Monday, February 23, 2015

Sermon on Mark 1:9-15, for the 1st Sunday in Lent, "Victory in Him!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In relatively short order, in 7 verses, the reading you heard from the Gospel of Mark outlines an important series of events when Jesus first came on the scene publicly, to preach and teach in the land of Israel 2,000 years ago. Jesus’ is baptized in the Jordan River by His cousin John the Baptist. God the Father speaks His approval over Jesus; the Holy Spirit appears at Jesus’ baptism—a miraculous and clear revelation of the Trinity—that God is Three in One—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And after these momentous events, Jesus is immediately propelled into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And forty days later, John has been thrown into prison, and Jesus carries on the ministry, telling people to turn away from sin, and believe in the gospel—the good news of the kingdom of God. Mark throws a whole lot at us at once, and to unpack what it all means would be beyond our time here. And it’s all surprisingly brief in description, where the other gospels provide much more detail.
But let’s just stop and notice what Mark is emphasizing. What is he trying to get across about Jesus? First of all, at Jesus’ baptism, God Himself spoke aloud His approval, over Jesus His Son. The Baptism of Jesus signals us immediately, who Jesus is, and how He stands with God. He is God’s beloved Son, with whom the Father is well-pleased. There is no guessing about it, from the reader’s perspective, even though His followers through those next three years, struggled to “get it.” Jesus proved to have great patience in unfolding for His disciples who He was. And He did not primarily rely on flashy miracles and actions as a way of proving it. Humility and compassion marked His ministry through and through. But Mark tells us right from the beginning, this is the Son of God.
So Mark wants to highlight God’s approval for Jesus, but then as soon as Jesus is out of the water, the Holy Spirit drives Him out into the wilderness to be tempted. God’s public approval of Jesus at His baptism was not followed by a “red-carpet treatment”, but a forty day long ordeal with temptation by the devil. Jesus was spared no difficulty, but was immediately “put through the wringer”, as they say. The Bible tells us part of the reason why Jesus was tempted this way—it was so that we would have One who stood in our place in every way, even enduring temptation—yet He remained without sin.
So Jesus’ ministry began with struggle and temptation, and all the way to His death on the cross, it remained a struggle—a clash between Him and the devil, and all the spiritual forces that opposed Him. But the ultimate message, the good news, in Mark’s Gospel and in all the New Testament, is that Jesus won that struggle and that He won the battle. He is victorious over the devil and his schemes. Yet the struggle remains very much alive and real for Christians today. Not unlike Jesus, we can count on the fact that if we are baptized into Jesus, and become His disciples—His followers—that we too will enter into a struggle. If we have been marked on our foreheads with the Name of God, for our blessing and for our good—this makes one angry enemy for us out of the devil. And the Bible tells us that he prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. The devil is hungry for our failure, for our isolation from God, for an opportunity to make us fall.
“Temptation” is the word for the devil’s efforts to do that. To trip us up, make us stumble or fall. But you’re more likely to hear the word “temptation” on a commercial, or restaurant menu selling chocolate desserts, than you are likely to hear it describing a real and dangerous struggle between good and evil, right and wrong. You’re more likely to think of Halloween costumes and silly cartoons when you hear the word “devil”—than you are to think of a prowling lion ready to pounce. So this raises some important questions for us—is temptation really a serious struggle between good and evil, that has real and lasting consequences? Or is life a mainly neutral playing field, where the consequences of our actions are only here and now, and not beyond? The Bible’s view, of course, is that temptation is real and serious.
Our reading from James gives some key pointers about temptation. God is never the one who tempts us. God cannot and will not give into evil. But the real source of temptation starts with our own desires. Wrong desires in our heart grow into sin, and sin when fully grown turns into death. God’s Word informs us that sins’ consequences are real and deadly, and that it all starts with something as seemingly harmless as our own desires. We want something that we can’t have, but take it anyway. Or we do wrong to get something that could have been ours by honest and upright effort. But the end result is pain, sadness, broken lives and relationships, and finally, death. Sin brings forth death.
