Monday, February 26, 2018

Sermon on Romans 5:1-5, for the 2nd Sunday in Lent 2018 (1 Yr lectionary), "Tested and Hopeful"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Please listen again to the words of our sermon text for today, Romans 5:1-5, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
The Bible tells a story of a certain young man, who was born to a loving father and mother, and who became a little bit spoiled. In fact his father loved him so much, that the other brothers became jealous of all the favoritism and hated him. His naïve pride irritated them, and finally they planned something unthinkable—getting rid of their brother. They sold him to slave traders, and lied to their father that he’d been killed in the wilderness. His life was turned completely upside down—going from a spoiled and wealthy life to being sold as a slave by his own brothers, and forced to live in a foreign land.
His story didn’t end there, but the next bad turn was a false accusation by his master’s wife that put him unjustly in prison for a long time after. Finally, after many years of growing and maturing—at last freedom came. But not only freedom, he rose to become the second most powerful leader in all of Egypt. If you don’t already know, it’s Joseph, the favorite son of his father Israel, also known as Jacob. Joseph plays a central role in the last 13 or so chapters of the book of Genesis, and how the Israelites—his family, first ended up in Egypt. Joseph is an excellent example of what Paul describes in our reading, about suffering working in us.
Paul names two things believers in Jesus rejoice about—rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God, and rejoicing in our sufferings. If the idea of rejoicing in your sufferings or hardships sounds unbelievable to you, then listen on. Paul says “suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” Joseph underwent a true transformation of character through the suffering that he endured. He would have never become the man that he did without those trials and sufferings that he endured, and how it built and shaped his character. I don’t know whether he spent sleepless nights in that foreign land wondering why all this happened to him, or what God’s plan could possibly be in all this, but I don’t doubt it. I don’t doubt that he wondered in the worst times, wondered if and when things would ever change, or if he’d ever see his family again. I encourage you to go read the whole story yourself sometime, to experience all the amazing drama, but in the end, Joseph was reunited. When his brothers asked for his forgiveness, he freely forgave; and explained “you meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20). By the end of his life he had gained a whole new perspective on his suffering.
Joseph’s character transformation to a spoiled boy into a mature man and tested leader, who showed wisdom, poise, integrity, and mercy, came about through the suffering that he experienced, and how God worked it together for good in his life. No two people’s lives will ever be exactly the same, and the point is not that all suffering turns out so well. Last week we talked about the suffering of another bible character, and discovered that  we can let suffering destroy us, define us, or develop us. In other words, we can let suffering ruin or freeze our life, locking us down or swallowing us into it. Or we can let it grow and develop us, as we surrender to letting God work out His mysterious plan in us, and accepting what we can’t change, but committing it to His will. How is God shaping your character through testing in your life? What are you learning, and how have you grown as a result of suffering? The fact that you can’t see how the suffering may be shaping your life and character, doesn’t mean that God can’t do so if you surrender the things you can’t change to His will.
There’s a little chain reaction of dominoes in our reading—“suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” Endurance is the ability to last through something. Not to come through “unscathed”, untouched by what we endured, but the patience to finish. Scripture tells us that God does not willingly afflict or grieve humankind (Lam. 3:33). Suffering may be prolonged—there may be times when we don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. But with faith in God we know it’s not forever, and that even if the transformative purpose is hidden from us, God is still good and we can and should hope, because hope in God is never put to shame.
Endurance produces character. That word character means when someone is “battle tested”, or “tried and true”; “genuine.” In our modern, technical age, everything gets a thorough testing before it goes to market, or is opened for use. Bridges must meet rigorous and strict standards as they are built, to make sure they’ll hold the weight limit securely. Cars are tested to all kinds of extremes for safety in a crash and reliability on the road. Car manufacturers boast of exceeding safety standards, or their rewards for excellent reliability and comfort. Car seats are safety tested to give the best protection to your infant or child. And thank goodness that these things are all tested! But who or what tests your faith? What is the “battle-testing” of our faith, that reveals whether or not it will endure to the end? Suffering tests our faith, and God watches over it all. Suffering usually seems like something we want to avoid—but when God lays it upon us, it is for our own good, for our endurance, character, and hope.
Not surprisingly, hope is my favorite part of this whole chain reaction. Hope is the end result of that chain of dominoes tipped over by suffering. Hope does not put us to shame. Again, I don’t know the inner mind of Joseph, when he went through his ordeal, but I imagine there were times when he hoped against hope, and prayed and prayed. His hope did not put him to shame. It did not disappoint. Hope, I think, needs some real definition here. Life can make hope seem like a wishy-washy, fragile, empty thing. “Don’t get your hopes up”—the glum side of us often says. Or we talk about a “hope and a prayer”, if somebody’s chances are a real longshot. But this is not the kind of hope, spoken of here in the Bible verse. An earthly hope might be nothing more than wishful thinking, or a dead-end trail marked by broken promises. But God speaks of hope in entirely the opposite way.
Hope does not put us to shame. What is this hope set on? Not uncertain things or wishful thinking. Biblical hope is set on God’s promises. A better word to describe this biblical hope, might be “confidence.” And what promises of God are our hopes set on?
Hope and faith link arms, are joyful “buddies” if you will, who have their eyes fixed on Jesus. Hope and faith are locked on the promises of God for us in Jesus Christ. The Romans reading began: “we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Hope and faith get their confidence from knowing that Jesus has cleared the way for us to have access to God, to have peace with Him, by the forgiveness of our sins. And this is the beautiful foundation for hope and faith to endure and grow character in the midst of sufferings. By knowing that Jesus, God’s Son, has given up His life for us, by dying on the cross and rising from the grave, we can be certain that whatever sufferings we endure, we can make it through with Him. Whatever hidden purposes God may have for us in the challenges of life, we know that He will lead us, guide us, and be with us every step of the way. We’re not abandoned to purposeless, meaningless, hopeless trouble—but we have the promise that God is testing and growing our character—He’s shaping us into people of firm and joyful hope. People that can even stare down times of poverty, weakness, loss, illness, and even death—knowing that in all things God’s works together for the good of those who love Him, in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:28).
Facing suffering is never fun—no matter what form it takes—and it’s not some challenge to stand up under your own strength while you are being weighed down. But hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. While we feel emptied by the cares of this life, God is pouring His love into us by the Holy Spirit. Hope and faith are an open tube into which God pours His peace, love, reassurance into our hearts, so that we can stand and be strong—not in our own strength, but in the strength that God supplies. Paul also learned this truth in his own suffering, that God’s grace is sufficient. God will always provide what is necessary. When we look at our resources and strength and measure it all too small, God says His grace is enough.
How do we know this is true? Because of God’s faithful record—through the lives of people like Joseph or Paul. Through the lives of Christian brothers and sisters who we’ve known that have endured, developed character, and lived a joyful hope in Jesus. But most especially we know God’s grace is enough because of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Suffering that He willingly endured to redeem us from our sins. Even in this suffering and evil, God worked out tremendous good. They meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, that many lives would be saved. The character of God shown to us in Jesus Christ—is that God is always turning the terrible things in this life around for good. The sins we inflict on ourselves or each other, and the sins inflicted on us—even in all that mess, God still continually works out goodness, healing, growth, restoration and life. God continually pours His love into our hearts, and shows how much greater His goodness is than all the evil that afflicts this world, even than death itself. And in the very end, when all this life has drawn to a close, we will once again see proof that hope does not put us to shame. We’ll see it when Jesus, our hope, comes back to end this world of sin, and create a new a world without sin, filled only with goodness and life. His promises are always good and true. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Read through the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and while you are reading, consider the question of how God used his sufferings to produce endurance, character, and hope in Joseph. What changes did his character undergo through what he experienced?
2.      What two things does Paul say Christians rejoice about, in Romans 5:2-3? How did God’s plan ultimately work for good for Joseph? Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28.
3.      Suffering can destroy us, define us, or develop us. Explain what each of these mean, and how God intends for the last—to develop us—to be the actual purpose and outcome. In Romans 5:3-5, what is the “chain reaction” and the final outcome it leads to?
4.      Why do we know that God does not delight in bringing suffering on us, and that it won’t last forever? Lamentations 3:33.
5.      In life, what things do we depend on being “tested and true” or “battle tested.” How does our faith and character undergo its “battle testing?”
6.      Why does hope not put us to shame? Romans 5:5. Explain the difference between “earthly hope” and “biblical hope.”

