Sermon Leftover: A Bad Exchange

Their mother had given each of them 5 dollars to spend at the mall. The older brother had squandered most of it very quickly, but as his brother came out of the candy store, he was regretting a few of those arcade games. No worries, he had an idea. “Joey, come here! How much money do you have left?” His brother showed him a dollar and a few cents but he held a bag full of candy. This idea just might work. “Were you planning on going to the arcade?” The younger looked at the flashing lights and smiled. “Well then, you’re going to need some quarters!” I will trade you three quarters for your one dollar; three is better than one.” His brother eyed him suspiciously; why would his brother try and help him like this? Seeing his brother thinking it through, he added, “But you’ll have to give me one of your candies, too. I think that’ll make it a pretty fair trade. Now come on, mom will be out of that clothing store any second.” Still worrying that his brother might be tricking him, Joey made the trade anyway and ran to the arcade. With a smirk, his brother bought a pop and sat down to enjoy his brother’s candy.

Too often we are the little brother, the devil dangles his promises, his temporary pleasures, temporary glory, temporary happiness in front of our noses. He convinces us that it is a fair trade, that God’s Word and his promises aren’t worth nearly as much. We fall for it. Never realizing when we forfeit God’s treasures for worldly pleasure we trade the temporary, the fleeting, the worthless, for the value of eternal life. Not only will we not receieve a second chance on Judgment Day, but those who fall for the devil’s lies won’t just be out a few extra blessings. They will go to eternal punishment.

These words of Jesus may be some of the most controversial in religion today. “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Many around us are convinced a loving God could never send anyone, well anyone but the worst of the worst to hell. Or they believe that it must be temporary. That once their sins are paid off or maybe just their temporal punishment for sin is paid off, their time will be up and they will go to heaven. Others go to the other extreme and say that this was what God wanted from the start. He predestined those who would suffer forever, theirs is a hopeless life. But Jesus could not have been clearer. These fires were never meant for the crown of God’s creation, but for the devil and his demons. That those on his left enter into fire is not God’s desire, but their choice, for they chose to follow the devil’s lies instead of God’s truth. They reap the devil’s reward, the punishment that never ends.

Some may ask, where is God’s love in eternal punishment? Where is his justice, when so many, good people by our standards, will be punished for what seem to us to be minor sins? We need look no further than the cross for these answers. When we see our Savior’s suffering, when we hear his cries of agony, we see there are no minor sins. When we diminish sin, its damage to lives and the punishment it deserves, we do not amplify God’s love, we diminish it. It is out of love that our Savior became man for us. It is out of love that he died for us. It is out of love that he suffered, suffered the full punishment of sin, for us. It is out of love that he calls us to repentance. It is out of love that he works faith in hearts and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Are we going to let Satan bamboozle us? Are we going to let him convince us, as he did Adam and Eve, that we can have something better than what the Lord has already given us? Are we going to listen when he says God’s love is not so great and the danger of sin is not so real? Are we going to live our lives as if the things we have and enjoy today are all that really matter? Or are we going to live as Jesus urges, with our hearts set on eternity? We live for eternity when we listen to his Word. We live for eternity when we do what it says. We live for eternity when we rejoice over sins forgiven and the hope we have in Christ. We live for eternity when we look forward to the Day of Judgment. Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

Sermon Extension: How Do I Love My Neighbor?

Many Lutheran pastors, myself included, struggle to preach sanctification well. I never want the focus of my sermon to be about the things we do, but on what God has done. It is the gospel, Jesus’ righteousness for us, that gives us the peace and the strength to live a new life in Christ. The law might scare or guilt us into proper outward actions, but it never changes the heart. We also recognize the weakness of the law in this: the law always accuses and crushes, so even if the gospel is the center of the sermon, the encouragement to do something will always accuse us when we do not.  (For more discussion on the law and gospel, I suggest this lighthearted Lutheran podcast: https://www.letthebirdfly.com/2017/06/06/episode-11-law-and-gospel-a-first-pass/ .)

However, no pastor can preach the whole counsel of God without giving the encouragement to live in accordance with God’s Word and his will. I spent last week studying Isaiah 58:6-12, and you cannot read those words without seeing how poorly you live up to the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Even as I sit and write this, I am surrounded by the comforts many Americans take for granted. I write on a new computer, sitting a sectional couch; my six pets are all nearby. In my garage sit a nice motorcycle and a new, albeit very practical, crossover SUV. When my daughter asks, “What’s for supper?” We always respond, “Food.” Then she complains, “We always have food for supper.” Isn’t that amazing? Life is so much better than I deserve.

