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Giving Up Control February 29, 2012

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Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Lent Midweek 2

February 29, 2012

Focus: God, our Father and Creator, is in control of the universe.

Function: That the hearers trust their lives to God.

Structure: Here is a prevailing view…but this is the response of the gospel.


Giving Up Control


Just a few days before Christmas, a couple of neighbors decided to go out sailing together while their wives finished up the Christmas shopping.  While they were out in their boat, a storm blew in and the rains began.  The winds howled and sea became very angry, with the waves tossing them to and fro.  The men struggled desperately to keep their boat under control.  They continued to fight with the sail, attempting to maneuver their way toward land.

The sea had a different plan.  The boat hit a sandbar and they were grounded.  Both of the men jumped overboard and began trying to wedge the boat free.  They pushed and shoved with all their strength, trying to get the boat back into deeper water.  With his legs nearly knee-deep in the mud, the waves bouncing him against the side of the boat, his hair blowing wildly in the wind, one man called out to the other with a grin, “This sure beats Christmas shopping, doesn’t it?”

Control is a topic we’re all familiar with.  And we saw how Adam and Eve struggled with the temptation in the Garden of Eden.  God created them and He placed them together in the garden.  And it’s not like He had abandoned them there.  God walked among them in the Garden.  He was physically present in their midst.  He granted them not just life, but the very opportunity to walk with Him, talk with Him, and learn from Him.  God created them to be in a relationship with Him from the very beginning!  What a wonderful gift!

So what’s the problem?  The problem came when Satan slithered his way into the picture.  He tempted Eve with the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And she failed.  The devil convinced her that by eating that fruit, she’d be like God, knowing good and evil.

It didn’t seem to matter to her that all she had to do was ask God about anything.  She had the chance to learn from the Creator of the universe Himself.  But instead, she thought she knew better and she decided to take life into her own hands.  She wanted control.  And Adam went right along with her.

Isn’t that how we are too?  We have this sinful idea in our heads that we are in control of our own lives.  And if you listen closely, you can hear some people talk about being in control of their own destiny or fate.  We want to be our own God.

We don’t want someone else telling us that our behaviors are wrong and sinful.  We don’t want someone bossing us around.  We don’t want someone telling us how we should live our lives.  We don’t want them reminding us when we fall short of their expectations.  We’d rather be in the driver’s seat, clutching the wheel.  If I want to go down this road or that one, it’s my choice.  Maybe I’d rather hang out in that dark alley instead.  But it’s up to me.

There are areas in each of our lives where we want to be in total control.  Think about the things in your own life that you want to control.  Maybe it’s money.  It’s not difficult to obsess over work, paying the bills, planning for college or retirement, or watching the dollar figures in your bank accounts go up, or down.

Maybe you’ve heard of or known someone who was controlling in a relationship.  They start to take over the other person’s life, telling them what to wear and eat, who they can and can’t spend time with.  They constantly manipulate the other person so that they’re needed.

Then there are those, even among Christians, who truly believe they control their own destiny, their own salvation.  If I just do enough good in this world.  If I can just tip that scale a little to side of good, I’ll be saved.  A little closer to home for us as Lutherans, switch out good works for right doctrine.  If we just believe all the right things, we’ll be saved.  We’re tempted to take Jesus out of the picture.

Whatever issues you have with control, when life goes well, it’s easy to forget about God.  It’s easy to leave the Creator out of it, to think that He created you and now just sits back and watches from a distance.  It’s easy to forget to thank God for the blessings that He gives.

And then the storm comes.  The stock market crashes, the car breaks down, and you’re buried in medical bills.  All of your relationships suddenly turn sour and no one seems to want to be around you.  And that temptation, that thorn in your flesh, just won’t go away.

As those men went sailing, they thought they were in control.  They could raise and lower the sail as they saw fit.  They could turn it to maneuver the boat to go left or right.  And when the storm came, they continued to battle against it, aiming and steering their little vessel toward land.

