Sunday, September 27, 2020

This, Therefore That

1 Kings 17:17-24
Now it came about after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became sick; and his sickness was so severe, that there was no breath left in him.  So she said to Elijah, "What do I have to do with you, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my iniquity to remembrance, and to put my son to death!"  And he said to her, "Give me your son." Then he took him from her bosom and carried him up to the upper room where he was living, and laid him on his own bed.  And he called to the LORD and said, "O LORD my God, hast Thou also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?"  Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and called to the LORD, and said, "O LORD my God, I pray Thee, let this child's life return to him."  And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah, and the life of the child returned to him and he revived.  And Elijah took the child, and brought him down from the upper room into the house and gave him to his mother; and Elijah said, "See, your son is alive."  Then the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth."

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity                   9/27/20

This, Therefore That

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Have you ever had one of those experiences?  You do your best, you give your all, you try to be faithful, and what happens?  You get trouble.  You have what is called "bad luck"?  Things go against you and you want to ask yourself what you bothered for?  Everyone has those times.  It seems to us like life should pay back the investment.  If I try, and if I am good, I expect to succeed and find rewards and just compensation.  Instead, I find pain and frustration and trouble.

That is the situation of this good woman of Zarephath.  We heard last week how she fed the prophet with the very last of her food.  She had just enough to make one more meal for herself and her son, and then, because the famine was so severe, she was going to sit down and wait for death.  But Elijah told her to feed him something first, and then she could go and fix that last meal.  So, she did.  And God caused the little bit of flour and the little bit of oil to last for many days – long enough for the drought to end, and a new crop to grow and new flour and oil to be produced.

She thought that she had a reason to expect a special relationship – special and good treatment from God on account of her faithfulness and generosity in difficult times.  So, imagine her surprise when her son falls ill and dies.  For some reason - probably the popular belief that your behavior determines how God works with you -  she makes a connection between her troubles and her sins of the past, whatever they may be and she figures it is a case of this, therefore that.  And that is our theme, This, therefore that.

The woman made a connection between her misfortune and her sins.  I suspect that she is making a connection that she doesn't need to make.  Surely trouble comes in our lives because we are sinners, but often they are not because of specific sins we can recall.  Life is filled with pain and illness and sorrow because we live in a fallen world, but every problem is not connected to a specific sin.  Some are – sexually transmitted diseases result from unchastity, for example.  Colds and heart trouble, strokes and cancer, however, are not necessarily traceable to specific sins, or even specific patterns of behavior.

But what the woman did that was correct – and natural – was make the connection between human troubles and sin, and between her close contact with God through the prophet, and guilt.  Because God is holy, when we come into close contact with God, either through His Word, or His messengers, the Law of God is always brought to the fore.  We don't have to look for it.  We don't need to want it.  God is holy, and wherever His holiness is seen or felt, our sin stands out in bright relief.  The Law of God is preached, even when no one says a word.

Life will be painful and difficult at times, even for Christians.  That pain and those difficulties will preach the Law to us.  They will scourge us and make us question the love of God and His good will toward us.  Pretty soon, we begin to think of sickness and trouble as the lot we have been given by God.  That is when the troubles begin, troubles like those that haunted this widow of Zarephath.  Some even begin to despair of any hope from Him – and therefore become unbelievers – because they continue to battle troubles – while they think of themselves as believers.

That is the danger.  We might allow our troubles to preach false theology to us.  We listen to our aches and our sorrows and think that we hear the heart of God toward us in those troubles.  I have seen it happen more than once.  If it does, we may have a head of faith –  and a heart of fear and worry and despair.  When that happens, we are no longer believers, at least in the sense of saving faith.  We have the faith of the head, which means we still think we believe – but we don't trust God.  We call this being "nominally Christian" – Christian in name, but not in reality.

That is not what this text is about, however.  The woman's despair and fear and guilt were in the lesson to highlight the other part.  The other part tells us about the power, and the good will, of God.  God can do anything, and He is merciful.  This is also the point of our Epistle lesson this morning, and Paul concludes the verses of our Epistle with these words, Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.

Elijah takes the dead child and prays.  Trouble and need brought the prophet to prayer.  This, therefore that.  Sometimes God uses affliction to draw His people closer to Him.  When life is good and we are pleased with everything, we tend to get sloppy about prayer and worship.  For example, statistics tell us that during the Great Depression, over ninety-five percent of Christians attended worship each and every Sunday.  According to a 2019 survey, 29 percent of Americans never attend church or synagogue, compared to 23 percent of Americans who attend every week - only about one church-member out of four bothered to come to church on any given Sunday.  Our attendance is better, of late.  We have more than half of our members in worship on any given week, statistically.

