“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.

“Through the Sea”

This Morning’s Passage:

Exodus 14

“[Spiritual cleansing] does not happen by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan.”

~ from Belgic Confession Article 34: “the Sacrament of Baptism”

God uses baptism to start us on a new life, washing away the past.

Last week, we saw in Israel’s exodus from Egypt that our journey into our new life in Christ typically begins with a crisis of decision that compels us to make a fresh start with urgency and confidence. That journey will prove challenging. We are being called to live a new kind of life that is so out of place in this world, and so against the ways of this world, that we will be frequently faced with the opposition and animosity of others. Jesus showed us this in his life, as he endured the hatred of the world against his radically new kind of life. And Jesus told us that that same hatred would be aimed at us when we left behind the ways of the world and lived instead Christ’s new kind of life. Jesus even went so far to say that we are blessed “when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely” on account of Jesus (Matthew 5:11).

We can only persevere under that kind of enmity for so long on our own. Our individual reservoirs of will and intention and resolve will be exhausted all the sooner, the greater the danger appears to us. Like Israel, our fear and anxiety will convince us that this fledgling new life is not worth the world’s hatred, and we will quickly come to think that it would be better for us to go back to living like the rest of the world.

Of course that is not true. We have been transplanted from the slavery of darkness and death into the marvelous light of eternal life. It would be the worst kind of foolishness to exchange life for death. Therefore, God has made a way to separate us from the death of our past life, while at the same time filling us with a reservoir of grace and power and will that will never run out, because it’s filled with His Spirit of life. That way is baptism.

The sacrament of baptism marks the end of our previous life of slavery and darkness. In baptism, the Spirit of God brings us to share in Christ’s crucifixion, so that our sinful self “with its sinful practices” (Colossians 3:9) is no more. The sacrament of baptism then also marks the beginning of our new life of freedom and obedience. In baptism, the Spirit of God brings us to share in Christ’s resurrection, so that our “new self” is born, and we begin to be “renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10) Jesus Christ.

Just as it would be impossible for the people of Israel to go back to Egypt after miraculously crossing the Red Sea by God’s grace, in the same way it is impossible for us to return to a life ruled by sin after we have been baptized. There is no going back.

God uses baptism to make us a new people in the world, a family of faith.

And if that’s all baptism does, it would be enough. But something more happens in the waters of baptism, just as it happened at the Red Sea. Remember that when the Hebrews left Egypt by night, they were a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38). That means that some Egyptians had come along. Maybe they had come to believe in the Lord God through the Israelites’ worship and witness. Maybe they had seen the Israelites painting their doorposts with the blood of the lamb, and fearful of the last plague, decided to do the same to save themselves and their family. Or maybe they had decided last minute to join the exodus with these strange and powerful people. Whatever the cause, God’s chosen people have set out on this journey home with strangers and aliens in their midst. But once they cross the Red Sea, they are no longer “a mixed multitude,” but “the people of Israel” (Exodus 14:29), God’s chosen people.

In the same way, the sacrament of baptism shows us that God’s covenant promises create a new people in the world. If it is true that each of us who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection leave behind the ways of the world and start a new life, then it is also true that all of us who have started a new life in Christ are bound up together into a new people, no longer of this world. Where the people of Israel were bound together as God’s covenant people by their ancestor Abraham’s blood, we are bound together by our forgiveness in Christ’s blood; where Israel was bound together by the sign of circumcision that showed them God’s favor, Christ has given us the fulfillment of that ancient sign, and we are bound together – male and female – by the sign of baptism, which shows us that God is our good Father in Christ.

When we celebrate Christian baptism together, we hear anew God’s covenant promises to us as our good Father, that He will continue to be faithful to us, to forgive our sins, and to renew us by His Holy Spirit. We also make strong promises of our own, promises to be faithful to each other as the family of faith. In baptism, we who are baptized become a kingdom-shaped community that bears witness to the truth of our living Lord Christ together. Our relationships of mutual encouragement and accountability become sacramental – empowered with the potential to bear and display the real presence of Christ to the world. Our authentic relationships of forgiveness and reconciliation become living testimonies to the forgiveness that has been given to us. Even immense personal differences are overcome in unity of baptism; because we have been brought through the sea, the truest thing about us now is Christ. In Christ alone we find our capacity to stand in fellowship with strangers, aliens, and even enemies.

