Monday, April 28, 2014

Sermon on Acts 5:29-42, 2nd Sunday of Easter, "Obey God, not men"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! How far would that joy and knowledge carry you? Of Jesus’ resurrection? Does it strengthen you to face the day? Does it equip you to live unafraid of death? Would it fill you with the joy and courage to become a missionary for Jesus’ sake? Or as disciples or followers of Jesus, where in your own life can you proudly bear His name? In our reading from Acts 5, we get a glimpse of how that joy and knowledge carried the apostles, the ones “sent out”, to be witness of Jesus. It’s exciting because of the apostles’ infectious joy, even in the face of persecution, and the overpowering sense that nothing was going to stop the Gospel of Jesus Christ from radiating out from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, to the very ends of the earth.
They had this commission from Jesus before He ascended into heaven, and they were following through on God’s command. But obeying this command to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name, isn’t one they took up reluctantly, but boldly and joyfully, even in the face of persecution. In fact, the incredible burdens of persecution, scorn, and bodily injury made them rejoice to be counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of Jesus’ name.
Just one verse earlier, in Acts 5:28, the high priest says: “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” They had been arrested and warned not to teach in the name of Jesus more than once, and yet they paid no attention. They just kept on speaking in the name of Jesus and teaching the words of life! But what is so interesting is that the high priest challenges the apostles, saying, “you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Obviously he was talking about guilt—he thought the disciples wanted to blame them for Jesus’ death.
And Peter’s response, that you killed Him by hanging Him on a tree, certainly shows that they weren’t innocent. He wasn’t excusing them for their part in Jesus’ death, as neither are we without blame. But every time Peter and the apostles reminded them that they crucified Jesus, but that God raised Him from the dead—there is no hint of recrimination or hatred, but rather a warning not to keep rejecting Jesus. He had repeatedly appealed to them to repent and be baptized, to turn to Jesus’ name and find salvation. So ironically, the high priest was right! The apostles did want to bring the blood of Jesus upon them—only not for guilt—but rather for innocence! They wanted to bring the cleansing blood of Jesus upon them to forgive all their sins. Blood shed to cleanse every spot and stain, and to bring the church to God as His holy people.
Peter was saying that no matter your aims in killing Jesus, God raised Him from the dead, proving Him greater than your assaults and the dishonor heaped upon Him. God has exalted Him at His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. Those titles “Leader and Savior” echo another pair of titles for Jesus found in Hebrews 12: fix your eyes on Jesus, the “Author and Perfecter” of our faith. Actually the same word is translated “Leader” in one place, and “Author” in another. It means the first one, or the ruler, a hero, or founder. The Greek word was sometimes used of someone who founded a city and named it after themselves. Jesus is as author or founder of our faith. He is the founder of the new city, the heavenly Jerusalem, of which Christians are citizens, and who bear His name. Jesus is our Leader, our Prince, as the one who has delivered us from the powers of sin and death, and conquered them for us.
So if this is our citizenship, and if Christ is our Leader and Savior, what do we fear from men who oppose Him? Do we hang our head or slink back when people ridicule Christians? Do we allow ourselves be shamed into silence, as though it would be uncool or unacceptable to ever talk about our loyalty to and love for God? Or that someone might find out that we revere and worship our God, and our trust in Jesus as Savior? Would we ever fear to speak in His name, or cower before men who oppose Jesus’ name? Perhaps few of you give much thought to whether you could stand up against severe persecution for the faith—physical beatings, imprisonment, humiliation, torture, or even death. If you do think about it, there’s a fair chance you might be skeptical about your ability to face it. Unless you overestimate yourself. But I doubt any of the disciples did either. But I have every confidence that if God called on you to suffer persecution for His name’s sake, that He would give you the strength and the grace to bear it. Not from any confidence in human strength, but in the power and grace of God. Likely it seems like a remote possibility for most of you, that you would ever face that kind of persecution. Yet we never know what God has in store for us, nor the direction the world and our life may turn.
All of us experience various sufferings in life—but we may not all directly experience that narrower set of sufferings defined as persecution. Persecution is particularly suffering because of your Christian faith, or righteousness’ sake (i.e. for doing good), or for Jesus’ name. We don’t need to anticipate how we might be persecuted we might face; it’s only necessary that we trust in God, and that if we face it, His grace and strength will carry us through, and that the Holy Spirit will equip us in that hour to face it. Persecution is never something we seek out for ourselves, but the world will bring it to us, if we stand strong in God’s Word and faith in Jesus.
And note how the disciples responded after the Sanhedrin settled on punishing and releasing them with threats not to speak in Jesus’ name. The apostles did not complain, turn it into a grievance, or trumpet it before everyone else, but simply rejoiced and gave thanks to God that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And then they just kept on preaching and teaching about Jesus! Their joy was altogether bound up with knowing who Jesus was, and the joy of telling others about Jesus. Persecution was just a hiccup as the Gospel moved forward and in some cases around the obstacles and opposition. Like a rushing river cascading over and around a rapids of rocks and boulders. However stubborn and defiant they are, the water moves over and around them. The panic in the atmosphere of the ruling council was that they just couldn’t find a way to stop the apostles! Threats and beatings only seemed to urge them on and fill them with joy? What could they do? Since the active approach failed—they were convinced that perhaps the passive approach might succeed—and the Christian movement might die out on its own accord. Of course this proved to be spectacularly wrong.
There will always be passive and active opponents of Christianity. For two millennia there have been enemies of the cross who have confidently announced the end of faith, the death of God, the demise of the church, or the refutation of the Bible—only to be again and again proved wrong. But our confidence should rest nowhere else than in Jesus Christ. If it were to rest anywhere else, it would be misplaced. I will boast in nothing else but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. This is the Christian’s motto. Jesus’ victory over death kept the apostles joyful, even through terrible mistreatment and uncertainty. By Jesus’ victory, they knew they didn’t need to fear men’s threats and punishments, but were free to obey God, rather than men.
This simple statement of Peter’s, “we must obey God rather than men”, sets the boundaries for where Christians are permitted—no, commanded—to disobey the laws or commands of men. In cases where we’re clearly commanded to violate God’s Word or our faith, or to do something plainly immoral—we must obey God rather than men. It should go without saying that God’s Law is the higher law to which we are bound, and that we fear His judgment, not the judgment of men. So too, on the other side of things, when the laws of men don’t contradict the Law of God, we are bound by Scripture to obey lawful government or authority. So this passage should not be abused so as to permit any disobedience that might seem convenient or desirable to us—but only in matters that are immoral or against God’s law.
