Monday, December 27, 2010

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20, for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, "To Us a Child is Born!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, may the Holy Trinity grant you Christmas joy! Amen.

The Christmas carol “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” retells the Christmas story from the perspective of the angels speaking to the shepherds, and then the shepherds’ response as they go and see this wondrous birth, and find out what it means for the whole world. Verse 8 reads as follows: “Welcome to earth, O noble Guest, Through whom the sinful world is blest! You came to share my misery That You might share Your joy with me.” Welcome to earth, O noble Guest…Jesus received a majestic welcome from angel choirs; a less-majestic, but no less joyful welcome from peasant shepherds come to adore Him. Jesus was a heavenly visitor, a noble guest. But He while He was a stranger to the world, He wasn’t totally unexpected. He was known by many prophetic titles. By many promises He was long-expected. But not till He was born was His personal name Jesus revealed.

Before Christmas He was called by some of these titles in prophecy: the Messiah or Christ. Root of Jesse. Emmanuel—God with us. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But now He would be known by His personal name, Jesus—for He would save us from our sins. This Noble Guest would not remain a stranger to the world—in time He would be known to all the world, not as Guest but as Savior. He came as God, so that He might know human suffering, so that we could know heavenly joy through Him. In the shift from Guest to Savior we find out that Jesus came not as a heavenly tourist traveling earth, but that He came to visit us and bless us. The shift is from unfamiliar to familiar.

That’s what Isaiah prophecies about when He writes: “For to us a child is born; to us a son is given.” How many of you talk that way about somebody else’s child being born? When you are not the mother or father, how many of you talk about someone else’s child being born to us? It might be one thing for family members like a grandpa or grandma, aunt, uncle, or cousin to say “A grandchild was born to us” or “we had a baby niece born to the family yesterday” or “our cousin was born today!” But talking about a stranger or even most everyday friends and acquaintances, we wouldn’t say the child was born “to us.” That implies a much greater degree of familiarity than we’re used to. The child born in Brazil or Australia or Sudan is hardly a child born to us. So how is it that the child born in Israel, born in Bethlehem, is a child born to us?

Of course our Christmas hymns sing the answer, and our Bible readings proclaim the good news over and over again: “Joy to the World! the Lord is Come. Let earth receive her king!” “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Read through the Luke 2 Gospel, and see how many references you can count that say “for you,” “for all people,” “to us,” or “to them.” The angel came to the shepherds and said, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” A child born for all the people. The Savior for the world. A child born to us. But it’s still quite different to speak generically for all people, than for you personally. To say that He’s for us only in the sense of the whole world still seems a little unfamiliar. But how different is it to say for yourself, “To us a child is born.” We gave birth to or adopted our own child. I’m now in the position for the first time in my life to know what that is like, to be a father. And it truly feels remarkable to know that my daughter is our child. There really weren’t words to describe how amazing it felt to hold her in my hands for the first time after birth. But whether you are single or don’t have children of your own, we can all still share and participate in this marvel of knowing that the Christ child was born to us.

That remarkable truth that Jesus wasn’t just born for Mary and Joseph, or even for the shepherds or wise men, but that He was truly born for us personally—has to also be kept in balance with the truth that Jesus’ redemption isn’t just about us individually, but that God redeems us to be a Christian community, accountable to Him, but also to each other. Over time, churches have wobbled back and forth between emphasizing personal salvation to the exclusion of the communal aspects of salvation, and vice versa. So one side or the other gets lost, instead of balancing the truth correctly.

Some talk so exclusively about how salvation gives us a personal relationship with our Creator and Savior, that life as a Christian becomes a purely individual walk—apart from any community or congregation of believers. They lose the precious truth that God has created us in and for community, and that the church should not give up meeting together. On the other hand, some talk so exclusively about community, that they believe salvation is by group, rather than for individual hearts that have been given faith in Jesus. Individuals almost disappear into the group. But the truth of Christmas is not either/or, but both/and. Christ came for the whole world, and He came to create a community of believers. But He also came for us personally, to each one of us, that message of peace, forgiveness, and joy is given.

In another way, we can say that Christ is born for us because we are individually parts of the whole, the family of believers that are Christians. Churches are like families in that way, in that people often say “You don’t get to choose your family. You’re born into it.” In both families and churches you didn’t choose the members, and unlike the way we often choose our friends, we might find that our brother, sister, or neighbor might be quite different from us. Even if they were born from the same parents, they might have a totally different personality and tastes and dispositions from us. In the same way, churches are filled with people who might not otherwise have much in common. It gives a marvelous opportunity for growth in relationship with people that God has placed us together with. To have fellowship with others we might not ordinarily cross paths with or befriend.

That’s what I find fascinating about families and churches, that it might almost seem random or accidental, but in fact God had a plan and a purpose for it. And that connects to our Christmas story as well, because Jesus was born into an earthly family. It wasn’t random or accidental. God chose the family into which Jesus was born. God chose Mary and Joseph. He knew the kind of parents they’d be, the kind of godly example they would set. He knew their faithfulness to God’s commands and to bring Jesus to the house of God for worship. He knew their weaknesses and frailties. The angel of the Lord had to reassure Joseph to take Mary as His wife, and to trust in the Lord for what was happening. God chose the family for Jesus, knowing that as an infant and child, Jesus would rely on them for safety and protection. He was born to them, in a remarkably personal way, but He was also born to us…to the world. Immediately from His birth, this was obvious from the shepherds who came, and the wise men who later worshipped the Christ child. These were not close friends or relatives who happened to know they were expecting a child, and just dropped in. They had received the news from angels, and from trusting the words and signs of ancient prophecy. Nothing about His birth to this family was accidental.

As God chose a family for Jesus, so also He chooses us for His family! That’s right! God chooses you to be His sons and daughters, just as He chose mother Mary and Joseph to parent Jesus. He calls us through His Word to become brothers and sisters of Christ! How can we become part of that family, if we aren’t already? By being reborn through baptism into Christ. The washing of water and the Spirit gives us a heavenly birth into God’s family, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. A new family name is put on our forehead, as God marks His ownership of us in baptism. Nothing accidental or random, but God chooses you to believe in Him and become one of the family. He offers us the spiritual family of the church.
And if we have ever felt disappointed or let down by the family that we found ourselves in—we realize that in the church we find a family with an even greater bond of unity. Even if our family is wonderful and we’re very close to them, no bond is closer than the unity of the Spirit. But no earthly family is perfect, and some have had broken families or troubled histories. Not every celebration of Christmas was always peaceful or ideal. Not every family was supportive and close. But God chose us for His family in Christ. With Christ as our Savior and as our brother, we have full salvation from guilt, from sin, from whatever hurts lay in our past. Jesus came into the world to repair the broken relationship with God, so that through Jesus’ reconciling us to God, there could truly be peace on earth goodwill toward men. God would be pleased with those who trust in Jesus, because He would save us from our sins and wipe our record clean before God.

Since God has chosen you for His family, since you can truly say the Christ child was born “to us”…to you…your Christmas celebration truly can be joy-filled this year. You have every reason to celebrate because God has welcomed you into His family, Jesus has paid for all of our wrongs and offenses on His cross, and you are always at home with God in Christ Jesus. As the hymn verse we opened with said, “you came to share my misery that you might share your joy with me.” Truly, by becoming one of us, one of the human family, Jesus shared in the suffering and common life we all know. But because God chose us to be in His family, Jesus also shares with us joy in every sorrow and peace with God and a reason to live and celebrate. To us a child is born—for you personally and also for all the earth. May your joy overflow this Christmas season as you live in God’s family.

