July 17, 2017- So Great a Salvation- Hebrews 2:1-9

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Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.  For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.

 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.  But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?

 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.”

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. Hebrews 2:1-9 (NRSV)

There is a great debate among Christian thinkers and theologians regarding free will. Some say that we humans have been given free rein over everything, which would negate the truth that God is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing.)  Others say that God controls us much as we humans would play a game of the Sims, with every breath and every thought and every action preplanned. But God didn’t make us to be robots, and He’s not playing a video game.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Wisdom would probably dictate that there is an element of mystery in that God does allow us to do our own things, and to screw up…to a point.  Suffice to say that God finds ways of using our free will to do His will, even if we don’t quite understand how that works.

As we learned in this week’s sermon text, (Matthew 13:1-9) God sows His word everywhere, lavishly, generously, almost wantonly, everywhere and on everyone.  Yet the word doesn’t always grow where it’s planted. Sometimes we get discouraged when we plant the seeds only to find that they wither and die and don’t grow.  When we get rejected or mocked for being Jesus followers it can be discouraging.  Sometimes life gets us down too and we get discouraged. We wonder, “What’s the use in following Jesus”, when our circumstances can be so awful.  Or sometimes we get so caught up in material things and so obsessed with God’s gifts that we forget the Giver.

Some have made the comparison that our journey as a Jesus follower is more of a marathon than a sprint. It’s a long haul kind of thing. Like any other relationship or achieving any kind of goal, being a Jesus follower requires effort.  God is in control, but He’s not going to do everything for us.  God expects to hear from us- all the time.  He expects dialogue with us.  He wants us to surrender everything to Him, especially those parts of us that aren’t pretty or that need work.  My grandmother once told me, “It’s OK to be angry with God.  Let Him know about it.  He is bigger than your anger.”  Nothing is off-limits between us and God, because God knows us inside and out anyway.  He’s just waiting for us to admit to ourselves what He already knows.

In our culture of instant gratification, it really is countercultural to be a Jesus follower- to wait on God, to follow His rules, and to live according to His expectations. Our culture says, “NOW!” and “Me first!,” while Jesus says, “Wait,” and “Others first.”  It’s not easy to wait.  It’s not easy to put other people before ourselves.  Following Jesus is not always an easy thing to do, but it is worth the effort.  Better yet, He is patient with us, and He forgives us when we fail.  Every day is a new day He gives us to wake up, put on our Baptism as daily wear (to quote Martin Luther) and try again.

Are we the “good soil” on which God’s word can grow and bring forth a good harvest? Are we willing to plant good seeds everywhere, trusting that our work for God’s Kingdom has a good purpose, and that it’s God’s work and God’s harvest?

Keep on planting.

April 3, 2017 What About Judas?-Matthew 26:20-25

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When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating , He said, “Truly, I tell you, one of you will betray Me.” 

They were very sad and began to say to Him one after the other, “Surely You don’t mean me, Lord?”

Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Me will betray Me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about Him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man!  It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Matthew 26:20-25 (NRSV)

Over the centuries there has been an ongoing question among Christian believers as to the fate of Judas Iscariot, the “traitor apostle.”

Early church fathers such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine agreed that Judas was condemned to hell for eternity. Judas was the only apostle who was replaced upon his death.  Judas had also died by suicide, a sin traditionally considered a “mortal sin”- which in Catholic theology is a sin that consigns one to hell if it is unconfessed and unabsolved.

The more compelling question to most Protestants about Judas is, “Did Judas have free will?” Did Judas really stand there and listen to Jesus tell him, “You will betray Me,” and then go ahead and do it, if he had the free will to choose otherwise?

To wonder about Judas’ ultimate fate (only God can see a person’s heart completely and fully) or to beg the question of Judas’ ability to choose right from wrong misses the point. As in all other narratives in the Bible, the question is where is God in this?  Did God create Judas only to use him to betray Jesus and then consign Judas to hell for doing what he was created to do?

The place to begin to learn from the story of Judas is to begin with the nature of God. There are three things we know about our I AM God, that He is:

Omnipotent-God is all powerful. God Who created the universe can do anything He chooses to do.

