Monday, August 29, 2016

Compelled to Preach the Gospel!

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“For if I preach the Gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).
Brothers in the Office of the Holy Ministry: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
About ten years ago, my daughter Katie asked: “Dad, why did you decide to become a pastor?” I could’ve gone into a long discussion of the doctrine of the call, vocation, and other related things. But fortunately, I kept quiet long enough to hear what she really wanted to know. She was trying to figure out what to do with her life, and she wanted a little insight into how I was led to become a pastor.  But it did get me thinking: “Why did I become a pastor?”
Why did I become a pastor? I’m sure that every pastor struggles with this question at some point in his life. If you haven’t yet, you will. I know during the nearly three years that I was without a call, I asked myself that question many times: “Why did I become a pastor?” And then, there was a corollary question: “It seems like it would be so much easier to just move on to something else. I have other talents, skills, and interests. Why would I want to keep being a pastor?”
As I went to the seminary there were some men preparing to be pastors because, frankly, they didn’t know what else to do. They had a love for the Lord and an interest in theology, so they reasoned that God must want them in the ministry. Sadly, many of them did not make it through the seminary.
A wise professor told us: “You shouldn’t become a pastor because you can’t do anything else. You become a pastor when you can’t imagine doing anything else!” And this was evident in fact. Many of my classmates had been very successful in their prior professions. But like me, they packed up their families and stuff and headed to the seminary. They were compelled to preach the Gospel.   
St. Paul had a lot of other vocational options. He was very zealous in his faith, well-educated, and extremely talented. He even had a craft to fall back on in hard times. No doubt he could have been successful in virtually any other endeavor. But Paul couldn’t imagine being anything other than an apostle. He said: “Necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (v 16).
Paul did not choose to become a preacher of the Gospel; Christ called him directly. In Paul’s mind, his preaching of the Gospel was simply a discharging of the debt that had been laid on him when he was called by Christ (Romans 1:14). Paul had been entrusted with the Gospel and was obligated to preach it to others. If he failed to discharge that debt, then “woe” to him; he would have to face God’s wrath. Paul’s burden to preach the Gospel is reminiscent of Jeremiah, who writes: “The word of the Lord became in my heart like a burning fire, shut up in my bones. I grew weary of trying to contain it, and I am not able” (20:9).
Paul understood himself as a slave of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:1). He was compelled, he had no choice but to preach the Gospel. He was a “steward” entrusted with “the mysteries of God,” and he was expected to carry out his commission faithfully (1 Corinthians 4:1-2).
Although Paul saw himself as a man under compulsion and therefore unable to expect any reward for his services, he nonetheless found enormous satisfaction in presenting the free Gospel free of charge. By maintaining his financial independence (1 Corinthians 9:15-18), Paul made sure that he was beholden to no one but his Lord. No one could manipulate him on the basis of favors rendered or owed. Thus in not seeking favors or financial privileges, even those he had a “right” to expect, Paul had shown the mind-set of a servant. By this humble approach, Paul aimed to win as many as possible for the Gospel.
Now that we have reviewed why Paul preached the Gospel, let’s look at to whom, what, and how Paul preached the Gospel.
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law), that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law… I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).
Although his calling was to be the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul still saw himself as under obligation to “the Jew first.” It was a constant source of sorrow to Paul that most of them had rejected the Gospel. He prayed for them constantly (Romans 10:1). In Romans 9:1-3, he even wished he could be accursed if that would bring about their salvation. To win the Jews, Paul knew he must become “as a Jew.” Accordingly, he was careful never to cause them unnecessary offense. He had Timothy circumcised “because of the Jews in those areas” (Acts 16:3).
“Those under the law,” include the numerous Gentile God-fearers who attended synagogue and willingly subjected themselves to many aspects of Jewish law. Although Paul had turned his back on an observance of the ceremonial law and no longer saw himself as “under the law” but as “under grace” (Romans 6:14), he did not make an arrogant display of his new freedom but reached out to them, humbly identifying himself with them in order to win them for the Gospel.
Likewise Paul had become “to those outside the law like someone outside the law.” Gentile converts, he insisted, had no need to practice circumcision and observe the Jewish food laws, festivals, and Sabbath regulations. Timothy had been circumcised because he had a Jewish mother and therefore was regarded as legally Jewish. Consequently, not to have him circumcised would have destroyed Timothy’s credibility as a witness to Jews. On the other hand, the apostle was adamant that Titus, whose parents were both Gentile, must not be circumcised. As long as Gentiles believed the Gospel and were baptized, Paul was satisfied.
Lest we get the impression that Paul does not care about God’s Law, he adds the qualification that he is “not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21). By this he means he is subject to the law of love, the pattern of self-sacrificing love, which Jesus had instilled and exemplified by His death on the cross. Paul bears the burdens of others and thus fulfills “the law of Christ.” In his outreach to Jews, God-fearers, Gentiles, and the weak, this governs everything he does.
