Sunday, November 29, 2020

Father to the Fallen

Here, friends, is online worship from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, for November 29, 2020. Below the video, you can find the written text for this Sunday's sermon. Have a good week: Stay safe and know that God loves you!

Isaiah 64:1-9
A seminary professor tells the story of the day he went to Toys R Us with his young son, Christopher, and becoming separated from the boy. When the prof finally realized that the boy wasn’t with him, he panicked. He ran up and down aisle after aisle, but couldn’t find Christopher. Finally, he found a guard, explained his situation, and asked if the store had surveillance cameras. If they did, could they scan each aisle? “Yes,” the guard answered.

Soon, the guard took the father to a bank of video monitors. The guard panned over every aisle of the store. Eventually, they spotted Christopher, on the floor, surrounded by new toys but crying his lungs out, certain that he would never see his father or his family again. The guard let Christopher’s dad get on the intercom while keeping the camera trained on the boy. “Christopher. Stay where you are. It’s Daddy. Don’t move...I’m coming.”

Considering young Christopher’s experience at the Toys R Us is a good way for you and me to think about the season of Advent that begins today and specifically, about our first lesson for this morning, Isaiah 64:1-9.

Advent, like Lent, is a time for repentance and self-examination, a time not just to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but also to remind us to daily prepare for His return at the end of this world.

When Jesus returns, He will judge all people.

Those who have, with repentance and faith, turned to Him for forgiveness and life, will be raised to live with Him for eternity.

Those who have gone their own ways will go to an eternity of wrath and separation from God.

Advent, like Lent, begins with despair over our human condition, over how we wander from God, how we need to return to the God revealed in Jesus so that, through faith in Jesus, we can be covered in God’s forgiveness and Jesus’ righteousness.

Young Christopher was lost to his father when he became more taken with the colors, movements, noise, and excitement of the toys around him than he was with following his dad. Fortunately, he had a father who wasn’t willing to give up on looking for his lost child.

You and I all have a Father like that--only infinitely and eternally better--ourselves.

Isaiah, from whose book our first lesson for today comes, was one of God’s greatest Old Testament prophets. He lived from about 741 to 680 BC, in Judah, the southern kingdom, that had been parceled from ancient Israel soon after the death of Israel’s third king, Solomon.

Judah’s religious and civic life was centered on Jerusalem, where God dwelt in the temple. Because of this, it seemed, the people of Judah lived with a sense of superiority and entitlement.

But, like Christopher, they also wandered from their Father, God: going through the motions in their worship life, sinning unrepentantly, worshiping false gods, engaging in injustice or indifference to orphans, widows, and immigrants and strangers who sought refuge among them, embracing sexual immorality and economic exploitation.

Isaiah, like the other prophets God sent to His people, tried to tell Judah that God was not pleased with their unfaithfulness and that they needed to repent and return to God. If they didn’t, God would take their land from them and God would send them into exile to become servants in foreign lands.

But the people didn’t listen.

Today’s first lesson comes at a point in Judah’s history when the prophecies of Isaiah and other prophets had come to pass. The people of Judah had lost their land and were in exile, in despair. They hoped that God would find, forgive them, and restore them.

The words God gives to Isaiah show us that God is out to save and reverse the fortunes of much more than a single ancient nation. To Judah in its despair (and to us, in ours), God gives a message that is for all who have wandered from God.

Look at Isaiah’s words for today. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies, and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.” (Isaiah 64:1-5a)

Here, through Isaiah, a people repentant for their sin, aware of their need of God for forgiveness and life, ask God to come to them, the way He had to their ancestors at Mount Sinai.

There, you’ll remember, as the mountain and the people trembled in fear, God made His covenant with them to be their God, though they didn’t deserve His love or favor--any more than we do--and also gave them His Law.

“Tear open the heavens again, Lord,” the people of Isaiah’s day pray, “and come to us.” “Find us, Lord!” they beg. “Come to help us!”

It’s as if the people are waking up from a long bewitchment of earth-bound, sin-imprisoned thinking and living.

They now understand how they had, by their sin, built up a wall between God and themselves. They remember that God loves them and that they need His love. And so, they pray for forgiveness.

But the people also wonder if God can ever love or forgive them again:  “But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.” (Isaiah 64:5b-7)

Here is an honest statement of fact for both the people of captive Judah and for you and me: Despite our pride and self-righteousness, our certainty of our goodness, our inborn desire to be our own gods, our indifference to God, and our indifference to the needs of the spiritually-disconnected, the hungry, the poor, the victims of injustice, we know that we are sinners in need of the forgiveness God offers to those who repent and trust in the One Who had torn open the heavens and come to us, died for us and risen for us: Jesus.

It was to this honesty, that God responded and came to His people to forgive and restore them.

And it is this kind of honest confession of our sin and our need of the God we know in Jesus that God will respond today.

Knowing how God forgives and restores those who respond to His call for them is what lay behind the words at the end of our lesson from Isaiah today: “Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people.” (Isaiah 64:8-9)

We will best keep Advent, best keep our lives on Earth, and best prepare for Christmas if we too, recognize God as our loving Father, who wants, by His grace, to restore to us what it means to be a human being: a child of God set free by grace through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus to live in love for God and love for others.

When, after waiting for his father to find him, you can bet that young Christopher ran into his father’s arms.

