Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Sermon on Isaiah 51:9-16, for the 24th Sunday after Trinity (1 Yr lectionary), "Waiting for the Lord's Arm"


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In Isaiah 51:5, just before our reading, God tells His people that His righteousness and salvation are near. He says that His arm will judge the peoples, but that His people wait for God’s arm. God’s arm is His power and might to act, to save, to deliver. So they are waiting on God’s action, His deliverance, and where our reading begins in verse 9, they are crying out to God: “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord!” They are calling on God as if He is late, or asleep, or has forgotten them. In times of trial and difficulty, like the exile the Israelites endured, it’s a common feeling to wonder where is the “arm of the Lord?”
In times of our distress, in times when we cry out to the Lord and seem to hear no answer, we too wait for the Lord’s arm. Anxious for His help, crying out for Him to act, our faith is tested. Faith is not tested or strengthened by ease and comfort, but by bearing the cross. In these times, we lift up our eyes to the hills—and where does our help come from? Our help comes from the Lord.
In Isaiah, when they cry out to wake up the arm of the Lord, they remember how in days of old—He flexed His arm and defeated Pharaoh and the Egyptians when He dried up the sea. He led the Israelites across the Red Sea on dry ground. He ransomed them from slavery, and brought them out safely. Even while all that was happening, they were still doubting and mistrustful of God and Moses—but God remained faithful and continued to work wonders by His arm. Now, remembering all that, they call God to act again with His strength and might. This is the familiar posture of believers—remembering God’s record of faithful deliverance, and begging God to save by His mighty arm once again. One former professor said this was the Hebrew way of thinking; to enter the future facing the past. What he meant is that while we can’t see the future or what is ahead of us—we can know God’s record of faithfulness, and count on Him to safely guide us into the future. Looking to the past, we see God’s arm working especially when things seemed in doubt; but God never abandoned His people. We are blind to the future, but He is not, so we can step backwards, trusting in His lead, looking back over all the examples of His faithfulness to us and to previous generations.
What happens when God does save with His arm? V. 11, And 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.” Those who wait upon the Lord shall not be put to shame (Ps. 25:3). Their patience is rewarded with singing, and everlasting joy. God will chase away all sorrow and sighing. There have been many heavy sighs, sobs, and expressions of sorrow in our congregation these past weeks. Life in the sinful world is never completely fair or just; it is often cruel and unfeeling. Life’s tragedies strike when we least expect, and we cry out for the arm of the Lord to be revealed, to take action. And sometimes our prayers are answered in the way that we hoped, and other times not. But in neither situation do our prayers fall on deaf ears. In neither situation has God fallen asleep or forgotten us. In the mystery of God’s will, sometimes the Lord gives, sometimes He takes away. But God’s final reward for those who wait on Him, is an everlasting homecoming to Zion—a joyful return where singing, and joy and gladness will be our permanent possession. All the sorrows and tears and sadness of this life will be driven away.
In v. 12, God answers: “I, I am He who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass, and have forgotten the Lord, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth, and you fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor, when he sets himself to destroy? And where is the wrath of the oppressor? He who is bowed down shall speedily be released; he shall not die and go down to the pit, neither shall his bread be lacking.” Here God contrasts the power of His arm, to the power of men, who oppress or make themselves enemies of God’s children. Is there any comparison? NO! But even though there is no comparison, He says we fear men, who will die and face God’s judgment, but we forget God, who made the heavens and the earth! That’s the work of His hands! When you gaze at the splendor of the stars, and cannot even fathom how far they reach, or you take in the splendid views of mountain and sea on Maui—can you help but wonder at the majesty of our God? Yet why do we fear men, who are here today and gone tomorrow? Why do we “fear continually all the day because of the wrath of the oppressor?” God will rescue His children. He ransoms His servants. And God Himself comforts us. God’s own Word speaks to our heart, and nourishes our wounds.
This passage reminds me of a powerful scene in the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where the longsuffering Uncle Tom declares to a wicked slave master who is beating him—that you may have bought my body, but you haven’t bought my soul. Jesus has bought my soul, and there’s nothing you can do to harm it. Evil met its match in forgiveness and love, as when Jesus died on the cross. The wrath of the oppressor is bent to destroy us, but who is He against our God? If God is for us, who can stand against? Even if our rescue comes only through death, God will deliver us, and thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, even death cannot hold us back from God’s redemption. Who is the devil to oppress us and destroy us? Even his fate is written in the Word of God, for everlasting punishment.
In the darkest times, God does not abandon us, and we are reminded of that most of all when Jesus hung on the cross and cried out those painful words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Never did a soul experience forsakenness as deeply as Jesus when He hung on the cross. Jesus, who sees and knows all things, and whose relationship to God the Father had never been hindered by sin in any way—and who knew the Father’s will—Jesus experienced that forsakenness from God in those terrible hours. But even in those depths of grief, God had not abandoned Him. God raised Jesus up from the dead, and the wrath of the oppressor, God’s enemy, is overthrown and defeated.
So instead of fearing man and forgetting God, we should do the reverse! Fear God and remember His mighty arm! Wait on His arm and His deliverance. And remember that even when God’s arms were pinned by nails to the cross, and everything seemed forsaken and lost, God’s arm was not shortened to save. God worked a mighty deliverance when He raised Jesus from the dead. And our future hope and confidence is built on His mighty arm raising us and all believers to life again in Him. Rising to a body free of sorrows and sighing, and renewed in everlasting joy and gladness.
The closing verses of the reading say: “I am the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord of hosts is his name. And I have put my words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand, establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.’” God’s arm is still mighty to save—we do not know His timing, we do not know His mysterious ways, but we know that His will is always best, and nothing can separate us from the love of God for those who are in Christ Jesus. God still stirs up the seas by the power of His arm. He still rules the angels and the heavens on high.
And He puts His words in our mouth and covers us with the shadow of His hand. In other words, He gives the precious message of His Gospel to His people. He puts His Truth in our mouth, so that we confess His mighty name and all His works. From our songs of praise and joy, to our prayers and intercession for those in need, or speaking words of encouragement from scripture to those who need it, or speaking the lifesaving message of the Gospel to those who hear, God puts His words in our mouth. And His hand is stretched over us in protection, shading us from darkness, danger, and evil. We are God’s treasured people.
Truly, those who wait on the arm of the Lord will delight in His deliverance. All in His good timing, and we cannot determine our own wait time. But God’s ransomed people are promised to enter His Holy City Zion, and to enter it with everlasting joy. And God will be our comfort. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.


Funeral sermon, Isaiah 42:3, Romans 6:11, "Alive in Christ!"


