“The Nature of God’s People”

This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Memorial Sunday, May 28, 2017. 

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 18

It is not uncommon or even surprising that after not too long on this wilderness journey from freedom into freedom, we become weary. We have already seen mirrored in Israel’s exodus from Egypt how quickly we can become weary of the challenges we face from a world that opposes us; but this morning we see in Moses how we also become weary within ourselves, frustrated when this new-life journey begins to lose its original energy and urgency.

Moses is tired. He has been journeying with these people now for three months, and he has faced every challenge that they have: he fled from the Egyptians, hungered and thirsted in the wilderness, and fought against the Amalekites; he has been living on manna and quail only, just like all of God’s people. And Moses has handled the added stress of leading God’s people through these challenges, working to model for the people courageous faith and radical obedience to God while enduring their constant complaints. No wonder Moses is exhausted! We can see how God has been using all of these challenges and difficulties to draw Moses into deeper relationship with Himself for the sake of the God’s people, but we also see in these verses how weariness and frustration has driven Moses away from fellowship with God’s people.

Christ has made us a community of grace and truth to sustain, encourage, and challenge each other on our new-life journey.

As this episode opens, Moses finds comfort and encouragement in the company of his family. Moses finds his soul refreshed when his wife, sons, and father-in-law come to him in the wilderness. Jethro, his father-in-law, makes a clear effort to ask about Moses’ wellbeing, listens to Moses’ testimony of the powerful grace of God at work, and rejoices with Moses in all the great works that God has done for Moses and His people.

We have been given an incredible gift in the resurrection of Jesus Christ: we have been made to share in Christ’s righteousness, we are assured of eternal life to come, and we are brought into mystery of abundant life in the present. This is Easter’s good news for our whole lives!

But as we receive that righteousness and new life, and strive to persevere in it, we tend – like Moses – to focus solely on our relationship with Jesus, and think of our relationships with each other as optional, because those relationships with other Christians are often inconvenient and messy. The world wearies us, yes, but so do our conflicts with other Christians. And so we believe the lie that we should be able to walk this new-life journey alone, that it would be easier alone.

Like Moses, there may be moments when we are nearly overcome by our weariness, our isolation, and our frustration. But we need other Christians – those who are in Christ as we are in Christ – to support us and encourage us. Christ did not die and rise again to save individuals; Christ’s mission is the whole world, and He has always been at work to build a new community in the world for the sake of the world. So Christ has set us on the new-life journey together; it would be the worst kind of foolishness to attempt to live the fullness of new life that Christ has won for us in His death and resurrection, without the help and the support and care of the community that bears His name.

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s people are “called out” of the world, and united to one another.

As that new people, we are defined both by our relationship with the world around us, and by our relationship with the God who calls us. Moses saw this so clearly, that he named his two sons as reminders of that identity:

Moses named his first son “Sojourner.” Like Moses, God’s people are sojourners in a foreign land. We are not at home here. Just as Israel was not at home in Egypt, or in the wilderness, we do not belong in the world as it is now. We must not side with the forces and factions of this world. We must not define ourselves by the world’s categories. The Greek word for “church” is EKKLESIA, which literally means, “called out ones.” In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been “called out” of this world and its patterns.

As resurrection people, however, we are to be in this world as a seed of what the world will become. God created the world good, and created humankind in His own image, but sin has marred the world and all its creatures. People can still look at creation and see the fingerprints of its Creator, but only as “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), and only with the help of the Holy Spirit that is continuing the mission of God through us. Part of God’s unseen purpose for Israel in bringing them out of Egypt and through the wilderness is that the world would hear about this strange people, and the incredible things that God was doing for them, and come to believe that God was the God above all gods. The Church is the new creation of the Spirit, made to bear not just the name, but also the image of Christ in the world. We do not belong in this world, and yet we the Church are placed within the world as a sign of the resurrection that awaits all things, the newness of life that will come when Christ returns to finally and fully restore and reconcile all things to God our Father.

