Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sermon for September 11, 2011

“God’s Love and God’s Justice”
Exodus 14:19-31; Matthew 18:21-35
September 11, 2011 (24th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Rev. John B. Erthein

Does God exist? And if he does, then who is God? What is God like? People have been speculating about these questions since human beings could think. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we believe that God describes himself accurately in his Word, the Bible. Now, I think God is so infinite, so perfect, so amazing, that we will never understand everything about him. But the Bible tells us everything we need to know about God, especially what we need to know for our salvation.

So what does the Bible tell us about God? Two of his greatest attributes are “love” and “justice.” Both of these qualities are very much in evidence in both scripture readings, two of the better known ones. In the reading from Exodus, God is aiding his people, the Hebrews, as they struggle to leave their Egyptian captivity. Imagine what a daunting task that would have been. There were a huge number of Hebrews, that is true, but they were not an army. They were oppressed slaves, including the elderly, women and the very young. They did not leave in chariots; they went on foot, with all their possessions they could carry. And they would have to cross a harsh wilderness before reaching their promised land. Additionally, Pharaoh, angered at their rebellion, and seemingly learning nothing from the ten plagues that his people had suffered, sent his mighty army after the fleeing Hebrews. It seemed as if their flight to freedom would be a very short flight indeed.

But the Lord intervened! The Hebrews had been following a pillar of cloud sent by God (and just imagine what a sight that would have been, a massive, towering pillar of cloud, extending to the heavens, leading the people!). God moved the pillar to the rear of the Hebrew multitude, which hid them from the view of the pursuing Egyptians. During the night, the pillar served to keep the Hebrews and Egyptians separate. It served to confuse and confound the Egyptians. But God had not finished his marvelous works. Moses stretched out his hand and the Lord sent a mighty east wind over the water of the sea … can you imagine the fierce and howling wind? And then imagine the surface of the sea foaming and heaving, gradually being drawn apart, a depression in the surface becoming deeper and deeper until finally, the sea has been parted and dry land appears in a path across the entire sea bed to the other side. If you ever saw that spectacular movie “The Ten Commandments,” that may give some idea of what the people saw, heard and felt. If we take the text seriously, and accept it on its own terms, what happened was dramatic beyond comprehension. Two towering, seething walls of water flanked the pathway of dry land. Imagine how tall they were … if the sea bottom depth was 100 feet, the walls of water were 100 feet tall. If the sea bottom depth was 500 feet, the walls were 500 feet tall. What an extraordinary scene. And how intimidating it would have been for the Hebrews to venture down onto the dry pathway, knowing that countless tons of water were so close by, and it was only the hand of God that prevented the walls of water from flooding over them, from crushing and drowning them. But the people stepped out in faith, and crossed safely to the other side. In this way we witness the love of God.

But then the Egyptian army came in pursuit, and God allowed them to do so. But it was harder going for the Egyptians, because they were traveling with heavier equipment. The fully loaded chariots’ wheels sank into the dry but also soft sea bed. It was actually better to be on foot, as were the Hebrews. So by the time the Jews were safely on the other side, the Egyptians were still going slowly across the dry sea bed. And then, of course, came the deluge. The walls of water crashed down onto the Egyptian army, wiping out countless thousands of men. The lucky ones were crushed instantly. The unlucky ones suffered the agony of drowning. In this way we witness the justice of God.

And we witness both the love and justice of God set out in the well-known parable Jesus tells about the king, and the forgiven and yet unforgiving slave. The story is prompted by Peter’s question about forgiveness. If someone does something against you, how often should you forgive that person? Seven times? By asking that, Peter was going above and beyond the normal custom. Apparently, there had been a historical rabbinical teaching saying that three times was sufficient for forgiveness. So Peter may have thought he was being especially generous. But Jesus tells him that he must forgive far more than seven times. Different translations give different figures; either seventy-seven times or even seventy times multiplied by seven. Either number indicates that Peter is not following the way of God in his thinking. The number Jesus gave is not meant to be a specific number, but rather to be an incredible number … for the believer, forgiveness never stops.

Jesus elaborates his meaning in the wonderful story of a slave who owed his king an enormous, stupendous amount of money … ten thousand talents! To put that in perspective, a talent was a measure of money equal to six thousand denarii. A common laborer would earn about one denarius per work day, which means he would earn six denarii per week and 312 denarii per year. It would thus take an ordinary worker nearly 20 years to earn ONE talent. So after twenty years, it would be one down, and nineteen thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine to go (and that assumes the impossible feat of saving every denarius he earned.). Obviously the point of this story is to make the point that the slave can never pay off his debt, even though he promises his king to do so. So what happens then? The king would have been within his rights to sell off the man and his entire family as partial repayment of the debt. That was consistent with the laws of that time and place.

