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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Matters of the Heart

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
            Many parents remember the first time they heard the heartbeat of their yet-to-be-born baby.  The experience is powerful, full of emotion.  The rhythmic beat that begins the symphony of life brings so much joy.  That beat is vital as it determines the tempo and demeanor of the music.  After a baby is born doctors continue to listen to that beat as the symphony marches on, as children grow into adulthood.  It’s amazing how this beat that brings so much joy also brings so much sorrow comes when that symphony reaches its conclusion and that rhythmic beating finally comes to a rest.
            We can imagine what it must have been like when God breathed life into Adam and heard his heart beating for the first time.  What joy our Heavenly Creator and Father must have felt when He witnessed His creation come to life, yet how much sorrow He must have felt when He witnessed Adam choose death over the life God had given him.  Satan’s words taunted and tempted, “You will surely not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Sure, on that day their hearts did not cease beating inside their chest, but the beat that once was a beautiful symphony strayed from the sheet music God had written and was reduced to a cacophony of volatile notes and off beat measures.
This is because we are more than mere physical beings.  God fearfully and wonderfully created us with not only a physical existence, but a spiritual on as well.  In all creation, we are unique because God carefully crafted us in His own image.  He gave us an intellect to know Him and a will to follow His.  He gave us a heart by making us intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual beings so that we could love and adore and worship and praise Him, yet when Adam ate that fruit in the garden, he rebelled against God in the heart that God gave him.  In that moment, both his will and his intellect were corrupted.  His heart no longer aligned with God’s.  He lost the reflection of his Creator by rejecting the life that God had given him, and in doing so condemned himself to a life of misery and suffering.  God cast Adam and Eve out from the garden, barring them from the tree of life, lest they eat of it and live forever in their desolate state, forever dying yet never truly living.  In this merciful act, God allowed their suffering to end in death, but He took no pleasure in their dying.
In His foreknowledge, God knew that Adam and Eve would, condemning all humanity with them, so before He even created them, God planned for their salvation.  He refused to let sin and death have the final word over His creation.  He refused to let the life He gave and loved so dearly be lost forever.  This is the Gospel that we know and cling to, for it gives us life once again.  God sent His only begotten Son into the world, not to condemn, but to redeem.  Christ took on our flesh, submitting Himself to the Law of God, and lived a perfect life so that He was the perfect sacrifice.  God cast all our sin upon Him, condemning them in the flesh and putting sin to death once and for all.  In doing so, Christ set us free from the burdens of the Law and gave us a new life, creating in us a clean heart and renewing a right spirit within us.
But the question remains, what now?  What do we do with the freedom earned for us on the cross?  What have we been freed from, and what have we been freed for?  Last week we read in Romans.  Paul asked, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?  May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?  Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?  Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
In our baptism we were united with Christ not only in His death, but also in His life.  We live in grace, not so that we may keep on sinning, but just the opposite.  As Paul says, the death Christ died He died to sin, so in His death we too die to sin, and the life He lives He lives to God, and so the lives we live we also live to God.  The freedom we gained on the cross was the freedom from sin, and though we have been freed from sin we are not our own.  As the redeemed, we have been bought with a price: the holy and precious blood of Christ and His innocent suffering and death.  Freed from the bondage of sin we now belong to Him, and as our Master Christ would have us do His Father’s will.
