Monday, October 22, 2012

Sermon on Mark 10:23-31, for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, "The Impossible? That's God's Job!"

·         Do you think you’ll have difficulty entering the kingdom of God? Thought about it? For many, this question is way off their radar. A hard place to enter? American confidence—assume we’re all virtually guaranteed a spot. A study by George Barna in 2003: 81% believed in an afterlife, 76% believe there is a heaven, 71% there is a hell. However, only one half of 1% believe they will go to hell, while 64% believe they will go to heaven. Not convinced of Jesus’ words? Way to heaven is narrow, path to destruction is broad and easy? Of course polls and statistics will never tell us whether 50 % will actually go to heaven, and 50% to hell, or 40/60, 20/80, or anything like that. Only God knows. But we’re not that different from the disciples—surprised at the difficulty of getting into heaven—first for the rich, then for anyone—then plain impossible!
·         Jesus’ conversation—after the rich young man’s encounter. Wealth is a hindrance, a hardship, for entering the kingdom. Jews thought the opposite—prosperity a sign of God’s favor—maybe even able to do more good works, charity, etc. Disciples were stunned: riches are an obstacle to entering, rather than advantage? A rich man getting into the kingdom of heaven is harder than threading a camel through the eye of a needle, Jesus says. Disciples’ jaws were hanging. Wondering, “Then who can be saved?” You’re not leaving us any options here! Modern interpreters of the Bible have jumped to find a way around the harshness of these words. If a camel can’t fit through the eye of a needle…maybe enlarge the size of the eye of the needle?! A tiny gate in a city wall, where a camel would have to stoop down to enter, with difficulty, perhaps? No support from archaeology or history in Jesus’ time; but just to drive the point home and rule out even that possibility, Jesus shrinks the eye of the needle down to nothing—zero. “With man it is impossible.” Just hang on those words for a moment, before stealing Jesus’ thunder and jumping ahead. With man it is impossible.
·         Why did Jesus need to strike down our optimistic view that we can all make our own way in? That it’s so easy to enter, and that human effort and striving make it possible? We all know lots of fine, decent people, and everyone’s surely heard someone say (if you haven’t said it yourself) that they think “I’ll go to heaven because I’m a pretty good person.”
·         So why does Jesus rain on the parade? Why does He show the gates of heaven as locked up tight and impossible to scale by human effort, not just open to every “pretty good person”, and why does He leave the disciples and us gasping, “Then who can be saved?” Suddenly all human strength, strength of morals, strength of mind, strength of arm—all fall away. There’s no “try your best and get an ‘A’ for effort.” For us, it’s impossible. Jesus does this, because, as you may have noticed, God is everywhere in the Bible constantly striking down pride. First to last pages God is humbling human pride and reminding us that He is God. Jesus drums away in many places this refrain: “May who are first will be last, and the last first.” God does it so that we take no confidence in ourselves, our worthiness, or our effort. To show us that it’s impossible without Him. Ahh…but wait…the impossible? That’s God’s job!
·         There’s no human effort or achievement that gets us there, but God and God alone. There’s no entrance but by Him. All things are possible for God, means that God can achieve what we cannot. He is the doer of the impossible. If salvation was a “do-it-yourself” job, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to come into the world or suffer so terribly on the cross. If we could free ourselves from the power of our sins, then He wouldn’t have had to die for them. He could have just left it up to us! But sin and our predicament was a God-sized problem that required a God-sized solution. Jesus came to open to us the way of everlasting life.
·         This is why Jesus came to teach and proclaim the kingdom of God was near. Shatter all false hopes and false dreams of achieving heaven by our effort. When false hopes and false dreams are shattered, we’re left with the truth. He had to wrest our trust from earthly attachments like wealth that would blind us to our need for God or rob us from contentment with what we’re given. Riches fuel our anxiety and drive us to greed and imagined self-sufficiency. He had to reorient our thinking to show us what is temporary and what is eternal, and where to store up true treasures that will last—in heaven. Jesus had to unlock the self-made sin prison of our self-will—all our selfish seeking after personal gain and our own path. He came to speak the truth, and set us free, so that we would not be enslaved to our passions, our possessions, and our self-made religion, but that we would find true freedom, forgiveness, and life in Him.
·         Right here and now, in this place of worship, and in every place where Jesus’ name is praised, we can lift up glad songs of thanksgiving, that God has done the impossible. That we, self-willed, sinful, undeserving men and women, have been rescued out of the slavery of sin and death, and that Jesus has opened the gates to the kingdom of God to us. With God, all things are possible—and our salvation is the greatest gift of all. In this life too, we share the joy of an “extended family” of Christian brothers, sisters and mothers—in our family under God our heavenly Father. Words can’t even begin to express our appreciation to God for His love and His blessings. But Lord, receive our praise nevertheless, as we praise You and acknowledge You for Your mighty works and salvation. You are worthy of all our praises, in you and in your cross we boast, for you are our light and our salvation! We confess that you have done the impossible for us, and that heaven stands open to those who trust in you, because of your great mercy and Jesus’ great suffering and sacrifice. Hear our prayer and our praises for the sake of Jesus Christ, and teach us to be grateful. Teach us to know the surpassing greatness of your gift, and to proclaim it to all the world. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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Listen to audio at:

