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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Lent 1 Midweek: May I Have Your Attention, Please!

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
Tonight we continue with our theme of Lenten Customs.  Last week we looked at how ashes are symbols of our sin and repentance, as outwards signs of our inward state.  Tonight we are going to be looking from the inside out.  Another longstanding tradition of Lent is the practice of fasting.  Traditionally, the term fasting refers to the act of abstaining from food for religious purposes, and we can see this practice all over the Bible as well as throughout history.  This is not just a Christian practice; we see a variety of religious traditions abstaining from food for a set period of time.  Most often, this is in order to merit some favor or achieve some righteousness before God.  The church, on the other hand, has used fasting in a variety of forms to help refocus our attention on Christ. 
Our attention is a very fickle thing.  Many of us like to believe that we are efficient multitaskers, but in reality our brains can only process one task at a time.  When most of us multitask, in truth we are simply switching back and forth between tasks, though perhaps seamlessly, because our brain cannot process more than one thing at a time.  This is what makes magic so convincing.  The other evening I was watching a show entitled “Brain Games,” and on the episode about attention the famous magician, David Copperfield, said, “If you can take their attention to another place willingly, then you’ve done your job correctly.”
Magicians exploit the fact that our brains can only focus on one thing to pull off seemingly miraculous illusions.  They know that if they can get us to focus on a single object, our brain will filter everything else out and we won’t notice even the most significant changes in our environment.  To demonstrate, the show set up a counter advertising the opportunity to be on the show.  They positioned a clerk behind the counter and when someone walked up the clerk would hand them a release form.  The clerk would then duck under the counter to get a pen and a different clerk would reappear with the pen.  Since the people were so busy looking at the waiver, they didn’t even notice the clerk was different than before.
Through a variety of other demonstrations and experiments the show made its point clear: we are easily deceived into being distracted and lose sight of the world around us.  But there is one who is far superior to all the magicians and con artists and hypnotists out there, and there is more on the line than just your pride or your wallet.  From the beginning Satan has been known as “The Deceiver.”  He has been called the “Father of All Lies,” “The Corrupter of the Truth,” “The Tempter.”  While scholars and scientists have been studying the mind since Ancient Greece, Satan has been studying humanity since Adam and Eve.  He knows how we work.  He knows how we think.  He knows just how to distract and entice us so that we lose focus on God and shift our devotion and attention to other things.  Satan knows how to turn seemingly harmless objects into idols.  He is so good at this that we often don’t even see our own idolatry for what it truly is.
Luther tells us in his Large Catechism a god is something from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress.  Luther wrote, “I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.  If your faith and trust is right, then your god is also true.  On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you do not have the true God. ... Now I say that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”  Satan can work his deception so well that he can replace the one True God with an idol without us even noticing.
There are the obvious ways, like trusting in money or possessions, but even those we exclude ourselves from.  We insist we only trust in God, but what would happen if like Job you lost everything?  What would happen if your house burned down, your bank account drained, your other possessions stolen, your family murdered?  Your faith would likely be hard pressed.  Even more so, what would happen if your health was to fail you and you suffered from a crippling disease?  Would you stand firm in your faith, confidently declaring, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away?”
But these are big things, what about the little ones?  What would happen if you lost access television or the internet or a computer or a telephone?  What would happen if someone hit your car and you had to go without it for a week or two?  How would that make you feel?  How would you respond?  My guess is that anyone in here would at the very least be quite agitated.  You see, Satan offers us so many distractions that our sinful natures feasts upon that we don’t even realize we are being distracted, and we are even resistant to the idea of calling these things that we depend on idols and calling ourselves idolaters. 
Yet there is a way that we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are able to recapture our attention and refocus it on Christ.  One of the ways we do this is through fasting.  Though traditionally this has been done by abstaining from food, this practice has expanded to include abstaining from a variety of activities, thus the question is often asked, “What did you give up for Lent?”  The “hunger” for whatever we are giving up is associated with our spiritual hunger.  The idea is that when we fast, we feel that desire; that emptiness in our lives that used to be filled by these things we have given up, those idols in our lives, and it grabs our attention.  This is what makes fasting from food is so effective, because the hunger pains can get so bad that they distract us from all other things.  When they do so we intentionally remind ourselves that it is God who gives us what we truly need.  He gives us the true bread and the living water.
When we give things up for Lent we also feel the weight of their absence, and as we are turned to Christ by the Spirit we see how we have replaced God in our devotion with all these other things.  We see how much time and attention we have given to them while neglecting our devotion to God.  Yes, when our attention is turned to Christ we do in fact see our idolatry, but we also see our Savior.  As we confessed earlier, we know we cannot live God’s Law perfectly, but we also know that Christ already did it for us.  As our attention is turned from our own false gods, we see the true God who lived and died for each and every one of us, and when we do that we also see Satan and his distractions for what they truly are: nothing but cheap magician’s gimmicks that are incapable of separating us from the love of God our Father, and Jesus Christ our Lord.  So this Lent let your attention be turned to the cross and know that Christ has taken your sins upon Himself, and rest in peace knowing that even death itself is just a distraction that cannot keep us from our Savior forever.