7.      What object do faith and hope lock their eyes on? What (or who) is the basis of our confidence, and how do we see and know that this is true? 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11, 1st Sunday in Lent (1 YR lectionary), "The Truth vs. the Liar" (Bonus: hymn composition)

With me Stands the Righteous One
78 78 77
LSB 609
Text: Joshua V. Schneider

1.Near me stood the Evil One,
though from my own eyes he’s hidden.
“Shall I throw the righteous down?”
Mocking words into the heavens.
“Will he trust in God each day;
if you take his goods away?”

2.“Harm his family, harm his life,
then we’ll see if he still raises;
Prayer and thanks to God above
lifting high his holy praises.
Only when his life’s secure
will his trust in You be pure.”

3.How could I perceive the cost,
knowing not the war was waging;
for my soul the devil wants,
threats and accusations raging.
“Ah dear God please tell me why,
these afflictions round me lie?”

4.“Life on earth is all too short,
Can’t you see this human weaken?”
Father knows that we are dust,
has compassion on His children
Cast your burdens, every one
On my Chosen, Righteous Son

5.Near Him stood the Evil One
In the desert tried to tempt Him
Mocked the Holy Son of God
tried to turn Him from God’s mission.
But Christ Jesus did obey;
Satan’s efforts turned away.
6.God would prove His saints are true,
helping them withstand temptation.
Will not give too much to you,
He provides you help to face them.
Showing Satan he is wrong,
we are weak but God is strong.

