Monday, January 23, 2017

Who is Your Representative?: Romans 5:12-21

This morning’s text from the book of Romans is probably the hardest text I have ever tried to preach on.  I mean, last Sunday afternoon, I sat down and read it, and I scratched my head.  I read it again, and I was just as confused.  I thought, “I’ll wait until Monday when I start reading my commentaries.”

Monday morning, I went into the office, and I read the text two times before I picked up my first commentary.  Things still didn’t make sense.  Perhaps I am just dense.  Perhaps when you heard those words from chapter five read to you earlier in this worship, everything was absolutely clear to you.  I will admit that if they were clear to you, you should be preaching this morning instead of me.  I had to pour through the commentaries very carefully in order for this text to clear up somewhat, and even though I think I understand it pretty well now, I am not sure whether or not I can even come close to conveying to you what is in St. Paul’s words to us.  But I hope I can.  Because what Paul is saying helps us make sense of what Martin Luther wrote so long ago in the hymn “A Mighty Fortress.”

The old Satanic foe, has sworn to work us woe
with craft and dreadful might, he arms himself to fight
on earth he has no equal.
No strength of ours can match his might, we would be lost rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be?  The Lord of Hosts is He.
Christ Jesus mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored.
He holds the field victorious.

I want you to hold this battle imagery in your head because I think it gives us the mind-set that St. Paul is writing under.  And once you understand this mind-set, Romans 5:12-21 becomes much, much clearer.

The best way I can describe this mind-set is this: in the ancient world, oftentimes a representative would stand in place for an entire nation.  That’s kind of hard for us to get our heads around, but let me explain using the terms of battle that I asked you to keep in mind.  Let’s say two countries were about to engage in battle.  Rather than risk the lives of every soldier on the battle field, each army would elect a champion–their best warrior.  These two warriors would square off in battle. Whichever warrior won, won for the entire nation.  Whichever warrior lost, lost for the entire nation.  A nation was declared either a winner or a looser based on the actions of only one person–their representative in battle.  The entire nation’s fate was decided by the actions of one person: win or lose.

For us, in the world in which we live, this thought is preposterous!  We don’t like the idea of our fate, our status resting on the actions of another person.  We believe that we are to be held accountable for our own actions!  The actions of another person don’t reflect upon us!!  Well, at least we hold this position in theory.  But in another way, we do this all the time.  For instance, I am quite sure you have heard people say, “If you voted for Trump, you are a racist.”  What is behind that statement is this train of thought: The person who says this thinks that Donald Trump is a racist; Donald Trump represents those who voted for him; therefore anyone who voted for Trump is racist as well.  That’s the logic.  Such logic also affects the church.  A person may say: I don’t go to that church because I disagree with what that pastor teaches; you continue to go to that church; therefore, you agree with what that pastor teaches and believe like he does.  Hence, I cannot associate with you either.  Even though we like to say that we are accountable for only our own actions, it becomes all to convenient to use guilt by association when it suits our purposes.

What I am trying to show you is that the mind-set that St. Paul is using is not so foreign to us.  We use representative thought from time to time, and this section of Romans can only be understood using representative thought.  Let’s try and get our heads around it and then see why it is important, but I’m going to handle this text a little differently because it is so dense.  Instead of trying to go through verse by verse and explain verse by verse what is going on, I am going to try and offer a broad explanation that captures most of what is in these 10 verses.

Paul begins by telling us that sin came into the world by one may, and death came through sin, and death spread to all because all have sinned.  Again, we have to think representatively.  Adam is the first representative of human kind.  He is the first one who is called to stand before God and obey God’s commands.  And there was only one, “You shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  Now, the objections to this train of thought are that we didn’t elect Adam.  We had no choice in the matter, and we should not be held accountable for something that Adam did.  To answer the first objection we must realize that none of us could even come close to Adam because, first off, God chose Adam to be our representative, and God didn’t just choose Adam, God created Adam.

 God formed Adam and molded Adam.  God breathed His very breath into Adam and placed Adam in a place where Adam had every chance to succeed.  Adam didn’t have to worry about anything: about food, water, shelter, clothing.  All the conditions were provided for Adam’s success.  He had every advantage as our representative.  And he still failed.  He still disobeyed God because the temptation to stand on his own feet, call his own shots, be his own god was too great.  Adam didn’t want to be dependent upon God, he wanted to be completely responsible for himself; completely autonomous; completely independent.  Adam frankly wanted to be just like we hold ourselves to be.

And when Adam rebelled against God to be completely independent, that unleashed the power of sin into the world.  Now, we have to understand that sin is not simply the things we do in scripture.  Sin can also be seen as a power that moves and corrupts and destroys.  It is this sense of sin that Paul is talking about in this passage.  Adam’s failure unleashed this power in the world, and this power is so strong; so corrupting; that everyone is under its influence: every person; every group; every institution; every government.  And such corruption inevitably leads to death.  Under the corruption of sin, we die.  With Adam as our representative, we die.

This is where Paul stops with his opening statement, but then he has another thought.  He has another rabbit hole he figures he needs to go down to keep things together.  And that rabbit hole is so important to Paul that he doesn’t finish his train of thought.  He doesn’t finish his sentence.  That’s why in your reading, you will see a dash right after verse 12.  See, Paul knows that from the time of Adam until the time of Moses–this is biblical history–there was no law.  There were no explicit commands from God, so people didn’t know exactly what it meant to live in right relationship with God and with one another.  Therefore God couldn’t hold peoples’ sins against them.  God couldn’t mark that in their account, so to speak.  Their sin was not like Adam’s sin because Adam had an explicit command from God.  However, these folks were still under the power of sin.  They were still in Adam; Adam was still their representative.  This was obvious because they too died.

 Now, we have reached verse 15, and here is where Paul begins a definite shift.  He begins to lay out the fact that there is a new representative in town.  A new man–a God-man has entered the picture to be a new representative.  This is Jesus Christ, and  Paul outlines how these two are different all the way through verse 20.

First off, they are different because their actions are polar opposite. Adam’s transgression was an intentional act of self-aggrandizement; of rebellion against God.  Jesus’ act was an act of self-sacrifice in obedience to God.

Second, the consequences of the acts are very, very different.  Adam’s actions resulted in death.  Jesus’ actions resulted in life.  Adam’s actions resulted in condemnation.  Jesus’ actions resulted in justification.  Adam’s actions led to death having power and dominion over us–we are enslaved to death as we work to defeat death, postpone death, do everything in our power to keep us safe and preserved and extend our lives because of our fear of death.  Jesus’ actions led to us receiving freedom as death no longer has power over us, and Paul’s words are chosen very carefully hear as he says that we “who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life.”  Because we do not fear death, we rule in life.  We can live life to the fullest!

Finally, Paul shows how Jesus’ action is more powerful than Adam’s.  For Adam’s action brought condemnation to all, but Christ’s actions brought justification to all.  Grace abounds!   Adam’s disobedience made everyone sinners, but Christ’s obedience made the many righteous.  Grace overwhelms sin!

After Paul lays these differences out, he addresses one more issue that was sure to be raised by those who were Jews.  What about the Law?  What about the commandments that God gave Moses and Israel?  Weren’t these commands and rules  supposed to transform people and the world?  Paul says, no.  Not at all.  The Law has no capability to reform a person.  The Law has no capability to transform a heart.  The Law only has the capability of revealing sin.  It only has the capability of showing us where we go wrong.  Therefore, when the Law came alongside, it increased the amount of trespass–it increased our ability to see when we’ve messed up.

