Sunday, February 27, 2022

A Still More Excellent Way

 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.

When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.

But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Sermon for Quinquagesima Sunday                                   02/27/22

A Still More Excellent Way

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Our text this morning is a very popular passage of Scripture.  It speaks about love, and does so beautifully.  It is often used as a wedding Scripture by people who do not understand it, and who have no intention of following what it teaches. It just sounds good.  Well, this morning we are going to look at what it says –  and what it says is what St. Paul calls "A still more excellent way".  It is the way of Agape love.  Our theme, this morning, is "A Still More Excellent Way."

The first thing our text says, in the first three verses is, "without Love, I am nothing!"  None of the things I can do have any power or importance without love.  Hearing this, there is something within each of us that cries out, "Surely something I do counts, somehow."  But Paul says that without love, the sort of love that God has and shows toward us, none of it matters – it is useless and possibly even counter-productive.  Even the best we have and do and intend is nothing without a genuine, God-like love.

Paul starts with speaking in tongues – both those languages that can be understood by men and those languages that only angels understand.  Tongues alone mean nothing.  Without love, all the words we can say in any language in which we may say them are no more than an irritating gong or discordant cymbals.

"Surely," you say, "if I have the learned all of the doctrines, then I am at least part way there."  Paul says, "No."  He says that I am nothing even if I know everything, and even if God Himself speaks through me, if I do not have love.  You need Prophecy and Knowledge but they are not enough by themselves.  They are not even significant without love.

Faith!, you say.  If I have faith I am safe because we are saved by grace through faith.  But Paul says that even this is not enough!  Even if I have enough faith to move mountains by telling them to get up and move, I am nothing.  Faith is not genuine, saving faith without love.

So, what I say and what I know and what I believe is not enough.  Surely, if I add my actions, and they were consistent with faith and all, then I am secure!

Once again, the Apostle Paul writes that it profits me nothing.  Even if I give all of my possessions to help the poor, or suffer horribly for the faith – he says – deliver my body to be burned – It does no good.  I can still miss the mark.  I can still fail to be a genuine Christian.  Note that even with the evident and abundant gifts of the Holy Spirit, without love I have nothing and I am nothing.  I must have love.

Then, Paul takes over four verses to picture this love for us.  He does it positively and negatively – what love is like, and what love is not like.  This is a picture of how love looks in real life.

Let me take the negative first.  These are words used to describe what love is not like.  If you see these things in yourself or others, then what you are seeing is not love, nor is the one doing them acting on love.

Love is not jealous.  We don't envy one another from love.

Love does not brag.  And, following that thought, love is not arrogant.

Love does not acting unbecomingly.  What a broad and comprehensive term: "unbecomingly." It means to say that love is attractive, not ugly, not repulsive.

Love does not seek its own.  That means that love is not self-centered.  Putting number one first, often thought to be ‘only reasonable', is not part of love.  The one who does it is not acting in love when he or she does it.

Love is not provoked.  Following in the same sort of thought, love does not take into account a wrong suffered.  That means that love is forgiving.

And finally, love does not rejoice in unrighteousness.  We take no pleasure in sin or wrong of any kind.  It seems to me that this means that gossip cannot be part of love, or flow out of one who is acting in love.  It also seems that we could not find pleasure or entertainment in unrighteousness, if we are living in and from love.  That suggests that this kind of love limits our entertainment options a bit.

On the other hand, Paul tells us what love does look like.  In many ways, it is the mirror image of the negative.  For example, love is patient.  If love is not centered in self but it is focused on others, patience makes perfect sense.  It is willing to wait for the beloved to produce what it seeks, and to forgive its failures, when needed.

Love is kind.  I hope I don't need to comment here.

Love rejoices in the truth.  It rejoices in any and every truth, because the Beloved is the way, the Truth, and the life.

Love bears all things.  This requires patience and forgiveness – and stamina.

Love believes all things.  This does not mean that love is gullible, it means that love is trusting.  We tend to take people at their word, unless we have good reason to doubt it in each specific case.

Love hopes all things.  That means that love works through faith.  We always look for the best, if we are acting on love.  Parents who love their children always look for the best, even when they have a long history of getting much less.  They look for what they hope for.

Love endures all things.  Love is not easy to destroy.  Affection and physical attraction are fragile things, but love is enduring and durable.  That is because affection and physical attraction focus on the one loving, and true agape love focuses on the one loved.

