Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Agape: A Still More Excellent Way

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“And I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31b).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
If there’s ever been a part of the Bible that’s been used, misused, and abused, it’s our Epistle for today, 1 Corinthians 13. We’ve understood it in so many different ways we’re not even sure what point Paul is making, except that it’s something about love. To understand what Paul was getting at, we need to know why he wrote the great love chapter in the first place. That means backing up a bit.
Paul originally wrote this epistle to help heal and restore unity to a divided and bickering congregation. The church at Corinth was dysfunctional. They were splintered into factions. They tolerated gross sin within their midst. They offended their weaker brothers by their unwillingness to forego eating meat sacrificed to idols. They even abused the Lord Jesus’ great gift of His body and blood as they partook of Holy Communion in an unworthy manner. Each of these problems was symptomatic of a lack of love.
In all his Epistles, Paul consistently taught that faith in Christ crucified is always “active in love.” His admonitions to love have as their heart Jesus’ command to “love one another” (John 13:34), which is indispensable for the life of the Church. We should not make the mistake of equating Paul’s concept of love with the modern sentimental notion of love, which often becomes an excuse for sin. The love romanticized and glorified by the world is rooted in the self and its own emotions rather than in the needs of one’s neighbor. Even in the Church, the concept of love is devilishly twisted. The condemnation of popular sins is considered “unloving,” while a libertine accommodation of sin is said to be “showing Christ’s love.” A resolute insistence on biblical truth is called “unloving,” while doctrinal error is tolerated “in the Spirit of Christ’s love.”
God had blessed the congregation in Corinth. He had given many within it different spiritual gifts. But instead of using those gifts to live out the unity of the faith, they began to brag about the gifts they had. I suppose some wanted to show how superior they were over others, that they could do what others could not. Certainly if God had given some folks more gifts than others, obviously He must love them more, right? Otherwise, why would He have given them more gifts?
But Paul had nothing but scorn for that sort of sinful thinking and attitude. Our gifts and abilities mean nothing if the love of Christ does not move us to use them properly, from a heart of love. It’s true, some in Corinth were prideful and arrogant in their abilities and skills, and used them to show off. They would often disrupt the worship services. Instead of speaking with one voice, they spoke with many, dissonant voices, sounding like a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” And so their worship services looked more like a circus freak show, than something that strengthened and unified the body of Christ.
What is it about us that makes us want to feel like we must draw attention to ourselves, that we must advance ourselves at the expense of others? It’s our old Adam rearing his ugly head, always seeking our own self-interest, and not that of Christ and our fellow Christians. That’s why after exhorting the Corinthians to “earnestly desire the higher gifts,” St. Paul adds, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” If seeking higher gifts, if developing our gifts, and employing our gifts are to please God, one thing is necessary: love must be the mainspring and the guiding force. The still more excellent way is Christian love.
The Greek word Paul uses for “love” is agape. Agape is the highest kind of love, far removed from the erotic love and passion that saturates our culture. It is also higher than affection or personal liking or the attachment of friends. It is love like God’s love for the world in John 3:16.
God looked down and saw this foul world reeking of lust and hate and greed and rebellion and blasphemy, a cesspool of guilt and shame, a world completely unworthy of any kind of divine love, and God loved us anyway. Although He clearly saw all of our depravity, He devoted Himself to man’s welfare so deeply and intensely that He “gave His one and only Son.” Agape is a giving of self, a giving that sees no sacrifice as too great that others might live and know the love of God. Our love is to reflect this divine love. In our love for our neighbor, we are also to rise above our feelings and emotions and devote ourselves to his welfare, even if there is nothing lovable about him… even if he repels us and his conduct outrages us or disgusts us. This is the still more excellent way.
1 Corinthians 13 glorifies this kind of reckless love. All other gifts pale in comparison. Without this agape love even the greatest gifts and noblest deeds have no value. The Corinthians were extremely proud of their gift of speaking in tongues. But even if they could have spoken in the tongues of angels, it would have been no more than an impressive display of sound and noise if they used this gift without Christian love. Even if they could prophesy like Isaiah and preach like Peter at Pentecost… even if they could fathom more mysteries and knowledge than God permitted Paul… even if they had “faith, so as to move mountains” … or turned everything over to charity or gave their lives in martyrdom… all of these glorious achievements would be worthless if agape were not motivating them.
Obviously, agape is the highest form of love. It is worthy of some of the most poetic and most exalted words the inspired apostle ever wrote. No wonder, many a Christian has recorded them in his memory and heart. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
