Full

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1 Peter 1:18 “…you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers…”

The first century Christians to whom Peter wrote his first letter had far more to contend with than car problems or long working hours. Christianity brought persecution. For some it was government sponsored violence. For others it was dealing with rejection and isolation from former friends, family, or fellow members of the synagogue. Peter was writing to comfort suffering people.

As Peter encouraged them to struggle on with living as people who don’t belong to this world anymore, he reminded them of the way of life from which they had been redeemed. Now, when we think of our redemption, we usually think first of the guilt of our sins and the punishment from which Jesus set us free, and rightly so. The break in our relationship with God, his anger, and the death which follows are the prime predicaments of human existence. Where these things remain, no amount of tinkering with life or adjusting our habits makes any difference in the end.

But when Jesus set us free from guilt, judgment, and death, he did not leave us under sin’s control to remain its slaves. As Peter reminds us here, “…you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers…” For the people of Peter’s day, that empty way of life might have included the belief that a visit to the temple prostitute would somehow help the family have that boy they always wanted, or that worshiping the emperor was an honorable performance of civic duty which strengthened the community, or that working hard with your own hands was the shameful fate of inferior people who didn’t count for anything.

For the people of our day, that empty way of life might take us to the soccer fields where parents are cheering on their little athletes, or smart phone screens people stroke for hours in search of entertainment, or long hours at work pursuing a successful career. Please don’t misunderstand. Many fine Christian people who are active in their churches may find themselves doing any of these things. But if driving new cars, living in middle class neighborhoods, managing a successful career, and raising a fine, fresh-faced family is all there is to life; if there is no Jesus, no forgiveness, no life after death; then for all of its appealing appearance, these are features of the kind of empty way of life from which we have been redeemed and set free.

Perhaps we can appreciate our redemption more when we consider the fuller way of life to which we have been set free. We have been set free to handle the miraculous power of God’s word, to use it daily and see it work its wonders in the people it touches. We have been set free from a life that needs to be turned in on myself, and consumed with how I am doing. Our sins? Christ sacrificed for sins once for all. The daily necessities of life? God meets all our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. That means that we are free to be concerned with the work of God, and concerned with the needs of our neighbor. God has given us a life that has real meaning, real purpose now, and real glory and joy forever.

We have been redeemed, not for an easy life, but for a full and blessed life of service to the one who paid with his blood to set us free.

Precious

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1 Peter 1:18-19 “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”

If Peter had been writing these words today, he might have chosen something more valuable than silver or gold to compare to the price Jesus paid for our redemption–platinum or diamonds, stock in Google or Apple–but it would have made little difference in the comparison. If you were to put them all together and chart their value next to that which follows, they wouldn’t even be a mathematical point sitting at the very bottom of the chart.

Perhaps that vast difference explains why it is so difficult to appreciate the price with which Jesus did redeem us. We were redeemed with the precious blood of Christ. One could go and find what hospitals charge for a unit of blood these days, but that is no help. How does one put a price on something so unearthly as the blood of God’s own Son?

Remembering that Jesus is God’s own Son, we might draw comparisons between how we value people dear to us–our parents or our children–and how God the Father must value Jesus, as I and other pastors have done in sermons. Pondering the thought of killing your own child certainly has an emotional impact. But again, can our love for family even begin to compare with the perfect love God the Father has for his perfect Son? Can we even begin to know the value that Jesus has to him?

Finally, no illustration can enable us to grasp it, and no mountains of descriptions will enable us to feel its worth. Martin Luther points out that even the tiniest drop of Jesus blood would have been so precious, so valuable, that it could have paid for the sins of the world, but God the Father is so gracious that he permitted his only Son to pour out all his blood as our innocent lamb of sacrifice. All that we can do is ponder this. All that that we can do is consider the cost. As we take the time to give it our serious attention, perhaps it will help us to value our redemption even more.

