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A Holy Calling – Sermon on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

September 25, 2016

I don’t think I ever really knew what fear was until I became a mother. Suddenly becoming responsible for another human being’s life made me extremely aware of all the ways a tiny life could be put in danger. Parents want to protect our children – these amazing, beautiful, vulnerable little beings who are completely dependent on us – from anything that might hurt them. The responsibility for their safety and wellbeing can be overwhelming, especially when we see threats all around us in the world. Parenting can be a scary thing.

The Apostle Paul knew this feeling all too well, even though we have no evidence that he fathered any children of his own. Paul’s concern was for the spiritual safety and wellbeing of those who had come to faith in Jesus Christ through his own ministry, and for the young churches they formed. He was worried about the possibility they might be led astray by false teaching, or become discouraged when their faith was tested. He fretted over their ability to withstand persecution. And so, to encourage these fledgling churches and their leaders, Paul wrote letters to them.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus,
To Timothy, my beloved child:
Grace, mercy, and peace
from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well. 

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,  which is why I suffer as I do.

But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. – 2 Timothy 1:1-14

It was customary in the first century for letters to begin with a standard greeting and prayer of gratitude and blessing: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. This letter’s prayer of gratitude describes the faith history of Timothy’s own family: I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, it dwells in you.

Do you remember a grandparent sharing faith with you when you were young? These days, because extended families are scattered and children may only see grandparents a few times each year, the church often helps fill the role of grandparent, sharing stories and examples of faith from generation to generation. This is why we make a point, during the baptism of every child, to ask the congregation

“Will you, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and representatives of that Church wherever they encounter it in the world, do your part, by word and deed with love and prayer, to guide and nurture these children, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and caring for them as Christ’s own?”

And the congregation answers with gusto every time, “With God’s help, we will.”

But the church, like a grandparent, only plays a supporting role in training up children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6) Parents are the first and best examples of faithful living, the first and best teachers of faith in children’s lives.

It’s in the home that children first learn how to say prayers at bedtime or before meals. It’s in those daily surprise conversations – you know, the ones that start with a deep theological question like, “Mommy, where does God sleep?” or “Why does God make mosquitoes?” – that children learn what their parents believe about God, the world God created, and their place in it. This is how we pass on faith from generation to generation.

The letter to Timothy goes on to explain why this is so important, as it lays out the key truth of this passage.

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

In other words, because of the important role that Timothy’s mother and grandmother played in his growing faith, Timothy is to fan into flame the gift of faith that fuels his present ministry. “Paul’s reminder to Timothy to boldly cultivate and embrace his own current calling and ministry is because of, on account of, and rooted in the reality of Timothy’s initial exposure to the faith within the context of his family.”[1]

This is important for us, as well. Somewhere along the line, people got the idea that it would be better to expect the “religious professionals” to take on the full responsibility of raising up children in the way they should go. Parents lost confidence in their own ability to share faith with their children. Better to let the seminary-trained pastor do that job, they thought.

And this has been a great loss, not only to the children, but to their parents. It doesn’t take a seminary degree to teach children that God loves them, or to show God’s love by the way we interact with our own families. You cannot measure the joy of watching your own child come to faith through daily prayers and conversations about Jesus, and reading scripture together as a family. The home is where the priesthood of all believers begins its ministry.

So, rekindle the gift of God that is in you, and take heart! Parents, you do not need to be afraid, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (v 7)

“To ‘rekindle the gift’ means to stir up the grace and faith and love that we have received, and we stir them up by putting them in to practice. … Our call is … to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to love as we have been loved.” (J. Peter Holmes, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, 137-138)

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God,  who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher,  which is why I suffer as I do.

We live in a world where some are ashamed of the gospel. It isn’t cool or hip to stand up for Jesus. This is where the faith that surrounds our children in the community of the church is so important. This is a place where it is safe, where standing up for Jesus is affirmed. This is the place where children learn how to tell the story of Jesus and learn to live into their own calling as followers of Christ. This is where we learn how to keep the promises made on our behalf at our baptism – to renounce sin, to believe in Jesus, to live our faith each day in ways that others see the light of Christ through us.

The letter continues, “for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.  Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.

Because we know whom we have believed and to whom we have committed everything, and we trust him to be faithful, we can continue to live by the power of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. Following sound teaching and staying connected to the family of God, we guard the good deposit of faith that has been entrusted to us, and we teach our children how to do that, too.

We have each been called to a holy purpose, just as Paul and Timothy were. We have each been given a family of faith to help us remember key truths and avoid being drawn away into false doctrines. It is this family of faith that helps us guard the good deposit of faith we have been given.

And faith is a gift – we cannot manufacture it on our own, we cannot create faith by ourselves. We can only exercise the faith we’ve been given, to strengthen it and deepen it as it grows within us.

We each have been called with a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus. We each have been given the faith to answer that call. It is good to remember that, to reaffirm our call from time to time.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, developed a prayer for use in services for the Renewal of the believer’s Covenant with God. Wesley didn’t claim to have written the prayer. He adapted it from other sources, and no one knows who actually wrote the first version of it.

Even though the words of the original covenant prayer are lost, they are thought to be reflected in the Directions for Renewing our Covenant with God which Wesley issued as a pamphlet in 1780. These directions were intended for services to be held regularly in the church, usually around the time of the New Year.

But what better time to renew our covenant with God than on a day when we have witnessed two families enter into that covenant on behalf of their children? So hear the words John Wesley used to introduce this Covenant Prayer back in 1755.

