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Monday, October 13, 2008

TO BEAR FRUIT

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Pentecost 21
Sermon
10-5-2008

St. Matthew 21:33-44

33 "Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35 The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said. 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" 41 "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time." 42 Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: 'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? 43 Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed."

Luther believed that in every passage of Scripture you could find both Law and Gospel. But he also recognized the difficulty of distinguishing Law and Gospel when said that whoever has mastered that art deserves to be called a Doctor of Theology. This is especially challenging when confronted with a text like the one before us today.

It's not hard to spot the Law in this text; it's full of Law. You can see it right away in verse 34: "When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit."

Without a doubt, God has expectations of the members of His kingdom. This is, after all, His vineyard, and He's called us not just to live here and enjoy all the benefits, but to work, to produce fruit.

How
do you feel about that? There's a number of reactions people can have when confronted by God's expectations. First of all, there's fear: we're afraid our efforts won't be good enough; we're afraid we won't be strong enough, or talented enough, or wise enough to accomplish what He expects.

Then there's anger. We get angry, just like the tenants in our text, because our sinful nature doesn't want to work for anyone else. We want to spend our time and energy on things that satisfy our desire for pleasure and financial gain.

So that's one aspect of the Law in our text.

And then we hear it screaming at us from the next verse, where Jesus says: "The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him" (vs. 35-39).

Now, to what lengths are we willing to go to avoid dealing with God's expectations? We know what those tenants were willing to do. But what are we willing to do? Are we willing to brow-beat God's messengers to shut 'em up? Are we willing to stop coming to church or to avoid our Christian friends and loved ones? Or how 'bout we just kill God off in our minds altogether and pretend He doesn't even exist anymore? Or, hey, this might be even better: Let's invent our own god - one who has no expectations, one who just gives and gives and never asks for anything in return? Are you willing to go that far to escape the expectations God has for your life?

The Law gets even stronger in verse 40, when Jesus asks: "When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time. Have you never read in the Scriptures: 'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom ft falls will be crushed" (vs. 40-44).

The capstone was like the center brick in a stone arch-way. It was the most important stone because if it were missing the whole arch would cave in. It was the biggest stone. In some of the great arch-ways of the ancient world these stones were enormous, large enough to crush a man's body if it fell on him.

So, on the one hand, Jesus is saying here that if we do not bear the fruit He calls us to bear, if we do not labor in the vineyard as He has called us to do, the kingdom, our spiritual home, our house of faith, will be taken away from us and given to someone else. But there's more to it than that: our Lord also pledges to crush anyone and everyone who rejects Him and His call on their life.

Now, if that's not Law, I don't know what is. And it is very crushing Law indeed!

Oh, Pastor, where is the Gospel? I'm so glad you asked! It's there alright. All we need to do is look just below the surface to find it.

Lest anyone accuse God of being too demanding, please notice that He is the one who prepared the vineyard; all He asks is that His servants work it. He didn't ask the tenants to clear the land; He did that. He didn't ask them to prepare the soil; He did that. He didn't even ask them to build the necessary buildings; He did that. He made everything ready. All the hard work was done. All the tenants had to do was bring in the harvest and turn over a percentage of the profits to Him. He gave them a job, He gave them a place to live, He gave them everything they needed and more. He is indeed a giving God!

And how He has given to us! Life, health, security. And even when those things seem to fail, He's given us the assurance that they really have not. For He always finds a way to provide, doesn't He. We know that whatever happens in our life is by His design and is planned for our benefit. If our health seems to fail us, we know that whatever our condition is, it's what He needs it to be to accomplish His plan for our lives. And if His plan is that our life here should end, we know that a far better one awaits us. Oh yes, He is indeed a giving God.

And lest anyone accuse Him of being reactionary, He exercises unbelievable restraint in dealing with His tenants. How long would you or I allow these conditions to continue? How many times would we permit our messengers to be beaten and killed by those who owe us, - just so they can avoid paying what they owe? How many times? And yet God, the giver of the vineyard, permitted this over and over again. How many of His prophets of old were rejected? How many beaten? How many killed? And yet God always exercised patience with His people. He continued to love them and treated them as His own children, despite their rejection of Him. What a patient and loving God!

How many times have we rejected Him? How many times have we heard His Word and said, "No! I want to do what I want to do! I don't care what God wants; I don't care what He demands. I will live as I choose and do what I will with what is mine." And yet He continues to love us. He continues to call us His own. Oh, what a patient and loving God!

And why? You have to wonder: "Why?" Why such kindness to people who for the most part don't want to have anything to do with Him?

Friends, you and I, because of Adam's sin, are by nature no different than the tenants in our text. Without Christ we are just as evil - just as overpowered by Satan, just as blinded to the truth, our hearts just as infected with sin, just as stripped of any capacity to deliver ourselves from bondage.

But God's love for us called for something to be done to release us, something to be done to rescue us from the power of Satan. And so "in the fullness of time . . . God sent forth His Son," the Son spoken of in this parable, "made of a woman, made under the Law, to redeem them that were under the Law" (Gal. 4:4,5). And Jesus redeemed us by taking our guilt and giving us His righteousness, suffering the punishment of sin on our behalf.

No wonder the Bible says: "God is Love" (1 John 4:8). His love knows no bounds. Think about it: God knew what we would do with His Son! He knew we would crucify Him. And the Son Himself knew! He knew He would be beaten, spat on, whipped nearly to death. He knew that He would be nailed to a cross and die there. But He also knew He didn't really have a choice. If He wanted to save us, if He wanted to rescue us from the death and damnation our sins deserve, His death was necessary. It was the only way.

Now, because He suffered, because He died and rose again, because He allowed the wrath of God the Father to be poured out on Him, God's justice was satisfied. He could now say to the world: "Your sin is gone." Gone! Can there be any greater love than this?

There will come a day when time will stop and God's patience will come to an end, when the Son will return, not as a sacrificial lamb, but as the Lion of Judah, to judge the living and the dead. But until then, His patience continues, His love still reigns. And when you're ready to repent He's ready to forgive, to wash you clean and restore you as a child of God.

Now, if that isn't Gospel, I don't know what is. And what soothing Gospel it is!