God uses baptism throughout our whole life, to renew us by His Holy Spirit.

The sacrament of baptism marks us as Christ’s own as individuals, and incorporates us into the faith family of Christ’s Church in all space and time, and unites us to this particular expression of the faith family in this place, at this time. But the water of baptism does not carry the power of salvation in itself; the font is filled with ordinary water. The water of baptism is a temporary, visible sign that signifies the eternal, invisible grace of God at work in our souls by the Holy Spirit to renew us and purify us. Even though the water dries from our skin, the spiritual mark of baptism endures on our soul throughout our whole life.

Our public Profession of Faith is a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life, where we acknowledge publicly the promises of God made to us in our baptism, and we choose to answer those promises with our own promises of faithfulness and obedience, committing ourselves to this particular Christian faith family for mutual encouragement and accountability, so that we all might continue to grow in grace and truth.

Christian weddings can be seen as a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life: a husband and wife recognize publicly that God’s covenant faithfulness goes before them as they make their covenant promises to each other, to be faithful and loving to each other the same way that Christ is faithful and loving to His bride, the Church.

Christian funerals are a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life. Because in baptism we have already died to sin and death, we have all comfort, for ours is the promise of the full victory Christ has won for us. Even in our grief, we can stand on the words of Scripture:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

~ 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, cf. Isaiah 25:8, Hosea 13:14

Because the covenant promises of God made to us in baptism are sure, a Christian’s death is not fearful or futile; for, like Paul:

“I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

~ Romans 8:38-39

And in and through and among the baptisms, and Professions of Faith, and weddings, and funerals, we have a second sacrament that ties directly to the sacrament of baptism. The sacrament of communion is the continuation of the baptismal covenant! Where in baptism we have been adopted into the family of faith, so that we are now called children of God, in communion we are fed at God’s table the visible sign of His invisible grace. The Lord is the host of this holy feast, and all who are baptized into Christ Jesus are welcome at His table, if we are fully living into our new lives in Christ, made ours through the grace-filled waters of baptism. All who are truly sorry for their sins, and are eagerly striving to live the new life of righteousness, will find at Christ’s table grace upon grace, and will be strengthened by His body, the bread, and His blood, the cup, to continue more and more to live the holy and blameless lives Christ has won for us in His death and resurrection, and made ours in the gift of baptism.

“Renewing the Covenant” – Ezra

This morning is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, and we’re wrapping up our sermon series “A Priest Forever,” looking at Old Testament priests and how they point forward to Jesus Christ, our High Priest. This morning we consider Ezra, one of the last great priests before Jesus Christ’s arrival.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah might not be too familiar to you. They’re separate books in our Bibles, but in the Hebrew Bible they are placed together. Ezra-Nehemiah tells the story of Israel’s restoration. After the appointed time in exile, God stirred the spirits of the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, to give His people favor with these kings, and He did it through men like Daniel, and women like Esther. These kings allowed the Jews to return, to rebuild the city walls and the temple. As they left, God also stirred the spirits of their Babylonian neighbors, and they gave the Jews gifts of gold and silver to use in the restoration. As God’s people arrived at Jerusalem, they began to rebuild their faith first, celebrating the religious festivals again. The priests who came with them started to offer sacrifices again to restore the people’s covenant relationship with God. They rebuilt the temple together, and dedicated it with worship and sacrifice and celebration. But they needed someone to organize and lead these spiritual reforms:

[Read Nehemiah 7:5-10, 9:1-38, 10:28-29]

The Law of God

Ezra is lifted up to us as a man who loved God’s Law. He desired to study it and to obey it, and to teach others to also study it and obey it. And God’s people are in a spiritual state where they are ready and eager to be led by such a man. Ezra and the other priests are asked by the people to regularly stand in public spaces throughout Jerusalem and spend half the day or more reading from God’s Law, the Hebrew “TORAH,” the first five books of our Bible. Now, if I stood reading the first five books of the Bible, and told everyone to come, you might show up, and you would maybe stay through Genesis and Exodus, but as soon as I got to Leviticus, you’d all go home. But God’s people are so eager to hear again what God requires of them that they all come out and stand listening for hours at a time. and they are so cut to the heart by what is read to them that they spend weeks lamenting their sins, wearing rough clothing made from sackcloth and putting ashes on their heads to physically remind them of their spiritual misery.

