Monday, March 31, 2014

Sermon on Ephesians 5:8-14, for the 4th Sunday in Lent, "Children of Light"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In a world that is so thoroughly electrified, it’s rare that we get to experience true darkness. The constant glare of streetlights surrounds us, and the hazy glow of light pollution hangs over anyone who lives even close to a city. I’d bet even your bedroom is not completely dark—with little LED lights from your alarm clock or computer, or a power strip glowing in the dark. Total physical darkness is not much of a thought in our well lit modern life. Before electricity, things were very different. But have modern lights really changed what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 5, where he tells us, “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord?”
Of course he’s not talking about physical darkness, as if flipping on the light switch brought us out of darkness. It’s spiritual darkness he’s talking about—and that is the same today as ever. But it should catch our attention that he doesn’t say you were “in darkness” and now you are “in the light”—but he says “you WERE darkness, but now you ARE light in the Lord.” Being in a room with the lights on or off doesn’t change anything about who you are. But this speaks much more strongly of our identity, our being—that we were a PART OF the darkness, or even that the darkness was inside us. Sin, after all, is not just something outside us, or part of our surroundings, that simply moving or changing our circumstances could get rid of it. Sometimes we do need to flee from sin that is around us or outside us, but we should not forget that sin is also inside us. When the Bible talks about our “flesh”, its talking about that sinful nature that is part and parcel of how we were born into this world. We carry sin with us in our heart and our desires. So being darkness because of sin, we need a far deeper cure. We need a total transformation of our being. Ephesians 2:5 tells us, “5even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”
Our reading in chapter 5 echoes this by saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Our darkness of death and sin has been overcome by the Light of Christ who calls us forth from the grave. It reminds us of Jesus calling Lazarus out from his tomb, waking from the dead, walking back into the light of life. As profound as our darkness was—reaching to the depth of our being, so much more profound is the Light when Christ has called us out from death! You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord! Again, not just you are in light, but you ARE light. The Light of Jesus has shone into the very depths of our being, our soul, our nature, and made us a new person. As sin once held sway, now light holds sway in our hearts and in our life. And the Light of Christ drives out the darkness.
All this is completely by grace, not of our own doing, so that no one can boast. Salvation is nothing of our own doing, but all of God’s doing. But the fact that nothing we do gets us into heaven doesn’t mean that God has nothing for us to do. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. We do good works because it’s God’s will and plan for us, and because it’s a natural outcome of our new identity. Not to earn His favor, but out of thankfulness for new life in Him.
So our passage today from Ephesians 5 sets out the shape of the Christian life. “Walk as children of the light”. To “walk” refers to total conduct of our life. Our whole walk is to be as children of light. That means keeping away from “unfruitful works of darkness” or shameful things done in secret. That is not the way of the light, it’s not the way of Christ, and Scripture warns against returning to the old ways of darkness, so that we don’t endanger faith and salvation. The way of the light and of darkness run in opposite directions, and you can’t stay on both paths. The rest of Ephesians chapter 5 gives examples of the unfruitful works of darkness to avoid: sexual immorality, impurity, and covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among the saints. No filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. No empty and deceptive words, no drunkenness.
In order then to walk as children of light, we have to be able to “discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” If our walk means staying on the right path, then God’s Word as a Lamp to our feet and a Light to our Path shines the way to go. It keeps us from stumbling into sin and error, because we’re especially vulnerable when we fall into the darkness, away from the Light of Christ and His Word. But discernment isn’t an easy task. Sure, sometimes sin is obvious and blatantly wrong—but more difficult and more common is when Satan comes to deceive us on the sly. When he first tempted Eve, he didn’t take the direct approach, but was sneaky and tried to get her to doubt and question God’s Word. Then he tried mixing a little of God’s Word with some lies, to give those lies the “flavor” of truth. But it’s no truth if its mixed with the lie. It is a lie, plain and simple. Deception and temptation require discernment and the Light of God’s truth to expose, because they are rarely straightforward.
The Christian, wanting to do what is good and pleasing in the sight of the Lord, listens to God’s Word, learns His commands, and hears the pleading of the Holy Spirit in our conscience. We apply God’s Word to the multitude of situations we face in life. Knowing what is the right thing to do in a given situation may take study of God’s Word, prayer, and perhaps discussions with your pastor or a fellow Christian who is mature in their faith. Better to live with a clear conscience, knowing that you are striving to walk as a child of light, than to ignore conscience and do whatever seems most convenient, most comfortable, or most enjoyable. Quite often sin comes in attractive packaging. The devil is a good marketer. But seeking what is pleasing to the Lord means striving to know and do God’s will, just as Christ did.
Christians have another responsibility as children of light, and that is to “expose” or “convict” those “unfruitful works of darkness.” How do we do this, if its “shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret”? Obviously we live in a time where there is little shame about sin, and in the day of the internet and social media, and where practically everyone has a camera phone, there are few things that are secret any more. Dozens of TV shows and tabloids are fully dedicated to gossip and rumors and scandals. So how do we expose or convict sin, without delighting in what is shameful? There are a number of ways. One is that we strongly oppose sin, for we know what it is, and are not ignorant of the devil’s schemes. Another is to speak the truth in love, winsomely persuading people to turn from error, and using “divine power to destroy strongholds; destroy[ing] arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and tak[ing] every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:4-5). We can show the emptiness of sin and error by the truth of God. And, not only by word, but also in action, we can show the better way, the fruit of light that is found in all that is good and right and true. And setting a positive example of living by God’s design, may show what is good, right, and true to those who may never have known or seen anything better or different in their life.
But most importantly, the way we convict or expose the works of darkness is the same way that they are convicted in us—when Christ shines on us. When the light breaks into our darkness, it drives back all the shadows, no less in us than in anyone else. The very Word of God by which we practice and train for discernment, is the same Word of God that is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The Word of God’s Truth examines and exposes all the thoughts and intentions of our heart. Every sinner must be convicted of their sins, and that continues in this life as long as we are still alive and sinning. And the cure also remains the same. Convicted of sin, exposed by God’s Light, we again hear the call to resurrection and new life, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!”
As the Light of Truth convicts our sins, so also the Light of Jesus’ Life shines forgiveness and cleansing on us. Once forgiven and set free, that Light of Jesus purifies and cleanses us from all sin. Only the Lord Jesus who went to the cross for our sin and rose from the grave to defeat death can call us up from darkness to live anew with forgiveness. Jesus calls us to arise daily, and His life, His forgiveness, His power calls us out of the grave and darkness of our sins. And more faithful than the rising sun that greets us each day, is the great faithfulness and mercy of Jesus to daily rise and shine on us. Light of the World, Light of our Life, Jesus shines on us and makes us Light in Him. He makes us to walk as children of the Light. So all our life is filled and illumined with the glory and greatness of His grace, to the praise and glory of the Father’s name. Amen.