But the king does not do this. Instead, the king forgives the debtor. He wipes the slate clean. The debtor is no longer a debtor, burdened with an impossible amount to pay. Instead, he has been set free.

But how does the debtor respond? He encounters another slave who owes him money, about 100 denarii. That is not an insignificant amount. It would have been three or four months’ wages for an ordinary laborer. So the lender would be within his rights to demand payment from the debtor. Indeed, it was perfectly legal of him to have the debtor imprisoned. This action could be seen as simple justice.

But the slave who had received mercy could not legitimately demand justice, unless he was prepared to receive justice himself … and that is what he ended up receiving … justice. He was handed over to be tortured until he paid what he owed. But of course, he never could finish paying what he owed. So he would be tortured … forever. And Jesus warns his listeners that his Heavenly Father will treat them likewise.

Reflecting upon these two stories, I wonder if we prefer hearing about the love of God rather than the justice of God. God shows his love by using his great power to rescue the poor, oppressed Hebrews. That is something we can unambiguously cheer. But what about God using his power to utterly destroy the Egyptian army? How do we respond to a God who can act with such wrath. Surely other options were available, weren’t there? Could not God have found a less violent way to deal with the Egyptians?

And consider the story of the unforgiving slave. It’s wonderful that the king would forgive him. But did he really deserve an eternity of torture when he would not forgive? Wasn’t there some other way?

We have to ask ourselves what we think God owes us. God has created us. Does not the potter have power over the clay, to make one vessel unto honor and one unto dishoner? Does God owe us his mercy and grace? What have we done to earn God’s favor, really? What can we do to repay the unpayable debt? If we say we want justice, then we will receive the justice received by the Egyptians and the unforgiving slave. And in exercising his divine justice, God will be glorified. Either way, whether he exercises justice or mercy and love, God will be glorified. Indeed, for us to understand and appreciate God’s love and mercy and forgiveness, we have to understand his righteous judgment on sinners.

The good news is, it is not a hard thing to receive the love of God. He makes it freely available to those whom he has chosen, whether the people of Israel or the people of the New Covenant through Jesus Christ. You do not have to earn this love. You simply have to accept it. Does anything stand in your way? Are you disbelieving in God? Are you full of pride, thinking you are not such a sinner who needs mercy and forgiveness? Do you think your sins are too awful for God to forgive?

Whatever acts as a barrier between you and God, will you offer that up to God? Will you give it to Jesus Christ, who will gladly bear whatever it is? I am going to pray now, and I invite you, if you want a sure relationship with Jesus Christ, to pray with me now: “Lord Jesus, I confess that I have sinned against you and have grieved your Heavenly Father. I ask for forgiveness for my sins. I open my heart to you, Jesus, and ask you come into my life and lead it from this time onward. I do confess you as my Lord and Savior. Amen.”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Billy Graham's Message After 9/11

Rev. Billy Graham gave a dignified and Gospel-centered message at the National Cathedral a few days after the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, as part of the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. I think Rev. Graham's remarks are worth sharing on this tenth anniversary commemoration:

We come together today to affirm our conviction that God cares for us, whatever our ethnic, religious or political background may be. The Bible says that He is “the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles.”

No matter how hard we try, words simply cannot express the horror, the shock and the revulsion we all feel over what took place in this nation on Tuesday morning. September 11 will go down in our history as a Day to Remember.

Today we say to those who masterminded this cruel plot, and to those who carried it out, that the spirit of this nation will not be defeated by their twisted and diabolical schemes. Some day those responsible will be brought to justice.

But today we come together in this service to confess our need of God. We’ve always needed God from the very beginning of this nation. But today we need Him especially. We’re involved in a new kind of warfare. And we need the help of the Spirit of God.

The Bible says, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.”

But how do we understand something like this? Why does God allow evil like this to take place? Perhaps that is what you are asking. You may even be angry at God. I want to assure you that God understands these feelings that you may have.

We’ve seen so much that brings tears to our eyes and makes us all feel a sense of anger. But God can be trusted, even when life seems at its darkest.

What are some of the lessons we can learn?

First, we are reminded of the mystery and reality of evil. I have been asked hundreds of times why God allows tragedy and suffering. I have to confess that I do not know the answer. I have to accept, by faith, that God is sovereign, and that He is a God of love and mercy and compassion in the midst of suffering.

The Bible says God is not the Author of evil. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7 the Bible talks about the mystery of iniquity. The Old Testament Prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.”

