Sermon on II Timothy 3:14-17

But as for you,  continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it  and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings,  which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete,  equipped for every good work.

              Communication is vital in any relationship. To keep their marriage strong, husbands and wives need to communicate with each other. Parents and children need to communicate, not only when the children are young and living in their parents’ houses, but also when the children are older, active in the world, raising children of their own. Friends cannot remain friends if they do not keep in touch. Neighbors need to speak to each other. Those who share a community, a state, or a nation need to speak to each other and to their leaders, and the leaders need to tell the other citizens what is happening among them and in the surrounding world.

              Clearly, then, we also need to communicate with God. We need to speak to him, telling him the things that matter most in our lives. We pray, talking to God, sometimes using prayers we have memorized and sometimes creating our own prayers from our own minds and hearts. Jesus urges us to be persistent in prayer and not lose heart. In ancient times, Jacob wrestled with God, and some Christians today describe their prayers as wrestling with the Lord. God has promised to hear our prayers. He has promised to answer our prayers. He has not given us magic power to control the world with prayer. He has not given us power to control him, to make him do things he does not want to do. But God hears us when we pray. Jesus meant what he said: “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.” The Holy Spirit guides us when we pray, speaking to our Father in heaven even with groans that words cannot express. Our line of communication to God is always open, always available, never threatened by a power outage or dead battery or computer fault. But what about God’s communication with us? Do we hear his voice? Do we pay attention to the things God says to us?

              God is almighty. He can do anything he wishes. God wishes to speak to us through his Word. In earlier times, he chose messengers and told them what to say to his people. Moses and all the Old Testament prophets brought God’s Word to his people. These messages from God, sent through Moses and the prophets, were written to be saved for all God’s people of every time and every place. Jesus authorized apostles to supplement the message with a New Testament. These messages, this Scripture, was breathed out by God. It is inspired. It carries the power of God, telling us what we need to know.

              The idea of inspiration is complicated; it can be confusing. Some people imagine God dictating, like a boss in the office telling his secretary (or administrative assistant) what to write. Other people picture God inspiring prophets and apostles the way a sunset over a lake in the mountains can inspire a painter or poet or musician. Some people think that God’s message is hidden in the Bible among many human opinions and perceptions that we can pluck out and ignore. Some even seek hidden messages in the Bible by reading every fifth letter or changing the letters into numbers and then decoding the numbers. But the Scripture, breathed out by God, is straight-forward. It has no hidden messages. It tells us what we need to know. We can trust the same Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles also to be with us and to guide us when we read and hear the messages God has for us.

              When we say that God inspired the Bible, we say that everything in the Bible is trustworthy and true. We compare the Bible to Jesus himself, who is completely God and also completely human. Everything in the Bible comes from God, even though everything in the Bible came through human beings chosen by God. We cannot discard any part of the Bible, saying that it came from certain human beings a long time ago and no longer means anything for us today. But we remember that the human beings, inspired by God, remained human. Matthew and Mark and Luke and John all wrote the truth about Jesus, but they saw and heard different things and communicated them in different ways. Matthew dealt with statistics and numbers in his day job, and his descriptions tend to be dry and terse and straight-forward; Mark, writing the preaching of Peter the fisherman, contains far more active and vivid language. Moses and David and Isaiah did not have the same background and the same experiences; of course they had different ways of saying things. But they all gave the same message from the same God, meant to be shared with all God’s people so all of us would know what we need to know about God, ourselves, and the world around us.

              To fully comprehend the Bible, then, we need to know something about the times in which the writers lived, the ideas that shaped their thinking, the cultures to whom they were first speaking. The Bible must be translated, not only from language to language, but also from culture to culture. When we know the essential message of the Bible, though, we do not need to perplex ourselves with every detail. The Bible is not a textbook about biology or economics, or even about history and geography. The Bible is about God our Creator and about us. Some things change in the world, but God does not change, and people are essentially the same. We read a book on chemistry to learn about chemistry. We read a book on cooking to learn about cooking. We learn God’s book to learn about God. As Paul told Timothy, all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

              At this point it is tempting to concentrate on those four things and to struggle to discern the shades of meaning between teaching, reproof, correction, and training. But in Paul’s Jewish culture, similar words often were piled together, not because of their differences but because they reinforced each other. Teaching and training essentially mean the same thing; correction and reproof are synonyms. God tells us how to live our lives. He made us, and in the Bible he gives us an owner’s manual for ourselves. He tells us why we exist, why we are in this world. He tells us what to do and what not to do. He equips us for good works so we will do those things God wants us to do.