Storm or no storm, were they ever really in control?  If you take away the wind, how much control would they have?  Would they be able to go anywhere on their own?  What if you take away the movement of the water, or even the water itself?

That’s part of why it’s a fitting illustration today.  While the two men could steer, they could make some choices, they were never alone in the action.  God provided the waters which they sailed on and the winds which they rode.  When they decided to turn, the wind helped them along.

That’s a good picture of how the world works, how our lives work.  God doesn’t sit in heaven and act as a puppet master, constantly pulling the strings and directing our lives.  But at the same time, He doesn’t just sit by and do nothing in this world either.

We don’t control our own fate; we don’t get to choose to go to heaven.  But instead, when the storm of sin threw us overboard, God tossed over the life raft.  As it came over to where we were drowning, God’s own Son Jesus pulled us up out of the water into the raft.  We didn’t make the raft, nor do we steer it.  Jesus came to us.  He came down into this world to save us from ourselves and to return us to our Father and Creator.

We need to give up the idea of being in control.  As a sinner, you can be in complete control of your life, but even then, you really aren’t.  Because just when you think you control everything, you realize you’re on a one-way road to hell.  If you’re filled with anger, then anger will control your life.  If you’re filled with greed, then greed dominates your thoughts and motivates all that you do.  If you’re constantly living in lust, then lust governs your body and mind.  But if you’re filled with love, then love influences everything you do.  So if you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is in control of your life.

But, I need to expound on that just a little, so you don’t start thinking puppet master again.  See, God has given each and every one of you gifts, talents, and knowledge.  Maybe you could be a banker or an accountant.  Maybe it’s between teaching and working with youth.  Perhaps it’s the choice between being an athlete or a politician.  Whichever you road choose, God will work through it in your life.  It’s the same when you hear people talk about soul mates.  God didn’t hand pick one person for you like He did Adam.  There are any number of combinations of people that would make for a good husband and wife team.  Certainly don’t wait around for that perfect match, because they don’t exist outside of Christ.

We could go on and on about the decisions we make in our lives.  But it all boils down to what Paul said to the Corinthians, “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”  The Spirit of God is truly in each and every one of you and He will work through you for the benefit of His kingdom.  So when it comes to the question of control, give it up.  Don’t micro-manage everything in life so that you’re constantly worrying about things in the future.  Live in the moment.  Trust in God to take care of you both in this world and in the time to come through the gift of forgiveness and life that He has given to you in His Son Jesus Christ. Amen.


Giving Up Popularity February 22, 2012

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Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday

February 22, 2012

Focus: God rewards His children.

Function: That the hearers give up the mindset of being popular.

Structure: Here is a prevailing view…but here is the claim of the gospel.

Giving Up Popularity

            Ash Wednesday is before us.  I don’t know how all of you feel, but working in the church office, I can tell you that Lent came quickly.  It seems like just a couple weeks ago we were celebrating Christmas.  But here we are.  And as we do every year, we come to worship on Wednesday’s during Lent; we come here to prepare ourselves; to prep ourselves spiritually for holy week.

One of the things that many Christians try during Lent is giving up something.  Catholics give up meat.  I’ve had friends give up soda or pop, chocolate, or TV.  I’ve even had a friend give up Facebook.  Perhaps a number of you are planning on giving up something this Lenten season.  If you do, remember the reason, you’re spiritually preparing yourself, aiming at a closer relationship with God.

As we move through Lent, we’re going to focus on giving things up.  But I won’t be preaching about these little things in our lives.  Instead I’ll be focusing on things that God wants us to give up in our lives permanently.  Things that all too often we find ourselves doing or wanting, even though they don’t fit what God has in mind.

Let’s set the stage then for what we’re giving up today.  You don’t know her, but Mary is a girl not unlike yourselves.  She’s a regular church attender to her home church.  But one day, she felt she really needed to confess something to her pastor:

Pastor, I have a troubling sin, and I want your help. I come to church on Sunday’s and can’t help thinking I’m the prettiest girl in the congregation. I know I shouldn’t think that, but I can’t help it. I want you to help me with it.” The pastor replied, “Mary, don’t worry about it. In your case it’s not a sin. It’s just a horrible mistake.”