Omnipresent-God is everywhere at all times all at once.  He is just as much present right here and now as He is in the middle of a cornfield in 1863, and at every other possible someplace and some time. God is equally here right now, and five seconds from now, and five thousand years from now.  Time is not linear for God, and He is beyond the limits of space as well.  (The metaphysics that goes along with that is quite mindblowing if you think about it too long.)

Omniscient-God is all knowing. God already knows what is going to happen and what we are going to choose to do ahead of time.

 

Knowing these three things about God, then what are the lessons we can learn from Judas?

We can know that while God knows our heart and what we are going to do, we still have to choose. Our actions still have consequences.  Much as we can warn our children about the potential bad choices they will make, we often know when they are going to do exactly what we warned them not to do.   Jesus knew Judas’ heart.  Because Jesus is God, He knew the choice that Judas had already made- but it was still Judas’ choice.

God knows we are going to screw up. He knows where, when and how bad we are going to screw up, and even whether or not we will come back to Him in repentance.  But even in that repentance we have to choose.  A wise pastor once said, “It is to God’s credit that you are saved, but if you are damned, you chose damnation yourself.”

So we wonder if God is in control of everything, then why should we bother to pray, or to live as He has called us, or to pursue spiritual disciplines? If God just picks and chooses who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, what’s the point?

The point is that these good things, like prayer and service and forgiveness are for us, gifts that God freely gives to those who would receive them. The fact that God knows who will accept these gifts and who will reject them isn’t the point.  The point is that all of God’s good gifts of provision, forgiveness, grace, salvation and mercy are there for all who choose to accept them.  The consequences for us of rejecting God’s gifts are also very real.  He is not going to force us to live the way that is best for us.  He is not going to force us to accept His gifts.  God isn’t going to make us love Him by coercion.

innocent blood

We are sinners, as was Judas. Judas’ sin was no worse than our sins, because in all sorts of ways, we betray Jesus all the time.  Jesus suffered and died on the Cross to save ALL sinners, to pay the price for ALL of us.  Judas’ response to the knowledge of being a sinner is where the lesson lies.  Do we consign ourselves to be reconciled to God or separated from Him?  Do we choose to repent of our sins, accept the forgiveness and grace of God, and surrender our lives to Jesus, or do we wallow in despair and kill off anything in us that would be open to God and His will for us?

This is the lesson of Judas- how do we respond to God’s grace and freely given gifts? The question isn’t so much, “What about Judas?” as it is, “What about us?”

February 12, 2017- Choose Life, Deuteronomy 30:19-20

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I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Deuteronomy 30:19 (NRSV)

Choose life.  Exactly how can we do that?  God determines when we are born, when we die, and He has the hairs on our heads numbered.  God has it all covered, and nothing gets past Him.

Theologians and sages and teachers have pondered on the question of free will for centuries.  If God is indeed omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing) and exists beyond His creation (He is in, through and with His creation, but is not created and is beyond creation,) then why should we concern ourselves at all with what we do?  If the events of the universe are all predetermined anyway, then why should we not just live as if anarchy is the law?  These are questions that can be argued (and have been for centuries,) and it is good to question authority, but in practical application, is anarchy- the absence of laws and standards- a viable answer to the question of how we should live?

If for no other reason, we should strive to live as God wants us to live, because He is God and we are not.

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Sometimes we have to go back to looking at God as our parent- to see God as Jesus addressed Him, as “Abba” or “Daddy.”  When we were five we didn’t question when Daddy said, “You need to eat your vegetables, ” or “Eight o’clock is bed time.”  We simply trusted that Daddy or Mommy knew what was in our best interest, and we did it.

In this passage from Deuteronomy- the final book of the Torah, or Jewish law, God is telling His people what things He wants them to do for their own good, so that they will live long and prosperous lives.  These are loving instructions from our “Daddy,” given to us for our own good.

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Love God (and this is primary,) obey God (do what He tells us to to do, as best we can with the Holy Spirit’s help) and hold on to God (have faith that He provides for us and has good plans for us.)  These are God’s instructions for life as He intends for us.