“…Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult. Some bring honor, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both… Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.” And so I invite you to join me, as we renew our covenant with God together.

WESLEYAN COVENANT PRAYER

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3036

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wesley_Covenant_Prayer

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Called to Pray – Sermon on 1 Timothy 2:1-7

A couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus describe the high cost of discipleship. We learned that Jesus demands our all – you can’t be a half-hearted follower of Jesus. You’re either all in, or you can’t call yourself a disciple. Last week, we began a four-week journey through the letters to Timothy to learn what following Jesus looks like in practical terms.  Timothy and his congregation at Ephesus faced the same questions we do today:  

 How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him?

 How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God? 
 How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?  

These are important questions, and Paul has some answers for us.
In chapter one, we saw how Paul’s personal encounter with Christ led him to see the call to discipleship as a call to gratitude for God’s mercy. This week, we will consider how prayer develops our faith and makes us strong in the Lord. Over the next couple of weeks, we will take a look at our witness and our stewardship as parts of being  faithful followers of Jesus.  

Whatever aspect of discipleship we focus on, it’s important to remember that no single piece of the puzzle will give us the whole picture of discipleship. It’s a good idea, then, to take a moment to zoom out before we zoom in on today’s passage, to see how these verses fit into the whole letter to young pastor Tim.  

The letter begins by stating its primary purpose: “When I left Macedonia, I asked you to stay behind in Ephesus so that you could instruct certain individuals not to spread wrong teaching.” (1:3) So we know that there has been some “wrong teaching” going on in the Ephesus church, and this letter serves to remind Tim of the “right teaching” he is to offer. The letter goes on to express gratitude for Paul’s own salvation and calling, and for Timothy’s faithfulness, before getting down to the business of outlining the instruction that Timothy needs to pass on to his congregation. This is where today’s passage brings us. 

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all  —this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-7) 

“First of all, then,” … the instruction begins, but this isn’t going to be a point-by-point outline. Prayer isn’t something we do at the beginning and then check off the list. After all, Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).  

“First and foremost” or “most importantly” might be another way of looking at this. Prayer is the most useful tool in our discipleship toolbox. A life of prayer sets us apart as followers of Jesus. “Matt” Matthews (Feasting on the Word, Year C, volume 4, p 89) writes, “Prayer is not at the center of things… but it gets us there.”  

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, …”(2:1) 

Supplications – now there’s a word you don’t hear every day. But we do it all the time – at the grocery store, at the gas station, in the supper line on Wednesday nights. Supplication is simply asking for what you need. “May I please have more applesauce?” “Would you please give me a receipt?” That’s supplication.  

Asking God for what you need is the most basic kind of prayer you can pray. It’s the kind of prayer Jesus encouraged in his Sermon on the Mount. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask.” (Matt 6:8) “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11)  

Intercession, on the other hand, is praying on behalf of another, asking God to give someone else what that person needs. These are the prayers we pray when we pray for the sick, the bereaved, or those who have a special need. These are the prayers we pray for our children and our parents.  

We understand what it means to give thanks, and to give God praise in our prayers – though I sometimes think that these two forms of prayer don’t get as much “air time” as supplications and intercessions in my own prayer life. But these four types of prayer are not offered here as a formula to follow, so much as an accumulation of all types of prayer. Pray every way you can, all the time, – for everyone.  

Pray for everyone, even (especially?) for your enemies, and for those who are not like you. Pray for everyone, especially leaders and “all who are in high positions.” Rulers need God’s mercy and guidance as much as anyone else. Pray for them, even if you disagree with their politics. Why? “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Prayer cultivates peaceful relationships, and godliness is a benchmark of doing God’s will. It’s a sign of true discipleship.  

Prayer isn’t the main thing, but it gets us to the main thing – “there is one God and one mediator between God and humankind: Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Pray for everyone because God wants everyone to be saved and know truth. Here again, just as we heard in chapter one, we see that the central idea is Christ’s redemptive work in the world. The center of last week’s passage was: “this saying is reliable and worthy of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” This week, we zoom in on the same central truth: “Christ Jesus … gave himself a ransom for all” Not just for some, but for all.  

We pray for everyone because Christ died for everyone. It is God’s deep desire to save everyone. Not everyone will accept this amazing gift, but God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” In John’s gospel we read, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12)  

It shouldn’t surprise us then, that this list of ways to pray culminates in thanksgiving. John Wesley spoke of the “holiness of gratitude.” He said that “we who are grateful believe we have better than we deserve. Instead of taking things for granted, we see good things in life as gifts. Instead of assuming we are entitled, we assume grace underlies all we have. Gratitude gives thanks for mercy. Complaints focus on what we don’t have. Gratitude notices the good and is thankful. Gratitude sets us up for joy in life. Rather than merely consuming or existing, those who are grateful choose to embrace what life gives and enjoy life’s mercies.” (CEB notes on 1 Timothy 2:2)  

So pray with gratitude because Jesus gave himself as a ransom for you. Do this as a response to God’s call on your life. Paul was called as an apostle and teacher to the Gentiles, and God calls each of us into some unique form of ministry that only we can perform for the kingdom of God. That is what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, fully devoted to serving him.  

How is God calling you to live out your faith? If you aren’t sure about the answer to that question, I invite you to make supplication – ask God for what you need, and in this case, what you need is to be and do what Christ calls you toward. And if that prospect seems to frightening for you, maybe you could start with some intercessions.  

Who can you pray for? How can you ask God to bless them, heal them, be present with them, help their faith to grow to full maturity? Who do you struggle the most to get along with? Pray for that person. Who irritates you most? Who challenges your good will the most? See what prayer for that person might do for you and your relationship.