Examples of obeying God rather than men abound. Joseph refused the advance of his master Potiphar’s wife. The prophet Daniel refused to worship an idol, instead of the living God. The apostles refused to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, because they knew this message brought life. A soldier might be called upon to disobey a command to take innocent life, or that would harm a non-combatant. A doctor might lose their job for refusing to participate in abortions. Pastors may get sued for refusing to officiate in a same-sex wedding ceremony. A Christian in business may refuse to do something that is dishonest or immoral, even if its technically legal. In every situation, the Christian soldier, doctor, pastor, or businessman is bound by a common thought—better to do what is right, and perhaps suffer for it, than to sin for the sake of following orders or keeping your job, your name, or reputation.
Even if none of us faces direct or serious persecution for the sake of Christ, we are all likely to face similar dilemmas in ordinary life, to obey God rather than men. There is no promise that it will be easy, and there is no promise that we might not lose something for it. But there is a promise that  “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:25-26a). And there is the promise that when Jesus comes again, He will “repay each person according to what he has done” (16:27). And St. Paul puts things in an eternal perspective, saying that “this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). In other words, the eternal rewards far outweigh the earthly consequences. Obeying God instead of men isn’t just a safe bet—it’s a guaranteed good choice. And thankfully, none of us stands on our own.
It’s only by Jesus, our Leader and Savior, that the path has been cleared for our deliverance. It’s because He lost His life, that He can save ours. It’s because God gave every glory and honor to Him, that He brings gifts and rewards to men. It’s because Jesus endured the real affliction of the cross, that we can bear up under the incomparably lighter crosses we endure. And it’s because of Jesus’ complete victory and promises, that we can even rejoice to bear up under difficulty for Jesus’ name; as strange as it may seem. [For they rejoiced] that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. For Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 28:1-10, for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Easter Sunday, "Delivery Confirmation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Has it caught your attention how many times the words “tell” or “told” appear in the reading; or that someone is in the process of telling about the Resurrection of Jesus? The angel tells the women that Jesus has risen, after they’ve seen the empty tomb, and tells them to “go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead, and behold He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him. See, I have told you.” Then the women go to tell the disciples, and they meet Jesus who again tells them to “tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” There’s a strong connection in the reading between seeing and telling—which is the very role of the first Christian eyewitnesses. Tell, tell, tell!
But why does the angel, after telling his good news to the women, end by saying, “See, I have told you”? It’s like he was the postman, giving a delivery confirmation of sorts—making sure that the message had been sent and received. Have you ever been amused and delighted when either a child or an adult eagerly looks forward to checking their mail, hoping to find a card, a letter, or a package from someone? Sometimes it’s the expectation that something’s on the way; something you ordered. Or it’s the holidays or your birthday, and you think someone will write you. Have you ever signed the delivery confirmation for a package with a sense of eager joy? Perhaps an even greater joy occurs when something comes unexpectedly, and we receive a letter or package from someone we love, by surprise. In contrast, we’ve all known the disappointment of finding a mailbox empty, or that a letter or package we thought was for us, belonged to someone else (or maybe that it was only bills). Although the analogy doesn’t carry over quite as well to our world of email, Facebook, and text messaging; even there we know the pleasant surprise of an unexpected message from a friend we haven’t heard from for a long time.
But what a joy for those first eyewitness to find the tomb…empty! At first it was fear and confusion, but once the message of the angel dawned on them, and they realized that they weren’t going to find a dead Jesus to anoint with burial spices, but rather were soon going to see the living Jesus in flesh and blood, to anoint Him with their praises—it was pure joy. “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified…” the agony, the bleeding, the nails—they shuddered to think of the sight of Jesus suffering, breathing out His last. But the angel goes on, “He is not here, for He has risen, as He said. Come see the place where He lay.” As he said…wait, yes, He had told us that He would rise! It’s true! Joy washed over their fear. “Then go quickly and tell his disciples that He has risen from the dead, and behold, He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him.
A little sentence spoken by Jesus while He was finishing the Last Supper with His disciples, the night He was betrayed. A little sentence lost in the confusion and events of those chaotic days—“Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’” Yes, Jesus had foreseen their fear, He had foreseen their abandonment and confusion, as sheep scattered when their shepherd had been attacked. But He told them to be ready for His return, and to meet Him in Galilee! But like a Good Shepherd, He was going to have to gather again His scattered sheep, who had forgotten His instructions and were still captive to fear. And these women, the first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb and of the risen Jesus, would be His messengers to tell the disciples!
See, I have told you.” This was no hallucination or dream, but they really had seen with their eyes and heard with their ears what the angel confirmed for them. Jesus was alive! And as further confirmation, Jesus Himself appeared to them on the way, encouraging them not to be afraid, but to go tell the disciples to come to Galilee. And there they anointed Him with worship—the burial spices could be forgotten, Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
There is always a message for you in the Good News of Easter, especially because the tomb is empty! Though empty mailboxes may disappoint—the empty tomb surprises us with joy! And the message for me, for you, and for everyone, is that Jesus Christ is Lord, and He is risen from death, as the firstborn from the dead. Scripture calls Jesus that because He has died once, never to die again. He lives today in His risen and glorified body—immortal flesh and bones—a body like His is promised to all believers in Jesus Christ.
When the women departed with their message in hand and heart, it says they departed in fear and great joy. Fear lingers in our old sinful nature, that still dreads death, that still doubts and worries and wonders if the Good News can really be true. But great joy belongs to the new person in Christ Jesus—it is the fruit of the Holy Spirit alive in us, filling us with wonder, faith, and hope, to know that Jesus Christ paid the awful penalty for our sins on the cross, but now Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! 
What are the fears or the doubts that you wrestle with? What sin troubles you, or what trouble in your life will give you no peace? Hand them over to Christ Jesus, the Risen Lord, who cares for you. Hand them over to Jesus who has died for your sins on the cross, and who makes a new life for you. Your life is hidden with Christ in God. What is the “delivery confirmation” that God has for you? Most likely no angel has personally visited you with the message, “See, I have told you.” But in Holy Baptism God has delivered you to the cross of Jesus, where you have died to your sins, and been raised with Him to new life. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 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” (Rom. 6:3-4).
