“Christ Supreme”

This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church (Springfield, SD) on Sunday, June 18, 2017. This sermon serves as the introduction to Emmanuel Reformed’s summer/fall preaching series through the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews

Introducing Hebrews

We know very little about the the author of this letter “To the Hebrews.” We can be fairly sure that the writer isn’t Paul. Paul makes himself known in his letters. The author of Hebrews does not tell us his (or her) name. We don’t know his name, but we do know his heart. The writer of Hebrews is a pastor, one who is deeply familiar with the Old Testament, and with Jesus Christ, and with the concerns and pressures of his audience, the church he’s writing to.

The audience of this letter, “the Hebrews,” are exactly that: Jewish Christians living in and around the city of Rome during the peak of violent persecution against Christians. This is another reason we can be pretty sure the writer isn’t Paul: Paul’s calling and mission was to Gentiles, not to Jewish Christians.

Imagine a house church or small congregation of Jews who have converted to Christianity – maybe were even present in Jerusalem at Pentecost, baptized with the water and the Spirit. These Jewish Christians have the Holy Spirit within them, and a solid understanding of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, but little else. And now they are being persecuted in Rome, racially as Jews and religiously as Christians. Ancient Rome was a pluralist society, meaning that many different cultures – and religions – were practiced and protected equally. That sounds like it should mean that Christians would have been equally safe and free to worship Jesus Christ, but we know that it wasn’t. Christians became Public Enemy Number One in Rome, and for this house church of Jewish Christians, their anxious reaction was to withdraw from the world and from each other, and potentially even to surrender their faith entirely, choosing instead to merely blend in to the world around them. This letter is written to these Christians, to encourage them in the faith and urge them to persevere.

This morning’s reading: Hebrews 1

Christ is Lord

To encourage Christians and assure their faith, the writer of Hebrews holds forth Christ. Specifically, we read here that Christ is God. According to the first verses of this letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is:

  • the inheritor of all things,
  • the creator of all things, and
  • the sustainer of all things.

Christ, the Son of God, has been given all authority over all things by God the Father. That is what we mean when we confess that Christ is Lord. Christ has all authority over all of me, and over all of everything.

This confession in Christ alone is the reason that Christians were so unwelcome and untrusted in pluralist Rome: in a society that insists everyone is free to worship however and whomever they choose, where everyone is equally “tolerated,” the only intolerable person is the one who says they have the right answer for everyone. If Christ is Lord, as all of Scripture says, then Christ is Lord of all. This technically means that Christians today still hold an “intolerant” position, if the dominant alternative narrative is that there is no Truth, only many equally valid belief options. That’s the world’s best solution for human peace on human terms. The best we can do for ourselves as humans is to simply “get along;” and according to the world, the first thing that has to go – if we’re all going to “get along” – is any absolute Truth claims, any position that one person can assert over another. The irony of this pluralism, of course, is that it is itself an absolute Truth claim: “all humans must tolerate and accept all humans equally if there is to be peace; and if you disagree, we can’t tolerate or accept you.” That’s the driving story that our world is still living by.

The writer of Hebrews – Thanks be to God! – has immersed himself in a different story, a story that holds forth real, lasting, substantial peace! Jesus Christ is the full revelation of a new way, the perfect image and imprint of His Father, who is at work in the world to redeem, restore and reconcile the world to Himself.

In Rome, that story was unwelcome. The Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) was threatened by this story of divine peace, found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This house church was therefore under pressure to change their story: “Just say that Jesus was another angel, a created divine being. We have lots of those, and we’ll welcome another!” At the outset of this letter, the writer of Hebrews insists that Christ is far more than any angel, according to the witness of all of the Hebrew Bible; and to say otherwise is to exchange the hard truth for an easy lie. No, the writer of Hebrews offers only Christ as the foundation of our faith, and the reason for our hope.

Christ is our High Priest

In Christ we see God’s solution for peace, peace beyond human understanding. We read in verse 3 a small phrase full of meaning: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Jesus Christ came as our Great High Priest to do what no human priest has ever done before: to offer one sacrifice for all people in all places at all times, that all sin might be washed away forever. Jesus Christ is also that sacrifice, offering his own sinless blood as the perfect atonement for sin, reconciling us to God the Father.

Our story offers us a peace so complete, so perfect, that no danger or threat can shake us. In Christ our Lord, we are brought into right relationship with God the Father almighty; in Christ our Lord, we are also brought into right relationship with all those who also in Christ our Lord. We are adopted as sons and daughters into a spiritual family that transcends and includes all races, all nations, all languages, all peoples. Christ has made peace – true peace – possible. The world’s best hope — apart from Christ — is “keeping the peace.” Christ actively makes peace. This peace we find in Jesus Christ is our hope for this world, and for the world to come.

And that is the main theme of this letter: the Supremacy of Christ. God has made His Son Jesus Christ first and highest over everything, that everything might be restored and renewed and reconciled in Him. We will read this throughout the book of Hebrews, but it’s laid out clearly here: Christ is first, greatest, highest, Ruler and Reconciler of all.

And with Christ, our Lord and our Savior, so highly exalted, our peace and our hope is sure. We will see throughout this Letter to the Hebrews how we are therefore called to persevere in hope, knowing that our Lord Jesus Christ is not only our Savior in the past, and our Lord for the future, but also our Priest in the present, praying even now for us at the right hand of God the Father. Thanks be to God for the precious gift of His Son for us, and for our salvation. Amen!

