Open Wide

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2 Corinthians 6:1-13, New International Version

As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. 2 For he says,

“In the time of my favor I heard you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.”[a]
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.

Paul’s Hardships

3 We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

11 We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. 12 We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. 13 As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also.

Celebrate!

2nd Sunday of Advent
2 Chronicles 30

Come, O come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel. Amen. In the name of Jesus, who comes to save us and will come again, dear friends in Christ, how do you drive in a snowstorm? It’s that time of year again when we all have to relearn how to drive in snowy, icy conditions. So, how do you drive on a road that hasn’t been plowed yet? Carefully, yes. Slowly, yes. But there’s one other rule of the road. You do your best to follow the tracks that other cars have already made on the road. Why? Because if you go too far to the right or to the left you risk getting your tires on the slippery snow and losing all control either sliding to the left into oncoming traffic or sliding to the right and either crashing or getting stuck in the snow. Guaranteed every year you will see vehicles stuck in the snow on either side of the road. You want to stay on the narrow path.

Well, there’s also a narrow Scriptural road that we want to stay on. The devil is constantly trying to push us humans to either stop short of what God says or go beyond what God says. At Christmastime we are faced with one of those instances where we need to stick to the path and not slide off either side of the road.

You see, at Christmastime, perhaps more so than any other time of the year we see the depth of sinful materialism. It seems that every year we hear about a death or injury at a mall or a shopping center because people were trying to get the heavily discounted item. We also see and feel ourselves the many stresses and worries about stuff. About getting the right gift, “Should I get this person a gift or not, what should I get them, what if I don’t get them a gift but they get me a gift?” And it even affects our children. How disappointed children will get if they didn’t have any presents or enough presents or the right presents.

There’s a part of all that which bothers us and it should. It shows the depth of our sinfulness, it shows our incessant longing to find happiness, fulfillment, peace in stuff instead of our Savior. It shows how much we deserve God’s punishment forever. That bothers us.

So that’s slipping off one side of the road. But here’s the other side. The subtle implication arises that it’s perhaps sinful to celebrate Christmas. There arises perhaps this idea that we’re somehow sinning if we give presents or if we have a nice meal or a nice party. And that’s where we need to be reminded about driving on the narrow road. Yes, our celebration for Christmas can be sinful if we’re focused on the wrong things. At the same time, God never says that we shouldn’t celebrate it. In fact, it’s a great and wonderful thing to celebrate the great acts of God and to do so with a great celebration and a clear conscience.

And we see it here with Hezekiah. Remember, Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, had been an absolutely horrible king- shutting the doors of the temple, sacrificing to idols, setting up altars to false gods all over Jerusalem. It was a time of terrible spiritual darkness. But then, Hezekiah came to the throne and his first job was restoring worship to the one true God. He re-opened the temple, reconsecrated everything, reestablished the sacrifices, rededicated the temple. Great!

But there was a huge festival that still needed to be celebrated: the Passover. The Passover was supposed to be an annual reminder for the Israelites of God’s incredible grace. The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt for generations, but the time had come for God to take them to the Promised Land. So, God gave Pharaoh sign after sign, plague after plague, but Pharaoh hardened himself in unbelief and refused to let them go. The final straw that led Pharaoh to let them go was the Passover. Each Israelite family was to take a one year old male lamb without blemish, slaughter the lamb, paint the blood on the door posts. Then, that night the angel of death would pass through all of Egypt and wherever he saw blood on the doorway, he would pass over that house and not bring death there. But where there was no blood, the firstborn would die. And, it happened! Just like God had said. And the Israelites were able to leave their slavery and were free to go to the Promised Land.

And God wanted them to celebrate this incredible event every year. So right at the beginning of their calendar they would be reminded of God’s incredible power to deliver, God’s incredible grace to rescue them, and God’s incredible faithfulness for their future.

And what did Hezekiah do? He determined that it was time to celebrate the Passover again. He invited all Judah to come, he even invited everyone from the Northern Kingdom that had been left after the Assyrians had conquered them. And they celebrated! A huge crowd of people gathered in Jerusalem. The entire event lasted 7 days, the Levites and priests sang to the LORD every day, accompanied by instruments. At the end of the 7 days, they had enjoyed it so much that they decided to celebrate for another 7 days! Hezekiah provided 1,000 bulls and 7,000 sheep/goats for the people, the officials provided another 1,000 bulls and 10,000 sheep/ goats. And even more priests consecrated themselves. Nothing had been seen like this in Jerusalem since the great days of King Solomon.

But don’t you see? What they celebrated pales in comparison with what we’re about to celebrate! They celebrated the release from earthly slavery, we’re celebrating our release from sin’s eternal slavery, release from the imprisonment and torture of sin, death, and hell forever! They celebrated shadows of the coming Savior, we get to celebrate the reality. You know, if Hezekiah were to come here today, if he got to see what you and I get to see, hear what you and I get to hear, if he had the opportunity to celebrate what you and I get to celebrate, he would be jumping up and down saying, “Don’t you see?? We celebrated shadows of deliverance, rescue, salvation, you have the real thing! You get to celebrate the reality that God loved us so much that he came himself to be born into our world, to live our life, to die our death. You get to see the glory of the one and only born as one of us and placed into the manger all in order to go to a cross in order to save us. You get to see it and celebrate it!”

