Monday, June 24, 2019

Sermon on Galatians 3:23-4:7, for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, "Law. Justified. Faith"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. What can turn us from prisoners, slaves, or children under guardianship and into freed people, adopted sons, and full-fledged heirs of God? That’s the change our reading is about today. We’ll look closer to see how, but first of all realize this isn’t a status change we can accomplish by our power. Getting free from the power and slavery of sin is something only God can do by His grace. Only He can make us His heirs. This is about what God does for us, not what we can do for ourselves.
First, you should know the audience of this letter. Galatia was a Roman province in the middle of what is now Turkey, and Galatians is one of St. Paul’s most important letters. So urgent that he skips his usual formalities and launches sharply to the point. With fiery urgency he tells them the very Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. They’re surrendering the true Gospel for a counterfeit. His urgent message is sent to get them back on solid ground.
In order to understand this passage, we need at least three good definitions. The words law, justified, and faith. We’ll go in that order. “Law” can broadly cover all of Moses’ teaching—the first five books of the Bible. Sometimes we hear of the “Book of the Law”, or “the Law and the Prophets.” In that general sense, the word ‘Law’ is a catch-all for a lot of different elements, such as history, narrative, teaching, promises, prophecies, commands and rituals, etc. But then Paul also narrows the meaning down. More narrowly ‘law’ is the actual commandments and rules of God: the 10 Commandments or circumcision, or food and worship laws. To be precise, God’s “law” is what He commands us to do.
Knowing God’s law does something else. It shows our sinfulness and failure. A mirror for our guilt, it puts us under the severe judgment of God’s wrath. It shows that we are filthy, covered in sin. The law is a painful reality check. If you remember the acronym S.O.S.: the law “shows our sin.” When Paul uses this narrower definition of God’s law, it’s in contrast with the other Word of God: the Gospel or promises of God.  The Gospel is a different S.O.S….it “shows our Savior.” The Gospel gives no commands, it creates no guilt or fear of punishment—but the Gospel is the news of what God has freely done for you in Christ Jesus.
Think law—think obligation. Think Gospel—think gift. Think law—think: “Do this”. Think Gospel—think: “this is what Christ has already done for you.” Think law—think punishment. Think Gospel—think rescue. Think law—think sin and death. Think Gospel—think forgiveness and life. The point is not to build a negative idea of the law—it is God’s good law, after all! But the Law can’t save us. Our sin and brokenness make the reality check of the law hurt so much; not any failing in God’s law itself. The true purpose of the law is to imprison us make us accountable for our sin. The Law holds us as a guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. The Law is unable to do for us what only the Gospel can do.
The trouble in Galatia has been a human trouble for every generation, including ours: We  try to credit ourselves as worthy before God by our works or good deeds. We conclude: “I’m going to heaven because I’m a good person.” That thought can go along with others, ranging from “God will just overlook my wrongdoing” to “Thank God I’m not a dirty sinner, hypocrite, or fill in the blank, like that person”…a sense of self-righteousness, that fails to see our own sin. All these thoughts are wrong because they are dishonest. They don’t hold up in God’s presence. God knows without a shadow of a doubt that none of us are good enough to go to heaven. When you read what God has to say about our human condition, He blows over all those ideas like a house of cards. A few proofs from this letter to the Galatians: “By works of the law no one will be justified.”(Gal. 2:16b); “If righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (2:21); and “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Gal. 3:10-11). There is a giant “WRONG ANSWER” sign fastened over the law and our works. Law and works have a very important role—but it is most definitely NOT in making us righteous to stand before God. That’s a NO-GO.
Jesus faces this same trouble in the parable of the tax collector. A proud, upright, and religious Pharisee, boasts before God of his goodness and righteousness. Nearby, a sinful tax collector thinks differently. Humbly and in distress, he cries out before God for mercy, repenting of his sin. Jesus said the tax collector went home justified. Jesus did not count the Pharisee’s self-justification or self-righteousness for anything before God. Even the religious Pharisee could not be justified by law.