Alright, so it’s a joke.  But it starts to hit the point.  It starts to question our values as a society.  In Mary’s case, it was an issue of pride, but it also was a matter of popularity.

Being good-looking tends to help you be popular in America.  As kids grow up, they’ll no doubt see that in high school, college, and even in their careers.  You certainly don’t want to have a face made for radio.  We see it all over the media, in the TV shows and movies we watch, the magazines, the billboards, you name it.

But we won’t be voting for the best looking among us today.  Our school isn’t going to have a beauty pageant.  But instead, let’s shift to the text at hand.  Matthew was very much talking about popularity in our gospel lesson today.  But yet again, this is somewhere we’ve gone astray.

In American Christianity, we’re like the Pharisees: we like to be seen.  Many Christians make a show out of obeying the law.  When they give money to church, they try to make sure everyone knows they’re giving.  If they help someone in need, they want recognition.  They get upset if they don’t get a thank you.

If you go into a group prayer with other Christians, you may notice that there are still people who compete to be the best.  They want the wordiest prayer, or the longest, or the one that’s most churchy.  The Bible tells us that God hears any and all prayers.  So just pray.  I was taught growing up that prayer is a heart to heart talk with God.  Just talk with Him.  Have a conversation.  Don’t worry what others think.

You can see popularity spread throughout Christianity.  My wife and I were watching an old episode of the Cosby Show this weekend, when they brought in a gospel choir.  In that song was Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  It made us think of prosperity gospel preachers.  You know who I’m talking about.  It’s the Joel Osteen’s from TV.  If you just do these things, God will prosper you.  He’ll make you rich.  He’ll give you that car or that job you dream of.  But it’s a popularity game, both for the preacher and the hearer.

And it leads us right back to Matthew.  You have the wrong motivation.  If you do these things, God will make you rich.  You follow the law because you think you’ll reap rewards.  You should follow the law, but you should do it because that’s what God commands and expects from you.  It’s sorta like parenting.  Should kids get paid for following the rules, or should they follow them because that’s why they’re there?  Parents set rules to help their children grow up well.  God created the law to help keep us in line.  Don’t expect a reward for something you should be doing.  Don’t expect a bonus or a promotion at work for just doing your job description.

Matthew goes through a laundry list.  Acts of righteousness before men, giving to the needy, praying, and fasting.  He could easily have kept going.  These are things that are good to do.  Things we should do.  Things God expects us to do.  But Matthew warns us, watch why you’re doing them.  Don’t be like the Pharisees and the hypocrites.  Don’t do it to be popular among the people.  Don’t look to be seen.

Jesus Christ said “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but through Me.”  Paul reflected that in our text a couple weekends ago and told us to follow Christ’s example.  That’s why we’re called Christians.  Because we follow Christ.  The earliest Christians were called “the Way” because Jesus said He was the way.

So if as Christians, we do as Christ did, we follow His example, we must constantly look back to Christ, and to what Christ did, to remind ourselves of who He was.  Was Jesus popular?  Did He want to be?  Did He expect to be?  The answer to each of those questions is “No.”

Jesus didn’t come to be the king that everyone expected Him to be.  Do you remember when the crowd tried to force Him to be their king?  They wanted Him so He would provide for them.  Most Jews expected their Messiah to come, be king, and destroy Rome.  They wanted freedom from persecution.  They wanted to become the leaders, to be the best, to be popular.  They cheered for Jesus when He came into Jerusalem, even though He rode on a young donkey.

Then what happened?  How quickly did every one turn away?  Christ did the unpopular thing when He allowed Himself to be arrested, beaten, and flogged.  He did the unpopular thing by not fighting back.  He did the unpopular thing when He bore that cross on His shoulders and carried it up to the top of Mt. Calvary.  He did the unpopular thing when He bled and died on the cross.