  1. What typical attitudes have you encountered (inside the church, or outside it) about how or whether one will go to heaven? Do people even think about it at all? Do you agree most people think it’s easy or natural for most people to end up in heaven? On what basis? Good works?

  1. How did Jesus flip the disciples’ (and our) expectation about how easy the kingdom of God is to enter? Why did He start with identifying riches as an obstacle to entering heaven? What challenge does wealth present to faith? 1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5; Luke12:13-21

  1. How does Jesus further close the door to show that not just the wealthy will find it difficult to enter the kingdom? Who then can get in by human effort? What kinds of human effort do people usually consider as deserving an entrance into heaven?

  1. Why does Jesus and more broadly the whole Bible strike down human pride? Luke 1:52; 14:11; 18:14; James 4:6; Ephesians 2:8-9. Why cannot salvation be a “do-it-yourself” job? What is the power of sin to enslave us? Why did this require a “rescue job” from Jesus? What did it cost?

  1. Since God gets all the credit, and deserves all the credit, how should we live? Explaining the 1st and 2nd articles of the Apostle’s Creed, Martin Luther describes our response to God’s Fatherly divine goodness and mercy, and the Son’s gift of redemption this way: “For all this it is my duty to thank and to praise, serve and obey Him”…and “that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.” How can we praise and thank Him today and every day?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sermon on Amos 5:6-7, 10-15, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, "Justice in the Gate"