That’s our next word to define. It could lead us into a whole lengthy discussion and debate. But for a simple definition, ‘justified’ means “declared righteous or innocent”, like in a courtroom. The judge hands down the verdict: innocent or guilty! “Justified” is innocent. “Condemned” is guilty. God is judge; it’s His courtroom, and His Law rules. God set the terms and limits of His Justice. His Holy and Just commands spell the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. God’s Law expresses His perfection and holiness and justice. If we miss that perfection in the least degree—which all of us sinners do, by a mile and much more—then we can never be “justified” by His Law. No one has credible grounds to claim pure, undefiled innocence before God or total obedience, measured by God’s Law. Rather, we must follow the tax collector’s example: plead guilty and ask for mercy, if we hope to be justified. Because God cannot violate His justice without violating His very self.
Consider a poor analogy: you have an earthly judge. They have a good reputation; known for fair decisions. Then, all of a sudden, they start accepting bribes and ignoring the law. They would be unfit to serve as judge anymore. God is a righteous, holy, and just Judge. To ignore His own justice would go against His holy and just nature. But God was not going to leave us all doomed to condemnation under His law. The reading says, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” This is a question of how does God interact with His own law? Does He just hand it to us from the top down? No, rather, He comes to earth so that He can also obey it from the ground up. This is the most amazing truth in the Bible—God’s Son Jesus became human so that He could be ruled by the very same law He required of us!!. Some people imagine God is a cruel and unfair taskmaster who makes arbitrary laws and wants to see humans suffer in a corrupted world. Far from it! God “took His own medicine” and came under the law just as we are, and obeying it completely in Jesus Christ. Jesus was fully obedient to God’s law, for us. So God fully upholds His justice as a true Judge, but also grants mercy to all sinners.
This is our redemption—freedom from the prison and slavery of sin. Jesus rescues us from being judged and imprisoned under the law—guilty prisoners deserving death—to freed children of God. On the cross Jesus bore all the crushing, driving, accusing weight of the law. Our sin, pinned One Innocent Man down. But He was there willingly, not as a helpless victim, but taking our guilt so that we could be justified, declared innocent. Redeeming us from the curse of the law so we could get free.
The last definition I promised you was “faith.” We’ve talked about the law and “justified.” The law can’t justify us. But on account of Jesus’ perfect obedience and death in our place as a substitute for our guilt, He justifies us by faith. The word “faith” here, means to believe or trust in Jesus. When you trust someone, you can give yourself over to their care and protection. One of my NT professors describes faith as “honesty about dependence.” We recognize that when it comes to our slavery or captivity to sin—we are bound and helpless. The honest truth is we can’t cut ourselves free from those chains—we depend on outside help—Jesus. But if we are “dishonest” with ourselves, we will always think we can do it on our own, like the Pharisee. We might struggle and strain, but even if we convince ourselves that we are free and independent, we are still deceiving ourselves. We inevitably fail to recognize just how deep the power of sin is, polluting even the thoughts and motivations of our hearts. It’s like we say at the beginning of worship: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But God wants honesty before Him. He wants us to fully recognize our sin before Him. “But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Faith is the honesty that says, “I am a sinner, guilty before a holy and righteous God. There’s nothing I can do to save myself”. Faith clings to God’s mercy and promise in Jesus Christ, like the tax collector: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Faith is not disappointed, because Jesus says, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). He does not turn us away when we come in faith. When we are honest and humble before God …when we approach His grace in need—God is not stingy with His grace or forgiveness. He pours it out generously! He rejoices to give you the very gift He most wants you to have!