Another example of the principle is stewardship.  When I was a vicar in Austin, Minnesota, the Synod released some statistics that indicated that the average "tithe" of Christians across denominational lines during the Great Depression was 4.9% of their income. The tell-tale statistic was that at that time, the average "tithe" (during the 1970's) was 1.9%.  And it isn't as good today as it was back then.

The evidence is that we tend to grow less attentive to God, His Word, and our prayers when life gets easy and pleasant, and we grow rich.  So, God often uses sorrow, trouble, pain, and affliction to draw us back to Him and catch our attention in order to remind us of our need for His presence in our lives and in our hearts.  He may give us trouble to teach us to pray.  And when trouble comes, we should pray, and pray fervently and in faith.

But that isn't exactly where this text takes us, either.  God answers the prayers of Elijah, and brings the boy back to life!  What an amazing thing!  God can do anything.  He has the power to do whatever it is we need done.  We can trust in Him.  And the woman takes the healing of her son, this great blessing from God, and she understands that this blessing is the evidence that Elijah is God's prophet, and that what Elijah says, when he preaches God's Word, is truth.  That is the "This, therefore that" of our theme.

When God shows His power and His good will toward us, then we should be brought to trust in His Word and His promises and His will for us.  And what is the will of God toward us?

And how do we know that?  We look at the cross of Jesus Christ.  When we want to see what is in the heart of God , we do not measure His love for us or His will toward us by the moment - how we feel or whether we experience the moment as good or bad, as happy or sad, as comfortable or painful.  The moment changes constantly, but God does not change.  He says so.  His will toward us is always the same - and we find it not by feeling ourselves or by gazing at our navels, but by lifting our eyes to the cross.

God demonstrated His love for us and His will to save us by giving us His Son.  Jesus was born one of us, fully human.  What a humbling step that was!  But there was more.  He lived - poor by any standards, abject poverty by our standards today.  He faced all of the temptations to sin that are common to man.  He endured hostility toward Himself for nothing more than being holy and righteous.  Finally He allowed Himself to be falsely convicted and willingly bore our sins and guilt to the cross.  He suffered almost unimaginable agony of body - and the wrath of God against our sins in His soul.  He who is God was forsaken by God!  He died, even though He had earned the right to life without end.  He died in your place and in mine!  He paid the price demanded by the justice of God for our sins.

Then he rose again from the grave.  Just like the son of the Widow in our lesson – except He did not need a prophet throwing His body over Him and interceding with God for His life.  He laid down His life for us, and He took it up again of His own power - raised by the Spirit of God to proclaim that sin was done with, the guilt was no more, and that death had been conquered by life.  He that believes and is Baptized, shall be saved.

This, therefore that.  Because Jesus has died -- and has risen from His grave, your sins are forgiven!  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  It is by grace, and it is received by faith.  It is possessed by taking God at His Word and trusting Him and trusting His promises.  You want to be like the widow of Zarephath.  You want to see the great things that God has done for you - and find in them the evidence that God's Word is truth.

His will is so complete that He preaches to you each week, and brings you this Holy Supper of the body and blood of Jesus Christ to strengthen and establish you in His love.  Here He hides the body and blood of Jesus under the form of bread and wine so that it is visible only to faith.  Those who have seen the great deeds of God for them know that His Word is truth, and that His Word delivers the very things that He promises through it.  In this Supper He promises forgiveness and everlasting life and salvation, and health that endures eternally, and a home with God and joys eternally.  This is the Medicine of Immortality that bestows all that Christ has won for you - so that you may receive it and know that God was speaking about you and that He loves you, and that He means to rescue and save you!

