Saturday, July 14, 2012

Turning a Deaf Ear to God's Word (from the Pastor's Cutting Room Floor)

This didn't make it into tomorrow's sermon. But I thought that I'd share it here:
When we turn a deaf ear to God’s Word, ignoring either God’s Law or God’s promise as revealed in the Old and New Testaments, it’s like driving another nail into Jesus’ scarred flesh all over again.
It’s like joining the Good Friday conspirators who thought that by killing Jesus, they could throw off the lordship of God and, like Adam and Eve at the dawn of human history, make their play to “be like God.”
This comes through clearly in a passage in the New Testament, Acts 9:4. A man named Saul had been deputized to seek out Jews who were following Jesus and bring them back to Jerusalem, bound as prisoners. On his way to Damascus, Saul (who would later become Paul, a great preacher of faith in Jesus) encounters the risen and ascended Jesus, Who asks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
Whenever we turn our backs on the Word of God as revealed in the Bible, we persecute Jesus and distance ourselves from Him.
God forbid that we should do that! God forbid that we should turn our backs on the One Who says, "The Father and I are one" (John 10:30) and "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you know Me, you will know My Father also" (John 14:6-7).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Power That Can Only Be Experienced by the Weak

[This was prepared for delivery during the 10:15 worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, earlier this morning. But then, I forgot to bring the sermon with me and had to wing it.]

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
You and I will be telling stories about the hurricane-force winds and resultant Power Outage of 2012 for a long time to come. After our power came back for the second time on Thursday, Ann and I reminded each other not to get too used to the comfort; the power could go again.

That skepticism or wariness is warranted. Human beings and human technology aren't all-powerful. Our best laid plans and most thorough preparations can--and often are--upended by life.

But I wonder: Do we ever entertain similar skepticism or wariness about the power of Jesus Christ?

Skepticism about Jesus’ power and the good it does in the lives of those who believe in Jesus is nothing new, even sometimes among those who know Jesus well.

In our gospel lesson for today, Mark 6:1-13, Jesus, Who in the previous five chapters of Mark’s gospel is recorded to have done many miracles and signs, could do no deeds of power because of the skepticism and unbelief of the people in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.

And underscoring this theme, all four of the gospels say that after Jesus, God in the flesh, had died on the cross, His closest followers doubted that God had the power to do what Jesus had said He would: raise Jesus from the dead so that all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus can have eternal life with God.

Even today, although Christ’s resurrection is an accomplished fact, people who bear Christ’s Name go through times when they doubt Christ’s power.

In our second Bible lesson, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, the apostle Paul, the first century evangelist, is dealing with Christians who are skeptical about Christ’s power, hankering for what I call happy-talk preachers who promise that following Jesus will mean that their lives in this world will be peaches and cream.

You see, shortly before Paul wrote to the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth, the Corinthian church had been wowed by some preachers who convinced them that if the power of the God made known to the world through Jesus was really working in them, then their lives would be problem-free. They would have success, victories, and no illness.

Now, it is true that Christ gives His Church, among other ministries, the power to bring God’s help to people, including, sometimes, healing.

But no physical healing lasts indefinitely. This world is imperfect and, unless you and I are among those Christians living on earth when Jesus returns, death will come to us all. There’s no way around that.

“So, where is the power of God and what good is the power of God in your preaching?” the Corinthians asked Paul.

Their questions were pointed because, unlike the preachers who had wowed them, Paul was a less than impressive figure. By this time, about 56AD, Paul was deep into his forties or early fifties, slight, balding, a poor and rambling speaker who scratched together what little income he made by making tents.

His career as a Christian preacher wasn’t notable for what the world would call successes. In the course of his work, he’d been arrested and flogged, shipwrecked and beaten, mocked, chased out of several towns, and jailed. Most people in that time would probably have looked at Paul and seen a big “L” for “loser” on his forehead.

But by the time we get to the point in the letter to the Corinthian Christians that makes up our second lesson, this loser Paul has a message for these people who question the authenticity of his message about Jesus Christ and his authority to share it.

Wary of being a braggart, Paul starts out by using the third person to tell about a personal experience he’d had of the power of God fourteen years earlier.

Paul says, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words.”

Paul had an experience of heaven that the preachers who had impressed the Corinthian Christians might not have been able to even imagine.

But, Paul says, that experience, as awesome as it was, did not prove Jesus’ power over sin and death and it didn’t prove Paul’s authority to tell others about Jesus.

God's power, Paul shows us, is most readily seen in ways the world might not call flashy, but in two other ways.

The first is in God's grace.

The second is in our weakness.