But what would he see in us? “Oh Christmas again.” “Oh, I can’t wait until the holidays are over.” “Ugh, I have to go spend several hours with those people?” “Ugh I have to find a present for so and so.” “Ugh I have so much baking to do.” “Ugh I have to get the house clean.” “I’m just so stressed and exhausted.” If Hezekiah were here and he observed us, would he be just dumbfounded at our lack of celebration? We have awesome, amazing, good news truths to celebrate!

So make your plans for your celebration!  Get presents, or decorate, or send cards, make cookies, prepare a meal, get together with family, volunteer somewhere, or whatever it is that you like to do.  Celebrate!  Provided one thing: provided that we remember WHY we’re celebrating.  No, the getting together with family isn’t the key point.  The presents, the cards, the meals, the cookies, the volunteering – none of those are the key point.  And if our celebration becomes focused on those things, then our celebration will be fleeting and will leave us strangely empty.

But if our celebration keeps the central focus, that we’re celebrating Jesus, the baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger, the Savior who’s come to save us, then our celebration will be what it should be: wonderful and uplifting, God-pleasing.

So, yes, the devil is going to try to lure you down the path of commercialization, will try to focus your celebration on the things of this earth rather than on the eternal grace of God.  Resist that urge!  Fight it!

But the devil will also send “Scrooge” to you, trying to condemn you for celebrating at all, trying to make you feel guilty or exhausted or stressed. Fight that too!

Don’t slide to the right or to the left. Stay on that Scriptural road, the road that leads you straight to your Savior, and then your celebration will be God-pleasing, uplifting, and wonderful.  Amen.

Pride Goes Before Destruction

22nd Sunday after Pentecost
2 Chronicles 26:16-23

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. How much pride do you have? When I was in 7th grade my dad had my brother and I take hunters safety classes. They held the class once a week for several weeks at the fire station about 10 minutes from our house, so my dad would drop us off. There was probably at least 30 or 40 other boys there taking the class. There happened to be one boy in the class who we knew from somewhere else but didn’t really like, he was trying to be cool, wore baggy clothes, had this kind of mop haircut, and just asked dumb and annoying questions. And so my brother and I – and as I look back, shamefully – had some fun between ourselves at this boy’s expense. Well, the big day for the test came around and we finished the test and I ended up getting a few wrong, but was still feeling pretty good about myself. So, in a moment of pride, I went up to this kid, figuring he failed or at least did pretty bad and asked him how he did. Turns out, he did better than me!! I was shocked, then he asked how I did, then I remember feeling pretty humiliated. Pride goes before destruction, doesn’t it? I’m sure each one of us has countless personal stories that illustrate this truth. Today we’re going to look at one account that God had written in His Word for our learning.

Powerful and prosperous. That’s exactly how you would have described Uzziah’s reign in Judah. Uzziah was a king of the southern kingdom of Israel, or Judah. He began ruling when he was 16 years old and ruled for 52 years. Amazingly, it was under Uzziah that the borders of the Promised Land almost reached the same as they were at the time of David and Solomon. That’s how prosperous he was. The first 16 verses of chapter 26 detail for us all his prosperity. First, his military: We’re told that he had a very capable and powerful and well-organized military numbering over 300,000 men, with 2,600 leaders. He equipped his military with the latest military weapons including shields, spears, helmets, coats of armor, bows and sling stones. He had skilled men build special machines to use on towers and corner defenses that shot arrows and hurled large stones. He won great military campaigns extending the borders of Judah. His fame spread far and wide.

But that’s not all he did either. He was also a great builder. He rebuilt towns and established settlements, he built towers in Jerusalem, built up the fortifications in Jerusalem, built defensive towers in the desert, dug cisterns for livestock. And he was also a farmer. He had people working in fields and vineyards and even earned a title for himself, “lover of the soil.” He was not only an entrepreneur and innovative man, he was also very successful.

We’re also not left in the dark as far as why he was successful. In the verse before our text we’re told that “he was greatly helped” but in the Hebrew it actually says, “He was wondrously helped” and you could even translate it “miraculously” helped. Who helped him? Verse 5 says, “God gave him success.” Verse 7 says, “God helped him.” We’re told that a certain Zechariah instructed him in the fear of the Lord. Zechariah taught him about God, God’s Word, God’s gracious promises.  Even Uzziah’s name illustrates that, his name literally means “The LORD is my strength.”