Paul presents Christian love in a personal, “hands-on” way. We are part of the body of Christ. We have been baptized into Christ. We now bear His name. And because of that baptismal grace, we too are called to live lives, giving out the same love that we have received. Agape love reflects the nature of God Himself, and looks to the ways in which it can serve our neighbor.
That’s why such love is always patient. Having been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, the Christian is not short-tempered, but long-suffering with others. In this, we imitate God, who has always displayed long-suffering in His dealings with us. Love’s second characteristic is to be kind. Again it is God who sets the example by showing unfailing kindness in the creation, preservation, and redemption of His people. His kindness to us will bear fruit in our lives.
Having shown love’s most important positive characteristics, Paul then contrasts love with what it is not. First, “love does not envy.” The Corinthians had fallen prey to jealousy through their competitiveness and warring factions. Envy is “the green-eyed monster” which is never content with the gifts it has received, but must be eyeing what others have, even trampling over others for advancement.
Love also does not behave like a braggart or windbag. Apparently some of the Corinthians had fallen into that trap. Paul taught them about the vanity of the world’s false wisdom and not to be fooled by eloquence. He also urged them to avoid the closely related sin of arrogance. Inflated egos are totally incompatible with Christian love. They fracture the unity of the body of Christ.
Love is not rude. It is concerned for what is right in the Lord’s sight and also takes care not to needlessly offend others. Furthermore, love is not easily provoked. Christians learn to control their anger. Toward that end, love does not keep a record of wrongs. In so doing, it follows the Lord of love, who did not keep a record of people’s sins, but declares that He remembers them no more. Love does not nurse a grudge. It forgives, even as Christ has forgiven.
Paul rounds off his list of the destructive patterns that mark unloving behavior: “Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing.” Love avoids the sinful human propensity not only to give tacit approval to wickedness, but even to delight in hearing about it and perpetuating it. Love rejoices in the truth of the Gospel, which means a break with unrighteousness that seeks to build up the character and reputation of our neighbor.
Paul concludes his description of love’s activities with four brief clauses about love’s tenacity. Such love “bears all things,” that is, it puts up with other people and circumstances that try its patience. It “believes all things.” That does not mean love is gullible and always believes other people, no matter what they do. Rather, faith generated by love remains steadfast in all circumstances, choosing to believe the best in others. Similarly, love has no limit to its hope. It never gives up on God. And finally, it “endures all things” as it perseveres under the cross.
After His almost lyrical description of love’s characteristics, Paul turns to love’s permanence and abiding value: “love never ends.” Just as the Word of God never falls to the ground ineffective but always accomplishes its purposes, so Christian love will retain its honored place throughout time and eternity. By contrast, the spiritual gifts so highly prized by the Corinthians possess only a temporary value. In this age, indeed, they still have their significance, but when the Last Day dawns, the gifts of prophecy, tongues, knowledge, and so on, will no longer be necessary. That’s why Paul concludes by asserting that far more important is the great triad of faith, hope, and love. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
That is agape, the love that is a still more excellent way. That is the love of God that we are called to emulate. But if you’re like me, you’ve found that you can’t live out this Christ-like love. You don’t have the ability. You can’t do it. In fact, your Old Adam doesn’t even want to do it!       
So what can you do? If it’s beyond your ability (and it is!), then you need something from outside yourself to give it to you. You see, to have the love of Christ is to have Christ. It’s that simple. You need to be filled with Christ. And where do you find Christ? In the places He has promised to be: In His Church. In His means of grace. In His Word. In His Sacraments.
In Holy Baptism, you were given the Holy Spirit, who calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, sanctifies you, and keeps you in the one true faith. The Father has adopted you as His beloved child. You are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Through daily contrition and repentance, you put to death the Old Adam that the new man may arise to live in righteousness and purity forever. In His Holy Supper, Christ gives you His very body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. In His holy Word, Christ—the Word Incarnate—keeps His promise to be with you always to the end of the age. His Word of Law shows you your sin and your need for a Savior. His Gospel cleanses you of your sins, motivates and empowers you for godly living—for godly loving.
Through each of His means of grace, Christ forgives your failure to love as you ought. Through His life-giving Word and Sacraments, Christ replenishes your spirit with His Spirit so you may love with His love.
Come then to the Word of God to get more of Christ. Come then to the Sacraments of God to get more of Christ. For here in Word and Sacrament Christ comes to you, for you, that He may be Christ in you, that the Christ in you becomes the Christ through you. That you might be a “little Christ” as you go out in the world, serving your neighbor through your various vocations.
Live in the love of Christ: a still more excellent way. You are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

