Saturday, December 31, 2016

Be Patient

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. (James 5:7-12)

We are to be patient in waiting for the coming of the Lord, like a farmer waiting for his harvest.  This is a great image, but it doesn't refer to mere waiting.  No, we are to "establish our hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand."  How do we establish our hearts properly? 1 Thessalonians gives us a clue in 3:11-13:

"Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints." We learn here:

1. God directs his Word to his children.
2. The Lord makes us increase and abound in love for one another (fellow believers)
3. This Love for one another has a goal: to establish our hearts, like it says in James.
4. Note that Paul adds something else: establish our hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of Jesus.
5. To be blameless before God sounds like a tall order!  It sounds like a lot of work that we are going to have to do quickly.  How is this possible?  Well, remember that ours is a religion of faith, and the faith is in a particular person, and that particular person is Jesus Christ.  So, to be blameless before God is to have your faith solely in Christ's righteousness.  His blamelessness becomes our blamelessness, just as our sin is put on his head.  The only way to be blameless and holy is to be in Christ.  Listen to this benediction at the end of 1 Thessalonians:

"Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it."

God does the work.  All we need is the faith in Christ.  Of course, God gives us that, too, because he is all powerful and he loves us, and he will not let one of his wayward sheep go astray.  We want to high-tail-it and run as far away from him as we can, but he will not let us.

So, when James gives us commandments at the end of his passage--do not grumble against each other (the negative variation of the positive "love one another" from 1 Thessalonians), suffer in patience like Job and the other prophets, and above all do not swear an oath on anything--he is giving us the complete cross section of the entire Word of God.  In these three commandments we find not only Christ's command to love, from his upper-room discourse, but his point from the Beatitudes that those who suffer in patience will see God on the last day.  Finally, we bring the law from the Old Testament forward with the command to not swear--as blasphemy and lying are the most common and easily executed sins in history, including today.  What James has done here is to tell us that our faith in Christ will fulfill not only Christ's command to love, but Christ's encouragement to suffer for your faith, and Christ's exhortation that one keep the totality of the law, better than the scribes and pharisees.  This is only done through faith alone in Christ alone.

As Christ says in the sermon on the mount, "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."  Are you ready to embrace persecutions?  Are you ready to be blessed?  It is not the easy road.  It is not the wide path.  But it is the way that leads to everlasting life.  The only way to life.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Five Truths About Christmas

After making purification for sins... (Hebrews 1:3)
Why did Jesus Christ come?  Well, the world is corrupted by sin.  It is not as bad as it could be--that would be Hell--but it permeates everything, from merely putting ourselves first to outright hating our neighbor and the God who created us.  Sin is lawlessness, and God's law is spelled out in the ten commandments.  Murder can be taking a life, or it could be mere anger with your neighbor.  Stealing can be taking things that don't belong to you, or it could be wasting the time of others or even yourself.  Coveting can be desiring things that do not belong to you, or it could be jealously protecting what you yourself own.  The range is wide, and so we are all, each one of us, living under the condemnation of the law of God.  There is now escape--except for one.  That is where Jesus comes in.  He came to earth to make purification for sins.  That means he took our sins upon himself and gave us his own righteousness--because he never sinned.  Only God in the flesh could be tempted as we are and not sin.  This great exchange is the purification for sins, and only Jesus could do it.  Why?  Because he loves us. There's no other reason.  He doesn't need us. His creation certainly isn't made better by us being in it.  No, he loves us, just because he wants to.

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. (Luke 1:30)
There is nothing that Mary did to earn God's favor.  She did not merit it in any way.  Likewise, God unconditionally forgives us of our sins.  This is grace at its finest.  We can rest assured that nothing we can do will cause him to reject us.  He chooses us of his own free will.  There is nothing we can do to stop it or start it.  He just does it.  He is a saving God.  Why?  Because he loves us.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)
This famous line is usually phrased, "peace, good will towards men," but that phrasing seems to include all human beings on earth.  We know that some are not saved, and the actual phrase as described above affirms that.  "Among those with whom he is pleased," does not mean that we have to please him before he will give us his good will.  It is his pleasure to give us his good will.  And his good will is Jesus Christ himself, and whoever believes in his holy name will have eternal life.  Jesus died only for those who believe. 

And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. (Luke 2:17)
When we know the good news, the urge to tell everyone becomes irresistible.  When we know we are Christ's own forever, we can't help but shout to the heavens with joy.  Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.

