Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Hope for Hypocrites

[This is the journal of my quiet time with God this morning. I read Matthew, chapter 25; two verses particularly stood out to me.]

Look: “[Jesus said] The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24:50-51)

Matthew 24 begins with Jesus leaving the temple and the disciples coming up to Him “to call his attention to its buildings” (Matthew 24:1). Jesus stuns them by saying that “all [the] buildings” of the temple mount that so impress them will one day be destroyed.

It’s the disciples’ conflation of the temple’s destruction with “the end of the age” in verse 3 and Jesus’ response to their question without distinctions between the temple and the entire world that show that Jesus’ prophetic words in verse 1 apply to end of the whole cosmos. His answer applies to the demise of both the temple and the cosmos.

Jesus never tells the disciples when these cataclysms will happen. He does tell them what to expect as signs preceding them. But above all, He says to remain faithful to Him without knowing when these ends will come: “...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

According to Jesus, there will be Christians who are lulled into complacency and sin because the end when Jesus returns hasn’t come yet. The love of many will grow cold and, intimidated by the persecution to which faithful Christians are subjected, will defect from the faith, betraying fellow believers (verses 9-10). False prophets will arise bringing false hopes or exploiting the immature faith of some believers (verse 11).. Entrusted with stewardship of the gospel, the complacency of some believers, who will think that they have time to get away with sin before the Master Jesus returns, will cause them to treat other believers harshly (verses 48-49). (Although nobody knows when Jesus is returning, can there be any doubt that these very behaviors are exhibited and have been exhibited within the Church since Jesus’ ascension?)

But, Jesus is says “the master,” Jesus Himself, is one day returning. He’ll do so without forewarning. And, He says, He will destroy “the hypocrites,” those who have made it their lifestyles to breezily ignore Jesus’ lordship over their lives. He will consign them to a special place of punishment reserved for hypocrites.  

Listen: I am a hypocrite. That’s part of why Christ and His Church are so important to me. Where else would a hypocrite, aware of his sins and hypocrisy about them, go? I know that I need Jesus. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter asked Jesus. “You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Where else am I to go to hear God’s Word of condemnation for my hypocrisy as well as God’s Word of grace for those who repent for their hypocrisy? I must go to the Church to hear this Word, to have it claim me in Baptism, to have it fill me in Communion. I must go to the Word in the book the Holy Spirit gave to and through Christ's Church, the Bible.

In the fellowship of the Church, my complacency is challenged and my life is called from hypocrisy to authentic preparation for one day seeing Jesus face to face.

A friend, a fellow believer, in whom I reposed great confidence, aware of an abiding sin in my life, once asked me, “Do you ever read your own sermons?”

That friend was lovingly confronting me with a hypocrisy in my life, an area in which, despite my confession of faith in Christ, my desire to conform my life to God’s will, and the very sermons I preached, caused me to  breezily and complacently ignore God’s call to me for repentance and faith.

My friend was calling me out of hypocrisy. This loving administration of the Law drove me in repentance to Christ, the One to Whom all hypocrites must go for grace, with its forgiveness, restoration, and new life.

It helps me to know, through the fellowship of the Church, that I’m not the only one who struggles with the temptation to complacent hypocrisy. The Church is meant to be a hospital and a support group for recovering hypocrites, for people who want to live faithfully for Jesus but still sin. (And therefore need Jesus every day and into eternity.) The Church is a place for those who are simultaneously saints, saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus, and sinners who deal with the reality of their sin until the day they die.

The apostle Paul knew of this struggle. Hw wrote revealingly in Romans:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;  but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
“So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” (Romans 7:15-25)

So, we’re all hypocrites, even Saint Paul.

Does that mean we should go on being hypocritical despite Jesus’ words in Matthew 24? As Paul would write elsewhere when asking if Christians should therefore go on willfully sinning, “By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2)

We are to neither keep living in complacent hypocrisy nor in fear that because we are hypocrites, we’re irredeemable. Those are both pathways to death and they’re not of Christ.

The question isn’t whether I’m a hypocrite or not. If I’m living, I am a hypocrite. If I’m a Christian and live hypocritically, denying my sin and my need of grace, I should feel authentic guilty and turn to Jesus for forgiveness and the power to live in Him alone (Hebrews 6:4-6).

