Monday, July 26, 2010

Sermon on Luke 11:1-13, for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, "Your Kingdom Come!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Several weeks ago on Father’s Day we learned what a privilege it is to come to our dear Father in prayer, as we pray “Our Father.” Today we consider how praying the words: “Thy Kingdom Come” are life-changing and world-changing. Also, how the Lord’s Prayer really draws us into the daily life of this world so that God may bring His kingdom among us also. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Thy Kingdom Come.” The Small Catechism explains “what does this mean?” by saying: “The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.” So we don’t make the kingdom of God come by our prayers, but we ask to become part of that kingdom. God of course is the one who brings about His kingdom, and Jesus Himself was the coming of that Kingdom. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7). Like a rushing river flowing through this world, God’s kingdom is moving on toward its goal. That goal is the day of the Lord, when Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. Then the kingdom of God will be fully revealed and fully seen in its glory.

Jesus referred to kingdom of God countless times through the Gospels, and used numerous parables to teach what the kingdom of God is. Yet at the same time the kingdom of God is very simple—that God is King over all things—His rule extends over all the universe, His church, and all spiritual powers. Simply, there’s nothing of which God is not the highest Lord and King. The kingdom of God is full of mysteries or paradoxes, which is why Jesus taught so extensively about it. The kingdom of God is here and now, its something active and moving—yet its something hidden from the world. We participate in that kingdom on different levels. Since God’s kingdom extends over all creation, both the physical and spiritual world, everyone is under His rule, even if they don’t acknowledge or recognize it. But as Christians we participate in a different way in that kingdom. The Catechism further explains “Thy Kingdom Come” with the question: “How does God’s kingdom come?”

The answer is “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” So Christians participate in God’s kingdom as citizens and children of God. Children who call on their dear heavenly Father. Not as rebels or enemies who stand against His power. God’s kingdom comes to us when God graciously invites us to believe, and gives us His Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, the faith that He brings, and baptism are all tied hand in hand in bringing us into that kingdom. We worship and acknowledge God as our King, and serve Him by leading godly lives here in time and there in eternity. That little phrase: “here in time and there in eternity” teaches us another mystery: that its present now, but it’s not yet fully here. Now but not yet. The river is moving, and we’ve entered it by baptism, but we’ve not yet reached our destination. The kingdom of God is moving and bringing us toward our heavenly goal.

Not so that we’re so heavenly-minded that we’re no earthly good, as a common saying goes. In fact that’s part of the surprise and the boldness of praying “thy kingdom come.” We’re not praying to be transported out of this world, or to be secluded from it. But as Jesus prayed to His Father: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:15-18). So far from being no earthly good, praying “your kingdom come” puts us back in the world to be a blessing to the world, and to bring God’s Word and Spirit to others, so that they too can participate in the kingdom as citizens and children of God. But while we’re sent back into the world by Jesus, the Lord’s Prayer also promises us protection and strength. God sends us into the world as servants or agents of His kingdom, sent to advance that kingdom.

Let’s examine how the Lord’s Prayer places us into the world to further God’s kingdom. This by no means exhausts the possibilities. We pray: “Hallowed be Thy Name.” That is we pray for God’s name to be kept Holy. So our lives and our words should give honor and glory to God’s name, since we represent our Lord and King on earth. We keep His name holy on earth by keeping His Word in its truth and purity, and leading godly lives by His Spirit. We keep God’s name holy with our lips. We don’t speak falsely in God’s name, we don’t use His name as a curse word or an exclamation point when we’re surprised, shocked, or angry. We keep His name holy by using it for prayer, for worship, for thanksgiving. We speak His name to proclaim the good things He has done, to acknowledge that He is the King and that all things in the past, present, and future fall under His authority. We take the misuse of His name very seriously as a great offense to God, and strive to put it only to holy and good use.

We pray “give us this day our daily bread.” This teaches us that while we live in God’s kingdom, we should recognize that He is the source of our every physical and spiritual blessing. The fact that we pray the word daily helps us to recognize that we should neither be greedy nor wasteful, that we should not worry about the future, but always trust that God will provide what we need (Gary Zimmerman). There’s an obscure person named Agur who has some prayerful words of wisdom directed to God in Proverbs 30. He prayed: “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” His words are a beautiful commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. The first thing he asks from God is to keep him from falsehood and lying, just as we pray for God’s name to be kept holy among us, and to avoid lying or dishonoring His name.

But the second thing he asks is for God to make him neither rich nor poor. Give me today my daily bread—the food that is needful for me. If he has too much, if he is rich and feels that he needs nothing, he’ll be tempted to think, “Who is the Lord?” What do I need God for? I provide for all my own needs. Jesus warned against this arrogance that puts our trust in the material possessions and things that we have accumulated, and find our security in them. He warns that our life can be taken in a moment, and then what becomes of all our wealth? So daily bread is to keep us satisfied with the things God gives us each day. On the other hand, Agur prays that God would not make him poor, so that he is not tempted to steal and again dishonor the name of God.