The First of His Signs

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“This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Three days after He called His first disciples, Jesus arrived with them at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, a small town about nine miles north of Nazareth. Jesus’ mother was also there. We don’t know what connection they had with the wedding except Jesus’ mother was close enough to the bride and groom to be involved with the serving and to assume some authority over the servants.
Then the wine ran out. To be sure, it was not a crisis or an emergency, but it was embarrassing, a major first century social faux pas. Why they ran out of wine doesn’t matter. The text does not say, so we leave it alone. What does matter is that the stage was set for the first miracle of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus’ mother came to Him. “They have no wine,” she said. She told Him of the need, fully expecting Him to do something about it. But do what? We aren’t told specifically, but we cannot rule out that she hoped for a miracle. Remember, this was the virgin mother who had learned from an angel that she would bear the Savior. This was Mary, who, from infancy, pondered the things about Jesus in her heart. She believed in Him as the One sent from God.
“Woman, what does this have to do with Me?” Jesus says. “My hour has not yet come.” It’s a strange way of putting it, but it’s not meant to be rude. Jesus’ reply was not disrespectful, but rather hyper-respectful, polite and formal. Jesus did not address Mary as mother and He did not permit her to pull her apron strings on Him. He was Lord to her, even as she was His mother. “Woman” is a title of respect and dignity. The next time Jesus addressed Mary this way was at the cross where He entrusted her to the care of John, “Woman, behold your son.”
Jesus never hurries, nor lets others hurry Him. He waits for His hour and then meets it. Sometimes that hour meets our expectations, often it does not; and if there is going to be a conflict you know whose agenda is going to prevail. Here is a case when both lined up. Mary wanted to fill and immediate need and avoid embarrassment, and she spoke as His mother. Jesus needed to reveal Himself as the Messiah to strengthen the faith of His disciples, and He spoke as her Savior. Their purposes were essentially different, although His would also satisfy hers. Their timetables differed to, by a little. He was bound to act at the hour set for Him by the Father in heaven. In the Father’s time Jesus would work a miracle. Also in the Father’s time, three years later, Jesus would lay down His life for lost sinners.
Mary believed and trusted Jesus. She ordered the servants of the feast, “Do whatever He tells you,” We pause at these words, thinking how important they are for everyone to this day.
Mary’s faith was well placed, and the scene was set. “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing.” For ritual purification the Jews washed their hands before and after eating, and they washed the cups, pitchers, and kettles for the dinner. It was part of the washing prescribed by the Law, which soon would be no longer necessary.
Jesus came to fulfill the Law with His own perfect life and obedience. So He told the servants to “Fill the jars to the brim.” And then He said, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” Nothing else. No further words, no actions. Jesus didn’t life a finger. Just told them to fill the jars with water, then draw some out. “Do whatever He says,” was Mary’s mandate. It all rests on Jesus, and the servants’ obedient trust in His word. What happened was that washing water became wedding wine. Immediately, not by a process of fermentation as happens with ordinary wine, but in an instant, without the intervention of a middle man or a the stomping of a single grape, but solely by the Word of Jesus.
And this is no cheap stuff, either. It’s vintage wine, the good stuff. 98 on the Wine Spectator ratings. “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” The Lord provides many good things, but He always saves the best for last!
The account of Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana is often used as an example of the high place Jesus gives to the sanctity of marriage or how He often gives much more than we sinners either desire or deserve. While it is true that Jesus does honor marriage—after all, He is the one who instituted and sanctified marriage—and while it is also true that Jesus gives to all His creation, both the evil and the good, much more than they deserve—St. John does not tell this story of Jesus at the wedding feast for those reasons. St. John relates what happened that day for one purpose and one purpose alone: “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).
St. John tells us in our text, “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11). With this sign, Jesus’ disciples trusted Him; they took Him at His word. Notice, not everyone believed in Him, but His disciples did. That’s the way Jesus’ signs work—they end up dividing believers from unbelievers, scandalizing unbelievers and strengthening the faith of those who already believe in Jesus as the Messiah.
The miracle alone doesn’t create faith in Jesus; it only creates faith in miracles. But the disciples made the connection, that this Jesus whom they followed was the Lord of creation, the One who called forth plants and vegetation (including the grapes) on the third day. He is the One who created and orders all things, who is the Word in the flesh dwelling among us. He does what only God can do in a way that only God can do it. He does it with signs.
That word “signs” is significant. So let’s take a moment to ponder it.
We often think of signs as a symbol that stands in the place of something else. For St. John, this is not the case. For John, the word “sign” really means something that points to something else. A sign does not merely demonstrate a power to elicit awe and wonder; a sign confronts man with God’s presence in such a way as to demand faith and obedience. Quite literally, the Greek word that we translate as “sign” here means “mystery.” So these signs reveal something that you wouldn’t otherwise know or recognize unless it was revealed to you.
