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From Him, Through Him, and To Him August 27, 2017

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Romans 11:33-12:8

Proper 16

August 27, 2017

 

Focus:  God tears down the prideful but builds up the humble.

Function:  That the hearers offer themselves as a living sacrifice through service to their neighbor.

Structure:  Walking through the Text.

 

From Him, Through Him, and To Him

 

One spring, two ducks and a frog became close friends on the small, local lake where they lived.  As summer came and the heat of the sun began to dry up the lake, the ducks grew concerned.  They could fly somewhere else to find a new home, but what of their friend, the frog?  After thinking for a while, the ducks came up with an idea.  They decided to share a stick by each grabbing an end in their beaks.  The frog could then hang on to the stick with his mouth as they flew him away to a new home.

While they glided over a nearby farm, the farmer looked up and was amazed at the ingenuity.  “Hey, what a great idea!  Who came up with it?”  And as the frog opened his mouth to yell out, “I did!” well, let’s just say he croaked.

There’s an old saying that pride comes before the fall.  And this is something that Pastor Fritsch spent some time last week exploring in his sermon on how the Scriptures teach us to think about racism.

We looked at the Tower of Babel, where the goal of the people was to build a tower so high, that they would make a name for themselves.  That the world around them would look to them and their power.

And it’s always been this way.  The early church around the fourth or fifth century came up with what we now call the Seven Deadly Sins, based largely on Paul’s writings in Galatians 5.  But of these seven sins, they identified pride as being the chief sin, and the one that leads to all the others.

And this is still the way it is today.  While we as Lutherans don’t normally talk about the Seven Deadly Sins, we do currently live in a culture that’s built on pride.  From the view of capitalism, companies take pride in their work and in their products, and even in their bottom line.  We see their statements of self pride become ads, slogans, and even t-shirts we pay them to wear for them to advertise for them.

On a social level, pride in equality, pride in our differences, pride in our progress.  On a national level, pride in our military, pride in our government, pride in our institutions.  Patriotism or national pride.

On a more personal level, we are taught from childhood that we should take pride in ourselves and our own accomplishments.  We are taught individualism, that we have to stand up for ourselves.  That we have to work for what we want.  If you want something in life, you have to take it.  That we should be proud of who we are.  That we are all special. We are taught that whatever we believe to be true is true.  We must believe in ourselves.

We can debate any particular one of these.  Maybe there’s a place for some, maybe not.  And not everyone is taught each of these things.  But my point in listing them out like I did was just to show you how much pride is a part of our worldstory in this culture.  Really, in any culture.

But our epistle reading today calls us out of pride and into humility.  The last part of chapter 11 is a helpful reminder: we’re not God.  We can’t even figure out all the secrets of nature and our existence.  We don’t know what’s inside a black hole.  We can’t cure every disease.  We can’t even agree on whether or not the earth is overpopulated. Or apparently, flat.

There are limits to our existence, limits to what we can accomplish, limits to who we were made to be.  The turning point verse of this particular pericope today is 11:36 – “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  To Him be glory forever.  Amen.”  The more I pondered that one phrase, the more richly I saw it.

FROM HIM – Things flow out of God.  All things come into existence because of God.  Here we can truly cherish the beauty of creation and the beauty of life.  These things are gifts from the Father, from God Himself.  Your hands, your hair, your feet, your lungs, your ability to breath, and walk, and run, and laugh, and cry.  These things are all from Him.

And while sin and pride may not come from God, He does have the answer to them.  He watched us, He watches us, as we revel in ourselves, in our own pride, in our own ability, in our own institutions.  And as we live day by day not even giving Him a thought, what did we get from God?  Was it wrath and destruction?  Far from it!  From God, we received life and salvation.

God sent His Son Jesus Christ to be our Savior.  A gift, from God.  His response to our sin and our pride and our death is forgiveness, forgiveness that flows from the pierced side of Jesus Christ, from the nail scarred hands, and from the scourged flesh.  But coming down from that cross is not wrath, but love and life in Jesus.