If praying for a specific individual is still more than you’re comfortable doing, try praying for our church. Right now, we are on the cusp of a great thing that God is about to do among us. One way I can tell this is so is that Satan has been busy, trying to divide us and raising doubt where faith should be strong.

But God is stronger than Satan, and God will work in us, and has been working among us. One place where this is most evident is our Wednesday Family Night program.  

I had this message from our District Superintendent a few days ago. We were setting the date for a special charge conference, and he offered this additional comment:  

“By the way when Mark Miller and I were looking at the data of which churches sustained an increase in worship attendance for the
past three consecutive years we found only 6 churches in all of Minnesota United Methodism. New Ulm First was one of them!!!! Great work. In 2015 you were 14 more AWA then you were in 2012! You may think that’s nothing, but when you compare it to a culture of huge decline, its leading us!!! And a huge sign of hope!”

Do you know where that Average Worship Attendance increase is showing up most? It’s on Wednesday night.  

Another place where God is moving among us to do great things is in the work of the Healthy Church Initiative Implementation Team. Energy and joy are bubbling up in this group of dedicated servant leaders who are seeking God’s direction for our congregation. One of the goals is to create an environment for Pentecost to happen, and the team that is working on this goal has identified several prayer initiatives for us to adopt.  

One of those prayer practices is to simply arrive at worship a few minutes early so you can pray for the worship service. It seems likeCa simple thing, and in a way it is, but the impact of God’s people praying for God’s presence to be made known to us in our worship can be powerful. 

So let’s go back to those questions that are the same for us today as they were for Timothy and the church at Ephesus:

 How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him? 

First of all, then, I pray. I ask God to let my life reflect his glory so that others will notice that I honor Christ. I pray for those I know who don’t know Jesus. I give God thanks for all the good that is in the world, and I praise God in my prayers, so that the praise on my lips fills my heart and spills out into my life.

 How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God? 

First of all, then, I pray. I make supplication to God to use me for his purpose, to keep me grounded in faith, and to protect me from evil.

 How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?

First of all, then, I pray for them. I lift up prayers of intercession for those who struggle with faith issues, with health issues, with job issues and financial issues. I pray for them, and they pray for me. I pray especially for members of the Body who have hurt or angered me. I pray for us to find unity in Christ Jesus.

In 1818, James Montgomery wrote a hymn about prayer. Of his more than four hundred hymns including Go to Dark Gethsemane and Angels from the Realms of Glory, he thought this one was his finest.  

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed;  

The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.  

The saints in prayer appear as one
In word, in deed, and mind,  

While with the Father and the Son
Sweet fellowship they find.  

No prayer is made by man alone
The Holy Spirit pleads, 

And Jesus, on th’eternal throne,
For sinners intercedes.  

O Thou by Whom we come to God,
The Life, the Truth, the Way,

The path of prayer Thyself hast trod:
Lord, teach us how to pray
.  

Let us pray.

 

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Called to Receive Mercy – Sermon on 1 Timothy 1:12-17

September 11, 2016

The books of First and Second Timothy, and Titus are called “pastoral letters.” They were written to encourage young pastors of new churches in the first century. Each letter includes some teaching about doctrine, because there was a lot of controversy early on concerning what Christians should believe, and how they should live.

It was hard to make up rules for living, without falling into the trap of becoming all about the rules, and not about faith. That had been the problem in Jewish religious practice, and the early church wanted to avoid it.

They wanted to keep the main thing the main thing: faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified, risen, and ascended into glory. Living out that faith in Jewish society was difficult enough, but living out that faith in a pagan society, like Ephesus, was even more challenging.

Over the next four weeks, we will explore discipleship through the letters to Timothy. As pastor of the church at Ephesus, Timothy and his congregation faced the same questions we do today. How do I follow Jesus in a culture that does not honor him? How do I stay faithful to God and his call on my life, when others around me ignore God? How can I live out my faith within the Body of Christ, and grow deeper in faith with my brothers and sisters?

  • This week, we take a look at Paul’s experience of being called into Christ’s service. We will see how discipleship is a call to gratitude for God’s mercy.
  • Next week, we will consider how prayer develops our faith and makes us strong in the Lord.
  • On the 25th, we will skip ahead to 2nd Timothy, to see how discipleship requires aligning ourselves with sound teaching,
  • and on World Communion Sunday, as we begin our Fall pledge campaign, we will consider how stewardship is an important part of discipleship.
  • But it’s all about how to follow Jesus, once we’ve received him as our Savior. And who better than a first century apostle, writing to the early church, to help us learn how to follow Jesus?

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.
But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.
But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.  (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

To fully understand this passage, we need to remember the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Saul came from Tarsus in Asia Minor (Acts 21:39), and studied under one of the leading rabbis of the day in Jerusalem, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Saul joined the Pharisees, and was vigorous in his defense of Jewish traditions.

In his zeal, Saul persecuted the early church (Galatians 1:13, 23; Philippians 3:6). On his way to Damascus, determined to arrest any who “belonged to the Way,” as the early church movement was called, he had a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ that changed his life, and Christ called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles (Romans 1:5; 1 Corinthians 9:1).[1]

Paul’s story gives us a dramatic example of what repentance looks like – turning away from sin, and going in a new direction as a follower of Jesus. We need to remember that Paul wasn’t turning away from one religion to follow a new one. In fact, Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. Paul’s conversion was within his understanding of what it meant to be a faithful Jew. He repented of being a Pharisee, and began to live out his Jewish faith in God in a new way, as a disciple of Jesus.

