Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Peace of Mind ~ Ephesians 6:10-20 ~ Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ August 26, 2012

A TV commercial for a home security company shows a family returning home to find their house ransacked, with most of their possessions either destroyed or stolen.  That night, the mother struggles to comfort their frightened daughter.

Then they get security system installed.  The mom says “that burglar took more than just our possessions; he took our peace of mind.  But now, we have it back.”

Peace of mind—that comfort that comes in knowing that everything’s going to be okay...  A burglar alarm may be able to give you some peace of mind, at least as it concerns protecting your family and your property from fires or thieves.  But a complete peace of mind—a life with no worries—is far more elusive...

We’re in an age of catastrophic natural disasters; Ponzi schemes and corporate scandals; identity theft; mass shootings; cyber bullying; rising costs; high poverty and unemployment.  Greed and immorality run amok.  The way to live the good life is to do as you please, with no regard for others (and sometimes not even yourself). 

And all along, unbelief continues to spread—as does the belief that God’s Word is just another book, and that you can be saved by being a good person.

It’s always been a scary world—but by all indications, things are getting worse by the day.  Peace of mind is a long way off—and we don’t feel safe.

This was a fear the early Christians in the ancient city of Ephesus knew very well. Being a Christian in their day made you more than just a social outcast; you were an enemy of the state—because you didn’t worship the gods of the Roman Empire that ruled over you.  But religious persecution wasn’t their only hardship...  They lived within an economy that functioned only for the benefit of the elites—so many suffered unjust wages, poor working conditions, and high taxes to boot.  These Christians lived in poverty as well as in fear.

The letter we know as Ephesians speaks a truth that remains unchanged—that Christians are caught up in a cosmic battle between good and evil.  Jesus did win the victory on the cross and at the tomb—but the demonic forces are not about to admit defeat.  They remain on the prowl to capture the hearts and minds of God’s people,  and take them down with them in defeat.  And every day, we are battered by this evil; whether we’re suffering and illness or a natural disaster, or we’re suffering because of evil people. 

The devil and his minions will not stop until you become an evildoer, or you be crushed by fear and despair and helplessness.  The devil’s victory is for you to know neither the life nor the love of your Savior.

Yet we are not alone against all this hate.

God gives us the protection we need: the full armor of God. 

To the Ephesians, God’s armor equaled the armor of the Roman soldiers, who themselves were the embodiment of the Empire’s evils.  With the full armor of God, no Christian is left helpless or defenseless against the daily onslaught of evil.

We are called to stand firm as the battle is fought for our souls and for the world we live in.  Our faith is not a quest to escape the world as it goes down in flames.  We are to stand firm as one Body in Christ, in defiance of evil.  Jesus struck the death blow when he saved the world on the cross and rose from the tomb.  The enemy’s defeat is already going on.  So our call is to stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, to participate in Jesus’ triumphal victory. 

We put on the belt of truth; the truth being that this is our Father’s world—and God will not lose it to the forces of evil.

We put on the breastplate of righteousness; overcoming evil deeds with actions of love and peace.

We put on shoes so to go and proclaim to the least and the lost of the world that they belong to Jesus—and that they are saved by his body and blood.

We take up the shield of faith, believing in Christ’s victory even amid the onslaught of evil.

We take the helmet of salvation, through which we are assured that we are safe in God’s care when evil attacks. 

Finally, we take the sword of the Holy Spirit who brings an end to all the cosmic forces that defy God.

All told, evil is no match for a believer who is baptized into Jesus Christ. 

As we go forth to engage the enemy in battle, we must remember that this is not your typical war.

Even though the world is full of evil, the world is not the enemy.  God so loved this world that he gave his only Son so that it would be redeemed through him.  We are to love the world and its people as Jesus does.

Our work is to heal; to build up; to reclaim.  Therefore, we are not to fight evil with hate and destruction.  If we as Christians speak and act in hate and condemnation towards those who are in darkness, we’re just playing into the devil’s hands.  People won’t see Christ in us; they won’t see a gracious redeemer in us.  Isn’t that what the devil wants? 

This doesn’t mean that we should be silent in the face of hate and greed and violence. But it does mean that we must stand boldly and gently—because we don’t have the power to change people.

Christians don’t fight fire with fire.  We defeat the enemy when we fall to our knees, be it in prayer or to eat and drink of Christ’s flesh and blood.  We defeat the enemy with worship and witness.  We defeat the enemy when we forgive sins.  We defeat the enemy when we stand together and join Christ in filling the world with peace and justice.