When I think of how the world makes light of temptation, an old popular song comes to mind: “If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.” The song seems to suggest that right and wrong are just a matter of how you feel—something totally personal and subjective. We hear that all the time in the TV shows and movies we watch, in the music we listen to, etc. But is it true? The Bible represents an opposite view—that things that I do are not good or bad based on how it makes me feel—but whether or not they violate God’s standard of right and wrong. Not my personal standard or your personal standard, or even society’s standard—but what God’s Word says. And even for people who have no belief in God, that knowledge of right and wrong is written on our hearts. We can’t deny that we know the difference between right and wrong just because we haven’t read the Bible or we don’t know the 10 Commandments. Every person has that basic knowledge of right and wrong. Every person knows that murder, dishonesty, theft, etc are wrong. Only by covering up that knowledge or ignoring it do we convince ourselves otherwise. When people live by the philosophy that you should just do whatever makes you happy, without consideration of others a whole lot of people will end up hurt and wronged. Of course the devil would be totally pleased if we make light of him and of temptation, and don’t keep ourselves on guard. If we let our guard down, that makes us easy prey.
If that philosophy of life is all about being turned inside on yourself—living the way your feelings steer you—Jesus’ points us to a totally different way of life. Life turned outside ourselves, to focus on Jesus and the needs of others. One of Jesus’ primary teachings sums up this outward-turning perspective—“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Following Jesus isn’t a matter of a “philosophy of life”—as though you had to be an intellectual to understand it. Rather Jesus says He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Following Him is walking the path after our Leader. He is the Way. It’s putting our trust in the One whom God approves. To follow Jesus is to trust the One who has walked our road, who stared down the temptations of the devil and didn’t cave in. Jesus’ struggle against temptation began in the wilderness, but lasted till the cross. But after Jesus died, He emerged from His tomb alive again—declaring His victory over death. Following Jesus is not a philosophy of life—it is the Way to Life. He is the Life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him.  
Day by day we live in the midst of very real struggles and temptations. I don’t need to tell you that life is not always easy. We face good and bad choices all the time, and we face situations all the time where there is a temptation to do evil. Moreover our children also face those choices and we have to help teach them to make good ones. Temptation might not even look that bad at first—it might even make us happy in the short run. But the Bible warns us that the outcome of sin is finally death.
So how are we going to win that day by day struggle against temptation? Is God keeping score, checking your batting average, and only those with the best scores get in? Is it all on you? The Good News—the Christian Gospel is this—that the victory over sin, over temptation, over the devil—that victory is in Jesus Christ! He has won the victory for us. He has conquered these things. Not so that we can merely sit on the sidelines and cheer, and never engage in the battle, but that we can enter the battle, enter the struggle between right and wrong, confident of victory, not because of us or our strength, but because that victory is already in Jesus’ hands. In Jesus’ nail-pierced hands that bear a permanent reminder of His love for you.
The Good News is that the victory that we have is through Jesus Christ our Lord. Anything that depends on my efforts, on your efforts, and our incomplete and tattered score of successes and failures—anything that depends on that is bound to fail. But Jesus’ record is sterling. It is perfect. He endured to the end; faithful even to His death, and God raised Him from the dead, showing that God is greater even than death. The Good News is that everything depends on Him. Our salvation, our hope, our future rests on Jesus and Him alone. There is nothing we can take credit for or do that will earn our way into God’s favor. But Jesus has done all for us.
And He calls us into the fray, calls us into life to venture bold and great things for the cause of good, and for the good of our neighbor. And for all the struggles and failures that you will experience along the way, you need to hear again these words. The first words of Jesus’ public teaching that Mark’s short account records: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.” In Jesus, God’s kingdom is at hand. Turn away from sin, and believe in the good news that Jesus is our total victory over sin and temptation. Put your trust in Him and follow! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Mark is the shortest of the Gospels in the New Testament, and is known for his fast-paced and condensed narrative. Read Mark 1:9-15. What events of Jesus’ early ministry are compressed into these 7 verses? When Jesus is baptized, how is the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, revealed? How is the Trinity present in our baptism? Matthew 28:18-20
2.      God spoke His approval over Jesus at His baptism. When else did God speak His approval over Jesus? Mark 9:2-9. Where did God send Jesus after this announcement of approval? Mark 1:12-13. Why did God want Jesus to endure temptation? Hebrews 4:14-16. Read Matthew 4:1-11 for a longer account of how Jesus faced the temptation of the devil.