Sign here! (make the sign of the cross on forehead and heart)…to mark you as one redeemed, by Christ the crucified. Not only has the message and the effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection been delivered to you—but by the very Words of Jesus Christ, you have been delivered by Him! And the Holy Spirit seals us as God’s guarantee, His down payment that you have been delivered, and will one day also be delivered into eternal life. There’s a new life to be lived, and fear to be cast away, because Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Jesus is with you every day of your new walk with Him—your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Just like the women at the empty tomb, we too have a message to tell. It’s the same message delivered to us…the same message that delivered us. Jesus Christ is risen, and there is forgiveness of sins through believing in His name. Now is that a labor of obligation or joy? Is it a burdensome and reluctant task to be a messenger of this Good News, or is it a labor of joy that is its own reward? Is it a burden or a joy for someone to tell that they’ve just gotten married? Had a child? Fallen in love? The very nature of those experiences makes it a joy. And so it should be for us, that the very nature of discovering that God loved us so much that He gave His Son to die for us, that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life—this is joy! If it isn’t, we need to hear the message again, and take it to heart that God has spoken these words for us too.
For our old sinful nature that’s still caught in fear, it might seem hard, it might seem overwhelming. And its ok to be nervous! The women were too! But for the new spiritual nature that we are in Christ Jesus, it is joy! I’ve never been a mailman, but I imagine that sometimes they find joy in seeing a person’s face light up when they sign for a Christmas package, or receive a letter from a soldier who’s overseas, or for anyone who delivers an unexpected gift, and gets to see the smile or the tears of one who has received an unexpected kindness, or a long hoped for word of love. Who is waiting for you to bring them a message? Who is lonely and waiting to hear from you? Who has never imagined that God could still love them, or that there is a victory even over death? Who has never dared to believe that Jesus is our Savior from sin and death, and that He loves us with a compassion so deep, that He laid His life down for us?
Go tell that person. Go spread the joy! “If you cannot speak like angels, if you cannot preach like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, you can say He died for all. If you cannot rouse the wicked with the judgment’s dread alarms, you can lead the little children to the Savior’s waiting arms” (LSB 826:2). Jesus is Lord of all, and He preaches good news of peace to all. Peace that our sins are forgiven. Peace that His kingdom is spreading and advancing through all the world, in every heart that believes Jesus Christ is Lord, and finds forgiveness of sins in His name. Peace to know that death is defeated, and life is in store for all who trust in Jesus. Message delivered! The message is for you! We are delivered, in Jesus’ name. Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

Sermon on Matthew 5:10-12, Beatitudes 8 & 9, for Good Friday, "Blessed are the persecuted and insulted..."

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Tonight we come to the final two beatitudes. Both deal with persecution. The 8th Beatitude, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” returns to the blessing given in the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The blessing is already a present reality, though hidden from earthly eyes. The 9th and last Beatitude expands on the 8th, and brings them all to a close: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
It’s not hard to see how these last Beatitudes relate to Christ, as our Passion reading from Luke 23 narrates the multiple sham trials that Jesus underwent before Pilate and Herod, the false accusations, the vehement accusations, to which Jesus made no reply. Contempt. Mockery. Urgent cries for His death. Scoffing. Railing. Then weeping. Wailing. A crowd that had come to watch a spectacle dispersed in mute awe and dismay. The leaders and crowd could not bear Jesus’ righteousness. His piercing criticism of their hypocrisy, the disruption of the Temple economy of sellers and money-changers, His refusal to abide by the man-made traditions of the Pharisees—all of these were unbearable to the leaders. And on top of it all, He made the shocking claim to have God as His own Father, and to be the Son of God. They would not believe it even when He raised Lazarus from the dead. Miracles and signs were no persuasion. And so He was reviled, persecuted, and all kinds of evil was uttered against Him. On this day it poured out like a flood of lies and scorn; hatred that was in league with the devil.
Is it crazy, or impossibly optimistic, that under such oppressing circumstances, Jesus would say, “Rejoice and be glad?” What kind of joy could be found in the midst of such anguish, misery, and rejection? To find any joy or blessing in it, would mean to believe that circumstances be what they may, one still stands in God’s blessedness and favor. It would mean clinging to the promise of deliverance and a blessed future, even when every outward sign is cross and suffering. But that’s exactly what Jesus is telling us. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the shame of the cross, because His eyes were set on the joy before Him, and that we should likewise fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. Such confidence filled Jesus as He hung dying on the cross, that He answered the thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” His reward in heaven was ever so near, for he had believed in Jesus only at the 11th hour, but received the same undeserved reward of eternal life as all other believers. Even in His agony and forsakenness, when no hope was in sight, Jesus commended His Spirit to the Father, trusting Himself fully into God’s hands.
So also the Christian, who lives under the cross of Christ, and stands for truth and righteousness, and suffers for it, is not to look to their outward circumstances—whether good or bad, to prove God’s favor. Rather they must place all their hope in Christ crucified. To speak God’s Truth in this world will not win us the popularity of the world. It may even result in persecution. We endure hardship and persecution, not by our strength, but by Christ who lives in us. And yet as in every other good work, there lies certain temptations to our sinful flesh. Jesus and the apostles already were aware of such dangers, and so warned us in advance. What dangers or temptations? To exaggerate any difficulties or sufferings, either for the sake of sinful pride, or to nurture a sense of victimization, or indulge in self-pitying. Or, even to turn anything that doesn’t go our way, or even trouble we ourselves caused, into “persecution” against us. Neither is persecution something we proactively seek out, as if to create it for ourselves.
After the Beatitudes Jesus goes on at length to prohibit public displays of righteousness for the sake of getting attention, even false humility (Matthew 6:1-18). The apostle Paul goes on at length at the end of 2 Corinthians to parody himself by boasting in his own real sufferings and persecutions, only to make the point that nothing is commendable about boasting in ourselves. The only commendation that matters is from the Lord. And further, all his sufferings taught him of his own weakness and dependency on the grace of Christ, so that he might not become too proud. The apostle Peter says that it is a gracious thing, when mindful of God, to endure while suffering unjustly, but that there’s no credit in suffering for our own sin or for doing evil (1 Peter 2:19ff; 3:9-17). To actually suffer for doing good, you actually have to be doing real good or standing up for the truth. It entails a willingness to endure opposition while seeking to do good—but Peter calls us while doing so to honor Christ in our hearts and be ready to give a defense with “gentleness and respect”, so that those who slander may be put to shame because of our good behavior (1 Pet. 3:13-17). Follow Christ’s example by not answering hostility with more hostility or threats, but trust yourselves to God’s just judgment (1 Peter 2:21-24). Jesus did not goad on His accusers with boasting or self-righteousness or indignation, but was silent and trusted God.