But, as the trespass increased; as we learned more about our sin, grace increased all the more.  In the Greek, Paul uses a made up word.  Grace super-abounded.  Such is what happens when Jesus is your representative.  Grace overflows and abounds.  Forgiveness overflows and abounds.  And this is now where we cut to the heart of the Christian faith.

For you see, if you want to be held responsible for your own actions; if you want to be judged on your own merit on what you do and what you don’t do, then you are acting just like Adam.  You are still in Adam.  Without choosing a representative, you have chosen a representative–if that makes any sense.  You are still striving to make yourself in the right–to justify yourself.  And if there is anything that Paul has worked to show us up to this point it is this: we simply cannot justify ourselves.  We cannot make ourselves right.  When we strive to make ourselves right, we are in a constant, losing battle that will eventually lead to our death.

However, if we choose to trust another representative...if we choose to trust in the God-man...if we choose to trust in Jesus’ actions instead of our own, everything changes.  Everything becomes different.  No longer are we in a constant struggle to justify ourselves and our actions.  No longer are we in a constant worry about whether or not we have done enough.  No longer are we dominated by worry stress and anxiety over death.  We know that grace super abounds. We know the depths of God’s love that Christ died for us while we were and are still sinners.  We know that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world to be our representative–not to bring us condemnation but to bring us salvation!!!

When you surrender to Christ’s representation, your life changes, and you have sure and certain confidence.  You know God’s love.  You know God’s hope.  Nothing can rattle you.  The final stanza of “A Mighty Fortress” rings clear and true when Christ becomes the object of your trust: your representative whom you find yourself in:

God’s Word forever will abide, no thanks to foes who fear it
For God Himself fights by our side, with weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse,
Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.
The Kingdom’s ours...Forever!  Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Do You Know the Depths of God's Love?: Romans 5:6-11

Last week, we St. Paul revealed that one of the consequences of us being justified by grace through faith is that we can boast in our suffering.  This was quite an unheard of bit of news as Paul explained: suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us or put us to shame because of the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  Paul was showing how suffering reveals the things we can truly count on, and when all is cut away from us, our true character is revealed.  And, if our ultimate trust is in Jesus–is in God, then we have a sure and certain hope that God will transform our sufferings into something good.  We may not see that this side of eternity, but in the long run, God will take suffering and make good come out of it.

This week, Paul is responding to an unspoken question, and that unspoken question is: how do you know?  How do you know God will do such a thing?  How can you count on Him to make good come out of suffering?  How can you have such a hope.  Paul’s response is essentially this: Let me show you the depths of God’s love.

When I was in junior high, I played football.  Our seventh grade team went undefeated and was district champions.  It was frankly awesome, and I had high hopes going into my eighth grade year.  And that year started off very well.  We won our opening games, but then something happened.  We began to lose.  We lost several in a row, and I knew why.

Our practice times had turned into times of goofing off.  I am a big, huge proponent of the idea that the way you practice is the way you play.  My dad instilled that in me at an early age, and we weren’t practicing well.  Every time we’d try to practice plays, there was laughing and cutting up.  There was joking around and going through the motions instead of seriously running the plays and drills.  And I pegged the ringleader of the disruptions and messing around.  I set him directly in my sights.

Frankly, I didn’t like this teammate at all.  Not only was he screwing up on the practice field and inciting the goofing off; I didn’t like him as a person during school either.  In class, he would do just enough to get by oftentimes cracking stupid answers to questions and mockingly reading class assignments.  Between classes, he would take a few drinks from a thermos in his locker, and that thermos didn’t have Coke, or tea, or water in it either.  In eighth grade, he was constantly trying to lure girls into sleeping with him.  Whenever we stopped after a football game and bought snacks at a convenience store, he loaded his pockets–without paying.  I hated him.  Yes, that’s the way I felt.  And I felt powerless to do anything about his antics on or off the field.

Until one day at practice, that is.  We just so happened to be doing a drill where there was one offensive player who was supposed to run the ball and score.  There was one defensive player who was supposed to tackle the ball carrier.  My teammate was on offense.  I ended up across from him on defense.  For me, the opportunity to exact justice had arrived.  I knew this guy was going to loaf it.  I knew he would clown around and go half speed even though we were supposed to be trying our best.  I wouldn’t be holding back.  I would be going full speed, and I would be hitting him as hard as I possibly could.

The results were predictable.  It took the coaches between five and ten minutes to get the guy up off the ground.  I stood there watching with no regret.  No remorse.  He was okay.  Nothing broken or badly hurt.  Just really, really bruised.  In my mind, justice was served.

And that’s the way we generally feel.  If someone has hurt us or has prevented us from getting something we desire...If we feel like someone has harmed us or those we love...if someone has done wrong to us, we generally want revenge. We want justice. We want the wrongs righted.  This is what we do to our enemies!!!  Revenge.  Retribution.  Justice.  It’s what we clamor for!!

And we see such tit for tat taking place all over our society–all over our world.  From the politics just down the road in Sealy and Bellville to the politics on the national scene, if decisions are made that go against our party or our organization, we pull out all the stops to get retribution; to cause the other party grief; to make them look foolish.  It is the default setting of humanity.

And we usually believe very strongly that we are in the right.  I was absolutely convinced of my stance and my role as the enforcer of justice.  I wasn’t clowning around.  I wasn’t stealing.  I wasn’t luring girls to my bedroom.  I was an all ‘A’ student who took my learning as seriously as my football.  I was the good guy.  We generally think that we are.

But looking back at these events that took place nearly 30 years ago, I have to wonder.  Sure, my teammate was screwing up a whole lot of things, but after 30 years, who really cares about the won/loss record of an eighth grade football team in a town with a population of only 2300?  What does it really matter in the big picture?  And what would have happened if I had really hurt my teammate.  What if he would have had to have surgery?  He would be bearing the scars and the pain to this day.  Does screwing up on the football field deserve 30 years or more of pain and scars?  And yet, I happily inflicted bodily injury for my slights.  I can imagine standing before the Almighty God and accounting for this act in my life, and frankly, I’m pretty sure my teammate would get off easier than I would.  Put in proper perspective, I’m not as innocent as I seem, and my actions are quite filled with guilt–all because I wanted, demanded, and took justice into my own hands.

Put into proper perspective.  That is the key.  We need to put ourselves in proper perspective, and I think that if we do, if we look deep into that mirror; if we set aside all of the lies that society tells us–you know those lies.  You deeply want to believe them.  You want them to be true.  The lies that say that you are perfect just the way you are.  That there is nothing wrong with you.  That you are owed respect and love and honor.  When you believe those lies, then you start believing that you bear no responsibility for what is wrong in the world–it is the world that is messed up, not you.  But those are lies.  Everyone of us knows that we are not perfect.  Deep down, every one of us knows that we are broken, and that the problems of the world are not out there alone.  They are also in here–in the very recesses of our hearts.  If we are honest with ourselves, we will see it.  Just as when I am honest with myself now, I know the wrongness of my actions so long ago.

You may wonder why I am making you confront the reality of yourself.  You may wonder why I am making you delve into the depths of your heart to confront your brokenness–your sinfulness, for that is the term we use in the Christian faith.  And I am doing so for one reason and one reason alone.  You have to know your brokenness so that you too can know the depths of God’s love.