Before this experience, Saul was “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13) who had even assisted in, and approved of, the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:57-8:1). Afterward, Paul became someone who rejected violence, and also the impressive rhetoric prized by the culture of the day.

Instead, Paul sought Christ to empower his speaking and strengthen his ministry (1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Corinthians 10:1-6; 12:8-10). Paul repented from persecuting Christians and turned toward leading them; from promoting violence, to peace.

Paul saw clearly that what had happened to him was not his own doing. It was by the grace of God that Jesus had appeared to him on the road, and called him to become someone new. The only right response, in the face of such undeserved mercy, is gratitude. And Paul pours out his thanks to God for this amazing gift of love, mercy, and faith.

Paul recognizes that he doesn’t deserve this gift. After all, he had been operating against God’s purposes when he persecuted the church. Paul says he “acted ignorantly in unbelief.” He knew who Jesus was, certainly. But he didn’t know Jesus personally. His ignorant unbelief was grounded in the assumption that he was acting in God’s will, when in fact, he was acting in opposition to God’s purpose. Yes, he thought he was serving God and taking a stand for what he believed to be right. But he was wrong.

How often we do this! We think we have a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, and we stand up to what we think is evil, when we are really opposing God – because we are acting out of our own assumptions instead of God’s mercy! Yet God’s grace overflowed in faith and love for Paul, and God’s grace overflows in faith and love for us, too.

If you analyze these few verses, you will find that there are really only two sentence subjects: Paul, and Jesus. It’s personal, and it’s relational, this mercy and grace that Paul has experienced. For Paul, experience is more important than doctrine. The reality of knowing Jesus is more important than anything you might believe about Jesus.

There’s a phrase that identifies the core teaching of this passage: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance.” It occurs throughout the pastoral letters, and it may have even been part of the developing liturgy of the early church. It identifies key elements of belief, things we can all agree are the important tenets of our faith. “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” Paul tells Timothy. This is the main thing that needs to always be the main thing.

Christ came to save sinners. The missio Dei – or mission of God – has always been clear: To seek and to save those who are lost (Luke 19:10), as we heard earlier in the gospel parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin (Luke 15:1-10).

Last week, I mentioned that we can get stuck here, so eager to see sinners saved that we focus all our attention on conversion. But that’s God’s job. Our mission is also clear.

In the Great Commission Jesus says: “Go make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all the things I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) It doesn’t say, “Go convince people to believe in me, and then leave them on their own to figure out how to follow me.”

Jesus came to save sinners, to redeem us for the Kingdom of God. Jesus came to save sinners, and that salvation transforms us into something new, something that continues to grow deeper in faith as we follow Jesus by his grace and mercy. Jesus came to save sinners, who then become disciples, following him day by day, moment by moment, growing ever closer to him, becoming more and more like him.

Paul adds his own personal testimony to this statement of faith:
“—of whom I am the foremost.”
This is the gospel: Jesus came to save sinners – and I’m the worst one.

And that brings us right back to Mercy and Grace. It’s because I am the worst sinner on earth that I can experience this amazing grace, this abundant mercy and forgiveness. Verse 16 says, “But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.

This is why God shows me mercy: so that I can be an example to anyone else who wants to come to Jesus, but thinks they aren’t worthy, or don’t qualify for such grace. None of us qualify. So all of us who have received God’s mercy can show others, “no matter how bad you think you are, if Jesus could forgive me, Jesus can forgive you.”

Just as Jesus called Paul to turn on the road to Damascus and begin a new life in Christ, he calls us to turn on our road to wherever we think we’re going, and follow him. This act of repentance has to happen over and over again, not because Jesus changes the path we are to follow, but because we keep wandering away from it. Just like Saul, we think we are doing the right thing, and in our stubbornness we fail to see that we are opposing God’s good purpose for us.

That’s why we have each other, to encourage one another along the road, to hold one another accountable for staying true to the way of Christ. Following Jesus is a relational endeavor.

God wants us to be in loving relationship with him, because that is how he created us. We are his; we belong to God. Jesus came to restore us to God, to bring us home to the one who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. When we stray, lose our way, or even run from God, he will persistently look for us, and he is always ready to welcome us back home with joy, because he loves us. To answer the call to receive mercy, you have to turn toward God, and away from everything else.

Last week, Jesus challenged us to give up everything that matters to us most, in order to put him first and be his true disciple. Receiving mercy requires admitting that we belong to God, and being willing to live our lives in a way that shows others we belong to God. And what can we say to such amazing grace, to such profound mercy?

Paul has an answer for this question. The only thing we can do is praise God for his goodness, and thank him for his mighty love. Our lives praise God. Our prayers and songs give God glory. And as we lift our voices and show our gratitude by the way we live, encouraging one another and helping each other stay true to the gospel, we become examples to those who would come to believe in Christ Jesus for eternal life.”

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”

[1] Christian Eberhart, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1768

walking behind the bishop2015-01-10 10.15.09

Counting the Cost – Sermon on Luke 14:25-33

September 4, 2016

One of the first phrases I learned to speak when I lived in Germany was, “Wie viel kostet es?” “How much does it cost?” I had to know how much things were worth, to stay within the budget dictated by the cash in my hand whenever I went to the market. What we ate depended on its cost. If the cost was too high, we didn’t eat it!

