Monday, October 26, 2009

Sermon on Romans 3:19-28 for Reformation Day, "What is Saving Faith?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Faith Alone or Sola Fide. One of the mottoes of the Reformation. A phrase that emphasizes how our salvation comes to us, by the pure reception of faith. On Reformation Day we celebrate a living remembrance of the Reformation, where the teaching of faith alone was placed back into prominence by Martin Luther and the Reformers. We live on in that same confession of faith that was handed down through the ages. Today we’ll look more closely at what saving faith is. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Salvation is by faith alone. Alone because all boasting and all works are excluded. Boasting has no place in salvation because the law of God silences every mouth. Every sinner is crushed under the verdict that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There isn’t any place for pride, arrogance, or claiming to be better than anyone else. Likewise, all works are excluded from salvation. When Scripture says “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”—the word apart or without excludes works from salvation altogether. That means at no place, before, during or after conversion, do a person’s works count toward their salvation. Faith alone is a treasured motto of the Reformation for one simple reason—any addition of boasting or works to salvation takes away from the glory of God and the redemption of Christ. Trying to wedge our human boasting or works into salvation diminishes what Christ has done for us. It hides the cross from our eyes. Minimizes God’s gift and magnifies us.

Faith alone safeguards a second of the Reformation solas: Christ alone. Faith alone, without works is essential to know—but faith in who or what? Faith is a receiver. Faith is an open hand to receive, or a channel through which something pours. Faith by itself is nothing—it has to be focused on or directed toward some object. And saving faith is directed to one object: that is Christ Jesus alone. Excluding all other things that we might put our trust in, salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). No other God can save. Faith that’s put in anything other than Christ, isn’t saving faith. A person who has weak faith, and prays “Lord, I believe—help my unbelief”, but still trusts in Christ is just as saved as a person with strong faith. Faith has its value in whom it trusts. If you put your faith in Christ, He’s able to accomplish and deliver all that He promises. If you put your faith in your own ability, or in the good works you have done, or even if you put your faith in some false god—it can’t deliver.

There is a popular misunderstanding about faith, that as long as it is sincere it must be saving faith. So the argument goes, that a sincere and faithful Jew, Muslim, or Hindu will be saved by their sincerity. This sounds really nice, but in practice it is totally false, because as I just said, your faith is only as good as the object in which it trusts. It’s not faith by itself that saves, but what faith trusts in. So false religions don’t trust in Jesus Christ alone as their salvation, and so their faith is sadly misguided. Consider this: if I have faith in a heart surgeon to successfully perform a triple bypass, is my faith well-founded? Yes it is. he can deliver what he promises. Now, if I have faith in a freshman in high school who’s had one biology class and done a frog dissection to perform the same triple bypass heart surgery…is my faith well-founded? But what if my faith is really, really sincere in that student? Does it matter how sincere my faith is? No! No matter how sincere, my faith is misguided, because he cannot deliver on that promise. The same with false gods.

Perhaps we still feel reluctant to admit that the sincere faith of the Jew, Muslim, or Hindu, for example, isn’t saving faith, and is instead misguided. After all, they can be such moral people! But what have we already established from Scripture? That good works gain us nothing for salvation. No matter how good or moral we are, we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and there’s no room for our boasting or our good works in the acquiring of salvation. Again, Scripture says we are justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Furthermore, if we grant that sincere faith is also saving faith—then we must extend this not only to the followers of Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, but any and every person of sincere faith. To the Mormon, the Buddhist, the Scientologist, the conspiracy theorist, the Satanist, the believer in UFO’s and extraterrestrials—in short, any and all sincerely practiced faith must be good. If the value of faith is judged by its sincerity, and not by the worthiness or truth of the object in which that faith trusts, then there’s no place to draw the line. Yet all of the hundreds of beliefs that are out there cannot possibly all be true, because they’re so contradictory. However counter-cultural it seems, we must realize that faith in anything other than Jesus Christ just can’t deliver. Sincere faith is only good if it’s placed in someone who can deliver.

But back to the heart surgeon analogy for a moment—what if I had enough faith to go to him for surgery because I knew I needed help, but I was fearful and doubtful and nervous? If I had faith, but it was weak, would that mean the heart surgeon was somehow hampered or incapable of performing the surgery? Of course not! The strength or weakness of my faith does not change his ability to deliver on his promises. And the same goes for our faith in God. When we at times become weak and doubting, but we still trust in God’s promises for us, does that change or hamper God’s ability to save? Not at all! This is not the same, however as if we had no faith or trust in God at all. Then we wouldn’t go to God for help or salvation, and of course then we won’t benefit from His salvation. It would be the same as a person whose heart was a ticking time-bomb and clogged with cholesterol and needed surgery—but scoffed at the doctor and refused any treatment. So it is when our heart is filled with sin and choked with pride, and we scoff at or refuse God’s salvation. Then there is no help.