**This funeral message was given after one of our church family took her own life. The names have been removed for family privacy. We, along with many others urge those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts to reach out to someone and ask for help--a pastor, teacher, mentor, friend, counselor. There IS HOPE, though depression can often cloud us from seeing it. Do not be ashamed to ask for help. The Lord be with you!**
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. [Names of family]…when Jesus was going away from His disciples, He said: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27). Today let’s explore and absorb His peace, peace that is unlike anything the world can give—Jesus’ transcendent peace. With that peace in our hearts we need not be troubled or afraid. Because today our hearts are weighed down by a raw grief—our beloved sister in the Lord, [name]  , is dead. And doubly painful, she took her own life.
Suicide—sometimes the word feels like a taboo, a topic we can’t talk about, or a stigma and shame that keeps us silent when we are hurting. Feelings we hide from others, for fear of judgment or discovery of our weaknesses, or some other reason. But we must be willing to break that taboo and speak about this topic, to do everything we can to stop this preventable cause of death. From the year 1999 till 2016, suicide rates have been increasing in 49 of 50 states, and the 50th already has a higher than average level, according to the Center for Disease Control. It’s being called a public health crisis. A bad, growing problem. But behind every statistic is a person and a story. And [name] is not a statistic, she is your beloved wife, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, coworker. All who knew her knew that she was a kind and special friend. Sadly, she was troubled by many of these suicidal thoughts that tempt so many others.
She, [name] and I had a lengthy conversation about these thoughts just the week before she took her own life. She agreed that it was a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and not the right solution. She agreed that she didn’t want to hurt anyone else, and she knew how much [name] and others loved her, but she seemed numb to comfort. We didn’t know how far she was made up in her mind to do this. She also feared that she had become too weak in her faith, and didn’t know how to hang on the Christ. We reassured her again and again that God has her securely in His arms, and that it wasn’t on her strength, or the strength of her faith that she is saved, but on Christ, our Solid Rock.
If you struggle with suicidal thoughts, please, we beg you, speak to someone, so you can receive help, love, and hope. [name], we have said many times since this happened, that there was hope surrounding [name], but she just couldn’t see it—not because people weren’t surrounding her with love, prayer, and encouragement—they were doing all of those things—but this dark cloud was hiding that hope from her eyes. She agreed, when we talked, that it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and that it’s wrong. But she was also overwhelmed by life, by the battle that she appeared to be losing against cancer, and her own fears. Sometimes, in that dark place, people entertain dark thoughts that maybe this their only escape from all the stresses and difficulties (it’s not), or that things would be better if they were gone (in reality, it leaves a painful, gaping hole in our lives). These are the conversations we need to have, so that no one suffers silently or alone, or thinks that there is no help or hope for them. There is always help to be had, and hope to be found, if nowhere else, than still always in Jesus. Even if there is no medical hope for us, there is hope in Jesus. Even if there is no peace that the world can give us, there is the peace that Jesus gives, that the world cannot take away from us.
We are also here to say that God has forgiven [name] for taking her life, and we forgive her. [name] has forgiven her, and we confess that it wasn’t on the strength of her struggling faith but on the strength of Jesus, that she is saved, and is now resting from her sorrows, and joined in the peace of God’s eternal presence. God made [name] His precious child in the waters of baptism, where He called her, and He placed His holy name upon her, and adopted her as His precious daughter. God has not left [name], even through all this horrible ordeal that she went through, and you, the survivors are still going through. God’s promises to [name] stand true, regardless of whatever weaknesses she had. God did not abandon her.
One of the Scripture verses we often talked about, was Isaiah 42:3. It describes God’s chosen servant Jesus. He would not break a bruised reed, or put out a dimly burning wick, but will faithfully bring forth justice. What is a bruised reed, or a dimly burning wick? It’s a person whose faith is in a crisis, like [name], who is hanging by a thread, or a candle flickering and ready to go out—the embers of flame are darkening, and the light is almost extinguished. But how does God treat such a person? Does Jesus snuff out the weak in faith? Does He break the bruised reed? NO! This wonderful verse tells us that Jesus is near to the broken, the suffering, the discouraged and defeated. When Jesus came on earth, His life was marked by compassion, and a special attention to those who were hurting. He was near to [name].
And so it is with our faith, when we are weak, He is strong. And thanks be to God that it’s not the strength of our faith, that saves us, but the strength of our Savior, and the goodness of His promises and faithfulness. Another verse we often discussed over the past year, was from Romans 6:11, “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” I often ask people at church, and several times asked [name] and [name], “Why does it say: ‘You must consider yourselves…?’” It’s because we have a problem thinking this way. Our experience, our observation, often leads us to think otherwise. We feel as though sin is winning the battle in us. We fear that somehow we are not worthy enough, or deserving of God’s grace, and that we somehow should be able to do something more, that would qualify us, or make us at least feel that we could accept that grace from God.
But the truth is, that none of us are deserving or worthy enough! That’s the miracle of God’s grace! It’s not about what you’ve done or earned. [name] knew this in her heart, I heard her admit it. Many of you, no doubt also were touched by her strength of faith and witness to the Lord, in her better days. She knew the grace of God. But how often sin battles against us, and we begin to doubt whether we are really dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. But Paul knew we have a problem thinking this way. We know that life assaults us with all kinds of hardships, and the devil will do anything to sow doubt and fear in our minds. For this reason Paul writes “You must consider yourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus!” Why must we think this way? Because it’s true! Because, as the early verses read, we have been buried with Christ Jesus by our baptism, into His death, and we are raised to new life in Him, in the same way! God has objectively done this for us. Our feelings become the enemy of the truth, when they tell us otherwise than God’s Word and Promises. Faith calls us to believe His promise, and not believe our deceptive feelings. This is why we have to tell ourselves again and again, the Truth of God’s Word, and reaffirm those promises.
[name] is a beloved child of God, a daughter of her heavenly Father, a baptized child of God, and an heir of Jesus’ promises. The grief she carried in these last weeks and months of her life, is a grief that we were unable to lift—but it was not too great for God to lift. And He has now lifted that grief from her. Jesus promised whoever believes in Him, even though they die, yet they shall live eternally with Him. [name] has His promise of the resurrection of her body on the Last Day. A body free from cancer, from sin, from illness, sorrow, or any other grief.
As the family and I talked about this loss and grief, I also want to share with you this closing thought. Here is my question: “What is a scar?” A scar, simply, is a healed wound. We are all experiencing an open wound right now—we didn’t get to say goodbye to [name]; we wish we could have said or done more, or that we had known; we ache for her pain and fear that drove her to this, and wish that somehow we could still express our love for her. These wounds are fresh. But there will be healing for these wounds.