Finally, the letter to the Hebrews encourages us not to fall into despair or weariness when we struggle against sin, but to remember that “we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:3-5), as Jesus in fact did. So while Jesus and the apostles warn us against taking pride in persecution or imagining difficulties—at the same time they speak comfort and encouragement to those facing real persecution for Jesus’ name’s sake, to bear through it trusting in God’s justice and final deliverance. And if we are tempted to doubt that God still loves us or could show favor to us in the midst of our distress, Jesus recalls for us the prophets who suffered the same way. His own example also provides us the proof that even under the worst of circumstances—death on the cross—God was with Jesus, and He was pleased with His humble obedience to God’s will.
Probably none of us here tonight has endured major or sustained persecution. In America we enjoy relative ease and comfort compared to most of the world. And yet the international persecution against Christians today is widespread. For millions, there is no need to invent or imagine any kind of persecution—it is a clear and present danger in their lives. The website, tracks present day persecution against Christian in 45 countries around the world, where Christians are “economically marginalized, denied education for their children, beaten, tortured, raped, imprisoned and sadly even murdered for their faith.” ( accessed 4/18/14). Yet they live in the hope of Jesus Christ, even amidst oppressing spiritual darkness. The Light of Christ shines out all the more brightly in the contrast of the darkness, which shall never overcome it. These persecuted Christians need our prayers and our support, so that we do not forget that they are our brotherhood throughout the world, experiencing the sufferings and assaults of the devil, who prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8-9).
But through any darkness, through any crosses or persecution, we do not lose heart, we need not be discouraged, because Jesus Christ went before us and has conquered sin and death by His cross. The kingdom of heaven is promised to us, and is ours in fact now, by faith in Him. The Kingdom that Jesus possessed and ruled over, even as almost everyone mocked His kingship, and laughed at His apparent powerlessness and weakness. But He is the King who we worship and adore, whose power is made perfect in weakness, and whose grace is strong enough to whether any storm, strong enough to lift us up from any fall, strong enough to fashion a new life for everyone called out of their sins and failures. So we too, can boast all the more gladly of our weaknesses, to know that the power of Christ rests on us (2 Cor. 12:9).

On Good Friday Jesus went beyond what seemed the last point of hope, into the blackness of His grave. Beyond all the physical and emotional tortures, who saw the sin that He bore for our sake? Who saw that He was the sacrifice for our sin? But here at Jesus’ cross, all the horrible torrent of hatred and sin dashed against Jesus, seeming to overwhelm Him. But His heart was steadfast (Psalm 57:7). Death was not the end of Him, but He rose in life and went before us to His reward. So we too can rejoice and be glad, for even sin, death, and the devil could not overwhelm Him, but rather in Him, death is swallowed up in victory (1 Cor. 15:54b). And so hope lives for every forgiven sinner—hope lives in Jesus Christ, and all who live in His kingdom. And every disciple who lives in His kingdom experiences a life shaped like Christ’s, a life shaped like the Beatitudes. And as we’ve seen in this series, our life is blessed—not for our own sake, but for the sake of Jesus Christ who lived for us and in whom we also live this cross-shaped life. In Jesus’ name. Amen!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:9, for Maundy Thursday, Beatitude 7, "Blessed are the peacemakers..."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Peace is an important word in the Bible, appearing 375 times. Peace is something that seems self-explanatory to us, as the absence of warfare or fighting. I think almost every grade school child has at some point expressed prayers or longings for world peace. So when we read various passages in the Gospels that you heard tonight, we may be puzzled. In particular I mean that Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Doesn’t He want peace? Is Jesus an advocate of war? But then what can He mean by saying “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God?” Or in the Gospel of John, where He says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you”? Which is it? Peace or no peace?
To help sort things out, let’s briefly treat each of the various passages. In Matthew 10, when Jesus says He does not bring peace, but a sword, He’s talking about the (often bitter) division that will occur even between family members, over whether they take up their cross and follow Jesus, or not. Namely, the division between those who believe and those who do not believe in Jesus, and lose their life for Jesus’ sake. The believer in Jesus takes up their cross by turning away from the sinful world and counting everything in this life as loss, to gain the treasure of Jesus Christ. This can spark resentment and even hatred from the world; even one’s own family members. This is the “sword” Jesus brings—that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4). Those who are in love with the sin and rebellion of the world, and will not turn to God, are at enmity with God. For us as believers, to break that “friendship with the world” and to instead be friends with Jesus, is to turn the world against us. This also leads into the next beatitudes on persecution.
So when Jesus says He brings peace, not a sword, it doesn’t mean Jesus is an advocate of war, but that there is no neutrality toward Him. One is either with Him or against Him (Matt. 12:30). This helps us better understand where and to whom Jesus gives peace. After all, the angels sang at His birth, “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, and the prophet calls Him the “Prince of Peace.” So who receives Jesus’ peace? Jesus gives His peace to believers, to His church here on earth. John 14 said that “peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.” Then in John 16:33 He says, “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” So Jesus’ peace is different from the world’s. In Him we have peace, but in the world you will have tribulation. Difficulty, suffering, or distress. So the same person—a Christian, can have peace within and a courageous heart in Jesus—knowing that He has overcome the world—but at the same time face tribulation from the world around them. But to say that it is a peace given within us should not keep us from also adding that it is a peace to be lived outside us as well.
What then does that mean for the one who is not in Christ? God spoke through the prophets, saying that “There is no peace for the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22; cf. Jer. 6:14; Ezek. 13:10). So inside Christ, we have peace with God. Outside Christ there is no peace. Outside of Christ there is enmity with God. But Scripture tells us some amazing things. It tells us that “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10). It tells us that Jesus Himself is our peace, and that He came to us who were far off and alienated from God, and He brought us near and reconciled us to God by His blood shed on the cross (Eph. 2:12-17; Col. 1:20). We were all enemies of God before we were reconciled to Christ, and Jesus is the original “peacemaker” who seeks after the enemies of God to reconcile us to God through His cross. Jesus’ goal is to win over His enemies to bring them to God—which is what it means to reconcile. To restore the good relationship between them, through the forgiveness of our sins.