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

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25, for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "Craving Good News"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Christmas is nearly here, and we’re in the last week of preparation—the last week of Advent, awaiting Jesus’ coming. As you hear the Christmas story read this Sunday from the Gospel of Matthew, how does it strike you? Is it the first time you’ve heard it? The 21st or 51st? Have you lost track of how many times you’ve heard the story, or is it still fresh and new to you at each hearing? Does the world of the first Christmas seem so tranquil, perfect, and far away that it doesn’t relate to your celebration of this years’ Christmas? Or is the story alive and real to you today?
Perhaps for some, the world of the first Christmas seems almost like a sleepy village in one of those snow-globes. The quiet, little town of Bethlehem, shrouded in mystery and holy glow, thousands of years distant in a faraway land. The story evokes memories of childhood and stirs warm emotions, but it’s closed off by the glass globe from the real, busy, workaday world with its troubles and imperfections. If that’s how we see the Christmas story, then it’s not surprising that we don’t hear the Christmas story as “newsworthy” anymore. Living in a world flooded with more and more information every day, our minds are set to “filter” mode. We have so much to do, to see, to process, read, or listen to, that only certain information rises to the top as being important enough to demand our full attention. Internet and modern media are exercises in ongoing distraction. Activities and busy work push up the list of priorities.
What catches our attention on the evening news, or makes us stop and listen on the radio might tell us a lot about ourselves, and what “tickles our ears.” News media have caught on quick to the fact that “bad news sells” and that people pay more attention to news stories involving disaster, crime, poverty and conflict than to “good news” stories. So are we guilty of subconsciously shifting the Christmas story off to the side, unaware of just how “newsworthy” it is? Do we crave to hear the “bad news” that is so prevalent today, while neglecting the best news of all? Or are you so fed up with a bad-news world that you are craving to hear some good news? Does life seem bad enough without the news coming in and dampening your day even more? If either description fits you, it’s my prayer that you hear the Christmas story afresh, and find again the reason why the “good news” of Jesus is the best and most “newsworthy” message of all.
First we might begin by taking the story out of that figurative “snow-globe” and realize that the first Christmas isn’t so distant or disconnected from Christmas this year at all. True, the location and date of the first Christmas is some 2,010 years or so ago in Bethlehem of Judea, in the land of Israel. News didn’t travel quite as fast in that low-tech world. But that didn’t make the news any less real or far-reaching in its significance. If you have any doubts, just ask yourself, especially in this high-tech world where news can be shared electronically around the world in just seconds—how many news stories being told today, will still be retold and have significance 2,000 years from now? There might be precious few to none at all, that would so greatly impact the turning of history that they would be told 2,000 years from now. But that’s precisely what happened the first Christmas. When Jesus was born, the whole course of history was changed, and the ripple effect of that birth has circled the globe many times, and still not faded away.
And Jesus’ birth didn’t happen in a world free of trouble or danger, shrouded in tranquility. With no need to artificially add something negative to the story to make it grab our attention, it stands as a simple fact that when Joseph first learned of Mary’s pregnancy, which was not by him, he was troubled and no doubt deeply disappointed. However, being a just man, and not wishing to punish Mary by following through with what the law permitted, he considered granting her a quiet divorce. He did not wish to put her to shame. But an angel of the Lord revealed to Joseph in a dream, that this child was conceived by God the Holy Spirit, and that he should not fear to take Mary as his wife. She had not wronged him in any way.
You can imagine that Joseph and Mary’s world was spinning with amazement and surprise, as they tried to wrap their heads around the amazing news that God was going to use their family to bring the Savior Jesus into the world. God called them to exercise their faith in Him in a tremendous way. He had come into the rather mundane situation of their life—a betrothal for marriage—and thrown quite a significant change into their plans. Now He was calling them to rely on Him in faith, to see His plan through to completion. In the very first years of their life, they would already face danger and hardship, as they would have to flee from the jealous King Herod, who was wary of any perceived threats to his throne. They had to uproot from their hometown and even travel later to Egypt to keep Jesus safe.
Isn’t that like our own lives? Don’t you have stories that you can tell of where God threw a significant wrench into your plans, and called on you to rely on Him totally by faith? Often we face hardship or challenges that we’re not sure how we’ll tackle, but simply have to follow step by step, trusting in God.
A second reason why we ought to pay attention to the good news of Christmas is the grand significance of the event. In the repeated telling of the story, we might lose the focus of what is so important. One of the telltale signs that Jesus’ birth was truly significant was the fact that it fulfilled what so many of the prophets had foretold in ancient times. Consider that the first prophecy of Jesus coming as the Savior, was given to Adam and Eve, perhaps some 4,000 years before Christ was born. The promise that the one who would rescue them from sin would come from Eve’s seed (Gen. 3:15). Or the prophecy in Numbers 24 about 1,500 years before Christ, that told of the star coming out of Jacob. Or the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 that you heard today, 7 centuries before Christ, that said He would be born of a virgin. Or the prophecy of Micah 5:2, also 7 centuries before Christ, that told the place of His birth, Bethlehem. These prophecies and more were telltale signs that something truly remarkable was happening.
And what was so remarkable and newsworthy? That this miracle child, promised from before the ages, was literally God born in human flesh! The Savior would be called “Immanuel, which means God with us.” Now even that bit of news, that Jesus is the one called Immanuel, God with us, has somehow been obscured by a variety of ways that people today talk about God being with us. People that will talk about spirituality apart from Jesus Christ might nevertheless be heard talking about how God is with us, in similar-sounding language. For the person who finds spirituality in nature, they might talk about how God is present in the forest or the mountains, or the ocean. For the person who finds spirituality in the intellect, they may talk about how God is present in the pursuit of knowledge and reason. For the person who finds spirituality in their own self, they may talk about how God is found in mystic contemplation, or by becoming one with the “god” of the universe through enlightenment or meditation. There are many ways in which people might use similar-sounding language of “God with us,” but be quite distant from the meaning of the Bible when Jesus came into the world.
Maybe we need a little refresher on what makes Jesus as “God with us” different from the worldly ways we’ve heard it. For those who find the true spirituality that is only found in Jesus Christ, we learn that God is not to be found hidden in the rocks or trees of nature, or lost in the pages of science or mystic knowledge, God is not hidden within us to be discovered by mystic contemplation. Although God is present everywhere, and He leaves evidence of His presence in nature, in wisdom, and in our soul—He is not to be found there. Instead, Christmas shows us where to find God, where to discover that God is with us. We find God wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. We find Jesus in tangible human form, with diapers and tiny fingers and toes, smiling back at mother Mary and his adoptive father Joseph. A child asked a pastor friend of mine, “Did Jesus have organs? Was he all human, or just a kind of blow-up human?” While we might chuckle at the question, there’s truly a deep theological importance to that question. And the answer is, yes, Jesus did have organs, and He didn’t only “appear” to be human—He really was human in every way like us, except without sin (Heb. 4:15).
God came to us in the best way that we could come to know Him—as God in human flesh. “God with skin on.” Not God in the abstract or God in the unknowable. Not a god of wood, metal or stone. Not a God that could never be reached or found, but the God who reached down to us and found us. God with us takes on a whole different meaning in Jesus Christ than any of the other worldly definitions. And for this reason, it is most newsworthy, and it is good news. Did you know that that’s the simple meaning of the word “Gospel” after all? When we talk about the “gospel reading” or the “Holy Gospel” or the “Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John” the word simply means “good news!” And if this is the amazing good news of Christmas, that Jesus is God Himself come into the world to be with us, to make God known and to reach down to us—is there any reason why we shouldn’t spread that good news to every corner of the planet? Any reason why we shouldn’t perk up and pay attention with true joy every time we hear that God entered our world in the birth of Jesus?
The news just gets better! Can you begin to crave the good news in this “bad news” world? Do you begin to thirst for something positive and worth rejoicing, instead of only tuning in to bad news all the time? Then listen on, dear children of God! The reason that Jesus came into the world was to be our Savior from sin. It’s wrapped up in the very meaning of His name “Jesus,” for He will save his people from their sins. That Christmas was the crucial entry point of God coming into His creation for a Divine Rescue Plan to save people from their sins. That Divine Rescue Plan that reached its climax at the cross of Jesus, where God paid the price for all the wrongdoing that mankind had ever done, so that forgiveness could be God’s everlasting gift to mankind. That while Jesus was truly human, He was also the divinely born Son of God, and so was able to rise from that terrible death on the cross, and after three days could shed His grave cloths and walk from the tomb every bit as much still a living breathing human in flesh and blood, but now immortal and free of death’s decay. This was the miraculous rescue plan that God began unfolding on the first Christmas, and it’s those precious truths of Jesus as true God and true man that we confess each week in the creeds, as we remember and live in the knowledge of the best “good news” we could ever have asked for—the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So I pray that for this and every Christmas you celebrate afterward, you would dive again into the deep truth of God’s Word, and rejoice ever more deeply at the good news of Jesus Christ, come into the world to save sinners. And may you crave and thirst for that good news, and cherish it in a world where bad news is “all the rage.” The good news of Christmas is just as timely and newsworthy 2,000 years after His birth as it will be a thousand years later, should Jesus not yet return. For God truly is with us in flesh and blood, and He came so that we could have forgiveness and life with Him. Let’s bring someone that good news this year, 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. Does the Christmas story seem distant and disconnected for you, or does it seem alive and present? Why? Do you agree that we live in a “bad-news” world? Why do people prefer to listen to bad news?

