Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I Didn't Preach Last Sunday ...

... as I had a week off. I did preach the Sunday before, and didn't think it was one of my better efforts. Nonetheless, I share it here.

“God’s Sent a Savior”
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Matthew 16:13-20
August 21, 2011 (21st Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Rev. John B. Erthein

At the end of Genesis, the people of Israel had settled in Egypt, which was, at the time, a place of refuge. The patriarch Joseph had risen to the heights of power, and his wise decisions had made Egypt a place of refuge for his people, who prospered and grew in numbers. But hundreds of years passed between the events at the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus. A new dynasty had arisen, one that did not have the same welcoming attitude to foreigners. The rulers of Egypt had become nervous about all of these foreigners in their midst. Indeed, the dynasty under which Joseph and his people had prospered was itself foreign, known as the Hyksos. So after the “native” Egyptians had again taken control, the policy towards the Israelites began to change. Out of fear and resentment, the Egyptian Pharaohs made life more and more difficult for the people of Israel. They feared the growing numbers of Hebrews, and worried that they would be an enemy within in the event of war. Thus, they were treated as serfs, forced to work so hard that they would theoretically become exhausted and not be able to grow further in population. The native Egyptians would also benefit from the labor of the Hebrews.

But these measures did not curb the Hebrews’ population growth. The harsher their treatment, the more they grew. We can detect in this pattern the hand of God. God does not always spare his people from hardship, but nonetheless he exercises his providence over them. The early church grew during periods of persecution. So did the nation of Israel.

In response, the Pharaoh increased the pressure in a truly evil fashion. He decreed that Hebrew midwives must kill male Hebrew children as they were born. This was an incredible order to give to Hebrew midwives, but Pharaoh must have calculated that out of fear of his authority, they would comply. But these midwives feared God more than Pharaoh, and they did not obey his diabolical command. And thus the Hebrew population continued to increase. So finally, Pharaoh gave his most vile command yet: the people of Egypt were called upon directly to kill the newborn male babies by throwing them into the Nile River. It seemed as if the Israelites were now confronted with an impossible situation.

And it was into this terrible reality that Moses was born. He was in grave danger of being discovered and killed. And here is another parallel to the time of Christ, for Jesus himself was in danger as a newborn boy, thanks to Herod’s similarly diabolical order to kill all newborn baby boys. But again, from such fragile beginnings, God makes great things happen. God delivers to his people a great savior.

And so it was with Moses. His mother successfully spared him from harm by hiding him in a basket and trusting that God would guide the current of the Nile. She had to let go of her baby in the hope that he would be alright. And that is a good lesson for us today. There are times when we have to let go of a situation beyond our control, trusting that God has it in hand.
And praise God that he did have Moses in hand. Baby Moses, at the most vulnerable time of his life, was protected from harm. The Egyptian Princess found his basket and rescued the baby. She knew that the baby was a Hebrew, but thank God that she had a more tender heart than Pharaoh. In an extraordinary event of providence, she summoned a Hebrew woman, none other than Moses’ actual mother, to nurse Moses. In that way, not only was Moses’ life spared, but he could grow up in close proximity to his mother. And when the time was right, Moses would become the leader of his people, bringing them out of bondage to freedom.

Jesus came for a similar purpose, but in a much greater way. In the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to identify him. First he asks what others say of him (i.e, the general public). Some think he is John the Baptist (come back from the dead). Some say Elijah. Some say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. One commentator suggests the disciples are being diplomatic and omitting the negative things people had been saying about Jesus, such as being blasphemous or a sinner. In any case, these estimates, even the good ones, were short of the mark. So Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is. And this is the question we all face … who do you say he is? People in the world say many things about Jesus, after all. Some people deny he even lived, in other words he was a made up, purely mythical figure. Other people will admit that he lived, but that he was not the actual Son of God in any unique way (meaning that if he was the Son of God, we are all sons and daughters of God). Some people say he was a teacher, a mystic, perhaps a cynical sage, maybe a revolutionary, perhaps a misguided or mistaken idealist. There are so-called Christians, including church leaders, who believe such things (again, Sadduccees among us). Muslims believe he was a prophet, but certainly not equal to God.

As you ponder who Jesus is, let us consider what his disciples said when asked. It was Simon Peter who responded, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” That was the right answer, of course, and it had been revealed to Peter by God the Father. And so Jesus proclaims that he will build his church upon the faith of Peter, which is like a rock.

Is your answer Peter’s? Do you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God? Are you a stone in the church of Jesus Christ? Are you part of his body? Do you accept what he offers, which is freedom? Moses offered his people freedom, as well. And doesn’t everyone want freedom?

Of course, to answer that question, one must define what is meant by “freedom?” What does a Savior do for us? Consider what Moses did for his people. He would lead them to freedom. But this was not only a freedom from the oppression of the Egyptians, but the freedom to be the people of God. The Hebrews were not released from captivity to do whatever their sinful selves desired. Instead, they were freed to observe God’s sacred laws, as he handed them down to Moses at Mount Sinai.

So what about does this mean for us? Jesus is our Savior. What does he saves us from? He saves us from the dreadful consequences of our sin and Satan’s power, which oppresses us as the Egyptians oppressed the Hebrews. But if we are set free from the power of sin and evil, for what are we freed? We are not freed to be autonomous and independent. We are not freed to pursue our own momentary desires. We are freed to lead a more meaningful life. We are freed to be the people of God. For indeed, we are fated to serve a Master, but we must consider which Master we will serve. Will it be Satan, or will it be God?

So what is your answer? Will you accept the gift of salvation as offered through Jesus Christ? Do you want to cast off the shackles of sin that are determined to weigh you down and will destroy you if they are not removed? Then turn to our Moses, our great Savior, our great Liberator from captivity, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

To Jesus Christ, the One who has come to rescue us from sin, guilt, and death, be all glory, honor and praise, now and forever. Amen.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sermon for August 14, 2011 (20th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

“God’s Great Mercy”
Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32.
August 14, 2011 (20th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Rev. John B. Erthein

“Lucy, you got some splainin’ to do.” That’s one of best remembered catch phrases from “I Love Lucy.” Ricky is calling Lucy to account for one of Lucy’s typically hare-brained schemes. We laugh at that, but at root it reminds us of an uncomfortable truth … it is highly unpleasant to be called to account. When you are a kid, you may worry about your parents finding out about something wrong you have done. When you are a pupil in school, you may have anxiety about going to the principal’s office (at least I hope there is anxiety, because that anxiety indicates that there is still such a thing as ‘discipline’ in that school. And without discipline, you eventually end up with riots, looting and disorder as we just saw in London, England). When you are an adult, you may have anxiety when called to the bosses’ office, or pulled over by the police … there is nothing like the flash of blue and red lights to get your heart pumping, is there?

So there are many ways in which we can be called to account, and it never feels good to anticipate those occasions. And I think the level of anxiety rises with the level of offense. If a cop pulls you over and you have been speeding, maybe 10 miles over the limit, that is one thing. But what if you are obviously intoxicated? I think you might anticipate a worse reaction. Or if you have illegal drugs in the car? The worse the offense, the worse the reaction.

I would shudder to imagine what is going through the minds of Joseph’s brothers when he reveals his true identity to them. To summarize what has happened previously, Joseph was the favored son of the patriarch Jacob. As a young man, Joseph was guileless, or arrogant, or a mixture of both. He had a dream in which his other brothers were like stalks of wheat bowing down before him … and he told them about the dream! This kind of behavior enraged his brothers, and they plotted to kill him. One of them had second thoughts about such a drastic action, and convinced the others to “merely” ambush Joseph, confine him in a pit, and sell him into slavery. Joseph ended up in Egypt as a result, and as a result of his brilliance and his closeness to God (he dreamt accurate prophecies), he rose from slavery to become, aside from Pharaoh himself, the most powerful man in Egypt, which was then the greatest empire the world had ever known. Joseph foresaw that the region would enjoy seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. So he had a portion of grain stored during the good years, so that the people of Egypt would survive the years of famine.

People from outside Egypt even came to avoid starvation. And among those people were Joseph’s brothers. Much time had passed since they cast him away, and they did not recognize him at first. But on the occasion described in the passage from Genesis, he finally reveals his identity. As his brothers stand before him, this man they have so grievously wronged, and who now holds the power of life and death over them, what must be going through their minds? What would be going through your mind under such circumstances? I think you would be waiting for the hammer to drop … for Joseph to make a scathing denunciation of your crimes and then to have you executed or, if you were lucky, to be banished from his presence forever.

But we see that Joseph does not do that. Instead, he sends away his advisors and servants, because his heart and emotions are overflowing. He astonishes his brothers by bursting out weeping, weeping so loudly that he can be heard around the palace. He then bids them to come close. And then, he reveals who he is …” Joseph, your brother, whom you have sold into Egypt.” But he immediately counsels his brothers not to be “distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here.” If I had been in Joseph’s place, I might not have told them that … I might have said, “oh, go ahead, be distressed and angry with yourself.” But Joseph tells them otherwise, because he understands the providence of God. “God sent me before you to preserve life … to preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.” Joseph then recounts what happened since his brothers ambushed him. He will not punish them for what they had done to him.

And not only that, he will provide for him. As he embraces them, Joseph tells them to bring their father Jacob and his whole tribe to Egypt, where they will be safe. He has in effect prepared a place for them.

