Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Fruits of the Spirit: Peace

Today, we come to the third fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23: peace.

As we discovered when dealing with the word: love, there are also several meanings to the word peace.  There is the kind of peace that a mother of three young children longs for.  Some of you understand this kind of desire.  It’s the kids are jumping around the house on a rainy day, screaming and yelling, knocking over furniture, asking for juice and snacks, putting all kinds of demands on you, lock yourself in the restroom for five minutes so you can get away kind of peace.  This kind of peace is the absence of any distractions or demands on your time or person.

But that is not the only kind of peace we know and long for.  There is also the absence of conflict kind of peace.  I had an interesting discussion with a World War II veteran this week who shared with me what it was like to find this kind of peace.  His unit had been assigned to go after the Eagle’s Nest in Germany.  For those of you who might be unfamiliar with that term, the Eagle’s Nest was the place where Hitler was supposed to be holed up–a last stronghold.  This veteran had faced the daunting task of fighting to capture this fortified, dangerous position.  But before, they moved out, they received word that the war was over.  Peace had been declared.  “The feeling was unimaginable,” this man said.  The absence of what had been brutal conflict was overwhelming.  We long for this kind of peace.

There is also the feeling that we experience in the midst of conflict and strife that all will be okay.  We tend to call this inner peace.  I know this feeling well because I have had it numerous times in my life.  The most vivid one was when I was working for the YMCA summer camp program.  We had taken a group of children to a park in northwest Austin, TX.  It was June of 1996, and we received word that the town of Jarrel, TX had been hit by tornadoes, and they were headed our way.  Complicating matters was that the Y had hired school busses to shuttle us and several other groups to the elementary schools which served as our home bases.  Those busses were busy shuttling another group, and we were without transportation. The skies darkened, and we took the kids to a ravine hoping that the storms would pass over us.  I climbed to the top of a small hill and looked northward and saw a funnel cloud heading toward us.  Yet, in the midst of all of this, I was strangely calm.  Deep down, I knew everything was going to be okay.  And sure enough, a local family saw our plight and urged us to take shelter in their house.  The storms passed us by while we huddled safely there–in peace.

It is quite interesting that in all of these circumstances, we often talk about working for peace. We talk about trying to make peace happen.  We broker treaties, schedule retreats, go to counseling, and all sorts of other things to generate peace.  But Paul, in this list calls peace a fruit of the Spirit.  This means that for a Christian, peace isn’t something that we manufacture as if we can find and assemble the pieces to make something come together in perfect harmony; instead, peace is something that naturally flows from us as individuals and is found in our congregations and churches.  In a real sense, peace just happens.  How can this be?

Well, it all begins with Jesus.  Jesus makes a very interesting comment in the book of John.  27"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”  When Jesus says these words, he is tapping into his Jewish heritage and talking about Shalom–a deep sense of well being; a sense of being in harmony with God.  This is not a simple, fleeting feeling.  It is a true gift.  And what is that gift.

First, let’s examine what Jesus means when he says, “I do not give to you as the world gives.”  What does the world give?  Remember, Jesus is saying these things in the midst of the Pax Romana–the peace of Rome.  It was a grand narrative that the Roman Empire proclaimed.  They were bringing peace to the world.  But how?  How did the Roman Empire bring their peace?  How has peace been brought to the world for countless generations?  Through violence.  The Romans established peace by stomping out anyone who opposed them.  They viciously put down any opposing army or insurrection.  They crucified thousands of people.  They rendered swift and merciless judgement on criminals.  Their violence established peace.  This is how the world establishes peace.  The biggest kid on the block gets to call the shots, and if anyone dares to oppose him or her, then the consequences are severe.  There is no conflict because no one wants to take on the big kid.  Everyone fears reprisal.  Everyone walks in lock step because to do so means one will endure the wrath of the one in charge.  This is the peace that the world gives.  Jesus says his peace is not like this.  Not by a long shot.

So, what kind of peace does Jesus bring?  Let me begin to flesh this out by reminding you of an older story–a story that is found at the very beginning of the Bible.  Some of you may remember the story of Noah’s Ark.  You know that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights and Noah and his family and a bunch of animals were saved by being on a giant boat.  And you may remember that the boat came to rest on top of a mountain and stayed there until the water subsided.  Now, I would like to read to you the ending of that story.  Genesis chapter 9 starting at verse 8:

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ 12God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ 17God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

Now, most of us were taught that this bow is the rainbow.  The rainbow is often seen as a sign of peace.  Why?  Well, please note that in the lesson from Genesis, the word “rainbow” is not used.  The word bow is.  Do you know what a bow is?  No, not the bow that is put in someone’s hair to make it look pretty.  This is a bow, the kind that is used to shoot arrows. The kind that in that day was used to make war.  God hung up his bow after the flood.  After God punished the sinfulness of humankind, there was peace.

Now, let’s fast forward thousands of years.  Let’s fast forward to another hill, this one outside the city of Jerusalem.  On that hill stands a man, hanging and dying on a cross.  But he is more than just a man.  He is also God incarnate.  He is the creator and sustainer of the universe.  He is one person of the Holy Trinity who took on human flesh to live among us.  He lived the perfect life, following every command of God the Father, and because he was spotless and blameless, he became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  That man, hanging on the cross has taken the world’s sin upon himself.  He has reached into you and into me and taken our unholiness upon himself.  He has reached into you and me and taken our brokenness upon himself.  He has reached into you and me and taken every evil thought, word, and deed upon himself.  And he is dying in our place.  He is suffering the torments of hell in our place.  He is taking the punishment of the world’s sin so that we might never have to face it.  He is redeeming us and offering us forgiveness of sin.  And not only is he doing this.  No, this is just one half of the equation.  The other half is what Jesus is giving to us.  He is giving us his righteousness.  He is giving us his blamelessness.  He is giving us his spotlessness.  He is making us holy so that we can stand before God Almighty acceptable in His sight.  He is transforming us into his brothers and sisters so that we may receive the promises of God.  He is giving us the same status that he had as sinless.

Instead of washing the world clean by a flood and destroying once again the wickedness of humankind and punishing us for our sin, God pays the price himself and washes us clean by His blood on the cross of Calvary.  Instead of hanging a bow in the sky, God hangs himself on the cross in a declaration of peace.  Why?  Because, when you hang a bow up, the bow is still there and it can be used later.  War can be re-declared.  This time, the bow is broken, shattered, and a lasting peace is established between God and humanity as God pays the price once and for all!

St. Paul wrote about it this way in the book of Romans, “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. 11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Through Jesus Christ, we have peace with God.  A right relationship with God has been restored.  We have been justified.  We have been made right with our creator, not by any action we have taken, but by the actions that Jesus Christ has taken.  And God announced this new status with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God declared that everything Jesus said and did was true; and God showed that what happened to Jesus will also happen to us.  Death will not touch us.  We too will be raised to eternal life.