Do you know what Jesus did, when He died on the cross, and rose again from the dead after three days? He went and visited His disciples. Their wounds were still fresh, the grief of seeing their beloved Lord die that awful death on the cross. Jesus is no stranger to sorrow. But when He appeared to His disciples, He showed them His scars—nail marks in His hands and feet. The spear wound in His side. Healed wounds, that were proof of life and proof of identity. One writer has called Christ the Wounded Healer, echoing the words of Scripture, that “by His wounds we are healed.” What are we healed from? Most importantly, we are healed from our sins—all the great and small wrongs, rebellions, hurtful words or actions that we have done—all the dark and troubling thoughts we have ever nurtured and allowed to grow within us, all our doubts, weaknesses, fears—Christ heals them all. He destroyed the curse of sin and death by His own death, so that He could bring upon us His true healing—that we would be dead to sin, and alive to God in Him. By His wounds, we are healed.
And as Christ is the Wounded healer, so also He has made us to become little “christs”—Christians, who are also wounded healers. If we have open wounds, come to Christ, receive His healing, open to His Word and prayer, speak to a trusted Christian friend, and find the healing that is in the wounds of Christ. And we also each have scars, healed wounds—physical, spiritual, emotional or mental. And with our scars, we can also help others heal as we relate to them with compassion from our own healed wounds, and point them to the scars of Christ, our Great Wounded Healer. For we confess that [name] is alive with Him. We are alive with Him also! Dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus! Amen!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Sermon on John 8:31-36, for Reformation Day, "What is True Freedom?"


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. “Freedom” is, at least in principle, highly prized by Americans. Judging from the attitudes and answers of the Jews who listened to Jesus’ teaching in John 8, 2,000 years ago, they also highly prized freedom. The question is, do we truly understand the nature of freedom Jesus teaches, any better than they did? Freedom and slavery are opposites. To understand one, you need to understand the other.
Jesus is talking to new believers in the crowd, when He says “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The word “abide” or remain, talks about continuing in something, or living together with someone. When Jesus calls His true disciples to “abide in my word”, He’s saying His Word is their continuing life. Jesus calls this vital relationship being living branches connected to the Vine. Outside the vine, disconnected from Christ and His Word, we wither and die. But in the Vine comes life, flourishing, and fruit-bearing. Here, Jesus says life in His Word means His disciples will “know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
It’s this truth and freedom that we want to understand today, on this 501st anniversary of the Reformation. The Truth, is at once as expansive as all that God’s Word, the Bible, teaches us, and at the same time as simple and focused as the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the Truth. All truth is centered in Him; so His teaching is of greatest importance for us. If we remain in His Word, we will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Free from what? And once free, how do we keep that freedom? How do we live in it? These questions, and the answers in Jesus’ Word, lead us on an interesting discovery. When the Jews heard Him say the “truth will set you free”—they got defensive. A little indignant. “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Notice that they are assuming that they are already free. They are blind to their captivity. Somehow they have misidentified their freedom, and failed to recognize their captivity.
I wonder how people today might respond, if we surveyed them, asking if they were truly free, or whether they were enslaved by anything. How do you think Americans would answer? We are supposedly a freedom loving people, aren’t we? Are we slaves to anything? Or to switch the language to a more contemporary way of talking, are we victims of anything? Are there any forces which hold us powerless? I think when we start to ask the question that way, a lot more people might start giving “yes” answers. It seems like there is a widespread sense in the air today, of victimhood and for some people, a sense that there are certain “powers” that need to be defeated, whatever they may be, in order for us to be free. As we come close to the next elections, it also seems to me that too many people place too great a faith in the government and the leaders of one party or another, to secure us “freedom” from whatever we think is controlling or curbing our freedom. My point, is that whether or not our answer differs from the Jews in Jesus’ day—whether we are free or not—we fall into the same trap. That revolution, or a new leader(s), or this or that policy or whatever, is going to give us the elusive freedom we want.
But what kind of freedom? Political freedom? Freedom for self-determination? Freedom from moral constraints? Tax freedom? Are any of those what Jesus is talking about? The answer is no. Jesus’ Word wasn’t about political freedom, even though they wanted independence from the Romans. He did not proclaim freedom from taxation, when He taught “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God, what is God’s.” He wasn’t teaching a freedom from moral restraints, which appeals to people today, as He reaffirmed the 10 Commandments. Nor did Jesus describe self-determination as true freedom, as He displayed obedience and submission to the will of His Father, saying: “Not my will, but yours be done”, and teaching us to pray in the same way: “Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” So what kind of freedom was Jesus about, and how does it exist?
“Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’” Sin is our slavery, sin is our captivity. Our external circumstances of political, moral, economic, or whatever other freedoms you can describe, do not define our real freedom of captivity. It’s sin that enslaves us. Sin binds us with chains and makes us powerless. But sin is not just another exercise in victimhood. Yes, sin produces victims. Yes, some of us are victims of horrible sins against us. But being a sinner is not a victimhood status. We are as often the “oppressors” as the victims. Really, I don’t even think that language is suitable to describe the Biblical truth. In reality, we are all rebels and wanderers from God’s good commands. We expect to find freedom in self-determination, but are rudely confronted by the reality that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. That is, “anything + sin = captivity.
When Adam and Eve believed the lie that their first sin would make them like God, knowing good and evil, they were rudely awakened by the truth that it only made them depraved and ashamed instead. It didn’t even take a single generation for sin to spiral down into hatred and murder. From that time on, humans have routinely sought after what is not good for us. God always intended and still intends that we would seek and do only the good. Every time we convince ourselves that a little lie or dishonesty won’t hurt, or little fooling around won’t hurt, or no one will notice if we cheat or help ourselves to something that’s not ours, we buy into the lie that sin has no consequences. And so we surrender our freedom, when we commit sin.
Since we are so often confused by competing definitions of freedom, and think that freedom must mean getting to do whatever we want—we fail to see that sinning surrenders our freedom, rather than being proof of freedom. Perhaps the best way to understand this is to think of a prisoner who has been released on parole, and decides to use his newfound freedom to commit a bank robbery, and ends back up in the lock-up, or becomes a wanted man again. When we see the line of freedom as the line between good and evil, we are better able to understand that freedom consists in sticking with the good. But we must also perceive that the line between good and evil runs straight through each of us. We are powerless to achieve freedom ourselves. Only Jesus can free us from that slavery to sin.
