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The Wonder of a New Covenant March 22, 2015

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Jeremiah 31:31-34

Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 22, 2015

 

Focus:  God gives us the gift of a new covenant.

Function:  That the hearers look forward to the new covenant and the new creation.

Structure:  Two-Fold Prophecy.

 

The Wonder of a New Covenant

 

Last week, we journeyed together through the book of Numbers.  And we saw a cycle.  God blesses His people, and we grumble.  God blesses His people, and we sin.  Despite the awesome deliverance that they had seen and received from the hands of the Egyptians, through plagues, parting the Red Sea, drowning the Egyptian army, all they could think about was how bad the food tasted.  We broke the covenant of God.

In a way, that’s where our text picks up today.  The prophet Jeremiah is telling us of the failed covenant of old, and that instead, God is now promising us a new covenant.  Sure, we’re skipping roughly 500 years of human history, but all that time it’s basically the same cycle:  God blesses His people, and we grumble.

31 Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.

 

At the very mention of the new covenant, I know what my 6th graders are thinking: the Lord’s Supper.  I’m confident!  We’ve talked about it so much recently that they’re probably already regurgitating the words of institution in their minds.  And that’s a beautiful thing!

We’ll be looking at this in much more detail next week during Holy Week, specifically on Maundy Thursday as that’s a very important event from that day.  So for today, for now, it’s good enough to simply make the connection.  “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”  The power of the new covenant is the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross, poured out for the forgiveness of our sins.  In His blood, your sins are gone.  He redeems us from the broken covenant of old and lifts us up as God’s people once again.

33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

 

We can see how this fits with what Christ taught His disciples that night.  God makes the new covenant with the house of Israel, that is with all His people who believe in Him.  Paul, both in Romans 9 and Galatians 6, speaks of us as being the new Israel, not by flesh, but by believing in the promise.  This covenant belongs to us.

The law was then given to the people.  The people who surrounded Jesus in those days had the Scriptures and the scribes, the teachers of the law, and of course, the Pharisees.  If there was a Pharisee in your community, you could safely bet the family farm that everyone knew the law.

It was written on their hearts from childhood, having learned it from their parents and the religious leaders.  Even Christ, as He grew up, had to learn it.

And the idea that no one would have to tell their brother or their neighbor about the Lord anymore is also evident.  Remember as Jesus traveled about the region in His ministry how massive crowds seemed to follow Him wherever He went.  He was well known in that region, by the greatest and the least of the people.

And then that our sins are forgiven and forgotten comes from His blood shed for us upon the cross.  As often as we drink it, in remembrance of Him.

But yet, at the same time, these verses don’t perfectly fit with Christ’s earthly ministry.  Yet again, we have broken the new covenant.  We have gone right back to what God said, “My covenant that they broke, though I was their husband.”  A marriage works by putting your spouse before yourself.  Their needs before your own.  In that way, you take care of them, and they take care of you.  It’s self-sacrificing.  But it also helps us better understand our relationship with God.

God doesn’t have needs to be met, but it’s similar with God.  That we would put Him before ourselves.  That we would learn to trust in Him to care for us.  That He would indeed sacrifice of Himself to care for us, as He did when He put His Son on the cross.  We have often failed to put Him before ourselves.  To trust in Him before earthly things.  We constantly are putting other things first, typically starting with “me, myself, and I.”

We forgo our relationship with Him by saying it doesn’t matter.  We may not say it out loud, but we often say it with our actions.  That being with Him on a daily basis isn’t an important thing in our lives.  That being with Him and the rest of His family in His house on a regular, weekly basis doesn’t matter.  It’s more important that I sleep in from time to time.  It’s more important that I get all these other things done.

And despite having His law written upon our hearts, we still fight against it.  The angel on your shoulder says “don’t do it,” but we listen to the little devil on the other shoulder telling us how much fun it will be to have a couple drinks too many or encouraging us to get ahead in life by working so much our children don’t even know us anymore.

Despite His law being written in its entirety on paper for us to hold, we ignore it.  We come up with every excuse in the world to not open His Word on a daily basis and actually let it inform our lives, transform our lives.

All too often, we choose not to be His people.  And that is evident by simply looking around us today.  There’s no way we can say that we all know the Lord.  There’s no way we can agree with verse 34 saying that we no longer have to tell our neighbor or our brother about God, because they do need to hear it.