But Christ proved His ability to save. He proved He’s the heart surgeon who’s able to take our sinful heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. He proved He was no dime-a-dozen religious teacher that claimed to present a new way to God. He proved He was no peddler of religious scams or false hopes. All other religious teachers, would-be messiahs or prophets or sages, are dead and gone, or soon will be. If any of them can rise from the dead, then I might take them seriously. But only One man, Jesus Christ, proved He was the Way to God by His resurrection. Jesus’ death on the cross and His subsequent resurrection from the dead was to show and prove God’s righteousness. To prove that God was just and had patience over the sins of mankind, and that although humans could make no way of salvation for themselves, God offered a plan of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ that was full and free. It was no 50/50 deal, or even 90/10, or even 99/1—God earned salvation for us 100% of the way, so that we could truly be saved by faith alone in Christ alone, without any merits or worthiness in us.

So we return to our question of what is saving faith? And we’ve shown that saving faith looks to and trusts in Christ alone. When the Reformers described what saving faith was, they often used three words to describe it: knowledge, assent, and trust. However, those first two—knowledge and assent, by themselves, do not make saving faith.

Consider for example that Keola was a student of Bible history and archaeology at a major university, and knew all the facts about the bible and could recount all the Bible stories. He could tell you Jesus’ life story—and even knew all the evidence inside and outside the Bible for the historicity of Jesus. Is his knowledge, by itself, saving faith? No! Saving faith isn’t being able to pass a bible knowledge exam. Saving faith must include trust or confidence that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who came into the world to save sinners through His death and resurrection. This is saving faith in Jesus. Faith is neither opposed to knowledge nor is it burying our head in the sand of ignorance. Faith has nothing to fear from knowledge. Learning and growth in knowledge, whether it is spiritual knowledge of the Bible, or whether it is knowledge of the natural world and history, is an honorable pursuit. We should want such knowledge; but this in no way replaces or supplants faith.

Or is it saving faith to agree to the teachings of the Bible, but hold the opinion that Jesus was a mere man and a great teacher, but not truly God? Say that Harry was a fine young individual who knew and practiced the morality of the Bible. He knew it was wrong to disrespect parents or authorities, he wasn’t a grudging or malicious person and detested murder, he led a sexually pure and decent life in what he said and did, he believed that theft and greed were dishonest and scrupulously avoided them. He never slandered or defamed anyone’s reputation, and defended friends against gossip. He believed as Jesus taught that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. While Harry didn’t claim to know who God was, he still believed in a higher power than himself, and that his sincere search for truth and his honest and upright life would put him in good favor with God, and grant him entrance to heaven. Is this a saving faith?

Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He’s the One Way to God. He’s the One Truth, and the One Life eternal. There isn’t access to God through some other path, journey, or person. He’s the only avenue to God. Those who don’t travel on this path, travel the broad path that leads to destruction. Saving faith is more than an agreement with some teachings of Jesus or the Bible, it is a confident acceptance of the Gospel message that Jesus did die for sinners, and His resurrection broke death’s hold over us.

Last of all, is it possible for Elizabeth, a newborn child to have saving faith? Can she be baptized and have faith? After all, she cannot express herself through understandable speech. She cannot articulate her faith. But does the Bible teach that faith is impossible for a child? What is faith, after all? Haven’t we established that faith is first and foremost a simple trust in God? The faith of a child illustrates better than any other example that the chief and primary characteristic of faith is the simple trust and confidence in God, and that this faith is completely a gift. The child can do nothing for herself but trust her parent’s care for her. Faith isn’t a work of human will power, striving, or effort (John 1:12). It’s a gift of God, that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8). It shows how completely we’re dependent on God.

In the end, the Reformation teaching of faith alone points us again and again to Jesus Christ and Him crucified, the true and worthy object of our faith and all our praise. So we show forth Christ Jesus to the world as the one who’s able to deliver all God’s promises, who’s our redemption and our righteousness. Saving faith is the simple trust that clings to Jesus, the open hand that receives God’s gift, and the child-like trust that rests safe in the strong arms of Jesus. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. The 5 Reformation solas are: Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, and to God Alone be Glory! What does faith alone exclude from salvation? (Rom. 3:27-28)

2. How does the teaching of faith alone uphold the glory and merit of Christ Jesus? Galatians 2:21; 5:11;

3. Compare a strong and weak faith. Is a weak faith still a saving faith? Why? Cf. Mark 9:24; Luke 17:5

4. Is a sincere faith a saving faith, regardless of whom it trusts in? What’s wrong or illogical about this way of thinking? Isaiah 45:20-23; Luke 19:10; Hebrews 7:25

5. Faith has been described as knowledge, assent, and trust. How is knowledge part of faith, but not faith in itself? Who also had accurate knowledge of Jesus, but did not have the essential trust in Him as Savior? Luke 4:41; James 2:19.