THROUGH HIM – John introduced his gospel account, the third verse by saying that “All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.”  John connects Jesus to creation.  It wasn’t just the Father’s act, but it was an act of the Trinity.  We were made in the likeness of God, in His image, through His speaking.  He spoke, we live.

A favorite verse for many people also uses this language.  “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  Philippians 4:13.  Now, granted, this verse is usually taken out of context.  What Paul was actually saying to the Philippian church was that through his trust in God alone, he could face any challenge this sinful world had.  Beatings, imprisonments, going before Caesar to tell him he’s not God.  Enduring times without food, times with plenty of food.  Times of great need, times of abundance.  With faith in God, Paul knew that whatever came, good or bad, through faith in God, Paul could point them to Christ.

And that’s the last turn of the phrase.  TO GOD – Where do all the verses of Scripture point us?  Where does all of creation point?  All of these things are meant to point us to Christ.  To God.  As we talk about liturgy, every part of the divine service used by Lutherans around the world points us to Christ.  Nearly everything up here points us to Christ.  Bonus points if you catch me after church and tell me what doesn’t!

Everything that we are as the people of God is to point others to Christ.  Think about that for a moment.  Why are we commanded to love our neighbor?  Is it so we can all get along?  Is it so they can live a happy life?  Is it so we can benefit a little bit, reap the rewards of a good relationship.  I have sweet tooth by the way, just gonna leave that here.

Not at all.  We are to live our lives loving our neighbor not for our good, but for theirs.  We love our neighbor to point them to God.  To Christ and Him crucified for them.  This is where Paul is going, both in the Philippians verse and here in Romans.  This is why chapter 12 is all about not pride, but being humble.

Paul calls on us, as brothers, as children of God, to sacrifice ourselves.  Not in a gruesome, bloody way, but in love.  True love is giving of yourself for the benefit of another.  I’ve become convinced recently that that’s the definition of what it means to be a man.  To give of yourself.  Self-sacrificial love as Christ gave Himself up for us.

Whether it’s racism last week, pride today, or any other topic, “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.”  Our worldstory, our very identity as Christians is not as Americans, but as children of God.

And it’s a humble identity, as we realize that everything we do points others to Him.  As Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthian (10:31) church, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  And so he continues to instruct his fellow Christians in this section.  He comes as clearly as he can in verse 3 that we should be humble, that we should put others before ourselves.  That we should love our neighbor.

It took me a long time to overcome the individualisms that I’d been taught.  It almost stopped me from being a pastor.  And I mean that, I had spoken to the seminary, to the proper people about leaving my first trimester.  I had a foot out the door.  I just couldn’t understand original sin.  I didn’t get it.  It wasn’t fair or just for me as an individual to be blamed, held accountable, and punished on account of something I didn’t even do.

And even today, I know that individual pride still lurks in my life, and still clings to me as I try to live to the glory of God.  I see it in my life, in my home, in my work, and I truly rejoice that God sent His Son to die for all of us.  That in Christ all of our sins are forgiven, all of our punishment, paid for.  All of our death, defeated by an empty tomb.

Paul spells this out.  What does this look like?  What does it look like to be the people of God?  We are the body of Christ.  Each and every one of us is a part, a member, of the same body.  Paul gave this speech more than once, to more than one church.  Maybe you’re a hand, maybe you’re an eye, or an ear.  Each person has their own place within the body.  Not as a thing of pride, or a “You owe me one.”  No.  As an interdependent family.  We, as the people of God, trusting in Him for all things, live life together, as a church, as a community, doing all things to the glory of God.

Whatever vocations you have, God is working through you in those various roles in your life to share His love, His provision, His forgiveness, His Son with the people around you.  And so Paul encourages us to do our vocations precisely as they are.  If serving, serve, if contributing, be generous, if leading, do it with zeal, with passion.  Do all to the glory of God.

 

 

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When in Doubt, Shout Out! August 13, 2017

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Matthew 14:22-33

Proper 14

August 13, 2017

 

Focus:  God saves His people even in their doubts.

Function:  That the hearers worship the One and only God of heaven and earth.

