January 15, 2019 – Slaves? Romans 6:15-23

slave ship 1788slave auction

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?  But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:15-23 (ESV)

21st century Americans have a difficult time with the concept of slavery. We may remember seeing drawings of slave ships or slave auctions from the 18th and 19th century from history class like the ones pictured above, but we don’t really see slavery out in the open. We think of slavery as something that ended with the Civil War in 1865. Slavery does still exist in the modern world. It may not be as visible today, but it is still just as repulsive as the buying and selling of humans on the auction block. Human trafficking, child abuse, forced labor, addiction, and domestic violence are examples of some modern forms of slavery.

An easier question for us today is, to whom or what do we sell ourselves? Are we slaves to addictions such as drugs, cigarettes or alcohol- or even to an excess of good things such as food or exercise? Are we slaves to excessive work or excessive leisure? Are we slaves to the thoughts and opinions of others?

The apostle Paul teaches us: “you are slaves of the one you obey.” As long as we are living in this body, in this life, we will still be tempted and we will still sin. (Simul Justus et peccator still applies.) However, because in baptism we die to sin and live with Christ, we have become His slaves- not in the sense of being in a sorry forced servitude, but as joyful servants responding to the love He first showed us.  We may not be able to obey perfectly, but our faith in Jesus is what saves us and justifies us. Our faith- which is a gift of the Holy Spirit- is what sets us free to live as God created us to live, and to do the good works that He created for us to do.

Sanctification is another concept that we can have difficulty with. Christian sanctification does not mean becoming rigid, legalistic, “holier than thou” hypocrites. We aren’t always people who are clean and tidy and well behaved.  Sometimes we road rage. Sometimes we use nasty words.  We are rough around the edges and a lot worse than that if we are honest with ourselves. Jesus’ first followers were once the likes of fishermen and tax collectors and even women of ill repute.  Our caricature of snooty false piety- imagine Dana Carvey as “the Church Lady”- is right out.  We are real people who live in this real world.

We are all hypocrites because we are all sinners, however, we confess our sins just as the apostle Paul did when he referred to himself as the chief (or foremost) of all sinners. We let Jesus forgive us. We trust Jesus to help us do better and to change our minds and hearts to be more like His.  Sanctification is actually “holification” (if I may borrow a term from Rev. Jonathan Fisk) meaning a process in which God makes us holy, by faith, in Christ, because of His grace. God makes us more like Him. We are meant to grow and develop into the people God has intended us to become.  That becoming is not something we do, but something God does in and through us.  It’s not easy.  Sometimes it’s painful, but faith is trust that in all of it God knows what he’s doing.

Sin and death appear to be the masters of this world. When we look around us, those things are everywhere.  Yet so is the transforming power of God- the same God who put death to death.  We know the end to this story.  God wins.

All of us sell ourselves to something. Our first parents sold us all into sin and death at the moment of the Fall. Yet we have been bought for a price. Jesus sold Himself- a perfect sacrifice- to purchase us so that He could transform us and make us holy.  He bought us, and set us free so that we can love and serve God as willing and joyful slaves to Him.

 

June 1, 2018- Sing, Dance, Worship! Let God- Psalm 81, Romans 12:1-2, 1 John 1:9

David Dancing before the Lord

Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob! Raise a song; sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our feast day.

For it is a statute for Israel, a rule of the God of Jacob.

He made it a decree in Joseph when he went out over the land of Egypt. I hear a language I had not known: “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Selah

Hear, O my people, while I admonish you! O Israel, if you would but listen to me! There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.

“But my people did not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me. 

So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own counsels. Oh, that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!

I would soon subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes.

Those who hate the Lord would cringe toward him, and their fate would last forever. But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” Psalm 81 (ESV)

Shouting for joy and jumping around with trumpets and tambourines might not sound very Lutheran- though it actually is. Lutheran congregations in Africa- and there are more Lutherans in Africa than in the United States- are known for very lively and colorful worship. Those of us in the American Midwest tend to be rather conservative and reserved in our expressions of emotion, including our expressions of emotion in worship. Even so, the northern European Lutheran tradition- where many of us Midwesterners originate from- includes the music of great composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederick Handel (Handel was an Anglican, but we like his music anyway). Martin Luther himself wrote many hymns, the best known of which is, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Music of many genres and styles has traditionally held a high place in Lutheran worship.