In this scene, we witness the great mercy of Joseph, a mercy that is covered by the providence of God, a mercy that is undeserved, a mercy that not only spares one’s life, but provides as well. And we are invited to consider the character of God as shown in Jesus Christ. When we approach God, in one sense we are like Joseph’s brothers. We are sinners. In one of our Prayers of Confession we says that we have “offended and grieved” God by violating his law. Every sin we commit strikes at the heart of God. Approaching God could be a fearful experience for us, for he is the ultimate judge, who knows everything we have done or have even thought of doing. We should tremble before him,

But consider what we hear from Jesus Christ. He tells us to come closer to him. He opens his arms to us and embraces us. He tells us not to be afraid. He forgives us for our sins. And he opens the gates of heaven to us where we may enter. And why is that? I think it is because we have been adopted into God’s family. And God will not cast away members of his family. We are in the positions of Joseph’s brothers and the Prodigal Son of Jesus’ story, who sinned against his father but was nonetheless welcomed back into his father’s house with open arms.

Paul’s words in Romans, chapter 11, reinforce the idea that God does not reject those who belong to him. Paul also refers to the mysterious providence of God, which uses unlikely events to advance his purposes. Referring to the Jewish-Gentile relationship, he tells his Gentile listeners, “They (the Jews) are enemies of the Gospel for your sake …” which means the Gentiles have an opening to receive the Gospel. But God has not abandoned the Jews, because they are still in God’s family line: “But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers, for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” Paul also explains that God has given mercy to the Gentiles in spite of their disobedience, and will give mercy to the Jews in spite of their disobedience.

What do we learn about God? He works his providence out in ways that are sometimes hard to understand. He gives room for humans to act badly, and in so doing they can do great harm. But his purposes are certain and irrevocable. All events will lead to his providential plan for his elect people. There is no sin than can separate the people of God from the love of God. If God has elected you to his family through Jesus Christ, he will never let you go. Now, do not take that as a license to commit evil acts! A redeemed life reflects itself in good conduct. But do be assured that whatever you have done in your life, however your sins have offended God, you do not need to fear approaching him in repentance and faith. If you abhor your sins and ask for God’s forgiveness, you will receive it. I am reminded of a sermon given by Charles Spurgeon concerning the repentant thief in Luke’s Gospel. The thief admitted his guilt and confessed his faith in Christ shortly before his own death. Spurgeon wrote, that if we wonder if the thief went to heaven, do not ask if he went to heaven if he were sincere. The only right question is, if he was sincere. In other words, with his sincere repentance, the thief was guaranteed entry to paradise, as Jesus himself said on the cross. There was no more question to be asked.

And that is the hope you can have. Speaking for myself, I have a lot of respect for other Christian traditions. But I cannot belong to any church that would not affirm the assurance of salvation. The idea that you can have salvation and somehow lose it is not Biblical, it is certainly not supported in Paul’s writings. It also does not provide the blessed assurance that the Gospel should provide. If you have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior but can nonetheless lose your salvation through your own actions, what does that say about the sovereignty and power of God? What does that say about the promises of God as attested to in the Scriptures? How much sin would be just enough to tip you over into Hell rather than Heaven? You would become so preoccupied with counting your sins, and so anxious about your fate, that you could not serve Jesus Christ in the best possible way … without fear.

And indeed, there is a message for us in these passages, not just to us as forgiven sinners, but also as saints called to service. What kind of service to God can we offer? We can strive to follow the example of Jesus Christ. Even though Joseph lived before Jesus was born, he was anticipating Christ’s example in his radical, all encompassing, total forgiveness of those who had wronged him.

So, while we are given assurance, we are also given a challenge. And they are tied together. If you are willing to accept the assurance, you must be ready to accept the challenge. Are you ready? Salvation and service await you.

May the Lord Jesus Christ, who came to save us and show us how to serve others, give us the faith to accept salvation, and the character to forgive others as he has forgiven us. Amen.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Sermon for August 7, 2011 (19th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

“Why We Evangelize”
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45; Romans 10:5-15
August 7, 2011 (19th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Rev. John B. Erthein

What is it that makes church different from other worthy endeavors such as the Chamber of Commerce, or the Kiwanis, or any other business or charitable endeavor? As members of the church, meaning members of the Body of Christ, we are called to evangelize. The very beginning of Psalm 105 calls upon us to “give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name …” and to “make known his deeds among the peoples.” We are also exhorted to “tell of all his wondrous works!” And God’s works are wondrous indeed. Anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear understands how wondrous are the works of God. Every day, when we see the sun rise or set; or we walk through the beautiful pine trees of this area; or we experience the laughter of a baby; we truly experience the wondrous works of God. God’s work is inescapable. It is in nature, in human relationships, in all things beautiful and noble, and in our very concept of perfection. That is known as general revelation, and we are indeed called upon to point to this revelation as evidence of a great and gracious God.

But we are called even more to tell the story of God’s redemptive plan for the human race. Where does God reveal this? Well, we may be able to deduce from nature, from creation, perhaps from logic or philosophy, that there is “a” God, some kind of divine intelligence. We may even be able to understand, from the many evidences of God’s common grace, that God is a God of blessings. But the light of nature or of human understanding cannot show us what we must know for our salvation. But in the words of the 4th century church Father John Chrysostom, God has graciously condescended to us by providing his Word to us, both the Word written and the Word made flesh, meaning Jesus Christ. And so it is that we turn to consider these elements of God’s special revelation to us. And not just consider, but to evangelize, to share God’s plan of salvation with others.

Over these last few weeks we have considered together the patriarchs chosen by God, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He chose these men, and their wives Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, to head a new nation, Israel, who would be God’s chosen people. These patriarchs often faced setbacks, frequently of their own making. On more than one occasion, it seemed as if the line of Abraham would die out. But God was true to his covenant, made first with Abraham. This Psalm, in verses 16 through 22, makes reference to the patriarch Joseph, son of Jacob, whose self-confidence, perhaps boastfulness, enraged his brothers, driving them to ambush him, cast him into a pit, and sell him into slavery. But God showed his providence in this way: he made good come out of the evil actions of Joseph’s brothers. As a prisoner in Egypt, Joseph advanced because of his natural brilliance and leadership ability. From such humble status as a slave, Joseph was raised up by God to become the second most powerful man in Egypt. And as such, he foresaw that Egypt would face years of famine, and so he had them prepare for the famine by storing up their surplus food. And when the famine came, there was enough to feed everyone, including Joseph’s own family, even the very brothers who had hated him and cast him out! Had it not been for Joseph’s position in Egypt, the line of Jacob might have perished. So we see that while God allows his people to be chastised and humbled, he also acts to preserve them.

And why does God preserve them? Look at verse 45: “that they might keep his statutes and observe his laws.” That was the purpose of Israel, the nation of God among the pagan nations, the people of God amidst the Gentiles, a continuing witness to the law of God in a lawless and sinful world. And by God’s grace, he sent his Son to spread that message to the gentiles as well. Because of Jesus Christ, all of us, whatever our background, whether or not we descend by blood from the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are grafted onto the tree of Israel.

But how well did the people of Israel keep the statutes and laws of God? The Old Testament is, among other things, an account of Israel’s fidelity to God and his laws. And the record is not unblemished, to put it mildly. God both chastised and blessed his people in the continuing cycles of falling into sin and being restored to goodness. Indeed, the Old Testament is an account of these cycles. It seems as if the people of Israel never get it quite right.

But then again, do we? We are heirs to the promises made to Israel. Are we without sin? Can we fulfill the demands of the law? I submit to you that we cannot. Now, the church has held out different ways of dealing with this harsh reality. Over the centuries, into the Middle Ages, the Catholic church (which was the only church in the Western world, as opposed to the Orthodox church that existed in the East) developed an intricate sacramental system, including the sacrament of penance, to bring a believer back into God’s favor after committing a sin or sins. I am not going to deliver a dissertation on the Roman Catholic sacramental system, but I do want to say that this system did not produce a feeling of safety in God among discerning people, such as Martin Luther, who started his ministry as an Augustinian monk. He was haunted by the knowledge of his sinfulness and the agony of knowing that as soon as he confessed and was absolved of one sin, he would commit another. He was terrified of dying outside of God’s grace. Luther wanted to please God but was frustrated at his inability to perfectly keep the law of God. And it was all of this fear and frustration that drove Luther back to God’s revealed Word, uncorrupted by the centuries of tradition that served to obscure its beauty and clarity. And Luther rediscovered the central truth of the Gospel … that we are not justified by the works of the law, but rather by the grace of God through faith.

As Douglas Moo writes in his magisterial commentary on Romans, “central to the Reformers’ teaching on salvation was their distinction ‘law’ and ‘gospel.’ ‘Law’ is whatever God commands us to do; ‘gospel’ is what God in his grace gives to us. The Reformers uniformly insisted that human depravity made it impossible for a person to be saved by doing what God commands; only by humbly accepting, in faith, the ‘good news’ of God’s work on our behalf could a person be saved.” This was the message of the Apostle Paul, a devout Jew who wanted both Jews and Gentiles to come to a saving relationship with God. Paul was the Reformer of his age, proclaiming the Gospel of salvation to a people who had forgotten the importance of faith (meaning many of the Jews of the time). Paul taught that the Old Testament itself proclaims the indispensability of faith. How were Jews God’s chosen people? It was not by their adherence to the Law, for the Biblical account itself shows how often they fell short of the Law. The law could save them only if they kept it perfectly, but they could not. And so we cannot. We share that reality with the people of Israel. And so Paul’s message is that in the time of the Old Testament, the people called upon Yahweh to be saved. And “now” (meaning in Paul’s time) people may call on the name of Jesus Christ to be saved. This shows how highly Paul valued a relationship with Jesus Christ, for it was the same thing as a relationship with God … Jesus Christ was and is fully God, one with the Father. And so, Paul says that we must simply call on the name of the Lord, and to confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead. And thus we shall be saved.