Paul goes back to his original concern for the weak Christians in Corinth that he had expressed earlier. Although Paul himself knew that idols are nothing and that meat sacrificed to them is just meat, nevertheless he humbly identified with the weak and avoided anything that would give unnecessary offense.
Paul’s flexibility in accommodating himself to all people was governed by one overriding purpose: “that by all possible means I might save some” (v 22). In this he was following Jesus, who ate and drank with tax-collectors and sinners (Matthew 11:19), who spoke with a Samaritan woman and engaged in conversation with her (John 4), and who healed the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30)—all for the great purpose of seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10).
Just as Jesus had accommodated Himself to those around Him, without compromising His message, so Paul showed himself a model of missionary adaptability to the language and thought-forms of his hearers. In preaching to Jews, he made rich use of the Old Testament (e.g. Acts 13:16-41). In addressing the Gentiles on Mars Hill, Paul drew upon his knowledge of Greek poetry and philosophy (Acts 17:22-31). Fluent in both Greek and Aramaic, Paul could switch from one to the other in order to captivate an audience (Acts 21:37-22:2). He was thoroughly familiar with both Jewish and Hellenistic culture. But Paul carried his learning lightly. All his skills, talents, and experiences were placed in the service of bringing salvation to the lost.
With all his concern to adapt himself to people, nowhere does Paul suggest the Gospel itself may be changed to suit people’s religious or cultural tastes (cf. Galatians 1:6-9). In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Paul describes how God deliberately chose to save people through the preaching of a message that was “foolish” and “weak”—the very opposite of how people might expect God to save. But in the face of enormous pressure to conform his message to the world’s wisdom, Paul was determined to know only Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). Through the Gospel and only through the Gospel, do people find salvation. That is why it was so important that those entrusted with the Gospel “not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32).
Paul had set the Corinthians a good example: “I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (9:23). In humbly serving the Gospel, Paul hoped that he would join fellow believers in enjoying the saving benefits of the Gospel. He was well aware of the possibility that he could fail to attain the salvation he proclaimed to others (9:27). Like every preacher of the Gospel, he must remain faithful until “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8).
Having been entrusted with the Office of Holy Ministry, you and I are called to these same high standards. We are compelled to preach the Gospel, and woe to you and me if we do not preach it in all of its truth and purity, the Law in its full sternness and the Gospel in its full sweetness. It’s an awesome responsibility, and one for which we must each one day give an account.
For the sake of church growth, some advocates have taken Paul’s willingness to accommodate himself for the sake of the Gospel as a pretext for scrapping traditional liturgy and hymnody and abandoning biblical but potentially offensive themes of Christian preaching (sin and grace, Law and Gospel, the centrality of Christ crucified). This passage, so they claim, permits whatever changes a pastor or church may deem necessary to appeal to unbelievers.
However, these verses are about preachers accommodating themselves, not the message. It’s not about giving up the truth of the Gospel, or compromising it, or leaving it unspoken, or assuming the people naturally know it—they don’t! To an extent, the Law is written in human hearts, but the Law and the concept of sin still need to be articulated, proclaimed, and properly applied to individual lives. For that matter, the knowledge of the Gospel is certainly not native to any people or culture. It can only be received through God’s means of grace.  
Yes, the Gospel is transcultural, but the Gospel does not change. The person and work of Christ, particularly His atonement on our behalf on the cross, must be the message and must remain uncompromised regardless of how we may have to accommodate ourselves to our hearers. Paul became all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel, but he did not change the Gospel.   
Like Paul, you and I are compelled to preach the Gospel. Woe to you and me if we do not do so faithfully. But the truth be told, not one of us here has done this perfectly. Each of us battles with conflicting motives. Each of us struggle with various temptations and pet sins. Each of us is tempted to advance ourselves rather than the Gospel. None of us is worthy of the office to which we have been called.
Fortunately, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. God’s grace is sufficient for you and me, as well as the sheep He has entrusted to our care. The same baptism that you have the privilege to administer, also washes your sins and covers you with Christ’s righteousness. The same body and blood of Christ that you distribute brings forgiveness and life to you as well. The same absolution, Christ speaks through you to the penitent, He speaks to you. 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.  
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Humble Yourself; Exalt Your Neighbor

White trash dudes ushered out of Queen Elizabeth II’s
reserved seats for the baseball in 
The Naked Gun: From The Files of Police Squad! (1988)
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“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Aimee and I went to a concert at the Denny Sanford Premier Center a couple of weeks ago. The tickets were a gift and we got really nice seats on the floor only a few rows back. During the concert there was a little commotion as a security person followed a couple up toward the front. The security person spoke to the couple who were seated, looked at their tickets, said a couple of words, and then they got up and sheepishly made their way to the nosebleed section that they were supposed to sit in. I imagined the irritation of the couple who needed to have someone from security open up their seats. But even more, I thought of how embarrassing it would be to be caught in seats that were obviously much better than the ones you had paid for.
