Monday, June 23, 2008

Seeking God while He may be found, and where He has promised to be

I had a conversation with a stranger the other day that reminded me of something I had been thinking about for awhile. Part of our conversation was on how we seek God, or where we see Him revealed. The man I spoke with felt that he didn’t need to go to church to find God, but that by being out in nature, by the mountains or oceans, that God spoke to him there. This seems to be a common sentiment, and I reflected on whether or not this was true.

First I recalled passages like Psalm 19, that say: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” From this I agreed that the beauty and majesty of nature certainly reveals God’s glory and handiwork. What sort of knowledge can we gather from observing only nature and the created world (excluding the Bible)? Nature clearly teaches us that there must be a Creator, whose glory and handiwork is seen. From this we might assume that the Creator God is very powerful, but we can’t really figure out many specifics about what that God is like. While some parts of nature may convince us of the beauty of His design, unless we turned a blind eye to examples of death and disease in nature, we would also recognize that something bad was also present in nature. Death, suffering, and disease are recognizably bad things. But without specific knowledge of why this is so, or how these things came to exist side by side with beauty and good, we would still have a limited understanding about the Creator God revealed in nature. For this reason, theologians have often referred to this kind of knowledge as “general revelation.” The heavens and earth, or all of nature, reveal “general” things about God—that He is creator, there is much that is good and beautiful in creation—perhaps even that He prizes beauty, but also that evil has intruded into creation in some way, in the form of death, suffering, predation, etc.

But what “general revelation” can’t tell us, is Who this God is, What His attitude is towards us, Why evil is in the world, or How God has resolved these problems. For this we need a second kind of revelation, what theologians call “special (think ‘specific’) revelation.” The answers to these questions come expressly through God’s Word. So while nature may be an excellent place to witness God’s handiwork, it isn’t the place where God has promised we can find Him and hear His saving Word, or answer questions about Him. While we know that God is present everywhere (omnipresence: see Psalm 139, 1 Kings 8:27), that doesn’t mean that He’s promised to reveal Himself in His saving work everywhere. Climbing Mount Sinai today wouldn’t put us any closer to or further from God’s presence than anywhere else in the world, but neither would it give us access to God’s saving promises. Nor could we expect God to answer us there.

No, to know where we can find God, we must seek God where He has promised to be. Isaiah 55 urges us to “come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!” God invites us to seek Him and receive all His benefits—but we aren’t to do so in whatever way or wherever we please. Peter recognized this when he said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the Words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69). God has certainly promised to reveal Himself in His Word, in Baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper. Here we have certain access to God’s saving work, because here the Father has shown Himself through His Divine Son (John 14:9-11). So seek God while He may be found, and where He has promised to be.

Sermon on Matthew 10:32-39, 6th Sunday after Pentecost "Losing Life & Finding It"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the first part of the Gospel reading, Matthew 10:34-39. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Not the words we expect to hear from the Prince of Peace, or the one whom angels announced would bring “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” We all long for an end to warfare, and yet here the sharp words of Jesus call us to wonder: “What kind of peace does our Savior bring?” And what does He mean by bringing a sword? Is this talking about the warring between nations? We quickly find that the answer is no. The sword that Jesus brings is the division that cuts across even family lines. The division that separates even the closest relationships, because of the Gospel. The alienation that occurs between a man and his father, or a daughter and her mother, or a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law. For countless families throughout the ages have experienced this alienation, when family members disown or reject you because of your faith in Jesus Christ. In certain times and cultures this has been more common than others—but we probably all have family members who bristle at the mention of Jesus Christ, or the talk of “Christian ideas.”

Why is there this division, this sword that cuts between even family members? It is because we are living on a battlefield. A spiritual battlefield. And the battle lines are drawn. On one side marches the church behind our Champion, Jesus. Sometimes the Christian church still on earth is referred to as the “church militant” for this reason. Because we are engaged in a spiritual warfare. Those believers who have died and gone on to glory are then referred to as the “church triumphant.” For there is a victory at stake. And on the other side of the battle line are all who stand opposed to Christ Jesus and His kingdom. The devil, the world, our sinful flesh—even members of our own family, may stand on the other side of the battle line. And the line zigzags and even cuts painfully through our closest relationships.

This battle line is not ambiguous, as it marks the separation between those who believe, and those who do not believe. But the good news is that in this life, people are constantly being won over to Christ. And that may even include those members of our family. But the bad news is that there are also those who fall away from Christ, crossing the battle line to defect to the enemy. So in this life, a spiritual warfare rages, and the contest is over the fate of our eternal souls.