              We learn that we are here to give glory to God. All creation sings God’s praises, and we also sing God’s praises. The stars shine for the glory of God, and the flowers bloom for the glory of God, and the birds sing for the glory of God. So we also do what we can do for the glory of God—not only by singing, but by imitating Jesus. In every decision, we choose to do what Jesus would do. He lived the perfect human life. He is the example all of us should follow. Our lives remind the people around us of Jesus when we are living the way we should live. We sin whenever we are not like Jesus.

              Being like Jesus, we find ourselves managers of God’s property in this world. We are given money (and the opportunity to earn money), and we use that money to do God’s work. We do not give ten percent to God and the Church and do whatever we want with the other ninety percent. All of our money belongs to God. We care for ourselves, our bodies, our health, our well-being. We care for the members of our families. We help our neighbors when they are in need. We also support the work of the Church, continuing the work of God in this place and helping to send missionaries into the rest of the world.

              We have been given different amounts of money and different opportunities to manage that money, but we all have been given the same amount of time, twenty-four hours every day, seven days every week. With our different abilities and different opportunities, we manage that time in different ways, but we were created so we could manage that time for the glory of God. We dedicate some time directly to God, coming to church on Sunday morning and taking time each day to pray and to read the Bible. But the rest of our time is not for us to do whatever we want. Again, we manage that time for the glory of God and for the benefit of our neighbors, doing what we can to make the world a better place.

              Behind all our management is the obligation and the opportunity to love. God is love, and God made us in his image. We are here to be loved by God, and we are here to love God. We also are to love our neighbors. All the commandments of God tell us how to love, how to manage our time and our possessions to show our love for God by loving our neighbors and helping them. That includes not only food and clothing and shelter; it also means forgiving them when they sin and sharing with them the hope that we have in God, the good news that we can share because we are the people of God.

              All Scripture is inspired by God. It is useful for teaching, correcting, reproof, and training. It guides us in good works, which we were created to do. But those commandments from God, his rules and regulations, do not make us perfect people. Instead, they diagnose our sins. They show us how we have fallen short of God’s glory. The more we focus on teaching and training, on correction and reproof, the more we see that we have failed. We have sinned. We have broken God’s commandments. We are not the people God intended us to be.

              If God’s Word was only about our good deeds, we would be in trouble. If the Bible was written only for teaching and training, its message would leave us hopeless and in despair. People who love to quote II Timothy 3:16 often fail to look at the important verse that comes before it. The Bible tells us how to live, but it also tells us how to have life. Scripture makes us wise for salvation. That wisdom, more than any teaching and training, makes us God’s people and gives us hope for today and hope for the future.

              The Bible tells us about our Creator. It tells us how our Creator wants us to live. But the Bible also tells us how our Creator sees our problems and chooses to help us. With the commands come promises. With the correction and training comes a solution for our problems. That solution is not found in our efforts to obey God’s commands. His solution comes through the work that God does for us. Knowing that we would sin and fall short of God’s plans, God created a second plan. His second plan, the good news of the Gospel, shows how God rescues us from sin and claims us as his people even when we have failed to obey God and no longer deserve to be called his people.

              To rescue us, God became one of us. Jesus of Nazareth is human like us, but he is also completely God, equal to his Father in every way. He entered this world, not merely to teach us and train us, but to rescue us. He lived for us, obeying all the commands of his Father. Then he exchanged lives with us. He credits us with his righteousness, giving us credit for his perfect obedience. He takes our sins and our guilt upon himself. He goes to the cross, paying our debt in full so nothing in our lives—and nothing in the world around us—can separate us from the love of God.

              The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was also a battle in the war against evil. Jesus won that battle. He defeated our sins. He defeated all our enemies. He even defeated death, rising from the grave on the third day to promise us eternal life. Teaching and training do not get us into heaven. Correction and reproof do not get us into heaven. They guide us in these lives, but only the perfect work of Jesus takes away our sins and makes us heirs of the kingdom of heaven.

              Jesus is with us now, guiding us by his Word, but also giving us life through his Word. We read the Bible, not only for teaching and correction, but also for the promises, the good news that makes us wise for salvation. As we read the Bible, we look for Jesus. In the history of ancient times, we find the promises of God to send a Savior, and we see those promises acted out in advance through the lives of his people. In the poetry of the Psalms and the prophets, we find the same good news repeated, telling us to put our trust in the promised Savior and not in our own good deeds. The apostles show us how Jesus kept the promises of God. They show us our Savior, and they give us power to believe in Jesus our Savior and to receive from him forgiveness and everlasting life.

              The Word of God gives us power to believe his promises. That same power brings us forgiveness for our sins and the ability to imitate Jesus, doing good works. We gather around God’s Word as his Church. The Word, combined with water, washes away our sins and adopts us as children of God. The Word, with eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table, guarantees us forgiveness and everlasting life and victory over all our enemies. That Word equips us to be like Jesus, forgiving the sins of others and sharing with them the hope that God has given us through his promises.