Finally, Paul sums all of these qualities up, sort of, and says, Love never fails.  Love never fails?  But who could be like this?  Who could love like this?

The answer is that Paul is not writing about us, first and foremost.  He is writing about God's love!  He is writing about real love not the sin corrupted, pathetic and pale copy of love that we prattle about in our love songs and write about in our love stories and get all warm and squishy about in the movies.  God is telling us about His love for us, and the love that He would have us live out for one another in Jesus Christ.  We each have it in us, because God gives it to us – pours His own on us, and installs it within us along with His Holy Spirit when He makes us His own!  This is the still more excellent way, of which Paul writes.

Paul then seems to break away from this love talk to talk about other things, like how we perceive reality.  When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.  It is only an appearance that the topic has changed.  He is still talking about love and us and the still more excellent way.  He is challenging the readers – and you and I this morning – to think like grown-ups, to see clearly, and to face the truth.  And what is the truth about this agape love?

The first truth is that agape love is an act of will, not primarily emotion.  Your emotions will be involved, but they are incidental.  This is a love of the intellect and will.  It is a love which sees the beloved in all their glory and all their shame, honestly.  Such agape love then sees the need of the one who is loved and intelligently plans to meet that need, or those needs if they are multiple.  Then, the one who loves with this agape love puts that plan into action without regard for circumstances – or personal risk or cost, for the sake of the other, the beloved!

The love Paul was writing about is not simply "just like God's love for us," it is the love which God has for us and which He has poured out on us!  The only way we can have this love for others is if God pours His love into us until it runs over and flows out of us.  He loved us.  He saw our need in sin, and planned to do the impossible, because that is what we needed.

He planned to punish sin, and thereby remain just and holy, and still rescue us from the guilt and punishment of our sins.  He sent His Son to be One of us, God in human flesh and fully human while still fully God.  They said it couldn't be done.  They said nobody could do it.  It is a logical impossibility.  But God tells us in Isaiah 55, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways," declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts."  God found a way to do what many, even many of those who call themselves Christians, said was impossible – still say is impossible.

God sent His Son to be born of a woman, and to keep the Law of God perfectly, and then Jesus died for us, taking the wrath of God against our sins on Himself, and dying the death we have earned, so that He could forgive us and give to all who believe eternal life with Him.  That is the love about which Paul writes.  Without this love we are nothing but death even as we live.  Without this love flowing through us, we are nothing no matter what we do.

Agape is essential and it is eternal.  We need it from God, and God has given us His love.  If we are God's, this love must be part of us for God is love.  We cannot be anything or do anything that is significant or lasting or valuable without this love.  A true Christian is filled with this love and lives out this love – not as an emotion, but as a Spirit given, and Spirit worked act of both the intellect and of the will.  Being a Christian is therefore a deliberate, not a natural, "doing what comes naturally" kind of thing.

Word and Sacrament play into our living out of this love very powerfully because -- God is the Source and the Power behind this love for us, and behind this love in us, and behind this love from us.  He works in us through the Word and Sacraments, and only through the Word and Sacraments, so if we want this love for us or in us, we must come faithfully to the Word and Sacraments – the visible signs of the love of God.

And having received from the riches of God's love, we must be like Him.  We must act like Him, with patience, forgiveness, and endurance.  We must act with others, our neighbors, in mind, with them as the objects of our love.  That is clear when Jesus commands His disciples to love one another.  But when I say "we must love", I do not mean "must" as though it is a law, a rule to be followed.  I mean that this love within us is so powerful and pervasive that it will transform those in whose hearts and souls it rests.

The message this morning of this lovely and popular passage of Scripture is that still more excellent way of love, Real, Christian love.  Anything else is a deception.  Jesus said all of this more simply, and just as beautifully in John 13:35, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."

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

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Boasting, Thorns, and Grace


2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9

For you, being so wise, bear with the foolish gladly. For you bear with anyone if he enslaves you, if he devours you, if he takes advantage of you, if he exalts himself, if he hits you in the face. To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold (I speak in foolishness), I am just as bold myself. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.

Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, He who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands.

Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows – was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. On behalf of such a man will I boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. For if I do wish to boast I shall not be foolish, for I shall be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one may credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.

