Sunday, May 19, 2013

How God's Peace Comes to Us

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio during the 10:15 service today.]

Acts 2:1-21
Pentecost already was an important day on the Jewish calendar when the day we Christians often call the first Pentecost happened.

For Jews, Pentecost was the fiftieth day after Passover. While Passover celebrated ancient Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, Pentecost celebrated the giving of the law, the ten commandments, by God through Moses to Israel (and all the world) at Mount Sinai.

That may seem strange to us. We don’t like laws. They hem us in, keep us from doing what we want to do, control us. And some human laws can be unjust and oppressive.

But ancient Israel saw God’s Law, the ten commandments and the moral laws that stemmed from them, as good things, as blessings that sketched out the boundaries of what they called shalom, a place of peace with God and neighbor. So the ancient Israelites sang songs about God’s Law! “Oh, how I love Your law!” Psalm 119:97 says, for example, “It is my meditation all day long.” (1)

But God's people had a problem. They loved God’s law. They couldn’t keep it.

If following God’s law was like staying on a paved road, disobeying it was like falling into a ditch of muddy water. And like kids who have just taken a bath, Israel loved heading for the ditches of sin: the ditch of idolatry, the ditch of materialism, the ditch of wanting to fit in with others and ignore the will of God, the ditch of adultery and fornication, the ditch of false witness and character assassination, the ditch of self will, the ditch of thievery and false business and political dealings.

Through the centuries, God sent prophets to call the people out of the ditches and onto the road of God’s laws and commands. But Israel was like one of its first-century AD sons, the apostle Paul, who confesses in Romans 7: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members [that is, in my very self] another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive [the law of sin]...”

Human beings are born captives to sin, death, and the devil. The Bible says that because of our captivity, there’s only one fate we deserve: “The wages of sin is death”  (Romans 6:23).

Life in the ditches leads inevitably to separation from God, separation from life. Yet, we can’t help ourselves. We’re born ditch-seekers. Some of us like some ditches better than others. But from the moment we’re born, we’re like lemmings programmed by the sin we inherit from our parents to head for the mud, to do the very sin we hate! We can hear and know God’s law and even delight in it. But we cannot keep it.

Our only hope is the Gospel, the good news. Now, the Gospel can’t be reduced to a concept or a happy feeling, though some people try. “The Gospel,” they say, “is about God’s love. God is love. Love. Love. Love. Everything’s cool.”

In fact, the Gospel springs from a particular true story. It’s the true story of how God took on flesh in a particular human life. It’s the true story of Jesus, born of a virgin so that He would not inherit the sin that the rest of the human family inherits from our parents; Who was the perfect once-and-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world; Who rose from the dead and offers the benefits of His sacrifice--new life--to all who believe in Him as their God and Savior.

The Gospel is about Jesus Christ, Who came to replace the evil kingdom of sin and the dying kingdoms of this world with the kingdom of God for all who repent and believe in Him.

The new kingdom that Jesus died and rose to bring into being isn’t opposed to the law God gave through Moses. In fact, in some ways, Jesus makes God’s Law even more demanding than we remember it from Catechism class.

In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus says, “You have heard it said...‘You shall not murder’...But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus is saying that it’s not enough to simply obey the letter of God’s law. He cuts to the spirit of the law, which would, if we were capable of keeping it, create the kingdom of peace with God and peace with neighbor that Jesus had to come to earth to bring.

So, Jesus says to anyone who thinks that His death and resurrection are a free pass, a letter of indulgence, allowing human beings to heedlessly and unrepentantly do whatever we want no matter how disobedient or contemptuous of the will of God it may be, that they are wrong.

“Do not think,” Jesus says in Matthew 5, “that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill...unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Our situation would be hopeless were it not for the fact that Jesus Christ, the One Who delivers this stern message, has done for us what we can’t do for ourselves. He has obeyed the law. Perfectly.

Jesus has kept the law and so, by His innocent death for us, has conquered the law and its stern verdict against every one of us!

Romans 8:1-4 tells us this:
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 
Think of that: We who are “in Christ Jesus,” we who quit trusting in ourselves and who trust instead, in Jesus Christ, who let God crucify our sinful selves and our sinful desires day by day, are no longer condemned for our failure to keep the law!