We honor the name of God when we give thanks to Him for our daily bread and realize that He’s the source of everything we need to support this body and life. When we pray “give us this day our daily bread” we’re not just praying for our own needs, but that God would continue to “create and sustain every job that brings me my daily bread and provide faithful workers for them, i.e.: farmer, buyer, shipper, processor, baker, trucker, stocker, sales clerk, etc. I am praying that God will have me share my daily bread with those who are unable to work for theirs” (Gary Zimmerman). And this prayer and petition just multiplies exponentially when we consider that daily bread is not just the loaf of bread or the food on your table, but our clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors and the like.

When we consider how broad and inclusive the good things are that God provides us to sustain our daily life, we realize that these simple words describe an incredible degree of God’s care, protection, and involvement in the good of His kingdom in this world. This petition is all about the “earthly good” that God is working through His kingdom, and how we are called to be faithful and thankful workers within it, as we separately perform our jobs to keep a peaceful and ordered society, and to allow goods and services to be fairly exchanged and distributed.

Yet as we live in the kingdom of God, we often do fall under the influence of this world and are drawn away. We neglect our duties to God and our fellow man. We’re irresponsible or dishonest at work. We take advantage of others. We hurt people by our words and deeds. And we dishonor the name of God. We’re called by the name Christian, but our actions and words often fail to show it. We may fall into false belief when we accept dangerous or misleading teachings. The devil is a master at warping the Word of God and the Truth, and turning it into error. We may fall into despair, as life in the kingdom is rarely easy. We may face challenges to our faith, challenges to our walk with Christ, and there may be persistent sins that we struggle to overcome. Failure and constant attack can push us to despair. We feel defeated.

But this is exactly why in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus makes provisions for our weaknesses and our failings. Jesus provides for His servants, His agents in His kingdom. If we’re carried along in the river of His kingdom, we may encounter rapids and swift currents. We may feel frightened or tossed about at times, as that river courses through the uneven terrain of our lives, with its hidden dangers. But although we’re attacked by these things, by the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh—we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory. Jesus provides for our safety and protection as we work in His kingdom by forgiving our sins, by keeping us from temptation, and delivering us from evil.

When we confess that we’ve neglected our duties, that we’ve hurt our friends or neighbors, when we’ve not lived to honor God’s name, when we feel defeated by sin, Christ proclaims His forgiveness for our sins. One of the key marks of God’s kingdom is the pure teaching of His Gospel—the grace and undeserved love that God shows to us. Wherever that river of God’s kingdom flows, it brings with it the refreshing, healing, and life-giving water of Jesus Christ. He is the water of life (John 7:37-39), and we drink, swim, and are refreshed in that water of His kingdom. In the waters of baptism we are dripping wet and clean from our sin. When Jesus died on the cross, water and blood poured from His side in a forgiving stream, taking the guilt, shame, despair, and punishment of our sin away.

By the same token we’re strengthened and guarded from temptation and delivered from evil. Living in this kingdom of God is still a great challenge because we’re still in the “now” of this world and life. We still face the temptations, attacks, and assaults of the evil one, namely the devil. The devil wars to drag us out of that river, to pull us out of the kingdom. To make us stones and obstacles to others and to God’s kingdom. The devil would leave us parched and dying in the desert, far from the life-giving water. So all the more as we daily pray the Lord’s Prayer, we take up and arm ourselves against evil and temptation, we receive the forgiveness of our sins which gives us a clean conscience, and we live by the daily bread of God that feeds and nourishes us as we become God’s servants and agents of godly change and transformation in this world. With His Word on our lips and His Prayer in our mouths we are equipped for a life of service in His kingdom, carried by His rive until our last hour comes and He gives us a blessed end, graciously taking us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven. Amen. Amen means—“Yes, yes, it shall be so!” 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. How does praying Lord’s Prayer, and specifically “Your Kingdom Come” send us into the world for His work? How is it a life-changing and world-changing prayer? See the Small Catechism, and the explanations to the Lord’s Prayer.

2. How did Jesus teach about the kingdom of God being “at hand?” What response did He look for? Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7. What is the kingdom of God? Explain how the kingdom of God is now but not yet. Luke 10:9-11; 17:20-21; 22:29-30. How do we recognize the kingdom of God?

3. How are we brought into the kingdom of God? How does each petition of the Lord’s Prayer relate to our life in that kingdom of God, and guide and equip us for the trials, challenges, and responsibilities of life in the kingdom? See Jesus’ Prayer in John 17, esp. verses 15-18.

4. How do we keep God’s name holy in our lives? How have we not? How broad is the prayer/petition “give us this daily bread?” What is included, among all the good gifts of God? What significance is there to praying “daily”? How do the words of Agur teach us to have a daily trust in God? Read Proverbs 30:7-9.