Moses names his second son “God’s-Help”. Like Moses, we must daily remember that God is our help. When this new-life journey through the world seems to turn to wandering, and the mission becomes too big to bear on our own, we remember that we have the Maker of heaven and earth on our side. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). Even when we bear immense burdens of grief or worry or conflict, God stands ready to help us. The power of Christ’s resurrection has been placed within each of us through the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Where Israel had the presence of God among them in the cloud, we have that same power and presence within our very bodies! The assurance of this is graciously given to us in the waters of baptism! This incredible gift of Christ’s Holy Spirit comes to us and is made ours in the sacrament of baptism, where God enacts His promises to us, and seals them to us.

God alone is our help. But, like Moses, as we grow in our relationship with God, we come to discover that God’s help comes to us through the gracious words and actions of others. God has sown His Spirit within me, and within you, and within all who are in Christ Jesus; that “participation in the Spirit” (Philippians 2:1) unites all of us into Christ’s body; and that Spirit is bearing its fruit in us, and equipping us with gifts for the building up of the Church in our mission to the world. Just as we can see how God gives us His help through those who love us and care for us, we also must be ready to be God’s help to those who are hurting, weary, or anxious.

As God’s people, we all serve each other using our unique gifts, as living reminders of God’s grace to us, encouraging each other in resurrection unity.

Moses is comforted by his family, but Moses is drained and burdened by the people of Israel. As God’s chosen mediator to His people, Moses is called to bring God’s Word to God’s People, and to bring the cares and concerns of God’s people into God’s presence. But somewhere in the wilderness, Moses lost sight of that calling, and instead he has fallen into the habit of hearing and bearing Israel’s cares and concerns himself, all the while becoming more and more emotionally distant from and drained by the people God has called him to lead. Jethro sees clearly how this is not good for Moses or for Israel, how they will wear themselves out with this. He confronts Moses about leading alone, and challenges Moses to share that leadership with the people, according to their gifts, so that Moses and all the people could fulfill their unique callings together.

We who are in Christ are called to live this new life together, and Christ has taught us to live together in mutual encouragement and hard-won peace, in such a way that demonstrates the risen Christ to the world around us. Christ himself prayed this for us:

“I do not ask for [my friends] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that You have sent me. The glory that You have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and You in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent me and loved them even as You loved me.”

John 17:20-23

The unity of the Church in the world proclaims Christ to the world; but the opposite is just as true: the division of the Church hides Christ from the world. If Christ Himself prayed that we, His body on earth, would be one, how can we imagine that Christ is pleased when we hold ourselves away from each other, whatever the reason? Friends, we are strong in Christ together, because we each have been given gifts to build up, encourage, and support each other on this new-life journey. Do not give up or turn away or distance yourselves from each other, when God has specifically joined us together in Christ. And strive to work out your unique calling and gift for the life of the church, and use it to build up the body. God is at work in the world for His mission, and it is an incomprehensible mystery that God chooses to work for His mission through us, His people.

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“Victory From God”

This is a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Sunday, May 21, 2017.

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 17:8-16

Our new life in Christ sets us against the grain of the world.

In Christ’s resurrection from the dead, we are given sure proof of God’s great victory over sin and death, and of our freedom from everything in us that is bent towards sin and death. We are free, journeying to freedom.

But our enemy wants us back. The grave will not give back its dead without a fight. Our past selves will strive to keep their hold on us. The Amalekites were devoted to the destruction of God’s people, Israel. In the same way, there are forces at work in this world that resent and resist the freedom that God has given us! The grain of this world – that God created good – has become warped toward death in rebellion against its Creator. When Christ willingly offered himself up to death, and then conquered that death in his resurrection, we became new creations with Christ, set against the grain of this fallen world. The very grain of the world resists us as we journey into freedom in Christ, along with the more aggressive rebellion of our own sinful selves still kicking and screaming to exert themselves, and of “[our] adversary, the devil,” who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

Take heart, Easter People: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Israel had faced the wrath of the Egyptians and the terror of the Red Sea, impossible hunger and incredible thirst in the vast wilderness, and now the attack of an ages-old enemy. And God gave them the victory.

The victory that is ours in Christ’s death and resurrection is ours now, but we know that our enemies are still at work. God defeats the Amalekites here, but the Amalekites continue to attack and torment the Israelites for generations. Christ’s hand is on the throne, and He reigns absolutely, but the enemies of sin, self, and the devil are not yet fully defeated. And so we are called to battle.