The people of Israel in David’s time, when many of the Psalms were written, were not conservative about their expression in worship. It was normal and expected for people to sing, play instruments, and dance (yes, dance) as part of worship. (2 Samuel 6:12-18)

The Psalms were a big part of both teaching and worship.  Since most people weren’t literate in ancient times, it was easier to teach essential truths if they were set to music and sung out loud.

The Psalms don’t sound as lyrical and poetic in the English language as they were written in the original Hebrew, but they are prayers as well as lessons- and they were generally meant to be sung.

There is a contrast here between the beginning of the Psalm, as the Psalmist is praising God and singing for joy, and the second part of the Psalm where God’s people are being obstinate and stubborn. On one hand we as new creations in Christ want to hear the good news and praise God and live as God’s people.  Then the old Adam steps in and starts screaming like a petulant toddler, “MY way, not THY way.” We think we can do better than God. We try to live life our way.  Then we get mad when our way just doesn’t work out.  It’s frustrating, but it is also part of the human condition in this broken world.

We can’t just make up our minds on our own to “straighten up and fly right.” When we do this on our own willpower, we are not really conforming ourselves to the mind of Christ. We end up becoming legalistic and stuffy and self-righteous. (Think Dana Carvey as the Church Lady.)  Rather, we must rely on the mercy and grace of God to let Him transform us.  A good way to visualize our transformation is as we “put on baptism” every day- we acknowledge and remember that we are named and claimed as children of God. Baptism is a means of grace that comes completely as a gift of God and is through no works of our own. He will do for us what we are not able to do on our own.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)

So we return to the themes of Psalm 81- Joy. Worship. Trust God– but trust in ourselves…not so much. When we confess to Jesus that we continually sin and fall short of His good will for us, He promises to forgive us and bind up our wounds, as we learn from 1 John 1:9. We have the assurance that God will carry our burdens. We can be confident that God will see us through our distress and that God will provide us with all good things.  We can’t be afraid to sing it loud and sing it proud- and to live a life of worship.  God feeds us with the finest wheat.  Jesus freely gives us the feast of His Body and Blood, the honey from the rock, and He sustains us with His good and healing Word.  We are set free to love God, to love and serve our neighbor, and to sing out in worship.

March 6, 2018- Housecleaning- 2 Chronicles 29:1-11, 30-31, 35-36, Matthew 12:43-45

Hezekiah_praying_90-202.jpg

Hezekiah began to reign when he was twenty-five years old; he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah.  He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestor David had done.

In the first year of his reign, in the first month, he opened the doors of the house of the Lord and repaired them.  He brought in the priests and the Levites and assembled them in the square on the east.  He said to them, “Listen to me, Levites! Sanctify yourselves, and sanctify the house of the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and carry out the filth from the holy place. For our ancestors have been unfaithful and have done what was evil in the sight of the Lord our God; they have forsaken him, and have turned away their faces from the dwelling of the Lord, and turned their backs. They also shut the doors of the vestibule and put out the lamps, and have not offered incense or made burnt offerings in the holy place to the God of Israel.  Therefore the wrath of the Lord came upon Judah and Jerusalem, and he has made them an object of horror, of astonishment, and of hissing, as you see with your own eyes. Our fathers have fallen by the sword and our sons and our daughters and our wives are in captivity for this.  Now it is in my heart to make a covenant with the Lord, the God of Israel, so that his fierce anger may turn away from us.  My sons, do not now be negligent, for the Lord has chosen you to stand in his presence to minister to him, and to be his ministers and make offerings to him.”

King Hezekiah and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of the seer Asaph. They sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped.

Then Hezekiah said, “You have now consecrated yourselves to the Lord; come near, bring sacrifices and thank offerings to the house of the Lord.” The assembly brought sacrifices and thank offerings; and all who were of a willing heart brought burnt offerings.

Besides the great number of burnt offerings there was the fat of the offerings of well-being, and there were the drink offerings for the burnt offerings. Thus the service of the house of the Lord was restored. And Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced because of what God had done for the people; for the thing had come about suddenly. 2 Chronicles 29:1-11, 30-31, 35-36 (NIV)

(Jesus said): When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.” Matthew 12:43:45 (NIV)

Housecleaning is a necessary evil for most of us. Most people do not enjoy the process of cleaning, especially when it entails scrubbing grungy, dirty, sticky things that are caked with grease and grime, and throwing away useless clutter and trash.  Cleaning is work. Most people do enjoy being in clean and wholesome surroundings even though we might not like the process of getting to that clean state.

