Sunday, February 27, 2005

Ephesians 5:8-14 - “Blinking and Squinting in the Bright Sunlight”

The Outsiders
Third Sunday in Lent (A)
Saturday, February 26, and Sunday, February 27, 2005

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”

That’s the first line in the novel, The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, and also the first line of the film made from the book. The main character and narrator, Ponyboy, leaves the movie theater, blinking and squinting in the bright sunlight. It’s the 1960’s, and Ponyboy’s just seen some movie starring Paul Newman, but Ponyboy’s also thinking about a ride home. He’s a Greaser, the gang from the poor side of town, and as a Greaser, he shouldn’t walk home alone. The rival gang, the Socials, the more well-to-do were likely to jump him and beat him up if they saw him alone. Which is exactly what happens.

In that bright sunlight, Ponyboy has to come to grips with the stark realities in his life, the sins that surround him, the temptations that are there. The whole novel goes back and forth between darkness and light. Ponyboy often wants to retreat from reality, getting lost in movies and books. His gang, the Greasers, retreat into darkness, mischief and such of the night. Ponyboy enjoys the sunrise, the light on his face, but the light is scary. It reveals the pains in his life, the needs in his life.

That blinking and squinting in the sunlight, that almost painful feeling of your eyes trying to adjust from the dark movie house to the daylight on the street, that’s like the feeling of coming face to face with the light of God. Those verses from Ephesians today, where it talks about exposing the darkness, the light making everything visible. Think of God’s Word, God’s ways working in your life like that bright light that you find when you open the door to leave the movie theater.

Just as Ponyboy liked to go to the movies to escape the realities of his life, sometimes we kind of hide out with our secret sins, doing the things we’d rather people didn’t know about, the things that we use to escape for a little bit. But the movie ends, and Ponyboy heads out into the bright sunlight. So, too, you’ll find that you can’t hide forever. God’s light finds you. God’s light shines into the corners, makes you blink and sneeze and squint, wakes you up and causes to realize the realities of your life.

The light reveals that the things you thought were good are actually fruitless. The light reveals that you don’t know the things of God. The light reveals how far you are from God’s ways. The light reveals the broken down places in your life. The light reveals the trash and rubble lining those once dark alleys. You want to retreat into the darkness. You want to close your eyes to the light.

Except before we start thinking that Paul—that’s St. Paul not Paul Newman—is only talking about choosing between the darkness and the light, let’s remember where this passage starts in Ephesians. It starts in chapter 5, verse 8. It starts with a set fact that is already true about you in Christ. Paul says, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Set fact. Truth. Done. Put it on your resume. You are light in the Lord.

As much as Paul is urging us to choose the light, to stop hiding out in the darkness, to face reality, to admit the sins in our lives, to leave the movie house and deal with what’s going on in our lives, as much as Paul is urging us in this passage to choose God’s ways instead of our sinful ways, he is starting with the fact that you are already light in the Lord.

Through faith in Christ, you are not dark and sinful and turned away from God. Through faith in Christ, you are light and holy and a true child of God. Through faith in Christ, this is a said fact about you. It is a gift from God, that God’s light is flowing through you. It is God’s mercy that removes darkness from your soul and places His light, His Holy Spirit in you.

So, you see, the first thing we need to remember today is that this passage from Ephesians isn’t like telling us to go into the store, compare products, and choose the right one. As if you’re in the store, seeing nice displays of darkness, but also some displays of light, and you need to make the right choice and choose the light.

No, it’s not so much like going shopping, making that choice, as it is that the light was delivered to your doorstep. Special delivery, express, overnight, delivered daily worldwide, God brings His light to your life. If the devil’s delivered darkness, God’s kicking that darkness off the doorstep, throwing it out of the mailbox, throwing it out of the house into the trash. God’s delivering light into your life. It is yours to keep; it is already here in your life.

So when we hear verse 8, we gotta remember that we’re starting with the set fact about you: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Paul says it throughout this letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 2, he says, “You were dead in your transgressions and sins…but God made us alive with Christ.” And again, “you who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” Even more, “you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people.” Over and over again, Paul is helping us understand that we are not sinners condemned to everlasting death, but instead, in Christ, we are forgiven, God’s people, given the promise of everlasting life.

So again, put that on your resume: you are light in the Lord. It’s true about you. Write it down. Make it part of how you describe yourself, because that’s who you are in Jesus.

But let’s go back to Ponyboy walking out of the dark movie house into the bright sunlight. If we are light in the Lord, how come it still hurts to see the light? How come it still hurts to see God’s light reveal our sins? How come we still want to go back into the darkness instead of being in the light? If we have God’s light in us, how come we don’t always follow God’s ways, how come we don’t even want to follow God’s ways sometimes?