Now consider this scene: You’re still out of breath and a little lightheaded from walking all the stairs up to your seat located in the far, top corner of the stadium. The players warming up on the field look like action figures, and you can’t see where the ball is without looking on the large screen. You’re startled when one of the ushers taps you on the shoulder. He tells you that your seat number was drawn and you are today’s lucky fan of the game. You need to come with him because he has another seat for you. Down and down you go until you come to one of the VIP suites. You’ve been invited to be a personal guest of the team owner. He greets you at the door and invites you watch the game with him. He points you to the large selection of snacks and beverages and tells you to help yourself. It’s a seat you could have never afforded yourself. And you most certainly would have been thrown out if you tried to sneak in. But here you sit, experiencing the game in a way that you never imagined was possible.
Jesus attends a meal at the home of a Pharisee. He notices how the guests choose the place of honor for themselves. Then as now, the place where one was seated during a banquet indicated social rank. In the absence of assigned seating, guests were expected to give way to those of higher rank of society. Everyone knew that the most prestigious places near the head of the group were for the VIPs.
The principle that Jesus enunciates here seems to be the same as that from our passage from Proverbs: “When in doubt, err on the side of humility.” Or as my Grandma would say, “Make sure you don’t get too big for your britches!” The perils of overestimating one’s importance are far greater than the pitfalls of underestimating it. In this scenario, the person who actually deserves the seat is disrespected. The host is also put out, since now he has to come over and play the role of bouncer with one of his invited guests.
There is a spiritual application here: When we get out of place by acting haughtily, we not only offend a more deserving neighbor, but also the Lord, who has established each in his own station. It’s hard to accept one’s comeuppance under any circumstances; however, bearing public humiliation is the worst way to undergo ego reduction. Long before Jesus, Solomon wrote: “One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor” (Proverbs 29:23). The word picture Jesus paints here perfectly illustrates that truth.
Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. This is the classic expression of Luke’s great reversal theme. While this dynamic plays itself out on a daily basis, it will ultimately be realized on the Last Day. Then, those who humbly confessed their sins and trusted in Christ’s forgiveness will be raised up in glory. Hus noted that Jesus’ disciples took this admonition to heart and followed Jesus in His example of humility: “[The apostles], like Christ, began to do good by excelling in good works and not by receiving kisses, given as unto God. For they despised mundane honors.”[i]
For his part, Calvin stated that Christian humility is rooted in the awareness that anything good within us is a gift of grace:
It is a manifestation of pride to boast of the gifts of God, as if there were any excellence in ourselves, that would exalt us on the ground of our own merit. Humility, on the other hand, must be not only an unfeigned abasement, but a real annihilation of ourselves, proceeding from a thorough knowledge of our own weakness, the entire absence of lofty pretensions, and a conviction that whatever excellence we possess comes from the grace of God alone.[ii]
Jesus illustrates how pride leads to a fall, while the humble are brought up to a higher place. We should take this lesson to heart: It is better to let others applaud and promote you than to claim honor and praise for yourself. No matter what others say or do, our greatest promotion will come when the heavenly Father calls us to join Him at the great messianic banquet in heaven. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Having criticized the behavior of the guests, Jesus then turns to the host:
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14).
Jesus does not issue an absolute prohibition against including family and friends in parties. Rather, He criticizes the custom of inviting only those people with whom one has a quid pro quo arrangement, that is, people who can invite you in return and you be repaid. Such invitations are not true generosity, but merely loving those who love you already.
When people show true generosity, without an eye to what they might receive in return, they will delight to share with those of a lower social status and without the economic means to pay them back. And yet, Jesus says, such generosity will be richly rewarded—though not necessarily in this age, but in the one to come. Just as the “great reversal” is only fully realized on the Last Day, so also will the faithful have to wait for this promise to be fulfilled.
Commenting on this passage, Bengel contrasts the rewards God will bestow with the measly returns we get when we always play tit-for-tat:
Who is there that would wish that all his acts in this life should be recompensed according to their desert? And yet there are not wanting persons, who wish that everything whatever, which they give or lend, should be most quickly, abundantly, and with accumulated interest, repaid to them…. One might suppose that there was no resurrection at hand or recompense of men’s deed, nay, indeed as if nothing is to be taken away (wrested) from those who practically deny their faith in things future by their unbridled panting after things present.[iii]
“Humble yourself and exalt your neighbor.” That’s the essence of the law in today’s text. But it’s hard to be humble, isn’t it? For we are, by our fallen nature, prideful, selfish sinners. And the moment you start thinking about humility, you’ve already started to think about yourself. And as much as that principle applies to daily life, even more it applies to our life in God’s kingdom.
