Monday, October 27, 2014

Sermon on Romans 3:19-28, for Reformation Day, "Sin and Grace in the Reformation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today on Reformation Day, we conclude our mini-series on some of the things that made the Lutheran Church distinctive. We’re going to look at two core ideas to Lutheranism, from our reading in Romans 3: Sin and Grace. These two teachings of the Bible are at the heart of salvation—they define both our great need before God, and His even greater solution to our predicament. Predicament, or can we say an epidemic?

We have all heard a lot in the news lately about the deadly Ebola virus and the epidemic that has people worried worldwide. An epidemic is when an infectious disease rapidly spreads through a large number of people. Technically, an epidemic is usually temporary, not permanent, and widespread, but not global in reach. The term for something truly universal or worldwide would be “pandemic.” Can the analogy of disease and viruses help us understand something about sin? Sin is really a pandemic—meaning that everybody is infected by it. Our reading tells us “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 6:23 tells us the impact of this disease: “The wages of sin is death.”

We probably consider ourselves pretty familiar with these facts, but do we respond accordingly? Responses to the Ebola scare might range from hysterical to a dangerous lack of concern. A wise response would deliberately take stock of the dangers and take appropriate cautions and measures to protect against them. We are assured, at least, that such measures—protocols or procedures—are being put in place to prevent the spread of this deadly disease.

Well what about sin? Viruses are an interesting analogy to sin because they can express themselves openly and destructively, like the Ebola virus; but they can also operate “underground”, hidden away in the body with no apparent symptoms, only to come out when the right factors trigger it. This second type are fairly common, and are called “latent viruses.” The body or its immune system is often unaware or unable to root them out, and they survive asleep or in hiding, but can cause serious problems or illness when they come out of hiding—like shingles or herpes. Because sin happily assumes either “mode of operation”—we often mistakenly think that only people who have the outward “symptoms” of obvious sin, are really “sinners”—while those who don’t show them, are healthy or righteous. But Romans tells us there is no one righteous, no, not one. Jesus told us that sin likes to hide out in the heart, and breaks out from there into all the familiar sinful behaviors we recognize. Sin hides out like that latent virus inside us. But God already has a bead on it. He alone sees sin in its full measure.

Which do we fear more, the Ebola virus, or sin? Which is more deadly? Sin has a 100% mortality rate, compared to 60-90% for Ebola. So is our response to sin measured and deliberate, or is it oblivious to danger or maybe hysterical fear? What are God’s “protocols” to guard against sin? Quarantine, special suits to prevent contamination? Romans 3 tells us some of God’s protocols or containment procedures. First He needs to clap boastful mouths shut, then hold us accountable for our sin. He does this by showing us our sin through the mirror of the Law. This is necessary because we can’t get by with “self-diagnosis.” Even when we attempt it, we’re not any good at doing so, because we all have blind spots to our own sin. That makes us really lousy at being accountable for our sin, which is why Lutherans make it a point to confess our sins every Sunday service. Otherwise our sinful nature is always happy to slide by with a free pass, to go unnoticed.

Saying confession might feel like the hassle of going through the TSA line at the airport, “Don’t you know me by now? Do I really look dangerous?” Sometimes confessing our sins can feel that way. “I, a poor, miserable sinner…” or “Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean…  Isn’t there a “trustworthy traveler” or “pre check” line? Do I have to go through this every single time? You can probably already guess that our sinful nature is a grumbler. Check the history of the Bible for evidence. But frequent confession holds the law up to our eyes. The law that our reading says “stops every mouth” and holds the whole world accountable to God. That law is like a mirror bright to bring out that inbred sin and shine the light on it. It shows us the reality that no one gets justified before God by the law—our obedience all falls short. No exemptions, no A for effort or P for Passing. It shows us that the virus of sin has infected in us, and we need treatment and a cure. If we won’t submit to treatment, the disease progresses through all stages leading up to death. And it doesn’t even matter if it seems “dormant.” We all still die.

But this “grave news” is meant to keep us from being stuck in the grave. By God’s grace there is a cure. Grace describes God’s generous, loving attitude toward us, His determination to work out the plan which saves us all. Grace is the word for God’s undeserved love—or as some have made it into an acronym: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. Grace means that God was moved to take action to save us, even though He was under no obligation to do so. God had compassion for us under the pandemic of sin, and He will accomplish our the treatment, cure, and recovery. And the heart of His gracious rescue operation is His only Son, Jesus Christ.

How did God treat this worldwide infection of sin? Our reading tells us that in former times, He had patiently passed over sin. He delayed punishment. Why would He do that? It goes on to explain that this was to “show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God was waiting till the right time, to justify those who have faith in Jesus. God the Father put forward Jesus “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith”. Propitiation? What does this mean? Simply, it means that Jesus turned away God’s wrath against sin. Jesus suffered for what our sins deserve, so that God’s justice would be completely satisfied. Propitiation means that Jesus’ blood stands in our defense, just as all the animal sacrifices were put forward in the Old Testament as substitutes, so that the innocent would take the place of the guilty.