“God’s Law for God’s People”

This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017, at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD. I draw heavily in this sermon from the Heidelberg Catechism‘s treatment of the 10 Commandments, often quoting Questions & Answers 94-115.

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 19:1-20:21

God gave His people His Spirit to empower us to righteousness and obedience.

In the resurrection of Jesus, we are set free from our slavery to sin; in the coming of His Spirit, we are empowered and guided toward the Promised Land of righteousness.

The Israelites received this guidance at the mountain of God, where God gathered His people to Himself, and gave them a framework for their new life together as God’s chosen people, His kingdom of priests to the world. In these ten commands, God lays out the full vision of how His people will live in this world so that His name goes forth to all the nations.

And because we are Easter People, who stand in the revelation of Christ’s resurrection life, we see here in these Commandments first: the fullness of our failure to live up to this holy standard in our own strength; second: the depth of our need for Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins and for our righteousness; and third: that “we may never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.” (HC Q&A 115)

That perfection, to which we have been called and for which we aim and strive, is always just beyond our grasp in this life. That’s why this sermon series doesn’t go all the way to Canaan, but ends here at Sinai. We will not be fully perfect as God is perfect until we stand in His glory at the last Day, made like Him in His glory. Knowing this, some may come to believe that God, in giving us these impossible Commandments, is – at worst – cursing us, and – at best – mocking us. But God did not give His people these commands to curse or mock them. God had a great purpose for His chosen people, and He gave the Law as a gift to protect and equip them for that purpose. But sin warped humanity toward disobedience, making God’s good Law impossible for us.

That’s why the Jews received God’s Law in terror, knowing how fully they were unable to keep these Commandments. They were so afraid of breaking covenant with God that they added 600-some additional human laws to “fence” the Commandments, so that they would never even almost break any of the Commandments.

But in Christ we have been made free from the terror that God may reject us:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:1-4

The Holy Spirit has renovated our hearts, replacing our hearts of dead stone with hearts of living flesh (Ezekiel 36:26-27). And as we walk in the new life and the freedom of the Holy Spirit of the Risen Christ, our whole lives are transformed from the inside out to more and more live the life that God calls us and empowers us to live. Through His Holy Spirit alive in us,

God infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant. God activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds.

The Canons of Dort, Points III/IV, article 11

In giving us Christ’s Spirit, God gives us power to love Him with all of who we are.

More than merely not worshipping other created things in place of their Creator, God frees us to “rightly know the only true God, trust Him alone, and look to God for every good thing humbly and patiently” (HC Q&A 94).

More than merely not depicting a physical appearance for God, “God wants the Christian community instructed by the living preaching of His Word” (HC Q&A 98), that together we all come more and more to reflect the spiritual presence of God to the world.

More than merely not using God’s covenant name casually or flippantly, God brings us to “use the holy name of God only with reverence and awe, so that we may properly confess God, pray to God, and glorify God in all our words and works” (HC Q&A 99).

More than merely not working on Sundays, and anxiously attempting to define what counts as work and what doesn’t, God leads us to receive the Sabbath as a gift that helps us to live into our true calling: “That every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath” (HC Q&A 103).

In giving us Christ’s Spirit, God gives us power to love each other creatively, proactively, and selflessly.

More than merely “honoring” our parents, and getting along with those we have to, God through His Spirit empowers us “to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them” (HC Q&A 107).

More than merely not stealing from others, God is making us “to protect [our neighbors] from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies” (HC Q&A 107).

More than merely not breaking our marriage covenants, God is compelling us to “live decent and chaste lives, within or outside of the holy state of marriage” (HC Q&A 108), because “We are temples of the Holy Spirit, body and soul, and God wants both to be kept clean and holy” (HC Q&A 109).

More than merely not killing or even hating others, Christ’s resurrection life frees us and motivates us to “Do whatever [we] can for [our] neighbor’s good,” and to “work faithfully so that [we] may share with those in need” (HC Q&A 111).

More than merely not lying, or speaking poorly of others, God’s Spirit is working in us, bringing us to “love the truth, speak it candidly, and openly acknowledge it,” and to “do what [we] can to guard and advance [our] neighbor’s good name” (HC Q&A 112).

More than merely not envying others’ possessions or relationships, the Spirit has given us new hearts that “take pleasure in whatever is right” (HC Q&A 113), so that our desires become tuned to God’s desires.

Christ’s Spirit brings us to obey, not out of fear, but out of love.

Yes, truly, God’s Holy Spirit alive in us is at work to bring us to full obedience, not in order that we might earn our salvation for ourselves, but so that we might embrace the fullness of new life that we have received in Christ Jesus, and walk in God’s ways for His honor and glory. We obey not out of fear, but out of love.

Brothers and sisters, let us continue this new-life journey together, keeping in step with the Spirit who has written God’s Law on our regenerated hearts (Ezekiel 36:24-28, Jeremiah 31:33-34), and is even now making our lives “a small beginning of this obedience” (HC Q&A 114). And knowing the greatness of our need for Him, let us come again to receive the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken and poured out for us, remembering always that this forgiveness and righteousness is never our own doing, but always God working His will in us. And let this holy feast nourish your spirits to persevere in the newness of life that is ours in Christ Jesus, and “Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you…for God gave us a Spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:6-7). Amen!

“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.

“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