  1. Read Ephesians 5:8 carefully. Note that it doesn’t say “you were in darkness”, but rather, “you were darkness, but now you are light.” Why is this difference significant? What does it tell us about who we were and who we are now in Christ Jesus? How thorough is the original corruption of sin? Ephesians 2:1-5, 11-12; 4:17-20; 5:3-7
  2. This passage describes how we live as “light in the Lord.” Can you identify in these verses what actions we are to take, to live as children of light? How does this new life flow from and remain in Christ?
  3. The “fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true”. There are limitless possibilities for the good that we can do in our life, and in the various callings or vocations that God has given us in life. But they are found in all that is good, right, and true. What similar thing does Paul say in Galatians 5:23, after describing the fruits of the Spirit?
  4. Why is learning to discern what is pleasing to the Lord an essential task for the Christian who is walking as a child of the light? What makes it challenging to discern what is right and wrong? What is the nature of deception and temptation? Genesis 3:1-6; 2 Corinthians 2:9; 11:13-15. How do we discern what is good and pleasing to the Lord? Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:12-16; Philippians 1:9-10; Hebrews 4:12; 5:14.
  5. We are called not to participate in “unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them”. What sinful practices do you know that you need to avoid or leave behind? What makes sin so alluring? How does seeing a better way to live—God’s way—help to convict us concerning sin, so we can leave it behind and come into the new life Christ has for us?
  6. How is the new identity that we have in Christ? How is this pure gift and new life? Whose power is it, by which we both live and bear fruit? Describe the joy of being cleansed by Jesus of all sin. How can God use you now?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:6, Beatitude 4, Lent 4, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness"

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Tonight we reach the fourth beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Physical hunger and thirst are easily recognized, and “hunger pangs” in the stomach or dryness in the mouth or throat inform us whether we are hungry or thirsty. The sensations are pretty easy to recognize—although people who talk about dieting say that even these ordinary sensations of our body can sometimes be misread. People say that sometimes when we feel hungry, a simple drink of water can satisfy us. As a parent (or maybe it’s just dads), you are sometimes uncertain whether your baby is crying because they are hungry, or just because they need your attention, or have some other need to be attended.
If physical hunger is felt in the stomach or thirst in the throat, where do we feel spiritual hunger or thirst? What are the “spiritual hunger pangs”, and do we ever misread or misunderstand them? The heart or conscience is where we experience unrest or disquiet when we are guilty or when we witness injustice and unrighteousness. Our heart or soul is what longs for God, and desires Him and His attention, His gifts. As we hear this past Sunday, “My soul thirsts for God, for the Living God.” But do people always know or realize that God and His righteousness are what we thirst and hunger for? Don’t we often find the wrong answer for our longings, or seek satisfaction from empty pleasures, spiritual “junk food”, or false gods? While there are plenty of bad things we try to “fill up” on, nowhere does the Bible tell there is such a thing as getting “too much” of God’s Word. As one of my college professors would say, “There’s no such thing as spiritual overeating, and while some people are spiritually starved, there is no one who is spiritually overweight.”
Jesus felt physical hunger and thirst when He fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted by the devil. He related His physical hunger and thirst to spiritual things when He answered the devil, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” God’s Word is a deeper source of food, and greater satisfaction than any earthly food can provide, and it was God’s Word that sustained Jesus through that period of fasting, but also through His whole life. This past Sunday when we heard the story of the woman at the well, Jesus was again thirsty and hungry, asking for a drink from the woman, and then speaking to her about her spiritual thirst, she was at first unaware of. In the verses we did not hear on Sunday, but that you just heard read from John 4, Jesus’ disciples come back from town with food for Jesus. He tells them that He has food to eat that they don’t know about, and while they are puzzling over what He means, He explains: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” Though He may still have hungered, Jesus found satisfaction and fulfillment in carrying out the will and work of His heavenly Father. He did so by bringing a thirsty woman and a village of Samaritans to come to Him, the promised Messiah.
Yesterday’s Portals of Prayer had a good devotion about noticing Jesus’ response to various things. What made Him sad, what made Him rejoice, etc. If we pay attention to what makes Jesus satisfied, what fills Him, it is to get God’s work done, and to live by God’s Word. If we hunger and thirst for righteousness, then Jesus says we are blessed and shall be filled. This is the kind of hunger craving God wants us to have, and wants to satisfy in us. To know and do His will and to hungrily eat His Word. To thirst for and drink from the Living Water, Jesus Christ, poured out in spiritual abundance in baptism, in the washing of the forgiveness of sins, and in the refreshing renewal of new life.
Since God’s Word and the life of the Spirit promises to fill our emptiness, where does that spiritual emptiness come from? I think you already know that it comes from sin. Guilt and shame are like hunger pangs that cry out to God for the forgiveness and holiness that only He can provide. Sin is not how we were made to operate, and when we do sin, our “system malfunctions” and sends out warning cries. If only we can recognize the warning signs and get to God for help. Or rather He comes to rescue us. Sin is the rebellion and opposition to God that turns away from His will, from His commands, and from His Word. Sometimes that hunger comes when we go on a “spiritual hunger strike” and deprive ourselves of God’s Word; like a person starving themselves in the midst of a feast. We only hurt ourselves. We are not in a time and place where there is any shortage of God’s Word or that our access is cut off to Him.
In the Old Testament, the prophet Amos once spoke of God sending a spiritual famine on God’s people, a famine of the word of God. They would no longer hear God’s Word and prophets, and would hunger and crave for what they had once despised. Some places in the world do suffer from a famine of God’s Word—in some cases due to persecution, in some cases from a shortage of missionaries and willing messengers of the gospel, in some cases because of persistent resistance to and rejection of God’s Word. Then it may be harder to find that spiritual nourishment—though not impossible. But we are surrounded by God’s Word, and millions of homes have multiple copies of the Bible, and yet many sit unread. Churches are on near every corner; worship and Bible study opportunities abound. And yet one also must be discerning to see that what is taught is faithful to the pure Word of God, and be watchful for false teachings. But no one should go unfed, and no one should be spiritually starved for the life God is so eager and willing to give.
But what specifically does it mean to hunger for “righteousness?” Righteousness can mean several things in Scripture. Certainly Jesus does not mean here that we should hunger for the self-righteousness or civil righteousness of our own works, which everywhere falls short of the glory of God. So what righteousness? The righteousness of the kingdom of God, in the broadest sense of God’s justice, righteousness and salvation unfolding as Jesus brings the kingdom of God to earth? In this case, it would mean the Christian’s hunger or longing for God’s kingdom to unfold on earth, for His justice to overtake wickedness, and for the goodness and peace of His reign to take hold in place of evildoing and strife, of wars and contention. That also would include God’s righteousness transforming our lives as well. The Scriptures certainly echo this longing of believers. Or could the “hunger for righteousness” mean more narrowly the spiritual righteousness brought as gift to us by Jesus’ death on the cross? This is the perfect righteousness of Jesus, His obedience to God, His life of pure goodness, and His suffering on the cross in our place, by which He grants to us His perfect innocence. It’s the righteousness of Jesus that makes it possible for us to stand in God’s sight and in His judgment as forgiven and redeemed, cleansed and made new. I cannot rule out either of these possibilities of what Jesus means. In both the coming of God’s righteous kingdom, and also in the gift of Jesus’ righteousness to believers, we are most certainly blessed and deeply satisfied.
And we’re here to feast on His Word, to drink deeply of His forgiveness and life, and to find satisfaction in His gifts. So we truly give thanks and praise Him for Jesus Christ, that He hungered and thirsted for us. That He hungered for the will and work of His Father to be done—and He did it. Faithfully and obediently going to the cross, destroying sin and death so that we can have righteousness and life. Jesus hungered for God’s Word and found in it rich consolation and strength, even as a man enduring great physical hunger, thirst, grief, loss, and suffering. He lamented the brokenness of the world laboring under sin, and grieved for those harassed and helpless, but was not powerless in the face of such evil. He came to shepherd us and deliver us from it with His mighty hands and His outstretched arms. As Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross, His hunger and thirst were satisfied in knowing that the Father’s work was being done, so that at the end, Jesus could say with all boldness and confidence, “It is finished.” And as Jesus felt the loneliness and forsakenness of death, God’s Word was still His comfort, to cry out with trust in God, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.”