God’s intervention against the pandemic of sin was for Jesus to take all of sin upon Himself. Though God had been patient in former years, delaying judgment for sin; when Jesus came, it’s almost as though He stirred things up to an outbreak—an outbreak against Himself. He brought sin out of hiding, shined the full light of truth and righteousness on it, and forced sin to become visible. Sin arose with deadly force, and He swallowed up the infection, and with great pain, it wracked His body and He died on the cross. But the Bible keeps us from understanding Jesus’ death as a sad victim story, for Jesus tells us instead that He voluntarily laid down His life for us. He is the rescue worker who’s the only One in the world who is resistant to the deadly virus of sin, became infected, died, and rose again, with the virus eliminated, and His innocence and wholeness of life to share with all who will receive it. He is the remedy, announced in His Word, the Good News of Life. He’s washing you with water in Holy Baptism to cleanse you of sin, and to give you that baptismal garment to suppress the sinful nature that lies latent in your system. Finally, you too will have to die to rid your body of the sin—but He has promised that those who undergo the spiritual death and resurrection with Him in baptism, will also undergo a physical death and physical resurrection to be raised up to eternal life with Him. Your body that will one day rise from the grave when Jesus returns, will be a new, living, purified body, with no death or disease.

God has done all of this for us in Christ Jesus—He’s justified and forgiven us by grace, as a gift. And our good works are left out of the equation, so that we have no room to boast. All the glory, the credit, and praise goes to Him.

One thing we should be careful of, is understanding God’s grace like a shot or vaccine that we can get once, go on our way, and be protected, or maybe get an occasional “booster shot.” God’s grace isn’t an injection of something that we take from Him—it is a standing in God’s favor—a right relationship with Him. It is to be in the shelter of His protection. And the life and the righteousness that we have as the cure from sin is Jesus Christ Himself. If we have Jesus, we have life. No Jesus, no life. We are safe from sin because Jesus is ours—as Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20). We know that Jesus is our shelter and protection, we live by faith in Him who gave Himself up for us.

What an amazing God we have, who spared nothing to make us His own! What an amazing grace, that saved a wretch like me! You see, taking the full stock of our sin and its deadly danger, though a crushing blow to our pride, only magnifies for us the greatness of the lengths to which God went to save us from sin. Jesus stood in the way of the deadly disease of sin, absorbing all its deadly poison into Himself—becoming the propitiation for our sin. And now that God is fully satisfied in Christ Jesus, we are declared innocent—cured, clean, able to come into His presence again. This Reformation Day, celebrate the joy of living forgiven and healthy in God’s presence, by the free gift that God has given you in Christ Jesus. In His name, Amen!


Sermon Talking Points

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  1. What is sin? 1 John 3:4. What is the original source of sin? Romans 5:12-13. When does sin begin in us? Psalm 51:5. Where does sin “reside” or arise from within us? Matthew 15:18-19; Jeremiah 17:9; James 1:14-15. Why should we consider sin so deadly?
  2. How does sin show up both in visible, outward forms, and in hidden, “underground” forms? Why should we not be confused by this to think that only certain people are sinners? Romans 3:23
  3. What are some of God’s “sin containment procedures” or “protocols”? Romans 3:19-20, 27; Galatians 2:20; 3:21-24; 5:24; Mark 1:4-5. Why do we naturally want to avoid confessing our sins and admitting our faults?
  4. What is different about “grace” than earning something? Romans 3:24; 5:17; 11:6. Grace is God’s undeserved favor for us in Christ Jesus, or as some people have made an acronym: G.R.A.C.E.—God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
  5. The result of God’s grace is that we are justified or declared innocent by Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are “justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” How do we receive this gift? Romans 3:25; Hebrews 4:2. Faith also is a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9), proving all the more that GRACE is completely undeserved. How does this direct all glory to God and away from us?
  6. God’s whole plan of salvation revolves around and is completed in Christ Jesus, with nothing for us to add or complete. How does that change your life? How does it change your worship and praise? How does it affect your thanksgiving; the way you treat others?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22, for Reformation 2, "Church and State in the Reformation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. As we continue in our Reformation month, today we consider the relationship between church and state. How does a Christian live at once governed by God, and faith in His Word, and at the same time living under a government that rules Christian and non-Christian citizens alike? How do we face the interactions and overlap in our lives, between church and state? How does God’s Word guide and inform our responsibilities to both?