6. How is mere assent or agreement to the Bible’s teachings, not yet faith? What must be added to this? Ps. 9:10; Rom. 3:22, 26.

7. How does an infant or child exemplify what faith means? How does the bible teach about the faith of children? Matthew 18:1-6; Psalm 22:9-10; 71:5-6; cf. Psalm 58:3. See Luke 1:39-45

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sermon on Hebrews 4:1-13, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, "God's Word: A Two-Edged Sword"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Have you ever experienced this situation? Two people come to church on the same Sunday, and one hears the message and leaves feeling peace and thankfulness to God, and another hears the same message and leaves feeling resentful and defiant. One hears God’s Word and finds it comforting and enlightening; another hears God’s Word and feels guilty or convicted. Or you read the Scriptures and at one point God’s wrath is burning against sin, and in another place He shows remarkable patience and forgiveness for sinners. How can the same word produce such contradictory reactions? How can the same word show God condemning sin and elsewhere forgiving it? The reading from Hebrews will be our guide as we answer those questions. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…” That two-edged sword can produce just the kind of reactions I’m describing. As Revelation 1:16 makes clear, it’s Jesus who wields that two-edged sword. Without understanding this two-fold nature and two-fold action of God’s Word, we’ll continue to be hopelessly lost as to how to explain such different reactions. We’ll be puzzled when we read the Scriptures. How do we reconcile such different passages? But these things aren’t so puzzling when we realize that God’s Word comes to us both in a Word of Law, and a Word of Gospel. This is the two-fold nature and action of God’s Word. Understanding how the Word of Law and Gospel work and how they impact both believers and unbelievers will go a long way toward reading and hearing God’s Word with more understanding and insight.

Both Law and Gospel are God’s Word, but they’re very different in content, in how we know them, in the promises or threats that they make, in who they’re spoken to, or in the effects that they have on their hearers. For example, in our passage here from Hebrews, it quotes Psalm 95 where God says: “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” This is a clear example of God’s Word of Law. God’s responding in anger and judgment to the consistent rebellion and grumbling of the Israelites during their journey through the desert following the Exodus from Egypt. God was wrathful, and His punishment for their sin was that they wouldn’t enter into His rest.

These are strong words of Law. Why? They were given a miraculous deliverance from slavery, they were provided with food and water for their journey, they were given the promise of an inheritance in the land of Canaan. These blessings were all examples of Gospel: God’s love and kindness, His deliverance, His provision for them. But their response to all of this Gospel/good news, was to harden their hearts. Instead of gratefulness, thanksgiving, and praise to God for what He had done, they hardened their hearts in unbelief and ungratefulness. They rebelled and were disobedient.

So God’s Word of Law was addressed to the sinful, the disobedient, and to the unbelieving. It was a harsh, even startling word of rebuke against their sin, and was a call to repentance—to admit their sin and turn from it. In the same way, God’s Word of Law is addressed to us when we’re sinning. The sharp sword that “pierc[es] to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” There’s nothing that’s hidden from God’s sight, and however well we conceal our sins, God knows them. We try to conceal them in at least two ways: either by doing them out of sight, hidden from human eyes—or by trying to conceal them in our conscience by making excuses or justifications for our sin. But the Law of God cuts through all of that, it lays bare our innermost thoughts and intentions.

Piercing to divide joints and marrow sounds painful. God’s Word of Law is painful. It doesn’t allow escape; it leaves no alternative but the death of our sin at the cross of Jesus Christ. It searches out even our thoughts and intentions, and shows them for what they are. It calls us on the carpet for our disobedience, and makes us accountable for sins of thought, word, and deed. If we continue to disobey God’s commands, the Word of Law will continue to pursue us and make us accountable for sin. It threatens the unbelieving and disobedient with punishment instead of blessing. Only at the cross can our accountability for sin be transferred from us to Jesus Christ.

There are two reasons the Israelites didn’t enter God’s promised rest. They heard the good news, BUT they didn’t benefit from it because they didn’t combine their hearing with faith. It also says that those who had once received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience. Unbelief and disobedience. So this stands as a word of warning, a Word of Law for us, that we don’t follow the same example of hardening our hearts in unbelief against God’s Word, or in disobedience to God. “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”

Take the lesson and learn. Hear the call. Hear the voice of God as He comes to us through the living and active Word. Trying to run or hide from the Word of God will only cause that sharp edge of the Law to dig more deeply into our joints and marrow, to cut more painfully at the sin that is wrapped around our soul. But hear this also!! The Word of God is a two-edged sword. There is the sharp edge of the Law that kills our sin, but there is also the sharp edge of the Gospel that guards and defends us against evil. This is the mighty power of Jesus’ Word to save and deliver, to conquer our sin and defeat the devil.