7.With me stands the Righteous One
In baptism I’m adopted
“God shall make the righteous stand”
Glorious words ring in the heavens.
“Put your trust in God each day;
He takes all your sins away.”

8. “What you here on earth have lost
For my sake, my Son will give you
Strength to take up, bear your cross
And redeem your soul for heaven.
There in glory hundredfold
Treasures worth much more than gold.”

This hymn was based on reflections about the life of Job, especially verses 1-2, which describes the devil’s hidden attack against him, and how that relates to our own Christian struggle with crosses and temptation. Often the spiritual battle behind our struggles remains hidden from us as well (vs.3). Verse 4 echoes the words of Psalm 103, especially verses 13-17. Verse 5 parallels our temptation with Jesus’ own testing in the wilderness. Verse 6 tells us how God uses temptation and helps us. Verse 7 proclaims our victory in Jesus, and parallels to verse 1, capturing the theme of the hymn. Verse 8 looks to the eternal restoration of what we have suffered while bearing crosses and living for Jesus’ sake. Luke 9:23-26, Matthew 19:28-30.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Every year at the 1st Sunday in Lent, we witness Jesus’ temptation by the devil. Forty days of Lent echo the forty days Jesus fasted in the desert. What are we to learn about temptation from this reading? First and foremost, it shows us Christ’s victory over the devil and over temptation. In 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul says we should not be outwitted by Satan, because we’re not ignorant of his designs. Christ certainly knew the designs of the devil, and wasn’t outwitted or outsmarted by him. Paul implies that in order to avoid being outwitted by the devil, we must be aware of his designs, as Christ was.
Instead of cartoonish pictures about the devil, let’s hear some of what Scripture says. Not to waste more ink or words on the devil than he’s worth, but to hear as much as Scripture finds necessary to teach us, to know our enemy and his designs. Who was this devil that stood next to Jesus, tempting Him in the wilderness at the end of that marathon fast of 40 days?
The Bible talks about the Devil in many places. In Genesis 3 today we heard about the serpent who deceived Eve, and tempted our first human parents. In Matthew 4, the devil tempts Jesus, and fails. Jesus, in one of His fiercest rebukes to those who refused His Word and were trying to kill Him, says  “you are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell you the truth you do not believe me” (John 8:44-45). In the great vision of Jesus Christ, in the book of Revelation, the devil is called “the great dragon,” “the ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev. 12:9).
In 2 Corinthians 11, we are warned against the devil cunningly leading us astray from “a sincere and pure devotion to Christ”, by proclaiming another Jesus or a different spirit or a different gospel. Paul is shocked the Corinthians tolerated this easily enough (!), which serves as a reminder to us that we can’t take false teaching lightly, and that it’s a natural human weakness to love hearing lies that flatter us. Be on guard as Paul warns against “false prophets, deceitful workmen, [disguise] themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” (11:3-4, 13-14). And Peter tells us that the devil is like a prowling lion, seeking whom he may devour.
So what do we learn from this about the devil and his designs? He is thoroughly set on evil, he’s a murderer, liar, deceiver of the whole world. He wants to split us from pure devotion to Christ by false teaching or a different gospel. If he’s  the deceiver of the whole world, that means he’s pretty effective at what he does—he’s a slippery character. He can disguise himself as an angel of light, and so do his false workmen disguise themselves as apostles of Christ. This is why we can’t afford to be ignorant of his designs. But his M.O. gives him away. We recognize him and his workers by their bad fruit. Lies, discord, death, slavery, hatred, these are all his tools in trade. He employs distraction, deception, and false appearances that look like the truth, but are not. His first deception was “Did God really say?”, and to distort God’s Word.
So now we have a better picture of who was standing next to Jesus, and what he was attempting. Satan offered Jesus, who must have been ravishingly hungry after 40 days, the temptation of food. He offers Jesus the opportunity to show off His divinity in dramatic fashion, by leaping from the Temple and having everyone witness His rescue by angels. He offers Jesus earthly power and glory, in exchange for a bow of worship to him.
When it comes to temptation, the devil has achieved victories against every human being before and since. Everyone from Adam and Eve till you and I, has succumbed to the power of temptation, and not just a few times either. Whether it was what we think of as minor victories—the loss of patience and burst of anger—or a spectacular failure, like King David’s sins against Uriah and Bathsheba, and ultimately against God—big or small, the devil counts it as a victory. Because it doesn’t take a big sin to separate us from God. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All sin drives a wedge between us and God. The law only needs one point of failure to condemn us for our sin. And the devil had achieved big and small victories against every last person—until he faced Jesus. Did he think that self-gratification would work against Jesus, like it so often works against us?
Because this is ultimately what our reading is about—not the devil trying and failing to tempt Jesus—but it’s about Jesus, the Victor, who withstood the devil at every turn. The One who never bowed down or succumbed to temptation—even when His body was wracked, even when the weight and pain of our sins tormented Him on the cross—Jesus did not bend. He never relinquished the Truth, not even for an appetizing lie or an easy way out. Now Jesus’ victory wasn’t in the Olympic fashion, like we’re treated to this month, with spectacular displays of human strength. In fact, at first, it didn’t look like a victory at all. His victory came, not in self-gratifying displays of power like the devil wanted, but in humbly laying down His innocent life for our sins. It came by the hard, true road. Showing the greatest love ever known, to lay down His life for His friends—yes even His enemies. It is the victory of His cross and empty tomb, the resurrection life, that showed He never succumbed, never bowed down to Satan’s designs. A victory that brought glory to God through perfect humility and self-sacrifice.