Just as Jesus’ hunger and thirst were not left unsatisfied, but His soul was satisfied with the rich food of God’s Word and will, He has done this all for us. He lives so that we can live in that blessing and never need to hunger or thirst again. His richness and blessing He freely and mercifully pours out on all who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Sermon on John 4:5-26, for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, "Living Water"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Last week we read in John 3 about Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus about being born from above, of water and the spirit. Jesus said that just as the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from or goes, so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. So Jesus taught that the work of the Spirit was recognizable, but moved by the unseen. Today the breath of the Spirit and the Living Water move yet again in an unexpected way, to restore and refresh a parched and thirsty soul, who did not even know her thirst at first.
You ordinarily escape indoors from the hot noontime sun when you live in the Middle East, I understand. Before indoor plumbing, the women ordinarily went to the community well in groups during the cool morning hours, to avoid the heat and avoid going alone. So this Samaritan woman either had a reason to be, or wanted to be alone, even if it meant going out in the uncomfortable heat. And Jesus knew this was just where to find her. Of all the people in the village He could have chosen to meet, He wanted to meet her. With total purpose, Jesus placed Himself and His thirst, within reach of her help—even as He was bringing her undiscovered thirst into reach of His help. She would have water to quench His physical thirst; He would have Living Water to quench her deep spiritual thirst.
But He wasn’t supposed to be here—at least not according to Jewish custom. And it shows in her surprise. Jews and Samaritans were half-blood relations, but they had a bloody history between them, of idolatry, hatred, the destruction of a Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim, and retaliation by defiling of the Temple of Jerusalem. About 500 years of back and forth history was simmering with animosity between them. To find a Jewish man sitting by the well was suspicious enough—His request for water from a lone, unfamiliar, Samaritan woman was even more so. But Jesus wasn’t there to grind old axes and dwell on what divided them—He was here to bridge the chasm between Jew and Samaritan, and through the unlikeliest woman. As the Spirit blew that day, it rested on a woman who was the talk of the town, and the picture of isolation—whether it was self-sought or imposed on her.
Stop for a moment and consider what has changed from then till now. How different are communities today, than they would be if we had to go to a community well to draw our water? How different would our communities and our isolation be? Might we be forced to more face-to-face conversations, as opposed to conversing behind screens? Would we know one another better, and also be better known? But while indoor plumbing may have eliminated physical thirst and the toil of carrying water, the spiritual thirst of every soul is the same today as it was then. The loneliness and isolation that people feel today may be for different reasons and take different forms, but we all still need loving community. Jesus had divine foresight to plan His meeting with a thirsty and empty soul, but even with mere human sight can’t we see some of the places where humanity is crying out in loneliness, from guilt or pain? Are there ways we can intentionally respond? Do we see our vocations or stations in life as significant places for us to meet others and witness Jesus’ love to them? While our encounters might be unexpected—where Jesus knew what was coming—we can still be willing servants at Christ’s disposal. We can pray for opportunities to arise, and for us to be given the right words to say. Scripture promises us that the Holy Spirit is able to bless and lead us in this way.
As she questions His motives for asking a drink, Jesus begins a conversation about living water, and turns toward spiritual things. Still not tracking with Jesus, she points out that He has no bucket. When Jesus tells her that the water she is drinking is going to leave her thirsty again, and that He offers water that will never leave you thirsty, and wells up inside you to eternal life—He has her full attention. But she still has not understood her own thirst. She’s still thinking of physical thirst and the work it took to get her daily water supply. But Jesus sees a still deeper, unrecognized thirst in her.
What was that thirst, that Jesus’ “Living Water” satisfies? In Jeremiah 2:13 God said to Israel, “my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Both Jesus and Jeremiah talk of water spiritually. In Jeremiah God tells Israel that the false gods that they worshipped as “replacements” for the One True God were “broken cisterns”—empty storage pits that could hold no water. They were seeking from false gods what only the One True God could provide. The deepest thirst of the soul is to be in fellowship with God, our Maker. Psalm 42:2 says, “My soul thirsts for God, for the Living God.” Augustine, the famous Christian theologian of the 4th century, came to Christ after spending much of his life pursuing fulfillment in excessive pleasure, false religions, philosophy, drunkenness and distractions,[1] and found himself empty and worn. Years after his conversion and baptism, he wrote of his search and his longing, saying to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” This expresses the same thirst and restlessness of the soul that does not know God. Some people describe this as the “God-shaped hole” in us, that only God can fill.
