Holy Sex

1 Thessalonians 4:3 “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality.”

Paul lists a number of things involved in sexual holiness, but he starts with avoiding sexual immorality. It is no secret to you that the world in which we live doesn’t have very high standards or expectations on this topic. Don’t get pregnant if you are not ready to be a parent. Don’t get a disease or share a disease. Don’t force yourself on someone else. Otherwise it is pretty wide open. It may not be bad advice, so far as it goes. But to say that this falls short of holiness would be a gross understatement.

            The problem is that the world doesn’t share God’s understanding of the purpose for our sexuality. Some view it as little more than a way to feel good and have fun. It is an urge to satisfy. Many see it as a way to express affection for another human. That’s better, but still lacking. At the core of the world’s problem is the view that it is primarily something I use and control for my pleasure.

At the Women’s March a number of participants held up signs referring to their private areas and expressing sole ownership and decision-making power about their use. Setting aside some of the crude language, if the point is that no man should be able to force his wishes on them, we can agree. If such declarations of independence discount any plans and purposes the Lord may have for their bodies, we are obligated to disagree. But the problem doesn’t start there.

            For thousands of years, worldly men have stalked and used women for their own pleasure. Their intentions have been entirely self-centered. They treat women more like a thing than a person made in God’s image and a coheir of the gracious gift of life. The brag about their conquests. They fail to acknowledge that God has a divine purpose and plan for human sexuality, and that this falls within narrow boundaries.

            God has clearly tied new human life to our sexuality. It may not be his only purpose. It may not always result in offspring. But any attempt to pretend the connection doesn’t exist is missing something that even basic biology ought to make clear.

            God created this kind of contact to cement and solidify a life-long relationship between a man and a woman. It is, by far, not the only thing that strengthens the relationship, but it is an important piece of the puzzle. That relationship would make for a stable home in which to raise children. That relationship would make for a stable society. That relationship should be a classroom in which both men and women learn things like patience, sacrifice, loyalty, and service. God has a purpose, a vested interest here. His holy people, and that means every believer, avoid sexual behavior that is predatory, self-serving, destabilizing to marriage and family, or reinforces shallow rather than life-long relationships. To say it plainly, God’s holy people avoid sexual sin by limiting sexual relations to the person of the opposite sex to whom they are married.

            This, as you know, is difficult, even for Christians. If it were easy, Paul wouldn’t have to put it in writing. Such self-control doesn’t some naturally to us. An old professor of mine once remarked, “Nobody I know has a spiritual track record free of sexual stumbling.” It makes me wince to say it, but he is right. Even if we have controlled our outward behavior, have we always shared God’s holy purpose?

            For our guilt we need to remember that God not only wants us to be holy. He has made us holy in his Son. Paul says it beautifully to the Ephesians, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Jesus is the gentleman who respects and cares for his bride, the church. He gave himself up for our sin. He washes us and cleanses us in his baptism. His grace makes us holy, and it invites us to apply ourselves to holiness in the way we use his gift of sexuality.

Be Holy

1 Thessalonians 4:1-3a “Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you should be sanctified…”

            If I were to ask you about your goals for life, my guess is that your answers would revolve around several general topics: education, family or relationships, career, finances, lifestyle, volunteerism, and retirement. Which ones you emphasize depend to a large degree on your age and place in life.

            If I were to ask you about your spiritual goals, my guess is that you would have to think about your answer a little longer. Many Christians don’t think about their life of faith as something they proactively plan and manage. You go to church. You try to behave yourself–sort of. Maybe you get involved in some program or class. Maybe you don’t. You believe God is important. You just aren’t sure what to do about it.

            Let’s approach your life of faith from a different direction. What do you suppose God wants? What are his goals for you? Here, perhaps, the answers are a little easier. God wants me to have faith. That’s where everything starts. Maintaining that faith means time in his word and prayer. I suppose he wants me to go to church, and probably get involved in some kind of Bible study, too.

            God wants me to serve. “Love,” we know, is the one-word summary of everything God wants in his commandments. This is not romantic love, though it may have many family applications. It is love like Jesus had. It offers assistance, it forgives, it treats others with dignity, it sacrifices.

            In this letter to the Christians who lived in Thessalonica, Paul brings up another desire God has for your life. It is a central part of Christian life. Almost two hundred years ago, an entire movement in American Christianity was built around it. But it doesn’t get so much attention anymore. The plan is holiness. God wants you and me to be holy.