2. What does the kind of news and media that you pay attention to tell you about yourself? What makes the Gospel of Jesus, the “good news” so “newsworthy” and deserving of our highest attention? Why is it still a significant “news story” 2,000 years later?

3. How did Jesus’ birth intersect with a world of real difficulties, danger, and challenges? How did this cause Mary and Joseph to have all the more faith in God? What was Joseph’s solution going to be at first, to this unexplained pregnancy? Matt. 1:19. When has God put you in a challenging situation that made you depend totally on Him by faith?

4. Examine some of the prophecies that pointed to Jesus’ birth. How do these alert us to the significance of the event? (approx. years B.C. in parentheses) Genesis 3:15 (4,000+); Numbers 24:17 (1,500); Isaiah 7:14 (700); Micah 5:2 (700).

5. What are ways that “spiritual” people talk about God being with us today? What is different about how Christians mean it when they say that “God is with us?” In what ways was Jesus human? Hebrews 4:15. Why was Jesus’ birth the major first step in God’s Divine Rescue Plan?

6. How can we help change a “bad news world” by bringing the “good news?” What is that good news about?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sermon on John 1:43-51, for midweek Advent 3, "From Jacob's Ladder to Jesus"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. So far in our Advent series we’ve looked at two types of Jesus. Types, remember, are Old Testament people, places or events that foreshadowed something later and greater. First we saw how Adam foreshadowed Jesus, who is the Second Adam. Second we saw how the test of sacrificing Isaac was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death. Today, the type isn’t a person but a thing—Jacob’s ladder.

You heard in the Genesis reading about Jacob’s dream when he was fleeing from his twin brother Esau. He slept on a stone, and saw a vision of angels ascending and descending on a ladder that extended from heaven to earth. At the top of the ladder he saw the LORD God who told him, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” God reaffirmed Abraham’s blessings to Jacob his grandson. Promised the inheritance of the land of Canaan; that they would become a great and blessed nation; and that through his offspring all nations would be blessed. We now know that this has come true through Jesus, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s line. But this was an astonishing vision and confirmation for Jacob that God was with him. Life-changing. Though many of his lessons still remained to be learned, he began trusting in God rather than his own schemes. He set up a stone as a pillar there to mark that place, and called it “Bethel” which means “house of God,” because of that vision of the gate of heaven, and there he pledged to give a full tenth of all he had to the Lord.

Now, jump forward about 2,000 years to the time of Jesus Christ, the descendent of Jacob. This powerful vision was now etched in the memory of the Israelites, of God showing His faithfulness to Jacob, later named Israel, the great father of their nation. Jesus is still an unknown rabbi from the backwoods town of Nazareth, and is only just gaining a reputation as a great teacher. Philip, one of the first disciples to follow Jesus, comes to find Nathanael his friend and tells him: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” At first, Nathanael remains skeptical, but after meeting Jesus, his mind is quickly changed. In his encounter with Jesus, Nathanael found, like so many other people who met Jesus, that He read them and knew them like an open book. Jesus saw into people’s hearts and knew their intentions, and didn’t judge by external appearances. Nathanael believed at once that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Israel.

But Jesus explains to Nathanael that this was nothing compared to what he would see. Then we get back to the connection to Jacob’s dream about the ladder. Jesus tells Nathanael, a God-fearing Israelite, that “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” In one quick statement, Jesus borrows language pregnant with meaning from Jacob’s famous dream, and applies it to Himself. Heaven is opened and instead of the angels of God ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder—the ladder is the Son of Man, Jesus Christ! This was certainly a remarkable substitution, and the connection wouldn’t have been lost on Nathanael. Jesus was saying that Jacob’s ladder was actually Him!

What could Jesus have meant? He gives no further explanation. But when Jacob had his dream of that ladder, and named the place “Bethel,” he exclaimed, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” We know that Jesus calls Himself the door or gate for the sheep. Jesus is the gate of heaven, and He alone is the bridge or ladder to heaven. Why is a ladder to heaven needed? The old spiritual “We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder” unfortunately gets it quite wrong. The ladder is not a way for us to climb up into heaven (something the people at the Tower of Babel tried and failed at, by the way). But Jacob’s ladder is Jesus Christ, who brings earth and heaven together. The connection from earth to heaven had been severed by Adam and Eve’s sin that broke our relationship with God. But Jesus was to become the reunification of heaven and earth.

Jesus was true God and true man. He had the complete nature of God, divine and holy, eternal and without beginning or end. He was the eternal Word of God that created the heavens and the earth. He was the Son of God who ruled with God from heaven. He commanded the powers of earth and life in His miracles. All-knowing, all-powerful, present everywhere, He was true God in every respect. He truly belonged to heaven. He was God. Yet He also had the complete nature of a human, with flesh and blood, skin and bones. He felt pain and sadness, experienced joy and laughter. He was born, ate, drank, lived, died and rose again. Jesus was truly human in every respect, but without sin. In His conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary and in His birth, He truly belonged to earth. He became one with humanity. In Jesus Christ, heaven and earth were joined, they were bridged. Jesus, the Son of Man became the ladder bridging heaven and earth, on which the angels ascend and descend to God.

