Monday, July 30, 2018

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 10:6-13, for the 9th Sunday after Trinity (1 Yr), "Wrestle with God's Word"


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. It’s good to be back with you after a restful vacation! A fascinating book I have been reading has a point that connects to our reading from 1 Corinthians 10. The book is “The Executioner’s Redemption” by Rev. Timothy Carter, and it’s the true story of how he went from being a nonpracticing Christian to a self-righteous and judgmental one, to finally a person who died to himself so that Christ could live through him. This happened under extreme circumstances, working in the Texas state prison where all of the worst and most violent criminals were locked up, and many awaiting execution. Many of his years he worked on death row, meeting both the families of the victims and the victimizers. Years later he became a Lutheran pastor. In that environment and by the Word of God working on him, he underwent a remarkable personal transformation, and witnessed God’s grace at work on countless other people. He saw how prayer and wrestling with God’s Word could teach people and shape their lives.
But the point that applies today to our reading, is some early advice he received. At the time he was struggling with his own anger and judgmentalism, and knew he was supposed to be a Christian every day of the week. He was trying to reflect Christ, even in the darkest of all places, among some of the worst victimizers and murderers on earth, but felt a constant awareness of his failings. A wise mentor reminded him that Christ said we should be as wise as serpents, but innocent as doves. He said that to represent Christ properly, we have to be both, and then added, that Timothy Carter was like most people—we want to follow Christ on our own terms by picking and choosing which Scripture passages support [our] personal views, while intentionally ignoring other passages that are critical and against [our] personal perspective.
Does that sound like you? I know that shoe fits, more often than I’d like. God’s Word, the Bible, is given to us as a whole—and we are told by Jesus that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35). The Proverbs says: “every Word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Prov. 30:5-6). God clearly would have us believe the whole of His Word, and not add or subtract from it. It’s always easy to find passages we like, but when we accept Christ’s word that the Scripture cannot be broken, it leaves us with the challenge of facing and listening to some “tough passages” of Scripture, like today’s reading, where we read things that leave us puzzling and struggling, and maybe wanting to “pick and choose” for ourselves. But if we heed the advice of Rev. Carter’s wise mentor, and more importantly, the advice of Scripture that “all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), then we will try to listen to and wrestle with this Word from God, and see what it means for us.
So what challenges or questions might the serious reader of this passage face?
6Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

The challenge may be as simple as the recognition that some of those sins are our own. Maybe grumbling is your “pet sin”—always dissatisfied, never content or thankful. Maybe you prefer to ignore God’s Word on sexual purity; thinking if society approves of almost anything, who are we to judge? God’s Word calls us clearly to account in this passage, reminding us how many Israelites paid the price in death, for their idolatry and sexual sin. Or maybe idolatry is the sin we don’t realize we are committing. We build little idols in our hearts—little false gods that we worship and put our trust in—our status, our wealth, our power, our looks, our cleverness. We gladly pay tribute to these “gods”, but neglect to worship the True God. “You shall have no other gods before me” is  the first commandment. We may be challenged by the seeming harshness of God’s judgment, that 23,000 Israelites fell in a single day, because of their sexual immorality. But there it is, in the pages of Scripture, a warning to us, it says.
Or, if not these challenges, we may wonder about the closing verses about temptation. Does God really not let us be tempted beyond our ability? Haven’t there been many times when you felt completely overwhelmed by temptation, and never saw a way of escape? How do we make sense of these? How do we experience God’s rescue when facing temptation?
These are the kinds of questions we need to faithfully wrestle with, when we face Scripture. When we pick and choose, and ignore passages, we don’t hear what the more challenging Scriptures have to teach us. We may even miss a message that is directed to our own personal issues. Just like Jacob, who wrestled with God and received a blessing—so also we are blessed when we don’t turn away from the challenge of God’s Word, but let it search and examine our hearts. Just like Rev. Carter needed to learn to let his personal perspective submit to  and be shaped by God’s Word, when he was a prison guard. We all have different “rough edges”—and we might not like the feeling of having God prune away some branches, or smooth out a prickly part of our sinfulness that we would rather keep protected.