Because we’re like dark rooms. God’s knocked a hole in our walls, letting His light pour into our souls, but there’s still corners where His light hasn’t reached. Our rooms are now a combination of light and darkness. Our lives are now a combination of faith and sin. As much as God has shown us His truth, has brought faith into our hearts, has made us holy and light in His sight, we are still sinful and struggling against the darkness. That struggle will remain until Jesus returns, bringing us to eternal life, where the walls will finally be torn down all the way, the light will pour into our lives, and the sin will be done away with completely. Until then, we will struggle between good and bad, light and dark.

So if that’s the case, if we’re still struggling, and Paul’s saying things like, “Live as children of light” and “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness,” then it sounds like we’re back to choosing between light and dark. We’re back to the idea that we’re in a store, trying to decide which one to buy.

Except as much as you and I have many choices everyday between light and dark, between God and sin, you’re not back to square one with an empty shopping cart. Paul urges us to choose the light, but he doesn’t tell us that we don’t have any light in our lives yet. It’s just the opposite.

(get shopping cart full of lights, turn lights on right away, walk it up and down center aisle)
You start with a full shopping cart. You’ve got the light in your shopping cart, the light of Christ, the holiness and forgiveness and mercy and grace and love and promise and hope of Christ in your shopping cart, because remember, that’s the set fact about you, that’s what you wrote down about yourself, that’s what God has already done in your life: His light is in you. You don’t have an empty shopping cart; your cart is full of lights; your life is full of Christ through His Word, through your baptism, through the Lord’s Supper.

In fact, the choice isn’t between putting light in your cart or putting darkness in there. Your choice is whether you’re going to take out the lights to make room for darkness. God is in your life. . .will you let Him stay? (to pulpit)

Paul says, “Live as children of light,” but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have to go searching far and wide for the light of God. God’s light has come into your life, has filled your shopping cart, is in your soul already. Instead, Paul is saying, “Live according to who you are, what you already have. Discover what God has put in your life, the fruits of light: goodness, righteousness, and truth.”

So Paul’s not talking about trying to go find these things somewhere else in the world. Paul’s saying, “Take a look in your shopping cart, take a look at your life. See what God is already doing in you.” If you have shown love to a neighbor, that’s God’s goodness working in you. If you chose to do what is right according to God instead of doing something wrong, if you chose to speak well of an acquaintance instead of spreading a false rumor, then that’s God’s light shining through you. If you told people what God teaches, instead of just making up something you thought sounded nice, then that’s God’s truth speaking through you.

Paul says, “Expose the fruitless deeds of darkness,” but that doesn’t mean he left you to do that on your own. God’s light has come into your life, has filled your shopping cart, is in your soul already. Instead, Paul is saying, “You’ve got this big light source in your life. You’ve got God and His Word working in you. Let God’s Word reveal the darkness, the sin, the shameful things in your life and the temptations around you.”

So like this shopping cart full of lights, take God’s Word and drive it around your life. Let it expose all of the darkness. Let it shine in all of the corners. Let it be a flashlight, an emergency beacon, a lighthouse, a big, old floodlight to help you see the sins in your life. Instead of trying to hide in the darkness, to put things back in a corner, to pretend like God will never notice, to act like you could never know whether something is wrong or right, use your shopping cart of light, use God’s Word in your life to discover what is darkness, what is sinful, what will lead you away from God.

But again, you don’t have to go searching far and wide for this light cart, this light source to expose the deeds of darkness. The light is in your life through Christ. God has put His light in your soul. God has knocked down the walls of the dark movie house and has poured His light into your life. You have His light, His love, His forgiveness, His hope.

(go to cart) As I said, you have the choice to ignore the light, to start turning off the lights, to put darkness in your cart instead of the light. (turn off button on power strip) That choice we have, to choose sin instead of what God has put in our lives.

But the strange thing is that as soon as we try to choose darkness, to run away from God, He brings the light right back. (lights on) We can turn off the lights as many times as we can, but God won’t let His light go away from our lives. He will keep bringing His light into our lives to show us His love and forgiveness. He will shine His light on our sins, revealing what we’d rather hide. He will show us how our sins lead to eternal death. He will bring His light into our souls to lead us to faith. (to pulpit)

So we do need to remember to choose light instead of dark, to choose God’s ways instead of our sinful ways. Today go into your lives remembering that we are called to be God’s people, called to choose to do what He wants instead of what we want. Instead of a mean word to someone, speak kindness. Instead of trying to get everything for yourself, find ways to share with the people around you. Instead of keeping anger in your heart, find forgiveness and love for others.