Jesus rejoined heaven and earth, which had been separated through Adam’s fall into sin. No longer was God’s relationship with humanity broken through sin. That is what Christmas and the Incarnation is all about. God coming into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, to bring peace to us by setting our relationship right again. Through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection, God opened the way for us to come to heaven. Not by climbing Jacob’s ladder; that is Jesus Christ, by our own works or efforts, but by God descending to us and bringing us up to Him. What Jacob dreamed about as the gate of heaven came to us in Jesus Christ, who becomes the open door to heaven and salvation for us. As true God and true man He brings heaven and earth together. We rejoice for the reconciliation that we now have through Him! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sermon on Isaiah 35:1-10 & Matthew 11:2-6, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Streams in the Desert"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. A recent article in Time magazine called desertification “the greatest environmental challenge of our times” (Land of Hope, 12/13/10). Desertification is when good land is turned into desert. The hot sands and wind of a desert can overtake good land, and scorch it, making it a virtually useless wasteland. In the Bible, the desert is a place of isolation or rebellion, of judgment or testing. The chapter before our reading from Isaiah 35, describes God’s judgment on the nation of Edom, near Israel. That nation would be turned into a desert and a wasteland. When God first brought the Israelites to their land, He promised they would flourish if they obeyed His commands, but that He would punish them if they scorned Him and His commands. The punishments would grow worse the more they rebelled and didn’t listen, until the land became a desolate wasteland (Lev. 26). Psalm 107 talks about God turning “rivers into a desert, springs of water into thirsty ground, a fruitful land into a salty waste, because of the evil of its inhabitants” (107:33-34). So why was there a desert? God had taken His blessing away from the land because of the sin and disobedience of the people.
Today deserts and wastelands spread rapidly in many parts of the world, and good land is turned into bad. But while some fertile lands have been turned into deserts—the Time article went on to describe that some people are working at re-greening those deserts and recovering lands for agriculture and productivity. In some places the desert is being pushed back. Let me pause here to make the important disclaimer that I’m not giving a sermon on environmentalism or global warming.
The reading from Isaiah 35 is a picture of a desert being “re-greened” into a garden. About the wilderness and dry land blooming with flowers and blossoming with abundant growth. Green and lush land, streams opening in the desert, and pools of water quenching the burning sand. A remarkable picture of the desert wasteland being turned back into a lush and fruitful garden—a place of life again. But this doesn’t come about through human planting or land management, because this is talking about something far more significant than landscaping. It’s talking about the redemption of the whole world and the coming of salvation. Beyond just picturing the desert becoming a well-watered garden, with streams running through it, we also see the healing of the blind, the deaf, the lame and the mute.
The wide-angle picture of the dry land being healed and restored is followed by the close-in portrait of God coming to save His people. God comes into the scene with vengeance against the enemies of His people, and the reward for the sufferings of His people. He will come and save you. And here is the sign of His coming: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matt. 11:5). The God who was coming to save His people, the God whose arrival would flourish the desert into a garden, that God was Jesus Christ. Jesus came to save you. And the sign that He declared proved this, to John, the desert-wandering prophet, was all the healing miracles described in Isaiah 35 and more!
When John that desert-preacher had been arrested and put in prison by Herod—he sent messengers to find out if Jesus might really be the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. Could he really be the One that Isaiah and the prophets had long foretold? Was Jesus really the One for whom John had prepared the way? Jesus answered with a Royal Flush plus 1, laying down the full proof that He was the Messiah; He fit the bill. He laid down six cards showing that He could do all the things that Isaiah described in His prophecy and more. Jesus was redeeming the creation, healing and restoring bodies and making them whole again, just like a dry and lifeless desert blooming into life again. Jesus added to those proofs the cleansing of lepers from their sickness and the raising of the dead! Giving sight, hearing and strength to the blind, deaf and lame was miraculous—but even these miracles were far short of raising someone from the dead! That Jesus also commanded power over death itself was a sure sign that He was God, and was indeed the God who came to save us.
From those proofs and miracles, also flowed the sign that Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Jesus preached the good news to the poor. These were all signs to John and us that the Advent, the coming, of our God was here. They were signs that the old order of suffering, disease and death was being rolled back, as salvation was coming into the world. That Jesus preached good news to the poor turns the picture on to us.
Now if you can picture how God by His grace and power can transform the desert into a garden, and how the sick and the lame can be made well, you can begin to understand how God can do the same in the human heart (Oswalt, 622). Through sin and rebellion, our hearts are like the desert as well. Dry and waterless, fearful and joyless. Weak hands and feeble knees are a fearful and troubled heart. A heart without God can be filled with pride and hubris, or it can be worried and frightened. But God comes to the person with the fearful and anxious heart and says, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, you God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God, He will come and save you!” God strengthens the heart, and fills the fearful with joy and confidence. He opens their lips to sing His praises, and lifts the heavy burden of our heart to bring us comfort and peace.
So Jesus finds us in the midst of anxiety, doubt, or grief, and He preaches the good news to us. He preaches strength to our hands and heart, and firmness to our knees. He takes up the burden of our sins so that we have liberty and are set free from sin’s prison. He sets our feet on a path—the Way of Holiness, God calls it. A highway through the desert that’s being transformed into a garden. A path that runs through the middle of the wasteland that used to be the ruined creation, but that now is blossoming and springing to life because of the coming of our God and His salvation in Christ. That Way of Holiness is the way of salvation. The destination at the end of the highway is the heavenly city of Zion, the New Jerusalem. And liberated sinners, believers who’ve had the good news preached to them so that they’re rescued from their sins—they walk on this highway toward their heavenly home.
As you travel that highway, you take in the sights of God’s restoration at work in creation. You see where troubled and broken lives have been rescued through the redemption of Jesus. You see streams of living water running through the desert. You see the anxious and fearful gain strength and hope and confidence. Those who are unclean, who do not come to Jesus for the washing of their sins, are not found on this highway. But you and those who travel with you are those who have been cleansed and made holy by Jesus’ blood, so that you can travel on this road, and led safely home. As one writer put it: “This we know: to walk with God is to walk in security, in blessing, in glory, and in joy. And if these are limited now, there will come a day when they will be as unlimited as he is” (Oswalt, 621). The Way of Holiness is a path of safety and blessing and joy—but the joy will be complete only when we reach that heavenly city of Zion. There we return with singing, tongues united with one voice, singing praise to God as we enter heaven and the fullness of God’s joy.
The closing verse is most beautiful, “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Ransomed by the blood of Jesus, travelers will come to their rest in heaven. Believers—who traveled the Way of Holiness, as Christ ran it before us. And it says we shall return! Return? But we haven’t been their yet! We return from the exile in this sinful world, from the isolation and barrenness of the desert to the paradise of heaven that God had always intended for us. Our return is to where home always was, where it always should have been—with God in full holiness and glory, in perfect peace and right relationship. It is a return because it’s God’s welcome home for the redeemed.
The joy that will crown us in heaven will be an everlasting joy—eternal, without end. In this life we get only snatches of joy. Little foretastes, little previews of what the heavenly joy will be like. We get those tastes of joy in life’s big and little celebrations: the birth of a child, a wedding, a retirement from a job well done, a birthday party with friends, the surprise of falling in love, a joyful and living celebration of Christmas, the warm festivity of New Year’s. All the little glimpses of joy that we get in life that sometimes fade away. These will give way to the full and complete joy, the everlasting joy that doesn’t fade or diminish because the party’s over or life has moved on or become dreary. All the things that might steal our joy, all the sorrow and sighing of this life shall flee away.
Reflect on that for just a moment—sorrow and sighing shall flee away. That’s often how joy ends, isn’t it? Some sadness creeps into life, the edges of the desert encroach on what once was green and flourishing? The life of a loved one that was once so green and full of vigor is met with disease or aging. We let out a deep sigh as we see the desert approaching, and life fading away. We’ve all been there for one reason or another.
But the wonderful news of Isaiah’s prophecy is that when we enter that heavenly Zion, the sorrow and sighing shall flee away. That last exhale of life, that last deep sigh when we breathe our last, will be the end of the sorrow and sadness. Grief will be no more. For the ransomed of the Lord will enter Zion, and there will never be a sorrow to steal our joy again. There will never be the sigh of grief and heartache. Why? Because the God who came to save us will make a final end from all those sorrows from sin. When Jesus, the God who came to save us, exhaled His dying breath, when He sighed in death “Into your hand, I commit my Spirit,” it was finished. Jesus had sealed the deal, killed the power of sin and death over us, and opened the Way of Holiness to us. His dying breath sent sin and sorrow fleeing away, and brought us to the Way of Life. And when Jesus’ lungs inhaled their first living breath when He rose from the dead that Easter morning, there was life, vitality, and joy.
So when we enter the heavenly Zion, when our life is over and we’ve breathed our last breath, our lungs will be filled with the new breath of life, and all sadness will be gone. Lungs powered for singing with everlasting joy, we’ll laugh and sing in the eternal joy of our God. The struggle between the encroaching desert of sin, isolation, and death with the streaming grace of God’s living water will finally be won. Finally we’ll enter the perfect Garden, the New Paradise and Eden of heaven, where life will be restored and ever-green. And as the crowd of the redeemed enter singing their triumph song, hearts again will be brave, and arms will be strong (LSB 677:5) as we stand before the God of all power and grace. In Him we will know full life and full joy. In Jesus’ name, Amen. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen.
Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen to audio at: http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1. How was turning the land into a desert or wasteland a divine punishment in the Old Testament? Leviticus 26:14ff, esp. vs. 19-20, 32-33, but also 40-45. Psalm 107:33-34. How is it’s “re-greening” a blessing? Psalm 107:35-38; Isaiah 43:18-21; 58:11. How does this “re-greening” come about? Who arrives on the scene when this happens?