Hear now St. Paul’s words again from Romans chapter five: 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 

Paul uses three words to describe us in this passage: ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God.  These are not flattering words.  These are not words that we like to hear as descriptors of ourselves.  This is something we rebel against.  We want to think that we are just.  We want to think that we are good.  We want to think that we are imperfect, but we’re not all that bad.  Perspective.  Stop looking from your perspective.  Look from God’s perspective, and from that perspective, we stand condemned.  Paul spent almost three chapters of this book showing us this very thing.  Paul spent three chapters showing us that we seek out our own desires, our own ways, our own false gods.  We do not seek God’s way?  We rebel against God’s Law.  We rebel against God’s commands.  We thumb our nose at Him and refuse to worship Him as we should.  We refuse to care for His creation as we should.  We refuse to love our neighbor as we should.  We think we are so good and holy and just, but we are seeing from our own perspective.  We refuse to look at us from God’s perspective because we are ashamed of what we will see.  We don’t want to see such a thing, because from God’s perspective we deserve His wrath; divine punishment.

“But God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Let that statement sink in.  “But God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

While we were enemies to God, Christ died for us.

While we were ungodly, Christ died for us.

When we didn’t deserve it, Christ died for us.

Who does that?  I mean it.  Really, who does that kind of thing?

Who dies for their enemies?  Who dies for someone who has hurt them deeply?  Who goes the second, third, fourth mile to show kindness for someone who has wronged them?  This is not human nature in the least.  This is not how we act at all.

But it is how God acts!  This is how God operates!  This is what God did at the cross when Jesus became the atoning sacrifice for our sins!  Christ died for us while we were still sinners.  This kind of love was never heard of in the ancient world.  No one died for their enemies.  No one.  For a good person, that was rare, as Paul points out.  But no one died for their enemies.

God did.  And Paul implicitly shows this as he talks about Jesus.  As N.T. Wright says, “What Paul says here makes no sense unless Jesus, in his life and death, was the very incarnation, the ‘enfleshment’ (that is what incarnation means) of the living, loving God.  After all, it doesn’t make sense if I say to you, ‘I see you’re in a real mess!  Now, I love you so much that I’m going send someone else to help you out of it.’”
Yes, Jesus is God.  God died for us while we were still enemies.  God showed us this kind of love.

And if he shows us this kind of love while we are enemies, what kind of love will God show us now that we have been added to His family?  What kind of love will God show us now that we are no longer His enemies but now His friends?  What kind of love will God give to us now that we are justified–put in good standing with him; and also reconciled–put in a right relationship?  The answer for Paul is clear–if God has done so much when we were estranged from Him, God will easily take care of us now that we have been brought near.

This is the reason Paul says we can count on God transforming our suffering into good.  This is the reason Paul says we can trust in God above all things.  He died for us when we didn’t deserve it.  His love goes beyond anything that we can imagine.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

God did not condemn you when you were His enemy.  He died for you.  He poured out His love for you.  Will you now put your trust in Him?  Will you now put your hope in Him?  Will you long for His presence and His purpose in your life?  Will you love Him as He has loved you?  May the Spirit lead us all to respond, “Yes!” with loud and reckless abandon.  Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

When You Suffer, Do You Boast?: Romans 5:1-5

When I was about eleven, my family and I had gone over to a great aunt’s house on a Sunday after church.  We bar-b-qued hamburgers and sat around watching football.  Of course, my Dallas Cowboys were playing.  I remember this stuff vividly.  They were playing the late game, and they played the Los Angeles Rams.  I was rooting whole-heartedly for my ‘boys, and I was convinced they were going to win.  How convinced?  My dad told me, “The Cowboys are going to lose.”  I said, “No way.  They are going to win!”

Dad said, “I’ll bet you.”

I rose to the challenge, “Deal.”

Dad said, “How much?”

I thought for a moment before responding, “A quarter.”

Now, before you laugh too much, you have to realize just how much a quarter meant to me.  You see, I loved playing video games.  That quarter wasn’t just a quarter.  It was a game of Pac-Man or whatever arcade game I could come across the next time my family and I went out.  I took great joy and pleasure in playing those games–even though I wasn’t particularly good at them.  To bet a quarter was a big deal.

And my ‘boys lost!!!  I still remember going into my room and digging around for a quarter to hand to my dad.  –No, he didn’t let me off.  I had to pay up!!

Do you know, to this day, I have never bet on another football game or sporting event?  Lesson learned.  There is a risk on betting on an unknown future.  You can easily lose.

But, let’s turn the tables for just a moment.  What if you knew the future?  What if you knew what was going to happen at a particular game–who was going to win?  What if you knew it beyond the shadow of a doubt?  I tell you what I would do.  I’d be booking it to Las Vegas, and I would be a whole lot wealthier, that’s for sure!  Knowing the future gives you confidence in the present.

But there is a problem.  We don’t know the future.  We have the capability to think about the future.  We have the capability of figuring out what will probably happen in the next few moments; hours; or even days.  But all it takes is one little surprise; one little change in some variable, and all our preparations are null and void.  Therefore, we always seem to be a bit concerned about what will happen next.  We always seem to be a bit antsy about what might be just around the corner.  What will the future hold?  Sometimes we are excited about it.  Oftentimes we are fearful of it.  And in our culture today, fear dominates.  We tend to be afraid to bet; to risk; to take that chance lest we lose.

Christians take a bit of a different view toward the future.  In fact, we face the future with confidence–with hope.  St. Paul begins laying this out in the book of Romans chapter 5.  Just a quick recap from before we took our break from this book because of Christmas: Romans chapters one through most of three were spent laying out humanity’s failure to live up to God’s expectations and the reasons we were under the wrath of God.  At the end of chapter 3, Paul shared the good news that God’s justice and God’s mercy had combined in the work of Jesus who became the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Christ’s actions have justified us, and we are now right with God.  We are saved when we trust in Jesus’ actions instead of our own.  Paul then used chapter four to show how this justification by grace through faith was consistent with God’s action toward the founder of the Jewish faith: Abraham.  Paul now moves forward to share the consequences of God’s action in Jesus Christ.

We begin with verse one: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.   We must read this carefully because Paul says here that we have peace WITH God–not the peace OF God.  The peace of God is a sense of calm that comes over us in the midst of various situations in life.  Sometimes we sense that peace.  Other times, we don’t.  Such peace is an important part of the Christian life and deserves its just due, but this is not what Paul is talking about here.  Paul is speaking of the peace that comes after two sides are reconciled.  No longer is there animosity.  No longer is there anger that divides.  No longer is there separation.  There is peace because our sins are no longer a cause of hostility.  God no longer bears his righteous anger against us.  We are at peace.

Secondly, verse two begins with these words: 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.  Through Jesus we now have access–the way is opened with no obstacles to the grace of God.  Think of it this way: in ancient times, in order to have access to a king, you first needed grace–worthiness imparted to you by the king so that he would meet with you.  Through Jesus, we have such access with God.  No longer are there any barriers between you and God.  Folks sometimes ask me to pray for them with the words, “Because you have a direct line to the big Guy up stairs.”  I humorously try to say, “Well, you do too.  We share the same access.”  Through Christ this has been given to ALL of us.  No one has any advantage.

