Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ephesians 2:13-22; Pentecost 9

There should be no hostility between Christians.  We have been chosen ‘in Christ’—all of us.  Also, in Christ and because of what Christ has done, he has reached out to us all with the same forgiveness.  And yet, some stay away from church because they feel that they will not be welcome here.  How can some feel that they belong, while others do not?  There always seems to be a certain amount of hostility and resentment between those who have been good Christians and those who have not been.  The impression is out there that only good people belong in Church.  The good people look down on those who have not always been good.  The Christians who have messed up and would like to come back to church nevertheless resent being judged by the people at church.
It can seem like there is almost a wall between you and God, if you don’t feel that you have done a very good job of keeping his commandments.  To a certain extent, that wall is real, as long as the Law is in force to accuse you of sin.  “Your sins have separated you from your God,” says Isaiah 59:2.  You might feel that even without the Bible telling you.  Your heart tells you that you aren’t good enough, and God isn’t going to listen to you.
If you don’t feel that you’ve been a very good Christian, there may be another wall that keeps you away from God.  When other Christians look down on you and judge you for the things you have done, you feel a wall rising to keep you out.   Even if they don’t actually say anything, you feel it in the looks they give and you can imagine what they must be thinking.  The hostility keeps you away.
There is a wall of hostility between Christians.  Which side are you on?  Do you find yourself more often judging others, or feeling like you are being judged?  Maybe you’re on different sides of the wall, depending on how the day is going.  Today you may feel like you belong in church, but tomorrow you will feel like you are not good enough to come to this place, even though it is meant to help sinners. 
Either way, that wall of hostility is not a good thing, and God has taken action to remove it.  He went to the root of the hostility—the Law, with it’s demands and accusations.  By his perfect life and death on the cross, he nullified the Law, so that it does not hang over you as a barrier between you and God anymore.  And there can be no hostility between those who appear to be good Christians and those who have not been, because both have the right to come to God for the same reason.  Paul explains that we have been brought near to each other and to God in the same crucified and risen body of Christ.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Ephesians 2:13-22

The same life and death of Jesus has given all of us peace.  In that one body we have all been brought near to God.  All of you, together, you who look like good people and you who have not always looked like good people—

In Christ, You Belong With God.