And when we put our trust in this action; when we stop trying to make ourselves right and throw ourselves on the mercy of God and God’s action, something happens deep within us.  Something happens that brings us a sense of overwhelming peace and comfort.  We know that we are right with our Creator.  We know we stand in God’s love–a love that will never go away.  And we know that God will act to bring us through whatever trial or tribulation we will face.  Even death cannot have the last say.  God will work to bring all things toward the good.  Such things bring us an overwhelming sense of peace deep within our hearts–even when the world rages around us.  Such is the fruit that grows within our hearts.

But it does not stay within our hearts.  These fruits of the Spirit also begin coming forth in our lives.  Peace begins emerging in our relationships–particularly in the relationships between those who believe in Jesus.  For you see, as our hearts change, we too understand that peace is not given as the world gives.  We begin to understand that peace is not brought about by being the top dog and strongest, mightiest person who can call all the shots.  No.  Instead, peace begins to emerge when we, like Jesus take on the pain and suffering of offering forgiveness.  Peace begins to emerge when we are willing to pay the price for someone else wronging us.  Remember our sermon series on forgiveness not too long ago?  See how the two are inter-related?  When a community of such like minded people gather, there are problems.  There are issues.  Our human natures still bring about conflict, BUT because our hearts are willing to absorb the cost; because our hearts have the peace of Christ within, reconciliation and forgiveness rule.  Reconciliation and forgiveness take center stage.  The same reconciliation and forgiveness God through Jesus extended to the whole world emerges within a community of faith bringing peace between brothers and sisters in Christ.

During my sermon series on forgiveness, I told the joke about the preacher who preached on loving one’s enemies.  Remember that joke?  A pastor preached a sermon to his congregation on loving and forgiving one’s enemies.  After 30 minutes, he asked his congregation, “Who believes we should love and forgive our enemies?”  About half of those in attendance raised their hands.  The preacher wasn’t satisfied with this, so he preached another 30 minutes.  He then asked again, “How many of you believe we should love and forgive our enemies?”  About 3/4 of the congregation raised their hands.  So, the preacher preached another 45 minutes.  He then asked once more, “Who believes we should love and forgive our enemies?”  The whole congregation raised their hands except for 94 year old Mrs. Mabel sitting in the back of the church.  The preacher was astounded.  “Mrs. Mabel, how is it that all the rest of the church believes they need to love and forgive their enemies, but you don’t?”  Mrs. Mabel replied, “I ain’t got no enemies!”  The preacher was astounded, “You have no enemies?”  Mrs Mabel responded, “No.  Not a one.”  The preacher was then filled with excitement as he said, “Mrs. Mabel, please come down here and give your testimony.  Come down here and tell us how it is that you have no enemies.”  Mrs. Mabel shuffled up to the front of the church. She took the microphone in her hand and held it close.  Then she said, “It’s because I outlived all them hussies!”

I am sure Mrs. Mabel was at peace, but not because she was producing peace.  She was not bearing the fruits of the Spirit.  Imagine a place where such personal relationships were governed by the peace that forgiveness brings.  Imagine such a place governed by a group of people who were quick to bear one another’s burdens and realize how deeply flawed one another can be.  Imagine a community where the words, “I forgive you,” easily flow as they did from the lips of Jesus.  Imagine a community of people who know the peace of being forgiven by God and who then extend that forgiveness to one another.  Would you want to be a part of that community?  Could you stand being away from that type of community for a long period of time?  Would you want to stay in that community and experience it day in and day out?  At its best, this community would be called the church.  It would be called those who are forgiven and who forgive as Jesus did.  It would be called those who produce the fruit of Peace because they know the grace of God truly and deeply.  May we be such a community.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Fruits of the Spirit: Joy

We move today to the second fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23: Joy.

I will begin by letting you know that this is a fruit of the Spirit that I, myself struggle with.  I mean, I truly do want to be joyful.  I want joy to ooze out of all my pores.  I’ve encountered people who are full of joy, and they are a wonder to behold.  Perhaps you have met such a person before in your lifetime.  I am reminded of the story I heard about a man who was admitted to the hospital with a very serious illness.  After several days, one of the nurses wrote on his report, “This man suffers from too much joy given the circumstances around his illness.”  The world is bewildered by such joy.  Oftentimes, so am I.

Jesus once told the story of a woman who lost a single coin in her home.  The coin was a drachma, or the equivalent of one day’s wage.  She was probably rather poor since she had to light a lamp to try and find the coin–this means the house she lived in had no windows.  She swept the floor trying desperately to hear the clink the coin would make when hit.  In every nook and cranny she swept and looked until her efforts were rewarded.  She found the coin!  Now, here is where things get interesting.  Here is where things take a head-scratching turn.  The woman is so excited; she is filled to the nth degree by happiness.  She is so filled with this happiness, she calls all her neighbors to come and celebrate with her.  The nuances suggest that she literally throws a party for her neighbors to celebrate her finding this coin, and I guarantee you, the refreshments for that party cost her more than the coin she found.  Such was her joy.

Now, you see, I’ve got an awful lot of German blood running through my veins.  We Germans are not necessarily known for being demonstrative people.  Neither are we necessarily known for being lavish in our expenditures.  If I would have been the one who found that coin, yes, I would have been glad.  Yes, I might have been a bit excited, but probably I would have been more relieved.  I would have stuck that coin in my pocket and gone about my daily affairs.  I might have told my wife about it, but there would have been no dancing; no celebrating; no feasting or what have you.  I certainly would not have spent the coin to have a party in celebration. The response would have been quite different.  Why?

Oh, I have been thinking about that all week!  I have been mulling it over and over and over in my brain trying to wrap my head around this problem of joy.  And here are a few thoughts that have seemed to have settled.

First, I came to understand the difference between happiness and joy.  Happiness is a sort of fleeting thing.  It is dependent upon our surrounding circumstances.  It can come and go in a matter of moments.  Watch how it happens.

A pastor had just begun serving his congregation and had only been there a few weeks.  After worship one Sunday, an elderly woman approached him and said, “I’m deaf, and I can’t hear a word you say, but I still come to get my plate full.”  Hoping to console her, the pastor said, “Well, maybe you haven’t missed much.”  She replied, “Yes, that’s what they all tell me.”

As you laugh and smirk, please know that right now, you are experiencing happiness.

Now, did you know that in the next minute 14 people will die of preventable hunger?  And suddenly, your happiness is gone.

See how fleeting happiness can be?  See how it can be there one second, and then the next, it vanishes?  Joy is something different.  Joy is something that happens even when our external circumstances change.

A nine year old girl was diagnosed with leukemia, and she was given six months to live.  As the doctor told her parents the diagnosis outside the hospital room, she overheard his words.  However, she didn’t fully understand her condition.  To everyone’s surprise, her faith in Christ gave her an attitude of victory.  She talked freely and with hopeful anticipation about her death.  As she grew weaker, her joy became more radiant.  One day, before going into the final coma, she said to her family, “I am going to be the first to see Jesus!  What would you like me to tell him for you?’