This Advent season, may we run to God the Father, Who we know well in Jesus, again and again, and experience the joy of being in His strong, gracious arms.

Then, focused on our Lord, unlike children chasing after the temporary pleasures of this world, we can live in the freedom to be about living as human beings made in God’s image live: honoring God, loving our neighbor, making disciples, and seeking justice and the good of others more than for ourselves. Amen

Friday, November 27, 2020

The Biblical Background of 'The Augsburg Confession,' Part 9

Faith and Good Works

 The Bible teaches that we are justified, counted guiltless of both of our inborn sin and the sins we commit because of that inborn condition, by God's charity (His grace) through our faith in Jesus Christ alone. So what do our good works--things like active love of God and active love of neighbor--have to do with our justification?
Nothing and everything.

They have nothing to do with our justification because, first of all, no good work we might do can warrant God's "not guilty" verdict over our sinful lives. Even the good we do in this life will be tinged by sinful self-interest. Good works containing any sin couldn't possibly save us.

They also have nothing to do with our justification because, until we physically die to this world and are raised eternally, our inborn sin nature will continue, despite our true repentance, to impel us, against our wills, to sin.

But good works that live out love of God and love of neighbor, works that we would not even consider doing apart from the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ to those who believe, living in us, also have everything to do with God graciously justifying those who believe in Jesus Christ.

Good works done by the believer in Christ are sure evidence of a person who hs been justified before God through their faith in Christ. "If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Christians are made new through the justifying grace of God covering them with the righteousness of Jesus through the means of grace: The Word and the Sacraments, through which the Holy Spirit creates and sustains saving faith within us.

The one who has faith in Jesus Christ is set free to do truly good works, that is, good works that live out love of God and love of neighbor. The justified person will, without second-thought (Matthew 25:31-46), be impelled by the Holy Spirit to do those things that sinful humanity, left to our own devices, would never do.
Paul writes: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." (Galatians 5:22-24) Our good works cannot justify us. But all who believe in Christ are saved and through that justifying faith, the Holy Spirit does good works through us.

This is why Paul goes on to say in Galatians 5:24: "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit." In other words, whatever good the Holy Spirit is calling us to do, however contrary to our inborn desires or impulses, let us heed that call.

The connection between faith and good works and the fact that faith precedes good works, that faith justifies and not our works is underscored in Ephesians 2:8-10: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."

John puts it even more succinctly: "We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19)

Our good works, love in action, cannot justify us. Only Christ does that. To say otherwise, pours contempt on Christ and His cross. But our good works, love of God and love of neighbor acted out in even the smallest of ways, demonstrates that we are justified, declared and actually made innocent of our sin by God's grace given to all who have faith in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Biblical Background of 'The Augsburg Confession,' Part 8

Willing to be "scum of the earth, the refuse of the world"?

[This is the logo of a congregation in Denver, Scum of the Earth Church. The inspiration for its name comes from the New Testament.]
During my morning quiet time with God today, I was struck by these words: "...we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world." (1 Corinthians 4:13)

Paul writes these words to the churches in Corinth in first-century Greece. Many Christians there had become "partisans" of their favorite preacher, some of Paul, who had been with them earlier, and others of Apollos, who had come along later. They would say things like, "I follow Paul" and "I follow Apollos."

Paul upbraids the Christians there for this. "What, after all, is Apollos," he asks. "And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe..." in Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:5)

If we make ourselves partisans of this person or that person, this party or that one, this philosophy or that one, we're following the same foolish pathway that causes problems in the world: The tendency to make mortal, dying, impermanent, and sin-filled people or philosophies our gods, the grounds of our being. Human beings, human aspirations, human values, human philosophies: None of them can save us from ourselves, our sin, our death, no matter how much wisdom the world may attach to some people, philosophies, or ways of life.

The world may consider it foolish to follow Jesus. But what we see in the crucified and risen Jesus is that "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) Jesus, true God and true, sinless human being, rescues us from sin and death. He shares our condemnation, though He doesn't deserve it, so that, through faith in Him, we can share in His vindication--His resurrection life with God the Father--though we don't deserve that.

And what does He save us from?

Jesus saves us from the foolishness that says we can overcome our sin and all the death and destruction it brings to the world by following mere human beings, human thoughts, human emotions, human philosophies, however exemplary they may seem to be.

Paul said that he and all his Christian sisters and brothers who shared Jesus with the world understood the score. They would never be popular. They would never be seen as wise or with it to a world on the make. It's not always a popular message to be told that we can't make it on our own, that we need a Savior. Millions have been killed for believing in and sharing that message. There are tens of thousands of Christians in places outside of America that are being persecuted, jailed, tortured, and bombed for believing in and sharing that message.

But Paul said that he and his apostolic companions were willing to be "the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world" for the surpassing, eternal privilege of being part of God's eternal kingdom solely through God's grace granted to all who believe in Jesus.

He said they were willing to accept the world's estimation of them as scum and refuse for an additional privilege: being able to share with others the good news--the gospel--of new and everlasting life for all who turn from sin and the worship of the world's dead and dying things and turn instead to Jesus for forgiveness, peace with God, and everlasting life with God.

Father, grant that today, I won't give a fig about the world's estimation of me. Make me willing to be regarded as scum and refuse by the world because I know that in Jesus Christ, by Your charitable grace, I belong to You now and always. In Jesus' name I pray. Amen