Jesus and His apostles address these questions. In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus in a question about taxes. First they flatter Jesus by admiring His truthful teaching about God’s way, and that He shows no favoritism. He won’t give in to anyone’s opinion. Then they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” If “yes”, that will be unpopular with the common people; if “no”, then they can accuse Him of stirring up rebellion. Ironically, though they claim to know He’s not fooled by appearances, that’s just what they hope to do by pretending to want a sincere answer. But Jesus is not fooled or swayed by their appearances.

With a single, memorable line, He silences them and settles the matter. They show Jesus a coin, He has them identify Caesar’s image and inscription on it, and He answers, “Therefore render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus describes two duties—one to government, and a higher duty to God. Don’t neglect duty to government; but even worse is to neglect our duty to God. Instead of falling into their trap, Jesus upheld both duties and showed how they had failed in their greater duty to God, by rejecting Him. Even though they themselves said He was “true and teach[es] the way of God truthfully.

Their question about taxes sat at the crossroads of their religious identity and the unwelcome presence of foreign Roman rule. Many questions of American life today sit at that same intersection between church and state, and are guided by Jesus’ same principle of two duties. The Lutheran Hour Ministries put out a good movie two years ago, using the analogy of a busy intersection to describe the frequently crossing paths of church and state. It discussed how our Constitution wisely established a traffic signal or stop light, in the First Amendment, to safely negotiate those crossings and avoid collisions.

Let’s consider our constitution for a moment, because our government, the USA, is our “Caesar.” Did you know that the only mention of the word freedom in the text of the Constitution is in the First Amendment? It reads in full: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Thankfully and wisely, our Constitution places limits on our government. It does not allow our government, the power to create a state enforced religion; it does not allow itself the power to prohibit the free exercise of religion; and the Constitution does not allow government the power to abridge the freedom of speech, etc.

You should study it yourself if you need convincing, but our Founding Fathers—who were not all Christian, by the way—had great foresight about the relationship between our new American government and God. They stated this principle in the Declaration of Independence, before the writing of the Constitution. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Though the Constitution never mentions God, and it’s not a document about God—freedom of religion and freedom of speech were the first liberties to be enshrined in our Bill of Rights. They recognized that God stood over certain rights that they were bound to recognize. Unalienable rights: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness—are from our God—not from the government. That’s a big difference; because without God granting these rights, who is to say that government is not the highest authority that can give or take away our rights? That is a frightening thought, and the founders knew it, and so built these protections into our Constitution.

But how does a Christian in America, answer to the higher authority of God, and render obedience to Him, when we run into conflict with “Caesar”, our government? The simple answer is that God’s authority overrides for the Christian whatever any government may prohibit, command, or allow. The apostles of Jesus gave a clear direction about what to do when they confessed that “We must obey God, rather than men.” If the government allows same-sex marriage or abortion—it is not therefore allowed to the Christian, who must obey God’s clear Word. If the government commands us to violate our faith by participating in something that is contrary to our faith and conscience—doing something unethical—we must civilly disobey. If the government tries to prohibit what we are free to do—namely preach and teach the Word of God—we must also disobey.

Am I just inventing hypothetical or abstract examples? Sadly they all happening in current events in America. Most recently, in an unfolding story in Houston, Texas, the mayor’s office has subpoenaed the speeches and pastoral communications of five pastors. They exercised their free speech to stand against a new city ordinance opening public restrooms to people of both sexes. Though the outcome is still uncertain, it’s alarming that the government wants to silence free speech from pulpits, or cannot bear criticism and opposition. The Founders envisioned churches and people of faith forming the moral conscience of America. We see what happens when that voice is silenced. Do you believe that the government should dictate what churches can or cannot say, and define what speech is political, or simply Biblical?

Fortunately we have a constitution and bill of rights that protects those freedoms—but they are being tested and eroded every day. A former president warned that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” And your duty as Christian citizens is to make use of your freedoms—the free exercise of your religion, the freedom of your speech, and your right to vote so that your voice is heard, just as much as those who hold different beliefs and opinions. As Christians, we should also remember that those who have no voice or who cannot speak for themselves, have a claim on our voice to speak up for them as well. Our duty to God includes a duty to our neighbor, including the unborn, the aged, the defenseless, and the infirm.

Under the best of circumstances, Christians shouldn’t have to choose between rendering to Caesar or rendering to God. Under the best of circumstances, freedom of religion is protected, and we can carry out duty to God and government in good conscience. But in countries around the world, and increasingly in our own, we don’t live under the best of circumstances, and conflicts often do arise. Christians cannot afford to remain silent or avoid participating in the discussion as life in our nation is reshaped. Often we feel or hear pressure from the media, politicians, or maybe even from fellow Christians, that we should just “keep our faith to Sunday morning”. But you tell me—isn’t silence or hiding our faith rendering to Caesar what belongs to God? Neither Jesus nor His apostles were silenced by anyone’s opinions.