That’s joy!  That’s something spectacular.  That’s something that comes from way down deep within a person–a person who has had their lives touched by the hand of God; a person who has experienced the transformation that the grace of God can bring.

Peter talks about this transformation in his book 1 Peter.  In fact, his opening words describe this transformation that leads to joy.  “3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

Those of you who were here last week know that I started off my sermon series on the fruits of the Spirit by talking about how Scripture compares us to fruit trees–fruit trees that have a rotten core.  That rotten core taints everything about us including the fruit that we produce.  Peter begins with telling us that we have experienced a new birth.  We are made new.  We know where this new birth happens.  It happens on the cross when Jesus takes our sin upon himself.  When Jesus who was spotless and blameless before God becomes sin–He literally takes your sin out of you and takes it into himself so that he can pay the penalty for your sins.  And then in a wondrous exchange, Jesus gives you His righteousness; he gives you his blamelessness; He gives you his spotlessness.  You who were once tainted and sinful are now clothed with Jesus able to stand before God without condemnation.  Your status is changed from someone who deserves God’s judgement to beloved child of God.

And since we are now children of God, we becomes heirs to the promises of God.  This means whatever happens to Jesus happens to us, and Peter is quick to point out what that entails as he looks at the resurrection and says, “This is the hope that we all share.  It is a living hope that envelops us right here and right now and helps us to understand that God has prepared for us “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”  Since Jesus has been raised from the dead, we too will be raised from the dead.  Since Jesus’ unjust suffering and pain has been transformed into glory, so our suffering and pain will be transformed into glory.  We hold onto and grasp this by faith–we trust that what Jesus said was true.  We trust that what Jesus did on the cross was true.  We do not put our faith in ourselves or in any action that we can possibly do.  Instead, we trust in God and His action.

Peter then follows up with the results of this trust.  Peter then follows up and says, “If you trust in Jesus and His work; if you have faith in God and not yourselves, then ‘6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.’” There’s not much I can add to these statements by Peter.  He’s pretty straight forward.  Even if you are in the midst of suffering, you stand on the promises of God.  This suffering is only temporary.  There is more to come.  Even if you are in the midst of trials, you stand on the promises of God.  There is more to come.  Even if you are hurting, you stand on the promises of God.  There is more to come.  There is hope.  A radiant hope.  A lasting hope.  A hope that does not disappoint.

And filled with that hope: filled with the knowledge of what Christ has done; what  Christ is doing; and what Christ will do–we begin to have something happen deep within us.  We begin to experience something that does not allow us to sink into the depths of depression.  Joy prevents us from ever going too low because we know that God is working.  Ah, but on the other hand, joy multiplies our happiness.  It makes us laugh louder.  It makes us sing with reckless abandon.  It makes us celebrate with more merriment.  It is why the woman in the parable was willing to spend more than what the coin she found was worth.  Her joy at finding the coin was worth more than the coin itself, and it demanded to be shared!  That joy made her happiness unbearable–she couldn’t keep it to herself.  She had to share it!

A little boy listened carefully one Sunday as his teacher explained why Christians give presents to each other on Christmas day.  She said, “The gift is an expression of our joy over the birth of Jesus and our friendship for each other.”  When Christmas came, the boy brought the teacher a special seashell.  The teacher asked, “Where did you ever find such a beautiful shell?”  The boy said there was only one spot in a certain bay several miles away where such beautiful shells could be found.  His teacher said, “Why, it’s gorgeous! But you shouldn’t have gone all that way to get a gift for me.”  The little boy smiled and said, “The long walk was part of the gift.”

Oh, and church, does our joy come forth in such a fashion?  Is it overflowing so much that we cannot stand to keep silent?  When we think of all that Jesus has done for us in the cross, and when we think of all that Jesus will do for us as we see the proof of the resurrection, are we filled with a indescribable and glorious joy?  When we see others hurting; when we ourselves are hurting, do we sense hope?  Do we trust that God will turn things around?  Are we willing to live in joyful expectation of these things happening?  And when we hear things that bring us happiness, does that happiness overflow?  Does it erupt?  Does it come bursting forth in song; in praise; in merriment; in fellowship and laughter?  Oh dear church, I struggle with joy probably because I don’t stay focused on Jesus enough.  I don’t keep what Jesus has done and will do for me in my thoughts enough.  Perhaps it is one of the reasons I keep bringing them up Sunday after Sunday after Sunday as I preach.  Not only is it to proclaim them to you, it is also a reminder to me.  For to focus on Jesus and His mighty acts; to focus on Jesus and His glorious promises; changes a heart, and from that changed heart, joy overflows.  May we all produce such joy.  Amen.

The Return of the Zwickau Prophets

The year was 1521.  Martin Luther had disappeared into the Wartburg castle, now labeled an enemy of the state.  His stand at the Diet of Worms had all but signed his death warrant as an outlaw.  Fortunately, Luther had friends who wanted him protected, and protect him they did.

But someone needed to be responsible for continuing Luther’s work back in Wittenberg.  Someone needed to continue leading the Reformation–someone who had a steady hand, an intelligent mind, and the ability to hold onto the truths that Luther had re-discovered.  Luther believed that person to be Philip Melanchthon.

Melanchthon was a scholar par excellance.  He was adept in ancient languages.  He was skilled in theology, and he was a tremendous preacher.  Luther believed he was the right man for the job in his absence.  However, as Eric Metaxas writes in his book Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, “Luther had far more confidence in him than Melanchthon had in himself.”1

This would pose problems as Luther stayed hidden in the Wartburg.

The first of these problems arose when two colleagues began pushing the Reformation in ways that Luther had never anticipated.  Andreas Karlstadt and Gabriel Zwilling began their own form of legalism contrary to Luther’s teaching of grace.  For instance, Karlstadt began proclaiming that whereas lay folks were once allowed only the bread at Holy Communion, it was now sinful if lay folks did not take both bread and wine at communion.  Melanchthon said nothing regarding this.  When Luther found out, he was furious.  “The Gospel gave us the freedom to do these things if we chose, but it did not in any way compel us.”2

The second of these problems came in the form of the “Zwickau prophets.”  These three men claimed to have direct communication from God.  They had essentially been run out of Zwickau as a result of their preaching, and they came to Wittenberg.  One of these three had actually been a student of Melanchthon’s, and perhaps this is why “they quickly overwhelmed the shy genius with their confident biblical interpretations and stories of heavenly ecstasies.”3
For some strange reason, none of the outlandish things these men said seemed theologically iffy–until they shared with Melanchton their views on infant baptism, which they were implacably against.  Of all things, it was this that got his attention.  But they said other things that ought to have alerted him, such as the idea that direct revelation from God himself could now supersede the Bible.  After all, they said, if the Bible were so necessary, God might have sent it to them directly from heaven.  Now, they had the Holy Spirit.  Melanchthon was in a dither.  He didn’t feel confident enough to understand whether these fast talking holy men were onto something or not, and he felt sure that Luther needed to return again to judge the situation properly.4
Luther would eventually return, and he did not have kind words to say to these so called “prophets.”  In fact, after meeting with one of them, he thought that he had spoken with the devil incarnate.5  Luther had no bones about shutting them down and ruling them out of bounds.