As Jesus is the original peacemaker, and the only begotten Son of God—we now have Christ-colored glasses by which we can both understand the beatitude and see our own Christian life in His light. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called “sons of God”—means that we are to be about the same peacemaking, forgiving, and reconciling task as Jesus was. We are to take the Good News of Jesus’ reconciling love shown to us through His blood shed on the cross, and we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Matthew 18 is a parable about forgiveness, showing how we who have been forgiven such a great debt of sin toward God, must go and do likewise as we forgive the lesser debts of sin that others have toward us. As many times as our brother sins against us and repents, so many times must we forgive them, without keeping count or record (Luke 17:3-4), for “love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5).
On this Maundy Thursday, the night when Jesus ate His Last Supper with the disciples, and the night on which He was betrayed, He took bread and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This is my body.” He took the cup and gave it to His disciples saying, “This is my blood of the covenant, shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” And so doing, Jesus made a covenant, a last will and testament for His disciples to keep, which marked the shedding of His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. A meal to be kept, not in His distant memory, but as an ongoing action as we live out that forgiveness of sins with one another. The Supper of mutual love and union, of gathering together in Christ Jesus as a fellowship of believers who have had their sins forgiven and are at peace and reconciled with God and with one another. The Supper that we call Holy Communion, as we commune or participate in Jesus’ body and blood offered for our peace, by the forgiveness of our sins. God has made peace with us as Jesus has taken away our sins, and so we are to make peace with one another. This is why we share the peace before the Lord’s Supper, to show we do not hold any grudges, bitterness, or resentment, and unforgiveness toward anyone, but that we are at peace with one another.
He doesn’t say that this job of being “peacemakers” will be easy—as Jesus sent His disciples out on their mission, He said that as they traveled, they were to greet a home with the words, “‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you” (Luke 10:5-6). Sometimes, though they came with peace, their peace would not be received. The apostle Paul later speaks of our peacemaking mission as Christians in this way, as being “ambassadors of Christ” carrying the “message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-21). As I’m sure many of our U.S. ambassadors right now can tell you, being an ambassador is not an easy job. Forgiving sin—especially when we have been sinned against—is not easy. Feeling angry, wounded, sad, or betrayed may all come as a result of someone’s sin against us. Repenting of our sins, and acknowledging our own faults can be equally difficult, as so often we cling to our pride and the felt need to be right.
And we must remember that it was Jesus who overcame all of our sin and enmity with God, and only by His forgiveness taking root and living in us, as forgiven sinners, can we become agents of His forgiveness toward others. But we must certainly do it. By His unsurpassed love, He has equipped us for an incredible and deeply necessary task. To a world hurting and broken because of the countless effects of sin, He sent His Son to bring peace with God, and now He sends us to live lives that spread His peace.
Through our daily interactions with one another, we are to “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb. 12:14), and to “aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Cor. 13:11). For the reward of peacemaking is to be called sons (and daughters) of God. It is to show that we are His children, working in the ministry that He started—making peace and reconciling us through the forgiveness of sins. God in His grace and generosity continues to pour out His forgiveness and love into our lives, so that it overflows to others. His resources of love never run dry.

As “sons of God” we worship and love the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, who reconciled us to Himself, and adopted us into the family of God. And by that adoption we inherit eternal life. Jesus uses the phrase “sons of God” in the plural, in one other place, to say that the “sons of God” are “sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36). By God’s adoption we have a new nature and a new identity as sons and daughters of God; and all those who believe in Jesus are sons of the resurrection or sons of God. For our new life and identity is created and takes shape in Jesus Christ, and one day it will fully be revealed in perfection, when we attain to the resurrection. And until then, we go out as peacemakers with the same message of peace that was first spoken to us—your sins are forgiven through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. He Himself is our peace! Amen. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sermon on Isaiah 50:4-9 and Matthew 27:38-54, for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion, "Death with Dignity"

            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The heart and center of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is the Passion of Jesus Christ. His trial, suffering, death, and resurrection. Yet each Gospel also sees the cross of Jesus from a slightly different camera angle, if you will. A unique perspective. At the cross, Matthew only records one of the seven last “words” or phrases that Jesus spoke: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” The rest of the account focuses largely on His silence and the actions of those around the cross. But the attention of the crowd is continually riveted on Jesus and the strangest way in which He dies.
It wasn’t the type of death itself that was strange. Crucifixion was common, in a horrible sort of way, and nothing new to the Jewish crowds or Roman soldiers. But what was so remarkable was the manner in which Jesus died, and the events that surrounded His death. Crucifixion was the most notorious way to die, and was carefully planned to steal every shred of human dignity, and to leave a person utterly disgraced, humiliated, and dishonored. And the enemies of Jesus clamored for this. His enemies saw Him as a pretender to the title of Messiah. While some had hoped that He was the “Son of David” and promised King, when He rode into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday, most apparently had abandoned these hopes by the time of Jesus’ trial and death.
But for all the contempt, for all the physical abuse and shame, for all the indignities and pain that were heaped upon Jesus, they were unable to destroy His inner dignity and peace. “Death with dignity” is a buzzword today in the media, and evokes emotional images of how we die, and debates about end of life care and assisted suicide. The idea seems to be that in order to have a “dignified death”—we have to take control of the dying process (assuming that we can), to avoid any number of ways in which we might be robbed of our dignity. While it’s certainly a worthy discussion to have about the ethics of living and dying, and the sanctity of life, my point is not to enter into that—but rather to point out that Jesus was able to transcend all the assaults on His body, His name and reputation, and in a very real sense die with His dignity intact. In an astonishing way, every attempt to rob Him of His dignity failed. And instead of disgracing Jesus, His righteousness, His unwillingness to fight back or to curse, and His love shone out so powerfully, that even a hardened criminal next to Him, a centurion, and many in the crowd finally confessed that Jesus was the Son of God.
The famous poem Invictus by William Henley, provides an interesting comparison and contrast to Jesus’ death on the cross. The poem describes a person facing the brutality of existence with nothing but himself and his defiance and fearlessness in view. The poet skeptically thanks “whatever gods there may be for my unconquerable soul” and then after describing the crushing difficulty his life faces, ends with these famous lines, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” The poem reflects the determination to face death with head held high; but the poem has no hope in view, no help in view. Simply self-reliance until the bleak end of the grave—with the sole reward of having died proudly.
Jesus’ death showed a courage and unconquerable spirit of a different sort. What gave Jesus the quiet determination and inner strength to face the brutality of His existence? How was He able to hold His tongue, while at the same time face no inner rebellion or animosity? Matthew’s Gospel gives us a limited window into Jesus’ inner experience of the cross, as He largely remains silent, except for those few words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 50:4-9, gives an interior window. Isaiah is prophesying about Jesus’ death, and says,
I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. 7 But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. 8 He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me. 9 Behold, the Lord God helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.

