Saturday, June 08, 2013

Want Faith? Let Yourself Catch Grace

The Bible teaches that we come to a saving faith in the God revealed through Jesus Christ only by the power of the Holy Spirit. "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit," Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:3.

Faith in anyone but ourselves or in what we can control is foreign to human nature. And belief in the witness given by the apostles and other first Christians that, despite their own doubts, they could vouch with their lives that Jesus Christ, sinless God-in-the-flesh, not only died an undeserved death on a cross, but also rose from the dead, is also foreign to our natures.

Unless we're open to the ministry of the Holy Spirit--Who uses the witnesses of ordinary human beings to convict us of sin and convince us of the grace available to all sinners who turn from sin and believe in Christ as their only God and hope--the Spirit cannot create faith within us.

The refusal to even be willing in our imperfect human ways to believe in the Holy Spirit's proclamation of the God Who made us, Who hates sin, and Who, because He loves sinners, gives us a way to escape the consequences of sin--death and eternal separation from God--is epidemic in the Church and in society.

Bishop John Bradosky of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) recently wrote insightfully:

In the Atlantic Monthly, columnist Jonathan Rauch writes that America has made “a major civilization advance” in recent years. Rauch, an atheist, is thrilled about a phenomenon he calls apatheism (“apathetic theism”). “It’s not that people don’t believe in God anymore,” Rauch writes, “the majority will still say they believe. ... The faithful in America haven’t been putting much thought or effort into their faith. They’re looking for comfort and reassurance, not for a God who asks anything of them. Apathetic theists don’t care about their own religion and care even less about the faith of others.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks noticed a trend a few years ago and coined the term flexidoxy (“flexible beliefs”).
“Flexidoxy describes the form of religion practiced by many educated young Americans, as opposed to orthodoxy. Basically, it means that people have become flexible in their belief system and look at religion as a giant smorgasbord from which they can pick and choose the beliefs that most suit them. They become the center of their own faith and adapt it to what they see as important.”
Both apathetic theism and flexidoxy may well be the consequence and by-product of the church when it avoids the Holy Spirit, on one hand, or abuses it on the other. Apathetic theism and flexidoxy are grounded in the power of popularity and political correctness but not the power of the Holy Spirit.
Into this world, the Church must bring to bear what it alone possesses and is called to proclaim, the Gospel of Jesus Christ through the power and work of the Holy Spirit.
Nobody can "prove" the truth of the Christian proclamation: 
  • the truth that human beings are born in a condition of separation from God called sin; 
  • the truth that, imprisoned by this condition, we inevitably commit sins and just as inevitably, even what seems like altruistic acts on our parts are tinged with selfishness and self-will; 
  • the truth that God is unwilling to let us to go to hell, the fate we deserve, without a fight; 
  • the truth that because of God's love for us, He sent Jesus into the world; 
  • the truth that Jesus died, taking our punishment for sin, and rose from the dead to offer new life that begins here and now even as we remain imperfect and extends into eternity where we will live in perfect fellowship with God and others saved by the grace given to all who believe in Christ.
No argument for these truths will convince anyone. But when we leave ourselves open to the witness the Bible offers about God and what God has done in Jesus Christ, something happens to us that subordinates (but does not eliminate) our intellects, our wills, and our emotions.

Put simply, we come to believe in Jesus Christ. Hebrews 11:1, in the New Testament, says: "...Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen

I once was an atheist. I thought the Bible was a book written by human beings with their ideas about God, not, as I've come to believe that the Bible was inspired by God presented to human beings to save us. I thought that faith in Christ was for the pathetic. I thought that the message about Jesus, the gospel, was implausible.

But when I allowed myself to be open to Christ and to the ministry of the Holy Spirit operating in the Bible, in the fellowship of the Church, in the sermons of pastors, in the writings of Christians over the past twenty centuries, and in Holy Communion, even though I couldn't understand how Jesus' body and blood could be present in the bread and the wine or how a sinner like me could be forgiven by Christ, something happened to me. I came to believe in Jesus.

In the intervening thirty-seven years, my faith has been strong some times, weak at others. But the Holy Spirit has used means like those I mentioned above to shore up my faith, convict me of sins and so, convict me of my need for Christ, to convince me that Christ's death and resurrection were done for all sinners, including me, and that through Jesus, I really am forgiven and saved to live with and to live for God for eternity. 