Finally, Paul says, “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”  Earlier in chapter 3, Paul spoke about how boasting was excluded by the grace of God; however, it is important to note that Paul wants us to realize that we cannot boast in ourselves and what we do.  Boasting in what God has done, is doing, and will do is certainly allowed.  In fact, it’s sort of what we do as a church when we worship!  We loudly and boldly proclaim our God!  We loudly and boldly speak of what God does!  We loudly and boldly tell others that God has saved us; that God provides for us; and that God will secure our future.  We boldly boast of how God has prepared a place for those who trust Him and how He will raise us to eternal life–just like He raised Jesus to eternal life.  We boast in God’s goodness!!!

However, Paul suddenly broaches a different subject.  Right after saying that we boast in the glory of God–we boast in God’s goodness, Paul says, “3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings.”  Some scholars believe that Paul is heading off a criticism that is often brought forth.  A criticism that says: you boast about the goodness of God, but look at the trials and tribulations you go through.  Look at all the evil that is still in the world.  Look at the sickness that some of you have.  Look at the persecution that others are bringing upon you.  Why would you boast in God with all of these things happening?  Paul does not shy away from this question, and rather than offer excuses for such matters, Paul says something that many of us frankly have a difficult time doing.  Paul says that we boast in our sufferings.  I mean, really, think about this.  How many of us say, "Hey, I got diagnosed with cancer, woo hoo!"?  How many of us brag about having frozen pipes this morning?  How many of us jump up and down when we lose a job?  No.  We don't do this at all.  We become despondent.  We want sympathy.  We want compassion.  We never boast.  Yet, Paul says, "We boast in our sufferings."

Now, let me be quick to point out that this does not mean that we celebrate the fact that we suffer.  As Timothy Keller said, “That would be masochism.”  We aren’t sadistic.  We don’t rejoice that we suffer.  But we can boast in the midst of it.  How?  How in the world can we boast in our sufferings?

Paul continues:  knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.  Let’s go through these step by step.  Paul first says that suffering produces endurance.  The word endurance here carries a sense of steadfastness–meaning you don’t waver.  You are focused.  Suffering strips away all of the unnecessary distractions so that we know where and what to stand on.  Suffering helps us to see what we can really count on–what is lasting.  And when we find what we can stand upon–what is strong; what endures, then character is formed.  The Greek here gives us a sense of “testedness” or “genuineness”.  When all is stripped away, and you are left with what is lasting, you are tested–genuine.  Your true nature is revealed.  And what is a Christian’s true nature?  If we know we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ–what does our heart show?  It shows that we are full of hope.

How does this happen?  I have dealt with such matters repeatedly with folks who go through suffering. By the time all is said and done, you can tell the difference between folks who put their trust in God and those who have trusted other things.  Let me use the scenario of someone who was diagnosed with cancer.  The folks who have trusted other things go through having their endurance tested, and their character is revealed.  When money did not bring about a cure; when doctors failed to stem the cancer; when family and friends could not make them better; when all of these things were stripped away and there was nothing left, folks who had no trust in God generally became bitter and angry and depressed.  They were defeated.  However, when the same things happened to those whose trust was in God, they too found that money couldn’t cure; doctors couldn’t stem the tide; that family and friends couldn’t make them better, but instead of becoming bitter and angry and depressed–they trusted that God would care for them.  They trusted that even though they might die, that God would bring them unto Himself.  They had hope.  It radiated from them.

Paul finishes with these words, “5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  A better translation would be “and hope does not shame us.”  Hope does not shame us.  This is important on two counts.  First, as I hinted at in my example above, if you put your hope in anything except God, it will disappoint you.  It will bring you shame.  Only God will not disappoint you.  Only God will not shame you.  If your hope is in God you will never be let down.  You can be confident.  And that is the second point of what Paul leads us to.  We can have absolute confidence in what God will accomplish.  This is the meaning of hope in Christian terms.  Most of us when we talk about hope, we think about wish fulfillment.  “I hope I win the lottery.”  “I hope it rains.”  “I hope gas prices don’t go up.”  We can’t be confident of any of these things.  Hope is a guessing game, and if what we hope for doesn’t come to pass–we are disappointed.  In fact, my mother-in-law is fond of saying, "Spit in one hand, wish in the other, and see which one fills up faster."

       Christian hope doesn’t say that.  Christian hope says, “I believe that God will provide exactly what I need when I need it.”  And that is not a hope that will disappoint.  That is not a hope that will bring us shame.  That is a hope rooted and grounded in who God has shown Himself to be.  It is a hope rooted and grounded in the love that He Himself has poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  It is a hope rooted and grounded in the fact that God did not withhold His own Son, but sent Him into the world to die for us.  It is a hope rooted in the God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

This is the promise that we hold in our hearts.  This is the work of God that we stay focused upon.  We know that He loved us enough to die for us.  We know that He raised Jesus from the dead giving us a vision of what we will experience when we trust in Him.  We know that the future rests in His hands.  Our future is taken care of.  We know what to expect.  And if you know what the future entails, then you can live with confidence.  You can face suffering with confidence.  For suffering produces endurance–it helps you see what you can count on.  When you see what you can truly count on, your character is revealed–everyone can see what is truly in your heart.  And if you understand what God has done–hope reigns supreme.  And that is something to boast in!! Amen.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Looking Up to My Grandfather; A Tribute to Roy Grote

I'll never forget the day of my ordination, kneeling before the altar at St. John Lutheran Church in Robstown, TX.

It was time for the presentation of the stole--the time where the burden of becoming a pastor is laid upon an ordinand's shoulders.

I was privileged on this day to have my grandfather, Roy Grote, do the honors.

Grandpa was retired at this point.  No longer gracing the pulpit week after week, he was still active in leading Bible Study weekly.  He and my grandmother had traveled down to South Texas to be a part of this momentous event in my life.  I was very happy to have them there.  I was thrilled that my grandfather would place the stole on my shoulders.

As I knelt there, I looked up to my grandfather.  He took the stole from my bishop.  He moved in front of me.  And he spoke.  Shunning a microphone and speaking as he had preached for many years he spoke of how honored he was to be placing this stole on his grandson.  It was the passing of a torch in many regards.  There have been several clergy in my family.  God willing, there will be another after me.

I wish I could say that this moment was the highlight of my grandfather's career as a pastor, but that would probably be a lie.  Well, maybe it was in one fashion, but he has never spoken to me about the day of my ordination.  There was another event in his career that he spoke of many, many times, however.

It seems when he was starting out in his ministry, a community member had passed away, and my grandfather had been called upon to preach at the man's funeral.  The man was an avowed atheist and no member of any congregation.  A rather large crowd had showed up to see what this young preacher would do in this situation--how would he handle it.

Grandpa said, "I wondered what I should preach, so I prayed and God led me to the Gospel.  I read John 3:16, 'For God so loved the world that God gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.'  I sat down my Bible, and I said, 'I am sorry your loved one did not believe that promise.'"

According to my grandfather, the family wasn't exactly happy with him, but within a few years, many of them had joined his congregation and were worshiping regularly.  Grandpa would always begin this story with the question: Do you know the most influential sermon that you've ever preached?

I'm still waiting on that sermon.  I don't know if I will ever get that opportunity or see that kind of fruit.  But interestingly enough, John 3:16 (and 17 for good measure) appear in nearly every sermon I preach these days.  Every.  Single.  One.

I can't say exactly that it was this story that influenced me in preaching in such a fashion.  It would be another piece of wisdom that Grandpa imparted unto me.

