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Tuesday, October 28 2014

John 8:31–36; Romans 3:19–28  

    500 hundred years ago, there lived a man who desperately wanted to see God.  He was a monk – living in Germany – by the name of Martin Luther.  At one point in his life, Luther was so consumed by his sins, that he tried to do just about anything he could think of to be the kind of man he thought God wanted him to be.  

    He fasted.  He prayed.  He deprived himself of sleep.  He read the Bible constantly.  He was obsessed by the fear of hell.  He repented the same sins over and over and over again, because he didn’t believe that God had fully forgiven him.  

    Historians tell us that sometime in 1513, Luther had an “aha” experience.   He discovered something in the book of Romans that he had not paid much attention to before.  Romans 1:17.  “The just shall live by faith.”  The Good News that Luther discovered here is that he never could – and he never would – be acceptable to God by punishing himself, or by doing all kinds of religious things in the hopes that by doing these things he might earn God’s favor.  

    What Luther discovered is that we are saved – or in other words – we are made right with God – not by our good works or good intentions – but by faith in what God has already done for us in the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ.  Later Luther would write about this “aha” experience, “It was as if the gates swung open and I entered into paradise.”  

    With this newly found and understood insight from the Holy Scriptures, Luther set out to reform the church’s teaching on this and a host of other matters.  Understand this.  Luther never wanted to break away from the Catholic Church, but the church refused to listen to this upstart priest, and thus the Protestant Reformation – and the Lutheran way of understanding Christianity – was launched.

    One of our readings today is from Romans 3, verses 19-28.  This is a marvelous section of the Bible that we really need to pay attention to.  Let’s look at a portion of it again.  (cue ppt slide)

     But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

    I had a discussion this past week with one of our members whose 90 year old mother recently said to him, “I just hope I’ve done enough good things to get into heaven.”  And then there was the time when somebody else told me that one of his friends told him – in his youthful days – that he just had to be good enough to get into purgatory.  

    When I hear things like this, I want to scream.  And I have to ask, do we not get it?  Do we really not get what Paul is saying here in Romans – and what Luther discovered – that the just shall live by faith?  

    There are a lot of key phrases in these verses from Romans 3.  I’m going to focus on just a few of them.  First, it says, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  That much I think we get.  We are all flawed individuals.  Our flaws – our sins – separate us from God.  But we don’t want to be, and we don’t like being, separated from God.  We actually do want to go to heaven someday – even though Christianity is more than just wanting to go to heaven someday – still, that is what we want.   So somehow, this separation from God has to be overcome.  

    Now, in order for that separation from God to go away, we have two choices.  We can try to take care of it ourselves – or we can trust someone else do that for us.  Listen!  One of these ways works – and the other way doesn’t.   

    Look at the screen again.  A second key phrase here is, “they – meaning you and me – they are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift.”      By now I hope you all know what we mean when we talk about grace.  Grace is God’s undeserved love and favor.  

    But then there’s that word justified or justification.  What is that?   Why do we need it?  And how do we get it?  Simply put, justification is a word that describes the process by which we are made right with God.  And that it is something that God does for us without any help from us.   

    By the way, Christianity is the only religion that teaches that this is something that God does for us.  All other religions teach that you have to take care of this yourself – either by being good enough – or by doing enough good deeds for others.  

    And even in Christianity you will find people – who are trying to take care of this themselves by working at it – or by trying to be good enough.  Or like the dude who thought he just had to be good enough to get into Purgatory.  (By the way – this is an fyi – Lutherans don’t believe in Purgatory.  Just thought you needed to know that.)   So trying to be good enough is not what the Bible teaches.  This is not the way it works.  

    You see, here’s the problem.  In the rest of life, we are always trying to validate our own goodness – or our own worthiness.  For instance, that report card that shows our school grades – a resume that shows our job qualifications – a performance review that leads to a pay raise – these are examples of things that we use to validate our worth through our accomplishments.

    So since this is true in the rest of life, we somehow think that this will be true for God as well.  We get out our performance record, and wave it in front of God.  Except in this case it’s a moral record.  We try to validate our goodness to God by the things we have said and done, or perhaps the things we haven’t said and done, and the places we haven’t gone to.  And we think, if we’re good enough, we’re accepted.

    The problem that I always ask is this.  How do you know when you’re good enough?  How good do you have to be in order to be good enough?  How do you know when you’ve done enough good things?  And who sets the standard for these things anyway?  Me?  Do I set the standard for me at a level where I will know that I am good enough?  Or is there something or someone else that does that?  

    Let me tell you something.  Since God is calling the shots – since God is the One who sets the standards – do you want to know what God’s standards are?  Perfection.  Perfection.  But when I read here that “all have sinned” doesn’t that word “all” include me?  Doesn’t that include you?