Paul tells us in the reading, that God gave these examples to keep us from desiring evil as they did, and that they are “written down for our instruction”. We don’t need to repeat their hard lessons in order to learn from their mistakes. They degraded themselves by hungering after evil. God had set out a high road for them, a path to rise above the wicked nations of that time, and God wanted them to become a light to the nations. An example of His mercy and the goodness of His Law. But they quickly went astray, and God brought terrible judgment down on them. We too are faced by the same problems of being degraded by evil desires, falling for the traps of sin—whether that be idolatry, grumbling, sexual immorality, or putting God to the test. Sin degrades us when we are ruled by our passions, rather than the higher wisdom of God.
Paul names 5 quick examples from the Old Testament in this reading. One of them is the Golden Calf incident. All of those sins were wrapped up in this one devastating event. It’s described in Exodus 32, just after the Israelites had received the 10 Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai, along with instructions about how they were to worship the One True God. Moses went back up on Mt. Sinai for further revelation from God, and while he was away, they “sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.”
That’s a polite way of saying, that they couldn’t wait for Moses to return and so they took matters into their own hands and made a golden idol of a cow to worship. Their “play” most likely included sexual sin as well, as idolatry and sexual immorality went hand in hand in the ancient pagan religions. God was furious that they so quickly abandoned Him and what He had told them, and had so corrupted themselves. He was ready to destroy them all, and start over with Moses. But Moses, in a Christ-like way, interceded for them, asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness for their sin. He reminded God of His promises. God did show mercy, and lessened the judgment. But still, 3,000 who worshipped the idols died that day. Then the next episode relates that 23,000 died in a single day, for the sin of sexual immorality. This was tied to an episode of Baal worship. Such numbers stagger us, just like we struggle with the mass fatalities of events like 9/11 or modern warfare or tragedies in the news. Mass fatalities often cause people to question God’s justice. But how often do we ignore the grave human responsibility for these evil acts, and turn it instead on God?
But what is Scripture teaching us here? It’s the simple lesson we so often forget—God alone is the One True Judge. We easily accept and embrace the Biblical idea that we are not the judge of others, lest we be judged, But we are mistaken if we think that this means there is no judgment at all. God is the only One with the proper authority and who possess the right measure of both justice and mercy to deal out judgment and punishment for sin. In our American democracy, we have a system of checks and balances, that prevents power from all being consolidated in one person. For example, no one person gets to play “judge, jury, and executioner.” We need to be protected against sinful humans consolidating too much power for themselves. But God alone has the true authority to act as Judge and Executioner. He knows men’s hearts, He shows no favoritism; He is not fooled or led astray.
But God is also the God of mercy. He allowed Moses to intercede for Israel time and again, as a foreshadowing of Jesus. And in Christ, God has secured mercy for all who turn to Him. God has staked His Name on the promise He has made to us, to forgive our sins for the sake of Jesus, His Son, and to give eternal life to all who believe in Him. If we cling to our sin, we won’t be able to see God’s mercy, but will instead view God’s judgment. But for those who believe in Jesus, and lay down our sins at the cross—we see the God of mercy. The Holy Spirit teaches us to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. And it is ours, as surely as Jesus has died and risen from the dead. Even in a world of wickedness and rebellion against God, God is faithfully working hard to save every person. Even though many will scorn His love, He remains true to His promises for Jesus’ sake. Wrestling with hard passages of God’s judgment also reveals God’s heart of mercy, and how He is ever calling people to repentance and life.