That wisdom came several years ago after I had gone through a bit of burn out.  My family and I had traveled to visit him, and I was very much in need of healing.  I spent several afternoons just talking to Grandpa, and I asked him if he had ever gone through burn out while he was preaching.  He began going through his memories.

They were long and fruitful, and I came to realize just how alike the two of us were as clergy.  I would not have thought it considering that there were times when I found Grandpa utterly frustrating in his single-mindedness and hard headedness.  (On second thought, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised at our likeness...)  But he, like me, had an aversion to getting involved in all the church hierarchy.  He, like me, refused to attend local clergy gatherings.  He, like me, avoided synodical gatherings and the like.  He, like me, was a simple, country preacher.

And he realized this about himself.  He knew that he had never pastored anything close to a mega-church.  He knew that he had never risen the ranks of the church, corporate ladder.  But he had been a faithful pastor and preacher.  He had followed the Lord's calling.

Reflecting on those things, he spoke a sentence that is forever ingrained into my heart and soul, "I didn't accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms."

Aside from the good news of Jesus Christ, there hasn't been a statement that has affected my life as much as that statement.  For right after Grandpa uttered those words, I understood why I had burned out, and I also knew the solution to avoiding burn out for the rest of my life.  I had been living my life focusing on that first clause.  Grandpa was living his life in the second.  And that's where I needed to be.

And I knew that I could spend a lifetime trying to accomplish that first clause.  I also knew that the second clause had already been accomplished--not by anything that I had done, but by everything Christ had done.  "For God so loved the world..."  The first part of my grandfather's statement convicted me, the second helped bring me to healing.  Feet firmly planted in the reality that the Lord and I are on very good terms, I no  longer worry about how I am seen in the eyes of the world, and I know beyond a doubt that it is now my job; my calling; my duty; my joy to bring others to the One who brought them to good terms with their Creator.

I understand now why Grandpa was so unwavering in his commitment to faith.  I understand why he didn't care what others thought about his stances.  It wasn't because he was trying to be difficult or that he thought he was better than anyone else.  It was because he focused on his relationship with the Lord.  It was because he trusted the Lord.  It was because he knew what he was called to do--what he was called to be.  Nothing could pry him away from that.  He didn't fear much of anything because he knew that he and the Lord were on very good terms.

I find myself still looking up to my grandfather and wondering if I will have that kind of resolve as well?  Perhaps others already see that I do although I am not as confident in myself.  Maybe one day, I will get there.

In these last few years, Grandpa has longed for release.  He was not afraid of death--not at all.  One could say that he was ready to embrace it.  He had a long, fruitful and faithful life.  There is no way I can encapsulate all the things he has done in this post.  All the places he has lived.  All the lessons he has taught.  All the stories he has shared.  A man who grew up in the horse and buggy days marveled at my dad showing him how to use an iPad.  Things had changed greatly during his lifetime.

But his trust in Jesus never changed.  His desire to speak of the things of God never changed.  His generosity never changed.  His understanding of God's goodness and grace never changed.  Many in the church he once served would consider him a dinosaur; unenlightened; out-dated.  I don't think so.  Not in the least.  In fact, I am proud to carry on his legacy.  He was the original country preacher.  I'm 2.0.  If I am lucky, I will one day pass along his wisdom and understanding to my own children and grandchildren.  If I am granted the opportunity, I will share with them my most influential sermon.  If God allows, I will share with them what is most important in life--not a list of accomplishments that the world revels over--but the love of the God who died for them and with whom they are on very good terms.

Rest in peace, Grandpa.  I told you how influential you were in my life before you left.  I am still not sure you realize just how influential and what our conversations meant before you died.  But I know that you know now.  Until we meet again.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

How Blessed are Messengers

A man sat in a marriage counselor’s office in despair.  His wife was threatening to leave him.  He desperately loved his wife.  He wanted to stay with her; to be with her.  No one else had ever caught his attention, and he had devoted himself to caring for her.  He was flabbergasted when she told him that she felt unloved.  He couldn’t understand it at all.  So, he sought help and advice.

The counselor asked the man what was going on.

The man began, “I don’t know.  She says that she feels unloved.  She says that she feels like I don’t care about her.  But nothing could be farther from the truth.  I love her dearly, desperately.  I only want what is best for her.  I work as hard as I can each and every day to show my love to her.  I make sure and get all my work done so I can get home.  I cook dinner for her almost every day.  I know what kind of food she likes and doesn’t like, and I take great pains to make sure it’s cooked to her taste.  I know what kind of clothes she likes to wear, so I make sure her wardrobe is full of those clothes.  I have purchased several things personally, and she never tells me that they are bad.  She has always marveled at how well I can buy stuff for her.  I also take her on vacations to whatever destination she wants.  Never have I refused her a single request to a place she wants to go.  I have constantly done things for her and given her gifts, so I don’t understand why she feels unloved.  I haven’t a clue why she believes I don’t love her.  Can you help me?”

The counselor scratched his head for a moment and then replied, “When is the last time you told her?”

The man sat in silence and struggled to remember.

It is certainly true that love without action is merely words.  You can tell someone you love them over and over and over again, but if your actions contradict your words, you are a liar.  If there are no actions following the words, they remain empty.

However, words matter.  Messages matter.  Not only do we need to see things in action, we need to hear those words.  We need to hear messages.  We need people to verbalize what is going on deep within their own hearts and souls.  News carries weight.

We all know that news carries weight.  We all know that words that are spoken or read sometimes hit us where we live–even if we are far removed from the events that are taking place, news still impacts our lives.  For instance, on September 11, 2001, four passenger airplanes were hijacked.  Two were flown into the World Trade Center towers.  One was flown into the Pentagon.  One was crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.  As far as I know, none of us here this morning had any direct contact with those events–if someone here did, please correct me later.  As far as I know none of us here were really, truly impacted by what happened.  We weren’t there.  We were over a thousand miles away.

But the news about those events hit many of us hard.  We grieved for the people who were killed.  We grieved for the families who lost loved ones.  We grieved for our nation as we came under attack.  We were angered by those who attacked us. We wanted vengeance.  We also were inspired by the acts of heroism that we heard about. We took pride in police officers and other first responders who risked and gave their lives to help others.  Reflecting on such stories, we hugged our families a little tighter.  We turned to God in bewilderment, in frustration, in questioning.  We rallied together as a nation.  The event itself may have had little impact on us, but the news of what happened certainly did.

News always elicits a response.  Whether it is emotional or physical, news always causes us to react–sometimes with joy; sometimes with sadness; sometimes with elation; sometimes with anger.  When the news really hits home, we talk about it; we discuss it; we share it.  Those of us with Facebook know this all too well.

Christianity, at its core is about news.  To be precise, Christianity is about THE good news.  We use the technical, theological term: Gospel.  Gospel literally means good news.  The question that often arises is: what is the good news?  What is the gospel?

Well, in order to know the good news, we first have to hear the bad news.  The bad news is that we are separated from God.  The bad news is that we live in a world where that separation shows itself on an all too regular basis.  The technical term for this is that we live in sin.  Now, this term has fallen out of favor with many.  Most folks today prefer to talk about the mistakes we make.  Everyone readily admits that they are not perfect, but no one wants to admit that they are sinful.  No one wants to admit that deep down they are inherently selfish or that they seek their own wishes and desires over everything else.  Truly evil people are rare and to be held in contempt.  Most folks aren’t bad but perhaps misunderstood.  And if we simply manufactured the right conditions or put the right sorts of laws in place or produced the right environment, then everyone would turn out perfectly fine.  Everyone would get along swimmingly and be completely happy and satisfied.