And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me – to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

Sermon for Sexagesima Sunday 02/20/22

Boasting, Thorns, and Grace

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

In our text, this morning, the Apostle Paul is wrestling with an issue that is not uncommon in the Christian Church today. His teaching was being attacked. It wasn't actually a frontal attack. It was others, who disagreed with Paul, presenting themselves as more authoritative. His Corinthian congregation was being led to believe that they could better rely on the teachings of others – false apostles he called them in verse 13. In short, others were considered more reliable than Paul.

That is the situation that every pastor faces today, to one degree or another. The last pastor was more authoritative than the present pastor. The notes in the Concordia Study Bible are considered more trustworthy than the teaching of the pastor. The guy on T.V. is more believable than the guy in the pulpit. And if you came from another church, the pastor of your previous congregation is more credible, in your mind, than the pastor of your present congregation. It is only natural.

While he was answering the critics, and trying to encourage his Corinthian congregation to listen to sound doctrine, Paul covered a wide range of topics. He talked about boasting, and about all the sufferings that he had endured as a faithful teacher of Christ. He told them of unique revelations he had received, although he did not wish to seem to them to be too important in his own eyes, so he wrote about the revelations as though they were given to another person, and not himself. He discussed a problem he had – he called it "a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan". Finally, he spoke of the grace of God. There are a lot of verses here, and more stuff than I can fit into one sermon, so let's look at these verses quickly, under the theme, Boasting, Thorns, and Grace.

Paul begins this section of his letter noting the weakness of the Corinthians. They were easily confused and easily misled, and appeared almost happy to be deceived and abused by false teachers. On the other hand, they are reluctant to believe the truth. They willingly bore with the impressive men who misled them and took advantage of them, but Paul, because he was neither trying to take advantage of them nor trying to impress them with his person, was disregarded and despised.

So, for this one instance, he indulges in comparing the persons of the false apostles with his own person. He first makes sure that they know that his credentials are just as good. He is a Hebrew, and an Israelite, a Jew! He is the servant of Christ, too. Then, he boasts. He tells them of all that he has endured for Christ. He doesn't boast about his intelligence or his great learning – he boasts about what he has endured for the sake of the gospel. He boasts about all that he suffered so that they might learn of Christ and know salvation. And he invites them to compare the false apostles and their boasting to what he has borne for the sake of the truth.

Then Paul's boasting turns from his sufferings to his deep concern for his Corinthians congregation. He shares his pain – his own sense of weakness – when they are weak. He tells them that he burns with the shame of those who stumble into sin and with the desire for their repentance and reconciliation once again. He feels their needs and pains as his own and undoubtedly prays for them.

And all of this boasting is about what he endures – not who he is. It is what he endures because of the greatness of the Gospel he carries. He has good reason to endure. He tells us in the last third of the text about being caught up into heaven. He says that it is "the third heaven" – meaning the one where God dwells. Ancient people thought of the universe as existing in several concentric spheres. The first sphere was the sky. The second sphere was where the sun and the moon and the stars were. They didn't think of it as "outer space" exactly. They did not have our modern understanding, nor did they have any idea about hard vacuum or the vast distances in space. That was just a separate "sphere" of existence. The next and higher "sphere" was the realm in which God lived. Where God lived was the third heaven.

Paul said that he was caught up into the presence of God and saw things about where and how we shall live after our release from this life, and he heard things too wonderful to repeat – things he was told he would not be permitted to repeat. Those things made him the warrior for the faith that he was. He saw the truth and knew what lay before him, and it was enough to make him willing to endure all the things he endured.

What he saw was the truth of the Gospel. What he discovered worth dying for was Gospel. And even better than being worth dying for, it was worth living for. We know that Jesus died for our sins and that because of Him we shall live again. Forever. Paul saw that and experienced it in heaven. He saw the reality as it is and not as our sin-distorted perceptions allow us to imagine it is. He saw the gift of God in Jesus Christ for what it is, and it changed his life and made anything worth enduring for the sake of the prize.

When you are tempted to surrender to the temptations of this world and give up on being the faithful child of God, remember Paul. What he saw and what he heard made him willing to suffer anything. He saw the truth of forgiveness and the truth of the life to come, and the glory of God which is ours because Jesus died for our sins. It was knowing that truth that caused him to be so concerned when his Corinthian Christians rejected the truth and were so easily led into following the false apostles.