Martin Luther tells us God gives signs as something visible for our faith to hold on to. So it is that the Lord’s holy gifts of Baptism and His Supper, manifested in lowly water, simple bread, and wine, are signs. They point to Jesus because they are inextricably linked to Jesus. They are signs of Christ Jesus’ real bodily presence among us as Creator and Redeemer.
Jesus’ miraculous signs point to Him and reveal Him as the Son of God. These signs point to spiritual truth of the Christ, the Anointed One who took on our flesh, lived among us, and experienced everything that we experience. They reveal Jesus, who, while fully human and like us in every way, except without sin, is also fully God. These signs are visible manifestations that reveal Jesus for who He really is, the Word made flesh, who created all things and who upholds all things in Himself. They reveal the glory of the one and only Son of God, Jesus Christ.
This is how Jesus has chosen to reveal Himself to you and to come to you, in signs in which His Word resides. But there is a problem. The problem is not in the signs. The problem is that these are not the signs we would choose. We are an evil and adulterous generation, which seeks after all kinds of signs, just not the signs Jesus has given us. Therefore, we would seek Jesus in heartfelt emotions, which lift us to heaven so that we can feel His presence, while we despise His presence in water, Word, bread, and wine. We pray for signs from God instead of relying on the signs He has already provided.
We are afraid that Jesus will not do what He has promised unless we see or experience some sort of miraculous sign. Because of that fear, because we can’t find comfort in what Jesus has already given, we often seek Jesus in the Law. Perhaps if we manage to be little more obedient, or at least better than most people, we will find comfort. If we try harder to be better people, our guilty consciences will find rest. But the Law is empty. It cannot save; it can only accuse and destroy. We have drunk this inferior wine to the dregs, and still we are not satisfied. The jars are empty, and all we find is pain, despair, sickness, and death.
But Jesus came to fulfill the Law. Just as there were six jars to be filled, so Jesus on the sixth day of week fulfilled all the Law and the Prophets. Just as man was created on the sixth day, so the Creator re-creates His creation on the sixth day with His holy body and blood. On the sixth day, Jesus died on His cross and was placed in His grave. It is finished. His hour had come.
Still, that is not the end of the story. The One who has died is no longer dead; He lives! The new and greater Jonah, after spending three days in the belly of the earth, gives us His greatest sign. The grave is empty. He is not there. Jesus lives! He has filled the Law to the brim, and our cup runs over. He replaces the Law and the old covenant with a new and better wine. We are not purified by the Law, but by His blood. The risen body of Christ is the beginning of the new order of things. In Him and through Him, creation is renewed and revitalized.
Although this renewal is perceived now only by faith, we see signs of it in the Sacraments Jesus has given to us. Jesus continues to provide, as He did that day, signs that point to Him and who He is and what He does. Jesus has provided mysteries to you in the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There, Jesus is hidden in lowly water and simple bread and wine. In these miracles, He is revealed to you. In the Sacraments, Jesus, who revealed at Cana that He is Lord of the elements, continues to reveal Himself as Lord over all creation.
In the waters of Baptism, Jesus makes you His own. It is not that the waters of Baptism are nobler than plain water; in fact, they are plain water, except that Jesus has added His Word and commandment to it. As He turned the water into wine, with His Word and by His command, He also gave water the power to redeem you. For it is written, “Baptism… now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). Baptism is a “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). Baptism is a re-creation of that which was dead in sin. Baptism re-creates you in newness of life in Christ Jesus.
In the same manner, the Lord’s Supper is a sign of your redemption in Jesus Christ. Is it not written that the blood of Jesus cleanses you from sin? The miracle of Jesus’ true body and true blood under the elements of bread and wine reveals the mystery of your salvation in a blessed and holy sacramental union with Jesus. It is as though Jesus takes you as His bride and the two become one flesh.
On that day at the wedding celebration in Cana, our Lord revealed who He is, to us and to the world. In “this, the first of His signs” (John 2:11). On that “third day,” Jesus points us to the restoration of creation that He would accomplish on the great third day, Easter morning. Through His first sign, indeed, through all His signs, Jesus manifested His glory and revealed to us a foretaste of what was to come: the restoration of our life in our God as it is meant to be.
Jesus has given to you a sign. At Cana, at Calvary, in the font, and at the altar, Jesus gives to you a sign of His glory. And His glory revealed is also a sign: a sign of His love for you. At Cana, in the font, and at the altar, our Lord has given you signs of the renewed creation won for you on the cross at Calvary. These signs are renewed here every Divine Service. Here, Jesus reveals that His body was given for you and His blood was shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Here, you have a foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb that goes on forever. Here, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.  