·         Amos, a shepherd living about 750 years BC—sent by God to Israel to call them from their sin. Warns that time is running out for them to turn, seek the Lord and live. 722 BC, the whole northern kingdom of Israel would be wiped out by the Assyrian armies.
·         Should never surprise us that Biblical times even 2700 years ago were not far from the way things are today. Customs, technology and fashion might be different, but the problems and the sins are much the same. Just like King Solomon said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” In today’s passage, listen for parallels to today.
·         The prophets’ main focus was usually on idolatry—leaving the true God for any other—or trying to worship the true God alongside any other. God does not allow divided loyalties to Him. v.6 reads: “Seek the LORD and live, lest He break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel.” God’s anger was rising against Israel’s idolatry. The town of Bethel had become a shrine for worship of false gods, a terrible irony, since the name “Beth-el” literally means the “house of God”—a name given by the patriarch Jacob, when he saw God and received His promises and blessings at that place. The place that had been dedicated to the honor and glory of God had now been turned into a home for idols and false worship. Other prophets scornfully called it “Beth-aven” or “house of nothing” or “house of wickedness” (Hos. 4:15). If they would turn and seek God instead of false and worthless idols, the LORD might spare them and be gracious to them.  It is only for the sake of God’s grace and forgiveness that we can live. Life is from His mercy.
·         But hand in hand with seeking false gods was the way they were living. Evil and injustice were springing up like bitter weeds across the land. Of course when we think of justice and injustice, our minds go immediately to the courts. The court is where a person expects justice to be delivered. Its where we should find civil or criminal wrongs dealt with fairly and honestly; that the innocent are vindicated, upheld in their cause; and that the guilty are fairly punished or held accountable. It’s a travesty of justice when right and wrong are turned upside down—when the innocent are unjustly condemned, or when the guilty go free. Amos’ audience also would have thought of the courts when he was addressing them about justice and injustice. Though the “court system” was less formal than today, this is just what Amos is talking about when he refers to “the gate” three times in the reading. In v.10 it says “They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth.” The city gate was the informal court, where the elders or respected wise men of the community would gather to hear and settle disputes. Here was the place for the poor and the needy to seek justice against their adversaries.
·         But what happened instead? Corrupt men obscured the wrongdoing of their wealthy friends. Unjust judges took bribes to keep silent, and not enforce justice against those who were getting rich by dishonest gain. The needy came to the city gate seeking justice, but they were being turned away and denied it. And when the truth was spoken against this corruption, those guilty judges and wealthy oppressors hated public rebuke and deafened their ears.
·         At the root of injustice and corruption, whether it’s in the courts of yesterday or today, whether it’s in the marketplace, government, education, business, or even in the church, is when men forget that God is the ultimate Judge, and that He will uphold justice. Forgetting God and ignoring what is just and right, people imagine that they are getting away with injustice. They think that no one sees their actions, or can stop them. They think that with bribes they can keep authorities quiet about their wrongdoing. Who suffers the most from injustice? The poor and the helpless. Those who cannot stand up for their own rights either because they don’t have the means or the power to do so, or because they are voiceless. Today, the unborn, the disabled, and the elderly are often the most defenseless, and the least likely and sometimes least able to have their rights defended.
·         But God is the “Father of the fatherless, and the protector of widows” (Ps. 68:5). “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9). So God warns the evildoer that they will not enjoy the riches they have stored up for themselves—that their false sense of security will be lost when God comes to defend the cause of the innocent. God will deal with all injustice. He sees and knows all sins and transgressions, and will deliver justice. He is the ultimate judge, and His courtroom will upset all the unjust verdicts handed down by men.
·         And we, His followers, are likewise to be agents of His justice. Not only are we to pray and wait upon His deliverance, but also we are to work to bring “justice in the gate” to all who need it. We are to “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate.” Because we know and remember that God is the righteous Judge and upholder of all justice, we are to have a passionate hatred of evil and injustice, and a passionate love for good and justice. A Christian lives not only in an isolated world of other Christians, but in a wide world that often does not remember God is Judge. We see injustice taking place all around us, and we must seek to establish justice in its place. It begins with us living justly ourselves, according to the good pattern and example that God lays down in His commands; and it extends through loving our neighbor and seeking justice for them as well. We cannot be blind or deaf to injustice, or the cry of the needy and poor. We should seek to be free of partiality or favoritism, and to seek only what is right and true.
·         For we believe in and know the One True God, the defender of the weak and helpless, and we believe in and know Jesus Christ His Son. We saw how He came into the world to suffer under the great injustice of our human sin—to be the innocent man who died in our place for all of our guilt. But also the One who did this because He came bringing Divine Justice to us—to pardon us from our offenses to make us new in Him. He is the hope of the “remnant”—of the few who remain and believe and trust in Him. The hope of those who seek good and not evil. And if we have suffered injustice in this life, and if we can find no justice, but only corruption—then we can cry out to Him, to the only One who can finally deliver true justice to us. And we wait for the day when Jesus will finally return and bring justice to all. It is His love of justice, and His gracious mercy toward us that motivates our love of the same, and our forgiveness toward others. Only in Him can we be confident that a world of injustice will one day be made right again, for "Righteousness and Justice are the foundation of His throne" (Ps. 89:14). Amen, Come Lord Jesus!

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

  1. Amos lived in the mid 700’s BC. Who was he? Amos 7:14-15. What was the primary sin that the prophets of God usually spoke against? How did idolatry overtake the city of Bethel? 1 Kings 12:26-33. How did it originally get that name? Genesis 28:10-22; cf. Hosea 4:15
  2. Why is it not surprising that sins of idolatry and injustice were the same yesterday as they are today? Ecclesiastes 1:9-10.
  3. What basic expectation would people normally have when taking a matter to the courts? Leviticus 19:15. What kind of practices threaten to interfere with justice? What normally took place at the city gate? Deuteronomy 21:10; Ruth 4:1–12.
  4. What injustices do we see in various realms of life? The court? Business, government, education, church? What must we do if it is in our power to change injustice? To whom should we cry out if it is not in our power? Who are most in need of our protection today?
  5. How does God assure us that He brings justice and is the defender of the weak? Psalm 68:5; 146:9; Hebrews 10:30. Why should those who are corrupt and cause injustice fear God and His judgment? What should they remember?
  6. How are we to “establish justice in the gate”? Where can we assist and protect the cause of the weak, the helpless, the poor, and the vulnerable? Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 7:5-11; James 1:27
  7. How does justice and injustice relate to Jesus’ coming into the world, and His death on the cross? How was He delivered from the injustice of His innocent death? How was the sin of the world justly dealt with? How is He the hope of all those who have suffered injustice and wrong? How then shall we live until He returns? 2 Peter 3:10-13