Hezekiah was one of the “good Kings” of Judah. He listened to God’s call to clean up his kingdom- to get rid of the idolatry, to clean up the temple and get rid of all the nasty practices and filth that the kings before him had tolerated and in some cases encouraged.  Hezekiah was also entrusted- and empowered- by God to restore the practice of regular worship to the kingdom of Judah.

There are some important things that we learn about spiritual housecleaning in these passages. The first thing that we learn is that spiritual housecleaning- becoming more like Jesus- or sanctification– is something God wants for us, and He is the one who empowers us and calls us to do it.

The first thing that the priests do in the passage from 2 Chronicles is to carry out the filth. Before we can get our space back to a clean and wholesome environment, we have to take out the trash.  To clean the kitchen one must scrape the dishes, wash the dishes, clean the counters, sweep and mop the floor, and throw away the scraps.  We don’t prepare a fresh meal amidst the trash and leftovers of the last meal. Otherwise fresh food might get contaminated by something that was spoiled.

When we clean up the kitchen, we don’t clean it up to just look at it and enjoy its cleanliness. We clean up the kitchen so that we can prepare healthy and tasty meals, and so that we can serve and nourish our families and friends. We have to clean up often too, because no sooner than we clean things up, they get dirty again.  It’s part of life.  Cleanliness requires maintenance.

God wanted the people of Judah to clean up their act- not just to look pretty- but so that they would be free to serve Him and each other. God gives them- and us- the ability to come close to and serve Him. It is a joy and a privilege to serve God, rather than a duty or a burden.

This is why Jesus tells us that while repenting (turning away from sinful thoughts and actions) and cleaning up our act is good and necessary, once we have repented and gotten ourselves clean, it is also necessary for us to embrace the purpose God intends for us. Otherwise, given human nature, we will fall back into our old bad habits, and worse. Becoming more like Jesus is a journey, and it is a process.  As God’s church, during the season of Lent we engage in repentance- a good spiritual spring cleaning as it were.  We don’t repent and ask Jesus to “clean us up” to look pretty.  We do this intentionally so that we can more fully embrace and engage ourselves in following Jesus and being God’s people.

Many of us probably heard the expression, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” from our mothers and/or grandmothers. If we don’t occupy ourselves with good and wholesome things, we will find not-so-wholesome things with which to occupy ourselves. Children are great examples of this principle.  When children are not occupied with a purposeful task, the odds are that they will find their ways into mischief.  We are all subject to finding mischief!

Service is the spiritual discipline of doing good things in the world by serving others.  We begin our spiritual housecleaning by asking the Holy Spirit to clear our minds and hearts of the crud- bringing ourselves to Jesus in repentance. We continue our sanctification (letting Jesus conform our hearts and minds to His will) by letting God show us how we can serve Him and others by keeping our minds and bodies occupied with good and wholesome thoughts and deeds.

God gives us His great and free gift of salvation in Jesus. He gives us the gifts of repentance and forgiveness. He also gives us the heart to serve others and to live according to His purpose for us. How can we serve God today?

February 22, 2018 No Greater Love- John 15:13, 1 John 4:9-12

jesus-on-the-cross

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13 (NIV)

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 1 John 4:9-12 (NIV)

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

What does this mean?

*I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. – from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism on Sanctification -the Third Article of the Creed.

Belonging to God is not our choice. God is the one who does the choosing and the naming and claiming. God created. God calls us to life in Him.  God loves us first and has plans for us.  In Baptism we become permanently and irrevocably His. The Holy Spirit equips us for a life of faith.  It’s not about what we do, but what God has already done and continues to do in and through us.

The gift of faith and of being named and claimed by God is incredibly freeing. Our salvation is not contingent upon our current emotional state, the good deeds we do, or our good behavior, but on Jesus crucified. He was the perfect example of love- laying down His life for not only His friends, but for every human being.

When Lutherans talk about loving God and those around us, we do so in the realization that we can only love because God first loved us. Much as the moon can only reflect sunlight and has no light of its own, we can only reflect God’s love.

This is not to say that it is easy or automatic to live a life that honors God.  The difference is that we are called to live in response to God’s love for us.  We cannot earn God’s love and we certainly do not deserve it.

If we say we love Jesus, it is only because He has loved us when we were unlovable.

What does that say for the love that we reflect?

If we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us.