And so we return to our question, of “What kind of peace does Jesus bring?” A famous 4th century Christian preacher, John Chrysostom answered: “this more than anything is peace, when the diseased is cut off, when the mutinous is removed. For thus it is possible for Heaven to be united to earth.”[1] In other words, God restores peace to earth by warring against and defeating all the devil’s work and everything that aligns itself with him. Jesus secures captives and sets them free by binding up the enemy (Satan) and plundering his ranks. Jesus describes His peace with these words: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Thus Jesus’ peace is a peace with God through reconciliation; not a worldly peace between governments or a household free from strife. The peace of conscience that rests in Christ’s victory over our sins and the world. So the sword Jesus brings is against the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh continue to rage against God’s kingdom. Indeed the division is much more painful than the wars of nations, and touches more close to home, as it is in the very family that such strife occurs.

In this way, we can begin to see why we cannot make peace with this sinful world. Jesus calls to all who would hear Him, that to be worthy of Him, we must love Him above father or mother, above son or daughter. And that we must take up our cross and follow Him. But then who can be worthy of Christ? Who among us can say we are worthy of Christ, when even a man as great as John the Baptist was not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals? The temptation is to seek our own worthiness, by our efforts. But efforts to achieve worthiness on our own always end badly. If we seek to be worthy in God’s eyes on our own, we will begin placing our personal merits and good deeds before Him for His approval. But the Bible teaches that even our best deeds are filthy rags before God, so mixed with sin are they. Or when we hear the call to take up our cross and follow Jesus, we appoint our own sufferings. We make for ourselves badges of honor for the supposed sufferings we have faced, only to gain sympathy and pity from others.

Yet self-imposed sufferings are not what Jesus means by taking up our cross. We don’t get to choose our own crosses and sufferings in life, and say “this is what I’m suffering for Jesus.” That would turn into self-righteousness and self-worthiness—neither which meets God’s standard. The only worthiness, the only righteousness He accepts, is that of His Son Jesus Christ. When we follow Him by faith, surrendering our whole life to Him as unworthy, He grants us to find our life. We lose our life for His sake, but find it in Him. We give up our attempts at self-worthiness, and lose ourselves to Christ. What we lose as unworthy, He gives back cleansed and worthy in His sight. God redeems us from our sinfulness, and dresses us in exchange with the righteousness of Christ. In baptism we wear those clothes. Sometimes we don’t realize the new life we have through baptism—baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we are reborn—given a new identity.

When Paul wrote his second letter to the Thessalonian church, he recognized in them the marks of their worthiness of the kingdom of God by the sufferings they endured for the sake of their faith (2 Thess. 1:5). Just like Jesus described the life under the sword—or better, the life under the cross. For the one who takes up his cross and follows Jesus will face many trials. And Paul recognized that the Thessalonians weren’t worthy on their own, but as he prayed for them, he asked that God would always “make [them] worthy of His calling” (2 Thess. 1:11). We too have been made worthy. Not because of anything we have—but because the Good News is that God came to a people that were altogether unworthy—unworthy of His love, His grace, His forgiveness. Nevertheless, He loved us with an all-surpassing love, and invites those who were unworthy to be made worthy in His Son. In Jesus’ Incarnation, God plunged across enemy lines to find us unworthy sinners, and to rescue us from our slavery to sin. So He is the One who makes us worthy to follow Him, and to join Him in victory.

But it is no easy thing to let go of the things of this world, or to say that we will love Jesus more than any of these, as we take up our cross to follow Him. Always as the spiritual battle rages, we are tempted back to enemy lines. We don’t want to live under the strain and division of earthly relationships broken by our faith in God. So we are enticed to compromise with the world. To make a truce with the enemy. We are subtly drawn to approve of sin, rather than to recognize it as wrong, and to forgive it. We are slowly tempted to lose God’s Word, and not mind that a dot or iota of the commandments has fallen here or there. In contrast to Jesus, who said that not one word of His law would pass away, till all had been accomplished.