As Jesus gently but resolutely opened her personal life in this private conversation, her suspicions and fears continued to melt away. While she was startled by His knowledge of her past, she also saw that He did not press on this to humiliate or wound her, but to direct her away from empty promises of fulfillment to the source of Living Water. In telling her to call her husband, he exposed the fact that she had no true husband, but five men who had divorced her, and now she was living with a man without marriage. Though only Jesus saw the full dimensions of her spiritual thirst, it’s a big enough hint for us that He had struck on the key point of her painful past. In doing so, He showed her that He knew her thirst, and that her sins were not hidden from Him. He knew what brought her here at this time of day, alone, where He knew He could meet her. And He was the answer to that thirst, not in the empty ways she sought it before, but in bringing her forgiveness and new life.
We approach Jesus, not at a well, but through His Word, and in His church where we gather to receive His gifts and blessings. Do we come unsettled by the thought that God’s Word will expose in us some sin or hidden shame? Do we fear what God’s Word has to say about our past, or even our present? Instead we can trust that as Jesus sees the full truth and knows our sin and thirst, so also will He be gracious and merciful to turn us away from the false and empty promises of the world, and back to Him. We can trust Him, as He has shown in countless ways His love and forgiveness for sinners; and we can follow Him on the path of new obedience. Knowing that His knowledge of our sin is not a weapon to wound us, but the scalpel in the hand of the good surgeon to heal us. Knowing that His faithfulness does not end in forgiving our sinful past, but continues  in leading us out of the captivity of sin in our present walk in new obedience. He is the Living Water that refreshes us for journeys and trials in this desert of sin, into His new life and freedom.
As the Samaritan women’s perception of Jesus continued to change, she soon saw Him as a prophet, and moved to genuine questions of worship, even if it was a convenient escape from her past. They were not far from the shadow of Mt. Gerizim, the center of Samaritan worship, where the Jews had destroyed their temple made to false gods. “Since you are a prophet, explain to me where is the right place to worship?” Jesus doesn’t point her to the Jerusalem Temple—because as He explains, very soon the worship of the One True God will no longer be centered there. In fact, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and Truth.”
Jesus is saying that the new covenant (which He was inaugurating), would be a landmark shift from the Old Testament to the New. It would not decentralize worship from Jerusalem, where God had declared His name and presence—but it would recentralize in Jesus Christ. You have to take in the context of the whole Gospel of John to realize this, but Jesus is the New Temple of God, and the center of all true worship. True believers will worship God in Spirit and Truth. He tells her that the Samaritans had worshipped what they did not know; but we worship what we know, for salvation comes from the Jews. Jesus is that salvation, and bit by bit His conversation was leading her to that Living Water and salvation in Him. Bit by bit the conversation moves from physical thirst to spiritual thirst, through her past to questions of worship and the true God, and culminating in her asking about the Messiah. “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ)”; when He comes, He will tell us all things.” Jesus answers, “I who speak to you am He.”
Suddenly the conversation has reached its climax, and she discovers this thirsty Jewish man, who she eyed suspiciously at first, is entirely more than she realized. How He had stirred her heart and soul, and given her the first refreshing drink of “water” in her memory! Something far deeper than any earthly refreshment she had known, the Holy Spirit filled her with joy and with faith. And forgetting her water jar, she ran to tell anyone she could that the Messiah was here—forgetting even her isolation.
Jesus is the Christ, the Living One, and when our soul thirsts for God, for the Living God, it thirsts for Him. And once He has poured out His life-giving Spirit and Living Water on us, we thirst no more. For there is none other who can quench our thirst; there is none other who can satisfy our soul. Our life reverses direction from an irresistible march toward the day of our death, with sin and empty pleasures drying us up and leaving us craving more, to a life that wells up inside us to eternal life. The life that drinks from and flows from Jesus, the Living Water who is never exhausted and never runs dry. And when we have found our rest and our refreshment in Him, our hearts can be at peace at last, reunited with the One who made us for Himself and whom Jesus redeemed to Himself. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. The Jews and Samaritans had some 500 years of violent history and animosity between them, including the Jews destroying the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim (128 BC), and the Samaritans retaliating by desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem on the eve of Passover, some years before Jesus was born. See the sins of Jerusalem and Samaria compared in Isaiah 10:9-11; Jeremiah 23:13-14; Ezekiel 16:51. Does Jesus allow the grudges and bitterness of the past stand between Him and this Samaritan woman? When she tests the water by referring to those things, how does He respond?
  2. Why do we think the woman was alone at the well? What is the likely cause of her isolation? Who are the lonely and marginalized people today? Where can they be found? Do we seek to bring the Gospel of Jesus to them? Are we available for God to bring us into significant encounters with them, to share the love of Christ?
  3. How does Jesus use her ordinary thirst to think about and discover a deeper spiritual thirst? How did He gently but inescapably expose her thirst? What is that thirst, and what satisfies it, and what things cannot? Jeremiah 2:13; Psalm 42:1-2; 63:1ff; Isaiah 55:1; Amos 8:11-12; John 7:37-39. What do we sometimes try to substitute for God? Why will this always leave us empty?
  4. How did her perception of Jesus grow and change, and what did she finally discover about Him? John 4:25-26, 29. What did she do with this discovery? 4:28-30, 39-42. How did people respond?
  5. How does the theme of not knowing, and then knowing appear in both the story of Nicodemus and the woman at the well? John 3:11; 4:21-24. Where (or to whom) does this new knowledge lead?