5. Who provides daily bread? Who is involved? How are we involved in bringing about that earthly good?

6. How does the Lord’s Prayer anticipate and provide for our sin and failings? How does God guard and deliver us from evil? John 7:37-39. How does Jesus provide for our forgiveness?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Deconstructing Icons

As summer marches on we’ve continued our Creation and Evolution Adult Bible Class. The videos have stimulated much good thought and discussion. So far we’ve surveyed how the influence of evolutionary thinking has affected morals and societal institutions like the family. We’ve looked at the creation of the universe and the grandeur of outer space, considered questions of time and the age of the universe, and how that relates to questions about when Adam was created and how sin and death came into the world. We’ve also looked at objections to the existence of God, and understanding the difference between macroevolution (the universal common descent of all living things) and microevolution (the horizontal, small-scale, observable changes within animal and plant kinds). I’ve continually emphasized that creationists and evolutionists live in the same world and have the same facts and evidence to view, but that your starting point or worldview has huge consequences for what conclusions you end up drawing from the evidence.

One question that I suggest we pose to believers in evolution is this: “What specific evidence compels you to believe in evolution? What is the compelling evidence that proves it’s true?” Unfortunately, because evolution is all we hear about in the media and in the schools, and we often accept it uncritically without examining the evidence or both sides of the question. Unthinking acceptance of what everybody says is hardly a reason to believe anything. Hopefully through the course of our Bible study, participants are beginning to have some examples that refute evolution, and show it to be inadequate—evidence for why they don’t believe evolution.

In the most recent video, Icons of Evolution, we looked at several of the key “textbook” evidences that supposedly represent evolution. It’s startling to find that many of these supposed “icons” of evolution are known, even by evolutionists, to be misleading, inaccurate, and even fraudulent. Yet they remain in our textbooks!! For your consideration, I’ll summarize a couple here. First is the embryonic diagrams that are found in many biology textbooks (including my freshman General Biology textbook from college!), that seem to show the similarities in stages of development for unborn humans, reptiles, fish, or birds, etc. Supposedly these stages of early development “retrace” our evolutionary ancestry within the womb. However it’s long been known that these drawings don’t accurately match the real embryo’s and leave out the earliest stages of development where the differences are the greatest. This was a case of picking and choosing evidence, and fraudulent artistic alteration of the facts.

A second well-known “icon” is “Darwin’s Finches.” A large variety of finches on the Galapagos islands all come from a single finch ancestor, but are each adapted with different sized beaks to feed on specialized food sources. This has been called the “best and most detailed demonstration to date of the power of Darwin’s processes.” But does variation within bird beak sizes even begin to explain the origin of species? Research has shown that these are cyclical changes and move back and forth with drought patterns, and so no net evolution takes place. This example shows horizontal variation among birds (microevolution—which creationists affirm and accept), but shows no vertical increase in information that could drive evolution into new species with fundamentally different organs or body plans. In the end, the finches are still finches, and this example of microevolution takes us nowhere in explaining the origin of finches in the first place.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria have also been presented as an “Icon of Evolution.” In many cases the resistance of bacteria to a drug is something they genetically inherited, so the information for resistance was something they already had, and the non-resistant ones just died out. In other cases, mutations can also cause bacteria to acquire a resistance they didn’t have before. But in experiments with these mutant-survivors and resistant bacteria, the consistent finding is that the “survivors” overall are weaker than the original parent bacteria. While these mutations may have been beneficial for the short-term survival of the bacteria against an antibiotic, they did not result from an increase of genetic information that could provide the engine to drive evolution forward. These examples actually run counter to evolution because the genetic changes are from a scrambling or deletion of information in the genetic code, not an increase of new information that upward evolution requires. In order for evolution to produce more and more complex life, it needs an information-generating engine—but such an engine remains lacking. It cannot rely on scrambling and deleting already existing information.

One more example. The evolutionary “Tree of Life” is a common diagram shows all life—the whole variety of animals, plants, fungi, and single and multi-cellular microscopic life—tracing back to one primitive single-celled ancestor. The problem is that it’s not mentioned that the major branches and trunk that connect different kinds of life are hypothetical and not based on actual fossil evidence or the notorious missing links that remain so elusive. Also, the similarities in design between animals that are grouped together, don’t show the same pathways of genetic development as evolutionists would have expected. In other words, similar looking structures are built by different instructions and different procedures in different species. The actual picture of life from what we see by actual experience, and in the fossil record, looks much more like an “orchard” or field of small, branching blades of grass, than a single tree with all life connected through one ancestor. This idea of an “orchard” or grass field fits much more closely with the view that God created a diverse variety of living creatures that had great potential to vary within their kinds, but appeared fully formed and unique at the creation, and to this day are fully formed and unique animal kinds.

Resources and references on all these and other Icons of Evolution can be found in the online book; just search the title “Icons of Evolution” with Google, and look for the book by Jonathan Wells. Anyone is also welcome to borrow the videos or DVD’s we watch, and/or request one of the study guides we’ve used, if we covered a topic that you missed or were interested in.

Finding out that man’s theories are fallible and prone to crumble when they run contrary to the teaching of Scripture should come as no surprise to Christians. The Bible is the only fully authoritative and inspired account of the “history of the universe” from creation through God’s redemption in Christ Jesus. But what should come as a surprise to us, and should give us pause to reflect, is why even many Christians so readily accept and endorse a theory such as evolution that is propped up by “icons” or pillars of dust. My prayer is that we will use our God-given reason and knowledge of the Bible to be wise and discerning, so that we aren’t misled to think that truth is found by majority consensus.