I am not a “shopper.” I don’t enjoy looking at rows and rows of merchandise with an “I’ll know it when I see it” attitude. It may be because whenever I see something I really like, it’s way outside my budget. I know I’m in trouble if the price tag isn’t visible, because: “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.”

In today’s passage, Jesus explains the cost of true discipleship to his followers. Jesus is on the move again. He has left the hospitality of the Pharisee’s table, and is headed once again toward Jerusalem. He knows that this will be his last journey, that the price tag on this trip is high, and it isn’t negotiable.

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33)

Wow. It almost sounds as if Jesus is trying to get people to stop following him! Have you ever heard Jesus be so negative? Ten times in these few verses, he uses the word “not” – three of those are in the phrase “cannot be my disciple.” Jesus has seen the crowds growing behind him, and he knows that some of these followers are only tagging along to see another miracle, especially if that miracle includes getting a free lunch. Some of them are following only because they’ve been caught up in the mob mentality that has begun to develop around Jesus and his disciples. So he turns to the crowd and tells them, “Unless you’re serious about following me, you might as well go home!”

But Jesus is not trying to get rid of followers. He just wants them – and us – to know what is involved in being a true disciple. We need to know what we’re getting into when we say we want to follow Jesus, because the cost is high.

Specifically, Jesus says we must hate our families if we want to follow him. This was pretty strong stuff in a culture where family was everything, and loyalty to one’s family was the highest loyalty expected. So let’s take a look at that word, “hate,” to see what Jesus means.

First, we must realize that this kind of “hate” is not an emotion – it’s an attitude of perspective. Keep in mind that the Greek vocabulary Luke used had relatively few words in it. So, the Greek word misew can be translated as “hate” but it also means disregard, be indifferent to, or to love one thing less than something else. In this particular instance, Jesus is offering a comparison between the devotion one would normally hold sacred only for family members and the devotion required to become one of his disciples. Jesus is saying, “Love me more than you would even love your family, as important as that is to you. Love me more than whatever holds first place in your life, whatever matters most to you.”

Not only must we be willing to put Jesus ahead of all other priorities, he raises the price of discipleship even higher. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” he says. Keep in mind that, at this point in his ministry, his own cross wasn’t even on the horizon yet. His original listeners would not have been aware, as we are, of the connection between this challenge and the suffering Jesus would soon experience at his own crucifixion.

To them, taking up one’s cross was a general expression of accepting the burden of great suffering, suffering that would surely end in death. It was the same responsibility a soldier would accept, going into war. If following Jesus meant taking up a cross, it meant staying loyal to him through certain suffering, to the point of death.

Jesus must have seen the faces around him turn somber as his words started to sink in. Whenever Jesus found that his words were too hard for people to hear, he turned to one of his favorite teaching strategies – telling parables.

“If you were going to build a tower, wouldn’t you first sit down and figure out if you could afford it? You wouldn’t want to become a laughingstock because you failed to plan your project well! And if you were a king going into battle, wouldn’t you first sit down and figure out if your army was strong enough to defeat the enemy?”

But there are three things about these little parables we may miss if we read them too quickly. First, Jesus tells us that the process of building or going to battle starts with sitting down. Counting the cost requires some thoughtful pondering before any action can take place. In the same way, we can’t follow Jesus any old way it suits us. We have to carefully consider the commitment we are making.

Second, Jesus focuses on outcomes. Counting the cost indicates that there is some end in mind, some goal to be reached. You don’t start building a tower unless you plan to finish it. You don’t head into battle unless you think you can overcome the enemy. You don’t follow Jesus unless you want your life to be changed forever.

Finally, Jesus indicates that the cost is too high for the resources available. No matter what accounting system you use, no matter what assets you think you have, when it comes to following Jesus, you don’t have enough to pay the cost on your own. Your resources are not sufficient. There is no price tag visible, so you can’t afford it.

But Jesus isn’t finished. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” he says. Not only do we need to count the cost, that cost is everything we hold valuable. We have to bid farewell to everything we call our own. We have to leave behind everything that matters most to us.

And when Jesus says you have to leave behind everything that matters to you, whether it is family, or good standing in the community, or the things you own, he means you have to leave it behind now, and keep leaving it behind. This isn’t a one-time-and-you’re-done thing. It’s an ongoing, day-by-day, moment-by-moment surrender to God’s grace and mercy.

To be a disciple of Jesus you must know that the cost will be putting Jesus first, and everything else last. That starts the moment you say “Yes” to Jesus, and it does not stop. Ever. There is no 401K plan for being a Christian. You don’t retire from following Jesus, to live off the investment of your past discipleship. Every day starts anew. Every moment requires your full commitment. And if you aren’t willing to give your all, Jesus says, you cannot call yourself one of his followers.

All those lessons Jesus has been teaching us the past few weeks about hypocrisy, letting our fears get the best of us, placing a higher value on material wealth than spiritual wealth – it all boils down to this: go all in, or go home. We can’t hold anything back, if we want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Because there is no way to “sort of” take up your cross. There is no way to follow Jesus on your own terms, when it is convenient to you. You can’t follow Jesus for the way it makes you feel about yourself or the way others admire your piety. You must surrender everything to Christ, or you aren’t really a follower.

The cost is high, but the cost of not following Jesus is even higher. Yes, Jesus asks us to leave everything else behind, to make him our first priority, but what price do we pay if we decide to not follow Jesus? What is the cost of refusing to be a true disciple? In his book, Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard lists the things we lose if we don’t follow Jesus with our whole being. He writes:

“Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.”