Structure:  Rev. Dr. Andrew Bartelt’s outline.

 

When in Doubt, Shout Out!

 

This section of Matthew’s gospel account actually begins with an interruption.  We’re trying to focus on the ministry and life of Jesus Christ, but on multiple occasions now, the life and ministry of John the Baptist has broken in to the history of Jesus and His disciples.

It starts in the third chapter, as John the Baptist is doing what God sent him to do.  John is preparing the way for the people to see Christ.  He’s living in the wilderness, preaching about repentance, teaching the people, baptizing anyone he could, and even rebuking the Pharisees.  But at that point, Jesus arrives, and John disappears from Matthew’s account.

We don’t hear about John again until we get another interruption.  Jesus is teaching His disciples a series on the cost of discipleship: that they will be persecuted, that Christ’s gospel will cause divisions, but that the disciples should have no fear, and that the good news of salvation is theirs.

And then messengers come from John.  We learn at this point that John’s been arrested and is likely doubting his faith.  “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  The words Jesus sends back speak to who Jesus is and what He’s come to do.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

 

Jesus is declaring to John and John’s followers the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 35.  The promise of a new creation is here.  Jesus is bringing it to us.  And at this, John disappears again.

Until we come to our chapter today.  At the beginning of chapter 14, again Matthew interrupts his telling of Jesus Christ by inserting something about John.  And this time, it’s his death.  Jesus and the disciples come to learn that John the Baptist has been beheaded at the command of King Herod.

There were already doubts as to who Jesus was and what He was doing.  And now, one of the most loyal followers of Jesus has been killed by this ruthless, false kingdom.  Where is this kingdom of God?  Where is this new creation?  Who are you Jesus?  And why don’t we see any progress?

The answer that Matthew provides to his reader is three-fold.  Three things that Jesus will immediately say and do that shows His authority, His rule over this creation, that His kingdom is already here.  We see the feeding of the 5,000, the walking on water and calming the storm, and the healing of the sick with just a touch of His garment.

First, our gospel account from last week.  No longer drawing on the prophecies of Isaiah, Jesus connects Himself directly to Yahweh.  He takes the Exodus account of the Israelites and He inserts Himself into it.  Just as God fed the Israelites in the wilderness after they fled Egypt, so now Jesus feeds the crowd of 5,000+ with table scraps.

And in our account today, Jesus proves that He has the authority over creation itself, to even defy the laws of physics, which He created.  Just as He did to save His people in the parting of the Red Sea, now Jesus shows His authority over wind and wave again.  Our text today isn’t about you being able to walk on water or do supernatural things.  Our text today is about who Jesus is, and how He saves us even from our doubts.

Because Peter is, and the other disciples.  They’re doubting.  They were facing a storm, but the text is specific.  The storm was battering the boat, but the disciples weren’t afraid yet.  Sure they were stressed, but they’re trained fisherman, this is what they do. Fear doesn’t enter the account until the disciples see a figure approaching them on the water.  It is their encounter with the God Man Jesus Christ, whom they still don’t fully know or trust.  They call Him a ghost, and they cry out in fear.

Jesus encourages them to have courage and faith.  But they still doubt.  Even Peter’s question is doubt.  He’s asking for a sign, a “prove it” moment.  “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  And then even when Jesus consents and answers Peter’s demand for proof, it still isn’t enough.  Peter steps out on the water and begins walking towards Jesus.  But as soon as he remembers the wind and the storm, he stops trusting in Christ, doubting the Lord again.

But as he plunged into the sea, in a mixture of confusion, fear, doubt, and faith, Peter cries out “Lord, save me.”  Which, happens to be what Jesus’ name means, “He saves.”  And that’s precisely what Jesus does.  To this poor brother of ours, mired in a mess of both faith and doubt, Jesus saves him.

And as they step back onto the boat together, for the second time in Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus calms the storm.  He shows His pure authority as the Creator of creation to control even the waves, as Job recorded, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed.”

When Jesus calmed the storm back in chapter 8, it was amazement on the face of the disciples.  They were wowed by first article of the creed stuff, by God being the author of creation.  “And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey Him?’”