The lesson of this event is not only about the mystery of iniquity and evil, but, second, it’s a lesson about our need for each other.

What an example New York and Washington have been to the world these past few days! None of us will forget the pictures of our courageous firefighters and police, or the hundreds of people standing patiently in line to donate blood.

A tragedy like this could have torn our country apart, but instead it has united us. So those perpetrators who took this on to tear us apart, it has worked the other way—it has backlashed. We are more united than ever before. I think this was exemplified in a very moving way when the members of our Congress stood shoulder to shoulder and sang, “God Bless America.”

Finally, difficult as it may be for us to see right now, this event can give a message of hope—hope for the present and hope for the future.

Yes, there is hope. There is hope for the present because the stage, I believe, has already been set for a new spirit in our nation.

We desperately need a spiritual renewal in this country, and God has told us in His Word time after time that we need to repent of our sins and return to Him, and He will bless us in a new way.

There also is hope for the future because of God’s promises. As a Christian, I have hope, not just for this life, but for heaven and the life to come. And many of those people who died this past week are in heaven now. And they wouldn’t want to come back. It’s so glorious and so wonderful. That is the hope for all of us who put our faith in God. I pray that you will have this hope in your heart.

This event reminds us of the brevity and the uncertainty of life. We never know when we too will be called into eternity. I doubt if those people who got on those planes or who walked into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon on Tuesday thought that it would be the last day of their lives. And that’s why we each must face our own spiritual need and commit ourselves to God and His will.

Here in this majestic National Cathedral we see all around us the symbol of the cross. For the Christian, the cross tells us that God understands our sin and our suffering, for He took them upon Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ. From the cross God declares, “I love you. I know the heartaches and the sorrows and the pain that you feel. But I love you.”

The story does not end with the cross, for Easter points us beyond the tragedy of the cross to the empty tomb. It tells us that there is hope for eternal life, for Christ has conquered evil and death and hell. Yes, there is hope.

I’ve become an old man now, and I’ve preached all over the world. And the older I get, the more I cling to that hope that I started with many years ago.

Several years ago at the National Prayer Breakfast here in Washington, Ambassador Andrew Young closed his talk with a quotation from the old hymn “How Firm a Foundation.”

This week we watched in horror as planes crashed into the steel and glass of the World Trade Center. Those majestic towers, built on solid foundations, were examples of prosperity and creativity. When damaged, those buildings plummeted to the ground, imploding in upon themselves. Yet, underneath the debris, is a foundation that was not destroyed. Therein lies the truth of that hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”

Yes, our nation has been attacked, buildings destroyed, lives lost. But now we have a choice: whether to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation; or to choose to become stronger through all of this struggle, to rebuild on a solid foundation.

And I believe that we are starting to rebuild on that foundation. That foundation is our trust in God. And in that faith, we have the strength to endure something as difficult and as horrendous as what we have experienced this week. This has been a terrible week with many tears.

But it also has been a week of great faith. In that hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” the words say, “Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed,/For I am thy God, and will give thee aid;/I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,/Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”

My prayer today is that we will feel the loving arms of God wrapped around us and that as we trust in Him we will know in our hearts that He will never forsake us.

We know also that God will give wisdom and courage and strength to the President and those around him. And this will be a day that we will remember as a Day of Victory.

May God bless you all.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Sermon on September 4, 2011

“The Marks of the Believer”
Exodus 12:1-14; Romans 13:8-14
September 4, 2011 (23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Rev. John B. Erthein

A police officer noticed a speeding vehicle that cut off some other cars, blared its horn, and gave a very aggressive impression overall. The police officer turned on his patrol car’s sirens and flashers, pulled over the speeding vehicle, and noticed what was stuck to that car/s rear bumper. He promptly arrested and handcuffed the man who was driving and took him to the police station downtown. The man was placed in a holding cell. That was highly unusual for a traffic stop. After a couple of hours, the police officer released the man from his cell and was very apologetic. “I am sorry for what happened, I don’t normally arrest people for traffic violations. But when I saw the fish symbol on the back of your car along with the bumper sticker that said Jesus Loves You,’ I thought you had stolen the car.”

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ? What are the marks of the believer? We can discover these marks by turning to the passage in Exodus. The LORD God of Israel is establishing the feast of the Passover for his people. The elements of the Passover defined God’s people over three thousand years ago, and I would submit they continue to define God’s people today. What are the relevant marks of identification?

First, God’s people are people apart. In verse two, God instructs the Hebrews that they will live according to a different calendar than the surrounding culture. Some of the cultures of the Middle East considered the autumn season to be the start of the year, while others preferred the spring season. But instead of living by a seasonal calendar, God commands his people to live by a theological calendar, meaning that they live by a calendar centered on God’s saving actions for his people.

