Sunday, August 26, 2012

Jesus Opens the Book

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2012
The Christian who wants to live by the Law opens the Bible but is reading a closed book. The Christian who lives by a standard that human beings have drawn up looks at other Christians and sees people who fall short, in comparison with himself. The Christian who supersedes the commandments of God with man-made commandments does not understand the purpose of God’s commandments and is therefore unable to keep what God has commanded. The Christian who opens the Bible and does not see Christ as at the center and as what the entire Scripture points to sees the words on the page but it is a closed book.

That’s not to say that’s all there is to the Bible. There’s a lot of good stuff you can get out of it and not even be a Christian. The Bible contains wisdom rivaling the world’s great thinkers and philosophers. The Bible gives us good old common sense. The Bible teaches us many lessons and morals that are extremely helpful in day to day life. The Bible shows us how to live in a way in which we are guided by positive values and lasting virtues. You could simply read the Bible for the great literature that it is. There’s a lot of good here and more power to those who read the Bible and get all this good stuff out of it.

Sadly though, it remains a closed book to them. They see the words but they are lost in their sin. They read and even understand the words written on the pages of the Bible but they are darkened in their understanding of what the Bible truly is communicating. It is a closed book to them and they may as well be reading their shopping list for the week. There’s value in the shopping list as well, but it is not a message which imparts to you salvation. You could see your shopping list for what it is or if you’re the literary adventurous type you could probably draw some symbolic value out of that shopping list in order to see it as more than just a list of food. But it will not open to you the way of eternal life.

And neither will the Bible. Only Jesus opens up the Bible in showing you what the Bible is for. It’s for salvation and salvation is only in and through Christ. The Bible itself shows this and the Bible itself opens itself up to us in and through Christ.

One thing in that Bible is commandments. Each of us is born into sin and the sinful flesh opens the Bible and sees the commandments of God as something we must do in order to gain God’s favor. Our sinful nature opens the Word of God and it is a closed book. We see those commandments and we begin determining what we ought to do. Of course, our sinful flesh just as easily dispenses with those commandments of God, not wanting the stranglehold God places on us. Who is God to tell me what I should do and not do? Ironically, it’s the sinful flesh that does God one better. Why do we need God’s commandments when we can come up with our own? So many of the things we do as Christians are things that other people and we ourselves have enjoined on us. We feel restricted by God’s commanding of us but then we turn around and restrict ourselves even further with an abundance of man-made rules and regulations.

There’s nothing wrong with rules, regulations, commandments, restrictions, etc. that we or anyone else have come up with. We Christians are not free to disregard the law of the land or the rules of others when we visit them in their home. What Jesus pounced on in the Gospel reading was the same thing God seized on in the Old Testament reading: our tendency as Christians to honor God with our actions, putting on a good show, but in our hearts placing our trust in ourselves rather than in God. Salvation is at stake here. Our sinful flesh looks to itself for salvation, God points us to His Son.

We miss the point of the commandments of God because in our sinful flesh we see them the way we see man-made commandments, as rules we need to follow. Jesus shows us that the point of the commandments of God is not placing a burden on us in order to gain His favor but is rather the natural outflow of His love for us. God gave us His commandments, specifically the Ten Commandments, in order for us to love others in the way He has loved us. And how is that? He gave Himself to us. He placed Himself before us. That is love and that is the essence of the Ten Commandments. The problem we run into with the Ten Commandments is that in our sin we are condemned by those very commandments of God. That’s why we can’t be saved by them.

But that’s also why Jesus does what He does. He opens the Bible to us. He shows us that the commandments of God are more than just a list of rules. He shows us that we get nowhere with God when we attempt to gain His favor by following a bunch of rules. What He does is open the book to us. The Bible as it stands is a closed book to us because we see it in our sinful eyes. He opens it up. He shows us that what is in there is all about Him. It’s not just that it’s information about Him. It’s that it delivers Him to us. It’s that it points to Him and is centered in Him and is fulfilled in Him.

Consider what Jesus is showing the Pharisees here. They are the ones who are constantly doing things to please God. They put everything and everyone else in the background so that they can do things that will be pleasing in the sight of God. The very first commandment says to put nothing before God, right? So this they do. They must do things to please God at the expense of doing things that will help others. What their eyes are blinded to see is that they are putting something before God. It is themselves. They are seeking to be counted as worthy by what they do rather than what God has done for them and then keeping the commandments as the natural outgrowth of that.

But aren’t the Ten Commandments what God has given us to do? Yes, in fact. But that’s the point. For those Christians who seek God’s favor by what they do they place that over the Ten Commandments. The Bible remains a closed book to them. The example Jesus gives to the Pharisees shows this. They put their works over loving their own parents. They put their own traditions over the commandment of God. The purpose of the traditions is to gain advantage for themselves, by doing good and wonderful things so that God may look at them and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Here are ten kingdoms just for you!” But this is not the purpose of the Ten Commandments. The purpose of God’s commandments is love.