See the victorious Christ—while the devil is a liar and deceiver of the whole world, Jesus is the Truth, and all that He speaks is truth. The truth is not always easy or welcome, we know—in fact, quite often people hate the truth; the fact that they crucified the Truth should come as little surprise. But when Jesus speaks the Truth, lies come unraveled, deceptions fall apart and crumble. Jesus is the Truth, and the teacher of Truth to the whole world. The truth will set you free. If we want to know the Truth, we will listen to Jesus’ voice.
While the devil is a murderer from the beginning—Jesus is the very Author of Life. At the dawn of creation, He created and gave life to mankind and all things. But now He redeems us with new life; redeemed from death in our trespasses and sins. Jesus authors life out of our dead flesh, He authors life out of His empty grave, He authors life out of hopelessness and despair. Where you see dead ends, He calls you to Him, to the hard, true road where life begins. Wherever sin and death once reigned, His kingdom rule brings new life. Where Christ is, life and goodness flourish.
While the devil may frighten as a prowling lion or dragon, seeking whom he may devour—Jesus is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Rev. 5:5), and He has conquered and is victorious. There’s no contest between the power of the devil and Jesus. C.S. Lewis said it was a common mistake to think of the devil as an equal but opposite counterpart to God. But he is not in any way equal, but in all ways inferior to and beneath God. The devil cannot create—he can only corrupt, twist, and destroy. The devil is not eternal, but is a creature existing in time. Christ is the conquering lion, and the devil’s head lies crushed under His heel.
Jesus describes the devil as the “ruler of this world,” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), and Paul describes him as the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). But Christ is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14; 19:16). Whatever the devil might have mockingly thought about being able to transfer power and glory to Jesus, was an empty dream—Jesus commands all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18), and at Jesus’ name, every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11). Jesus claimed no earthly kingdom, doomed to end, but rather rules the eternal kingdom.
In every way the devil is outmatched, outsmarted, outwitted, out-powered by Jesus Christ. Jesus answered him with a simple Word of God each time. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus lived and ate the Word of God, as His daily bread. He was sustained, even in physical human weakness, by every word from the mouth of God. In your every human weakness, God’s Word is your living bread. It teaches you to tell the Truth from the Lie. Jesus said, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” God does not play games with us, and we should not foolishly throw ourselves into danger, expecting Him to bail us out. And Jesus ended the temptation with these words: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” The first commandment—worship God alone.
Jesus outwitted and outmatched the devil, not with superhuman power, but with the Word of God. God’s Word is an ordinary book we hear, read and spend a lifetime of studying—but extraordinary in every way. By God’s Word we see the devil’s designs for what they are, so we’re not outwitted by him. By God’s Word we’re wary of anything that would split our pure devotion away from Christ, knowing it is promoted by the deceit and malice of the devil. By God’s Word we know that Jesus will sustain us in every temptation, and not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear, but will always provide a way of escape. By God’s Word we know that Jesus was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet without sin. God’s Word is the Truth.
And in this matchup between The Truth and The Lie, the Truth won. And again at Jesus’ cross, the murderer and father of lies tried to extinguish the Truth, by killing Jesus. But even there, Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life won. And Jesus remains ever victorious over sin, death, and the devil for us—He is King of kings and Lord of lords. We can always recognize Jesus by His M.O.—humility, truth (even when hard), and self-sacrificing love. Whenever we have faced temptations and grown weak or fallen; remember His victory—look to His Word, speak His truth, and call on His mighty name. Trust not in yourself or your own cleverness, but His certain and proven victory. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Read 2 Corinthians 2:11—in order to not be outwitted by Satan, we should not be _____ of his designs. What description of the devil do the following passages reveal? Genesis 3, John 8:44-45; Revelation 12:9, 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, 13-14; 1 Peter 5:8.
  2. What is the devil’s “M.O.” (mode of operating)? How do we recognize his plots and his false workmen?
  3. How successful is the devil in waging his war of lies, death, and destruction on mankind? Are only “big” sins victories of temptation for the devil? Why is all sin poisonous to us?
  4. What did Jesus endure physically, mentally, and spiritually as He resisted the devil’s temptations at every turn, all the way to the cross?
  5. If the devil is a liar and a murderer, than what is Jesus? Acts 3:15; John 14:6. If we want to know the Truth, who will we listen to? John 18:37.
  6. If the devil is a “prowling lion” (1 Pe. 5:8) or a dragon (Rev. 12:9), then who is Jesus, and what does He do to the old serpent? Revelation 5:5; Genesis 3:15.
  7. How does Jesus describe the devil in John 12:31? How does Paul, in Eph. 2:2? But what title and authority does Jesus bear? 1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14; 19:16; Matt. 28:18. What is the final conclusion of who will bow in worship to whom? Philippians 2:10-11.
  8. By what power or weapon did Jesus respond to temptation? Is it available to us? Ephesians 6. Whose victory always and only matters?