What is truly intriguing about such commentary is that it is not new.  Folks have thought this for thousands of years.  The idea of utopia–or the perfect society with perfect living conditions has been around for a long, long time.  And each and every time it has been attempted, it has failed.  Just like every end time prediction.  They’ve all failed.  Folks have tried to come up with the answer, but one answer has stood the test of time–even though it isn’t popular, and that answer is: there is something deeply wrong and deeply flawed with us.  No matter what kind of society.  No matter what kind of government is established.  No matter what kind of laws are on the books, humans do not do what we know is right.  We do not follow the laws like we should.  We end up seeking our own interests above the interests of others.  Scripture calls this the original sin–seeking our self interest over what God has instructed us to do.  This selfish orientation has left us estranged from God–separated from Him and His goodness.

Now, God is a God of love, and He has given us free will.  He will allow us to go our own way and walk away from Him should we choose.  He will allow us to engage in our destructive behavior and seek our own desires for eternity.  And, left to our own devices, we would.  You may ask: what’s wrong with that?  Here’s what: we will never be satisfied.  We will always be searching.  We will always be hungry.  And imagine your hunger growing and growing in an eternal search for satisfaction and fulfillment.  Imagine never finding what you seek and desperately longing for what you desire with no end.  You would be miserable.  You would be desperate; in pain; in longing.  My friends, you would be in hell.  And that is exactly what the Bible says will happen to us left to our own devices and our own desires.

But God does not desire this for us.  God does not want us to end up in this condition.  God wants us to thrive.  God want’s us to find satisfaction; to find fulfillment; to find joy, peace, and hope.  But He knows we will not find that in any thing but Him. He knows He alone can fulfill our deepest desires and hungers.  And He knows that we must turn to Him; we must trust Him; we must seek Him and make Him our greatest heart’s desire.

But how would God do this?   He could warn us.  He could try and tell us of all the things that we should and shouldn’t do.  He could tell us to love Him above all and love our neighbor as ourselves.  And God did just this thing.  But, our selfishness wouldn’t allow us to accomplish these things.  Our selfishness would not let us see beyond ourselves in loving God and loving our neighbor.
And so God sought to change our hearts–to turn us away from our selfishness.  There is one powerful force that can indeed change a heart.  There is one powerful force that can cause us to step outside of ourselves and seek to please others instead of ourselves.  That force is love.  When we fall in love with someone, we will to anything we can to please that other person; we will live for that other person; we will strive to do what they ask us because we know it brings them joy.  And God had to wonder how to make us fall in love with Him.  How could He demonstrate His love and share His love with us?

Last night, we heard about the birth of the Christ child in the manger.  We heard of angels singing, shepherds running, and Mary pondering these things in her heart.  Today we heard about the light shining in the darkness, the Word becoming flesh and living among us.  We heard of God becoming human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus who came to speak of God’s love; who told us that God is the good shepherd who seeks out the one lost sheep out of the 99; God is the woman who tears up her house to find one lost coin; God runs out to meet the son who squandered His wealth and throws a party for that son; God also leaves that party to welcome in the son who has done everything right and is bitter at God’s graciousness.  Jesus told of an extravagant God who loves those who are far away from Him.

And Jesus didn’t simply tell of this love.  The God become man showed that love as He took our sin upon Himself.  He took the just punishment for the wrongs we have done.  He poured out Himself on the cross and died for us when we least deserved it speaking those haunting words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”  Dying for a family member is common place.  Dying for a friend is something we might do.  People have even died for strangers.  But dying for an enemy?  Dying for someone who does not believe or follow you?  That is a special kind of love.  That is the love that Jesus shows.  That is the love of God for you and for me.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

God poured out His love for you on the cross, and then three days later, He showed what happens to those who trust in Him; who trust in Jesus’ work on their behalf.  They will be raised to eternal life and glory.  All of their hungers and wants will be satisfied.  Their future is safe and secure in the hands of the one who created and redeemed them.

This my friends, is the Gospel.  This my friends is the good news.  When we were separated from God, He bridged that gap.  He reconciled us unto Him.  He provided for us; saved us; and ensured our future.

This is the news that we are now commissioned to tell.  We are now messengers on God’s behalf to tell the world about what God has done for them.  Not only with our deeds.  Not only with our acts of kindness and generosity, but with our voices.  We are called to share what God has done for the world.  For you.  For me.

And then, so shall come to pass what is written in the book of Isaiah.  It will be spoken about the Church and all who believe, “7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’  8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion.  9 Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.  10 The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”  Merry Christmas!!  Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Good News Drives Away Fear

You know that feeling, don’t you?  That feeling that you get when a DPS Trooper, Sheriff’s Deputy, or Police car starts following you.  You are sitting in the driver’s seat, and your body tenses up.  You look at all the gauges.  You check your speed.  You wonder about your tags.  You wonder about your lights.  Your heart races, and you wonder if lights will suddenly flash and sirens will wail.  If the trooper follows you for any length of time, your symptoms become worse.  The fear starts rising.  Are you in trouble or not?

Take that little bit of fear that you have felt during those times and multiply it by a thousand, and you might get close to what the shepherds were experiencing on that hillside outside of Bethlehem nearly 2000 years ago.  Luke recounts the tale, and we heard it just a few minutes ago, “8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”  English sometimes is a poor conveyor of meaning, and this is one case in point.  The ancient Greek literally reads, “and they feared great fear.”  Whenever Greek uses two of the same words in conjunction like that, it is adding tremendous emphasis.  Terrified might not quite cut what the shepherds were experiencing at that moment.  Perhaps a better word might be–panic.  The shepherds panicked!!

Have you ever wondered why?  Why would the shepherds panic when they saw an angel of the Lord?  I mean we don’t seem to have too much of a problem with angels.  We talk about them showing up from time to time.  We put them on the tops of our Christmas trees.  We dress up kids as angels during our Christmas programs.  We consider them blessings; signs of hope; signs of peace and joy.  We seemingly have no fear of angels.  But these shepherds did.  They panicked when they saw one.  They were absolutely terrified.  Shaking.  Trembling.  Cowering with deep fear.  Have you ever wondered why?

Consider the idea that these shepherds believed that the Day of the Lord was now upon them.  Consider the idea that they believed that the Lord was now coming to judge the world and set up His kingdom.  Now, if you have been raised as a Christian, you might wonder why this is such a bad thing.  Aren’t we hoping for that day?  Aren’t we longing for the day when the Lord will come to make everything right?  Why would this be such a bad thing for those shepherds?  Well, to be blunt, you are looking at this day post-Jesus.  The ancient Jews had a very different understanding of the day of the Lord.  It wasn’t going to be all that bright and shiny.

Consider these important biblical texts regarding the day of the Lord.  These would have been the scriptures read to those shepherds who were on that hillside watching this angel appear to them.

Consider Isaiah 13 verses 6-9, “6 Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty! 7 Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will fail, 8 and they will be dismayed.  Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor.  They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame.  9 See, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it.”  Does that sound like a day to look forward to?

Consider Amos chapter 5 verses 18-20, “18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.  20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

One last passage.  Consider Zephaniah chapter 1 verses 14-17, “14 The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there.  15 That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, 16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.  17 I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.