Getting God’s Will Done

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Matthew 6:10 “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

God wants to save everyone. God wants people to love each other. Someone might be tempted to ask, “Who would want to oppose that?” But we know the sad answer to the question. Everyone does in some way or another. You don’t need the moral decline of our world detailed for you. Even the majority of the entertainment available is little more than glorifying sex and violence. A twenty-year-old survey taken in Germany asked people about the value of each of the ten commandments. Only four of the ten were considered important by the majority of those who responded. The one considered least important? “You shall have no other gods,” the very first and greatest commandment of all.

This battle between God’s will and man’s is taking place closer to home than we like to admit. Don’t we find ourselves in the same struggle with the Apostle Paul? “I know that the nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19). What is it that we want? Do we waste God’s gift of sexuality outside the bonds of marriage? Our Lord wants it used only in marriages to make them strong, the foundation for strong families. Surveys suggest that Christians struggle with this sin as much as the general population.

We are affluent people. How often wouldn’t we rather waste our time and money surrounding ourselves with trinkets and luxuries and pleasures instead of investing in the future of our children, the spread of the gospel, or the needs of our neighbors? If we followed God’s will in the matter, we could not only benefit society but swell the population of heaven! Too easily we get wrapped up in how others are catering to our needs, and where we fit in the pecking order of those with whom we associate. Our Lord seeks selfless servants–people whose highest joy is found in serving someone else, no matter how thankless or even hostile that person might be!

My will battles God’s. His will doesn’t come naturally to me. So Jesus must teach us to pray, “Thy will be done.” Only he can lead us to pray “thy will be done” from the heart. He does so by the gift of faith.

He starts by preaching the gospel to us. Jesus takes me by the hand and walks me through his life. He makes me see his miracles of love. As he does so, he promises me that this is not just the kindness one very good man showed to a leper, a cripple, an outcast, a grieving father and mother, a broken sinner, or a hungry crowd many years ago. This is an earthly demonstration of the love with which God in heaven still loves you and me.

He shows me that there is nothing he would spare, no cost too high for him to pay, to save us from our sins and make us his very own. There is nothing more precious in all the universe than the one and only Son of God. Yet God would literally crucify his own Son to save me. Along with this incredible love come so many promises to take care of my needs and bless my life and cover me with his protection. His goodness finally overwhelms my unbelief and transforms my stubborn will as it gives life to the miracle of faith.

That is not to say that we have already been transformed into heavenly perfection. My old will still defies God’s. But by the gift of faith God has also given us a new will. It not only agrees with God’s, and wants his will to be done. It longs for everything on earth to conform to God’s will from the heart. It can’t help but go to God in prayer and plead with him, “Thy will be done.” By faith God has changed us to want and to do what he wants us to do.

This, then, is how God gets his will done on earth: he loves his enemies into his friends, he forgives stubborn rebels into joyful servants. They, in turn, take the power of the gospel and share it with others, so that the miracle of faith can happen again and again, and more and more are transformed into willing workers. In the end, this is the only way that God’s will can be done, because only those who love and trust him from the heart are ever doing what God wants, no matter how people may behave on the outside.

What God Wants

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Matthew 6:10 “Thy will be done.”

“He has a mind of his own.” Maybe you have used those words to describe a strong-willed child who throws a tantrum if he doesn’t get his way. Maybe that is how you describe your crazy coworker who is always bucking the company way at work. He’s not like everybody else. He has a mind of his own.

It is a miracle of God that his original design not only made each of us a unique individual, but he even provided for each one to have his or her own will. That miracle lost its luster when we fell into sin and it took our wills captive. We became slaves (John 8:34). Our wills no longer worked in perfect freedom and harmony with our Maker. Now we live in a world with literally billions of competing wills. It is this sad truth which makes necessary the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done.”

God hasn’t left us to muddle through life in this world, confused about what his will might be. He has made it very clear in his word. Whether people agree with them or not, they are somewhat familiar with the ten commandments. Courts argue about whether or not they can be posted in courtrooms or public schools. A billionaire TV network owner once tried to rewrite them to better fit popular preference. Some churches have even questioned their application to modern life.