God’s victory frees us to be vulnerable with each other in His presence.

When God calls His people to fight, he calls Moses to the top of a nearby hill to pray, interceding for Israel with arms outstretched. We saw last week how God invited Moses to make himself vulnerable, exposing himself to the anger of the Israelites, and God did the same, making Himself vulnerable and open to Moses; and the Israelites were saved. We see the same thing this morning: Moses vulnerably displays his physical weakness in this challenging posture of prayer. And when he can no longer hold his arms up himself, he asks for help. And in this simple act of vulnerable prayer, the Israelites are saved.

It is one thing to practice being fully vulnerable to God in our prayers when we are alone; it is another thing altogether to practice being fully vulnerable to God in prayer with others.

We resist and reject vulnerability as a people, and consequently, we are more anxious, more alone, and more addicted than any other generation ever. We experience the world as more terrifying, more divided, and more hostile every day, and our natural reaction is to defend ourselves, or to numb ourselves, or to close ourselves off. But God has already conquered the world in Christ. God calls us, then, to live into that victory against the grain of this world, against the grain of our own sinful selves, and to experience the reality of His complete victory in the most unexpected, surprising way. Rather than barricade ourselves in our homes or our church, and take up arms against the world, God calls us out of our self-made security, and invites us to be vulnerable with each other in His presence. That’s what we see Moses doing here; and, even more, that’s what we see Jesus doing his whole life with us on earth.

If Christ is truly alive, and if Christ is true to his word that he is with us where two or three are gathered (Matthew 18:20), then any time we are with each other, we are in the presence of the Risen Christ, who knows our whole hearts. When we hide from each other, or posture with each other, or close ourselves off from each other, we also close ourselves off from Christ. This must not be. When you pray with others – the church, a small group, your family, a few close friends, or as a couple – you enter into the presence of the Risen Christ together. That same Christ has died to set you free, and has risen from the dead as a guarantee of your complete freedom from sin and shame. When we pray together with that victory of Christ in our hearts and minds, our prayers take on a new quality. We can pray boldly, with courage and confidence, without fear or doubt or reservations. We can also pray with quiet humility, recognizing that Christ is on the throne, and we are not; we do not know best what we need, and we do not know best what others need, but God who knows us and loves us does, and we can humbly bring ourselves and each other into Christ’s presence, trusting that God will continue to take care of all our needs according to His great wisdom and power.

As we practice this kind of prayer, our hearts and lives change from the inside out. The more we become aware of the power of Christ’s Spirit within us, praying always on our behalf, and the more we join our spirits with Christ’s Spirit in that kind of quiet, confident, vulnerable prayer together, the more we will become the new people that Christ is calling us and leading us to become: a people for his own possession, a people who reflect his presence and purpose to the fallen, groaning world, and a people of priests, bringing not only ourselves into God’s presence, but others as well, others who need to experience the God’s power to redeem, restore, and reconcile all things to Himself through Christ.

Therefore:

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

Ephesians 6:13-18, The Message

“Water from the Rock”

This is a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Sunday, May 14, 2017. Though I preached this on Mother’s Day, this is not a sermon specifically for mothers; that being said, I pray mothers will find “good news” in this passage of Scripture, and this sermon.

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 17:1-7

When Christ our Lord was raised from death, and walked out of His tomb in glory, a new kind of life was revealed on this earth: a life that was dazzling in its purity, and impervious to death and fatigue. And, grace upon grace!, this newness of life that we see in the Risen Christ has been shared with us, made accessible to us, as we live in Christ. It’s the simplest prayer we pray when we begin our life-long journey in Christ, that we ask the Risen Lord Jesus into our hearts. And through His Holy Spirit, Christ answers, and His impossible Life takes up residence within us.

At that moment that Christ began to abide in you through His Holy Spirit, God began to accomplish His mission in your life – to redeem, restore, and reconcile you (and all things) to Himself. At that moment, you also began to abide in Christ, as He led you out of our own personal Egypts, your slavery to the stain of sin, the tyranny of the devil, and the patterns of this world.