Longing to be Debt Free?

“I’m up to my eyeballs in debt!” “I just can’t make my mortgage payment anymore.” “It just seems like one unexpected expense after another!” Sound familiar? In these hard-hit economic times, most of us are feeling the pinch. If you’ve found yourself in such a situation—if you’ve got debts on cars, homes, and student loans, you probably have wished or dreamed of what it would be like to be debt free. To have all of your debts paid in full, and to be in the clear. Here at Emmanuel, we still are paying down a sizable debt on our new land for the school expansion. We too would long to be debt free. Graciously and thankfully, as of spring 2010, the school has fully paid down the debt on the classroom expansions of some years ago (the modulars) on our current property. Every debt paid is like a little victory, right?

So imagine for a moment what you would do if you were debt free. If the mortgage and the car and the credit card were all paid off. Your income would no longer be chained to someone else. This was the goal—“financial freedom”—of the Financial Peace class we held about a year ago, and hopefully will do again this year. The presenter envisions an individual or family paying off those debts one by one, and each debt paid is like a little victory, worthy of a shout and a little celebration! You may imagine yourself going on a dream vacation, or multiplying your savings, or being able to give more generously to charities and philanthropy—or all of those and more. Free of the pressure and worry of making ends meet, of always owing the bank or someone else. For many, such a dream seems elusive. And it may or may not remain so, depending on how one determines to solve their problems.

But setting aside the material and financial side of living with debt, the Bible sometimes uses the same language of “debt” in a spiritual way. Depending on how the Greek word opheilemata is translated, the familiar phrase in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” can be translated as debts. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12, ESV, KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, NRSV). Have you ever considered or realized what it means to be “debt free” before God? That we owed an enormous and un-payable debt of sin to our Lord and our King, and He released us from payment and forgave us that debt? (Matt. 18:21-35) That Jesus took the certificate of debt that we had accumulated because of our sins, and He cancelled it by nailing it to the tree of the cross? (Colossians 2:14) What kind of freedom and what kind of release is that?! More than worthy of a shout and a celebration! Words can’t fully express the change from being sunk past our eyes in the debt of our sin, to being lifted out of the mire (Ps. 69:1-3) and be forgiven of our sins.

How should you live then, knowing that you are debt free before God? That Jesus has paid the full price for your sins, and has blessed you with His riches? More than just restoring us to a zero balance, Jesus has sealed us (in Baptism) with His Holy Spirit as the guarantee or down payment on our inheritance, until the time we acquire possession of it, in heaven (Eph. 1:14; 2 Cor. 1:22). We have been filled with the spiritual blessings and riches of His grace (Eph. 1:3, 7). Living debt free before God means that we should not hold grudges or unforgiveness in our hearts against anyone else for their debts (Matt. 18:21-35), so that we forgive as God has forgiven us. Living debt free before God means living with the rejoicing and freedom that comes from knowing our debt has been canceled.

Cling to this Gospel message, that Christ paid our debt in full. Beware of those who reduce or change this message of salvation. Some find the message just too good to be true, and that there just has to be some way that we contribute to our salvation. Sometimes well-meaning Christians worry that if we don’t somehow chip in to pay the debt, that people will abuse and take this freedom for granted. This certainly is possible, that people will turn this newfound freedom into a license to sin. But as the Apostle Paul warns us, this should never be (Rom. 6:1-4), and that to use our freedom to return to sin is really a return to slavery (Gal. 5:13-26).

So to counter such errors, to keep Christians from turning freedom into license, some have employed different errors. (Which never solves anything!) Sometimes salvation is diminished to a “debt-reduction” program, where Jesus didn’t pay your debt in full, but only reduced it to an amount that you can afford. Then, by your good works, you work off the remaining, smaller debt, and are cleared. Salvation then becomes somewhat of a probation program, and your promised inheritance of eternal life is still given by Jesus, but only in a conditional way. Then it’s up to you to prove by your good behavior that you deserve it. So in the end it’s still your reward that you’ve earned. But anytime we add anything to salvation, anytime we add something to what Jesus has done for us, we really subtract Jesus. Because to add to Jesus is to say that His work of salvation for us, His paying and canceling our debt, is somehow incomplete. That it’s only complete when we’ve done our part. This tragically takes away from what Christ has done, and lowers its importance, while trying to increase the importance of what we do.

But our salvation is not a debt-reduction by Jesus, it’s the total and complete forgiveness of our sins, to which we cannot add anything. That certificate of debt that Jesus nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14) now is stamped in His blood: “PAID IN FULL.” We no longer have to long to be debt free, we can begin living in the freedom that Christ has won for us, the freedom to live as forgiven children of God, and to use our freedom for thankful love and service to Him and our neighbor. Have faith in Jesus and know what it means to have true spiritual freedom, in His name, Amen.