But to correct a flaw in my analogy, salvation in Christ Jesus is not “parole” either. Our freedom in Christ Jesus is not a fragile thing that is daily being revoked and reinstituted. We’re not in one minute and out the next. But Christ has fully paid the price for our sins and liberated us. Baptism is not just washing away our former record, but the beginning of God’s work in you, that He intends to see through to completion. He warns us that there is a path back to captivity, but He sets our feet on the pathway of life and freedom. He secures and keeps us on the path of freedom, by putting His Holy Spirit into us to turn our hearts to repentance and faith. His Spirit, living in us, opens our eyes to His Truth, seeing the wrong of our sin, and the goodness of His undeserved grace and love. So instead of parolees, we are freedmen and freedwomen, heirs of an incredible inheritance of freedom, forgiveness and life in Christ Jesus. And rather than the Holy Spirit being a parole officer to bring judgment upon us, He is our constant companion and strengthens and equips us for daily new life.
To understand how completely we depend on Jesus for our freedom, listen to the last verses of the reading: “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” This verse relates to another passage in Galatians, where Paul explains that slaves received no inheritance; only sons did. So also Jesus, God’s Son, belong to God’s house forever. He has control over the inheritance. He opens the door that no one can shut, and shuts what no one can open. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. Only He can liberate us from the captivity of sin. He broke the “age bound chains of hell”, one Easter hymn sings. In this struggle between good and evil, Jesus delivers us from evil chains, to the freedom of the good.
But now that we are freed in Christ Jesus from slavery to sin, how do we live in that freedom? Curiously, in Romans 6, when Paul writes about this, he says that we were once slaves to sin, which leads to death—but now, thanks be to God, having been set free from sin we are now slaves to righteousness! (6:18). On the surface, this sounds like changing one form of slavery for another? Why is this how Paul talks about our freedom? He goes on to explain that he’s speaking in human terms, so we can understand. Sinning leads to more sinning—a downward spiral to lawlessness. But serving God leads to an upward spiral—righteousness leading to sanctification or holiness.
He goes on to explain that when we were slaves to sin, we were free with regard to righteousness—but what did we get out of it but shame and the fruit that leads to death? Sin always leads to that dead end. But being slaves to God produces a different fruit—sanctification, and its end, eternal life. Slavery is surprisingly hard to leave behind. Anything that controls our life, our routines, and behaviors, becomes second nature, part of the air we breathe. But we want to live in the pathways of freedom and life. Freedom is easily surrendered or lost—any of the lesser forms of freedom we discussed above. But most importantly that we do not submit again to sin and become slaves to sin. As freedmen and freedwomen in Christ, He leads us into the way of goodness and life—and yes, to our old sinful flesh, being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ might feel like a new kind of slavery. But to the new spiritual nature that we are in Christ Jesus, it is joy and light and life. There is a broadness and goodness and joy waiting to be discovered in Christ’s freedom. We experience the freedom and joy of following in His goodness and life, and surrendering the old baggage, guilt, shame, chains and lies of sin and death to Him to be destroyed forever. And the joy of serving others, seeing acts of generosity and kindness impact the lives of others, the joy of thankfulness and contentment—these are all tastes of the joy of that freedom. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
Whenever we feel captivity creeping back upon us—whenever we begin to falsely define our freedom or make false idols and seek freedom from them, may we always call upon the Name of the Lord Jesus, and receive His freedom. Recall your baptism. There God placed His Name upon you and made you His child. He is ever calling us to freedom, and granting it to us by the forgiveness of our sins. Christ gives His freedom and life, not to restrict us or coerce us, but that we might taste the real and everlasting joys of freed life in Him, and never again submit to a yoke of slavery and deception. Finding our freedom always in Him alone, Amen!



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  1. Read John 8:31-36. In v. 31, Jesus addresses those who already had begun believing in Him. What does He say is the result of continuing in His Word and discipleship? Vs. 31. What then would be the result of not remaining in His Word?
  2. V. 33 is a puzzling or astonishing answer, in light of the history of the Jews enslavement by Pharoah, in Babylon, and their present rule by the Romans. Why was their assumption of freedom wrong on a much deeper level than their political freedom? V. 34
  3. How would we answer Jesus, concerning our own freedom vs. captivity today? Do people think that they are enslaved to anything? To use slightly different language, do they think they are held victims to anything, or held powerless by any forces in our world today? If so, what solutions do we look to for such forms of “captivity” or powerlessness? If not, how is our definition or understanding of freedom often too small or narrow?
  4. Reflect on the modern American notion of what freedom is. Can you recognize any distortion or perhaps contrast from what the Biblical notion of freedom is? Why is that? How does Jesus talk about freedom? V. 32, 36. What about Romans 6:15-23? What is surprising about the description of freedom here? How is Christian freedom kept and lived out, and not lost? Galatians 5:1, 13; 1 Peter 2:16; Jude 4.
  5. John 8:35-36 lay a foundational truth down—that we do not possess the power of liberating ourselves. How is this truth liberating in itself, and an ultimate testimony to the grace of Jesus Christ?

Monday, October 22, 2018

Sermon on Ephesians 6:10-17, for the 21st Sunday after Trinity (1 Yr Lectionary), "Your Spiritual Battle"



In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Every day we are engaged in a spiritual battle. We may or may not be conscious of it. But Bible passages like Ephesians are meant to wake Christians up, to be alert and engaged in the spiritual battle. You can guess how well the spiritual battle will go for us if we are sleepwalking, unarmed and unprepared, vs. being watchful and alert, armed and ready. To this end, Ephesians 6 tells us what the lay of the battlefield is, who our true enemies are, and what armor God equips us with.
Last week at my drill with the National Guard, I talked in my sermon about how soldiers are issued a uniform, and expected to report for duty or ceremonies dressed in their uniform. Just like the wedding guest in last week’s parable did not wear the garment that would have been issued by the host. I also made a stop by the supply room, where they took my sizes to issue me a helmet, vest, and other gear. I neither make my own uniform and gear, nor do I supply it. So it is with God’s spiritual armor. It’s not earthly clothing, it’s not a sweater you can pull out of your drawer, or a physical shield that you can strap on your arm. It’s spiritual gear, spiritual armor that God has fashioned and supplied to us. Keep that truth in the front of your mind, that this is the armor of God, and that He is the One who equips us for this battle. This keeps us from trying to take credit for ourselves, or to try to “go rogue” or be a lone ranger. Always remember it’s God’s battle we are fighting. We have been enlisted into this battle, but God arms, equips, and fights for us and guarantees the victory. Christ is our Commander. Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. When God calls us to stand, we can be confident that we are able to do so. The devil is powerful and threatening and dangerous. But not more powerful than God. So when God calls us to stand we don’t cower in fear or give ground to the roaring of the devil. We stand against his schemes. Standing can be a passive thing, like leaning against a wall—or it can be a positive, active thing—like standing up for something, or standing against an enemy. We stand proactively against the schemes of the devil. We know he is a deceiver, a liar, and up to no good. He has Christians marked and targeted in his sights, to work mischief, harm, and mayhem. He will use any tactic to sow doubt and distrust of God in our hearts, and to “divide and conquer” by turning us against each other. It takes a united stance of attack and resistance to guard against his schemes. We expose his schemes to the light of the truth, and we defeat them in Christ’s name, and by loving one another as Christ has loved us.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Here we get to properly identify our enemies. Sometimes we make enemies of our fellow humans: enemies of “flesh and blood.” But God is telling us not to wrestle against our fellow man (instead, rescue them from the powers of darkness by bringing them to the Truth of Jesus!). Our real battle is against all rule and authority that stands opposed to God and His Truth. Human actors may come into play, the spiritual truth is that they are enslaved or deceived by Satan’s lies and deception. The devil can infiltrate into all forms of authority—in the family, in the business world, in the government, and yes even in the church!! Wherever evil is done, under any name, it all traces back to its origin with the devil and the spiritual forces of darkness. When Jesus proclaimed that whoever sins is a slave to sin, but that if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed—He shows that humans ensnared in sin can be and are rescued by Him. Jesus leads His people out of slavery and darkness and lies, into freedom, light, and truth.