1.  God has given you peace.

It hasn’t always been that way, though.  Before Christ came, God wanted people to feel sin separating them from God, so that they would be drawn to his promises of a Savior.  Only the Jews, who kept his Law, could come into the temple to offer their prayers and sacrifices to God.  But even the Jews could only do that if sacrifices were made for their sins.  Blood had to be shed for them to come into God’s presence.
Anyone who did not keep the Law was unclean, and was not allowed in the temple.  The Jews were commanded to keep away from the things that would make them unclean, including unclean people who didn’t keep the Law.  God said in Leviticus, “You must keep the Israelites separate from things that make them unclean, so they will not die in their uncleanness for defiling my dwelling place, which is among them.”  God was talking about the tabernacle, which would later become the temple, and he was threatening death to any ceremonially unclean person who did not keep the Law but entered the temple.  So the Gentiles, those who were not Jews and did not keep God’s Law—those Gentiles were not allowed to come into God’s presence in the temple.  God wanted the Gentiles to feel their separation from God, so that they would reach out for him and find him in the laws and sacrifices of the Old Testament faith.
However, the laws of the Old Testament Jewish faith created an opportunity for pride and hostility.  The Jews became proud of the way that they were keeping God’s laws, and the looked down on the Gentiles who did not.  They kept God’s command to keep all unclean things and persons out of his temple, but they took it too far.  Not only did they keep Gentiles out of the temple, but they kept them from going near it.  They built a wall around the courtyard nearest the temple entrance, and posted a notice by the door that prohibited Gentiles from coming any further.  It read, “No outsider shall enter the protective enclosure around the sanctuary, and whoever is caught will only have himself to blame for the ensuing death.”
The wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles extended even further, so that Jews would not eat with Gentiles or go into their homes.  This is why the Pharisees criticized Jesus for eating with Gentiles.
The Gentiles, naturally, resented the way that the Jews looked down at them and excluded them.  Even as members of a Christian church like Ephesus, the Jews made them feel unclean and inferior.
The dividing wall of hostility lives on, though in a different form.  We are all Gentiles here, but there can still be hostility when those who keep the Law and appear to be good Christians look down on those who have not always done so.  It happens that Christian people will hear that someone in the church has committed some horrible sin and they will look at that person differently after that.  Even though he may have repented and been forgiven, they will judge that person’s faith and think he is not as committed to Christ as he should be.  They will think he is weak.  They will shy away from talking to that person.  They make him feel cut off.
For all of us who feel inferior and cut off from God, the solution is found in Christ.  For all of us who struggle with the temptation to think highly of ourselves and judge others, the solution is found in Christ.
Paul wrote,
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
If you are feeling pretty good about yourself, and you have a hard time understanding why other people are not so good, you need to remember that the only reason why you have peace with God is because you are “in Christ.”  Paul began chapter 2 of Ephesians by saying that all of us were at one time “dead in our transgressions and sins.” –unable to do anything good for God, and even unable to know him, just as much as a dead man is unable to get up and walk around.  The Law stood between you and God and gave you no peace.  It condemned you to hell.  But Christ took your sins on himself, and he suffered the punishment of the Law.  In his flesh hanging on the cross he took away the effect of the Law.  He pushed it aside, so that it would no longer accuse you, and no longer separate you from God.  The only reason why you can sit here with a peaceful feeling that heaven’s door is open is that God has made that peace for you.
When you remember this, there can be no judging of other Christians who have fallen into sin.  We all have been dead in our sins.  We all have been reconciled by the same body of Christ.
If you are feeling pretty bad about yourself, and having a hard time feeling like God will hear your prayers, and feeling like everyone at church will judge you—you need to remember that Christ has done what you have not.  God’s Law says that you must be good, Christ says it has been done, because he did it for you.  God’s Law says that sin must be punished, and Christ says that it has been, in his death.  The Law with its accusations that you don’t belong with God has been pushed aside.  The barrier has been torn down.  Then also, all of those people who might have judged you have no basis, because the law had to be pushed aside for them too.  All of us stand before God on equal ground, in Christ.  In one Savior, by the one body heaven’s door is opened God’s voice calls out to you with peace, peace for those far and near.
But really, those who were far from God, those who felt like they were far from God, and those who had been treated like they were far from God are all brought near to God in Christ.
2. God has brought you near.
God has brought you near as a citizen of his kingdom.  Paul wrote, “You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people.”  Remember that the citizens of Israel were considered God’s chosen people.  They were the ones God had selected out of all the nations of the world to be the people who would believe in him and put his glory on display for all the world to see.  They were the ones who had the Word of God; they were the ones who had the temple.  They were the ones who were allowed to go into the temple to offer sacrifices and prayers.  They had God’s promise that a great King would be born for them who would save them from their sins.
Even though you are not Jews, God has made you citizens of that kingdom.  Though you may feel far from God, God has chosen you to believe in him and display his glory.  The Bible is yours.  The church is yours.  He has pushed the demands of the Law aside and given you the right to come into his holy presence in the Word and Sacraments, and receive his forgiveness from the sacrifice of Christ.  You have a great King whose kingdom lasts forever, and you will be with him in eternity.
God has brought you near as a member of his family.  We all have access to one Father, Paul wrote.   We are members of God’s household.  You have come to the right place to be in God’s presence, but you are not here like a stranger or a foreigner.  You belong, like a member of God’s family.  The Law with its demands has been pushed aside, and your prayers will be heard.  Even if you are like the infant of the house, who doesn’t know what to say or how to say it, but cries out anyway—the Father hears you.  Even if you are like the Prodigal Son who wasted everything the Father has given you and ran away from him—when you come back the Father hears you.
God has brought you even closer than that, though.  You are not just in the right place to stand in God’s presence.   You don’t just belong in God’s house.  You actually are the house of God.  He has pushed the Law with its demands out of the way so far that he can actually live in you.  Paul wrote, “In him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

You, each of you, are part of the house of God.  Why would any of you feel that you do not belong here, in front of God’s pulpit, where God’s Word is given to you?  Why would anyone feel that he doesn’t belong there, at the Lord’s Table, where he feeds his people?  The Law makes us feel that way.  When God tells us that he hates sin, we feel the accusation, and we feel that God must hate us.  People who don’t feel those accusations will look down on us.  The house of God, however, is not built on the Law of God.  According to Paul, it is built on the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  The whole thing, in fact, comes together only in Christ.  He is the foundation, he is the mortar, he is even the one who makes us bricks worth using.  Christ is everything.  We need to remember that in him, and through faith in him, the Law with its accusations has been pushed aside.  It doesn’t hang over us as a barrier between God and us anymore.  It can’t stand between us as a wall between those who look like good Christians and those who have not always.  We are all one, you and I and Christ.  He has given you peace.  He has brought you near.  In Christ, you belong with God.  Amen.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ephesians 1:3-14 Pentecost 8