This is truly good news! Paul’s understanding of the Jewish Scriptures links them to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a consistent narrative of God’s grace for sinful people. But as Paul writes, one must receive this good news for it to be effective. How does this happen? Well, God has established the method for spreading the good news. As Paul writes in verses 14 and 15, “how can a person call on one in whom he has not believed? And how shall they believe in whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Now, when Paul refers to a preacher, I don’t think he really had someone like me in mind. In other words, when Paul wrote, there was no professional Christian clergy. There were no denominations with various ordination requirements. There were no Christian seminaries. Pretty much everyone who believed could be a preacher … not necessarily in the sense of speaking before a lot of people at one time, but in sharing what we believe with others.

Are you prepared to do that? Although the Bible contains 66 different books covering 2,000 years or so, the central message is simple. God created us. We fell into sin. We cannot save ourselves from God’s righteous judgment. But God … the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who revealed himself fully in Jesus Christ … will save anyone who calls on him. Do you believe this? If you believe it, it is the best possible news for you. Why wouldn’t you share it with others? That is what our Lord commands, to extend the invitation to salvation and a new life to all the world. What a privilege! What a joy! Will you take part?

To the One who extends his grace from Abraham through Jesus Christ be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sermon for July 31, 2011 (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

“Undeserved Gifts” (Genesis 32:22-31; Matthew 14:13-21)
July 31, 2011 (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Rev. John B. Erthein

It can be hard to ask something of someone, especially if you have the sense that you are asking for something unnecessary, like a privilege or luxury. I think of the man who asks his wife if he can play poker with the boys that night, and he would be out late as a result. While his wife is bathing the kids and putting them to bed, the husband would be playing cards, smoking a cigar, drinking a beer, and sharing racy jokes with his pals (the great poker playing scenes in the movie and TV series The Odd Couple comes to mind. I know I am dating myself by mentioning that).

Or the wife has everything she needs in the way of clothing, but she just has to have that new dress or hat. But since her husband is the breadwinner, she has to get his OK to buy of keep the article of clothing. And that reminds me of an episode from I Love Lucy (my tastes in TV comedy are old fashioned) where Lucy and Ethel return from a shopping trip. Lucy pulls out a box containing a pretty dress, and expresses her hope that Ricky will let her keep it. Ethel says “I hope Fred lets me keep what a bought,” and she pulls a toilet plunger out of her bag. Obviously Ricky and Fred have different ideas of what constitutes “luxury” or “undeserved gifts.”

Today we encounter two of the better known stories from Scripture, both of which illustrate the nature of undeserved gifts. First, there is Jacob’s wrestling encounter with a stranger. Jacob actually had been seeking solitude, walking around while thinking. I’ve done that myself on many occasions. Jacob is apprehensive about his upcoming reunion with Esau. You will recall that Jacob had obtained Esau’s birthright and fatherly blessing (from Isaac) by dubious means. He eventually settled in with Laban’s family for a long time, partly because he was cheated by Laban. At one point, Jacob and his family fled from Laban’s property and had a confrontation that ended well enough for Jacob, because of God’s gracious provision, but it was still a harrowing encounter.

Now Jacob is preparing to meet the brother who would have reason to hate him. He has prayed to God to spare him from his brother’s likely wrath. He then takes his wife and family members and possessions and sends them across the ford of the Jabbok river, really a stream. He remains behind. In the dark of night a mysterious man appears suddenly and engages Jacob in a wrestling match. The match lasts for hours. Jacob displays tenacity in refusing to release the stranger. The stranger cannot vanquish Jacob even when he dislocates Jacob’s hip (although in Hebrew the possibility exists that the stranger hurt a more sensitive part of Jacob’s anatomy, which makes Jacob’s persistence even more impressive.). Jacob will not let go out the stranger until he receives a blessing. This very request suggests a dawning realization on Jacob’s part that he is wrestling with an angel of the Lord, or perhaps the Lord himself! And Jacob receives the blessing. Indeed, he receives a blessing that he probably could not have imagined. This stranger tells him that he has a new name to match a new identity. No longer is her Jacob, a name that implies grasping and supplanting. Instead, his new name is Israel, which means one who has struggled with God and with men, and has prevailed. And after this amazing encounter, Jacob names the place “Peniel,” because “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Notice that Jacob expresses no sense of triumph over his struggle with God, but an attitude of awe and gratitude that he even survived the encounter. Slowly but surely, Jacob is learning a proper faith that is accompanied by humility.

When I think of this encounter, I think about the power of God as opposed to our power. Realistically, who among can expect to prevail over God, who is infinite in power, who created the whole cosmos and gave us life? And yet, on this occasion, God did not use his awesome power to swat Jacob away like a fly. He did not grant Jacob’s request easily, but he did grant it. I think this shows that God is willing to hear our prayers, and will indeed respond to our faith, but that we also must show patience and perseverance and even endure setbacks. A true faith is a deeply rooted faith, one that will withstand the pressures and disappointments and sorrows of life. And for all of his faults and flaws, Jacob demonstrated such a faith. His faith was the reason for God’s blessing him, not any of his works. I think one reason why God chose Jacob as a patriarch was to show that one is saved by grace through faith. God was not required to choose Jacob, and God is not required to choose any of us, by virtue of our works or character. But by God’s mysterious providence, he chooses some for salvation and service.

And we witness another example of the graciousness of God in the story of the feeding of the multitude, an event recounted in all four Gospels, indicating an especially big impact. This story provides a very interesting counterpoint to the one from Genesis. Like Jacob, Jesus is under a terrific amount of stress. In Jesus’ case, he has learned that the man who was perhaps his greatest friend, John the Baptist, was beheaded by the cruel Herod Antipas, fulfilling a reckless promise he made to his evil wife and daughter at a typically decadent dinner party.

Jesus has withdrawn to the wilderness for a couple of reasons. First, he is leaving the territory controlled by Herod. Herod thinks Jesus may be the resurrected John the Baptist. It would be potentially hazardous for Jesus to stick around. Now, we know from later in the Gospels that Jesus would willingly give himself up to suffering and death … so he was not acting selfishly in this incidence. Rather, it was not the appointed time for him to die. He still had an earthly mission to fulfill. It would have been against God’s perfect plan for Jesus to die at that particular time.

Second, Jesus is attempting to withdraw from large groups of people to have a time of relative solitude and rest. He is searching for some quiet time in the midst of great stress, something that Jacob did as well.

Of course, a great difference in the stories is that Jacob is the one who makes a request of God. Jesus is the one who receives a request. And, as Matthew’s account makes clear, it was a request that only would have added to Jesus’ stress. Jesus had wanted to get away from large crowds of people. But somehow, a huge mass of people, 5,000 men at minimum (and I say “at minimum” because it is not entirely clear whether or not they were accompanied by additional women and children). But whatever the exact number, a very large group of people decided, for whatever reason, to follow Jesus into the wilderness. And there were no provisions to be had … not a McDonald’s or even a Whataburger in sight.

Jesus had had a horrible experience, learning that his friend John had been killed. And suddenly a huge crowd shows up, anything but invited, but obviously hungry and in need of food. Jesus and his disciples have a few loaves and fishes (and when the Bible says “loaves,” these are likely not what we think of as loaves, but rather large slabs of pita bread or flat bread. There was barely enough to feed the disciples. And yet Jesus commands them to feed the great multitude. And there turns out to be more than enough for all five thousand (or perhaps ten thousand?).

Traditionally, this passage has been understood to describe a miracle … the blessing of Jesus Christ allowed the scanty amount of food to be multiplied to such an extent that everyone received his fill, and there was enough left over to fill twelve baskets
… reminds me of some of the meals we’ve had here! In recent times, with the rise of skeptical and rationalist biblical criticism, it has become fashionable in the academy to treat this event as some kind of psychological happening … that Jesus convinced everyone to share the food they had already brought. I think that reduces the story to a kind of kindergarten lesson: “see, children, it’s good to share!” But according to one of the most learned expositors of Matthew’s Gospel, R.T. France, the text does not support the idea that Jesus engaged in “psychological manipulation.” The intent of the author was to affirm that a supernatural miracle occurred! I just mention that because it disturbs me that supposed church leaders sometimes favor these rationalistic, miracle-defying interpretations, simply because that matches their own experience, regardless of what the Bible says about certain events. Their attitude reminds me of a French philosopher who once declared that if the entire population of Paris told him they witnessed a bodily resurrection, he still would not believe it because it could not occur in the natural order of things.

My comments on miracles are not merely to show my concern about modernistic interpretations of Scripture. The miracle Jesus performed showed two great things about our God. First, it showed God has the amazing power to make something great out of something very small. This is a consistent pattern of God’s. He created the universe from nothing at all. He created the line of Israel from the unpromising beginnings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of whom had serious obstacles in fathering children. He brought the church into being from a small band of Jesus’ followers to the ever growing Body of Christ, a church that has immensely changed history and the very way we think about reality. God brings great abundance out of small beginnings.