Like the guests at the Pharisee’s home or the couple who tried to move into better seats, we are tempted to seat ourselves in God’s presence based upon our works or merits. Our kindness toward others. Our identification with a particular church, our faithful attendance, our giving to the church, or out serving on a church board. A perceived obedience to God’s commandments. A belief that faith is or our own doing, something we should be rewarded for attaining.
Like the host Pharisee, we often see ourselves as above others. Self-help books preach that if we want be winners, we should only spend time with winners. We see the others and rationalize that they don’t really have anything to offer us, to further our pursuits or goals. It would be embarrassing to be seen with some of them, certainly inconvenient. Others will not think highly of us if they see us spending so much time with the downtrodden and outcasts of society.
Self-glorifying seems so natural in our world, which constantly tells us: “Hard work will get you moving up the ladder.” “You’ve earned it or you’ve deserved it.” “If you try as hard as you can, you should be rewarded.” Or that old stand-by: “You’re not near as bad as the people sitting next to you.”
But God’s Word says different. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Galatians 3:10). “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6).
These words put us in our place. It’s true! We are guilty! Suddenly, we remember countless ways we’ve fallen short. We’ve failed to humble ourselves, and we certainly haven’t done much to exalt our neighbor. Forget having one of the higher places are the heavenly banquet in the resurrection of the righteous, we don’t even deserve to sit at the kids’ table in the room off to the side. Stranded in our sin and banned from the eternal banquet, we are confronted with and humbled by our inability to seat ourselves in God’s presence based upon our own merits. We can do nothing but confess our sins. Before God, we slink to the lowest place.
Well… not quite the lowest place. That one, He took for Himself. Jesus “made Himself nothing, taking the very form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.” Therefore, God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:6-9). Christ clothed Himself in human flesh so that He might defeat death and the devil and deliver us from their power. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God was made like us in every way so that He could satisfy God’s wrath for our sins (Hebrews 2:14-17). He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses but maintained the righteousness we cannot (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus, the Lamb of God and Scapegoat allowed Himself to be placed “outside the gate” (Hebrew 13:12), literally driven out of the city and crucified, to sanctify us by His blood.
For Jesus’ sake, God graciously seats you in His kingdom. The Lord clasps you on the shoulder with His nailed-scarred hand and bids: “Friend, move up higher! Come to the font and be washed in the baptismal waters and be joined to My death and resurrection. Friend, move up higher! Hear My Word, repent, and allow My Holy Spirit to create in you a new heart. Friend, move up higher! Eat and drink at My Table. Receive My true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Friend, move up higher. Remain in My presence forever, never be separated from Me again, and rejoice in the unending life I have given you. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Hus, John. The Church. P. 145. David S. Schaff, trans. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1915.
[ii] Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Rev. William Pringle, ed. 2:161. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845.
[iii] Bengel, John Albert. Gnonom of the New Testament. 2:129. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1877.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Godly Discipline Yields the Peaceful Fruit of Righteousness

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“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:11).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Over the last three weeks, the author of Hebrews has been hard at work building us up in the faith. Two weeks ago he held before us the example of Abraham and the other patriarchs, and urged us to imitate their faith, a faith that does not receive the things promised in this life, but looks expectantly to them in the eternal life to come. Last week he encouraged us to look in faith to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, that we may run with endurance the race of faith set ahead for us. Today he encourages us to not grow weary or fainthearted in the midst of suffering and persecution for our Christian faith. The discipline of the Lord is proof of our sonship, not of God’s disfavor. And the author promises that though painful and unpleasant such godly discipline yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
The author of Hebrews obviously never read the books by modern Church growth gurus or the entrepreneurs who run the thriving mega-churches. If he had, he would have shied away from such depressing topics and focused on things more practical and positive. Success and prosperity are more suitable topics for popular preachers to address than suffering and persecution. You can’t pack the people in the pews (or theater seats) if you’re not encouraging people to find their purpose or become the champion they were meant to be. Nor will people send in money to your ministry if you’re only promising hard times in return. But neither can you prepare people for tough times, when they inevitably come, if you’re only scratching itching ears, if you don’t preach Christ crucified and the cross of His Christians.
So, is it true? Can something unpleasant and/or painful actually end up with positive results? Certainly! Let me give you a few examples from everyday life: exercise, dental exams, colonoscopies, childbirth. Each of these are things that seem painful or unpleasant at the time, but ultimately are good for you. Godly discipline is the same. No one wants to face it; it’s painful, unpleasant, at times embarrassing, even shameful, but its cultivation reaps a rich harvest. The writer of Hebrews, like Job, demonstrates that suffering is not necessarily proof of God’s wrath; prosperity is not necessarily proof of His favor. God often works through suffering for the good of His people.
