Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Proverbs 9:1–10 & Joshua 24:1-2(a), 14-18 | Ephesians 5:6–21 | John 6:51–69

Text: Ephesians 5:6-21

“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’”
~ John 6:68-69 ~

Yesterday at the men’s breakfast, we learned about the thread in American Christianity of revivalism, which says that the Christian life begins with your personal decision.  And if you listen to the Old Testament lesson and Gospel today with the glasses on of personal decision, that’s certainly what it sounds like Joshua and Peter are saying: “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) And, “Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ 68 Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’” (John 6:67-69)

But does one’s eternal destiny really hang on their own choice?  That’s a ton of pressure!  In fact, we need more than our flimsy decision as the foundation for our life today and for eternity.  But, it’s also clear in the verses right before that the things Joshua and Peter said were not just their own personal sentiment: “And [Jesus] said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’”  God was at work in and through their pledge of faithfulness to Jesus over the alternatives.  God gave Joshua the conviction to say, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”…even if all the other people should choose to serve manmade gods.  God gave Peter the wisdom to believe, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”…even though such a large number of disciples were ditching Jesus.  Their examples are written down for our learning.  They had a conviction that there was only one God who could save, and only one God worthy of fear, love, and trust.

There’s something to that conviction and power to confess which is behind what St. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them;

There is an opposite to one serving the Lord and these words of eternal life.  It is the world of idolatry and lies, darkness and death.  Without God helping us, it’s not just that a person becomes sort of neutral and unaffiliated.  They actually go the way of the enemies of God, in danger of falling under the wrath of God.  That is to say, if we are left to ourselves, a human being will always drift toward evil.

The empty words Paul warns us about are always there, appealing to that part of us that wants to rise above the place God has placed us.  “You will be like God” it promises, if only you would be free of those shackles of the God of the Bible [Ps. 2:3].  All you need is to unlock the person within, and just imagine what potential is inside you! 

Over the last century, the Church has been engaged in many spiritual battles.  Even while many of us have fond childhood memories of crowded Sunday Schools and packed worship services, there was serious contention between what the Church believes and what the world was trying to sell to Christians—the kind of “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” and an invitation to give up simple faith in God’s Word.  Take for instance, the battle over creation versus evolution.  God’s Word teaches that He made everything by His Word, while the evolution understands everything happening according to mutations and survival of the fittest.  But the Church persevered in battle, insisting that we are creations of God not descendants of apes.  Little by little, even non-Christian scientists have had to admit the faults of their theory. Now, the only reason it persists in schools is because they don’t have a God-free alternative. Even intelligent design suggests there might be a personal force out there.

Another major conflict has been the battle for the Bible itself against Higher Criticism, and that has dragged on for more than a century.  Higher critics are eager to find human fault in the Bible and reduce it to precepts of men and their prejudices. That way, they’re free to rise above those parts of which they disapprove. Yet, because of the conviction which God puts in His people, pastors and professors rose to the occasion and laypeople took up the mantle.  They persevered even when the majority of professors walked out of Concordia Seminary in 1974.  Those who held to the defense of God’s Word actively engaged against world-creep.

They studied and prayed, exhorted and did their best to convince, and their labors bore fruit.  Today, there is a wealth of scholarship and resources available about the evidence for a young earth and the geological processes caused by the Flood.  Today, biblical scholarship is remarkably gifted, with a treasure of in-depth study of biblical manuscripts and critical study of the texts as the Word of God.

The generation now living has its own battle, and it’s one which rears its head within the Church, and that is indifference and resignation.  That’s just your opinion.  Well, whatever works for you.  Listen again to verse 6: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of apathy.”  Apeitheia is translated as disobedience because it pictures someone who is unpersuaded and will not be convinced.   Something is true because it works for me, or I feel it in my heart, and forget the outside, objective truth of a matter. 

And isn’t that what we face today?  COVID has helped people become apathetic about the necessity of coming together to worship.  Couples are apathetic about the institution of marriage.  More Christians, especially youth are apathetic about the biblical view of sexuality as they are force-fed the LGBT agenda.  It seems little to matter what argument you can come up with, because they don’t care.  Their mind is made up already because they’ve decided what’s right for them.  This is also what God calls hardness of heart.