We’ve run short of time to explore all this text has to teach. But I hope you can also commit to the faithful study of God’s Word, and not to turn away from a challenging text. Join a Bible study. Read a study Bible. Pray and live your life’s challenges with a Bible close at hand. The Holy Spirit will aid you in understanding. Don’t be afraid to wrestle with the hard lessons of God’s Word. When you grasp and find peace in a Bible verse, keep that truth close to your heart. When you read a verse you don’t understand, have reverence and respect for God’s Word, and pray that He may teach it’s meaning to you later. And always, faithful wrestling with God’s Word, will bring us God’s blessing. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:   http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen: search your podcast app for “The Joshua Victor Theory” or
listen online at http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

  1. Read 1 Corinthians 10:6-13. It describes several events from Israel’s journey in the wilderness to the Promised Land. What specific sins does it name and warn us against? What troubling questions arise when you read a difficult passage like this, describing God’s judgment, or His deliverance from temptation?
  2. The book I referenced in the sermon is “The Executioner’s Redemption: My Story of Violence, Death, and Saving Grace”, by Rev. Timothy R. Carter. It is an excellent read and I highly recommend it.
  3. How does Scripture urge us to take the whole message of God’s Word as truth? John 10:35; Proverbs 30:5-6; 2 Timothy 3:16. What is the benefit of wrestling with challenging Scriptures that “are critical of our personal perspectives”?
  4. We are reminded by 1 Cor. 10 of the simple truth that God has the proper authority and command of justice and mercy to be the Judge of all humanity. Why is that an uncomfortable truth for many?
  5. Why has God given us these patterns and examples in the Old Testament? Why does He relate them again to us today?
  6. How did Moses intercede for the people on numerous occasions? See Exodus 32:11-14. Who does this pattern or example point ahead to?
  7. God promises a rescue route or escape from temptation. Why do we sometimes struggle with this truth also? How does God’s Word equip us against temptation? Matthew 4:1-11; 2 Peter 2:9; 1 Peter 5:8-9.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Sermon on 1 Kings 19:11-21, for the 5th Sunday, "What are you doing here?"


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our Old Testament reading from 1 Kings is a couple of verses short, because someone took out the repetition of a question and answer between God and Elijah. The prophet Elijah meets God on Mount Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai. So what is the repeated question and answer? God asks: “What are you doing here Elijah?” The first time God asks this, Elijah has arrived on the mountain and is staying in a cave. The second time is after God has beckoned him outside of the cave, to witness the tearing wind, the earthquake, the fire, and the gentle whisper. Then God repeats the question, in the gentle whisper: “What are you doing here Elijah?” Both times Elijah answers exactly the same: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
Loneliness and the sound of defeat echo from Elijah’s answer. You might even consider it self-pity. The question and repetition invites Elijah’s self-reflection. What am I doing here? It’s a question that untold numbers of people have wrestled with in their own lives. In the midst of loneliness or crisis or struggle or seeming defeat, have you ever cried out: What am I doing here? We explore the meaning of our existence, the meaning of the events of our lives, and where God fits into it all. It’s an arresting question for us to ponder. But it’s hard to answer meaningfully when we’re trapped in our own smallish view of life and of our troubles.
Zoom out for the big picture; and from the wide angle, Elijah’s perspective doesn’t quite seem to fit. A chapter earlier, Elijah had a dramatic showdown with 450 prophets of Baal, the Canaanite idol the Israelites had regressed into worshipping. Elijah alone stood for the Lord God. Both sides agreed that the true god would show himself by sending fire from heaven to burn up sacrifices on an altar prepared to that god. Baal, of course, did nothing. But the Lord God dramatically sent fire to consume not only the sacrifice, but also the stones and the water-filled trench Elijah had poured over the sacrifice for good measure. This was a tremendous blow against the false worship of the Israelites. There were few more dramatic evidences of God’s existence than this—at least until the resurrection of Jesus—which of course surpasses it by far. But nevertheless, you would’ve expected Elijah to be confident or pleased coming off that victory. Except the rest of the story had him down.