Whether you're an atheist who stands outside the Church, as I once did, or a non-believing churchgoer like so many are today, if you want to have a faith that can change and shape your life and if you want the capacity to leave behind the delusion that you as a created being don't need your creator, I can assure you that you can have faith that changes this life and the one to come!

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you:
  • In the Bible
  • In the fellowship of Christians who honestly admit their own imperfections and relish the perfection and grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ
  • In the prayers you offer to God in Jesus' Name, prayers in which you should honestly share your doubts, but also your desire to believe
  • In listening to the preached Word
  • In joining convicted and convinced Christians in serving others in Jesus' Name
  • In being connected with a Church whose pastor (or pastors) and members evidence true belief in the God of the Bible, who reverence the Bible as God's perfect, inspired Word for the human race
  • In the Sacrament of Holy Communion, during the receiving of which you earnestly pray, "I don't know how Your body and blood and Your forgiveness can be in bread and wine, Lord, but I ask you to help me to trust that that is so"
None of the items in that list are good religious works. They will not earn salvation for you. And if you approach them as though they will, you will miss their point and miss out on faith. They are what the Reformation theologians called "means of grace," holes through which eternity bursts through to us, openings through which the arms of God can enfold you.
I've used the analogy before, but they're like a batted ball to which an outfielder goes to make a catch. The fielder has no control over the speed of the pitch made by the person on the mound. The fielder can't control what kind of charge the hitter puts into the ball once he's swung. All the fielder can do is position herself or himself to make the catch. 

God is using these means to "bat" faith our way. The question is are we willing to be where we need to be to "catch" the faith the Holy Spirit wants to hit our way?

The faith you catch won't make sense to you at first. There's so much about the Christian Gospel that doesn't make sense. That may, in your mind, make a case against surrendering faith in Christ at first. But, as C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, isn't also characteristic of the biggest facts in life to be not what you'd have anticipated at all? 
I met an elderly woman at a church where I was preaching one Sunday. She was matronly, having spent years as an elementary teacher and being something of a second mother to her students. This doughty little woman, I learned, had one something like $50-million dollars in the Ohio Lottery just the day before. I couldn't believe it. But it was true. The truest truths are often like that, beyond your capacity to imagine. That's the way it is with the message of the Bible about Jesus.
No matter how hard it is to believe in Jesus, it is absolutely true and it becomes more plausible as you allow yourself each day to more and more walk in Christ's orbit. And before you know it, if you're not careful, the Holy Spirit will have you saying and meaning things like this:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.  He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.  He descended into hell.  On the third day He rose again.  He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  Amen.
Are you willing to have faith like that expressed in the Apostles' Creed? 
If so, position yourself for it. Go to the places where the Holy Spirit can be counted on to be present. Then just tell God, "I'm willing to believe in Christ, Lord. I'm willing to doubt by doubts and worship You as my only God. Work the miracle of faith in me."

Guess what? I've seen that miracle take hold in the lives of hundreds of people during my twenty-nine years as a pastor and during thirty seven years as a Christian, including in my own life.

What have you got to lose? Shall I name what you've go to lose? You can lose sin and death and the hounding of the devil. Those are great things to lose!
Turn to Christ. Let the Spirit have access to your will and your life.

Then let the Spirit give you a faith in Christ that is more than Sunday morning propriety, but week-in and week-out trust in Christ that's so big you don't care who thinks you're crazy.

You'll want the whole world to know that the crucified and risen Jesus is alive and ready to change anyone's life. By your words and your life of (however imperfect) commitment to Christ, you'll unleash the Spirit that's changing you to change others. 

Changing may scare you. You may feel quite comfortable in your favorite sins or in your letting God do His thing while you do yours. But Jesus says, "Everyone...who acknowledges Me before others, I also will acknowledge before My Father in heaven; but whoever denies Me before others, I also will deny before My Father in heaven" (Matthew 10:32).

The Holy Spirit stands ready to help you get to know the truth about Jesus Christ and to learn how to publically acknowledge Jesus every day. 
Are you ready to let Him? Even if your answer is only, "Maybe," charge ahead! Position yourself to receive God's grace and the Lord Jesus at the center of your life!