              God’s Word makes us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. When we pray, we cling to the promises of God’s Word. We even remind God of his promises when we pray. If we feel that, like Jacob, we are wrestling with God, we wrestle with confidence, knowing his promises cannot fail. We do not lose heart; since God is for us, no one can prevail against us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. To Jesus our Savior be thanks and praise and glory and honor, now and forever.                            Amen.

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Sermon on the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-9)

16 He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

              Life is not fair. We live in a world that is not fair. Bad people do bad things, but they get away with them and even profit from them. Good people try their best to do good things, but they still suffer from the things that go wrong in this world. Other religions teach about karma. They say that what comes around goes around, that you will be rewarded some day for the good things you do today, and that you will pay someday for all the wrong things that you do today. To make karma work, those religions have to assume that we live more than one lifetime. If you were born into a lifetime of wealth and comfort and privilege, you must have done good things in a past lifetime. If you were born into a lifetime of struggle and pain and poverty, you must have done bad things in a past lifetime. You harvest what you plant, you get what you deserve, and so all the things that happen now must be the consequences of things that happened in the past, even if we do not remember those things that happened.

              The rest of us believe in only a single lifetime, and we must admit that life is not fair. For some people, the random evil in this world proves that God does not exist. For them, life and the universe and everything are a string of random events, gradually building up to the world we know today with no plan, no purpose, and no reason for us to be here. Most of us are convinced that life has a purpose. We are here for a reason. God created the world that exists, and God sustains the world. God has a plan for the world, and each of us has a place in God’s plan.

              But what kind of God would make a world like the world where we live? When we describe God, we say that he is almighty—he has all power, and he can do anything. We also describe God as good. We say that God is the source of light and that evil comes from the darkness. We say that God gives us rules, commandments about how to live, and judges us according to those rules. We describe God as loving. We say that God wants the best for each of us, that he watches over us and cares for us, that he provides for us today and promises us better things in the future.

              When people look at the world logically and look at God logically, they say that we must change our description of God. Perhaps he is not all-powerful; perhaps evil exists because God is unable to prevent evil. Or perhaps God is not good, at least not in the way we understand goodness. Perhaps he enjoys suffering and pain and death; perhaps he is content to reward sinners for their bad deeds and to make his good people suffer. Or perhaps God does not love us. He might have forgotten about us, or he might be angry at us for our sins. Maybe the world is not unfair; maybe we deserve every bad thing that happens to us in our lives.

              Christians deny those maybes. Christians are convinced that God is Almighty. He can do whatever he wants—the bad things that happen have his permission and somehow are part of his greater plan for the world. God is loving. He desires all people to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. He does not want to judge and punish sinners; he wants to rescue sinners. He takes no pleasure in pain and suffering, but he allows them for a reason. God loves us. He has rescued us from our sins and from evil in this world. He has forgiven all our sins, and he plans to bring us to a perfect world where we will live with him forever in joy and peace and righteousness.

              For some Christians, then, the problems of this world are temporary troubles, something to be endured on our way to greater glory. Paul writes to the Romans that the problems we face today are nothing when compared to the glory that will be revealed. A few even go so far as to say that evil and suffering are imaginary. God is good. Everything he creates is good. We only think some things are bad because we cannot see them the way God sees them.

              That answer is not acceptable. Suffering and pain are real. Death is real. Sin and rebellion are real. Evil is real. Evil is not eternal, as God and goodness are eternal. Evil and sin are good things twisted, changed from their original good shape and purpose. Goodness can be pure, because God is purely good. There is no pure evil, because evil is only good things twisted. Evil will not last forever, but good will last forever, because God’s solution will eventually remove all evil from creation. But pain and suffering, sin and rebellion, evil and death exist in this world, and we must accept them as real even as we call to God for help and for solutions to our problems.

              God is Almighty, but God is not power. Other things matter to God more than his strength and his power. God is good; he is just and fair, but God is not justice. Other things matter more to God than being fair and just. God is loving, and also God is love. Eternally, love is God’s nature. In creation, love is God’s nature. Being made in his image means that we also love, even as God loves. When God responds to sin and rebellion, he responds with love. When he sees his good creation twisted and transformed, he answers with love. When we struggle and suffer in this world, our greatest strength comes not from the power of God, or even from the goodness of God, but from the love of God.

              Jesus describes a manager who faces trouble at work because he has wasted the possessions he was supposed to manage. He is about to lose his job. He does not want to beg, and he does not want to dig ditches, so he decides to be dishonest while he still has his job. He has the people who owe money to his master change their bills, reducing their debts. In this way, he wins friends that will help him after he has lost his job with his master.