            That is something more than living life free from sin. Holiness goes to the root of how we understand our identity as Christians and our whole relationship with God. When God makes something holy, he sees it as completely consecrated and dedicated to himself. It now exists for his special purpose. It is not like everyone and everything else. He wants us to be different.

            This isn’t limited to people who have chosen full time church work. This applies to every Christian, and to all we do in every area of life. In another letter, his letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them, “You are not your own. You were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” Later in that same letter he says, “Whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” Nothing we do is too small, or too personal, to be holy to God. Our entire existence becomes a tool for him to use to carry out his plans and purposes.

            God made us holy when he called us to faith and made us members of his family. He paid a purchase price for us when Jesus died as our substitute on the cross. This paid for the guilt of all our sins and took them all away. In one sense, this set us free. It made us free from punishment, free from trying to pay for sin ourselves, free from spending eternity in hell. It set us free from the power and control of the devil, and free from our own corrupt will and desires that live inside of us.

            At the same time, it made us holy. It made us belong to God, but not in the sense that we are prisoners who have been captured and forced into slave labor. We have been miraculously transformed, lovingly elevated, changed into new and better creatures fit to work with God as his partners.

            “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.” In other words, he made you and redeemed you to be holy to him, set aside for his purpose. That’s a goal we can embrace.

Productive Faith

Luke 8:15 “But the seed on the good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

God’s word is a seed with the power to give me a new and noble heart. God once promised his people through the prophet Ezekiel, “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Through his contemporary Jeremiah he said, “Is not my word like a fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

But the process through which the Lord goes to work transplanting a good and noble heart into our chests involves the gentle message of his grace. On my concrete driveway there is a crack into which the grass keeps creeping. The grass is relatively soft and pliable. I can tear it with my hands. But it has the power to keep extending and widening that crack in the concrete.

In the gospel our Lord professes a love for us that far exceeds any other love we have known. He sacrificed his Son to save us. He forgives us all day every day. No matter how repulsive we might have made ourselves with our sin, his only desire is to have us back for himself, and there is no price he would not pay, he did not pay, to make it happen.

This soft and gentle message creeps into our hearts, breaks up the stony unbelief, and replaces it with a beating heart of faith. This is the heart that holds onto the word for dear life, because it is life. This is the heart that overflows with acts of Christian love, and words of Christian witness, because “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” This is the heart that is fruitful in the faithful, but God’s word is still the seed whose power makes it happen.            

So plant a seed. Hear God’s word and plant it in your own heart. Share God’s word and plant it someone else. Then let the seed do what seeds do, and watch it grow.

Beware the Faith Chokers

Luke 8:14 “The seed that fell among the thorns stand for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures, and they do not mature.”

Nobody I know makes it their goal in life to live in poverty. But historically God’s people have not handled prosperity very well. It tends to corrupt more than it blesses. That is Jesus’ picture here.

The problem is that “prosperity” too easily transforms into “worldliness.” If we could accept that the material world in which we live is all headed for the ash heap–there is no saving anything here, only applying a few band aids and fixes to keep it going a little longer; if we could be content with what we have been given and stop obsessing about having more; if we could see things mostly as tools to serve people and share the gospel with them; if we could trust God’s promise to take care of every need; if we cared more about a real heaven to come than an artificial one we try to build on earth; then prosperity would present no particular temptation. 

Then we would worry less about who gets elected, how my retirement funds are doing, where the unemployment rate stands today, whether the polar ice cap is melting, whether they are coming to take away my guns, which news is fake and which news is real, and whether I am getting my fair share.

Then we would go and live our faith. We would go to work and do our job faithfully. We would love our neighbor, no matter how he looks or thinks. We would be good stewards of the things God has given us to manage. We would speak up for those who need someone to speak up for them. We would raise our families to know that Jesus is the best thing there is, and we would tell our friends. We would dig deep so that people all over the world could know it, too. We wouldn’t worry. We wouldn’t obsess. We wouldn’t hoard. We would believe, and then we would go and live, because we have Jesus and all that his forgiving grace promises.

But as powerful as God’s word is, faith can be “choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures.” If we will not let these things go, we will not mature. All our scurrying around trying to build a little utopia right here on earth makes us of little use to God or man. Don’t let worldly distractions strangle our faith all the way to death.