Sermon on Luke 10:38-42 for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, "Serve Me the Good Portion!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s sermon comes from Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha, and how Mary found the “good portion.” My prayer today is that you would regularly and often be served by God’s good portion! Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and
from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The scene at the house of Mary and Martha raises the question of who is the host and who is the guest? At first glance, Jesus is the guest, and Martha dutifully takes on all the work of a gracious host. Busy doing the cleaning and cooking, making the home presentable for the master teacher. She’s distracted by doing all the serving, preparing a meal. But Mary takes on a whole different view, and sees that there is a different host, and that Jesus is that host. Even more importantly, He is serving them with better “portions” than they could offer Him. While Martha was distracted preparing a meal, Mary was sitting down to a feast of a whole different kind, and was being served good and healthy portions by Jesus. What was being served? What’s to eat? Mary dined at the rich feast of Jesus’ teachings and His Word. She was taking generous helpings of the words of grace which flowed from Jesus’ mouth, and savored and treasured the words of eternal life. And Jesus calls Martha from her distractions and serving, to sit down and join them, and also dine at this feast. He invites Martha and us to receive the good portion!

When we gather for worship in the Lord’s house, it is a privilege and blessing that He is the gracious host who comes, not to be served, but to serve by giving His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). There is much good service and active hospitality that we can do in service to God’s kingdom, but on Sunday morning when we gather for an hour each week, we should set aside all distractions and activities, and practice the passive hospitality of listening to God’s Word. Start by hearing those words of Jesus to Martha and us: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Jesus wants to serve us, and feed us with good gifts. He wants us to desire the good portion, and to receive it often, because this is the one thing that is necessary—to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear His teaching. Put aside everything else and ask to be served the good portion!

We do this by regularly gathering for worship, and receiving the good gifts that Jesus has prepared. We receive His forgiveness spoken to us in the absolution when we confess our sins. We receive His Truth in the hearing of His Word. We’re taught in preaching the application of that Word to our lives, to know that we too have God’s forgiveness and promises. We join publicly in prayer, to the Father who opens His heart and ears to our requests. We receive His true body and blood given in the Lord’s Supper, for the forgiveness of sins. When we gather in worship, from start to finish, we are receiving a rich feast, a meal that Christ serves us—with plenty of good portions. Any hungry person should know where the meals are!

But unless they can avoid it, hungry people usually don’t go a week between meals. And it’s my hope and goal that you will increasingly hunger after the Word of God, and build a regular diet of God’s Word and prayer. Since we have worship services only once a week through most of the year, I want to encourage you all, if you haven’t already, to make personal or family devotion time a regular part of your week. We should desire to receive God’s good portions as often as possible, and one additional way we can do that is by daily study and devotion to God’s Word. And yes, during the week just as much as on Sunday morning, there are all kind of competing interests, activities, and distractions to keep us from the study of God’s Word. So I’d like to encourage every one of you to begin this week to set aside time to study the Bible and pray. And I’m going to give you a simple, practical format to follow.

Now some of you may already have regular devotions and prayer, and that’s great, and please continue to do them. You may decide to add this format to your study if it’s helpful. Martin Luther’s barber had asked him for some simple advice on how to pray and study the scriptures, and Luther wrote back with a simple, four question format to guide him. He wrote that prayer should be the first business of our day, and also the last, and that there will always be a million reasons and distractions that tempt us to postpone or put off prayer. But we shouldn’t put it off, or we’ll never get around to praying. And we should try to minimize or eliminate as many distractions as possible. Don’t try to study the Bible while the TV is on, the computer is running and people are messaging you on your cell phone, or you’re listening to the radio, whatever. Create a quiet and peaceful setting by turning everything off and allow yourself to concentrate and have a single focus.

So to help you remember the 4 steps or questions, I have a simple acronym: TARP. It stands for Thanksgiving, Ask, Repent, and Prayer. Say that back with me: Thanksgiving, Ask, Repent, Prayer. So here’s how it works: each letter represents a question. Begin by reading a section or chapter of the Bible for the day. If you need someplace to start, begin in the New Testament with one of the Gospels, like Matthew or John, and just keep reading a chapter or more a day. Let’s use our epistle reading for today to see how it works: (read Col. 1:21-29…) After you read the chapter or passage, the first step is “T,” Thanksgiving. As you reflect on the text, ask yourself the first question: “For what does God’s Word inspire me to give thanks?” What about the reading should we be thankful for? In Colossians, we can give thanks that God has reconciled us to Himself through Christ. Thanks that His Gospel has gone out to all creation, and that we too have heard it. We can give thanks for God’s great riches of His glory that He has made known to us. If you are reading as a family, let each member identify something in the reading they are thankful for.