That’s a scary thing to consider, that baptized Christians could be found with hard hearts and suffer the fate of the ungodly!  Lord, have mercy upon us!  We have sinned against Him when we have let this dark world set our priorities and gone after what appeals to our sinful nature and the easy road that is.  We have also seen our family and friends embrace the lies and we’ve comforted ourselves by taking the tack, “Well, I guess that works for them.”

Christ your Lord was not impassive and apathetic.  For the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross and rejection you have deserved.  When He saw you in darkness, He had compassion which moved Him to come down and take on flesh.  He persevered in the cause, so that you would have forgiveness, peace with God, and eternal life!  He has made you not a son of disobedience or of apathy, but a child of light.

This is why Paul warns us not to become partners with sons of apathy, with those who have hardened their heart to God’s Word, which He sent to save us.  We continually need the reminder of what we truly are and what is really important:

for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. 13 But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, 14 for anything that becomes visible is light.

Walking in the darkness without God doesn’t lead anywhere good.  Even if you were at one time darkness, now you are light in the Lord.  If at one time you followed your heart and followed the example of unbelievers around you, if you were wise in your own eyes and didn’t want anyone to tell you otherwise—you are now light in the Lord.  Separate your heart from the ways of those in darkness.  You cannot join with them in celebrating the evil they do.  By living as children of light, expose what is darkness in this world—no matter how socially accepted it is, no matter how you may be slandered because you refuse.

Rather, love all people the way that God does.  He doesn’t want even His enemies to stay lost in darkness and error, of apathy and judgment.  So, He shines the light of His Word to you, to them.  Through you, He calls out to them:

“Awake, O sleeper,

and arise from the dead,

and Christ will shine on you.”

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

It was significantly less challenging to walk as a Christian in years gone by, when social norms and ethics agreed with the Christian worldview—things like modesty, speech, and standards for decency.  If Paul said the days were evil, we can see how true that is more and more each year.  And Christians living in 21st century America certainly need help knowing what the will of our Lord is.  It’s easy to find out the will of other people—watch a movie, turn on the TV, talk to non-Christian friends.  You will get their view, the things they value and what’s acceptable to them.  But for us, it takes purposeful study to know the will of the Lord.  It takes reading His Word regularly.  It’s nothing elaborate, and we are truly blessed with easy access to God’s holy Word.  Just start reading through the New Testament, the Gospels or the Epistles, or both.  Save Revelation for later, because it will likely cause more confusion than clarity.

There in the Scriptures, you will see what God has created and redeemed you for, and how He is at work to sanctify you as His own child.  Don’t delight in alcohol the way the world does. Rather, be filled with the Holy Spirit, who fills your mouth not with words that need recalling, but with true godly words.  Open your lips with Psalms instead of cursing, sing hymns and spiritual songs instead of whatever drivel pop singers do.  And be filled with thanksgiving instead of fear, anger, or posturing.  Those things are the way of the world and your sinful flesh, which has no patience to wait for God to answer. 

Give thanks to God continually, because He has brought you out of darkness and death to light and life through His Son.  Christians have faced this and worse before, and the Lord has brought them through.  He will preserve us, so let us seek His counsel and pray for His help:

Almighty and most merciful God, in this earthly life we endure sufferings and death before we enter into eternal glory. Grant us grace at all times to subject ourselves to Your holy will and to continue steadfast in the true faith to the end of our lives that we may know the peace and joy of the blessed hope of the resurrection of the dead and of the glory of the world to come; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Isaiah 51:1-6)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost + August 27, 2017
Text: Isaiah 51:1-6