God’s Word of Gospel is completely different from the Word of Law. The Gospel speaks no threats to sinners, it doesn’t make demands or set conditions, but rather makes promises. It makes these promises to the people of God. And who are the people of God? Those who are sinners that have heard the Word of Law and repented of sin. All those who hear the message of the good news, and combine hearing with faith. Those who believe the Word have what it promises. The Gospel gives the answer to the hard Word of the Law. It doesn’t erase or negate God’s Law, but rather shows Jesus as the One who kept the Law for us. Jesus, the one who wields the sword of God’s Word in our defense. Jesus, who takes up the sword of God’s Word to fight and subdue our enemy the devil, and silence his accusing tongue. Not because his accusations against our sin were untrue, but rather because Jesus, the Innocent and Holy One, took those accusations upon Himself at the cross. He took all the punishment for sin upon Himself on the cross. So that all who ally themselves to Christ by faith, stand under the benefits of His Gospel. Protected by His combat. The Gospel-action of God’s Word to protect us.

The Gospel-action of God’s Word is to forgive us of our sins, to make the wounded spirit whole. For believers, we rejoice at this two-edged, living and active Word of God. We give thanks for its twin action of cutting away our sin, and also warding off the enemy. We have a mighty weapon in God’s Word, that is wielded by Christ Himself. But He also gives His Word for us to use (Eph. 6, armor of God). This living and active, sharp two-edged sword is not an Excalibur, to be kept on display stuck in a stone. It’s not a mantel piece to hang on display as a relic or piece of artwork. Rather, God’s Word is to be taken up into the hand and mouth of the Christian, wielded in battle against the spiritual forces of darkness. It’s to be our ready defense against the lies and temptations of the devil. It’s to be the saving promise of good news that creates faith in our hearts to make us the people of God, the recipients of His promises.

This reading from Hebrews especially focuses on the rest that God has promised, and how those who believe will be recipients of God’s promised rest. It shows how the promise of rest was foreshadowed by God’s establishment of a Sabbath day. The seventh day of the week, Saturday, was designated by God as a day of rest and worship. Sabbath means rest. So every Sabbath day was a small picture of the coming rest that God would give. It was again foreshadowed in a fuller way, when Moses and Joshua were leading the people to the promised land. There they would inherit the land and have rest from their years of wandering, and eventually peace from their enemies. But these were not yet God’s “rest.” It says, “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from His.”

Even when we take a rest from our labors, when we have a day off, a vacation or holiday—there is something still incomplete about it. We have to return to work the next day or week. Maybe we aren’t fully rested, or there’s still some unfinished task that weighs on our mind and keeps us from enjoying that rest. But there remains for us a Sabbath rest, the perfect rest of God. Jesus is the One who delivers this rest to us, when He said “Come to me you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). We begin to know that rest in this life, by the peace of sins forgiven, that comes from Jesus’ death on the cross for us. But the full and complete rest, the true rest for our souls, is in heaven. When we by faith enter into that rest that Jesus has won for us, there will be no more dissatisfaction or incompletion or worry. We will be at home with God.

On that day we’ll look back with great clarity. We’ll understand the Word of God which at times pierced us with painful intensity, as it lay bare our sinful actions and intentions, but then lifted us up with the sweetest consolation of the Gospel, when we turned to God for forgiveness. For in this life, God’s Word has a two-fold action, to condemn sin and to save. These two very different results come from God’s Word of Law and His Word of Gospel. Our reading today directs us to why God’s Word takes this two-fold action on us—why we need this living and active sword. It is simply to bring us safely into God’s rest. The Law to direct us away from unbelief and disobedience, and the Gospel directs us to faith in Jesus Christ, the One who was fully obedient to God, who brings us to our Sabbath rest. So with that Word of God living and active in our lives, leading us to always place our full confidence in Jesus Christ our Savior, let us strive to enter God’s rest. To Him be all the glory and praise forever and ever, Amen.

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

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. Why is God’s Word like a two-edged sword? Who wields it? Rev. 1:16. Cf. Ephesians 6:10-20.

2. How is the Word of God’s Law different from the Word of God’s Gospel? In who it addresses? In what it says? In the threats or promises it makes? In the results it has on those who hear it?

3. Read a passage like Psalm 95 or Hebrews 4:1-13, and see if you can identify which statements are Law and which are Gospel.