Next is “A,” Ask. The second question is “What does God ask of me to do or believe?” Does the reading encourage us as disciples to do anything? To believe something that is taught there? The Colossians reading calls us to continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not to waver from the hope of the gospel we’ve heard. We are asked to hold fast to the truth, so that we aren’t lead astray by some other “gospel.” Paul says he labored hard, using his strength and energy to warn and teach people about God’s Word. So we’re called to believe in the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ and to hold to it against all errors, so that we might grow up mature in Christ. Some passages may be easy to find what God asks of us. Others may be more difficult, especially if it is narrative describing the events or experiences of some Bible character, like Abraham in the Old Testament reading. But even if there is no direct instruction or command to disciples in the reading, we can look for what Godly traits and characteristics should we see and model after those saints in the Bible? Or, if it was describing a bad situation, what things are we asked to avoid? “A” for Ask should lead us to apply the Bible to our own life and situations.

Next is “R,” Repent. The third question is: “For what thought, word, or deed am I led to repent?” This is follows after “Ask,” which may lead us to see what we have failed to do. What sin does the reading expose? Does it reveal attitudes in my heart, words that I have spoken, or things that I have done, that have sinned against God or my neighbor? Our Colossians reading describes how we were originally alienated from God and hostile to Him, before we came to His grace. We were doing evil deeds. We can call to mind the sins that we have committed and repent of them. We can repent of the times we lacked faith, and didn’t trust God’s promises. We can repent of our wavering and doubt, or our tolerance of what we know to be false and contrary to God’s Word. Our repentance is never without forgiveness. As we lay these sins before Jesus, and confess them to Him, and receive His forgiveness. We see our failures in the mirror of His Law, but we see also the Good News or Gospel of God’s love, that He has forgiven our sins. We are assured that all the sins we have confessed before Him are forgiven and washed clean, as the reading shows we are presented “holy and blameless and above reproach” before God. When you look for what we must repent of, also see how God speaks of our reconciliation.

Finally, “P” is for Prayer. The fourth and final question is “For whom or what am I inspired to pray?” What does the passage lead us to pray about? How does the passage teach us to pray? What special concerns are found there? Again in our Colossians passage, since he talks about the message of the Gospel going out to all creation, and his work as a minister, we might be moved to pray for missionaries and pastors. Pray that God would send workers into His harvest field, and that the harvest may be plentiful. Pray that God’s Word reaches many hearts. Pray that God may use you to reach someone with His Good News! Pray that you and others may fully know the riches and fullness of God’s grace. Bring in your own prayers and petitions for friends, family, co-workers and personal needs.

Tying the four strands or questions together, after you have reflected on the Bible reading, you can take these four parts into a prayer. Remember: TARP—Thanksgiving, Ask, Repent, Prayer. I like to use Scripture as the lead in for prayers and requests. Here’s an example based on our reading: “Dear Lord heavenly Father, in your Word you teach us that you have reconciled us in the body of Christ, so that we might be holy and blameless before you. We give thanks to you for your great love and mercy to us sinners. You ask us to hold fast in our faith and believe strongly in your Gospel. We repent that we have not always done this. We have strayed from your Word, and we have doubted. We pray for your forgiveness, confident of what you have done for us in Jesus Christ. We pray for missionaries and evangelists throughout the world, that they may boldly proclaim your name to all people, and that many more might believe and be reconciled to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

It's not necessary that you follow that exact format for the prayer, but you can use it like “training wheels” to help you formulate your own thoughts and prayers as you’re led by the Holy Spirit and have reflected on God’s Word. The main goal of this exercise is that you begin to develop a daily study and prayer life in God’s Word. And maybe if you are already doing it, you can make your study more fruitful by asking these questions that lead you to see how God’s Word applies to you.

My hope and prayer is that as you begin to do so, as you daily enrich your prayer life with God’s Word, that you will crave more and more of the “good portion” of God’s Word. That you will develop a healthy and growing hunger for the “fine food” of God’s Word, which is the one necessary thing. The more we are fed with God’s Word, the more that we daily sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him, the more our lives will be filled with His peace, and the less trouble and worry we will give to the many things that make us anxious and troubled like Martha. For the Word that Jesus teaches us will always refocus our eyes on Him, and His great and enduring love for us, and how God carries us through each day of 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:
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Listen to audio at:

1. Who is the host and who are the guests in the scene with Mary and Martha? Who is host and guest when we gather for worship?

2. What sort of busyness, service, or distraction can take us away from receiving the “one thing needful”, to hear God’s Word? On Sundays? On weekdays? Describe the “good portions” that we receive from God. Make it an intentional goal to set aside that time only for Jesus, both weekly for worship, and daily for His Word.

Learn and Practice the Four Strands of Devotion and Prayer. As you read a Scripture passage daily, use the acronym TARP (Thanksgiving, Ask, Repent, Prayer) to guide your study along four questions:
1. Thanksgiving (For what does God’s Word inspire me to give thanks?)
2. Ask (What does God ask us to do or believe?)
3. Repent (For what thought, word, or deed should I repent?)
4. Prayer (For whom or what am I inspired to pray?)

3. If you don’t currently read the Bible throughout the week, set a goal for yourself to begin doing devotions. If you don’t read at all, try to set your goal to study at least once a week, and set a time and stick to it! Make an “appointment” to sit at the feet of Jesus! If you read the Bible once or twice a week, set a goal to double that. If you already read the Bible and do devotions daily, great! Work on expanding your prayer life.