Jesus faced His death with firm resolve, and didn’t turn away from the disgrace and spitting. And by the Lord God’s help He was not disgraced. It’s a striking phrase, “I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” It pictures Jesus setting His face for the blows that He is about to receive.
But there’s big differences from Invictus; Jesus looks to the Lord God for help, and He has confidence of vindication. In other words, He knows that whatever He may face, God will declare Him innocent. And this is only possible because Jesus is the only begotten, sinless Son of God. And so in death, He was not disgraced, He was not put to shame. Despite overwhelming attempts to assault His dignity, His peace, His honor, Jesus’ love and righteousness shone out radiantly. Even through the bleeding and dying. We can see this clearly both through His forgiving love till the very end, and especially also through His rising from the dead in victory. For to say that Jesus died with dignity—is not just to praise the manner of His death in the same way that anyone else could die with stoic resolve and strength. Because the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is not a celebration of a brave death, but it is the proclamation of Jesus’ victory over death, by His death and resurrection.
The victory and the dignity belongs to life. To Jesus’ unparalleled life. A life not lived merely for Himself, but a life lived for others, and so a death died for others. The dignity of the manner of Jesus’ death was that it was not in any way self-centered, but in every way self-giving. He poured out His life for the life of the world. The irony of the mockers who laughed at Jesus for saving others, but not saving Himself, was that by the very act of staying there on the cross for us, He was saving others.
And the great cost and pain of that self-giving and self-sacrifice is brought home to us in those dying words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the last hour of abandonment by all, in the darkest moments of feeling the full burden of the sin of mankind hiding God’s face from Him, His eyes were still turned to God. My God. In death there was none other to look to. None other to help, but the One who vindicates—the Lord God. And with a great cry, Jesus gave up His spirit. Silence. The breath of life was gone.
And then a terrible tumult and chaos as the earth began to rock and tremble, as the impossible and unthinkable had happened—God’s Son was dead. An innocent death. Creation groaned and trembled, rocks split in two, tombs were opened, and in the Most Holy Place of the Temple, where only the Great High Priest could enter God’s presence to make sacrifice, the Temple Curtain was torn in two. Great and terrible signs with an unmistakable message—something truly supernatural had just taken place. Fear was upon the people, and even the pagan centurion cried out with new found faith, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
No ordinary man dies this way. Not like Jesus died, and certainly not with the accompanying signs and miracles. And while it was an astonishing and incredible weekend for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, we can look back with faith and the testimony of the Bible, and read the evidence to see that God was at work for our salvation at the cross. Jesus’ death accomplished much, and God did vindicate Him, declaring Jesus innocent by raising Him from the dead. And the torn curtain in the Temple marked the entry of Jesus Christ into the Holy Places of God by means of His own blood, as our Great High Priest. Jesus had interceded with God once and for all for our sins, by His death on the cross. And now life has the victory through Him.

Jesus bore all our disgrace, yet was not disgraced by it; He bore our guilt and yet was vindicated; He dies and yet He lives. And all of this He does for you. He does it so that you might share in His honor, in His innocence, in His life; His victory. This is the way the True Servant King dies—in lowly dignity, but with all the power to rise from His grave and give His people deliverance from all the powers that assaulted Him in futility, and could not keep Him in His grave. Our cries of “Hosanna! Save us!” are not in vain—for He is the King. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      The mockery of the crowds is filled with such blindness and incomprehension of Jesus, His words, and His actions. How had they misunderstood what Jesus said about “this Temple” and raising it in three days? Matthew 26:61 What had Jesus meant? John 2:18-22
2.      Whose words were they echoing when they said in Matthew 27:40, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross”? Matthew 4:3, 6.
3.      What was the irony about mocking Jesus for saving others and then challenging Jesus to save Himself by coming off the cross? What was Jesus doing by staying there on the cross?
4.      How do the words of their mockery in 27:34 echo Psalm 22(:8!), the prophecy about the crucifixion? What other significant predictions and descriptions were fulfilled from this Psalm? Matthew 27:46 is Jesus’ quotation of the first line of the Psalm, in Aramaic, but the rest of the Psalm so clearly points to Him and His suffering, but also His eventual exaltation and deliverance.
5.      See Psalm 69:21 for the prophecy about Jesus’ thirst and drink. What other elements of Jesus’ life and crucifixion are predicted in this Psalm?
6.      Crucifixion was aimed at the total humiliation of an individual, to remove any shred of human dignity. How did Jesus endure such suffering and contempt, without losing His own internal dignity and without being disgraced? Isaiah 50:4-9. What motivated Jesus to “despise the shame” of the cross, and be humble and obedient to the point of death? Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 12:1-4.
7.      What miraculous events in Matthew 27:51-54 declared that something truly supernatural was taking place? What message did it send to the observers, and those who at first had not believed?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 5:8, for Lent Midweek 6, Beatitude 6, "Blessed are the pure in heart"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. “You’d better clean your act up fast!” We’ve all heard similar words, and if they were directed at us we may either have felt that sinking feeling of failure, or a rising feeling of defiance. I wonder how often they actually produce a willingness in us to accept the correction, and obey. But this isn’t the way the beatitude speaks. It says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Not a command, like “Get out your soap and scrub brushes!”, but a statement of fact, or a description of those who blessed. In our whole series we’ve seen how the Beatitudes give us “Christ-colored glasses” by which we see the Christian life. In other words, our life before God is colored and shaped by the light of Christ. Christ’s life running in and through us, by His gracious working.
But “blessed are the pure in heart” raises a standard that seems incomparably higher than the other beatitudes, which speak of mourning, of humility, of hungering for righteousness, and being merciful. But pure in heart is an absolute. It’s an immovable mark of perfection. How do we get there? And what to do with an impure heart? Jesus tells what makes us unclean or impure in Matthew 15: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person.” If then our heart is unclean because of sin, is all hope lost? Can we be clean again?
