Saturday, March 30, 2013

Two Men on a Cross

Good Friday Homily
Luke 23:13-25, 39-43
Lynchburg, Virginia

I gave a title to this homily of Two Men on a Cross. Which two, you might ask?
I was referring to the two thieves, one on His right hand, the other on His left. Two men at a crossroads, one choosing the cross with Jesus, the other despising the cross and Jesus on it.
There are always two men, two men like us. And there are two choices. Two realities for us to see. One goes away justified, the other is condemned in his own pride, his own insolence, his own self-rightouesness, his own greed, his own self.

10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. 12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. 13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Two men came out to see Jesus. One was blind and could see Him anyway. One had sight but was blind none-the-less and unable to see Jesus.
Two men examined Jesus. Pontias Pilate found no wrong in Him. The chief priest found Him guilty in every way and stirred up the people to demand Him crucified. Even wicked Pilate was more righteous than the chief priests and rulers of the people.
Two rich men went to see Jesus. Zaccheaus made himself small and came down from the tree to serve His Lord. The other went away sad for his possessions were many.
One man proudly gave a great amount in the offering box and justified himself. The other, a poor old widow, gave herself, and was justified of the Lord.
Two men sat at the table with Jesus. One man betrayed Him with a kiss. The other went out and wept bitterly.
Two men were with Jesus on the cross. One despised his own cross and Jesus on the cross. The other appealed to the Lord in his distress, owning his shame, and despite his imminent death, longed to see Jesus in Paradise and that day was with the Lord.
So, you see, there are always two men, two choices, two ways of seeing the world and seeing or not seeing Jesus.
Which man are you? The answer is that you are both of them. You are the Pharisee and the publican. You are the hypocrite and the condemned. You are the malefactor Barabbas and the crowd that clamors against Jesus. You are both thieves on the cross. Both were guilty of their crimes. They deserved to die. And all of these others who accused Jesus were themselves condemned in themselves.
Really, there are not two kinds of men, good and bad. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. But there are two paths.
In the one, you do not see yourself accurately. You deceive yourself that you are clean when you are full of the leprosy of sin and death. You justify yourself because to admit that you need Jesus to justify you is to admit that you are a sinful creature, prone to turn on Jesus and deny Him, even as Peter did. You might mock His ability to save you from the cross that you are on, as the one thief on the cross did.
But what will you do? Will you justify yourself? Or, will you humble yourself before the Lord? Like the malefactor Barrabas, guilty of murder and insurrection, you have been set free in place of the perfect Jesus who was condemned. All of these men, the ones we now see as wicked and the ones we now see as righteous, were all in the same condition. None of them were righteous, no not one. Only for the grace of Jesus were they justified. Those who were justified laid down their own will and their own way. They embraced the cross of Jesus, dying to sin and living to righteousness in Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
This is the glory of the cross. Yes, it means death but it means death to sin and death to the death that sin brings. Only if you humbly embrace the cross of Jesus will you be the one man who chose rightly, choosing Christ, and then you will go away justified. Then, you will be with Him in paradise. So, humble yourself before the Lord and He will lift you up.  Amen.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Power of God

Welcome to the Lord’s Table. We celebrate this meal in a very public way. We sing songs, and not just sad ones, to the Lord and to one another. Many people celebrate Communion as if it was some sad event. It is serious. It is solemn but it is not sad. It is the crowning moment of all of human history.
         The Lord Jesus triumphed over His enemies. He did it on the cross. He dealt death a deathblow. That is not sad but glad.
But we must learn something else at this meal. His victory came through suffering and death. That is very serious. That is solemn. And in order to be like Jesus and gain the victory like Jesus, we must also embrace the cross. We embrace Jesus’s work on the cross and we also take up our cross and follow after Him. When we do this, we participate in His suffering and death and also in His victory and triumph, for we can only come to Resurrection if we first suffer and die.
1Cor. 1:18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.