This is no small reason for why Jesus emphatically rejected using violence in this battle—because it’s not a battle against flesh and blood. Jesus told Peter to put down his sword, and that all who live by the sword will die by the sword. The disciples once asked to call down fire from heaven against a village that refused the message of the Gospel, and Jesus rebuked them. He told them to shake the dust off your feet and move on, if someone didn’t want to hear the Gospel. Jesus Himself submitted to hatred, abuse and death on the cross, rather than responding with violence against the evil poured against Him. But He powerfully spoke the truth, declaring to Pontius Pilate and the chief priests their guilt and their error, but submitting to their injustice, that the power of injustice would be broken by the purity of His innocent life.
Jesus’ rejection of violence or coercion for Himself and His followers doesn’t make Christians into pacifists, or to say that there is never a situation where we can defend ourselves—but He’s specifically talking about the Church and the movement of the Gospel. The Gospel wages a non-violent, spiritual war, by God’s Word and Truth. Jesus and the apostles elsewhere approve of the proper use of legitimate authority by the government or soldiers to use the physical sword against evil, and to protect citizens, etc. We also have a duty by the 5th commandment to protect the physical body and life of our neighbors, which may include standing up for them against violence or hate or harm. Police and other authorities may have to use force to protect people from harm. But in all this, the Church has a differently defined role—believers carry God’s Word and prayer to fight against the spiritual forces of evil.
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. God equips us with a complete set of spiritual battle gear—and like a living suit of armor—better than Iron Man wears in the movies—God’s armor actually makes us ready to stand against evil. Without the whole armor, we have gaps in our armor, chinks through which the devil will press his crafty attack. We withstand in the evil day. When is that? Any day or opportunity where the devil is at work. Any day that ends in ‘y’. When the devil failed in tempting Jesus, it says he sought an opportune time to tempt Him. Likewise, the devil is always looking for opportunities. There’s no shortage of “evil days” in our present struggle. Be watchful and equipped in the whole armor of God every day.
Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. Without the truth, we cannot oppose the lie. Without Christ’s righteousness covering us, we are nothing but guilty sinners, subject to the devil’s accusations. But the truth is a powerful antidote to the lie. With Christ’s righteousness, we can confidently stand against the devil’s accusations, saying, “I have died to sin, and now live to righteousness! The cross of Jesus paid for all my sins!” Ready with the gospel of peace, we run to proclaim the message of freedom, peace, and liberty to the captives.
In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. The devil shoots flaming arrows at us in this spiritual war. In ancient combat soldiers would dip arrows in pitch, and set them on fire. Roman soldiers would soak their large, wooden and leather shields in water before battle. We are drenched in the waters of baptism, and hold up the shield of faith to keep the devil’s fiery darts from striking home. Faith is trust in God, a total dependency on Him. The devil tries to push us off that foundation, fires arrows searching for their mark in some weakness in us. But we keep the shield of faith up when we rely completely on God, look to Him for our strength, and call on Him whenever our faith is weak or struggling. The helmet of salvation reminds us that God’s crowning gift to us is our total rescue from the power of sin, death, and the devil. Be faithful, even unto death, and I will give you the crown of life, God says in Revelation 2:10.
That last piece of battle gear, the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God is the offensive weapon. In a similar passage in 2 Corinthians 10, Paul talks about the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. Again, it’s not physical weapons or even coercion or force that give the kingdom of Christ victory, but the powerful Word of God, by the Holy Spirit, using Truth to demolish strongholds and false arguments and presumption against God. God has given us our intelligence and His Word, to see through and defeat any lies. Our spiritual enemies may boast and level arguments against God and His Word—but His Word gives us the answers and the power to defeat them.
This is God’s armor, His battle gear issued to you, to protect you against the attacks of the devil. You know the battlefield and the lines are drawn, between good and evil. You know better that fellow humans, even if they are deeply misled and employed by the spiritual forces of darkness, are not our real enemies. Rather the devil and all his cosmic powers over this present darkness, are waging a concerted, persistent war against believers, and he will stoop to any level, employ any tactic to sow doubt, distrust, or to divide and conquer. But he is also going down in defeat. Satan’s fate is sealed, his destiny is written, and Christ has judged him and cast him out. Jesus triumphed over the spiritual forces of darkness by His cross and empty tomb. That doesn’t mean the danger is over—the war is won, but the battle is still on. At least until this old sinful nature dies and returns to the grave. But even in death, we have Christ’s victory, secured when He rose from the dead. So be watchful, alert, and joyful! For Christ is our victory, and armed with His armor, we can stand against evil and win! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.  

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:   http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen: search your podcast app for “The Joshua Victor Theory” or
listen online at http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

  1. Read Ephesians 6:10-17. This passage describes our life as a spiritual battle. Where is the battle line drawn, and who are our enemies? Who are not our enemies? What are the weapons of our warfare? 2 Corinthians 10:3-6.
  2. What are the schemes of the devil? What does he aim to do? How are we equipped to stand against him? 4:14; 2 Corinthians 2:11; 1 Peter 5:8-9.
  3. As “ground for the assault”, the devil not only makes use of our own sinful flesh, but also the sinful flesh of every other human. Why should this keep us humble and compassionate, but also determined to face the right enemy, and not engage in “friendly fire?”