Solomon asked in the book of Proverbs, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?’” (Prov. 20:9). The expected answer is that none of us can say that we have made our heart pure or are clean from sin. Furthermore, what could we every use to make it clean, if we are not pure? It’s easy enough to see how we make ourselves impure in heart, but it’s not within our power to make our unclean hearts pure again. We must turn somewhere else for this inward purity of heart. We must turn to the One Man who was pure in heart—Jesus Christ. Jesus, who said, only those who are pure in heart will see God. Here we might remember what Jesus said of Himself: “no one has seen the Father, except Him who is from God; He has seen the Father.” If only Jesus has seen the Father, then only Jesus is truly pure in heart. Truly Jesus is pure in heart as the Son of God, and He sees God the Father face to face in His full glory.
We all want to see God. We all hope to stand one day in His presence, unashamed of sin and pure in heart. We hope for that day when we will enter heaven, and dwell eternally before our God and creator. But to see God we must be pure in heart, and we already established that we ourselves are not able to make our hearts pure. We cannot get rid of our own sin. But hear how the prophet Ezekiel describes the change of heart that God gives His people,
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses,        and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new            spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give   you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my         statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your     fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezek. 36:25-28)
Before Jesus cleansed us, we had a heart of stone. A stubborn, rebellious, and resistant heart of stone. Our heart was stone dead to God, because it was full of impurity. It was the exact opposite of what God requires, a pure heart. We sure didn’t have any way of getting that old stone heart out of us. We needed a heart transplant. Scrubbing and polishing that old stone heart just won’t cut it. In the end, it’s still lifeless.
            But God sprinkles clean water on us, to clean us from our uncleanness, and gives us a new heart. He removes the heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh. He makes His Spirit dwell within us so that we may walk in His statutes. With clean water sprinkled on us in baptism, God cleanses our hearts by the blood of Jesus. Our hearts have been made pure by the cleansing blood of Jesus, shed for us at the cross. Hear from the book of Hebrews, how Jesus opens the way to heaven,
“Therefore brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of      Jesus,” and further on, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with           our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure             water.” (Heb. 10:19,22)
We can see God in heaven one day because we’ve been purified by the blood of Jesus, as our hearts were washed with clean water in baptism. From the only pure heart that ever beat—the heart of Jesus—flows the pure blood that cleanses our hearts from sin. His Holy Spirit gives us the heart transplant for a new life—taking out our stone-dead heart, and giving us a heart of flesh, sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. Truly, “Blessed are the pure in heart” is God’s grace for us. For we’ve been richly blessed with a pure heart, sprinkled clean of all sin, in Christ Jesus. From the One who was pure in heart from the beginning. Born perfect, of the seed of God. And He gives His purity to us, that we might see God.
This truth is reinforced in 1 John chapter 3:2-3, where he says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we will be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies Himself as He is pure.” Do you hear that? When God appears we will be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is! We are promised a heavenly body like Jesus! And we are purified by hoping in Jesus, because He is the One who is pure. Purified in heart by our hope in Jesus, we too will see God as He is when He appears.
The Beatitudes speak of God’s favor to us in Christ Jesus. The words, “they will see God” are astonishing if you stop to think about it. No one has ever seen God directly in His unveiled glory, except for Jesus, His Son. But now through the purification of our hearts through the cleansing blood of Jesus, we have access to the throne of God, and will one day see Him face to face. Seeing God’s face goes beyond all earthly descriptions. We do know that it’ll be the end of all evil, sin, pain, and darkness, as described in Revelation’s picture of the saints before God’s throne. “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in [the city] and His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:3-5).

We have every reason to join with all the saints in singing praise to our great God, for sending His Son Jesus. Blessed is Jesus, the pure in heart, for He has seen God. And blessed now are we, who through Jesus’ purifying blood are also pure in heart; for we too will see God! On the day when we rise with all the saints to join in unending hymns of praise, we will see our God face to face, and all thoughts of past sorrow and hurt will be forgotten. May the Lord bless us and keep us until that day! Amen. 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Sermon on Romans 8:1-11, for the 5th Sunday in Lent, "Public Defender"

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Courtroom dramas have been popular for decades, and it’s no surprise why—a person’s life hangs in the balance. Will they be declared guilty or innocent? Did they really commit the crime, or is the real culprit still out there? Will they serve a short sentence? A life sentence? Face the death penalty? For some it strikes painfully close to home. For others it’s a fascination with what it would be like, or the dread of whether it could happen to me. Everything builds toward the verdict—guilty or innocent. After that, the next great concern is the sentencing. What price will they pay for the crime, if they’re found guilty? Once the sentence is given, it must be carried out.
Whatever the crime, whatever the penalty, it’s a grim reminder that the law is not merciful, and that law breakers runs into danger. “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” Paul says (Romans 13:3). “He is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain” (13:5). We are wise to obey the law and do what is good, to steer clear of the law and its punishments. So it is with human courts.
But if dealing with human courts is a serious matter, how much more fearful to stand in God’s courtroom to be judged for our sins? Every person, after they die, will be called to God’s judgment. “It’s appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment”, Hebrews 9:27 tells us. But unlike earthly courtrooms, God has no uncertainty as judge, to what we have done or have not done. There’s no doubt as to our total guilt, because God has perfect omniscience—He knows all—and further we’re told that “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal. 3:10). The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). So how much more serious is it to face a court and a judgment that is inescapable, and in which every one of us would face the verdict of guilty? None of us stand a chance to plead our own case—representing yourself is discouraged in the strongest terms—because there is no one who can plead they are righteous; no, not one.
But here is the crucial difference between the courts of men and God’s courtroom. In human courts, mercy is uncertain. Depending on the judge, depending on your circumstances, depending on a variety of factors, mercy is at best unlikely. Can’t count on it. But with God, mercy is a promise. “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful; slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). But God doesn’t grant mercy due to “extenuating circumstances”, as though it would be just for Him to accept excuses and just “write off” certain offenses as “ok.” Rather, God saw our situation, our helplessness and distress, the sin that required payment, and determined that He would deliver us. And He didn’t resort to cutting corners, finding loopholes, or compromising His righteousness or justice. The way that God delivers us in Christ Jesus maintains not only His justice but also His mercy.
Our reading from Romans 8:3 tells us, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.” Our situation was that God’s Law, though good in itself, was powerless to help us toward either obedience or salvation. The Law promised life, but because of our sinful flesh the law stirred up our sinful desires and produced death in us (7:5). So what did God do? He did the job that the Law couldn’t do. He sent Jesus in human flesh to fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law—do all the good and righteous things the Law commands. He bore our sin to the cross, and condemned sin “in the flesh.” He is our human substitute, He bore our condemnation as a man, in the flesh, in our place.