That’s why we know Jeremiah’s prophecy is a two-fold prophecy.  It began to be fulfilled in Christ’s work among us during His life and ministry.  But it will reach its ultimate fulfillment in the awesome return of Jesus Christ.

That day is coming.  We don’t know the day or the hour.  But it’s coming.  When Christ will return for His people and will gather us to Himself.  The day when the tombs will be broken open and the dead will be raised to life.  All of them!  Billions upon billions of people, some to judgment, but many to life.

My old classmates had this discussion this week.  What will the new creation look like?  Will we even need to have the new covenant among us?  We most certainly will.  Because God’s covenant of old and new are simply this:  I will be their God and they will be My people.  And unlike with Adam and Eve, God Himself will uphold those covenants and give us the strength to live in them every day for the rest of forever.

That is the day when we will no longer have to teach our neighbor and our brother, because they will all know the Lord.  That is the day when the law will be fully and perfectly written upon our hearts.  That is the day when we will fully be His people.

But as for the new creation, that leaves questions.  Some of the best of our theologians today talk about restoration.  They look at the original creation and how God had called it very good.  How that is the only example of perfection that we know of.  They take that and they say that that is what we have to look forward to.  A new creation, a perfect Paradise.  A place where we all live together in peace in the presence of our God.  A place where we get to enjoy the rich beauty and the wonders of His creation, still filled with plants and animals, food and water, and even the very tree of life.

The blood of Christ shed upon the cross truly does cleanse us of all our sins. And when God says forgiven and forgotten, you can take that to the bank.  We may not know with full certainly what the new creation, what everlasting life will look like, but we can count on that.  That He will be our God and we will be His people.  Sins gone.  And we get to spend forever with Him in Paradise.

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Complaining about Blessings March 15, 2015

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Numbers 21:4-9

Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 15, 2015

 

Focus:  God provides the way out!

Function:  That the hearers give thanks to the Lord for the blessings in their life.

Structure:  Walking through the Scriptures.

 

Complaining about Blessings

 

Our texts for this weekend are a preacher’s feast.  You can’t go wrong here.  Our gospel reading today includes the most well-known verse in all of Scripture.  “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  You’ll see that verse plastered on posters at almost every major event from a sports game to a rock concert.  When the NFL holds their veterans’ combine next weekend, you’ll even see it sharpied on Tim Tebow’s eye black.  It’s a tremendous summary of the Bible.

And then there’s our epistle reading, which includes what has been dubbed the Lutheran verse.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  You can see it, you can see how coming out of the Reformation and opposing a theology of works, that we had to earn our own salvation, you can see how that verse points us toward the faith that we have.  That it’s not our doing; that we can’t earn it, but that God freely gives it.

But since those are so well-known, I’m going to preach on the Old Testament today.  From the book of Numbers, which if you’ve been following our church’s devotional plan, you’ve been reading for the last several weeks.  Numbers is the fourth of five books that Moses wrote for us.  And it really has two purposes: to establish God’s law for His people to follow and to recount events on their journey through the wilderness from Mt. Sinai to the Jordan River.

So let’s set the scene, sort of a paint by Numbers if you will.  We begin on Mt. Sinai.  Moses skips over the blueprint for the tabernacle, the Ten Commandments, and the golden calf incident because he’s already talked about them at length in Exodus, even if they would fit perfectly in Numbers.  The first third of the book is about their travel from Mt. Sinai to the region of Kadesh.

We begin with their preparations for the journey.  All kinds of things, like arranging the camp and setting up the duties of the Levites, to establishing the method for confession and absolution, as well as creating a new national holiday by setting up the Passover feast, which is like the equivalent of our Thanksgiving.

By the time they finally set out, it only takes twenty verses before things get messed up.  The people begin to grumble, they start complaining about the lack of meat to eat.  At least we had meat in Egypt.  It’s thanklessness, it’s discontent, it’s rebellion.  That God would provide for them and they threw it back in His face.  And so He gives them quail, but they also suffer from a plague.

The second chunk of the book recounts their journey from Kadesh to the region just on the East side of the Jordan River, known as the Transjordan.  And along the way, Moses sends out twelve spies to go and spy out the land, to bring back some of its fruits and to give the people a report about the cities and their inhabitants.