Monday, March 17, 2014

Sermon on John 3:1-17, for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, "Where do God's children come from?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. He came to Jesus at night; undoubtedly to hide his meeting with the famous teacher. It’s not hard to figure out why. He was a Pharisee, prominent Jewish religious leaders and constant rivals of Jesus, who frequently challenged His authority and teachings. Not only this, but he was one of the Sanhedrin, a ruling council of 70 influential men in Jerusalem. His secrecy was easy to understand at a human level, but his curiosity and his questions drove him to this nighttime meeting with Jesus. If there was something to what Jesus had to say after all, Nicodemus had to find out. If there wasn’t, no one would need to know about this late night interview.
Nicodemus opens the conversation with an honorable and respectful greeting, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” While this was still far short of recognizing that Jesus was God’s own Son, the Savior, Nicodemus was nevertheless honoring Jesus as a teacher and a prophet from God. Surprisingly, Jesus appears to ignore the praise, and shows no special regard for Nicodemus’ high ranking or position, but abruptly drives to the heart of the matter. Readers of the New Testament may often find it unnerving how blunt Jesus is, always seeing right into a person’s heart, and knowing exactly what they needed. Did Jesus see that Nicodemus needed a dose of humility? Or that Nicodemus thought he was worthy to approach God, when he really wasn’t?
In any case, Jesus drives right home to Nicodemus’ spiritual condition, (and ours as well) telling him that “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus steers the topic of conversation to answer, “Where do God’s children come from?” Nicodemus, like a kid hearing for the first time about the “facts of life,” is mystified by Jesus’ words. Be born again? How does that happen? Just like understanding the natural process of childbirth first comes as a mystery to a child, so also understanding the heavenly birth, the birth from above, of water and the Spirit, was not something he was ready to grasp. Had Nicodemus been asked, “Where do God’s children come from?”, he probably would have thought the answer was easy—they are the Jews! By birth they were God’s chosen people Israel. And in particular, those Jews who are faithful to the Law of Moses. This was after all, what the Pharisees strove after with all their natural ability and willpower. And people thought highly of them for it.
But Jesus saying that a requirement of the kingdom of God was to be born from above? Of water and the Spirit? These ideas were plainly incredible to Nicodemus, even though He was a teacher of God’s Word to Israel. Jesus chides that he should have known better. He must have thought that his life was already sufficiently good and spiritual to enter into the kingdom of heaven. The problem was that he was approaching it all from his natural mind, and a “legal” way of thinking. But Jesus wasn’t talking about something that depended on human will or effort, as we’re reminded in John 1: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). Whether we’re as morally upstanding and religious as Nicodemus, or not, no one enters heaven under their own steam, by their own effort. And no one enters heaven without being reborn from above. Why? Because from our first birth, our natural birth, we are by nature sons of wrath (Eph. 2:3). We are born into sin.
Jesus forcefully breaks through our natural understanding by teaching that we need an entirely new life, apart from the physical birth from our mothers. Even apart from any man-made religious beginnings we thought might commend us to God. Jesus teaches that being children of God only comes by rebirth from Him. The spiritual life in Christ is not a new and improved extension of our old life. It’s not a self-help program putting us in the driver’s seat. It’s not the fine-tuning of an already pretty decent life. It’s not even life support for our dying sinful nature. The rebirth by water and the Spirit is nothing less than putting to death our old sinful nature by baptism into Christ’s death, and rising in the resurrection of Jesus’ Christ in the new life of the Spirit. Rebirth is nothing short of death and resurrection—the total surrender of our former life under sin, and receiving the new life granted to us in Jesus Christ. And life just can’t be the same after that. God changes us from a life ruled by sin to a life directed by the Spirit.  
Jesus said that the work of the Spirit is impossible to control or  trace, just like the wind, but no less visible in its effects. Those born of the Spirit will inevitably be changed, even in remarkable ways. Plainly the faith that Jesus calls us and Nicodemus to is not a faith that can remain hidden or protected, but that must venture out and trust in Jesus, whatever the cost. Nicodemus may have left undecided that night, early in Jesus’ ministry, but when the cards were all on the table, and when his fellow members of the Sanhedrin had condemned Jesus to death, and Jesus died on the cross—something dramatic changed in Nicodemus. He was no longer hesitant about following Jesus, after he saw Jesus lifted up on the cross. No longer a disciple in hiding. Perhaps he remembered how Jesus said that night that He would be lifted up so that whoever believes in Him would have eternal life. But in any case Nicodemus finally believed. Though it may have seemed too late to become a disciple of Jesus—suddenly Nicodemus wasn’t afraid anymore. He and another Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea, took Jesus’ body and gave him a respectful burial. A risky action that plainly set them against the will of the Sanhedrin, that had condemned Jesus to death. This was a costly change of heart, to be sure, but it was undoubtedly the working of the Holy Spirit.
Faith is not just a little wishful thinking. As I said before it’s not a self-help program where you “believe in yourself” either. That might work for changing bad habits or learning productive ones. But faith is the trust that would stake everything on Jesus a thousand times. It’s anything but looking to ourselves—and all about looking up to Jesus. Faith is God’s work in us—it’s what happens when we are born from above by water and the Spirit. Faith is God’s vital transformation of our heart—from self-reliance to reliance on Jesus Christ. Faith is God’s work of receiving Jesus Christ for who He is—God’s beloved Son sent into the world as our Savior from sin and death, and believing that He is your Savior as well. Faith is God’s work in all His children, and it is the knowledge and trust in Him that leads to eternal life.
Faith in Jesus leads to eternal life because the power of Jesus’ dying and rising is the power of our rebirth. 1 Peter 1:3 explains, “He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Jesus resurrection is our rebirth. For this reason the Bible calls Jesus the “firstborn from the dead” and the “firstborn of many brothers.” Our rebirth from above comes from the resurrection of Jesus, and follows after the death of our sinful nature, just as Paul describes in Romans 6:3-5, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Baptism buries us with Christ and raises us with Him. Death to sin, and newness of life in the Spirit. Being born from above is to be joined to Jesus and His death and resurrection.
This new birth is available to everyone. God sent His Son into the world, not to rescue a select few—not to harvest the “cream of the crop” and bring down fury on everyone else. His mission was not of judgment, but of salvation. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Having the new birth is knowing and believing in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. It is the complete dying to our old life, and any attempts to build our own way to God, and surrendering ourselves and our sin to Jesus Christ. And in the drowning death of water and the Spirit, in baptism, God plunges us down together with Jesus in His death, and raises us up a new child of God in the Spirit, in Jesus’ resurrection. This is where God’s children come from, and it is a marvel and a mystery—but the power of Jesus’ resurrection is the power of our new life, and it is the source of a confident and lively trust in Jesus, and the promise of eternal life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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

  1. The Pharisees were the most influential and popular Jewish sect, and emphasized strict obedience of the Law. They believed that in order to gain God’s favor, they had to maintain separation from the Gentiles and their ways, and obey the law of Moses (The Lutheran Study Bible, 1557). As a member of the Pharisees and the Jewish ruling council of 70 (the Sanhedrin), Nicodemus was one of the most influential Jews in Jerusalem. Why did he come to Jesus at night? How did he later evidence growth both in faith and in courage? John 7:50; 19:39.
  2. Jesus does not allow Nicodemus to stand on his dignity, nor does He accept his praise, but challenges Nicodemus’ faith. Being “born from above/again” is a requirement of the kingdom, Jesus says. In vs. 3 & 5, what two things does Jesus say a person is unable to do, if they are not born from above, of water and the spirit?
  3. What is the new birth from above, of water and the Spirit? 2 Corinthians 5:17; 1 Peter 1:3; 3:20; Titus 3:5-7; John 1:12-13; 1 John 3:9. What are the effects or implications of this new birth? Why is this change impossible without the birth from above? What is the nature of our flesh? Matthew 26:41; John 1:13; 6:63; Romans 7:18; 1 Corinthians 2:14.
  4. Jesus is described in Scripture as the “firstborn from the dead”. Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15, 18; Revelation 1:5. How is Jesus’ death and resurrection the source of our dying and rising—our spiritual rebirth? Romans 6:3-5; 1 Peter 3:20. How does John 3:16-17 explain God’s purpose and intention for sending Jesus into the world? 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:4, for Lent 2, Beatitude 2, "Blessed are those who mourn"