Tension causes conflict between people.  Teenage drama happens because of the tension of trying to be cool enough to have friends and a boyfriend or girlfriend.  Workplace conflicts happen when there is tension—when personalities collide and when people are worried about losing their job.  It’s no different for God’s people. 
It seems that the Ephesian church had some people who thought they knew everything, who thought they were better than the others.  It seems that they had some people who didn’t feel like the fit in with the congregation, and other people who made them feel that way.  Behind the conflict there was a tension.  There was the tension of being a small Christian church in a large idol-worshiping city.  When Paul had been preaching there, the people of this city had started a riot against Paul and the Christians there.  For two hours they had shouted praises to their false god. “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians,” they shouted as they protested against the Christians.  What should the Christians do about these people who were insisting that they be more inclusive of other religious viewpoints?  I’m sure the question was often on their minds.
Those of them who were Jewish Christians felt the tension of being a part of a nation that had failed.  They knew that their people had rejected the Messiah.  Their glory as the chosen nation of God had crumbled.  God was reaching out with his Word to other people, to the Gentiles.  What was left to make them special in God’s eyes now?  God had chosen them first, but now he was reaching out to others with his love.  They must have felt like the firstborn child who suddenly isn’t the center of attention anymore when mom gives birth to a baby sister.  The tension of feeling forgotten probably made them resent the non-Jewish believers and treat them as inferior.  They probably reacted with impatience when these new Christians were slow to leave their old sins behind and live like Christians.
No doubt the Gentile, non-Jewish Christians in the congregation also felt the tension of being inferior.  They had always been thought of as second-class citizens in God’s kingdom.  When Jesus challenged the Gentile woman to show her faith, he called her a dog in God’s house to see if she would still believe in his goodness.  That woman reacted as if she were used to thinking of herself as a dog in God’s eyes.  No doubt the Gentiles in the congregation at Ephesus resented the Jews who seemed to always think that they were better.  One can only imagine the conflicts that must have resulted.
To this church, persecuted from the outside and divided on the inside, Paul wrote words of wisdom.  He gave God’s remedy for any Church that has conflict, and for any Christians who feel inferior.  Are there reasons why you feel that God might have lost interest in you?  Do you feel that you are not one of God’s most valuable people?  Perhaps you resent people who seem to be more valuable, or maybe you feel like you should be more like them.   Maybe you feel like a disappointment to your Lord and Savior.
You may look at your life you realize that you haven’t really accomplished as much as you should have for your God.  You may have accomplished many things, but you realize it was all for yourself.  As much as you would like to care about others, as much as you want to be like Christ to them, you are still so hopelessly selfish with your time.  You are still so slow to give yourself to their needs.
You think about the people you know, and there is someone who loves God more, who trusts him more and worries less than you do.  There is someone who seems to have an endless well of compassion for others.  Someone never lies.  Someone is so much better at loving his wife, someone is so much better at honoring her husband.  Some of those people aren’t even Christians.  We realize that lots of unbelievers have never done the horrible thing we have done.  Then we wonder if we really belong in church.  We wonder if God might be regretting his decision to choose us and bring us into his family.
The Apostle Paul wrote to us as someone who had every opportunity to feel like a disappointment to God.  Jesus had appeared to him personally and called him to be the apostle to the Gentiles.  Yet here he was sitting in prison.  He could have thought that God had given up on him, a failure of an apostle.  Ah, but you say, “How could the great Apostle Paul have thought that?”  Let’s not forget that he was chased out of nearly every town he entered.  He didn’t change the world.  And in his personal life he thought of himself as the “worst of sinners.”  He said, “The good I want to do, this I cannot do.  The evil I do not want to do, this I keep on doing.”  And yet, with every opportunity to feel worthless to God, Paul had learned to see things God’s way.  The picture is bigger than how we feel about ourselves.  God had a point in choosing people who have every reason to feel worthless.  He wanted to put his grace on display by making worthless people into the royal heirs of heaven.  Paul wants us to see ourselves as very valuable to God—like princes and princesses in his kingdom—the King has made us his heirs.  He has written us into his will, so to speak.  We are so important to him, in fact, that he already had his eye on us before we were born, and even before he created the world.  He was already planning how he would save us and then bring us to faith in our Savior.  We are so valuable that he has made plans to assure us that we truly do have an inheritance in heaven, regardless of what our gut feeling may say to the contrary.  There has been no mistake.  We are the heirs in the kingdom of heaven.  God has even made it legal.

God the Father Wrote You Into His Will

Hear Paul’s words from Ephesians, chapter 1.