Monday, January 11, 2016

Sermon for the Funeral of Roger Boomgaarden: To Be Content

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
When death comes to one whose life was marked by pain and suffering, both believers and unbelievers can be heard to say: “His death was a blessing.” For the unbeliever this conveys the idea that it is better to be dead than to be alive. But even if death were the end, would it not still be a mockery to welcome such an event which has taken a loved one from his family and friends?
For the Christian to say: “His death was a blessing,” means something much different. Dear members of the family and friends of Roger, your hearts, which are aching at the great loss you have sustained, are now yearning for a word of comfort and contentment. Let me say unto you: “Indeed, Roger’s death was a blessing to him. He is better off now than before. Death was a great gain to him.”
Among Christians, these words are comforting. We have not lost those who died. We know exactly where they are at, and we know we’ll be with them again for eternity. And they who died have gained great things. They are delivered from all sorrow and suffering. But that perhaps is the least gain. The most precious gain is that which results from their relationship to Jesus Christ. Because of that relationship, you and I can be content—both here in time and hereafter in eternity.
God’s message to you this morning deals with such contentment in life. I invite you to listen to the words of Philippians 4:10-13 and learn how . . . “To Be Content.” “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
It is a natural human pursuit to seek contentment. We all hope to be pleased, satisfied, and happy with our lives. We spend a great deal of time and money and energy seeking contentment. Occasionally and for brief periods of time, we might even achieve a bit of contentment. But we soon realize that contentment gained through money, security, travel, and the good life is transient. The “good life” does not prevent sickness or tragedy from entering into our rapidly shifting lives. In this fickle and ever-changing world, contentment turns quickly into confusion and restlessness. And we find ourselves asking, “Where can I find contentment—contentment that last for more than a moment? More than a season? Is there such a thing as being content which applies to this life and beyond?”
Paul wrote to his Christian friends at Philippi: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” Here was a man who had been imprisoned for his faith. He felt the 39 lashes of the whip on his back on no less than five occasions. He had been beaten with rods three times, stoned once, and shipwrecked three times. He had been threatened by Jews and Gentiles, endangered by rivers and robbers, and adrift at sea for a night and a day. In addition to that, Paul lived with the fact that he was personally responsible for the imprisonments and probably the deaths of many people in the Christian Church that he had persecuted before his conversion on the road to Damascus. How in the world could he say: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”?
In Roger’s life, there were many ups and downs. Perhaps more than most of us, Roger faced tremendous disappointments and tragedies—the death of his father while he was still in his teens and the death of his mother a few years ago. Certainly most trying, had to be the many years of battling his own physical ailments—two strokes and all the complications of kidney failure. Still, Roger was able to find contentment in simple things: reading, playing checkers, making donuts at Colonial Manor, and visiting with his neighbors and family.
How could he do this? How could Roger find contentment in the midst of so many struggles? It certainly wasn’t from himself. Though he was a special man, one not given to often complain, a man with a smile on his face most of the time, Roger would be the first to confess that he didn’t have that much inner strength. No, Roger’s contentment was found in his faith. So content was he as we met several times this last month, he said he was ready to go home if that was God’s will. If not exactly in his words, certainly in his actions, Roger modeled the words of Paul: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