One of the most common arguments I read or hear, is that Jesus never said anything about abortion, or homosexuality, or some other hot topic. And while undoubtedly not all issues come up in Jesus’ teaching, this argument artificially limits what Jesus said. It fails on a number of levels. First of all, Jesus never mentioned a variety of other sinful behaviors, incest, spousal abuse, drug abuse, etc, but this doesn’t mean He approved of them. That’s called an argument from silence. Also, Jesus did speak broadly against all forms of sexual immorality and taking of innocent life, not just those specific examples He thought to name. Secondly, we can’t separate Jesus words from all the rest of Scripture, as He repeatedly, explicitly upheld the authority of all God’s Word. Paul’s letters or what Moses writes in the Old Testament, are all God’s inspired Word. And finally, while there are categories of Old Testament laws that became obsolete after Jesus fulfilled the law, and are no longer applicable to Christians, these examples were not.

From the time of Jesus, Christians have understood which laws of the Old Testament are still binding and which are not, in a simple and straightforward way. Those laws that are repeated and reaffirmed in the New Testament for us to follow, are still binding on Christians, as for example, the forbidding of homosexuality. They are “moral laws” that we still must obey. The laws that Christians no longer must obey, are also defined in the New Testament: Old Testament ceremonial and worship laws, food laws, laws concerning Old Testament Israel’s unique government and criminal penalties, etc. These are not repeated or expanded universally to all people in the New Testament, or they are declared complete, and no longer binding.

The government and laws have changed through time, from Israel, who had its law direct from God, to Rome or America whose laws have mixed origins. But there is an overarching truth that covers all of time, and that is that all governments and all citizens are finally answerable to God alone. Jesus said it simply when He said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” God is not “running for office”—He already stands as King and Sovereign over all, whether we acknowledge Him or not. And just before His death, Jesus acknowledged this Kingship, though He clarified that His kingdom was not of this world.

What kind of rule does He extend? It is a reign of grace and peace. He showed His reign when He submitted to tyrants and injustice on the cross, and unseated the powers of sin and death. He rose from the dead to usher in an eternal kingdom that is now, but not yet. A kingdom that stands and grows forever. Our present, earthly government is a part of this sinful, temporary world that will one day pass away. But Jesus’ kingdom was prophesied by Isaiah in these famous words (ch 9), “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom,  to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

The role that our earthly government and our participation in it as citizens plays in God’s eternal plan is significant, and we cannot ignore our duty to taxes or to strive for a just government—but we have an even higher calling and duty, and that is to belong to our God and the everlasting kingdom of His Son. The kingdoms of men can never give us salvation, and their plans often come to nothing. But the kingdom of God’s Son brings us salvation full and free, and His plans never fail. He is the God in whom we trust. In His kingdom we live by faith and by the forgiveness that He freely grants to all who trust in Him. Render yourself to God, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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Listen to audio at:


  1. The relation of church and state or politics and faith can often be a tense or controversial one. What particular issues are most concerning to you? Do you consistently apply a Christian, Biblical worldview to your life and voting? How does it inform you?
  2. In Matthew 22:15-22, how did the Pharisees hope to catch Jesus in His words? How did His answer outwit them? What two duties does Jesus describe? Which is higher?
  3. Do you think a traffic intersection is a good analogy for the relation of church and state? The first amendment of the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” How does our government (our “Caesar”) protect our religious freedoms from interference? Why is it so important that the Founding Fathers of the USA recognized that government was beneath the authority of God?
  4. What must a Christian do when their duty to government conflicts with their duty to God? Acts 4:19-20; 5:29; Daniel 3:12-18.
  5. How can a Christian in good conscience exercise their freedoms and privileges as an American citizen? Whose interest are we to look out for, besides our own? Philippians 2:4; Proverbs 31:8-9; Matthew 25:35-40
  6. A common argument says that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality or abortion or ____, so Christians should have nothing to say about them either. Does this mean that Jesus approved of all the sins that He didn’t mention by name? What about those things that are named as sin in other Bible passages? See what Jesus said about sexual immorality in general, as well as the taking of innocent life: Matthew 5:27-32; 15:19; John 8:11; Matthew 5:21-26.
  7. The simple way Christians understand which Old Testament laws are still binding on Christians today is whether or not the New Testament repeats and reaffirms them for Christians—as Jesus does with the moral law in the Sermon on the Mount, and as the apostles do in their letters. At the same time, Jesus and the apostles also show which laws have been fulfilled and are no longer applicable, such as ceremonial, sacrificial, food, and OT governmental laws. How is Jesus’ kingship eternal and overarching? Isaiah 9:6-7; John 18:36-37.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sermon on Philippians 4:4-13, for Reformation 2, "Rejoicing and Prayer in the Reformation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Did you notice the strong themes of rejoicing, feasting, and wedding celebration in all the readings today; even the Psalm on the front of your bulletin insert, that we didn’t use? They’re all also themes of Christian worship. Every Sunday we gather for rejoicing and a feast, as our worship is centered around Jesus, our Heavenly Groom, and the Lord’s Supper that He gives to His Bride, the Church, as a foretaste of the feast to come. We hope and rejoice each week because of the presence of Jesus and His outpoured blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord,” because true joy is found only in Him. The Old Testament reading describes the heavenly celebration when God swallows up death forever, wipes away the tears from all faces, and takes away the reproach of His people. The Gospel describes a wedding feast filled with undeserving guests, while those who despised the invitation were left out.