4. What two responses to God’s Word endanger our receiving of His promises and blessings? How did the Israelites fail to enter into the rest that God promised? Hebrews 4:2-6

5. How does the Word of Law affect the sinful, disobedient, or unbelieving? Rom. 2:12-29; 3:19-20

6. How does the Word of Gospel affect the repentant sinner who believes? Rom. 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 5:1-11.

7. How are all examples of “rest” in this life an incomplete picture of God’s “rest?” How does God’s two-fold Word guide and direct us to that day of eternal rest? Who secured this rest for us and how? Matt. 11:28-29

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sermon on Mark 10:17-22, for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, "Hands Full and Heart Empty"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Welcome to all our preschool families, and thank you for joining us for worship today, and supporting your child’s education! Today in our reading Jesus encounters a person who is genuinely and eagerly interested in knowing about eternal life. Reflect today whether that’s also a burning question for you, and we’ll look together at what the answer is. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We’re not invincible. We live like it, but we’re not. Every person will reach life’s end one day, and don’t wait till then to ask the question, “What next?” In the Gospel lesson we encounter a rich young man, who could really be any one of us (rich or poor—but I’ll get to that later). He’s eager and ready to find out about eternal life, and comes running up as Jesus is leaving town to ask a burning question. His respect for Jesus is obvious when he kneels before Jesus and calls Him “Good Teacher.” His burning question is: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” His question is the first clue that he’s misguided and on the wrong track. Why? Because he mistakenly thought that an inheritance was something he could earn.

“What must I do” are words that aren’t compatible with the words “inherit eternal life.” You don’t do something to gain an inheritance. It’s given. You’re either born in the family, or granted to be an heir by the benefactor. The rich young man mistakenly thought that gaining this inheritance centered around him and his actions. “What must I do” better describes meriting something than inheriting.

Then, without denying that He Himself is good, Jesus seeks the reason behind the man’s question and if he truly understands what it means to be good. Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Jesus knew that something was missing from this man’s understanding of what it means to be good. The man thought of himself as basically good, and that he could do something to merit eternal life. He just needed the right laws or directions to follow. Since the man was determined to get to heaven by what he was going to do, Jesus plays along a little, and answers him on his own terms. And Jesus lists some of the 10 commandments. Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother. It’s no coincidence that the commandments he lists are what we call the “2nd table” of the law. The 10 Commandments are normally divided into the “1st table”—the commandments relating to our love toward God—and the “2nd table”—commandments about our love toward our neighbor. So Jesus basically lists all the commandments, except for the ones about God…interesting…wonder why...

After hearing these, the rich young man says, “Teacher, all these I have kept from youth.” He immediately concludes that he is good, and that he’s got a clean record by the commandments. Probably outwardly this was true. He was probably a model citizen, very moral, and well-respected by his friends and neighbors. But did this qualify him as being “good?” As good enough to merit eternal life in God’s kingdom? Remember, Jesus said no one is good except God alone. I think this is a hard pill for us to swallow. None of us want to admit that we are bad. The Bible uses the word “sinners.” But sin doesn’t just mean “imperfect”—it describes our rebellion against God. True, we’ll all admit we’re not perfect, but it’s another big step to admit that we’re sinners who consistently have broken God’s commandments. But if anyone says they’re not a sinner, I’d just like to interview their husband, wife, or family to see if they agree.

But Jesus looked at this man who thought too much of himself, who came with hands full of wealth, but whose heart was empty towards God—Jesus looked at him and loved him. He was eager but misguided. He loved him, not because he had pleased God by a clean record of obedience to God’s law; not because he had somehow earned God’s favor. Jesus loved him because he saw in this man every sinner’s need. The need of every sinful being to recognize how short they’ve fallen of God’s perfection, and how utterly dependent they are on God’s grace. He had to see that eternal life was something he couldn’t achieve by his own efforts. To open his eyes to how he really hadn’t kept the commandments as he thought, Jesus tells him he lacks one thing. This one additional thing that the young man was lacking was the most important thing of all—and explains why Jesus didn’t name the commandments about God at first.

“‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” The challenge to sell all his possessions and give to the poor showed that he had failed to keep the first and greatest commandment of all—“You shall have no other gods before me.” Jesus’ challenge made it evident that this man’s god was his money and possessions. He wanted eternal life, but he valued his possessions and wealth more greatly than God. Hands full and heart empty—he had all the money and prestige he could want, but the true treasure, the treasure of heaven, was out of his reach. Money was the idol that sat on the throne of his heart, and God will not share our obedience to two masters. “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24). What Jesus asked of this man, was to show that God alone was his master, and that he was willing to lay all earthly treasure aside for the heavenly treasure of eternal life and salvation in Jesus Christ.