              Jesus says that the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. He tells us that we should make friends with unrighteous wealth, friends who will welcome us into eternal dwellings after the wealth of this world has lost all value.

              This parable puzzles us. It does not sound like the Jesus we know so well from the rest of the Bible. The Bible tells us not to steal. It also tells us not to bear false witness. Jesus is the Truth, but the devil is the father of lies. We should be honest with our neighbors. We should be honest when dealing with wealth and possessions. We do not cheat to get through life. Because we love God, and because we love our neighbors, we are honest and truthful with our possessions and (especially) with the possessions of other people.

              This is called “stewardship.” We take care of the things entrusted to us. Often pastors use the word stewardship to talk about money and other gifts given to the Church. But stewardship covers everything in our lives. It covers our responsibilities to pay our bills, to take care of our families, to use our resources wisely, and to be responsible as we care for the world God created. Nothing we call ours today will be ours forever. We take none of this world’s wealth and property with us into the grave and beyond the grave. Yet, when we stand before the judgment throne of God, we will be questioned about our stewardship. God will ask us what we did with the blessings he entrusted to us. Did we meet our responsibilities wisely? Did we care for our neighbors, especially the poor and the weak and the vulnerable? Did we make the world a better place? Or did we use our wealth, our possessions, our abilities and our time only for ourselves? Did we love ourselves first and spend on ourselves first, leaving God and our neighbors with the leftovers when we were content and comfortable?

              Jesus uses this parable to help change the focus of our priorities. When you remember that life is short and that heaven lasts forever, the things God has given you today have a different meaning. We should consider the wealth, the time, the abilities we each have been given in terms of eternal dwellings and not just merely in terms of our comfort and happiness today. Rather than lowering ourselves to the standards of this world, we should raise our standards so we are faithful to the God who made us, the God who can welcome us into eternal dwellings or who can keep us locked out of heaven forever.

              Yet we also know that we cannot earn a place in heaven. We cannot buy God’s love with worldly wealth, because the entire world already belongs to him. We cannot put God in debt to us, because we already owe him everything. We cannot make ourselves friends of God by our good deeds in this world. If God welcomes into heavenly dwellings, his welcome will be based on his goodness and his love, not on anything we try to contribute to our salvation.

              Jesus was perfect. He lived a sinless human life in this sinful world. While we are dishonest managers who deserve judgment, Jesus is without sin; he should be welcomed into heaven by his Father, even if he is the only human being there. The rest of us have sinned and have fallen short of God’s glory. Only Jesus is righteous; only Jesus can claim a home in heaven by his own good deeds.

              But Jesus, in love, chose to be unfair. He chose to take the burden of the world’s sins upon himself. Our Redeemer transferred our debt to his account with his Father. He did not have us change our bills to eighty percent or fifty percent of the debt; he personally wrote a zero on each of our accounts. He had our bills marked “paid in full,” and he assumed all of our debt. More than that, he transferred his good works to our accounts. God the Father looks at us and sees his Son; he sees Jesus. He treats us accordingly. The heavenly paperwork has been altered, and the change that Jesus made is entirely in our favor.

              Anyone who demands that the good and almighty God be perfectly just and fair must be offended by this exchange. Satan himself stamps his foot and screams, “That’s not fair.” But God’s love is greater than his fairness and justice. God willingly is unfair on our account so he can claim us as his children and bring us into his eternal kingdom of peace and joy and righteousness.

              Because God wanted to be unfair, he permitted the world to be unfair. Often we suffer because of the sins of other people. Often we have problems for no reason we can discover. We suffer in ways we do not deserve to suffer, but this makes it possible for Jesus to suffer on the cross, even though he does not deserve to suffer. The world is polluted by sin. We suffer because of sin and evil in the world. But we never suffer for our own sins. The problems we face are not punishments from God. Christ bore our punishment and paid in full for all our sins. Now, if God allows us to suffer and have problems today, we can use those problems as reminders of the cross of Jesus Christ. We can let today’s problems keep our attention focused on the cross where Jesus paid for all our sins. The devil wants us to blame God for our problems. Instead, we let our problems remind us that God is unfair to us, adopting us as his children and giving us a home in his eternal dwellings.

              Because God is unfair to us, we also can be unfair. We forgive those who sin against us. They don’t deserve forgiveness, but we forgive them anyhow, because Jesus has paid for their sins on the cross. We pray for other people, for those we love, and for those who have authority over us. We do not always agree with those other people. They might not deserve our prayers. But we pray for them anyhow, because God wants us to live peaceful and quiet lives in this world, protected from at least some of the problems of evil and rebellion in this world.

              Prayer itself is not fair. God knows everything; he does not need our advice. Logic says we should trust God, accept whatever happens, and not speak with God about the world and our lives. But God tells us to pray. He wants to hear from us. He promises to hear our prayers and answer them. Because God is love, he entrusts us with power, inviting us to pray and assuring us that our prayers matter to him and matter in the things that happen in this world.