Beloved, there's something I need to say. I don't know why. Somebody here needs to hear this: God is offering you again today His kingdom in Christ. It was yours once, but you've walked away. He wants to give it back, to bring you back. He wants to make you new again through His Word and Spirit. He wants to forgive you, to love you, He wants to bring you back into His fold and put your hand back on the plow where it belongs. You've been living a joyless life and He wants you to know that He has been patient with you. He loves you. He wants to give you back your joy. Won't you let Him?

Let us pray: Father, help us all, by the power of Your Spirit, to hear Your voice calling us through Your Word, calling us to be loved in Your kingdom, calling us to bear the fruit of Your love in our world. Help us to answer that call, Father, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

1:40 pm edt

RISKY LIVING

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Pentecost 19
Sermon
9-21-2008

St. Matthew 25:14-27

14 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. 15 "And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. 16 "Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. 17 "And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. 18 "But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord's money. 19 "After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 "So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, 'Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.' 21 "His lord said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.' 22 "He also who had received two talents came and said, 'Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.' 23 "His lord said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.' 24 "Then he who had received the one talent came and said, 'Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 'And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.' 26 "But his lord answered and said to him, 'You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. 27 'So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest.

How do you feel when you hear the word "risk" ?

If you are a high risk-taker you feel excited and you think, "Alright, let's go! When can I start?" If you're a low risk-taker, instead of feeling excited you feel cautious. Instead of thinking: "Hey, let's go," you're thinking: "Woah, wait a minute! Show me the plan first!"

Risky living. Some people enjoy it; some don't.

Here's some interesting info that appeared in a church newsletter. The article said: "Do not stay at home, because 17% of all fatal accidents occur in the home. Don't walk on the street or sidewalk; 14% of all fatal accidents occur to pedestrians. Don't travel by air, rail or water, since 16% of all fatal accidents happen on one of these! Only 1/10 of 1% of fatal accidents occur in church, so church is the safest place to be."

Church is a safe place to be, isn't it. But is living as a Christian "risky?"

Listen to this story about risky living. In a country where Christianity is illegal, nearly 100 people had gathered to worship. As the service began, about a dozen soldiers wearing face masks burst into the gathering. With automatic weapons aimed at the people they demanded: "If anyone here does not believe in this religion, get out now!" About 50 people got up and left. The remaining 50 believers sat in heavy silence, wondering what would happen next. But then the soldiers pulled off their masks, lowered their weapons, and said, "We're believers in Jesus, too, and want to worship with you. But we had to make sure there were true believers here."

This story challenges every true Christian to ask: If Jesus is really the Lord of my life, will I risk my life and all that I have for Him? Would you?

Or maybe you're wondering: Does Jesus really ask me to do that? Oh, yeah! That's the point of the parable in the today's text. One of the three servants didn't take the risk and was severely criticized for it.

But before we talk about the risk God asks us to take, let's talk about what God risked for us.

Jesus made it very clear why God was willing to take a risk for us - because He loves us like a Father loves his child. And that love is so deep that He was willing to risk everything - to give His only Son to die for us, His lost children. Nowhere is this clearer than in the words of Jesus in John 3:16. If you know them, speak them with me:

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

Is there risk in a parent-child relationship? There certainly is. Parents take the risk of loving a child, knowing that child may reject their love one day. Parents take the risk of giving advice and direction, knowing they may be laughed at and their ideas called "old-fashioned." Parents take the risk of helping their children financially, knowing they could waste it all. Taking parental "risks" sometimes seems to bring nothing but pain because of the sinful responses that frequently follow. Sin is an ugly reality, isn't it? It can bring so much hurt and sorrow.

There was a young man I knew who was hooked on crack and his parents risked everything to get him the help he needed. Eventually he ran away from home and just seemed to disappear. The pain of not knowing where he was - or how he was - was almost unbearable. One day, many months later, he called them. He said he was sick and wanted to come home. He gave them directions and they drove hundreds of miles to get to him. They found him in a dingy apartment covered in filth. But they threw their arms around him, paid all his debts, and brought him home.

That's a picture of what God has done for each of us. In the process of welcoming us home, He gave His Son, because it was the only way the debt of our sin could be paid. That's one of the things we remember every time pray, "Our Father who art in heaven." How can we forget all that God has done, all that He risked, for us?

And it doesn't end there. God continues to take risks for us. The parable in our text reminds us that He risks putting His resources, His property, into our hands!

"Jesus said, 'The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Once there was a man who was about to leave home on a trip; he called his servants and put them in charge of his property'" (Matthew 25:14).

He put them in charge of His property! Think about that! God puts us in charge of His possessions! You know what? That's His car you're driving; that's His house you're living in, His bank account, His clothing, His food. It's all His, but He puts it into our hands. All He asks is that we put some of it to use - to risk some of it - for Him.

Two of the servants in our text did that. One did not.

"After a long time the master of those servants came back and settled accounts with them. . . . The third servant said, 'I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground. Look, here is what belongs to you.' The master said, 'You should have deposited my money in the bank and I would have received it all back with interest when I returned'" (Matthew 25:19, 25, 27).

Friends, this is not a complicated parable. God puts His treasure into our hands and He asks us to risk using it for Him - not just to hide it in the ground and give it back. Now, that sounds kinda simple, but it's not.

We have trouble with the concept of ownership and possessions. A father and his 5-year-old son went to eat at a fast food joint. The son started to eat his hamburger and his dad reached over to grab a couple of french fries. The son said, "Daaad, those are mine!"

The
boy seemed to forget who bought the fries. His dad could take all of them if he wanted to because they were his to begin with. But no loving father would let his son go hungry, so those fries were a sign of the father's love; it's just that the mind of the boy was too limited to comprehend.

Please don't take offense at this, but the same is true with us. It's hard for us to conceive that all things belong to God and that everything we have comes from Him. To think of giving a tenth of our income back to God just seems unnatural, like it's too much of a risk.

But what's the greater risk: To pretend we can handle life thinking we own it? Or to entrust our life to the God who gave it to us in the first place?

Do you really think you can keep your heart beating every day by your own strength?
Do you really think you can make the farmers' crops grow?
Do you really think you can make healing happen when you're sick?
Do you really think you can scale the heights of heaven all by yourself when you die?

Listen, God asks us to manage our life and possessions, not own them! And, believe me, He's really doing us a favor. He's protecting us from the profoundly foolish risk of trying to handle life on our own. The greatest peace in life is to get up every morning and say: "Take my life, Lord, and all I have. It's yours. Help me manage it for your purpose, not mine." Let God own your life; you just be the manager.