This account from Numbers is pretty well-known, with pictures of spies walking back carrying large bunches of grapes hanging from a pole hoisted up on their shoulders.  But when they return, they don’t give a good report.  Instead, they show fear and a lack of trust.  That even though God just delivered them from the hands of Egypt, from the hands of the world’s greatest superpower in that age, and completely wiped out their army along the way, these men were still afraid of a few Canaanites.  They didn’t trust that God would indeed deliver on His promise, just as He had, well, promised.

On hearing the bad report, the Israelites rebel against Moses and against God.  This is where the punishment comes in.

Yahweh said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.  But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of Yahweh, none of the men who have seen My glory and My signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed My voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers.  And none of those who despised Me shall see it.”  – Numbers 14:20-23

 

Their actions, their rebellion, their distrust of His promises remove them from the promise.  Their punishment is that they don’t get to see the Promised Land.

It’s in this time that we hear of the man guilty of breaking the Sabbath.  That he failed to trust that the God who created the entire world in six days could take care of his proportionately smaller life even if he were to take one day off a week.  Believe it, the Sabbath is a trust issue.

And then there was Korah’s rebellion.  That surely Moses and Aaron were terrible leaders, that Korah and his men knew better what God’s will was for the people.  This is where we get the interesting challenge.  Aaron’s staff and the staff of a leader from each of the tribes were to be placed in the Tent of Meeting before the Ark of the Covenant.  And when they came back the next day, God had made Aaron’s staff, a dead piece of wood, not just bud, but fully blossom and produce almonds, overnight.

At the beginning of chapter 21, where we find our text today, the Israelites prayed to the Lord.  “If You will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.”  Then after tasting victory on the battlefield, after experiencing the power of God to drive out their enemies from before them, after naming the region Hormah, Hebrew for destruction because of their complete and utter victory there that day, after leaving the Mountain of destruction, Mt. Hor, they grow impatient with God.

We’re told: “And the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.’” We loathe this worthless food.

What food did they have?  Did they have to work for it?  Did they have any land to call their own, to plant crops and then harvest them months later?  They didn’t.  They were wanderers, sojourners in another land.  Their constant travel made it impossible to set up crops and fields.  They couldn’t sow and reap.

The food they had was a gift.  Manna and quail.  Laid out on the ground at their feet and all they had to do was bend over and pick it up.  No work, just gift.  In fact, Numbers chapter 11 describes the manna for us as tasting like “cakes baked with oil.”

That wasn’t normal food.  Imagine the work required to produce the flour, the yeast, the salt, and of course, the oil.  Oil could be made from the fat of animals or from pressing olives.  But that all took work, and lots of it, doing it by hand.  Couldn’t just walk into Fareway and buy a bottle. Cakes baked with oil. I won’t call it a delicacy, but it was real, solid food.

We’ll make just a small jump here.  Imagine waking up in the morning, walking into the kitchen, and having your favorite food, a delicious warm meal, already sitting there.  All prepared, no work.  And even better, it has all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that your body needs to go throughout the day.  Just eat up, enjoy!

That’s what they had.  God providing high quality stuff for them to eat everyday with very little work, very little cooking involved.  And yet, it wasn’t good enough.  They complained, they rebelled.  And the result this time was a plague of fiery serpents whose bite led to death.  Death is the punishment of sin, we know this, and we simply see it again here.

And yet in verse 7, the people repent, they acknowledge their sin and they ask Moses to pray to God to forgive them.  And sure enough, God answers by providing a way out.  He instructs Moses to build a serpent of bronze and to mount it on a pole.  And whenever an Israelite is bitten, they should go and look at the bronze serpent and they would live.  Notice the plague isn’t removed, the consequences of their actions remain, but forgiveness is given, they’re spared.

This connects directly and fully to our own lives.  Like the Israelites, we complain, we grumble, we grow impatient with the Lord.  He blesses us with able bodies capable of working so that we can provide for our families.  And in response, we complain about the stresses of our job or the pains we suffer.  He blesses us with the food on our tables and we complain about having to do the dishes.  He blesses us with a roof over our head to provide shelter and warmth in the midst of another freezing winter and we grumble about the upkeep that our homes need or that we need to clear a little snow off the driveway.  And when our sinful bodies grow weak and we get sick and God blesses us with the wonders of the doctors and nurses in this community, how often do we find ourselves complaining about the cost, or the care, or how long we have to stay at the hospital and eat their lousy food?  Take a moment now, but also occasionally throughout your life, take a moment, and give that some thought.  pause.  We, too, have rebelled.