No Root

Luke 8:13 “Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.”

You heard Jesus right. These are people who believe for a while (we are people who have believed for a while) but in a time of testing they fall away. Matthew’s gospel defines this testing a little further as trouble or persecution that comes because of God’s word. This is suffering because of what we believe. Others oppose our Christian faith.

This kind of testing is a universal Christian experience. In some places it is severe. Almost 10 years ago 275 Christian girls were kidnapped from their school in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram, a Muslim terrorist group. The terrorists oppose educating girls because it prevents them from adopting Islamic teaching. All the girls were pressured to convert. Many were forced to marry. Scores were martyred, and over 100 converted to Islam.

For you and me, the testing has been more subtle. But the pressure is unrelenting. It is so much a part of the atmosphere in which we live that at times we may not even notice it. While I was canvassing a neighborhood, a woman asked me what we believed. I wanted to talk about our need for repentance and Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross. She wanted to talk about same-sex marriage and paths to heaven outside of Christianity. She had grown up a Christian. But the spirit of the age in which we live had its way with her heart. She gave up not only a few isolated Christian doctrines. She gave up on Christianity altogether. Though she was polite, she made it clear there was something wrong with me for not “moving on” and letting go of what the Bible teaches.   

Jesus never said that following him would be easy. He said, “Take up your cross.” It is easy to be a Christian when you are living in the joy of knowing God loves and forgives you, surrounded by people who share that faith and support it. That is God’s good seed at work in us. And we don’t have to lose that joy or surrender our faith when it comes under fire.

But we need roots in God’s word to go down deep, because Jesus did not come to bring peace but a sword. He warns that in this world we will have much trouble, and that we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. God’s word is a powerful seed, but we know it will be opposed by others.

Hard Ground

Luke 8:5, 11-12 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up… The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

During archaeological excavations of Herod the Great’s palace on Masada in the mid-1960’s, a cache of Judean date palm seeds was discovered. The Judean date palm tree became extinct 800 years ago. For forty years this cache of seeds was stored at an Israeli university. In 2005 three of the seeds were planted, and one of them has grown into a tree that has been nicknamed “Methuselah.” The hope is that this tree can be crossbred with its nearest contemporary relative to produce fruit. After 2000 years this dry, hard, apparently lifeless piece of plant material has produced new life.

Seeds are little miracles of creation. Something that looks so simple, just a little ball of ordinary material to the naked eye, possesses the power to transform itself into a living thing thousands of times its size, complex in shape, and beauty, and function.

Seeds make a fitting picture for the word of God in Jesus’ parable. Something that looks ordinary and small–just some words, a simple message–has the power transform itself into a new heart, a changed man, a life that never ends.

But sometimes the seed does not get a chance to produce the new life God seeks. The first time the devil appears in the Bible, the first words out of his mouth are, “Did God really say…?” Since that time attacking God’s word has been central to his business. It’s no surprise, then, when Jesus explains the first part of his parable this way: “Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

Note that Jesus does not say the devil prevented these people from ever hearing the word of God. That is part of his business, too. He has many different strategies to keep God’s word out of human ears: oppressive governments that criminalize Christian mission work; lazy parents who won’t take their children to church; cultural forces that turn Sunday morning more and more into “me” time–you know, time to sleep in, golf, fish, or watch TV; jobs and sports that invade Sunday mornings and every other spare moment of time. The word of God terrifies Satan because of its power. He feels safest when he can keep a person from hearing or reading it altogether.

But when that fails, plan B is to attack God’s word inside the human heart. That’s where Jesus picks things up in his parable. The devil has ways of hardening the heart and snatching the word away before it can do any “damage.” He makes the word sound unreasonable. I mean, miracles and magic are fine for fairy tales. Prince Charming can kiss the princess and bring her back to life. But the dead leaving their graves and rejoining the living? Maybe in a horror flick. Grown-ups don’t put stock in that kind of thing, do they?

Or, he pits the word against our personal experience. “Honor your father and mother.” Yeah right. Maybe in some 1950’s Leave-It-to-Beaver family. Dad was a workaholic, and mom was an alcoholic, and neither cared about anyone but themselves. “He will command his angels concerning you to keep you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” So where were they when the car accident left me with chronic back pain, or robbed me of 80 percent use of my right hand?