There is of course, more to the story, and it has a tragic ending.  But for our purposes, there has been enough history shared.  It is now helpful to move into the present.  I am becoming more and more convinced that the same spirit that inhabited the “Zwickau prophets” has inhabited some in our churches today.

I remember vividly attending a Synod Assembly in 2007/2008 where Presiding Bishop Mark Hansen, of the ELCA spoke about the proposed social statement on human sexuality, “A Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.”  I remember a recurring statement ushering forth from him.  “It seemed good to the Spirit and to us...”  It was a play on Acts chapter 15 indicating that this new teaching on human sexuality–that homosexual relationships were not only not forbidden by God but accepted and blessed–was given by the Spirit.  Oh, and we just happened to agree with it as well.  Zwickauian anyone?

And the redefining of the Gospel continues in that vein.  No longer is Christ’s work on the cross an act of atonement, but it is God’s solidarity with the oppressed.  Scripture lines up perfectly with Marxist thought as social justice supercedes individual repentance and conversion.  (I’m still struggling to find that without doing tremendous exegetical gymnastics.)

God loves you just as you are has replaced God loves you in spite of who you are.  You do not have to change–it is society that must change and conform to acceptance and tolerance.  After all, Jesus was completely and totally tolerant of everyone.  (That’s why they tried to throw him off a cliff in his hometown, you know.)

And grace really, truly covers all.  If there is a hell, it is empty.  God really doesn’t give you up to your passions so that you will follow them for eternity.  He will bring you to him even if it is against your will and desire.  He will eventually force you to love Him.  Oops, I’ve committed another mortal sin.  I can’t use masculine pronouns.  God will eventually force you to love God.

Yes, people really believe this stuff.  And more.  And why isn’t it shut down?  Why doesn’t anyone call it for what it is?  Well, most who are in a position to do so are very much like Melanchthon.  In fact, I’d probably argue that we have far too many Melanchthons in our churches these days and far too few Luther’s.

And I get that too.  I understand that very well.  For to be a Luther means that not only must you speak out against such things, you also must be willing to bear the tremendous weight of attack that is thrown at you.  Most of us know very well that Luther was attacked by the Roman Church, but when he began speaking out against Karlstadt, Zwilling, and the Zwickau prophets, he had to endure their attacks as well.

But Luther was more than up to the challenge.  He believed he rested on the Truth.  He believed and argued vehemently for it.  He was willing to take a stand, not just once or twice, but over and over and over again.

May we all find such courage in these times.  May we all.

1. Metaxas, Eric.  Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. Viking: New York 2017. p. 243.

2, Metaxas. p. 256.

3. Metaxas. p. 267.

4. Metaxas. p. 267-268.

5. Metaxas. p. 286

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Fruits of the Spirit: Love

Today, we begin a new sermon series titled, “The Fruits of the Spirit: Responding to God’s Grace.”  It is based upon St. Paul’s teaching in the book of Galatians that we have in front of us this morning from chapter 5.  It reads, “22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.”

One of the things that has helped me understand the Christian faith more deeply is learning what the Bible tells us about ourselves.  In a very real way, the Bible says that we are like fruit trees.  And no matter how good we look on the outside–no matter how big our trunk, how long our branches, how colorful our leaves–deep within, there is a problem.  At our core is a rottenness that taints everything.  Therefore, when we start to bear fruit, the fruit carries that same taint.  It is not good fruit, and the bad news is we cannot do anything to fundamentally change this ourselves.  We cannot make ourselves into good, fruit-bearing trees.  However, the good news is: the core teaching of Christianity, the Gospel, tells us that God has acted in human history through the person of Jesus–who was both God and man–to change us; to transform our core being into something that is good; something that can and does bear good fruit.  Paul lists nine of those basic fruits, and those fruits should be prevalent in every Christian church and in every single Christian.  As Jesus said, “A good tree bears good fruit,” and if we do not find ourselves bearing these fruits, we must examine ourselves and our relationship with God.

So, with that background being laid out, let’s take a look at these individual fruits, and we begin with the most important one: love.  Almost everyone agrees “that what the world needs now, is love sweet love.” Some of you may remember that song.  Others of you may be more inclined to ask, “What is love?” and I’m going to try really hard to resist the temptation to add, “Baby don’t hurt me; baby don’t hurt me no more.”  For those of you scratching your heads, Google Haddaway or talk to anyone who was growing up in the early 90's.  Love is indeed the subject of song, of poetry, of books and literature.  Love is a deep need of each and every one of us, and I think we are extremely confused about just what it is.  Hence the wonderful 80's ballad by Foreigner, “I Want to Know what Love Is.”  Wouldn’t we all?

Now, by no means am I going to try and clear up all the confusion over love in our society and culture.  But I am going to point out that our language for love doesn’t help us in the least.  When we say “love” it can mean a ton of things.  It can mean a deep feeling that you have for another person.  It can mean a sense of friendship.  It can mean an ideal sense of how we should treat each other.  It can mean a sense of pleasure in an activity.  It can mean sex.  If you are watching tennis, it can mean zero.  There are a whole lot of nuances and understandings of this word in English that make things quite confusing at times.

Fortunately, the Bible was not written in English.  It was written in Greek, and Greek has four different words for love.  Eros–which is a sexual love.  Philia–which is a love that denotes friendship or brotherliness.  Storge–which is used to denote affection towards another person; particularly parents toward children.  And, agape.  Now, I’m not going to give you a quick definition of this word right here because I am going to take the rest of this sermon to define agape.  The reason for that is this is the kind of love that Paul speaks about in his list of spiritual gifts.  It is a very specific, special type of love.  It is so special and rare that it is hardly found in much of the Greek literature before Christianity came into being.  But in the New Testament, it is the dominant word used for love.  Why is it so dominant?  Because it is what Jesus showed to the world, and it then becomes the governing word for the life of the Christian and the Church.

So, let’s take a look at this type of love as shown in Scripture.  Jesus begins our putting together of this definition as he is talking to his disciples in John chapter 15.  We read it earlier, please hear it again, “9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Let’s look at each point that Jesus makes without digging into them too terribly deeply.  Point 1: This agape/love is something that we abide in.  We rest in.  We stay in.  Point 2: When we keep the commandments, we abide in God’s love.  We rest in God’s love.  We stay in God’s love.  Point 3: No one has greater agape/love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  These points help flesh out our definition of love quite a bit, but they don’t give us the fullness of that definition.  So, we will turn to another portion of scripture.  This portion of Scripture, we did not read earlier, but it should be rather familiar to you if you grew up in the church or if you have attended multiple weddings.  It is the great love chapter from the book of 1 Corinthians.  Chapter 13.  You can turn to it now as I read it.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

This is a beautiful chapter of love, laying out what agape/love entails.  I challenge you to re-read this chapter and see if you measure up to this kind of love in your relationships.  I challenge you to re-read this chapter and see how well you practice this love in your everyday live.  I challenge you to read through this chapter and see how well any church practices this kind of love on a regular basis.  This kind of love is not easy.  It is terribly difficult.

And now, we get to the final piece which shows us the near impossibility of this agape/love.  1 John 4 spells it out in its ultimate expression.  7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

True agape/love is willing to die for someone when that someone does not love you in return.  True agape/love is willing to give of itself even though it receives only anger and hatred in return.  True agape/love is willing to sacrifice itself for those who do not deserve it.  This is the true form of this fruit of the spirit.

And now, can you see why this is a fruit that can only come when you are transformed from the inside-out?  Can you see why you cannot simply go around and say, “Oh, I will love everyone just like Jesus loved everyone.”?  To say this means you have to look at someone who hates you; who is wishing that you would be dead and be willing to die for them to save them.  Who is really, truly wanting to do that?  Lord knows, I don’t.  When I see what scripture says about this kind of love, I hang my head in shame because I know that this kind of love is very, very rare in my own life.

But Scripture does not leave us with our heads hanging in shame.  No.  Not by a long shot.  Scripture, in fact, gives us the key to actually being able to practice this kind of transformational love.  And it begins with an admission on our part.  It begins with us standing before the Almighty God and confessing the fact that we do not love as we should.  It begins with us standing before the Almighty God and confessing that we have not loved God and deserve His just punishment for our failure to love Him.

Oh, and I know how hard this is. I know how difficult it is to stand and admit that I am a failure.  I know how hard it is to admit that I am nowhere near the Christian that I should be.  I know how difficult it is to admit this in a society that tells you over and over and over that you are fine just the way you are and that you don’t need to change–everyone else may need to change, but you are fine.  Admitting that you are broken is one of the most difficult things you can ever do.

But then, in the midst of your brokenness; in the midst of your sin; in the midst of your humility before God Almighty, you will see what Jesus did for you.  You will find yourself looking up at the cross, and you will see Jesus dying for you.  You will see Him taking your sin and brokenness upon Himself.  You will see him paying the price for you.  You will hear him say, “Father, forgive him.  Father, forgive her.”  You will then find yourself experiencing something amazing.  You will find yourself clothed with the righteousness of Christ.  You will find that Jesus pours Himself into you through the Holy Spirit.  You will experience agape/love.  And your heart will burst.  Your heart will absolutely melt with a sense of awe and wonder.  And you will find within yourself a deep desire to love others in the same manner that you have been loved.  You will find yourself supernaturally changed so that every fiber of your being wants to give what you have received.  You will find yourself bearing fruit: agape/love because God Almighty has given you the ability to produce it.

Oh, that doesn’t mean it will be easy.  That doesn’t mean that people will necessarily accept it.  It doesn’t mean that people will get it.  They aren’t used to that kind of love.  A husband and wife were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary.  Having spent most of the day with relatives and friends at a big party given in their honor, they returned home.  Before going to bed, they decided to have a little snack of tea, bread, and butter.  The husband opened up a new loaf of bread and handed the end piece (the heel) to his wife.  She became furious!  She said, “For fifty years you have been dumping the heel of the bread on me.  I won’t take it any longer!”  On and on she vented her anger over the heel of the bread.  Her husband was absolutely astounded.  When she finished ranting and raving, he said to her quietly, “But dear, it’s my favorite piece.”

Trust me, that story is a much better one than that of the couple that was having a 50th anniversary party when the wife stood up and said, “My dear, for 50 years, I have found you tried and true.”  The crowed applauded.  But the husband who had become very hard of hearing responded, “Eh?  Well, after 50 years, I’m tired of you too!”

The point is, agape/love is difficult love.  Because of our continued imperfection, that love is not always received well.  Because of our continued imperfection, our intentions and our outreach may be misunderstood.  But, we do not cease in our efforts.  We do not stop striving day after day after day.  We do not give up or give in when our efforts are rebuffed, because we know what it is like to experience such love.  We know what it is like to have our hearts filled with the agape/love of Jesus.  We have become those who bear good fruit, and we will never, ever stop.  Amen.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Simply God's Word: Easter 2018

       Before I begin today, I want to let you know that I am doing something that I have never done before in preaching.  As I was thinking and praying about this sermon today, the Lord laid it on my heart to simply give you His Word about His Son–to give you what the Bible says about Jesus.  So, the words that follow are not my own.  I did take a little bit of liberty in changing a few words to make clarification, but these words come from St. Paul and St. Peter those who first brought the news of Jesus to the world.  I don’t know how well this will go over, but the Spirit has led me to do this so I ask for your grace and your understanding.  One thing that I can assure you that this sermon will not be long, and that is no April Fools.  So, let me begin.

I come before you today, my brothers and sisters, not to proclaim the mysteries of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I come to you today deciding to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  And I come to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.  My speech and my proclamation are not given with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.  (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

And so, I ask you to listen to what I say:

Jesus of Nazareth, a man who the Bible reveals to us as full of power and might; who God did many signs and wonders through while he walked the earth–as you yourselves know–this man was handed over to humankind according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, and we crucified and killed him.  But God raised him up having freed him from death because it was impossible for Jesus to be held in death’s power.

Long ago, the Old Testament King David wrote about this in Psalm 16. David wrote these words, “I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover, my flesh will live in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

Now, there were those who argued that David was writing this about himself, but we know that this cannot be the case.  We know that David died and was buried and this his tomb exists to this day.  His body experienced the corruption of death.  Therefore, since David was a prophet, God gave him visions of the future.  In Psalm 16, David was seeing the future Messiah who would not be abandoned to Hades and whose flesh would not experience corruption.  David was speaking about the Messiah!!

And that is exactly who Jesus was!!  Jesus was the Messiah who was resurrected and whose body did not experience corruption.  The earliest apostles were witnesses to this, and they have passed down that witness throughout the generations to us today.  And they have told us that Jesus was exalted at the right hand of God, and has received the from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has poured that Holy Spirit out so that we may both see and hear God’s Word today–we may come to believe God’s promises today.

Therefore let the entire world know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom we crucified...(Acts 2:22-36)

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:6-11)

And now, I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I am proclaiming to you and that you in turn are receiving, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I am proclaiming to you–unless you have come to believe in vain.  For I am handing on to you as of first importance what I in turn have received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Throughout the centuries, he has appeared and called men and women to proclaim the good news of his death and resurrection.  And, as to someone untimely born, he also called me.  But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain.  (1 Corinthians 15:1-10) His grace toward all of us has not been in vain.

17For since we are in Christ, we are a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are those who now promote the good news for Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

We are those who tell the good news for Christ.  We are those who proclaim that Christ has died to make us right with God.  We are those who proclaim that Christ is risen from the dead.  We are those who proclaim that those who trust in Jesus work and not their own will be saved.  This is our message to the world today and everyday.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Palm Sunday 2018: Behold Your King

Have you ever found yourself having to reevaluate things that you believed and thought?  And in the midst of doing that, have you ever discovered that things that you once thought and said in front of folks may have been wrong?  And have you ever felt really embarrassed that you once believed as you did and were as outspoken as you once were?

I hate it when this happens. 

You know, for years, I rebelled against using a lot of technology in church.  I didn’t think it was a good idea to put my sermons online.  If folks wanted to hear the sermon, they needed to come to church.  We didn’t need screes in worship.  Folks have a bulletin and hymn books.  All of this stuff was just gimmicks anyway.  What really counted was the Word of God and its power to change hearts.  There was no need to dress things up. There was no need to put all of this extra stuff into it.  Technology was just a bunch of fluff that was unnecessary.

But then in 2016, a study came out written by David Millard Haskell and Kevin Flatt.  It was titled, “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy.”  I read the study.  The authors studied mainline protestant congregations in Canada where church decline has been even steeper than here in the U.S.  This study confirmed what I had thought before: In every church that was growing, it was the Word of God and it’s power to change hearts that took center stage.  It was a robust, orthodox, evangelical faith that took hold and helped bring people to Christ.  But that was not the only thing these churches had in common.  Guess what every one of those churches used?  They made liberal use of technology in spreading the Gospel.  They connected with people’s smart phones. They had screens in their worship areas.  They connected online. 

When I reached this point in my reading, I knew I was faced with a choice: recant what I had said earlier in my life or continue in my stubbornness.  I could acknowledge what these researchers had found and get with the program, or I could turn a blind eye and pretend what they found didn’t really matter.  Well, most of you know that every Sunday I am recording the sermon that is delivered here and putting it online.  I’ve also started recording the Adult Bible study and putting that online as well.  It’s a start, but if I take seriously what this study said, then this is the avenue that should be traveled.  I’ve got to be humble enough to change my stance and do the things that help bring people to Christ.

That also means that I have to sometimes reevaluate the things that I have said throughout my time as a pastor and preacher.  For instance, back in 2008, I preached a Palm Sunday sermon where I talked about how the Roman soldiers viewed what was happening when Jesus came riding in on that donkey.  I said the following, “Straining his eyes, the captain [of the guard] looked and saw the focal point of the crowd’s attention.  There, sitting on a donkey, was a man.  He was waving to the crowd, smiling, and basking in their attention.  ‘How odd these people are,’ thought the captain.  ‘They celebrate a man riding on a donkey.’  With that, he turned to the rest of his men, ‘Stand down!’ he told them.  ‘There is nothing to fear.  They have no weapons.’  After saying this, he looked back down at the man on the steed.  ‘Who is this?’ he wondered to himself.  ‘Who is this man that so many welcome him in this manner?’”

I am no longer quite so sure that this Roman captain would have approached this situation in such a fashion.  Through my readings and growth in understanding, I have come to see that the Romans were not ignorant of Jewish thought and belief. The Romans knew that the Jews were a cantankerous group of people.  They had their factions and groups, for sure.  There were Jewish folks who collaborated with the Roman occupiers–including the Puppet King Herod.  This group was very, very small. There were other folks who begrudgingly worked with the Roman occupiers but who resented their rule to the nth degree–these were folks like the Pharisees. This was a much larger group. Then you had those who were in rebellion–those who assassinated Romans soldiers and diplomats at every chance claiming that they owed allegiance to God and God alone.  These were the zealots.  The vast, vast majority of the Jews believed that they were destined to be an independent kingdom, ruled by the Messiah who would bring them power and prestige throughout the world.

They only needed someone to follow.
They only needed someone who might have power and authority and might.
They only needed someone who seemed to fulfill the Old Testament prophesies.
And they had Jesus.

Oh, they had heard the stories of Jesus. They had heard about his miracles, and they had liked what they heard.  He could produce food out of thin air.  He could calm storms.  He could heal the sick and raise the dead.  He had untold of power.

Of course, there had been other stories that had caused a bit of consternation.  In his hometown, the people had tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.  On a couple of occasions, crowds had tried to stone him for things that he had said.  But these were ignored for the time being.  Perhaps he was controversial because he needed to stir people to action.  Perhaps they were just misguided in their understanding of Jesus.  Perhaps they just needed to channel their anger in the right direction–toward the Romans.

And those Romans were probably worried when they saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on that donkey.  They knew what that meant.  They knew the Jewish tradition of how a king was to enter the city.  The prophet Zechariah had talked about such matters hundreds of years earlier.  “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  The fact that Jesus was doing this could only mean one thing: Rebellion.  Jesus’ actions this day made himself public enemy number one in the eyes of the Roman occupiers. 

And Jesus was no fool.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He knew that riding in on that donkey was putting a target on his back.  He knew that he would not be well received by the Romans.  He knew they brooked no talk of rebellion or revolution.  He knew they would not be happy at all.

But the crowd was.  The crowd was exuberant.  They wanted to get rid of the Romans.  They wanted to get out from under their oppression.  They wanted to get out from under their burdens of taxation.  They wanted a true king, not the puppet king Herod who was of questionable Jewish heritage.  They welcomed Jesus with open arms.  They put palm branches and robes in his path.  They shouted, “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

They were in a festive mood.  Just as God had once saved them from the Egyptians by mighty deeds of power and might on the first Passover, God was now going to use Jesus and his acts of power and might to deliver them from the Romans on this Passover. 

But what the crowd did not understand was that Jesus was throwing down the gauntlet not only to the Romans, but to his fellow Jews.  Jesus was not only challenging the Roman’s ideas of power and might and authority, he was also challenging his fellow Jews to examine their own ideas of what they thought the kingdom of God would look like–to examine their own relationship with God.  And once the crowd discovered this, their shouts would change.  Their shouts would go from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”

Why?  They were not willing to reevaluate their understandings.  They were not willing to change their belief in the face of new information.

