March 17, 2019 – The Promise is Real- Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 Philippians 3:17–4:1 Luke 13:31-35

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After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”  And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”  He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”  And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half.  And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Genesis 15:1-12 (ESV)

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Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.  For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. Philippians 3:17–4:1 (ESV)

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At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’ O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” Luke 13:31-35 (ESV)

How do we know the promise is real? Especially when everything we see and feel and experience would imply that God’s promises are as empty as the promises of the world?

One can gather up a wealth of bad news just by cruising the Internet news for a few minutes here and there. The sky has been falling for a very long time…but might it just fall today?  Jesus said we don’t know the day nor the hour (Matthew 24) of His return, but the end of days will come.  It could be today, tomorrow or thousands of years from now.  The timing is not for us to speculate on, but Jesus tells us there will be a final judgment, as well as God will remake the heavens and the earth.   In Revelation 21:3-4 we learn in the new creation: that the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

The world tells us that we are making progress and getting better day by day, but the reality is that the world is dying and slowly decaying. The further human history gets away from the Fall, the weaker and further from God our society and the world at large becomes. Just look around for any length of time and this degradation and decay becomes clear to see. Jesus, who wept over Jerusalem and for those who would not believe in Him, understood the brokenness of the world that came after the Fall.

Science has a word for this process- entropy- which is the gradual but inevitable process of all matter returning to its elemental and basic state.  The Biblical explanation of entropy is found in Ecclesiastes 3:20- “All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”

The world can’t promise us anything that doesn’t fall under the universal fate of entropy. Everything the world can give us is eventually going to turn to dust. This world is not permanent.

Abram couldn’t help but to think God’s promise of offspring was a cruel joke. God promised him descendents that would outnumber the stars in the sky, yet Abram’s heir was some guy who wasn’t even a relative.  Abram was old.  His wife Sarai was barren and well past the age of fertility.  Even so, he (Abram) believed the Lord, and he (God) counted it to him as righteousness.

Faith in God is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but it is not a blind trust, or a trust that abandons logic and never questions the obvious. It’s OK to ask the questions, “Why must I deal with chronic pain, or depression, or terminal illness?”  When we pray the Psalms we see that the human condition is laid out in those prayers. The Psalmists cry out for repentance, they lament, they pour out their supplications, they beg for relief, and they long for solace, just like we do.  The ancients had the same basic issues we have today.

The wisdom of the world says that we should live for instant gratification and that the highest aim is the pursuit of more and more stuff. We want the latest and greatest technology, the latest styles of clothes and shoes, and oh, how lovely it would be to have the adjustable bed.  Stuff is not inherently bad, because material possessions are good gifts from God.  The issue and the place where sin gets involved is when we value the gifts more highly than God, the Giver.  We engage in idolatry (remember the First Commandment) when we think that we sustain ourselves by the pursuit of and the acquisition of stuff.

If we can ponder and understand the reality of our true citizenship being in heaven, and the temporary nature of material things, how does that change our perspective regarding life here on earth?

Jesus talked about laying up treasure in heaven – “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Matthew 6:19-20 (ESV)

This doesn’t mean we spend our lives trying to rack up brownie points, or hoarding up stuff, but that we live in response to the fact that we have life with Jesus. We are set free to live in a way that we can serve others in response to what God has done and is doing for us.

Jesus gave His life for us to save us from our sins, because we are powerless to save ourselves.  He took the punishment of death we deserve so that we can have the treasure of eternal life with Him. So why would we set our hearts on temporary things?

It’s easy to lose sight of the promise. It’s easy to become so preoccupied with what we want here and now that we forget to value and practice the things that have lasting value such as the time we spend in worship, study and prayer, or the acts of love that we do for our neighbors.

It’s easy to get depressed when our health fails or we experience loss. We get sad when our friends move away or die, or when the world as we know it changes.  We are readily susceptible to the distractions and the sin that would distance us from God, brought on by the weakness of our own flesh, the trials and expectations of this world, as well as Satan and the powers that serve him.  Apart from the grace of God we are powerless against all of these things.

But by His grace, for the sake of Jesus, God gives us the strength to stand firm. Jesus teaches us in the Gospel of Luke: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”Luke 6:46-49 (ESV)

Jesus is our foundation. We don’t have to get caught up in the worry and uncertainty that this world throws at us.  We can have confidence and solace and peace even though we may be suffering now.  The apostle Paul found comfort in Christ even as he was shipwrecked, stoned (with real stones…) starved, left to die, and thrown in prison.  Hopefully none of us will suffer as Paul did, but we can take confidence in Paul’s words as he was writing to the church at Philippi:

“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him (Jesus) who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV)

By faith, we, like Abraham, are children of God’s promise. Jesus was faithful in fulfilling God’s promise to us by giving Himself to take our punishment in our place. By faith, we trust that what God says is true and that Jesus is who He says He is.  By His grace, through faith, we are citizens of heaven, set free to be content with the provision that God gives us, and to serve our neighbor out of response to God who has provided and does provide for us. (Abram) believed the Lord, and he (God) counted it to him as righteousness. This is our promise too.

January 25, 2019- Judgment Belongs to the Lord- Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 14:1-12

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(Jesus said) “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.  Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.  Matthew 7:1-5 (ESV)

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.  One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.  The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.  For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.  For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall confess to God.”

 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Romans 14:1-12 (ESV)

When children are gathered together, they tend to tattle on each other. It is human nature to compare and compete with each other to the point that such comparison and competition become unhealthy. We tear each other down instead of building each other up. We can be so busy judging others’ failures that we fail to examine ourselves and pay attention to the places in which we fall short.  Hypocrisy comes naturally to fallen humanity.