Another thing that's very clear in our text is that the master expected his servants to invest what he put in their hands.

Two servants did that and doubled the amount He gave them. The third simply buried the money and gave back what he'd been given. Why? He said he was afraid. He didn't want to risk losing the money. He was afraid of failing his master.

Are you afraid of failing God? You have no reason to be, you know. Jesus took the risk for us, remember? So, with the fear of failure removed, we can take the risk of investing our life for God. Someone once said, "If God owns it all, what's it doing in my hands?" I mean, why doesn't God just take care of things directly, without using me to do it? Why did He use the apostles to distribute the little boy's lunch to those five thousand people? For that matter, why did He use the little boy's lunch at all? Why didn't He just make everyone not hungry anymore? Why does He put His treasures into our hands and ask us to invest them?

One reason is that it brings us joy! It's fun to watch children take their first step in learning to walk. It's risky for them. But when they discover they can really walk, the smile on their face is priceless! God wants that kind of joy in our life. People find no joy in wasting their life - not lasting joy, anyway. But, oh, what joy when they step out in faith and invest the gifts and talents God has given them!

Another reason is that it gives joy to others. God blesses us to be a blessing. When you bring items for the food pantry, you know that someone won't be going hungry because you had a part in feeding them. When you support our school, you know that the Gospel is being instilled in the hearts of future generations. When you support Building on the Rock, you know that God uses your gifts to provide a place where people can come to know Jesus. Like that son who came home reeking of sin, we come here every week - our spiritual home - knowing that we are loved by our Savior unconditionally. How much is that worth?

In other words, when we give, we give to God - not to a church budget, not to our favorite ministry, not to pay the bills. We give to God!

I'm going to risk saying something now that might be misunderstood. It's no surprise to anyone that as a congregation we have been dealing with financial issues for a good many years. Beloved, ministry is expensive. We wouldn't be suffering as we are if we hadn't taken some risks over the years. Sometimes you have to take risks in order to do the ministry God has called you to do. We're not called to bury our treasure; we're called to take some risk and invest God's property in the work of His kingdom.

Having said that, it's my prayer that you would direct your heart not to look at our budget or our financial crisis. God has never asked you to give to a church budget. He wants your gift to be 100% given to Him. The question He wants you to answer is this: "What will I give back to God? What percentage of my income will I give Him to show that He is the highest priority in my life?"

You know, percentage giving is biblical. It's a concrete way of saying, "Lord, I'm putting you first." When I give a percentage of my income to God - before I spend it on anything else - that's an act of worship, a way of saying, "God, You are my God. All that I am I owe to you."

Dear Christian, what will inspire you to take more risk in giving your life to Christ? The master said to the faithful stewards: "Well done, good and faithful servant." God grant that we all may hear such words of commendation when our Master beholds the fruit His gifts have borne in our life.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

1:25 pm edt

Thursday, October 9, 2008

ROCKETOWN AFTER ALL

Rocketown

This is a picture of me in front of Michael W. Smith's place in Nashville. I was confused at first, because it's not what a lot of us would expect to find if we have in mind the headquarters of Smitty's Rocketown Records. I had in mind some kind of towering office building in the heart of the business district, but what I found was a kind of warehouse-looking establishment in the midst of a lot of similar structures. So, Mecca was so Mecca-ish after all. But it sure was fun to be there, especially after finding out that "there" really was "there" !

3:32 pm edt

OUT OF THE SALT-SHAKER

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Pentecost 17
Sermon
9-7-2008

St. Matthew 5:13


"You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.

Have you ever experienced the joy of holding a new-born baby? With all the baptisms I've had the privilege of celebrating here at Trinity, I never ceased to be amazed that God would include us in His miracle of giving life - physical life at birth and the re-birth of the spirit through the water and the Word. What a miracle that God allows us to be a part of that!

But you know, it's not just the pastor who gets to be involved in extending spiritual life to people; you do too. For the next few weeks we're going to be talking - in our sermons and Bible studies - about giving spiritual life - eternal life in Jesus! - to the next generation.

It all hinges on the fact that we have been designed and created to use the gifts and talents God has given us to connect people to Him. When we do that God uses us to make a difference in people's lives for all eternity. When don't, we miss out on the greatest privilege we Christians could ever know.

Think of the influential people you know. An awful lot of power brokers have been meeting in various places recently - people with a TON of political clout. But did you know that Jesus says you are His influential people?

In today's sermon text Jesus compares you to salt, and when you use the "seasoning power" He gives, you are being used by Him to give life to others.

In a restaurant where I worked when I was in college, I was going through the stock room one day, and I came upon a huge case of brand-new saltshakers - beautiful glass saltshakers - which I thought was a little bit strange, because we hadn't used glass saltshakers in the entire time I'd worked there; we used those pre-loaded plastic ones that you throw away when they're empty. When I asked my boss about it, apparently those saltshakers had been there even before him. As I closed up the box and shoved it back on the shelf, I thought to myself: "What good are all those saltshakers if they're never used? I mean, they were beautiful - shiny chrome tops and everything - but unless salt is shaken out of them all they do is take up space."

Isn't that what Jesus is saying in our text? You and I are meant to be shaken out of our saltshakers, to be seasoning to the world, not stored on a shelf.

But how does it work? How can you use your life as seasoning to the world?

One suggestion is to take time to notice people. Jesus was good at this. There's lots of examples in the Bible of how Jesus noticed people in their time of need.

One of those times was when He noticed a short guy who had climbed up a tree so he could see Jesus in a crowd of people: "When Jesus reached the spot, He LOOKED UP and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today'" (Luke 19:5).

Now, we all know how easy it is to come to church, see someone we know, walk over and talk to them. But in the process, you might walk right past a person you don't know - someone who may be troubled, someone who may need a listening ear, someone who may just need to know that somebody noticed them. This can happen at church, at a dinner party, at a ball game . . . just about anywhere.

Just walking across the room to greet someone, to let them know that somebody cares . . . what an impact this could have on someone's eternity!

Isn't that what Jesus did? He walked into our world to meet the likes of Zacchaeus . . . to meet the likes of you . . . and me. He forever changed our eternity by giving His life for our sins.