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8 that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9 And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

1.     There has been no mistake.

We have been written into God’s will as his heirs.  We have an inheritance in heaven.
Now, if you were to find out suddenly that you were an heir to the British throne—not the first in line, you aren’t going to be king.  You would be very rich, though—if you were to find out that you were an heir to the British throne, wouldn’t you think that there must be some mistake?  Why would you be in the will?
We ask the same questions about God, don’t we?  Why am I in God’s will?  Why would I get an inheritance?  There isn’t anything all that special about me.  I have in fact dishonored his name more often than I would like to admit.  Why would God want to put me in the will?  The answer, of course, is found in Christ.
Paul wrote, “For he chose us [in Christ] before the creation of the world…in love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ.  And all of this God did, quote, “to the praise of his glorious grace.
God knew you before creation, and he chose you, knowing every horrible thing that you would do.  Knowing that you would love him less than you should, and forget about him more often than not, knowing that you would turn away from his will in disgust at times, he chose you.  And you know something, he doesn’t regret his choice.  He chose you so that he could display his grace, so that we could see how good he is and praise him for it.  He chose you because what he was planning to do in Christ was so great that it had to be on display.  The forgiveness that Christ purchased by his death is so complete that he needed real sinners like me and like you.
God’s history shows how true this is.  He chose Israel to be the nation he would call his own, even though he knew that they would forget him and even turn away from him again and again.  He did this because there is forgiveness in Christ even for rebellious people. 
God chose David to be a King and a Prophet for his people, knowing what David would do.  God even chose David as one whose life would foreshadow Christ, and God would compare Christ to David.  God chose to do this before the creation of the world, even though he knew that David would commit that horrible sin with Bathsheba, committing adultery with her and then arranging for her husband to be killed in battle in order to cover up his sin.  God chose David because there is forgiveness in Christ even for people who should know better but still do horrible things.
God chose you, because there is forgiveness in Christ for every awful thing you have ever done and ever will do.  This may seem too good to be true.  You are going to have a gut feeling now and then that God must certainly have regretted his choice and changed his mind about you.  But there has been no mistake, and God does not regret.  You will get your inheritance.  God the Father wrote you into his will, and…

2.   He made it legal by the Holy Spirit.

This is how you know that God will give you the inheritance.  It’s all legal.  The heirs are notified.  You have heard the Gospel—the good news has been preached to you, just as God planned that it would be.  You also have believed, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word.  That is the seal that marks you as a genuine heir.  Paul wrote, “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”
When a will is written, if you want to be very official, it is folded up and tied with a string.  Then a bit of wax is melted onto the string, and an official seal is pressed into the melted wax.  The seal on the will says that it is official.  It also assures us that nothing in the will has been changed.  If you want to open the will and change something, you will need to break the seal.  The Holy Spirit has been given to us as a seal that assures us that God’s will is genuine and we are truly his heirs.  He was given to you in your baptism, as God promised in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized, and you will receive the Holy Spirit.”  You know that he is still with you, because Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit wherever people hear his Word.  He said, “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”  There you see the evidence of his work, in that you have heard and believed God’s promises to you in Christ.  The Holy Spirit has taught you.
Paul also described the Holy Spirit as the deposit that makes your inheritance legal.  The deposit is a part of the whole inheritance, and it guarantees that the rest is coming.  When you sign a lease on an apartment, you have to make a security deposit.  That deposit makes the contract legal, and obligates you to complete the lease.  The Holy Spirit’s presence in us is like a security deposit.  Having the Holy Spirit in us and with us to teach us to know God and trust him is the first part of our inheritance, and also a sign that God has obligated himself to give us the full inheritance of heaven.  God has written you into his legally binding will.

We can’t leave without saying a little more about the inheritance that we have been given.  The inheritance that God has guaranteed to us is that we will be with to Christ, and we will enjoy every blessing that comes with being royalty in heaven.  God chose to make you the princes and princesses of heaven.  You have been chosen to sit on thrones in heaven with Christ the King.
Now don’t overlook this as just fine theological distinction that God chose you in eternity.  It is vitally important to understand that God chose you long before you ever knew him, because in real life your inheritance in heaven isn’t going to make sense any other way.  Our attempts to live up to the glory of God’s name are so pathetic.  There is no reason in the world why God should have chosen us to be his heirs.  The reason is in Christ, because God is so gracious and his love so deep that it must be put on display.  How better to show his grace than to lift up pathetic sinners like us and give us a place in heaven?  There is no mistake; God has not picked the wrong people.  This has been his plan from the beginning; he chose you though he knew everything you would do.  At the right time he has called you to faith in your Savior.  He has assured you that you are a genuine heir of heaven by giving you the Holy Spirit.  Your inheritance is sealed and guaranteed.  There has been no mistake; its all legal.  God has written you into his will.  Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ezekiel 2:1-5 Pentecost 7