Just as Christ did not come to condemn but to save, Christ also did not come to abolish the Law but uphold it.  Though we have been freed from the burdens of the Law, God’s Law is still written on our heart.  When challenged by the Pharisees, Christ declared the greatest commandments are loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets, He says, hangs on these two things.  In other words, the grace we receive through Christ does not send us out with a blank check and a get out of jail free card, but He wants us to live with God’s Law always before us, for following the Law is the Father’s will for our lives.
We look towards God’s Law then, not for our salvation, for our salvation was and is made complete through Christ alone, but instead as a guide to show us how to live godly lives here in time in light of our salvation.  Though our good works do not earn us favor from God, they do serve as a testimony before men.  In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ instructs His disciples, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  Our works witness to our faith.  They show others the new heart God has given us, a heart that loves because God first loved us.  They are an expression of our thankfulness toward the gift we have been given.  They reflect what Christ has done for us on the cross.  Since we have been reconciled with God through Christ, we seek to reconcile with one another and bring others to the love of God in Christ Jesus.
It makes sense, then, that Christ continues on teaching about our relationships with one another.  He begins by teaching the fifth commandment.  How appropriate for the Sanctity of Life Sunday: You shall not commit murder.  Even more, this commandment does not simply forbidding taking another’s life.  Christ explains “everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”  While this commandment forbids murder, it is also a matter of the heart. 
Luther explores this commandment further in his Large Catechism.  He comes to the conclusion that this commandment concerning life has two parts.  In the first part we must not hurt or harm anyone by our words or deeds.  In the second part it requires us to do good to our neighbor and prevent any evil from befalling him.  At first this seems simple, but Luther explains that the first part forbids even putting anyone in a position where they may be harmed, by our words or deeds, by our means or methods, or even hating them or being angry in our heart.  The second part includes see those in need and clothing and feeding them or seeing them suffering or in danger and intervening.  If we withhold our love in any way, we break this commandment.
In this way, we are called to serve God and obey His commandments.  We are to use them to serve one another and bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.  This is our calling.  Just as God called Samuel and the disciples in their own callings to serve Him, God also calls each one of us to lead a godly life in light of our salvation.  This can be hard though as our rebellious hear constantly struggles against the will of God, but we, as the redeemed, know that our Father and Christ our Lord has not left us alone to do this task, but They have sent to us a helper, Their Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit daily and richly forgives all our sins and cleanses our heart so that each time we fail He picks us back up again and gives us the strength to go on.
Sin no longer has a hold on you.  Your sheet music has been wiped clean, and Christ has stepped in as your conductor.  Under His guide your symphony returns even more beautiful and majestic than it was before.  Where sin once ruled, you now have the desire to do what is good, what is right.  As a church, we have great ministries: we support Interfaith Ministries, we are partners in education, we serve vision clinics in Kenya, we fund foreign missionaries, we aid seminary students, we reach out to hospice and the fire station, we do a bunch of great things here at Our Redeemer that help advance the kingdom of God.  Yet there is always more work to do, there is always a need for workers in the harvest.
So ask yourself, particularly on this Life Sunday, is there anything more you can be doing: at home with your kids, at work with your co-workers, among family and friends, here at church, or anywhere else you may be to honor the gift of life that God has given us?  Are there conversations you can have?  Items you can give?  Things that you can do?  People you can support?  In this broken world there is always need; opportunities to serve our neighbor and advance God’s kingdom are always surrounding us.  Don’t be afraid to jump in and help out, because YOU are the redeemed and this is YOUR calling, for these are matters of the heart.