Think about this: Throughout the course of your life, you're going to give yourself to something. Everybody does. People give their lives to pleasure, success, popularity, hobbies, whatever. Why not give your life to people? What I mean by that is: notice people - people who cry, people who look angry, people who look confused, people who smile and laugh but inside they're empty, people who are alive but have no idea why they're alive, people who need to be connected to God but might never be so unless someone notices them and walks across the room.

But what do you do when you get there? That's where a lot of people get stuck. If I walk across the room to someone I don't know, then what? What's the next step?

Well, there's one thing that every one of us can do: We can tell our story. But there's something else we need to do first; we need to listen.

The first thing we need to listen to is the guiding of the Holy Spirit. So many of our apprehensions will be quieted if we would just listen to the Holy Spirit. Remember what Jesus said: "The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (John 14:26).

You don't have to be a pastor or some kind of theological expert to do this. Just listen, and when the Spirit gives you a nudge, walk across the room and then listen some more. Listen to the person. Just listen.

And as you listen, let the Spirit guide you. Maybe that's all you'll do. But, there will be times when the Spirit opens the door wider. He'll bring to mind the many Bible passages you've learned over the years. He'll help you apply them to what you've heard. And He'll guide you as you begin to tell your story - or better yet - when you begin to tell His story.

Telling your story of course is nothing more and nothing less than talking about the difference Christ has made in your life. Paul loved to tell his story. He said: "I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Corinthians 15:9-10a).

Don't forget: this man not only persecuted Christians, but stood by and watched while a man named Stephen was stoned to death for proclaiming his faith in Jesus. Still, the Lord reached through Paul's prejudice and hatred and saved him, changing his life forever. What a great story Paul had to tell!

But we all have a story, don't we? I mean, if you know Jesus, you have a story! It doesn't have to be dramatic. What encounter have you had in your life with Christ that humbles you the most and gives you the greatest sense of peace and joy? Guess what . . . that's your story!

I wonder how many times Zacchaeus told his story. It probably went something like this: "As a tax collector, my whole life was about money. Greed ruined my life. I didn't have any friends - not any real ones, anyway. But when Jesus came into my life He set me free from my greed. He taught me to care - really care - about other people, not just about myself."

So what's your story? I know you have one, because I do. Some of you have heard me talk about it, and I've heard you talk about yours. And we'll hear a lot more as time goes on.

But let's be more intentional about telling our story. Your story is powerful, because it's His story in you. Think about it. Write it down. Have it tucked in your mind. You never know when the Spirit's going to nudge you into noticing someone that you can listen to, and then tell your story to - HIS STORY - the story that saved you and changed your life.

That's how we extend spiritual life to the next generation - to share the greatest story ever told - the one that makes God's love so clear to us in Christ Jesus, His only Son, Who, for our sake, was crucified, died, was buried and in three days rose again, so that we might no longer fear death or the threats of this world, but cling forever to the promise of eternal life with Him!

And the story isn't over. Not for you. Not for Christ's Church. For every day the Holy Spirit is working in your heart and in the hearts of those for whom we are salt, to shape us and use us for His purposes, to build His kingdom here on earth, to make known in the hearts of all the saving power of His love in Christ Jesus.

Someone once asked: "If your church and school were suddenly removed from this community, would anybody notice? Would it make a difference? Would you be missed?"

Beloved, Jesus has already answered that question! You would be missed! You are the salt, the seasoning of Jesus, in this community and you do make a difference! There are people in this community who have a new life in Jesus because God used you to tell His Story! What a blessing! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

3:07 pm edt

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

THE GOOD CONFESSION

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Pentecost 15
Sermon
8-24-2008

St. Matthew 16:13-20

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He began asking His disciples, saying, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" 14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16 And Simon Peter answered and said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. 19 "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." 20 Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ.

In the year 1530, when Emperor Charles V summoned the Lutherans to the city of Augsburg, he demanded that they provide an explanation for the things they were teaching in Germany. They responded with a document called the Augsburg Confession in which they plainly confessed two things: 1) they confessed what they believed and 2) they confessed what they did not believe.

For example, when they confessed faith in the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – they explicitly and painstakingly rejected the false beliefs of others. A group called the Manicheans believed in two gods, so the Lutherans condemned them as false-believers. A group called the Arians claimed that Jesus was a creature and not the Creator, so the Lutherans condemned them as heretics. The Muslims, with their god Allah, were also expressly condemned, along with fancy-sounding groups like the "Eunomians" and the "Valentinians."

So the Lutherans stood before Charles V and confessed these words, "God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. All heresies which are contrary to this [teaching] are rejected" (Augsburg Confession, Article I). By stating both what they believed and what they did not believe, the Lutherans essentially said this: Here is our faith, which we believe according to the Scriptures. All others who believe differently than this believe something other than the Christian faith.

Now, some people might roll their eyes at such exclusive claims to the Christian faith. Some may even laugh us off and dismiss us as being too doctrinal, too inflexible, too worried about words, or too judgmental of other peoples' beliefs. But while they're laughing, maybe they'd better be careful not to choke on the mouthful that is today's Gospel.

Jesus asked His disciples, "Who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Matthew 16:16). Now, this Gospel demonstrates that when the Christian faith responds to Jesus, it confesses two things. It not only confesses what it believes, as you heard St. Peter do here, but it also confesses what it does not believe. When it comes to this Jesus, this Christ, this Son of the Living God, the Christian faith leaves no room for argument and no opportunity for individual opinion. "You are the Christ – You are not Elijah or John or Jeremiah or one of the others – You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

My friends, your Lord Jesus is not the least bit concerned with opinion polls, and it was not for His own benefit that asked His disciples what the people were saying about Him. He knows the hearts of men. He sees through peoples' thoughts (Matthew 9:4) and He knows our perception of Him long before we open our mouths (see, for example, John 1:47-50). When Jesus asks, "Who do the people say the Son of Man is" (Matthew 16:13), He establishes a backdrop of Who He is not; a backdrop against which His disciples can make their own confession. It's as if He says to His disciples, "All right, now that you've heard all the wrong stuff, now that you have gathered up the various human opinions about Me, tell Me yourselves: Who do you say I am?"