Think about the aftermath of these events.  Remember Peter’s triple denial.  Remember the disciples hiding from fear that the Jews would kill them.  Remember how the women went to the tomb with spices on the third day, expecting to have to treat the body for odor.  Christ didn’t do the popular thing.  He wasn’t who the people wanted.  Rather, He was precisely what the people needed.  He did what we needed.

On that day, the Son of God gave Himself up for us.  In His death, He bore our sins.  We are now forgiven.  Christ did what was expected of Him by His Father.  He didn’t do it to be popular.  That then, is where we take after Christ.  We don’t have to sacrifice our lives to forgive others, but we humble ourselves as Christ did.

As Christians, we don’t seek popularity.  We do what God expects us to do.  We live as His children, whom He loves so very dearly.  We pray, for a relationship with God.  We care for the needy, so that the needy are cared for.  We do acts of righteousness, not to be seen, but because they need to be done in this world.  I can’t promise you exactly what God meant when He said to store up treasures for yourself in heaven.  All that I do know, is that the most important part of that treasure by far is the salvation that Jesus Christ has already given to us.  Brothers and sisters, give up popularity and simply live the life that God gave you.

The Battle of Temptation February 15, 2012

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1 Corinthians 10:1-13

February 15, 2012

Focus:  God works through the temptations in our lives to draw us closer to Him.

Function: That the hearers resist the temptations in their lives.

Structure: Textual.

 The Battle of Temptation

               Good morning!  Temptation is a regular part of our life.  Think about all the temptations you and I face in a given day. Staying in bed late or procrastinating your homework until the last possible second – the temptation to be lazy. Snapping at your sibling at breakfast or taking your anger out on your parents when they just don’t understand you – the temptation of hate. Losing your temper when a teammate or a friend isn’t pulling their weight – the temptation of impatience. That moment when you’re alone with your boyfriend or girlfriend – the temptation to lust or impurity. Refusing to speak to a person who has upset you – the temptation of malice. Repeating a juicy story about someone else – the temptation to gossip.  Having a second helping and then a third – the temptation of gluttony. Posting a nasty note about someone on Facebook because they hurt you – the temptation of revenge.  Downloading or sharing music and movies that you didn’t pay for – the temptation to steal.

Temptations are a regular part of our lives.  Not only do we all have them, but we’ll never be able to avoid them all, either.  Martin Luther frequently referred to the root of sin as being the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh.  That’s true with temptation, too.  Satan is out to do whatever he can to tempt us into sinning and lead us away from God.  The world, the culture around us, certainly provide countless temptations.  And we don’t exactly help ourselves by avoiding situations that cause us to stumble.

But in both of our Scripture lessons today, Paul and James are asking us to look at temptation differently.  Christians are often so quick to pull the trigger on the law, that we equate temptation to being sin.  But that’s not the case.  Temptation leads to sin.  If temptation was a sin, then Christ would have failed in the wilderness.  Satan tempted Him.  But Jesus resisted the temptation.  Temptation is when Satan puts that thought into your head.  Sin happens when you choose to dwell on the thought or even act on it.

Sometimes we give Satan too much credit.  Sometimes we make him equal to God.  But he’s not.  Satan isn’t in your head.  He can’t know your heart or your thoughts.  He isn’t capable of being in all places at the same time.  No, but instead he relies on tricks and his demons to bring us down.  And he’s had over six thousand years of practice.  Adam and Eve in the garden.  King David and Bathsheba.  Judas Iscariot and the betrayal of Jesus.  He’s had time to hone his craft.  He toys with us.  He figures out the right strings to pull and the right time to pull them.

But Satan is far from all-powerful.  And that’s the message of the Scriptures.  But our God isn’t limited.  God knows your thoughts, your needs, your weaknesses.  And as we read from Paul, we aren’t alone in our temptations.  Nothing that you and I face today hasn’t been faced before.  Any number of our brothers and sisters in Christ have suffered the same temptation at some point along the way.