God gives them as a convenient summary of what it means to love. God’s commands are never arbitrary rules designed to keep us busy or ruin our fun. They reflect his concern for us. All of his commandments provide some human need, or they protect us from something that would hurt us. They show us what it means to love God. They teach us how to live with each other in a way that truly demonstrates respect and love for each other. As the psalmist once said, “…in keeping them is great reward.” It’s hard to argue with God’s will that we sincerely love him, and that we love the other people with whom we share this planet.

But is there something even closer to God’s heart than this? The Lord knows we have made a hopeless mess of his commands. In doing so we have brought judgment and death on ourselves. Now there is nothing he wants more than to have us for himself, and give us back our purity and our life. Remember Jesus’ words in John 6? “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Paul wrote that God our Savior wants all men to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Peter promises us that God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

How do we know this part of God’s will is so dear to his heart? When he gave his commandments of love, he gritted his teeth through thousands of years of human disobedience before he finally wrote them down for Moses at Mt. Sinai. But he directed the whole course of human history just to give us a Savior. God considered it better to suffer hell on a cross in payment for our sins than to live forever in heaven without us. He saw to it that the good news about Jesus was shared with you and me and billions of other Christians, each one individually, so that he might woo and win us to faith. There is no other project on earth into which God has ever poured so much of his time and effort and love.

So our prayer “thy will be done” is more than a prayer for good behavior or circumstances that serve God’s people. It is a prayer that his grace and love have their way with self-willed human hearts. It’s a prayer that resistance turns to faith. Then his will and ours will be aligned again.

A Promised Kingdom and More

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Matthew 6:33-34 “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Believers in Jesus are already members in God’s kingdom. When Jesus’ love for you at the cross overwhelmed your heart, and overcame your resistance, and convinced you that, “Yes, I don’t have to be afraid of God anymore. If he would give up his Son for me, if he himself would pay for the sins with which I had offended him, then he must truly love me and want only what is best for me,” then Jesus set up his wonderful rulership of grace and love in your heart. You came under the influence of his kingdom. You became a citizen living under his blessed rule.

Do you know what that means? As a member of his kingdom, all the treasures of heaven belong to you. In fact, everything that God rules, and that includes the whole universe, he controls for your benefit.

If you have that kingdom, then you truly have it all, don’t you? Jesus doesn’t say, “Seek first the kingdom, and then you can go and worry about finding your earthly needs.” No, if you have the kingdom, the rest of it comes along with, and vastly more than we would ever think to ask God for.

But we might be tempted to object, “Are you saying that no Christian will ever go hungry? None of them will ever lack clothing, or a place to stay, or other basic necessities of life?”

We must remember that even if God should let us starve to death, he has only brought us home to heaven sooner. We are worrying about losing our plastic beads when God is offering us diamond necklaces. We are concerned about trading our tar paper shacks for brick mansions. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Even if on earth I seem as miserable and destitute as Job, “my cup overflows.”

Finally, Jesus reminds us that today has enough with which to be concerned. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” In his wisdom, God has given us our lives one day at a time. Today is all that you or I have. Recovering alcoholics learn that they must face their addiction one day at a time, and not worry about how they will be doing a week, or a month, or a year from now.

That truth was not first discovered by AA. Jesus reveals it here for all of us, and God’s children will want to live their lives this way, too. While Jesus isn’t condemning planning, or saving, he is helping us to keep these things in perspective. Tomorrow I may leave this world for heaven. Tomorrow Jesus may return and bring our world to an end. Tomorrow may be filled with things, both good and bad, that I could never have anticipated. Tomorrow is in God’s hands, not mine. Today I will trust the One who has given me his kingdom and promises to give me everything else as well.

Your Father Knows

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Matthew 6:28-32  “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things. And your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

In God’s creation, about the only thing more lowly than grass is the dirt from which it grows. In ancient Israel, wood was in short supply, so grass was often used as fuel for their ovens. We trample on it, mow it, turn its clippings into compost. It exists only days, maybe months, and then it’s gone.

We are destined for eternal life. If God dresses certain kinds of grass more beautifully than kings, can’t we trust him to take care of our basic needs?