Now, after hearing those passages, and if you had been taught this from the beginning of your religious life, and if you suddenly seen a heavenly angel towering above revealing the power of God, how do you think you would feel?  Don’t you think you might be a little concerned that all that once was told you was coming true?  Don’t you think you would be terrified, panicked, overwhelmed and ready to crawl into a hole?  The shepherds were.  They were terrified.  They panicked.

But their panic was transformed with some unexpected words that flowed from the lips of the angel, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  What the angel spoke was good news.  If there is nothing else that you remember from this sermon tonight, please remember these next words: Good news drives away fear.

Good news drives away fear.

The shepherds were expecting the promised day of the Lord–a day that was foretold to be horrible as God’s wrath was poured down and God exacted vengeance upon sin.  The shepherds expected to be blasted with holy fire, but instead were met with the news that God was acting in quite a different way.  Instead of unleashing wrath, God was unleashing salvation.  For the Jews believed that the Messiah would usher in God’s kingdom of peace, joy, and prosperity.  The Messiah would be the one who was to set things to rights.  The Messiah would be the one who would turn the world upside down and bring freedom from all that oppresses!  Oh, this news was not to be feared in the least.  This news was not to cause panic.  This news was full of hope.  This news was full of promise.  This news was full of joy.

Certifying that this was indeed the case, a whole host of angels filled the skies and broke into song.  They proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest and peace among those whom He favors!!”  This was not a wrathful day at all.  It was a day to be celebrated.

It is no wonder that the shepherds’ fears were transformed into hope and joy.  It is no wonder they arose and spoke amongst each other and said, “Let us go now to Bethlehem to see this thing that the angels have made known to us.”  Good news drove away their fear, and they responded with reckless abandon to seek out total strangers and witness God’s action in the world.  Truly good news has that effect on people.

Think about how transformative good news is.  Think about the cancer patient who is declared cancer free.  What is the reaction?  Think about the person who has suffered the loss of a job who is told, “We’d like to offer you a better job.”  Think about the couple who has struggled with infertility who discovers they are pregnant.  Think about the family who is struggling to make ends meet who receives an unexpected financial windfall.  Think about the military family who received word that their deployed loved one will be home for Christmas.  Good news transforms folks and brings true joy.

But in most cases, such joy is short lived.  Either by the fact that something else comes along that changes circumstances or the fact that what is good news to one person is the exact opposite for another person.  For instance, in some of the above examples–the family who was struggling to make ends meet receives and unexpected financial windfall, but in two months, the windfall has run out, and they are back to square one.  The military family whose loved one came home for Christmas finds out their loved one will be deployed for Easter.  Circumstances change.

This past election cycle saw roughly half of the country pleased and excited about the outcome–it was good news.  However, for the other half of the country, fear, angst, and anger was the response–it was not good news.  A factory that decides to uproot and move to another location is certainly bad news for the current employees of that factory, but it is good news to the jobless who will benefit from the factory’s move.  Hearing that Tom Savage is going to be the Texans’ quarterback is good news for all Texan fans, but it is certainly not good news for Brock Osweiller.  Do you see how that works?  Do you see how oftentimes good news is short lived or how good news is not necessarily good news for everyone?  Can you see how because of this fear easily gains a foothold and even sometimes becomes the driving force in our lives?

And so we must ask: Is there good news that indeed is good news for everyone; that is long lasting; that brings joy and peace and assurance no matter if circumstances change?  Is there such news that can bring transformation to our entire lives?  Is there such news that will drive away fear and give us a sure and certain hope?

What if I told you, there was?  What if I told you that the news of this night–the birth of the Messiah who is Christ the Lord–leads us straight toward that Good News of Great Joy that never ends?  No, it’s not simply a baby in a manger that encapsulates that good news, but it is the fact that that baby will grow and lead us all to a cross and an empty tomb.

For it is on the cross that the God of this universe dies for each and every one of us.  It is on the cross that the God of the universe makes sure that we are right with Him.  It is on the cross where all of the things that separate us from God–our sin, our selfishness, our desire to call our own shots, our failure to love one another, our failure to be compassionate, our failure to live the lives that deep down we know we are supposed to live–all of these things are forgiven and paid for by God Himself.  Jesus, the God in flesh, takes all of these things and much more upon Himself so that you are free of any guilt of your failures.  Nothing in the past can haunt you.  You can walk free.  This is good news.

And it is in the empty tomb that we find assurance that all that is bad will be transformed.  All that is evil will become good.  All pain will be taken away.  All hate will turn to love.  All darkness will turn to light.  All despair will turn to hope.  All death will spring to life.  Whatever it is that you are facing, even should it bring death to your body, will be transformed by the God who holds the future in His hands.  The resurrection is proof of God’s transformative power over the future.  And if you trust that your future is in God’s hands–if you trust the promises of God, what do you have to fear?  The answer is nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

The cross.  The resurrection.  God’s reconciling action.  God’s promise of hope.  This is good news for all.  This is news which has no down side.  This is news of a life-changing scale.  Countless Christians from the time of the resurrection have had their lives changed because they trusted in these promises.  From the shepherds on that hillside to the martyrs who died singing in flames to ordinary people like you and me.  This good news has taken away fear and brought hope to billions.  This good news that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who trust in Him should not perish but have eternal life; for God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.

May we trust in this promise.  May we trust in this good news.  May we have our fears removed so that we may experience peace, hope, love and joy. Merry Christmas!!  Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Why Don't We Sing?

I absolutely love how scholar and world renown theologian N.T. Wright begins his commentary on the Magnificat–or the Song of Mary that we have presented to us this morning.  Please hear Wright’s words in this extended quote:

What would make you celebrate wildly, without inhibition?
Perhaps it would be the news that someone close to you who’d been very sick was getting better and would soon be home.
Perhaps it would be the news that your country had escaped from tyranny and oppression, and could look forward to a new time of freedom and prosperity.
Perhaps it would be seeing that the floods which had threatened your home were going down again.
Perhaps it would be the message that all your money worries, or business worries, had been sorted out and you could relax.
Perhaps it would be the telephone call to say that you had been appointed to the job you’d always longed for.
Whatever it might be, you’d do things you normally wouldn’t.
You might dance around and round with a friend.
You might shout and throw your hat in the air (I once did that without thinking, before I stopped to reflect what a cliche it was.)
You might telephone everybody you could think of and invite them to a party.
You might sing a song.  You might even make one up as you went along–probably out of snatches of poems and songs you already knew, or perhaps by adding your own new words to a great old hymn.
And if you lived in any kind of culture where rhythm and beat mattered, it would be the sort of song you could clap your hands to, or stamp on the ground.
Now, read Mary’s song like that. (Luke for Everyone pp. 13-14)

Read Mary’s song like that.

I wonder if we can.

I wonder if we can experience that kind of joy anymore.

It seems like daily we are bombarded with news that threatens our well being.  There used to be a famous tag regarding news stories that said, “If it bleeds, it leads.”  Well, they’ve actually come up with all sorts of other stories meant to scare the bejeezus out of you these days.  We just came through a presidential election–that once again was called the most important in our lifetime–that once again had both sides convinced that if the other person was elected, we were sending our nation right down the toilet and into the sewer.  Forgive me if I don’t give such talk credence anymore.  I’ve heard such rhetoric in the last four or five presidential elections.  I’m tired of it, and I don’t believe it.  Armageddon hasn’t happened in the least.  I’m pretty sure it won’t happen now.  But you’d never believe it given the rhetoric.  And you’d better not try and convince a die hard about your skepticism.  They will work diligently to convince you that you should be scared to death.