Triumph in Death

As we will study today in our sermon, we learn that Jesus has triumphed over His enemies. He did so but not in the way that was expected. At His entry into Jerusalem, the crowds were eager to anoint Him King. They needed a Savior and Jesus was the One. The problem, though, was that a week later, their Savior died and so did their hopes.
         We know that they were mistaken. Jesus really was and is the King of Kings but His manner of Lordship is different than we expect. We have all been made in God’s image, which includes taking dominion over the Earth. We are born to rule. But that rule, in Jesus’s kingdom, looks different than all the earthly kings, ancient and modern. We do not rule through a political power play but rather through the servant leadership of a shepherd. We lay down our lives for the sheep. We serve one another even unto death. We give ourselves away in order to gain the entire Kingdom of God.
         And to the extent that we have expressed our God-given authority to rule by lording it over others rather than serving others, then we must humble ourselves, repent of our sin and learn the way of Christ’s Kingdom, rule through service, suffering, death and resurrection.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Causers of Division

Rom. 16:17   Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. 
This sounds somewhat harsh. Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to our doctrine and avoid them. But it makes sense if we also want to avoid the divisions that these people cause. This is why peace with God and with the brethren is so vital. If you are not at peace with God then you are going to continue to create strife with your brothers. Also, as I said earlier, if you are one who causes divisions, then you really are not at peace with God.
What should you do? First, make your peace with God. If you have trouble with people everywhere you go, trouble in your home, trouble in your neighborhood, trouble at work, trouble at church, then mark my words, NONE of those people are the problem.  The problem is that you keep taking you into all of those situations. The trouble is that you see trouble everywhere and that you have a need to fix it. And it is not enough for you to say that you are only having trouble because you are being righteous. If you look at everything in a critical manner, then you are not being righteous.
Dear Saints, this is really important for you to find personal peace and peace with those around you. This is an area where I have to work very hard. My career prior to being a pastor was in business management. My job was to look at our operation in a very critical manner and constantly improve our systems. In order to make a profit, we needed to provide outstanding service very efficiently. So, my mind was trained to look for all those little shortcomings of each system and each person in the system. This is not bad as far as business goes as long as I didn't make it too impersonal. But to live this way in every day life only makes one constantly dissatisfied with everything, even if one is right a lot of the time. Instead of being pleased with service the service that I received, the food I ordered, the ride I went on, the trip that was planned, I sometimes found myself constantly thinking about how those people could have done a better job to serve me, or how the thing itself could have been better. Thus, instead of being pleased with a whole lot of good, I found myself displeased by the little bit of improvement that could be made. If one does not notice this displeasure and put a check on it, then it very easily can cause division and offenses. This same bad attitude of displeasure is very easy to bring into the church. It really is just intense selfishness that demands that things ought to be just how I/you envision them.
We, who are mature, if we are to be mature, need to act like it. And a big part of acting mature is being patient with God as He works out His will in the world. This means all the people that we come into contact with every day. We seem to have some degree of patience with our own children but very little with everyone else around us who is also growing up.
We will get to that in a moment. There will be trouble for the righteous in the world. That is part of the WAR of PEACE. Absolutely. If you are a faithful Christian and following hard after God, you are going to have conflict. Occasionally, this conflict may even arise with other godly saints because one of you or both of you are in sin. But mark the word OCCASSIONALLY. There should not be regular ongoing conflict between faithful saints. The Scriptures teach us that it cannot be this way. One of you has to relent, let go, stand down. And I would argue that the one who does so proves that he is the one striving for peace. He is willing to let God sort it out and is not insistent upon getting his own way through strife.
Sometimes this sort of trouble, especially in a church, is nothing more than meddling, getting into somebody else’s business when it is not your business. But are we not called upon to confront sin? Yes, if it is sin by the Bible’s definition and not yours. Yes, if that sin is damaging a marriage and a family. Yes, if that sin is dividing the brethren. But even as a response to these yesses, it takes great wisdom in how to confront in a way that is received. If your confrontations are seldom if ever received well by godly people, then you are creating division and not bringing unity.

God of Peace

Romans 16:17-20 Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.  18 For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.  19 For your obedience is come abroad unto all men. I am glad therefore on your behalf: but yet I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil.  20 And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.