So, if you read the first 15 verses of 2 Chronicles 26 and you’re almost unprepared for what happens next. However, there were a few indications. Listen to what verse 5 says, “He sought God during the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God. As long as he sought the LORD, God gave him success.”  It almost implies that there would be a time that Uzziah would no longer seek the LORD and then he would for that reason no longer enjoy success.

It’s as if in describing to us Uzziah and his reign, God is setting us up for a shock. There will be a change. And it will be abrupt, swift, and awful. But that’s the nature of pride. Pride goes before destruction. Pride is a danger that will suddenly sweep you off a cliff. What happened next?

This gifted and talented person who had mastered many different things in life thought that he could also master his relationship with God. No doubt he thought of himself as being super-pious and God-fearing as he barged into the temple one day. Not content to go there to meet God in the way that GOD had set up, he was going to do things HIS way. He was probably thinking to himself, “Wow! Look at me, see how I the king am going the extra mile in my devotion to God, I’m going to go before him and burn incense.” But courageously Azariah, the priest, with eighty other courageous priests followed him in and confronted him, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.” That’s what God wanted.

And how did the king respond? RAGE! Rage against those who would question his intentions! Rage against those who would question his right to do whatever he wanted to do! Rage against those people who thought they knew better than he did! But God’s response? Judgment. “While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the LORD’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead.” Can you picture that? All of a sudden there’s this white patchy skin disease emerging on his forehead! It was a disease for which there was no cure, a disease that made the person unclean, unfit for society, the person who contracted this unclean disease was forced to live separately as a leper. Azariah and the other priests quickly hurried him out and humbled and frightened Uzziah meekly went with them. The result? He was forced to vacate the king’s palace and live out the rest of his days in a “separate house.” Ironically, the Hebrew literally says, “a house of freedom.” He was free all right. Free from all the tasks of daily life and had once consumed so much of his energy, free from all his riches and power, free from all normal human contact, free from joining with God’s people to bask in God’s gracious presence in worship. What a horrible, horrible freedom!

But that’s exactly the destination of pride. Anyone who asserts himself and attempts to put himself over God, to free himself from God’s rule, that’s his destination, destruction, maybe already in this life but certainly in the life to come. Pride goes before destruction.

Wow! Pride is an incredibly deadly sin. It comes from our basic mindset born into this world. By nature each of us is egocentric, we’re turned in upon ourselves. Even as Christians it’s something we must continue to struggle with until the day we die. What does it look like? Like Uzziah, it shows up as this inability to admit you’re wrong. The fault can’t be mine! It shows up as a know-it-all attitude that doesn’t submit to authority and criticizes others. Uzziah though he knew what was right and how dare someone challenge him! And perhaps pride also shows itself in being overly busy. Yes, Uzziah was talented in many things, but he came to the point where he was going to do everything. Overly busy people tend to think that no one else could do it is as well as I can. That’s pride. Pride is a powerfully destructive force in our relationships with other people. But even worse, it’s a powerfully destructive force in our relationship with God. Uzziah clearly neglected God’s Word. No longer was he listening to God’s Word – if he had, he wouldn’t have disobeyed God’s Word in trying to offer incense in the temple. That’s the root problem of pride. We think we can make it without God and His Word.  That’s the key difference. Sometimes it can be easy to mistake pride for faith. Both make someone bold and confident. But here’s the difference: Pride centers on self and what I think I can do, faith centers on God and what HE can do.

Pride goes before destruction. God matched Uzziah’s spiritual condition with his physical condition by striking him with leprosy. How much he deserved God’s wrath, how much each of us deserve God’s wrath for our pride!  But notice two small details here. Notice first that it says, “the LORD had afflicted him.” Those words aren’t there by accident. Remember that the name “the LORD” is always used to indicate God as our God full of free and faithful love and grace. The LORD afflicted him. The LORD brought him low. What grace of God to do that! There’s an old saying that says, “When you’re lying on your back, you can only look up.” What’s often God’s intentions in sending pain and suffering?  Is it not to stop us and get our attention? We know that whatever God sends to us is not to punish us because our punishment has already been paid for on the cross of Christ. So why would God send us pain and suffering? He does so as a dear Father. He does so to get our attention, to redirect our focus off of ourselves and back on Him.

The other detail that is important not to miss is “Uzziah rested with his fathers.” We’re told that he was buried in a different place than the royal sons of David. He was buried in a field nearby because a leper was considered unclean. But what does “He rested with his fathers” mean? It can’t mean that he was buried with them. Perhaps the most likely way to understand that phrase is that he rested with his fathers Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David in the heavenly rest after the problems of this life are ended. It seems that God in His grace used this affliction of leprosy to bring Uzziah to a repentant faith that once again relied on God’s strength and not his.

What a contrast between Uzziah and our real King Jesus! Uzziah achieved a lot, he rose high, and wasn’t content in the position that God gave him, he wanted even more, so God brought him low, cut him down and cut him off from people and society. Jesus on the other hand, who is God Himself, did not put His power as God on constant display, rather he put off the constant use of that power, allowed himself to be viewed as a despicable sinner, permitted himself to be cut off from God’s people by becoming a curse in death. He was at the very heights and he willingly went to the depths for our sakes. Why so? So that he could cleanse us from our filthy pride by his ultimate sacrificial love.