It’s one of the saddest verses in Scripture, that this man went away disheartened—empty in heart and sorrowful, because he had great possessions—hands full. He made his choice between two masters—and decided to serve money instead of God. He gave up eternal treasures for the earthly wealth that won’t last. It’s easy for us to put ourselves in his shoes and imagine what thoughts ran through his mind. We might have thoughts like these: “I have a life of ease and comfort, and I’m the envy of all my neighbors. When they see me dressed in my fine clothes and driving my luxury car, people wish they were me. I get a thrill every time I go by and all the heads turn to see what I’ve got. My house is 2nd to none, and I have all the designer furniture. It’s just too much to give up. Jesus wants me to sell this all to the poor? And what are they going to do with it? Waste it all? I think I’ll eat, drink, and be happy, and enjoy life while it’s good.”

Is there anything that you own or that belongs to you that you would be unwilling to surrender if God called you to? Something you say you could never live without? We need to reflect on this vital question: Do we have an idol in our hearts that needs to be cast down, so that God alone can rule in our hearts? Are our hands full, but hearts empty? Is our life bent in a pursuit for more wealth, and more and better things…from electronics and games to cars and houses? If so, we need a hard dose of reality to understand that this is an empty pursuit in the long run. Many people live pleasant and fulfilling lives surrounded by all the luxuries they want, and never imagine that something is lacking from their life. Others may have very little and feel that if only I had this or that, or if only my job paid more, etc etc, then I would be satisfied.

However, we’re mistaken if we think this is just Jesus’ lesson to bring down the super-wealthy. A person of modest means can just as easily tempted by the same sin as the rich young man. Greed and lust for possessions. So also a poor person can be tempted by the same coveting for what they do not have, and a stinginess about what they do have. This sinful condition of the heart is not measured by how much cash you have in the bank, or about how many possessions you have and how fine they are, it is a matter of how your heart is oriented toward God and toward your possessions. While this particular rich young man had hands full and a heart empty—it’s just as possible to have hands empty and heart empty. We could be penniless, but still have a greedy and selfish heart.

Alternately, a person may have hands full and also a heart that’s full. A person could be wealthy but open-handed with their wealth: generous and open to give and receive. But whether our hands are full or empty, what a pity to walk away from Jesus with an empty heart!

What a tragedy to think that you might gain something by chasing earthly wealth, while ignoring the one standing offering you treasures in heaven! The tragedy was that he thought he could merit eternal life, when this was a gift to be given for free. The tragedy was that he was so enslaved to his temporary, earthly wealth, that he would not turn to a new master, Jesus Christ, who could make him the heir, not only of eternal life, but heavenly treasures that won’t wear our or decay. His wealth and his desire to keep his hands full prevented him from coming to Jesus, the greatest treasure in heaven. He never heard the Good News that Jesus traded all of His heavenly treasure to come down to earth and live a life of poverty and service—all for us.

Jesus had no place to lay His head, but stayed wherever hospitality opened the door. He gave a priceless treasure in purchase of our souls—when He shed His blood of priceless worth for us on the cross. More beautiful than diamonds, more costly than silver, more precious than gold, He gave a life of invaluable worth in exchange for all of ours. The worth of His life cannot be measured, because Jesus did what neither we nor the rich young man could: He lived the perfect life of obedience to the commandments. He was indeed good, because He kept every commandment, both of love toward the neighbor, and of love toward God. His life is the greatest treasure for us. Eternal life, forgiveness of sins, standing in the presence of God without guilt or shame, the eternal love and son-ship that is ours in Him, peace, fellowship, and the privilege to dwell eternally in the new heavens and the new earth are all part of our inheritance.

The treasure that Jesus gives is ours by pure, undeserved grace. There is nothing we do to merit or earn eternal life. It’s our inheritance by faith in Jesus Christ. A gift, not something earned. With the Lord Jesus as our treasure, our heart will always be full as God desires it to be dedicated to Him. So whether we go through life with hands full or hands empty, with Jesus as the treasure of our heart, our heart will always be overflowing with an abundance of heavenly treasure that we can freely give to others. The treasure of Christ in your heart is a treasure that is not diminished, no matter how much you give away. His love for us is an eternal store. Have faith in Him and inherit eternal life! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. Facing our mortality brings the inevitable question of “what’s next?” after death. Ecclesiastes 3:11. Have we answered this question for ourselves, and are we prepared for life’s end, whenever it may come?

2. What was flawed about the rich young man’s question? What is incompatible about meriting an inheritance? Romans 4:4-5

3. Why did the man think that he was basically good, and deserving of eternal life? Why is this not true? Romans 3:10-12, 21-24; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Mark 10:18. What do we need to admit about our own goodness or lack-thereof, and how this affects our relationship to God? 1 John 1:8-10; 4:10, 19

4. What are the “two tables” of the 10 Commandments? Mark 12:28-31 How had the rich young man failed to keep the first table, and especially the first commandment? Exodus 20:2-3ff. Reflect on your own failures to keep the commandments. What things have we placed as idols in our hearts?