Yet, that’s not where it all starts today. It starts with a full shopping cart of light. You are light in the Lord. You have God’s light in your life, leading you, working in your soul. So as you go into your daily lives, you will struggle against sins and temptations, you will want to put darkness in your cart, you will want to put your own ways in your heart. Yet, remember that God has taken you from darkness to light, from sinful to holy, from a stranger to His child. God has filled your life with His light. Take His light, take His Word with you today. And so even when you fail, and you and I will fail, even when we sin, God switches that light back on, flooding the darkness with forgiveness and love. As much as it might hurt, enjoy the sunlight. As you’re blinking and squinting in the bright sunlight, rejoice that God’s light is working in your life.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Psalm 88:13-18 (Jude 17-25) - "Dear God"

Lenten Midweek
Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Sophomore year in high school everyone had to do their I.S. project for English class, their Independent Study project. For my topic, I picked rock music lyrics and censorship. This was 1989, and the Parents’ Music Resource Council, the PMRC, was fighting to censor rock music. Well, I set out to defend rock music.

One target in 1989 for censorship was the band XTC and their song, “Dear God.” I actually found the song to be a quite honest, though challenging, prayer to God, a prayer that comes from doubt and struggle over faith, but a prayer nonetheless.

In fact, 15 years since that project, I can see that the song they wanted to ban actually has a lot of similarities to Scripture, namely Psalm 88.

[Now before we go any further, I do not stand behind everything that the band XTC sings about, and I certainly realize that they named their band after the illegal drug, ecstasy. I’m in no way advocating drug use. In fact, ecstasy is extremely dangerous but is seen just as a fun drug at rave parties. It is something affecting some youth in our area, and we need to remain aware of its dangers.]

That said, the song “Dear God” comes out of doubt. On the bulletin insert, you’ve got a quote from this song,

Dear God,
Sorry to disturb you,
But I feel that I should be heard loud and clear.
We all need a big reduction in amount of tears,
And all the people that you made in your image
See them fighting in the street,
’Cause they can’t make opinions meet about God,
I can’t believe in you.

It’s a challenging song. The chorus continually repeats how the singer can’t believe in God because of the troubles in the world. The song ends with a rejection of everything from saints and sinners, heaven and hell, and even the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I’m not surprised that the PMRC wanted to ban this song for its irreverent slam on Christianity.

When I first heard the song, though, I realized that the struggles that the singer is having with faith were the struggles I’d often experienced. Many times in my life I had doubted that God was really there. I saw problems around me and in my life and wondered where God was.

And Scripture includes prayers that come from doubt and struggle. Look on the insert at the verses from Psalm 88.

But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness.

This is a prayer in the prayer book of the Bible. This is a prayer that was written by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And yet, this is a prayer that asks difficult questions, like, “Where are you, God, because I can’t see you in this situation?” This psalm shows that there is room for doubt, struggle, and uncertainty in our faith. We can ask God the tough questions; we can admit that we aren’t always so sure; we can tell God when He seems to be missing in our lives.

So we can’t just ban doubt. Doubt is a part of our lives; we believe in God, but because we can’t see Him, because we can’t fully know, because of our imperfect, sinful hearts, we’re always struggling to believe. So when the PMRC was trying to ban that song, I defended the song, because the song was being honest about doubt. So when people tell you not to doubt, I will defend you, because your doubts and questions are honest. It’s better to honestly talk about what you’re thinking, about your struggles, than to ignore them. Banning doubt, censoring doubt, doesn’t make it go away; and actually, even Scripture gives us prayers like Psalm 88 that honestly tell God about our doubts.

But what was the PMRC trying to do when they wanted to ban “Dear God”? They were trying to defend the truth from scoffers, from those who would speak against the faith. Look at the insert at the verses from the New Testament book Jude.

But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. [18] They said to you, "In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions." [19] It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. [20] But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; [21] keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. [22] And have mercy on those who doubt; [23] save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

I can see how the PMRC thought they were following this kind of instruction, to warn others against scoffers, those who would speak against the faith. I can see how they felt like XTC’s song scoffed at God, and to a certain degree, I can agree with them. The song goes pretty far in attacking God and the faith.

However, in response, it seems like PMRC scoffed at doubt. XTC wrote an honest song about doubting God. According to Jude, the PMRC shouldn’t have just defended the faith. Jude also says, “And have mercy on those who doubt.”

The PMRC scoffed at doubt, wanted to ban doubt, allowed no place for expressions of doubt, and acted like they never doubted. That isn’t showing mercy on doubters. In fact, in trying to ban “Dear God,” the PMRC failed to listen to another XTC song which warns us against ignoring what is really going on in our souls. You’ve got a quote from the song “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” on your insert.