Paul also spoke about the thorn in the flesh which he endured. History doesn't tell us what the thorn was. Speculation ranges from Epilepsy to Typhus to a nagging wife. The theory that appeals most to me is that he had a problem with his eyes – possibly brought on with the Damascus road experience. When he signed his letters, he would often say something like, "See with what large letters I sign," indicating that they could tell it was his by the size, suggesting a vision problem. Whatever it was, it was a thorn.

It was one of those things about which we might say, "If only I did not have this problem, I could really get some good stuff done." Paul surely felt that way about the thorn. He called it "a messenger of Satan to buffet me." Big-time trouble. It was so troublesome that Paul prayed about it fervently to be set free from it. I am sure he told God how much more he could get done, how much more effective he would be if he only got shed of this thing! He says that he prayed three times. I understand that to mean that he prayed and got his answer three different times. He may have prayed for days or weeks before God answered. We just don't know.

And God's answer was, NO. God indicated to Paul that He was not going to relieve him. Paul would continue to struggle and suffer from this "thorn in the flesh." God's reason was simple – "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness." God told Paul that he, Paul, was more effective when it was clear that it was not Paul and who he was and what he did that made the difference. God's power is all the more effective and wonderful when it is clear that it is only by God's power that we win.

Your pains, your weaknesses, your frustrations do not inhibit God. Sometimes He had placed them there for you to work with or around, and because you cannot do what you think you are capable of doing, God makes it happen, and it is clear that it is God and not you. It reminds us that what we consider our troubles, God has delivered to us as opportunities. What we consider our weaknesses are opportunities to remain faithful and to trust God rather than ourselves.

The other side of the coin here is that God is illustrating for us in our own weaknesses the truth of the doctrine that we confess – that we do not have the power to be God's people or to do His work – but that God works through His Word, and that what we do is successful only if God blesses us. Remember the Psalm, "Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it." That's Psalm 127:1. We are not the power in the Church – God is. We are not even the power in our own lives. If we are His Children, He is the power!

Either way, what Paul tells us about Boasting and Thorns and Grace should teach us to thank God every day and never allow the moment to discourage us. God is in charge, and His grace is sufficient – even when we don't think so. His power works best when we are least able to get in His way. I shouldn't say that it is not able to work best – God works all of the time, and we cannot get in His way, but we see it most clearly when we stop imagining that we are what is important, and then we worship and trust God. And we are most capable when we stop trusting in our own power and depend, rather, on God – and stop trusting our own desires and wisdom, and start listening to and trusting God's Word.

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

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Deliberate Christianity


1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.

For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.

Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday                                                                              02/13/22

Deliberate Christianity

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Some things in this life just come naturally. You don't have to think about it, just do it. It's like shooting fish in a barrel. Easy as pie. You know I'm talking about, those things that you can do almost automatically.

Most people think of the Christian faith and life that way. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Christianity is just the opposite. Being a faithful Christian is not easy. It is far easier not to make it to the goal than it is to hold fast and be faithful and make it to eternal life. Many people act as if it is almost automatic. But our text today tells us that the only real kind of Christianity is Deliberate Christianity.

The Christian faith is not a matter of our own will or power. You cannot choose to believe, and you cannot hold yourself in faith. That is the work of God through the Word and Sacraments. We confess that in the Catechism, in the meaning to the Third Article of the Apostles' Creed, "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith."

The joy of the Gospel is that it is the gift of God from beginning to end. God has rescued you from your sins by pouring out His wrath on Jesus on the cross and pouring out His love and salvation and life upon you. It is poured out for all and received by knowing it and trusting God to do everything that He has promised to do for us and with us through Jesus Christ and on account of Him.

So, why is it, if this is all a gift do I say that it is so difficult? Why do I talk about this "deliberate Christianity"?

First of all, I do so because the Bible does so. I teach and preach what God tells us – all that God tells us, not just the parts that we like to hear, or the parts that make immediate good sense to us. This deliberate Christianity part makes good sense too – but it isn't the part that appeals to us, and our flesh wants to have it all one way or the other. Either it is something everyone gets for nothing, no questions asked, or we want it to be something we earn and we want the threshold for earning it to be low and easy so everyone we know and like gets to go. That is our flesh speaking.

Our flesh wants false doctrine. We want, quite naturally, something other than what God has established. We want universalism, where everyone gets it for nothing, or we want to work it out with our own righteousness – and want God to have to take us the way we are!