3.      The Christian’s victory over sin comes not by our individual “scorecard” of battles won, but by the victory of Jesus Christ. In baptism we share in Christ’s crucifixion, but also His resurrection (Rom. 6). What can we anticipate facing as Christians, when we follow Jesus? Mark 8:34-38. How does being joined with Christ make the devil our enemy? 1 Peter 5:6-11. Who fights for us and holds the victory?
4.      How do we minimize or “pooh-pooh” temptation today? Or the devil? How are good and evil clearly present today, and how can you tell the difference between them?
5.      Does the Bible take a serious view of temptation? James 1:12-15. What are the seemingly “small beginnings” of sin? Cf. Matthew 5:22, 28; 15:17-19.
6.      To follow Jesus is to place our trust in the One who has conquered all for us, and in Him we have full victory—even though we wait for the full glory of His kingdom to be unveiled. When we struggle with personal temptation we look to Him for His strength and victory. How does this change your confidence and resolve as you face the challenges of life? How does it prepare you to “take up your cross” and follow Jesus?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 3:12-13; 4:1-6, for the Transfiguration of our Lord, "Fading Glory, Lasting Glory"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. “Hold that pose, look at the camera, smile!” Have you ever thought about how pictures seem to have the ability to capture a perfect, idealized moment? A split-second can be frozen indefinitely in time, so that the image of joy, excitement,  beauty, peace, or sadness, or any emotion is preserved in the photograph. Photo-editing software even makes it possible to polish and “clean-up” the image. But in real time the scene changes, the subjects in the photo move along to the next thing, the emotion changes one way or another, and life goes on.
Peter might have wished he had a camera on the mount of Transfiguration, some way to capture the glory of Jesus, as His appearance was transformed to a brilliant, blinding light. He hoped for some way to extend the glory, to bask in it a little longer. But this was not possible. Life would go on, and Jesus was marking the time and pointing His steps toward Jerusalem, where He would die on the cross, and after three days rise again from the dead.
In 2 Corinthians 3-4, Paul talks about the glory, the brilliance of God and the bright illumination that Jesus Christ brings. He contrasts the glory of Jesus, to the Old Testament. For example, when Moses was talking with God on Mt. Sinai, afterward his face would shine with the reflected glory of God, and the people were afraid to come near him (Exodus 34). So Moses hid his face with a veil, to cover up the glory. But when he spoke to God, or spoke God’s message to the people, he removed the veil. His face was “unhidden” or revealed to them. Now Paul tells us this glory Moses was reflecting, and kept partially hidden from the people of Israel—this glory was coming to an end. It was not permanent. It was like the changing scenery or moving people in our photograph analogy. It would fade away.
But unlike the glory that shone on the face of Moses, and unlike the fading glory of the Old Covenant of the law and its condemnation—the glory of Jesus Christ, and of His ministry of righteousness, has a permanent and lasting glory. The glory of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant that He brings is completely superior. What Peter and the other two disciples saw on the mountain of Transfiguration was like the peeling back of a tiny corner—a glimpse into the true glory that Jesus possessed. And as the corner was pushed back, they only saw the ordinary Jesus. Not because Jesus’ glory was temporary, and had just faded away. Rather, it was not time for the full revelation of His glory, and it wasn’t going to be shown to all in this way—shining on the mountaintop. Jesus pointed ahead to the road that lay before Him—suffering and the cross—and then the Son of Man would rise from the dead. This hour of His death and substitute sacrifice on the cross would bring greatest glory to His Father—not the brilliant moment on the mount of transfiguration. His glory never left Him, but only will be fully seen again one day when Jesus comes in the clouds with the angels in the Father’s glory (Mark 8:38). Jesus doesn’t need a photograph to hold onto a passing “glory moment”—but His glory belongs to Him and to the Father, as His full and eternal possession.