Now focus for a moment on that word “condemnation.” What does it mean? Condemnation is the final result of judgment. It’s both the sentencing for the crime, and the execution of that sentence. Jesus was sentenced to die on the cross—a penalty He did not deserve, but accepted willingly. And that sentence was executed, or carried out when He was actually crucified. Condemned for us. This is how God upholds His justice while showing us mercy. And perhaps some of the most merciful words in Scripture are those of Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” No condemnation! In Christ Jesus God has ruled you free from the sentence and execution that your sins demanded. Since Jesus bore your guilty verdict, your sentence, and your death, God grants you by faith His innocence, His inheritance, and His life! It sounds almost too good to be true, but it is! Can you imagine the surprise and disbelief and joy that hits a man on death row, waiting for his condemnation to be carried out, then is told he is free? This is just the sort of joy that is ours when we’re forgiven and set free from the law of sin and death, in Christ Jesus. Our future has been totally changed, God has written a new story for us. God’s judgment is no longer the cause of our fear, but the promise of our deliverance.
Note also that Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Whenever you see a therefore, you should always ask, what is it there for? It’s a sign that he’s wrapping up a thought. What had Paul been talking about in Romans 7? He was talking about the struggle between our old sinful flesh and the new life that God has given us in the Spirit. About the tug-of-war between the sin that still dwells in him, and wants to do what is wrong, and the inner delight in the law of God—the new nature that wants to do what is right. At the end of the chapter he bursts out in frustration against the sin dwelling in his flesh, and cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And he answers his own question, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” Then the next verse is “There is therefore,  no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” So what is the therefore, there for? He’s just declared that our victory and confidence don’t rest on ourselves and our weak human nature and its struggles for obedience, but it rests in Jesus Christ our Lord. And in Him there is no condemnation.
The new story that God has written for us in Christ Jesus is of a life set on the things of the Spirit. A mind set on the Spirit, which is life and peace. God’s rescue to our situation did not stop with declaring us innocent by faith in Jesus and releasing us from the condemnation of sin and death. His rescue also makes a new life in us here and now. The new life can be, as Paul describes in Romans 7, turbulent with the struggle between the old sinful nature and the new spiritual person that we are in Christ Jesus. But when we’re frustrated by that ongoing spiritual war within us, we can take heart and cry out with Paul, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” He delivers us from this body of death, and in Him there is no condemnation. We have been delivered from the penalty of our sins because we are in Him. This keeps us from looking to ourselves for deliverance, and always directs our eyes back to Him.
Because to look to Him for our help is exactly the role God gave Jesus Christ, His Son. Earlier, I had said that it is futile for us to “represent ourselves” when we come before God for judgment. We don’t have a leg to stand on. We cannot defend ourselves against the accusation of the Law. But God has appointed Christ Jesus to be our mediator, to stand in our defense. Jesus is like the “public defender” for all people, only He has a perfect record. If we are in Christ Jesus, His blood and righteousness stands in our defense and there is no condemnation for us—we know our verdict in advance. We know in advance where we stand before God: He has already justified us by faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the best and only defense—He’s never lost a case, and never will. But if we reject His defense, if we’re not in Christ Jesus—if we choose to stand on our own—then we bear the responsibility for our own condemnation. John 3:17–18 tells us “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. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” So Jesus didn’t come for the purpose of condemning us, but to save us and stand in our defense. But if anyone rejects the help that’s offered, and doesn’t believe in Him, they are condemned already. 
So how do we know if we are in Christ Jesus? Not by measuring our own holiness, not by searching in ourselves for some good or merit—Paul already dealt with that frustration for us. But rather we know we are in Christ Jesus by looking to Him and because God has placed His Holy Spirit within us. A few verses after our reading in Romans 8, it tells us that the Holy Spirit identifies or bears witness with our spirit, our inner being, to confirm with us that we are children of God (8:16-17). The Holy Spirit is God’s guarantee or deposit. His down payment on the promises to set us free in Christ Jesus and to give us eternal life in Him. The down payment that the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is going to “give life to your mortal bodies, through His Spirit who dwells in you.” You know you are in Christ Jesus because you look to Him for your life and salvation, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit living in you. When by faith in Jesus, you begin to walk according to the Spirit, and your mind is set on the things of the Spirit, that is evidence that the Spirit is dwelling in you and is at work. The fruit of the Spirit, however humble it may seem at first, is not a product of our sinful flesh, but it’s proof that God is at work in us doing what we were unable to do.
So we don’t live in a courtroom drama with fear and dread over what our verdict will be, uncertain of our future, uncertain of mercy. We do wrestle and struggle with our sin, but the Holy Spirit continually leads us to repentance. And because we have the Holy Spirit in us as God’s guarantee, we know that in this struggle, it is the Spirit who will win out because our victory is in Christ Jesus. And in Him there is no condemnation. So far from facing uncertainty, we have the confidence that God is merciful and just, and He has sent Jesus Christ to accomplish everything that the Law requires. We know the verdict that will come at God’s judgment in advance, that we will be justified or declared righteous by faith, because we have believed in Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Defender, in whom is all our righteousness, our inheritance, and life. In His name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Romans 8:1 begins with a “therefore”. This signals us that he’s putting forward a conclusion about something he’s discussed before. Read chapter 7. What is the struggle that he (and we) faces, and where has he found victory? What is the victory? When have you felt discouraged and defeated? Did you find strength and comfort in Jesus’ good news?
  2. Condemnation here in Romans 8 refers to the sentencing and execution of our judgment in sin. To be “condemned” is to have your guilty verdict declared and to be sent to your punishment. What condemnation did the law demand because of our sins? Romans 5:12; 6:23; Galatians 3:10. How marvelous is it that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? How can you describe this good news for you?
  3. Paul talks at length through Romans about how the Law is powerless to save us. Why is this so? 7:7-16; 8:3, 7. Is it a flaw or failing of the law? How has Christ Jesus done for us what the law could not do? Romans 8:2-4; Galatians 4:4-5.
  4. The mind of the flesh and the mind of the Spirit set themselves on contrary things, and are not compatible with each other, giving rise to the struggle described in ch. 7. Even while this is so, why can Paul say that the Spirit rules over and gives us life, peace, and the confidence of final victory? Romans 8:12-17. What particular sins do you struggle to overcome? Where do you look to find courage and victory?
  5. How does Jesus’ death and resurrection give confidence to Christians, not only concerning the resurrection of our bodies in the future life, but also about the daily strength of His Spirit to work in our mortal bodies in this present life?