We have been making our way through the fruit of the Spirit. If you have the Spirit of God, then these virtues, these fruits will be evident in your life.  They may not yet be fully mature but they will be evident and growing. You will love God and love your neighbor. You will have a sense of a calm delight in the will of God, rejoicing in His work in your life and submitting yourself to His will. This is joy in the Lord.
         Today, we look at peace. If you belong to God, then the peace of God, the peace of the Gospel and peace on Earth, will be evident in your life.  We need to be clear about what we mean by peace. I do not mean a Buddhist style of inner peace. This sort of inner peace can be part of the fruit of peace but it is not its essence. This is important because the Christian faith has become largely focused on individualism, on self. Thus, it would make sense that peace would then be described as mostly an inner peace.
         But the gospel is described as the gospel of peace. This sort of peace means peace with God and peace with men. Only if you have truly made peace with God can you be truly at peace with other men. And I readily admit that peace with God creates a calm delight in His presence, something I have described as joy, which also manifests itself in an inner calm repose, peace. But we should not confuse this calm repose, a peaceful feeling, with peace, itself.
By peace we mean the absence of adversarial conflict. When we make peace with God surrendering fully to His will, we remove the means of adversarial conflict. That is, we stop warring with Him and we start serving Him. God, Himself, was at odds with us until we submitted to Him. He made the way for the truce by sending Jesus to be the means of this peace. He died on the cross to put away the wrath of God against sin and sinners. This provided a way for us to come to Him and lay down our weapons of war and receive a complete and total pardon. When we did this, we transferred our allegiance from the realm of the devil and self to allegiance to Jesus Christ and His kingdom. Thus, the war between us and God ended and peace ensued.
Just as love is twofold, we are to love God and love our neighbor, so is peace. In fact, in the Bible we are told that love of neighbor is all of the law and gospel. If we truly love our neighbor as ourselves then it proves that we love God.
This twofold aspect is equally true with peace. If we have peace with God then we will strive for peace with our neighbor. If we truly are at peace with our neighbor then it shows that we are necessarily at peace with God. The reverse is also true. If we say that we are at peace with God but we are not at peace with our neighbor then we are lying. If you are at war with your neighbor then you have not made your peace with God.

Gospel of Peace

The Lord has come to bring peace and He has done so. He has reconciled us with God so that we can stand before Him assured of His love for us through the forgiveness of sins. He has enabled us to love our neighbors as ourselves, forgiving them as He has forgiven us. He has established us as the people of God with whom He is well pleased.
         The peace of God has begun in us and it is spreading out from us. The gospel of Jesus is a gospel of peace. As the enemies of Christ are subdued beneath His feet, the peace of God spreads further and further. Let it begin with us, having peace with God and peace with one another but let it never end, as for the kingdom of our Lord and of His peace, there shall be no end.

St. Patrick's Breastplate

Today we worship on St. Patrick’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland, where he ministered in the 5th Century. The song we sing, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, has been attributed to him or to a writer shortly after the time of St. Patrick, who is traditionally thought to have died on March 17, 460. The message in our sermon today is Peace, seeking peace amidst the wars of life around us. Patrick understood this, I think, and was calling upon God to protect him and give him peace. Listen to his prayer. This song is a great prayer for each of us to use.

We will sing this song before the sermon but I want you to listen to the words spoken as a prayer.

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
I bind this day to me forever.
By power of faith, Christ's incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;
I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the cherubim;
The sweet 'well done' in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors' faith, Apostles' word,
The Patriarchs' prayers, the Prophets' scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun's life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind's tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.
I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.
Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.
Against all Satan's spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart's idolatry,
Against the wizard's evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

So, as we confess our sins today, let us bind unto ourselves today the strong name of the Trinity.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thanksgiving and Contentment

Contentment is at the heart of joy and thanksgiving is at the heart of contentment. So, it makes perfect sense that the beginning of our joy is found right here at the Lord’s Table, the Eucharist, the meal of Thanksgiving.
Here at this place, we look to the Lord Jesus, who looked beyond the suffering of the cross for the joy that was set before Him. What joy was that? It was the joy of Resurrection, vindication over His enemies. It was the joy of being the first fruit of life for all that trust in His name, you and me, who are forgiven through His blood, healed because of His wounds, our sins nailed to His cross, dead and buried with Jesus but raised to eternal life as He is raised. We are seated with Jesus at the right hand of the Father and will reign with Him, world without end. Those words are true and we have not attained any of it by our own doing. It is all grace, all gift. For such gifts, we cannot pay. We must only receive them with thankful hearts. This kind of thankfulness changes us. It makes us content to rest in Jesus and this produces a deep and abiding joy, true rest in our eternal Sabbath, the Lord Jesus Christ, Himself.