Monday, October 08, 2012

Sermon on Mark 10:2-16, for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, "Marriage and Family in God's Plan"

Sermon Outline:
·         Simple question: What is the state of marriage today? How would we answer? Divorce rates are very high (inside or outside the church), domestic abuse hotline at Women Helping Women fields an average of 60 calls a month on Maui alone. Same sex unions are already legal in Hawaii and several other states, with the promise of more to come, and the redefinition of marriage is aggressively underway. Same-sex advocates are vigorously promoting a change in public opinion and want the abandonment of the natural and Biblical definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. Of course, if you think that marriage is between a man and a woman, you’re now portrayed by the TV and media as a hateful bigot. Apparently one cannot have thinking, reasonable objections to redefining marriage to include same-sex unions, without being hateful and discriminatory. Or so we’re told. Increasingly, people just reject marriage altogether, freely choosing relationships without responsibility or commitment. Add to the mix marriages that are intact but rocky, and what do we do? Is it time to throw in the towel on marriage? Surrender to thinking that marriage isn’t salvageable? That it’s a thing of the past?
·         But heavier than our individual opinions are questions like: What is the definition of marriage? Is it up for grabs? Are only religious people concerned? Is it a public or private concern? Does society have an interest in the social goods that result from marriage? And more importantly, don’t children have an interest in stable and enduring marriages; and who protects their rights? All people, even single folks, properly have an interest in preserving and upholding marriage and the goods that it brings to society.
·         Jesus lived in a society with marriage troubles of its own—certainly divorce, infidelity, and prostitution—in Jewish society, but also all the wider problems we face today in Gentile society. So how did Jesus respond? Did He adopt a view of marriage that everyone could live with, or that matched the current state of affairs of the day? Did He work from the ground up and define marriage based on accepted practice?
·         Jesus did not. If anyone (including us) hoped that Jesus would adopt some “grass roots” definition—we will find ourselves greatly disappointed. Looking at it from our human perspective—all the broken and sin-disordered relationships in our lives are like broken glass. Painful and sensitive subject. More than enough sharp edges to prick ourselves and bleed on. Every sin-disordered relationship, whether our own, in our families, among our friends or in our work place—has ripple effects. A praiseworthy, noble, and upright definition of marriage won’t be created by picking up the broken glass. God’s gift is bigger than our individual sins and failures and endures despite them.
·         So Jesus raised the conversation, the definition of marriage, to show it from God’s perspective. God’s perfect command, His intention, purpose behind marriage. Jesus rewinds to the beginning—Genesis 1-2, before the Fall into sin, before our relationships were disordered with sin. Back to the perfect giving of Adam and Eve as the first marriage union of a man and a woman. From here, from God’s vantage point, Jesus says that all the disorder, separation, and brokenness of married relationships was not so. That was not God’s plan or design. What was God’s design? It is crystal clear and simple—one man, one woman, faithful for life. That’s God’s plan for marriage. Take it from Him, that His plan is best.
·         “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.” According to Jesus, gender really does matter in marriage, and God designed our biology that way. To oppose that view, one must war against nature itself, and the very design and function of our bodies. Instead, we should rejoice in the uniqueness and difference of male and female, for only through their complementary design, is God’s plan for marriage realized. Nature only allows this union to result in children, despite the attempts of technology to get around biology.
·         Jesus quotes again from Genesis: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Marriage is no arbitrary or accidental choice of God, but the way God designed for love to be expressed and practiced between man and woman. Marriage involves a significant parting from our parents—a growing up, a separation, the beginning of a new family unit. A profound union of body and soul takes place in the intimate expression of love. The two become one flesh. God’s design directs this union to be kept holy, without betrayal, without outside interference, and to build the security and stability of the family unit. It directs our love to be self-sacrificing, rather than self-interested. To turn our love outward to the good of our spouse and child, not inward to the satisfying of our own desires. For man and woman to hold fast to each other. God’s good design for marriage is the unbroken picture for us to see His will.
·         And as we look at this “unshattered” picture of God’s will, and see how Jesus prohibited divorce, we’re painfully reminded how far from the standard our human examples of marriage fall. We wince and cringe under the heavy law that shows God’s one, simple plan for sexuality—a lifelong, exclusive union between a man and a woman, or purity outside of marriage. We see the reality of unloving or rocky marriages, divorces, remarriages, affairs, live-in relationships, same-sex relationships, abusive relationships, and on and on all around us. And so we look for a loophole, an escape—someway that we can justify ourselves, escape judgment, or comfort our consciences in the light of the heavy law. But Jesus was not a “savior-by-loophole” who found enough places for us to hide from the law. Nor did He intend for us to stop obeying His law. Rather He closed every loophole. We cannot, must not escape the law’s force, because the big judgment of the law puts us to death, so that Christ can make us alive again. Baptism is truly a death to our sin, a crucifying of our old sinful desires with Christ on the cross. If we look at the Law apart from Christ, it is unbearable. There is no refuge to be found in the law. But the law drives us to take refuge in Jesus Christ and His promise of forgiveness. He is the only hope for humankind, with its untold relationships disordered and broken by sin. He is also the one who joins together and blesses intact marriages—and we should celebrate His grace and forgiveness that sustains these as well. When we’ve admitted our sins and wrongs, and turn to God, His gracious forgiveness for Jesus’ sake is ours.
·         We may know families, or maybe even our own, that are struggling in marriages, through divorces, and whose hands are cut by the broken pieces of life. We need to speak to them of God’s forgiveness, and that there’s a way through repentance and forgiveness, back to the life God wants for us. Those with wounded hands and hearts come to Jesus, who with His hands and heart wounded on the cross, brings healing and life to us.
·         The law is so heavy that Peter described it as a “yoke…that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear. But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:10-11). That heavy law we could not bear ‘kills us’ through repentance—driving us to confess our sins before God—and in our baptism, our sinful self is crucified with Christ. But there is the turn—to our new life in baptism. In the waters of baptism God has declared you His forgiven child, and your sins are not with you—they are on His cross. God pours out His grace and a new life lived in forgiveness and under grace is now yours in Christ Jesus. Crucified with Christ, we also are raised with Him. Jesus bore the heavy yoke. When we start to feel the crushing burden of the law, and that there is no escape from its demands—that even our “best life now” is far short of the pure goodness, unbounded love, and steadfast devotion to God and His demands—then we are reminded that Jesus bore this burden for us. He took it all on Himself at the cross. With no loophole of escape, He died for our guilt, our selfishness, our disobedience. He let the judgment we deserved fall on Himself.
·         But He died and rose to grant us forgiveness. What does that mean for us? That our guilty slate is wiped clean, and that His innocence is credited to us. More, that His obedience is counted to our sake, so that God sees His righteousness as our possession by faith. That His perfect life of love and self-sacrifice for the church, is His faithful “wedding vow” to His people. With a new life in our baptism, and the daily dying of the old sinful nature, we live to “be His own and live under Him in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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