              Jesus is our Mediator. He brings our prayers to his Father and promises to answer those prayers. He pleads our cases before his Father and promises us forgiveness and new life. He pays the debt of our sins and claims us for his kingdom forever. To our King, our Redeemer, our Mediator Jesus Christ be thanks and praise and glory, now and forever.                   Amen.

A tent and a building

 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,  for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (II Corinthians 5:1-10)

              For centuries, thinkers and philosophers have tried to figure out what it is that makes us the people that we are. What is it that makes me me? What is it that makes you you? We have many words to describe that unique individual experience that belongs to each of us. We speak of the spirit, the soul, the mind, the heart, and the self. In India it is called atman; in China it is called chi. Some people think that only human beings have this individual self; others see the life force flowing through animals, through plants, even through rocks and rivers and mountains. Science has tried to find this self, but it cannot be located or measured or described scientifically. We generally assume that we have a soul or a spirit. Most religious descriptions of people include a soul or a spirit. It’s hard to imagine ourselves without a soul or a spirit. But the information we have about our souls and spirits comes, not from scientific investigation and study, but from the Bible, the Word of God. Since God created us, we willingly learn from him how we are made.

              Since we each have a soul or spirit, we want to know: what happens to that soul or spirit when we die? Does it disintegrate, as a dead body falls apart over time? Does it linger in this world for a while, haunting places as a ghost or a phantom? Does it come back again and again, born in a new body each time, experiencing the world repeatedly through history? God’s Word assures us that some part of us survives the death of the body. It does not return again and again—it goes somewhere to wait for the resurrection at the end of time and for the new creation. For believers, that waiting place is called Paradise. We are with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of God the Father. For unbelievers, that waiting place is called Hades. The Bible describes Hades as an uncomfortable place, but it still involves waiting until the resurrection and the final judgment. On that Day Jesus will divide us into two groups, welcoming his saints into the new creation where we will live with him forever. The other group, the sinners who refused to believe in Jesus, will be locked outside of that new creation, stuck forever in the outer darkness.

              The apostle Paul describes our current bodies as tents. We are camping on a battlefield, dwelling in tents, surrounded by a world polluted by sin and evil. The only existence we know is life in these bodies, but we know that this life is temporary. Even if we survive in this world and make it to one hundred years, that century is merely a drop in the ocean of eternity. We have been promised eternal life in a better world, a world without sin and evil and death. We are looking forward to that new creation. We camp in tents today, but God has prepared buildings for us in the new creation, bodies that will last forever without sicknesses or injuries or allergies. Paul says that today we walk by faith, not by sight. Our hope is not merely to leave these bodies behind and to live as spirits with God in Paradise. Our hope incudes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We eagerly await our final destination, the new bodies God will raise from the grave, changing them so they will last forever.

              Today we cope with what we have. We take care of these bodies, these temporary dwellings, these tents. Consider how much time we invest in our teeth, our hair, our faces. We clean these bodies and then we cover them with nice clothes. We prepare food and eat food and then wash up after each meal. We give these bodies rest and exercise. We shelter them in buildings, and we keep those buildings at comfortable temperatures in the summer heat and the winter cold. God gave us these bodies. Good stewardship includes caring for these bodies, making them fit for the good works that God intends us to do in this world. But many people become obsessed with their bodies, their earthly tents. They forget that we have a heavenly dwelling, prepared by God. While we are in this tent, we groan. We are vulnerable to the many things that go wrong in us and around us in a sin-polluted world. We think about our health and comfort today and tomorrow, investing our time and energy in maintaining these current tents. Meanwhile, we neglect our purpose in this world. As Paul says, we should make it our aim to please God today. We will receive what is due us for the way we have served God while camping in these bodies. Stewardship is more than keeping our bodies fed and clothed and clean and healthy. Stewardship is also living actively in these bodies, loving God and loving our neighbors. Stewardship includes using these bodies to do good works, works that help the people around us and bring glory to God, because we are God’s people. We are Christ’s body, doing his work in this world.

              Doing good works is half the struggle. Camping on this battlefield, we also face temptations to sin. The devil and the sinful world around us are constantly showing us where we can do things for our pleasure rather than for God’s glory. The sin still within each of us would like to follow the path of temptation and sin rather than following God’s path. Different people are tempted in different ways. For some of us, the temptations are different at different ages, different stages of life. But temptation is always available. We aim to please God, but our aim can be diverted by the cloud of temptations that surrounds us.

