins in the OT. This taught them that the innocent animal substituted for the guilty person, in taking their punishment for sin. But, no matter how many sacrifices were offered, sin was never erased, which is why they had to be repeated over and over (Hebrews 9:25-28). Generations of priests lived and died performing incomplete and imperfect sacrifices in the tent of worship or tabernacle. They lived off the portions of meat set aside for them to eat, from what was sacrificed on the altar.

A high priest had one responsibility that was so solemn and holy that it could be performed only once a year on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur. On that most holy day and only on that day, only the most holy person in Israel—the high priest—could enter the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. With the holy blood of the pure animals offered, he made atonement for sins, so that the sinful Israelites could have safe access to their Most Holy God. And as our reading in Hebrews tells, the body of the sacrificed animals had to be burned outside the camp (Lev. 16, 6:30). The meat of the holiest sacrifices on the day of Atonement couldn’t be eaten by the priests or anyone. They had no right to eat it.

But all of the sacrificing and the work of the priests wasn’t totally in vain, because it was a foreshadowing, it was a living picture or illustration of what God was going to do in Jesus Christ. Where animals could never truly substitute for the guilt of mankind, Jesus became the perfect innocent sacrifice. He alone, as a human born of the offspring of Adam, could substitute for and take the guilt of the rest of the children of Adam. But only because He was also truly God, could this substitution cover all humanity, not just Himself or a few. Jesus was the final reality that the Old Testament sacrifices pictured—He was the innocent Lamb of God who was sacrificed to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). He was at the same time the Great High Priest, who took the place of all the priests that served the tent of worship in ages past. Their imperfect and partial ministry was replaced and fulfilled in His perfect and complete ministry.

But Jesus didn’t enter an imitation of the heavenly places like the High Priests did, and He didn’t enter by the blood of animals, rather Jesus entered the very heavenly presence of God by His own blood. He was the real deal. The High Priests only enacted an imitation of Jesus’ perfect and complete ministry—and He only did it once, when He died on the cross. Because His death on the cross was the death of the perfect and innocent Son of God, it never had to be repeated. Christians observe no day of atonement, they need no continual sacrifices. Nor do we have to approach God through a human priest, but now Christ has opened up the approach and access to God by faith in Jesus. This is how Jesus has opened up the way of citizenship for us.

So the next question is how do we receive this heavenly citizenship? Our reading says that we must go to Him outside of the camp and bear the reproach of Christ. Like I mentioned in a sermon a couple of weeks ago, we are to count the reproach of Christ as the greatest treasure we could receive. Why must we “go outside of the camp” to Christ? Why must we leave behind the earthly city? Because Christ was made an outcast and dishonored like a criminal when He was crucified outside the city in an unclean place of dishonor. He was treated like the bodies of the animal sacrifices that would be brought on the day of atonement, their blood sprinkled in the Most Holy Place, but then their bodies burned outside the camp at the ash heap. Christ was cast out of the earthly city, and so also we must disown the earthly city. But to do so comes with a price. It will earn us the reproach and disgrace of the world. We may be isolated from the material gain that we long for. We must leave the earthly city because to go outside the city to bear the reproach of Christ is to identify ourselves with our Redeemer, Our Savior.

In the place of dishonor and disgrace, at the cross of Jesus Christ where the world laughs at a man who died like a criminal, there we find redemption and heavenly citizenship. In joining Christ outside the earthly city, we set course for our journey with the Risen Jesus for the heavenly city. For He who died in suffering to make us holy by His blood, has been raised to power and glory. And Christ’s death on the cross becomes an altar of sacrifice for us, the writer to the Hebrews says. It becomes an altar from which we are permitted to eat. Unlike the time when only the priests could eat, unlike the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement that no one could eat—here Jesus Christ offers Himself at that altar for us to eat and share in the holiness of His sacrifice. But only those who cling to Him by faith and have left the earthly city are able to eat.