When we hear Paul say, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”; that seems like a tall order. How can we rejoice always? A superficial survey of local, national, and international news is always a quick way to dull your joy. But should it? Rejoice in the Lord always—Paul says. “But don’t you know the world is filled with trouble and with suffering, Paul? How can you expect me to rejoice?” But Paul answers: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Tell me more, Paul—what is that secret of your contentment? “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Back to the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord! The emphasis on rejoicing is not in finding elusive joy within me—but in finding it in the Lord! God is the source of contentment, joy, and peace. And anyone who has heard me teach or preach on joy and rejoicing before, knows that I always remind people that joy runs much deeper than happiness. It has deeper roots than the emotional ups and downs and external circumstances that can so quickly change my mood from happiness to sadness, or from excitement to worry or fear.

But Paul is telling us about the deep-rooted joy that sinks our heart and mind into God’s peace, and the joy of God’s incredible love for us in Christ Jesus, and the strength of God building you up even in the worst of circumstances, when “every earthly prop gives way”. Like the hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” says:

His oath, His covenant and blood, support me in the raging flood; when every earthly prop gives way, He then is all my hope and stay. On Christ, the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. (LSB 575:3).


Probably no one counts on the evening news for their daily boost of joy—but I think we are tempted, all too often, to build our security, our hope, or confidence on all sorts of earthly props, that prove to be sinking sand. Whether we’ve put that trust in other people, who are but sinners and who may let us down; whether we put out trust in financial security, job security, a safe home, school, or neighborhood; even hopes for a world without war—trusting in politicians and leaders to deliver it—we will continually find that these things often cannot sustain us through the raging floods of life—the disasters, the times of failure, the wars and times of darkness. And if our hope is built on these, if our joy is dependent on the world and the uncertainties of our external circumstances: wealth, safety, or prosperity—then we are doomed for disappointment.

But if our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness—if we’re built on Christ the solid rock—we can ride out the storms of life secure on the One who is immovable, unshakeable. Not any loss, not even death, can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ our Lord. This is the joy built on the Rock—an inner peace and contentment with God, a knowledge that He is for us, and nothing can withstand His love. Paul said in Philippians 1, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” The believer in Christ Jesus faces a win-win situation in whatever situation they are, high or low—because even death brings us to life eternal with Him. It doesn’t mean your external circumstances will never be rough. It doesn’t mean a smile will be always painted on your face, even when going through a terrible illness or depression, or great loss or suffering. But it means that neither you nor your external circumstances are the source of your joy. But rather the Lord gives you strength—He is your joy. It might even mean that in your suffering you can sing and praise the Lord as Paul and Silas did in their prison, or like Job trusted God even in his evil circumstances—because their hearts and minds were guarded by God’s peace that surpasses all understanding.

Notice, it’s not just human understanding that is surpassed—but all understanding. I believe that includes the angels and demons as well! None can comprehend the boundless good of God’s peace, and it’s power to transcend even the most evil of circumstances, to find joy in the Lord. I’m sure it’s infuriating to the devil. I’m sure its infuriating to wicked terrorists who are executing innocent Christians in Iraq and Syria, in a desperate attempt to create fear, in those who will not renounce Christ Jesus their Lord, even in the face of death. That even a humble child trusting in Jesus can defy those cowards, is a testament to Paul’s words, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Angels must marvel at the power of God’s peace to heal even the deepest wounds, to bring forgiveness through Jesus’ blood to hurting and guilty souls. The New Testament describes how the angels longed to see and understand the unfolding of God’s salvation in Christ Jesus. It also tells us how they rejoice in even a single sinner’s conversion to the Lord. How intimately they watch and attend to our daily lives, all behind the scenes, and for no glory to themselves, but to help us to give more glory to Jesus, the object of our mutual hope and joy. And this peace of God even surpasses their understanding!

So how does rejoicing relate to the Reformation? Well, worship is one of the many places where Christians express their joy. We lift up our voices, we tune our instruments to give Him praise. And perhaps we take even that joy for granted sometimes. Do you know that one of the key reforms that Martin Luther brought to worship, 500 years ago in the Reformation, was to bring the worship back to the language of the people? Have you ever imagined what it would be like not to understand the worship service because it was in Latin? No hymns or songs you could sing in your own language, and you were a mere observer in worship? How could you find the joy of the Lord if you didn’t understand the sermon, if there even was one? How would you know what God had done for you?