Our reading says that whoever is baptized into Christ is clothed with Christ. That means by faith God dresses you with the pure and spotless innocence of Jesus. God, and only God grants your verdict: justified by faith—innocent. By the law, God would have to judge you guilty for all your sins. But by the Gospel, by Jesus’ perfect substitution for you, He judges you by Jesus’ life and worthiness. Baptism dresses you with this pure robe of Christ. You are no longer a slave to sin or a prisoner in old rags—you are no longer the child needing supervision and the guardianship of the law. Now you are a baptized child of God—cleansed, forgiven, and a full heir of His promises. By faith in Jesus Christ, you stand ready to receive God’s promises—forgiveness, His innocence, salvation, and the joy of living in Him. This is a wonderful honesty to live in—the honesty of faith, and the dependence on the mercy of Jesus Christ. All glory and credit be to Him alone! Amen.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Sermon on various OT passages for Trinity Sunday, "Tracing the Trinity in the Old Testament"

            In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today is Trinity Sunday. This Sunday is unique on the Christian calendar, because it doesn’t commemorate an event, miracle, or a person, but rather a doctrine. The teaching of the Trinity is central to the Christian faith. Attacked for centuries, but always defended as the orthodox or correct teaching of the Bible. From the earliest centuries the Creeds were confessed to defend against distortions of the Bible, especially about the Trinity. We could get stuck on the semantics of the word “Trinity”. The word itself is not found in the Bible, but that’s not the important question. The important question is whether the teaching is found in the Bible. We simply use “Trinity” to describe how God shows Himself in Scripture; as Three Persons, One God.
            I assume most or all of you already believe the teaching of the Trinity. You believe and confess that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three persons, but one being or essence, as revealed in the New Testament. But today we’ll examine how it’s consistent with and traces back through the Old Testament. This is important, because the OT is the first 80% or so of the Bible, and Jesus said these same OT Scriptures “testify of me” (John 5:39). He also taught His disciples all the OT said about Himself (Luke 24:27, 44).
            If we go searching for traces of the Trinity in the OT, we’re not expecting to find it laid out in full—that was only done by Jesus and the apostles in the NT. But we’ll find that God is regularly described in plural terms, or named multiple times in a single sentence. We’ll find God conversing “within Himself”. And we’ll find that OT or NT, the Bible everywhere confirms that there is only One True God—not two, three, or more gods.
            Believe it or not, there are so many verses to explore for hints of the Trinity in the OT, that we can’t cover them all here, but I want to jump directly into some examples. Let’s go to the first verses of the Bible: Genesis 1:1–3
1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
God and the Spirit of God are both named at the creation. Where is the Son of God, Jesus? The Gospel of John echoes these words in John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” As God is speaking the world into existence, the Son is the spoken Word of God. As the creation story unfolds in Genesis, God says “Let US make man in OUR image, after OUR likeness” (Genesis 1:26). At the Flood and at the Tower of Babel, God also speaks in this way: “Let US…” in the plural. It shows that while God is One, He is a unity.
            The next example is when God speaks about Himself as one person to another person—another hint of the Trinity. For example, in Hosea 1:7, the LORD says, “I will save them by the LORD their God.” The Father will save them by the Son. Or Isaiah 42:1, God speaks of His Son the Messiah, and His Spirit is on Him(!): “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon Him”. Or in Psalm 110:1, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand…”. There is a conversation internal to the Trinity, Father speaking to Son. This shows that God is not a singular person.
            Sometimes we find God’s name repeated two or three times in the same sentence. Admittedly, this is harder to recognize, but it also hints at a distinction of persons. For example in Isaiah 33:22, “For the Lord (1) is our judge; the Lord (2) is our lawgiver; the Lord (3) is our king; he will save us.” Then, one of the most important verses in the Bible for affirming the oneness or unity of God, the Shema or the first Hebrew Creed, Deuteronomy 6:4,  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord (1) our God (2), the Lord(3) is one.  Or in Isaiah 6:3, the three-fold repetition of “Holy, Holy, Holy” to describe the Lord of hosts. Then in the familiar benediction at the end of worship, from Numbers 6:24–26, is also a threefold blessing:  “The Lord (1) bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord (2) make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord (3) lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” While no one expects you to see this pattern beforehand, after the revelation of the Trinity in the New Testament, it’s a familiar pattern hidden in plain sight.