Or, it’s just as easy for us to love father or mother, son or daughter, yes even our own life (!) more than we love Jesus. But if we love anything more than Jesus, we cause ruin both to ourself and to the object of our misguided love. For by placing them as a higher love than God, we make them to be an idol. We are ruined by our idolatry and failure to trust wholly in God, and they are ruined by being made into the object of our sole and highest affections and worship. A place that only God rightfully holds. We seek them as the source of our highest good—which they are not, and they cannot be. A simple question to see if we are making a person, or some part of our life, or thing into an idol, is to ask “Are they keeping me from or drawing me away from God in any way? Or are they becoming a substitute for God?”

If we love these things more than God, we will ultimately desire from them what cannot satisfy, and what is destined to perish in this life. In that case we lose both ourselves and those things that we treasured above God. But in losing our life, in the embrace of God’s love that draws our worship to Him alone, we find true life. For in Jesus, our life is given back in greater measure. What was taken from us was a perishable, frail, and sinful life—filled with greedy desires and unsatisfaction. What is returned to us in Christ Jesus by faith, is an imperishable, long-suffering, and holy life—filled with generosity and satisfaction, as we’ve been found by the One who truly satisfies.

Think of a toddler given a new toy, and how he selfishly clings to it, and stubbornly refuses to share. The child is on the verge of a tantrum every time someone would try to take his toy. But once the “threats” of someone taking it away are gone, and he’s played with it to his content, how quickly does he lose interest in the toy? Pretty soon the toy is dropped and he is chasing after another. When we clutch and cling at life and all its treasures, and selfishly think that they mean all the world to us—we will quickly find that they cannot satisfy. Even the things we fight to possess and refuse to relinquish control over, the more we cling to them, the less valuable they become to us. Until we either despise them or they join the pile of discarded “toys.” Yet when we recognize that everything belongs to God and we relinquish our imagined control, how much more valuable does it become? No longer in a contest for ownership, we are free to enjoy it and not depend on it as the source of our happiness. We can find satisfaction in God, rather than our possessions. They will never be true satisfaction to us.

Instead of trying to find our life and purpose in people and things of this life, which are all destined to perish, we lose our unworthy life to God. And in doing so we receive back an imperishable treasure: life in Christ. We come to realize that “The life of this world is not as important as the life in Christ.”[2] We find that having lost the family ties with those of our own blood, we have found a closer family of believers in Christ—one which shares in our eternal inheritance. We find that having given up a craving for worldly wealth and possessions, we find greater contentment with what we have, as a trust from God. We find that in surrendering the whole of our life to Christ—an entirely unworthy and sinful gift, we have been given a new baptismal identity. Clothed in the innocence of Jesus Christ. Our sin buried with Him at the cross. The new life of the Spirit that pursues righteousness, and is armed and ready against the spiritual warfare still raging around us. We find that Christ has made us anew in His cross. Following after Him and His cross, we stand beneath the banner of victory, (Isaiah 11:10, 12) as God lifted up His Only Son in triumph over the spiritual forces of sin, death, and the devil. So we find that our victory against sin will only come by being joined to Christ’s victory.

And on the battlefield, we stand as marked men and marked women. Marked by our baptism into Christ as God’s own children, we do face the relentless attacks of the devil. As long as we live and breathe, we are caught up in a spiritual battle, and we will see the sword of division around us. It’s not easy living as marked men and women, but we have Jesus promise: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” For us who have been joined to His victory, these are sweet, sweet words. 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.

[1]Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. X, Saint Chrysostom: Homilies of the Gospel of Saint Matthew. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 232.
[2] In Christ: The Collected Works of David P. Scaer, Lutheran Confessor. Vol. I Sermons. (Sussex: Concordia Catechetical Academy, 2004) , 93

Sermon on Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today is the day that the Christian church remembers it’s birthday, so to speak, the day of Pentecost. Pentecost means “fiftieth.” That first Christian Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus rose from the tomb, and only 10 days after He ascended into heaven—the Christian church took off with a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ ascension, He reaffirmed His promise that He would send the gift of His Holy Spirit. When the disciples received this gift, they were to begin their mission as His witnesses, from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Today we’ll look more closely at that first Christian Pentecost, in our 2nd reading, Acts 2:1-21. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Pentecost truly must have been a miraculous scene, for the eyewitnesses and “earwitnesses” of this unusual event. The 12 apostles, and as many as 120 other brothers and sisters in the faith, were gathered together in Jerusalem, awaiting Jesus’ promised gift of the Spirit. And with the sound of a rushing wind from heaven, tongues of fire were distributed on each of them, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Why fire? In the Old Testament, fire was a sign of God’s presence, from the burning bush that Moses saw, to the pillar of fire that rested over the tabernacle, or tent of worship, and led the Israelites through the wilderness by night. Even today we light candles during worship as a reminder of God’s presence.