We take it for granted, but this was just the situation Martin Luther faced, and he responded by translating the liturgy into the common language, and by writing hymns to be sung by the people. The return of congregational singing gave back to the people their voice to praise God, and words to teach the faith to them and future generations in a memorable way. Music and repetition are two of the best aids to memorization, as every teacher knows. The Lutheran church has been known as a “singing church” ever since! We have probably one of the richest collections of excellent Christian hymns in all the Christian church in our hymnal. Hymns that proclaim Christ and Him crucified as the center of our salvation and our worship. Hymns that give voice to our rejoicing, as well as to sorrow or the deep need to trust in God. Music is one of the best expressions of joy and thanksgiving to God. And if the words we sing are rich in proclaiming Christ Jesus and His redeeming work for us, we are doubly blessed to be writing the Truth of God’s Word into our hearts and minds. What an excellent way to set our minds on honorable, commendable, and praiseworthy things—and to be filled with the peace of God.

Paul also addresses our anxiety and worry, and tells us to take it to the Lord in prayer. God invites us to call on Him anytime and everywhere, with a direct line to Him through Jesus Christ our Lord. 1 Timothy tells us that Jesus is the One Mediator between God and man. Here again recall what Martin Luther recovered in the Reformation. By the 1500’s, prayer had long been redirected through a maze of saints—and most prominently, the Virgin Mary—on its way to God. This was an entirely unbiblical idea, and still is today—that we should pray to any saint, dead or living—as though they can assist in getting our prayers to God’s throne. We can and should pray to God directly, in Jesus Christ, and through no other mediator—not angels or humans. Of course we as Christians pray for one another, as we should—and maybe even saints in heaven continue to pray to God for us on earth. We can’t know for certain. But even if we knew they prayed for us, it doesn’t follow that we should pray to them, any more than we should pray to each other, as Luther noted. Again, all our requests and prayers and thanksgivings should be made known to God. We have no Word of God ever promising us that saints in heaven can hear or help us, and yet the Bible overflows with God’s promises and invitations to pray to Him, and that He will answer. Not only is it infinitely better to go straight to Him—it’s also the right way to honor and worship Him alone.

Prayer, Christian community and brotherly support, setting his mind on the noble things of God—these were all the daily stuff of life for Paul—they were signs of his life in Jesus—practical helps for his life. He was strengthened in all circumstances, rich with God’s peace, and rejoiced always. Paul was no stranger to hardship, suffering, and loss—more so than most of us. But he knew his strength and peace and joy were to be found in Christ Jesus our Lord. God is as accessible to you as your most immediate prayer; He is so near to you as to dwell in your body as the Temple of His Holy Spirit; His peace that goes beyond any understanding makes its home in your hearts and minds. And He has fully reconciled us to Himself in Christ Jesus, through His death on the cross. Contentment and joy are in Him! Let go of everything else, and stand firm on Him, so that the storms and floods will not frighten you—and you will know that He holds you secure in life or in death. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Study the bulletin insert, the Introit on the front, and the readings on the back. What themes of rejoicing and celebration do you notice? Why does worship share all these themes?
  2. Where does Christian joy come from? Do we produce it ourselves? Does it come from our circumstances, or where? In Philippians 4:10-13, what is Paul’s secret to contentment? What confidence does he have about what God will do for him? Philippians 1:19-22.
  3. Look at the hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” (LSB 575). What are the “earthly props that give way”, that we often mistakenly trust in? Why is Christ the only solid rock we should build on? Luke 6:46-49; Psalm 46; Matthew 21:42-44
  4. How is joy different from external happiness? What would it mean to have joy, even when suffering or in prison? Philippians 4:6-9; Acts 5:40-42; Acts 16:19-34; Job 2:7-10.
  5. How did Martin Luther reform the worship of the church, to recover both the joy and understanding of the people? How did he reform prayer, to return it to its original purpose and pattern? 1 Timothy 2:1-6 How does Christ-centered and cross-focused music help us to set our minds on noble things? Philippians 4:8-9; Colossians 3:16.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14, for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Reformation 1, "Righteousness and the Reformation"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. During this month of October, we’re going to celebrate again a “Reformation Month” where we’ll take the opportunity to highlight some themes of our Lutheran Reformation heritage. We’re closing in on the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, which falls on October 31st, 2017. The Reformation played a large role in returning the church to the foundational authority of the Bible, and the centrality of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. Today we look to the theme of “righteousness” to consider what Paul was teaching about it in Philippians, and how that informs our Lutheran understanding of our relationship to God.