            Then there are the passages that talk about the Name of LORD. The proper name of the Lord, by which He calls Himself in the OT, is “YHWH” (shown as LORD in English). YHWH is related to the word “I AM”, as God tells Moses: “I AM who I AM” when He reveals this name. What’s interesting is that in a limited number of situations, God gives His name YHWH to another person—such as the angel of YHWH (no ordinary angel!!) or to the Messiah. For example, Jeremiah 23:5–6 speaks of the Messiah as the coming King:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

The promised Messiah and King is called The LORD (YHWH) is our righteousness. This is significant because God is sharing His Name and Title with the Messiah. This looks ahead to Jesus, God’s Son, our LORD and King. When Jesus would call Himself “I AM” in the NT, He was identifying Himself as YHWH.
            There are many other verses that I could go into. It would take more detail and explanation; but let’s examine one last verse that connects the Messiah to God, and also to the Jesus’ suffering on the cross. In Zechariah 12:10 God says:
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.

Did you catch that? It’s easy to miss. God says His people Israel “will look on me” that’s first person language (I, me), and then it switches to third person (he, him), “on him whom they have pierced.” It changes from “on me” referring to God, to “on him”–the one who is pierced. This is a prophecy of Jesus’ death on the cross, but it also shows that He is divine—true God.
            So we have seen how God sometimes speaks of Himself in the plural, “us”…we have seen how sometimes God speaks person to person within Himself, as God to God…we have seen God’s name repeated in twos or threes in the same sentence, and the pattern three being connected to God…and we’ve seen God switch from first to third person in the same sentence when speaking about Himself. All of this is balanced by the equally necessary truth that God is One, a Unity—there are not multiple gods. There are no other gods, only worthless idols (Ps. 96:5). We’re warned hundreds of times against worshipping any other God, and that all others gods are false and worthless. So the Bible consistently balances between describing God in His “persons” as plural, but as the One and only true God, singular. Neither math nor human reason can solve it—it’s simply to be received and confessed by faith. God’s mystery is beyond comprehending, yet He has purposefully chosen to reveal Himself to us in this way.
            And that leads to the “so what?” of all this. Why is it so important to believe this way about God, that “we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance”? Is it just an academic debate to amuse philosophers and theologians? The answer is no. It takes no special degrees to be able to state the plain truth from Scripture that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons, but only one God. Preschoolers and kindergarteners can explain that to you. But neither a preschooler nor a doctoral student can unravel the mystery of the Godhead and explain what is unexplainable. The Trinity is a mystery, a marvel we wonder and worship. And God did not reveal Himself to us in a meaningless way, but as with the rest of Scripture, He reveals what is necessary for our faith, salvation, and encouragement. And it is a great and necessary thing to have true knowledge about God, not to believe falsely about Him.
            In the Creeds and Bible, God the Father is primarily known as the Creator, who made all things, including making humans in God’s image. Jesus the Son of God, is primarily known as the Redeemer, who saved us from our sins by dying on the cross and rising from the grave. He also is the Revealer of the Father—we know what the Father is like through Him. And the Holy Spirit is primarily known as the Sanctifier, or the One who makes us holy or set apart. We think of the Father in His providence and care; we think of the Son as God took on human form to teach, live, die, and rise for us; and we think of the Holy Spirit in the fruits of faith and spiritual gifts. And yet each person works in unison and support of the others in the Trinity. Only Jesus dies on the cross for our sins, but the Father sent Him and Jesus prayed to the Father in death and yielded up His Spirit. We can’t “divide the substance” of God—splitting Him apart, nor can we mix up Father, Son, and Holy Spirit either. True knowledge of God reinforces true faith.
            In short, God’s identity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is reflected in your baptismal identity—created by God, redeemed by His Son, and made holy by His Spirit. God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, placed His name on you at your Baptism. He claimed you and made you His own child. He presently works in you for your salvation, and through you to love and serve God and neighbor. You don’t have to have a doctorate in theology to confess the Trinity, you simply need to hear God’s Word, believe it, confess it, and fall down in worship before the mystery of our God, the 3 in 1. God is unchanged through time, but He clearly revealed Himself to us in time, so that we might believe and be saved in Jesus, His Son. Amen.