We can’t change the world on our own—but we can and we will when we participate in Jesus Christ.

Though this world remains frightening and scary, and though it will never again be as good as we may remember it to have been in the past, our hope is sure.  This world belongs to Jesus—as do all the battles we face with each day. 

Our peace of mind comes in knowing that there is nothing that can take us away from the care and keeping of our Savior.  Evil will not win the battle for our world or for our lives.  Let us go forth in the victory of our Lord.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

No Greater Opportunity ~ Ephesians 5:15-20 ~ Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost ~ August 19, 2012

One of the greatest things my parents ever did for me was encouraging me to take advantage of great opportunities whenever they came along...  When I was a teenager, I thought I knew everything.  I thought I knew what was good for me and what was not.  I know now that I wasn’t always as right as I thought I was...

When I was fifteen, I had the opportunity to join the high school marching band. 

Yes, I loved music, but I wasn’t too keen on the idea of spending August on an asphalt practice field in the summer heat...  I was no fan of uniforms and formation marching.  And I really wasn’t excited about selling band hoagies door-to-door.  In my mind, this was an opportunity to avoid.

But my parents pushed me, in spite of my objections—and for good reasons.  Extra-curricular activities look good on college admission applications.  I’d make new friends.  I’d have fun.

And though I dreaded band camp all summer long, my decision to join the band was the best decision of my teenage years.  I can look back on my high school years and call them good—because I seized that opportunity.  That decision made all the difference.

Whether we realize it or not, our days are full of opportunities to do good and better ourselves. 

We have opportunities to practice random acts of kindness.

There are opportunities enjoy the blessings in our lives.

There are opportunities to work hard and achieve something positive.

Occasionally, the so-called “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities” come our way—and we agonize over the pros and cons of seizing the opportunity, knowing that our decision will forever impact the course of our lives.  

Now as Christians, our lives are full of opportunities to receive God’s gifts through faith—and these opportunities will forever change our lives and the way we live them... 

We have the opportunity to be baptized—where we are washed clean of our sin and filled with the everlasting life of Jesus Christ. 

Another opportunity we have is to own a copy of God’s Holy Scriptures, where we learn his will for our lives; where we witness his gracious love being poured out for all the world upon the cross.

Prayer is the opportunity to bring our hurts and our needs before God—knowing that our prayers will be heard.

The Church is an opportunity to grow in our faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ.  It’s our opportunity to give and receive his love in the relationships we have with our fellow believers—and with the people whom God calls us to serve.

We have the opportunity to eat and drink of the body and blood of Jesus Christ and live forever.

But do we always take advantage of these opportunities?  Or do we take them for granted?  Are there other opportunities in our lives that we are more eager to seize?

One of the biggest challenges of the faith is that the opportunities that come from God can so often seem insignificant and unexciting, especially compared when compared with the opportunities that exist elsewhere in our lives. 

Just consider this: at Holy Communion, we receive a small morsel of bread and wine.  Is it easy to believe that you will receive saving grace through so little food and drink?  Is it east to believe that receiving this gift (week after week) will make any difference in our lives?

Sometimes, the opportunities God gives us will seem as though they will yield nothing of any real value to us and to our current situation in life.  Prayers don’t always get answered.  Good deeds don’t always make a difference or make us feel good.  We may come to worship hoping to be filled with the peace of Christ, but worry and anxiety burden our minds the whole time and we can’t concentrate. 

But we cannot allow disappointment to drive us away from the Savior who promises to always be with us and deliver us from the trials and temptations of life.

Jesus says, “If we eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, we will live forever.”  This is our opportunity to participate in Jesus Christ; to be a part of the salvation he brings to the world.  It’s opportunity to receive saving grace, not just once, but every day, as long as we live, because Jesus Christ promises to come to us.

And as hard as it may be to believe sometimes, every opportunity we seize to participate in Christ will bear fruit for our lives and our relationship with God.  Our faith will be strengthened; our troubled hearts will receive peace; our lives will be transformed.  We will see that the opportunity to participate in Christ is greater than any other opportunity the world has to offer.

Today we are called to a godly wisdom—to take advantage of every opportunity we are given to participate in the life of Jesus Christ, regardless of how seemingly great or small the opportunity may be.  The opportunity before you is to be swept up in saving grace. 

But no opportunity lasts forever.  The days are full of evil—and tomorrow is never guaranteed. And a life lived apart from Jesus Christ leads only to death.