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday: Why Ashes?

            Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
            Today begins the observance of Lent, the slow and measured journey to the cross, where we see Jesus: the Savior who hangs, bloodied and scorned, for us.  It is a time of reflection and repentance, for us here and for the Church around the world.  Over the next a forty days, not counting Sundays, we will prepare for Easter by humbling ourselves to receive Christ as our Risen Lord and Savior.
Originally, the season of Lent was a period of time when baptismal candidates were taught the faith and questioned, much like our own confirmation students.  In 325 AD, the first reference to the time period of forty days was recorded at the Council of Nicaea, and just a few years later the great church father Athanasius asked his congregation to hold a fast during this time.  Since then other customs have formed as Lent developed more into a penitential season, where we reflect on our own sinful nature and mortality.  While we journey through lent we will explore some of these customs, like fasting and excluding the “A” word from worship, and how these traditions help places our hearts in a more humble, receptive position.
            To begin with, today we are observing Ash Wednesday.  Ashes have a variety of meaning in the Bible.  Doing a quick search you will find that often people put on sackcloth and threw ashes in the air to cover them in order to express grief, humiliation, or repentance.  This custom goes back to the Old Testament and was a common practice all the way up through the Middle Ages.  The idea was that the scratchy sackcloth, like that of burlap, against the skin and the ashes would be an outward representation of the emotional turmoil they felt inside.
One of the best examples in the Old Testament is of Job.  When he was told of the destruction of all his property and the death of his children and when he himself was struck with disease he tore his clothes and went to sit in ashes.  When his friends had come to him and saw the state of grief he was in, they too covered themselves in ashes and sat with him.  Another example includes the king of Nineveh repenting at Jonah’s warning and dressing himself in sackcloth and sat in ashes.  Even God Himself in Jeremiah commanded the people to put on sackcloth and ashes in mourning, yet this was not to mourn something that has already happened but to mourn the coming destruction as the Lord has judged them and is giving them over to their iniquities.
God’s judgment and destruction are another meaning of ashes in Scripture.  One of the best known examples in this case is God bringing down judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah when He brought them down to ashes.  In Ezekiel, God laments and tells the King of Tyre that because of his sin God has brought fire against him that consumed him and turned him into ashes in the sight of all.  And when God condemns Adam for his sin in the garden, God declares, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken: for you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  So too, dust and ashes remind us of our judgment and morality.  In our sin, we have been reduced to a heap ashes before God.
Recognizing our humble estate, those same ashes also become a symbol of our repentance.  Job’s complaining turns into sin when He accuses God of being unjust.  God confronts Job and declares that not only did God create the world, but He still cares for it.  Job is reminded of his mortality and lowly estate and confesses to God, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. …I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. …I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.
Daniel recognized the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity as the punishment of Israel by God for their sins and responds, “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”  What followed was a confession of those sins and the shame and humiliation that those sins have brought upon them.  Daniel also recognizes that God’s judgment is just and right, for the Israelites did indeed sin against God, and continued to sin even after God had warned them of the coming destruction, yet He appeals to God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to His people and pleads for God to remove His wrath from among His people and to restore them once again.  In both cases, in Job and with the people of Israel, after their repentance God does in fact have mercy upon them and restores them.
We are sinful people.  When we acknowledge that sin, it does indeed bring grief and shame.  Our hearts are broken, and so we repent and come before God as broken people.  We recognize that there is nothing we can do and so we throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.  But we do not do so as people without hope, but we do so as people with a promise, and as we cling to that promise we trust that God will act in His mercy.  Yet we also know that that mercy has come at a price for our sins could not go unpunished.
So God sent to us His only begotten Son, as He is the only one who could bear the weight of the sins for the whole world.  We rejoice knowing that our sins are forgiven, but we also recognize that we are only forgiven because our sins have been paced on Christ.  He has become our scapegoat, the sacrificial lamb whose blood was slain for the people.  As we acknowledge our sin, we acknowledge our participation in the sufferings and death of Christ.  If He had not gone to that cross, our sins would not be forgiven.  He took the punishment we deserved and experienced the fullness of Hell on the cross so we don’t have to.  And so we place ashes on our forehead to remind us of our sin and as a sign of our repentance, but we make them in the sign of the cross to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice.
Though our sin has reduced us to ashes, God has worked salvation among His people and brings us out of the ashes like a phoenix being reborn.  We declare palmist, “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.” And we proclaim with Isaiah that the Lord has come “to grant [comfort] to those who mourn in Zion, to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.”
And so, during this Lenten season, we watch and we wait.  We see Christ making His way to the cross, and we see the grief, the humiliation and shame that he bears for our salvation, and we repent, thanking God for all that He has done.