God has the power to perform miracles, and God has the desire to comfort and uplift his people. Remember that his people bring nothing to the table other than themselves. That is why the miracle of the feeding of the multitude is so important. They came with nothing and God blessed them with abundance. And this was so even though Jesus was likely tired, and stressed, and desired solitude. But he placed the needs of others ahead of his own. The king became the servant. That is the God we worship and adore. He gives us everything, and expects nothing, for there is nothing we can give to him that can merit his love. He loves us because he chooses to. He provides for us because he chooses to. He saves us by grace through faith on his own accord.

So what is there, really, for us to do? There are two things we can consider. First, search your heart and ask yourself honestly, the most honestly you have ever asked yourself this question: are you truly born again? Do you truly trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? Do you know that if you come to him that he will give you the food of eternal life, just as he gave loaves and fishes to the multitude in the wilderness. And do you want this in your heart? Do you want this assurance more than anything else in the world? Do you want to know this so deeply that you will cling to the promises of God and be blessed by them, much as Jacob held on fiercely to God in their struggle?

Search your heart with these questions, and may God’s Spirit bring you to the place of salvation. Amen.

Sermon for July 24, 2011 (17th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

“Pursuing God’s Promises” (Genesis 29:15-28; Matthew 13:36-43))
July 24, 2011 (17th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Rev. John B. Erthein

I am thinking of calling these last three sermons the “Adventures” or perhaps “Misadventures of Jacob. Again the Biblical patriarch dominates the lesson from Genesis, and provides a way of personalizing the lessons we read about in Matthew.

Jacob is now with the family of Laban, who is a kinsman. Jacob is getting on in years. Matthew Henry writes that Jacob is 77 years old at the beginning of this passage. I don’t know if he was that old, but he was certainly well into middle age, far past the usual age for marrying. He is more than ready to find the right woman and have a family. And so he notices Laban’s daughter Rachel, and is captivated by her. This is the woman he wants to marry.

Laban gives permission for Jacob to marry Rachel (and note, consistent with the customs of the time, no one asks Rachel for her consent or even opinion!) as part of a business transaction. Jacob cannot bring an offering of money to Laban for his daughter’s hand, but he can work for seven years. Imagine if you, or I, were in that situation. How strong would our love and desire be to work for seven years to marry that person! And especially at Jacob’s age. But Jacob does what he has to do, and finally the glorious day arrives, he is to be married to his beloved.

The wedding feast takes place … and then something happens which on one level is funny, but on another level is quite appalling. Rachel has an older sister, Leah, who in fairness is not all that bad looking herself, but she is not Rachel, and Jacob showed no interest in her. Under the cover of the darkness, Laban somehow smuggles Leah into Jacob’s tent. In the darkness, and under the likely influence of too much wine, Jacob “enjoys” a honeymoon night with Leah, rather than Rachel. The next morning, he awakes with a bad hangover and a huge shock … he realizes he has spent the night with the wrong woman! It’s like he went to Las Vegas, partied too much, and woke up next to a cocktail waitress.

But in reality, what at first glance might seem comical is indeed awful. Jacob has yearned after Rachel for seven years. He has worked for Laban the whole time. He is watching himself slowly age, as if his life is like sand running through an hourglass. And what happens? Laban cheats him! Laban makes up some transparently ridiculous excuse that it is not the custom around here to give the younger sister into marriage first. Actually, that might have been true, but if it was, Laban was still acting deceitfully because he did not tell Jacob at the beginning of his seven years of labor.

I’d like to say a couple of words about deception and God’s justice. What happened to Jacob was horrible, but as Matthew Henry wrote, he was “paid in his own coin.” Jacob had engaged in sharp dealing with his brother Esau and outright deception with his father Isaac. Now he is the victim of a most cruel deception. There is a rough justice in this turn of events. And this is a good cautionary lesson for God’s people. You and I may be secure in our salvation. We may know we are among those God has chosen for salvation and eternal life. But do not imagine we therefore have a free pass to behave any way we like. There are consequences, sometimes serious consequences, for sinful behavior. Being a patriarch spare Jacob from the consequences of some of his previous behavior.

At the same time, do not think that Laban’s action was therefore justifiable. It was God’s prerogative to chastise Jacob. Laban was acting purely selfishly. If Jacob learned a valuable lesson from this, that was an inadvertent result of Laban’s act. Laban wanted to unload both of his daughters and get another seven years of work out of Jacob.

You will notice that Laban is establishing polygamous marriages for Jacob. The place of polygamy in the Bible is worth spending a few words on. The correct pattern for human relationships was established at the beginning, when God created one woman to be with one man. But during the time of the patriarchs, that model was frequently dishonored, and there is no condemnation from God in the Biblical text. However, by the time Moses composed Leviticus, polygamy was understood to be condemned by God and totally impermissible for God’s people. This means either that God did not communicate his will on this matter for a period of time, or that he allowed for the practice for some reason. But that does not make polygamy part of God’s design for human relationships.

Although to be blunt, now that our denomination has legitimized homosexuality, isn’t acceptance of polygamy just a matter of time? There is even less affirmation of homosexuality in the Bible than there is of polygamy, but we have blown past that boundary, leaving the Word of God behind. God forgive us for that.

Having said all of that, I want to highlight that the lasting significance in this passage is that Jacob’s desire for and love for Rachel is so strong that he agrees to work for another seven years after Laban gives him Rachel as his wife. As mentioned, Jacob is getting on in years, and he will have spent fourteen years working for someone in order to have a free and clear marriage to Rachel. But he does so. Nothing will deter him from pursuing the woman of his heart. And this is part of God’s amazing plan of salvation, because through Jacob and Rachel, the family line of the chosen people will be preserved.

Jacob’s single-minded dedication is what we are called to imitate when we consider the gifts of God, which is the point of the Gospel passage I read a few minutes ago. Jesus begins by telling his listeners two parables about obtaining the kingdom of heaven. A man discovers a treasure buried in a field and sells his possessions in order to buy the field with the treasure. Another man spots a pearl, and he wants to possess that pearl so badly that he sells everything he owns in order to buy the pearl.

Why would anyone do something like that? Well, if you had the prospect of owning something that was more valuable than all of your present possessions, you would gladly trade those possessions for the more valuable object. If you knew, for example, that a luggage trunk full of diamonds and gold coins was buried in a field up for sale, you would do whatever you could to buy that field, even if it meant selling your present house and other possessions. And that would also be the case if the Hope Diamond was available for the price of all your possessions. By giving up what you already have, you come out ahead. It makes sense.

Jesus himself is the wonderful treasure or the pearl of great price. Nothing should stand in the way of our having this treasure. This treasure is infinitely more valuable than anything else in creation, because it is eternal. I made reference to gold, a very hard metal, and diamonds, the hardest substance known to man. But even those substances will eventually vanish if the world lasts long enough. Scientists predict our sun will eventually burn itself out after becoming a red giant, so enormous that it will engulf the earth. Nothing would survive that incredible heat. And that is a great thing to remember: everything we have on earth is temporary. When we die, we cannot take any of it with us. Death is the great equalizer, the most democratic event. When I was a child I remembered when Nelson Rockefeller died. He had been one of the richest and most powerful men in America. But he was just as dead as the most wretched homeless person in New York City who died from exposure or drugs or alcohol abuse. None of Rockefeller’s wealth and power weighed the scales in his favor when the time came for his judgment before God.

Ask yourself this: if given the choice between Jesus Christ and the wealth of Nelson Rockefeller, what would you choose? Would even the wealth of a Rockefeller keep you from embracing the Lord? Is there something of this world that stops you from committing yourself to Jesus Christ? Do you hold back because you are afraid of losing something important, like money, or a human relationship? The latter can be an even harder thing to give up than money. You may be in a romantic relationship with someone who does not want anything to do with Jesus Christ. You are confronted with the terrible choice of either your romantic partner or Christ. Who do you choose?

Are you holding back from committing to Christ because you are holding on to a hurt or slight that you suffered from someone in the church? Sometimes church people can be cruel people, it is sadly true. But did Jacob let the monstrous unfairness of Laban keep him from Rachel, his beloved? No, he was willing to suffer Laban for the sake of his beloved. Is Jesus Christ important enough for you to do that?

Do you keep your distance because of pride? It is so anti-modern and unsophisticated to believe in a personal God who would send his Son to live among us, die of our sins, and rise from the dead. Who believes that? It’s fairy tales and myths. I even know of “Christian” ministers and church officials who say that (Sadducees among us!) To that I can say three things. First, the Bible is the most well attested series of books from antiquity. In other words, if you are willing to believe that history happened as other works claim, you should also believe what the Bible says. Second, many eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were willing to die for their faith. At the very least, they thought the central meaning of our faith was true. And finally, just please open your heart to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Can you do that? Can you put aside your modern preconceptions and approach God humbly in prayer?

Are you perhaps afraid to pursue a relationship with Christ? Do you know that you are a sinner, which is true, but do you think you cannot be forgiven, which is false? If you come humbly to the foot of the cross, your sins will be forgiven. They will be lifted from your shoulders and placed on those of Christ.

There are, I think, many reasons that people cannot take the step of accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. He demands that we let go of such much of what seems important to us, whether our friends or loved ones; our resentment or our pride or our fear. But the patriarch Jacob, despite some of his unattractive character traits, shows us how we should respond to God’s gracious offer to us in Jesus Christ. Let nothing stand in the way of the relationship with the most amazing man who ever lived, the very Son of God, who is above all others in grace, intelligence, love and beauty. Will you follow Jacob in this way? Your beloved is waiting for your decision.