Now he sits all alone
And it's no place like home
It's empty skin
A bag to keep life's souvenirs in
The man who sailed around his soul

Ignoring the doubt, ignoring what’s really going on in your heart and mind, leaves you in danger of “sailing around your soul.” If on the surface you want to try and make everything look perfect, that you’re always 100% committed, that you never struggle or get afraid or get mad about God, then you’re disconnecting yourself from your soul. You’re making everything look good on the surface, but in the end, the dirt’s under the carpet, the doubts and thoughts are still there.

Instead, God promises mercy for doubters. God doesn’t expect us to have a faith that never doubts. If God expected that, He wouldn’t have allowed Psalm 88 in the Bible; that psalm really questions whether God is around, really struggles with believing. If God expected us never to doubt, He wouldn’t have told us to have mercy on doubters. Doubters would be rejected, kicked out, never to be seen again. However, if that were the case, I’m afraid it’d be pretty empty in the church—beginning with the pulpit.

So no, you’re going to doubt; pray and tell God your doubts. You’re going to doubt; talk to other Christians about your doubt. People sometimes feel like they can’t tell me their doubts and struggles, but it’s not like I’ve never heard them, it’s not like I’ve never experienced them. Ignoring doubt, banning doubt, won’t make it go away. Instead we talk to God; we continually ask Him to keep our faith strong even when our faith is so weak.

The poet John Donne wrote, “Churches are best for prayer/that have least light.” He could’ve just meant that a church that is dimly lit helps you focus on your prayers. However, as mentioned by another author, Philip Yancey, Donne could’ve also meant that a church that allows room for doubt is a church that encourages prayer.

We come to the strong light of faith, coming to hear about salvation through the cross of Jesus, but that strong light of faith doesn’t fill in every corner, doesn’t illuminate everything. Our prayers come from the darkness and struggles. We know about Christ and His forgiveness from God’s Word. But we readily admit the things we don’t know, leaving room for mystery, hiddeness, unknowns, doubts.

That’s how to pray. Prayer is like walking through the spotlight. (step into dark) We call out from the dark, struggling to believe in God, but then we say, (step into light) “Lord, I still believe in you!”

(step into dark) You ask, “Why doesn’t God answer all of my prayers?” (step into light) What we know is that God does answer your prayers—sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes wait. (step into dark) But the truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know why He hasn’t seemed to answer your prayers or has answered them in a certain way.

You ask, “Why does God seem to give blessings to non-Christians when He doesn’t bless me, a Christian, who is praying for the same blessing? (step into light) What I know is that as a Christian you have the ultimate blessing of eternal life with God. (step into dark) But the truth is, I don’t know.

You ask, “Why would God keep letting me go through something so difficult when it causes me to doubt Him?” (step into light) I know that God uses our struggles to strengthen our faith. (step into dark) But the truth is, I don’t know.

(step into light) Maybe that’s not much comfort. The darkness, the doubts, the unanswered questions about prayer. Yet, what I want you to know is that doubt isn’t banned here. You can admit your doubts to God, to each other, to me. Doubt is a part of the struggle to remain faithful in this broken and fallen world, separated from our God.

If you have ever felt like you should be ashamed of your doubts, that you were beyond hope because of your struggles, remember: there are prayers of doubt in Scripture, so take your doubts to God in prayer. Remember: Scripture calls on us to have mercy on those who doubt; doubters should never be cast out, sent away, banned. If you’ve ever been sent away by a Christian because of your doubt, remember my story tonight about defending the song “Dear God” and know that I will not send you away because you’re struggling to believe. God will not send you away; He remains by your side, walking with you, hearing your doubting, angry, struggling prayers; God remains with you to find ways to give you strength in the middle of it all.

May God grant us all the Holy Spirit to work in our doubting, struggling, wandering, wondering, questioning hearts. May the Holy Spirit keep the faith in our hearts even when we’re ready to chuck it all. May the Holy Spirit give us strength of faith and help us to take our prayers and questions to God. May the Holy Spirit go with you tonight, keeping the light of the truth of the salvation of Jesus in your heart. He is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you to God the Father with great joy.

Psalm 77 - “I Don’t Know Why God Allows Natural Disasters”

Lenten Midweek
Wednesday, March 16, 2005

In this the last of our series called “What Would Jesus Say?” where we’ve been trying to address the questions that you’ve asked, we’ll look at natural disasters. There was quite a number of you asking about this, especially because we’ve had the Asian Tsunami on our minds.

There was one question that summed it all up: Why does God allow such massive tragedies in the world?