So you do not need to fret and worry.  No matter what the moment may seem like, or what the danger may appear to be, or what ever, God can handle it, and His will toward you is good -- it is life and hope and peace and salvation -- and resurrection from your grave, just as He has risen from His grave!  It doesn't matter whether you are tempted to worry about your children, or your health, or your family finances, or your church, or whatever.  God can handle it, and His will is for your blessing and salvation.  You can see what God has done on the cross - and in the empty tomb of Easter.  This, therefore that.  You can trust God – and His Word is true.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, September 20, 2020

God's Way


1 Kings 17:8-16
Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, "Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and stay there; behold, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you." So he arose and went to Zarephath, and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks; and he called to her and said, ‘Please get me a little water in a jar, that I may drink." And as she was going to get it, he called to her and said, "Please bring me a piece of bread in your hand."
But she said, "As the LORD your God lives, I have no bread, only a handful of flour in the bowl and a little oil in the jar; and behold, I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for me and my son, that we may eat it and die."
Then Elijah said to her, "Do not fear; go, do as you have said, but make me a little bread cake from it first, and bring it out to me, and afterward you may make for yourself and for your son. For thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘The bowl of flour shall not be exhausted, nor shall the jar of oil be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain on the face of the earth.'"
So she went and did according to the word of Elijah, and she and he and her household ate for many days. The bowl of flour was not exhausted nor did the jar of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD which He spoke through Elijah.

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity                                     9/20/20

God's Way

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The story is told about a man who stopped by the side of the road in the country to ask a fellow who was walking down the road for directions to a nearby business establishment. First, he asked if the man was a local, and familiar with the area, and the man said, "Yes." Then he admitted being lost and asked for directions to the place. The fellow who had been walking down the road began to describe the route from this point to that. "God down to the second crossroad," he said. "And take a right, then go two miles to the dirt road on your left and turn there and go up . . .", then he realized that the road he was leading the man to was blocked. So he said, "No. Wait. Forget that. Just go left at the next corner and go up a mile and . . . No that won't work either." After making several more attempts to describe how to get from point A to point B, the fellow finally said, "Forget it. You can't get there from here."

It's a cute story, and I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't based on a real event, but I mention it to bring up the idea of different ways to get to this point or that. As I read the text, I had to ask myself what this account of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath has to do with anything in our lives. Now the obvious thought is about God providing - which He does, and which is a good thought for us to keep in mind, but He doesn't often provide in such blatantly miraculous fashion. What struck me about this text was everything around the miracle - how God prepares us, and how God delivers His providence to us, and how God works in the lives of His people. God probably will not work this same miracle for you as your checking account goes flat or your cupboards are bare, but God always cares for us, and I would like to look at that element of this text and see, in the words of our theme, this morning, God's Way.

Elijah had been commanded by God to proclaim to the evil king, Ahab, that there was going to be a severe drought - a drought which would not pass until Elijah said so. Then God commanded Elijah to go to a certain place and stay there while He would send ravens with food for Elijah in the morning and in the evening, and Elijah would drink from the stream near the place. This is how God provided for His prophet.

Now, we know that the drought lasted three years and six months. During that time, the stream dried up, and Elijah needed new provisions. That is where our text picks up. God now instructs Elijah to go to Zarephath, a city in the region of Sidon (You remember Tyre and Sidon - an area in ancient Phoenicia and modern-day Lebanon), and, God said, "I have commanded a widow there to provide for you." So Elijah went to Zarephath.

When he arrives, it becomes plain that God did not communicate this command to the woman. I don't know how Elijah picked her out and knew that it was the right woman - but he did, and God helped him, although the Bible does not tell us how. Elijah identifies the woman, and asks her to bring him a drink of water, and while she is at it, could she also bring him a cake of bread to eat. In today's society, that would seem to be pretty gutsy - but it was not out of order back then. Besides, she very quickly sized Elijah up as one of those prophet-guys.

She explains to Elijah that she would like to, but she is just now gathering a couple of pieces of wood to build a small fire, to use the last bit of her flour and oil to make the final, pitiful meal for herself and her son to eat, and then they will simply starve to death, undoubtedly due to the drought. Elijah responds by telling her to make his meal first, and then cook for herself and her son, and if she does, she will find that the flour will not be exhausted nor will her oil run out. To her credit, she believes the word of Elijah and makes his meal, and then her own, and * * to her delight and blessing * * the supplies do not run out, and she and her son - and Elijah - eat for many days - literally a long time.

The miracle is cool – but it is not likely to be repeated in ways that you will recognize as "just like Elijah and the widow". God will always provide, however. The thing is, He will usually do it in ways and through means that you do not necessarily expect. God's way is not our way, nor will we always be able to see how God can do it or how He accomplishes it when He does it. We might not even want God to do it the way He is going to do it.