Jesus tells us to pay attention to our own failings and shortcomings before we examine the faults and the sins of others. How are we supposed to see to remove another’s speck with all the logs we have in the way? Other people are not accountable to us. They are accountable to God just as we are accountable to God.

When we celebrate, it is to the glory of God. When we fast we fast to the glory of God.  It is the Lord who makes us able to stand before Him, not what we do or don’t do, and we are certainly not justified or condemned because of what another person might think about us.  Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, not a result of public opinion.

It is better for us to show mercy to others the way that Jesus shows mercy to us- and to confess our own sins to God before we even think of looking at the sins of others. Others’ sins don’t look nearly so bad once we have honestly assessed and confessed our own. We are accountable for what we do or what we fail to do, but not for what other people do or don’t do. Our aim should always be to build other people up and do what we can to strengthen their faith. God will deal with us, and God will deal with them.  We have no reason to tattle or titter or gossip about the sins of others.  We have enough sins of our own to confess and for which to ask God to be forgiven.

At times we are all like children who need to be reminded to keep our eyes on our own paper and to be more concerned with our own behavior rather than the behavior of others.

For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

Jesus died and rose again so that by faith in Him we could have forgiveness instead of condemnation.

Thankfully by faith, we are covered by God’s grace in Jesus. We are not judged by what we deserve, but instead we are washed clean in the water of our baptism, and we are covered by the blood of Christ.  For the sake of His mercy on us, we can focus on building others up and living peaceably with others even if their practices and observances are different from our own.

May 9, 2018 – Faith Alone- Abraham’s Righteousness- Romans 4:13-25

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For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.  For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.  For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”  He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.  No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.  That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”  But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.  Romans 4:13-25 (ESV)

The apostle Paul (who had formerly been the Pharisee, Saul) was dealing with the Judaizers, who were Jews who had become Christians and who expected Gentile converts to Christianity to adopt the Jewish laws, including being circumcised and living as a Jew.

It became necessary for Paul to teach to the Gentile churches that obeying the Jewish laws and adopting Jewish customs are not required to follow Jesus or to be saved.

Our salvation and justification (being made right in the eyes of God) comes through faith alone in Jesus.  Paul uses the example of Abraham to set the precedent- Abraham was justified by faith before the covenant, before he was circumcised, because God gave Abraham the gift of faith.

Today the premise of faith alone (sola fide) is challenged in many Christian traditions.  If any preacher or teacher tries to say faith plus anything is required of us to follow Jesus, know that is not the truth.  We are not required to follow the Mosaic Law, or to wear specific clothing, or to observe specific rites or rituals.  Even if we did do these things, it would not save us or justify us in the eyes of God. None of us are in any way able to fulfill the Law completely, which means the one who tries to earn his or her way to God is doomed.  The apostle James teaches us that if we break one teeny tiny piece of the Law we violate all of it. (James 2:10)  The scandalous, almost unbelievable, simple truth is that the only requirement for salvation is faith that Jesus has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves – He kept the Law perfectly and became the perfect sacrifice to cover our sins.

One might say, “That’s cheap grace, because we don’t do anything or earn anything. Just believe?  That’s nuts!”  That’s exactly the point, that our faith is what justifies us before God, though grace is anything but cheap.  Grace, salvation, forgiveness, eternal life- Jesus bought and paid for all of these- which we cannot do- with His suffering and with His precious Blood.  We respond to and reflect His amazing love and grace by serving our neighbors, by learning His word, and by partaking of the Sacraments. All of these are gifts from God to us. God is the action hero in this story.

The good works that Christians were created to do (Ephesians 2:10) are not ways to earn brownie points.  They are an answer to the prayer Jesus taught us: thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our good works are the end result of having the faith (which is a gift from God) to confess our sins to God, knowing that in Christ we are forgiven, and trusting Him for what we need to live in a way that honors Him.

Some communities may pass out projects and to-do lists, which are not bad things in and of themselves, but we cannot earn our way into heaven based upon how many items we check or don’t check off of a list. What sets Christians apart is our love for Jesus. Our motivation to serve others comes as a result of wanting what God wants for others and for the world around us- not to earn points or to stroke our own vanity, but to follow Jesus’ example.

Abraham was justified by his faith. His faith, which was a gift from God, brought forth amazing fruit.  Faith is also what justifies us- not that we are able to live 100% perfect lives, or even to have 100% perfect faith.

Do we trust Jesus enough to rely on Him alone? Even that is a tricky question.  Every one of us struggles with a degree of unbelief.  At times we also need to pray as the father of the boy with the unclean spirit (see Mark 9:14-29) prays- “I believe, help my unbelief!”

God was faithful to Abraham even though Abraham wasn’t perfectly faithful. The fact that Abraham, when he was still called Abram, had a son, Ishmael, that was conceived outside of the promise comes to mind as we learn in Genesis 16. Even though Abram and Sarai acted according to their desperation for a son rather than in response to God’s promise, He was still faithful to His promise to give them Isaac, a son born of Sarah, the son of His promise.

We can only be saved, justified, and made right with God by faith alone. Yet even that faith is a gift that God gives us.  God worked great things through Abraham by faith- not because Abraham was entirely faithful, but because God made Abraham able to believe.  God works in us by the gift of faith today as well without brownie points, no checklist to check off.  By the sacrifice of Jesus alone, He covers us, He adopts us. In baptism we are marked with the Cross of Christ, and named and claimed as God’s own.  In the Sacrament we are given the very Body and Blood of Jesus to give us strength and sustenance for our toil here on earth.  Jesus fulfills God’s promise from long ago to Abraham, the promise that extends to us as well- because of faith.