Sunday, June 02, 2013

The Centurion and What Amazes Jesus

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

Luke 7:1-10
Jesus did things that amazed a lot of people during His time on earth: turning water into wine, raising dead people to life, casting out demons, dying a death on the cross He didn’t deserve to pay the price for our sins, rising from the dead to give eternal life to all who repent for sin and surrender to Him. To this day, Jesus amazes: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch--undeserving, imperfect, sinful old bag of wind--like me.” That’s amazing!

But have you ever thought about what it would take to amaze Jesus?

Jesus is God in the flesh. He’s the author of amazing. The Bible says that in Jesus, “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible...all things have been created through Him and for Him...[and] in Him all things hold together.” So, what would it take to amaze Jesus?

Interestingly, the Gospels, the Bible’s authoritative accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, tell us that Jesus was amazed two times during His earthly ministry.

The first time is recorded by two of the gospel writers, Matthew and Mark. Let’s take a look at Mark’s version of things, found in Mark 6:5-6. After beginning His public ministry--teaching and preaching, calling people to repent and believe the good news that He has come to bring God’s kingdom into our fallen world, and performing miracles, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. But Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes refused to trust in Him. “Hey,” they told each other, “we know this kid. He’s Mary’s boy. We know His brothers and sisters.”

Familiarity, you know, breeds contempt. The people of Nazareth thought they knew Jesus. But they clearly hadn’t gotten to know Jesus.

If they’d known Jesus, they would have known about His uniqueness. He had never been in trouble. He had never hurt anyone. He had never misused God’s Name, never gotten involved in sexual shenanigans, never had any shady business dealings. Jesus was sinless and had they reflected on that, they would have understood why their fellow Nazarene was out in the world  pronouncing and demonstrating the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus returned to Nazareth though, He didn’t find faith, but contempt. Look, please at what verses 5 and 6 tell us: “Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marveled [Jesus was amazed!] because of their unbelief...”

I wonder if today, Jesus were to walk into this sanctuary, whether He would have cause to be amazed by our unbelief? Over our lifetimes, we’ve gotten to know Jesus. But is our knowledge of Jesus something that fires and inspires our faith in Him, our trust in Him, our dependence on Him, our love for Him, our acts of sacrifice and service in His Name? Or has it bred something like contempt?

I know that speaking for myself, I sometimes pray, giving my concerns to God, and then, as I rise from my knees, take them right back onto my own shoulders. Don’t I trust Jesus? Don’t I believe it when I pray, “Thy will be done”? Would Jesus marvel at my unbelief? This is why I turn to Christ again and again each day: Moved by His loving grace, anxious to let Him crucify the old Mark and give life to the Mark who will live with Him in eternity, I repent and grasp hold of Christ’s grace any time I can!

There is also unbelief, a functional atheism, among some Christians today who comfortably sit in their pews on Sunday mornings and go through the motions of faith, but never repent for sin, never trust Christ with their lives, never ask that His will be done except in rote prayer, never appreciate what Christ has done to bring them forgiveness and everlasting life, and who, when they run into the inevitable pain and difficulties that are part of life in this fallen, sinful, imperfect world, complain that God isn’t dancing to their tunes, making things easy for them, or approving their favorite sins of choice. That, I’m sure, amazes Jesus.

Our Gospel lesson for this morning records the other time in His earthly ministry that Jesus was amazed. Please turn to it, Luke 7:1-10.

Jesus has just concluded what scholars call His Sermon on the Plain. He goes to Capernaum, a city that sets at the northeast tip of the Sea of Galilee.

Verse 2 says: “And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die.” A centurion, of course, was an officer of the Roman army, who commanded a maximum of 100 soldiers--a century of soldiers. The Romans occupied Judea and Galilee and were resented. But already in this verse, we’re alerted to there being something different about this centurion. He is a what was called a God-fearer, a Gentile who believes in the God of the Jews.

His servant, the verse tells us, was “dear” to him. The word translated as dear is a compound word: entimos. It means honored, respected, distinguished and related to a word for precious, valuable, worthy of honor. This centurion esteems the servant and cares about what happens to him.