Look at Elijah's case. He thought he had it made by the brook called "Cherith" which was on the east side of the Jordan River. He had water. He had bread and meat delivered to him twice a day - and that was all he needed, and pretty much all anyone in that time in history expected or hoped for - food and water - and some sort of shelter which was either a cave nearby, or Elijah built something- the Bible doesn't address that issue either. He was set for the duration and had no need, and probably no expectation, that he would be on the move again during the drought. Surely, if God could send ravens with the food Elijah needed in their mouths to feed him (and He could and did), He could keep the brook flowing.

But He did not. That was not God's way in this instance. The brook dried up, and God sent Elijah to Zarephath.

Okay. Now, look at the widow's situation. She had no adult man to take care of her, so she was destitute. The drought always hit the poor hardest - just like they always say about rising gas prices or any other social problem. She had run through her resources, and could not buy more. Everyone was hoarding - you know, take care of number one first. She was down to her last few handfuls of flour - the Hebrew word means just the amount you can fit in the palm of your hand - not a generous handful, but a very sparse handful. Her oil was about to run out too, so there was going to be no more food, and she was about to starve, along with her adolescent son. No doubt, she had only made it to this point by eating short rations and was likely almost starved at this point in time. She could see no way that she and her son would survive.

But she did survive because God stepped in, and for the sake of His prophet He extended her supply and multiplied it daily so that her little bit did not run out, even though she fed the prophet, her son, and herself for many months. She discovered God's way was capable beyond anything she could imagine.

Why her? That, too, is God's way. Jesus mentioned it once, in Nazareth when He had announced who He was and what was prophesied of Him, and they began to question Him simply because they knew Him, way back when: "But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow." This irritated the people of Nazareth, of course, because they thought it meant something about the judgment of God against them - and because they were not willing to wait upon God or His ways."

Actually, it is like grace, God's choice for God's reasons. It stood also as a judgment of Israel – they did not call, were not faithful, did not trust God - and so they did not receive. But mostly, it indicated that God could and would deal favorably with whomever He chose. You didn't need to be one of the genetic family of Abraham to find God's mercy. And God doesn't need resources to accomplish His will. He is the resources.

We need to stop and consider this miracle. Why this woman? Because God chose her to use her to accomplish the blessing of His prophet. Was she better than others, or more religious, or more open to His will? Nope. She was not even from among the "Chosen People". She was simply the one God selected - commanded is the word the text used. She didn't hear the command, nor was she aware of it until the prophet asked her for food and promised her divine provision. Nevertheless, she did what God had commanded, and was part of the way in which God worked for the blessing of His prophet. God could have kept the stream flowing and the birds bringing the food, or He could have provided for Elijah in some other ordinary way. But He did not. He did it this way so you could see that He can provide - and will provide all things in accord with His will even when there is no way and we have no resources and everything and everyone seems to be - and really is - against us.

Look at the cross. We sinned. We deserved to die. We earned His wrath and judgment - - - and yet we live and He sent Jesus to live and die for us, and He has forgiven us and rescued us and promises us that the flour and oil will never run out - that we shall live forever with Him even after death seems to have the victory. He has paid the price and redeemed us. He has promised to raise our sorry bodies from their graves and outfit them for everlasting life - and He has shown us what it will look like by raising Jesus from the dead.

And He feeds us with a food more miraculous than the bread the widow made all those months. He feeds us with His body and gives us to drink of His blood and cleanses us from all our sins and comforts us in our fears and in our shame and guilt and in our pains, and says, I will never leave you nor forsake you. It is more certain and clear than when He told Elijah, "Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and stay there; behold, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you." He has commanded His Son to provide life and salvation, forgiveness, and peace to us – and Jesus has. Already. What we see happening around us is all part of His plan – or at least He has accounted for all of it, and we are safe, and He will accomplish in us and through us all that He has planned. And while this moment or that may not be entirely to our liking, or our understanding, as long as we are His children, and faithful, God's way is the right way, and He will accomplish all that He has planned and all that He has promised, and all that we need.

So rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in everything, because this is the will of God for you - and because God's way may not always be plain to us, but it is always right, and just exactly what we need. So don't look around and try to figure out how God will do what you need or want or what we need or want. Just know that He will guard and keep and bless you. Everything will be done as it was in our text - according to the last verse of our lesson - according to the word of the LORD. That, of course, is God's way.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Monday, September 14, 2020

Two Paths

 Proverbs 4:10-23
Hear, my son, and accept my sayings, And the years of your life will be many.  I have directed you in the way of wisdom; I have led you in upright paths.  When you walk, your steps will not be impeded; And if you run, you will not stumble.  Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her, for she is your life.  
Do not enter the path of the wicked, And do not proceed in the way of evil men.  Avoid it, do not pass by it; Turn away from it and pass on.  For they cannot sleep unless they do evil; And they are robbed of sleep unless they make someone stumble.  For they eat the bread of wickedness, And drink the wine of violence.
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, That shines brighter and brighter until the full day.  The way of the wicked is like darkness; They do not know over what they stumble.  
My son, give attention to my words; Incline your ear to my sayings.  Do not let them depart from your sight; Keep them in the midst of your heart.  For they are life to those who find them, And health to all their whole body.  Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity                                  9/13/20

Two Paths

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

This time of year in the Church Calendar, the readings tend to focus on Christian living.  Our lessons this week are no exception to this rule.  The Gospel talks about faith and thanksgiving and compares those who believe with those who do not in the account of The Healing of the Ten Lepers.  The Epistle lesson compares the life led by the Spirit of God and the life lived for the flesh.  It seems quite natural, then, that the Old Testament Lesson should compare those same two conditions, and what results from them.  The results are likened to a footpath - the path of the wicked and the path of the righteous.  This morning we will examine these two, and what really makes the difference, under the theme, "Two Paths."

Our theme comes directly from the text which speaks of "the path of the wicked" and "the path of the righteous".  They are two paths that a man or a woman might choose - but only if they are the child of God.  The words of Solomon, who spoke so many of the proverbs, are intended for the believer as a guide for living.  Notice the intimate, fatherly way he proceeds:  Hear, my son, and accept my sayings, And the years of your life will be many.  I have directed you in the way of wisdom; I have led you in upright paths.  When you walk, your steps will not be impeded; And if you run, you will not stumble.  

Solomon was not directing these word to his own son in specific, but as the wise man, was playing kindly father for us all.  He calls us "son" just as the New Testament calls all Christians "sons of God".  You see, the term is not even gender specific here, for all who believe are counted as sons.  There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.  We all rank as sons - and because of Jesus we are all counted as first-born and as precious as His only-begotten Son.

He encourages us to take his words to heart, and you have got to know that these words are not merely the words of Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, but God speaking through Solomon to His chosen people - to us!  If we pay attention to these truths, we can live a good life, a satisfying life.  These words will be a solid guide even if life becomes rich, abundant and wildly successful.  That is what it means to run, and not stumble.

What are the things which we are counseled to do that we might have this good life?  First, Solomon says, "Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her, for she is your life."  He is not referring to just any instruction, mind you.  Learning is good, but learning a trade, for example, is not going to make you stumble proof.  The learning here is the moral instruction and the instruction in the faith to which God is drawing our attention.  This is the kind of instruction that the world wants to have nothing to do with.  This is what children - of all ages - object to at home and in church.  This is what the secular experts call "whiteness" or white privilege when they assault common decency as some sort of racism.  People don't mind learning, per sé, but they object to the idea of truth as truth, and to holiness in principle.  They don't want to hear that they are wicked, or that they have no automatic path to whatever good there might be in the next life, or that their conduct is sin.  Since they do not place their trust in Jesus Christ, they do not want to hear that salvation is in Him alone.  To them the idea of the free gift of eternal life by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone is dangerous, because it threatens them and their eternity with whatever the other alternative might be – and whether they admit it or not, human nature is wired to understand what the alternative to salvation and "heaven" is, and that something is coming when all is said and done.

This instruction in the faith is your life - eternal life - and yet it is also useful and effective and salutary - that's the old word for beneficial - salutary for daily life in the here and now.  That is the substance of the other points of our text.  Secondly, God warns us, "Do not enter the path of the wicked, And do not proceed in the way of evil men.  Avoid it, do not pass by it; Turn away from it and pass on.  For they cannot sleep unless they do evil; And they are robbed of sleep unless they make someone stumble.  For they eat the bread of wickedness, And drink the wine of violence."

Notice that there is no detailing here of what that path entails.  We all kind of know what it is, and other passages here in Proverbs and in the rest of Scripture fill that in for us.  Here, we are simply told to avoid it.  Do not enter the path of the wicked and do not proceed in the way of evil men.  One of the two paths is evil.  We are not to join the wicked in their ways, to turn to wickedness, no allow ourselves to be seduced into the ways of sin.  The world around us will try to do that.  Sometimes we call it "peer pressure".  Other times it is just temptation to fit in, or belong to a group, or to achieve something - success or wealth - or something - the easy way.