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

Sermon for July 17, 2011 (16th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

“The Heirs to God's Promise” (Genesis 28:10-19a; Matthew 13:24-43)
July 17, 2011 (16th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Rev. John B. Erthein

Last week we met the patriarch Jacob, who seemed like a sharp young man who knew what he wanted and used whatever means to get it. He got his brother Esau to surrender his birthright (by the way, the birthright of an eldest son was to receive twice the inheritance of any other son) for a bowl of lentil stew. Later he received his father Isaac's blessing by an act of deceit, disguising himself as Esau and thus fooling the b;ind, elderly Isaac.

But in this passage, the successful and cocksure Jacob we know has been replaced by a far more self-reflective and even troubled man. Jacob is older now. He is journeying to Haran in order to find a wife. He is older than 40 and perhaps in his 70s. He travels alone with almost no possessions. He sleeps under the stars with a rock for his pillow. He has simply stopped for the day, deciding to spend the night at a seemingly random location. And there the incredible happens … Jacob has a vision of angels and of God.

Jacob sees a ladder or stairway extending all the way to heaven, with a vision of God's angels constantly ascending and descending. This vision indicates that heaven and earth are not separate realms, but are closely and intimately connected. Further, one might expect God to be at the top of the ladder, but in fact God was next to Jacob. God did not call to Jacob as the messenger of God did, but he spoke to him, indicating a close presence. Jacob also would declare “Surely the Lord was in this place!” After awakening from his dream, Jacob realizes it came from God, and that, contrary to his own belief, he was not alone in that place. Indeed, he felt ashamed that he had not recognized that God was in the place he chose. He is also so amazed that God was at that place that he expresses fear about it, referring as “awful” or “frightening.” And indeed, the unexpected presence of God can be frightening to someone who has something to be frightened about. Jacob may have been reflecting upon some of his less than noble activities in obtaining Esau's birthright and Isaac's blessing.

But what does God say to Jacob? God does not explicitly condemn Jacob's previous actions. Instead, God renews the promise he had already given to Abraham and Isaac: the patriarchs would stand at the head of a great nation whose adherents would spread throughout the earth. This was an extraordinary promise for two reasons. First, Jacob was unmarried and childless, and yet God is promising him unlimited descendants. Not for the first time, God brought abundant life out of a seemingly hopeless situation. Both Abraham and Isaac married women who were barren, but miraculously conceived the children who would be heirs to the promise. Jacob, who is not even married at this point, is given the same promise.
Second, this promise points to God's gracious sovereignty. God did not choose Jacob because of Jacob's sterling character. Jacob was a flawed man. And yet God chose him as the vessel of mankind's eventual redemption. If anyone thinks that God favors them because of their inherent virtue, just think about Jacob. God chooses some for salvation not because of their character and works, but in spite of them,

And yet, however flawed the vessel, God's promises are sure. It is extraordinary how God has made such great things out of such modest beginnings. The family line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was like a tiny, sputtering flame, in constant danger of extinction. But from this modest beginning, a great nation would arise, the nation of Moses, the lawgiver, the nation that God chose to keep the Law, the nation of great kings like David and Solomon, the nation of the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah.

However, by the time of Christ, this nation of Israel had been reduced to a backwater province of the Roman Empire. Indeed, since the glory days of David and Solomon, Israel had been divided and conquered more than once. She had been subjugated by Babylon, then Persia, then Greece. There was a relatively brief period of independence between the periods of Greek and Roman domination. But it was hard to imagine how Israel could ever become what God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Then came Jesus Christ, born as a Son of Israel, who ministered first to the Jews, but whose saving message would extend outward throughout the world. In the passage from Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is explaining in parables how the kingdom of God will expand. He uses metaphors that sound pleasantly homey today but were not always understood by his listeners. By God's grace, we have the Bible and about 2,000 years of devoted interpretation to show us what Jesus meant.

Jesus' first parable concerns the wheat and the tares. You will see that Jesus graciously explains this parable to his disciples after sharing it publicly. The wheat was planted by the good farmer, and is good itself. These represent the elect in the church. But the tares are weeds that were planted by an evil trespasser. These represent those in the visible church on earth who are nonetheless children of the devil. While it is tempting to seek out the weeds and pull them up, meaning to try and purify the church now, Jesus tells the disciples to wait until the time of the harvest, so that the good wheat is not pulled up with the bad tares. At the harvest time, meaning the end of the world, God himself will separate the wheat from the tares, placing the wheat safely in his barn, the kingdom of heaven, while bundling up the tares and burning them … which in Revelation is referred to as the eternal lake of fire, reserved for the devil and those who belong to him.

But notwithstanding all trials and setbacks, in spite of the many tares contained in the field of wheat, the Gospel continues to spread as it has from the beginning. And Jesus foresaw that and communicated that by further parables. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, one of the smallest seeds that nonetheless grows into a great plant, larger than most other plants in the garden. And certainly, that is how God has brought about the church … from the smallest, most fragile beginnings, the church has grown into the largest body of people in the world. So many times, beginning with Abraham, the Covenant people should have been exterminated. And yet, there was always a remnant in Israel that kept safe the core of the Gospel.

And how is it that the church grows? Jesus refers to the practice of leavening new bread. A small portion of yeasty bread was always preserved so that it could be implanted in the new bread dough. The leaven would expand into the whole new loaf. And a small piece of that loaf would be saved for the next loaf, and so that continued, an amazing multiplication of leaven. From one initial loaf, the whole population of Israel could be fed … make that the whole population of the Roman world … make that the entire population of our very planet! And is that not how the church has grown, and must continue to grow? The leaven equals the born again believers who will share the Gospel with others, who in turn will share the Gospel with others, down through the generations, until the very end of the age. Praise God for bringing mighty things out of small beginning!

The Bible assures us that we are the heirs to God's promises. No matter how insignificant we may feel in the world; no matter how ashamed we may be of our past conduct; God is there for his elect. If God has indeed chosen you from before the foundation of the world, he will not break his promise. If it is his will for you to receive salvation, you will receive it. And so will millions of others, regardless of race, or gender, or income, or nationality, or any other human difference. So again, praise God … for his amazing grace that saves sinners from themselves, a grace that saves us over and over again, a grace that is unconquerable, a grace that is spreading to people in every nation, a grace that will truly lead us home. Amen.

Sermon for July 10, 2011 (15th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

“What Is Important to You?” (Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11)
July 10, 2011 (15th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Rev. John B. Erthein

When you are growing up and becoming an adult, life becomes full of choices. Some of them seem pretty trivial. You want to go out to eat so you decide which restaurant to visit. When you get there you decide what to order. You may like to read books or watch movies, so you may choose which book to read or which movie to watch. Again, those seem pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, like “Pepsi or Coke?”

On a somewhat more serious level, as a preacher and student of the Bible I am making choices about what commentaries to use and purchase. I need to choose between quality, reputation, theological stand and pricing.

Other choices are even more important to us. What doctor do you choose as your physician? What community will you live in? Who will you vote for in the elections? You have to decide what is important in a relationship or if you even should be in a relationship. If you get married you have to consider the size of your family. The list goes on. Every day we are called on to make decisions major and minor. All decisions are important in a sense because they show our values and preferences. By our choices we say what is important to us.

And I see that as a central lesson of these two Scripture passages. Consider the reading from Genesis. We are first re-introduced to Isaac. A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the binding of Isaac, where his father Abraham was willing to sacrifice him to obey what seemed to be God's command. After that, well, we really hear little about Isaac's life. It may have been a fascinating life, full of daring adventures, but we receive no evidence of that from the Biblical text. Instead, Isaac's main importance seems to be that he exists, that he provides an interim generation between Abraham and Jacob. We know from the account in Genesis that Isaac marries late, at age 40 … not so uncommon today but very vrare in that time and culture. And like his mother, Sarah, his wife Rebekah was predicted to be barren. But we know that God miraculously intervened in their life and allowed Rebekah to become pregnant … but with twins. And it was a traumatic pregnancy, apparently the twins were constantly fighting each other in utero.

Rebekah begged God for an explanation to her traumatic pregnancy, and what she heard was strange and disturbing. The two unborn babies represented two peoples, and the older would end up serving the younger. This was a striking reversal of the normal pattern in ancient society in that part of the world. And it was not the only occasion in which God would reverse the human order of things and place the younger in a position over the older. He did so with Isaac over Ishmael; Zerah and Perez (who were also twins); Joseph and Benjamin and their older brothers, Ephraim and Manasseh, David and his older brothers, and Solomon and Adonijah. What is truly important is not the order of birth, but God's sovereign choice of who to bless and honor.

Esau was born first, but Jacob emerged grasping Esau's heel. The name Jacob is actually a kind of word play, because in Hebrew it is similar to the verb “to grasp.” Jacob was born as a grasping kind of fellow, and he acted that way in episodes of his life. Indeed, Jacob is not always a sympathetic character. He hung around the home and was a mama's boy … Rebekah's favorite. On the other hand, Esau is a hunter, a masculine occupation. His father favors him, because Esau can bring him the tasty game he hunts.