So here the tongues of fire rested on them, not consuming or burning them, but pouring out the Holy Spirit’s power on them, giving them the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages they didn’t previously know. The word “tongues” here, refers both to the flames of fire and to the languages they spoke with their tongues. Obviously, this was no everyday occurrence, and caught the attention of a crowd of people, who were from a diverse range of nations to the North, South, East, and West of Jerusalem. Who were they, and why were they there in Jerusalem? They were God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven…which basically means they were Jews who had been scattered from their homeland of Israel, in an event called the Diaspora, which means “scattering.” Israel and Judah had been taken into exile hundreds of years before Jesus came. The foreign countries of Assyria and Babylon had driven many of the Jews out of their homeland. Some had been taken captive to those lands; many fled to foreign countries and settled there. These nations and regions that are listed are some of the places where those Jews ended up after their Diaspora or “scattering.” They had learned the foreign languages and were now hearing and comprehending the saving message of the Gospel in the words of their own languages, from where they were born.

So why were these God-fearing Jews, from scattered nations across the North and South coasts of the Mediterranean Sea in Europe and Africa, and from Arabia and modern day Iraq, and North into Asia—why were they returning to Jerusalem, the place of their ancestors? They had come to Jerusalem for the Jewish Festivals of Passover and Pentecost. Pentecost was an Old Testament Festival of Harvest. It was when the grain offerings would be made in the Temple as a celebration of the harvest. But today, that Old Testament holiday would take on a new and greater meaning. What had once been a celebration of the grain harvest would now become a celebration of a harvest of souls! Later that day over 3,000 people would be baptized and saved, after hearing Peter’s Pentecost sermon. A great harvest of souls, from many nations! The beginning of global Christianity. Every anniversary of Pentecost since, that harvest of souls grows greater and greater, as God’s mission continues around the world.

The enormous task of building up the church from a group of 120 believers or more, facing the obstacles of time, distance, and language, was rapidly overcome on Pentecost. In the face of a seemingly impossible challenge, the Holy Spirit infused power and vitality into the newborn Christian mission, by breaking down the barriers of language. The spreading of the Gospel was now accelerated exponentially, as people from nations all over the known world heard the great deeds of God in their own language. Now they could carry the message back to their homelands. Could the disciples have imagined how quickly their mission would take off and have success? Do we sometimes doubt our mission?

Pentecost also marked a major reversal in the course of history. Our reading says a crowd of observers gathered in bewilderment or confusion. “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?” they said. “Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” There was another time in history where there had been a great confusion of languages. A confusion that led to a great scattering of peoples. Long ago at the Tower of Babel, there had been a common language that all mankind on earth spoke. But because of the pride and idolatry of man, God confused the language of the people at Babel, and new language groups arose and scattered throughout the world. Pentecost marks the beginning of a great reversal of this division of languages. The first Christian Pentecost would make no sense, except for the fact that there were a multitude of languages spoken on earth, that couldn’t communicate with each other. And into this world of divided tongues, the Holy Spirit distributed the gift of tongues to the disciples. Instantaneously that language barrier was taken down, and for the first time since the Tower of Babel, the Word of God was spoken and heard in every language or tongue. Today the translation of the Bible into other languages is proceeding at a record pace. Currently portions or the entire Bible is translated into over 2,000 languages worldwide, out of an estimated 6,000+ languages; and hundreds more translations are underway. That leaves still some 66% of languages awaiting some portion of the Bible to be tranlated into them. We thank and pray for those gifted in languages to continue their work in bringing the Gospel to people in their own language.

Fortunately for us, there were some good Lutherans in the crowd at Pentecost, who asked the typically Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” Every Lutheran who has gone through catechism instruction knows this question well. Some of the crowd jeered and mocked the disciples, claiming this display was nothing more than drunkenness. But Peter, filled with boldness from the Holy Spirit, got up and addressed the crowd. What was his answer to the all important question of “what does this mean?” No, they weren’t drunk, for it was still 9 in the morning. But it was a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy of Joel. How often did people get the chance to be eyewitnesses to the living Word of prophecy coming alive from the pages of Scripture and taking effect before their own eyes?!