5. Where do we get a full heart? What is the heavenly treasure that we should seek? Matthew 6:19-24

6. How did Jesus forsake all of His treasure to become ours and to grant us all of His treasure? What did it cost Him? 1 Peter 1:3-7, 18-20

7. What riches can we now freely give away, since we have faith in Christ? How does giving this away add to our treasure in heaven?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Sermon on Mark 10:2-12, for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, "God Joins Together"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today in the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus addresses one of the most difficult situations in human life: divorce. It’s both an urgently relevant topic that we need to hear today, and also one of Jesus’ most difficult teachings to hear and believe. Jesus’ own disciples remarked in astonishment when they heard His teaching, that “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given…Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Pharisees and religious leaders always seemed to have a test for Jesus. Some clever question they could use to trip Him up or catch Him in His words. Today they asked Him “Is is lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” In Matthew, it adds that they were asking: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” They were basically asking Jesus to settle or take sides in a long-running debate among the Jewish Rabbi’s about what were the permissible reasons for getting a divorce. There were two basic schools of thought: those who followed a Rabbi named Hillel, and those following Rabbi Shammai. The first, the school of Hillel, said a man had the right to divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever, even for something so trivial as burning his meal. Or, for even more self-serving and adulterous reasons as that he found some other woman that was more pleasing to him. The second school, that of Shammai, taught that the only legitimate reason for divorce was marital unfaithfulness.

From their line of questioning and response, it seems that they were trying to find approval for or justification for free and easy permission to divorce. This is the situation we have in America today with “no-fault” divorce laws, where divorce can easily proceed even if it’s at the will or initiation of only one person. In other words, even if one person still wants to stay married and try to work things through, no-fault divorce laws take away their legal recourse to slow down or stop the divorce proceedings. It’s estimated that as many as 2/3rds of divorces involve an unwilling spouse. It’s similar to Jesus’ time, where the rights of both spouses weren’t equally protected (at that time it was usually the women who had no protection against divorce), and even the accountability for unfaithfulness to marriage wasn’t evenly applied.

But Jesus didn’t get caught in their trap. On the one hand He clearly rejects any self-seeking motives that would permit divorce for any reason. But at the same time He avoids giving divine approval to those who break the unity of marriage by unfaithfulness to their spouse. He doesn’t enter into the debate about acceptable reasons for a divorce. Yet He doesn’t deny the right of divorce to a person who’s spouse was or is unfaithful. He corrects their misunderstanding that Moses in some way approved of divorce, and shows instead that the divorce laws of the Old Testament were not an approval of divorce, but the regulation of divorce to prevent other worse evils. It was because of the hardness of their hearts—an acknowledgment that marriages were already broken.

But instead of accepting the level of their questioning, Jesus elevates it to a higher level. He quotes Moses again, but now from the first chapters of the Bible, to show what God’s original intent and design for marriage was. “From the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’” Jesus quotes these two passages from the first chapters of Genesis, affirming the special creation of Adam and Eve—note this: at the beginning of creation. Jesus regarded the creation account in Genesis as actual history, and more than that—the ground and basis for marriage. God made Adam and Eve, and their union as husband and wife became the pattern for all subsequent marriages whether they happen between Christians or not. Marriage is simply by definition the union of a male and female to become one flesh.

Jesus goes on to interpret the verses He quoted from Genesis, saying that “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” There can be no question about how Jesus defined marriage here. The two become one flesh; and it isn’t just any two human beings—it’s clear that it’s one male and one female. There is no room for polygamy, homosexuality, or any other unnatural pairings. Jesus doesn’t allow the holy estate of marriage to be dragged down by the effects of sin and redefined according to human sinfulness. And He adds those oh-so-important words: “What God has joined together.” Without those words: “God joins together,” we would be tempted to see marriage as merely a human contract between two individuals, that could freely be dissolved at will. That is in effect how marriage has been regarded throughout history. From the time of Moses and probably before (Moses’ law appears to be offering a corrective against existing abuses of marriage), to the time of Jesus, till today. In fact this view is the whole basis for the Pharisees’ questioning of Jesus. It’s the whole basis for why we wriggle uncomfortably under Jesus’ words.

We wonder why does Jesus defend marriage so rigorously? Why do we blush and try to make excuses for the lofty ideals of marriage that Jesus teaches unapologetically? Have we considered that it’s because Jesus’ wants to lift our eyes above the mundane picture of marriage that the world is content with? That Jesus is guarding the highest and most beautiful expression of love between two humans in marriage? Remember those words: “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” God joins together. God is the One who gives the blessing of union between two persons. He’s the One who’s responsible for designing and blessing the mysterious union that’s more than just a physical act, but actually unites two humans not just in their body, but also in their persons. Because of the reality of this union, God commands that the marriage bed be kept pure (Heb. 13:4) and that sex be reserved only for marriage. This is why Jesus was such a bold advocate and defender of marriage, because the breaking of that union cannot help but be damaging to the partners involved in it, as well as any children involved.