Where in the world can one find such contentment? Certainly, and especially at times like this, you recognize it is not in money, pleasure, material possessions, family, people, or any other thing in this world. For these all too soon vanish. It is not to be found in oneself, either—for inside here, we find a guilty conscience that will not let us rest, a mind that is not always wise, a body that is getting sick and worn out. And it’s certainly not found in the future, for none of us know how much time we have left in this world. Even within this sanctuary today, how many of us are at this moment carrying around the beginnings of cancer, heart disease that is progressing, or perhaps, even like Roger, the complications of stroke? Who will be next? How long will it be before your mortal remains occupy the front of a sanctuary like this? Let’s face it, such thoughts do not make us very content!
Where can you find contentment? It can be found only where Paul and Roger found it—in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God, in His grace, looked upon mankind’s hopelessness and the eternal destruction caused by sin and intervened. The perfect Son of God was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, and lived to die on the cross that you might be content knowing that your sins have been forgiven for His sake, that His death means life for you, and that all of God’s wrath was taken by Christ on the cross so that you would be totally and completely acceptable to the Almighty.  
As I reminded Roger a couple of days ago, if God allowed that to happen to His own beloved Son on the cross, if He, in fact, gave His own Son into death that you might not perish but have everlasting life, do you think for a second that He doesn’t love you and forgive you and call you His own and raise you up to everlasting life?
The resurrection of Christ gives us the guarantee that death is not the end, that this is not the end of life but rather the beginning of what real life—the life that God wants for you—is all about! This what St. Paul believed and he was (and is) content. This is what Roger believed and he was (and is) content.
This Good News is something that can make you content as well, and it doesn’t matter what your past has been like—whether you’ve been in church every Sunday or only stepped through the door on occasions such as this. It doesn’t matter if everything seems to be working out according to plan or if you don’t have any idea what might be in store for you tomorrow. It doesn’t matter about your current status—whether you live in sickness or health, are richer or poorer, old or young: Christ died and rose for you in order that you might be an heir of heaven.
Paul writes: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who gives me strength” (1 Philippians 4:12-13). When you believe and trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior you can face any situation, any tragedy, any loss of a family member, anything, because you end up a winner no matter what happens.
Earlier in his letter Paul writes: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Philippians 1:21-24). Now that’s contentment!
 We know that Roger knew how to be content. We also know that now he is perfectly content. For where he is there is no sorrow, no tears, no hunger, no thirst, no pain, no suffering, no consequences of sin, for he is with his Lord, awaiting the day that he and all believers will be resurrected to life everlasting, with clean hearts, godly minds, souls unstained by sin, and new glorious bodies like Christ’s own resurrected body.
Knowing this, you are able to say that Roger’s death was a blessing—for God used this last enemy to deliver Roger from sickness and death to life and health. Knowing that, you are able to look forward to a heavenly reunion with Roger and all those who have departed this life as children of God. And knowing that, you are enabled to be content as you wait for the ultimate consummation of all God’s promises in Jesus Christ! Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Created, Redeemed, and Called by the Lord