The Trinity: Hints and Allusions in the Old Testament

While the revelation of the Trinity is clear and unambiguous in the New Testament, the ancient Christians also gathered testimonies about the Trinity from the Old Testament, “even though they seemed somewhat obscure. They did this in order that they might use them against heretics and to show that from the very beginning God had thus revealed Himself and that the church of all ages had thus known God, invoked and worshiped Him” (Chemnitz, p. 66).

Several guidelines show where such clues or references to the Trinity occur:
  1. “When Scripture speaks of God in the plural:” Genesis 1:1-3; 1:26, yet at the same time the verbs used of God are in the singular, and Deuteronomy 6:4 stresses the unity and uniqueness of God, apart from all others. There is One God, but more than one person. See also Genesis 3:22; 6:3; 11:5-7
  2. “Whenever you read in Scripture that God is speaking about God, as a person about a person, there you are safe in affirming that the three persons of the Deity are indicated. For when two persons are named at the same time, the person of the Holy Spirit who is speaking in the Scripture is indicated, in accord with the statement in 2 Peter 1:21.” Cf. 2 Samuel 23:2. Examples: Hosea 1:7; Genesis 19:24; Isaiah 60:19; 42:1; 52:13.
  3. “When the name of God (Yahweh; LORD) is repeated two or three times in the same sentence, it is certain that a difference in persons is indicated even though obscurely, as in Psalm 67:6-7; Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 6:3; Numbers 6:23-27; Isaiah 33:22.
  4. Often the context indicates a difference in persons, while united in essence, for example Exodus 23:20-21, the angel of the LORD bears God’s name (Cf. Isaiah 42:8). Exodus 33:17-23. Also, see how God raises up a son, and gives Him the name Yahweh: Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:15-16. The third person, the Holy Spirit, is indicated as the One speaking, for example Psalm 33:6 “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were established; and all the power of them by the Spirit of His mouth.”

Other significant passages: Daniel 9:19; Psalm 2:7; 110:1 (dialogue within the Trinity); Isaiah 48:16; Genesis 18:2, 16-22; Judges 13:15-25; Zechariah 12:10. Many more passages could be added to these, that follow the pattern of the rules above. Others refer to God as Father (ex. Deuteronomy 32:6; Psalm 89:26); still others refer to the Son (ex. Proverbs 30:4; Daniel 7:13-14) or make reference to appearances of the Son of God as the Angel of the LORD, not to mention prophecies of His future incarnation as Messiah. There are also many places that refer to the Spirit of the LORD (ex. Isaiah 11:1-2; 63:9-10).

While these passages in themselves would not present a fully articulated teaching of the Trinity as we find in the New Testament, they show that the NT teaching is entirely consistent with that of the OT, and that hints and clues run throughout the OT.
Chemnitz, M. (1989). Loci Theologici, Vol. 1. (J. Preus, Trans.) St. Louis: CPH.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Sermon on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday, "Languages, Unity and Disunity"

            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen. Today our two readings are both about languages, and unity or disunity. In the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, all the earth once spoke one language and had the same words. But because of what happened there, God confused their languages, dividing them, so they couldn’t understand each other. The story of Pentecost, in Acts, is about how people of many different languages united across language barriers to hear a singular, important message. Let’s look at each story in turn, and see how Pentecost starts to reverse the age-old division of languages at Babel, and create a new unity around Jesus Christ. In the words of the crowds on Pentecost: “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
            At the Tower of Babel humans unified in their defiance of God, so He scattered them. All through the Bible, God repeatedly humbles or brings low everyone who pridefully exalts or lifts themselves up against God. It’s no different today, as people unite in rebellion against God. He may permit human arrogance to climb higher and higher for a time, but it only makes for a greater fall. As the Bible warns: “let anyone who thinks that he stands, take heed, lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Don’t let pride be your undoing. God saw what they were doing at the Tower of Babel, and He put an end to it. The Tower of Babel is the Biblical explanation for the origin of the different languages and people groups on earth. Many people scoff at it as a myth, even though it fits with what we know about languages today—and they don’t have a better explanation of how all of the languages came to exist.