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sermon on Luke 18:31-43, for Quinquagesima "Fifty" Sunday, (1 Yr Lectionary), "Two Kinds of Sight"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. This past Christmas I was immersed in different versions of the classic story: “A Christmas Carol”, about Ebenezer Scrooge, his poor clerk Bob Cratchit, and Bob’s son, Tiny Tim. Tiny Tim is crippled, undernourished, and walks with a crutch; but his parents love him dearly. In one scene, after bringing Tiny Tim home from church on Christmas Day, the wife asks Bob how Tiny Tim behaved. “As good as gold” he replies, and then explains how Tiny Tim said the most remarkable thing. Tim hoped that people would see him in church, “because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made the lame beggars walk and blind men see.” Tiny Tim hoped he would remind people of Jesus. Today, in church, we remember Christ, who made the lame beggars to walk and blind men see.
But there’s another connection to our reading. This touching scene shows Tiny Tim has a spiritual awareness or sight, that sees something bigger than his own suffering. He glimpses a way that even his own suffering can be part of God’s bigger plan, giving glory to Jesus, while others might only pity him. The blind man in our reading has lost his eyesight—yet he displays a spiritual awareness or spiritual sight, much like the fictional Tiny Tim. He “sees” by faith that something monumental is happening near—Jesus is God’s Savior—and he insists that he find a share in that kingdom. And when he’s healed, he brings glory to Jesus.
These are two different kinds of “sight”. One way to see is with our physical eyes, which requires both light to see by, and working eyes to take it all in. But another way of seeing is spiritual sight, or faith—which the Bible tells us is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). To have spiritual sight requires that God enlighten us, shining His light on what we need to see—and it also requires that we have faith, our spiritual “eyesight” to take it all in. We all know whether we can see physically or not, but we aren’t necessarily aware of spiritual blindness, until our eyes are opened. We can experience partial, or even whole spiritual blindness, without even knowing it.
Imagine you’re the blind man. You’ve sat for years outside your hometown of Jericho begging. You can probably guess that family and others who would normally support you are not in the picture. Your other senses of hearing, smell, and touch are heightened to compensate for your blindness, and every day you hear the tramping of feet and the murmur of voices passing by, and you raise your familiar cry, “Lord, have mercy”, “Alms please!” It’s about daily survival for you. But today, it’s a near stampede—a huge, bustling crowd moving by—and an unusual level of excitement and energy. Something major is going on. “What is it?”, you ask. “Jesus of Nazareth!” Come the excited replies. Suddenly you start yelling out as loud as you can, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” But the crowd turns angrily to you and tells you to shut up, to be silent. They want to see and hear Jesus without your distraction. But this is your chance; you won’t be silenced, so you cry out even louder, till finally you catch Jesus’ attention.
This scene unfolded as Jesus came by. The crowds were trying to stifle the cries of the blind man, and he wouldn’t let up, until Jesus had them bring him forward. Jesus asks what he wants—a seemingly unnecessary question, but one that gives the blind man the chance to express his faith. “Lord, let me recover my sight. And Jesus said to him, ‘Recover your sight; your faith has made you well’” Jesus praises the man’s faith. I began today by saying that there are two kinds of sight, and that faith is spiritual sight. How did the blind man show his faith? First, he believed that Jesus has the power of God to heal him. He didn’t look on Jesus as just an ordinary man, who could only help with a coin. Second, he believed that Jesus has compassion on the poor, including him. So he wouldn’t let Jesus pass, without getting a blessing. Third, he believed that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah, and also his Lord. The crowd identified Jesus by His hometown—Jesus of Nazareth—but the blind man, on his own, called Him “Jesus, Son of David!” This uncommon title for Jesus expressed his faith that Jesus was Savior or Messiah sent to fulfill God’s promises to King David from long ago. For a blind man, he “saw” remarkably well! He “saw” the old promises of a Savior merging together with the present day events of Jesus’ miraculous ministry, and he called on Jesus’ name to be saved! And Jesus answered, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” His faith was on target, and Jesus opened his physical eyes as well.
Now, our reading from Luke 18 began with a seemingly unrelated passage, just before this healing of the blind man. In that passage, Jesus gives His disciples His third and final prediction of His coming crucifixion, death, and resurrection. He taught about this three times before it actually happened. This time He shared that He would be betrayed, mocked, shamefully treated, spit upon, whipped, killed, and on the third day rise. “But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what He said.” This section features the reverse of what we’ve been talking about in the healing of the blind man. The blind man had strong spiritual sight, and understood and knew who Jesus was, but he lacked physical sight. The disciples, in this case, had the reverse. They had good eyesight, but their spiritual sight failed them here. They had a spiritual blind spot, and didn’t even realize it. The meaning of Jesus’ prediction of His death and rising was lost on them. They didn’t have faith to see or perceive. They required God’s enlightenment and to be given faith, or spiritual eyesight, to take it all in.