The question you have to ask yourself is this: Is it worth it? Is it worth giving up abiding peace to live life on your own terms? Is it worth sacrificing a life penetrated by love to settle for having things the way you like them? Is it worth cutting yourself off from faith that trusts in God’s overarching plan for your good, in order to run your life the way you want to? Is it worth giving up hope, and the power to stand in the face of evil? Is it worth it to you to say “No” to God’s abundance, so you can skimp by on your own meager resources? Because that’s what it costs to not take up your cross.

Notice that I am not talking about salvation here. I am talking about discipleship. I grew up in a church that focused all its attention on getting people saved, but it failed to teach those new believers how to follow Jesus and make him Lord of their lives once they’d experienced that salvation. Jesus wants to do more for us than save us from our sins, as important as that is. Jesus wants to give us abundant life, to deepen our relationship with him as we grow in faith. Jesus wants us to be his true disciples.

When we say “yes” to following Jesus, when we surrender our will to his will, something amazing happens. Bit by bit, we are changed. Each time we keep saying “yes, Lord, I leave behind everything to follow you,” we are re-formed. We are transformed, becoming more and more like Christ. We experience abundant life, by God’s grace. And we discover that the cost of following Jesus, that we thought we couldn’t possibly afford, is worth it all. Because the price has already been paid out of God’s deep love for us, and when we give our all to Christ, we receive so much more!

As we come to this Table, prepared for all who desire to follow Jesus, he invites you to count the cost. Don’t come out of habit, or because you want others to see you doing the right thing. Don’t come to prove yourself righteous, because none of us is righteous on our own. When you come to this Table, come to offer yourself, body, mind and soul, to the One who died to save you, who rose again to redeem you, and who will come again to claim you as his own. When you come to this Table, having counted the cost, come as a true follower of Jesus Christ, ready to leave behind everything you ever thought was important, so that you can take up your cross and follow Him. Amen.

Vacating: Day Two

Rain drips from the pine trees into the lake. A mist hovers over the water, like the Spirit at Creation.

This is where healing begins, going back to the very beginning, when everything was new, before corruption began to eat away at the perfect balance.

Even now, the forest is greater than the houses that peek out from their clearings: tiny shelters against the elements that were designed to sustain us (before we broke everything and had to hide from perfection).

Even now, creation claims its rightful place in the Order established by Creator God. Only we struggle into and out of that Order. Only we fight against accepting our place in it.

Creation waits for us to figure it out, to realize that true rest and peace comes from submitting ourselves to the great design. For this is where healing begins: back at the beginning, as the rain drips from the pines into the lake, and the mist hovers over the water.

clouds roll in over nazareth 2015-01-09 07.37.59

Sign of the Times – Sermon on Luke 12:49-56

August 14, 2016

I have had a crazy week – how about you? There have been meetings, and we started a new worship service at Ridgeway on 23rd, plus the County Fair, with our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station, and Thursday night’s concert with 7th Time Down and Bob Lenz… it’s been busy, busy, busy around here! The constant hum of busy-ness fools us into thinking we have everything under control, as long as we can keep checking things off our “To Do” lists.

And then Jesus shows up and wads up the list and calls us nasty names. Just when we think we know what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to do it, the King of Kings and Prince of Peace lashes out at us and calls us hypocrites – just about the worst thing he could possibly call us. You think I’m making this up?

Jesus said to his disciples (that’s us, by the way):

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;  they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – Luke 12:49-56

Not a very cheerful passage, is it? Remember that Jesus and his disciples were on their final journey to Jerusalem. As Jesus moved closer and closer to his destination – his death – a sense of urgency must have been rising in him. There was so much his disciples still did not understand about the Kingdom he had been born to rule. They were still looking for a Messiah who would be a military champion, someone to bring down Rome in a great show of armed strength. They were looking for a king who would restore the throne of David. They were not looking for a King reigning on the throne of heaven, or a king who would be a servant, or one who would be tortured and executed. They were not expecting that kind of king.

It must have been very frustrating for Jesus. Here he had been teaching with stories and parables about the way the Kingdom of God works, and they still didn’t get it. Once in a while, there would be a glimmer of understanding, but it would quickly fade, as the disciples who knew Jesus best kept trying to put him into the box of their own expectations. Can you hear the exasperation in his voice, as Jesus starts yelling – first at the twelve, and then at the crowds that were always gathering wherever he went?

Earlier, Jesus had rebuked James and John for wanting to bring down fire on some Samaritans who had not welcomed them (Luke 9:51-56), and now he declares that he cannot wait to bring down fire himself. Can’t you just hear James and John complaining, “How come you get to when we don’t?”

There is a difference between cleansing fire and fire that consumes. James and John were eager to destroy, but Jesus is talking about cleansing, purifying fire. He knows what lies ahead for him, and for his disciples, and he wants to be sure they have been refined and tested, so that they can remain strong when the time comes.

And that time is very near. Very soon, Jesus will ride a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds shout “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” A few days later, these same crowds will cry out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and he will be led to the place of the skull, hung on a cross, and crucified. There isn’t much time left before the prophets’ words will be fulfilled.

Against this image of cleansing fire, Jesus throws another image, one we normally associate with water. He speaks of his own baptism, not as water to extinguish the flames, but as an example of what purification by fire prepares us to endure. He knows he will be put to the ultimate test.

The Jesus we see in this passage doesn’t seem much like the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor. No, this Jesus announces division instead of peace. His rant sounds more like John the Baptist than the Beatitudes.