              We have learned how to protect ourselves from viruses in this world. We wash our hands for twenty seconds; we wear masks in some situations. But how do we protect ourselves from spiritual danger? How do we purify ourselves from threats to the soul? We are under attack. We are constantly being threatened with evil. What mask, what sanitizer, will keep us safe from temptation?

              Martin Luther said this about temptation: you can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. Temptations will surround us as long as we live in this world. Jesus was tempted as we are. How we respond to temptation is what matters. We realize that we should just say no. Many times a day, that is exactly what we say. But it is one thing to say no; it is another to move on past the temptation and not linger in the thought and imagination of what we could be doing. Holding on to our anger can be as sinful as striking out in anger. Remembering and reliving a temptation can be as sinful as giving in to that temptation. But even when we resist temptation, the devil has not finished with us. He can still battle us with the temptation after we have said no. He can make us feel guilty for being tempted. When he tries that attack, we remind ourselves that Jesus was also tempted, that Jesus said no, and that Jesus has given us the strength to say no. We should not feel guilty for being tempted; we should only feel guilty for surrendering to the temptation, for sinning, or for hanging on to that temptation and enjoying the thought of sin.

              When we have resisted temptation, when we have moved on to good works instead of living in the temptation, Satan’s other attack is the sin of pride. He wants us to keep score of our goodness. He wants us to measure how good we are, how many sins we have avoided. When he has us measuring ourselves and taking pride in ourselves, he helps build barriers that separate us from God. Even though, at first, our aim was to please God, soon we are pleasing ourselves by our goodness. We will be in big trouble on Judgment Day when we stand before the throne of God, boasting in our goodness, because our goodness never will be good enough to bring us into God’s perfect new creation.

              We will receive what is due for what we have done in these bodies, these tents, whether we have done good or have done evil. But God’s standard calls for perfection. The smallest sin, the smallest surrender to temptation, can bar us from the new creation. When we think of that Day when we will stand before the throne of God, we must remember how Jesus prepared us for that Day.

              Jesus lived among us as one of us. Jesus resisted temptation in our name. Jesus lived the perfect righteousness that earns a place in the new creation. Jesus then exchanged lives with us. Jesus took upon himself the guilt for our sins. Jesus paid our debt in full on the cross. Jesus has sanitized our lives to make us pure and acceptable in the sight of his Father. What we receive on Judgment Day is shaped by the work of Jesus. God will see no evil in us, because Jesus has removed every sin. God will see only good in us, because Jesus has credited each of us with his righteousness.

              Paying attention to Jesus and not to ourselves, we begin to imitate Jesus. We do good things that help our neighbors and bring glory to God. Again, the devil tempts us to take credit for those good things, to focus attention on our selves, to forget Jesus and the changes he has made in our lives. Our growth comes, not from our efforts to imitate Christ, but from his power working within us. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like seeds that grow. The seed is planted, it sprouts, it produces roots and stems and leaves; eventually a crop appears, whether grain or grapes or mustard or apples or figs. A healthy tree produces fruit: the fruit does not give life to the tree, but the tree naturally produces fruit if it is alive. In a similar way, a Christian life is recognized by good works. Good works do not create Christian faith—faith is God’s gift, and life and growth come from that faith. When we focus on Jesus, these good things happen in our lives. When we focus on ourselves and forget Jesus, whatever good we accomplish is tarnished with pride and self-righteousness.

              Jesus Christ defeated sin and all its consequences, including death. Jesus Christ grants new life to his people. Jesus Christ lives in us, working in us the good things that God had in mind when he created us. Jesus Christ also sustains us in this new life. As seeds, when they have sprouted, need sun and rain and soil and tending, so we need the continuing work of Jesus in our lives. We need his Word, which guides us and also gives strength for our faith to grow. We need his Church, as Jesus works in us to build our faith and to make one another strong in the faith. We need his Supper, as Jesus nourishes us by his own body and blood, removing our sins and guaranteeing us eternal life. God’s Holy Spirit, given to us as a guarantee of all his promises, works through the Word and the Church and the Sacrament to give us faith and to help that faith grow and remain strong.

              We are always of good courage. We live today in tents on a battlefield, at home in the body and away from the Lord. One day we will leave these tents behind—we will be with the Lord and away from the body. We will be with Jesus in Paradise. But the best is still to come. God has eternal mansions for us, new bodies that will live forever in a new creation. Our place there is guaranteed, not by what we do for Jesus, but by what Jesus has done for us.

Advent thoughts: December 21

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2—read Micah 5:1-6).

Once again Matthew assures us that a verse prophesies the coming of the Messiah, even though a quick reading of the chapter would seem to suggest that it concerns the days of the tribes of Israel being invaded by the Assyrian Empire. Matthew even makes a subtle change in his translation of the verse, rendering it, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6). The shepherd reference is borrowed from Micah 5:4, but the change from “too little” to “by no means least” would seem to be a contradiction and not a paraphrase.