            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today we continue our series on the Beatitudes, as a Christ-colored lens through which we see our Christian life. The second beatitude is, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” This beatitude helps make it clear that the Beatitudes are not commanding goals to achieve or attitudes to develop, per se, but are rather descriptions of Christians in the kingdom of God. Mourning isn’t something we aim or strive for, as though we should manufacture circumstances in our life in order to mourn, but rather it is our condition or state before God, in this sinful world. This is partly why the Beatitudes don’t make sense as commands to obey in order to get a certain reward.
            But before we consider what causes us to mourn in this world, let’s first consider what causes God to mourn, or how Jesus mourned in His life. As the Christian life takes shape in Him, what moved Jesus to sadness in this life? Isaiah 53:3-5 describes Him this way: “3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” A man of sorrows and familiar with grief. We can learn some of the causes of Jesus’ grief from this passage: one was the rejection He faced from the world, as they did not know or understand Him; another was the guilt of our sin and its punishment that He bore, as well as simply carrying our griefs upon Himself. We have no truer friend than Jesus, who carries all that weighs us down in life. In His wounds on the cross, we are healed.
            When Jesus came to the town of Bethany, home of His dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, He wept at the death of Lazarus (and also perhaps at the unbelief of the people?). Since Jesus is the Author of Life (Acts 3:15), it should be no surprise that death grieves the One who made us and gave us life. How can the God who notices every sparrow that falls to the ground, and numbers every hair on your head (Matt. 10:29-30), not also be intimately concerned when death strikes His children? Death is alien to God’s good creation, and a malicious invader, not something natural and good, or even neutral. So Jesus mourned for His friend Lazarus, even though He was even then preparing to raise him from the grave.
            On another occasion, Jesus mourned over the people of Jerusalem in this way: Matthew 23:37 (ESV) 37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” He mourned the spiritual blindness that kept them from seeking the shelter and protection of the Almighty God, and moved them instead to stone and kill God’s prophets and messengers.
            As Christians, do we mourn the things Jesus’ mourned? Do we mourn the blindness of our sin and the ways we turn away from God? Do we mourn the sins that we laid on Jesus? In other words, do we repent of our sins, and confess them before Him? Do we regret the evil that we have done? 2 Corinthians 7 compares two kinds of grief or sorrow—one being a world grief that produces death and is full of regrets, and another is the godly grief that leads to salvation without regret. It is that godly grief that we desire, so that we’re not attached to our sins, to defend them, but reject them as the bad fruit of our sinful nature. Then in God’s saving work we can be cleansed completely and be left with no regrets. Such mourning should cut us off from self-centered pleasure in sinning, so that we surrender completely to Jesus, without trying to keep Him out of some protected corner of our life.
            Like Jesus, we undoubtedly also mourn death—both of our loved ones, and also more generally its effects in our world—disease, starvation, war, crime, abortion, suicide. In every case we see a world that’s not operating according to the goodness, love, value for life, and design that God intended for this world. Instead we see a world distorted and suffering through sin. We see the chains still holding the world fast in sin, death, fear, and delusion, and we also long for those chains to be broken through the preaching of the Good News about Jesus Christ, that the Truth would set them free. Yet as we mourn those who have died in the Lord, as we part here on earth, Paul urges us to remember that we don’t mourn as those who have no hope, because we know of the resurrection to eternal life for all who believe in Jesus (1 Thess. 4:13ff). Christians have hope even in the midst of their mourning, because they know that Jesus has conquered the grave, and therefore death isn’t the last word for those who have hoped in Jesus.
            So what’s the blessing and comfort for those who mourn? As great as our sin and the ills and griefs that it brings, the comfort that heals us from that mourning must be that much greater. You have heard in medicine of “placebos” or sugar pills that have the effect of making some people feel better, even though they have no true medical effect. You may have heard the term “panacea” or supposed “cure-alls” that fix all ills or difficulties, but are sold by con men. The Gospel cannot be something so hollow or easy as either of those. The comfort cannot simply be a matter of “healing the wound lightly” and saying “peace, peace, where there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). The guilt of sin is real, and every conscience knows it, despite the best efforts to deny the knowledge. The pain of suffering and death is real, and no one needs special convincing that it’s the reality that faces us all. These tangible, objective, and real causes of suffering require a cure that is every bit as tangible, objective, and real. No waving of magic wands and no easy solutions are of any use, unless we are to completely deny sin and death exist. The comfort and cure must take full account of the weight and the nature of sin, and the greatness of its guilt (LSB 451:3).
            So thanks be to God that we have a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is no myth, no work of fiction, but a real flesh and blood man, who came and walked this earth 2,000 years ago, who suffered, taught, and proclaimed the nearer reign of God. One who not only walked in our shoes and knew our griefs firsthand, but as the man of sorrows, He bore them to His cross. His death atoned for the full guilt and weight of sin, so that so deep as our sins ran, so much deeper is the grace and mercy of Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God that His death was not one more victory for death, but that Jesus’ death marked the unraveling of death’s power and Christ’s victory. No phantom, no ghost, but the risen and tangible Lord, still bearing the scars of His crucifixion, but every bit as objective and real as the disciples’ need for comfort demanded.
The comfort and the assurance for those who mourn is not the promise of an easy and carefree life. It’s not the promise that we won’t wrestle mightily with sin or temptation, but it’s the promise that as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor. 1:5). For whenever causes for mourning strike us in life, whether it be our repentance for sins, or loneliness or losses or death—the Christian is moved to throw their reliance all the more on God who raises the dead—and not on ourselves (2 Cor. 1:9). For if God can deliver us even from death, what do we need fear in this life? God’s comfort for us in Christ Jesus is truly stronger than both sin and death.