But now, we see a change.  This time, the disciples respond in light of the third article of the creed.  They confess their faith. “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”  Jesus again identifies Himself as the God of the Old Testament, revealing Himself as Yahweh of the Exodus who parted the Red Sea, showing mastery over the waters of creation in order to save His people.

Our connection to this text isn’t about walking on water or performing miracles.  Our connection to this text is that we also have a mixture of doubts and faith.  We do not trust in the Lord for our daily bread, for good weather and government, or for a roof over our head.

We talked about this in Bible class just last week.  When it comes to your need for protection, where do you turn?  When it comes to your need for someone to provide for you, where do you turn?  When it comes to your need to be loved or to belong, where do you turn?

Every government in human history has tried to set themselves up as the answer to those questions.  They aren’t.  They’ll disappoint you time and time again.  We turn to our spouse or family for these things.  But even they can’t actually meet them.  We trust in other things, like money, or politics, or our own abilities.  But it is truly a struggle to trust in Him alone.

We also have “prove it” moments as Peter did.  If God would just heal me, I would go to church every week.  If only God would get me out of this financial disaster I’m in, I will be generous to others.  If God would just do ______, I will know that He is truly God.

We get where Peter’s coming from because we’re right there with him.  Whether it’s fear, suffering, darkness, despair, or maybe even martyrdom, we find ourselves drowning in our sin and crying out “Lord, save me!”

And, He does!  That’s what Matthew is teaching the Jews as they walk through this entire section. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God Himself.  He’s not just a man, but He is our living Lord.

And by His death on the cross, He’s answered our call of distress.  He reaches down into the pit of your despair, into the treachery of our sins and our doubts, with the gift of forgiveness.  Forgiveness spoken to you in His Word through Absolution.  Forgiveness washing over you in His Word through the waters of your baptism.  Forgiveness welling up inside you as a living water, through His Word in the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross to defeat sin, death, and the devil once and for all.  But even more precisely than that, He then gives that victory, that forgiveness, that life to you through His Word and sacrament.

So when you have doubts, when your faith is twisted in confusion, you can know precisely where to shout, “Lord, save me!”  Right here.  Right here where His promises are proclaimed, and you have His assurance of forgiveness and life.  You can see it, you can hear it, you can touch it, you can even taste it.  Here in this place, we’ve joined with the disciples in seeing Jesus for who He truly is, the Son of God, our Lord and Savior.  And to Him alone we give our worship and praise.

Compassioned Boldness August 6, 2017

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Romans 9:1-5

Proper 13

August 6, 2017

 

Focus:  God gave everything in His love for us.

Function:  That the hearers share Christ’s bold compassion with their neighbors.

Structure:  Parallels.

 

Compassioned Boldness

 

Just how far are you willing to go?  How much are you willing to sacrifice for those people you hold dear?  The loved ones, those closest to you.  Your spouse, your children, your best friend, your parents.  How much would you give of yourself to ensure their wellbeing?

What if we change the person, to say, the person sitting a few pews either behind you or in front of you?  How much would give up of yourself for that person?  Would it be difficult to say that you’d give up just as much?

What if we change the person again, but this time, to the person who lives three doors down from you, whether that’s apartments in a hallway, homes on a block, or for you farmers, about a mile, how much would you be willing to give of yourself to care for that person?  For your neighbor?

And if you’ll allow, let me push this one more time.  How much would you be willing to lay down of yourself for the person you despise the most?  The person who has caused you the most harm, or the most embarrassment?  The person who has literally stolen from you, belittled you?  What would you be willing to give that person?

In America, we have a logical worldview on this subject.  What I mean by that is the way we look at others, the way we treat others, makes sense.  We understand.  We understand if you love a good friend who loves you.  We understand if you are angry with the person who’s been gossiping about you.  We understand if you want revenge when someone has done great harm to you.

But the problem is, this logical, American way of thinking isn’t Christian.  This isn’t what Jesus taught.  It isn’t how He instructed His disciples to live.