  4. How do we bear the righteousness of Jesus Christ? Galatians 3:27. How do we run with shoes that are “the gospel of peace?” How are we to be “peace makers?” Matthew 5:9
  5. What sort of “flaming darts” does the evil one (the devil) constantly fire at us? How are they extinguished? Where does all our guilt and condemnation lay? Colossians 2:14. What is our “offensive weapon” against the devil and evil? Ephesians 6:17. Since this is a “non-physical” weapon, or not an earthly weapon, what kind(s) of attacks are ruled out for believers? Luke 22:49-51; Matthew 26:52; Ephesians 4:15; Matthew 5:22; Romans 12:17-21.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Sermon on Ephesians 4:22-28, for the 19th Sunday after Trinity (1 YR lectionary), "Put on the New Self"


Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. A year ago we marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when Martin Luther brought the light of Scripture back to the church. One of the discoveries that jolted Luther as he studied the New Testament was that every Christian struggles with an ongoing battle—between the saint and sinner in us. Or as Paul puts in in Romans 7, the battle between the spirit and the flesh, or the new self and the old self. So long as we are alive we have this constant struggle against our old sinful nature, tugging and pulling us toward all manner of sin, selfishness, greed, and impurity. And the new nature that seeks after holiness, righteousness, and God’s Truth. That struggle only ends in the grave, and after the resurrection of our body, to the sinless eternal life in Christ. But the new self is already implanted and germinated in us in Christ Jesus. So day by day we faithfully struggle against that stubborn old self, drowning it in the waters of baptism, and crucifying our sinful desires and passions by repentance in Christ Jesus.
We pick up that struggle every day we’re confronted by our cantankerous anger, our relentless selfishness, our simmering jealousy, or agitated impatience. Every time our sinful nature rears its ugly head, we’re reminded that our flesh is still our enemy. But as it says in our bulletin quote—that is our old self. It is no longer who we are in Christ Jesus. Your old self is like an uninvited guest who won’t leave. Ignore it and treat it as your enemy. It’s desires are not in line with the Spirit, or God’s will. If we’re spiritually sleepy and unaware, the sinful nature is glad to “take over the controls” and steer us back into hurtful thoughts, words, and actions.
So Ephesians 4 reminds us of this danger, this ever present “old self” that is no longer who we are, but is always working against the new self, our life in the Spirit. Verse 22 says “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.”  Put off, as in, take off the old, dirty clothing. Shun it, cast it away, keep it off you. It’s part of our “former manner of life.” Whether in youth or adulthood, we have all lived in sinful ways, done things we know are not of Christ, or still have the temptations of the flesh pulling at us. And this old self is “corrupt”—rotten, decaying. Not belonging to life and health, but to disease and death. We all find rotten or spoiled fruit “gross” and won’t eat it. But the old self produces rotten or bad fruit. The old self does things that don’t lead to health or wholeness or soundness, but lead to death and decay. We need the pure healthy teaching of God’s Word, and the nourishment of His holy Sacraments—washed in baptism, our renewal, and fed with His body and blood for our forgiveness. We reject what is corrupt and decaying, and cling to what is wholesome and good.
v. 23, “be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and…put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” In a certain book, a young woman is caught in a world of corruption and evil, and longs to leave it, but feels too strongly chained to it. She despairs it is “too late” and she is too far gone to return to an honorable life. Another woman compassionately urges her that it is never too late! How can she persuade her to come to freedom? Many face this same challenge. Sin deceives us, that there is no longer a path to true righteousness and holiness. But the death of Jesus proves otherwise. The death of Jesus on the cross for our sins proves that freedom and forgiveness lies open, and that it is not too late. We are “renewed in the spirit of [our] minds”. Jesus strips away the old self, and drowning it in the waters of baptism, and a new, clean person rises to walk in new life with God. The old self is persistent to come back and attack us, Luther said the old self is a “good swimmer”—but we must never forget that we are dead to that old sinful nature, and alive in Christ Jesus. We know this by faith, not by experience. Our experience seems to lead us to despair, but our faith confirms that what Jesus has done is true, real, and effective in us. We are a work in progress, to be completed at God’s designated time in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).
And we are being “created in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” God is the One who is creating this likeness in us. He is molding us and fashioning us back into His own image and likeness, which we lost through the Fall into Sin. Colossians 3:10 reaffirms: “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” God is washing away our old self and its sin, and shaping in us His own image and likeness. If this were our own project, it would be a failure. But it’s not a “do-it-yourself” project. From start to finish, God is the “professional contractor” on the job—He is our Creator and Renewer.
Look at verse 25-28. These verses show us short, concrete examples of this struggle between the old self and the new self, related to the 8th, 5th, and 7th commandments, respectively. V. 25: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” Luther always taught about the positive and negative side of each commandment. Sins we are to avoid—the “You shall not”—but also the good that we are to do—the positive ‘do this’ instead. So verse 25: the 8th commandment. Put away falsehood or lies, and then positively, speak truth to your neighbor. The old self schemes by lies, deceit, and manipulation. But the new self is committed to honesty and truth. Not only are we to “speak the truth”, but to “speak the truth in love” (4:15). Why? “For we are members one of another.” That responsibility to speak the truth extends not just to fellow believers, but to all neighbors, because we are “members of one another.” We are interdependent on each other, and truth and honesty sustains and strengthens these bonds. Lies, slander, and falsehood sows distrust and weakens those bonds.
v. 26 addresses the 5th commandment. Jesus taught “You shall not murder”, goes beyond just the violence and harm that we inflict on others, but goes right to the seed of anger that starts it. V. 26 says “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” Anger is like a burning ember. Give it oxygen, and it will flame into a destructive fire. It’ll burst into sin in a flash, and hurtful words leap from our mouth, that can never be recalled, or hurtful actions proceed from our hands, and wound others. Do not let the sun go down on your anger is a daily reminder not to let grudges, bitterness, unforgiveness, or other feelings of anger to follow us to bed. Be quick to reconcile, forgive, seek out the person with whom we’ve had angry feelings or an argument, and seek their forgiveness, before the day’s end. Help and serve our neighbor instead. Bitterness stored up in our heart is a corrupting thing, as we mentioned before. It leads to poor health in body and soul. Uproot the root of bitterness, like the weed that it is, and sow forgiveness and peace, as far as it depends on you.
Give no opportunity” or “place”  to the devil. Don’t give him room, or a foothold to operate. The old spiritual “shut de do’ keep out de devil, shut de do’ keep the devil in the night” is right—shut him out of all our activities. Give him no space to work mischief, deceit and harm. Basketball players learn to use their body and position themselves to “box out” the opposing team. Keep the devil “boxed out” of your life; don’t give him easy shots, or let down your defense. Team defense is better than one on one. Starve our anger of oxygen; remove fuel from the fire, and starve him of opportunity by keeping away from easy temptations. Don’t give  him ground to sow trouble and renew the habits and corrupt desires of our old self. Too often we flirt with temptation by putting ourselves in potentially compromising situations. The new self learns to avoid these, and “box out” the devil.