Jacob seems sly and devious on occasion. For example, he tricks his father Isaac into blessing him. The old man was blind, so Jacob disguised himself to “feel” like the hairier Esau to receive the blessing. The way Jacob is portrayed I could imagine him running a pool hall or being a card shark. But that is not what he is in Genesis … he is the heir to the promise of God, given to Abraham and Isaac, that they stood at the head of a chosen people, who would eventually be like the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the beach, and would be a blessing to the whole world.

Jacob plays his role in the plan of divine redemption, taking the opportunities that present themselves to him. In the Genesis passage I read from a few minutes ago, Esau has been out hunting, apparently for a long time, and surprisingly without success. He comes in to where Jacob is cooking a stew of lentils that apparently smells wonderful, at least it does to someone who is very hungry. Esau requests some of the stew. Jacob, seemingly off the cuff, demands Esau's birthright in exchange. Here is where Esau makes himself look ridiculous. He agrees. He does not demand the food as might have been his right as the older brother. He also doesn't find food for himself. Esau just wants to satisfy his craving for lentil stew, and treats his birthright with contempt. His birthright would be realized in the future, but who cares about the future when there is food to be eaten? One commentary refers to Esau as an “uncouth glutton,” which immediately brought a vision to my mind … of Homer Simpson with a box of donuts. Esau, the Bronze Age Homer Simpson, is driven entirely by his physical appetite and demand for immediate gratification, and thus spurns his rightful inheritance.

Think about that for a moment. It just beggars belief. Now, I like food, as you can probably ascertain from my boyish and slender physique. But if I were expecting a grand inheritance, even if many years down the road, I cannot imagine trading that inheritance (say it's a million dollars, which is still immeasurably less than the promises of God!) for, say, a great meal at Bogies. Much as I love their strip steak (and I highly recommend it) and green salad with honey mustard dressing, even so I would not want to gain those things and thus lose my inheritance. But Esau was such a man, and by treating his inheritance with contempt, he lost it forever. He showed what was important to him.

This brings us to the lesson from Romans. Some parts of the Bible are written as history; some as poetry; some as prophecy, and some as theology. Romans has been called the most purely theological book of the entire Bible. The doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is clearly set out in Romans, inspiring Martin Luther to spearhead what became the Reformation. In chapter 8, Paul discusses the opposition of the way of the flesh to the way of the spirit. Those who hold to the way of the flesh bring death upon themselves, while those who follow the way of the spirit will have life. Now, what does that mean? Even the most spiritually mature Christian, the most saintly individual, must share in the death of the physical body. So what does it mean to have life? It means to be in communion with God, both in this life and in the life to come. If one follows the way of the world, one will not inherit what God has promised to his children.

Now, to live in the spirit does not mean one is perfect. The only perfect man who ever walked the earth was Jesus himself. But it does mean that one trusts in God's promises and has a lively faith in Jesus Christ. It means that one takes a certain direction when one reaches a decision point. People who live in the flesh have no problem in running over other people for the sake of their careers; or hoarding money and possessions; or abusing drugs or alcohol; or committing acts of adultery and fornication and all other forms of sexual immorality; or neglecting their families for whatever reason. Such are the ways of the world. Many of the things I mentioned are readily available to us. The internet has made it easier than it was before to lie, to cheat, to commit immoral acts. And it's easy to obtain harmful substances. I think people turn to these behaviors because they feel empty inside and want to find something to fill that emptiness. God offers what they most need, but it is harder to credit the promises of God, which may not be discerned right now, than things that are tangible and readily available. Yes, we may be promised a glorious inheritance with all of the saints … in many years, and assuming it is even true. That is where faith becomes so important. To walk with the spirit is to have faith.

Turning back to Genesis, Esau represents everyone who has focused solely on the present and his immediate needs and desires. That is not the way of the spirit, that is the way of the flesh.

What is more important to you? The way of the spirit and the promises of God, which require faith and patience to realize? Or is it the way of the flesh, which is right here, right now, and easy to indulge?

To God, who has given us the blessed promise of eternal communion with him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for July 3, 2011 (14th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

“How Will You Respond?” (Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Matthew 11:16-30)
July 3, 2011 (14th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Rev. John B. Erthein

Love is a powerful emotion. People are searching for love in many different, and often wrong, places. People crave intimacy, and again, they frequently look for it in bad places. Broken relationships, divorces, unfaithfulness, fornication and promiscuity are evil things, but they all spring from lonely hearts of people who are desperate for love.

I've heard it said that the Bible is God's love letter to its readers and listeners. Throughout the Bible, God pursues his people because he loves them. Over and over God offers redemption and transformation to those he created, especially the people he chose to keep his covenants. And the Bible tells of how people have responded to his love. Some have responded in love themselves. Others have not. We cannot perfectly know the reasons for these different responses, but they are real, and they bring about different consequences.

The Old Testament reading for today comes from one of the more unusual books of the Bible, known as the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs. Traditionally, the book has been attributed to King Solomon, although some revisionist scholars disagree. I don't think there is sufficient evidence to overturn the traditional understanding. In any case, Solomon is an interesting author of this book, full of the language of romantic longing. Solomon reportedly had 1,000 women, more than even some recent Presidents! But in this instance he felt that he needed to express love for a Shulammite girl. This book consists of several sequences, beginning with the girl's first days in the palace of the king, proceeding through courtship and marriage, a temporary estrangement followed by a lasting reconciliation.

What does this book teach overall? It teaches that married love happens in God's time and not ours … so we are to be patient when seeking love. Love must not be aroused until it is ready (three times we are told, in 2:7, 3:5 and 8:4: “I abjure you, daughters of Jerusalem … that you not stir nor awaken love until it pleases”) Song of Solomon also teaches that intimacy is reserved for marriage itself. Married love is exclusive. In terms of physical love, each partner must remain as a locked garden and a sealed fountain (4:12). Each life is a private vineyard for the other (8:12). Neither spouse is on the “open market.” These ideals certainly contrast today's cultural drift, don't they?

Used illustratively, the song says some beautiful things about the relationship of Christ to his beloved church. We are reminded, among other things, of the strength of Christ's love (8:7: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be despised”); his delight to hear the prayers of the church (8:13: “O you who dwell in the gardens, with companions listening for your voice; let me hear it.”); the sense of yearning for his presence (8:14: “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of spices.”); the invitation of Christ to share his company (2:13: “The fig tree ripens its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.” ); and the dangers of failure to respond to his knocking on the door (5:2-8:

2I slept, but my heart was awake.A sound! My beloved is knocking."Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one, for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night."
3 I had put off my garment; how could I put it on? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them?
4My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me.
5I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, on the handles of the bolt.
6I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer.
7 The watchmen found me as they went about in the city; they beat me, they bruised me,
they took away my veil, those watchmen of the walls.
8I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him
I am sick with love.

So one important message is that you must respond to the love of God while there is time.

This is, I think, also the point of the passage I read from Matthew's Gospel a few minutes ago. In verses 16 through 19 of the eleventh chapter of the Gospel, we read about the people's reactions to both John the Baptist and Jesus himself. People were not responding well to either one of them. They ruled out John because he was too austere. He and his followers engaged in fasting. And as we know from the scriptural accounts, John had a rather wild appearance, ate off the land, and spoke bluntly and loudly about mankind's sinful condition and the need for repentance. He operated very much outside of established religious channels. So many considered him directed by a demon … a crazy man to be shunned.

As for Jesus, he did eat and drink. He did not fast regularly. Indeed, it's significant that his first miracle was to transform water into wine at the Cana wedding feast. And other miracles involved providing food for many. So how was he regarded? Some called him a glutton and a drunkard, not to mention a friend of tax collectors and sinners So, whatever John or Jesus did, people found fault with them and condemned them.

What was especially galling was that the cities rejecting Jesus had been ones in which he had performed miracles. The people had all the proof they needed that Jesus loved them and wanted a relationship with them. But they rejected him, and they were doubly without excuse. As Jesus said, if cities destroyed by God like Sodom had seen his miracles, they would have turned from their evil ways and would continue to exist. But the people favored by God himself would not come to Jesus. As R.T France wrote in his commentary on Matthew: “...when those who have been privileged to witness Jesus' ministry in their own communities fail to respond, they must expect to face a more serious judgment than the notorious pagan cities which had no such special revelation.” And I wonder if that same warning applies today: will the consequences for those who hear and reject the Gospel be worse than those who never heard it?

After these stark words of warning come some words of irony and then of comfort. It is ironic that the life saving truth of the Gospel would be withheld from the wise and learned of the world, while it is revealed to little children. As Jesus said elsewhere, one must become like little children to inherit the kingdom of God. And we know that Jesus loved the little children. There are plenty of wise and learned people who manage to argue themselves out of a saving faith. This is true in the academic seminary world, which is often called the last place you would want to go to become faithful! But there is no condemnation of the children. Ideally, children know how to receive love, after all. That is what we are called to do, whatever our ages.

Jesus concludes by extending a gracious invitation to all who are weary of heavily burdened to come to him, for he will lighten their load. That is an act of love. How will you respond to this invitation?

We have in these readings the balance between the amazing love and fierce judgment of God. Both of these are rooted in his holiness. There is nothing lukewarm or humdrum about God. It is all or nothing with him. Will you respond to the message in Scripture and embrace him as he longs to embrace you? He will give you what you most yearn for in life. He knows the deepest desires of your heart. If you are tired and weary, if you feel starved for love, God is there for you. Praise God for his wonderful love and grace. Amen.