    Do you see why Luther struggled so hard with this?  He realized that he could never do enough to make himself good enough.  And he thought, “How can a righteous God demand perfection from humans who are incapable of being perfect?”  Because of this, Luther once wrote that he hated God.

    Well, thank God there is a way.  A better way.  And for us, an easier way. Again, listen to what Paul says.  Two little words.  “But now.  But now.”  What follows is radical.  But now a perfect relationship IS available to us.  How do we get it?  Through Jesus Christ and his life and his death and his resurrection.  

    And it’s a gift.  It’s all gift.  Look again.  “They – again meaning you and me –they are justified – in other words made right with God – by his grace as a gift.”  Lots of big church words in this short passage, I know.  But I hope by now that you all know that grace is God’s undeserved love and favor.  Which means that there is nothing you or I can do to earn God’s love.  There’s nothing we can do to merit God’s favor.  It’s all gift.  

    And faith – faith believes this.  Faith receives this.  And faith trusts that this is true – for ME.  SO we are justified –we are made right with God – by grace received through faith.  Our good deeds – our efforts at self-validation – don’t count at all.  

    I like what Timothy Keller has to say at this point.  Tim Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church in New York City.    Listen to what he says.  “If you think your good deeds are good, then they’re not good, because it implies that God owes you something.  They’re not good by definition.  But if you understand that your good deeds are absolutely worthless – that you need to be saved by grace, then your good deeds are good because you’re doing them for God, and not for yourself.”  

    Did you get that?  (Read that over again.) We’ve got to stop trying to validate ourselves in front of God.  The end of the struggle for self-validation comes with the realization that God has already done this for us – as a gift – through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    I like what C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity, “…one of the reasons I believe Christianity… [is that] it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up.”

    And that’s what’s so amazing about grace.  It just flies in the face of how the rest of the world operates.  You don’t have to say anything – do anything – or go anywhere to earn God’s favor.  

    The idea that grace and faith and salvation and justification are all gifts from God is at the heart of the Christian message.  It’s not something that anyone could have made up.  So just accept the fact that you are accepted.   Simply accept the fact that you are loved.

    This is what Luther discovered and finally understood.  And it set him free from performance based standards to be right with God.  And let me suggest that we change our language – we change our language from doing good works, to instead think of what we now do as bearing fruit.  Good works are something that you work at.  Performance based.  Whereas bearing fruit is just something that flows from us naturally because of the transformed life that is ours in Jesus Christ.  

    SO let’s let go of our need to be approved by God based on our own performance.  In fact – that is something that we need to repent of, and to ask forgiveness for.  Instead let us grab hold of the gift that is ours in Jesus Christ.  

    Grace –mercy – peace – pardon – and forgiveness.  Being made right with God is something that God does for us.  And through His Son Jesus Christ God has already done this.  It’s the only way that works.  


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Tuesday, October 21 2014

Matthew 22:15-22; I Timothy 6:6-10,17-19; Deuteronomy 8:12-18

    Today I am going to talk to you about money (pause).  I just want that to sink in for a minute.  I know that as soon as I mentioned the word money, you were going to experience some kind of emotional, interior response.   

    But hey, it’s my job to talk about the things that Jesus talked about.  And let me tell you, Jesus talked about money more than he did about most other things.  So if you’re here for the first time, you may have chosen the very best day to be here.  Because if you can learn to trust me to talk about money in a non-threatening way – as everyone here who has been here for any length of time trusts me to do – then I would invite you to return to see what we have to say about all the other stuff that Jesus talked about and the Scripture writers wrote about – and how all of the issues of faith apply to our lives.  Money is one of those faith issues.

    Like in today’s Gospel reading.  This is one of the most quoted sayings of Jesus.  “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  Jesus is responding to the question about whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.  When shown the coin with which the taxes are paid, he pointed out that Caesar’s image was on the coin.  Hence the saying, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  

    Now here’s the thing for us in 21st Century America.  We don’t have much of a choice about paying our taxes.  Well, I suppose we could refuse to pay our taxes if we wanted to, but I don’t think that’s such a good idea.  And we might joke – or grumble – about our government – about politicians – but still, life in these United States is mighty awesome.  I don’t think we’d want to trade this for any other place in the world.  So, when looked at from the point of view of the privileges and freedoms we have in this country – most of us don’t have too much of a problem when it comes to giving to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  

    And when it comes to giving to God the things that are God’s – well – we have a choice to make that we don’t have when it comes to paying our taxes.     

    So the first choice that we need to make is which god we’re going to serve.  It is a choice that everyone makes.  Let me be so bold as to suggest that the thing that you put first in your life – the thing you care most about – that is your god.  