This Jesus is fed up with the way people keep insisting that their rules are more important than God’s love. He didn’t come to endorse the status quo. Jesus has come to set into motion God’s radical will for the world. The stress Jesus is under is not anxiety, but a total absorption in his mission. That mission is to redeem a broken world.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus pits “peace” against “division,” treating them as opposites? We often think of the opposite of peace as war, and the opposite of division as unity. But here Jesus turns the dial another notch. It’s as if Jesus is saying any division is war, and there can be no peace without unity.

Yet he knows that his own mission and ministry will cause division, even between family members. Jesus describes how following him with undivided hearts can set children against their parent or parents against their children, if those we love do not follow Jesus, too. It isn’t that Christ intends to cause ruptures just for the sake of disruption, but he knows that being his disciple carries with it the cost of forsaking everything else, and not everyone will make that kind of commitment.

Did you notice that all the divisions Jesus lists are between generations? Jesus is telling us that family ties no longer determine a person’s identity, loyalty, or status. Instead, what marks us is whether we accept or deny Jesus as Lord. What ties believers together is not our ancestry, but Christ. Jesus overturns the world’s priorities, causing division and clearing the way for God’s divine plan for peace to come to its fullness in the Kingdom of God.

God’s divine plan for peace is not always welcome. Those who benefit from the status quo, who hold positions of power at the expense of the powerless, will oppose any who come alongside Jesus to bring peace and justice to others. It is a sign of our times that political and military power struggles are escalating throughout the world, not just here in the United States. That sign, Jesus says, is something we need to pay attention to.

Even those of us who aren’t farmers will check the weather report before we go to bed, and again first thing in the morning, so we can order our lives accordingly. This week, as the temperature and humidity levels rose, I was watching the radar pretty carefully on my phone’s weather app. I was grateful when concert organizers used the same tools to determine we should move Thursday evening’s concert indoors, instead of risking a violent thunderstorm hitting the grandstand during the performance, or someone being overtaken with the heat.

Jesus is saying that it is nothing less than hypocrisy when the same skills are not brought to bear on recognizing that the day of the Lord is near. In Luke 11, Jesus chastises the crowds because they keep asking for a sign that he is the Messiah. Now, he chastises them for their complete inability to interpret the signs they are given.

The problem is not so much that we are unable to interpret the signs of the times, but more that we are unwilling to do so. It’s interesting that Jesus uses this word “interpret,” because the root word of hypocrite – that nasty name Jesus aims in our direction – also refers to an actor, or interpreter. Just as an actor puts on a character different from his own and interprets a role, so a hypocrite interprets the weather but not the more obvious current state of affairs. This kind of interpretation is superficial, not authentic, just like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup. It is hypocrisy.

So what does the weather look like today, here in New Ulm? What time is it getting to be? What are the current concerns of the Kingdom, which Jesus is so eager to bring to completion? How are we being hypocrites, acting out our own short-sighted interpretation of “the way things are,” and missing the point of the way things ought to be? On the surface, like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup, we look fine. But are we really paying attention to what time it is?

As I listened to Bob Lenz speak at the 7th Time Down Concert on Thursday night, something was troubling me about his message that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until later. I realized that, for all his talk about claiming resurrection power in our lives, he never once said anything about repenting of our sin or how that resurrection power transforms us into people who love more.

Earlier in the day, I had talked with Cathy Townley, who is consulting with our “Boost Sunday Morning” team to help us look at ways we can make worship more meaningful and rich. During our conversation, Cathy said, “You need to look at what makes your church unique in your community, and live into that identity. Don’t try to be the Cool Church or the Hip Church, if that is not in your DNA. But figure out what it is your church is offering that no other church in town offers, and live into it.”

Well, I thought, we have identified that. We are forming our identity around hospitality, because that’s what we’re good at. In a moment, Jerry is going to share with you some of the ways we are already beginning to make changes to help us focus on that identity.

But as I struggled to identify what it was about Bob Lenz’s presentation that didn’t sit right with me, I realized this was also the very thing we need to be sure our identity as a church makes clear to the whole community around us. Bob talked about claiming resurrection power, but it isn’t just any resurrection we are talking about. It is the power of Christ’s resurrection, offered to all who believe in him.

I’m also not just talking about life in heaven after we die. I’m talking about being resurrected from our current state of sinful death into a new life that begins immediately when we decide to turn away from living in ways that are killing us, and begin to follow Jesus into life that is rich and full and filled with joy and peace.

This church isn’t just about hospitality, because you can find that at any of the local restaurants or bed and breakfasts around town. We are about extending Christ’s hospitality to people no one else wants to welcome. We are about showing love to people no one else wants to love, in the name of Jesus. We are about helping people no one else thinks they can help, because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.

Jesus holds division and peace in tension, and asks us to interpret the times through God’s clock. What time is it? The same time it was 2000 years ago. Time to wake up. Time to take off the blinders and see what God sees. Time to repent of our complacency, our hypocrisy, our willingness to act one way in public and be something else in private, our willingness to maintain the status quo instead of moving radically into the demands of Kingdom living. It’s time to take a good hard look at who we are, and what we do, and recognize that Jesus calls us to be more – not in our own power, but in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s time to realize that the weather is shifting. In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Corinthians 6:2)” It’s time to become true followers of Jesus Christ. The time is now. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

Clairesheep

Have No Fear – Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

August 7, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus continues to teach us what the Kingdom of God is like, and how different that Kingdom’s priorities are from the priorities we set as sinful human beings. Let’s join Jesus and his disciples as they travel toward Jerusalem.