God’s given you an eternal purpose!

16th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:46-48, John 20:19-23, 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, who has given us our mission in life, dear friends in Christ,

You’re driving down the road and you look down and you see this (show pic of a gas gauge on empty). You’re in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception. What are your thoughts? What’s your reaction? How do you feel? What’s it like to run your car on empty? Anxious? Nervous? Scared? On the verge of a breakdown? Without fuel your car won’t go anywhere and you can be left stranded.  Well, not only do our vehicles need fuel to keep going, our bodies also need fuel to keep going. What happens when you don’t eat? What happens when you miss a meal? What happens when you don’t eat for a day? Generally, if I miss a meal or two, not only do I get hungry, I also get somewhat irritable, cranky, tired, often I’ll develop some sort of a headache. Our bodies need food. Our cars need fuel. Well, in a way, our souls need food and fuel too. The food and fuel for our soul is God’s life giving Word and Sacraments. If our souls are not fed and fueled, they will die.

You and I were born into this world dead in sin and doomed to death in the dungeon of hell. But God did something about that. God sent Jesus to rescue us with His life, death, and resurrection. Then in further grace, God sent the Holy Spirit to bring us to spiritual life, to convince us that what Jesus did is the truth. And when God worked the miracle of faith in your heart, when God convinced you that what Jesus did on the cross, He did for you, when God led you to trust in Jesus as your Savior – maybe at your baptism, maybe sometime later – God could have simply taken you from this life and into life eternal. Being brought to faith in Jesus is what is most important. So, in one sense God’s purpose for you is complete: you’ve been brought to faith, you’ve been made an heir of eternal life. But you’re still here! I’m still here! God hasn’t taken you or me from this life yet! That means God still has a purpose for us.

And it’s a twofold purpose. The first part is summed up in 2 Peter 3, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” That’s part of the purpose for which God has left you in this world: to continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. To continue to be fed and fueled by God’s Word and Sacraments. There is no plateauing or coasting as a Christian, either our faith is growing or it’s dying, it’s either getting stronger or getting weaker.

And really, that’s why we exist as a congregation. We exist to assist people in growing up in their salvation, we exist to help you hold firmly to everything that Jesus has instructed us, we exist to continue to provide opportunities for you to mature in your Christian faith.

You see, there’s a big difference between an infant and a mature adult. Perhaps we all know people who’ve never “grown up.” What they often like? They’re needy people, they’re insecure, they’re immature, they do things that are silly and foolish, they’re a rollercoaster of emotions, they’re selfish, they’re childish, etc. This is same when it comes to being a Christian. You can be a Christian baby or you can be a Christian adult.

If you remain a Christian infant, what happens in life? What happens when the waves and storms of life come? There’s a big difference between a small toddler standing in a river and an adult when a large wave comes splashing down the river. Who is going to be better able to stand firm? The mature adult! There’s all kinds of things that happen in life – troubles, hardships, difficulties, medical problems, sicknesses, deaths, tragedies, financial burdens, problems, difficult people – they’re kind of like waves. A Christian adult is much more prepared to weather the storms of life. I once had a call from someone – not a member here – but she was frantic, distraught, scared, because she had found out that her mother was just diagnosed with cancer. At the very same time I knew someone else who was actively in her Bible, actively engaged in her church, who’s close family member was also diagnosed with cancer. The difference between the two was like the difference between an adult and a child. God wants us to continue to grow in our Christian maturity.

And maturity isn’t just about what you know, it also about how you apply what you know in what you do and how you act. God doesn’t just want His truths to be firmly in our minds, He also wants them to be in our hearts. Christian maturity isn’t just about being able to quote the Bible, it’s about knowing God’s Word and applying it in how I act and treat other people. That means, not just knowing that God loves me and God wants me to love others, it means applying that on a day to day basis with the way that I treat my spouse, my children, my parents, my coworkers, my friends, the person in front of me at the grocery store. It means, not just knowing that God wants me to pray to Him, but actively setting aside time to engage God in prayer. It means, not just knowing that God promises to be with me always and work all things out for my good, but actually applying that and looking for the blessings of God in every circumstance.

And that’s why St. Marks is here! We’re here to facilitate the continual growth of faith in Jesus. Conversion happens in an instant and in a moment when God the Holy Spirit uses the Gospel to convince us that Jesus is our Savior. But at the same time the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our heart and begins a life-long process of sanctification. Through the Word and Sacraments God works in each of us a greater and greater desire to hear God’s Word, read it, learn it, take it to heart. Then the Holy Spirit leads us to make changes to our priorities. We begin to see the importance of God and His Word- indeed, the number one importance.