So don’t look to the world or to your own ideals for the life your souls crave.  And don’t underestimate the amazing things that God can do in your life, through a little bit of prayer; a little bit of thanksgiving; a little bit of sharing; or a couple of hours of your Sunday. 

This is the opportunity of a lifetime; an eternal lifetime!  So seize the opportunity to live in Christ; let his life and his salvation seize your life, and never be the same again.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Food of Your Redemption ~ 1 Kings 19:4-8 ~ Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost ~ August 12, 2012

Last month during the children’s sermon, I told our young people that I used to skip breakfast.

I skipped breakfast because I thought I was helping myself.  First of all, I wanted to give myself fifteen or so extra minutes of sleep.  When I woke up, I wanted to get on with my day right away—and I considered breakfast to be an unnecessary delay.  And what was the harm in eating less?

Looking back, this was a sorry attempt at stress management.  Breakfast is the most important meal of the day—because a body needs nutrition to make it through the day.  That’s just common sense.

Yet, stress has a way of making common sense into non-sense. 

Stress is something that affects all aspects of our being.  We can feel it as a burn deep inside of us.  It keeps us awake at night; it inhibits our concentration; it drives us towards bad habits and poor lifestyle choices as a means of escape.

This whole concept of “stress management” can seem rather absurd—because so much of what stresses us is outside of our control. 

But sometimes, the pressure overwhelms us to the point that we believe there’s no way out.  We feel as though the whole world is closing in on us.  And we can’t go on.

This is the situation for the Old Testament prophet Elijah.

Elijah is on the run from Queen Jezebel, who was one of the most evil villains in the Bible.  Jezebel and her husband King Ahab were quickly turning God’s own people into a nation of idol-worshippers.

So God sends Elijah to call the people to renounce their idolatry and come back to God.  This eventually leads him to a showdown with the prophets of the false-god Ba’al—with the entire nation of Israel watching.  It was then that Elijah proved that God was real and Ba’al was a delusion.  Elijah then incited the people to kill the false prophets—and because of this, Jezebel was determined to kill him.

So Elijah’s hiding out in the wilderness.  And he can’t go on.  The journey has become too much for him. Elijah wants to die.

So God sent an angel to care for Elijah in the darkest moment in his life. 

And notice the way in which the angel deals with Elijah: He does not rebuke Elijah for his despair, nor does he chasten Elijah for refusing to accept this awful situation that has come as a result of his obedience to God.  The angel actually acknowledges that Elijah’s journey IS too much for him.  He won’t make it on his own.  That’s the truth. 

So the angel gives him food and drink.  That was God’s response to his crisis.  God didn’t change the circumstances that had brought him to such a desperate moment.  God did, however, give Elijah what he needed to make it through—food and drink.  God gave him food of his redemption.

This story really shows us why that cliché “God never gives you more than you can handle” doesn’t make sense.  For one thing, God doesn’t give us the troubles that send us into the darkest moments of our lives.  Elijah was on the run due to circumstances that God were not God’s will—namely, the idolatry of God’s own people.  And sometimes, life will be more than we can handle.  We can’t always rescue ourselves from life’s troubles, any more than we can save ourselves from death.  That’s why we need a Savior.  And God gave us Jesus to be that Savior; in life and in death.  Jesus meets us in our darkest and most desperate moments to lead us toward our redemption.

Jesus is here for you today—and this is his word to you: “take and eat; this is my body given for you.  The food of God’s redemption awaits you—and the call for each of us today is to come and eat.  And while it may seem as though God is calling us to do something that is easy, God is calling us to do something that is quite hard.

For one thing, we must stop the frantic pace of life and take the time to just be in his presence.  We must give up trying it to make it on our own.

Secondly, we must be prepared for God to help us in ways we may not want him to.  God may call us to do things that are hard and that challenge us and maybe even intimidate us.  God doesn’t always take us out of the situations that trouble us; very often God’s plan is for us to overcome them.  This was definitely the case for Elijah: he would eventually have to go back home and face his enemies.  God’s way is not always the easy way—but it is the way that leads to our redemption.  By God’s abiding and unfailing grace, we shall overcome.  God’s power is best revealed in our weaknesses—for when we are weak, God will be strong.

So when Jesus says “take and eat,” we must eat!  When Jesus speaks, we must obey.  And when the pressure’s high and we can’t go on, we must surrender and “let Jesus take the wheel” as the song goes. 

“Let your battles be mine,” Jesus says.  He won the battle against death and the devil, and he’s here to deliver you from whatever battles you face.  And though you may stumble and fall, sometimes by your own fault, and other times for reasons unknown, you will never be beyond the reach of God’s hand.  When life gives you more than you can handle, Jesus will get you through. 