2. What signs from Isaiah 35 and 61 became proof to John the Baptist that Jesus was the promised Messiah described in those prophecies, and that He was the God who came to save us? What additional signs did Jesus perform? How did these establish who He was?

3. Through that desert that was being transformed into a garden, Isaiah pictures a highway called the Way of Holiness. Cf. Isaiah 11:12, 16; 51:10-11. Who travels on this highway, and who doesn’t? How does one get to travel on this highway?

4. How is our heart like a desert? What does Isaiah 35 show us about what God can do for the condition of the human heart? Where does the Way of Holiness lead to? Isaiah 35:10. What blessings do those who travel there enjoy? How do those come to fullest expression in heaven?

5. How can our arrival in heaven be described as a “return?” What are the glimpses of joy that you get in this life? Why does joy not always last in this life? How will that be different in heaven, and why? Instead of using our breath for sighing from grief, how will it be used in heaven?

6. How can it be that sorrow and sighing will be gone? How is the joy of heaven secured for all believers?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Sermon on Genesis 22:1-18, for midweek Advent 2, "From Isaac to Jesus"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Last week we began the Advent sermon series by talking about types, which are people or events, for example, that foreshadow a greater reality. Adam, as we saw, is a type of the Second and Greater Adam, Jesus Christ, who’s death undid the effects of Adam’s sin. In the second sermon of our Advent series, we’ll see how Isaac, the son of Abraham, foreshadowed Jesus, especially when Abraham was tested to sacrifice Isaac. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It’s often said that no parent should ever have to see their own child die. This is truly an unspeakable tragedy. Yet in the midst of a sinful and uncertain life, this does happen far too often. It’s a grief we’d never wish on anyone, but one that God our Father endured Himself for our sake. Other people who’ve experienced this great loss in their own lives, have often found comfort in the fact that God can truly identify with their loss as He suffered the same. In the reading from Genesis 22 today, God called Abraham to make an unthinkable sacrifice. Without reason or explanation, He instructed Abraham to go into the mountains of Moriah and offer his only beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering. We can only imagine the thoughts that must have raced through Abraham’s head—although one thing we do know from the book of Hebrews—he had faith that even if he had to go through with sacrificing Isaac, that God could still raise him from the dead. So obediently he prepared to do what God commanded.

Abraham and Sarah had become wanderers when God called them from their homeland. They had already been very old when God promised to Abraham that they would have a child of their own, to be his heir. Abraham and Sarah waited (sometimes very impatiently) for more than 13 years for the promise to come true, and he aged to 100 years and she 90, before the promise came true and she conceived an bore Isaac. A miracle child born in old age, prophesied by God’s Word. Already here is a glimpse of how Isaac foreshadowed Jesus, who was a miracle child born to a virgin without the help of a man, and prophesied by God’s Word. Both were children of promise, and God’s blessing was to rest on them both. Through Isaac’s descendants, Abraham was supposed to be multiplied to be a great nation! How would this be possible if he were sacrificed? And thousands of years later, what would become of Jesus? How would He have descendants if He was sacrificed on the cross?

As Abraham’s questions remained unanswered, he and Isaac obediently continued to the place of sacrifice, Isaac now carrying the wood for his own sacrifice on his back. Christ Jesus also bore the wood for his own sacrifice on his battered and bruised back, as He carried the tree of the cross. Isaac asks his father, “Here is the fire and wood for the sacrifice, but where is the lamb?” Abraham answered, “God will provide the lamb.” Isaac trusted his father, and questioned no further, even as he was being tied to the altar for sacrifice. So also Jesus prayed to His Father if there was any other way, but obediently trusted His Father’s will, and submitted to His death sentence, even being fastened to the cross for sacrifice. But here is where the close parallels of their two stories diverge.

Abraham is stopped from sacrificing Isaac by the intervention of the angel of the Lord. God saw Abraham’s faith and obedience, and stopped him from harming Isaac, providing a ram as substitute instead. God the Father, however, did carry through with the sacrifice of His willing Son, who took all of the world’s sin and guilt to the cross. Jesus did die, and there was no ram to take His place. There was no substitute for Jesus, because He was the substitute. Jesus died and the Father sacrificed, because He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, the son was saved from death. In the greater fulfillment of Jesus Christ, the Son died…to save others from death. Jesus’ death meant that for us, we could be saved. Our loving heavenly Father provided a lamb caught with His head in a crown of thorns, to be our substitute, to take away the sin that demanded our punishment.

And here the parallel between Isaac and Jesus returns. Isaac lived to bear many descendants, and so God’s promise to Abraham was kept. He would become a great nation like the stars of the sky. Isaac was not cut off from seeing his descendants by a premature death. Yet what about Jesus? In the book of Isaiah, the famous 53rd chapter describes Jesus’ crucifixion and death, seven centuries before it happened. In verse 8 it says, “By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” Jesus was oppressed and taken for judgment, then He was cut off from the land of the living. He died, and it would seem that His premature death would leave Him no descendants. But out of the despairing situation, Isaiah prophesied hope in verse 10, “when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”

He shall see His offspring, He shall prolong His days. Jesus rose from the dead after making a sacrifice for our guilt. He rose and lives forever to see His offspring multiply on the earth. And that has happened not through the physical birthing of many children and descent by blood, but it has happened through the rebirth of generation after generation of Jews and Gentiles, born a second time through the waters of baptism. The offspring of Jesus have multiplied to the ends of the earth, not by human descent, but by the preaching of the Word of God that is sown like a seed throughout the world, and bears great fruit in receptive hearts. As Paul wrote: “not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Rom. 9:7-8). Or, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). By faith we are descendants of Abraham, we are offspring of Jesus. We are the many generations of believers who Jesus our Risen Lord lives to see as His offspring.