And it may be, then, that, like the Israelites, who had experienced that same kind of deliverance from evil and slavery at the hands of our faithful and powerful God, we find newness of life to be mostly difficult. The Israelites were literally starting over: they had only what they could carry with them as they journeyed through a barren and challenging wilderness, following daily the real presence of God on earth, a pillar of fire and cloud, with whom they could communicate through their God-appointed intermediary, Moses. If you examine your experience of this new life in Christ, it maybe hasn’t felt like perfect peace and rest; maybe you’ve found that new life in Christ has felt more like dry, weary wandering in harsh landscapes of God’s distant silence. Many Christians today might say as much. For that reason, I think it’s true what G. K. Chesterton wrote:

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

But if you have tried, if you have truly set out on this journey toward the goal – the complete salvation that awaits us in the Risen Christ when He returns, and we shall finally and fully be made like Him: fully human, perfectly reflecting God’s glory, completely reconciled to God and to each other – then hear Israel’s story at the Rock, where God poured Himself out to His people in extravagant, self-giving love, as your peace and your encouragement this morning.

God leads us to dry, desolate places to bring us to Himself.

God leads His chosen, beloved people to a place where there is no water, once again placing them in an impossible situation — beyond what they can bear — in order to see whether or not they will look to Him, for whom all things are possible. We see that they do not. Rather than learn from their past experiences in the wilderness and come to God in faith, they do what they always do when they get anxious: they complain. They blame Moses of poor leadership. And this time, they go so far as to threaten to stone Moses if he does not make water appear in the desert.

Of course, when we find ourselves in impossible circumstances, we also tend to react in predictable patterns, and those patterns are rarely patient, reasonable, or constructive. The experiences of Israel are recorded here for us as a negative example: see what these people did, and do differently! Instead of reacting anxiously and angrily and violently to impossible circumstances, choose to respond differently. We can read this story and shake our heads, because we can see that the Israelites obviously should have prayed. God’s presence was plainly visible to them in the cloud; why did they not simply ask God for what they needed? He had already provided for them in the wilderness; why would they not have the faith to trust Him to provide for them again? But if we rebuke the Israelites for their little faith, then we must also rebuke ourselves. As we journey together on this difficult, dry journey into new life in Christ, how often do we find ourselves in our own impossible circumstances, and react in the same faithless patterns? Do we not also do everything we can in our own power first, complaining and blaming all the while, and only think to pray as a last resort?

The test of faith we find here in this story is to structure our lives, now that they have been renewed in the resurrection of Christ Jesus, to anticipate the obstacles ahead of us on this new life journey – the temptations and difficulties and burdens that we know we will face – and to endure those dry places with prayerful perseverance.

Prayer is our first and greatest resource in our new life.

God answers the needs of the Israelites dramatically. Where Moses is afraid of the people’s violent anger against him, God calls Moses to make himself vulnerable, and expose himself to their anger by walking calmly before the people, showing them what radical faith looks like. And God does the same! He tells Moses that He will stand on the Rock, so that when Moses strikes it with his staff, it will be God Himself who is struck, and He will pour Himself out to provide for the needs of His people. This is a shocking picture of prayer. God invites us to come to Him, making ourselves vulnerable, exposing our need and our insufficiency and our fear; and God promises to meet us in prayer with that same vulnerability, making Himself open to all of who we are: our anger, our doubt, our fear, our accusations. God is not threatened or afraid of your emotions; He stands ready to meet with you in your need. And He will answer your every need out of His own infinite riches.

The journey into Christ-likeness is not guaranteed to be easy. Quite the opposite. You are being invited to live an impossibly good life in a world that is committed to destroying itself. If you agree, and you set out on this journey anew each morning, you will experience dry places of want surrounded by people who are satisfying themselves on the things of this world; you will experience lonely places surrounded by people who seem to experiencing connection and belonging in the broken systems of this world; you will experience vulnerable places of exposure surrounded by people making themselves seem strong and successful and impervious to danger. And in those dry, lonely, vulnerable places, God is with you, abiding in you through His Holy Spirit, and He invites you to abide in Him, and He will satisfy your soul.