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“But now thus says the Lord, He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
We are in the second week of the new year, a couple of days past Epiphany, the end of the twelve days of Christmas. Are you experiencing a little bit of a letdown? The Christmas decorations have been packed away and there’s a bit of a holiday hangover? Or maybe the credit card bills have started coming in and the reality of just how much you got in the commercial spirit of Christmas has come home to roost? Perhaps your struggle to keep this year’s New Year’s resolution reminds you of your miserable failure last year? Maybe your family gatherings were not so much like those painted by Norman Rockwell, but more like an episode of Jerry Springer? And then there’s the weather that’s generally so cold and dreary this time of year. It’s no wonder counselors and psychologists say they see increased signs of depression and anxiety just after the first of the year.
What better time, then, to clarify what is the value of our life than this Sunday in which we observe the Baptism of Our Lord? Our value is not found in the “new me” because of the weight I lost as a result of my New Year’s resolutions. Our value is not wrapped up with holiday happenings, as great as they may have been. Our value is not connected to what gifts we gave or received at Christmas. As wonderful as they may be, our value is not exclusively found in our connections with family and friends we visited during the holidays. And as difficult and/or painful as our circumstances may be, the value of our life is not found in the status of our health, not even in “the quality of our life” as determined by societal standards. Rather, our value is with God, who came to be one of us.
In the Incarnation, Christ values human life so much that He starts human life as one us in the womb of the Virgin Mary. As He begins His earthly ministry by being baptized by John, Jesus identifies Himself with us because His baptism is to fulfill all righteousness on His way to the cross. Christ was not baptized for His benefit, since He is without sin. Instead, He is baptized for our benefit as He connects Himself to us. Your true identity and value as a human being is not because of who you are or what you have or haven’t done. It is always because of who Christ is and what He has done for you.
Here is where you find your true value as a human being: You have been created, redeemed, and called by the Lord.
But this not only gives your life value, it speaks to the value of every human life. And on this Sanctity of Life Sunday we are going to see how this speaks profoundly to all of the life issues. It really is where we need to start before addressing any of the life issues. It answers the question of what God has done that gives value to all human life. Our text contains the answer in three simple words: created, redeemed, and called.
The first word is “created.” Every human life has value because God creates every human life. The Bible pictures this pro-creative activity as an intimate and hands-on work. “Your hands fashioned and made me” (Job 10:8). “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). We could all have a tag sewed to our feet like Aimee’s stepmother, Kathy, puts on the teddy bears she makes. Our tag would read “Lovingly hand made by God.”
Now, I’m sure that some of you might be wondering at this point, “So, if every human being is the work of God’s hands, then how do we explain Down syndrome babies or other babies with various physical or mental challenges?”
The short and simple answer to that question is this: They are the work of God’s hands. They are God’s children, too.