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” Jesus concludes. “For the pagans run after all these things,…”

If we were as ignorant as the unbelieving, then our worry might at least be understandable, if not right. Their gods are just figments of their imaginations, if they worship any gods at all. They aren’t all-powerful, all-loving providers like our God is. Since the pagans have no certainty they will be cared for, and since they have no certainty of a heavenly future, their life is all caught up in getting things for themselves now. They are obsessed with making as much money as they can, advancing their careers, owning the finest homes and cars, visiting exotic places, experiencing all the finest the world has to offer. No matter how much they have, they are nagged by concerns to carefully guard and protect what they have.  Worry that they could lose it all, dread of what the future holds, chases them every day.

While the Lord may lovingly bless us with many of the same earthly treasures the pagans have, it is inappropriate for children of God to obsess about such things the way that they do. It is incompatible with Christian faith. If we decide to let ourselves get caught up in worldly possessions the way the pagans do, faith cannot last long.

And Someone else has made these things his concern on our behalf:  “…your heavenly Father knows you need them.” If you were to interview children, they could give you a long list of things they would like to have. They might even say they “need” many of the things. I suspect their list would be dominated by toys and playthings. Ask their father, and he is often able to sort out the difference between their “needs” and their “wants” better than they are. I don’t believe most children would put “semi-annual trip to the dentist” on either their “needs” or their “wants” list. At dinner time some of them may want dessert. A father know that they need the vegetables on their plate first.

Our God is not like a government bureaucrat or company bookkeeper in a far away office making out checks for people he doesn’t really know with a vague idea that they need this to support themselves. He knows us as intimately as any father, as though we were his only child. He can sort out our needs and our wants better than any earthly father, and he distributes both to us just as he knows best.

Spiritual Bird-Watching

Bird Feeder

Matthew 6:26-27 “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

Maybe being a “bird-brain” should be a compliment instead of an insult. Just look at us. The barns in which we store away our collected wealth may be banks, and stocks, and mutual funds. We may own real estate and have a pension coming. And if all that fails we live in a country with government programs that cover almost all the necessities of life. But instead of being thankful for how richly God has provided, we worry about whether or not it’s going to last. We even worry about whether or not Social Security is going to survive.

Birds are very busy animals, but they don’t know ahead of time where they will find their next meal. They simply rely on God’s creation. They merrily sing as they go about their work of finding food and building nests and from all appearances they do this without a worry or a care in the world.

Now we are the crown of God’s creation. We are the ones made for a special relationship with God. We are the ones blessed with intelligence. Everything was made to serve us, including these very birds, some of which are little more than window-dressing on all that God has made.

Martin Luther once pointed out that these little animals act as though they are better theologians than we are. They become our teachers. Jesus asks, “Are you not much more valuable than they?” Did God give his Son to redeem the birds? Did he drive the whole course of world history to save them? Did God make them the caretakers of all that he has made? Does he call them his children? We all know the answers. If we are so much more valuable than these creatures, can we not trust that he will provide for us at least as well as he does for them?

Courage to Confess

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John 12:42-43 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.

Timid believers are nothing new. When we hear the accounts of Jesus’ healings, when we read how he extended a loving hand toward sinners, his kindness and gentleness can make us forget what a controversial figure he was. Several groups opposed his ministry, but no one attacked him more than the Pharisees.

At first their opposition revolved around their understanding of God’s law. The Pharisees wanted the law to start and end with external actions. Jesus insisted that the attitudes of the heart were the issue, because the law is about living a life of love. The Pharisees believed they had found the way to keep all God’s commands. Jesus’ preaching clearly showed that this is impossible. Even so-called “good” people need God’s grace as desperately as public sinners.

Eventually, the issue turned more and more to Jesus’ person. By what authority did he say the things he said? Just who did he think he was, contradicting their collective wisdom and ignoring their traditions? The way Jesus talked about the Father in heaven as his Father, the way he talked about himself, sounded more and more like blasphemy to their ears.

Jesus didn’t back off. There were literally hundreds of topics on which Jesus and the Pharisees had complete agreement. But Jesus spoke about the issues, because this is where the truth was being challenged. He took a stand where the truth of God’s word was at stake.