    That’s why I chose our reading today from I Timothy chapter 6.  Let’s start with verse 17 (queue ppt).
 “As for those who in the present age are rich, [and by the way, when compared to everyone else in the rest of the world, we Americans, regardless of our economic status here, are all rich], command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

    The Apostle Paul is writing to his protégé Timothy who at this time is in the city of Ephesus.  What he is telling Timothy is this.   “Tell the church in the city of Ephesus to choose which god it is that they are going to serve.”  Notice that Paul is identifying three possible gods in this one verse alone.

    The first is the god of self.  See where he says, “Command them not to be haughty.”  Command them not to be arrogant.  I think there is a great danger when we think – and it is very easy to think this – “I’ve worked hard to get what I’ve got.  I’ve earned it.  I deserve it.  I am a success.  I am a self-made man – a self-made woman.”  

    I want to let you know that there is no such thing.  We are all God-made men and God-made women.  Take another look at the reading from Deuteronomy.  (ppt #2)  Verses 17 and 18.  

    “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.”

    You are a God-made person.  It is God who gives you abilities, talents, interests and skills that allow you to make a living.  And for that, we need to give God the recognition – the thanks – and the praise.  Paul’s command to the people in the church at Ephesus not to be haughty or arrogant is a command to us.  The god of self is an easy pit to fall into.

    The second god is the god of money.  Back to I Timothy.   “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

    Remember over the last few weeks I have been telling you that the things in our homes can either be idols or tools?  Do you remember that?  If there were one thing that that applies to, it is money.  Money is either an idol or a tool.  And money is a wonderful tool!  In 2001, money built this church, and let me also add that it is paid for!  Amazing, yes?  Which, by the way, is a reflection of your amazing generosity.  

    By the way, can we put to rest the thought that the Bible says, “Money is the root of all evil.”?  That is the most mis-quoted verse in all the Bible!  What I Timothy says is that, “The LOVE of money is A root of all evil.”  Money is neither good nor bad.  But it can be either an idol or a tool.  

    And I think money is a wonderful tool.  With it we have food and shelter, clothing and transportation.  We might even get to take an amazing vacation or a weekend away now and then.  Money is a wonderful tool when used for good.    
    But money is a lousy god – a lousy idol.  It is a lousy master.  Notice Paul warns against the uncertainty of riches.  For instance, anybody who has followed the stock market in just the past few weeks knows just how uncertain the markets can be.  Such volatility!  And yes, I do have a portion of my retirement funds in stock and bond funds, and as I watch things go up, down, up, down, I just say, “Oh well.”  The markets are so uncertain that they prove just how right Paul is.  “Do not set your hopes on the uncertainty of riches.”  Do not let money become your god – your idol.  

    Because if the self becomes our god – or if money becomes our god – then what does that say about our relationship with the God of heaven and earth?  Let me tell you about a third choice.  Let’s look at it again.  

“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

    Let me tell you that – this is the best choice of the three.  I have learned to trust God for all that I have ever needed.  And please note that it says, “God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”  Sounds good to me.     

    So I guess the next question is, how do you know which of these three gods you are really serving?  Ask yourself these questions.

    Number 1.  A few weeks ago I told you that God is the owner of all that we have.  We are merely managers or stewards of what God has given us.  So the first question might be, “How much of my money should I give to God?”  Actually, that’s the wrong question.  The right question to ask yourself is, “How much of God’s money can I keep for myself, and be a good manger of?”  We’ve got to get the ownership question right.  Am I giving what is mine to the Lord, or am I returning to the Lord what He has first given me?   

    Number 2.  The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver.  So let me ask you.  Are you a cheerful giver?  Folks if you struggle with greed – as I sometimes struggle with greed – let me let you in on a little secret.  There is only one way that I have found that works to overcome greed.  And that is to practice generosity.  With cheerfulness.  Generosity with cheerfulness is a winning combination.  It helps me anyway, to overcome the god of self and the god of money.

    Number 3.  How are you feeling right now.  Are you resisting this message, or are you open to what this teaching from the Word of God has to say about money and possessions?  

    Number 4.  If your checkbook could talk, would it say that you honor God?   Listen to what Billy Graham says about this, “A checkbook is a theological document; it will tell you who and what you worship.”  And then Martin Luther had this to say, “People go through three conversions: their head, their heart and their pocketbook. Unfortunately, not all at the same time.”  Good old Marty.  

    Now that’s a lot to think about, I know.  And as I told you last week, this church – your church – doesn’t need your money.  But you – you have a need to give.  And giving is a spiritual thing.  It is good for your spirit.  And that’s why the church talks about money, because money is a faith issue.

    Because, you see, if we let it, money can become our god.  The self can become our god.  Or the Lord God – the God who makes Himself known to us in his Son Jesus Christ – can be our God.  It’s your choice.  It’s not a choice I can make for you.