You need look no further than His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. If ever anyone deserved prosperity and popularity it was He. Still, the Son of Man had no place to lay His head. His only earthly possessions were the clothes taken off His back at His crucifixion. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed” (Is 53:3-5).
For Jesus, facing the opposition of men meant the shedding of His blood on Golgotha. For some of the Old Testament heroes there had also been a bloody end, but not so far for the Hebrew Christians. They had had difficult days in the past (10:32-34). When they originally received this epistle their opponents were trying to terrorize them into abandoning their faith in Jesus. Perhaps the future would even demand their blood. But it is no time to be confused or unclear about the role of affliction, or as the author calls it, “discipline.” So he proceeds with a great section on godly discipline, giving us not all the answers to the problem of suffering but enough to encourage us to endure when it comes.
First of all, the author reminds us what God’s Word says: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives.” Quoting Proverbs 2:11-12 from the Septuagint, the author shows the close connection God’s Word makes between sonship and discipline. Discipline is the training necessary to lead a child to maturity. It is the instruction and correction, the leading and warning that a wise, loving father constantly provides his son so that character may be molded and maturity achieved.
Sometimes godly discipline comes directly from the hand of God. Other times it comes from the hand of the enemy, but with God then shaping it to suit His gracious purposes. But God always sends or bends such discipline for the well-being of His children. That’s what it means for Him to be our Father and us His children. It means, as Romans 8:28 says “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.”
How shall we children of God react to godly discipline? “Do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,” the author urges. When God disciplines, indifference is not a suitable response. God may be saying something important that we can hear better when shivering in the storm that when basking in the sunshine. To make light of God’s discipline might be to miss the message.
Nor are we to “be weary” because of godly discipline. God never forsakes His own. When He tests, He also toughens. However heavy the discipline, His grace will cover. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul offers this comfort to those undergoing trial: “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Because God has promised to remain with His people, you are never left in a losing situation. Even when you have been faithless, God’s grace in Jesus Christ provides new opportunities for you to be faithful.
In Luther’s explanation of the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, he writes:
“‘Lead us not into temptation’… refers to times when God gives us power and strength to resist the temptation [1 Corinthians 10:13]. However, the temptation is not taken away or removed. While we live in the flesh and have the devil around us, no one can escape his temptation and lures. It can only mean that we must endure trials—indeed, be engulfed in them [2 Timothy 2:3]. But we say this prayer so that we may not fall and be drowned in them. To feel temptation is, therefore, a far different thing from consenting or yielding to it.”[i]
The right reaction to God’s discipline is confidence in God’s love. Those who He loves, He disciplines. Sometimes that even includes the rod. Proper training involves both instruction in the way to go and correction when behavior is wayward. Behind such action also stands love of the highest kind, as measureless as God Himself and magnificent in purpose. From such a loving Father never comes more—or less—discipline than necessary for us, His children.
Second, the author reminds us of God’s fatherly care in discipline. “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” The troubles the Hebrew Christians were experiencing were actually for their training, and that training was a visible sign that they were God’s sons. The same is true for you and me. Aren’t loving fathers supposed to train their sons so they mature instead of remaining childish?
Proverbs 13:24 expresses the same thought, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Only the illegitimate remain untrained because they have no father to care for them. Are you wearying under and wishing away God’s discipline? The lack of discipline may sound good, but in reality it shows a serious problem. It reveals a lack of sonship and could lead to tragic results if it continues.
The author appeals a second time to the example of earthly families. “Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who discipline us and we respected them,” he reminds us. Certainly Christian mothers discipline too, but fathers, as heads of the household, are finally responsible to God for such disciplining. When that discipline came, perhaps at first you resented it. Later, though, you respected your father because you realized what he was trying to do.
How much more should you submit to the heavenly Father, who deals not only with your physical good, but also with your spiritual existence! Even when He has to correct you for some fault, it is not to vent His anger but to reclaim and redirect His wayward sons and daughters. This Father has a love that cannot fail and a wisdom that cannot err. To see His caring hand behind life’s trials and to submit to His godly discipline is to live in the fullest sense of the word.
Third, the author reminds us more fully of God’s purpose in discipline. Earthly fathers can only discipline for the brief time their children are growing up. Also, earthly fathers can only discipline as they think best and consequently at times make mistakes. With God’s discipline there is no error, only and always profit for His children. The profit He has in mind is “that we may share His holiness.” The holy God, who is removed from and reacts against all sin, wants His children to be like Him. First He makes you holy by leading you to the Savior. Then He leads you to walk more and more in the holy footsteps of that Savior. Finally, in heaven He crowns you with perfect holiness.