When I acknowledge my hypocrisy, the question is: What do I do with my hypocrisy?

Do I ignore it?

Do I embrace it?

Do I falsely cling to the notion that Christ justifies the sin along with the sinner?

Or do I daily turn to Christ, confessing all of my sins, including my hypocrisy, and take shelter in the grace of God given in Christ, trusting that, as I allow Christ to tear the sins and hypocrisy in which I live and that I love from my life, He will replace it all with Himself?

Hypocrites need Jesus and can be daily saved by Jesus.

Thank God for that, because when it comes time for me to meet God face to face, I don’t want to stand there with my hypocrisy--the false faces I wore to fool the world into thinking that I was righteous--as my only justification and defense. I want to be covered by Jesus so that as the Lord looks at this sinner, it’s Jesus He sees, not me. That’s who I want God the Father to see in me as I come to Him this morning, this day.

I want to be covered by Jesus, filled with Jesus, protected from myself by Jesus. Even when I want what I want, I will turn to Jesus and ask Him to help me to want Him more.

And I will trust in Him to overcome my hypocrisy and all of my other sins, to conquer me, to keep making me a new creation.

Respond: Father God, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God the Son, forgive my hypocrisies. Cover me in the grace Jesus died and rose to give to sinners like me and help me to be an authentic, grateful disciple of Jesus who daily seeks to follow Him. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

When Your World is Turned Upside Down

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio this past Sunday.]

John 21:1-19
What do you do when your world has been turned upside down? 

This is a pressing question whether your life has been overturned by the positive and joyous or by the painful and difficult.

At the outset of today’s gospel lesson, John 21:1-19, we meet seven of the apostles sometime after they had all seen the risen Jesus. 

By now, they know that Jesus is the promised Messiah. 

They know that Jesus has risen physically from the dead. 

They know that the prophecies have been fulfilled. 

They know that God has conquered sin, death, and the devil. 

They know that the old order of the old creation has been overturned by Jesus, God the Son. 

But that still leaves the apostles with a question: What do they do now?

Peter decides that he’s going to return to his old job of fishing. When your world is turned upside down, the comfortable old ways of life can be alluring. 

Take a look at our lesson, starting at verse 2: “Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. ‘I’m going out to fish,’ Simon Peter told them, and they said, ‘We’ll go with you.’” Their world is so upside down that even the non-fishermen, knocked off their pins by what it meant to live in the light of Easter, decide to go fishing with Peter!

Look, starting in the middle of verse 3: “So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.” 

Here’s the deal: When your world has been turned upside down, it’s no good trying to do the same old thing. In every instance of radical change in our lives, there is a call from God to live differently. And when you follow Jesus, everyday is a call to radical change: our decisions, our priorities, our way of life

The disciples caught nothing through a night of casting their nets. It’s a vivid demonstration that after Easter, nothing would be the same for them.

Verse 4: “Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’ ‘No,’ they answered. He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’ When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, ‘It is the Lord,’ he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.”

Coming back from their night of futility, the disciples see a stranger on the shore. When the stranger tells them to cast their net off to the right side of the boat, they bring in a haul so enormous that, together, the whole lot of them can’t bring in the net. 

John later says there are 153 fish. Divisible by three, that’s a perfect catch; the haul was always divided by three: one for the boat, one for the individual fishermen on board, one for the person who provides the net.

John understands this miraculous event is a sign performed by Jesus. He pronounces that the stranger on the shore is Jesus, the risen One.

Peter, stripped down for work, is overwhelmed with excitement. He puts on his clothes to jump into the water, although the boat is just a football field’s length from the shore. 

The others sensibly stay on board as the boat drifts to the beach. Once they all get there, Jesus asks them to bring some of the fish they’ve just snared. 