And yet in the very midst of our rebellion, God has placed a bronze serpent on a pole, lifting Him up in our presence.  That whenever we are bitten by the wrath of sin, death, and Satan himself, we might look at it, and we might be spared.

I would wager that 9 out of 10 of those people holding up the John 3:16 posters have no idea that that is what John is referring to.  Do you remember last week?  Do you remember the importance of that little three letter word gar, or for?  It’s explaining something.  John 3:16 is explaining something, giving us the purpose of it.

lift up the altar cross. John tells us “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have everlasting life.  For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” – John 3:14-16.

Jesus isn’t the plague of fiery serpents, He’s the bronze snake on the pole, the One that we are to look to and be restored.  That our sins would be forgiven.  And that happens, all the time.  Paul tells us this very same thing.  “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” –Ephesians 2:4-5 “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The book of Numbers ends without the Israelites receiving the promise.  It ends with them just across the Jordan River, never fully getting there.  It ends with them waiting for God to fulfill His promises.  But it is also full of His blessings for His people.

We find ourselves once again in that same place.  So full of God’s blessings in our lives.  Yes, the Scriptures end with us waiting for the promise of Christ’s return and the power of the resurrection to new life.  We are left waiting.  But we wait in the midst of countless blessings given to us, our families, and our communities.  Take the time this week, try to count your blessings, if you can count that high.  Take the time this week to be thankful for everything that the Lord has given you.  Because He has truly given you everything.  Whether it’s the daily needs of the present, or the promise of new life in the future, He has truly given you everything.

While We Were Still Enemies March 1, 2015

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Romans 5:1-11

Second Sunday in Lent

March 1, 2015

 

Focus:  God sacrificed His own Son for His enemies (us).

Function:  That the hearers rejoice in their Savior.

Structure:  Walking through the text.

 

While We Were Still Enemies

 

Perhaps, by now, you’ve seen it.  I’m talking about McDonald’s new marketing campaign, that their food is so good, it’ll make even the worst of enemies love one another.  One of the ads they’ve been running so far this year does that, using pop culture from the last fifty years, it shows us bitter enemies, suddenly acting like best friends:

Pacman and the Ghost, Batman and the Joker, a dog and the mailman, Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West, Spongebob Squarepants and Plankton, a lumberjack and the tree, Republicans and Democrats, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, Bowser and Mario, a dragon and a knight, a few Smurfs with the wizard Gargamel, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, a beachgoer and a shark, King Kong and the fighter pilot, the two Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots, a Packers fan and a Bears fan who we’ll replace with a Vikings fan, and an angry cat with its owner.

I admit, I did chuckle when I first saw it.  But I don’t buy it.  There’s no way that those two robots who’ve been doing nothing but punching each other in the face since they were first designed back in 1964, there’s no way that they’re suddenly going to set the gloves aside and share a bag of French fries.  There’s no food that good.  Restoring a relationship with an enemy takes a lot more than that.

In our text today, Paul reminds us that we made ourselves enemies of God.  Let me paint the picture for you.  In a span of only six days, God created everything.  He created the earth, complete with its seasons and time, night and day, water and land, plants and animals.  The heavens filled with stars too numerous to count, with the sun shining brightly and giving us warmth.  Gravity, Thermodynamics, planets orbiting a sun in a solar system, DNA, and even billions of unique personalities.

God made it all!  And on the sixth day He took a step back, looked over everything and declared, “It is very good!”  Then He placed Adam and Eve, His creations, His people, His friends, He placed them into the garden.  And He gave it to them, He gave the Garden to them saying, “Take care of it.”  All of this vast creation and its beauty, He entrusted to us, to care for it, to preserve it, to help it grow and flourish.

But we know that didn’t happen.  We know that instead of choosing to follow God’s instructions, Adam and Eve chose the side of the enemy.  Despite all God had done for them, despite all that He had given them, they chose Satan instead.  They chose to follow the serpent.