True, discipline can be painful, but that is because you seldom see the outcome immediately. Like fruit on a tree, the ripening takes time. But it will happen in God's gracious timetable. Those who view the Lord’s discipline as the gym for the training of their souls will reap “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” Being right with God through faith in Christ’s atoning work, you will more and more walk in right conduct toward God. The result is “peace,” which comes from knowing sins are pardoned for Christ’s sake.
God disciplines in order to strengthen us. Those who know this are to put forth their best effort for themselves and for others. With language borrowed from Isaiah 35:3, the author urges you, to reinvigorate your drooping hands for spiritual battle and strengthen your weak knees for faith’s race. Those who are strengthened by God’s discipline are to help clear the track of any obstacles in order to make travel easier for the weak. Lame Christians, not knowing which way to turn and in danger of turning away from Christ, need help from the strong. Just as a sprained ankle must be protected, discouraged Christians must be cared for and protected by their fellow believers. But how often do we kick their crutches out from them, or worse yet, figuratively kick them in the shins when they are most vulnerable? Much better is it to help them get up and cross the finish line in the race set before us.
The time will likely come for each of us when we need that same sort of help from our brothers and sisters. Who of us hasn’t tasted God’s discipline? Sometimes it comes in sharp and swift doses, almost taking our breath away. Other times it comes in slow and steady waves, almost wearing us out. When it comes, who of us hasn’t asked, “Why?” Strangely enough, we can tell our children not to ask why when we discipline them, only to throw that same question at our heavenly Father. Our children are to accept our wisdom as infallible, while we feel free to question the ways of the Almighty.
Not why but what is the proper question when discipline comes. The why we have been told often enough, and the author of Hebrews has repeated it for us again. It is because our Father loves us and wants to mature us for heaven. The what He will show us if we give Him time as He strengthens our faith and uses us to strengthen others. Nor will His discipline go on forever. The day will come when He on whom we fix our eyes in faith will return, and when He does, then we shall see face-to-face and know fully, ever as we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Because you have been baptized into Christ, you have put on Christ. Clothed in the righteousness of the Son of God, God now sees you as holy for Jesus’ sake. But while you remain in this fallen world, you experience a paradox of two things: you are simultaneously saint and sinner. God sees you as holy, but you know the sin you continue to struggle with. This is a reality that will always be part of your earthly life, but it does not mean that you give up.
God calls you to struggle against sin. He calls you to a life that is pleasing to Him—and that is also a blessing to you. So for your own good, He disciplines you to correct you, train you, and make you stronger. He has a variety of tools at His disposal: struggles, challenges, and afflictions can all help you grow as you learn to trust in Him and His sufficient grace. This is godly discipline. No, you do not like it, but it is what you need, and it shows that God truly cares. He loves you as His own true child. Godly discipline yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
When times of godly discipline come, remember that they are signs of God’s perfect love. Respond by trusting in Jesus and putting your faith into practice by encouraging others and by doing works of service. The crucified, risen, and ascended Lord is ever serving you, granting repentance, taking away your sins, and equipping you for a godly life. 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

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved

[i] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 421). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Living in Tents, Looking to the City with Foundations

“By faith [Abraham] went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:15-16).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Next weekend, my family and I will go camping near the Missouri River. We’re going to bring our tents, sleeping bags, fishing rods, coolers, camp stoves, lanterns, and all the things that it takes to “rough it in the great outdoors.” Hopefully the weather will be as nice as we’ve had this week. But just in case, we have a backup plan. Logan and Samantha have a big 5th wheel camper with air conditioning and shower parked in their back yard, all hooked up and ready to go.
Two or three days in a tent… that’s about enough for me before my sense of adventure is satisfied. The threshold for my wife is much lower. But Abraham lived in a tent for 100 years, from age 75 when God called him out of Ur of the Chaldeans to the day he died at age 175, Abraham lived in a tent in the land of Canaan. Though God promised Abraham and his descendants an inheritance that would stretch all the way from the Nile River to the Euphrates, Abraham lived as a pilgrim and stranger in the land of his inheritance, and died with the only plot of ground in his name being the cave of Machpelah in which he had buried his wife, Sarah, and in which his own mortal remains would be also placed.
What would enable Abraham to live like that? To leave your father’s land to travel to some unknown destination at God’s Word? To live in the land of promise as a foreigner and alien? To live as a nomad in tents rather than settle down to a house made of stone foundations and wood? One word…faith! A total complete surrender to a promise from God!
In our society today, the concept of faith as a total surrender to a promise from God seems alien, strange. Indeed, a life today seems to be made up of many choices that cater to free will. Marketing specialists package their companies’ products and services to appeal to the idea of individual choice. One example is home entertainment: We’re no longer limited to two or three channels on broadcast television, but hundreds with cable and satellite. And even they are struggling due to the robust growth of streaming services that allow you view on demand.