So, what do I, what do any of us, do with Isaiah 58? Can any of us really say we put those words into practice? Isn’t God rebuking us? Most of these questions are answered in my sermon found here: http://www.corvallislutherans.org/site/file.asp?sec_id=180003462&file_id=180465866&table=file_downloads and on our Facebook page.

 

But now for what is lacking in that sermon: what does that look like? How do we do it? How do we put the words, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” into practice in our lives?

Are you already a little uncomfortable? I am, and not just because I know how much I need grow in my life of faith. This topic, helping the poor and homeless, has sadly become political. So, let me try to dismiss that right away. I have opinions on the politics of a good society, but I don’t have the answers; God doesn’t tell me what form the government should take, other than a good government maintains peace and order and all government is under God’s authority. So, while I have opinions, I also make this assumption: I believe that a majority of people from every political angle and direction care about the poor and homeless, but they disagree on government’s role in solving the problem. So, if you believe that our government can be a force for helping the needy and you are happy to pay higher taxes, knowing how those programs help people. That is very reasonable and loving. But that doesn’t excuse you from living in a way that helps the poor and needy in your personal life. If you believe that government is a bad way to help the poor and needy, and citizens choosing to work together on their own causes by their own powers is a better way. That is also reasonable and loving. But then, you need to do what you say helps and live according to the command, “Love your neighbor”.

The other reason this might make us uncomfortable is this: we wonder why our own congregations don’t do more to feed the hungry and help the needy?   This is a serious question. If Christians are called to love our neighbors, then shouldn’t it follow that group of Christians gathering together would be always thinking about helping the needy? But is it that simple? The Christian will want to live according to God’s Will and “Love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Have you ever noticed how hard that is? It is impossible! We cannot do it. We can’t even come close by our own powers. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to live that way. And the only place we can receive that power is through the means of grace, God’s Word and the Sacraments. The only place we receive the Word and Sacraments for you in all their purity is within a faithful congregation. To forfeit this work of your local congregation for community service will not increase Christians ability to love their neighbors but decrease it. Doing community service in such a way that seems to make a difference in our community, can be an all-consuming work, one which most congregations cannot undertake and one which other organizations in your communities often might do better.  So is it wrong for a congregation to do these things? God forbid! Some of the most encouraging times I have had with my fellow Christians is when we serve the Lord and our neighbors together. How wonderful it is for our communities to see how much we, as a group, love them! Let’s continue to ask, What can we do together to let our light shine among men?

Finally, the reason these words make us uncomfortable is they leave us no way to escape. Whenever the Bible talks about loving your neighbor it is talking to each of us. It doesn’t leave you any room to hide in a group or pass the responsibility to someone else. It doesn’t leave you with any excuses. This is what you are supposed to do. The way you are supposed to live. It is up to you, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to put those words into practice in your own life. The way I try to put them into practice in my own life is by giving freely to charities and groups that I know will use my money wisely. What’s your personal approach?

 

As I have thought through these things in the last week, there is so much more I could say. Christian vocation fits in with loving your neighbor, too. You love your neighbor when you do your work well, whatever it is. We can give God the glory in “whatever we do”.

 

May God give us strength to live according to his will.

To Him Alone Be the Glory

 

Pastor Tembreull

Sermon Leftovers: Deuteronomy 32:11-12

Sometimes when you prepare a delicious meal, you can’t eat it all at once. Sometimes everything a passage teaches can’t fit into one sermon. I enjoy leftovers. A good meal is worth eating twice. I hope you enjoy a couple of leftovers from last Sunday’s sermon:

 

Sometimes I can’t help myself. I have an idea for an illustration and then go do some research to make sure my memory has all the facts straight. Sometimes all that research and time get wasted. Sometimes the “facts” were just in my imagination. Sometimes explaining the takes too much time and the main point will be lost. Sometimes it just doesn’t fit the theme of the sermon doesn’t fit with the illustration and after trying to jam a square peg into a round hole for about an hour, I give up and use something else.

This was not one of those times. This time the illustration was right there in the text: Moses sings, “11As an eagle* rises from its nest and hovers over its young, then spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on the edge of its wings, 12so the Lord alone led Israel” (Dt. 32:11-12).  But what does that mean? This Independence Day we think of the majestic Bald Eagle. It is a symbol of power. It is a symbol of freedom. You picture them soaring free, nothing holds them back. You can imagine them diving down on their prey, nothing escapes their claws. A few months ago, I got to see two eagles fighting in midair; it was mesmerizing seeing them dive and clash and tumble and fall and recover and go again. Despite the fact that Benjamin Franklin desired the national bird to be the wild turkey, we can see why the image of an eagle is one which attracts most Americans.

