Sunday, October 10, 2010

In Christ, We Can Always Be Thankful!

[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

2 Timothy 2:8-15
This past week, my wife, Ann learned, that a good friend of hers passed away suddenly. Cindy and Ann were part of a group of five women who worked together at an elementary school in our former community. Even after one friend, Nancy, retired, Cindy moved, and later, Ann moved, the five still got together regularly for dinner, conversation, and lots of laughter.

We went to the funeral visitation on Friday. Ann and another member of the group, Janie, approached Cindy’s family—her mother, her sons and her son's wives, her in-laws, and finally, Cindy’s husband. They all knew about the group of five which was symbolized by a flower arrangement at the funeral home: four red roses and a single white one in the middle. Cindy’s husband, Tom, grabbed hold of Ann and Janie, and they wept together. Tom acknowledged that he’d wished he could have had Cindy with him longer here. But then he said, “She’s with Jesus now and she has no more pain.” Then he asked Janie and Ann individually, “You do know that, don’t you?”

Christians grieve. But they also understand something that the apostle Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14. You can find the passage on page 684 of the pew Bibles. Please read it along with me silently:
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [Paul is talking about those Christians who have died], lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
For the person with faith in Jesus Christ, it’s possible to honestly mourn, yet still be grateful to God for all of God’s blessings, especially for the hope of life beyond death. That’s why Paul says this just a few verses later, in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
When our trust is in Jesus Christ, we always have reason to be thankful.

With that in mind, please pull out the Celebrate inserts for today and look at our second lesson, 2 Timothy 2:8-14.

As we pointed out last Sunday, the book from which the lesson comes is a letter written by the apostle Paul, who was imprisoned, to a young pastor named Timothy. Paul was imprisoned for confessing that Jesus is the King of kings and the only God of the universe. Paul starts out with these words:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.
We may be chained by many things in life—scorned for trusting in Jesus Christ above all things, tortured by disease, spurned or bullied by classmates, hounded by debt, hurt as a consequence of past decisions we’ve made, subjected to economic reversals, dogged by feelings of inferiority, encumbered by the reality of our own sins.

But no matter what we’re dealing with, God’s Word—the Word that reveals God’s will for human beings and the Word about Jesus, the Word made flesh, Who died and rose so that all who trust in Him will live with God forever—that Word of God has never been chained!

In Isaiah 55, God tells the people of Israel (and us):
…as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth…so shall My Word that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 
God’s Word is perfect and powerful and cannot be constrained, held down, or limited by anybody or anything.

One of my favorite incidents in the Bible happens when the Israelites, God’s people, are in the wilderness between Egypt and the land God promised them. The people are whining about not having any meat to eat. Moses goes to God and asks for meat. God says that He’ll give this whiny bunch so much meat that they’ll get sick of the stuff. But Moses is skeptical. God angrily asks Moses, “Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.” We can be thankful that God’s Word is unchained, bringing us blessings even when our faith is weak.

Our second lesson continues with a series of sayings that were apparently well known to, maybe even sung by, the early Church. Let’s quickly look at each phrase, starting at verse 11.

“If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” The Word of God calls for all of us to die—that is, to allow the life of sin into which we are born to no longer be in control of us. We let that old life die so that Christ can give us new lives that begin in this world and will be perfected in eternity. This is an ongoing process that begins when we are baptized. Each day, the Christian is called to submit the old self living inside of us to God in daily repentance and renewal, so that each day the new self—the person Jesus died and rose to make us—can rise to a life made ever new by God’s love and power. This is another reason to thank God every day.

The first part of verse 12 says, “If we endure, we will also reign with him…” Jesus has promised that His followers will reign with Him over eternity. But only if we endure: only if we keep trusting when the world has turned away from Christ; only if we keep repenting when we fall into sin; only if we keep trusting that Jesus’ death on the cross was even for us. Eternity belongs to those who keep fighting the good fight of faith, who keep trusting in Jesus. This is another reason to thank God.

The second part of verse 12 says, “If we deny him, he will also deny us.” Since Jesus is God, He could easily force us to trust in Him and follow Him, making us little machines that have no choice in the matter. But as the only of God’s creatures made in God’s image, we are the only beings in creation who have the right to tell God, “No, we would rather be our own gods, thank you very much.” God gives us this freedom because it’s only when we have the freedom to say no to His love that our saying the yes of faith has any meaning. But Jesus has issued a solemn warning, “I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God and whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.” We can also thank God that, in spite of our sins and imperfections, Jesus gives us access to the blessings God wants to give to everyone, but forces on no one.

In verse 13, Paul says, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.” To me, this is the thing for which you and I can be most thankful. Faith—trust—in the God we cannot see does not come naturally to us. Our old selves don’t die without a fight. Even people who believe in Jesus deeply sometimes find themselves believing in other things more than they believe in Jesus—whether it’s in their common sense, their impulse to go along to get along, their desire for security, the push of their emotions, the pull of their biology, the influence of friends and culture. God understands. God is faithful even when we are faithless. God is faithful even when our doubts are shouts and our faith in Christ is a mere whisper in our hearts.

When faith becomes too hard, some people give up. Behind one of the 6000+ doors on which I knocked back when we were getting my former church started, was a man who had stopped attending worship anywhere, although he had grown up in a church. I asked him why that was. “I love the Lord,” he told me. “But right now, other things are more important to me.” This man was consciously extinguishing his own weakened faith by cutting himself off from the only fellowship created by Jesus Christ to foster and sustain a relationship with Him.

A better model for us is the man who asked Jesus to heal his demon-possessed boy. Jesus told him that all things can be done for the one who believes. “I believe,” the desperate father replied, “help my unbelief.” Jesus answered the man’s prayers because God is faithful even when our faith is running on empty. We can thank God for that, too!

Years ago, I read the story of a missionary couple who had retired. They headed home to the States from Africa on a big passenger liner. Also onboard was a famous military hero. Through the whole trip, the missionary husband felt a little sorry for himself. As they boarded the ship, the military hero received accolades, while the missionary couple was ignored. That continued through the whole trip. Every night, there were banquets and toasts for the military hero; but the missionary couple who had given most of their lives in service to Christ and to the people of a small African village were ignored. The missionary husband consoled himself with the thought that when they arrived home, they would be appreciated for their faithfulness to Christ.

But when they docked in New York Harbor, there were a boisterous welcome and a key to the city for the military hero. No one even met the missionary couple. The man was discouraged. But his wife, knowing what was going on in her husband’s mind, looked at him and reminded him, “It’s okay, sweetheart; we’re not home yet.”

Life can be tough. It can be even tougher for those with faith in Christ. The devil and much of the world target the faithful for temptations, tests, and unkindness. The tragedies of life can seem to put everything we believe about the goodness and power of God under suspicion. But, we’re not home yet; heaven is our real home.

Until we reach that place, we who follow Christ can be thankful for so many things:
  • forgiven sin, 
  • the promise of eternity, 
  • the rewards God gives to enduring faith, 
  • the willingness of Christ to claim us in spite of our imperfections, and 
  • the character of God Who will always be faithful to us, even when we are faithless. 
We can be thankful that God’s Word which announces and creates these blessings can never be chained. God is good and whether we live or we die, we can always be thankful for that!

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