Being a prophet has never been a popular career.  And it’s no wonder, because the job description God gave to Ezekiel isn’t exactly attractive.  By and large his words would seem to do no good.  He would feel like he was just throwing mud against a brick wall, and in fact that is how God described these people—obstinate and stubborn, unmoving and unaffected by God’s Word, just like a brick wall.  At best God could give him only the slightest hope that maybe they would listen.  Would you have taken the job?
It doesn’t really matter if you would have taken the job or not, because you don’t get to decide to be a prophet.  God calls prophets into his service, and you don’t say no to God.  Again and again, God emphasized this point to Ezekiel.  The Holy Spirit moved Ezekiel to stand on his feet while God spoke.  God said, “I am sending you to the Israelites.”  The message that Ezekiel was to deliver would not be his own idea, but God’s.  God would give Ezekiel a message, and Ezekiel was to say, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says.”
To a lesser extent, we are all prophets.  God hasn’t come to us in visions and miraculous ways like he did to those prophets long ago, but we do have a message from God that he wants us to share.   We are supposed to speak the same words that he gave those ancient prophets to speak.  As a church and as individuals, we have a little something in common with Ezekiel.  If it’s going to be like it was for Ezekiel, perhaps you would rather not be like a prophet.  We might rather be prophets speaking God’s Word in a place where people will listen.  Would you rebel against God’s call?  The thought is tempting.
We are sent to a rebellious people; but because of God’s merciful Word and because he guarantees our success, we have a great job.

It’s Great to Be a Prophet.
1.     In spite of the difficult assignment,
2.     Because of God’s merciful Word,
3.     And because God guarantees our success.

1.    It’s great to be a prophet, in spite of the difficult assignment.
Ezekiel was called to preach to the rebellious house of Israel, which had notoriously rejected God’s Word.  For three hundred years plus, they had been ignoring God’s prophets at best, and at worst killing them.  100 years before Ezekiel, God had spoken about these people through the prophet Isaiah, “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations—people who continually provoke me to my very face.  At about the same time as God spoke to Ezekiel, the prophet Jeremiah also received a message from God, which he wrote on a scroll and sent to King Jehoiakim.  The king of this rebellious nation cut Jeremiah’s scroll into pieces and threw it into the fire.
Ezekiel may have been wondering what God was doing, sending him to a place where the people had refused to listen for so long.   There were many other nations on the earth, and it might seem better to try somewhere else.  It might seem futile to keep wasting words on the nation of Israel.  It must have been a great temptation for Ezekiel to reject God’s plan for Israel and God’s call for him to be a prophet.  God anticipated that temptation and said in the words following our text,
Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house.  You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious.  But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you.  Do not rebel like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”
As Jesus sent us to “go and make disciples of all nations,” we too are tempted to be afraid and be concerned about whether they will listen or not.
We have been sent to a rebellious people.  In the state of California, atheism is the fastest growing religion, according to a 2009 Pew survey.  In that same survey, in a ranking the states from the most religious to the least religious, California came in 36th out of the 50 states.  We are in the bottom third.  So many don’t believe in God.  So many more think they can believe in God without listening to a word of what he says.  They despise his Word and Sacraments.  Church attendance in this state is deplorable.  We live among a rebellious people.
Think of what our state has done to fight against God’s Word.  It’s only a matter of time before same-sex marriage is legal here.  Already it is widely acceptable to rebel against God’s condemnation of homosexuality as a sinful lifestyle.
In October of last year, the Sacramento Bee covered Fremont Presbyterian Church’s decision to split over the ordination of gay clergy.  It was wonderful that those Christians took a stand on the Word of God and refused to give, even if it meant that they would have to leave their former church body.  The newspaper portrayed it as a tragedy.
Just this last week the newspaper reported that the Mississippi legislators are trying to put new regulations on the only abortion clinic in their state.  They made it sound horrible, as if the state were trying to deprive its women of a much needed medical service.  The people of California have rebelled against God’s command that we protect human life as something sacred—even life in the womb.
Even just in this south Sacramento community, we are sent to a rebellious people.  We have been here for 40 years, and yet most of our neighbors have never been through our doors.  Part of that, no doubt, is our fault.  But our neighbors aren’t exactly scrambling to find a church either.  Most of them have walked past every day without giving us a thought.  Some have come once, never to be back again. 
It looks like we have small chance for success, right?  It looks like you would rather say “no” to God’s call.   It’s much more attractive to be a rebel.  Turn God down.  Just soak up the grace of God for yourself and ignore his call to spread his Word to others.  If God won’t let you do that, then its tempting to despise his Word and stay away from church.  Anything is easier than to take his call and be a prophet.  In this state and in this city, it’s tempting to question God’s wisdom for putting us here.  It’s easy to disregard his call to all of us as Christians to be his prophets speaking his Word. 
But God has good news for the prophet too.  He stressed to Ezekiel that he was being called by God, to deliver a message from God.  Ezekiel should find his glory in his God and in the Word that God gave him to speak.  As for the people, God said, “Whether they listen or fail to listen, at least they will know that there was a prophet among them.”  There is a strange, independent glory here, isn’t there?  The prophet does what needs to be done, regardless of the consequences, simply because of the one who sent him.  There is power and strength here.  The prophet is a rock.  He stands unaffected, whether they listen or not. 

