Monday, July 26, 2010

Sermon Preached on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost/July 25, 2010

A pastor told this story about a church picnic his congregation put on: One of the senior member of his church had been out of town when the plans were being made and she hadn't been informed about the festivities. Only the night before did the pastor realize the oversight and he quickly gave the lade an apologetic call. Brushing aside his regrets with a cold reception, the lady replied, “Don't say you're sorry to me, Reverend. It won't do any good. I've already prayed for rain.” The confidence that this old lady showed in her prayers, though slightly misguided is the same confidence that God would have us show in our prayers. It is a confidence that when we pray we are not talking to a brick wall. I think the wives might understand what I'm talking about. Don't you Kristin? We do not need to feel that we are talking aimlessly on the phone with no one to hear us or answer us. Rather we can be confident our heavenly Father has

promised to hear us when we pray, that He will give us what we ask for and that He will take care of us.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus reveals to us the love that God has for us by pointing us to God the Father, who, unlike the friend in the parable, wants us to come to Him persistently. Jesus shows us a God who wants to come to Him at all times, being persistent in what we ask for in prayer.

Jesus tells us a parable in which a man finds himself in need of food when an unexpected friend comes to visit him. In the middle of the night he's desperate, all the stores are closed and the only option left to him is to seek the help of a friend. He says, “Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of min has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him” (v. 5-6). Now in a society where all the food must be baked in the home from scratch and where the entire household slept in one room, this was a gigantic, almost unrealistic request. It would be like a friend of yours asking for $3000 in the middle of the night, it is practically impossible to fulfil. But Jesus tells us that because of the man's persistence in asking, his friend “will rise and give him whatever he needs” (v. 8).

Through this parable, Jesus reveals to us a loving heavenly Father who wants us to come to Him continually. We are the man seeking aid, and He is the friend whom we seek, and who has promised to help. As Jesus says later, “ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you” (v. 9). Yet the uncertainty of this world can lead us to doubt that God truly does want to be persistent in our prayers. Because after all, common experience says that asking for something time after time after time gets very annoying and can be very irritating. And if their's one guy that I don't want to get irritated it's God! After all, God's a busy man! I don't want to bother Him with the same thing over and over again. And there are time when we do come to God in prayer consistently over the same problem and we have yet to see any proof that God is listening, so what's the point? Why should I keep coming to God in prayer when He doesn't seem to be doing anything for me?

Last week we hear how God will keep His promises and answers prayers in His time, and sometimes that can be a long period of time. And during that time, we might begin to wonder if, maybe, we're doing something wrong! Perhaps I'm not praying enough, perhaps I'm not saying the right things, or perhaps my prayer just aren't good enough. Instead of trusting in God's promise to always hear our prayers, we ask what we must do so that we can earn God's favour and make Him give us what we want. But if it's a matter of doing things just perfectly, then you can totally forget trying to pray, because in our sinful flesh we will never be able to do it absolutely perfectly. If it depended on us, our prayers would never be good enough, they would never even deserve God's attention. In our sinful flesh, there is nothing that we could do to earn or deserve the grace that God has given us.

Thanks be to God that it does not depend on us. For through the sacrifice of God's Son, Jesus Christ, our sins are covered over by His righteousness and we are made perfect in God's eyes. Through God's Word, the news of Jesus Christ given for you, you have received the Holy Spirit, who works in you so that you might trust and cling to the promise that your heavenly Father gave to you. There is a movie about C.S. Lewis and his struggles over his wife's battle with cancer, and at one point Lewis is talking to no one in particular and says, “I don't pray so that I might change God. Prayer changes me.” That is why we are invited to pray constantly and persistently. For through our prayers God works in us to grow and strengthen our faith in Him and His promise. God's promise is more than just a promise that He will hear you whenever you pray, but that “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive” (Matt 21:22). In First John we hear that “this is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we asked of Him” (5:14-15).

Does this mean that absolutely anything that you ask God for, you are going to get it? Not necessarily. In the verse from 1 John, which I quoted earlier, we hear “that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us.” But what does that mean?

In the parable, the man asked his friend for the three loaves that he needed to feed his travelling visitor. It was something that was absolutely essential. Later on, Jesus compares the care that our heavenly Father gives to us to the care that fathers among us give to their very own children. “What fathers among you, if your son asks for a fish, will instead give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (v. 11-12) No father, or mother, here would ever refuse to give their child something that they needed everyday of their life. Those things that we need each day are the things that God would have us ask for in prayer. We can be confident that God will give us what we need each and every day of our lives so that “all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28).