And neither is the Bible a photo album of static images and frozen moments that we can use in reminiscing and looking wistfully back at the “glory days.” Rather the Word of God is a living and dynamic message. We don’t wait around for God to send us a personal Transfiguration of Our Lord experience, which only happened to 3 chosen disciples. And we don’t go climbing random mountains in the hope of finding one. Rather we look to what God’s own Word tells us and how and where He promises to find and meet us.
Remember how we talked last week about not tampering with the Word of God, but being ready to bring it to any and all people? Paul says it again this week, that we can’t use cunning or disgraceful, underhanded ways to get God’s Word out—we can’t tamper with the message—but we do make an open statement of the Truth. Why is this so important? Why is the unvarnished message of God’s Truth better than any man-made marketing or slick schemes to get God’s Word out? Because it’s in God’s own Word that He enlightens us, and opens our minds and eyes to see Jesus Christ. God’s living encounter with us is through His own Word.
So God sends out His Gospel—His Good News—to all the earth. But Paul tells us the encounter can go two ways. In the one case, for unbelievers, for those blinded in their minds by the god of this world (aka the devil)—they see the gospel how the Israelites saw Moses’ veiled face. They couldn’t see the glory—it was covered up. At best maybe an outline, but the features of the face and the light were hidden from them. In the same way, unbelievers may detect a faint outline, but cannot see the face—the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For those who cannot see or receive the Gospel—they are blind to the face of Jesus. They miss that He shows us the image of God the Father. There is no recognition, no familiarity, no understanding, no illumination by the brightness and glory of His face. Instead there is darkness, obscurity, unfamiliarity and confusion.
But the encounter with God’s Gospel—His Good News—can also go another way, as Paul describes in the verses that were skipped in our reading. 2 Corinthians 3:16–18 (ESV) 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. When we turn to Jesus, the veil is lifted, and we see the glory of the Lord. The meaning of God’s Word is no longer hidden from us, but we see how Jesus is at the center of everything, and is the very image of God. And in beholding Jesus, in witnessing His glory, we are transformed, we are transfigured, into His image, “from one degree of glory to another”. Knowing Jesus is not just marveling at a stunning photo, but it is to be dynamically changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, degree by degree, into His likeness. With unveiled faces, we see Jesus with familiarity, recognition, and understanding. And more than that we are becoming like Him.
Wow! Is that really happening to me? Me, the poor, miserable sinner? Me, the one whose body is wearing down, and joints pop and crackle, whose eyesight is slowly fading? Me, the one who’s struggling through life, stumbling and getting up, worn down by circumstances? Am I really being transformed into the glory of Christ? If those kinds of thoughts enter your mind, you are tracking exactly with where Paul is going in his letter. In fact if you read the rest of chapter 4 you will hear him explain that we are like jars of clay, holding an infinitely valuable treasure. The not-so-impressive exterior proves all the more what God wants us to realize—that the “surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” He’ll go on to describe in chapter 5 how our body is like a tent that is wearing out—but that we’re in line for a permanent replacement—the heavenly tent, built by God. So believe it! God is working a new beginning in you by His Holy Spirit, and the completion of the project will be after death, or when Jesus comes back—whichever comes first. But don’t become discouraged or disheartened along the way—and by all means don’t dwell on me, me, me—eyes on the Lord! Our transformation doesn’t happen by beholding ourselves, but by beholding the glory of the Lord, and by the power of the Spirit.
Darkness or light, blindness or sight, veiled or unveiled, hidden or revealed…“‘God who said, let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” God’s Word pierces the darkness. It splits through the blindness, the veil that covers our eyes. And the light that breaks through—the glory that we see is the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. If a picture is worth a thousand words—really there are no words to fully describe the glory of Jesus Christ. It’s the holiness, the goodness, the purity, and love of God. But instead of resorting to imagination to grasp the shining glory, we are invited to behold Jesus’ glory, His goodness, and His love in lowliness at the cross. Perfect love, laid down in death for us, power made perfect in weakness, strength shown in self-sacrifice. Here is God’s glory—for all the world it is obscurity and unfamiliarity—but for the believer who has turned to the Lord, it is the good news of the glory of Christ. The glory of God shines through all that Jesus went to the cross and accomplished for us in His death and resurrection. For believers this is the very window into the heart of God—how we see His eternal mercy and love for us.