God says,  Avoid it.  Do not even pass by it.  Turn away from it, and keep moving.  These words remind me of my Sunday School memory work - "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not," (Prov. 1:10) or "Flee youthful lusts," (2 Tim. 2:22).  The way to avoid the paths of the wicked is to stay away, turn away to another direction when you see it in front of you, and run - physically - from temptation when it confronts you.  Put space between you and the immediate cause of your temptation.

The nature of the evil path is hinted at here, as well.  It is addictive, in a sense.  The Bible says that they cannot sleep unless they do evil.  There is something compelling about sin.  It puts me in mind of the passages that speak of us as slaves of sin.  Once you embark of the path of the wicked, you are compelled to do wicked things.  For they eat the bread of wickedness, And drink the wine of violence.  Perhaps you can identify examples of this in your own life - not big things, of course (I hope), but you may remember times when you were not going to say something - or do something - but you couldn't resist.  You spoke what you know you should not have spoken in the heat of anger in an argument, or you went ahead and did something you knew better than to do because your just felt compelled.

The path of the wicked is also infectious.  Once you go wrong, there is a powerful urge to drag others down with you.  You cannot let good enough alone.  "They are robbed of sleep unless they make someone stumble".  You can see that in how false teachers want to destroy the churches from which they arise.  How often haven't we heard the cry, "Why can't they just go somewhere else, where they agree with their false teachings"?  This is apparently why.  The path of evil compels one to seek recruits.  Jesus said, "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it."

He also said, "For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it."  The way is so narrow, in fact, that Jesus likened it to the eye of a needle.  It is the path of the righteous.  Our text doesn't tell us to choose the path of righteousness, or to decide for it, or to walk on it, as though it depended on us.  That is because it does not.  It describes the path briefly.  The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, that shines brighter and brighter until the full day.  It sounds good, but then, goodness tends to sound good.  The description is clearer, actually, by comparison to the other path:  The way of the wicked is like darkness; They do not know over what they stumble.   The path of the righteous is bright and clear-sighted and only gets better and clearer as you go.  But it is a path which we are given, not a path which we may choose.  Your only choice to depart from it.

It is, in fact, the path of faith.  Proverbs doesn't say it explicitly, but then it would be foolish to expect to find the New Testament explicit in the Old.  But even here, it is pretty clear.  Solomon says, "Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life".  The only other place where I remember hearing this language is John 7, where Jesus says, "He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.'"

The path of the righteous is path that Jesus walked.  He walked it perfectly because you and I cannot.  We are far too easily drawn to the path of the wicked.  He walked that path alone and hated.  And He died - not for walking that path, because that path is the way of life - the narrow way that few find.  You know, "For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it."  Jesus found it, and He gives it to us and places us upon it.

The words which are life are the words which tell us about Jesus and teaches our hearts to believe, and through which the Holy Spirit creates in us that faith which receives all the riches of forgiveness and life for the sake of Jesus Christ.  He places us on the path of the righteous by declaring us righteous and giving us life and salvation.   We cannot choose this path, but we can choose to remain on it and flee from the paths of the wicked.  This is the instruction to which you are to cling and never let go.  These word of God's love and grace are life and health to your body - both now and in eternity.

Solomon speaks of directing us in the way of wisdom.  Wisdom, as you know, is the proper application of knowledge.  The proper application of the knowledge of the gospel is faith.  Trust in the Lord.  There are times when doing something else will seem wise and good.  People around you will encourage you to step out, and be bold, and fit in, and run with them.  The temptation may be subtle or it may be bold and blatant and compelling.  The truth is, when you confront those moments of temptation, you are facing the moment of decision between two paths, the path on which Christ has placed you - His path, the path of the righteous - and the path of the wicked.  Wisdom tells us to turn away from that second path, flee in another direction, refuse to enter - and to refuse to continue in the company of the wicked.

God will give you the strength - and He has already given you the instruction.  When you face the two paths, walk in the path of Christ.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Monday, September 07, 2020

Not Because of Who You Are

 Leviticus 18:1-5

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘I am the LORD your God.  You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes.  You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the LORD your God.  So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the LORD.'"