No one needs to tell you of the hurt and upheaval that’s caused by divorce. Perhaps you have suffered that pain yourself. Probably you have close friends or family members who’ve gone through divorce. Part of the reason these words of Jesus are so hard for us is that many of us haven’t escaped the effects of divorce in our lives. And we ask ourselves, “Is God’s forgiveness for me too? Is God’s forgiveness there for my friend or relative who’s gone through divorce? Can God’s forgiveness save my marriage now? Can God repair the hurt that I feel, or forgive my guilt?” And the answers are “YES, YES, YES, and YES!” (1 Cor. 1:19-20). God is near to the brokenhearted (Is. 61:1). For those broken in heart and repentant of their sin, God forgives even this sin of divorce. He forgives those who have repented of their unfaithfulness, and leads us to make amends. His forgiveness can reach into relationships that are on the rocks and bring reconciliation to save a marriage. His forgiveness does not change God’s design for marriage, but it removes the deserved penalty for our sinful failings to follow that plan, and gives us the resource of divine love to experience the repairing of a broken heart. To experience the washing away of our guilt, so that we may once again know innocence and purity.

So with a renewed and forgiven mind and spirit, with a mended heart and a song of joy in our mouths for the undeserved love of God, we can gain a whole new perspective on Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce. We can begin to understand that He guards for us the blessed state of marriage. We can begin to lift our eyes above the fallen picture of marriage that we’ve grown accustomed to, and to see the divine pattern. We can begin to see what God wants us to enjoy when we live according to His plan. God made marriage and He knows how it works. He knows that our human marriages cannot be perfect, but if we commit to the hard work of love and forgiveness, of patience, respect and understanding, that God will richly bless us. God protects marriage because of the rich gift that He has in store for us in the shared life and mutual commitment of a man and woman.

God designed marriage because it was not good for man to be alone. Marriage gives an answer to loneliness. It provides a friend and companion for life. It gives a unique and intimate way of pleasing one another in the security of a lifelong commitment. God blesses this gift of shared love by allowing men and women to participate together in the procreation of children. The love of the husband and wife literally gives birth to new life, and gives love a new object in children. This is just a short list of the blessings that God attaches to marriage. It’s a glimpse at why He protects marriage so carefully from all the attacks of the devil to destroy or redefine it into something that is either a pale reflection or a distortion of what He designed.

God will ever stand against all sin, and we won’t find justification in His Word for the hardness of our hearts or excuses for our actions. But God forgives those who’ve felt the sharp prick of the Law on their conscience—who’ve seen where they’ve done wrong and repented of it. Jesus went to the cross with the unflinching determination to bring forgiveness of sins to us, because He saw up close for Himself all the damaging effects of sin. He experienced Himself at the cross the heart-wrenching separation of a broken relationship, when Jesus was forsaken on the cross because of our sin. Jesus shed His blood so that we could have a restored relationship with God. He shed His blood so that we could know forgiveness for our own guilt, as well as for the hurt we’ve experienced from having our own relationships broken by the abandonment or unfaithfulness of another. Whether we are married, single or divorced, by faith in Jesus Christ God joins us, the church, together with Christ. When God joins the church together with Christ, this is a relationship where we can be sure that He will never be unfaithful to us. He puts His forgiving love to work in us so that we can share His forgiveness with others. May we receive His teaching with joy, with lifted eyes to see His plan for us; and may we receive His blessing that He has prepared for us. Amen!
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
Read past sermons at:
Listen to audio at:

1. What test did the Pharisees lay for Jesus about the question of divorce? What were the two sides of the debate between Rabbi’s about the reasons for divorce?

2. How did Jesus’ answer elevate the discussion above that debate? What did Jesus quote as the basis for understanding marriage? Read Genesis 1:27; 2:23-24.

3. Is marriage a “man-made” institution, or divine? Then who sets the terms for what marriage is? Why does Jesus protect this institution of marriage so strongly? What does God have in mind for us to enjoy?

4. Jesus acknowledged that because of the hardness of sinful hearts, divorce does happen, even though this isn’t God’s design or plan for marriage. How does the reality of forgiveness in our lives through Christ, enable us to work toward preventing divorce, and finding reconciliation? What healing is there for those who’ve been wronged by their spouses? 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:16-21; Rom. 5:18-6:4.

5. For a thorough study and statement on Divorce and Remarriage, see our church’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) document at: