Monday, November 17, 2014

What Can Be Taken Away From Someone Who Has Nothing?




    Well, today we have a very interesting parable before us.  For nearly a year, I have been laser focused on the Gospel: the early proclamation of the earliest disciples and the early church which said, “You have been saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.  You did nothing to accomplish this.  It was done for you by Jesus as He satisfied the wrath of God by facing it on the cross.”  I have repeatedly inserted John 3:16-17 in every sermon since last November, and now we have before us a parable which seems to indicate the Gospel is not enough.

    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.  (That’s the Gospel.)  And God bestows upon His people immeasurable gifts, but if they do not use those gifts, then they will be cast into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth!  Or so the Parable of the Talents seems to indicate.  This teaching of Jesus has been used ad nauseum as a stewardship text for as long as I can remember.  I have used it as a stewardship text.  I’ve also used it as a text to promote risk taking in our daily lives and as a congregation.  Maybe I was wrong.  Because if this text is about stewardship and a failure to use our gifts as we should; and if this text indicates our salvation is dependent upon how we use the gifts given to us by God, then we are all in a lot of trouble.  None of us use our gifts as we should.  None of us.  Furthermore, if indeed this text indicates that our judgement will be based upon the use of our gifts, then why does Matthew even bother to head to the cross?  Every other world religion and philosophy judges a person based upon his or her works.  Is Christianity just like every other religion after all? 

    Hardly.  In fact, as I studied this parable this week and listened to numerous sermons and consulted several commentaries, there were some things that started jumping out at me–things that I had never considered before or tried to reconcile.  Why?  Well, because I was stuck in dealing with the interpretations I had been hearing all my life.  I was stuck in hearing all the chatter about what we were supposed to do as Christians.  I was stuck in hearing this parable as a commentary about what we were supposed to do instead of leading us and pointing us to what God has already done.  And so, this morning, I would like to share with you some of the insights I came upon as I studied this parable.  I’d like to perhaps help you see it in a different light, and then take us to its application–all the while being faithful to the certainty that Christianity is not primarily focused on what we do, but on what God has already done through Jesus Christ.

    And so we turn to this parable.  It begins innocently enough.  A very, very wealthy man decides to go on a journey, and he summons his slaves.  He entrusts his property to his slaves according to each slave’s ability. 

    Let’s stop here for just a moment.  Let’s make sure we understand a few important details.  First, the men the man summoned are slaves.  They are not servants.  They are not hired help.  In the ancient world, slavery was an acceptable practice, and oftentimes a person sold himself into slavery.  Why?  Well, there was no such thing as bankruptcy protection in those days.  If you found yourself deep in debt, you had to come up with the money somehow.  To pay off the debt, you would sell yourself into slavery and gradually work your way out of debt.  Slavery was not a life-long proposition, but it was a tool to pay off one’s debt.  Slaves were also appropriated in military conquest.  They also had the capability to work toward their freedom in such cases, and it is important to note that ethnicity was not a governing factor in such slavery.  There were slaves taken from all over the world, of every tribe and color.  So, at this point, do not associate the kind of slavery in this parable with the kind of slavery that happened in the history of our nation.  They were two different things.

    And yet, these men were still slaves.  They were indebted to and completely dependent upon the master.  He governed their lives and had control over them.  As such, as slaves, they had nothing.  Let that sink in a moment.  The master allowed them to use his property, but the slaves had nothing themselves.   Even in this story, the talents which are given to the slaves are not the property of the slaves!  They are the property of the master!  Are we clear so far?  I hope so.

    Each slave is gifted differently.  They have differing ability, so the master entrusts his wealth according to the slaves’ ability.  To one the master gives five talents.  To another two.  And to the last, one.  The master is shrewd in his dealing, minimizing his risk. 

    However, the master is still risking a lot!  A talent was a measure of weight.  The talent could be silver or gold, and it was worth 15 year’s wages.  You mathematical types are probably already calculating.  If it were silver, you are talking about a million dollars.  If you are talking about gold, you are talking about a whole lot more.  So, in effect, the master is entrusting these three slaves with millions upon millions of dollars, and then he walks away.  He leaves. 

    The next part of the parable is straight forward.  Two of the slaves go out and begin working with their master’s money.  They invest it.  They trade with it.  They put it to work, and each doubles what he was entrusted with.  The third slave goes, digs a hole in the ground, and buries the talent.

    Now, before we deal with the master’s return, let’s talk about how reasonable it was for the third guy to bury the money in a hole.  The guy is obviously playing it safe–some might argue too safe.  In our day and age we would argue that at least he should have put it in the bank, maybe in a CD and accumulated a bit of interest.  We will see that the master even makes this argument later.  However, we need to remember that during this time in history, there was no such thing as the FDIC.  There were no checks and balances on banks.  Investing in them was no certainty of keeping one’s money safe.  The banks invested in caravans and other such things which could be wiped out, and then one’s money would be gone.  Those who wanted to retain their money–wanted to keep it safe–did exactly what this third slave did: they buried it.  It was the only way to ensure that one’s money would not be lost.  So, the guy is simply doing what every other very wealthy person would do–keep things safe.

    Now, after a long time, the master returns.  He comes to settle accounts.  He calls the first slave, and the slave says, “Master, you gave me five talents.  I’ve earned five more.  You now have ten talents.”

    The master is overjoyed.  He says, “Well done good and faithful slave.  You have been trustworthy in a few things.  I will put you over many things.  Enter into the joy of your master.”

    Let’s stop here for just a moment because in a sermon by D.A. Carson, I heard something I had never considered.  Listen to what the master says again, “You have been trustworthy in a few things...”  A few things?  This slave was given millions of dollars!!!  A few things???  The master considers millions upon millions of dollars a few things!!!  This speaks perhaps both to the wealth of the master AND the master’s view of money.  Millions of dollars are considered small fry to him.  Think about that.  Secondly, D.A. Carson points out, the idea of a master inviting a slave to enter into his joy is unreal.  A slave’s purpose is not to share in the joy of his or her master.  A slave’s purpose is to serve the master.  Period.  The slave is responsible for bringing his or her master joy, not entering into it.  This says something rather profound about the master as well.  This master is generous enough to bring a slave up to his level of joy.  Quite an astonishing thing, don’t you think?

    And the master doesn’t just do this to the one slave.  He also does it for the second slave who accomplished the feat of doubling the master’s initial entrustment.  “Well done good and faithful slave.  You have been trustworthy in a few things.  I will put you in charge of many things.  Enter into the joy of your master.”

    Now, the third slave comes forward.  The exchange is quite different: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    I want to approach this snippet a little differently.  We see what the slave says, and we see the master’s reaction.  Everything seems to hinge upon what the slave has done, but I want to look at this carefully.  I want you to look at it carefully and begin asking the question that I asked myself as I read this.  What can be taken away from a slave who has nothing?  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

    Interestingly enough, as I listened to another sermon, it was pointed out that this is not the first time Matthew has used this particular phrase.  Matthew also used this phrase in chapter 13.  I had to look it up.

    Matthew 13 actually begins with the parable of the sower.  The parable where the sower casts seed all over the place.  It falls on rocky ground.  It falls among weeds.  It falls among the path.  It falls upon the good soil.  Only the good soil produces fruit.  After Jesus tells the parable, the disciples ask, “Why do you speak in parables?”  Jesus says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” 

    Let’s come back to the parable of the talents.  Remember the slave’s initial response?  “I knew you were a harsh man reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”  We are told that the seed in the parable of the sower is the word of the kingdom of God.  Is God the only one who sows that seed?  Is Jesus the only sower of the Word?  No.  Absolutely not.  Yet, is God the only one who reaps?  Is Jesus the one who comes and gathers the fruit?  Absolutely.  Do you see the connection?

    And what is given?  The secrets to the kingdom of heaven.  What is the secret to the kingdom of heaven?  Well, if we understand the Gospel, we know that the secret of heaven is that Jesus has come into the world as the Messiah to reconcile the world unto God.  We know that Jesus has come to be the spotless lamb of God to be the perfect sacrifice of atonement satisfying the wrath of God because we could not do this.  Jesus’ action has revealed to us that we are now free to respond to the acts of God without fear of punishment.  We do not have to act out of our own self interest to please an angry God.  We are free to seek the will of God instead of trying to save our own skin.  This is the reality of the Gospel.  This is why God sent Jesus into the world.  For God so loved the world...

    But what about that slave?  Whose interest was he seeking?  “I knew you were a harsh man...so I was afraid.  I hid your talent.  What you have is yours.”  The slave was afraid.  Afraid of what?  The master’s wrath.  The master’s anger.  The slave didn’t want to endure it.  He didn’t want to face it.  He played it safe because he was seeking his own self interest!  He didn’t care about the master; he cared only for himself!  He was trying to save his own skin.

    And what was the master’s response?  Well, he wasn’t happy about it at all.  Which leads us to that final question: what can be taken away from someone who has nothing?  Obviously, the slave has nothing–nothing in the way of material possessions, but he does have something even more precious.  He has a relationship with the master.  The master who provides for him; who feeds him; who shelters him.  Because of his self-interest and his self-centeredness, the master takes even this away from him and casts him out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    I have said before in sermons that hell is separation from God, and the way we end up in hell is not by doing all the wrong things, but by seeking something other than God.  When our hearts are captured by our own self interests and our desire to save ourselves, then God will allow us to seek that from eternity.  We will end up separated from Him, and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  But if our hearts are captured by the Gospel–when we know that salvation has already been accomplished on our behalf, our hearts are changed.  We are freed from our self interest in trying to satisfy God; we are freed from fear; and we are captured by the desire to seek the master’s goodness and expand the master’s kingdom instead of our own.  Indeed, this parable takes us right to this place–it takes us squarely to the foot of the cross where we can look upon what Jesus did; lose our fear; and then act with reckless abandon as we too seek to expand the Master’s kingdom by spreading His word.   Amen.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mary Andreas: Funeral Sermon

    Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

    I can almost hear Mary’s voice when I recall the days I would be sitting in my office.  The phone would ring, and Mary would say, “Pastor, I got something over here for you, and it’s still warm.”

    It didn’t matter what I was doing at the time.  I quit, and I headed to Mary’s.  Counseling someone, the appointment ended.  Working on a funeral sermon, it would wait.  Preparing to go for a visit, tomorrow would be good enough.  Sitting by the bedside of someone very ill or dying, sorry, there was something I had to do.  Well, maybe it wasn’t that extreme, but if you ever ate any of Mary’s homemade bread, and she told you she had it waiting on you fresh from the oven, well, maybe there isn’t too much exaggeration there.

    If I was lucky, I’d pick up the loaf of bread and get home in enough time to smack some butter on it and watch it melt in.  The aroma filled one’s nose as the piece of bread was lifted to the mouth.  The taste buds hit a state of nirvana as the warm bread fulfilled its purpose in satisfying the hunger of the stomach.  If I was lucky, this would transpire rather quickly, but oftentimes, I wasn’t that lucky.  Oftentimes, I had top practice delayed gratification.  I had to patiently wait to eat as Mary and I took a half an hour or an hour to sit and talk about things. 

    Oh, and there were many things we talked about. We’d talk about the weather.  And we’d usually talk about that because we’d be sitting in her house with no air condition, and it would be 125 degrees out, and she’d say, “I just sit right there by the window, a little breeze comes through, and it don’t bother me at all.  With sweat pouring off my forehead, I would agree with her all the while thinking to myself, “Thank God you don’t make them like this anymore.  Thank you Lord, for softening them up a bit.” 

    Mary would move on to talking about going to town.  She’d say, “I don’t know why folks want to drive all the way to Bellville on Gamma Grass road.  I always take Mill Creek.  That’s a good drive, and I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t just drive that all the time?”  I never answered her out loud.  I wanted that bread too bad.  I mean, you just don’t tell someone, “They don’t drive that road because they are afraid you’d be flying down it.”  Well, not really.  They are fixing Mill Creek Road now, but for as long as I’ve been here, Mill Creek Road and a washboard have had a lot, and I mean a lot in common.  That’s why folks never drove it.  I don’t think Mary ever felt that though.  I don’t think her tires ever felt the bottom of a pot hole on Mill Creek.  They just went from the top of one bump to the next.  Now, I’m not really saying that she drove too fast, but the words bat and hell could be used in the same sentence to describe how Mary drove. 

    But I wasn’t about to tell her that or criticize her driving.  I wanted the bread, and I didn’t want to endure her wrath.  You see, early on when I came to Cat Spring, I went to visit, and Mary was out in her yard working.  She’d be out there quite a bit, and on this occasion, she was trying to get rid of a weed.  The weed wasn’t cooperating and coming out of the ground quickly, so she stood there with a hoe and beat the hell out of that weed.  After seeing that, self-preservation was on my mind as well as the bread.

    Mary would talk fondly of the community. She loved Cat Spring.  She loved writing about what was going on.  She loved the church and what was going on here.  She loved her family, and she’d talk about all the stuff David and Ginger were doing.  She’d talk about the grandkids.  Mary’s life was full. 

    After our conversations, I would head home and break into the bread.  It satisfied deeply.  Those of you who also were fortunate to eat of it know what I am talking about.  But there is one thing about eating such delicacies; they do not satisfy for long.  They leave you wanting more.

    And there was something about Mary that was wanting more as well.  There was something in life that Mary had never fully been satisfied with: the untimely death of her daughter Jo Ann.  In the ten years I knew Mary, I know she wrestled with this.  I know she wrestled with it a lot.  She was never satisfied with any answer given to her.  She would think about things; she would hear what others said; and she would say, “I guess we’ll never really know.”  Even a couple short months ago as I brought her Holy Communion, she said the same words. 

    The mystery of death can do that to each and every one of us.  Oh, we all know that death is going to be the final destination for each and every one of us here.  Unless we are completely and utterly in denial, we know this will be all of our lots.  In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have death, and if the world were slightly imperfect, we would all live long, full lives like Mary and go quickly without having to suffer.  But life isn’t always like that.  Things happen, and we wrestle with them.  We want answers.  We want to solve the mystery of death and understand why things happen in the manner they happen.  We want satisfaction. 

    And much to our dismay, satisfaction escapes us.  We want complete answers.  We want fullness so that we can understand.  But if we try to wrap our heads around it all, we usually find ourselves wanting more.

    Jesus says in John chapter 6, “35 Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

    Whoever comes to Jesus will never be hungry.  Whoever believes in Jesus will never be thirsty.  He is the bread of life.  How is such a thing possible?  Of course, Jesus is not talking about physical hunger and physical thirst, so what is He talking about?  What kind of hunger and thirst is He trying to address?

    There are several things to consider, but the one I want to focus on right now, in this moment, is our longing to understand suffering–our longing to understand why people seemingly die before their time–our longing to understand why sometimes parents bury their children–our longing to unlock the mysteries surrounding death. 

    Some people believe that if one becomes a Christian, then one is immune from suffering.  One become immune from disease.  One becomes immune from the trials and tribulations of this world.  Some believe that when one trusts in Jesus, then one obtains health, wealth, and happiness beyond measure.  Life becomes one great adventure with no pitfalls.  And, of course, if you happen to have a pitfall, well, you just didn’t trust in Jesus enough.  It’s your problem.  It always comes back to you.

    But that is not the path of Jesus.  Not even close.  For if there were anyone who trusted God completely; if there were anyone who lived in God’s will completely; it was the Son who took on flesh and lived among us.  If belief in God and trust in Jesus led us to health and wealth and happiness, then Jesus surely would have had all those things.  But we know He didn’t.  From what we know, He surely wasn’t wealthy.  He oftentimes became outraged at things going on around Him; and His health ultimately suffered greatly.  How so, you might ask?  Well, crucifixion isn’t exactly the healthiest experience for one’s body.  In fact, the suffering Jesus endured being crucified was beyond what nearly everyone in this room will ever experience.  Perfect obedience to God led Jesus to the cross–to suffering, not away from it.

    Which could lead us to ask: well, what’s the point.  If I believe in God and try to do all the right things and I still suffer; why even believe in God? 

    Here’s why.  The crucifixion was not the end of the story.  Jesus hanging on the cross bleeding and dying is part one.  Part two, the grand finale was still to come.  Of course, I am speaking about the resurrection.  I am speaking about Jesus being raised to eternal life.  I am speaking about God’s message to suffering and death and despair.  The resurrection speaks loudly and clearly that God is working and active in the midst of our suffering and pain and grief to bring about healing and wholeness and goodness.  God promises to transform death into life; despair into hope; sadness into joy.  That is the unequivocal promise of the resurrection, and it is our trust in Jesus’ action–His death and resurrection that leads to our satisfaction.  “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 may be saved through Him.”  And this satisfies us, not in the sense of understanding–for we don’t always see the reasons behind our suffering; we don’t always see the reasons for premature death, but understanding that God has not forsaken us, and He never will.

    In the great chapter about love in 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul pens these words, “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.”

    Mary was never able to understand why Jo Ann died so early.  She was never able to wrap her head around it, but I know Mary trusted Jesus.  I know Mary had a deep faith in her Lord and Savior, and I believe with all my heart that now Mary understands.  I believe now she has complete satisfaction.  She now knows fully even as she was and is fully known by Jesus.  She is now having conversations with Jo Ann and Erwin and all who have gone before.  And she is now basking in the glow of the faith, hope, and love that St. Paul promised. 

    And of course, we who are left now are left to contemplate these mysteries.  We are now left to seek to understand the whys and why nots.  We are now left to wonder what it will be like for us as we face the reality of death.  We will grieve for Mary because we will miss her, but if we turn to Jesus–if we see Him as the bread of life, we will not grieve with despair.  We will grieve with hope as people who know our loved one has gone on a long journey–a journey we too will take–a journey which might involve some pain and suffering; a journey which may have trials and tribulations; but a journey that has a destination; a destination full of wonder and joy; a destination with peace and fulfillment; a destination where we will hear Jesus say to us, “My child, I have something here for you, and it is wonderful.”  Amen.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In Defense of Revelation

There really shouldn't be a battle between science and religion. 

But there is in some circles, and one of the major sticking points is the understanding of how knowledge is acquired.  Science uses the scientific method to obtain knowledge, and it is a very, very useful tool.  Religion claims another type of knowledge: revelation. 

Some scientists are not too keen on revelatory knowledge (see Dawkins, Richard or watch a few videos of Hitchens, Christopher).  They see this kind of knowledge as inferior. 

I would personally argue revelatory knowledge is inferior within the scientific process as well; however, I would argue scientific knowledge (as obtained by the scientific method) is inferior in the relational process.   In relationships, we depend upon revelatory knowledge. 

For instance, I challenge anyone who believes revelatory knowledge to be inferior to push their logic to the extreme.  In their personal relationships--with spouse or partner; friends or family--they can only deem credible the knowledge they have obtained in studying someone else.  They can only consider knowledge credible which has been verified, measured, and replicated. 

How intimate do you think your relationship will be?

Short answer: it will not be intimate at all.  You will never, ever fully come to know another person unless that person reveals himself or herself to you.  You will only get a surface analysis, but you will not know exactly what that person thinks or believes.  You will not begin to know the thought processes which make that person make the choices he or she does.  You cannot know those things unless that person tells/reveals those things to you.

For instance, during college, I ate an unusual amount of Ramen Noodle Soup.  Externally, one might look at me eating the fare multiple times and come to the conclusion that I loved to eat this food; that I considered it a delicacy; and that it was very satisfying.  They could be correct.  Another might look and consider that as a college student, I didn't have a lot of money, Ramen was cheap, and so I ate it often because I could get nourishment for a small price.  They could be correct as well.  Another might look at me eating Ramen and think I was addicted to said soups and needed to consistently eat them in order to function.  They could be correct as well.  Not bothering to ask me, each person could come to this conclusion based upon the observable data.  Each could argue their positions.  Each could claim to be correct based upon their observations (and their assumptions). 

But if I do not reveal myself to them and my own processes, then they could all be wrong.

For the record, I ate lots of Ramen because it was cheap AND I liked the taste, and you would not know this unless I told you.  Even in a virtual relationship, you can only get to know me if I reveal things to you.  In a very real way, scientific knowledge when applied to relationships is inferior.

Which means, if there is a God (I personally believe the evidence points us toward that conclusion), then, if that God is a personal God, then that God would have to reveal Himself to us in some way, shape or form.  God would have to communicate with us in some sort of fashion which revealed to us His nature; His thought processes; His self. 

Such knowledge would in no way be inferior.  Not in the least.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Your Offerings are Worthless!!



    As I begin, I can’t help but wonder how many folks looked at the sermon title this morning and then thought to themselves, “Well, I might as well just put my offering envelope up and save the money I was going to give to the church this morning.  How dare anyone put such a title as their sermon?”  Before you actually void or tear up that check or put that cash back into your pocket, I hope you will bear with me as we work our way through my sermon this morning.  Perhaps you will understand and then, at the end, be even more willing to give than before.

    Just over 100 years ago, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche helped lay the groundwork for many of the ways our current culture acts.  I can hear a few of you moaning in your heads right now. “Pastor’s going to get all philosophical and stuff.  We will never be able to understand this stuff.  We might as well go to sleep right now.”  Believe me, I understand.  You see, they didn’t have a Nietzsche for dummies book, so I actually had to wade through some of his writings.  More than a few times, my eyelids had to work double time to stay open!!

    But that is not the point.  The point is much more important, one that I hopefully can give you some time to ponder.  For you have undoubtedly run across more than one of the consequences of what Nietzsche taught.  You have undoubtedly encountered someone who adheres to at least part of his philosophical system.  You have undoubtedly run across someone who says, “There is no absolute truth.  What is true for you is true for you, but it’s not true for me.  That is just your opinion because no one can really know the truth.”  You see, Nietzsche proposed that there is no such thing as absolute truth.  He proposed that since there is no absolute truth, the concept of the ideal is irrational.  There is no such thing as justice.  There is no such thing as ultimate kindness.  There is no such thing as good.  There is no such thing as evil.  It is all a matter of one’s perspective.  Therefore, if something works for me and is good for me, then I can continue to pursue it–because it is good for me.  That it might be bad for you is only a matter of perspective, and it shouldn’t really matter too much to me because there is no ultimate judge of right or wrong.

    Are you with me so far?  I hope so.  I hope you haven’t gotten too lost because the next part is pretty crucial.  If there is no right and no wrong, what then is our motivation for doing things?  Why do we engage in the things we do or think the things we think?  Nietzsche offered up this thought: it is all about power.  It is all about how we obtain what we want.  It’s all about how we further our own position and basically survive in this world.  It’s all about our own self interest, making our self more powerful and ultimately, putting ourselves in the most advantageous position possible.  Chew on this for just a second.  I mean, really chew on this.  Without any sort of transcendence; without any sense of something beyond ourselves; it leads us directly to relativism–no right and no wrong and unbounded self-interest.  Do you see how our society today has been impacted by Nietzsche?  Do you see how such things infest our culture?  If you need any further evidence, I point to this past political cycle and the fallout from this past Tuesday’s election.  Have you noticed all the spin put on the results?  Each side is trying to manipulate what happened to its own advantage with the goal of obtaining more and more power to accomplish its own agenda.  Nietzsche nailed it.

    There is a bit of a quibble I have with Nietzsche; however.  Nietzsche was famous for stating that “God is dead,” and it was from this starting point–the lack of anything transcendent–that he arrived at the conclusion that everything was all about power and self-interest.  I personally don’t believe you need to get rid of God for folks to continue to act in their own self-interest and to engage in all sorts of power plays.  Even if one believes there is a God, that person can still do exactly what Nietzsche proposes and try to manipulate things to his or her own advantage.  What do I mean by that?

    Let’s take a quick walk through our Old Testament reading this morning from the book of Amos.  Here’s a little background.  Amos was a prophet who was called from shepherding to confront the injustice in Israel.  Much like our own situation, the rich were getting richer.  The poor were getting poorer.  But unlike our situation, there were no programs, no initiatives to help the poor and the needy.  They were basically on their own, and they were suffering.  The poor were suffering badly.

    And Amos holds nothing back.  He brings the Word of the Lord with conviction and with words that proved very, very unpopular.  “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?  21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”

    Let’s work our way through these verses.  I will come back to the day of the Lord stuff momentarily because it is important.  But before I do that, let’s concentrate on what Amos says about the peoples’ offerings and their worship.  See, my sermon title doesn’t come from me: it comes directly from Amos.  The Lord says, “I hate your festivals.  I will not accept your offerings–they are worthless.  I do not want to hear your worship.”  Why?  Why is God saying such things?  Some point to the next verse to bring it all to a close.  God doesn’t want offerings.  God doesn’t want worship.  God doesn’t want festivals and assemblies.  Instead God wants justice to flow like a mighty water and righteousness to flow like an ever flowing stream.  This is what really counts.  This what is really important.  So, go out and do justice.  Go out and make righteousness happen.  Sermon is over.  Be happy it is shorter than normal!  (Psyche!)

    Let’s re-think this for a moment.  Because God commanded festivals and solemn assemblies in the Law.  God commanded the people to bring Him offerings.  The Law is explicit about this too.  God also commanded the people to worship Him.  These are things that God wants!!  So why is He rejecting them?  Why does He say He hates them?

    Let me illustrate it this way. I remember vividly growing up as a kid.  More than once I heard one of my friends say, “It doesn’t matter that I am going out drinking this weekend.  I’m going to go to confession, and it will all be forgiven.”  Or, “It doesn’t matter if I’m having sex with this girl.  I’m going to confession, and it will be forgiven.”  Hearing folks say this always bugged me.  It didn’t seem right.  And it’s not.  Why?

    This is why: because by doing the rites and rituals, the folks who said this believed they were making a claim on God.  They believed that if they just did the proper things–offered the appropriate worship; offerings; or confessions, then God would have to forgive them.  Essentially, they were saying, “God, I know you really don’t want me to do those other things, but you said I would be forgiven if I did x, y, and z. I’ve done x, y, and z, so you cannot be mad at me.  You cannot punish me.  I’ve jumped through your hoops, so you have to forgive me.” 

    Let me stop for just a second and see if you can see how this is a power play.  Can you see how this serves a person’s self interest?  Can you see how this is ultimately about getting the better of God?  Can you see how this is not focused upon God and what God wants but is focused upon what I want and how I can obtain what I want without any consequences? 

    And this stuff was going on long before Nietzsche penned his works.  It’s exactly what the Israelites were doing.  They were disobeying God’s law.  They were not letting justice flow like mighty waters.  They were not letting righteousness flow like ever flowing streams.  They were abusing and using the poor.  They were trampling them underfoot and destroying them.  They were padding their bank accounts at the expense of others and laughing at how blessed they were.  And then they would go to the temple and offer their sacrifices.  They would chant their prayers.  They would sing their songs.  They would make their offerings convinced they had done their duty and God would love them and bless them because they had given God what He wanted.  They’d satisfied Him by their worship and offerings and sacrifices.  They were good to go.  They’d done their duty.

    And God says, “I hate, I despise your assemblies.  I hate, I despise your offerings and do not accept them.  I hate, I despise your singing and your worship.”  Why?  Because the people are trying to make a power play on God.  They are trying to have their cake and eat it too.  They are thinking that by worship and sacrifice and offering, they can excuse their behavior even though they know it’s wrong. 

    And they are looking forward to the Day of the Lord–yes, the day when God comes to restore everything to the way it should be and justice will be meted out.  They are looking forward to this day thinking they will have a grand time because they’ve worshiped; they’ve put their money in the plate; they should be good to go.  But God says, “Think again.  You have not even come close to satisfying my demands.  You have only and have ever only looked out for yourself.  My wrath will burn against you.  Why do you want the Day of the Lord.  It will be darkness not light!”

    Scary stuff.  Very scary stuff.  And so, what do we do about this?  Do we stop here and think, “Wow!  I hear what Amos is saying.  Our offerings; our worship; our singing; all of it is for naught.  We need to stop this stuff right now, and we need to go out and do justice.  We need to work for righteousness.  We need to throw ourselves into these things because the Lord demands this of us.”

    Stop right there.  Stop right there and think about where you are headed with this train of thought.  For if you think that you will satisfy God by doing justice and making righteousness flow like an ever flowing stream, what are you doing?  Or better yet, why are you doing it?  If you are scared that your offerings aren’t satisfying God and that you need to throw yourself at doing justice because that is what God requires, then I’d submit to you that you are attempting your own power play.  You are attempting to satisfy God with your actions once again and save yourself from the coming wrath.  You are not focused on God, you are once again focused on yourself and your own best interests.  I’m doing what God commands because I don’t want to face the darkness on the day of the Lord.  We are right back to Nietzsche. 

    Can anything break us out of this self-centeredness?  Can anything get us away from focusing on ourselves? 

    How about this?

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all 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 may be saved through Him.

    You knew I was going to get to Jesus somehow.  At least I hope you knew I was going to get to Jesus.  For you see, Jesus is the one who acted completely the opposite of what Nietzsche proposed.  Instead of seeking His own self-interest; instead of seeking His own power; Jesus sought to fulfill the will of the Father.  Jesus sought complete obedience to the one He was equal to.  Jesus sought to become powerless even though He had access to absolute power.  And instead of kingdoms, Jesus found the cross where He endured the wrath meant for us.  He became the blameless offering and sacrifice to end all offerings and sacrifices.  There was no longer any need to offer sacrifices of atonement to get ourselves right with God.  All was accomplished by Jesus.

    And that completely changes things for us.  No longer do we have to worry about a power play
with God.  We do not have to seek to save ourselves and act with self interest.  We can seek God and His righteousness for His sake and not our own.  We can seek to let justice flow like a mighty water and righteousness flow like an ever flowing stream not because this is what God demands lest we be punished, but because we know it is something near and dear to God’s heart, and in thankfulness we wish to please the one who acted on our behalf.  We gladly lift up our voices in praise and worship not because it’s going to affect our salvation, but in joyful thanksgiving that our salvation has already been accomplished.  We give our offerings of time and talent and money not to satisfy the commandment, but to show our gratitude to the God who took on human flesh and died for us.  And we now await the coming Day of the Lord with joyful expectation.  We no longer have to save ourselves.  We no longer have to worry about whether or not we have done enough good; or worshiped enough; or gave enough.  Jesus already gave it all.  Amen.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

I Needed to Worship


    My grandmother died on October 10th at 6:15 in the morning.  I was in San Antonio visiting my in-laws with my wife and children, and we anticipated the funeral services would be scheduled for Monday.  Dawna was observing classes at a local junior high.  I took the kids to El Mercado to have some fun shopping.  It helped lighten the otherwise melancholy news.

    On Saturday, other events made my head spin.  It started when I let our dogs out in the morning.  They started barking at the dogs next door when suddenly I heard yelping.  Turns out, my dog “Lucky” got his ear caught on some sharp ended wire and ripped it open–badly.  It took us a couple of hours to stop the bleeding. 

    Then, just at lunch, Kevin, Jr. walks up to us and says, “My head hurts.  My tummy hurts.”

    “Do you feel like you are about to throw up?”

    “Right here it does.”

    Ten seconds later.  He does.  Dead grandmother.  Hurt dog.  Sick kid.  Will anyone else get sick before the funeral?  Will I get sick and be unable to attend my own grandmother’s funeral?

    Worship loomed large less than 24 hours away, and I would be leading it.  I drove in early Saturday afternoon from San Antonio leaving Dawna, the kids and the dogs behind.  My head was spinning after all of the events.  My emotions were a wreck.  I had difficulty thinking.

    More than a few folks were surprised to see me at church on Sunday.  A few were bold enough to
ask/chide, “What are you doing here?”

    My initial response was, “Who else could do this on such a short notice?”  (Which does give me pause for future concerns–in case something does happen.)  But as the morning progressed, another answer came forth.

    Early service was difficult.  I didn’t seem to have the umph in my preaching.  Emotions weighed heavily. 

    Then, at the second service, I stood to sing the Gospel acclamation, “He is Exalted.”

    He is exalted the King is exalted on High.  I will praise Him.
    He is exalted forever exalted, and I will praise His name.
    He is the Lord.  Forever His truth shall reign.
    Heaven and Earth, rejoice in His holy name.
    He is exalted, the King is exalted on high.


    And there was peace.  There was reassurance.  There was order in the midst of chaos.  Worship refocused everything.  EVERYTHING!

    “Seek first the Kingdom of God and everything else will be added unto you,” Jesus said in Matthew 7.  It all became clear.

    Worship is the time when our lives center–even for just an hour–on God and His Kingdom.  It is the time where we block out all the false gods which try to place themselves at the center of our lives–false gods which only bring chaos and disharmony into our being.  As God becomes the center and we hear of His actions and deeds, everything else falls into place–not that we completely understand it; however, we have a deep sense of trust in the One who watches over us daily.

    Many I visit with talk about how their lives are chaotic; busy; burdensome.  Our society certainly seems this way–a lot.  Is it any wonder?  Worship, for the most part, is no longer central to our lives.  False gods dominate us and cause chaos.  And instead of turning to worship, we try harder to appease those false gods!  It’s a self-defeating proposition.

    If your life resembles chaos.  If you find yourself without peace.  If you find yourself being pulled every which way but loose, worship.  Regularly.  When God becomes the center, things change drastically.  You find what I found after my grandmother died, my dog was injured, my son became sick, and I was overcome by the chaos of it all.  I needed to worship. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Heroes with Clay Feet

  

 Do you remember the first time you discovered one of your heroes had clay feet?

    It’s a bit of a disturbing thing for many of us.  I mean, I think there is a part of us which constantly looks for another person to look up to and admire.  I think there is a part of us which seeks out examples and role models.  There is a part of us that desperately wants to see and know a real, life, flesh and blood person who has it all together; who is successful in all endeavors; and who lives up to the expectations we have within us for a hero.  I think everyone holds out hope to find such a person in life.

    Oftentimes, we find someone who seems to have all these qualities.  We latch onto that person.  We hang on their every word.  We follow their every action.  We start imitating the way they talk; the way they think; and the way they act.  If they are famous, we may buy their books; watch their television shows; or attend lectures or gatherings where they are in attendance.  We quote them in our conversations.  We strive to be just like them.

    And then we find out, they are only human.

    How many of you remember Michael Jordan?  If you grew up in the ‘80's and ‘90's and were a basketball fan, you know exactly who I am talking about.  Jordan was simply an amazing player.  Some would argue–and I personally think they are right–that he was the best basketball player to have played the game thus far.  He won numerous MVP awards and championships.  Advertisers cashed in on Michael Jordan.  Nike especially.  McDonald’s was another.  Gatorade was another.  Gatorade even had a slogan, “Be Like Mike.” 

    Oh and how many of us tried to be like Mike.  We wore long shorts.  We wore wrist bands in the same fashion.  We walked with a swagger.  We tried incomprehensible basketball shots.  We tried to air walk and make difficult moves as we flew through the air. 

    Of course, we failed, but that was minor.  We had a hero who almost seemed superhuman when he took to the basketball court.  If you want to know Jordan’s influence, know that nearly all my friends who were born and raised in Texas rooted for the Chicago Bulls without reservation or thought of the Spurs, Rockets, or Mavericks.  Jordan captivated us. 

    But as time passed, we found out even Michael Jordan had limits.  He retired three times.  He came back to play twice.  Does anyone remember when he came back and played for the Washington Wizards?  I do.  It was a miserable thing to watch.  Michael Jordan had grown old.  He no longer had many of his abilities.  Kids who never saw him play with the Chicago Bulls wondered what the fascination was with this old player who could no longer dominate games like he once did. 

    And then, there was Jordan’s attempt at team ownership and general managing.  Those were abject failures.  While Jordan the player was awesome; Jordan the general manager, owner, and even coach were awful.  Success in one area did not guarantee a golden touch in all other areas.  No one I know wanted to be like Mike once he became old and left the court for good.  He was only human after all–much to the chagrin of many who truly admired the man.

    Examples of this abound.  They abound everywhere.  Everyone has a skeleton or two in the closet.  Everyone has something in their lives that can be used against them in one fashion or another.  There have even been books written about Mother Teresa criticizing her for some of the decisions she made in caring for the poor and needy.  More than a few pastors and televangelists have been brought to their knees by scandal–monetarily and sexually.  Politicians are rocked by scandals on almost a weekly basis now.  And people who put their trust in these individuals find themselves disappointed and upset that their heroes are imperfect and not completely trustworthy.

    Sometimes, it shocks us.  And it really shouldn’t.

    I mean, I’m a pastor.  For as long as I can remember, I have learned, taught, and preached that we are all both saint and sinner.  We have both good and bad within us.  I know this cognitively, but there is still a part of me that longs to find someone to completely trust.  And I thought I had found someone I really admired in Timothy Keller.  I’ve quoted him a lot in sermons and in other places, and I will still quote him by the way.  But I couldn’t help but feel a bit of disappointment the other day when I was trying to find some sermons he preached.  I went to his congregation’s website.  I clicked on the links to find sermons and found that they were being sold for $5 a pop.  Five bucks for a sermon!!  Five bucks for what was preached as an exposition on God’s Word?  What happened to St. Paul’s statement, “I proclaimed the Gospel freely!”?  I was disappointed.  But I shouldn’t have been.  Everyone has clay feet.  Everyone.

    Of course, this is hard for us to admit.  It’s hard for us to look in the mirror and say, “Self, you are broken.  You don’t live like you should.  You don’t care for others like you should.”  We don’t like telling ourselves such things.  In fact, usually, we’d like to think we have it all together and that it is the other person out there who has the problem.  We are just fine the way we are.  We are good enough.  Sure, we might make a mistake here and there, but we are basically good.  We are basically upright.  We are basically okay.  Not like those people out there.

    Jesus had a word or two to say about such folks in our Gospel lesson today from the book of Matthew.  He says, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

    This is an interesting statement here.  Some have commented that Jesus is being sarcastic, but I don’t think so.  I think Jesus is serious in what He tells His followers.  Why?  Because the scribes and Pharisees are teaching the Law of Moses, which, of course, was given by God.  We are supposed to follow and do what God tells us to do.  When someone tells us to follow God’s laws and instructions, we should listen.  So, what is the problem and why does Jesus say, “But don’t do as they do?”

    Let me put it in this fashion.  Let’s say I get up on Sunday morning and I tell you, “We must love God with all our hearts and souls and minds, and we must love our neighbor as ourselves.”  And I preached a long sermon about such matters with all kinds of illustrations and arguments which urged you to do such matters.  You and I hopefully know Jesus said that all the commands of God are summed up in these two commandments.  They are Jesus’ instructions to all of us.  Of course, we are all supposed to do these things.  We are supposed to live them out.  This is why Jesus says, “Do what they tell you to do.” 

    But this is the problem.  Number one, no one fully loves God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and no one fully loves their neighbor as they love themselves.  No one.  Period.  You can try to argue with me on this one, but I think I could convince you in a matter of moments that none of us can implement this teaching at all.  We may not like hearing that, but it is true.  The second part of the problem would be this.  Let’s pretend, at the moment, that after preaching that sermon, I actually believed I was doing it.  Let’s pretend that Pastor Haug thought in his mind that he actually loved the Lord with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength and that he loved his neighbor as himself.  Let’s pretend for a moment that this gave Pastor Haug a deep sense of satisfaction that he could actually accomplish this faith thing, and because he believed he could accomplish this faith thing, he felt like people should look up to him.  He felt like people should honor his work.  He felt like people should admire him and do things for him because he was so good at following God’s commands.  Let’s pretend that Pastor Haug started wearing a very big cross around his neck and walking with his chest puffed out.  Let’s pretend he started wearing shirts saying, “Want to follow Jesus?  Just ask me how.”  Let’s pretend he tried to tell everyone at every moment what they could do better to be a better Christian and to improve their own lots in life as if he were some sort of expert in being a super-Christian.  What would you think of Pastor Haug?

    Some of you may be saying, “And in what way is this different than the way you really are?”  Duly noted. 

    You probably wouldn’t like Pastor Haug very much.  You would probably think he was an arrogant you-know-what.  You probably wouldn’t have much nice to say about him because there are very few who truly admire someone who is self-righteous.  Very few.  And those who do usually admire them until something happens which exposes them in their hypocrisy.  

    “Do what they teach you, (about following the commands of God),” Jesus says, but don’t do what they do.”  What are the Pharisees and scribes doing?  Exactly what our hopefully hypothetical Pastor Haug is doing.  They are being self-righteous.  Listen to what Jesus says they are doing, and this comes across plain as day.  “4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi.”  All of these things smack of self-righteousness.  All of these things smack of people who have inflated thoughts of themselves.  And when someone is so full of themselves, they have no room for God.  They do not believe they need God.  And so, they break the first and most important commandment–even though they think they are following it.

    Now, listen as Jesus wraps this little segment up.  He says, “8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. “

    Let’s unpack this because I think it’s crucial.  Who does Jesus want us to focus on?  In these three statements, where does Jesus want each and every one of us to place our trust, our hope, and our view of a role model?  “You have one teacher...You have one Father–the one in heaven...You have one instructor, the Messiah.”  Jesus wants us to focus on God the Father, and on Him as the Messiah.  He wants us to look up to them and them alone.  No one else.  Why?

    Here’s why.  Every single role model you choose; every single instructor you view as great and fantastic; every single father figure you look to on this earth will let you down.  That is simply the reality.  Every single hero; every single pastor; every single professional athlete; every single parent; every single teacher; every single astronaut and politician and police officer and the list goes on will let you down.  They are not perfect.  They are not blameless.  They are not free from selfish motivation.  They will do something or say something which will hurt you.

    Not only this, if you allow yourself to have everyone look up to you and think you are an awesome role model, you will eventually become self-righteous, and you will let down others.  It’s a horrible, double edged sword.

    Not only will you be disappointed in others, others will become disappointed in you.  Why?  Because they cannot be perfect; and neither can you.  They cannot live up to your standards, and you can’t live up to someone else’s.

    There’s only One who can.  There’s only One who can live up to the standards of perfection and serve as the perfect role model.  There is only One who, when you point the way to Him will not disappoint others.  His name is Jesus.

    For it is in Jesus that we find the cure for self-righteousness.  It is in Jesus that we find the perfect role model.  It is in Jesus that we find humility and the strength to try to do what we should do even though we stumble and fall time and again.

    How does Jesus do this?  How does Jesus keep us from becoming self-righteous?  By dying for us.  By giving us salvation when we didn’t deserve it.  By granting us grace when we had clay feet.

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be save through Him. 

    When you realize your salvation did not come from anything you did–from your own ability to please God and love your neighbor and follow all the rules; when you realize your salvation was given to you precisely when you were not pleasing God and loving your neighbor; you can’t get a big head.  You can’t become arrogant.  You can’t walk around looking down your nose at others–like the Pharisees and scribes.  You are humbled.  You realize you have clay feet and are not worthy of what Jesus did for you.  But you also do not become self defacing.  You don’t feel like a horrible piece of dirt because you were valuable enough that Jesus died for you.  You realize you are indebted to Him for what He has done for you, and so you seek to follow Him; to learn about Him; to have Him instruct you and show you how to live in this world.  You realize He places upon you a burden, but He does more than lift a finger to help you with it.  He willingly dies to lift it.  He does not wear any special garments, He hangs on a cross.  He does not demand to sit at the head of the banquet; He invites you to come and dine with Him. 

    And when you realize this about Jesus, you are filled with thankfulness and joy.  You are filled with satisfaction.  Deep within, you know the sinner you are is transformed into a saint by what Jesus has done.  And you become a role model–not in pointing to what you do, but what God has done.  And this precisely one of the main reasons we celebrate All Saint’s Sunday.  We remember those who have gone before who also pointed to Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Importance of Reformation Sunday

  

 Why is Reformation Day so important?

    C.S. Lewis, in his appendix to the book The Abolition of Man showed how nearly every single culture in the world; every single philosophy; every single world religion espoused one particular axiom.  In effect, C.S. Lewis showed that the axiom “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a universal truth and teaching found in every culture and teaching.  That’s a rather astounding thing considering how diverse cultures are throughout the world.  It’s rather astounding since they all begin with different assumptions about how the world works and how it came into being.  It’s rather astounding that as varied and as different as we are as human beings, there is one universal thing we all claim to grasp and understand.  We should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. 

    But there is an interesting corollary to this universal axiom.  It’s a corollary that is not usually talked about in various academic circles.  Because if the axiom “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is indeed a universal teaching, the corollary which follows is, no one does it.  No one does to others what we would like them to do unto us. 

    Think about it.  Think about it really hard, and think about it honestly.  How many of us are as patient with others as we would like them to be patient with us?  How many of us as are considerate of others as we would like them to be considerate of us?  How many of us are forgiving of others as we would like them to be forgiving of us?  How many of us truly talk as kindly of others as we would like them to talk kindly of us?  How many of us are as generous to others as we would like them to be generous to us?  And the list goes on and on and on.  If we are honest with ourselves, we do not even come close to following this universal axiom.

    And if we are honest with ourselves, we know we have no excuses.  We know what we should do.  We know how we should act.  But we don’t do it.  Either because we can’t or because we won’t.

    St. Paul knew this.  He knew it well, and so he penned these words from the third chapter of the book of Romans, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.  For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”

    What is Paul saying?  He’s saying exactly what I just said about doing unto others.  We know we should, but we know we don’t.  And when we are honest with ourselves, we are silenced.  We know we have no room to talk.  We know we have no room to tell anyone else to shape up because we are out of shape.  We know we have no room to condemn anyone else for failing to follow the teaching because we don’t follow it ourselves.  Our mouth’s are silenced.  And if this axiom comes from God–which most folks believe it does, then we must be held accountable to God because we have broken His command.

    And here’s where things begin to get a little interesting.  Because here is where Christianity begins to make a clean break with the rest of the world.  Every other philosophy and every other religion’s answer to accountability is thus, “Try harder.”  Yep, you heard right.  If you aren’t doing such a good job of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, try harder.  Work harder.  Try to be a better person.  Satisfy God and justify yourself by following that command. 

    And why shouldn’t that be the answer?  I mean, that is what we are taught from the time we are infants and throughout adulthood.  When you are starting to walk and you fall down, parents say, “Get up and try it again.  Sooner or later, you will get it!”  When our kids have trouble in school learning math or reading or writing, we say, “Practice, work harder.  You will get it!”  When we start working at a job and not doing so well at it, our supervisor (if he or she is patient) says, “Keep after it.  You will figure it out before too long.”  Over and over and over, we get told this.  Over and over and over, we implement it.  Sometimes we are successful, and oftentimes we get the idea in our heads that if we simply just keep trying; if we just keep after it long enough; things will come together and we can accomplish anything!  Nothing can ever hold us back!  And where does that lead us if we truly have this mindset?  Where does this lead us in regards to others who struggle and have a hard time?   Do we become patient with them?  Do we become understanding with them?  Do we offer them positive encouragement over and over and over?  Maybe some of the time, but certainly not always.  For it is far too easy to become contemptuous and angry at those who don’t seem to get it as quickly as ourselves.  It is far too easy to become self-righteous and say, “I was able to do it; they should be able to do it too.”  And we look down our nose at others.  Do unto others...do you like it when others look down their nose at you?  Of course not.  Very few do.  But this is inevitably where “try harder” gets you.  It gets you right back to breaking the command–the very place you tried to get away from to begin with.

    Christianity is different; however.  Christianity offers a different path.  Instead of try harder, Paul lays out the alternative:
 
    “For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”  Following the law doesn’t justify us.  It only leads to despair or self-righteousness.  It cannot break us out of the cycle.  It can only show us what we have done wrong.  I wouldn’t know I was breaking the speed limit unless I saw the speed limit sign.  Because there is a sign, I know I am breaking the law!  Slowing down doesn’t justify me from having broken the law in the first place!!  So what does?  What does justify me?  What makes things right?

     “21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”  The answer Paul gives is, “It’s not your actions.  It’s Jesus’ actions.”  By breaking the command of God, you have earned His punishment.  You have earned His anger and His wrath.  You must pay the price for doing what you know to be wrong.  God cannot allow such breaking of the command to go unpunished because then God would not be just.  But instead of you facing the punishment; instead of you facing God’s wrath, Jesus–the God made flesh–stepped in on your behalf.  Jesus, offered Himself to die and endure the wrath of God upon the cross so that you wouldn’t have to.  This is the sacrifice of atonement Paul spoke of.  He took your place.  He took the punishment which you were destined for.  You couldn’t do unto others; Jesus did.

    In some ways this doesn’t make sense to our way of thinking.  If you commit the crime, you should be held accountable.  If you do the wrong, you should face the punishment.  If you break the law, you should face justice.  On one level, we know this very, very well.  But let me put it to you another way–a way I think you may grasp very easily.  Most of us who are parents have a rule for our children: don’t play in the street!  It’s a pretty hard and fast rule for many of us.  Now, what parent who sees his child playing in the street with a car approaching would allow the car to run over the child because, after all, the child broke the rule and deserves what he or she gets?  What parent would allow his or her child to be gravely injured or to die because the rule got broken?  What parent would allow this tragedy to befall his son or daughter?  None that I know of.  And yet, I know of many a parent, who would gladly and willingly run into the street, breaking the parent’s own rule to save his or her child.  I know many a parent who would gladly die to save his or her child from immanent death.  Take my life instead because I love my child.  The answer would not be try harder to follow mommy and daddy’s rule.  The answer at that point–when the rule is already broken and death is immanent–is save your child even at the expense of your own life.

    “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 so that the world may be saved by Him.”

    And now, we put our trust in this saving action.  We put our faith in this saving action.  We do not trust ourselves to follow the commands because we know we cannot fully accomplish them.  Instead, we throw ourselves on the mercy of Jesus who did follow the commands and who took our place.

    “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”  And since we are justified–we are made right by what Jesus has done and not what we do, can we boast?  Can we brag about how well we have done unto others?  Can we brag about how well we have followed the Law and made ourselves right with God?  Can we brag that we have done enough to warrant God’s love for us?  No.  We can’t.  Because we did nothing.  Jesus did everything.  We are justified apart from the works of the Law.  We are justified by Jesus and trust in His action not our own.

    Oh, there are more than a few folks–even within the church–who would like us to operate the way the world works.  There are more than a few folks–even within the church–who would like to think our salvation is contingent upon our actions and our ability to follow the Law.  They would gladly tell us to get our lives in order lest we find ourselves damned.  They would gladly tell us we must do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God lest we incur God’s wrath.  They would gladly tell us to stop drinking, smoking, dancing, and expressing our sexuality or the devil will play with our souls for eternity.  They would gladly tell us we must give 10% of our income to the church or God will strike us down.  They will gladly tell us God sends things like the Ebola virus or famine or drought to punish us for what we do–hoping that we will repent and cease our destructive behavior.  They will gladly try to rope us back into trying to be like every other philosophy or religion that is out there.  They will gladly try to get us to try harder.

    But that is why we need Reformation Day.  That is why we need to be reminded of the Gospel.  This is why we need the Martin Luther’s of the world–we need to be reminded that Christianity is not basically about what we do, but about what God has done through Jesus Christ saving you by His grace through faith.  Amen.