In his enthusiasm, Peter reaches into the boat and drags the full net to Jesus, even though just a few moments before, seven grown men had struggled to haul the same netful of fish onto the boat

The word enthusiasm is a word we’ve taken over from the Greek language and it literally means to be in God, to be so full of God that God enables us to do things we cannot do on our own. Here, Peter is so filled with the Spirit of Jesus that he’s empowered to bring an offering--a net full of fish--to Jesus that he never could have brought in his own power

Jesus had spoken with the disciples not long before about this power He gives believers in Him to do more than we can do on our own. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing... If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:5, 7-8) 

Some Christians are so obsessed by the things they can’t do--like offering to pray for a friend, getting involved with a mission ministry, telling someone the good news of new life through Jesus, spending quiet time in God’s Word and prayer each day--that they forget what the God we know in Jesus can do through those who are willing to offer themselves to Him.

As we'll see in the next section of our lesson, it’s not that Jesus needs our offerings of time, prayer, devotion, or money. Jesus is the omnipotent, omniscient, self-sufficient God the Son, the conqueror of sin, death, and Satan. Jesus doesn’t need us or our offerings. But when we empty ourselves of ourselves, letting go of our desire to be in control, to have everything figured out, Jesus can fill us with life, forgiveness, and peace

This is why the apostle Paul could say, “...for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10) 

Jesus wants us to empty ourselves of ourselves so that He can fill us up with Himself! So, even when we are weak, we are filled with His strength, His power, His peace, His love, His courage.

Verse 12: “Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ None of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.”

Jesus already has fish cooking on the charcoal fire He’s started! And this, along with the bread Jesus also has prepared on the fire, may be why all the disciples now see that this stranger is Jesus

  • Ancient Jewish teaching said that when the Messiah established His kingdom, the leviathan, the dreaded sea monsters who, in some parts of the Old Testament, gave their name to the devil himself, would be on the menu of the great heavenly feast. Fear, sin, and death would be conquered by the Messiah and served up to believers who had once lived in sin, fear, and foreboding
  • The bread that Jesus offers the disciples is like the manna from heaven with which God once fed His ancient people. 
What are you afraid of today? We need not fear; Jesus has everything in hand. Jesus has YOU in hand. The Risen Jesus has won an eternal victory for all who trust in Him! No obstacle can bow us when we belong to Jesus!

But there was more to this meal than a foretaste of the eternal feast to come. To be restored and reassured, the disciple who had denied Jesus three times while warming himself over a charcoal fire in the outer court of the high priest’s home on the night of Jesus’ arrest had to be confronted over this charcoal fire with his sin and granted forgiveness for his repentance

In three different ways--echoing Peter’s three denials--Jesus asks Peter if he truly loves Him.

It’s the same question we’re called to answer every time we come into God’s presence and know the need to confess our sins: Do we love Jesus more than we love our sins? Is the risen Jesus what and Who we love the most? 

Cut to the heart, Peter says with simple desperation, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you” (John 21:19). If that’s true, Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my lambs,” “Take care of my sheep,” “Feed my sheep.” “If you love me,” Jesus tells Peter--and us--”take care of others, love others, even [as Jesus puts it elsewhere] ‘other sheep that are not of this sheep pen,’ those not yet part of His Church.” (John 10:16)

After assuring Peter of His forgiveness and giving the disciple his mission, Jesus reminds Peter that, Peter’s life no longer belongs to Peter. 

And if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, the same is true of us. “You are not your own” the apostle Paul tells Christians, “you were bought at a price.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

Jesus paid the ransom for us, offering His sinless life on the cross to set us eternally free from our slavery to sin. And believers are called to share both in Jesus' Good Friday and His Easter Sunday. 

Jesus tells Peter, “...when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18) When we follow Jesus, He may take us anywhere in this fallen world. But as we live for His will and not our own, there is nowhere we go that He won’t be with us: in joy and in grief, in successes and  failures, in moments of clarity and seasons of bewilderment. Always, Jesus will be with us.

What do you when your world is turned upside down? 

You turn away from sin and you turn to Jesus each day. 

You run to Him when He calls you. 

You offer your whole self, all you are and all you own, to Jesus because, while He doesn’t need us or our gifts, when we yield ourselves to Him, He can reconstruct us in His image. 

You confess your sins to Jesus so that their power to send you to hell is erased by God’s grace given only in Jesus. 

You turn to Jesus so that He can give you, people who no longer belong to yourself, your missions. 

When our worlds are turned upside down, we turn to Jesus: He sets us right with God. He makes us new

Even in uncertainty, Jesus empowers us to live in the certainty that only comes from belonging to Him forever. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]