“Too little to be among the clans,” but, “by no means least” fit together because of the meaning of the rest of the verse. Bethlehem was a small town; but it has become the most famous small town in the world because Jesus was born there. The victory Jesus was born to win was far bigger than any victory over an Assyrian army. Jesus defeated all the forces of evil, including our sins and the power of death. For that reason, the prophet Micah looked beyond the fearsome invaders of his time to focus on the victory that matters more than any other, because it defeats the forces that cause wars and other violence on earth.

The Bible experts used Micah’s prophecy to tell King Herod where the Messiah would be born. They chose a simple verse for a king who ruled over the Jews but did not understand their faith. The experts knew that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem, not because of a single verse in Micah, but because of the promise God made to David. God told David that one of his descendants would rule an eternal kingdom. To inherit the throne of David, the Savior-King had to be born in David’s hometown. Sharing a birthplace was necessary because of the terms of the old covenant.

God stressed a connection between his chosen people and the Promised Land. Each plot of land was to remain the property of the same family. They could not sell land; they could only rent it out for a time if they needed money. God wanted his people to be good stewards of the land. His concern for stewardship of the land was expressed already to Adam and Eve in the beginning. They and all their descendants were to care for the planet and especially for its living beings. God did not say that people could do whatever they want with the land and with plants and animals. Part of the Judgment to be announced on the Day of the Lord will be the matter of how well or how poorly we have cared for the planet.

We must confess that we have not, for the most part, been good stewards of God’s creation. Some areas have been farmed to exhaustion and have become human-made deserts. Others have been poisoned by human-made pollution. Habitats have been stolen for human use. Habitat loss and careless hunting has driven many species into extinction. When Jesus is seen on his throne of judgment, he will have things to say about the way we treated his world.

Yet the forgiveness of Jesus covers even our sins against the planet. One reason Jesus went to the cross was to pay the penalty for all the times we have damaged and destroyed the world he created.  Jesus is not pleased to see mismanagement of his creation, but that sin is forgiven through his life and death and resurrection. Forgiveness is not license to continue sinning; forgiveness gives us power to reverse our mistakes, to do what is right instead of what is wrong.

The King who inherits David’s throne is also a Shepherd to protect his flock so we live in safety and are not threatened by our enemies. He is our peace—through him we are at peace with God, at peace with one another, and at peace with all creation. Coming from ancient times—indeed, from outside of time—Jesus comes to rescue us and to claim us. We belong to him and his kingdom forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part one

Some years ago, I attended a conference for church workers with the theme of “Holy Health and Wholeness,” or something along those lines. The featured speaker was a pastor/theologian who was considered an expert on the topic of health and how to be healthy according to spiritual principles. Much of his message centered around maintaining a positive attitude, dealing with stress instead of succumbing to stress, and being good stewards of our physical health.

On the one hand, I agree that each Christian is responsible for being a good steward of his or her body. We all should make good decisions about nutrition, sleep, exercise, and hygiene. We should avoid harmful substances and bad habits. Negative thoughts and poor stress management can lead to physical symptoms. On the other hand, I am skeptical regarding claims that we can be in charge of our own health, that we can be healthy and happy simply by replacing bad choices with good choices. Whether those claims are made by a Christian, a New Age practitioner, or a secular source, I believe that things are more complicated than those speakers picture them. The Bible says more about life than how to be healthy, wealthy, and comfortable in this world. In fact, the Bible more often deals with the problem that, in this sin-polluted world, often the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer.

To provide full disclosure: the week of that conference I was suffering from an ear infection. Symptoms included pain, lightheadedness, and distortion of sounds. In that condition, I was hostile toward any suggestion that I was responsible for my discomfort—that if I made better choices, I would not have been battling an infection and needing to take painkillers and antibiotics to make the problem go away. In fact, I was seriously considering questioning the speaker about blaming the victim and making things worse instead of better.

Instead, I began searching the Bible to see if I could find verses that would support the speaker’s point of view. Here are some of the verses I found: “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same…. For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause…. Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty…. If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation…. If you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward him. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and let not injustice dwell in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning…. Agree with God and be at peace; thereby gold will come to you. Receive instruction from his mouth and lay up his words in your heart. If you return to the Almighty you will be built up; if you remove injustice far from your tents, if you lay gold in the dust and gold of Ophir among the stones of the torrent bed, then the Almighty will be your gold and our precious silver. For then you will delight yourself in the Almighty and lift up your face to God. You will make your prayer to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows.”