And God has a couple of questions for us about His children. “Do you question Me about My children, or give Me orders about the work of My hands?” He asks in Isaiah 45:11. And again from Isaiah, God challenges, “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘You did not make me’? Can the pot say to the potter, ‘You know nothing’? (29:16). Does anyone here really want to challenge God about what He makes?
That God makes tiny little human beings from the moment of conception is clear in this verse from Psalm 51, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (v. 5). Since sinfulness is a human condition and we are sinful from the moment of conception, we must necessarily be human from the moment of conception.
This verse also leads us to the next word that describes what God has done that gives value to all human life—redeemed.
Since we are sinful from the moment of conception, we need a Savior from the moment of conception. And the Good News that we’ve been focusing on the last few weeks during Advent and Christmas announces that we do have such a Savior. “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call Him Jesus” (Luke 1:31). We often read this at Christmas time, but note that there are two events in Jesus’ life described here—His conception and His birth.
And it is His conception that is miraculous, not His birth. When the “power of the Most High” overshadowed Mary (1:35a), Jesus was conceived without the aid of an earthly father, which is why the angel also refers to Him as “the Son of God” (35b) from the moment of His conception. “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14a) at Jesus’ conception, not His birth. Jesus was not only the “God-man,” He was the “God-embryo”! His holiness at conception takes the place of our un-holiness at conception. What value this gives to all embryos from that very moment!
But there is more. Jesus needed to develop in a womb. He needed feet to walk among us. He needed hands to touch and heal the sick. He needed a mouth so He could teach. He needed a heart to be filled with compassion for the lost. He needed a body so He could hold little children in His arms and bless them.
And there are deeper reasons for Jesus’ human development in the womb. He needed those hands and feet to be pierced as He was nailed to the cross in our place. He needed a mouth to utter that forsake cry so we never have to. He needed a heart to pump blood that would be shed and bring cleansing for sin, and them be stilled in death. And He needed a body to buried in a tomb, and then to rise again victorious over death and the grave! Jesus needed a body to redeem us!
In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that we were “bought at a price” (6:20a). He uses the language for redemption, for purchasing back from slavery or repaying debt. All Jesus did from His conception onward was part of that price. Paul reminds the Ephesians pastors of the magnitude of this price when he tells them, “Be shepherds of the Church of God, which He bought with His own blood” (Acts 20:28b). God did not purchase is with the blood of a bull or a lamb, God purchased us with His own blood in the person of Jesus! The price paid for sinful humanity was high. The value it gives to human life is incalculable.
And remember, this price was paid for every human being. Jesus Christ died “once for all” (Hebrews 9:12). Not every human being knows this, of course, and it is the task of the Church to share this message. But the fact remains, Jesus’ life and death and resurrection give value to all human life.
So, we have two pretty simple answers so far to our question, “What has God done that gives identity and value to human life?” Every human being has value because every human being is the work of God’s hands in creation and the work of His hands stretched out on a cross in redemption. Every human being is created and redeemed.
One answer is left. Every human life has value because every person is someone God desires to call into an eternal relationship with Him; He “wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). He wants every human life to be splashed with His Holy Spirit in waters of Baptism. He who created every life with His hands and redeemed every life with His hands want to call us all as His children and hold us, indeed “engrave” us, in the palm of His hands (Isaiah 49:16) now and in eternity.
Created, redeemed, called—it is not complicated or confusing or controversial or uncomfortable at all. It’s very simple. Yet its simplicity speaks profoundly to all of the life issues. It is where we need to start before addressing any of the life issues. It helps to answer questions about our true value in Christ, and since today is Sanctity of Life Sunday I would like to close by giving some example of the questions pertaining to life issues it answers. For example:
1.   Why do we strive to protect tiny embryos in Petri dishes or frozen in a fertility clinic? Because they are created, redeemed, and little one whom God wants to call.

2.   Why do we speak up for those in the womb who cannot speak? Because they are created, redeemed, and little ones whom God wants to call.

3.   What do we teach our little children so that when they are older, sexual promiscuity and abortion will be unthinkable? They are very special because they are created, redeemed, and called by the Lord.

4.   What do we tell young people as they struggle with temptations and tough choices, mood swings, and confused feelings about their identity? We want them to know whose they are and that they can make good choices because they are created, redeemed, and called by the Lord.

5.   What do we share with that unmarried, pregnant college freshman who is ashamed and afraid and sees only one way out? We share that she is loved and forgiven and not forsaken because she is created, redeemed, and called by the Lord.

6.   What do we say to women and men crushed by the guilt of an abortion decision? They are created, redeemed, and called by the Lord, and therefore nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

7.   What do we share with the infertile couple desperately desiring a child? They are created, redeemed, and called by the Lord, and they can trust in the ways and will of their God.

8.   What can we say to those who miscarry a child they already know and love? They are created, redeemed, and called by the Lord, and God holds them in His hands.

9.   What do we have to share with the frail elderly who wonder about God’s purpose for their lives? They are created, redeemed, and called by the Lord, and as long as God gives them life, He gives their lives value and purpose.

10. How can we help the family struggling with a difficult end-of-life decision for a loved one? We can remind them that they and their loved one are created, redeemed, and called and called by the Lord. They can make a decision they believe is in accordance with God’s will and trust that He will work through it in His mercy and grace.
No doubt, this list could be much longer. But the answer will still be the same. Our lives have value, every life has value because every life is someone created by God, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, and someone He either has called or wants to call into an eternal relationship with Him.
This is where you find your true identity in Christ. You are God’s child, one of His chosen people. You have been created, redeemed, and called by the Lord.  Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Adapted from Life Sunday Sermon by Rev. James I Lamb, Executive Director, Lutherans For Life

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