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

Sunday, February 15, 2015

From Glory to Glory

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
As we begin, I want you to consider something.  Who is the one who made you?  Who is the one who formed you in the womb and called you by name?  God, our Father, the Creator of the Universe fearfully and wonderfully made you.  He handcrafted you, and because of that you are worthy.  You are worth more than the friends you have on Facebook.  You are worth more than the grades you got on a test.  You are worth more than the paycheck you bring home at the end of the week.  You are worth more than the label on the clothes you wear.  You are worth more than you could ever imagine because in the eyes of the Lord, you are loved, and you are worth dying for.  You are funny.  You are smart.  You are strong and powerful.  You are capable, and any voice that tells you different is from the enemy, and the next time you hear one of those voices you stand up and you say, “Nope, not me Satan.  I’m the child of the living God, cherished and loved and adored above all things by the Creator of all things for the glory of Him who is above all things, and I am…

Pastor: Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!  Vicar, what are you doing?!?!?
Vicar: …worthy.”  …Pastor, do you mind?  I’m preaching here.
Pastor: Are you sure, vicar?  Because preaching requires the proper understanding and proclamation of Law and Gospel, and that’s no Law and Gospel.
Vicar:  Well, pastor, I decided that condemning people for their sin ins just too negative and that not what people want to hear.  I wanted to make people feel good about themselves.  I wanted to make our message more attractive; something that people would enjoy hearing so that they’d keep coming back.  I’m trying to boost attendance, and besides, I want people to like me.
Pastor: We’re not here to make people like us, Vicar.  We’re here to preach the Word in its truth and purity, just like Paul did, and that requires both Law and the Gospel to be distinguished and proclaimed.  Do not put a veil over their hearts so that they do not see Christ and do not see the truth.  Preach the truth, Vicar, preach Christ, because what we preach is not of ourselves but is Christ alone.  We are preachers of the Word for His sake, not our own.
Vicar: Okay, okay Pastor.  I’ll do it your way.”
Pastor: Thank you, Vicar.
            Okay, so the truth.  Well, the truth is that I have been mixing Law and Gospel.  I have been telling you about how great you are and how worthy you are because God has created you.  I told you that because of this you deserve all kinds of good things, but this is not the truth.  The truth is that you deserve hell.  Yes, God has created you, but that is not enough.  We were created in the glory of God, bearing His likeness and image.  We were created to do His will.  God demands that we follow His will perfectly, and anything less He considers nothing more than a pile of dirty rags tossed over in the corner of the room worth nothing more than to be disposed of.  Adam and Eve were created perfect, that they did the Father’s will perfectly…that was until Satan entered the picture.  Satan came and told them that they were worthy of being gods themselves.  He told them that they deserved all kinds of good things, and he pulled a veil over their heart, causing them to lose sight of God and they sinned.  They were no longer perfect and lost the glory of God.  They were no longer worthy.
            Since then humanity has been trying to regain that glory.  Some have lost sight of God altogether and they glorify themselves as gods.  Others who remember God have tried to regain their glory by trying to once again be perfect.  The motivation for doing so is out of terror of being at odds with a holy and perfect God.  In our Old Testament reading today we encounter Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets of the Law in his hand.  When the people saw him they were terrified because his skin was shining.  This did not terrify them simply because it was something that they were not used to, but it terrified them because in the glowing skin of Moses they were confronted with the reflection of a holy and perfect God, and they knew they were an unholy and imperfect people.  They were terrified not by Moses, but by God Himself, so Moses veiled His face when he was with the people, but when he was before God he left in unveiled.  The only hope the Israelites thought they had, therefore, was to follow the Law that God had given them perfectly.
            Paul says the Israelites were terrified because they did not understand.  They did not see God for who He truly is.  They only saw the perfect and holy God who troubled their sinful consciences, but Moses saw something more.  Moses also saw the gracious and forgiving God who would allow such a sinful man to stand before Him.  The Israelites were blind to this so Moses continued wearing the veil as long as he met with God on Sinai.  In this way the veil remained and the hearts of the Israelites were hardened so that they could only see the God that demanded perfection, even to this very day.  Instead of seeing God for who He truly is, they busy themselves trying to fulfill His Law and earn their own righteousness before Him.  When we refuse to see God full of grace and mercy, we too have a veil over our hearts and continue to try and find our own worthiness and glory before Him.