Before anyone rushes for a concordance to find these verses, I will reveal where I discovered them. They are written in the book of Job—namely 4:7-8; 5:6-8; 5:17; 8:5-6; 11:13-17; 22:21-27. These are the words of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, friends of Job who came to comfort him in his suffering but ended up accusing him. Confident that God makes no mistakes, these three friends told Job that he needed to return to God; if he was being chastened by the Almighty, then surely the purpose was to wake Job from his spiritual slumber and restore him to a right relationship with God. The Lord responded to Eliphaz saying, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” God called for a sacrifice to atone for their sin and promised to hear Job when he prayed for their forgiveness (Job 42:7-9).

To be continued…. J.

“Your body is a temple of God”–part one

At times Christians say that we should take care of our bodies because they are God’s temples. Now, I am entirely in favor of maintaining our health. That is good stewardship of part of God’s creation. (See note #1, below.) But describing our bodies as God’s temples is a mistake—one which muddles what the apostle Paul wrote. It combines two or more references into a single thought that Paul did not intend.

Paul used the word “temple” in seven places among his epistles (counting multiple uses in the same sentence as one place). Only once does he refer to the actual building in Jerusalem (I Corinthians 9:13). Another time he refers to pagan temples (I Corinthians 8:10). In the remaining five places, Paul uses the word “temple” figuratively to speak about something else. These instances are worth analyzing one by one.

I Corinthians 3:16-17: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For the temple is holy, and you are that temple.” In every case, the word “you” in these verses is plural. If your Bible does not point that out in a footnote, and if you are unable to read the New Testament in Greek, then check out a King James translation. The translators used “ye”—the plural for you at that time. (See note #2, below.) The Christian Church, together, is one temple. Moreover, Paul is writing about Christian unity in this chapter, not about physical health.

I Corinthians 6:19-20: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” This verse comes closer to saying that each of us is a temple of God, but Paul specifies in this case “a temple of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit of God does dwell within a Christian, granting saving faith and perseverance and guiding the Christian in doing good works. The topic of this part of Paul’s letter, though is sexual morality. He stresses that visiting a prostitute is a sin against God, especially against God the Holy Spirit. In ancient Greece, as in Canaan, prostitution was part of the pagan religion. Visiting a prostitute was an act of pagan worship. Therefore, it was wrong for a Christian to visit a prostitute. By extension, a preacher might use these two verses to talk about diet and exercise or other bodily matters, but that preaching goes beyond what Paul intended in these verses.

II Corinthians 6:16: “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’” Once again, the temple of God is the Christian Church. The pronoun is plural—we, not thou—but the temple is one temple. Together, we are all the temple of God.

Ephesians 2:19-22: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Here Paul expands a simple figure of speech into an entire parable or allegory. Unmistakably, though, he is telling many Christians that together they are one temple.

II Thessalonians 2:3-4: “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that Day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” Some people treat the temple in this verse as a physical structure. (See note #3, below.). When we apply Paul’s thoughts about the temple of God in his letters to the Corinthians and Ephesians, we see that the man of lawlessness (the antichrist) will be found among God’s people, not actively opposed to the visible Church. Hitler and Stalin were not fulfillments of Paul’s prophecy, nor would Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton qualify as the man of lawlessness. That false leader will draw God’s flock astray by false teaching inside the Church—taking his seat in the temple of God.

Having established the teaching that the temple of God, according to Paul, is the whole Christian Church, I will next explain what it means for the Church to be the temple of God. J.

  1. Stewardship is a technical term describing the way Christians take care of God’s property. It sometimes becomes confused with fundraising for the church, but stewardship involves far more. Adam and Eve were placed in charge of the planet. Their descendants are still in charge of taking care of the planet. Stewardship means meeting our worldly responsibilities—paying our taxes, for example. It includes caring for our families. Yes, taking care of our own health is also part of faithful stewardship. We can do far more to serve God and help our neighbors when we are healthy than when we are sick or out of shape.
  2. English has changed since the time the Bible was first translated into English and Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets. Like many other languages, English had one word for addressing a single person (thee and thou) and another for addressing more than one person (ye and you). That has probably fallen out of use because of the egalitarian nature of American and British society in modern times. You see, in English of that time, as in other languages, people would use the plural pronoun to speak to royalty or to other people of importance. I suspect the origin of that custom is the Holy Trinity. When God spoke to himself, he used the plural (“Let us make man in our image,” for example.), and some ancient rulers may have started imitating the Lord to emphasize their own importance and authority. That last part is mere speculation, but the elimination of “thee and thou” means that we use the same pronoun no matter who we are addressing and how important that person is.
  3. Of course some Christians believe that this verse must be read literally and will be fulfilled literally. They anticipate that the Day of the Lord cannot arrive until a third temple has been built in Jerusalem for the man of lawlessness to defile. These becomes part of an elaborate narrative based on a few verses of Scripture taken out of context—but that can be the topic of another post.