I don’t know. (sit down, wait)
(back to pulpit) OK, I can’t just sit down, but it feels like the questions you’ve asked in this series are ones that only Jesus can really answer. He didn’t leave us the answers. When you asked about prayer, a few weeks ago I had to say I don’t know why God doesn’t answer all of our prayers the way we’d expect. Last week, I heard Pastor Miller have to say that he doesn’t know why some people live a long life and some people die so young. It seems like for these questions the only answer I have is “I don’t know.” I don’t know why God allows such massive tragedies and disasters in the world.

So I’m just going to sit down. Perhaps it’d be better if we’d just use this time to read silently Psalm 77 to ourselves. It’s on the back of your bulletins. Maybe rather than me being up here saying, “I don’t know,” maybe it’d be better just to meditate, think about Psalm 77. (sit down)

Oh, but the question burns, doesn’t it? You try to just accept that we don’t know why God let the tsunami hit Southeast Asia, why there’s tornadoes and hurricanes and fires and earthquakes and avalanches. You try to just accept that God is in control, but the question burns, doesn’t it? Even when we tell ourselves, “God is watching over us” or “God has a plan,” even then, the why’s are still on our minds—like in Psalm 77.

I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands
and my soul refused to be comforted.
I remembered you, O God, and I groaned;
I mused, and my spirit grew faint.

You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart mused and my spirit inquired:
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”

Those are the questions on our minds, aren’t they, when we see terrible natural disasters in the world? “Will the Lord always reject us? Will He never show His favor, His help again? Has His love vanished from the world?” Those are the burning questions, and when there aren’t answers, when all we can offer is “I don’t know,” well, we start to get a little more nervous when we hear about a severe weather warning.

I remember growing up knowing that when I looked out my bedroom window that the storms would approach us from the direction. We’d watch from my bedroom as the storm started to grow, as the skies turned that strange gray and green, as the patterns in the clouds really started to look like funnel clouds, as the sirens went off and told us to go downstairs. Whenever I looked out the window, I always knew that the storm would come from that direction, and really, there was nothing I could do about it. The tornadoes and wind and hail and rain could come and sweep away our house, or they might hit somewhere else. I knew then, even as I know now, the answer is “I don’t know.” I don’t know why God allows such massive tragedies in the world. That questions burns and aches in our hearts, tempting us to find an answer.

Matthew Harrison, the Executive Director of Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod World Relief, was traveling to survey the damage from the tsunami, and he met someone who thought they could answer the question: why would God allow such a massive tragedy? Harrison writes about the conversation in the current issue of the Lutheran Witness.

(leave pulpit, go near side door) He met a relief worker from another American denomination. The man said, (read quote off piece of paper), “Our people in Sri Lanka are telling us they are having great effectiveness in evangelizing. Yes, they are asking Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, ‘Where was your god in all this? Was he strong enough to prevent this evil from coming upon you? Jesus Christ can protect you!” (crumple up piece of paper and throw it out the side door)

(going back to pulpit) That’s not the kind of answer to give. Harrison says it was like getting “sucker punched” to hear this man imply that only non-Christians died in the tsunami. Harrison had already been to Sri Lanka, seen the devastation, seen “The Queen of the Sea,” the train which had been picked up and tossed around by the waves killing a thousand people. Among the people on the train was Pastor Ranjith Fernando and his wife. Pastor Ranjith had just translated the Lutheran Confessions into one of the native languages of his country. Pastor Ranjith and his wife were believers in Christ—their lives lost in the tsunami, the same as Hindus, Buddhist, Muslims, and people who didn’t believe in any god.

It is so tempting to give an answer, a reason as to why God would send a disaster like the tsunami. It bothers us so much that there is no clear reason that we’re tempted to come up with our own answer like that relief worker did, decide that if people were killed in the disaster, it must be because they didn’t believe in Jesus.

But as Matthew Harrison knew, the tsunami also took the lives of Christians. To tell people that they would’ve been protected if they believed in Jesus is to ignore this fact. It’s to ignore the fact that Christians suffer from natural disasters in this world too. In fact, that’s the most amazing fact about Jesus—He came and suffered among us. He didn’t come to promise that there would be no suffering in this life; He came and shared our suffered, shared our death, in order to give us victory after death. If we go around claiming that Jesus will always keep us from suffering in disasters, not only would we be denying reality, we’d be denying that Jesus came to share in our sufferings, the Christian life comes through the suffering of the cross, the Christian hope is that the suffering will not last for eternity, but until that day, Jesus will walk with us as we go through many difficult days and trials.