But salvation isn't about what we want it to be. It is what. it. is –– what God reveals it to be. God reveals that salvation is a gift of grace. We didn't deserve it, and yet God doesn't just take us the way we are – He transforms us. Faith is His creation, worked in us through the hearing of the Word – Romans 10:17. Nevertheless, He also tells us that while faith is a gift, you are the one who does the believing. Being a child of God makes us different – it makes a difference in us. And we participate in it. We battle against the flesh. We do it by His power and His will, but WE do it!! We are not simply spectators, but co-workers in the grace and power of God. And that is where Paul starts with us today.

He talks about salvation and our sharing in it in this world. In this world, he likens the course of the Christian life to an athletic competition. Everlasting life and glory are the goal, the prize. And the first message of our text is that the prize is worth it! They then do it [all that they do] to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.

Men do so much more for so much less. Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? . . . And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath. For wreaths and metals, and just for the satisfaction of doing better than the other competitors, men and women will do incredible things. They train. They diet. They spend money. They get up early and put themselves through such rigors to win a footrace or to swim a little faster, or to do a perfectly useless thing better than anyone else.

We do what living as a faithful Christian requires us to do for a far greater and more lasting prize – eternal life. God gives us life and faith and then places us in the midst of such lives as we live, in the face of such temptations as we face, enduring the pains and weaknesses and illnesses and troubles that we endure so that we might show His glory to others. He places us where we are to be faithful where we are and to show the world how the Child of God lives in this world. He has other reasons, too, which we do not know or understand clearly right now. He doesn't require us to know. He requires of us that we be faithful.

It is clear that when we get to the end of life, we will earnestly desire to be found faithful. Paul tells us that in our text when he says, Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. He says quite plainly that he is conscious that he could be disqualified if he does not discipline himself and train himself.

Which means You can lose! If the Apostle Paul could have been disqualified, then any one of us can be disqualified. Is Paul frightened? Is he insecure? NO. He is simply realistic and honest – and writing by the inspiration of God. He is laying before you the truth that the Christian faith is not natural – sin is natural. Corruption is natural. Death and hell are natural to us. God is working something in us and through us, that is not natural to us. Our sinful nature will chafe and rebel against it.

We will be pressured by the conformity of the sinful world. We will be led by peer pressure away from the truth and into unholy conduct and thinking. We will be tempted to think that we are secure right where we are, without finding our security in God – finding it instead in our relative goodness (compared to the worst examples of humanity we can imagine), or finding it in our religion.

Well, the truth is that those sorts of measuring sticks are always wrong. Look at ancient Israel. They were the Chosen People. God had rescued them personally from Egypt with the great signs and wonders called the Ten Plagues – blood turned to water, gnats and flies and frogs and hail that burned and the death of the first-born and the passing over of the angel of death. Surely these people were God's people by God's choice and God's work. And yet hear what Paul writes, For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.

Yes, they even were eating and drinking the spiritual food of Christ (although they did not know Him by that name at that time). They were called by God. They were rescued by God. They were fed with Manna daily by God for forty years. If anyone would have a reason to presume upon their relationship to God, you might guess that they did. Paul actually says, that God was not well-pleased with most of them, using the term God the Father used at Jesus' baptism, "well-pleased", and again at His Transfiguration. That is the judgment of God over His faithful people in Christ. He sees us as "well-pleasing", just like Jesus – because it is the righteousness of Christ that we wear in forgiveness.

If we wear it. But the conduct of the children of Israel took them out of the favor of God and set aside the righteousness which He had given them. Their conduct took God for granted, and was not faithful, and followed whatever appealed to them at the moment. They did not live or walk deliberately as the people of God.

Paul disciplines himself – buffets his body – so that he might not finally be disqualified. These personal glimpses are so that we take heed and live in what I have called deliberate Christianity. The next verse after our text, verse 6, says, Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And so forth. . . .

We also need to live out our faith. That means living out what the Bible says about sin. It is to be avoided. It is not to be taken lightly or excused easily. Our forgiveness cost the life of God's own Son. It wasn't cheap or easy.

Deliberate Christianity means acting out our confidence in Christ. We need to exercise hope and trust.

Deliberate Christianity means being deliberately conscious of where we are when we enter into worship – in whose presence we stand, and what He has done for us. That should color your singing of the hymns, focus your attention while we pray, and direct how you listen to the sermon, and what you do with it once you have heard it. I mean, whose word is it? Is it just Pastor Fish babbling on again? Or is it the very Word of God poured out through His chosen spokesman?