  1. What is the present state of marriage in the society and in the church? What is at work to redefine marriage? What threatens the stability of marriages? Why do not only Christians have an interest in protecting natural marriage between man and woman?
  2. How was Jesus’ approach to marriage not “from the ground up?” Where did He begin? Mark 10:5-9; Genesis 1:27; 2:18-25. Stated simply, what is God’s good design and plan for marriage?
  3. How are same-sex unions contrary to both nature and God’s Word? Romans 1:26-27; 1Corinthians 6:9-11. How are all forms of sexual immorality contrary to God’s command? 1 Corinthians 6:18-20
  4. How does marriage create a one flesh union between husband and wife? How does it involve a significant parting from parents? How does the faithfulness and exclusivity of this union foster the stability of family? How does this in turn provide countless social goods? How does marriage turn our love from ourselves outward to another? How is Jesus’ love the perfect model for us? Ephesians 5:22-33. What self-sacrifices do spouses make for each other?
  5. How do we measure up against God’s perfect design? Why is our natural tendency to find loopholes or some escape from the law’s judgment? If Jesus was not a “savior by loopholes”—how does He save us from the judgment of God’s law against our sin? Acts 15:10-11; Romans 8:1-8
  6. How is baptism both our death to sin, and our resurrection to new life? Romans 6. How does Christ bless and sustain marriages? Who is it that joins man and wife in the marriage union? Mark 10:9
  7. How are Jesus’ wounded hands comfort to us who need grace to leave our sins behind and to cover them? What does it mean for us that by faith Jesus’ innocence and perfect life are now ours?