Knowing that we have been adopted into God’s family by faith and our rebirth in baptism, let us rejoice that we are sons and daughters of God. Rejoice that we’ve been spared the fate that our sins determined for us, because God sent Jesus to be the substitute for us. And remember that while God the Father went through the heart-rending pain of losing His own Son, there was a sweet and joyous reunion when He rose from the dead. And for all who have lost beloved children in the faith, for all who’ve seen the life of a loved one cut short, may we find comfort in the victory that Jesus accomplished over death, and the certainty of a heavenly reunion with Him and all believers in Christ one day. Our heavenly family is built on the love of Jesus Christ, who was willing to lay down His life for us, and took it up again. What a brother, and what a Savior! Amen.

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

Monday, December 06, 2010

Sermon on Romans 15:4-13, for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, "With One Voice"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

A runner strides along the racecourse, pushing toward the finish line. The marathon is a grueling race, and the frequent splashes of water on the face, and cool hydration for the body are life in this contest. The mind reduces to one single focus—finishing the race. The rhythmic pounding of legs against pavement makes the knees feel weak and wobbly as the runner grows weary. Then all of a sudden the runner hits “the wall”—the point where their body and mind conspire to convince them that they can’t possibly go any further. Their strength reserves and energy are exhausted, they’ve reached an insurmountable obstacle, and the only rational choice is to give up. Marathon runner Jerome Drayton put it this way: “To describe the agony of a marathon to someone who’s never run it is like trying to explain color to someone who was born blind.” But a great many marathon runners have pushed through this “wall” and found the inner strength and focus they needed to finish the race. Against what their mind and body told them was impossible, they pushed on and finished the race.

Much like a marathon, the Christian’s life is an endurance race. Endurance is so important for the Christian for the same reason that it’s important for an athlete. If you give up or lose sight of the goal before you finish, and quit, then you lose the race. In life, if we give up faith or lose sight of the heavenly goal, then we’ll fail to reach the prize. But many “runners” in life hit “the wall” for various reasons, and body and mind conspire to make us give up. An incurable disease strikes us, a mountain of debt stands in our way, a deep hurt or wrong stands between you and another person, work at your job seems to mount faster than you can complete it. You may feel as though you’ve struggled and fought to the breaking point, you’ve tirelessly climbed the mountain, you’ve continually sought peace, you’ve worked yourself weary. We’re exhausted and want to give up. And in real life, we don’t always pass every obstacle before we reach the finish line.

It’s for this reason that the Scriptures are written and given for our encouragement and hope. As Paul says in Romans 15:4, through the encouragement of the Scriptures we have hope, and the Bible was written for our instruction. The Bible is filled with the stories of saints who ran the same race, faced struggles and “walls” like us, and endured in their faith to finish the race. But most important is not how well we can imitate their example. Being told to imitate Lance Armstrong while you try to win the Tour de France might not help you much in winning the competition, if you can’t measure up to his standards of athleticism and competitiveness, or you just don’t have the natural ability. So those stories of the saints are not just “character studies” for us to find people that we may or may not be able to imitate. But rather they are examples of frail and sinful human beings like us, who finished their race because they trusted in God. And as the writer to the Hebrews tells, we run the race by looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. The One who finished the race before us and finished the race for us.

We endure and we can finish the race, because this is God’s gift to us. He’s called the God of endurance and encouragement. He gives us His Scriptures to fill us with endurance, to show us the hope of the finish line. To show us those who’ve reached the finish line, not because of their own worthiness, but because of Christ working in them. He gives us the baptismal splashing of water that is a daily refreshment to our soul as we run that race, and are splashed with the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. So with this kind of encouragement from Christians who’ve gone before, and by encouraging each other as we run in the race, we can compete to the finish line and share in the prize already won for us by Jesus. If we live in harmony with one another, as Paul says, we will together with one voice praise God.

Let’s look more closely at that harmony that God offers, and what the goal of that harmony is. Romans 15:5-6 says, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” First of all its greatly important to notice that its God who gives such harmony. Man-made attempts to create harmony or unity may differ in their success, but are rarely permanent and unbreakable. Sadly, the Christian church has a long history of disharmony, caused by issues ranging from the heart and core of Christianity to quite trivial matters. And Christians have made various attempts to recreate harmony on their own—forgetting who it is that gives perfect harmony. Those attempts that have rested on human efforts have so often failed, while those attempts that have rested firmly on God’s Word have held strong and endured.

So what is this harmony, and how does it happen? What is translated as “harmony” is literally “to think the same” or “be likeminded.” Paul says that God will give us this like-mindedness among one another, according to Jesus Christ. God creates harmony by guiding us to be of one mind in Christ as we also share the same love of Christ (Phil. 2). That harmony or like-mindedness grows out of God’s Word, which is written for our instruction, encouragement, and hope. Jesus saw Himself and God’s Word as the source of unity when He prayed before His crucifixion, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one...[and] Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:11, 17). Unity is found in Jesus, who keeps us abiding in His Word.

If there is disharmony or disunity among us as Christians, who believe in Jesus, then the path to harmony is on God’s Word. Through it’s clear light alone will we be restored to a unity of faith. Those who won’t walk on that path will not find that harmony, whatever human attempts they use. The way some people talk about truth today, even in some new movements from within the Christian church, they talk like truth is a fluid, changing, and unreachable thing. It might as well be like trying to nail Jell-o to the wall. In some of these movements, the idea is that multiple and even contradictory ideas of who God is, what salvation is, or what it means to be a Christian, should all be held in a tension. This is the man-made path they propose to Christian harmony and unity. But this is poles apart from the God-given harmony of thinking the same or being likeminded in faith. That’s like saying that people walking down all kinds of paths going in different directions are walking together in step. It’s simply nonsense. But in God’s Word, a path to harmony is possible and attainable. Truth is unchanging and knowable, and God’s Word gives a clear light to show the way.

Paul further describes unity here with the word “together,” and “with one voice.” That the purpose of this God-given harmony is so that we can together, with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Together in the original Greek is a more powerful word: “homothumadon.” Homothumadon means “with one accord.” Its more than a “togetherness” that a group of fans might experience while watching a baseball game. It means that people are united in thought and action. It’s when the people of God are unified in their belief, and express that belief in their acts of love and worship. This kind of “accord” or agreement again is a God-given gift, and gives expression to the “one voice” of worshipping God.

Can you picture what it means to speak as Christians “with one voice?” Or to worship God with one voice? Will it be a squeaky, weak, or timid voice; one filled with fear? Will it be an indecisive or wishy-washy voice? No! The Word of God must be our one voice, and it alone can give us the “homothumadon”—the one accord—that galvanizes Christians into unity of faith and action. The “one voice” of Christians will then be the voice of power and confidence and strength, that sets the devil at a run. We speak one little word—Jesus’ name—and the devil is defeated. He cannot overpower us if God Himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit. So let God’s Word be on your lips! Learn it, meditate on it, and confess it!