Drawing from that then, is the knowledge that we don’t have to go through it alone.  God is certainly with us in the face of temptation.  But He’s also given us resources, as He always provides a way out from temptations.  That can be through the help of friends, teachers, parents, or whoever you can talk to about what’s going on in your life.  Sometimes it’s through your relationship with God, in prayer or by reading His Word.  Whatever it may be, God always provides a way out, whether or not we take it.

That last part is something we don’t give enough thought.  Paul tells us that God doesn’t allow us to face any temptations that we aren’t capable of bearing.  It removes our excuses.  We can’t sit by and say the temptation was too great.  We can’t cast the blame on someone else whenever we give in to temptations and sin.  It’s our fault.  In times of sin, we fall short; we turn down the way out that God provided us.

Thankfully, God was prepared for our fall.  Just as He provides a way out from any and all temptations that we face, He has also provided a way out from sin.  Through the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, God gives us forgiveness.  He continues to love us and to forgive us despite our failures.  And while He doesn’t cause the temptations to happen to us, God also blesses us by working through the temptations in our lives to build us up, make us stronger, and to bring us closer in our relationship with Him.  It’s all a part of His provision for us as His beloved children.  Amen.

Do It All for the Glory of God February 12, 2012

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1 Corinthians 10:31-1:1

Epiphany 6

February 11-12, 2012

Focus: God gave up everything He had (think Jesus) for us.

Function: That the hearers “give up themselves” for the rest of God’s creation.

Structure: This is the problem…this is the response of the gospel…these are the implications.

Do it All for the Glory of God

            Among Christian churches, Lutherans have it all.  We have the fullness and purity of God’s wondrous gospel.  And, we don’t worry about the law.  Well, at least it sure can seem that way sometimes in Lutheran circles.  Paul even said it himself in last week’s epistle: “To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.”

Christian liberty, the freedom that we have from sin is a gift from God through His Son Jesus Christ.  However, for us to act as though we don’t have any law to follow would also go against the word of Scripture.  As James put it, faith without works is dead.  And as Paul finished his sentence last week, he’s not outside of the law of God, but under the law of Christ.

This law is a different sense of the word.  We see it everywhere in the language of God’s Word.  We’ve been set free from slavery to sin.  But in so doing, we’ve been made slaves to Christ.  Jesus bought us at a price.  We are His.  And in becoming His, we’ve been transformed.  Our lives have been renewed, regenerated, redeemed at the font at the time of our baptisms.  So this slavery, this law that we now face, isn’t your typical meaning.  Instead, we are His righteous, holy people, transformed and empowered to a life of service, both to God and to our neighbor.

This is the point that Paul has been hammering home over the last several chapters of his letter to Corinth.  He constantly flips metaphors, images, words, and illustrations to help them understand what he’s trying to get across.  Having already dealt with being united as God’s people and tackling several topics of sin in their midst, Paul shifts gears to tell them how they should be living.

In chapter 8, Paul uses the example of meat sacrificed to idols.  Pastor preached on this a couple of weeks ago, and how Paul would abstain from eating the meat, preferring to never eat meat again, if eating that meat meant hurting the faith of his brother.  That example was in reference to taking care of someone of weaker faith.

In chapter 9, Paul lays out the sacrifices that he’s made to share the gospel.  He doesn’t claim his rights.  He doesn’t accept pay from them so that the gospel can reach even more ears.  He does his best to learn about other groups, Jews, Gentiles, law followers, whoever it might be.  And he meets the people where they are.  Through him, the Holy Spirit then works in their lives.

And in chapter 10, he urges his brothers and sisters against this lawlessness.  He pleads with them to avoid immorality.  He cites our forefathers in the days of their wandering in the wilderness.  He demonstrates their unity, that they were one under the cloud, in baptism, and that they all drank the same spiritual drink.  Yet, he warned them that they had failed to please God.  The immoral died; those who tested Christ were bitten by serpents.  And those who grumbled against God met the Destroyer.