Instead we get a fascinating text today from the letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome.  “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”

Many of you still remember The Titanic movie, but even more of you still remember the story.  This giant vessel crashing into an iceberg and plunging into the depths of the ocean.  The people flooded to the lifeboats, but there weren’t enough.  So what happened?  Well, in that time in our culture, men sacrificed themselves.  The women and children got the first seats.  The men offered their lives to save others.

That’s an extreme example from our history.  But it pales in comparison.  Paul just said that he would willingly trade places.  That if he could, he’d give up not just his life, but his everlasting life if it meant his Jewish brethren would come to know Christ, and receive everlasting life.

Now, you and I, and Paul, we know this isn’t how it works.  It’s not a seat on a boat, it’s not something Paul could trade, or even sacrifice.  But it’s a powerful statement and illustration.  The Apostle Paul was a Jew.  Born a Jew, raised a Jew.  Studied under the best teachers they had.  He was one of them, and he was in a position to be one of their leaders, if he wasn’t already.

And then it all changed.  On the Road to Damascus, when Christ appears to Paul and strikes him blind, and directs him to go on into the city where he will receive further instructions.  Paul, before losing his sight, saw the resurrected Christ.  Or, at the very least, heard His voice.  And upon reaching Damascus, the Lord sends Ananias, who heals Paul and baptizes him.  And Paul is saved.

Now, this didn’t sit well with his old Jewish friends, teachers, and well, any of them.  And Paul began to suffer at their hands.  His own list in 2 Corinthians 11 is astounding:

“with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”

 

Beaten, and not just with fists.  The lashings, the stonings, the imprisonments and torture that Paul endured at their hands.  And yet, instead of wanting revenge, instead of wanting to see them get what was coming to them, which would have been a very natural reaction, what did Paul want for them?  He wanted nothing more than to see them know Christ and be forgiven for all the pain and all the wretchedness that they had caused.

There was no grudge to be found.  In fact, just the opposite, compassion.  Paul would give up his spot for them if it worked that way.  Praise be to God that it doesn’t work that way.

Because God’s plan is infinitely better.  God’s plan was that His own Son Jesus Christ would step down into this world, taking on flesh, becoming a man, born of the virgin Mary.  That this Jesus, this Son of God would then at the hands of God’s own people endure beatings, and lashings, and even a death by crucifixion.  And that as He hung there upon the cross, rather than free Himself or call down His Father’s wrath, Jesus called out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).

Even in His dying breaths, Jesus was accomplishing what He came to do.  To forgive all people.  To forgive every man of every time and every place.  To forgive every sin committed past, present, and future.  That Christ did not hold a grudge against the wickedness of mankind, but gave His life in our place.  Spilled His blood so that we would not have to.

This is the gospel!  That you and me, in spite of our sins, in spite of our brokenness, in spite of our open and obstinate rebellion against God: you are forgiven, you are saved!  The compassion that Jesus had for His people led Him to be so bold that He would even willingly die for us.

The compassion that the Apostle Paul had for the people around him, even those we would consider his enemies, enabled him to be so bold that he would continue to preach the good news of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting in His name.  Paul didn’t cower, he didn’t step back and wait for God’s wrath.  He went to the people who needed forgiveness, who needed love, who needed a Savior, and He gave them the good news.

We are forever grateful that this good news has been proclaimed to us.  And to 2 billion other people alive today who have heard the good news and believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  And it’s not just those living, but the countless men and women that heard and shared this same gospel proclamation in the generations from Paul to us.

And so it is that this same good news overflows in us.  We share the love of Christ with our neighbor.  We look upon them, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, with compassion.  And it is this compassion for them, as it did for Paul, that leads us to be bold.  To proclaim the truth, to proclaim forgiveness and life in the name of Christ.  To our spouses and children.  To our best friends and parents.  To the people in the pews around us or the neighbors down the way.  To the very people who have done us harm.  We give of ourselves, we sacrifice of ourselves to give these people the opportunity to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  To hear of the forgiveness of their sins and our sins.  To hear of the gift of life that is for all people.