Deliberate Christianity means how you deal with each other. Do you gossip and grumble and politic against the very sons and daughters of God, chosen by Him and bought at the price of the blood of the only-begotten Son of God, or do you cherish them as much as your heavenly Father does – deliberately?

Paul disciplined himself and subdued his flesh so that he would not be disqualified. There is a way of life that acknowledges God and our dependence on Him – and there is a way of life that denies what we know, turns away from God and takes Him for granted, and finds security in everything but God and His grace. One way is very natural, and the other deliberate.

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. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it." Paul said, Run in such a way that you may win. That is Deliberate Christianity.

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

Sunday, February 06, 2022

More Certain than Seeing


2 Peter 1:16-21

For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, "This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased" – and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. And we have the more sure prophetic word, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday 2/06/22

More Certain than Seeing

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

There is the old proverb that says "Seeing is believing." The Bible, however, teaches us that ‘seeing' is knowing, and believing is quite another thing, and it rests on something more certain. When we see something, we aren't believing it. In fact, seeing it removes the need for and risk of simply believing.

Our text speaks of something more certain than seeing it yourself. What, you may ask, could be more certain? Well, a great deal actually, when we consider the problems of human perception, but we know that the Word of God is more sure – it is utterly dependable. So, I invite you to take a fresh look at an old passage and discover something that is more certain than seeing.

Peter's words never fit so well as they do today. Okay, maybe they always fit as well – but today people are referring to the Bible as "myth". They tell us that the Bible stories are just that, stories. They are not true, in the sense that they actually happened. They call them "myths," stories of the interaction of humanity and deities for the purpose of teaching some overarching lesson – or to support some less-than-credible religious teachings.

Now, compare that to Peter's words. What our English translations call "cleverly devised tales," Peter in the Greek actually called "sesofishmevnoi muvqoi" or, simply transliterated into English, "Sophisticated Myths." It is almost as if God was listening to the popular unbelieving critics of our day, and chose His words to directly address their words.

Peter challenges the unbelief of his day – and of ours – with a clear assertion, ". . . we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty."

Peter was seeking to assure the Christians of his day in the face of the scoffers and unbelief that confronted them. Just as is it for us today, they were being told how this new religion was an old religion "re-upholstered," as it were. I was told at a Missouri Synod college that the stories of the Bible were common re-workings of old religious myths – the mystery religions of ancient Rome, the Gnosticism of that day. But Peter answered those attacks back then with the forthright statement that he was not following some cleverly devised tale – rather, he was there.

God intended those words for us, as well. He inspired Peter to write them so that we would have his eyewitness testimony today to refute those "scholars" who take to the airwaves with one network news program or another to ridicule and deny our religion, and who publish those remarkable pieces of blasphemy each Christmas and Easter in the major metropolitan newspapers. Peter was there. He saw it all. It really happened. These are not myths or tales, but historical accounts of God stepping into human history, taking on human nature and flesh and blood and doing the amazing things the Bible tells us that He did.

I don't think the false teachers understand what they are selling. If the accounts of Scripture were merely myths and tales, there would be no reason for the religion and no need for them and their jobs. The truth, which the devil and all unbelievers understand, is that either the whole thing is fact and truth, or none of it is. Likely none of it can be if any of it is mere myth and fable. Their theology would leave us no Savior, only moralism and law, and guilt and sin – and death and hell.

We need the Jesus that the Bible portrays to us. We need Him to be human so that He can take our place, earn life, and die for us. We need Jesus to be true God so that His death is sufficient for all of us, not just for one of us. We need the death to be real, the resurrection to be factual history, the events of Scripture to be just as they present themselves, or the promises of God would be uncertain, if not simply untrue.

But God has stepped in by inspiring Peter to pen these words for us. Peter was there. He was there. He saw it. He heard the voice from the cloud. He saw Moses and Elijah and heard them speaking with Jesus about the death which lay ahead of Him in a just few days in Jerusalem. He not only claimed that these events were true, as opposed to "cleverly devised tales," but he died in the confession of these truths.

Remarkably, Peter is not saying, "You can take my word for it." He is saying that God's Word is all that we need -- if we believe! And then He tells us that we do well to pay close attention to it, as we might to a lamp burning in a very dark place. It is the light of God's Word, showing us the way we should go. It reminds one of Psalm 119:105, "Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path."