Sermon on June 26, 2011 (13th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

“A Sacrifice to God” (Genesis 22:1-19; Romans 6:12-23)
June 26, 2011 (13th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Rev. John B. Erthein

It was not long ago that we celebrated Mother's Day, and then Father's Day. But someone once said that every day is “Children's Day.” Ideally, we value families. Those of us who are parents ideally love our children. We recognize there are too many times when the reality does not meet the ideal; children are abused, neglected and abandoned. But the ideal remains important. It is considered right that parents love their children and even sacrifice for them. And the last thing a parent wants is for any harm to come to his or her child. All of us as parents can understand that deep in our hearts.

So. this reading from Genesis is not one of the most desired passages on which to preach, because at its center it involves the concept of familial sacrifice, specifically the sacrifice by a parent of a child, because God commanded it. As I was writing this sermon, I kept thinking it would be much better to preach on something else. This was one of the lectionary readings for today, it was not of my choosing. But then, I thought that if a passage of Scripture is uncomfortable to preach upon, and if it is hard to listen to, perhaps that means it needs to be considered. The Word is God is always good, but not always easy. And the passage from Genesis has such a wealth of material that one can create many sermons based on it.

Why does this passage make us uncomfortable? On its surface, and in our gut reaction, this passage makes God look capricious and cruel. When I say “gut” reaction, I don't mean what we think we are supposed to think about God, and how as Christians we try to rationalize uncomfortable passages of Scripture. I mean, how do these words grab us? How do we react instinctively? And my instinct is to be disturbed and even upset. After all, God had promised Abraham and Sarah that their son Isaac was the child of promise. Through him their descendants would be numberless and the whole world would be blessed through them. And now God commands Abraham to do something we consider abhorrent, which also would destroy the promise God had made to Abraham.

And how does Abraham appear? The text has him rather flatly agreeing to sacrifice his son! Abraham had already lost his son Ishmael, daughter of his slave Hagar, because Sarah had insisted on their banishment. But Isaac was supposed to be the chosen one. How could Abraham agree without even protesting? He had protested when God was preparing to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, for example. And other patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament had struggled with God's will many times. But here, where Abraham is being asked to do something that looks monstrous, something that should go against the instincts of any normal parent and any moral person, he simply agrees. We see this confirmed when Abraham is getting ready to carry out the sacrifice, to kill his son and make him into a burnt offering. The angel of the Lord stayed his hand, which meant his hand had to be stayed. Abraham was going to go through with it!

I emphasize this to bring up an uncomfortable issue. Often, people are willing to do the most evil looking things because they are convinced that is what God would have them do. These people are sincere in following what they understand to be God's will. Why else do you think the Al Quaeda terrorists attacked New York and Washington ten years ago? They believed God wanted that, and who were they to disobey God? And even more than that, parents are encouraged to sacrifice their children in suicide attacks against Israel, according to a particular understanding of God's will expressed in Islam. So sincerely following God's will can lead to horrifying results.

So why do we consider such things with horror, even as we strive to follow God's will? I think we can understand this by going back to the time of this event in Genesis. Nowadays we talk about the “Judeo-Christian tradition” of ethics and values. Certainly, according to our “Judeo-Christian” traditions, it is an abomination to mistreat our children, much less to sacrifice them. But when Abraham was confronted by God's supposed command to sacrifice Isaac, there was no Judeo-Christian tradition. Abraham stood at the beginning of the line that would extend for thousands of years. When he walked this earth, there was no Bible. There was not a single church or synagogue to be found. There was no Pope and no Billy Graham. So what kind of world did Abraham inhabit?

It was a world of polytheism, of a pantheon of gods and goddesses commanding the allegiance of varying groups of people. And it was a world with a very different ethical code than our own. One of the gods was called Molech. The cult of Molech insisted upon the sacrifice of children by burning. Such an idea fills us with horror, and rightly so. But that was the spiritual atmosphere of the time. For Abraham to hear this dreadful command from God would not likely have shocked him as it would us today. That doesn't mean he liked the idea … but he might have said to himself that other gods would expect this, so why not the God who spoke to him? God was talking to Abraham in a way that he would have understood, asking him to make a severe sacrifice that was not, however, something as horrifying as we think it is today.

As we know, it was not God's will for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Indeed, God brought a new morality to bear in the world. It was not his will that his people would ever sacrifice their children to him! There are several places in the Old Testament where God and his people express their detestation. Leviticus 18:1 commands: “You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech.” Further, Leviticus 20:1-5 prescribes the death penalty for such an act, further threatening that God himself would punish any people who refused to punish such an evil act. The evil 8th century Judean king Ahaz committed such heinous acts (2 Kings 16:3) and in the next century the good king Josiah attempted to abolish such practices (2 Kings 23:10). Condemnations of child sacrifice can also be found in Deuteronomy and Micah. These books were written under very different circumstances, hundreds of years apart. This indicates that Molech worship and child sacrifice were well known among the people of Israel and it took centuries to finally stamp it out. This makes God's command to Abraham look more gracious … it is as if God were saying you must commit the ultimate sacrifice to please me. It was enough for Abraham to show that willingness. But God was sending a powerful message that worshiping him would never involve such an evil action.

So what else is the lasting value of this passage? What does it say to us in this time and in this place? In fact, God's people are still called to make sacrifices, including ones that test one's commitment to God. The sacrifices can be painful. They involve perhaps surrendering parts of ourselves that we do not want to surrender. Having said that, the best response is to trust in God's providence. His promises will be fulfilled, and in fact he has something planned for us that will more than make up for any sacrifices we have to make. In the case of Abraham, his willingness to make a terrible sacrifice was counted as righteousness. He had faith in God's providence and continuing goodness, even if God's specific command to him seemed strange at best.

Here, I think it is helpful to also consider the passage from Romans I read a few minutes ago. Paul is saying that Christians must make a drastic change in their lives. Previously, they had been enslaved to sin. Paul says that if they foresake sin they will find freedom from it, but only in slavery to God. A popular idea in modern times is the idea of total personal autonomy. You are supposed to be free to do whatever you want to do. No one should tell you what to do or control your life. But Paul argues that there is no such thing as total personal autonomy. We are under the authority of someone or something. Paul exhorts Christians to live under the authority of God, not the authority of sin. The authority of either is so encompassing that it equals slavery.

A slave owes his master perfect obedience. That was the context in which Paul wrote, where slavery was widespread in the known world. Perfect obedience … that is what Abraham was willing to show God. And that is why God would reaffirm his promises to Abraham, that he would have descendants beyond number who would bless the whole world.

God expects sacrifices of us as well. But thank God, he does not demand anything that is contrary to his own character, which overflows with love and grace. God's character is so beautiful that he would sacrifice his own Son, and not ours. That reminds me of a saying about the comparison of Islam and Christianity: Islam says you must sacrifice your son for God. Christianity says God sacrifices his Son for you. Praise our gracious God!

But we are still exhorted not to let sin reign in us. Nothing must come before God. We may say we love and worship God, but do our lives show that? Do we place God before money? Do we place God before careers? Do we place God before our race or ethnicity or nationality? Do we place God before drugs or alcohol? Do we place God before relationships? Do we place God before even our desire for intimacy? What must we sacrifice in ourselves to truly love and follow and serve the God who first loved us? But the sacrifice is not in vain, my friends, because God's providence is greater than any of our man made idols. People are searching for meaning and happiness, but so often they settle for counterfeits. People are enslaved to drugs and alcohol, or they compulsively accumulate possessions and hold onto them with a death grip; or they walk over everyone else on the way to a career with status and power; or they lurch from one dysfunctional relationship to another because they don't want to be alone; or they engage in unholy sexual practices because they feel that's who they really are. These poor people are enslaved to sin and brokenness.

But God promises them, and us, something much better. He promises us peace with him and an end to alienation. St. Augustine wrote that our souls are restless until they rest in God. Through Jesus Christ, we can have that rest. Through Jesus Christ, our lives can mean something. Through Jesus Christ, we can be happy in our existence and not fearful of the future. Through Jesus Christ, all things are possible.

Will you follow Abraham and obey God? Will you open your heart to Jesus Christ and trust in him? Will you sacrifice whatever keeps you from a right relationship with God, whether it is pride, or arrogance, or greed, or lust, or despair, or bitterness? Will you put these things where they belong, at the foot of the Cross? Jesus is waiting to take them upon himself, so that you may be freed from their burdens. Will you turn to him today?

May God be praised for his love and grace and mercy, and may we turn happily to him, putting the old self to death, and allowing the new self to shine in the light of God's countenance. Amen.

Sermon for June 19, 2011 (Trinity Sunday)

“The Name of God” (Psalm 8; Matthew 28:16-20)
June 19, 2011 (Trinity Sunday)
Rev. John B. Erthein

We worship a great God. His power and majesty are attested to throughout creation, and even more so in the Word of God. Psalm 8 is a song of praise to our great God. God has created the heavens, the moon and the stars. And yet God has placed us, mere human beings, at the pinnacle of his creation. We have been crowned with glory and honor, and God has given us dominion over the works of his hands, such as the animals.

God honors us and wants to have a relationship with us. The Psalm begins with the name “Lord” for God. This is important because it is the personal, or covenantal, name of God that he revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex 3). This title could also be translated as “governor” or “master.” Further, God is called “our” Lord because of the covenant he established with Israel. There is something intimate about this relationship. While it is true that God created the whole world, he set aside a specific people which he called Israel, a people simultaneously set apart but also to a light to all nations. God's gracious plan is at the heart of what we call the Old Testament.