When it says this was “hidden from them”, it implies that even though Jesus said the words, God was hiding the meaning from them. Why on earth would God do that? Because it seems that no one was ready or able to grasp what Jesus’ death on the cross would mean, until they actually saw the whole thing through from start to finish, with Him rising from the dead and giving them the explanation. In fact, this is just what happened. After He rose from the dead, Jesus meets two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and God temporarily hides Jesus’ identity from them. But then Jesus carefully explains that it was necessary to die on the cross for our sins, and all part of God’s plan laid out in what we call the Old Testament—the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Gradually they start to get it. Then, at their home, Jesus gives thanks to God and breaks bread with them at table, and suddenly they recognize Him. It says, “their eyes were opened.” God opened their eyes of faith; He enlightened them, and they recalled how their hearts burned within them as Jesus opened to them the Scriptures (Luke 24). Jesus granted them spiritual sight.
We also live with or without these two kinds of sight. None of us here today, are blind, I think. Our sight might be better or worse, glasses or not, cataracts or not, one eye better than the other, or not. Thank God, due to amazing advances in medicine, more and more physical eye problems are treatable. God has blessed those who have spent their careers learning and studying His incredibly engineered creation of the eye, to pay off in treatments and cures that make our lives so much better through glasses, surgeries, and other helps.
But if our physical sight can be improved, what about our spiritual eyesight? Can we successfully pass the reading chart God has drawn for us? Can we read and understand His salvation plan in Jesus Christ, as the disciples did at long last, or do we squint at a blurred image, have blind spots, or maybe see nothing at all? Do we do a double take at the image of Jesus suffering and dying on the cross for our sins, and say, that can’t be possible, that can’t be for us? Or do we see with the clarity of the healed blind man, that Jesus, the Son of David has mercy on us? Faith to see Jesus as our Savior comes by hearing the Word of Christ. Right here in church, God gives us the prescription of His Word and the working of the Holy Spirit to have your spiritual eyesight “tuned up”, to see Jesus better!
Our spiritual eyesight, or faith, equips us for many things in this life; also like our example of Tiny Tim, to make sense of our suffering in the world. Can we read God’s hand at work in our lives, and in the world? Are we only looking for glory and success, when perhaps God has traced a cross and suffering for us? Jesus said whoever would follow Him must take up their cross and come after Him. But how do we “see” that cross? Do we see hardships that we face as disciples of Jesus Christ, as some sign of God’s anger or hatred toward us? If so, we are still suffering from spiritual blindness. We all need to come to Jesus, the Son of David, and pray that He have mercy on us, and restore our sight. And only when Christ and His cross and resurrection is front and center in our vision, will we understand why Jesus tells us that those who bear the cross with Him are blessed, not cursed. He tells us that those who try to save their life, will lose it, but if we lose our lives for His sake, we will find life in Him.
Jesus’ disciples didn’t grasp His teachings in a day, or even a year. They heard Him speak about His cross and suffering many times over, while misunderstanding and confusion still hung thick like a veil over their eyes. But in Christ Jesus, that veil is lifted. Most especially by Jesus’ dying and rising to life again, the pieces start to fall in place; we begin to see how Jesus saves us from our sin. It is our sin and our dark understanding that leads to spiritual blindness, where we can’t see or understand God’s grace and love for us in Christ Jesus. But the Good News is that Jesus makes the lame beggars to walk, and the blind to see. His forgiveness and His light opens eyes of blindness—He gives both kinds of sight. Jesus is that Light that shines on us and if we, like the blind man, desire to stand in His light, and to see Him face to face, then we will muster all our strength and voice, and cry out to Him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” We’ll call upon Him for the healing that He alone can give; that He wants to give us. And with new eyes of faith, we express that faith by calling on Him, as our Savior and Lord. And with new spiritual sight, we begin to see and understand, and to learn more and more, that God’s purpose for our life is to give glory to Him. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In Luke 18:31-43, there are two seemingly unrelated stories—but on close examination there is a linking theme—sight. How were Jesus’ disciples lacking spiritual sight in 18:34? How did the blind man demonstrate that he had spiritual sight, even before he was healed? 18:38-41.
  2. When Jesus talks of His death as being the “accomplishment” of all that the prophets wrote about, He shows that His suffering and death were central to His costly mission. Why are we so often unwilling to recognize the instructive or even necessary nature of suffering in our own lives? What did Jesus say about “taking up our cross?” Luke 9:23
  3. In 18:34, God “hides” the understanding of these things from the disciples. In Luke 24:31, God gives understanding to them, after explaining Jesus’ death and resurrection. What language does it use to describe this change?
  4. Even before he was healed, the blind man showed that he had faith. What things did he recognize about who Jesus was, and how he could help? 18:36-41. What did the crowd try to do to him? 18:39; cf. Mark 10:46-52
  5. How did the crowd respond together with the blind man, upon his healing? Luke 18:43.
  6. Notice the titles used for Jesus in this passage: 1) “Son of Man”, 2)“Jesus of Nazareth”, 3) “Son of David”, 4) “Lord”. Jesus uses title #1 to refer to Himself in context of His suffering mission. Title #3 was a “Messianic” title, pointing to the promised Savior of the Jews. Title #2 identified Jesus’ hometown, but also for the Jews may have carried other meaning, as the nazar or “root” or “branch” was also a Messianic title. Title #4 wraps up all of these meanings and points to Jesus as Divine. How do our forms of address to Jesus give expression to our faith?