Against these false confessions of Jesus the disciples speak that which is good and noble and true, not with "the wisdom of men" (1 Corinthians 1:25), not with "fine-sounding arguments" (Colossians 2:4), and not with their own sense of courage. They speak empowered by the Holy Spirit using the words God gave them: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Matthew 16:16).

Do you think you or I will ever be called on to make the good confession before kings and princes like our forefathers of the Reformation? Probably not. Will we stand before Jesus and speak directly to Him the words that St. Peter spoke in today's Gospel? Yeah - on the Last Day, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11). But what about now?

Until then we still have plenty of opportunities to confess Christ – if not before the whole world, at least before the people of the Fox Cities. And when we confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, we confess both who He is and who His is not. We confess Him with intentionality, so that no one is misled or mistaken. We use our kitchen tables and our living room couches to confess Christ to our children; we use our businesses and our daily tasks to confess Christ to our neighbor; we commit our very lives to our confession, so that in both word and deed people see in us the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

The true and faithful confession of Christ is not merely the stuff of ancient cultures, dear friends, and it is most certainly not something only for your Lutheran forefathers. This is your own confession; this is the joy and this is the cross that you individually are given to bear against every false claim about Jesus.

When others reduce Him to a mere prophet, you confess Him to be the Christ. When others strip Him of His divine substance and unity with the Father, you confess Him as the Son of the Living God. In its best light, the world looks on Jesus as a moral teacher, a role model and a source of inspiration. But He is your Christ, and you are given His name so that you may confess it clearly, unmistakably, unapologetically, and faithfully. We're not talking about religious options when we speak of Jesus; we're talking about the one, true, and only God.

Beloved, today's Gospel announces the joyous news that this Spirit-borne confession will not fail you. Human ideas come and go; philosophies often die as quickly as the philosophers who came up with them. But your confession of Christ was born in eternity, and provides you with eternal assurance. "Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by My Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:17).

Jesus calls Peter "blessed," not because he has made the good confession of Christ, the Son of the Living God, but because Peter speaks with knowledge that comes only from one source: "My Father in heaven" (Matthew 16:17). It's as if Jesus says: "Peter, you have received divine favor, not because you said the right thing, but because God has allowed you to escape the uncertainty and tyranny of your own religious opinions. You are blessed, dear Peter, because you speak from a knowledge that is not your own, but can only come from God."

For this reason, the Church continues to make its good confession. We live by the bread and butter of this confession. We offer no other sustenance to the world than this good confession and we can do nothing else, for the words we speak are not our own; they are given to us by the God who loves us, and who gave His only Son for our salvation.

People may not think much of your confession, but they will never overcome you because of it. Though you may indeed find yourself cursed by them, you shall remain blessed, for you possess a divine knowledge that is not your own. It is and shall be rock-solid! Not even the gates of Hell can prevail against it. Thanks be to God! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

2:22 pm edt

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

KYRIE ELEISON

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Pentecost 14
Sermon
8-17-2008

St. Matthew 15:21-28

21 And Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman came out from that region, and began to cry out, saying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed." 23 But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came to Him and kept asking Him, saying, "Send her away, for she is shouting out after us." 24 But He answered and said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." 25 But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, "Lord, help me!" 26 And He answered and said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." 27 But she said, "Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." 28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, "O woman, your faith is great; be it done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed at once.

Every once in awhile a catch-phrase makes a hit with people and becomes a part of our everyday vocabulary. Remember these? - “War is hell,” “I’ll be back,” “Can you hear me now?” “Houston, we have a problem,” and the ever-popular: "Would you like fries with that?"

There are a number of such phrases that have made this kind of an impact on the Church, one of which is the little Greek sentence: Kyrie eleison.

These words ought to be quite familiar to us; we sing them every Sunday, but in English: “Lord, have mercy.”

These words appear in Psalms and throughout the Gospels. This is a prayer that has been part of the Church’s liturgy for 1600 years and was first used liturgically in the Office of Vespers. The Church became so enamored with this prayer that it became the first part of the Divine Service. As the Liturgy of the Church developed, the Kyrie became more prominent, so much so that it is one of the Ordinaries of the Service of Holy Communion, which means that it is a regularly occurring component of the service. In other words, we sing it every week.

The word Kyrie is Greek for “Lord.” The word eleison literally means “be an atonement cover for me.” In the original sense of the term, Kyrie eleison means: “Lord, cover my sins, that I may receive Your forgiveness. Cover my sins with the blood that You shed on the cross in my place.”

We pray in the Kyrie that Jesus’ blood will cover us so that, when our heavenly Father looks at us, He sees not our sin but the blood of His only-begotten Son and declares us forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Keep this in mind as we offer up the Prayers of the Church. Listen to how the petitions end: “Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.”

It is in this sense that the Canaanite woman uses these words in calling out to Jesus. She cries out, “Lord, have mercy. Lord, hear my prayer for help!”

She, a Canaanite woman, part of the race that God commanded the Israelites to extinguish - which they failed to do - dared to address Jesus, calling Him the Son of David, the Messianic title of the Jews, asking that He heal her demon-possessed daughter. This takes some guts, because most Jews wouldn't even talk to her, let alone consider granting such a request.

And at first Jesus didn't respond; He just kept walking. His disciples begged Him to get rid of her. Clearly, she was getting on their nerves. Then Jesus gave a response that we'd probably consider unloving, unfeeling, insensitive, and certainly politically incorrect. He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24). In other words: "I'm not here to help the likes of you."

Now, even though the Jews had already rejected Him, salvation would still come through them, as Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman at the well. As the Good Shepherd, He was seeking those who strayed from the fold, the House of Israel. The woman in our text was not an Israelite; she was a Canaanite. She was not a Jew; she was a Gentile. Jesus pointed out that it would not be right to give the children's bread to her - a “dog,” as He called her. Dogs were not to be fed at the dinner table. Similarly, it was not the Gentiles’ place to take the things God intended for the Jews. Only after His ministry to the Jews would the Church reach out to the Gentiles as well. Paul writes to the Romans that the Gospel “is the power of salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and [then] to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16b).

But this Canaanite woman knew who Jesus was: the Son of David, the Messiah. So in response to His rebuke, she said, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (v. 27). Wow, what faith! She was willing to receive her daily bread even if it came as crumbs falling from the table. She didn't care if she was a black sheep or even a non-sheep. She believed in Jesus and in faith asked Him to heal her daughter.

And He did.