At the same time, those teachings filled many with fear of confessing their faith in him. Again, John says, “…because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue.”

We know that fear, don’t we. Our Savior’s moral standards are becoming harder and harder to defend. Even within the church there are those who want us to embrace every deviation from God’s design for sex in the name of love and tolerance. They say it’s what Jesus would do. And it is true that Jesus holds out open arms to such people, but arms calling them to repent and turn away from their sin, not arms which ever embrace the sin itself. Jesus didn’t come to loosen up God’s commands about sexual purity. He drew the circle tighter. “Whoever looks at woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” are his own words from the Sermon on the Mount.

Perhaps we believe what Jesus says. But are we willing to let our Christian convictions be known? Are we afraid it wouldn’t be cool, that we’ll be labeled judgmental, that it might get us sent to “sensitivity training?” Is the faith Jesus has given us in God’s moral will a faith worth confessing?

Of all the miracles that our God has ever done for us, there is no greater gift than when he himself became a part of his own creation, and he lived and suffered and died for us as a real human being. Though we haven’t seen Jesus, he has not done less for us. These gifts are pure grace, pure expressions of God’s deep love for us. But are we embarrassed of our beliefs around those who don’t share them? And do you suppose that God can be pleased when we are ashamed even of gifts he has given?

Our weakness is not unlike that of the secret believers in Jesus’ day, “for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.” We love the praise of men. There may be people whose respect we neither seek nor desire. Around them we don’t care what we confess. But is there a family member, a friend, or a co-worker whose love or respect we treasure, with whom, we fear, a full confession of what we believe would cause a serious cooling in our relationship? We cannot maintain our faithfulness to Jesus and expect that we will always be accepted and respected.

Jesus anticipated this. So he promises blessing for those who dare to confess their faith no matter the cost: “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets” (Luke 6:22-23).

The Spirit’s Toolbox

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1 Corinthians 2:13 “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.”

It ought to be obvious to all who read the Bible, or who know anything about Christianity, that the word of God is the main tool in the Holy Spirit’s tool box. How did Paul go about his work of converting people to Christianity? God did some miracles through Paul, but we don’t hear all that much about them. Paul was a generous man, but his acts of charity aren’t the focus of his missionary journeys. “This is what we speak” he says, referring to what God has freely given us. He expresses “spiritual truths in spiritual words.” Paul’s ministry was a ministry of the word.

And that fits the focus of the whole New Testament. Jesus sent his disciples to preach the Gospel to all creation. He told them to go and make disciples by baptizing and by teaching. He told his disciples that they would be his witnesses, and witnesses tell others what they have seen. Preach, teach, baptize, tell–all these require using God’s word. If the Spirit is the one who opens our hearts to believe in God’s grace, it is obvious that Jesus expected the Spirit to be present where his word was being used.

But not just any appealing words will do. Paul says that he does not use words “taught us by human wisdom.” Paul’s mission work was not slick marketing. He didn’t imitate the popular philosophies of his day or try to make the Christian message compatible with Greek science and culture. He didn’t try to help the Christian message by bringing these things in from the outside.

We need to be careful in this regard, too. We want to preach the Christian faith in such a way that we show people it is relevant to their lives. But we can go so far in trying to make things “relevant” that we end up changing the message itself. We can’t redefine the Bible’s history to fit modern science. We can’t redefine the Bible’s morals to fit the preferences of our present day. We can’t redefine the message of salvation to fit our neighbor’s “felt-needs.” We can’t redefine Biblical terminology with the language of human psychology. If we do, we will lose both the word and the Spirit who works through it.

What we need are “words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths with spiritual words.” This is a forthright claim of inspiration on Paul’s part. The words he wrote for us were not his own. The Holy Spirit taught them to him. This not only gives us confidence in their absolute truthfulness. It assures us that these words have power.

Aren’t we living proof? Whether the Holy Spirit got his first crack at our hearts in God’s word connected with our baptisms, or whether he first got in by way of the bare words of Scripture, it is the word of God with which he first opened our hearts. We can be confident that the Spirit continues to work where that word is being preached and taught and used today.