God didn’t have to, but God has chosen to work on us through very specific means. Growing in faith doesn’t really happen from gazing at a sunset, or staring at the clouds, or looking at a beautiful landscape. Those are all nice things, they might lead us to appreciate God’s creation.  But, God has chosen to come to us through very specific means- the means of grace, the tools He has chosen to use to work on our hearts: the Gospel that comes to us both in the Word of God and in the Sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

So, if we want to grow in our faith, to what will we direct our attention? To the Word and the Sacraments! That’s why St. Mark’s exists. We exist to share the gospel by teaching God’s Word and administering the sacraments.

That’s part of your purpose in life: Grow in your faith. And how do you do that? By hearing, reading, studying, learning God’s Word. By recalling your baptism daily. By receiving the Lord’s Supper over and over again. And as you do so, what happens? You learn and appreciate more and more the fact and the reality that you have a God who loves you so much that He sent His own Son to be your Savior, to live a life free from sin in your place, to die on a cross as a full payment for each and every sin that you’ve committed. And the more you know about God’s love, His power, His faithfulness, the more you’ll be able to apply it to your life. When the tragedies and difficulties of life come (and they will) being rooted in God’s Word you’ll have an eternal focus and be able to put things in their proper perspective. You’ll see more and more how God does indeed work all things out for the good of His people. You’ll find more and more ways to give glory to God in every circumstance. You’ll be able to remain firm in your trust in God’s grace and power through thick and through thin, through weal and woe.

In fact, so dear does God want His Word to be to us that we actually crave His Word like newborn babies. If you’ve been to St. Mark’s you’ve heard a baby cry because we have tons of babies here. What a cool thought every time you hear a baby cry because he or she is hungry – that’s how God wants you and me to be about His Word- He wants us to crave His Word. He wants us to fix His words in our minds and hearts, the more we know God’s Word it just becomes part of us. And the blessing? God tells us that as we are into His Word He gives us those fruits of the Spirit – more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. Try it. God doesn’t lie! He will give you more of those things as you dig deeply into His Word.

That’s why we’re a church. So that we ALL can continue to grow up in our salvation, grow in our faith, stand firm in our faith and not be carried away by error or temptation.  And then something else happens. As we grow in the Word, as we learn more about God and what God has done for us. As we learn more about the love of Christ that has reconciled us to God, we’re compelled. “Christ’s love compels us.” Compels to do what? To be God’s ambassadors in the world. To blab all over the place the message of reconciliation with God through Christ. What did Jesus direct us to do? “Go and make disciples of all nations.” “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.” “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

As Christians God has given us the privilege and honor of being His partners in taking the good news of Jesus to more and more people. You do that by inviting people to church or bible study, you do that by communicating your faith to people, by crediting God with the blessings in your life and in others, by giving someone a message about Jesus when they are down, afraid, lonely, or confused. God has entrusted you with the message of life eternal through the forgiveness of sins in Jesus!

Many years ago a Lutheran pastor once commented something like this, “If you discovered a way to prolong human life for a few more years, oh how people would adore you, respect you, cherish you.” Just think if you discovered a simple universal cure for all forms of cancer or some other disease. How would people react? Wouldn’t people absolutely love you? But think about what message we bring! We bring to people a message not just of prolonging this earthly life a little longer, but a message that affects a person for all eternity!! Can you imagine meeting someone in heaven and that person telling you, “God used you to comfort me when I was done, God used you to bring the message of Jesus to me, God used the church that you supported with your prayers and offerings to lead me to my Savior.” Could anything in life possibly be better than that?

That’s why you’re here! God’s given you incredible purpose for life. God’s given incredible purpose for us as a congregation. As long as you’re still in this life, as long as we’re still a congregation, God wants us to focus on the purpose and mission He’s given us: To continue to grow in our salvation and continue to go with God’s good news taking it to more and more people. And that’s an eternal purpose! Amen.

Are you successful?

3rd Sunday of Easter
2 Cor 2:12-16

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Grace and peace to you from him who is, who was, and who is to come our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In Jesus’ name dear friends in Christ, who is successful? #1 – 78.3 billion, #2 – 75.8 billion, #3 – 69.6 billion. 78.3 billion dollars is the estimated net worth of Bill Gates the founder of Microsoft and supposedly the richest man in the world. 75.8 billion dollars is the estimated net worth of Carlos Slim Helu who made his fortune in Mexican tele communications. And 69.6 billion dollars is the estimated net worth of Warren Buffett the owner of a large holding company in America. Having 70 billion dollars, makes you successful right? Is that what makes someone successful? I’m guessing that the majority of people in America would say yes that’s what it means to be successful, but would you?  What about you, are you successful in life? How would you define a successful person?

We could maybe come up with a bunch of different answers to describe a “successful person.” But, finally, isn’t the only definition of success that really matters in the end, God’s definition of success? I mean, if you are very successful in the eyes of people in the world but not in the eyes of God, what good is it? Jesus said something similar, didn’t He? 3 out of the 4 gospels record Jesus saying, “What good will it be for a person if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Obviously God operates with a much different definition of success than our world and perhaps a much different definition than we do.