The centurion hears that Jesus is in town and he asks the local Jewish elders, the officials of the synagogue, to go ask Jesus to heal his servant.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the centurion does this instead of approaching Jesus himself. Gentiles were considered “outsiders” by the Jews, damned with no chance of knowing God. That may be one reason for the centurion not going to Jesus with His request.

But I think there’s a deeper reason for it: He is aware of his own faults, deficiencies, unworthiness, and sin. The believer in Jesus Christ should feel no hesitation at all about approaching the God we know in Christ in prayer. That’s why Hebrews 4:16, in light of the fact that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross makes those who believe in Him worthy of coming to God in prayer, says: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

But if we ever approach God in prayer with the notion that what we ask for are things we deserve, we approach God with the wrong heart and the wrong attitude.

The great 20th-century Lutheran theologian and author Ole Hallesby, in his book Why I Am a Christian writes: “...there is no other way of becoming personally assured of Christ and of the Christian faith than...the way of the sinner, the way which leads through complete despair of self.”

Until we know how desperately we need Christ and His blessings and how desperately unworthy we are of them, we will never ask Him for anything rightly!

The centurion sees two things clearly: his own unworthiness and Christ’s mercy and grace. And so, aware of his own deficiencies, he asks friends to bring his request--not for himself, but for his servant--before the Lord Jesus, Who has no deficiencies. He believes that, in Christ, God can give grace, undeserved favor.

His Jewish friends don’t have that kind of faith. They think that a human being can be worthy of God’s favor. They think that to get God’s blessings and favor, you make deals with God. That’s why in verse 5, they try to build a case for the centurion. They talk about the centurion’s works. “He loves our nation,” they tell Jesus, “He built our synagogue.”

They don’t get it. Neither do we if we think that we can earn God’s favor.

We know that the ratio of births to deaths in this world remains 1 to 1. Not everyone who is ill for whom we pray will be healed. But we do know that everyone--Jew, Gentile, sick, healthy--who calls on the Name of Jesus Christ, repenting for sin and trusting in Him for forgiveness and new life, will be saved from sin, death, and the devil.

And that won’t happen because of their virtues. It will only happen because of the love, mercy, and grace of the Savior on Whom they call, we call. We are saved by God’s grace in Christ and our faith in the grace-giver, not by our non-existent goodness or good deeds.

As Jesus approaches the centurion’s house, the centurion sends a few more friends to Jesus with a new message. Verse 6: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.” He explains that as a soldier, he understands authority. He understands that if the Lord of all creation commands the disease that afflicts his servant to be gone, it will be gone.

Verse 9 tells us: “When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him [Jesus was amazed by the centurion!], and turned and said to the crowd that followed Him, ‘I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” When the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found that the servant had been made well.

Folks: If you turn from sin and trust in Christ, you can know you belong to Him no matter!

If you seek it, Jesus Christ will prevent Satan from reminding you of the sin for which you long ago repented and you can know that Satan will be constrained.

If you need help to resist temptation, Christ can give you that power.

If you need the strength to bear hard circumstances, Christ can give you the strength you need.

Jesus Christ, Who died and rose and sent His Holy Spirit to those who believe in Him, can give you a trust that no matter what happens to you in this world, you belong to Christ for eternity. Nothing can snatch you from Christ’s hands!

The centurion knew the extent, the height, the eternal depths, and the power of Jesus‘ authority.

If there is one thing we need in Christ’s Church today, one thing that we who call ourselves Christians need more than anything, it’s a renewed understanding of Jesus‘ authority, a renewed commitment to living under Jesus‘ authority and grace alone! 

We need to learn again what the witnesses of His resurrection told us: Jesus Christ is Lord of everything!

Faith informed by an understanding that only Christ has authority over life, death, and sin gives us peace and hope and joy even in the midst of life’s difficulties.

And that’s the faith that amazed Jesus when He saw it in the centurion!

May our prayer be, “Lord, build faith that rejoices in Christ’s grace AND respects Christ’s authority within me. Help me to trust in Jesus Christ and His Word alone!”

May Christ give us a faith in Him and Him alone that amazes Him, a faith that no longer seeks to assert our authority or power or selfish ends, but seeks only to honor and glorify the One Who died and rose to give us life with God! Amen