By stirring up false human reasoning, flattering shallow human goodness, appealing to selfish ideas about “fairness,” the devil hardens human hearts and snatches God’s word away. He goes over the heart like a steam roller, making it hard to the idea that I am a sinner who needs God’s grace; or that there is such a thing as God; or that God is loving, forgiving, good, and kind. In this way the greatest gift ever given, Jesus’ selfless sacrifice on the cross, sits like seed on a concrete slab. It might be heard, but it won’t be considered or believed. Satan has effectively snatched the seed away.            

Thank God that his Spirit has ploughed and worked our hearts so that his word could find its way in, and his grace now stirs new life within our souls.


Luke 23:39-43 “ One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us! But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’”

Do you remember earlier in Jesus ministry, when he came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, and he found his disciples trying to drive out a demon unsuccessfully? The father of the possessed boy pleads with Jesus, “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus replies, “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.” The boy’s father exclaims, “I do believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.”

The criminal next to Jesus is in a situation no less desperate. Really, it is more so. Before the day is over he is going to meet God face to face. The challenge to his faith is not a foaming, convulsing child. It is a bleeding, dying Jesus. And yet there is no word of doubt in his simple prayer. There is no “if.” “If you are the Savior you claim to be.” “If you are going to take your place on your throne.” He speaks a confident “when.” “When you enter your kingdom.” “Remember me when you enter your kingdom.”

 Jesus only reinforces the certainty. “I tell you the truth.” “Amen” is the word Jesus used in his native tongue. When you and I say, “Amen,” for us it is usually the conclusion to the matter. For Jesus it was usually the introduction. “I tell you the truth” means you can have full confidence that what follows is fact. No doubt Jesus had a sense of humor and could kid around with his disciples at other times. But the cross was no place to be kidding. Every word required heroic effort just to get it out. There was no time or energy for wasted words. Death and eternity were mere hours away. This was no place to be joking. This was the place for “Amen,” certainty, nothing but the truth, and that is exactly what Jesus promised this dying thief from the cross.

The promise itself is spoken in certainty. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Sometimes the further we can put our promises in the future, the less we fear we will be held to them if we can’t keep them. Time has a way of making people forget. But Jesus assures this dying man that before this day is over, the two of them will stand together in Paradise, the garden of God, the home of life. Jesus can speak with such certainty: “Today” this will happen.

Jesus can speak with such certainty because on this cross, at this moment, giving his life, opening the doors to heaven for us all. As the life slowly faded from his body, so did the crimes and sins of the criminal pleading for his mercy. So do ours. They shrink and fade until Jesus breathes his last, and they completely disappear. And as our sins shrink and fade from sight, the glow of heaven’s glory grows brighter and closer. Our own final “today” comes soon enough, and with it the certainty of Paradise.

He Can’t Save Himself

Luke 23:35-39 “The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’ The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’ There was a written notice above him which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’”

Do you notice the common theme running through the words of anyone who had a comment about Jesus’ crucifixion on this day? “Let him save himself.” “Save yourself.” “Save yourself and us!” The irony seemed clear to them. This Jesus styled himself as the one who was going to save Israel. Some people had already been referring to him as the Savior. Some Savior he turned out to be. If he couldn’t even keep himself from being killed like a common criminal, why should anyone else trust him to save them?

It’s a logical conclusion, isn’t it? If Jesus can’t keep himself alive in this life, why should we trust him for the life to come? It makes more sense to get back to the business of real religion, the business that occupies most of our spiritual energy. It makes more sense to do what everyone was taunting Jesus to do: Save yourself.

For isn’t that how we think? Isn’t that what we work at almost all of the time? We are good at saving ourselves, or so we imagine. From the time we get up in the morning until the time we go to bed at night, we are all about looking out for number one. How can I work the system today? How can I turn the whole world to serving me? I can save myself a load of time if I can get someone else to take this project. I can save myself from the hassle and irritation of dealing with that manager I don’t like, or that customer I don’t like, or that coworker I don’t like, if I can just find an excuse to miss the meeting or call in sick today.

A few years ago I was struck by the words of a political commentator scratching his head over a block of voters he believed were voting against their own interests. I don’t mean to suggest it’s a virtue to vote against your own interests, but the way he talked about it made it sound so self-evident that everyone should be in it for themselves. It was almost as if you had to be crazy to choose something, or someone, for principled reasons that didn’t somehow work to one’s own advantage. In a thousand little ways every day we go about the work of “saving ourselves.”