And God has placed the tangible and objective promises of His comfort very close to us as well, in the waters of Baptism and the eating and drinking of the Lord’s Supper. In baptism, for example, God has joined us to Jesus Christ, so that we can confidently know that the salvation won for us by Jesus Christ on the cross has personally been applied to us as well. As one hymn puts it: “Sin disturb my soul no longer: I am baptized into Christ! I have comfort even stronger: Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice. Should a guilty conscience seize me since my baptism did release me, in a dear forgiving flood, sprinkling me with Jesus’ blood” (LSB 594:2).  And not only has God made objective promises to us in Jesus, from which we can take comfort, but as Romans 15:4 reminds us, 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The Scripture itself is given for our encouragement and hope, as it also points again and again to God’s salvation and life in Christ Jesus. For all these blessings we can praise God without reservation, knowing that Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted! In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sermon on Romans 5:12-19, for the 1st Sunday in Lent, "Grace is Greater"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In our readings today we hear about the original sin, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, and were thrown out of paradise. In the reading from Romans it tells us of the universal impact of this sin: “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” I’m sure almost everyone has thought at one time or another, “That’s just unfair! Why should the curse of sin and death would fall on all of mankind because of one man’s sin?” We might think that if we had had the chance, we’d have done differently, or perhaps simply that it is wrong for us to be punished for what someone else has done. Let’s examine that claim that God is being “unfair” in light of the reading from Romans, and see what picture emerges of God.
Fair is fair! What does fairness really mean? It is fair to get all that you’ve earned or worked for, which is why our country has long pursued fairness in wages for equal work. In the same way, it’s not fair to get more than you deserve or get what you don’t deserve. Fair allows no favorites or bias toward anyone. It often seems as though little in life actually ends up being fair. So what have we earned or deserved? What’s our fair due? Romans 6:23 says that the “wages of sin is death.” Romans 2:11 tells us that “God shows no partiality.” Galatians 3:10 tells us that “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” To die for our sin and fall under the curse of God’s Law is strictly fair, and getting what we deserve, no more, no less. Further, Paul says that we cannot charge God with any unrighteousness or injustice. Our punishment for sin is perfectly just.
But in our sinful way of thinking, we challenge the fairness that this sin came about through Adam, and that we in effect share in the responsibility of his sin. But isn’t that precisely what Paul says? “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Yes we have inherited sin from Adam, because death entered the world through Him, but every one of us since has been a willing participant in sin, and have added our own guilt to the record. None of us can claim innocence; none of us can claim the will power to turn aside from sin at every turn. Our captivity came through Adam, but we’ve done nothing but worsen our situation.
There are two Biblical ideas at work here. The first theologians call “original sin”—that we inherited that sinful condition from Adam—that as head of the human race we’re all born into “the same boat”. Scripture teaches this in several ways: that we’re sinful from conception (Ps. 51:5), that what is born of the flesh is flesh (John 3:6), and that we are by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:3). The second is called “actual sin”, which is more obvious to us, which happens whenever we sin intentionally or unintentionally. The point is that we sin because we are by nature sinners, and have inherited this as the common lot of humanity. We have no natural power to escape from this captivity. And again, to repeat, God would be perfectly just in allowing us all to suffer the condemnation of our sins, and there would be nothing unfair about it. It would simply be the impartial application of getting what we deserved.
            Romans 5:13 goes on to say that “sin is not counted where there is no law,” as we’re told elsewhere that in God’s “divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (3:25b), or that “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31). While we cannot say for certain what this leniency of God involved, it does not have forgiveness or salvation in view—as Romans 2 clearly teaches that all who do wrong, whether or not they have the written law of God, have the knowledge of the law written on their hearts or conscience, and are accountable to Him. And Romans 5:14 says that “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” So whatever leniency God may have shown during the “times of ignorance” or the “former sins”—death still reigned over sinners. With or without the explicit charge of the law against our sins, death still lorded its punishment over all those who disobeyed God.
            But here is the hinge where things turn from impartial application of the law toward grace and mercy. Adam was a type of the One who was to come. As Adam was head of the old creation that is under sin, Christ Jesus is the head of the new creation under grace. Rather than standing off unsympathetic to our situation, God has intervened in time and history to redeem and rescue us in Christ Jesus. Listen again to those verses that show the overriding goodness of God’s grace: Romans 5:15–17
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

However far the extent and damage done by Adam’s first sin, the free gift of God far exceeds it. Far better than being simply “dealt out” what is fair, God offers us free and undeserved blessings. This is what grace and mercy mean—that we get what we don’t deserve. God pours out blessings in far greater measure than what was lost through sin.
The sin brought condemnation, but the free gift brought justification. Justification is one of those Biblical words we hear so often but just as often forget what it means. To be justified is the opposite of being condemned or declared guilty. To be justified is to be declared innocent, in God’s courtroom. And it’s only by Jesus’ death on the cross that this took place. Because Jesus bore all of our sin on Himself at the cross, God’s justice has been fully met for all our sins deserved. So justification by faith in Jesus Christ is pardon from what our sins deserved. But more than “resetting the balance to zero”, God has also credited to us the perfect righteousness of Jesus’ Christ. In other words, being justified means that we are robed in Jesus’ righteousness, His life lived in complete obedience to God. So not only have we been pardoned from what we deserved, but on top of that we receive the undeserved blessings of life and salvation and the gifts of the Holy Spirit!
And where death had reigned through Adam’s sin, much more will we who receive this grace and free gift of righteousness “reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” Jesus’ death on the cross has undone death’s tyranny over mankind, by removing the “sting of death” which is sin, and by absorbing the curse of the law for us, for the law is the power of sin (1 Cor. 15:56; Gal. 3:13). Far better than simple fairness, God has made a complete reversal of our fortunes in Christ Jesus. Where death had lorded over us because of sin, God has given us to reign together with Christ. Our world is overwhelmingly beset with the effects of sin and death. Just a quick check of the news reveals the ever-increasing disorder of our world, from international provocations and wars, to the spread of cancer and diseases, to moral decay on a national and local level, down to the personal ways that sin and death touch our lives. The sins we must turn from, the damage of sin leaves in our lives and of those who are dear to us, the effects of aging and dying. A quick check shows that the effects of sin and death have not slowed down in this world, despite all the promises of technology and the advances of medicine. At best some things are postponed—but our situation remains the same—death looms over all men.
But Jesus has dethroned death from its cruel reign by triumphing over it in His cross and empty tomb. He stripped death of its power when He fulfilled God’s law and bore all our punishment for sin. He raised us to reign with Him by the forgiveness of our sins and calling us to be His beloved children. Whatever we had been or done, whatever sins Christ has forgiven, He has given us new life, and death no longer rules over us. And one day we will reign with Him forever in heaven. This is so complete a reversal of our fortunes from hopeless trouble to unbelievable goodness, that this good news can’t even fit in the category of “fairness.” It’s something altogether different and better—it is the undeserved, free gift of God’s grace. It’s the proof that God’s grace for us in Christ Jesus is infinitely better and more desirable. May our lives be a sacrifice of thanksgiving for His inexpressible gift! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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

  1. Adam was created by God as the Father of the human race, and through his first sin, sin came to all of us because all sinned. How is Adam representative of the human race? Romans 5:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45-49. How is our own sinfulness both inherited (often called “original sin”) and by our own participation (“actual sin”)? Psalm 51:5; John 3:6; Ephesians 2:3; Matthew 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:13; Jeremiah 13:23.