4. What are the benefits of receiving the “one thing needful/good portion?”

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sermon on Leviticus 19:9-18 and Luke 10:25-37, for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, "Become a Neighbor!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon today is based on our two readings from the Old Testament and Gospel. Perhaps you already caught the connection between them. The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is quoted from Leviticus chapter 19. Also, though it wasn’t part of the lawyer’s question to Jesus, Leviticus 19 shows us what it means to be a neighbor to someone else. Today we’ll see in these two readings how Jesus answers the question of “who is my neighbor?” and how they teach us to exercise love to the neighbor. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Gospel reading is a two-part dialogue between Jesus and a lawyer. Not a personal injury lawyer, but an expert in the Law of Moses—the Old Testament commands. The first part of the conversation is about what someone must do to have eternal life. The second part is when Jesus uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to teach the lawyer who is his neighbor. I’m going to focus mainly on the second part of the conversation, but first let’s briefly look at how the lawyer got started off on the wrong foot.

The lawyer wanted to test Jesus, perhaps trip Him up in His words, maybe find some evidence that Jesus didn’t fully honor the law of Moses. His question was: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Did you catch the flaw in his question? It’s a good example of how not all questions can be answered correctly in the way that they are asked. Sometimes the question itself needs to be fixed. The flaw was that you don’t do something to inherit anything. You can’t earn an inheritance, or merit it, it has to be given. “Inheritance is not a payment for services rendered” (Bailey 286). It comes as a gift to family or dear friends as a gift—just like our salvation comes to us as a gift, by our adoption as children of God. So Jesus doesn’t answer directly, but first asks a question back to the lawyer. “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The lawyer answers well by quoting Jesus’ own summary of the law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all you strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus answers the lawyer’s original question by saying: “Do this, and you will live.” Essentially Jesus told him: “You want to earn eternal life? Fine. Follow your own advice. Live up to those standards and you will indeed inherit eternal life” (Bailey 287). So is Jesus advising us that salvation can be earned, and the Law is the guide? Well, a person who could unfailingly keep the law of Moses to that degree of perfection wouldn’t need grace. But what Jesus has shown the lawyer and us, is that this is an impossibly high standard for us sinners to keep. The problem isn’t with the law, but with us and our sin. But the lawyer didn’t catch on. He accepted Jesus’ answer and likely presumed that he was keeping the Law pretty well, but just needed some clarification on who exactly his neighbor was, so that he could go about earning his acceptance before God on his own (Bailey 288). So he asks the second question that leads us into the main discussion: “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is probably one of the most well-known teachings of Jesus. And as the hearers of the story listen to how a man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead, they probably would have recognized a few things. First, they would assume that the injured man was a Jew. Next, Jesus described three traveler’s who came upon the injured man. A priest was the first and belonged to the most prominent class of people in Israel, because of their service in the Temple. The second traveler, a Levite, belonged to a second class that assisted the priests in the Temple. Following the progression, the hearers would have expected the third traveler, the expected hero of the story, to be a Jewish layman. But here’s the hidden surprise of the parable. It’s not a “good Jew” who is the hero of the story, but a hated outsider: a Samaritan. This struck a nerve of racism, and showed the boundaries or definitions of “who is my neighbor” go further than someone who looks, acts, and talks like me.

In ancient Palestine, it would be a simple matter to identify who were the “us and them” by clothing, language, and accent. But the first person, a priest, to come upon the injured traveler has a problem: the man is naked and unconscious. He can’t identify if this man is a Jew or a Gentile. If a Gentile, then he wouldn’t feel responsible to do anything. What’s more, there’s a risk in getting involved. Maybe this guy is actually dead. If so then he would be ceremonially unclean for at least a week. In other words, it would temporarily disqualify him from work, and create a burden of money and time on him to take that risk. He did the cost-benefit-analysis and decided it wasn’t worth the risk to help this man. The costs outweighed the benefits. Actually, what motivation really was there for him to help this man? He walked on.

Do we pass by need or suffering in the same way? The costs outweigh the benefits? Nothing in it for us? Maybe a risk involved, or a loss of time and money? Where do we see needs and suffering? Or are we looking? The parable is a call for us to have open eyes to the needs of our neighbor. To not pass by suffering when there is a way that we can help. If you cannot help alone, perhaps you can find someone who can meet the need, or get assistance for a person. A sad modern day parallel to the Good Samaritan parable is the recent case of a homeless man who was stabbed by a thief after he rescued a woman in NYC who was being robbed. While he lay dying for more than an hour before firefighters accidentally discovered him, more than 20 people walked by on the sidewalk. Most stopped and looked, a couple shook or rolled him over, but not a single one did anything to help, even to call 911. Tragically, while Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was the Good Samaritan for that woman, no one was willing to be a Good Samaritan to him.