How do we eat of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross? We do so spiritually when we receive Him by faith, but also in a physical and spiritual way when we eat His body and drink His blood as He bids us do in the Lord’s Supper. There He offers His sacrificed flesh for the “life of the world.” In a divine mystery that goes beyond our human understanding, but is as true as Jesus own words, when we take the bread in our hands and mouth, they are Jesus’ words: “This is my body which is given for you.” When we drink of the cup, it is again Jesus’ words: “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

The body and blood of Jesus given for our forgiveness, given to make us holy, so that we also can one day stand in God’s presence, is an incredibly high honor and privilege, given not even to the high priests of Israel. But what other lesser privileges and consequences do we find in leaving behind the earthly city and seeking the heavenly one? We who are baptized into Christ have the privilege of becoming priests in the service of God’s kingdom. You...? Me…? Priests?! Yes, we become priests but in a different way. We don’t participate in the priesthood of the old system, which has no right to eat of the altar that we do, and we don’t offer sacrifices of animals like they did. That’s all done and gone, replaced by the once and for all perfect sacrifice of Jesus. But we still offer sacrifices, but what kind of sacrifices?

Our reading says that because we are now heavenly citizens, we should continually offer up sacrifices of praise to our God—how? Through Him—through Jesus the one who made this all possible in the first place! So our songs and praises to Christ Jesus and to God, our lips confessing and acknowledging Him for all that He has done, this becomes our new sacrifice to God. A sacrifice of thanksgiving. Part of our priestly service, as the royal priesthood of God, is to worship God. Our gathering together today in worship around the altar of our Lamb of God, is to make sacrifices of praise to God—rejoicing and giving thanks for what He has done. Isaiah 63:7 describes the praises of the Lord as recounting all the great things that He has done—His steadfast love and mercy. Psalm 9:1 says that we give thanks to God by recounting all His great deeds. Truly by singing of God’s salvation and His great deeds, we offer a sacrifice of praise to Him.

A second kind of sacrifice is produced by royal priesthood of believers that call on Jesus’ name. That is the sacrifice of doing good and sharing what we have with others—for these are pleasing sacrifices to God. Again we remember that the only way that we became such priests, and the only way that we have become acceptable to God is through Jesus—but because He has cleansed all our sins away, even our imperfect acts of doing good. So there’s good work to be done here on earth yet. Leaving behind our earthly city to share in the blessings of the reproach of Christ doesn’t mean that we don’t still have duties toward our fellow man. Rather the love of Jesus moves us to share our possessions, to give generously to those in need, and exercise mercy and charity to those who need our care. These are the sacrifices that please God and that He desires from heavenly citizens who still journey on earth. So don’t stop doing good!

We’ve seen how God calls us to participate in a great migration, out of the earthly cities of man, out to the place of reproach and isolation where Jesus was crucified. We’ve seen how Jesus’ death on the cross and His entrance to the heavenly places by His blood has granted us the secure and certain privilege of citizenship in the lasting city of heaven. He grants us the privilege of eating His sacrificed body and blood through the altar of the cross, and He gives us the priestly work of singing praises in worship and doing good toward others. So let us march on toward our heavenly goal and upward calling, rejoicing and giving thanks for the Lamb of God and the Great High Priest Jesus Christ who opened up the way for us. In His 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:
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1. In what way are Christians called to leave behind their “earthly city?” See Hebrews 13:12-14; Eph. 2:18-19; John 17:14-16; Phil. 3:20

2. How were the sacrifices of the Old Testament and the work of the priests, imperfect and incomplete? What couldn’t they accomplish? Hebrews 9:11-28; Col. 2:16-17; What special duty did the High Priest perform once a year on the Day of Atonement? Leviticus 16. Why couldn’t the meat of the sacrifice be eaten on that day? Leviticus 6:30.

3. How was Jesus in death, like both the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, and also like the sacrifices burned outside the camp? How was He greater? John 1:29; Heb. 10:12. The entire book of Hebrews.

4. Why must we “go outside the camp” or leave our earthly city behind, to share in the reproach of Christ? What is there to be lost? To be gained?

5. How do we eat at the altar of Jesus? What do we receive there? Matt. 26:26-29; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; John 6:41-59

6. In what way are baptized believers called to be priests? 1 Peter 2:5; Rev. 1:6; 5:9-10. What are our acts of priestly service? Heb. 13:15-17; Rom. 12:1. What is a sacrifice of praise or thanksgiving about? Isaiah 63:7; Ps. 9:1, 11, 14.

7. Knowing that Jesus has secured our heavenly citizenship for us and blessed us with all the privileges of citizens of the kingdom, how should we live? Phil. 3:14; Heb. 3:1