            But this is impossible.  We will never be able to justify ourselves using God’s Law.  We will never climb that ladder or make that ascent because the Law on its own only condemns us.  It is too much for us to bear because we are weak in the flesh.  When we try to justify ourselves by the Law, the Law finds us lacking and demands God’s wrath.  The work of the Law is only complete when we are condemned and thrown into hell.  This fact is indeed terrifying and should make us feel uncomfortable, yet as long as the veil remains over our hearts we can find no comfort or assurance.  If we live with this veil over our hearts we will continue to try and make our ascent and regain our glory before God by doing enough or being sincere enough or knowing enough or believing enough or whatever, but no matter how hard we try or how pure our motivations it will never be enough.  With God it’s all or nothing, and we will never stand up under that kind of scrutiny.  When we insist that I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay we’re living a lie, for who here is not under the Law?
            One day, about two thousand years ago, a rabbi took three of His disciples up a mountain.  There, He transfigured before them.  His clothes became radiant, intensely white, like nothing else on earth.  And there appeared with Him Moses and Elijah, the representatives of the Law and the prophets and the ones who gave their testimony for God.  These three disciples stood in awe, amazed, even terrified.  They did not know what to say, and then a voice spoke from somewhere within cloud that had descended upon them.  It declared that this was His Son, and to listen to Him.  With that, the cloud vanished, along with Moses and Elijah and the radiant light.  It’s like the veil was lifted from the disciples for only a moment, and they were given a glimpse to see the glory of God.  But a moment later God’s glory withdrew back into its original source, and there, standing in its place, was Jesus only.  The eyes of the disciples were opened, if only for a moment, but they saw the glory of God shining as bright as can be, through Jesus.  This radiance wasn’t a mere reflection, as it was with Moses, but it was the fullness of God emanating from Christ Himself.
            There is no doubt that the disciples did not understand the significance of what they had just witnessed.  As they stood there gazing upon Jesus, Jesus told them to tell no one what they had seen.  That is, at least, not until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  In the very next verse, after our Gospel reading for today, we are told that the disciples kept the matter to themselves, wondering what this rising from the dead might mean.  Fortunately for us, we know what this resurrection meant, and what it says about that day on the mountain.  Dear Christians, we know this story: the fullness of God dwelt in human flesh.  Christ stepped down from His heavenly throne and came as a servant in human form.  He who is above all things submitted Himself to the Law He created.  He obeyed the Law perfectly, showing His glory to the world, yet He handed Himself over as a lamb to be slaughtered.  He did so for our sake, taking our sin into Himself.  In doing so, He received the punishment we deserved, and in exchange given us the glory that was His.
            So, I ask you again, who here is not under the Law?  The answer, brothers and sisters, is that no one here in under the Law.  Christ has fulfilled the Law for us, so we are freed from its burdens.  With Christ’s death and resurrection, the Law has perished and given way to the glory of Christ.  Christ has taken His glory, and has given it to each and every one of us so that you are in fact worthy to stand before God, not on your account but all for the sake of Christ and the blood He shed for you.  When we stand in Christ, we stand before God with an unveiled face and see Him in His full glory, full of mercy and grace, and we see just how far God was willing to go to save us from the clutches of death and hell.  And it is as we bask in God’s glory we are being transformed from a perishing earthly glory to a living glory that has no end.
            As we move in to the Lenten season on Sunday, it is my fervent prayer, that each and every one of you are turned to Christ.  I pray that you do not desperately cling to the veil of unbelief, but that you let it be lifted so that you are confronted with the reality of your sin, for this is the purpose of Lent.  Over these forty days may we stand in recognition of our sin and let the weight of condemnation press down upon us as the Law does its work, so that we more clearly see the glory of Christ and are driven deeper into His mercy.  It is only when we let go of the veil that can we see Christ for who He truly is and appreciate fully what He has done for us as we remember His death on Good Friday and celebrate His resurrection on Easter Sunday.  And remember, in Christ, you are worthy.

