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Equipped to Serve October 16, 2014

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Isaiah 45:1-7

Proper 24

October 19, 2014

 

Focus:  God equips people to do His work.

Function:  That the hearers serve God in their vocations.

Structure:  This is the promise of the gospel…here is how we live out that promise.

 

Equipped to Serve

 

Take a look around you…what do you see?  I look around from up here and, first and foremost, I see all of you.  I see many of God’s children, I see brothers and sisters in Christ.  I see pews and cushions to make you comfortable.  I see Bibles and hymnals that are there to help you worship.  I see an organ and organist.  I see stained glass and stained wood.  I see a vaulted ceiling with lights hanging down so that we can see anything at all.

I turn around and, from your view, I see an altar.  I see a place where sacrifices have been made.  I see a place that is meant to remind us of a system of old, a system in which we gave of ourselves, sacrificed our possessions, our livelihood as we pleaded with God to forgive us.

But if we adjust our view just a little, if we look from just a little lower, what’s on that altar?  It’s the cross.  The cross sits there, stands there, hanging there above the altar because it trumps it.  This altar is a reminder of sacrifice.  But this cross is a greater reminder of the sacrifice.

On this cross a young man went to die.  On this cross an innocent was hung.  On this cross a deity bled.  On this cross hung our only hope of salvation.  Because what this altar couldn’t do, what our sacrifices couldn’t do, God did.

He nailed our sins to that cross.  He nailed His own Son to that cross.  Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ out of His great love for us, allowed men to nail Him to that cross.  Out of His great grace, He poured out His blood as the final sacrifice to take away our sins.  Out of His great mercy, He removed death from us.

We couldn’t.  We couldn’t earn forgiveness, we couldn’t do this by ourselves.  And God knew it and so He did it for us.  God does the work.

But as I turn around, as I look back to you, I can’t help but think there’s more to this.  And that’s because there is.  God does the work, but He works through us.

In our text from Isaiah today, God works through man.  In the midst of slavery and captivity, in the midst of a time when there was no hope, when there was only death and depression and dread.  In the midst of all of that, God heard our plea for help.

And so we learn from the prophet Isaiah that God calls Cyrus to deliver His people from their distress.  Cyrus is a king, a great king of another land.  He has an army, he has chariots and spears, swords and shields.   He has the things the people of Judah need in order to be delivered.

And the history books can tell us the rest.  Babylon was the greatest empire of its time, but its time was up.  King Cyrus and his Persian army went to work.  They destroyed the armies of Babylon and rode through victorious.  It was a new day and a new empire.

But for all that history books can tell us, they tend to leave out a few details.  A few details that the Bible is glad to share.  The prophet Isaiah, speaking for God, called out a man by name to deliver God’s people.  But the beauty in this is that Isaiah says it long before it happens, roughly 150 years before it happens.  Cyrus isn’t even born.  His parents aren’t even born at this point.  And yet God is calling him by name to do something.  But pay attention to the pronouns.

“This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: 2 I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. 4 For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. 5 I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, 6 so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7 I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.

 

Did you notice the pronouns?  Did you notice who does the work?  Who is it that takes Cyrus by hand and subdues nations?  Who is it that strips kings and opens doors?  Who levels mountains and breaks down the gates?  Who delivers riches and strength and titles of honor?  It’s Yahweh.

God proclaims in this text that He does the work.  And yet, He chooses to use His creation to get His work done.  He could have simply acted from heaven.  He could have done it without us being involved.  But He chooses, in all of His glory and wonder, He chooses to use His creation, His creatures.  He chooses to work through people to accomplish His plan, to bring about His purpose.

He did it through Pontius Pilate and the Jews.  He did it through Cyrus and the Persians.  He’s been doing it since the day He started creating.  And He’s still doing it to this day.  Because He loves us.  Because He values having a relationship with His people, with His creation.  He works in us and through us in order to strengthen that relationship, to strengthen His bond with His people.

It’s worth mentioning that Cyrus didn’t believe in God when He was first called.  But if you listen to his decree all those years later, something’s changed.  After conquering Babylon and establishing his empire, Cyrus goes to release God’s people.  And when he does, hear his proclamation:

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: Yahweh, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1)

 

You won’t find that in a history book.  Not today anyway.  But you do find it in the writings of the prophet Ezra, and of the author of Chronicles.  Cyrus proclaims to the people their freedom and that they are to return to their homes and to rebuild.  But in the midst of that, He says God’s name.  He says Yahweh, Cyrus believes.  He admits and confesses that God has given him all of these things.