    So with all that in mind, may I encourage you as I do every year, to grow one step.  On this our Consecration Weekend, let me encourage you to grow one step towards the tithe that the Bible defines as giving 10% of your income to God.  Calculate where you are at in your giving right now, and let me challenge you to grow by 1% or even ½ % towards the goal of a tithe.  

    I just want you to know that your giving does make a difference.  Because of you – the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ – continues to be proclaimed in, from, and through this place.  

    One of the things that I love about this church – is your willingness – indeed your eagerness – to reach out to make a difference.  Through your caring and your sharing.  Touching hearts, changing lives, making a difference in the name of Jesus.  As the last verse in I Timothy 6 says, this is grabbing hold – grabbing hold of the life that really is life.


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Monday, October 13 2014

Matthew 22:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9

          Some of you might remember a best-selling songs from the 1970s, “My Sweet Lord,”—written and sung by former Beatle George Harrison.  The song was about Harrison’s sincere desire to find God through various kinds of religion:

 “My sweet lord/ I really want to see you/ Really want to be with you/ Really want to see you lord/ But it takes so long, my lord/ My sweet lord/ I really want to know you/ Really want to go with you/ Really want to show you lord/ That it won't take long, my lord.”

    You remember that?  Yeah.   Easy song to sing along with.  Certainly not a Christian song since it lures us into going from singing Hallelujah to singing about Krishna, a Hindu god.  

    Shortly before his death in 2001, Harrison was asked about his spiritual journey.  And to the end of his life, Harrison continued to investigate spiritual matters.  He summed up his priorities this way: “Everything else in life can wait, but the search for God cannot wait.”

    I think he is absolutely correct about that.  The search for God cannot wait. There seems to be in the human heart what some have called a God-shaped hole that nothing but God can satisfy.  Everyone tries to fill this hole with something.  But I want to tell you today that what the world has to offer – no matter what it is – Power, wealth, possessions – there is nothing that the world has to offer that can adequately fill that God-shaped hole.  But still, people try.

         So let me suggest to you today that all of us have this God-shaped hole in our hearts that only God can fill.  And because this is true, what we really want – what we really need – is to find God – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say – what we really want and need is to be found by God.  We want to know Him.  We want to see Him.  We want to be with God.

    Well, here’s the wonderful thing that we learn from today’s Gospel reading.  The image of a banquet is just one of several ways the Scriptures describe life in the Kingdom of God.  And you and I have been invited.

    Now in the parable Jesus tells, those who were the first recipients of the invitation dismiss the invitation.  Well – it’s not the most pleasant parable at this point – and you probably noticed – but it does not end well for those who turned down the invitation.
    So let me suggest – let me STRONGLY suggest – that you just might want to accept the invitation to God’s banquet – this open invitation for you and for me to come and be a part of God’s Kingdom.    

    For everyone who has ever had the desire to find God – or again – more accurately – to be found by God – this is a place to start.  If you agree with George Harrison that the search for God cannot wait – then let this invitation be your starting point – if you have not already accepted the invitation somewhere along your life.

    Two weeks ago, I talked about becoming more like Christ.  And if you remember, I called this a desire to pursue Christ-likeness.  This is important, because if it is true that we want to know God, see God, and be with God, then you need to see that the invitation that God gives to attend His banquet – is not just an invitation to the party.  It is that, but it is also an invitation to come and follow His Son Jesus Christ.   And to learn what it means to be like Him.

    I like what British bishop N.T. Wright says about this: “…nobody really believes that God wants everyone to stay exactly as they are.  God loves [the most vile people in the world that you can think of.]  But the point of God’s love is that he wants them to change. He hates what they’re doing and the effects it has on everyone else and on themselves too.

         Referring to the parable of the wedding banquet, Bishop Wright continues, “The point of the story is that . . . God’s kingdom is a kingdom in which love and justice and truth and mercy and holiness reign unhindered. They are the clothes you need to wear for the wedding. And if you refuse to put them on, you are saying you don’t want to stay at the party . . . .”

    You remember at the end of the parable that there was this dude who was thrown out of the party because he wasn’t wearing a wedding robe – and the king comes along and sees him and says, “Hey Buddy!  Where’s your robe?”  And it’s as though the guy is saying, “Don’t need no stinkin’ wedding robe.  What are you going to do?  Kick me out?”  Well yeah.  That’s what happens.  The dude was cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Those are mighty harsh words. 
    But understand that scholars tell us it was the custom in Jesus’ day for the host to provide free garments for all the guests.  So this guy has no excuse.  It is obvious that he chose not to wear the wedding garment.  

    So here’s the point.  Again, remember two weeks ago where I talked about pursuing Christ-likeness – I also said that God loves you just the way you are, but He refuses to let you stay that way.  He wants you to be just like His Son Jesus.  We called that Christ-likeness.  