2.    It’s a glorious job to be a prophet, because of God’s glorious, merciful Word.

We might wonder, as Ezekiel must have, why God would even bother with such a rebellious bunch of people?  It isn’t the most likely place to find people who will listen to us.  They have a long history of ignoring us and ignoring God’s Word.  What’s the point in God reaching out to them anymore?  Actually, that is exactly the point.  They may listen, or they may not, but God reaches out to them.  Christ died for them.  God pleads with them.  If you haven’t been in church for a long time, and you have been ignoring God, he is reaching out to you.  We are here for you.  He doesn’t want to see anyone go to hell, so he sends out his Word to rebuke sins and sinful attitudes.  He sends out his mercy too, with the promise that all who repent of their sins and listen to him will be forgiven.
God reached out to those rebels of Israel.  He had watched them ignore his prophets for years.  He saw that they were obstinate and stubborn, and that they would likely always refuse to listen to him.  Still, God did not want to see them go to hell.   He would not let them go their own way skipping and singing on the road to hell.  He sent Ezekiel to rebuke them, so that they would perhaps look for God’s mercy again.  God wanted to forgive and to save.  It was a glorious job for Ezekiel to be a prophet, because he spoke for our God who doesn’t think that it’s too much to try to save people who probably will never listen.  God wants all to be saved, and he sends his Word out to the rebels just in case they will listen.
It’s a great job to be a prophet, because here we see how truly God’s mercy is for us.  He even reaches out to rebels, and isn’t that good news for all of us?  Isn’t it rebellion against God to listen to his Word for yourself, but not want to give it to others who seem less likely to listen?  Refusing God’s task for us to speak his Word is just one of the many ways that our sinful heart resists and rejects God’s will.  Time and again, we hear God’s Word and realize that what he wants is very different from what we want.  We are all rebels. 
God sends his Word out to rebels, so that they will turn and be forgiven.  He sends his Word to the people outside of the Church.  He even sends it to us rebels inside of the Church.  God is good.  God is gracious.  It’s a glorious job to be his prophet.

3.    It’s great to be a prophet because God guarantees our success.

There is no pressure on the prophet.  God never told Ezekiel that he needed to convince the people to turn away from their sins.  Ezekiel didn’t have to come up with clever arguments.  God simply told him to go, and say, “Thus says the LORD.”  Regardless of whether or not they would listen, Ezekiel would be successful in his mission.
We have been commissioned by Jesus to go and speak his Word, like prophets.  He said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  There is no pressure on you.  God doesn’t ask you to make up clever arguments to persuade people.  He simply says go, baptize, and teach.  If we do that, we are successful.
So go—God sends you to your friends and neighbors—the people in your life who know you and trust you.  If they are on the road to hell, you have the message from God that will save them.  Go and speak to them.
Go to your family—the people whom you love the most, though they are also perhaps least likely to listen to you.  That isn’t supposed to matter to the prophet.  God has sent you, and he has given you his Word.  Go.
As a church, we go.  There are people in the neighborhood all around us, and they need to know that God’s Word is spoken in their midst.  They may listen or they may not, but God has sent us to them.
We go to the people in this city and its surrounding areas.  There is no one else who will bring the pure Word of God to them.  There isn’t another church that teaches the pure Word of God between here and Citrus Heights, between here and Lodi, between here and Vacaville.  Will they listen?  Will they be willing to make the drive in to worship with us?  I don’t know.  It really isn’t my concern.  God has sent us.  God has given us his Word.  As a church, we are to preach and to teach, to baptize those who will be baptized, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with those who believe and understand.

I’m glad that we don’t have to worry about convincing people to believe.  It’s risky business being in sales.  What if we were on commission, and our reward in heaven depended on the number of converts we made here?  In sales you have to be constantly tweaking your product according to the ever-changing wants of the people—but the Word of God is unchanging.  What if we had to make the unpopular Word of God something that was popular to the people of the world?   Might as well be trying to convince kids to like brussel sprouts.  God has given us a much better promise of success.  He just asks us to do our work faithfully.  The results have nothing to do with our work.  If they listen, the glory goes to God.  If they don’t, then it’s their own fault, because they are rebellious.  But our glory is unchanged—In spite of the difficult assignment, we reach out with God’s mercy, and God guarantees our success.  “Whether they listen or fail to listen, at least they will know that there was a prophet among them.”  It’s good to be a prophet.  Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Lamentations 3:22-33 Pentecost 6