How does the Fourth Commandment, the example Jesus uses, read? Does it say, “Obey your father and your mother”? Does it say, “Be kind to your parents unless it impinges on your ability to obey God”? Does it say, “Give your parents their due”? It doesn’t say any of those things even though those are all wonderful man-made things that we should gladly do. The problem the Pharisees, and so often we, had was not that they were doing these things or not doing them. The problem was they, and so often we, were not seeing the commandment for what it was. How it reads is this: “Honor your father and your mother.” There may be times you must disobey your parents. If they command you to go against God you must disobey them. But you never stop honoring them. You may not see eye to eye with them in every way but you never stop loving them. Obeying can be done without love. True honor cannot be done without love.

Showing honor or respect out of a sense of duty misses the point of the commandment. Anyone can do that. What Jesus is talking about here is God’s love for us in loving us as His people, because of His grace, and giving us those in authority over us to care for us. To show them honor is to respond to God’s love for us in honor and humility and love. God didn’t give us His commandments in order that we may do what we need to do. He saved us and then gave us His commandments so that we may live in this free-flowing way of living: loving others not out of a sense of duty or in order to please God but simply because we love as God has loved us.

This is how Jesus opens up the Bible to us. He shows us Himself. No sense of duty or desire to obey His Father drove Him to the cross. Pure love did. Jesus went to the cross purely for love. For you, for me, for those Pharisees who condemned Him, for everyone. This is how the Scriptures are opened up to us, by Jesus showing us that it is all centered in Him and what He has accomplished on the cross.

What does this mean for you? In your life, for eternity, how you live, what you do? What does it mean for us as a congregation in Allied Gardens? For you it means that you are forgiven. You don’t need to wonder what God thinks of you. You are forgiven, you are in His favor. He doesn’t love you because you obey His commandments. He doesn’t love you more because you try really hard. He loves you, pure and simple. Jesus assured you of that in going to Calvary. What it means for us as a congregation is mission, evangelism, stewardship, and serving. We serve one another, we love the people in our community, we make known the Gospel to our community and even to the ends of the earth. We serve God with what He has given us, our time, talents, and treasure.

This is who we are as individual Christians and as Christians gathered together as a congregation. Christ is at the center. Jesus is who we point people to. If Jesus opens the book then we open it up for others. Rather than be a closed book to them we can show them how it all is centered in Him. We can show them how it all points toward His love for them in their life, both in this life and forever.

Jesus opens the book. He is the one, after all, who has the words of eternal life. Amen.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why Is the Easiest Thing the Hardest?

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Commemoration of Bernard of Clairvaux, Hymnwriter and Theologian
August 19, 2012
The nature of grace is that it’s free. There’s nothing you do, nothing that’s up to you, nothing about you that you have grace. It’s given to you, it’s not of you or by you or from you. It’s the easiest thing there is. Salvation is accomplished entirely by God and given you entirely by grace. There are some things you do that are pretty easy but you are still doing something. With salvation there is nothing you do. You can’t get easier than doing nothing.

Consider if you were extremely hungry and someone gave you food. You would be happy that you are being fed. You would be thankful that the person gave you food. You wouldn’t be consumed with thoughts of, “I’m glad I’m taking the food in my hands and exerting the energy to put it in my mouth. I’m glad I’m doing the work of chewing so that I can get the benefit of the food.” When we eat we’re thinking about the food, not the work we do of actually eating it. The food has been given you by grace, not by anything you have done.

Think about if you were given a lavish meal by a wealthy person or by a king. Your focus wouldn’t be on all that you do to get the food in your mouth. You would be amazed that you have been given this gift of this lavish meal.

This is the nature of grace. This is what God’s gift of salvation to you is all about. It’s Him giving it to you, it’s you being the recipient of love and mercy you don’t deserve.

So it’s easy, right? In that He does it all and you are simply the recipient of it, yes, it’s pretty easy. It’s so easy that it seems that everyone should be in possession of this gift. It seems that everyone should be saved. You hardly have to look around to know this isn’t remotely true. We hear often of the new atheists who are hell-bent on drowning out Christ and the religion of Christianity. We know people in our families, our neighborhoods, and where we work who are staunch members of Judaism, or Islam, or Mormonism, or any number of religions. You never have to travel to other parts of the world to meet and know followers of the world’s religions.

Most definitely, not all people are in possession of the gift of salvation from Christ. Why is this? It’s so easy, He simply gives it to us, why are so many people without it? Why is the easiest thing the thing that so many people do not have?