Grace is God’s charity, God’s willingness to accept the repentant who entrust their sins and their entire lives to Christ. Grace doesn’t paper over or ignore our sins. But it welcomes those who are willing to turn from sin and believe in Christ into eternal fellowship with God.

God doesn’t wait for us to be perfect before we have life with Him. Life with Him is a free gift for all who have faith in Christ.

The super apostles who had wowed the Corinthian Christians said that, “If there’s something wrong in your life—some illness, adversity, heartbreak, poverty, or struggle—it proves that you’re faithless.”

You still hear people saying things like this today. Some of them have TV shows and multimillion dollar ministries and books on the best seller lists. They don’t understand grace!

Having the grace of God that comes only from Jesus Christ in our lives doesn’t mean that our lives will be perfect; it means, rather, that we will still have God’s grace even when things aren’t perfect!

In verse 7 of our lesson (take a look at it), Paul says that to keep him from being too elated by his heavenly vision, God had allowed Satan to afflict Paul with a “thorn in the flesh.”

We have no idea what Paul's thorn in the flesh was. It may have been an illness, an incessant temptation, a psychological disturbance, a relationship problem, a lack of money. We don’t know.

But three times, Paul says, he had asked God in prayer to remove the thorn. And three times the answer came back (look, Paul records it in verse 9), “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” God refused to bring Paul the relief Paul sought, telling Paul that His grace was all Paul really needed.

Everybody here this morning knows what it is to experience thorns in the flesh. They’re the problems and heartaches that bedevil us and seem never to go completely away. They drive us to our knees and there, before God, we learn that all of the things we thought we needed—health, money, connections, the big house, the respect of others—are nice, but they're not what we need the most.

What we really need is the life-giving grace of God given through Jesus Christ. God's tough, incessant, faithful grace is the first thing that proves the power of Jesus Christ.

This leads to the second thing that proves the power of Jesus Christ: our weakness.

Listen: God gives those humble enough to admit their weakness the strength they need for living.

Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

You were with a loved one as they were dying and you knew that on your own, you couldn’t do all that you needed to do, but, with God’s help, you did it.

You had to undergo one more round of medical treatments, one more battery of tests, and you knew that you just couldn’t take it, but with Jesus by your side, you did.

In order to graduate or be certified, you had to pass a class for which you knew you had no talent or ability and, after prayer in Jesus’ Name, God helped you study and to learn what you needed to learn to pass.

To pay your bills, you had to work double shifts for which you knew you didn’t have the energy, yet God’s Spirit filled you with the needed energy.

In each case, you called out to the God we know in Jesus Christ and confessed, “Lord, I can’t.” And in each case, God told you, “I know that you can’t. But I can! Lean on me."

God has more than enough grace to help us and it only comes to those weak enough to admit that they need the crucified and risen Jesus.

This was exactly what Paul experienced when he had asked God to remove the unidentified thorn in his flesh. “I’m not taking this adversity away,” God told Paul. “You’re going to have to go through it, leaning on my grace.”

Why?

Because, God says in verse 9: “...My grace is made perfect in weakness.”

God’s power is experienced only by people who admit that they’re powerless without Jesus Christ.

We’re powerless when, by ourselves, we try to make sound decisions, make our relationships work, be happy, deal with our sins, or face life and death.

But when we own our weakness and seek Christ’s help, we can face anything.

God’s power surges into us.

That’s what Paul means when he writes in verse 10: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

“I didn’t know if I could ever be happy again,” a woman told me years after her husband had died. There were dark days, pain interspersed with lifeless numbness. But there were things to be done—children to be raised, bills to be paid, errands to be run. “I was sure that I just couldn’t do it,” she said. But in the midst of it all, she prayed and learned what Paul underscores in today’s lesson.

Through Jesus Christ, God demonstrates His power by giving grace to the needy—and that’s all of us—and strength to the weak—that, too, is all of us.

If you’re feeling weak or powerless today, that’s a great sign!

It means you’re seeing life clearly.

You’re ready to give up on relying on yourself and start depending on Jesus Christ alone.

The Lord does not help those who help themselves; the Lord helps those who admit that they need the Lord’s help.

Call out to the God we meet in the crucified and risen Jesus and let God the Holy Spirit fill you with strength you can’t generate on your own.

Life in this world will not always make sense nor does God promise us that it will be easy. But He does promise to help us do all things when we place the full weight of our lives on the shoulders of Jesus Christ alone! Our strong God stands at the ready to give you grace and strength in all circumstances.

Unlike AEP, God’s power never gives out. And, if you let Him, God will see you through whatever you may face, all the way to eternity. Amen