Imagine for a moment that you were the most successful person in your field—whatever that may be. Maybe it was that you were the employee of the year, or the world’s best mom, or the winner of the beauty pageant, or the valedictorian of your graduating class, or you received the Nobel Peace prize, or whatever commendations and praise it might be that you aspire to. Let’s add that you were the undisputed winner, and your achievement was genuine. Any of these achievements might be profitable to you in various ways. Looks great on your resume; shows the respect and admiration of your peers, your friends, family, community; makes you famous; etc. You would probably feel great about yourself too. Could anything, then, make you count all of these accomplishments, and even your identity itself, as a loss, as rubbish, as nothing? Something worthless to you?

The thought is shocking—because these are all good and noble things. Why would you want to “trash them”? But just like this, Paul abandons all his own credentials and achievements. He began the reading by saying if anyone thinks they have a reason for confidence or boasting in their flesh—they should check out his “credentials.” First he points to his ancestry or pedigree, showing he was a true Israelite. Then, for the sake of making a point, he “boasts” of his achievements: his unparalleled righteousness and zeal for God. He would have been a top contender for any awards and prestige in his day. But then in a surprising move, he says, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…

All of Paul’s pedigree and achievements are worthless to him—not a profitable gain, but a worthless loss. Rubbish—or more literally, excrement. What could make Paul so “irrational” as to consider all his personal “best” as just so much dirt and trash—something to discard? It was the sight of something far better—infinitely better and more valuable. He was ready to cast it all off for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ his Lord, and finding a righteousness not his own by the law—by right, by merit or earning it—but the righteousness of faith—a gift, an invaluable treasure from God. Paul could so easily “toss away” what in earthly eyes looked desirable, valuable, and good—because he saw something of infinitely greater worth: Christ Jesus.

Martin Luther, 500 years ago, once stood in the Apostle Paul’s shoes, and came to the same realization about his own life. He saw that his good works and achievements amounted to nothing more than an anthill or a hill of beans when he looked up to view the lofty grandeur and beauty of the Mount Everest that is Jesus Christ. Luther realized, like Paul, that a stellar record of earthly achievements is poor and shabby—no, even worse, its filthy rags before God. But God desires to clothe us in rich clothes—He desires to clothe us with Christ Jesus, the Righteous One. If the choice is between my hill of beans, my rags, and the loftiest mountain or the robe of Christ’s righteousness—the choice is clear.

If you stand in Paul’s shoes, or whatever shoes (or slippers) you wear, I pray that you will also see that whatever stands to your credit in good life or pride of accomplishment, is nothing to hold up before God. You’ll want to echo what Paul said about Abraham, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Rom. 4:2). It was not Abraham’s good works, but his faith that was counted as righteousness (4:5). So say it, “I have nothing to boast about before God...”  Now say, “But I am righteous by faith in Jesus!”

In both Philippians and Romans, Paul identifies two different kinds of righteousness. A Law-righteousness—based on earthly obedience and good deeds—and secondly, the righteousness of faith in Christ: a gift from God. The two are the difference between night and day. Loss vs. gain. Worthless excrement vs. surpassing worth. Mud pies vs. a real homemade pie, if you will. Counterfeit bills vs. genuine currency. The point is, that our own righteousness is so far from the righteousness through faith in Christ, that they’re not even on the same spectrum or scale. It’s not like our good works and best efforts are just pennies in comparison to a thousand dollar bill, or cheap clothing in comparison to rich brand name wear. It’s that they are dirty rags and excrement. Worthless; of no value.

This is the breaking point for our human pride. The realization that we can’t boost our own righteousness up to give us something to boast about before God; is where our heart rebels. Our sinful heart can’t tolerate such  terrible blows against all we’ve built up or stood on. All our confidence in the flesh. “That’s going to far! I worked hard for this! I deserve at least some inkling of credit!” And on and on our heart protests, until God’s law speaks its authoritative word, and every mouth is silenced before God. “Your sin has earned you death”—the law intones. “You are cursed if you have not done everything the Law requires”—the judgment rings harshly in our ears. God’s Law rains hammer blows down on our pride: “Your righteous deeds are like filthy rags”. To look up at this assault, we imagine a terrifying, angry God.

Until, that is, our pride is broken, and our blindness is made sight, and we see that God wants to trade us all the worthless empty things we’ve been clinging to, for something of infinite value and worth. Until we see the face of Jesus. When we see Jesus, we see the merciful face of God shining upon us and being gracious to us. We see God’s face lifting up to show us His favor and grant us peace. The storm cloud passes and we see that God was not after our destruction, but the destruction of our sinful nature—to put our sin and pride to death with Jesus on the cross, so that He can give us life. The joyous discovery of the Gospel is the thrill of knowing that everything you have, or are, or were, is as nothing compared to God giving you Christ Jesus. Jesus’ own righteousness. A gift by faith. Nothing you earned, but Christ in whole, poured out for you in life, death, and resurrection.