  1. Paul explains that sin was in the world, but not “counted” before the law was given by Moses (i.e. the Ten Commandments and the Sinai Covenant God made with Israel). Compare to Romans 3:25b; Acts 17:30-31. But death still reigned from Adam to Moses, and how are all men still held accountable for sin? Romans 1:18-21; 2:12-16; 3:19-20. How is the law written on our hearts and conscience, even if we were not directly taught it from the commandments?

  1. Adam was a “type of the one who was to come.” This points to Jesus as the new head of the human race; as Adam was head of the old creation that fell into sin, so Jesus is head of the new creation redeemed by grace. In what ways does the “free gift” of Christ exceed or surpass the “one man’s trespass” of Adam? What gifts multiply and overflow from Christ’s gift on the cross? What effects of sin are reversed and undone? Revelation 21:1-6; Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Corinthians 15:21-28.

  1. In the new creation of Christ, it is no longer death that reigns, but whom? Romans 5:17; Philippians 2:9-11. How does this magnify the grace of God over the charge that sometimes people make that it’s unfair that we were born under the curse of Adam’s sin? 

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:3, for Ash Wednesday, "Blessed are the poor in spirit", Beatitudes 1

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today on Ash Wednesday, we begin the journey following Jesus to His cross and resurrection, taking stock of our sin and our need for repentance or turning away from sin, and witnessing the perfect love and sacrifice of Jesus for our sins. To aid our meditation during Lent, we’re going to study and meditate deeply on the Beatitudes. A few months ago on All Saints’ Day I preached on the whole set of the Beatitudes, and described them as “Christ-colored glasses” through which the believer in Jesus sees how they stand before God. They are not descriptions of the Christian life only and not about Christ—and neither can we understand them as only descriptions of Christ and not reflecting on the Christian life. Instead, they show Jesus as the source and strength of the Christian life and how it takes shape from Jesus’ own life.
Since this is the first in the series, let’s briefly introduce them. There are nine “Blessed Are..” sayings altogether, and the first eight form a set, because the first and eighth are both in the present tense, and they are the only repeated blessing. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The rest of the blessings are spoken in the future tense, “they shall…”. What is the significance of this? It shows the now, but not yet character of the kingdom of heaven—that we are already part of the kingdom now—even though it is not fully realized yet. It shows Christ’s kingdom breaking in and changing the world already now, but also that the completion of these blessings will be in the future state. Finally, the 9th Beatitude rounds out the set, switching from talking about “blessed are those who…” to “blessed are you…”. This drives home the point that Jesus is speaking about and to His followers, His disciples—namely you and me!
The first Beatitude is “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Present tense—“theirs is”—as we’ve already noticed. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”, and how does this relate to Christ? That it says “in spirit” points us to understand this not as a measure of how much money is in your bank account, i.e. material wealth. A clue to the meaning of “poor in spirit” emerges from our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted…” Jesus fulfilled this prophecy as one who came to preach to the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives and prisoners. In what way are we poor toward God? And we are going to hear what this good news preached to the poor is.
By virtue of sin, every one of us is spiritually in poverty, and we lack the holiness and the spiritual blessings of God. We’re beggars before Him. That is objectively our situation, and He is the only one who can fix it. In the spiritual realm, we have nothing of value or worth to bring before God. We recall Isaiah 64:6 that breaks the awful truth on us, that all of our righteous deeds are like filthy rags. It has struck me that it’s not our unrighteous deeds that are like filthy rags, but our righteous ones! In other words even the best we would have to offer is unacceptable. Truly, on our own, we’re dressed in beggarly rags before God, and poor in spirit means we have nothing to claim to our name or credit. Needy hands turn to Him. A needy heart and a needy soul cries out for His good news, His spiritual blessing and nourishment.
On Ash Wednesday we come together with needy hands and hearts, and acknowledge our poverty before God. Our sins and even our attempts at righteous living cling to us like so many dirty rags, smelling of pride, of impure motives, of boasting and power struggles, of false humility that looks for watching eyes, of hypocrisy and countless other sins that contaminate our daily lives. And by no amount of “best efforts” on our part can we cleanse ourselves of our sin. Instead, we lower our faces and say, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). We hear and accept the solemn judgment spoken to Adam and Eve after the first sin, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). We all can see the evidence of sin working its wages in death all around us, and its humbling to fall before God and realize that there is nothing we can do to get out of this dilemma.
But thanks be to God that “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13-14). And God’s compassion comes to us in Christ Jesus. So how is “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” a Christ-colored lens by which we see our own life? How do we gain the blessing of the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus, of course, became like us in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15), and so in this way Jesus is not “spiritually poor” or impoverished, in the way that we are empty before God. But 2 Corinthians 8:9 tells us, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Or Philippians 2:7–8 tells us that Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Hebrews 2 quotes Psalm 8 about Jesus, saying that He was for a “little while made lower than the angels”, but was crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.
Each of these verses teach us how Jesus voluntarily became poor, became a servant, took on human form, and was made lower than the angels. In taking on human flesh, He became like us in every way, except without sin. And while He remained at the same time fully God and fully man, He restrained from the full use of His divine power and glory. As Jesus describes Himself in Matthew 11:28–29, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus assumes our human flesh so that He through gentleness and lowliness can assume the heavy yoke and burden of our sin. He becomes poor so that He can make us rich, He becomes obedient to death so that we might have life.

In Christ Jesus, God has compassion on this mortal frame of dust, this frail, weak, and poor in spirit humanity, and He bears it into Himself. He takes our mortality, our sinfulness, and our spiritual poverty, and dies for it, so that we can have the forgiveness of sins. That God can make us spiritually rich with overflowing blessings through Him. That we might have the kingdom of heaven. Because the kingdom of heaven is God’s alone to give. And He gives it graciously, undeservedly, freely, to us in Christ Jesus. And by faith in Jesus Christ, we are already brought into that kingdom now! And the life of blessing in Jesus Christ is already now. This is the Good News preached to the poor, this is the Good News of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus came proclaiming and came giving to all who would hear Him and believe. Let our praise rise in return to Him for all the greatness of His grace toward us! In Jesus’ name, Amen.