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Trinity                                       09/06/20

Not Because of Who You Are

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The Fish family - the one in which I was a child - was raised to think that we were different.  We were not raised to think we were better than others, just that we were distinct individuals, and not part of any herd.  You are a Fish!  That was my father's admonition.  It was his justification for requiring us to do things no one else had to do – at least none of our friends – and for forbidding some of the things they were doing.  I know that I frustrated some people when I would repeat what my father said, "I am a Fish!", as my justification for being different, or not going along with the crowd.  People would accuse me of bragging or saying that I was better than others, or suggesting that by being a "Fish" I was somehow protected from the bad things that happened to others.  None of those ideas were ever in my thoughts.  The phrase was just the expression of the attitude inculcated by my father that I was not obligated to be just like everyone else.

Our text this morning speaks about the children of Israel, and how God desired that they would be uniquely His people.  Their behaviors were not to be formulated by watching the people who lived around them, but were to be grounded in the reality of their relationship with Him.  The reason behind their way of life was to be who their God was.  He also said that their salvation depended on who their God was as well.  As we examine these two ideas, this morning, our theme is, Not Because of Who You Are.

Our text is in the middle of a section of the Law, given to the people as part of the covenant.  Through Moses, God tells His people, Israel, that they are not to do what others do, but to do what is right and good in His sight, and His reasons are very simple; they are not just any people, they are His people!  Three times in just five verses, God says that the reason they shall not do this or that, but shall do His will, His statutes, and His judgments is because He is the Lord their God.  His claim to the right of command, and of their need to be different is because He is their God, and they are His people.  This is a call to be "holy" -- to be different, to be set aside for God and His purposes.

That is what Peter meant in 1 Peter 2:9 when he called Christians a "peculiar people".  Of course that is the King James Version.  Our NASB says, "a people for God s own possession."  You and I are also called to be unique, to be different from the world, to be holy to God -- just as He is holy: unlike anyone or anything else, in a class of His own, the only true and almighty God, and without sin.  We are called to be holy to Him, and holy for Him, and holy on account of our relationship with Him.  This Old Testament text applies directly to us.  We are to be holy too.  But the call to be holy is not a call based on who you are, but based on who God is and the fact that He is your God!

The temptation we all face is to be just like the world around us, to be profane, which fundamentally means "not religious, not initiated to the mysteries of the religion."  The sense of "profane" runs the gamut from blasphemous to simply not having any particular reference to God or religion in your life or conduct.  That is what "secular" means to many people.  But the distinction for Christians properly is not between "sacred" and "secular", as many imagine, but between "holy" and "profane."  Secular simply means "belonging to this world and age."  Profane means that it – whatever it is – doesn't recognize God as God.

We are called to be holy, set aside for God and His purposes, just as Old Testament Israel was.  We are tempted -- that s the old-fashioned word for peer pressure in this case -- to be just like our family, or just like our friends, or just like our co-workers, or just like our neighbors, in short, profane.  We are expected to act as though God doesn't exist, or that He doesn't matter much to us.  You know, one of the things that we don't talk about in polite society is religion - and if you do, you find out why people say not to do so very quickly!

  The temptation to be profane works itself out in our lives like this:  We are expected to like to go where our family and friends and acquaintances like to go.  We are expected to do the same sorts of things that they do.  We are expected to share the majority opinion on politics, religion, morals, and entertainment.  In my family of origin, I call this "group-think".  The pressure to be just like everyone else is tremendous – and it isn't just a teen-age phenomenon, as each one of you knows.  The reason that we recognize that pressure on the young is that they have not settled on how to handle it yet, and often make phenomenally bad decisions as they work the problem out.  You may not recognize peer pressure in your life because you have already compromised yourself to deal with it, or gotten used to having people upset with you because you just won't give it up and give in.

What this text says is that if we are the people of God, we must live His way and not our own.  We are to act the part of the people of God if we are, in fact, the people of God.  "You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes.  You are to perform My judgments and keep my statues, to live in accord with them."  

We are not to do like those around us, but as God instructs us.   His Word is to shape our lives, not the word of family, friends, or neighbors.  You are to be an imitator of Jesus Christ, that is, to be like Him in so far as God gives you the strength and ability to do so.

We are not even to think like the world around us.   Our values are to be God's values, not the values of men -- not even when their values seem right to us personally.  Our values are to be shaped completely by what God has said.   The words in our text about statutes are words about behavior -- but the words about the judgments of the Lord are words about values and attitudes.   God expects us to shape our attitudes and values around what He has revealed to us, if we are His people.