Finally verse 28 turns to the 7th commandment: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Again, the old life is ended—turn away from dishonesty and stealing, and turn positively to honest labor. This verse is one of many that praises the goodness and dignity of honest work. A few weeks ago we talked about honor and dishonor. Honest labor, with a good return for our work, leads to honor. Work gives people dignity, because they can hold their head up high for providing for themselves. But at the same time we are providing for ourselves, God supplies an additional motive to do good work—to “have something to share with anyone in need.” All through history there have been those who are in need, either by inability to work, illness, age, injury, or misfortune. God calls on us to use our income to grow in the spiritual gift of generosity. The seventh commandment is a warning against stealing—but much more than that, God wants us to turn positively toward the virtue of generous giving. Seeing and identifying the needy, and finding ways to help them. This also spreads goodwill and harmony among people, just as speaking the truth with our neighbor, and seeking to be reconciled with those whom we have wronged, or who have wronged us.
In all of this, we must see and recognize it’s Christ’s work in us, to put the old self to death, and raise up the new self in true righteousness and holiness. It’s God’s new creation in us, and He sees it through to completion. We are involved in the process, as the object of God’s workmanship, but God is the real driving force behind our change and our renewal. Luther talked about how we are under a shared yoke with Christ, but He pulls the real weight. It’s like a child pulling a full and heavy wagon load with their father. Their hand is on the handle together with the father, but he is doing the real work. He lifts what we could never lift, He breaks chains of which we could never be free, and He lives in us with a generosity, goodness, and love for truth that overflows through us. So it is with our sanctification in Christ. Of course we “participate” and are “along for the ride”—but it’s under God’s power alone that we can begin to transform from the old self that held us captive to sinful desires, toward the new self that walks in righteousness and purity forever. With joy, we put on this new self, daily in Christ Jesus, always watchful for the plans and schemes of the devil, but giving him no opportunity to work. With joy, we embrace the new identity that God has made for us in Christ Jesus, knowing that it leads us to everlasting joy and peace in Him. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:   http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen: search your podcast app for “The Joshua Victor Theory” or
listen online at http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com
  1. The New Testament uses the language of the “flesh” (Romans 7:5-6, 14, 18; 8:4-9;); the “old self” (Ephesians 4:22; Romans 6:6; Colossians 3:8-9); and the “former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14) and “futile ways” (1 Peter 1:18) to describe our old sinful nature and its ways. How is it described?
  2. By contrast, this is compared to our “new self” in the Spirit. How is this life described? Romans 7:6, 22, 25; 8:1-11; Ephesians 4:23-24; Colossians 3:10.
  3. What is deceitful about our old self and its desires? Ephesians 4:22; Hebrews 3:13; Romans 7:11. What lies does our sinful nature tell us? How is the sinful nature like an “uninvited guest who won’t leave?” How should we treat our deceitful sinful nature? Romans 6:6; Galatians 5:24.
  4. Ephesians 4:24 tells us that our new self is “created after the likeness of God”. How does Colossians 3:10 reaffirm this? What does it mean for us to be renewed and created in God’s image and likeness anew? Who is the incarnation of this image we are being shaped into? Romans 8:29
  5. Ephesians 4:25-28 speaks to at least 3 commandments. The 5th (anger), the 7th (stealing and greed), and the 8th (lying). Martin Luther taught that each command has a negative aspect (“thou shalt not”) and a positive good that we are to do. What is the sin to avoid, and the good to do, for each of these three commands, according to these verses?
  6. How does our interdependence in society rely on truthfulness and honesty? Ephesians 4:25. Why should we never leave grudges or bitterness unresolved before sleep? Ephesians 4:26.
  7. How do we keep the devil “boxed out” of our life as much as possible? Ephesians 4:27. Why is the new self the work of Christ, and not our own? John 15:4-5; Philippians 1:6.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Sermon on Deuteronomy 10:12-21, for the 18th Sunday after Trinity (1 Yr Lectionary), "Generation to Generation"


Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Today’s message is from Deuteronomy 10. You might be forgiven for wondering what Deuteronomy has to do with our lives today. It is Moses’s sermons to the Israelites, around 1406 BC. That’s over 3,400 years ago, if you’re keeping track. Moses was teaching the Israelites a final time before they entered the promised land, after 40 years of wandering in the desert, because of their unfaithfulness. A new generation of Israelites, were trying to learn from the mistakes of their parent’s generation, and recommit themselves to faithfulness to God. So how does that tie in with us?
First a few more facts about Deuteronomy’s importance. In all the Old Testament, it talks the most about passing on the faith to the next generation. A duty for every generation. Also, it strongly promotes the truth that God had specially chosen Israel, of all other nations—as God’s elect people. They weren’t elite, powerful, greater or more righteous than other nations—rather they were small, weak, and stubborn. But by God’s great love for them and promises, He chose them. Other nations would witness His mighty deeds and believe in Him. Also, Deuteronomy is the 4th most commonly quoted or referred to book in the New Testament. Jesus often turned to Deuteronomy. So now that we’ve established its importance, and how it underlies so much of the Bible’s theology of grace and election—let’s zoom in on our passage from chapter 10.
On the verge of entering the promised land, Moses asks the people: 12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?” That word “require” jumps out at me. What does God require of you? Hopefully it’s not a word that makes us try to weasel out of doing something, or find out what the minimum requirement of effort or work is. A lazy person might look at “requirements” as the limit of what they’ll attempt to do, rather than a duty. That’s what our sinful nature thinks of it.
But God is NOT saying here, obey these required laws and you have salvation. Salvation, Old or New Testament, is by God’s grace alone. But God still expects us to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Jesus called this God’s greatest command. God calls, not for a minimal effort, but the fullest extent of our heart, soul, mind and strength to be given to God.
And notice God gives these commands for our good. When we react to God’s law saying we don’t care, or with laziness, resentment, or fear, we are missing the good that He wants for us. Our life is improved and blessed when we’re in line with the moral law God has written into nature. Breaking God’s commands is not just a moral error, but it hurts our own interest, and worse, it creates a separation between us and God. God’s actually looking out for our best interest, when He urges obedience, just like a parent with their child. Disobedience isn’t a small thing—in ourselves or others—and can lead to pain and consequences for bad decisions. Our new nature grasps the goodness of God’s law for us, and sees that this is a good and instructive pattern to follow. The new nature looks for opportunities to serve God, rather than ways to weasel out of God’s plan for us.
It continues: 14 Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. The First and Greatest Command, to love God above all else, is rooted in God’s rule over all existence. But the Great and Enormous God of the universe doesn’t miss or overlook His people Israel—they are the object of His special affection and love. He set His heart on them and chose them above all peoples. Shun the stubbornness of your own hearts, He says. Cut away the stubbornness. All throughout Deuteronomy He reminds them of His great love and faithfulness to them, and that His choosing was “not because they were elite, or powerful, or greater or more righteous than other nations—to the contrary they were small, weak, and stubborn..”