This encounter with God in Christ Jesus is worth far more to us than a picture or a thousand words. It’s worth far more than a mountain-top experience or a glimpse of fading glory. And this encounter comes to us in God’s own precious Word, the message of His salvation. God coming to us in Christ Jesus, and dwelling in our hearts by His Holy Spirit is the very treasure of God’s kingdom, our pledge of the inheritance in eternal life to come, and the appetizer to the full feast spread before our God and the Lamb—Jesus Christ. And this glory won’t fade or go away—but it is God’s permanent possession. And we long and wait for the day when we can see and experience it in the full intensity and goodness of Jesus’ glory in His eternal kingdom. O God, for Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read 2 Corinthians 3:7-4:6. What is Paul comparing in the glory of the Old Covenant to the New? Which is superior, and why?
  2. What was Moses’ experience of God’s glory in Exodus 34? How did he shield the Israelites from the after effects? Ex. 34:29ff. How does Paul say this is like the way some people read the Old Testament? What are they missing? 2 Corinthians 3:14; John 5:39. How is that veil removed?
  3. Was the glory that Peter, James, and John saw from Jesus a temporary and fading glory, or was it Jesus’ permanent possession? To what did Jesus direct their attention after the glory experience was over? Mark 9:9; John 12:27-33. Jesus glory came through lowly sacrifice. How does this show the greatness of what He did for us?
  4. When we will see Jesus’ glory fully unveiled, unhidden? Mark 8:38. How is God’s Word our present day, living encounter with Jesus and the good news of His glory? 2 Corinthians 4:4-6; 2 Peter 1:16-21
  5. What is one direction that the encounter with God’s Word may go? 2 Corinthians 4:3-4; John 3:17-21. What is the other direction it may go, and who creates that faith? 2 Corinthians 3:14-18; 4:5-6; Romans 10:17.
  6. What kind of spiritual transformation to we undergo as we behold the glory of the Lord in the Gospel? 2 Corinthians 3:18. Why does this make it so important that we don’t tamper with God’s Word or scheme, but make sure that we speak the truth openly and without alteration? 2 Corinthians 4:1-2.
  7. If we have doubts about the new work that God has begun in us, read 2 Corinthians 4 through the end of the chapter, and ch. 5 as well. How does Paul convince us that it’s not about us?

Monday, February 09, 2015

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:16-27, for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, "Free from all, servant of all"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In today’s reading, Paul talks about the privilege and reward of preaching the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ crucified for our sins and forgiveness. It was his unique joy to preach to the Corinthians free of charge. Like other servants of the gospel, he knew he deserved to earn a living by it. But among the Corinthians, he chose not to accept any payment, but worked for the sheer joy and reward of serving Jesus Christ. You can only understand this joy if you grasp the marvelous mystery of what Jesus has done for you. Working for a big paycheck we can understand. Working at an easy and rewarding job, we can understand easy enough. But facing constant rejection, persecution, beatings, and failure, and still finding the work so joyful that you would do it for free—that’s not so easy to understand. But the way that Paul carried out his ministry, and the joy and willingness with which he did it, all are for what Jesus did for us.
Paul describes his missionary work through a mystery or a paradox: he says “though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” His work in serving all was really an echo of what Christ first did for us. “I am free from all”, he says. The good news of Jesus is tied up with slavery and freedom. Our slavery was to sin and death. Our disobedience and rebellion against God means that by nature we were objects of God’s wrath and displeasure. Our rebellion against Him made us His enemies, with no prospect of winning the fight—only of ending up losers. Sin always collects its final payment in death, and the law of God holds the condemning record of how we have broken the commandments.
But Paul says “I am free from all.” That is because Jesus Christ came at the right time, when God planned, and He was “born under the law to redeem those under the law.” God’s own Son set aside His glory and became like us, ruled by God’s law and commandments, to secure the way for our freedom. We have no other alternative. There is no “success rate” at all, apart from Jesus, in obeying the commandments and steering clear of the penalties for breaking them. But when Jesus obeyed God’s Law for us, to redeem us, to buy us out of our slavery, He opened the way to freedom and life in Him. “I am free from all”. Say it! “I am free from all!” I am free from the power of sin, death, and the devil. I am free from the impossible demands of the law that would be my death sentence—if it were not that Jesus took that death sentence for me. I am free in Christ Jesus!