          Another way to put it is like this:   God loves us just the way we are, but God expects us to clothe ourselves with the character of Jesus Christ.  It’s one reason why we come to worship. We want to know Him.  We want to see Him.  We want to be with Him.  To get to know Christ, so that we might be more like him.  Just another reason why church matters.  

    To learn to forgive as Jesus forgives.  To love as Jesus loves.  To show compassion the way Jesus shows compassion.  To give as Jesus gives.   

    So two weeks ago I talked about Christ-likeness.  And then, last week I reminded you that we are not really owners of anything.   Merely stewards or caretakers of what God has given us.  

    The two are related.  When you combine the understanding that everything I have – everything you have – belongs to God – and that the invitation to the wedding banquet is an invitation to be clothed in Christ – in other words – the desire to pursue Christ-likeness – what you get is a Christ-like desire to use wisely the gifts that God has given us.  And if you’re wondering where I’m going with all this – it’s to get us ready for – and thinking about – our Consecration Weekend celebration next weekend.  

    This coming week, I want you to be thinking about how you and –if you are a part of a family – how you and your family are going to contribute to the work of the Lord here in this place.  Because the invitation to the banquet is not just an invitation to a party.  It’s an invitation to participate in – it’s an invitation to invest in – what it is that God is doing here in this place.  

    So again – as I do every year – I am simply offering you the opportunity.  I’m not telling anyone how much I think they ought to give.  I have never done that, and I will never do that.  I’m not even saying that you have to give.   I don’t think that that’s what God wants, so I don’t think that that’s a good idea.  I am simply extending to you the invitation not only to benefit from what God is doing here in this place – but more than that – to take part in what God is doing here in this place with your financial tithes and offerings.  And I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t invite you to do that.  And it’s not because your church needs the money.  We don’t.  This church has been blessed by your generosity.  In the 23 years I have been here, I can’t remember a single year when we ran short of cash.  

    Let me let you in on something.  And this is no secret.  We don’t need more money to run the church.  I mean, when’s the last time you heard a preacher say that?  In fact every year what we have is an abundance – an overwhelming surplus – because of your generosity – that your church council loves to give away.  And that’s because so many of you get it.  You understand what giving is all about.  You’ve been blessed, and you want to share those blessings.

    So your church – this church – doesn’t need your money – BUT here’s the thing – I know that you have a need to give.  You have a need to invest in what it is that God is doing here in this place.  I mean, just look around.  Look at all the kids we have in worship – in Sunday School – in confirmation – in youth groups.  We have a great staff to lead these ministries in Elaine and Kurt.  Great music ministries with great musicians.  Look at the variety of worship opportunities we have each weekend.  Look at how the members of this church are cared for.  Look at the outreach to the local community and internationally.  Even as I speak we are sponsoring a mission team that is in Haiti right now.  Your dollars are making a difference.  And I just wanted to let you know that.  And to tell you thank you.

    So let me ask you how it is that you have benefited from being a part of God’s Kingdom here in this place.  How have you grown?  How have you changed?  Do you find yourself becoming more and more like Jesus Christ?  What have you learned?  What does this place mean to you?  

    I just want you to know that your gifts do have an impact.  You are investing in what God is doing here in this place.  Touching hearts.  Changing lives.  Making a difference.  So between now and next week I want you to think about – I want you to pray about – and I want you decide what your financial contribution to the work of the Lord will be in 2015.  We’ll ask you to make that commitment next week on consecration weekend.

    So with that in mind, let me leave you with this thought.  Let me ask you: What if every member of our church supported the church just as you do?  Huh?  What kind of church would we have?  What if every single member served the church, attended the church, loved the church, shared the church, and gave to the church exactly as you do?  What kind of church would we be?  

    You think about that this week.  Because God has extended to you an invitation – an invitation to take part in what God is doing.  He wants to fill that God-shaped hole in your heart with His Son Jesus Christ.  So that we might become the people God wants us to be – to do the things that God wants us to do – in the places where God wants us to be.  


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Tuesday, October 07 2014

Matthew 21:33-46
Let me ask you a question.  How do you want to be remembered?  Long after you’re gone, who will remember you, and how will you be remembered?  I want to share with you today what I think is a sure-fire way to be remembered well.  
But first, let’s take another quick look at our reading from Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthew 21.  This is a parable that Jesus is telling – a story to try to get through to the Chief Priests, the Scribes, and the Pharisees of just what it is that God expects from them.   

And of course, you know that Jesus was always butting heads with them.  It seems like they were either challenging him – or trying to trap him in his own words.  The bottom line is that they wanted nothing to do with him or his teachings.  They, of course, are the ones who are ultimately responsible for having him crucified.  In fact, today’s Gospel reading takes place just days before Jesus would be arrested, put on trial and crucified.