Monday, February 05, 2018

Sermon on Isaiah 55:10-13 & Luke 8:4-15, Sexagesima "Sixty" (1 Yr. Lectionary), "The Powerful, Watering Word"

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Today the prophet Isaiah gives us a beautiful and encouraging Scripture, written to give us hope. Isaiah lived 7 centuries before Christ, but probably more than any other single prophet, he described Jesus in beautiful detail, showing marvelously God’s inspiration of His Word. Today Isaiah teaches us about God’s powerful and effective Word.
I’ve always been amazed and fascinated by the landscape of Maui and the Hawaiian islands in general. In parts of Maui or the Big Island, you can see “fresh lava flows” from as recent as a few days to a few hundred years old. Sharp, hard, black, inhospitable lava can cover the landscape for miles around, like we see near La Perouse Bay on Maui. But amazingly, under the right conditions, you can see green plant life and even whole forests burst out onto those rocky landscapes that seemed utterly unwelcome to life, and where no soil is to be seen. What makes this possible? Water! As a Hawaiian proverb says: “Ola i ka wai a ka ‘ōpua”—“There is life in the water from the clouds.” Water allows rugged plants to take root, and together they turn the lava into fertile soil.
Not only can you see an amazing contrast from barren rock to new thriving growth, but also from the dry leeward side of the island to the wet windward side, you can see the huge difference it makes to have water or not. Where there is water, everything flourishes and grows with a heavy tropical variety of green—where there is no water, or very little water, its dusty, brown, dry, and dead, or the plants are sparse and stunted in their growth. Water is life, and the absence of water is death, as we can see all around us.
The prophet Isaiah uses that truth from nature to speak about how God’s Word works. God’s Word is like the water that comes down from heaven, rain or snow, and wherever that water falls to the earth, it causes plants to grow and gives food to all living things. So it is with God’s Word. Where God’s Word rains down, things grow and come to life! It produces life in our barren and rocky hearts, where there could be no growth and no green, without the watering of God’s Word. God’s Word is the necessary condition to transform stony hearts into living soil, to turn the brown and dry ground into rich, fertile soil, where God’s Word can do its work, and make us to grow. Spiritually, where the Word of God is, there is life and growth, and where it is absence, there is thirst and death. As life cannot exist without water, neither can our spirit live without the Word of God.
So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth, God says, it shall not return to me empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. God has a goal, a purpose, a plan for what He wants to accomplish, and His Word is the effective means that accomplishes it. This is such an important Bible verse because it tells us that God’s Word is a Living, powerful Word. God’s Word is not like our human words, which so often echo, fall flat, or never achieve the things we say. Human words can be empty, powerless, and cheap, especially when we do not do the things we say, or are powerless to effect the things we command. But not so with God’s Word! His Word is always going to achieve the purpose for which God sent it. God’s Word doesn’t return to Him empty. His Word is not a gamble, but a sure thing. He does as He says. His Word is powerful to do the things that He promises and commands. So we “do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). God’s Word is that lamp, and the Morning Star is Jesus. His Word lightens our darkness.
So what are God’s plans or purposes for His Word? Just a few verses earlier, in the reading, Isaiah calls: “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7). God’s plan or purpose is that we poor sinners would hear His Word and turn back to Him. That the dry and thirsty ground would drink water and receive life and growth. God’s Word has real power and real effects (Preus, 173). God surveys the dry, lifeless soil, or the hard stony ground of human hearts, and desires for there to be life. He wants green, growing plants to cover that, and for the watering of His Word to make rich, fertile soil.
Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near—now is the right time to call on God—not later. When God’s Living Word reaches our ears, it’s time to listen, time to respond! His voice will not call forever, the rain of His Word will not stay forever, but like passing rainstorms, it may move on to another place. Martin Luther famously predicted this of his own German people, 500 years ago. He said if they wouldn’t listen to it, and despised God’s Word, it would move on like a rain shower to somewhere else, and that new life would flourish where people received God’s Word. And that’s what happened—many Germans did not hold onto the Word, and they lost it—but meanwhile God’s Word has multiplied, took root, spread new life and growth in many other places. And all through history this is also true. God’s Word is powerful to turn the wicked from their sinful way, to break the power of hatred, selfishness, and evil, so that we are turned to the righteous path.