Because Elijah and the Israelites killed those 450 Baal-worshipping prophets, as a judgment against the outrageous idolatry in the land, the Queen Jezebel had vowed to kill Elijah in return. This was why Elijah was on the run to Mount Horeb/Mt. Sinai, and was in such low spirits. Before the forty day journey, he also was miraculously fed by the angels, God again demonstrating to Elijah, beyond his own belief, that He would provide for him and protect Him. So again, in the wider angle view, Elijah’s own sense of defeat doesn’t quite match up with the facts.
When we are swirling in our own small vision of life and our place in this world, that can consume our thoughts and bring us down to self-pity and a sense of defeat. Even when we have witnessed God’s tremendous care and provision in the past— in the present we often waver in our trust in God, just like Elijah. And it’s vitally important that we don’t surrender to fear or doubt or defeat, when answering that question: “What are you doing here?” That we don’t fall for the devil’s hopeless answers—“Life is meaningless”, “You don’t matter to anyone”, “God has abandoned you” or similar bleak thoughts. The devil is pleased when our perspective is small and distorted, and God is missing from our bigger picture. He would like nothing better than for us to surrender to self-pity, defeat, and despair, like Elijah experienced. We need God to gently raise us to a clearer picture of life.
It’s noticeable how God treats Elijah with “kid gloves”. He gives hope and new information to Elijah that contradicts his loneliness and despair—there are 7,000 faithful followers of the true God preserved in Israel, and you are not alone! Not only was God guarding Elijah’s life, but also 7,000 other true believers in hiding. Elijah’s complaint: “I, even I only am left” was false! Sometimes, when we’re wrapped up in a false narrative about our life, all it takes is some new and true information from God’s Word, to break us out of that dark web of despair. We need God’s loving contradiction to our despair, and the assurance of His love and protection—and that we are not alone. It doesn’t mean that life immediately gets “fixed”—but we are rescued from our despair.
Even with God’s care for the faithful remnant, things were still sliding downhill for the people of Israel. In the years after this encounter between God and Elijah, many more would die in wars, political coups, assassinations, revenge killings, and other needless slaughter between Israel and its neighbors. These were God’s grim words: “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death.” The history in 1 & 2 Kings goes on to record all these events, and that goes beyond this sermon. But note just two things: first, Elijah only anoints 1 of these 3 people before he’s taken to heaven. Elisha, his replacement.
Second, years later Elisha would anoint Hazael and Jehu. These kings were literally bloody rulers and did not fear God. But did Elisha put anyone to death? It doesn’t say that he had a sword, and we never read of anyone that Elisha put to death. We get a clue from the prophet Hosea approximately a hundred years later. It’s the bottom of Northern Israel’s decline into wickedness. One more urgent call to repentance: “Come, let us return to the Lord, for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up…” then God reflects on what to do about faithless Israel, and continues: “therefore I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth.” (Hosea 6:1, 5). From this verse we see the likely answer. The word of the Lord was the sword in the mouth of the prophets, to cut down the injustice, idolatry, and wickedness in the land. The truth is mightier than the sword, as many throughout history have known. Jesus fought with the same sword of truth, instead of violence and physical force. And He called His disciples to do the same to spread his kingdom. Both Martin Luther, the German Reformer 500 years ago, and Martin Luther King Jr, named after him, believed in that same idea that the truth of God’s Word was the most powerful weapon against evil. And Hosea’s prophecy further shows that when God brings about a great leveling, it’s so that He may rebuild, heal, and restore. A doctor cuts a cancerous tumor out of a body not to wound, but to prevent cancer from spreading to the rest of the body. It’s to restore health and wholeness. 