If our former “righteousness,”  if you can even call it that, had no “currency”—was worthless before God—this righteousness that you have in Christ Jesus is the real deal. It is Christ’s own righteousness of immeasurable worth. And this immeasurable worth was everything to Paul—to know Jesus, to gain Him, to be found in Christ Jesus with His righteousness. And it was everything to Martin Luther, it’s everything to me, and I pray that the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus is everything to you. I pray that sinful pride will never hold back even one of you from being found in Him. And your new life and new identity in Christ Jesus now has “currency” before God. You are precious and valuable to Him, not because of anything of your own, but because of Christ Jesus. And in that faith, all the life you live and lead for Christ is to His honor and glory, and for the service of your neighbor.

One of Luther’s great insights was that our old sinful nature is stubborn and persistent, and always looking for ways to insert our own pride or effort back into things. Pride wants our righteousness under the law to count for something before God. But Luther warned that any amount of credit that we try to steal for ourselves, however small, only serves to diminish or take away the glory and honor of Christ Jesus. The full credit and glory and honor belongs to Jesus Christ alone. So we must constantly keep the old sinner in check, humble him and put him to death through the drowning repentance of baptism, and rise daily before God to live as the new person He has made us in Christ Jesus.

The great fear of opponents to the Reformation, and a fear of many Christians today, is that if our good works aren’t counted for our justification before God, or even in some small way to put us in God’s favor—that people will give up striving and give up doing. People won’t have any motivation to do good, and will just turn into slackers and backsliders. The Apostle Paul knew this charge too: “Shall I sin more that grace may increase?” Paul answers, “By no means! How can we who have died to sin live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2). In today’s reading he also shows that this fear is unfounded, for to know Christ Jesus is also to be conformed to Him. God has already begun transforming us into Christ’s image. We share in Christ’s sufferings and in His death, but we’ll also share in the glorious new beginning of His resurrection.

Paul then closes the reading by acknowledging how he’s far from perfection, but he’s striving and straining forward and pressing on like a determined runner in a race—to reach the prize of God’s heavenly call for us. It was easy for Paul to cast off all his works, achievements, and credentials as nothing and loss. And it didn’t stop him from doing good and seeking to live after Christ Jesus. In fact it the real freedom to do so out of genuine faith and love. And it shouldn’t stop you either. Just like a child who learns that mud pies aren’t edible has no trouble becoming a real baker when the loving mother washes her clean and teaches her how to make the real deal. God has prepared good works for us to do, and He’s already willing and working in you to do them, as your sinful nature never could before. So strive and strain and run for the goal. It’s not that we give up striving for excellence, but the reason why we do has changed from doing it for our own glory, to doing it for the glory of God and the service of our neighbor. But the foundation of your faith and your salvation is not any works of your own—neither before nor after your salvation—but the foundation of your faith is Christ Jesus, and His perfect righteousness that is ours by God’s gift through faith.

And one final thing—about how we see God. True love and worship of God—true trust and obedience to God, doesn’t come from cowering in fear and begrudgingly obeying because of threats. That is not God-pleasing obedience. Rather it comes from knowing God in Christ Jesus. True love, worship, trust, and obedience to God comes from knowing the merciful and loving God who gave up everything, even His Only Begotten Son to die for us, so that we could become His treasured possession. Seeing and knowing God in Christ Jesus, and becoming conformed to His Son, makes us into the new person transformed by joy and delight in the God of surpassing worth and greatness. Accept no imitations! Trust only in Him! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. In Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul counts up all his “reasons for confidence in the flesh”—anything that he could boast in, if he had a mind to boast about earthly accomplishments. What about your identity or your achievements would you be most tempted to boast in?
  2. Why does Paul count all these things as “rubbish” or “loss”? What would he far rather have? Why are those things all empty to him?
  3. Paul speaks of two kinds of righteousness in v.9. What are they? What is the difference between them? Romans 3:21-22. Why is the second kind so far superior to the other? How do you get either?
  4. In the Reformation, the primary concern of the Lutheran Reformers was that a righteousness of the law was being taught in the church, instead of the righteousness by faith. They rightly saw this as a danger for human pride, for wounded and troubled consciences, and for diminishing the glory of Christ. How does the proper Biblical teaching of righteousness by faith correct those three dangers?
  5. In what ways do we become like Christ? Philippians 1:27; 2:1-8; 3:10-12, 21; Ephesians 5:1-2. Who makes this happen in us? As we are conformed to Christ, how does this change us in relation to the world and our flesh? Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17.
  6.  How can we give full honor and glory to Christ Jesus? What will it mean for you to live as though all your earthly accomplishments and identity are as rubbish or nothing, and that Christ is everything? What is the surpassing joy of knowing Christ Jesus?
  7. How does knowing Jesus change the “face” of God toward us (compared to how we would know Him through the Law alone), so that we are able to truly love Him and worship Him?