And the thing about it is, such scare tactics work!  They tap into something deep down in our psyches–deep down in the recesses of our subconsciousness.  Some behaviorists have concluded that evolution has essentially programed us to focus on the negative.  I mean, when our ancestors were surviving out on the Savannah’s of Africa, they had to be acutely aware of their surroundings.  Every sound had to be categorized and noted.  Was that rustle in the grass simply the wind, or was it a predator stalking you?  Was that bubbling in the river just some air escaping, or was it an alligator about to spring?  Were the clouds in the sky a harbinger of severe weather?  When you are in survival mode, as we were for the longest time, your brain develops so that you are always looking for threats.  Are you safe?  Are you secure?  Is your well being in danger?  These are the questions that dominated our species for thousands of years.  And it was rare that we got the opportunity to relax and enjoy time without threat.

What did this do to us?  Well, it instilled deep within us an instinctual focus on that which threatens us.  It instilled deep within us a heightened sense of attention and focus on the negative.  Negative things grasp and hold our attention better than the positive things, and interestingly enough, even when the positive things happen to us, we tend to get suspicious and wonder when the shoe is going to drop.  Our joy is usually very short lived, and there is always someone ready to be a “Debbie Downer” and rain on your parade.  There is always someone ready to point to those who are grieving and say to you, “How can you celebrate when these people are hurting.”  True joy is hard to find.

Except in children.  Oh, our children exhibit such uninhibited joy.  Our children are more than willing to laugh and celebrate and clown around.  Our children are willing to sing and dance without worrying about what other people think.  Our children are willing to shout with joy and gladness, and what do we adults tend to do when our kids do this?  What is our usual response?  Yep.  We tell them to grow up.  Get serious.  Act like an adult.  We have had our joy tempered, and so we almost feel obligated to do the same.

Can you imagine if Elizabeth and Mary had tried to restrain their joy?  Can you imagine what they would have done and how differently the scene before us this morning would have played out?  It most likely would not have been included in the Bible, that’s for certain.  For Mary’s song bursts forth from her lips because she is filled with unrestrained joy.  Let’s take a look at what is happening.

Luke tells us that Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  Elizabeth, like Mary is pregnant, and when Mary arrives, she greets her cousin.  Luke emphasizes this a couple of times for a reason.  First off, we need to understand that in that culture, it was appropriate and expected for a younger woman to respect her elders.  It was also appropriate and expected to honor an older woman who was pregnant given that pregnancy was considered a blessing from God.  Mary is following proper protocol for the Jewish society in which she lived.  Elizabeth, because of her status as an older, pregnant woman, deserves to be honored by Mary’s greeting.  Mary knows this and follows the custom, but Elizabeth does not follow suit.  In fact, Elizabeth’s reaction is totally unexpected and totally against the cultural norms.  Why?

Listen again to what Luke records, “41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’”

When Mary greeted Elizabeth, something marvelous happened within her.  The child that she was carrying lept in her womb!! The child in Elizabeth’s womb recognized that God was up to something mighty because of the child in Mary’s womb.  Elizabeth felt this and then felt the power of the Holy Spirit fall upon her, and she proclaimed a greeting to Mary!!!  This was unheard of!!  Older women certainly did not talk to teenagers this way!!!  Older women certainly didn’t offer this kind of respect to young women who, by all external appearances were sinning because they were pregnant outside of wedlock.  Anyone in that culture would have been shocked by Elizabeth’s actions!!  This shouldn’t be happening!!  But proper protocol’s were not in control of this situation.  The joy instilled by the Holy Spirit was.

Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”  Listen carefully to Elizabeth’s words here.  She announces that the child that Mary is carrying is her Lord.  The child in Mary’s womb is her ruler.  Even before he is born, Elizabeth is testifying to his greatness!

For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb lept for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  There it is again.  Joy.  Unadulterated joy.  From an infant in the womb to the infant’s mother.  And all focused back on the promise given by the Lord.  The Lord’s promise is coming true.  The Lord is acting in the world.  Focusing on the Lord and His work brings joy.  Remember that.  It will be a recurring theme.

Mary hears Elizabeth’s words.  And Mary spontaneously breaks into song.  She sings.  Filled with joy, she lifts her voice to the skies and proclaims the majesty of the Lord.  I would dearly love to go through this marvelous song verse by verse, statement by statement, but that would require far more time than is available.  It is a marvelous piece pointing to all the things that God has done.  And I want to emphasize that point.  Mary is singing about all the things that God has done.  If you read through this song in English and in Greek you will see that the vast majority of the verbs are all in the past tense.  They are not focused on the present.  They are not focused on the future.  They are recounting the things God has done to fulfill His promises to the world and then to the people of Israel.  What God is doing now in Mary has caused her to look back and see all that God has done; how faithful God was; and how what God is doing now is right in line with what God has always done.  God is faithful.  God’s promises are secure.  Focusing on what God has done; focusing on God’s work brings joy!  Pure and unadulterated joy!

I want to ask you whether or not you see such joy in your life?  I want to ask you whether or not you see such joy in the world around?  I want to ask you whether or not you see such joy even within our churches these days?

When you walk around the grocery store; when you go to a game; when you drive down the street, how many people do you see smiling, laughing, singing for no apparent reason–and I’m not talking about singing with the radio–even though I seem to observe fewer people even doing that!  I’m talking about singing when there’s no music being played.  Singing for the pure joy of singing?  How often do you see such things?

I have personally noticed a decline in the singing of many churches.  Even when I was at Christian City Fellowship attending Thanksgiving worship, I only heard strong singing from the congregation during one particular song.  The band and worship singers were very, very strong. The two lead singers were professionally trained, but as far as a great many voices being raised in song?  No.  Not really.  Why is this?  Why don’t people sing out anymore?

I have a hypothesis that singing is often tied to joy.  When your heart is full of joy, it can’t stay deep down within.  It has to spring forth.  It has to come out.  You want to let it out because if you don’t you will feel like you will burst.

But we have little joy.  We are haunted by the past.  Overwhelmed by the present, and fearful of the future.  We think about all the things that have effected us.  We think about all the things that we have to do.  We think about all the things that could possibly happen to us and effect us negatively.  Our joy vanishes because we fail to remember what God has done.  We fail to remember who God is.  We fail to remember His promises in our lives.

Thinking about who God is and what He has done leads to joy.  Period.  Have we forgotten?  Have we forgotten that God is the one who brings the dead to life and calls into existence things that were not?  Have we forgotten the love of the God who was willing to pour Himself out for the world?  Have we forgotten that God has reached down into the depths of our world to become like us; to take our sin upon Himself; to die for us to pay the penalty of our sins; to rise again to new life showing us what our future holds?

Have we forgotten that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life, for God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved by Him?  Have you forgotten that God so loved you that He came to die for you so that you may find yourself deeply loved by Him?

Remember.  Yes, remember.  Let your thoughts turn to God and what He has done.  Let your heart turn to God and be filled with His Holy Spirit.  Let your focus change from that which consumes you and worries you and frightens you, and see the cross in your mind’s eye.  See the empty tomb and the future you have with the God who loves you.  See yourself resting in God’s arms and knowing His mighty power.  Feel His presence.  Feel His Spirit.  Feel your heart filling with pure, unadulterated joy.  And don’t be afraid to sing.  Sing to the world and tell of all that God has done.  Amen.