But Paul goes on to say how he uses his freedom: “I have made myself a servant of all, that I might win more of them.” Paul could have walked away from that “prison” and never looked back—but instead he devoted himself to a new service—to be a slave of those who were still imprisoned, that he might see more of them set free by the power of the good news of Jesus Christ. He became captive to their need, so that he could serve them by the gospel, and share with them in its blessings.
How do we want to use the freedom that we have been given in Christ Jesus? The highest calling from God is to tell others the good news about Jesus, to serve among the prisoners, and tell them the message that frees. To be a servant of all. To do this, Paul made himself highly adaptable to the people he met. Note this, however, and this is very important—he was adaptable and flexible—but the message didn’t change! The message of the good news of Jesus Christ is not open to compromise or alteration to fit the needs of others. It is God’s own message, and Paul warned in the strongest terms against tampering with the message. But what kind of flexibility did Paul employ in witnessing to Jews and Gentiles, those who had the law and commandments of God, and those who were not raised with them, or among those who were “weak” in some sense? How did Paul adapt to them, and what does it mean that he says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some”?
As a Jew, or one under the law, Paul could freely associate with Jews, eating their kosher foods, observing their ritual purifications for worship, and abiding by all the laws he knew from childhood. He understood the implication of the Gospel that Jesus had fulfilled all these things and that they were no longer binding on him. And as long as no one was forcing him to do it, he could freely live like this at no harm, if it gave him the opportunity to talk about Jesus with the Jews. On the other hand, to live like the Gentiles, those who had never received the Law of Moses, he was likewise free to eat non-kosher foods, to associate with them in their homes, and meet them at their level, in ways that an observant Jew might find repugnant. The implication of the gospel was that these barriers between peoples based on Old Testament laws, were now removed in Christ Jesus. Jesus too freely associated with tax collectors, prostitutes, drunkards, and other sinners, not involving Himself in their sins, but talking with them and teaching them. Others tried in vain to make Him guilty by association. Both Paul and Jesus were making contact with these people so that by the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus, they might be set free from their slavery, their imprisonment to whatever sins held them captive.
How can we become all things to all people today? Some Christians have distorted this statement to ridiculous effect today. They have tried to make it mean that we should take an “anything goes” approach to evangelism. Every one of the following examples I’m about to give are real—and it would be a lot funnier if they weren’t true. Instead of Christians meeting people in their circumstances, or walking in somebody else’s shoes, it has become a disguise for bringing worldliness into the church. For example, churches have done “clown masses” where the entire service is done in clown costume and mime—with no spoken Word of God. Men’s groups have tried to incorporate “ultimate fighting” contests into their outreach, with tragic results. Preachers have used sensual material and props for sermon series on sexuality; they have preached on the spiritual themes of Super Bowl commercials instead of God’s Holy Word; churches doing the Holy Ghost “hokie pokie” for worship; having dancing Star Wars storm troopers entertain the people during the music on Easter morning; a pastor setting himself on fire as a stunt in church….etc.
I did not make up any of these examples, and they are all being done by various “Christian” churches in the name of doing all things for all people and attempting to be “relevant”. The church is not a circus for drawing people into an entertaining spectacle, and by chasing after relevancy, they have only proven their irrelevancy. Church is a holy gathering of Christ’s people to hear God’s Word, receive His gifts, and give Him praise. Paul carefully qualified his statements about being all things to all people. When he’s becoming like those without the law, for example, he explains that he’s never actually without God’s law or the law of Christ. He doesn’t allow himself to become a sinner so that he can become “like” someone struggling with that sin. Rather, he walks in their shoes and comes alongside them, without sin, in the same Christ-like way as Jesus, who worked to reach the outcasts and forgotten.
Secondly Paul qualifies by saying that he does everything “for the sake of” or “on account of the Gospel.” The Good News of Jesus is the overriding authority that rules his ministry. That Word is always the total goal, and is not open to compromise or alteration. It’s a universal message that is for all times and all peoples, every bit as true today. Thirdly, his example is that an athlete exercises self-control in all things, putting his body in submission. The spiritual lesson of this being that Paul doesn’t want to disqualify himself from the prize.