But what does Moses mean with this picture? Some commentators tell long stories about how eagles will stir up their young and push them out of the nest and then swoop down to catch them so that they learn how to fly. Others how the eagle parent hovers over the nest showing the eaglets how wings work and how to soar. The imagery is great. You can apply it to how God trains us in following him, how he guides us in our daily lives, and how he is always there to catch us when we fall. The problem is: eagles don’t do this. Eagles don’t push their young from nests. Eagles don’t have to teach their children how to fly. And it is nearly impossible for an eagle to catch and carry a fledgling, even in its powerful talons, let alone on its back or with its wings.

So what is Moses trying to say? After all my research about eagles* and their habits with their young, I came no closer to a deeper meaning than the plain words. God is always with his people. He always cares for them. He always watches over them. You can picture a glorious eagle hovering over its nest, no tree climbing or flying animal can come close. Nothing can snatch those eaglets out from under it. You can imagine one of those great birds spreading its wings over them, shading them from the elements, shielding them from the wind and the cold. They are helpless, defenseless and without any means of feeding themselves. Without their parents they would never survive, but those eagles care for them unceasingly; they never leave the eaglets alone. They always watch and always care. “So the LORD alone led Israel.”

 

*Although we Americans probably prefer  the image of eagles, the Hebrew word can just as likely mean vulture (the old world Eurasian Griffon Vulture is native to that region), since it describes a large raptor. So not only did I research the nesting habits of eagles but also vultures, finding that they were even less likely and able to catch and carry their young.

Is Christianity Inclusive or Exclusive?

It was an uncomfortable exchange. Senator Sanders questioned presidential nominee Russell Vought. The senator took issue with something Vought had written, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.” Those are strong words, and for Senator Sanders they were hateful. Vought’s repeated response, “I’m a Christian,” didn’t satisfy him. I don’t know anything about Russell Vought and whether he would be qualified for a high position in government. Nor do I claim to be an expert on Senator Sanders’ beliefs; however, I do know a little about the heart of the issue: Is Christianity inclusive or exclusive? Does that make it unamerican?

When it comes to our natural status before God, Christianity is very inclusive. Right from the beginning, usually on page two of every Bible, God says, “Let us make man in our image and in our likeness”(Genesis 1:26) and then, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27) It doesn’t get more inclusive than that! All people were created in the image of God! It doesn’t matter what gender, race, or ethnicity you are! God wanted you to bear his image. He wanted you to be like him: holy, loving, righteous, and good.

But there is bad news about this inclusiveness. We were unable to keep that image of God. We fell away from him. We are not holy, loving, righteous, and good. The Bible is also very clear about this inclusiveness, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The Psalms lament, “There is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3). We see this truth all around us. Even the best of us, the nicest person, isn’t nice all the time. We have the phrase, “No one’s perfect.”  Jesus said, “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18). And it isn’t the number of times we sin. This isn’t about how severe our sins are. We are sinful. We are sin-filled. Whether we volunteer and are generally well liked as a nice person, or that jerk with the obnoxious bumper stickers and hateful attitude who cut you off on the freeway, we are included in the category of sinner.

Which leads to another way Christianity is inclusive: what we deserve. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). We all know this to be true, too. We all know that death is the one experience that truly unites us all. We will all die. We all experience pain and sadness. We all long for something better. We all wonder about the meaning of life when there is so much pain. This is evidence of what the Bible says, “So the whole world will be held accountable before God” (Romans 3:19).

That is the negative side of inclusiveness; here is the positive side. “God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). See that? All people, every single one, we are all included in God’s love. One of the most famous passages of the Bible says it this way, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him, shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Or as a sinner, my personal favorite, “God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

But this is where Christianity gets exclusive. God wants us all to be saved. God sent his Son, Jesus to die to take away the sins of the world, but it is only in Jesus, through faith in him and his work that we can receive what God has done. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Right after Jesus says those comforting words of John 3:16 he says, “The one who does not believe stands condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18b). These are the exclusive claims of not just Christians, but of Jesus himself.

From there, Christianity gets inclusive again. If God loves all the people the world, Christians will love all people. If God cares for all people, Christians will want to care for all people. If Jesus died for the sins of the world, Christians will want to be ambassadors of Christ and share the life giving gospel will all people. For as the Apostle Paul said about Jews and Gentiles, so also is true of every division we sinful people make, "There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and have been justified freely by his grace."

Where does that leave the Senator and the Nominee? Well, letting people believe what they believe, and teach what they believe, and speak what they believe has been a fundamental right in America since its founding. So has disagreeing with me or anyone else. Only in this way can the words of the Declaration be upheld in a world full of sinners, so that we live as if "All men are created equal." I pray this is an ideal we can uphold in the years to come.