What does Scripture say, then? I don’t know. Why does God allow disasters? I don’t know. Read the second half of Psalm 77 to yourselves. I’m going to sit down again, because I just don’t know how to answer the question. (sit down, wait)

(back to pulpit) Did you notice this? Psalm 77 asks all of those tough questions, just like our tough question about why God allows such massive tragedies. Psalm 77 asks all of those questions, but did you notice? Psalm 77 doesn’t attempt to give an answer. Psalm 77 just appeals to God’s past gracious acts.

Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will meditate on all your works
and consider all your mighty deeds.

With all of the questions on the psalmist’s mind, he decides that all he can do is appeal to God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s loving acts that He did in the past. It’s like He’s saying to God, “Look, I don’t know why this is happening, Lord. I don’t know why we’re suffering, but don’t forget your gracious acts, your miracles, your works that are powerful.”

So that’s it. When we see suffering and disasters in the world, we just have to say, “I don’t know why it happened,” but then we turn our attention to what we do know about God. We do know that God made this world, that God made us, that we are His Creation. We do know that God wants to be in a relationship with us and that’s why He sent Jesus to live, die, and rise again. We do know that through faith, through baptism, through Jesus, God will raise us from the dead. We know all of these gracious, merciful, wonderful works of God. We will hold onto these things even while we’re seeing disasters all around us. We will hold onto what we know about God—His love, His plan to give us a life of hope and peace in eternity, His promise to be with us through all suffering.

I’ve talked a lot about what we don’t know tonight. I’ve talked a lot about the fact that disasters come and there doesn’t seem to be any reason, any answers from God about why they come. BUT I’m asking you to hold onto what we do know about God.

We could spend our whole lives speculating about God, trying to look into things we never could understand, trying to figure out things that are never explained in Scripture. We could sit around and wonder and question and doubt and decide we don’t like any of the answers except for the answers we come up with on our own. We could do all of that—but in the process, we’ll miss out on what we do know. I could stay seated every time I preach, because I don’t know the answers to those difficult questions, feeling like there’s nothing to say because I can’t answer some of your questions. But if I stayed in my seat, we’d miss out on hearing again what we do know about God.

God made you—each one of you is unique, has gifts and abilities, has been given so much in many different ways. God wants to be in a relationship with you—He is your Father, your Shepherd, your King, your Friend, your Savior, your Eagle raising you up on His wings. God the Father sent His Son, Jesus, to rescue you—Jesus is your Redeemer, your Brother, your Victor over death, your Life, your Light.

This is what we do know about God. This is what we can say when we see disasters in the world and when disasters hit our lives. We can ask God all of those questions, but then we turn to Him and say, “God, don’t forget that You made us. Don’t forget that You want to be in a relationship with us. Remember that You sent Your Son to give us life after death.”

So if someone asks about tonight’s church service, don’t tell them that your pastor answered questions about why God allows such massive tragedies in the world. Tell them that your pastor reminded you of what we know about God. We know God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s unfailing hope and promise of life after death.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Matthew 17:1-9 - “The Messiah-Christ-King, Suffering Servant, New Moses, Son”

Transfiguration (Year A - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, February 5, and Sunday, February 6, 2005

When the voice from heaven, the voice of God, declares, “This is my Son, whom I love, with Him I am well-pleased,” God the Father is identifying Jesus as the Servant and Savior of the world. And this happened on that day at the Jordan River when John the Baptist baptized Jesus, the Baptism of our Lord.

Oh, wait, that’s the wrong sermon. It’s the right words, “This is My Son,” but the wrong event. Today we’re talking about the Transfiguration of our Lord.

Jesus takes His closest three disciples, Peter, James, and John, up on a mountain where He is transfigured, changed, revealing His divine glory. He’s standing there with Moses and Elijah, and the voice of God the Father declares from heaven, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” The Father is repeating what He said at the Baptism of Jesus.

There aren’t many times when people hear the voice of God speaking from heaven, and so you know that what He said has to be important. To think that God the Father said the same thing twice must mean that this sentence is extremely important.

Yet, at first glance, it looks like kind of a regular, not very awe-inspiring sentence. Jesus is God’s Son; we probably could’ve figured that out in other ways. God the Father loves Jesus; that’s kind of a no-brainer. We know God the Father loves everyone. God the Father is pleased with Jesus; that too isn’t so surprising since Jesus is perfect and holy.

But if we’ll look again, then we’ll discover just how this sentence reveals so much more about Jesus than we might think, how it gives our faith such depth.

When God the Father speaks from heaven and says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” a biblically-trained ear would’ve heard God the Father saying that Jesus is the Messiah-Christ-King, Suffering Servant, New Moses, Son. That one sentence spoken from heaven gives Jesus four different titles.