The year was around 700 BC.  Judah was facing destruction at the hand of the Assyrians. They were the last holdout, now that the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen some 20 years before.  But now even Jerusalem had Sennacherib’s troops laying siege against her.  The future of the Temple of God itself was in jeopardy.  Would God really forsake the place where He had promised to dwell among His people?
As for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, things were looking bleak.  People they knew had been slaughtered.  Others whom they had known to be upstanding Israelites were now doubting if the Lord was with them, and they were thinking about deserting to the Assyrians.  After all, maybe the king of Assyria was onto something.  He had said, “Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?’”[1]
The remnant of God’s people appeared to be getting smaller all the time.  The odds were stacked against them.  It was truly a bleak time.
But it’s to this besieged group that the Lord speaks, specifically to those faithful whose eyes were watching their numbers dwindle:
51 “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness,
you who seek the Lord:
                        look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
          Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
                        for he was but one when I called him,
that I might bless him and multiply him.
Remember where you came from, and what God’s people started as. Every year when the Israelites would go up to offer some of their firstfruits with thanksgiving to God, they would make the offering with this statement of faith: “A wandering Aramean [Jacob] was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.”[2]  It started with Abraham, and out of his offspring, an entire nation grew.  All this is from God, who created even out of nothing by His omnipotent Word.
But it doesn’t stop with a single nation.  Out of Abraham, God raised up a Seed in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed.  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ…29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”[3]
Take time to ponder that, brothers and sisters, children of Abraham through faith.  God fulfilled His promise to make Abraham’s offspring more numerous than the stars in the heavens[4]—in spite of wars, death, bouts of unfaithfulness, wicked kings, and foreign occupation, and even the destruction of earthly temples and the loss of Jerusalem.  In spite of all this earthly tumult, God has fulfilled and will fulfill His Word.
You, who fear the Lord and seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, He is calling you to your origins so that you have strength for the upheaval that batters the Church today.
Christians in the western world have enjoyed great prosperity, but it seems to be over now.  America, one of the last holdouts, a so-called “Christian nation” by some, has turned against her Creator.  As a reflection of that, church attendance is down across the board.  The Great Awakenings have fallen asleep again.  A cultural war now exists between Judeo-Christian values and the animalistic, euphoria-seeking ideals of happiness, tolerance, and self-fulfillment.  The Christian Church, even though it doesn’t have physical borders, is under siege.
It’s times like this that get the nostalgia going.  We dream about the better days gone past, where everyone we could think of was Christian or had a respect for religion.  We want to think back to the “good old days” of this congregation—when there was a large choir, droves of kids in Sunday School, and packed pews.  We want to look back to even 3 or 4 years ago, when a beloved long-time pastor was at the helm.
Those are good things to rejoice about and aspire to.  But the Lord tells you to look back further than that!  Look to how the Christian Church is even in this place, or America, or central Europe, or Rome, or Israel.  For the answer to that, you need to not only look back in time, but also look up, to God, who brought about all these things.
          Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
                        for he was but one when I called him,
that I might bless him and multiply him.
                      For the Lord comforts Zion;
he comforts all her waste places
                        and makes her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
                        joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
It is the Lord who preserves and prospers His Church, who keeps the faithful in the one true faith—even in bleak times.  Even out of those dark times, God is abundantly able to restore His people.  He can take them from mourning and trembling to gladness, thanksgiving, and singing.
Ah, but we are all too apt to limit our vision to what we can see and predict.  In our lifetimes, we’ve seen the degrading of the visible fellowship of the Church.  We’ve witnessed the increase of false religion and everything ungodly.
But, the Church that confesses Jesus Christ is not founded on common values or people of a particular occupation or class.  If it were, then yes, it will fade away when people’s values change or their interest in religion wanes.  If this is all just a matter of winning people’s hearts to a particular cause, then we should employ every device that the prevailing culture does.  We should have a lobbying machine the way the LGBT cause has progressed in the courts and the schools.  We ought to employ advertising and social media the way the Mormons do to get into people’s hearts.  We should take opinion polls so we can say and do the things people like so that they will feel comfortable and relaxed and want to be a part of this.   Don’t tell young people that sex is something God only gives to husbands and wives, and only when they are husbands and wives—because, after all, they might leave the church when they hear this!
The Church is more than a human invention.  So, the Lord Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”[5]  The rock is not a person, or particular congregation, or the Lutheran church.  The Rock is the heaven-given confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  When our faith is built on this rock, what can the shifting affections of man do to it?  When it comes from God, it is eternal.  It is as almighty as He is.  It is as powerful as His Word, which creates out of nothing and even raises the dead.
Whether in times of prosperity or persecution, look to God, for He alone is the Rock from which we were hewn.  You won’t always be around.  The people and trends that trouble you now won’t always be around.   But, He isn’t going anywhere.  His Church isn’t going anywhere.  Look up; He’s always there and always the same.
          Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
and look at the earth beneath;
                        for the heavens vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and they who dwell in it will die in like manner;
                        but my salvation will be forever,
and my righteousness will never be dismayed.
[1] Isaiah 36:18
[2] Deuteronomy 26:5
[3] Galatians 3:27, 29
[4] Genesis 15:5
[5] Matthew 16:16-18