Now, it is certainly true that we have many choices in certain areas of our life, but we’ve also taken it into areas of morality and ethics, matters of which God has clearly revealed His will or at least given us some guidelines. Consider, for an example, how many people today have the idea that having children is simply a matter of choice: whether or not to have children (or a particular child), when to have children, how many children to have, all such questions are addressed with little regard for the will and Word of God (or even simple biology), but based upon the “choice” of the prospective parents.
This view of life being made up of free will and choices is only amplified with the way we raise our children. We are told that in order to build their self-esteem, we should focus them on making “good choices” or “bad choices” rather than teaching them “right” and “wrong.” It’s no wonder we have so many young people that have such a high opinion of themselves, but little regard for authority or the needs of others. We’re teaching out little ones to follow their own sinful inclination to selfishness, instead of training them in self-discipline.
That’s bad enough, but there’s an even more insidious way in which this illusion of choices inserts itself into our spiritual lives. A life based on choices and free will often conveys to people that their spiritual welfare also rests on their decision for the Lord, a prevalent view found with a significant portion of modern American Christianity. Michael Horton correctly observes:
When our churches assume the gospel, reduce it to slogans, or confuse it with moralism and hype, it is not surprising that the type of spirituality we fall back on is “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” In a therapeutic worldview, the self is always sovereign. The great questions of life do not concern what an external authority has determined to be good, true, and beautiful, but one’s own sense of well-being and fulfillment. God is there to be used as needed, but does not surprise, contradict, judge, or disrupt our lust to control our own lives and destinies. Accommodating this false religion is not love—either of God or neighbor—but sloth, depriving God of the glory that is His due. The self must be dethroned. That’s the only way out.[i]
Such faith is actually freeing, not restraining. If only people knew that, in fact, a total reliance upon God rather than one’s self removes much anxiety and worry about life! When the Gospel speaks clearly, then fear and worry are replaced by comfort, peace, and consolation.
But such faith doesn’t happen overnight. It didn’t for Abraham. Though you couldn’t tell it simply from our Old Testament lesson and Epistle for today, Abraham stumbled more than a time or two as he followed God’s leading. He put his lovely wife’s honor (not to mention Messianic line!) at risk on a couple occasions in order to save his own neck. He accepted Sarah’s plan to use Hagar as a surrogate mother when it didn’t appear that God was coming through on His promise quick enough. But God’s Word had its way with Abraham and the patriarch grew in faith.
Time and again, we see Abraham trusting God, taking Him at His Word and following His direction even when there was nothing to see and even when what could be seen pointed only to the seemingly impossible. Not knowing the direction, trusting God’s directive, he left his homeland. With no map in hand but with God’s call in his heart, Abraham went out into the unknown.
How could Abraham do it? The author of Hebrews has one answer: “By faith.” By faith Abraham saw the invisible. In fact, it is amazing just how far Abraham’s faith saw. He looked beyond this mortal life and body to the resurrection. He even looked beyond the earthly Canaan to the eternal city in heaven. In this city, belonging wholly to God because He was its architect and actual builder, Abraham saw his real home. This was “the city with foundations.” Tents have only pegs, which are pulled up and moved. Earthly cities have walls that stand longer and yet crumble. But this city stands forever. “The city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” is how the author describes it in 12:22 so that we cannot misunderstand. To this heavenly home Abraham “was looking forward,” ever living and finally dying in expectation of it.
What is also admirable about Abraham’s faith is how he passed it on to his descendants. Our Epistle emphasizes some of the common qualities found not only in Abraham’s faith, but in the faith of the other patriarchs as well. All of them died without receiving the things promised. Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, never saw God’s promises fulfilled. Though Abraham lived to see Isaac’s birth, he never saw the great nation that was to come from him. Though Jacob and Joseph saw this nation begin to grow, they never saw the Messiah who was to come from it. Yet they believed! Like Moses on Mount Nebo, viewing the Promised Land from a distance, they saw God’s promises from afar and believed them.
The patriarchs admitted “that they were strangers and exiles on earth.” This was Abraham’s confession in Genesis 23:4 when buying the burial plot for Sarah, but it was characteristic of all the heroes of the faith. They were “exiles,” people of foreign descent and culture living in another land. They were “strangers,” people residing temporarily someplace other than their real home. More than the land of Canaan was meant with this confession. The author rightly concludes, “People who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.”
It was not of Mesopotamia the patriarchs were thinking when they looked for their homeland. If Abraham had wanted to return there, all he had to do was pack his bags, pull up his tent stakes, and go. Jacob, when having served Laban for 20 years in that very land, still wasn’t satisfied. In Genesis 30:25, he begged his uncle: “Send me away, that I may go to my own home and country.”