God also gave his people very specific commands for how they would prepare their Passover meal, from the type of food they would consume (a spotless male lamb or goat), to how it would be prepared, and indeed how it would be disposed of in case any was left. What is amazing about this ritual is that a version of it is practiced by devout Jews to this very day. The feast of the Passover is one of Judaism’s most important occasions.

God also commanded the Hebrews to display a sign of their separateness, which was to show the blood shed from the spotless lambs or goats on their door posts. The Angel of Death would “pass over” them on its way to destroying the first born of the Egyptians. Now, surely God knew who his own were. And yet he commanded the Hebrews to display a mark of their status.

So the separateness of the Hebrews is well established. But in a very important sense, they were also together. The painstaking regulations of the Passover meal were designed to bring the people together. Verses 3 and 4 demonstrate this. Moses was told that the whole community of Israel was to share the meal as households. In other words, individuals were not to eat the meal by themselves. Each household would have one goat or lamb to consume, and if the households were very small (say three people or less), verse four provides for a sharing of the meal with others. Everyone had to eat the meat, and all of the meat was to be consumed, with nothing left by dawn.

Finally, God commanded the Hebrew to be prepared. There is a lot of language concerning the preparation of the meal. This is not something that should be thrown together at the last minute, like throwing a frozen dinner in the oven or microwave. No, the lamb or goat must be chosen days before the meal, and there must be the most careful preparation. But this preparation is so that the Passover Meal can be quickly consumed, and that the Hebrews are to eat with their sandals on their feet, their belts fastened and their belongings packed up. The roasting of the meat over a fire, the use of unleavened bread, and herbs from the field, were all ways of fast preparation. And why? Because the day of deliverance is approaching.

You might be asking yourself what this has to do with you in this day and age. These regulations concern a distant people from over three thousand years ago, after all. The culture was dramatically different than ours. The very language of the Hebrews is impenetrable to most people today (and believe me, I know … I had to take a year of Biblical Hebrew in seminary and was amazed by how alien it seemed.). But the principles set out in this Exodus passage apply to followers of Jesus Christ today.

We are indeed called to be a “separate” people. Now, what does that mean? Like the Hebrews, we can display some symbols of God’s covenant with us. Jesus instituted two visible marks or signs by which we are known as his people. The sacrament of Baptism serves to mark us as Christ’s own. Now, God knows who belongs to him regardless of the outward sign. And yet this public mark of faith is something that sets the families of faith apart from others. The sacrament of communion also sets believers apart, because it is a symbolic and spiritual partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood, a remembrance of his sacrifice for us.

But our separateness does not just have to do with sacraments. It concerns the lives we lead. As followers of Christ, we are called upon to fulfill the law of God. What is the law of God for us? It is not the old Mosaic covenant, but rather the command from Jesus to love the Lord our God with everything we have and everything we are, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is the argument Paul sets out in the passage from Romans. Love fulfills the law. And what is extraordinary about this provision is that it includes everyone. The Christian is called not just to love other Christians, but all people. And that truly would set us apart, if we actually practiced it. It’s extraordinarily difficult. Only Jesus himself perfectly fulfilled it. But it is still what we are called to do.

Just as the Hebrews were a people together, so we are called to be a people together. Again, we can witness that in the way we come together for the Lord’s Supper. That is meant to be a communal activity. So is Baptism. There are exceptions due to emergencies or incapacity, but in the Presbyterian tradition, we generally come together around the Lord’s Table. And I think it is good to come together in other ways, too. We enjoy wonderful fellowship meals and Bible studies and prayer meetings together, united by our common bond in Jesus Christ. And we can fellowship with other believers in Christ beyond the walls of this church. I would submit to you that while our faith is individual in a sense, it is even more communal. Having a relationship with other believers is a vital aspect of our faith. That is why I just cannot affirm that watching a preacher on TV at home (and there are some TV preachers I've been blessed to watch, like Billy Graham and D. James Kennedy) is any substitute for gathering and worshiping with the people of God in the house of God.

Finally, we too care called to be a prepared people. Paul exhorts his listeners to remember that the time of salvation is drawing near. And how better prepared can we be but to live as followers of Jesus Christ? With all due respect to someone like Harold Camping, we cannot, in fact, know exactly when the time of salvation shall come. But it is good to live as if that time were imminent. Living in this way means having a robust faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that changes your life and allows you to act with love towards others.

To Him who showed us the way of faith and love to salvation, Amen.