And that “one voice” is to be used in glorifying God. Our voice is an “instrument of praise,” and thus it’s not fitting that our voices be used in false talk or creating division. Rather, we are to sing together in harmony as Christians. Not a musical harmony, but the spiritual harmony of being of one mind. But music is our expression of praise to God. How many of you are not confident of your skills in singing? For the longest time I was not confident in my singing, and was off-key or monotone, or just couldn’t reach the notes. Some people might say I still shouldn’t be confident in my singing! But whether or not you were cut-out for singing in the choir, God wants to hear you life your voice in unison with other Christians, singing praises to His name. Don’t be afraid to sing aloud to God! He isn’t concerned with whether you’re a monotone, or off-key, or whether you’ll win any singing competitions, but God desires to hear our worshipful song rise to praise Him and Jesus Christ our Savior. Singing together with a crowd of powerful voices can be a skin-tingling experience.

Paul explains that the reason Christ came into the world, the reason He humbled Himself to be a servant to the Jews, was to show God’s truthfulness and confirm His promises, so the Gentiles (that’s us!) might see and believe and glorify God for His mercy. The whole witness of the Bible confirms why we should have endurance and hope, because in the end God is always faithful to His promises. And sending Jesus into the world to serve us by His death on the cross to take away sin, and His resurrection to secure eternal life for us—this is news that can’t help but open our mouths with songs of praise. Paul quotes a litany of verses from the Old Testament to show that God always had it in mind to bring both Jew and Gentile into His kingdom and rule. That all along God desired to unite the Jews and Gentiles. Namely that people of every nation, tribe and language would be united in one voice, praising God.

Praise God and sing His name! Let your mouth be filled with songs of what He has done! Rejoice! Be filled with the joy that comes from God keeping all His promises. Praise and extol Him! Extol means lift up, raise His name to the highest height! There is no God greater than our God—there is no Savior who has done for us what Jesus did, in taking our sin to the cross. In Him, in Jesus Christ, we Gentiles have hope. Not hope that disappoints, but a sure and heavenly confidence that God keeps His promises.

We’ve come full circle to see the purpose of the Bible—the Scriptures. To give us hope—hope in Jesus Christ. To keep us running, keep us enduring in an often difficult life, to encourage us as we run the race to the finish. With God-given harmony in His Word, we can be filled with hope, and we find our voices tuned together in one voice of spiritual harmony, singing praise to God for all He’s done. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen.

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

1. How do the New Testament writers use athletic imagery to teach us the importance of endurance? 1 Cor. 9:24-27; Gal. 5:7; Phil. 2:16; Heb. 12:1-2. What are the obstacles or “walls” that you face?

2. What are the purposes that Paul names here, for why the Scriptures were written? Name at least 3. Are the stories of saints in the Bible merely “character studies” for us to imitate? Why or why not? How does Jesus’ completion of His race help us in a way that a competitor like Lance Armstrong completing a race does not?

3. Describe what God-given “harmony” or “like-mindedness” is like. Where does this harmony come from? Philippians 2; John 17. Why are man-made attempts for harmony (in the church) most likely to fail? What is the solid ground for building harmony?

4. Homothumadon is a Greek word that means “with one accord.” How do Christians united in mind and action present a powerful voice for good?

5. Paul quotes four Old Testament passages that show the Gentiles will also join in praising the God of Israel. They come from 2 Samuel 22:50; Psalm 18:49; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 117:1; and Isaiah 11:1, 10. How do these passages affirm God’s grace for the Gentiles, even in the Old Testament times? Why would they glorify God? (Rom. 15:8-9)

6. How does God’s faithfulness to promises create endurance and hope?

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Sermon on Romans 5:12-21, for midweek Advent 1, "From Adam to Jesus"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In the sermon series for Advent, we will look at how the birth and coming of Jesus Christ was foreshadowed and pictured through various examples, peoples, and events, that we call types or shadows. What is a type or shadow? It’s related to prophecy. Prophecies are the God-given messages spoken by His messengers. They explained events both past, present, and future, usually emphasizing the need for repentance and God’s promised actions. Of course Christ, as the coming Savior, is the most frequent subject of prophecy, and Jesus is like the golden thread that runs through all the tapestry of Scripture. A prophecy is spoken or in writing. A type or shadow would be more like an object lesson or even a prototype. It could be a person or event that prophetically alludes to or foreshadows some greater person or event. But this type or prototype is always something inferior to or less than the final reality it points to. Today we’ll see how the first man Adam was a type of Jesus Christ, who is called in Scripture the “second Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45). Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

There’s a certain argument for abortion that is often given for situations where the baby may face a very difficult life. It goes like this: if the child would just be born into a miserable existence, physical or mental handicaps, poverty, a dysfunctional family or home, a situation involving addictions, etc, then it would be better off for that child that they never live. Spare them their future misery. Yet every member of the human race is unavoidably born into a situation they didn’t ask for. We were unavoidably born into sin and thus death ruled over us. None asked for this. We were born into slavery under sin and a death sentence hung over us from our conception. Unavoidably born into a world of disease, suffering and sin. But despite getting a life that was a far cry from what we were made for, our lives are still precious and valuable, and they’re worth living because there is a second birth available to us, by which we can escape the effects of this sinful world and gain a better life.

Every child born of Adam from the beginning of time, has inherited his sin. As Romans states: “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Adam is the head of the human race and we all share his image. When we remember back to the first chapters of Genesis, we hear how God took the virgin earth, the soil that was pure and newly created. No rain had fell on it, no crops had grown in it, and no man had labored in the soil. God took that dust of the earth, in Hebrew adamah, and shaped it into the first man Adam. God prepared paradise for Adam and his wife Eve, whom God formed from Adam’s side. God wanted them to live forever in the perfect paradise of Eden. That was what we were made for. But through Adam’s disobedience, sin and death entered the once perfect world, and ever since then we’ve all sinned like Adam, and all have been paying for it.

But from the very first sin of Adam and Eve, and their fall into the corrupted world of death, suffering, and disease, God already had worked out a plan to save them from this fate—and the worse fate of eternal separation from God because of their sin. God already had it in mind to redeem them, and in Genesis 3:15 He promised to send one of Eve’s offspring, one of her “seed” to come and crush the head of the serpent. But in the process the serpent would bruise His heel. And the One who finally came, Jesus Christ, was the new and greater reality of which Adam was a “type” or foreshadowing.

In what way was Jesus the “second Adam?” As Adam had no earthly father, so also Jesus had God as His true Father. But where Adam only was the image and likeness of God, Jesus was not just like God, but the very form and image of God (Phil. 2:6; 2 Cor. 4:4). As Adam was shaped from the virgin soil of the earth, so also Jesus was born in the womb of the Virgin Mary. As Adam was head of the human race, so also Jesus is head of the new “race” of believers who are the members of His body, the
Church.

Adam was the crown of the Old Creation, but Jesus is the crown and also the King of the New Creation. In Adam, one sin, one act of disobedience, brought death to the whole world. In Christ, one act of righteousness, His death on the cross, brought life to the whole world. Adam was tempted in the garden by the serpent, and was overcome by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Jesus was tempted in a garden by the devil, but Jesus overcame temptation and the devil by the Tree of His cross. Adam was barred from the gate to paradise, Jesus broke the bars and reopened the way to paradise.