But ultimately it was not Canaan that was on their minds and in their hearts, but “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Toward the heavenly Canaan, the new Jerusalem, prepared for them by God, they looked to with earnest longing all their days. No wonder God was not ashamed to be called their God!
To have God give us His name by bringing us to faith and into His family is great indeed. To have Him take our name because of our God-given faith makes us catch our breath in wonder at His grace. In Exodus 3:6, He called Himself “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and Jesus in Matthew 22:32 says the same. God grant that our names be added to the list of the faithful!
Abraham believed the Lord, and He counted it to Abraham as righteousness. Abraham accepted that God could and would intervene and make the impossible possible. Our faith, too, should be open to that suggestion. Even in extreme cases where medical reports describe little hope, there may still be confidence in divine intervention. God can make things possible. There is hope and there is trust. And trust is strong because it is God who provides. Abraham is a hero of the faith because his trust was total surrender to God’s promise of the Messiah.
Abraham’s faith is not a small matter. It’s saving faith because the Lord reckons it to him as righteousness. However, we should not assume that Abraham’s faith comes by his own actions or decision. God changes Abraham to become someone who, though he initially wavers in the midst of doubt and uncertainty, accepts God’s promises as true and real. For what seems impossible for Abraham to accomplish on his own will be accomplished by God Himself.
In order to understand what this means not only for Abraham, but also for all who believe, we need to approach this from the objective fact of Christ’s death on the cross. There, the righteousness of God has been won through Christ’s active and passive obedience. As the Confessions say: “out of pure grace, because of the sole merit, complete obedience, bitter suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ alone. His obedience is credited to us for righteousness” (FC SD III 9).
Since our salvation is all Christ’s doing, we cannot assume that there is anything we can contribute on our part. It is only through faith that we receive God’s righteousness, but it’s important that faith is described as a gift from God that apprehends the righteousness from God through the forgiveness of sins. Such a faith worships Christ’s merits on the cross and surrenders itself totally to Him.
As Luther says in his explanation of the Third Article, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the faith.” Faith is not something a person chooses or decides by his own strength, but a gift. Through the Word, the Holy Spirit provides us with it, and we are able to entrust ourselves to the promises of God.
Thus, the fact that we come to faith and receive, as Abraham did, the righteousness of God is attributed to all God’s doing in Christ, and all honor and glory are given to Christ. God steps into this world and does the incredible and impossible through His Son Jesus Christ. He establishes a righteousness for us in His Son that is a gift handed to us, and through faith it becomes ours.
The promises of God are certain for the sake of Jesus. For your sake, the Son of God journeyed far from home, taking on the flesh of a man when He was born of the virgin Mary. Although this world is His creation, He was a stranger in it, for His own received Him not and He was stricken and afflicted by men. He came as a pilgrim with a destination from the start—the cross, to die for the sins of the world. 
At the cross, Jesus appeared no more the King than Abraham appeared the possessor of his kingdom. And His resurrection appeared no more possible than Sarah giving birth. But eyes deceive while faith believes. At the cross, Jesus dies for your sin. Three days later, He rises from the dead just as He promised.
One might liken the promises of God to a trust fund. Imagine a little girl who receives a sizeable inheritance. The last will and testament of the deceased declares that the money is hers, and that she can begin to collect it when she turns 21 years old. Legally, the money is hers even now—the documents say so, but she will not enjoy all the benefits, or even see the funds, until later on.  In the meantime, however, she has confidence and security for the future. Her trust is not based upon empty hope or speculation, but upon the word that has been given.
This is you, strangers and pilgrims—the Word has been given, and the treasures of heaven are yours. In the words of the Gospel lesson, have no fear, little flock, for the Father is pleased to give you His kingdom—and His kingdom is yours even now. Christ has died for you to win forgiveness for your sins. That forgiveness is yours even now. That faith is yours even now.  His presence in His Word and Sacraments are yours even now. His kingdom and all of His benefits and gifts for you are yours even now—even though they often remain unseen. 
All these are yours for the sake of Jesus, who has died to cleanse you from your sin. For His sake, God is not ashamed to be called your God, having adopted you as His own heir through the water and Word of Holy Baptism. Though you live here now as a pilgrim and stranger, He provides you His Supper, His very body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine, to strengthen and preserve you in the faith unto life everlasting.
You live like Abraham, trusting God’s Word to be true despite all appearances. Looking for a heavenly city designed by God and built upon the firmest of foundations, Christ Jesus Himself, even as you live in this mortal tent now.  But while these things are unseen, they are certain and sure, for the words and promises of God declare: Christ has died, He is risen; for His 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.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] “Are Churches Secularizing America?” Modern Reformation 17:2 [March-April 2008]: 42-47.

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...