Jesus heard her prayer and answered it. But not simply because she prayed. He answered her prayer because He saw her faith and acted out of grace and mercy.

Dear friends, God answers our prayers, not just because we want Him to, but because He hears the prayers of the faithful, just as He heard the prayer of the Canaanite woman. He heard her prayer on account of her faith - a strong faith! - given to her by the Holy Spirit through the Word of Christ.

God has given us His Word as well, and through it, together with the sacraments of Holy Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Word of Absolution, He creates, sustains, and strengthens our faith, so that it may be as certain and solid as that of this Canaanite woman.

But is it? Is our faith as strong as hers? Umm, I think we'd have to say "no."

Why not? Perhaps because we listen more to our friends than we do to God’s Word. Perhaps because we've fallen into the trap of thinking that if we don't get what we asked for God must not have heard our prayer. Perhaps because we think that if God doesn't give us the answer we want it must mean that we didn't pray hard enough or that God just doesn't care. Perhaps because we get so absorbed with ourselves and what we desire we forget that God already gives us everything we need to support our body and life, and that He gives it to us in His time and according to His good and gracious will.

Listen to His Word through the prophet Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9).

We forget sometimes our order in creation: God is the Creator and we are His creatures! It is He who made us, and we are His. But we don't like to hear that because it means that we are not in charge of our lives. And then we get stubborn and say: "Well, if God is only gonna feed me crumbs, I just won't have anything at all!" And then we starve ourselves, refusing to be fed, and our faith withers to the point where the slightest breeze can blow it away. Kyrie eleison! God have mercy on us and save us from ourselves!

In today's Epistle the Apostle Paul calls us disobedient. He writes: “God has consigned all [Jews and Gentiles alike] to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32). Mary sings in the Magnificat, “His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50).

How has the Lord shown mercy to us?

He sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, to the cross to pay the price for our sins. Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, has had mercy on us and grants us His peace. Our heavenly Father has had mercy on us and has given His only Son to die for us and for His sake forgives us all our sins.

Paul writes in his letter to Titus: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). In other words, He gives us His mercy and forgiveness in Holy Baptism - "by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior."

He also gives us His mercy at His Table. He gives us a feast - a foretaste of the Feast to come, His own body and blood, to strengthen us in faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another. Yes indeed, God extends to others the love He has first given to us, so that we may forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven.

We heard in today's Gospel about Jesus’ mercy toward the Canaanite woman. But through this reading and the proclamation of this Word we hear about His mercy toward us as well.

Beloved, God is not giving us crumbs; it’s the full meal deal. He doesn't give us His mercy in pieces; He gives it all - lock, stock and barrel. So there's nothing crumby about the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation; this is the Feast of His mercy and grace. Come to the Feast, receive His mercy, be forgiven, live from this point forward a new creation in Christ Jesus, our Lord. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

5:47 pm edt

LEADING TO REPENTANCE

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Pentecost 13
Sermon
8-10-2008

St. Matthew 14:22-33

22 Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. 23 And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. 24 But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. 25 Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. 26 And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out for fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, "Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid." 28 And Peter answered Him and said, "Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water." 29 So He said, "Come." And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. 30 But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, "Lord, save me!" 31 And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, "Truly You are the Son of God."

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans chapter 2: "The kindness of God leads you to repentance" (Romans 2:4). Notice carefully, that he doesn't say: "the kindness of God has led you to repentance," or that God's kindness "will lead you to repentance." "The kindness of God leads you to repentance" – present tense, right-now, on-going action.

Somehow, a lot of Christians have missed this point – that God right now leads to repentance. And, having missed the point, they have the wrong idea about repentance. They think that repentance should be preached to unbelievers, but not necessarily to believers. They seem to have the idea that repentance is something they did a long time ago and are now moving forward with their new life, leaving repentance behind.

Beloved, please don't make that mistake. Don't think of repentance as something you did once upon a time, like your high school graduation or a trip to the Grand Canyon. "John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near'" (Matthew 3:2). And many people repented, receiving John's baptism for the forgiveness of their sins.

But this repentance was not a one-time event, as if any of John's hearers could return to whatever town they were from, and say to their neighbors: "Yeah, I went out and repented yesterday; I'm glad that's over with!"

It might sound funny, but this is how many Christians – maybe even some here at Trinity – view their entire life of faith. They look at the Christian life as though it were a series of one-time events. And maybe they all touch on repentance - and maybe they're real and vibrant for the moment - but then they slip quickly into the past and get stuffed into the treasure-chest of memories.

But make no mistake; repentance is more integral to your faith and life than that! Repentance is like breathing, and last time I checked, no one ever outgrew their need for that! John never preaches, "Repent, and then try to live a good life." He says: "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matthew 3:8).

Repentance is not a once-in-a-lifetime event of the past; it's the very inhale and exhale of your life in Christ. And this is what Peter demonstrates in today's Gospel: Repentance is something you never get beyond.

What fruit had Peter produced in keeping with repentance? He left his nets to follow Jesus, and you don't simply walk away from your life and livelihood without trust and confidence in the one you follow. He listened intently to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus showed Himself to be the very fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven. He witnessed so many miracles, each one proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He had already become a preacher of the kingdom, healing the sick, raising the dead, and driving out demons (Matthew 10:8). He had even seen storms calmed before, and had already placed his hope and trust in the man whom even the winds and waves obey (Matthew 8:27). And Jesus had once again, earlier that very day, demonstrated His divine power, feeding thousands with a little boy's lunch.

But still, even after all of this, "When he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, he cried out, 'Lord, save me!'" (Matthew 14:20). But, you know what? That is repentance, my friends! And that is what we must continue to have in common with Peter.

The enemies of our faith often take our salvation more seriously than we do. Do you desire to be saved? Of course, you do! But your enemies have committed every fiber of their existence to your destruction. And you've seen them succeed, haven't you. Haven't we all seen Christians fall from the faith because of some cataclysmic event in their life; slipping, as it were, beneath the foamy waves into destruction and death?

Brothers and sisters, when your feel your faith and trust in Jesus assaulted by your day-to-day struggles, when you are terrorized by your own self-inflicted woes, when you find yourself crying out to God, pleading along with Peter: "Lord, save me!" - that is repentance! That is saying: "Lord, I need You! I can't do it by myself. I can't survive on my own. Please lift me up and keep me from drowning."