Look at it this way.  All their lives, these folks had been told that the Messiah was coming.  They had been taught that their Messiah would usher in a time of unprecedented peace, prosperity, and power for the Kingdom of Israel.  They had been taught that the Messiah would overthrow their enemies with the strength and power of God.  Israel would no longer be subject to anyone.  Israel would be feared and respected throughout the world.  Israel would be the top dog, and it would be an honor and a joy to be a part of this kingdom!!  That’s why they celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Ah, but when Jesus challenged this notion of the kingdom; when Jesus began telling everyone that his kingdom was not of this world; when Jesus told everyone that they should love the Romans–the enemies of the Jews–and bless them when they were persecuted; this was more than they could handle.  This was more than they could bear.  This wasn’t how the Messiah was supposed to act.  In their eyes, Jesus became a false Messiah.  He deserved crucifixion.  But why couldn’t they accept what Jesus was saying? 

Here’s the question: what were the people really longing for?  What did the people most desire?  What did the people have their hearts set on?  Prosperity.  Peace. Honor. Power.  Riches.  These were the things that the people craved. These were the things promised in the Kingdom.  They were longing for these things more than they were actually longing for the rule of God.  In other words, they wanted what God could give them, they did not actually want to submit to God themselves. 

And Jesus would not accept that.
Jesus does not accept that.
Jesus says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness.”
Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Jesus says, “The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Jesus says set your deepest heart’s desire upon God and nothing else.

You know, the crowds that gathered that Palm Sunday were waving their palms for the wrong reasons.  They wanted a king who would deliver them from the Romans.  They didn’t want a king who would confront them with their own selfish desires and demand repentance.  But that is who Jesus was and is.  He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  He already reigns over the universe, but he wants to reign most of all in our hearts.  But as long as our hearts cling to the desires of wealth, power, prestige, possessions, or whatever we so choose, he can never be king.  Oh, we may make him a king for a day or for a few hours, but he will never be Lord of our lives. 

Maybe it’s a good thing that next year when Lent begins, these palm fronds will be burned and used to make the ashes for Ash Wednesday.  It’s a good reminder of how we should welcome Jesus.  It’s a good reminder that all of the things that would draw us away from Jesus should burn away leaving a desire for repentance and a clean heart; leaving a desire to have Jesus sit enthroned upon our hearts as the Lord and Master of our lives.

And hear now the good news.  Hear now where Jesus is going.  Hear now what Jesus will do to capture your heart that you may fall in love with your Lord and Savior.  For He will not rain down fire and brimstone on your head for failing to follow Him.  He will not impose His will on you by force.  He will not try to scare you into trusting Him or believing in Him.  He will not ride that donkey to a great throne of power and might.

Instead, he will give up his heavenly power and glory.  Even “though he is in the form of God, he will not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but he will empty himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he will humble himself and become obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”  He will take your brokenness upon himself.  He will take your pain upon himself.  He will take your fear upon himself.  He will take your distrust upon himself.  He will take your sickness upon himself.  He will take your anxiety upon himself.  He will take your sin upon himself, and he will put it to death.  He will die for you to cleanse your heart; to cleanse your being.  And then he will pour his righteousness into you.  He will pour his grace into you.  He will pour his status as Son of God or Daughter of God into you.  He will wash you, and he will clothe you.  And He will do this not because you have earned it.  Not because you have been all that you should be.  Not because you are good.  He will do this because He loves you.  He loves you so much that he is willing to die for you.  He wants that love to claim your heart so that you put your trust in him–you put your trust in the King.

Today, on this Palm Sunday, let us see past the pomp and circumstance.  Let us see past the palm branches.  Let us see past all the things that we think that Jesus can give us, and instead, let us see Jesus alone.  Let us see the King of kings.  Let us see the Lord of Lords.  Let us see the one who has come to take our sin away.  Let us behold our king.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Heart of Forgiveness: Part 5

Long ago, before I came here to St. John, I taught a Bible study titled “Finding God in Harry Potter.”  It was based on the book The Gospel According to Harry Potter by Connie Neal, and I will forever remember an anecdote that Neal used in the book.  To illustrate a point that she was making, she said, “When you look at a fly through a microscope, it looks like a monster.” 

Indeed, it does.  In fact, if we saw flies from that perspective all the time, we would be terrified of them.  But we don’t.  Instead, we see flies as miserable little insects that are a minor nuisance at times and a major one at others.  We are unafraid of them, and we swat them with fly swatters with little concern for ourselves.  They are tiny and insignificant compared to how big we are in comparison.  That perspective makes a big difference–a very big difference indeed.

Sometimes in life, we are offered a choice in perspectives.  We are given an opportunity to view a problem; view a challenge; view a course of action in a different manner.  We are given a chance to change our focus; change our way of looking at things; see a new reality.  When this happens, sometimes it forever changes how we look at reality as we know it.  There are stories of atheists becoming believers; believers becoming atheists; Republicans becoming Democrats; Democrats becoming Republicans; Republicans and Democrats becoming Libertarian, and so on and so forth.  When these shifts occur, it changes the very core of a person.  They become completely and totally different, and because of this, these changes are not easy to make or undertake.  A shift in perspective is very, very difficult.

You might be wondering what this has to do with forgiveness?  Essentially everything.  To really, truly learn how to forgive requires a fundamental shift of being.  It requires a new perspective.  It requires a change of heart.

This is why the Bible does not offer any sort of 12 step process of forgiveness.  You simply can’t change a heart with any sort of program.  It’s not that easy.  I mean, let’s think about this with our working definition of forgiveness: the change in our emotional state when we choose to absorb the cost of someone else’s actions that have hurt us.  No one really wants to do this.  No one really wants to absorb the cost: the pain, the frustration, the anxiety, the misery, of someone else wronging us.  We want revenge.  We want restitution.  We want justice.  We want the other person to hurt just as badly as we hurt.  But forgiveness says, “No.”  Forgiveness says, “I will willingly bear this pain for the other person so that in the long run I will be free from it.”  Forgiveness says, “I will erase the debt that someone else owes me so that I am no longer burdened by the anger and frustration of holding onto that debt.”  That’s no easy task.  No easy task at all.  It fundamentally goes against the grain of our very being.

Generally, something has to happen to us to change our perspective.  Generally, something has to happen to us to reorient our lives and our hearts.  Generally, something has to jar us out of our anger and frustration so that we can become new beings and practice forgiveness.

This is what Jesus is fundamentally getting at when He tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.  We are now going to put everything together that this parable is trying to convey to us, and maybe, just maybe it will hit home to the extent that it will open our hearts and minds so that we change our perspective; change our focus; and find the path to forgiveness.

As we have worked through this parable in the past couple of weeks, we have found that God is a God of unimaginable justice and unimaginable love.  God is just.  There is no way of getting around that, and God will demand justice out of us.  This is the message of the opening scene of this parable.  A servant has racked up an extraordinary debt–10,000 talents.  In today’s money, that would be roughly $6 billion.  You’d have to spend one million dollars a day for nearly 16 and a half years in order to incur that much debt.  It’s overwhelming.  And the Master to whom this debt is owed renders judgment on the servant.  The debt is due.  Payment must be made.  That’s the way the world works.  If you owe someone, you must pay.  We all know this.  If you need a reminder, go borrow a bit of money from the bank and fail to pay a payment.  I guarantee you, you will be reminded very quickly.  The Master is rendering justice on this servant when He declares that the servant will be sold along with his family and his possessions as payment for the debt.  This is God’s justice at work.  It is only right.