God gives hope to people who deserve to be punished.  We have an example in the ancient people of Jerusalem.
For years they had been spitting in God’s face.  Wicked King Manasseh worshiped idols.  He sacrificed his son to the false god Molech.  He even put an Asherah pole in the temple itself.   God had to watch people doing the most detestable things in his holy temple.
Now, after his reign was over you might think that the people would joyfully return to the Lord, having been relieved of this wicked king and his disgusting idolatry.  Actually, they seem to have enjoyed it.  They continued in it.  King Amon continued to do all those things.  So did King Jehoahaz and King Jehoiakim after him. 
God was not willing to put up with this filth any longer.  Because of their wickedness, God sent the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to punish them.  But do you think they repented and accepted God’s punishment?  No—in fact, after three years Jehoiakim rebelled.  King Nebuchadnezzar had to come back.  He clapped bronze shackles on Jehoiakim’s wrists and led him off as a prisoner to Babylon.
Now, would Jehoiakim’s son learn to be humble and accept God’s punishment?   No, actually he had only learned to sin like his father had.  He too rebelled against God and against Nebuchadnezzar, and the Babylonian had to come back a second time.  This time he took the king prisoner, but also the king’s mother, his officials, and his whole army.  All of them were led away to Babylon.
Perhaps the next king would learn to be humble and accept God’s punishment for their wickedness—but actually, he did not.  Even animals learn that you keep getting punished when you keep doing the same bad thing, but these kings of Jerusalem continued to worship their idols and spit in God’s face.  And, like his fathers, Zedekiah refused to accept God’s punishment.  He rebelled against the Babylonian King.  Nebuchadnezzar had to come back a third time—the last time.  The Babylonians surrounded the city and cut off all their food.  For a year and a half no one got in or out of Jerusalem.  Every bit of grass, every household pet, every bit of shoe leather became food.  Then they ate things far worse than that.   Then they ate nothing at all.  When they could hold out no longer, the Babylonians plundered and burned the city.  They took all the gold, silver, and bronze from the temple.  The golden altar of incense, the bronze altar where the sacrifices were made, the beautiful gold and silver cups and bowls that were used in the temple services—all of it was taken away to Babylon.  Then they even burned the temple. 
The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar took all of the leaders and all of the skilled people of Jerusalem to live far away in Babylon.  He made King Zedekiah watch as he killed his sons, and then he gouged out his eyes so that it would be the last thing he saw. 
The people of Jerusalem looked around at their misery.  It was probably Jeremiah who wrote the book of Lamentations about this destruction.  Listen to what he wrote about the destruction of Jerusalem:
      “Look, O Lord, and consider:
Whom have you ever treated like this?
Should women eat their offspring,
the children they have cared for?
Should priest and prophet be killed
in the sanctuary of the Lord?
      “Young and old lie together
in the dust of the streets;
my young men and maidens
have fallen by the sword.
You have slain them in the day of your anger;
you have slaughtered them without pity.  (Lam 2:20,21)
The punishment was horrible, but they deserved it.  And yet, even when they were being punished for the horrible sins they had committed, God told them to put their faith in his love. His love never ends.  His mercy never ceases.  He does not enjoy punishing his people—he doesn’t do it willingly, but because he must.  God wants us to be humble and accept his punishment, understanding that he does it because of his love for us.  He wants us to wait patiently for him to stop punishing and again let us see his love.  He inspired Jeremiah to write these words, our sermon text:
22    Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23    They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24    I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
25    The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26    it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
27    It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.
28    Let him sit alone in silence,
for the Lord has laid it on him.
29    Let him bury his face in the dust—
there may yet be hope.
30    Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
and let him be filled with disgrace.
31    For men are not cast off
by the Lord forever.
32    Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33    For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to the children of men.
There is hope, even for people who deserve to be punished.  When you suffer, be patient.  Quietly Wait for God.

Theme: Quietly Wait for God.

What are you waiting for?
The people of Jerusalem waited for God to rescue them from the destruction of their city.  What are you waiting for?  Maybe you aren’t waiting for anything, if you constantly feel that God loves you and blesses you.  His angels surround you, and they keep all bad things from happening to you.  Just wait, your day is coming.  Bad things will happen.
As for the rest of us normal Christians, its actually kind of rare to feel God’s loving protection.   We are nearly always worrying about something, and wondering if God is going to help us.  Disaster looms.  Someone is going to die.  Something expensive is going to happen.  Something horrible is going to take you by surprise.
And then, when it does happen, you are going to ask why God would let this happen to you.  You have been taught to believe that God is all about love and forgiveness.  You thought that he would forgive you and not punish you, but you will feel like you are being punished. 
Now in these words from Lamentations, we read that God actually does punish.  He doesn’t just allow you to get into trouble because of your sin; he actually brings trouble upon you because of your sin.  In your heart you know that it’s true.  When have you been in trouble and not thought of at least 2 or 3 or a dozen reasons why you deserved it?  Haven’t you felt before that God was punishing you?
Look at the words of our text:  (v.28) the LORD has laid [the yoke] on him; (v.31) men are cast off by the LORD (but not forever); (v.33) the LORD brings affliction and grief (though not willingly).
The truth is, any time we suffer, we are feeling God’s punishment for sin.  It’s a little itty bitty taste of hell.  It’s a small taste of what we deserve for our sins.  Even if there is not any particularly horrible sin that we have committed recently, we deserve it.  All have sinned.  We all deserve it.  A few verses after our text the prophet wrote:
“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?  Why should any living man complain when punished for his sins?”
There you have it—every living person has sins and deserves to be punished.  So when the prophet wrote, ”It is good wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord,”  I suppose he meant all of us.  We are nearly always waiting to feel the love and forgiveness that God has promised us.