Just like God called Cyrus by name, so He has called you by name.  He knows your name…how cool is that?  He called you His child in the waters of holy baptism, when He rinsed the stains of sin and blood off of you and welcomed you into His family.  And He has called you to do “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)

That’s the wonder of God working in and through His creation.  He creates relationships with us to show us His love and to save us.  That’s why I wanted you to look around and see.  What did you see?

Everything you see here is the work of God’s hands.  He created you.  He gave you faith.  He put you in this community.  Without Him, there’d be nothing here to see.  But it’s more than that.  Without us, there’d be nothing here to see.  God chose to work through us and the men and women of this community who came before us.  And as we talk about renovating this space, the children of our community, and perhaps even their children after them, will continue to see God’s work in this place.

God used our hands to build this place.  He used our interests and talents to grow this place.  He used our money to benefit His kingdom.  But then again, none of that was ours to begin with.  God gave us His gifts.  He gives us talent and time and treasure.  He entrusts them to us as part of His relationship with us.  And then He works through us and through His gifts to continue to encourage and build His kingdom.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, pastors from across our district gathered for a conference in Mankato.  And it was there that our President Dean Nadasdy preached on this same text.  And I want to borrow something that he said.  For many years, the church has been telling carpenters how they should spend their free time.  Don’t get drunk.  Come to church on Sundays.  But the number one thing we should be telling carpenters is to build a good table.

Think about that for just a second.  Your hobbies, your interests, your talents, your job, all of those things come from God.  And God uses all of those things to grow His kingdom.  Cyrus had nothing, unless God gave it to Him.  God equipped him with the things he needed to set God’s people free.   He equipped him for service.

As you go about your daily life, God is there.  He’s with you and He’s working through you.  And where God is working, there faith is happening.  As we saw with Cyrus, God works in us to create new faith in others.  So give it your all.  If you’re a teacher, teach those kids to the best of your ability.  If you’re a farmer, work hard to produce a good harvest.  If you’re a nurse, take care of your patients.  If you’re a parent, raise your children to know the Lord.  Whatever God has given you to do, do it to the best of your ability.  God loves you, He’s in a relationship with you, and He’s equipping you for His service.

 

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Pride and Perfection October 5, 2014

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Philippians 3:4b-14

Proper 22

October 5, 2014

 

Focus:  God is our source of life and strength.

Function:  That the hearers humble themselves to the point of serving.

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

 

Pride and Perfection

 

Let’s begin with a question.  I want you to take a few moments to think of some of the things in your life that you’re proud of.

Perhaps you take pride in your achievements, your job, your home, the things you’ve worked hard for.  And maybe that pride isn’t about stuff.  You’re proud of what you’ve made of yourself.  Maybe that hard work is what you’ve poured into raising a family.  You’re proud of who your little ones have become.  You’re proud to say you’re a Lutheran or a Christian.  You’re proud of any number of things.  Tuck those in the back of your mind for a few minutes.

It’s in our upbringing, it’s in the way we were raised.  There’s a special place in our heart for our own independence, our own ability to stand on our own two feet.  We’ve been taught that if you want something, you have to go and get it for yourself.  We’ve been taught that we can’t count on others to help us, we have to be able to fend for ourselves.

These ideas are so deeply rooted in our society.  They’re deeply connected to who we are.  They’re deeply connected to our dreams and our desires.  This could never be clearer than looking at our stories.  Who among us doesn’t love a feel good story about someone who didn’t have a chance, who was down and out, but then picked themselves up by the bootstraps and fought and clawed their way to a better place?  How many of our books, songs, and movies have that for a theme?  That’s part of the superhero craze.  We look up to them, we enjoy the stories, in part because it speaks to our heartfelt need for independence.  They’re doing what we wish we could do.  No matter how many times they get knocked down, they always get back up again.  They always keep fighting.

That’s where our text begins with the Apostle Paul.  As we turn to Philippians chapter three, we find Paul talking about his ability to do it on his own.

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

 

Here we find the great Apostle Paul rattling off his greatness.  Listing the ways in which he could be proud.  Eighth day circumcision means he’s followed the law from the beginning.  From that point in his life, he was part of God’s covenant, part of God’s people.

More than that, he came from the tribe of Benjamin.  The twelve tribes of Israel consisted of Jacob’s twelve sons.  By his favorite wife, Jacob had Joseph and Benjamin.  Because one of his sons Levi was given a different role as priest, he didn’t get a tribe.  So one more had to be added to keep the number at twelve.  To do that, Joseph’s descendants were split in two.  His two sons Ephraim and Manasseh both got tribes.  Thus, Benjamin was the favorite remaining child to have his own tribe.  And that’s where Paul comes from.