I know you might be thinking, “I don’t see the Father saying anything about Messiah, Servant, or Moses.” You might be thinking that, and believe me, before I studied this passage with the help of many books by authors who understand the Bible better than I do, before I studied, I didn’t catch it either. If you’re like me, then, you’re realizing that your biblically-trained ears need a lot more biblical training.

For the biblically-trained ear, though, when God the Father speaks, the allusions, the references to other parts of Scripture are just so clear.

It’d be like me saying that there’s a guy who is the caped-crusader who has spidey-sense and is faster than a speeding bullet.

If I said that, your popular-culture-trained ear may quickly realize that I just declared someone to be Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman combined. Batman, the caped-crusader, Spider-Man, the one with spidey-sense, and Superman, who is faster than a speeding bullet. If you know your superheroes, you’re going to hear those references, allusions to all three superheroes. Just as easily, a biblically-trained ear is going to hear the references to the Old Testament in God the Father’s announcement from heaven.

So let’s get biblically trained. In your bulletin, you’ve got an insert with the sentence spoken by God the Father. We’re going to spend just a little time finding out how that one sentence refers to three places in the Old Testament.

Looking at your insert, let’s take the first phrase, “This is My Son.” Go to the line above it, and for the Scripture, write, “Psalm 2:7.” Psalm 2:7 says, “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father.” This psalm is a royal psalm about the King, but when it declares that the King is the Son of God, you’ve got a psalm about the Messiah which is the Hebrew word for Christ which is the Greek word for Anointed or Promised One. So when God the Father says, “This is My Son,” He’s giving Jesus 2 titles. Write these titles on the lines just above where you wrote Psalm 2:7. One title is “Messiah-Christ-King.” The other title is “Son.” God is saying that Jesus is the Promised One, the Messiah, the Christ who was coming to save God’s people. God is also saying that Jesus is His Son, that Jesus is divine, that Jesus is from eternity. Messiah-Christ-King. Son. Two titles in that one phrase.

Go to the lines below “Whom I love; with Him I am well-pleased.” I hope you’re seeing that this kind of like an answer key to a crossword puzzle. You’re getting the clues, so that you’ll understand the puzzle, and the puzzle you’re going to understand is your spiritual life, your Savior, your God.

OK, “Whom I love; with Him I am well-pleased” is a reference to Isaiah 42:1. Write that on the Scripture line below the phrase. Isaiah 42:1 says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.” Do you hear the phrases from Transfiguration? In Isaiah, God says, “Whom I uphold,” which is very similar to Transfiguration where God says, “Whom I love.” “In whom I delight” is very similar to “with Whom I am well-pleased.” The phrases are strikingly similar. Matthew, Luke, and Peter’s first letter all make the connection to Isaiah 42. Therefore, the Father is giving Jesus another title: Suffering Servant. Many places in Isaiah explain that the Suffering Servant is the One whom God will send to serve and save His people, but this servant will do it through suffering for the people.

Finally, the last phrase, “Listen to Him!” For this one, you’ve got to go to Deuteronomy 18:15, that’s your Scripture passage for this phrase. In Deuteronomy 18:15, Moses says, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” Ah, do you hear it? “Listen to Him!” When God the Father says this, He’s saying that Jesus is the prophet that Moses promised would come. There’s the fourth title from the sentence: Jesus is the New Moses. As Moses appears on the mountain with Jesus, we realize that Jesus is an even greater prophet than Moses. Jesus comes to speak all of the words that we will need to be saved.

Again, like a key to a puzzle, we’ve just made the connections to see how the phrase spoken from heaven at the Transfiguration, how that phrase points to the Old Testament and declares Jesus to be the Messiah-Christ-King, Suffering Servant, New Moses, Son.

This is the kind of thing that causes people in my Bible studies to say, “The average person never would’ve figured that out.” When they say that, I’m very quick to defend the people in biblical times. There’s a tendency to sell them short, thinking that the people way back then could’ve never understood all of this because they didn’t read or write or go to college or have television.

Yet, the people in biblical times, and here specifically Peter, James, and John, would’ve known their Scriptures very, very well. They didn’t just have copies of the Bible laying all around, and so they memorized it. They knew their Scriptures forward and back. And they didn’t know them just to quote them. They knew the Scriptures to see how they fit together, to see how they pointed to our hope. So when Peter, James, and John, average guys, heard the voice of God from heaven, once they had a chance to get over being scared of what just happened, they would’ve heard in that sentence how God the Father was saying Jesus is the Messiah-Christ-King, Suffering Servant, New Moses, Son.

That’s biblical times, though. There’s also the concern that the average Christian today would never catch the deep meaning and connection in a sentence like this one from God the Father. Sometimes the people in my Bible studies kind of imply that studying connections like these are a little beyond them, a little too much, maybe not so important, more than their pastor should expect them to understand.