 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.  Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” – Luke 12:32-40

 

Three years ago, as I began my appointment to this congregation, I talked about not being afraid, storing up treasures in heaven, and being ready for the Kingdom of God to come in its fullness. I could probably preach that same sermon again, and all the things I said three years ago would still be true. But today, I’d like to focus on just one verse in this passage, because I think it sums up the whole reading pretty well. It’s the first verse we read: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.“

DO NOT FEAR…

We hear the opening phrase, “Do not be afraid” throughout scripture, whenever people encounter God directly or through a heavenly messenger, like the angel Gabriel. You probably know by now that it is one of my favorite phrases in the Bible.

I’ve shared with you before that the Greek phrase for “Fear not,” or “don’t be afraid” really means “Stop being afraid.” We aren’t talking about hypothetical fear that might occur sometime down the road here. This isn’t even a warning against becoming afraid. We are talking about real fear that is already present, fear that has been with us for some time already, fear that won’t let go of us. And Jesus says, “Just stop it. Stop being afraid.”

We live in a world that runs on fear, it seems. We fear what we can’t see, what we don’t know. Our imaginations see threats to our community and nation on every side. As individuals, we fear losing control of our lives, making ourselves vulnerable to someone else. We fear getting hurt. We fear what others might think of us.
We fear shame and embarrassment.

We may try to escape our fear by ignoring it, or by building elaborate fantasies to hide from it. We may even try to escape our fear through self-medication in various forms. Maybe we overeat. We might try to accumulate comfort to offset our fear, buying things we don’t really need, in the hope that they will provide some kind of security.

None of these things will take away our fear.

Yet Jesus says, “Stop being afraid. Your Father in Heaven knows what you need.” In fact, it gives God pleasure to give you what you need.

… YOUR FATHER’S GOOD PLEASURE…

I have a sister who loves to give presents. She would much rather shop for gifts than for groceries. It’s her nature to give things away. She loves to be generous. It gives her pleasure.

In ancient Rome, gifts were given to create a sense of obligation for repayment. It was the way one climbed the social ladder – making sure others were in your debt and owed you favors.

But in Kingdom Economy, God lavishly gives away his entire Kingdom to us, and when we, in turn, give without expecting anything in return, we participate in that Kingdom and receive even more from God. More love, more joy, more peace, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more faithfulness, more self-control, more, more, more.

More … treasure.

Your treasure is the Kingdom of God, which he has already decided it is his pleasure to give you. What stands at the core of this Good News is not the fear of shame, but God’s amazingly tender concern for us, his own little flock. This is an invitation to trust that our future rests in the gracious promises and presence of God. The Gospel invites us to put first things first. The Gospel says, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

Because it was God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom in the first place. Have you ever thought much about what gives God pleasure? The movie Chariots of Fire follows a couple of English runners through the 1924 Olympics. One of those runners, Eric Liddell, is torn between his devotion to serving as a missionary in China, and his desire to run. In one scene, he tells his sister, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

What gifts or talents do you possess, that can be put to use for the benefit of the Kingdom of God?

What do you do that gives God pleasure?

This is the same good pleasure (or “delightful decision”) that the angels announced at Jesus’ birth when they sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14). It is the same good pleasure God announced at Jesus’ baptism when he said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

And this good pleasure, or “delightful decision” has already happened.

…TO GIVE YOU THE KINGDOM

The Kingdom of God is not just eternal life in the sweet by and by; the Kingdom of God’s active and current reign over heaven has already begun in Jesus’ ministry, and continues to the present time. It is here, now.

God has already given us the Kingdom. We respond by carrying out the values and standards of that Kingdom, which include getting rid of possessions, giving to the poor, and making purses that contain ultimate, inexhaustible, heavenly treasure. Instead of getting rich by accumulating human treasure, our hearts are set on what God ultimately treasures, which is compassion and mercy for those in need.

Since God, in his own good pleasure, has already given us the Kingdom, we are called to be prepared for its fulfillment when Christ comes again.

While Jesus is certainly talking about the end of time, when he will come again in glory to reign over a new heaven and a new earth, we should not be distracted by attempts to pinpoint the day and the hour this will happen. We should also not be lulled into passively twiddling our thumbs while we wait for Jesus to return. Luke offers the certainty that Christ will come again, and the uncertainty of when that will be. This certain uncertainty reminds us that, instead of passively waiting or living wildly because the end is near, we need to be faithful and alert.

Being ready for Jesus’ coming is less about any actual time and place and more about recognizing Jesus’ activity in the world when and where you least expect it. In other words, waiting around for further instructions doesn’t cut it. Fearlessly claiming your identity as a child of God allows you to immediately participate in the Kingdom that it is your Father’s good pleasure to give to you.

Karoline Lewis writes,Jesus is asking us, what is it that encapsulates the Kingdom of God for you? What is the one thing that if someone asked you about it, you would be able to give witness to your faith in God, your belief in the work of Jesus, your confidence in the presence of the Spirit? … Jesus says that the treasures close to your heart are those you can actually clarify to another in a way that the other gets what you mean, can sense that it matters, and that it matters deeply. … This is not a call to recite proper doctrine, but to be able to express in your own words, close to your heart, what your faith means to you. … confessing what matters.” 

What matters is this, dear friends. Christ calls you to let go of your fear, and accept the gift of the Kingdom of God, which it is your Father’s good pleasure to give to you. Will you receive it? Will you accept this precious gift? As we approach Christ’s Table, I invite you to drop your guard, to let go of your concern about what other people might think, and simply receive the assurance that you are God’s own beloved child, redeemed through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Have no fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.