And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. (Matthew 2:11)
We persevere day to day, after we are saved, by reminding ourselves of our salvation.  We do this in three ways.  One, we get baptized, receiving the outward visible sign of the inward invisible grace that we are saved.  Two, we hear the word preached each week, to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and remember that he saved us and no one can pluck us from his hand.  Third, we partake in Holy Communion each week to take the gospel into our bodies tangibly, reminding us of our baptism, and reminding us of the gospel we heard.  Persevere with the saints!  Come into God's loving embrace through our precious savior Jesus Christ.  Hear the good news.  Find him on every page of the Bible.  Believe!  Find joy!  Be saved!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Blessings and Woes

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. (James 5:1-6)

There is a running theme in the Bible that if you are rich, you are in trouble.  Great miseries are coming upon you.  Wealth corrupts, we know.  Even the ungodly will say so.  Money rots our souls.  It seems that when we stand before the Lord on Judgment Day our wealth will be evidence against us, and we will perish.  This is not good news for residents of the wealthiest country in the world, in all of history.  A couple weeks ago, we discussed how storing up earthly treasures for yourself would be the same as to sabotage yourself.  Your soul is required of you now! the Lord may say, and all that earthly wealth isn't going to do you a bit of good!  Worse, the scriptures seem to say that because you are rich, you must have exploited the poor.  You must have defrauded them, somehow, and so they have cried out to the Lord, and their evidence is going to be used against you, too!  A double jeopardy on your soul!

We know that this exploitation does not hold true in the real world.  Just because one is poor does not mean that he or she was exploited by someone who is rich, and just because one is rich does not mean that he or she has exploited the poor.  Our success in life--this is purely from a secular standpoint--is based on our life decisions.  Good choices in life bring success.  Bad choices bring poverty.  If this is true for the tangible world, then "rich" and "poor" must mean something else in the scriptures, too.  God is truth.  If the rich aren't exploiting the poor just by being rich, then God knows this, too, and he wouldn't lie in his word.  The beatitudes help us understand the difference.  Here is the version from Luke:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26)

The first blessing and woe seem to be monetarily matched.  Poor v. Rich in wealth.  The focus it that the poor receive the kingdom of heaven, and the rich won't. The next juxtaposition is between hunger and plenty.  The idea is that those who hunger will be satisfied in heaven, while the satisfied will lose theirs.  Next, we have weeping v. laughing.  Same upending of the status quo is going to happen in the next life.  Finally is the big one, being hated v. being loved on earth results in the opposite later.  Taking all of this together, we can see that it is not rich v. poor at stake.  It is worldly v. godly.  The worldly are usually, but not always, rich, well fed, happy, and spoken well of in this earthly life.  The godly are usually, but not always, poor, hungry, weeping, and hated by the world.  Remember, a key phrase spoken by Jesus here is "on account of the Son of Man!"  The poor that Jesus is talking about here are not necessarily monetarily poor but poor in spirit, hungry in spirit, weeping in spirit, hated in spirit, because of Jesus himself.  Likewise, the rich are not necessarily monetarily rich, but are rich in worldliness, healthy, happy, and loved on this earth--because they deny the truth of Christ.  Again, it's all about how we respond to Jesus Christ.  The rich are those who reject him, and their earthly lives improve and go well.  The poor are those who embrace Christ, and their earthly lives are filled with trials and tribulations.  The poor are not poor because they are exploited by the rich, but they are poor because they are IN CHRIST, and Christ has been rejected by the world.  If you are in Christ, you are the poor, and the world hates you and reviles you.

The exploitation of Israel by Egypt is a typology of the overall situation of Christians.  In Exodus 3, God tells Moses, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt (Exodus 3:7-10).” Egypt doesn't represent the rich and Israel the poor.  Egypt represents the world and Israel God's children, those who are in Christ.  Moses stands in for Christ himself, who will bring his children out of the world and into their everlasting inheritance.  What follows is a typology of the last days of earth, the ten plagues being the destruction of the world, along with it's "rich," and the protection and freedom of the "poor", the sojourners on earth, the ones who don't belong, because they are Christ's, and they are hated by the world.