So Paul pleaded with them, you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons, too.  You can’t follow both Jesus and Satan.  God and sin don’t mix.  And so he rephrases an earlier argument.  Before, he brought up their common phrase “everything is permissible for me,” as an argument against their sexual sins; but, here he takes that same phrase and twists it a slightly different way: “everything is permissible, but not everything is helpful.  Everything is permissible, but not everything builds up.”

So rather than using their Christian liberty to go out and do whatever they want, Paul redirects their newfound freedom.  They’re to build one another up.  He says it again: “let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”  Don’t cause others to stumble.  Don’t live for your own pleasure, but for the good of many.  Live your life for others.

It’s something we teach correctly to our kids through that cute little acronym: JOY.  Jesus, Others, Yourself.  As Christians, we live a life of service to God.  He is first and foremost.  Our relationship with our Father is above all else.  We shall have no other gods before Him.  And we aren’t next on that totem pole, but everyone around us.  As Christians, we live our lives in service to one another.   We live as Christ said, as the salt of the earth, the light of the world.  To other Christians, we’re a means of building each other up.  We support each other, encourage one another, and live together in love and peace.  And to those who don’t know Christ, we do just the same.  We love, we support, we encourage, and we build up.

Luther knew this subject very well.  He called it vocation; and you’d be hard pressed to find a theologian throughout history who could articulate it better than him.  God has richly blessed us and given us the opportunity to live each and every day.  And part of those blessings that He gives is that He chooses to work through us in this world.  We are His means.

God works through us where we are.  As a parent, you have a role to play in your child’s life.  Children are to obey their parents, and to act like children.  Students, study hard and do what’s asked of you.  Doctors, have compassion wherever you can and heal whomever you can.  Judges, rule justly.  Soldiers, defend your country with pride and honor.  Teachers, love and encourage your children every day.  A German shoemaker once asked Luther how he could best serve God.  Luther’s response was simple: make a good shoe and sell it at a reasonable price.

It’s just as Paul said, “whether you eat or you drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”  We do that through that little acronym.  When we keep God first in our lives, and think of others before ourselves, it glorifies God.

As a husband, it’s my job to love and honor my wife at all times, to protect her, and to cherish her.  As a brother and a son, it’s my responsibility to pray for and encourage my family, to keep the relationships strong.  I don’t always do these things as well as I should, and perhaps you feel the same way about yourself.  Thankfully, as Pastor pronounced earlier, our sins are forgiven by God.

We don’t have to be a superhero.  We can’t all be Tim Tebow in our vocations, drawing immense amounts of attention to God’s name.  It’s certainly not my vocation to play professional football.  But that’s not the burden God has given to each of us.  He has made us each to be unique and works through us all differently, each in our own time and in our own place.

And it’s to this that Paul calls us today.  Having just given several examples of how he lives for others, Paul calls on us to follow his example.  And as though he hasn’t already justified his position enough, he ties it in to Christ.  “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”

Jesus didn’t live for Himself.  His entire ministry was geared towards the people.  He walked with them, talked with them, ate with them and built a number of relationships.  He taught, He preached, He encouraged. He showed hard love when it was necessary.  He demonstrated forgiveness and love in their fullness.  He also did miracles, healed, and baptized.

God certainly didn’t send His Son to die for Himself, but because of His love and care for us as His children.  Jesus didn’t go to the cross, to death, and rise again on the third day just for Himself.  He lived and died and rose, so that we too might live and should we meet death in this world, also rise.  Jesus came to save us, to love us, to forgive us.

In following Paul’s example, we are God’s creation, created in Him to care for those around us.  As Christ loved us, so we love others.  As Christ forgave us, so we forgive others.  As Christ sacrificed the pleasures and riches of the world for us, so we put our neighbor’s needs before our own.  We are free from sin.  We are free because of what Christ did for us.  And so we live both under the law of Christ, doing the things that need to be done, and under the gospel of Christ, basking in God’s glory as His beloved children.