So what does all this mean for us? What’s it to you as a Christian, that Adam was the type or foreshadowing of Jesus, our Savior? It means that the life that we were naturally born into, a life unavoidably filled with sin and all its painful consequences, isn’t the only life we’re resigned to live. We’re not resigned to being born in a set of circumstances brought about by our own sin and also the sin of Adam, as the head of our human race. We’re not resigned to just making the best of things until we face inevitable death. No, the fact that Jesus has come into the world as the Second and greater Adam brings us the “free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ [which] abounded for many.” As the gate to Paradise was barred to Adam and Eve after the Fall into sin, Jesus has now burst open the door for us to enter the Greater Paradise of Heaven. Adam’s sin brought us much suffering and pain and ultimately death, but this is nothing in comparison to the free gift of Jesus that overflows to us all. However much the effects of Adam’s sin have been multiplied through the ages, so much more has the death of Jesus on the cross multiplied to benefit and spread to all mankind.

Jesus, by His death, removed the whole set of sin’s consequences and replaced them with a hopeful destiny of forgiveness, grace, and eternal life. This reality is available through Jesus Christ and the rebirth of our baptism, where we’re joined to the new head of the new “race” of believers in Jesus Christ. All who become members of His body by rebirth in baptism will one day reign with Him in life. We have an even greater paradise restored to us. Adam’s disobedience made us sinners—but Christ’s obedience made us innocent and righteous. So take heart and be encouraged to know that by grace you’ve been joined to Christ and reborn into a living hope and love that we couldn’t have asked for or deserved. In Christ, God has restored in greater measure what was lost through Adam. Praise to Christ, our head and our King! Amen.

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

Sermon on Colossians 3:1-17 for Thanksgiving, "Put on Love"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. When it comes to naming the things we’re thankful for, usually the top of the list are food, shelter, and clothing. This Thanksgiving I want us to especially be thankful for our clothing—but as you’ll see, I don’t mean your physical clothing. In the reading that you heard from Colossians, the Apostle Paul describes our new life as Christians. He talks about putting off our old self with its sinful practices and desires, like one would take off old or dirty clothing. Then he pictures us putting on the virtues of Christ, like a person dressing in new clothing. On this Thanksgiving Eve, we’ll look at how we’re to dress in the virtues of forgiveness and thankfulness, but above all else, dear Christians, we’re to put on love. It’s my prayer this Thanksgiving that you all are dressed in Christ’s love. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

As Christians, there are countless things that we should be thankful for. The Bible tells us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Give thanks in all circumstances. No limits or exceptions on when we should be thankful. In good times or bad, we should be thankful. In a prosperous economy or in a poor economy, we should be thankful. In sickness or health, we should be thankful. The reading from Colossians enjoins us to “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Thankfulness should be expressed in all our lives; in our songs in worship—as thankful hearts pour out praise to God; and in everything we do in word or deed—giving thanks to God the Father through Jesus.

Thankfulness is a beautiful garment, a beautiful piece of clothing for Christians to wear, because it clothes us with appreciation and the knowledge that all good things come from God. Think how the simple words “thank you” grace a person’s lips when they’re spoken. It helps a person feel good about the job they’ve done; it shows their work was valued. Today we have much to be thankful for here at Emmanuel. Thankful for the volunteers and workers who give up much of their free time to be in service of the church and the community. We are thankful for all of you who serve as church officers and volunteers, who give your time effort, and energy to manage and maintain our church and schools. People who commit their time for the business side of things, for those who maintain the facilities and grounds, for those who volunteer their time with the children and families, and for the various outreaches and fundraisers that we do. We’re thankful for all of your service, and we greatly value your work. I hope that you all wear that garment of thankfulness as you express your gratitude to others who serve.

In Colossians, Paul says we wear Christ’s virtues—compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another, forgiving one another, and above all love. It’s important to notice that these virtues aren’t just “put on” for special occasions, for Thanksgiving or Christmas, or even as our “Sunday formal wear.” No, these are to be the daily clothes of the Christian. This clothing reflects our character as Christians. By that I don’t mean what we have made ourselves to be, “the man he made himself” or the “woman she grew to be,” but rather that our character and identity comes from what God made us to be. That crowning virtue of love, which ties everything together in perfect harmony, clothes us because God first showed His love to us in sending His Son to die for us. That we bear with one another and forgive each other is founded on that fact. Our response of love to one another is just that: a response. We love because He first loved us.

God’s love took shape in Christ’s life by all that He did in life, and most perfectly in His sacrificial death. He showed compassion by talking with the down-and-out, giving importance to even the concerns of outcasts, and by healing those who were afflicted with illnesses; even raising the dead. He showed kindness by interceding for those condemned by society, stopping a woman from being stoned; reaching out to a despised tax collector. He showed gentleness, extending His love to little children, that His disciples thought were a nuisance. He showed patience, bearing with the disciples when they did not understand; teaching them correctly and opening their eyes. For all of this we’re most thankful. Thankful that the Lord has patience and mercy for us when we don’t understand.

These weren’t just random acts of kindness, disconnected from each other. They were acts that lived out the love that God gives us. All these virtues were crystallized in Jesus’ death on the cross, where His compassion, humility, forgiveness and love were seen so clearly, in His willingness to forgive even those who crucified Him. He took up every insult, complaint, sin, and grievance upon Himself, and spoke the dying words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He is the source of that limitless love, and He clothes you with it. He gives you these new clothes through His Word that dwells in you richly.

Go into your life dressed with these clothes, knowing that Jesus will send His peace to rule in your hearts. They’re not ordinary clothes. These clothes have the power to change those who wear them. God’s love will work its way into your heart and life. You’ll see that the way we forgive each other and bear with each other is built on the truth of His forgiveness for us. Not holding on to grudges or grievances that can rob us of joy and peace. Instead, His love will overpower un-forgiveness and old hurts, and open up the freedom to forgive and move beyond the past. To build each other up and encourage one another.

The author Richard Eyer, talks about forgiveness and love in his own marriage. Married for over 40 years to his wife, he observed that after their first argument, he’d apologized for being insensitive and unwilling to hear what she was saying. Her gracious response, “I forgive you,” took him back a moment as he realized his apology wasn’t as sincere as it seemed. He realized the words “I’m sorry” had just come as a reflex to end an unpleasant argument, rather than “actually admit [he] had done wrong or had sinned against her.” He wasn’t prepared for her forgiveness, because “It’s one thing to admit your fault, even your sin, and quite another for someone to confirm your confession as necessary and to then repay it with forgiveness.”

Forgiveness, not brushing sin off, is what God did for us, and what God prescribes for life. Forgiveness acknowledges the wrong done, but doesn’t hold it against that person. Forgiveness says: “this will not stand between us.” When we forgive in our relationships, we forgive the small debt of wrong that someone owes us, because Jesus forgave a much greater debt of wrong for our sins. Here we show that we’re clothed with the virtues of Christ, tying all together with love, which creates perfect harmony.

Love draws us out of ourselves; it gives of ourselves to another person. Theologians talk about how the love that flows between the 3 persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—gives shape to the love of a family, between husband, wife, and child. Love is so great because it turns our focus from where sin turns it—on ourselves—out towards our husband, or wife, or child. Love isn’t self-centered or self-absorbed, but finds its focus outside itself, and expresses itself in the variety of ways named above.

Christ’s love embraces you and gives that endless source of love for each other. His Word dwells richly in us, when we gather in the worshipping community of the church, that teaches and admonishes us in Word and in song in thanksgiving to God. As we sing our songs of thanksgiving with thankful hearts today, I especially want us to be thankful for the clothes that we wear—clothes of forgiveness, thankfulness, and above all love. So put away the old clothes of your sinful nature, and put on those clothes of the new self every day with all thankfulness; bear a forgiving attitude in your heart, and above all, put on love. 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.