There are clear differences in what is considered right and wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, between our culture and what our Lord has revealed as His "judgments".   If we are faithful to His Word, we disagree with our culture and our world on issues like abortion and homosexuality.   God's Word still considers premarital sexual relations to be immoral and sin.   God reveals that He considers gossip and grumbling to be major sins, not minor peccadilloes.   And we, His faithful people, hold the confession of the truth in matters religious to be vital to a saving faith, not merely an act of religious stubbornness -- and we underscore that confession by our practice of ‘closed communion' while most of the world around us refuses both to understand and to accept either the truth we confess or the Sacrament we celebrate.   

Let me be clear, these values which we confess as Christians are not merely ours.  They are God's.  We do not hold to them because of who we are, but because of who God is, and who we are in relationship to Him.  It is for this very reason that these values generally are not popular in our society, and standing firm in them and clearly confessing them is not comfortable at all times for any of us.   And do not be fooled, those who deliberately and rigorously reject these values are not numbered among the people of God, no matter what they may say to the contrary.

We also conduct ourselves according to His will reflected in the light of our salvation.  The forgiveness which God has poured out on us must color our approach to others.  We can condemn sin - but we must be careful not to hate the sinner or condemn the person while we speak a clear confession about the values and behaviors which contradict the will and Word of God.  The act of condemning any person belongs solely to God, the final judge.  Our confession is a confession of the truth, but our hearts must be hearts of compassion and forgiveness, just as His heart is toward us.  Our enemies are not the people around us that disagree with us.  It just feels that way.  Our enemies are the "spiritual forces of darkness" that dominate the lives and thoughts of so many in our world today.  We want to rescue those people caught in the web of evil just as zealously as we want to confess the truth against error and uphold what is holy against the corruptions of our age.

What our text doesn't say in so many words, but surely intends to imply is that we are to live as the Lord's people or we are not His people.   The verses following our text say as much explicitly.   If we will not live as God's people, and follow God's ways and adopt God's values, then we are - by that act or those decisions – rejecting Him and His relationship to us as our God -- and therefore we are not His people.  

If we cannot forgive, we are rejecting forgiveness.  

If we live in fear, we are rejecting the very truth of the providence and protection of our Lord.  

For us, this is not about keeping the Law and never sinning.  We are simply incapable of that.  It is about faith, and the Gospel, and clinging to what God has done for us, first, and holding on in such a way that His grace and goodness to us makes a difference in us and in our lives.

He adopted our troubles, and He took our burdens on Himself in Jesus Christ.   He bore our sins and our guilt, and took them to the cross and endured there what we have earned in sin -- extreme suffering and death.   He purchased us to be His own, and He has laid claim to us by calling us with the Gospel and forgiving each one of us our personal sins, and giving us eternal life.   He marked each one of you as His own in Baptism, calling you by name and adopting you as His child and making you a member of His family and a fellow-partaker in His salvation and glory.  Your salvation really is not about who you are, but about who God is and what He has done!

God has paid dearly for you and has purchased the right to stand before you and say, I am the Lord your God, and on the basis of that relationship to command you to live according to His statutes and to walk in His judgments.   His right to demand it is Jesus Christ - and is written in blood on the cross, and in grace on your forehead in Baptism.   He has made us holy, by the forgiveness of sins, and He tells us in our text that we are to live in that truth and reality deliberately.  Your life, now that you are a Christian, is not so much about you.  His life – and death – was about you.  Your life is about Him, and those He set you in the midst of to love and serve.  Your life is about faith, and receiving the grace of Jesus Christ.

If we refuse to do the things which we know God commands us to do, and we reject His values and judgments, we are not simply exercising freedom, we are rejecting Him and denying His claim on us and His right to us.  We do that, for example, when we choose to believe anything directly contrary to the clear words of Scripture, such as the so-called Christian who teaches evolution, and calls the Biblical account of creation a myth.

It was much the same thing for the children of Israel.   God had rescued them from slavery, and was bringing them to the promised land.   It was on this relationship of grace and blessing that He said I am the Lord Your God.   He set before the people life and death and said, You are to perform my judgments and keep my statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the Lord your God.   So you shall keep my statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them.

Your life is a gift of God.  Your salvation is not because of who you are but because Jesus Christ is who He is and has done all that He has done.  You are saved by the grace of God, not because of who you are!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)