For those who had been present for the Passover as well, they would have already witnessed the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, and at least heard of His resurrection. These people were living in unprecedented times, when a flood of God’s prophecies were being fulfilled in their own lifetimes. The prophecy of Joel described signs of the Messianic age—the pouring out of the Spirit on all God’s people; the prophesying of menservants and maidservants, the seeing of visions and dreams. Signs of blood and fire and billows of smoke. The darkening of the sun and the moon being turned to blood. What does this mean? All these signs of the Messianic age were now happening, and they saw it. So if the Messianic age was now here, then the obvious conclusion was that the Messiah or Christ had already come! The crowd was now seeing further proof that Jesus of Nazareth, the one they saw condemned to death, and had since risen from the grave, was in fact the Messiah promised from old times. It may even be that the darkening of the sun and the blood-red moon may have referred to the events that took place during Jesus’ crucifixion, with the darkening of the sun for three hours, an earthquake, and other great signs of cosmic upheaval.

Today we live in unprecedented times. Times when former obstacles to the mission have been reduced almost to insignificance. With modern communication via internet and phone, and travel by airplane, obstacles of time and distance are nearly insignificant. People are able to communicate with each other around the globe from the comfort of their own home. More and more people are multilingual and can commuicate in languages other than their own. Will we use these advantages to help spread the mission? There are multitudes that have little or no knowledge of Christ and His saving work. How will we carry the Word to them?

After the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, the Pentecost crowd were witnesses to the inexplicable miracle of tongues, and Peter echoed the voice of Joel to them: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” These Pentecost events called for a response from the people. It’s not as if they could just be filed away as “that one bizarre day on the family pilgrimage to Jerusalem;” something to reminisce about at family gatherings back home. No, this was a life-changing event, and they were confronted with the facts of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and Lordship over creation. They were confronted with the fact that they were now living in the Messianic age, where their promised Savior had come. If they were to be saved, they must also call on the name of the Lord—this Lord Jesus. So also Pentecost calls us to respond, not to treat these truths as mere remembrances, but to believe them and call on the name of the Lord Jesus to be saved.

Together with Christians all around the world, from Hawaii to China to Madagascar to Brazil to Russia and every nation on earth, we now join those crowds of foreigners, hearing that same Pentecost message of the apostle Peter. Pointing us to the way of salvation in Jesus Christ. Hearing the great deeds of God in our own languages, from English to Chinese to Malagasy to Portuguese to Russian and languages spoken on every continent throughout the world. If you would have asked the disciples before Pentecost, if they could imagine the Gospel spreading so rapidly through the Mediterranean and Middle East, you might have seen looks of doubtful surprise. If you would have asked the 15 or so founding members of Emmanuel Lutheran Church 40 years ago, if they could imagine a Lutheran preschool and grade school program, bursting at the seams and outgrowing our current campus, you might have seen looks of doubtful surprise. If you were to ask the gathered members here today, could you envision what Emmanuel Lutheran Church and School will be in another 40 years? We might see looks of doubtful surprise at the plans that are being laid. But when the Word of God is the heart and mission of our church, indeed of the greater church throughout the world, then the Holy Spirit will be active through that Word. The Word of God brings the Spirit of God—for whom no obstacle is too great.

Barriers and obstacles of language, resources, and number of people are of no consequence to the work of the Holy Spirit. Because the all-important message of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners has to go out to the world, the Holy Spirit breathes a remarkable vitality into the church. A vitality born not of human cleverness or power, or even persuasive philosophies and wisdom. No, the vitality of the apostolic church was the conviction of the apostles of what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:20). They had seen Jesus rise to life from a shameful death on the cross—the death that was the payment and penalty for our sins. They carried the conviction of the Holy Spirit about their own guilt in His death, but also the remarkable gift of His righteousness, given to us by faith. And they feared no obstacles because they also had the Spirit-borne conviction that the prince of this world, namely Satan, stands condemned. You too, Christians here today, are filled with that same Holy Spirit, who brings us this conviction of our own guilt, that leads us to repentance. The conviction of the righteousness we have in Christ by faith, and the conviction that Satan is our defeated and condemned enemy. With this boldness and conviction, we can work with great boldness for a new tomorrow. We are called into the harvest of Jesus Christ by continuing God’s mission for us to be Christ’s witnesses even to the ends of the earth, here in Hawaii. Lord we pray that you would pour out your Spirit on us, giving us all boldness, confidence, and conviction to speak your Word, as witnesses to your salvation. Amen.

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