The words before us are the inspired words of a very successful person. But keep in mind some of his background. He didn’t attend a prestigious business school, he never formed a multi-billion dollar company, but what had happened to him? He had numerous plots on his life – people all over the world wanted to stone and kill him, in one city he was actually stoned and left for dead, in another he was brutally flogged and imprisoned, and just before he wrote this letter he had been driven out of Ephesus because there was a riot against him. And then to top it all off the congregation he started in Corinth was a disaster – all kinds of sin and error taking place and there were false teachers there spreading rumors about him behind his back and trying to lead the congregation away from the truth!

Paul had written the letter we know as 1 Corinthians and since there wasn’t, of course, email or the postal system, he sent it with Titus. It was a rather stern letter calling the Christians in Corinth to repent. He had hoped to meet up with Titus in the city of Troas to find out how things were going in Corinth, but Titus didn’t show up. So now, Paul had all kinds of questions: Why didn’t Titus make it? Were things such a mess in Corinth? Was the congregation deteriorating? Was it all hopeless? In fact, we’re told that he had no peace of mind that he actually passed up an open door to spread the gospel in Troas to go to Macedonia to meet up with Titus. Such was his concern for his fellow Christians in Corinth.

Success? It sure doesn’t look like it, right? But then what does Paul say? “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ.” Stop and think about that for a moment. God says He’s doing what? Leading us in triumphal procession. And He’s doing it…always!

The picture is from the Roman military. When the army would win the victory over their enemy they would return to Rome and have a grand parade through the city. People would stand a cheer and applaud their soldiers. The defeated enemies would also be dragged along in the parade often chained to victory chariots and at the end of the procession they would be put to death. Part of the celebration they would burn quantities of incense and garlands of flowers would be draped around the victorious soldiers. This would cause a fragrance in the air. To the enemy this fragrance meant defeat and even death, but to the winners this fragrance was great it meant that the war and all its troubles were over and they could look forward to undisturbed security for the future.

Now God through Paul pictures our lives as being a constant marching in that victory parade. The “smell” of that parade is life for some – as we tell people about Jesus we bring them eternal life. But the “smell” of the parade is also death for others. Some will recognize that we believe in Jesus, but will refuse to listen to the Word and will be condemned to an eternity in hell. That’s death.

But note what God is saying: He’s leading us in what? A victory parade! And when? Always! He went into battle, defeated sin, death, and the devil with His death on the cross and His glorious resurrection and we get to join him in that victory parade. Talk about success!

But what about you? What about me? Would you describe your life as one big triumphal procession? Let’s just think about this last week, would you describe this last week as a triumphal procession? This was my last week, pastor’s conference in New Ulm, MN with the family, long car trips, 4 small children, fun- yes, triumphal procession? Not the first word that comes to mind. Opening worship service at the college in the beautiful Chapel of the Christ with over 200 people most of whom were pastors, pretty neat, sitting in church with 4 small children for an hour and a half, triumphal procession? Last part of the week, one child got a nasty flu virus, then my wife, and then it proceeded through each of my children, triumphal procession?

What about as a congregation? One member was hospitalized for half the week, another one’s dad just passed away, and another one’s mom is very near death. Would you describe your last week as a triumphal procession? A success? Far worse than all the un-pleasantries of this past week are our sins, the sins of my heart, the sins of yours. What about the times we were stressed out, said things we shouldn’t have said, failed to say things we should have said, the people whom we failed to love, times we failed to give attention to God’s Word, times we failed to rejoice in the things he’s done for us. If our week was a “parade” perhaps we would think it would look not like the parade of a winner, but a loser.

But that’s not what God says.  What God says is that He’s always leading us in triumphal procession in Christ!  Not sometimes, not most of the time.  Always!  And yes, that included this past week!  Yes, that includes today!  Sure, we failed!  Sure, we sinned!  Sure we messed things up!  But remember in whom we trust!  We trust in Jesus, the one who went to the cross, the one who lived perfectly in our place, the one who died in our place, and most importantly, the one who rose in our place!  We follow the ultimate conqueror, we follow the ultimate winner!  That’s true success! The war is over, our hero has won, like those soldiers marching through Rome, the victory is ours and we look forward to a future of undisturbed security.

Yet, how easy it is for us to attach “success” to the outward, physical things of life and not to the most important? How easy it is for us to let our mood, our enjoyment of life, our definition of success be defined by something else than how God defines it! Success in our world is often defined in the outward visible results, in having this or that, and yet for God, success is found in bringing one soul safely into His kingdom, in strengthening the eternal souls of those who are His, and of bringing one soul at a time home to heaven. That’s true success.  That’s a triumphal procession.