Peter says something really remarkable! I know that our modern translations say something like, "and so we have the prophetic word made more sure." What Peter was saying is not that his seeing the transfiguration made the Word of God more certain, but that the Word of God is more certain than seeing it with his own eyes! He said what I read at the beginning of the sermon, "And we have the more sure prophetic word, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts."

We have the more sure prophetic Word. An eyewitness can err. We can think we saw something we did not see, but God's Word is clear and plain, and reliable. We can go back to it time and time again, and it will be the same. It is patient and consistent and always the same Word of God.

How can the Bible be more certain than seeing? well, we begin with the truth that We walk by faith, not by sight – 2 Cor. 5:7. Nothing in our lives is to be ruled by our judgment alone. We judge every situation according to the Word of God, not simply our sense, for what feels good and seems desirable is often quite the opposite.

The application of this truth, that we walk by faith and not by sight, to our topic this morning is this; we believe Scripture is the Word of God, therefore we trust it. When it reports to us the love of God, we take that report as truthful by faith. When it tells us of our sins forgiven, paid for by the suffering and death of Jesus on the Cross for us, we believe that good news and rejoice in it! When we face trials and pain and sorrow, we have the promise of God that He will work all things together for our good, and so we find strength and comfort there and keep going and praising God in spite of what our feelings tell us because we walk by faith, not on the basis of sense or reason alone, but guided by God's promises and His love.

Now, the message of the Transfiguration is significant. We need to know that it happened. It is the testimony of God, as Jesus is about to enter the last days of His life, to be tried and executed for our sins, that Jesus is still qualified for the mission of being our Savior. It tells us that He is still the beloved Son of God and is as well-pleasing to His heavenly Father as He was at His baptism three years before, as He began His public ministry. That is important to know. But even greater than that is the testimony of Peter that the naked Word of God is even more reliable than an eyewitness account. It is more certain than having seen it himself.

Why is that important? Because, frankly, that Word of God is all that we have today. We are not eyewitnesses. We have his testimony, and that of the other eyewitnesses, and of the prophets of old. And we have God, speaking through His Apostle, telling us that the written Word which we have is more certain and reliable than seeing it for ourselves. For a scientist, seeing is the evidence. For faith, the sure Word of God is the foundation that we need – and faith is, as Hebrews says, "the evidence of things not seen".

God has answered His critics in the newspapers in advance. He has asserted that His Word is true, and theirs is the suspect account. 
The Bible is the Word of God. Because God has spoken to us and for us, we pay attention! He knows what we need. He knows how we can best live and what is going to be most helpful and healthful. We do well to pay attention to that word - like a light shining in a dark place, just as Peter tells us. It is God's Word, spoken to accomplish God's Will for us. And what is the will of God for us? [Our Salvation.]

Peter reminds us that no prophecy was made by an act of human will. None of the Scriptures are an accident or a human invention. Nor are they meant to be twisted and taken to say things that they do not say – . . . no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation. No, God's Word means what it says, not what we may want it to say, or try to twist it to say.

That is important for us to remember because God's Word tells us that our sins are forgiven for Christ's sake. Men, even in the church, are always trying to interpret that away. "You can be forgiven," they say. "You can earn forgiveness," they say. "You must be holy enough first, you must do something to receive it, you must merit it, or claim it, or something." Then you have to walk the "Christian Walk" (whatever that means) or you can lose it, or so they say.

God says that Jesus took care of it all. He has done everything we needed done because we could not be relied upon to do it – we are simply not capable of doing the holiness that we need, or bearing the price of our own sins, and yet continuing to live. So God sent Jesus to do it for us on the cross. He lived the holiness we need and bore the wrath of God against our sins in our place, He died the death that God's justice demands for our sins, and now He pours out forgiveness for all, resurrection from our graves, and eternal life – all of which is received by grace, through faith.

A final thought: Luther taught that either we believe God's Word because it is God's Word, or we make ourselves out to be God. It doesn't even matter whether we believe other doctrines of the faith, confess some version of Christ and live pious and exemplary lives. If we reject any portion of the Word of God and deny anything that it clearly teaches, we set ourselves up as the judges of truth and the source of what is to be believed. We stand as masters over God's Word, and anything else we might believe is believed only because we choose to, and because it agrees with us, or because it pleases us to believe it -- not because it is from God or His Word.

The Word of God is more sure than seeing for yourself because the One from whom the Word comes is more reliable than we are. We may count the Bible as more certain than seeing.

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