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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Disciplined for Freedom

            Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
Recently, for a variety of reasons, Marie and I have made a commitment to live a healthier lifestyle.  We have made goals for ourselves, and we have big challenges to overcome.  We knew that although we ate healthy, we’d have to be more intentional in what we put in our bodies and how much.  Even though I already had a gym membership, I’d have to take my exercising more seriously and be dedicated to a regular routine.  We have set our minds, and our bodies, to this task and have given up a lot of our freedoms in food selections and free time to serve this cause.
            Today is the second to last Sunday in the Epiphany season.  We have slowly been peeling back the layers to see Christ for who He truly is.  First, we’ve seen it with others.  We’ve seen the Magi travel from distant lands to come and honor a newborn king.  We’ve seen John, baptizing in the wilderness and witnessing to the coming Light.  Then, we’ve seen it with Christ Himself.  We’ve seen Jesus come to the Jordan to be baptized while a dove descended upon Him and a voice boomed from heaven, “This is my beloved Son!”  We’ve seen Christ using His divine foreknowledge and calling together His disciples, declaring that they will become fishers of men.  Last week we saw Christ teaching with an authority of His own and casting out demons from among the people.  Today, we see Christ healing many and continuing to cast out demons as He preaches throughout Galilee.
            The deeper we get into the Epiphany season, we see the Light of the world glowing brighter and brighter.  Christ coming to oppose the darkness that has settled upon the earth.  This is the purpose of Epiphany; that we see Christ revealed to the World, but this purpose is twofold.  First, that we see Christ revealed through Scripture, as each event points more and more at His divinity until, finally, as we will see next week, His transfiguration fully reveals to us His divine identity to us.  Yet Epiphany is also about the revelation of Christ in our world today.  In Epiphany we are given the opportunity to stop and ask, how is Christ being revealed?  How is Christ being revealed to our family and friends?  How is Christ being revealed to our neighbors and co-workers?  How is Christ being revealed to the teenage girl down the street who just had an abortion?  How is Christ being revealed to that teenager at school who is struggling with his homosexual feelings?  How is Christ being revealed to that man sleeping under the overpass?  How is Christ being revealed to that woman who is selling herself on the street corner?
            In our Epistle today, Paul boasts that he is able to preach the gospel freely.  Paul boasts that he is able to become all things to all people so that some may be saved for the sake of the gospel.  Paul was zealous in his mission, desiring to share the gospel with anyone and everyone he could.  He tells us that to the Jews he became a Jew, to those who placed themselves under the old covenant he submitted himself to the covenant, and to those apart from the covenant he became like one apart from the covenant.  Paul understood the freedom and blessing that the gospel gave him, and he made full use of his freedom by becoming a servant to all.  He knew that the only Law he was under was the Law of Christ, and being under grace he could meet people where they were, to share with them the love of Christ and all that He has done for us.  So I’ve got to ask you a question: when was the last time you forsook your pride so that you could be all things to all people?  When was the last time you reached out to that teenage girl and told her that in Christ her sins are forgiven, even abortion?  When was the last time you walked beside that teenager at school and told Him He has been given a new identity in Christ and doesn’t have to be defined by his feelings?  When was the last time you asked that man to come with you to lunch and told him about the treasure he has in Christ.  When was the last time you went to that street corner and told her that she has been bought with the blood of Christ?  When was the last time you became a servant of all so that you might win some?
Paul makes it look so easy.  I’m often convicted when I see the lengths to which he went in order to win people over to Christ.  As for me, I always find myself boiling with rage and having to restrain my tongue and not say what I want to in reply to those who insult me and my faith.  I always find myself looking at someone and thinking, “They’ll never trust in Christ,” or “They won’t understand,” or “They’ll only mock and ridicule me.  So why even bother?”  I continually find myself piling excuse upon excuse of why I don’t have to go out there and do that.  I know it’s not only me; I hear it from you as well.  I hear people say that they aren’t equipped and don’t know what to say, or that they don’t know how to bring it up and don’t have an opportunity.  I know your excuses because they are my own as well.  We’re so afraid of being made to look like a fool or of being rejected that we are unwilling to put ourselves on the line, much less put ourselves in submission to others. 