The kind of evangelism Paul is talking about is almost certainly not going to happen within these building walls, on Sunday morning, where hopefully almost all of you are already Christian. But it will happen, if you are open to God’s leading and calling, in your daily life and encounters. It may happen as a caring Christian walks alongside a pair of frightened young teens who have ignored God’s design for sexuality, and gotten pregnant. It may happen as that Christian guides and leads her to making the wise and responsible choices to find a way to care for the child that is conceived, to walk life in a better way, and find God’s forgiveness. It may happen as you come alongside a drug addict or a homeless person, who is angry at God or at society, or who may have a load of baggage that enslaves them. And you take the time to listen, to understand, to help them to discover the true and Living God who loves them, and cares for them. It may happen in spending time with your own family members who don’t believe in God, and gently opening a deeper conversation than one about sports or the weather, but asking about God and their faith. Helping them to explore the reasons why they aren’t listening to God’s Word. Helping them to see how God’s Word provides answers to their worries and problems, and leads us to the only solution worth following—Jesus Christ who frees us from all the burdens of sin and guilt and failure.
Being all things to all people might mean we have to set aside our own “status, rights, or privileges.” It will involve setting aside our self-interest and sometimes it will just involve setting aside the busy-ness and dictates of our schedule to take the time to care for someone and listen to them, and speak Christ’s Words as the Holy Spirit leads us and gives them. And by setting aside our self-interest and our “rights” we are doing nothing more than what Christ did perfectly and freely for us. Without thought of the cost or charge to Himself, without concern for how it might result in cruel treatment, mockery, contempt, and even death on the cross, Jesus willingly set it aside for the joy of setting us free by His life, death, and resurrection. We are a community that has been set free by Jesus Christ. We share in and celebrate that joy each week. We share in the blessings of that gospel. May we continue to find those who need that same joy and freedom, and may God send them our way in our daily lives, so we can serve them with the love of Jesus.
And as Paul realized, there is great reward in doing this freely and willingly, while doing it unwillingly or by compulsion was just doing his duty as a preacher. But to understand the joy and the freedom that motivated him, we have to return again and again to Jesus Christ, who beyond all others, was free to all, yet used His freedom to become a servant to all. God has given you a marvelous freedom in Christ Jesus. Stand firm and live in that freedom, not as an opportunity for your flesh, but as an opportunity to serve your neighbor in love. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In 1 Corinthians 9:16-27, Paul reflects on the office of “preacher” and the necessity or duty that is laid on him to preach the good news of Jesus. What is the reward for him doing his duty willingly? Why is telling people the good news about Jesus rewarding in itself?
  2. In verse 19 Paul says something that seems contradictory. That he is free from all, but makes himself servant of all. In what way is the Christian free? Galatians 5:1-6, 13-14. In what way is the Christian obligated or bound to a duty or responsibility? Romans 7:25-8:11; 14:7-8. Martin Luther summarized this “paradox” in the booklet “The Freedom of the Christian”, where he wrote that a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none, while at the same time a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to everyone.
  3. As Paul describes his submission to others as their servant, He describes a very Christ-like activity. How did Jesus “become as one under the law to redeem those under the law?” Galatians 4:4-6; Philippians 2:5-11.
  4. When Paul speaks of reaching those outside the law, (v. 21) how does he clarify that in doing so he does not permit himself to sin or disobey God’s law? Who are people with whom we must share the gospel, whose circumstances or way of life might present a temptation or challenge to us? How do we avoid falling into the same sins ourselves? Galatians 6:1-2. For one thing, we should keep ourselves out of compromising situations, and another lesson learned from Joseph in the Old Testament is to run from temptation!
  5. How does “becoming all things to all people” get misused or distorted today? What boundaries did Paul clarify for this? (v. 21). What was his guiding principle in v. 23?
  6. The metaphor of a race or a boxer training for a fight is a powerful description of what Christian life is like. What does every athlete need to succeed? V. 24; 27. What is the prize we are seeking? Who won the race before us and holds the prize? Hebrews 12:1-2