May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

For ALL People

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The day after Christmas, we went to Dallas for some much needed relaxation and entertainment.  We began making our way back after nightfall, and being the inexperienced Texans we are, we missed our exit and wound up driving down the lonely Jacksboro Highway.  A curtain of clouds held back the moon, preventing it from shinning any light on our surroundings.  Needless to say, it was dark.  The darkness consumed everything.  The only relief we had were our headlights as they fought back the encroaching darkness.  I kept thinking about how awful it would have been if something happened and we were trapped out there.  I would have been terrified stuck out in that overwhelming darkness with no hope of rescue.  The only comfort was the trust I had that my car lights wouldn't go out.
I am sure you can all relate.  There is just something terrifying about the dark, for darkness is something that is unknown to us.  In darkness our imaginations run wild.  We imagine all kinds of creatures running about with ill intent wishing us harm.  We envision boogie men stalking us, vampires chasing us, ghosts haunting us, and on and on.  Many stories and legends live on about creatures of the night, and cautionary tales have made their way into our folklore about the dangers of the dark.  This isn’t just a coincidence.  Even Scripture itself speaks about the evils of darkness.  Paul declared to the Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
This present darkness is the same darkness that Isaiah disclosed, the darkness that covers the earth and the thick darkness that covers the peoples.  In the fall, Satan exploited the weakness of flesh and caused all creation to be covered by this darkness.  In this darkness, we could no longer clearly see God or know His will.  It is in this darkness that Satan and his demons work, doing whatever they need to turn our hearts and minds away from our God.  It is in this darkness that our sin is done, that we ourselves become creatures of darkness.  This is our fallen state as humanity, but this darkness is much more personal.  It touches each one of us as it tortures and oppresses us: through sin that we struggle with, through pain and suffering we endure, through sickness and disease that overwhelm us, through death that overtakes us.
The dark is a dangerous place indeed, and all the while Satan and his horde torment us further by whispering to us that we've been lost, forgotten, abandoned by God.  That we are stricken, smitten, and afflicted by Him, and that this darkness is our punishment, condemned to never see the light again.  While it is true that this darkness is our own doing, God was not content to leave us here alone.  From the very beginning, God set into motion a plan for our salvation, to bring His people out of darkness and into His marvelous light, so once again we may know our God and to know His will toward us, that He plans for our welfare and not evil, that He assures us of a bright future, full of promise.
Today, we celebrate Epiphany.  The season of Epiphany is one of light and revelation, as the mystery of God’s salvation is unfurled before the eyes of a dark world.  Until now the Christ child has been revealed only to the people of the promise, the people of the covenant.  But now, today, we hear of the revelation of the Christ child to the wise men, representing the whole of the Gentiles.  Yet, as you might expect, there is more going on here than it seems.
As we read in Matthew, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, “behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.”  They were searching for the One who was born king of the Jews.  They arrived in Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, to the palace of Herod, for naturally that would be where the king was born.  Yet Jesus was not there, and when Herod heard of his birth he was troubled, for he knew that this king must be the Christ and would one day challenge his own authority.  So he gathered the chief priests and scribes, asking them where the Christ was to be born.  Referring to the prophets, they sent the wise men on their way to Bethlehem.  They set out and the star reappeared overhead, leading them to the very house of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.  When they saw the child, they fell down and worshiped, presenting him with gifts fit for a king.
In order to fully appreciate this narrative, however, we must ask ourselves just who these wise men are.  Matthew does not tell us much about them.  He doesn't even tell us how they determined the significance of the star.  It is often assumed that these men had access to at least some of the Jewish writings that went out with the people during their exile.  Some believe they were philosophers or learned scholars seeking enlightenment.  Others believe they were pious kings seeking truth.  However, these ideas of tradition came about quite late and have no basis in Scripture.  In fact, when we look at the Greek, the word used for these men is μάγοι, most correctly translated as magi.
This reveals more of the puzzle, as we know this is the same word from which we get magic and magician.  Μάγοι also appears in other places in Scripture.  First, in Daniel 2, we see the king calling together his sorcerers, astrologers, and his μάγοι.  These μάγοι are the court magicians; practitioners of the occult; masters of the mystical.  From the testimony of Scripture, these are the kinds of people that directly oppose God and His people.  Even in the New Testament, we read of one μάγος who opposed Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13 as they shared God’s Word on Cyprus.  Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked at this magician and declared, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”  Then the Lord condemned the magician to blindness and a darkness fell upon him and he could not see the light.
These were the magi.  There was nothing noble or wise about them.  In fact, they were the direct enemies of God.  The very mention of them would have brought disgust in the hearts and minds of Matthews hearers.  So why?  Why did God reveal Christ to His enemies?  Not only did He reveal Christ to the Magi, but through the Magi He also revealed Christ to Herod, the one who sought to kill Jesus to avert the threat to his own throne.  And why was this revelation even recorded?  And why is this the revelation that we read on Epiphany?
We remember this revelation, because it is the very heart of the Gospel that we have received.  Paul declares himself a prisoner of Christ on behalf of us, the Gentiles.  He was given to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.  It was his mission to bring the light to everyone, the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, that this Gospel is not a Gospel of the Jews only, but one for all people.
As I said before, our sin made us creatures of darkness.  In our sin, we were made enemies of God.  In or sin, we oppose Him and rebel against His will, and as a consequence are left in darkness, and while we remain in darkness we are helpless and hopeless, but God sent Christ into the world to bring us into the light, to be our help and our salvation.  As Paul declares in his letter to the Romans, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.  And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
One of my professors told us he refuses to engage in conflict resolution, because it if focused only on eradicating the conflict.  His goal, then, is reconciliation, for we were in conflict with God, but thankfully God was interested in more than conflict resolution.  If He was, He could have resolved the conflict by wiping us out of existence.  Instead, God Himself was interested in reconciliation.  He wanted to unite all people to Himself, so He sent Christ to us and revealed Him as our Savior.  The punishment that was on Him brought us peace, so that we are reconciled to God through Christ, as Paul says, “in whom we have boldness and access with confidence though our faith in Him.
This is what the revelation to the magi reminds us, that though a darkness covers the earth, and a thick darkness over the peoples, a light has shined for us in Christ, and that His glory is seen by all peoples, gathering them together before the Lord as sons and daughters gathered from afar.  This is the mystery of salvation, as Paul declares, that we are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  Though we were creatures of darkness, through Christ we have become children of light.  This is the Gospel that gives us peace.

And may this peace, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.