Do you know what happens then? Do you know what your Savior's response is to that cry of repentance? All you have to do is look to our text for the answer. What did Jesus do when Peter cried out for help? "Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him."

Dear friend, Jesus is waiting for your cry today, and He's ready to catch you. Just say the word. Let us pray: Loving Savior, take our hand today. Whatever the circumstances in our lives that seem to be overwhelming us, whatever waves loom large, threatening to drown us in the depths of despair, take our hand and pull us safely to You. Calm the storms that terrify us, that we too may confess that "Truly You are the Son of God." In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

10:47 am edt

Monday, October 6, 2008

BOUNDLESS PROVISION

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Pentecost 12
Sermon
8-3-2008

St. Matthew 14:13-21

13 When Jesus heard it, He departed from there by boat to a deserted place by Himself. But when the multitudes heard it, they followed Him on foot from the cities. 14 And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick. 15 When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying,  This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food. 16 But Jesus said to them,  They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat. 17 And they said to Him,  We have here only five loaves and two fish. 18 He said,  Bring them here to Me. 19 Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass. And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. 20 So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. 21 Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Isn't there something familiar about the conditions described in today's Gospel?  Strikes pretty close to home, doesn't it?  We see this multitude suffering from a lack of commodity - without food, hungry, needful - just like we are.  Our world, our nation, our community, our church and school, and our own households - these are frequently in want or need of something vital, and we find ourselves suffering bouts of desperation:  How will we make ends meet?  How will we provide for our financial, physical, and emotional well-being? 

And this leads us to ask a further question:  Why?  Why must I endure such trouble?  Why must I simply make do?  Why can't the Lord send a miracle like He did in Matthew 14?   It's not like we're asking Him to multiply His gifts five thousand times over.  Just give us enough to live peaceably and comfortably - just enough so that we don't have to live our lives in constant anxiety, scrimping and skavaging from week to week.  Is that asking too much?

Maybe not.  Maybe we're not asking enough!  I mean, why stop with material gain and relief from our mental and physical anguish?  Why not go all the way and ask for a perfect life that we can enjoy forever?  Hmm.  What was that Jesus said?   Ask, and you shall receive?  (John 16:24b).

That's the central theme of today's Gospel.  It's not about how tough things are; it's about how glorious things can be.  But this is something the Holy Spirit has to retrain our hearts and minds to understand, because we have this tendency to see things backwards or to look at things from a limited point of view.

Lookit: Our heavenly Father wants to grant us a transcendent, eternal life - and to revel in the joy of it  - but we're too busy fretting over the conditions in which we live.  God wants us to look at our troubles from a heavenly perspective, from the perspective of God's inexhaustible resources, but we insist on restricting His blessings to the slim supply we perceive in our own storehouse.  Beloved, we are walking by sight and not by faith (2 Cor. 5:7).

One of the things we need to learn today from this Gospel is that we are people who, at one time, had absolutely nothing.

That multitude following Jesus in our text had nothing.  And, like them, our depravity encompasses more than just food.  We had nothing - especially nothing that would lead God to love us.

Do you know what happened just before the account in today's Gospel?  The reason why Jesus withdrew to a place by Himself?  It's because He had just received news that His forerunner - His cousin - the man who prepared the way for His arrival - John the Baptist - had just been beheaded by King Herod.

And before we go all righteous and sit in judgement of that ghastly act, let's remember what Scripture says:  Whoever hates his brother is a murderer  (1 John 3:15a).  Ever hated anyone?

Or how about this from the Small Catechism:  We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need  (Explanation to the 5th Commandment).  Ever physically hurt or harm someone?  Ever failed to help someone with their physical needs?  Who hasn't?

Brothers and sisters, we're no better than King Herod.  How much proof do we need to tell us that there's nothing in us that would cause God to love us or treat us with anything but utter contempt?

However . . .

Though we were without any redeeming quality, Christ was not.  We read that He had compassion for the crowds that followed Him.  And so, without reason, without logic, without any just cause, Jesus fed them as someone might feed a stray animal.  And beyond that . . . He gave His life for them . . . and for you.

Isn't it amazing that here we are, so caught up with the day-to-day concerns of our lives - the temporary, fleeting things of our lives - that we don't even notice the virtual banquet that God has already laid before us?  We're so busy trying to get our hands on the five loaves and two fish that we're oblivious to the fact that Christ has already given us food that conveys everlasting life to us in His very own body and blood.

And that's exactly what today's Gospel implies.  Did you notice the action that was involved in the feeding of the five thousand?  It's significant.  First, the people reclined.  Then, Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to His disciples.  Isn't that the very same action He employed when He instituted the Lord's Supper?

And what happened when the meal was over?  There were twelve baskets full over left-overs.  Again, no coincidence, for there were twelve apostles - twelve who would carry on the office of Christ and distribute His gifts to the church, just as the Pastor does today in the stead and by the command of Christ.

My friends, in and of ourselves we have nothing, but in Christ, we have everything - the forgiveness of sins, life, salvation, and the promise of an eternal home in heaven - and nothing that we think we might be lacking - or might somehow lose - can ever take those gifts away.

That's why Paul was bold enough to say in last week's Epistle that we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us (Rom. 8:37).

So why do we go through trials and tribulations?  Why do we have to put up with the heartaches?  Why doesn't our loving God, who has given us everything, simply deliver us from the pains of this world?  Well, you may not like the answer, but I'm going to give it to you anyway.  And no fair complaining about it, because you've used it on your own children.

What's the answer?  "Because God said so!"

Remember what Paul wrote?  All things work together for good to those who love God, who are  called according to His purpose  (Rom. 8:28).  Dear Christian friends, you are the Called.  You have been called to faith and given the gift of eternal salvation.  And though, all things work together  for your good, there are bound to be those other things which Paul mentioned as well: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword (Rom. 8:35b).

God allows us to experience these things because we are His elect, because in the midst of it all we have no other choice but to place our faith in Him.  You know you can't carry yourself through; you never could.  And because we can't even begin to fathom how all of these things could possibly be for our good, we simply must take the promise at face value - because God says so!