            Do you know how difficult a problem it is to explain the origin of human languages? There are 6,000 to 8,000 languages across the world. Linguists group them into somewhere between 130-430 language families. And although some related words can be found in many different languages, these bigger language groups are very foreign from each other. There seems no way to connect them back to a single language. It’s a puzzle to linguists. But for all the diversity of spoken languages, the top 23 represent half the world’s population; and nearly half the 7,000 or so languages in the world are estimated to become extinct within 100 years.
            But if human pride and defiance of God were so great that God scattered and confused the languages at Babel, then why did God reverse that confusion at Pentecost? For one simple reason: so Jesus’ disciples could immediately bridge the language barrier to speak Jesus’ Good News to the crowds. The crowd was a diverse slice of Mediterranean cultures and languages, across the North coast of Africa, Southern Europe, and the Middle East and Arabia. But they had something in common: they were the ancestors of Jews scattered to distant lands, who assimilated to the language of their new homes. They made the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem, for Pentecost, a harvest festival at the Temple. It was one of three major Jewish holidays of the year. So this Old Testament holiday and international gathering, became the stage for what happened next.
            Pentecost means “Fiftieth”. 50 days after Passover, which also happened to be when Jesus died on the cross. Now on the 40th day after Jesus rose from the grave, He ascended into heaven. We call that “Ascension Day”, and it was ten days ago on a Thursday. Jesus’s parting words on that day were instructions for the disciples to stay in Jerusalem for the promised baptism of the Holy Spirit. He told them: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This special outpouring of the Holy Spirit was so they could be witnesses of Jesus’ mighty works to many peoples and languages. This was the stone cast into the pond; the epicenter of the ripples circling out to the world, with the Good News of Jesus Christ. 2,000 years later, we still celebrate Pentecost, thanking God that the Gospel ‘ripples’ have now circled the world many times over, and reaching each of us.
            Yet many have not yet heard. It’s estimated by Bible translators that 1 billion people still don’t have the Bible available in their “heart language” or “mother tongue.” Translations of the whole Bible exist for over 700 languages, and the New Testament in over 1,300. That number is growing all the time as translators work to bring God’s Word to more and more people in their “heart language.” On that 1st Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, God’s miracle was that He supernaturally broke down the language barrier and the disciples became His mouthpieces, to speak in the heart languages of all that gathered crowd. They were shocked and amazed that these Galilean fishermen were suddenly “telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” On that day, they didn’t have to wait for any translator, or for the disciples to first learn their language. The Gospel was told to them clearly and immediately, and they understood. Supporting Bible translators is very important, both with our prayers and gifts.
            Peter’s Pentecost sermon declares the “mighty works” of Jesus to the crowd. He tells how Jesus of Nazareth was “attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through Him in your midst….this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it.” What a wonderful message to conclude these past 50 days since Easter! Jesus was crucified for our sins, but the grave could not possibly hold Him! Jesus, a man of flesh and blood, died. His heart and breathing and brain waves ceased. Three days in the grave—but He rose to life again. This was no mere resuscitation, but a singular miracle never before seen. Jesus, the Son of God, shattered the power of the grave and broke its chains. His living, healed body, pulsated with new life—scars on His hands, feet and side, visible reminders of His love for us and what He endured. But in every way a living, breathing, human being, in His renewed and resurrected body that shall never die again! These are the mighty works of God that Peter and the disciples proclaimed.
            The crowds gathered at Pentecost urgently needed this Good News. They didn’t yet know their responsibility for sin; nor did they know their Savior. All that changed on Pentecost. This message had to pierce the language barrier, and by God’s hand, it did. Jesus calls us sinners out of our sin, rebellion, and gloom, and into His light, forgiveness, and joy, still today. Our need is as urgent as theirs. Sin is real and deadly, and exacts an awful price—seen in the wounds and death of Jesus. But God has torn through the barrier that divided us because of sin. Jesus speaks new life by His Word. Jesus’ Word unites people across language and cultural barriers, to begin to reverse the curse and disunity of Babel.