Those who are saved by God’s grace through their faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ are pulled out of the ditch of sin and death and set on the narrow way of life, the way that follows Jesus.

We are rescued from the kingdom of death and the kingdoms of this world and we become part of the eternal kingdom of heaven. It’s something we celebrate and praise God for here at Saint Matthew every Sunday!

For a Christian to use the phrase penned by Saint John in 1 John 4:8--”God is love”--is to mean something very specific. It means that the God Who is horrified by my sin and Who knows that sin is an eternal death sentence, loves me--loves you--so much that He threw out a lifeline which, if we will grasp hold of it in faith, will pull us out of the ditch and mire of sin and lift us into His kingdom.

That lifeline is Jesus.

He says:
For God so loved the world [including you and me] that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:16-18)
Jesus is the lifeline! 

All of which brings us back to Pentecost.

The first chapter of Acts shows us that the first Christians experienced how Jesus’ grace can change people’s relationships with God and with each other. Jesus forgave them for abandoning Him and denying Him on the night of His betrayal. Through the crucified and risen Jesus and their faith in Him, God pulled them from the ditches of shame and guilt. They were right with God and learning what it meant to live in the kingdom of heaven.

But their minds, like ours, were still fogged by sin. So they ask, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?”

Jesus tells them they need to pray, to quit striving and start surrendering. Then, the power of God’s Holy Spirit, the power that created the universe, would come to them. That’s exactly what happened on the Pentecost of our second lesson.

Like the first disciples, all who believe and are baptized receive the Holy Spirit. But, you may have noticed something: The world is a ditch and it’s so easy to wallow in it sins. This side of our own resurrections, we will never be completely free of sin.

And, acting in our own strength or on our own impulses, we can make things worse. We too often let the distance grow between Jesus, our lifeline and rescuer, and us, in our everyday lives. We become strangers to the One Who died and rose for us.

That’s why we confess our sin and affirm our faith again each time we receive Christ’s body and blood.

That’s why Martin Luther taught Christians to live in daily repentance and renewal. That’s the kind of life I hope and pray you’ll live, Kirsten, as you begin life as an adult Christian today.

As we submit our lives to the control and grace of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit can empower us to live differently. “...[T]he fruit of the Spirit,” the Bible says, “is love, joy, peace, longsuffering [that means patience], kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” The Holy Spirit can help us experience the life of the kingdom of heaven, the life of shalom, of peace with God, peace with others, peace with others.

The Pentecost crowd must have wondered how this kind of peace could come to them. So do we. How can we know peace in the midst of chaos? How can we have serenity in the midst of this world’s uncertainties?

Peter knew the answer to those questions, not because he was perfect or arrogant or intelligent. Peter knew the way to peace because like the other first followers of Jesus, he had seen it revealed, heard its voice, received bread and wine from its hand, touched the hem of its garment, saw it crucified and resurrected. Peter knew the one way to the peace for which we long.

In Acts 2:21, the last verse in our lesson, he shares it with the crowd. Quoting from an Old Testament passage that used the word Yawheh, I AM, God’s Name given to Mose the lawgiver and which we translate in our Bibles as LORD, Peter commended to the crowd the One he and his fellow disciples had come to call, “Lord." He commended the Lord Jesus to them. Peter told the crowd, “...whoever calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Today, this week, the Holy Spirit can empower you to live each day in the assurance that, no matter how crazy, conflicted, or even horrible and tragic the world may be, as you submit your sins, your hopes, your decisions, your family, your whole life to Jesus Christ, you are saved, again and again...from sin, from death, and from the devil. You are saved from the gossip that tears you down, from the fears that haunt you, from the temptations that allure you.

Jesus Christ is in heaven at the Father’s right hand. But if you believe in Him and call His Name, you are not and you never will be alone.

The Holy Spirit has come to let you know that whoever calls on the Name of the Lord Jesus--when you call  on the Name of the Lord Jesus--you are saved, safe forever in the arms of God, empowered forever to leave the ditch behind and walk as freed, redeemed, and forever loved children of God. Amen!

(1) The book, Lutheran Slogans: Uses and Abuses by Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson, provides a great discussion of the places of Law and Promise in a Biblical understanding of the Gospel. The conversation on chapter 5 of this book, conducted by my colleagues in the Association of Confessional Lutherans of Ohio this past week, was timely and helpful for the preparation of this sermon!

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