But still, Jesus is trying to get through to them.  And what’s the best way to get a point across?  Tell a story.   So Jesus tells a story – a parable –that is directed right at these religious leaders.   

A landowner planted a vineyard.  It was huge, fenced in, and had a watch tower to guard it.  After a while the landowner can no longer maintain this vast estate, so he leases it to tenants and leaves it in their care.  All he asks in return is a share of the produce at harvest time.  The tenants gladly agree.

When harvest time comes, the landowner sends some servants to the vineyard to collect his share of the produce.  But the tenants, instead of welcoming these servants and handing over to them the share that belongs to the owner, beat one of the servants, kill another and stone another.  Word reaches the landowner.  He is outraged.  He sends some more servants to collect his share and again the tenants do the same thing to them.

Finally, the landowner decides to send his son.  “They will respect my son,” Or so he thinks.  When the tenants see the son approaching, they say, “This is the heir; come, let’s kill him and get his inheritance.”  And that’s exactly what they do. The tenants kill the landowner’s son.

You see, here’s the problem.  These tenants – and remember they are just tenants – just care takers – of something that is not theirs.  They are NOT the owners, and yet, they act like they do own the vineyard – and they scheme to get control of it.  

Jesus compares these rascally tenants – without really saying so – to the Pharisees and religious leaders.  And they know it!  They know as they listen to this parable that Jesus is talking about them.

And to this day – with rare exception – how do we remember the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day?  Yeah! As self-centered, self-righteous, and often greedy individuals.  At least that’s how the Scriptures describe them to be.  Now there are some exceptions – like Nicodemus who comes to Jesus at night in the third chapter of John, and who, at the end of John’s Gospel we read that he, along with Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in a tomb.  And in the book of Acts we read how some of the priests in Jerusalem became followers of Jesus as well.  So not every Pharisee – not every religious leader – is painted in a negative way – but for the most part, we do not remember the Pharisees who butted heads with Jesus very fondly.

So I guess the question I need to ask you is, “How does this parable speak to you?”  When Jesus says that, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom,” who is he talking about?  He’s talking about me.  He’s talking about you.

It might be easy to hear this parable and think that Jesus is simply rebuking the religious leaders of his day.  But if that is how we hear this, then we are missing something.  

What we need to hear – what we need to see – what we need to learn from this parable is that the vineyard has been turned over to us.  We are the tenants.  And since we are tenants – what does that mean?

Well – first of all, it means that we are not the owners.  We are not owners of what has been given to us.  My house is not my house.  It’s God’s house.  My car is not my car.   It’s God’s car.  These are things that God has given to me for my use – for my temporary use – things that though they are  not mine, I still have the responsibility to take care of.  

The point here is that we really are not owners of anything.  What we have – what we use – what we wear – or what we drive – these things are really not ours.  But ultimately – if we believe what the Scriptures say in the book of Psalms – “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” – then what we consider to be ours is simply on loan for us to use for a time.  Because ultimately, it all belongs to God.

For instance, there is a story about “…a church located next door to a supermarket.  Since the church was short on parking spaces and the supermarket was closed on Sundays, the church leaders asked the owner of the supermarket for permission to park in his lot.  The owner’s response was ‘Fine.  You are welcome to use it 51 weeks a year.’  

“‘What about the other week?’ the church members asked.

“‘That week,’ said the owner of the market, ‘I’ll chain off the lot so you will always remember that the lot belongs to me, and not to the church.’”

Now I think that’s a good point.  Who really owns those things that are ours to use?  And it seems to me that at the heart of all of this is an invitation for each one of us to consider how it is that we view our possessions.  Whose are they really?  Who owns them?  What do they mean to us – and how do we use them?  What do we use them for?

I like what I read about a man named Howard Hendricks who writes, “My wife Jeanne and I once dined with a rich man from a blueblood Boston family, and I asked him, ‘How in the world did you grow up in the midst of such wealth and not be consumed by materialism?’

“His answer: ‘My parents taught us that everything in our home was either an idol or a tool’”.  

I like that.  Everything in my home is either an idol or a tool.  Everything in your home is either an idol or a tool.  Everything in this church is either an idol or a tool.  So – in light of this parable that Jesus tells, how do you view your possessions?  It seems to me that we fall into that category of being managers – not owners, but managers – of what God gives us.  

Furthermore – let me suggest to you that we have been entrusted with two things.  Number one has got to be the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ. The second would be our personal, worldly goods.  Both come from God.  

Let’s start with the Good News.  The Good News is that – even though we sin – in other words, we fall short of God’s expectations for us – there is forgiveness.  Genuine forgiveness from God – and reconciliation with God.  And it’s all because of Jesus.  This is the Good News.  And it is indeed Good News for us.  