Well, I’m quick to stop them on this line of thought, and I’ll be quick to stop you today too if that’s what you’re thinking, because you’re selling yourself short. So maybe you didn’t understand the extreme importance of this one sentence; maybe you didn’t see the connections to the Old Testament. Now you do, though. Now you know that Jesus didn’t just appear and make all of this stuff up; Jesus came to fulfill what God had promised in the Old Testament.

Maybe you feel like you could’ve never figured that out on your own. That’s OK. You’re not on your own. God put you in a congregation surrounded by others who are also wanting to understand more about their Savior. You’re a part of a congregation that supports two pastors with salaries so that we can dedicate our full time to studying God’s Word and teaching you about it. So you’re not on your own.

And now you know that Jesus is the Promised Savior, the Anointed King who has come to rule over us with love and compassion. Now you know that Jesus is the Suffering Servant, coming to serve us, His people, by suffering in our place. Now you know that Jesus is the New Moses, the prophet who would be far better than Moses, and that we will never need any other prophet. Now you know that Jesus is God’s Son, that Jesus Himself is divine, that when Jesus died, He had the power to rise from the dead, that Jesus is still divine and still has the power to save us.

So don’t let yourself get hung up on feeling like you’re not smart enough, you don’t know enough to get this stuff. It’s not about being smart enough; it’s about hearing the Word. It’s not about showing up to church already knowing this stuff; it’s about coming to learn. It’s not about reading the Bible completely on your own and figuring out all of this stuff. I had to read and study about 10 different books to make sure I understood all of these connections. It’s not about coming to Bible study already knowing all of these deep connections; it’s about coming to Bible study to learn with your brothers and sisters in Christ.

And again, why? Some people tell me that they just want a simple faith; they just want to know about Jesus and that’s enough. Why am I trying to take you to another level, a deeper level? Because I want you to grow in your faith, I want you to mature in your faith, I want you to go from drinking milk to eating meat, as St. Paul said.

Peter, James, and John could’ve easily said, “No, Jesus, we don’t want to go up on the mountain with you to learn anymore.” They could’ve said afterwards, “Look, Jesus, that’s really nice that you showed us your divine glory, but really we just wanted the simple stuff.” And Jesus could’ve agreed, decided to just give His disciples a very simple, limited message.

But that’s not what Jesus did. He told them the basics: God loves us, God forgives sin. Yet, He also took them to the next level, constantly challenging them to understand how He is everything that the Old Testament had promised. He challenged them to understand how far-reaching the commandments are: it’s not just about literal murder, the fifth commandment is also about getting rid of hatred in your heart. He challenged them to understand that they would never be able to save themselves, make themselves right in God’s sight. He showed them that God forgives us by God’s action not by our actions. If Jesus took His group of disciples to this next level, this deep
level, I am convinced that He meant for us to seek that deep level as well.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on that mountain to see something unbelievable, something requiring that they would have to study and think about what it all meant. “Sure,” you say, “but they were the disciples.” Yet, before they were disciples, Peter, James, and John were fishermen. They weren’t scholars; they didn’t already understand of this stuff; they didn’t get to be disciples because they already had passed a test. Jesus called them to be disciples, learners, followers, so that they could learn and discover and grow in their faith.

So what if you didn’t understand all of these deep meanings in the Transfiguration until today? So what if you didn’t even remember or know what Transfiguration is? Jesus calls you to be His disciples, learners, followers, so that you can learn and discover and grow in your faith. Jesus calls you to study His Word, to work with other Christians, to seek out the truth, so that you will understand how God the Father works salvation in your life.

Alright, I think that’s enough said about all of that. I don’t want to hear anything about how you’re not smart enough to know these deep things about God. What I want to hear from you today is that you got an answer key to an important sentence in Scripture. You dug deep to learn that God the Father’s words at the Baptism of Jesus and at the Transfiguration pointed to a whole bunch of promises in the Old Testament. Today God’s Word showed you that Jesus is the Messiah-Christ-King, Suffering Servant, New Moses, Son. Jesus is the Messiah, the Promised One whom God sent to save His people from sin. Jesus is the Suffering Servant, who didn’t save us by some glorious shock-and-awe move; Jesus saved us by suffering and dying in our place. Jesus is the One that Moses said would come to be the great prophet, and that we should listen to Him. Jesus is the Son of God from eternity, divine, having all authority in heaven and on earth.

That’s what I want you to hear you talking about today, because that is what God’s Word has shown you this day. Your Savior isn’t just Jesus. Your Savior is everything that the Old Testament promised He would be. Your Savior is the Messiah-Christ-King, Suffering Servant, New Moses, Son.