Yet it is so hard to distinguish what we need for daily living, from the things that we want. Our sinful flesh constantly drives us toward wanting more stuff and away from God's will and being content in that blessings that He has given us. It has been the problem ever since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, our sin has driven us to reject God's will and put our own will in His place. When you go down to the shopping centre, it doesn't take you very long until you hear and find a child wailing and screaming, maybe even kicking, in an attempt to force his parents to get him some flashy new toy or candy that has caught his eye. Despite the love and care that that child has received from his parents, he will be absolutely set on getting his way and satisfying his own selfish wants. We are exactly like that child, demanding that it be my way or the highway. We will set up an idol in our own wants and desires and kick and scream when we find that they are out of our reach. The child with a temper will blame his parents for not getting him what he wants, and we blame God for not getting what we think we need. Rather than make our mantra in prayer, “Not my will, but Your will be done” we will want to go on our own way and leave God behind.

Yet even though our sinful flesh constantly rejects Him and follows its own evil desires, God still sends His great gifts to us. “If you then, who are evil,” Jesus says, “know how to give good gifts to your children (such as daily needs), how much more will the heavenly Father (who is perfect) give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him” (v. 13). Through His gift of the Holy Spirit, God works in you so that you are led to know God's will and are empowered to reject your own sinful, selfish ways. St. Paul writes in Romans that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words!” (Rom 8:26) By the work Holy Spirit we are made to see and praise God for all the ways that He provides for our daily needs. But more importantly we are shown how our Father has provided for our forgiveness. For when we do fail and follow the lusts of our flesh, the Holy Spirit brings us back to the cross of Christ, where we receive the forgiveness that He won for us. It is in the cross that we receive the guarantee of eternal life in heaven, given to us by our loving Lord and Saviour.

At times it can be hard to trust that God will always hear our prayers, or that He will give to us what we need for this daily life and for the good of all those who love Him. At times this world can seem so uncertain and our selfish desires so powerful that we might begin to doubt if someone is really on the other end of that conversation. I must confess, that for the longest time my prayer life was not as strong as it should have been. It was rather weak, and it was not until about a year ago that I developed a stronger, healthier prayer life. But God worked through one person in particular whose faith and devotion to her Lord would often humble me and put me to shame. She would admonish me and encourage me to strengthen my prayer life through daily prayer. That one person would be my wife, Kristin. I offer her as an example, not because she should be praised, she is after all a damnable sinner. I'm sorry honey but you're not perfect. But just as we are to imitate the faith of all those saints who have gone before us, I mention Kristin so that her faith and devotion can be imitated. For it is a faith that trust, a faith that clings to the promise of her heavenly Father: that He will take of her, and all of us, from this forth, and even forevermore.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sermon Preached on the Fifth Sunday of Pentecost/June 27, 2010