But the servant is desperate.  He does not want this to happen to him.  He does not want to lose what freedom he has.  He does not want to lose his family.  He does not want to lose what he has.  His life might as well be over if these things happen.  So, the servant begs and pleads with his Master.  He falls to his knees; he kisses his Master’s feet; he lies and says, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  We know there is no way this can happen.  A person was lucky to make one talent in his lifetime.  This guy owes 10,000 lifetimes of debt.  There is no way he can repay.  It’s a lie.  He knows it, but he is desperate.  He has yet to understand his Master.

And speaking of the Master, the Master is deeply moved by the plight of His servant.  Despite the enormous debt; despite the lies; despite the servant’s unworthiness, the Master forgives the debt.  The Master wipes the books clean.  The Master incurs the cost of $6 billion dollars.  Can you imagine losing that much money with a simple word?  The Master’s forgiveness does not come cheap.  Not for Him at least.

And as I said last week, we know that this parable isn’t about money. It’s about sin.  It’s about our debt of sin, for we are like that servant who owes $6 billion.  We have sinned against God.  We know that God owns everything.  God created everything. He created you.  He created me. He created this world that we live on.  We know that a sin against anything or anyone is ultimately a sin against God.  Just like if our car is damaged by someone who runs into us, we are owed payment for the damages–because we own the car, we are owed when someone damages it.   Therefore if we sin against our neighbor, we sin against God.  When we sin against the planet, we sin against God.  And as we confess each Sunday, when we have an unholy thought, we sin.  When we say and unholy word, we sin. When we do an unholy deed, we sin.  But we also sin when we leave things undone.  When we do not feed the hungry, we sin. When we do not clothe the naked, we sin.  When we keep more than we need, we sin.  When we allow injustice to continue, we sin.  In this fashion. We rack up a terrible debt toward God.  Indeed, it is comparable to $6 billion worth of debt, but unlike $6 billion of inanimate currency, our sin is deadly. $6 billion can sit in a vault forever and not hurt a soul, but our sin certainly does.  Our sin harms people.  Our sin harms the planet.  Our sin harms society.  And for this reason, the Bible says, “The wages of sin is death.” 

One illustration will help us see this.  It’s an illustration that I’ve used years ago, but it is still pertinent.  There is a popular story about a man who had confessed the sin of gossip. For his penance he was told to go to the top of a nearby hill, pillow in hand, and cut it open. Shaking all the feathers into the wind, he had to go collect every last feather from the wilderness into which they had blown. Only then would his penance would be complete.  So it goes with each time we speak a word against another; we can never hope to recover all the information from whence it has been carried.  This is what our sin causes over and over and over again.

But though we deserve death, we do not have to face death, for our Master takes on human flesh.  Our Master, our God, comes to earth as Jesus of Nazareth.  He lives without sin to become the payment for our sins.  He becomes the spotless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He becomes the spotless Lamb of God who takes away your sin; my sin.  God dies so that we do not have to.  God absorbs the cost of our sin.  Your debt has been paid.  It has been wiped out; forgiven.

But there is more that happens than the debt being paid.  Jesus does not only take your sin upon Himself, He also gives His righteousness to you.   2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "He [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."  What this means is that God credits righteousness to us.  God gives us Jesus’ righteousness.  Not only is our debt wiped clean, we are given a full bank account of never ending grace. 

To show this in the parable, Jesus might have said, “And in deeper compassion for the servant, the Master granted him 10,000 talents that he may never be in debt again.”  This is the reality of life in God.  This is the reality of the grace of the Master.  It is overwhelming.  It is unbelievable.  Our debt has been paid, and we have been given the righteousness of Jesus!

And as I asked last week, so I now ask again, “What would you do if you had been forgiven such a debt?  What would you do if the Master looked at you and said, “You know that $6 billion you owe me. It’s gone.  You don’t have to pay it.  You are free to go.”?  What would your insides do?  What would you feel down deep?  What would your heart do?  And how would you feel toward the Master who had just paid that debt for you?  What would your thoughts be toward Him?  What would you think about the One who just lost $6 billion of His own money because you pleaded with Him?”  And now add: What would you think about the Master who also invested in you and credited you even more?  What would your insides do if you knew the Master then added another $6 billion to your account?  What would you feel toward your Master?

Can you feel that toward God?  Can you feel the joy welling up in you knowing that this is exactly what God has done for you in Jesus Christ?  Can you feel the deep appreciation and love of God starting at the bottom of your heart and coursing through your veins?  You have been forgiven the debt that you owed.  Jesus paid it for you.  Your account has been filled because Jesus righteousness has been given to you.  This is why grace is so doggone amazing!!

Ah, but now we are back to perspective.  For the servant who was forgiven does something rather mind boggling.  He seeks out a fellow servant who owes him a pittance–at least compared to what he once owed.  We see that forgiven servant fail to forgive.  Why?  Because all he can see is what he is owed.  All he can see is what is due him.  All he can see is what he deserves from someone else.  He has no change of heart.  Instead of focusing on what his Master has done for him; he focuses on other things.  In so doing, he is unable to extend the grace that was given to him.  And the consequences are dire.  The consequences are horrendous.  This unforgiving servant has his debt reinstated; is cast into prison; and is tortured until he can repay the debt.  And since he owes 10,000 lifetimes of debt and now has no way of earning money, that means, forever.  He can never repay what was once forgiven.  It’s tragic.

But for us, the story never has to go that far.  For us the story doesn’t have to end there.  For us, the story can end with experiencing the Master’s forgiveness.  For us the story can end when we focus on what has been done for us.  We can have that change of perspective.  We can have that change of heart, if we keep our attention; if we keep our focus in the right place.  If we realize the extent of our debt and see the graciousness of the master, we now see that the debt we are owed by others is not as significant as might think it is.  It’s not a fly in a microscope.  It’s much, much smaller.

Oh, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt.  It does.  It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make you angry.  It does.  It doesn’t mean that you haven’t been wronged.  You have.  It doesn’t mean that you will be able to forget.  You won’t.  It doesn’t mean that you will be able to let go right away.  You probably won’t.  But what it does mean is that you will not be consumed by what is owed to you.  You will not be consumed with anger.  You will not walk around in a perpetual state of depression.  Instead, you will be full of hope and joy.  You will be full of praise and thanksgiving.  You know the joy of your Master.  You know the grace of your Master.  You bask in His light.  Your focus remains on Him.  Your perspective is changed.  Your heart is changed.  And you can practice forgiveness because you have been forgiven.  Amen.