            At Babel God scrambled one language into many while men tried to lift up their own glory to the heavens. God scattered them to break apart their ungodly unity. But Pentecost shows this reversal: God brought people of many languages to understand one message. The glory of God’s mighty works was lifted up to the heavens and God drew scattered nations together in a new and godly unity. Unity in Jesus’ Name. All who call on that Name will be saved! The trajectory of the Tower of Babel story is towards disunity, scattering, and confusion—while the trajectory of Pentecost is towards unity, gathering, and understanding. The Tower of Babel was an attempt to lift up men’s names to the heavens in glory—Pentecost, on the other hand, raises up Jesus’ Name to the heavens in glory, for our salvation. In short, God gave a miraculous sign that He had begun to “reverse the curse” of Babel.
            Another key truth reflected in both readings is that all humans share the same ancestry. With all our diversity of languages, colors, and cultures, we still all come from one common human family. This flies against the evils of racism that would try to divide us, create hatred and suspicion, or cause us to treat others as less than ourselves. Racism ignores that we are all made in the same image of God, from one man and one woman. Racism pits our differences against us, instead of recognizing our common humanity, and finding the beauty in how God has made us different. The Bible presents the beautiful truth that we are one human race, united as one blood.
            But still we are in need of being called together into a common unity. God calls us to that higher unity in the Name of Jesus, given for the salvation of every tribe, every nation, every people and language on the earth. God began creating that godly unity on Pentecost with the miracle of languages, and He continues to create the unity of faith in all who hear the word of God and believe it. We see that unity in the Church of Christ, where people around the world, of every tribe and every nation gather in common purpose to glorify and lift up Jesus’ name to the heavens. This work of unity is the glory of God, not the glory of men. Today, and every day, may we be witnesses of the mighty works of God and pray for that day when we reach perfect unity in Him. Amen, Come Lord Jesus!

Sermon on Revelation 22, for the 7th Sunday of Easter, "Tree of Life"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The book of Revelation is like a bookend to the Bible, together with the book of Genesis. The first and last books of the Bible, have some important links. The creation of the world is described in Genesis 1 & 2, and the highlight is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with the Tree of Life at its center. They could eat from Tree of Life and other trees, but one tree was off-limits—the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Tragically, they took what was off-limits instead of what was permitted. The first sin was disobeying God. Ever since, through all 66 books of the Bible—no one has access to the Tree of Life. An angel barred the way back for Adam and Eve. Humanity fell under the consequences of sin and evil—from Adam and Eve till us now—and our choices haven’t been any different from theirs. We have all followed in their first sin, continuing to disobey God. Looking across human history, the Bible delivers this stark judgment: “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12). That measures up you, me, and every other human being that’s ever lived. This judgment flattens all of us—levels the playing field—and we’re all equally under the judgment of God’s good law.
So if access to the Tree of Life was lost in the first chapters of the Bible, and so on through all 66 books to the very end, how is access to the Tree of Life returned in this last chapter of the Bible? This time the Tree appears in a garden in the middle of the heavenly city New Jerusalem and access has been restored for some people. This shows first of all, that God restores the perfect paradise that was destroyed by sin. God renews and restores His creation, into an even more glorious future. So these opening words of our reading echo back to the beginning of creation:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God an of the Lamb will be in it, and His servants will worship him.
This is an amazing contrast to all the evil and human misery caused through sin, portrayed in the Bible. It’s a remarkable scene of peace and healing.
In this last chapter of the Bible, the final traces of sin, death, anything accursed, filthy, or evil, is banished out of God’s new creation. There will be no trace of unholiness inside God’s New Jerusalem because the New Creation will once again be free of any sin or evil. It will only be pure goodness, life, light, and perfection. As vs. 15 says: “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” All who cling to these things, to sin and old rebellion against God, have no share in the Tree of Life and the Holy City. But on the other hand, vs. 14 says: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the Tree of Life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” Here God explicitly grants access back to the Tree of Life for the “blessed.”