That is on the last day.  That is the gathering of God's children.  Christ doesn't have to work on that day.  All he has to do is show up--arrive--and gather up his chicks, his sheep, his wheat.  Christ's work has already been done, and James reveals this work in the last verse of our section: "You have condemned and murdered the righteous person.  He does not resist you."  James is not talking about a poor man but THE poor man, Jesus Christ himself.  Exodus may point to the last days, but Jesus' work was not that of Moses, leading the people of Israel out of Egypt.  Jesus' work was that of the perfect lamb that was slaughtered and its blood spread around the doorframes of the houses of the Israelites.  The heavy work of Christ has already been done, to set apart his people for salvation by dying in their place.  God will pass over his children, his saved, when the day of destruction comes.  In Acts, Peter explains this to a crowd of people:

The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. (Acts 3:13-15)

And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. (Acts 3:17-21)

The great news is that the poor and rich are not determined by outward circumstances.  The great news is that all of us are born rich, and we all are guilty of denying Christ.  But hearing the glorious gospel, such as Peter relates above, will change our hearts, if the Holy Spirit wills.  All of us are guilty, but Christ has died for those who believe in him, who repent of their sins, who turn from their wickedness and live.  Become poor, brothers and sisters.  Suffer as Christ suffered.  Cover yourself in his blood and and get "in Christ."  Reject the world and become its enemy.  Put your faith in the one who saves you.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Stones and Serpents

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:1-4)

What causes quarrels and fights among you?  One word: sin.  We all have it.  Even Christians.  the only difference between a Christian sinner and a non-Christian sinner is repentance.  The non-Christian doesn't believe he or she has done anything wrong.  There is no sin. It's "just life." According to the first letter of John, the sinner is aware of his sin and repents.

Why do we sin?  Because we are sinners.  Original sin has been passed down genetically to us through the ages from Adam and Eve.  What sin does is cause us to be extremely selfish.  We desire to satisfy our internal passions--our flesh.  We think only of attaining earthly pleasure.  We desire what we do not have, we covet, and we break the tenth commandment continuously.  That is why that "catch all" commandment is there.  Sometimes we act on it, and we commit murder.  Now, we may not have ever killed anyone, but Jesus said that if one is angry with one's brother or sister, one is a murderer at heart.  If you flippantly call another a fool, or think of someone as lower than yourself, you are committing murder in your heart.

Now, God does want us to ask for things, but there is a difference between earthly things that satisfy our passions and heavenly things that satisfy the soul.  Seeking heavenly things--the kingdom of God and his righteousness--leads to eternal life.  Seeking earthly--worldly, fleshly--things leads to eternal death and ruin. So, it seems clear that we must ask God for eternal things--heavenly things--spiritual things.  But James lets us know that you can ask wrongly for such things--by asking for heavenly things in order to satisfy your earthly passions.  What does this look like?  How does one spend a heavenly gift on earthly, worldly things?  Here is an example: healing.  God heals today.  He repairs people in the flesh.  However, these healings are temporary.  All still die.  The rate is still at 100%.  Healing is a gift from God, but we tend to seek only the temporal, fleshly healing in order to continue to live life in the way we wish.  The healing from above is spiritual.  It is the healing that lasts for eternity.  It is a healing of the soul and a restoration of the God/Man relationship.  Spiritual healing is eternal life.  Do you see how one can ask for the one but only care about the other?  If we focus on the worldly, we end up with neither the worldly nor the heavenly.  Look at some words from Jesus from the sermon on the mount: 

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

When Jesus commands us to ask, he is obviously not talking about asking for worldly things.  He has already spoken extensively in Matthew 6 about not asking for what you want--or even what you need--but seeking alone the kingdom of God and his righteousness--and God will give you what you need.  Not what you want but what you need.  Now, when we get into the next part, we believe we understand that Jesus is saying, and on a certain level, we do.  None of us would give our children bad things, if they asked for good things.  This seems clear.  But here is the issue at hand: we are all children of God, and yet we do not ask for good things.  We do not ask for bread.  We ask for the stone instead.  Why?  Because the world tells us that the stone is preferable to the bread.  Instead of a fish, we ask for a serpent.  Why?  The world has told us that serpents are cool!  No, we should ask for the bread and the fish, and God will happily give us these things, because they are good.  However, remember what James said in his letter?  We tend to ask wrongly.  We want the bread and the fish to satisfy our earthly passions.  Where have we seen this before?

In John 6, Jesus has fed the 5000 bread and fish.  They then chase him down and try to make him king!  Why?  He will be the gravy train, passing out bread and fish each day, and we can live happily ever after, pursuing our earthly pleasures.  Jesus tells them they are seeking the wrong thing.  He is the bread of life.  He is the true nourishment for our souls.  So, when we look at Matthew 7, we see that when God wants us to ask for good things, he wants us to ask for Jesus Christ himself, for he is the only truly good thing.

He has paid our debt of sin for us.  He has forgiven us our debt by spending his blood.  He has given us his righteousness, so that we may stand before the presence of God.  Without Christ's atoning sacrifice, we are still dead in our sins, destined for eternal death.  Thanks be to God for the grace which can only be found in Christ!  Repent of the world and embrace the son!