God’s talks about hardened hearts needing to be “circumcised”, and is echoed by the martyr Stephen, in the New Testament, talking about hearts and ears needing to be “circumcised.” Both Old and New Testament call for our renewal—inside and out. Circumcision marked this in the OT—Baptism in the NT. Baptism is our washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, drowning our old stubbornness and sinfulness, and putting on Christ Jesus. Only in Christ, and by the renewal of the Holy Spirit, do we begin to fulfill that command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The Spirit gives us a new heart, a new nature that wants to live and walk in God’s ways.
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. Notice how God’s good commands are rooted in His character. Who He is: the One True God—great, mighty, awesome, and just—informs His commands. God’s people are to live consistent with His justice and impartiality. If we are in a position of authority, we must not take bribes or show favoritism. Sculptures and art that show “Lady Justice” as blindfolded, and holding the scales, are supposed to convey this truth, that justice doesn’t see who the person is, but weighs only the merits of the case and the fair application of the law. And this requires a just law to apply in the first place. When we stand before the God of Justice, there is no “gaming the system”; no bribery or favoritism. God’s justice isn’t different based on who we are. God’s justice also guards those who are most likely to be neglected or short-changed by human systems of justice. The orphans, widows, and travelers living in the land. God sees to it that they are not abandoned or forsaken.
This is worth a side note: immigration is a politically charged “hot potato” issue today. How do the many passages in the Old Testament that talk about “sojourners” or travelers living in the land, relate to the question of immigration? Is it an identical concept? A related concept? How do passages such as this one from Deuteronomy inform Christian thought about such things? Not to define a “Christian immigration policy”, if there were such a thing—but God’s Word helps us identify the boundaries and the right questions to be asking. For example—on the one hand God establishes the “rule of law”, and we should not interfere with the just application of the law. God gives governments to protect the peace, the interests and well-being of their subjects. But on the other hand, by highlighting the orphans, widows, and “sojourners”—or foreigners living in another land—God shows that systems of justice don’t always ensure that the disadvantaged are protected. The marginalized in society need compassionate advocates to speak up for them. Today the immigrants may need our extra care and attention, as do many other disadvantaged groups in society—the unborn, the aged, the disabled, etc. God’s Word keeps us from going too far in one direction toward lawlessness, or in another towards strict application of the law without mercy, or failing to bring about the justice the law inherently requires.
As Christians we are citizens of two kingdoms—the earthly kingdom: citizens of the USA or another nation, and secondly, as believers: citizens in Christ’s heavenly kingdom. Christians are stirred by God’s Word to show charity, hospitality, and kindness to the disadvantaged. This is our calling as citizens of Christ’s kingdom—that is, the church! Some churches (and other charities) aid illegal immigrants in finding a legal path to citizenship, or by caring for their physical needs, or finding gainful employment or job training. Jesus taught distinctly that whenever we help the “least of these”, we are actually serving Christ. The ideas Christians and our elected leaders have to solve these issues may differ, but God’s Word marks out boundaries against lawlessness and chaos on one extreme, and injustice, harshness, or neglect on the other. And practicing God’s justice is part of our Christian walk.
This passage ends: 20 You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. 21 He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. These verses bookend the beginning—that we should worship, serve, and love God alone. And it says that “He is your praise.” An unusual phrase. God is the highest and most worthy object of our praise. Some time ago in a sermon about praise, I shared that C.S. Lewis said we desire to praise those things that are highest and most worthy in life, and that our praise completes our enjoyment of them. When we experience or witness something truly awesome, we don’t hesitate to praise and celebrate it. God is our praise, because He is the highest and most excellent Being of all. We too experience fullest enjoyment of God when our lips and mouths overflow with praise to Him. We praise Him by declaring His mighty deeds. We delight in obeying His good commands.
Jesus added to God’s mighty deeds for a new generation, 1,400 years after Deuteronomy was written. But He didn’t just add to God’s mighty deeds, He brought them to their amazing climax. His death on the cross and resurrection was the remedy for our stubborn hearts, hardened with the same sin affliction as the Israelites. The sin affliction that prevents our consistent and reliable obedience to always “fear the Lord our God, to walk in His ways, to love Him, to serve Him with  all our heart and all our soul, and to keep the commandments and the statutes of the Lord.” If we were able to consistently do this, it truly would be for our good. The closer we are to His design, the better for us. Our new spiritual nature wants to go in the direction of God’s commands, but the old sinful flesh continues to tug-of-war back to the ways of disobedience. Jesus crossed that yawning chasm between God and us, created by our disobedience. Our sin keeps tugging us in the wrong direction. Thanks be to God, that like the Israelites of old, God set His heart in love upon us, and that in Christ Jesus, He chooses us and our offspring today. Thanks be to God that He calls us by the waters of baptism to repentance, and gives a promise of forgiveness and new life to us, and to our children, and to every generation that is still far off (Acts 2:38-39). It’s a task that goes from generation to generation, from Deuteronomy till now, to pass on the faith that was given to us. Faith in the God who set His heart on us in love, and works mighty wonders for His Name. We pass it on from generation to generation, so that they too will join in our Savior’s praise. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.


Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What are the circumstances around which the book of Deuteronomy is written? (summarized in chs. 1-2). Deuteronomy emphasizes a) passing on the faith, from generation to generation, b) the words and teachings (torah) of God, c) God’s election of Israel as His chosen people by grace.
  2. Does the word “require” in Deuteronomy 10:12 mean that obedience to the law is (or was) the way of salvation? How do people often try to back away from “requirements?” How does Jesus reaffirm this as the greatest commandment in the NT? Matthew 22:35-38.
  3. What great incentive is there in understanding that God’s law is “for our good?” Deut. 10:13; 6:24; Romans 7:7-16.
  4. Deuteronomy use the language of circumcision to speak of a spiritual “cutting away” of the stubbornness of their hearts. How do the NT authors/speakers borrow this language? Acts 7:51; Colossians 3:11.
  5. How does Deuteronomy 10:17-19 speak to the application of the law and justice? How does Scripture set boundaries against lawlessness, and also against discrimination and injustice? Romans 13; Micah 6:8. What kind of tricks and games will not fly in the court of God’s justice?
  6. Who are the most vulnerable today, and how do they require our assistance? How are Christians simultaneously citizens of two kingdoms? Matthew 22:21. How can we assist those in need in our time and place?
  7. Why is praising God to be one of our highest joys? Why is He most worthy of all praise? How does Jesus’ life, ministry, and His great commission call us to continue the passing on of the faith to a new generation, just as years ago in Deuteronomy? See Acts 2:38-39.