God’s Word is powerful to turn us from unrighteous thoughts—all the unclean and hurtful things fill our heads—and to return us to the Lord. God has compassion on sinners, and He will abundantly pardon. Savor those incredible Gospel words: God will abundantly pardon. My life is filled with many self-centered ideas and ways—unrighteous thoughts, and I need His Word to wash over me, to refresh me, to cleanse my thoughts and my heart, and to rejuvenate me with new life and abundant forgiveness. Forgiveness rich and deep enough to cleanse away all my sins, and to make me walk with Him in newness of life. And this forgiving Word is Christ Jesus, crucified on the cross for us. His rich and abundant life poured out completely to quench all the evil flames of our sin, and to wash the filth and stain away, to refresh and make us new. Clean, pure, washed over by His crystal pure waters.
We know that God sends His Word to us with a purpose. A Law purpose—to humble us for the guilt of our sins and to turn us to Him—and a Gospel purpose—that turning to Him we would be saved and restored. God knows how and where we each need to grow, both individually and as a congregation, a community. So let us pray to God that His Word would rain down from heaven and cause us to grow in all the ways that we need it—to grow in depth of faith, in patience, in rootedness (being established on Him and His Word), to grow in fruitfulness, and Lord-willing, to grow in numbers of disciples.
Today in the parable of the Sower, Jesus teaches about the Word of God as the seed, that sometimes lands on ready soil, sometimes falls on the hard path, sometimes thorny ground, sometimes stony ground. Plants on stony soil don’t have much root. They can’t get deeply established to have enough water to drink, and so they wither and die in the heat. God’s Word is both a deep rooted foundation for us, if we build solidly on it; and also the deep refreshing drink of water that satisfies our thirsty souls (or could we say: ‘soils’?!). Plants in thorny soil, Jesus explains, get choked out by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this world, and they never grow to maturity to bear fruit. Our lives can be complicated with worries, material things, and all kinds of attractions—and these can choke out the Word of God. If we aren’t receiving that Word of God, we “die on the vine”—never growing to maturity or bearing the fruit that God intended for us.
In Isaiah today, v. 13, it describes what happens when God’s Word has been watering: “instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” When God’s Word comes, it reverses the curse. Remember the curse of thorns and thistles that God put on Adam? After he sinned, farming and growing would become a tiresome and difficult challenge. But God’s Word reversed that curse, changing cursed and thorny plants to pleasant growth. Not in our backyard gardens, but in the spiritual garden of our hearts—where God’s Word does its work. Is our heart wrapped with thorns and cares—preoccupied with the troubles of life and pinched and poked by so many things that we don’t have life and room to breathe? Again, only God’s Word is powerful to blaze away the dead brush and thorns, and to give us new life and freedom. All through the book of Isaiah, thorns are a picture of the judgment of God against those who reject His Word and practice injustice. But here, for those who receive His Word, that curse is reversed and creation returns to the fruitfulness and blessing God intends.
In Jesus’ parable of the sower, and God’s Word as the seed, there are two more possible outcomes, beside the stony and thorny soil. One is that the devil snatches away the so it never really even gets into people’s hearts—the devil robs them of really listening and the Word taking root. This happens easily enough today with the countless distractions in life from hearing God’s Word. But the last and best outcome is when the seed lands on ready soil, grows, and bears much fruit. This is the purpose and outcome for which God sends out His powerful Word. The Word of Jesus, whether pictured as the water that gives life to the dry desert, and causes our hearts and spirit to flourish, or pictured as the seed that grows vigorously in the soil and bears much fruit—that word of Jesus is powerful and effective to work our salvation. God wrote this message of salvation into existence. His Word is not just knowledge to tickle your ears, but it is life-giving, and life-changing, rejuvenating. God’s Word is not returning empty—not today, not yesterday, or tomorrow. It endures forever, making an everlasting name for the Lord—For He is mighty, a merciful, and compassionate God. All hail the power of Jesus’ Name, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Read Isaiah 55:10-13. What is Isaiah comparing the rain and snow to? What happens on the earth when the rain falls? How do we see these effects on Maui?
2.      Where does God’s Word “rain down” and have its effect? Where does God’s Word grow? See Luke 8:4-15.
3.      Read Ezekiel 36:26. What are our hearts like before God’s Word comes in and does it’s work? What are our hearts like after God’s Word works?
4.      What are God’s plans and purposes for His Word (i.e., what does He want His Word to do?). Read Isaiah 55:11, and also vs. 6-7.
5.      Why is it well worth us paying attention to God’s Word? 2 Peter 1:19.
6.      Why does God want life and growth in the hearts of us people? How does He produce that life and growth?
7.      Isaiah 55:6 says “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near”. Now is the time of salvation, God’s Word also tells us. 2 Corinthians 6:2. Why is there this urgency about calling on God?
8.      How generous is God’s forgiveness and pardon? Isaiah 55:7. What does this mean for all of our sins? Why is God so generous? Titus 3:5-6

9.      Consider your own life. Where are the areas that you need to grow? What “water” do you need to experience that growth? Does it cost you anything? Isaiah 55:1. Where can you get it?