Courage in Christ

Life is not always easy. In fact, it rarely is. Most of adult life is fraught with difficulty. From the mundane (getting a job), to the extreme (dealing with severe and life threatening illnesses), trouble comes at us from every angle.
         Perhaps when we were young, the future looked all bright and rosy. We were going to get a driver’s license, what could be better than that? Go off to college and do what we want every day. No rules! Isn’t that the greatest? One day get married to the person of our dreams and then smooth sailing for 30 years until the grandkids come along. And the fact of difficulties and troubles never really entered our minds much. With the exception of a speeding ticket, studying for exams, and the trouble of finding a willing mate, childhood and early adulthood, at least for many of us, was pretty carefree.
         But adulthood created new reality. Bills, work, bosses, deadlines, relationship building, sickness, the joy and heartache of children and lots of suffering, along with great joys. Really, why did we think it would be any different than what it is? Maybe it is merely a grace that we did not think it about it too much when we were young. So, what do we do now, now that the reality of the difficulties of life have surrounded us, like so many enemies with the intent to harm us?
Pastor Strawbridge reminded us last week. We do not fear but rather, we put our confidence in God, are content with His providence in our lives, receive comfort in our troubles, and respond with courage instead of fear. I want to develop this more in the sermon today, but the gist of that sort of response is joy in the midst of sorrow. That is our call, facing God’s Providence in the power of His Spirit with courage. To the extent that we have not done so, let us confess our weakness and even our sins in this area, asking God to forgive us and to lift us up.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Wait on the Lord

I have been preaching on the fruit of the Spirit, the first being love and that we are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. We see also that the first fruit of love is patience. This requires that we wait on the Lord but that we also wait on one another. This is easy to say and very hard to do.
         In fact, it is so hard that only one practiced in love is patient and the truly patient are practiced in love. Patience is a mark of maturity and impatience a mark of childishness. We are to be childlike in our faith but grown up in our perseverance. But one of the marks of a childlike faith is the perseverance that a child has through manifold trials. They survive, somehow, and look to God to deliver them in the time of need. While children can be impatient in the immediate, they also have a persevering tendency that reveals an eternally springing hope. This renewable hope is a Spirit given endurance, apparent in children and wearing thin in adults.
         We adults must also learn this kind of perseverance. Sometimes, it seems, we grow old too quickly, and stop fighting and stop hoping and our perseverance grows weak. But a weak perseverance is not all bad, either, because our strength comes from the Lord. So, let us confess our tendency to grow weary in the race, perhaps so weary we stop running, and take up our faith in Jesus and so be renewed in hope, to the end that we persevere in hope, waiting on the Lord.

Family Ties

As we grow older, we become acutely aware of the meaning and importance of family ties. When we were young, we took them for granted, perhaps, sometimes not really appreciating them at all. We desired to be on our own, doing our own thing in our own name. But slowly, the realization sets in that you are from somewhere and that you are associated with your roots and that makes an indelible mark on who you really are.
         I want us to think about Communion in these terms. This is why we look around. We are learning the faces of our family. No doubt, some of us take some of them for granted. We look around but do not really see them. We may forget who is here from week to week. We may think we do not really need them, that we are self-contained. But as we grow older and grow up, we realize that these really are our people and the need to identify with them becomes an integral aspect of who we really are. Your natural family roots are real and ought to be cultivated and appreciated. But you have been adopted into God’s family and these are your brothers and sisters in Christ, the friend who is even closer than a brother. You will spend eternity with them and so we are growing up into the maturity of our need for one another.