As Christians, ones in whom the risen and living Christ dwells and delights, we have a complicated relationship with the Old Testament Law. On the one hand, we believe that the commandments and statutes and stories are God’s Word for us and for our salvation; but on the other hand, we have Christ – the Word of God made flesh – living in us through the Holy Spirit, so God’s Law is written on our hearts. That tension in us Christians living in the 21st century is what makes Ezra’s story so compelling to me. Here is a man who loves God’s Law, what many of us find to be antiquated, confusing, and constrictive. Ezra loves it so much that he desires with all his heart to study it, to do it, and to teach it. Where we find a list of meaningless rules, Ezra finds a record of God’s goodness and faithfulness.

The Love of God

The Law of God read correctly reveals to us God’s covenant faithfulness. It also reflects back to us our own faithlessness: all our sinfulness, our shortcomings, our stumblings. Knowing God is holy reminds us that we are sinful; but remembering God is faithful draws us to Him in repentance. No one loves reading Leviticus or Deuteronomy, because we get lost in the ancientness of it, confused about what it means for us in 2016. But the story that is told in those first five books – creation, covenant, deliverance, provision – shows God’s tender compassion and infinite mercy for His people precisely when we are lost in sin. That is why, when God’s people are weeping for their sins, humbling themselves before their holy God, Ezra tells them the story of God at work in their lives and the lives of their fathers and mothers, all the way back to the beginning.

Ezra simply tells them their story. God, in His love, made all things good, and made us in His image to take care of those good things, and to enjoy them with Him. We rebelled. God, in His love, made a covenant with Abraham to begin building a people for Himself through whom He would someday redeem and restore and reconcile all things to Himself. That family that God chose wasn’t perfect, and they got lost. God, in His love, went and found them – over and over again – to bring them back to Himself, so that He could work His full salvation through them someday. Ezra didn’t know how that story would end. We do! We live after Christmas, after Good Friday, after Easter Sunday! We have seen how God’s Story is fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ, born as a human baby into this broken, stiff-necked, peculiar family, to save the whole world from the crippling, corrupting power of sin.

That story now belongs to all of us. This isn’t just the story of one small tribe of people living in the Middle East thousands of years ago. God’s plan was to redeem, restore, and reconcile all things, so He sent His Son Jesus for all of us. This story now belongs to all of us. God’s love has reached us, here, in 2016, because His new, renewed covenant of love has been opened to include all who receive Christ Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

So when guilt and shame grab hold of you, accusing you of the sin in your lives, you need an Ezra to come and tell you the story again: God is good and faithful and loving, and He has done for you what you could not do for yourselves, so you could receive what you could not earn on your own. Sin has no power here: you are new creations in His Son Jesus Christ. Live like it. And when you see each other, or your neighbors, or your family members, stuck in their sin, be an Ezra, and tell them the story: This is who we are now because of Christ, not that dead, sin-stained shell you were; Be who you are.

The Priest of God

This is the story that Ezra and all the priests tell God’s people, to comfort them and to call them to new obedience and renewed covenant faithfulness. But notice how they tell the story. The priests weren’t talking to the people. They were talking to God. They prayed their story with God to God, to remind themselves and God that this is how the story goes. It is as if the priests are reminding God – when they need Him to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast – that God has promised to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast. They are calling God to be now who He has been before, and who He has promised to be always.

That is a bold prayer. That is a priestly prayer. That is the kind of prayer that Jesus Christ is offering for us all, for you, even now, before the throne of God above. When it feels like God’s not listening, or like He’s far away from you, remember: the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is standing in the throne room of heaven, holding out his nail-pierced hands to His Father, saying, “This is what We do. We save them.” And the Spirit alive in us agrees, praying with groans too deep for words. And God remembers. And we remember: God is faithful, and good, and merciful, and He keeps covenant with us, not for our sake, but because it is His desire that none should perish, but that all might be redeemed, renewed, and reconciled to Him.

Thanks be to God!