So how do we get from the Bible’s judgment that there’s not one righteous person on earth, to this division of the wicked from the righteous; one group forever barred from the Tree of Life, and the other that has access? We all started in the same place: again the Scripture says, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” but it continues: “and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24). The movement out of that place of sin and death, and into life, comes completely as a free gift, by the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.
Our access to the Tree of Life has everything to do with what Jesus suffered when He died on the dead-wood tree of the cross. The death of Jesus on the cross is the climax of all the story of salvation, the center of the 66 books of the Bible, and the hinge on which everything else swings. The last chapter of the Bible returns us to the Tree of Life again; and we owe it all to Jesus. Those who come to the tree are described as “blessed are those who wash their robes.” We have no power to wash or cleanse ourselves from sin by anything that we have done. This takes away any gloating or boasting that we’ve entered God’s kingdom because we were so much better than everyone else. We were all just as much under God’s judgment before Christ redeemed us. The blood of Jesus is the only cleansing that washes away our sins—that gives us clean, washed robes to stand before God. In Revelation 7:14, John watches a countless multitude gathered around God’s throne, dressed in white. The angel tells him they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Jesus shed His blood on the tree of the cross to make open to us the way to the Tree of Life, and restore the Paradise Lost through sin.
How will we know if we can be among the saints who gather in the New Jerusalem, or among the wicked who are shut outside in misery? Those outside “love and practice(s) falsehood.” Are we going to cling to evil? Then God will let us have our own way, and we can earn whatever  sin brings us. But if we regret our sin—however great our sins are—if we cry out to God that we are unworthy, but plead for His mercy, He forgives us and washes us clean. Those washed robes are ours in Him. So how do we face our sins? As our “pet sins” that we love and want to keep—or as the chains we want broken? For only God can break them. In v. 17, it says: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come’, and let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” Do you hear what that is? It’s an invitation! Water for the thirsty and life for those who desire it—without cost! Free! The Good News of Jesus is the only promise of salvation that is free; not a system of religious works for us to earn our way up the ladder. Jesus gives salvation freely.
Who is inviting in that verse? The Spirit and the Bride. That is the Holy Spirit, third person of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)—and the Bride is the Church of Jesus. His fellowship of believers throughout all the world and throughout time—those who are joined to Him by faith. The church is pictured as the Bride of Christ, because one of the other great themes in the book of Revelation is the joy of heaven will be a great wedding feast, Christ united with all His followers, the church. So the Spirit and the Bride call with this open invitation to whoever would receive it—“Come…take the water of life without price!”
All who hear this invitation come from the same level playing field of sin and death we mentioned before. None is privileged or closer to God on account of something they have done. We are all completely dependent on the free drink of that water of life. Once in Jesus’s ministry, He met a woman at a well. It comes out in the conversation that He knows of her sinful past—a history of sexual immorality that led right up into her present. Jesus knew of her spiritual thirst and of her chains, even before she recognized them. But He offered to her the living water without price. He told her that the gift of God was to drink His spring of water that wells up to eternal life. Jesus alone can cleanse us from our sins, and set our feet on a new path to life, away from the deadness, thirst, and chains of sin, and into the newness, life, and freedom of His kingdom. He opens the gates of heaven to us, and He grants us access to the Tree of Life, by His  death on the tree of the cross.
The book of Revelation, and the Bible, ends with a solemn warning not to add to or subtract from God’s Word. God’s Word, the Bible, is to be taken with the greatest seriousness, and not tampered with or changed. We are not free to cut and paste it to our own liking, as many have tried. We’re not free to pick and choose—but God’s Word remains whole and intact. When we read it and hear it, it examines our lives and our hearts—exposing our sin, and creating in us a thirst for God, for the Living God. He is the only One who can quench or satisfy that thirst. The warning here is that if we add to or take away from the words of the prophecy of this book, God will add to us the plagues found in the book, and take away our share in the tree of life and of the holy city. Instead, if we faithfully hear the words of prophecy and take them to heart—we will find great blessing, even eternal life as God’s free gift to us. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3). The believer in Christ, who is blessed, hears Jesus call us, “Surely I am coming soon”—and replies with joy, hope, and expectation—“Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.