It was a crushing blow to everyone.  It was more than an insult to God.  We betrayed Him, turned our backs on Him, spit in His face.  We chose the temptations of sin instead of His perfect love.  We broke our relationship with Him.  We broke the creation He entrusted to us.  And that’s when pain and suffering and death entered into the picture.  They didn’t exist before we messed it all up.

Now before you get all defensive and say, “Pastor, what do you mean we?  We weren’t in the Garden, we didn’t make that choice.  We’re just paying for their mistakes.”  Let me explain it to you another way.

At another point in history, God interceded, He broke in and tried to reclaim His creation.  He reached out to Abraham and cut a covenant with Him, saying “I will be your God and you will be My people.”  That covenant reestablished a relationship, God reached out to us and claimed us as His own.  And yet in spite of that, we did it again.  Again, we chose the enemy to love.  We chose the temptations and the desires and the sins.  We chose to abandon God and worship other things like money and power and food.  We abandoned God and chose to worship the devil.

Again, I say we because God made that covenant to include us.   But because it was broken, because our ancestors chose to leave it and not be God’s people, because they chose to sever the relationship, we are born outside of it.  We are born apart from a right relationship with God.  We are born sinful, separated from the One who made us.

And even if you still want to try and argue, we have no ground to stand on.  Just as Christ once called out to the Pharisees who wanted to stone the prostitute and said, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone,” and they all dropped their rocks and walked away, we too know that we couldn’t have thrown the stone.  We know that we have sinned.  We know that we have put other things before the Lord, whether it was work or family, money or food, gossip or lies, whatever it might have been.

One sin, one broken command was all it took to cause thousands of years of pain and death.  One sin took a creation that was very good and made it into a place where the hearts of men were nothing but evil.  We have made ourselves enemies of God.  Both directly and indirectly.

That’s a gloomy picture, the outcome looks bleak.  And a Big Mac isn’t gonna fix it.  But then we hear the words of the Apostle Paul:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

 

We get his point, we really do.  There’s no way Batman is going to lay down his life to save the Joker.  We wouldn’t do that for an enemy.  In fact, if we’re honest, we’d struggle to do that for someone we care about.  And yet, that’s precisely what God did for us.  We weren’t righteous, we weren’t good, there’s nothing here that could be deemed worth dying for, but He still did.

That’s how deep the Father’s love is for His creation, for His people.  That once again, He would break into history by sending His Son to us, that He would go to the cross and suffer a painful death for those who hate Him.  God, help me to love that way.

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

 

No amount of self-sacrifice from the lumberjack can give new life to the tree.  He just can’t do it.  No blood, no tears, no guilt, nothing can help that tree grow back again.  Nothing we can do anyway.  But the blood of Jesus, the blood He willingly shed on the cross for you and me, that can.  That blood can forgive sins.  That blood can fix the broken relationship.  That blood can cause the tree to grow again.

In the blood of Christ we are forgiven, we are healed, and our relationship with God has been restored.  That blood washes over us and delivers us from the wrath of God that we rightly deserve.  But as wonderful as that is, that’s not the end!

Christ doesn’t remain in the grave, but instead three days later, the Father gave Him new life.  And the Apostle Paul tells us that if we’re reconciled, if our relationship to God has been fixed by Christ’s death, how much more do we now have through Jesus’ life?

It’s not just the cross, but the empty tomb.  That as Christ rose again from the dead, so will we.  That as the broken world wilts and fades, as we suffer pain and death, as plants and animals around us fade, we have not just a promise, but a true and perfect hope in a resurrection.  Because if while we were still enemies of God, He loved us so much that He would give His Son for us, how much more, now that we are His children, now that the relationship is restored and beautiful again, how much more will He bless us with the good gifts that only He can give?!

11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”  We rejoice.  We enjoy the gifts that God gives us, gifts of His beautiful creation, of countless days to soak in its wonders and the blessings of life together with other people, even with the animals and other parts of God’s creation.  We rejoice by spending time with our Lord and Savior in Word and prayer.  We rejoice by loving our enemies just as He first loved us.

A Happy Meal can’t fix it.  But God most certainly can.  And He has.  In the blood of His Son, God fixed our relationship, He healed us, He’s saved us.