And we know that our prize does not hang on the line; in the Gospel we are free.  It does not matter one bit to our salvation if we go out into the world spreading the word of Christ or stay at home, comfortable in our recliner.  We know that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, so why would we walk out into a world that is eager to swallow us up?  We know that the doing of God’s Will and the coming of Christ’s kingdom does not depend on us.  We are free to do whatever we want to do, and we’re even free to do nothing.  So why in the world would we go out there, why would we go outside of our comfort zone and get our hands dirty?
Thankfully, Christ did not feel the same way.  We owe our freedom to Him.  God could have rightfully looked at us and said, “Well, they brought it upon themselves.  Let them lay in the bed they made.”  He not willing to be content with that, however.  The Father’s love compelled Him to send His Son, and the Son’s love compelled Him to come down and get His hands dirty.  Christ, the Word of God, God Himself, wrapped Himself in human flesh.  He submitted Himself to the Law like those who were under the Law.  He fulfilled the law perfectly in our place, and He, who knew no sin, became sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.  Not only did Christ come down to earth to be among sinners, but He Himself became sin so that He could stand in our place and receive our punishment.  He loves us so much that He was willing to go through the pain, the agony, being forsaken by God and literally experiencing Hell on that cross, so that we could be reconciled to the Father.  It was that love that compelled Him, and it’s that same love that compelled Paul, and that same love that compels us.  So, why should we get our hands dirty?
Paul gives us his answer in our Epistle: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel that I may share with them in its blessing.”  Paul is free to do whatever he wants to do, but in his freedom Paul has chosen to run the race as if there was only one prize, so that he can share with them in its blessing.  He has chosen to discipline his body and exercise self-control so that he himself is not disqualified, so that he can share with them in its blessing.  Paul knows that no matter what He is going to get the prize, his salvation is not on the line, but he also wants to reap the benefits of that blessing here and now.
Marie and I made the decision to live healthier so we could live a higher quality life, so we have sacrificed our freedom in what we put in our bodies and our time so that we can work towards our goals, one of which is to have the energy to keep up and share life with Levi.  When we aren’t disciplined, we lose sight of the goal, of those benefits that we can have now.  In January I saw gym attendance explode to the point where I had to wait in line for a treadmill.  Here, only a month later, over half the people have already disappeared.  They know they are free, but if they do not put in the work and the effort they will not partake in the benefits here and now.  As some of you know, Marie started a new business venture last month, and she is free to run that business however she would like.  If she does nothing there is no penalty, but if she disciplines herself, if she puts in the hard work and makes those phone calls and follow ups she will reap the benefits here and now.  But she disciplines herself because she wants to share with others her love of books and joy in reading.
This is very similar to our lives as Christians.  If we do not discipline ourselves, we will lose out on the benefits here and now, and all we will be reduced to desperately waiting for Christ to return so we can finally live in a state of blessedness.  But we don’t have to wait, for Christ has given His Kingdom to us now.  Today, we experience the eternal blessings by living in Christian fellowship here and now, and the more that are added to our numbers, the more we experience the sweetness of the Gospel in this life.  Paul disciplined himself to receive the benefits of the Gospel by living in Christian love and fellowship here and now.  Remember, when we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy Kingdom come” and “Thy Will be done,” we of course know that God’s kingdom and will are established even without us, but we pray that it too might be done in, though, and among us so that we can experience the eternal blessings of God here and now with each other.
In just a few moments, we will experience of those blessings, so now, let us now prepare ourselves to gather around Christ’s table, a foretaste of the feast to come.  Let it strengthen our faith as we cling to that promise.  Let it motivate us and give us the strength and the confidence to go out into the world and proclaim His love to others.  And let it give us the peace and assurance in the Gospel of our own salvation.

And now may that same pace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.