This sermon was the first time I got to preach at my wife’s home church in Tillsonburg, Ontario.
I'm sure you've all heard the phrase, “If the world had a little more love, it would be a much better place.” If not then perhaps you've heard of John's Lennon's song which exclaims, “All you need is love!” Or there's also the more generic and much more recent phrase, “Where's the love?” We spend so much time looking for love, we want to be loved, we need to be loved, which might be why so many songs are about love and finding love. But no matter how much love we seem to find in our lives, we can turn around and find that the world is just as hard, ruthless and loveless as it was before. I think we can all agree that the world could do with a little more love, but love is not the only problem. In the Epistle reading today, Paul is writing to the churches in Galatia and points to a different problem that affects the world as our selfish flesh is more concerned with my needs, wants and desires, rather loving and serving my neighbour. Instead, Paul describes a love that we only find in our loving Father God and His Son Jesus Christ. And it is a love that only He can give to us.
I. Paul describes this love in verse 13 when he says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers, only do not use your freedom for incentive to the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
A. Love and service, these two things go together, but its also much stronger than that. The Greek word that is translated as serve has a much stronger meaning, that being “slave.” Through love be slaves to one another. Now, what does it mean to be a slave? A slave is one who, either by force or of his/her own will (though usually by force) gives everything she has over to her master. All that belongs to the slave, even their rights, belong to their master, in order to serve him. Paul describes this love again in his letter to the Ephesians when He says, “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). Because of our faith in Christ, who gave Himself over for us, we submit ourselves to one another, so that we may “bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).
II. Yet we can not help but recoil when we hear about such a “sacrificial” love. “For the desires of the the flesh are against the Spirit,” Paul says. Our very own flesh is held captive to sin so that, “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. . . . For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom 7:18,19). But rather, this is a love that God works in us through the workings of the Holy Spirit.
A. We in our sinful natures are selfish beings, caring nothing for anyone else but only caring for what we want, when we want it. If you want to see some of the most selfish and demanding human beings on earth look no further than a newborn baby. Just three weeks ago, my sister gave birth to a baby boy named Noah, and if he begins to feel uncomfortable, he demands that the problem be fixed right now! It does not matter what time of day it is, what Mom is doing or what is happening around him, if he wants it, he must get it. Mom, I'm hungry! Mom, I'm cold! Mom, I'm gassy! Mom, I have a poopy diaper, change me! Night or day, it doesn't matter, Noah is going to get what he wants. This is not a learned behaviour, but started the very day he was born, and it is a behaviour that you and I have practised ever since we were born. The Bible says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). We have all been infected with this fault, what is called original sin, ever since the day Adam and Eve fell into sin and separated us from God.
B. But it is in Christ that we have been set free from our sinful condition. Out of His love for us, Christ came to earth, wrapping Himself in flesh and giving up all that He had for you. The letter to the Philippians states that Christ, “though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:6-7). In His suffering and death on the cross, Christ gave up all that He had and allowed Himself to suffer and die for you, so that you might be set free from sin. Through Christ's sacrifice for us on the cross, God shows us the love that He has for us, a love that lowers Himself to die on the cross. We hear again from Philippians that “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). It is this kind of love that we should show to others, a sacrificial love of putting others first. Christ saved us by this love and now teaches us to serve other with that same love as we bring our families and children, our neighbours and friends to hear His Word so that faith may be created in their heart and they too may be saved from their sin.
III. Christ has set us free from sin, and by His sacrifice there is no sin that is too great that it can't be forgiven. Yet Paul warns the churches in Galatia, and us as well, that this freedom does not allow us to indulge in every sinful desire we have, but to devote ourselves to the love and service of one another.
A. And yet so often, we do not live in loving service of one another, but rather engaging in behaviour that is described in the text, “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15). Though forgiven, we still live in this sinful flesh and ignore God's command to love and serve one another, and instead we begin to look out for ourselves. When I see a friend of mine who has more wealth and possessions than I do, I won't want to help him maintain his wealth and protect his possessions, but instead I'll get jealous. I want what he has for myself, I might get a little angry knowing that he's been blessed far more than I have, I'll set up an idol in my friends wealth, working day and night to get that wealth rather than being content in what God has already given me. My jealousy and anger might cause a rivalry between me and my friend and bring about a division that can not be healed. Some of the best storylines in Star Trek, is for the adventuring heroes to come across a society that has destroyed itself in war over their own lust for wealth, status and possessions. Our sin works in much the same way. We can be so selfish that we hurt others and cause our relationships to break down, rather than doing what is best for each other and perhaps foregoing what we might want.
B. Through faith in God, and trusting in His promise, we receive forgiveness of our sins and the righteousness of Christ that reconciles us to God. In this, we are made His children and are now free to reject the works of the flesh and serve one another. For we are told that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (v. 24) and again “our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6). And now, having been freed from sin, God works in us and cares for us so that this love, which we can not show on our own, can grow in our hearts and show through our actions. When we were visiting my sister, there came a time when Noah got fussy, he had grown hungry and demanded the attention of his mother, who had gone out for a short time. So my father, whom the grandkids call “Papa,” took Noah in His arms and began to bounce him. Noah settled down almost immediately and fell back asleep, but as Papa bounced his grandson I noticed that it looked as though Noah was nodding. As if to say, “Yes, Papa, I'll go to sleep now. Yes, Papa, even though I'm hungry I'll settle down and wait for Mom.” In much the same way, God has us in His arms, caring for us and nodding our heads so that we might say, “Yes, Father, I will love my neighbour. Yes, Father, I will serve my neighbour and reject my own selfish desires.”
C. In this way, God works in us to bring forth love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruits of the Spirit. Jesus describes this work of our heavenly Father as a vinedresser when He says, “Every branch in Me that does not take fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2). Through His Word and the sacraments, God works in us to strengthen our faith and to care for us, so that we may show these fruits to one another. God works through others around us, our families and friends, to support us in love and to provide us with all that we need each day of our life. God works in us so that as we show the love that He has fostered and grown in our hearts, we might confess to the world of His love and grace in the freedom offered to them in His Son, Jesus Christ.
In Jesus Christ's suffering, death and resurrection God has shown the world the love that He had for us, so that we might be freed from the sin that dwells in our flesh. In our text today, Paul commends us to show that same love to one another so that we might give ourselves over in loving service of our neighbour. Yet our sinful nature often gets in the way with its selfish desires that are constantly trying to pull us away from God and His plan for us. But Christ has freed us from the bondage of sin and has made us new creations, no longer bound by sin and the Law, but under His grace, which carries us and cares for us. And through His work in us, we are empowered to show that love to one another, and to all the world. Through our love and service to one another, God works through us to show His gracious mercy and the freedom that we received through the cross.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.