But – we are not just the recipients of this Good News.  But we are recipients who spread it around.  We tell others about it.  So don’t be afraid to tell somebody your story.  Invite somebody to worship with us here.  Share the Good News of Jesus Christ to your children.  Read the Scriptures to your kids.  Every night family blessing, right?  Every night in every home.  What we call the Faith 5?  Share that Good News with your kids.

So first, we’ve been given the gift of God’s Word – the Good News of new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And then secondly, we’ve been blessed with earthly goods.  

Now – as caretakers of these two things – the Good News and our possessions – God expects us to do something with them.  To use them for good.  To invest them for good.  You want to be remembered well?  That’s how to do it – to use what you’ve been given for good.

So let me return to my original question.  How DO you want to be remembered?  Like one of the Pharisees?  I think not.  I hope not!  But is there someone out there who will tell a story of being blessed by YOUR generosity?  Because ultimately, life isn’t about possessions, or what kind of house you live in, or what kind of car you drive.  It’s about relationships.  I find the older I get, the more that becomes real to me.  All those other things that I thought I just had to have when I was in my 20’s and 30’s just don’t mean that much anymore.  They’re just things.  Tools, not idols.  Life is about relationships, and in light of those relationships – what we do with what’s been given to us then becomes that much more important.
So what kind of tenant in God’s vineyard do you want to be?  What kind of tenant in God’s vineyard WILL you be?  

Will you be remembered as someone who loved God – someone who shared the Good News of Jesus Christ?  Will you be remembered as someone who loved your family?  Who loved your friends?  Someone who used what you’ve been given – the Good News of Jesus Christ as well as your possessions – for God’s glory and for the benefit of others, as well as your own good?

Because ultimately, life is about relationships – our relationship with God through
Jesus Christ – and our relationships with each other.  Does anything else really matter?     

Posted by: AT 11:52 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, October 06 2014

Philippians 2: 1-13

    I was amazed to learn this week that there is a candle company that has come up with a candle whose scent they call, “The Scent of Christ.”  The company is called “His Essence Candle Makers.”  They claim – based on the Bible – in Psalm 45, that when Christ returns, his garments will have the scent of myrrh, aloe and cassia.  So those are the scents – in essence – that they put together in order to get this candle that smells the way that Jesus smelled.  

    And then – and then there’s this perfume maker in California with a new product called “Virtue.”  It’s a perfume – that they claim that if you wear this – it will get you in contact with your spiritual self.   And their formula is based on the use of the plants that were used as perfumes in Jesus’ day with a dash of frankincense and myrrh thrown in.  

    But you know what this means?  Whether you buy the candle or wear the perfume – now you too can smell like Jesus!  Hey!  I am not making any of this stuff up.  I gotta tell ya – the desire to smell like Jesus had never ever crossed my mind before.  Never.  Smell like Jesus?  Give me a break.  

    Having said that, one of the things that you often hear me say around here is that as disciples of Jesus Christ – one of our goals is to be more like Jesus – not smell more like him – but be more like him.  Again – the phrase we use for being more like Jesus is called Christ-likeness.  Christ-likness.  So today, I want to talk about pursuing Christ-likeness.   And for that purpose I’ll be referring to our reading from the book of Philippians, chapter 2 – specifically verse 5 which says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

    One of my favorite ways to describe our growth in Christ – and the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ is about growth – is the phrase, “God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay that way.”  Or the way Max Lucado puts it in his book “Just Like Jesus,” “God loves you just the way you are, but he refuses to leave you that way. He wants you to be just like Jesus.”

    Now as much as I like that phrase – and think that it’s true – not everyone agrees.  Some have said, “God loves you just the way you are.  Period.”

    Well – actually, that is a true statement.   But I would suggest that it is an incomplete statement.  Because if all we’re hearing is, “God loves you just the way you are,” hearing just that much will suit us just fine.  If God loves us just the way we are, then we’ve got it made.  We WANT God to love us as we are – and then leave us alone.  And there’s a real danger in that.   

    It’s a danger because – as disciples of Jesus Christ – we are called to grow – and to become – everything that God wants us to be and to do. And that involves change.  And change – well – that sometimes makes us feel uncomfortable.

    So let’s listen again to the more complete sentence.  And I’ll use Max Lucado’s version again:  “God loves you just the way you are, but he refuses to leave you that way.  He wants you to be just like Jesus.”

    Our reading from the book of Philippians gives us an idea of what being like Jesus – or Christ-likeness – looks like.  Listen:
    “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

    Paul – the author of this letter – is painting a picture here for us of what he has in mind when he says “Let the same mind by in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  He’s lifting up things like living in harmony – humility – know what it means to serve others, and then do it – looking out for the interests of others, and not just your own.  And he’s saying that this is the way that Christ lived, and these are the things that we can do as disciples of Jesus Christ.