I want to pause for a moment and speak briefly about two kinds of grace we experience from God. The first is common grace. These are the benefits that God gives to all people, regardless of their conscious relationship with him. These include the beauty of nature; the provisions of this world, including food and shelter; and the comfort we receive from human relations. Common grace is quite indiscriminate; it's like the very localized weather patterns we have around here … welcome rain falls at David and Rebecca Green's property while it remains dry in downtown DeFuniak Springs. You can spiritually alive or spiritually dead: it doesn't matter when it comes to God's provision of common grace.

The second kind of grace comes from faith. We are saved by grace through faith. This means the Holy Spirit awakens us to our spiritual condition. We realize we are lost in our sins and cannot enjoy eternal life without salvation in Jesus Christ. And so we turn away from our sins. We abhor them. We regard them with horror and shame and grief. And we ask Jesus Christ to come into our hearts and lead us as Lord and Savior. That is the special grace that God bestows on his elect.

The whole Bible, including the Old Testament, shows how God's grace operated. God revealed more of his gracious plan in what we call the New Testament, which was again a personal relationship between God and his people. The New Testament, of course, centers on Jesus Christ, who the Scriptures affirm as being fully God and fully man. And this brings me to the reading from Matthew's Gospel. Jesus has risen from the dead and has appeared to many of his followers. He is giving them, in a sense, final instructions before he leaves them to ascend into heaven. And he tells them to spread the news about his ministry and his offer of eternal life to all who repent and believe in him. And here he tells them to baptize people in the “Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Here the full name of God is unveiled.

What does this name mean? If you want the perfect theological explanation, you won't get it from me, because I am but a simple country preacher. But in fact, even the very best theologians in church history have struggled to perfectly explain the mystery of the Trinity. Our minds are too limited to comprehend the vastness of this doctrine. But I think Charles Hodge had the best explanation. He wrote that the Bible affirms over and over again that there is one God. But then the Bible also affirms that there are three distinct Persons who all are known as God … the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. One God in three Persons … three Persons in one God. That was good enough for me.

But what I think is truly important about the Trinity is not doctrinal precision, at least not for the purposes of this message. The fact that God is three Persons, and has always been so and always will be, means that at his deepest level, God is relational. Even before he created the universe, our world, and us, God was in a state of intimate relationship. And God decided, purely out of his overflowing love and grace, to extend this relationship to his creation.

And what a relationship that can be. How can it be described? It is sublime. Many of you know what it is to be deeply in love with someone, to always think about the other person, to want to be with them and share everything with them. You feel as if you are connected at a cellular level, or that your souls merge into one. That is the kind of relationship God offers you with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. As Jesus was preparing to depart this earth, he promised that the Holy Spirit would remain to guide them. It was the same Holy Spirit that was present at the Creation; the same Spirit that guided the Israelites; and the same Spirit that brought back from the dead Jesus Christ. It is by that same Spirit that you also may have this incredible, intimate, beautiful relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

And, empowered by this relationship that overflows with love and grace, you will indeed by able to go forth and minister to others with courage and compassion. That is the best thing to remember on this Trinity Sunday.

In the name of our wonderful God who loves us beyond our imagining, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sermon Catch-Up

I notice I have not posted any sermons since May 22. Some of my following sermons got lost when my computer crashed. So the first one I have to share at this time is from June 12. I'll try to post them all.

Sermon: “A Rediscovered Unity” (Numbers 11:24-30; Acts 2:1-21)
Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church
Rev. John B. Erthein

Reflecting upon the division of Germany (and her capital, Berlin) during the Cold War, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Berlin, Cardinal Meissner, once said that “the result of sin is division.” The sin to which he referred was the monstrous catalog of evil deeds perpetrated by the German Third Reich.

Division caused by sin … is that not a reflection of our world today, and in fact of nearly all recorded history? The people of this world are divided by a seemingly infinite number of categories. Even in this very room, there is division … between Gators and Seminoles. Now, if only all divisions were so relatively benign! But we are divided by nationality. We are divided by language. We are divided by race and ethnicity. We are divided by economic and educational attainments. We are divided by what we perceive to be our self-interest. We are divided by gender. We are divided by ideology. Our own country, blessed by God in so many ways, was tragically divided by slavery and a civil war, and the whole land was washed in the blood of her people. Countless millions of people have perished in conflicts involving Nazism and Communism verses Western ideals and systems of government.

And, most crucially and most tragically, we are divided by religion. Such divisions have caused terrible conflict and atrocity throughout the ages, from the wars mentioned in the Bible, through the relentless Arab Muslim expansion of the 8th century and beyond, through the merciless Christian Crusades which perversely fell with fury on Jews as much as Muslims, through relentless fighting in India between Islam and Hinduism (which led to the split between India and Pakistan), conflict in the Middle East between Jew and Muslim and the continuing violent oppression of Christians in Islamic lands, through even intra-religious fighting, between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland and between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.

Nearly as long as man has walked this earth he has been divided against himself in some way. The Bible tells that sad story. Adam and Eve, created to be together, were divided against each other when they ate of the forbidden fruit. Cain and Abel were divided by Cain's jealousy of God's favor on Abel, which caused the first murder in history. And the biggest Biblical division arose when God scattered the peoples and confused their languages when they arrogantly tried to build their Tower of Babel up to heaven, imaging they could reach God as they wanted to reach him. And so sin has indeed resulted in division … nations, communities, races, even families divided against themselves. A wise man once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” but the reality of our world is that of a house divided.

For many years, especially in the aftermath of destructive conflicts, people in many nations have been searching for unity. The League of Nations, the United Nations, and European Union are all attempts to bring unity out of division. They have had limited success.

There have also been attempts to bring different faiths together. Some are designed to bring together different Christian churches, others try to minimize doctrinal differences between all religions. The cliché, “well, everyone basically believes in the same God,” is quite widespread, even in the church itself. And I predict these efforts to wish away the differences between religions will also have limited success.

But the Bible does tell us something of how real unity can happen. It is simply by the amazing power of the Holy Spirit. And that is not just some “spirit” or “ghost” or whatever dreamed up by someone. No, it is the same Spirit, the Spirit of God, that was present at the creation itself. And it was the same Spirit present among the people of Israel in the book of Numbers. That Spirit descended upon the people on the Day of Pentecost, the day of the Holy Spirit, the day in which the church was born. Jesus had already died, been resurrected and ascended to heaven. But he had promised to leave his Spirit as a guide and comforter to his followers. And that was made manifest in a remarkable event as described in Acts. G. Campbell Morgan described it in this way: “... these people were suddenly caught up by the Spirit, penetrated through and through by the Spirit, brought completely under the power of the Spirit.” (G. Campbell Morgan, “The Westminster Pulpit,” Volume 8, p. 182). As he writes, “In this hour all things became new.”

Now becoming new is a wonderful thing in itself. Some of us here talked about “newness” during Sunday School several weeks ago. Recall the feelings you had as a child when a bright new toy awaited you on Christmas morning, all beautifully wrapped and never before opened. Or as an adult, remember the feeling of sitting in that new car, or maybe opening a new book or box of books (the preachers among us can relate to that one!). Newness is a good thing, but sadly temporary in this life. Everything gets old after a time.

But on Pentecost, to quote again from Morgan, “all things became new. God was new, the world was new, life was new (Ibid).” Can you imagine how that would have been? Something that had been old was now new again? In that we understand some of the great promises of God. This event on Pentecost accomplished at least two profound things. First, it briefly gave back unity to a diverse group of people. The text itself lists the many different nationalities that were present. And somehow, at this incredible moment, all of them were speaking in their own language and yet they could all perfectly understand one another. For that precious period of time, barriers of nationality and language came down. And that happened not because of a well meaning government organization or an earnest church body. It happened by the spontaneous, supernatural appearance of the Holy Spirit!

Something else happened on Pentecost to break down division. These earliest followers of Christ experienced an intimacy with him that they had not previously known. Again, to quote from Morgan, “They were now born of the Spirit into a new consciousness of their Master, of themselves, and of all things. Suddenly, and without being able to explain the how of the infinite mystery, they found themselves in a closer companionship with Jesus than they had ever known during the days of His flesh” (Ibid) So the division between God and humankind was reduced. People could rejoice in this intimate relationship with God in Jesus Christ. That would be an unforgettable feeling and memory. Empowered by this memory, the earliest Christians were ready to carry out their mission for Christ, withstanding all attacks and surmounting every obstacle. It was truly the dawn of the church age.

So what is this telling us? I think it means first that true unity comes from Jesus Christ working through God's Holy Spirit. Man-made attempts at unity, or even attempts at unity promoted by church structures, are no substitute for that. This does not mean we should not treat people of different nationalities or races or religions with respect, affection and love. That is a good thing to do. But let us recognize that complete unity is possible only by God's intervention. And I would thus warn against any efforts to achieve a formal unity among churches and religions by downplaying real differences. God acted in history through the people of Israel and in Jesus Christ. We do not honor God by treating his special revelation as anything less. In all things, including the search for unity, be humble. Accept that God will accomplish his will in his time. Pray for unity. Pray for people to be reached by the Holy Spirit for Jesus Christ. The greatest imaginable unity will come when the whole world bends the knee of Jesus, when all people acknowledge him as Lord.

And now to the One who overcomes division and enmity, and who brings about our true unity and peace, be all blessing, and honor, and glory, now and forever. Amen.