And as for keeping the law, of course!  Paul was a Pharisee.  These men were so strict about keeping God’s law they even made up more laws to follow.  And Paul was so ardent about his faith, he was willing to persecute those he thought were mocking God’s name.  Blameless, Paul would call himself.

This is his checklist; here he lists his worthiness before God.  If anyone can get in own his own merit, on his own two feet, it’s Paul.  But listen to what he has to say about his pride, about his keeping of the law, about the things he’s accomplished for himself:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

 

“Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”  All of this stuff, all of my pride, all of my boasting amounts to nothing.  Apart from Christ, I am nothing.  I have nothing.  I can achieve nothing.

When I looked up the word “pride” on dictionary.com, there was only one antonym listed, only one opposite.  Humility.  And that’s what this whole letter is about.  That’s what Paul’s entire letter to the church in Philippi focuses on as its theme.  Pride vs. humility.

Pride, historically, has been considered one of man’s worst traits.  And since we’re already on the internet, what would this sermon be without a reference to Wikipedia?  In its entry on the seven deadly sins, here’s what it has to say:

In almost every list, pride (Latin, superbia), or hubris (Greek), is considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and the source of the others. It is identified as believing that one is essentially better than others, failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, and excessive admiration of the personal self (especially holding self out of proper position toward God).”

 

Paul certainly saw it this way.  In his writings, Paul makes pride and boasting the same.  He makes pride and self-centeredness the same.  And this idea of pride being a negative trait actually has its roots in God’s Word.  The words “pride” and “proud” show up 87 times in the Bible.  Only six of those are positive.  The rest talk about us separating ourselves from God, of pride being our downfall, or of God’s pending destruction of the prideful.

Only six times is pride used in a good way.  And they’re the same.  Just like Paul says about boasting, the only good that comes from pride is when it’s rooted in Christ.  He’s proud that the gospel has created faith in the people of Philippi.  He’s proud that the Spirit has used him to communicate Christ’s love.

For several millennia in both church and world history, pride was considered a vice, the downfall of man.  It was seen as us separating ourselves from God.  But in America today, you hear the word just about anywhere you go.  We’re proud of our accomplishments, we’re proud of our athletes, we’re proud of our grades, we’re proud of just about everything.  And as the one song says, we’re even proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.

We like being able to say we did it ourselves.  We’ve done this great thing.  We’re independent.  We don’t need anyone’s help.  But that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Everything we’ve done amounts to nothing.  If you work hard and amass a bunch of stuff, Solomon will make you depressed, because he’ll tell you in Ecclesiastes that’s it all meaningless and you can’t take it with you.  And that’s life, apart from Christ.

We’re sinners, we’ve broken the law.  We’ve failed to achieve perfection in our lives.  But that’s where Christ comes in.  He’s the ultimate example of what Paul is trying to say.  In fact, just a chapter earlier, Paul uses Christ as the ultimate example.  He was perfect.  He could stand on His own two feet.  He could be proud of His own accomplishments.  He could have looked out for only Himself.  But He did just the opposite.  He gave of Himself, He sacrificed of Himself, He lowered Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Christ humbled Himself and became a servant, our servant.  To show us the way.

Another powerful illustration of the vast difference between pride and humility is marriage.  If you focus only on yourself, if you continue to live your life taking care of #1, marriage will be a painful and angry place.  That’s not how it was designed.  If instead, you put your spouse first, their needs before your own.  If instead, you both cast off your pride and serve the other, making yourself into a servant, sure, you’ll still have bumps along the way as sinners, but you will also be blessed to experience the bliss of life together.  And you might just be blessed enough to catch a glimpse of our relationship with God.

These things are why Paul concludes our text today by saying “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  The bad of our past is gone.  Forgotten.  Forgiven.  And now instead, we can look around us and see what God sees.  We can look around us and see people, people whom He loves.  Every person matters.

So maybe it’s time to strike pride and proud from our vocabulary.  Maybe it’s time to stop wanting to live on our own and stand on our own.  Maybe it’s time to realize that we can’t do this ourselves.  Maybe it’s time to realize that Christ has already done it for us.   Maybe it’s time to open our eyes and see Him standing at our side, giving us the strength to go another day.  Maybe it’s time to stop focusing on ourselves and start focusing on each other, as Christ did for us.