So did your trials this week drive you closer to Jesus? Did the craziness of your life cause you to come here to hear about the one, the only One who can bring the pieces of your life together and make sense out of a life full of pain and hardship and trouble? That’s success. Did someone, maybe a co-worker, maybe a child, watch as you displayed love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control in a situation or some kind of attitude that reflected your faith in a crucified and risen Savior? That’s real success.

Real success comes the more we know about our Savior and His gospel and the more we smell. The more we smell like Jesus, spreading the fragrance of the knowledge of him. The realtor knows that you always bake cookies before the open house, it helps sell the house, how many people have pulled into the driveway of a fast food restaurant just because they could smell the burgers? In Burlington, WI where I used to live there was a Nestle factory that every once in a while the whole town smelled like chocolate and made you crave chocolate. Smells are powerful. Well, as we share the gospel as we live as people who have been brought from death to life, people whose sins have been forgiven, we give off a fragrance around us, people watch us and we have opportunities to give the reason for the hope that we have. That’s success.

Finally, success isn’t found in the outward things of this world. True success is being brought to saving faith in the crucified and risen Savior. True success is basking in the results of Jesus’ glorious resurrection no matter what outward things or even inward things are going on in life.

What Paul knew was that Jesus is alive. Jesus already won the victory. Jesus is right now leading His own to the final and eternal celebration of that victory at the wedding feast in heaven. You are also a part of that success, that triumphal procession. Knowing that Jesus is alive, that victory is won, that sins are forgiven, that is what gives you success every day. Not success as the world sees it or describes it or defines it, but real success as God defines it. No, your life may not feel like a triumphal procession.  BUT!   Where will your life ultimately end? Your life will ultimately end in the glories of heaven!  Your life will ultimately end in leaving this world and entering into life which is eternal!  You will stand in glory next to Jesus your Savior!  You will have glory which will be never-ending!  And day by day, God is leading you to that place.  Which means what?  It means that your life is indeed a triumphal procession! Thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ! That’s success, no matter what. Amen.