If it is true of you that “The Christian ideal” – the Risen Christ Himself – “has not been tried,” because “It has been found difficult;” then I can only say that it is the difficult things in this life that are most worth doing. I offer you, as encouragement and exhortation, the testimony of the Apostle Paul:

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers [and sisters], I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 

Philippians 3:7-14

Brothers and sisters, “press on toward the goal” – the promised land of resurrection from the dead in the coming kingdom of the Risen Christ Jesus. Press on, drawing your life from the Rock, who is Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). As you do – abiding in Christ as Christ abides in you, the dry and desperate world will see and know that the Risen and reigning Lord is truly among us.

“Bread from Heaven”

This is a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Sunday, May 7, 2017. 

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 16

 

According to the earliest Church thinkers, the Reformed theologians, and Scripture itself, Israel’s exodus journey out of Egypt into Canaan is an analogy for our journey away from the tyranny of sin and the devil, toward growth and spiritual transformation. And just as God Himself led Israel in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, God in Christ is leading us away from our old selves, which were bound to sin, and He is bringing us to Himself. And just as Israel had to wander through the rugged, inhospitable wilderness to reach their promised land, God leads us in the midst of a world that is harsh and hostile to us as we live our new lives in Christ.

In Christ, the God of heaven is our loving Father, and He desires our ultimate good.

After the initial excitement of the journey wears off, this process of renewal can be overshadowed by weariness and grumbling. Without a clear vision of the destination, the goal toward which we are striving, it can be tempting to do as the Israelites did, and long for what’s behind. After a month of walking through the desert, the Israelites had fully exhausted what little provisions they had managed to bring in their fly-by-night exodus from Egypt. And instead of looking ahead to the glorious presence of God in their midst, in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, they look back, romanticizing their slavery. They remember longingly how they filled themselves with meat and bread, but they’ve completely forgotten the back-breaking slavery under which they languished and lamented, longing to be delivered. Instead, they see that deliverance is too hard, too costly, and now wish instead that God had simply killed them in Egypt.

But God sees the bigger picture, and knows what His people really need most. If Israel had stayed in Egypt, suffering under what they remember as a comfortable misery, then the whole world would have been left in darkness and death forever. God was working through Israel to bring about not only their salvation, but the salvation of the whole world. Israel had to become the nation it did, so that out of its descendants, Jesus of Nazareth could be born, and the entire world could be delivered from its slavery to sin.

God Himself is our ultimate good, and He is working to draw us to Himself.

In the death of Jesus, God’s own Son, our sin and death were defeated. In the resurrection of Jesus, His life was made ours. In the events of Easter, Jesus fulfilled what He said He came to do:

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

John 10:10

That abundant life is ours in Christ, the Risen and Living Lord. Of course, we have a particular vision of “abundance,” just as Israel did. Freedom from slavery, to them, meant comfort and ease; instead, they find themselves camping as refugees in the desert, starving. They cry out, and God listens, and feeds them manna, bread from heaven. The entire desert becomes God’s bakery, producing flakes of sweet grain for His people to eat.

God saw the hunger of His people, and provided an impossible solution. In the same way, God saw the great spiritual need of the world, and provided an impossible solution, “the bread of life” (John 6:35), Jesus Christ, God’s own Son made flesh. Christ himself told his disciples:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

John 6:32-33

God sent the manna to the Israelites to sustain them in their desert journey from slavery to their new life. But to sustain us on our spiritual journey from our old lives of captivity to our new lives in Christ, God gave us so much more than manna. God gave us Himself: the one thing we truly need to live, what we most desire in our heart of hearts, the relationship for which we were created. And in Christ that hunger is filled. The risen Christ comes to us anew this morning, and reveals himself to us through the gifts of Word and sacrament, to fill us and strengthen us for our journey together into God.

Easter people, do not long for your old lives of sin and death. Look ahead to the new life that is growing in you through Christ’s death and resurrection. And find here at the Lord’s Table the abundant life of God, offered fully to you this morning. Just as manna was not meant to sustain God’s people forever, but only on their journey to the promised land, in the same way, the sacrament of communion is not what we will eat forever, but only this side of eternity. This holy meal is a sign of the feast of love that Christ is preparing for us even now, the wedding feast of the Lamb for which we wait with anxious hope. As we wait, Christ himself is the host of this meal, and He invites you to receive Him in faith and in hope as everything you need for life – true life, abundant life.