God wants us to wait quietly.
When you’re on a trip and the back seat keeps crying out, “Are we there yet, I’m hungry, I’m too hot, I’m too cold, I think you’re going the wrong way,”—someone is not waiting quietly.
Isn’t that the way it is in Christian life too?  The temptation is to cry out against God, “This is too hard, this is not fair, I thought God doesn’t punish, I thought God forgives.”
God gives us two key words that help us understand what he means by quiet waiting—the first is “hoping,” and the second is “seeking.”  We are to wait for him, putting our hope in him that he will let us feel his love again.  We wait for him to let us feel his love, but at the same time we seek it.  We seek his love in the places where we know we can always find it—in his Word and the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion.  We also seek his love in our lives as we pray that he will rescue us and bless us again.
We should understand this quiet waiting in the sense of waiting peacefully for God.  Waiting quietly means that we don’t accuse God of doing wrong.  We don’t accuse him of giving us more trouble than we deserve.  We don’t refuse to suffer under his hand.  Can you do that?  When it feels like God is punishing, it’s hard enough even to say what the prophet said,
26    It is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
27    It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.
28    Let him sit alone in silence,
for the Lord has laid it on him.

We don’t wait quietly
Because of our rebellious sinful natures, we are going to fight back against the suffering God puts on us.  We are going to resist his punishment, just like those kings of Jerusalem did.  Depending on what kind of a person you are, you will either be tempted to be angry with God and make him your enemy, or despair of his love and sink into a spiritual depression.

The key to quiet waiting is having the assurance of God’s love.
There is a key ingredient to quiet waiting.  When you cook, if you are missing the key ingredient or you don’t put in enough, it doesn’t turn out.  The bread is flat; the pie is soupy; the cookies aren’t sweet.  The key ingredient to quiet waiting is having the assurance of God’s love.  Our text begins with the words, ”Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.”  The prophet was able to wait quietly because he had the key ingredient.  He was sure that God’s love would not fail, because that’s who God is.  His love is great.  His compassion never fails.  Even if we feel his punishment, it doesn’t mean that he has stopped loving us.
In Christ we are assured that our sins have not made God stop loving us, because Christ was punished for our sins.  In Isaiah we read, “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Now if that is true, and it is, then the punishment we suffer now cannot be a true punishment for our sins. God will not truly give us what we deserve.  He will not destroy us.  Though he may give us a taste of hell, we have hope that he will not actually send us there.  If we are with Christ, and Christ has already suffered that punishment, then what we suffer must be something else.  It must be meant for our good.   It must be something that God is doing in his love for us.
This is God’s wisdom: Because of his great love, he hides his love.  He doesn’t want us to become lazy in our sins, so he lets us taste a bit of his wrath.  He doesn’t want us to forget the depth of his love that led him to suffer all of that and more on the cross in our place.  God doesn’t want us to forget and lose everything that his love would give us.  He wants us to put our hope in him, and to seek out that love in his Word and Sacraments.  God wants us to turn our thoughts back to the baptism that washed away every reason that God would have to destroy us.  He wants us to come rushing back to the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness that Christ won for us by his death on the cross.  God wants us to seek his love there, where he has promised that it will always be found.

 This is Christian life: A Christian continually repents and rises with the assurance of God’s forgiveness to try again.

Do you feel like you are any more able to wait quietly for God, now that you have been reminded of his love?  Tentatively, maybe you do.  Maybe you don’t.  This is why Christian life is a lifelong repentance.  But understand that it is a sin to be impatient with God.  It is a sin to resist his discipline, insisting that you don’t deserve it.  It is also a sin to despair of his love for you.  Daily, bow your head to God and accept any trouble that he gives, because you deserve it.  Daily repent of your proud thoughts.  But also, because his mercies are new every morning, daily rise up and wait for his salvation.  He has assured you of his love and faithfulness.  His punishment can only be meant for your good, not to destroy you in hell but to discipline you as his child.  Put your hope in his never-ending love.  Wait quietly for God and for his salvation.  Amen.