And then we apply it to our religion. Practically every religion, every faith practiced by man, consists of a system of behavior designed to save yourself. And because doing the kinds of things God really wants is often hard and unpleasant, these systems usually consist of made up little sacrifices God never asked for: don’t eat this, don’t drink this, don’t wear this, don’t enjoy this. You know that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day had mastered this approach to faith. The monasteries of medieval Christianity were full of it. Much of what passes for conservative Christianity in our own country suffers from the same disease.       

“But Pastor, we are grace alone, faith alone Lutherans. Surely we have avoided that kind of legalism.” Let’s not fool ourselves. About a hundred years ago one of the fathers of our own church wrote a very uncomfortable essay titled, “Legalism Among Us.” We may be too well educated in the Bible to come right out and say, “I think my good works will save me.” But even Lutheran Christians like us start to get the idea that what makes us different, what makes us better, has to do with how we keep our own traditions, or how we stand against the old traditions. Issues of taste, whether for the old or for the new, become a badge of pride.

My friends, let’s be honest. We stink at loving God and loving our neighbor, much less navigating any of the externals of faith-life in way that could possibly be pleasing to him. The irony isn’t the idea of Jesus’ saving himself as he slowly gives up his life on the cross. The irony is a world of mankind, including ourselves, who think that they are any better at it.

The irony is that, by refusing to save himself, Jesus has managed to save us all.


Mark 1:14-15 “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’”

A key concept at the heart of Jesus’ preaching was the well-worn preacher’s call, “Repent!” It wasn’t a very new message, was it. When God came to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden after they ate the forbidden fruit, what was his message to them intended to do? He was calling them to repent. When you read the prophets that God sent to his Old Testament people, a common theme running through all 17 of them is the call to repentance. When John the Baptist came preaching and baptizing, how did the people know he was a prophet? Like those before him he preached repentance.

It doesn’t stop there. When Peter preached to the crowds on Pentecost day, what did he tell them to? “Repent and be baptized, everyone of you.” When Paul summarized his ministry to the Gentiles in his trial before King Agrippa, he told him, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God.” Every day, Jesus’ call to repentance is still directed to you and me.

So often people think of repentance in terms of changing behavior. The Bible itself calls for such “fruits” of repentance. But behavior has never been God’s first concern. In the New Testament’s Greek, the word “repent” is formed by combining the words “change” and “mind.” It is God’s call to change, not first of all your doing, but your thinking. Ultimately, it will change your very being. With the command to repent, God is saying, “Stop thinking about sin. Stop wanting what I have forbidden. Stop considering sin enjoyable. Stop thinking you must live for yourself. Stop harboring lustful, hateful, hurtful, resentful attitudes. Change your thinking!”

Have we? Have we changed our minds about sin? At times we have our behavior more or less under control. In our minds some of our past sinful behavior still sounds appealing. When someone has been awful to you, what is your immediate gut reaction? Smother them with love? Or are anger and resentment closer to the mark? Changing our minds about sin is a work in progress.

Sin isn’t the only thing Jesus calls us to see differently. “Believe the good news.” Every pious Jew in Jesus day was waiting for the time when God would keep his promise to send the Messiah to deliver God’s people. Now Jesus had good news. God had been faithful. Jesus is that Messiah with more good news to share.

“The kingdom of God is near.” God’s kingdom is not a place on earth. Jesus was not going to establish a political kingdom in Israel. God’s kingdom is spiritual. It is Jesus’ ruling activity in the hearts and lives of all who believe in him. Wherever Jesus is present with his word, there his kingdom is. This kingdom was was not coming soon. It was near because it was standing right in front of them. Jesus brought forgiveness and life to sinners, and all who believed his promise had the kingdom’s gates flung open wide. They entered as they believed.

Jesus still preaches “repent and believe the good news” as we begin the season of Lent. Do you see why it makes sense to follow Jesus closely through this season? Early Christians established Lent as a “penitential season.” Nothing changes our minds about sin like following Jesus through his suffering. Nothing stirs our hearts to faith like seeing his love at the cross, dying for our sins. The time has come. Listen to what our Savior says, see what he does, and you will find God’s Kingdom at the end of this pilgrimage. Its gates are open wide for you to enter.