So eat, drink, and be glad—because your redeemer is here.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Why Do You Follow Jesus? ~ John 6:24-35 ~ 10th Sunday After Pentecost ~ August 5, 2012

When I was nine, my family decided to have dinner out at a restaurant that had just opened up—a place called the Olive Garden.

My sister and I both got this fear in the pit of our stomachs that we were in for a meal we weren’t going to like.  Both of us were very picky eaters!

We were in for quite a surprise when the server delivered the baskets of their famous hot-buttered garlic bread sticks.  It turned out that we’d just discovered our new favorite place to eat.  Chuck-E-Cheese and Ronald McDonald didn’t stand a chance against those bread sticks. 

Whoever came up with the idea to serve all-you-can-eat bread sticks had to have been a genius.  I don’t care what people say—people pack their restaurants to eat their fill of bread sticks.

Jesus’ bread loaves were enjoying a similar fame.  Last week we heard of him filling the stomachs of five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish.

Needless to say, this made Jesus quite popular—so popular, in fact, that this same the crowd got into boats and pursued him across the Sea of Galilee when they’d discovered he’d left them.  When they finally catch up to him, Jesus knows why they were there—they ate their fill of bread, and now they’re hungry for more. 

He tells them that they are following him because of what they believe they can get from him.

And who could really blame them?  In the First Century Roman Empire economy, the vast majority of people lived on the brink of starvation—even those who worked.  From their perspective, following Jesus was the perfect solution.  Stick with him, learn his secrets, and never be hungry. 

But this is not why Jesus fed the people.  He fed the people as a sign to show that he was sent into the world by God.  He fed the people to draw them into a saving relationship with God through himself. 

As long as the people were following their stomachs, they were missing out on the truth of who Jesus really was—and why he came into the world.

And that is something for us to remember...  It’s just as easy for us to fall into the same trap of following Jesus—because of what we believe we can get from him.

Sometimes, we treat our discipleship as a means to an end.  We believe in Jesus, we worship him, we pray to him, and we serve him—but not always for the sake of knowing him better.  We’re looking for prosperous lives and answered prayers; we want good feelings and an experience of Jesus so powerful that all doubts are removed.

The trouble is that we make gods out of what we desire most.  We’re not truly seeking Jesus if we’re out to win his blessings.

If we follow Jesus to get something for ourselves, we will eventually find ourselves disappointed.  A life lived in Jesus Christ does not always to health and wealth and prosperity.  Things will not always turn out like we think they should.

There will be times when all we’ll have to show for our relationship with Jesus is some faint hopes and promises for a future that’s a long way off.

So we must turn our focus away from what we can get from Jesus—to the gifts Jesus gives to us... 

His innocent suffering and death free us from death and the devil.  In baptism, our sins are washed away.  We are united with him in his death in order to be united with him in his resurrection. 

But receiving is only part of the life of a disciple.  Of equal importance to the receiving of God’s gifts is the sharing and the giving of God’s gifts.  All of God’s gifts are gifts of grace; meaning that they are freely given apart from our own merit.  So to know grace, we must practice grace towards others.  To truly know Jesus, we must take part in his work.

As we receive Christ, our hearts are filled with a selfless love for those who suffer and for those who do not know Jesus Christ.  Jesus calls us to go with him in healing those who dwell in darkness.  His presence makes our loving acts fruitful in bringing faith and hope to life in those we serve.  Following Christ puts us in a position to see all of his promises coming to life before our eyes.  We experience what it means to be saved by grace when we give grace—and receive it.

We’ll always face the temptation to follow Jesus in pursuit of what we can get from him. There will always be needs and hurts in our lives.  But as children of God, we’re not left to fend for ourselves through life—and in death.

Today, Jesus gives us food that endures for eternal life.  Jesus gives himself as bread and wine by which we shall live forever.  There’s nothing we have to do to gain these gifts.  And with these gifts comes a promise: “whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  The same Jesus who saves us from death will redeem us through all our fiery trials.  He will never fail to provide everything we need to reach our eternal home with him.  We can entrust ourselves to his care.

And with that, he asks us, what can you give so that you may know me more fully? 

With Jesus in our lives, there are always gifts to be shared.  For it is in giving and sharing that we are all drawn closer to the one who gave his all for us.  We will see Jesus for who he is and what he does for all humankind.

We shall eat our fill of the bread of life—and there’ll be plenty more to share.