What kind of God says so?  One who is indifferent toward us?  No way!   He's a God of such great love and mercy that He was willing to give His own Son in payment for our sins.  Think about that   And today's Gospel is just one example of Paul's remark:  He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?  (Rom. 8:32)

Yes, there is something familiar about today's Gospel - something that strikes quite close to home.  And it's not just the bad stuff!  Rather, we can identify with this text because we can see our life pictured here in the life of Jesus.  For, by faith, His life belongs to us just as much as we belong to Him.

So, what are we really lacking in this life?  What do we really have to be anxious about?  or worry about?  Is there a monster that Jesus cannot slay?  Remember: Everything comes from Him, belongs to Him, and returns to Him, regardless of how things appear to us now.  As Paul says elsewhere:  That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day  (2 Tim. 1:12).

Knowing God's boundless provision - as so graphically exhibited in our text - let us entrust ourselves and all we have to Him until He comes again.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

9:44 pm edt

WHAT SHALL SEPARATE US?

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Pentecost 11
Sermon
7-27-2008

Romans 8:35-39

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written: "For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter." 37 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" Well – no one, of course! Nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord!

That's where the Apostle Paul leads us in today's epistle. "I am persuaded," he says, "that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" Of course, this question presumes that we are already connected to the love of Christ. In fact, this entire section of Paul's letter to the Romans is prefaced by verses that give us the assurance of the love of God, reminding us that, as His baptized children, we are joined to His love that overcomes all the powers and troubles of this world.

For instance, Paul wrestles in chapter 7 with the fear that his own sinfulness would separate him from God’s love. You may recall where he says, "For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing" (Rom. 7:19 NIV). Apparently, he wrestled day and night with this internal contradiction until finally he cried out: "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 7:24)

Chapter 8 then begins with these wonderfully assuring words: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1).

You see? Because he was joined to Christ in faith, Paul knew that he was permanently connected to the love of God.

And then in verse 30 we see the results of God's love for us in Christ: "Those He predestined, He also called; those He called, He also justified; and those He justified, He also glorified" (Rom. 8:30).

Paul was a child of God by faith, just like you are, because God chose him, like He chose you, even before the foundation of the world. And then He called you by the Gospel to a living faith; He justified you by taking what is yours and giving to you what is His, preparing you for the glory of heaven.

Ultimately, Paul is confronted with this question: "If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" (Rom. 8:31-32).

My friends, the assurance of God's love flows so abundantly from the pages of His word, that when the Apostle asks: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" the implication is that we are already joined to that love - through Holy Baptism, and through the continued receiving of Him in His Word and His Holy Supper.

It seems so obvious, but we mustn't take it lightly.

Though the love of Christ is offered to everyone - because Jesus died for everyone - and though He wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, the fact is, some people reject Him. And you might be surprised to find out how many people think that the words of this text and the assurance of God's love apply even to those who reject Him!

You might recall that after 9-11 a number of politicians quoted this text, trying to offer hope in the midst of chaos and tragedy. The trouble is, they only quoted the part that doesn't specifically mention Christ: "I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God…"

The real question is: "Who shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?" But even when we get the question right, we often find ourselves stumbling over the answer.

What would separate you from the love of God in Christ? Are there sins you can't seem to get a handle on? Is there someone you can't forgive? Would things like that separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus? Is your faith weak? Are there daily concerns that might separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus? Are there things you should be doing but for some reason aren't? Might there be some other behavior or attitude that right now you can't even imagine that could in some way separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus?

What is it that scares you the most when you think that you might somehow be disconnected from God and His love?

Listen: Jesus said, "this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day" (John 6:39). And again He says, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand" (John 10:27-29). And then here He says through the Apostle Paul: "neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Faith sometimes seems so tenuous and fragile, as if the slightest thing can shake it and destroy it. And it's true that someone can walk away from his faith in Christ if he really wants to. But what will not fail, beloved, what will never be shaken or destroyed, is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! Never will He leave you, never will He forsake you (Heb. 13:5), never will He reject you or disown you. Jesus says: "The one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out" (John 6:37b).

God's intention with this text is to carry your faith to heights you've never known by showing you the Triumphant Lord who reigns in love over everything that could possibly come into your life - even those things that would try to destroy you.

"Who shall separate you from the love of Christ?" Neither death nor life will. Jesus conquered death when He overcame the grave, victoriously vacating the tomb and promising you everlasting life.

But you know, some people are more afraid of living than they are of dying. But even life itself can't separate you from God's love in Christ. "I have come," Jesus said, "that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10b).

Angels and principalities and powers can't separate you from God's love either. Nor can the present or the future.

Now, it's interesting that Paul doesn't mention the past here. But of course, the past can't separate you from God's love because the past has been swallowed up in Jesus' death on the Cross and the great gift of forgiveness He earned for us there. And what has been forgiven no longer exists in the eyes of God, for He says: "I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (Heb. 8:12 NIV).

The present and the future are consumed in Christ's death as well. No matter what Satan devises against you, God checkmates it all with His own power and might. He turns the very fire the devil would use to scorch you into one that purifies and strengthens you.

So, dear Christian, there is not one thing can ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Whatever that list was of the things you fear most, know here and now: should any of them ever occur in your life, the love of God in Christ Jesus will carry you through, for NOTHING whatsoever, is greater than God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

9:12 pm edt

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

CUP O'JOY

Okay, so I get a message from John Schlitt's booking agent. Her name is Sue Demister, and she is with Nova productions out of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. She has listened to some of my music and likes it a lot. We talked on the phone for a little bit, and she directed me to the Cup o'Joy coffee house in Green Bay. I contacted them and will be singing there this Friday night for one of their open mic nights. Way cool!

Then I get an email from Sue that she has heard my song "At Least a Thousand Reasons" and thinks it sounds like something Bryan Duncan would do with his new Neho Soul band. It just so happens that John Schlitt's manager - Ricky B. Rogers - plays in Bryan's band. Sue says: "I've gotta send Ricky the link to 'Thousand Reasons.'" Next thing I know I get a "friend" invite on MySpace from Ricky, with the comment: "Bryan and I just listened to your song. Great stuff, man!"

I'm like: "You're kidding!? Bryan Duncan just listened to my music and likes it! Wow!

Sue is going to meet my wife and I at Cup o'Joy on Friday. I'm singing "At Least a Thousand Reasons" and "T.G.I.F." I am SO having fun with this right now! God is good!

6:12 pm edt

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For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
(Philippians 1:21)

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