Many probably had the same impulse that the second traveler, the Levite in the story. He also passed by the injured man. Maybe he was the assistant to that first priest, knew he had passed by, and didn’t want to upstage his superior. Commentators on the death of the man in NYC talked about the “bystander effect,” that people typically won’t do anything more than anyone else in a public place. Someone else can take responsibility. But how easily the buck gets passed and finally no one is found to help. But whether the phrase “bystander effect” is really just a psychologist’s term for cowardice or indifference, it’s easy to criticize those people’s actions, but harder for us to face similar situations and step in ourselves to help. Perhaps there’s a little fear to overcome. What’ll happen if I get involved? Fortunately in our cell-phone age, it’s much easier for us to call professional help when a situation seems dangerous or questionable. But sometimes quick action is needed, and we might be the only one available or brave enough to step in and help. In such a situation may we, like the Good Samaritan, feel compassion & act.

The surprise of the parable, as I said before, was that the hero turns out to be a Samaritan—a mixed relative to the Israelites, who were despised and hated by the Jews. Yet he is the one who has compassion and stops to help the wounded man. He makes no cost-benefit analysis to decide his involvement, but compassion made his decision. This man is dying and needs my help. Using oil and wine may sound strange to us, but would have been an ancient way of disinfecting and treating a wound. The Good Samaritan immediately assumed the risk of helping this man, assumed the cost of his care. It was a costly demonstration of love and service to a stranger. It cost him oil and wine, material for bandages, the delay of his trip and the cost of the inn. Likely he even was facing the risk of entering hostile Jewish territory with an injured Jewish man, which would have made him suspect. And his closing act of kindness went above and beyond the call of duty—to pay the full bill to the innkeeper and make a pledge to repay any excesses in cost when he returned.

What a pattern for us to follow, what a model for compassion, concern, and costly love and service! The rescuer who came from the outside to save a dying man. He took on great cost and risk and did more than was expected of him. We cannot miss the parallel to the greater example of Jesus’ rescue. The theme of the Good Samaritan is most fully seen in Jesus coming as God’s rescue agent from the outside, coming to the weak, the dying, and the wounded. Coming to help the suffering and those afflicted by sin. What greater example of compassion, concern, and costly love and service is there than Jesus? He gave the most costly demonstration of love by giving up His riches to become poor for our sake, that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). He binds up our wounds, cleansing our sin and guilt, pouring on us the oil of gladness, giving us the wine of His blood to drink for our forgiveness and cleansing. He provides for all our needs and pledges to do even more for us when He returns. Truly in the inn of the church we are fed and nourished with the gifts of God at Christ’s expense, and when He returns to earth, He will take us to His Father’s heavenly mansions. Jesus went above and beyond the call of duty to win salvation for us. It was nothing we could earn or merit on our own.

Now Jesus was ready to answer the lawyer’s question about “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus changes the question and asks: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” So the turn is this: Jesus challenged the lawyer to consider who should he become a neighbor to? The answer the lawyer is led to is that he should become a neighbor to anyone in need, regardless of their language, religion, or ethnicity (Bailey 297). That’s the call for us today, to become a neighbor. Who is it that you can become a neighbor to? Time has run short to fully consider the Leviticus passage, but look at the chapter later for all the practical examples of how we should become a neighbor. Jesus saw, as Leviticus 19 makes clear, that the command to love the neighbor is broad, not narrow. The neighbor includes the sojourner (a traveler or foreigner staying in your land) who is under God’s protection. It includes the poor, the oppressed, the worker, those with handicaps, etc.

Finally there is no limitation on who can be our neighbor—or better, who we can become a neighbor to. And the motivation to help doesn’t come from any reward or benefit for us, least of all the thought that our good deeds would earn us the eternal reward of heaven. Eternal life comes as pure inheritance and gift. While the lawyer thought the Law would earn him life, if he had studied Leviticus 19 carefully, he would have seen that God said: “You shall be Holy for I the Lord your God am Holy” (19:2). The Law shows us the model of God’s costly love for us to imitate. And only by receiving God’s costly gift of love through Jesus’ death on the cross and His resurrection, do we have that example of costly love living in our hearts. Reborn and being renewed after Jesus’ image, we’re motivated to love our neighbor as ourselves with the same costly, self-giving love of our Savior living in us. We’re motivated to love out of pure and astonished thankfulness and love for the One who gave His all to show us mercy in our need, so that we…can go and do likewise. Become a neighbor, 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. What was the flaw in the lawyer’s original question? How did he understand the purpose of the Law? How can you correct the question?

2. How does Jesus answer the question: “Who is my neighbor?” Who can we become a neighbor to? Are there limitations? Why might the lawyer have been looking to limit the definition of who was his neighbor? What are some ways that we put limitations on who our neighbor is, or who we are willing to help?

3. What are some real needs that you see around you? In your community? Family? Church? How is compassion your greatest resource to help? What are ways that we excuse ourselves from action? How can we overcome cowardice or indifference? Why is a “cost-benefit analysis” a selfish way to evaluate if we should help? What is the contrasting attitude?

4. How is Jesus the quintessential example of the Good Samaritan? How is the parable fully expressed in His rescue to us from outside? 2 Cor. 8:9

5. How is the costly love and service of Christ created in us, so that we model God’s holiness? See Leviticus 19, especially vs. 2. What refrain echoes through this reading?