It’s because the easiest thing is also the hardest thing. Being in possession of eternal salvation is the hardest thing in the world even though it’s the easiest thing to receive. Why would this be? Why is the easiest thing the hardest?

In today’s Gospel reading after Jesus details how people receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation many of His disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” Take note of who these people were. They weren’t the hard-core atheists that want nothing to do with Jesus. They weren’t Muslims who view Jesus as merely a prophet. They weren’t your run-of-the-mill humanists who could appreciate the timeless wisdom Jesus taught even if they viewed Him as nothing more than a great teacher. These were disciples of Jesus. They were His followers. And it wasn’t just a few of them who couldn’t stomach Jesus’ teaching. There were many of Jesus’ followers who took issue with what Jesus was teaching here.

Such an easy thing, and yet so hard to swallow.

You heard the words yourself when the Gospel reading was being read a short while ago. I’ve read those words many times and have to fight the thoughts that come naturally to mind and that are eerily similar to what those people said when they heard Jesus speak them. Jesus giving His flesh to us to eat? Giving us His blood to us to drink? If I weren’t a Christian I really think I would hear these words and think of this religion of Christianity as one that has some disgusting elements to it. Some religions throughout history have had elements that are just too much for most people to bear. Sacrificing children, self-mutilation, commanded to view yourself as a worthless person. These are teachings and rituals that rightly turn many people away.

We are Jesus’ disciples. We are His followers. How do we react to these words of Jesus? What is He teaching us when He says to us, “I give you My flesh to eat and My blood to drink?” Isn’t it a little disgusting to think of, eating flesh and drinking blood? Why does Jesus say, “Here, eat this, My flesh”? Is it any wonder that John tells us that many of His disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” and then rejected Him?

There’s a reason we normally think in terms of our belief in Jesus as just that, belief in Him; or having faith in Him. If someone asked you, “Do you believe in Jesus?” you probably wouldn’t respond with the affirmation, “Yes, I wholeheartedly eat of His flesh and drink of His blood.” This way of talking that Jesus used in the Gospel reading about believing in Him is one of the many ways He and the Scriptures talk about believing in Him. As it is with the all the others, this faith in Him is completely the work of God in us. As Jesus Himself said in the Gospel reading two Sundays ago when His disciples asked Him what they must do, He responded, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” If it’s true that believing in Jesus is something you do it’s true this thing you do is actually the thing God does. It’s His work. You believe because God works it in you.

This is at the heart of why this is so hard. Who can listen to a teaching that removes you from the equation? What part do you play in your salvation? None. Who can listen to that? Who wants to be in a religion like that? So many people say, “No thanks, I’ll go to a religion where I hear that I have some good in me and it counts for something.” Not Christianity. Not Jesus. With Him what you get is, “Eat of My flesh and drink of My blood,” as if to say, “It’s all Me.” If you want salvation you can get it only if you believe that it’s not of you but of Him. If you are to be forgiven of your sins you must recognize that you are so utterly sinful that you are unable to do anything to get rid of your sin.

That’s why it’s the hardest thing. Jesus turned to His twelve disciples and asked them if they were going to turn away also. Every so often we are met with a confession of faith that we can simply step back and marvel at. We would do well not only to meditate on the words of Jesus in the Gospel reading but the confession of faith from the lips of Peter. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life? We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” At this point the furthest thing from Peter’s mind was how much he inserted himself into the relationship between him and his Lord. His confession of faith was of the one who had been sent by God, who worked in him the desire and ability to believe in the one whom God has sent.

Peter had many problems, as you and I often do in our faith life. But it is purely by the grace of God that we see that when we believe we are saved by grace we are saved solely by what our Lord has done and by nothing we have done. That it is purely by grace that we who are sinful are actually given the grace to do something amazing, believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of all of our sins.

But there’s another reason that the easiest thing is the hardest thing. When Jesus talks of giving His flesh for the life of the world and offering us His blood He is speaking in terms of who He is and what He came to do. His flesh was offered on the cross for the life of the world. His blood was shed on the cross for the taking away of the sins of the world. This was not easy, it was something no one could do but Jesus Himself. It was in fact the hardest thing and that’s why Jesus came, in order to accomplish it. He came in order to do what none of us could. He who has the words of eternal life is He who gave His flesh and blood for the life of the world.

This hardest thing that Jesus Himself has accomplished has now been given freely to you, by grace—His mercy, His forgiveness, His eternal salvation, all given to you. To whom shall you go? There is no one else who gives you such gifts. Your Lord has the words of eternal life and He gives them to you freely in your Baptism, which you live in daily. He is the one who gives them to you by grace and mercy in His Holy Supper where He gives you His body and His blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins, for your salvation, for your life. Amen.