    Now again, sometimes some of these things are not easy.  And I think I’m starting to sound like a broken record when I tell you – again – that I want you to know that I know that it’s not always easy to love as Jesus loved – to show compassion as Jesus showed compassion – to serve others as Jesus served – especially to the extent that his service to others led him to give up his life as a servant for others. I’m not saying that this is always easy stuff.

    But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t be tried.  I like what the English writer and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton had to say about this.  He said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

    It seems to me that a mark of a healthy church – and quite frankly – I think Zion is a very healthy church.  If it weren’t I wouldn’t have stayed around as long as I have.  But it seems to me that a mark of a healthy church is one that – among other things – practices being humble.  It’s a church that’s not afraid to get its hands dirty – serving each other – and serving others outside the church.   

    Do you remember a number of years ago when I told you about a pair of Lutheran pastors from New Orleans that I had met?  I met them just a couple of years after Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans.  And I will never forget what they said – and I don’t want you to forget this either.  They said, “Those congregations who have sent money to help us repair our damaged homes and churches show us that they care.  Those who have sent people to help us rebuild show that they are willing to get into the ditch with us.”  And I thought, “Whew!  Good!  We’ve sent teams to Slidell, Louisiana, and Biloxi, Mississippi.”  And of course since them, we’ve also sent teams to Chicago and Belize and Haiti.

    So it’s one thing – and often an easy thing – to send checks to help people in need.  And don’t get me wrong, we need to do that.  We really do need to do that.  But it’s another to get into the same ditch to help hurting people.  And I want you to know that I am proud – is it a sin to say I am proud? – I am proud of this congregation because we are doing these things.  These – I think – are the kinds of things that – when we do them – when we support them – we are putting on the mind of Christ – or practicing Christ-likeness – when we are serving others.  

    And this is a learned thing.  It’s a matter not only of the mind but of the heart.   What we’re really talking about here is transformation.  I like that word transformation.  It means change – but so many people don’t like change – so I like using the word transformation instead.  

    And when I talk about transformation, I’m not talking about being good people.  One thing that Christianity is not – is trying harder to be good people.  You don’t necessarily need Jesus to try to be a good or even a better person.  But –looking to Jesus – learning about him – learning from him – and then getting to know him – again – not just knowing about him but getting to know him – that is how transformation – that’s how Christ-likeness – happens.  

    It’s just another reason why church matters.  Church matters for a lot of reasons – but church matters because the church is a place – not the only place – but certainly this is A place where you will hear about Jesus.  And once you hear about him – learn about him – then you can start to get to know him.  And once you get to know him – you can begin to become more like him.  And that’s what we’re being encouraged to do.

    SO I want to thank you for your continued growth in Christ-likeness.  And I want to encourage you to continue not only to grow – but to continue to want to grow.  So what are some of the things you can do?  Glad you asked.

•    Keep focusing on the 6 marks of discipleship.  Look them up if you can’t remember all 6 – or you happen to be new here.  They’re printed on the front page  of your Mission Minutes.  

•    Keep on practicing the Faith 5 – or start putting them into practice.  Again, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, look to the front page of your Mission Minites.

•    Get on board Route 66.  And by the way, if you’re wondering what that means – there are 66 books in the Bible – so we’re driving the word home on Route 66.  Yeah, I know.  Not original with me.

    And hey – I’m not saying you have to do any of these things.  But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t encourage you to grow in your faith –to grow deeper in faith – to go deeper into the Word.  These are the tools that we offer to you – and why not take advantage of them!

    And there is a reason – there is an end game I mind.  The end game is for you to learn what it means to have the mind of Christ – to grow in Christ-likeness.

    I like something that Ronald L. Nickelson once wrote. He said, “What is the quickest way to identify a great city?...[for instance] Almost everyone knows that Paris is the home of the Eiffel Tower.”   You see how this works?  What would you say is characteristic of Rome?  Of London?  Of Washington D.C.?  Of Moscow?  Of Buffalo?  Each of these cities has landmarks by which they are identified.  
    Then Nickelson asks this question: “So what is it that identifies the Christian community (the church) as such?  What is the landmark that makes us recognizable to the world?” Huh?  What do you think?  [All those things.]  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” And I think Jesus himself said it best, when he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35).

    So – what does it mean to be like Jesus?  Well – you can try to smell like Jesus if you want.  But smelling like Jesus – that’s not Christ-likeness at all.  You want to be like Christ?  That happens when you get to know him, and when you and I put the love of Christ into action.  

    Because even though God loves you just the way you are, he refuses to leave you that way.  He wants you to be just like Jesus.    


Posted by: AT 10:42 am   |  Permalink   |  Email

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Zion Lutheran Church
9535 Clarence Center Road

PO Box 235
Clarence Center, NY 14032
Phone: 716-741-2656

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