Examine Yourselves

19th Sunday after Pentecost
2 Corinthians 13:5-8

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear friends in Christ, I have a little test for you: Number 1: If you are following a school bus and it’s lights come on and the stop sign comes out, at least how many feet behind the bus do you have to stop: A. 15 feet, B. 20 feet, or C. 30 feet? Number 2: What are you not allowed to do at a reduced conflict intersection? A. Make a u-turn, B. Make a left turn, or C. Make a right turn. Number 3: Motorist service signs are what color? A. Brown, B. Green, or C. Blue. Number 4: At what point do you need to switch your headlights from bright to low beam when you meet an on-coming car at night? A. 750 feet, B. 1,000 feet, or C. 1,500 feet. Answers? 20 feet behind a school bus, you don’t make a left turn at a reduced conflict intersection, blue signs give motorist service information, and you must switch your lights at 1,000 feet. When my wife and I moved to MN from WI one of the first things we had to do in order to get a MN state driver’s license was take the knowledge test of the driver’s education program. Anybody who moves to MN from out of state has to take the test. We didn’t have to take a test when we moved to TN or when we moved back to WI. I remember skimming over that little driver’s manual book and thinking, “Come on, I’ve been driving for over a decade, my part-time jobs involved driving truck regularly in both big and small cities, this will be a breeze, no way will I fail.” And when I took the test I think those were some of the questions. And I feel a little ashamed to admit this but I didn’t pass the test with flying colors. I probably got like 5 wrong and that’s not too good when there’s only 30 questions! But what’s the point of such an examination? The state of MN recognizes that driving a car on the road is not only important to know, it’s also something that can be very dangerous. So, for your own protection and the protection of your fellow citizens, the state requires a driver examination.
Tests and examinations serve a purpose. Well, today in our text the Lord tells us we need to do another kind of examination, a personal, spiritual examination. And how are most examinations conducted? They’re conducted by asking questions, aren’t they? So, here’s the question: There are two kinds of Christians, fake ones and real ones. Which one are you? Which one am I? That’s an important question especially when we consider the implications: real Christians go to heaven and live with the Lord forever, fake Christians don’t. Take the lady who filed for divorce. She grew up in a split home, she hated it, she told herself that would never happen to her, she would absolutely make her marriage work. In fact, she was so confident that it would never happen to her that she didn’t bother with the tools to sustain a marriage, completely ignored the warning signs, and ended up getting a divorce. “I can’t believe this happened to me,” she said. Her never happened. “I could never be a fake Christian, no way! Not me!” But nevers do happen, don’t they?
But the point is: they don’t have to. Nevers don’t have to happen to people. That’s why examinations and evaluations are so valuable. They can help us evaluate ourselves so we can get help before the “never” begins to happen. Fake Christians don’t start out as fake Christians. They start out as real ones, truly loving the Lord, truly acknowledging their sin and trusting in Jesus. But then after a while they don’t care anymore, they fall into a sort of “ehh whatever” attitude about faith, about hearing and reading God’s Word. And we don’t have to look much further than the Corinthian congregation for a prime example. Paul had founded the church in Corinth and spent a year and half there. But after a few years those who had received the gospel with joy were slipping. The church had a bunch of divisions among members, one man was committing sexual immorality with his step-mother and it was condoned, members were taking other members to court over trivial matters, there was abuse of the Lord’s Supper, and people were even getting sick from their abuse of it.
So, in response to all of these problems that were going on Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. After they received Paul’s letter they thankfully corrected some of the problems that were going on. However, they didn’t fix all of them. In the meantime Paul sent Titus to check up on them and then changed his plans. He had planned on stopping in Corinth but instead traveled elsewhere. Then a new problem developed in the Corinthian congregation. Some began to attack the apostle Paul. “See, he changed his plans, he’s not reliable. He’s not an impressive speaker, not incredibly dynamic or charismatic, why should you trust him? How do you know he’s speaking the truth, speaking Christ’s words?” And so they were looking to “examine” Paul. And there were certain false apostles who came into the congregation and were claiming superior authority, “Paul, he’s just a second class apostle, we’re top-notch apostles, we’ve got the credentials, the dynamic and charismatic talents and he doesn’t, etc.” And what was the problem? The Corinthians were heading down the path of fake Christians because who was getting lost in all of this? Christ. They were allowing themselves to be steered away from God’s Word by the false prophets based on what felt good to them or not.
So what does Paul tell them? “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” Take a look at your own heart, what’s inside there? Take a look at yourself? Am I on the path to becoming a fake Christian? Am I doing what that first son did in Jesus’ parable: saying all the right stuff but not meaning it or living it? It’s easy to become comfortable with sin. Am I allowing myself to get sucked into a sin, saying with my mouth that Jesus is my Savior, but by the way that I live my life I’m denying my Savior?
What is the path to becoming a fake Christian? Perhaps it begins with a failure to regularly confess my sins to the Lord. Then I fail to see the enormity of my sin before God. I then begin to think that I don’t really need a whole lot of help from God. Soon I begin to rely on myself for strength. God’s Word and the Sacraments become less and less important to me. After that my thinking is not shaped so much by what my God says, but by what my sinful nature or the sinful world around me or what the devil says. My decisions become less and less based on what God says is right and wrong and more and more based on whether or not it feels right to me or not. We need to continually examine ourselves: Am I relying on myself or God? Am I relying on myself for spiritual strength or am I being nourished by God’s Word? Am I serving God or am I serving sin? Am I on the path to becoming a fake Christian?
How am I living my life? Am I living in a way that is consistent with the gospel of Jesus? Am I living as a person who was on a path to destruction? Am I living as a person who was headed for eternal death? Headed for an eternal sentence in the horridness of hell? About to be cast into the pit of fire forever? Facing sure death, but then apart from any of my doing, was fetched from the flames, plucked from destruction, caught stuck in the burning house of my sins when out of nowhere the Savior rescued me with His perfect life and complete payment for our sins on the cross. Am I living in a way that is consistent with that? Does my life reflect a perfect zeal for God due to the fact that I was lost and headed for death but was rescued and am now, thanks to Jesus, headed for the paradise of heaven that is far greater than anything I could ever dream of or imagine? How’s your examination going?
If we truly examine ourselves, we probably see inside of us some good, but a lot of bad. If eternal life was left in our hands we’d fail the examination, fail the test and there are no do overs. But Jesus didn’t fail any test or any examination. He came as the perfect Lamb without blemish or defect. The devil tested Him but Jesus stood firm, people tested him by trying to pin a sin against Him but couldn’t. For every trial, test, or temptation we’ve failed, Jesus didn’t, He remained perfect for you and me. And for every trial, test, or temptation we’ve failed, Jesus took our failures upon Himself, on His own body and paid the penalty with His death on the cross. And miracle upon miracle God worked faith in your heart to believe it.
All for what purpose? So you could answer this question, “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you?” That’s not a multiple choice question, it doesn’t have to be, in Greek it’s a question that expects a yes answer. Yes, I know Christ lives in me! God says so! Through faith Jesus lives in you. You see, you’d never believe in Jesus if Jesus hadn’t taken up residence in your heart. And anyone in whom Jesus lives is not a fake Christian.
Think about that! Jesus who lives inside of you is fighting for your faith! He hasn’t given up on you. He died for us so often failing people and he’ll stick it out. He still forgives us and loves. He’s in us. And what else does that mean? That means he gives you the strength to change, live in better ways. Jesus- the Lord, the one who came back from the dead and has all authority – isn’t just near you, but is in you!
So what kind of Christian are you? Of course you’re a real one. Jesus lived and died for you! Jesus lives inside of you. But that examination question is good because it causes us to live in repentance. To confess our sins, to be strengthened by Jesus’ forgiveness who lives in us and to clear out the bad thinking, to change bad behaviors and pursue what is right and good. That’s the Christian that you are. Amen.