But let’s circle back. God asked Elijah twice: “What are you doing here?” We can relate to how his short-sightedness and limited knowledge led to his defeatism and despair. God makes a terrifying wind tear away rocks from the face of the mountain around Elijah. But the Lord was not in the wind. Then an earthquake. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. Finally the sound of a low whisper, or a still small voice. This is how God asks the second time “What are you doing here?” Elijah had seen God’s might in the fire from heaven. Others in Scripture, like Job, got to hear God speak from the whirlwind. Witnesses of Jesus’ death and resurrection would experience two highly specifically timed earthquakes. But in this instance, when Elijah’s faith is at its lowest tide, the Lord is not in any of these terrifying displays of power, but in the still, small voice.
Here we could flip the question and ask God, “What are you doing here?” There’s another beloved prophecy, that speaks of Jesus’ ministry. Isaiah 42:3 says, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” God does not snap those who are weak, or snuff out the lingering traces of faith in those who are struggling and weak. Rather, Jesus gently infuses new life and His Spirit to those who are weak, like Elijah. If you doubt your place, or wonder at God’s plan, or need the assurance of God’s love, as you ponder: “Why am I doing here?”, Jesus is here in His gifts of Word and Sacrament to give you His life and His Spirit. Here you are loving us, pouring out your life for ours that we may be filled. When we need our narrow angle view of life broadened or challenged to see things from God’s heavenly perspective, Jesus does so with faithfulness and justice. When self-pity and false perspectives creep in and fill our hearts with doubt or distrust toward God, Jesus throws open the curtains and shines the light of His truth into our lives. We’re reminded that however lonely we may feel, we’re never truly alone, when we believe and trust in Christ. Jesus said He would never leave us nor forsake us, and promised His ever present Spirit. And the Holy Spirit calls and gathers us into the body of the church, to be surrounded by other believers to encourage and build each other up in the Word of God.
And God doesn’t leave us to our idleness—just like Elijah, He calls us back into service. Even Elisha was called to serve the Lord, not out of his idleness, but out of a handsomely large farming task in progress. Martin Luther also experienced great bouts of depression, but busyness and work drove away the worries and fears that occupied him in times of idleness. What are you doing here? is not only a question of our existence, but it can also be a call or prompt to action. What would God have you do—here and now—where you are in this place? If we stop to listen to God’s Word, what is He calling and sending us to do? Help and serve your neighbor? Teach and share the love of Christ? Pray for and encourage those who need your prayers? And by the grace of Jesus, we can confidently say to every person, that your life matters and that God has a plan and purpose for you. That there is no reason to give into the devil’s words of discouragement and fear, but every reason to trust that the One who shed His blood for us will still teach, lead, love and protect us all the days of our life. Our existence and all our doings and life find meaning and purpose in Him. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:   http://thejoshuavictortheory.blogspot.com
Listen: search your podcast app for “The Joshua Victor Theory” or
listen online at http://thejoshuavictortheory.podbean.com

1.                  Read 1 Kings 19:9-14. What question and answer is repeated? What is God gently inviting Elijah to explore, and how does He draw him out of his defeatism and despair?
2.                  Have you ever reflected on the question: “What are you doing here?” What about Elijah’s answer doesn’t quite fit with the facts/context? Read 1 Kings 18. Why did he have reason to be more confident and trusting? What prevented him from this? How did God approach to remedy this?
3.                  What kind of answers would the devil try to supply us, to the question of “What are you doing here?” What does God have to do to fix that for us?
4.                  Elijah is told to anoint 3 people, but he only ends up anointing 1, Elisha. Elisha then anoints the other two. God describes people falling to death at the hands of all 3—but Elisha is never described as killing anyone. What may resolve this difficulty? Hosea 6:1, 5). What “weapon” did the prophets carry? Cf. Hebrews 4:12. How did Jesus choose this weapon, over against force or violence?
5.                  According to Hosea 6:1-5, why does God sometimes “tear” or “strike down”? What is His purpose or aim?
6.                  How does God’s visit to Elijah compare to the theology of Isaiah 42:3. How does God treat those whose faith is a dim ember?
7.                  How does God’s question: “What are you doing here?” also serve as a call to action? What may Christ be calling you to do?