Tuesday, May 23, 2017

“The Unknown God,” Acts 17.16-31, Easter 6A, May ’17

1.       Please pray with me.  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.  The message from God’s Word this morning comes to us from Acts 17:16-31 and it’s entitled, “The Unknown God,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
2.       Scientist Carl Sagan hosted the first TV program dedicated to the great unknowns of space. The show was a hit, viewed by half a billion people. Of the show's success, Sagan remarked: "I was positive from my own experience that an enormous global interest exists in space and in many kindred scientific topics—the origin of life, the Earth, and the Cosmos, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, our connection with the universe." (Footnote 1: Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Ballantine, 1985), pp. xvii.)
3.       Sagan names things that are globally sought after. We find throughout each generation this hunger for the unknown. The mysteries of our universe can fascinate us, compel us, and give us hope. But, they can also become a stumbling block on the road to truth.  In the mind of a skeptic, no matter how many of his or her questions are answered, the elementary ones still escape them. The great unknown becomes the obsession. The great unknown, no matter how great, can’t fill the holes in our heads and hearts until it’s known.
4.       Graduates over the next years, you will feel as if you are facing the great unknown.  you will likely do many things: go to school, have fun with friends, start a career, enjoy singleness, date and start a family (etc).  It will be tempting to think of these things as your focus, your life and joy. But don't. Because in themselves, they’re not life. Jesus is life (Jn 14:6, Col 3:3). Seeking the Kingdom of God is life (Mt 6:33). A whole life dedicated to God is what God wants from you—in fact, demands from you (Lk 9:23-27). But it is also what he wants FOR you. In all those other areas of your life, even if they basically go "well," you will still face struggles, disappointments, conflicts, betrayals, suffering. But God's love and friendship never fail; he has promised to be with you always and to forgive you every time you repent--even when you find it hard to forgive yourself (Ps 136:1, Mt 28:20; 1 Jn 1:7-8). Moreover, he has also promised to help you find JOY in a life of GOOD works he has already planned specifically for YOU to carry out IN all those other areas of your life. (Eph 2:8-10). Because these things depend only on God and no one else, you can always find joy in them, no matter what else is going on in your life. So if you truly want what is good, stay focused on Christ and living as his disciple. For he is your life, and he will make every other area of your life good in a way that it simply cannot be "on its own."
5.       The Apostle Paul spoke to the Athenian thinkers many years ago words quite fitting for present times. As his eyes observed that culture, he saw their fascination with knowing—so strong they even sought to know what was unknown to them, placing a sign over one of their altars for the "Unknown God." And this is what Paul says to them in Acts 17:23: "What you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you as known." 
6.       The Apostle Paul knew the audience that he was speaking to.  There were the Epicureans, who believed that the gods didn't care about them; who believed that right now, right here was all that life has to offer. These people denied God, and dedicated themselves to the task of grabbing all the gusto they could. But, there were also the Stoics who were convinced that the gods resided in everything, and occupied themselves with managing the universe. Although the Stoics also rejected the idea of an afterlife, they thought that since the here and now is all we're going to get, we ought to be totally responsible. Responsible is a good word for the stoics. And the Stoics are still with us today.  They are the people who take a stand against cruelty to animals and protecting the environment.
7.       Right now there are people who are wondering how a good God could allow such suffering to take place in the town of Joplin, MO.  How could an all-powerful God allow something like that to happen?  Over 140 people dead and so many people still missing.  A great number of people have lost their homes.  A God that would allow something like this to happen seems unknowable to me.  Rabbi Kushner wrote a book, which you’ve probably heard of, “Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People,” well that title is wrong according to the Bible.  A better title would be, “Why do Good things Happen to Bad People.”  See, according to God’s Word none of us are good.  The Bible tells us that, “there is no one is righteous, no one who does good.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  As Christians we can rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that when we suffer we’re reminded of the consequences of our sins and our need for a Savior.  We remember that it was our Savior who suffered on our behalf to set us free from sin, death and the power of the devil.
8.       The ideas of the Stoics and Epicureans that were in Athens 2000 years ago are still with us today, even when it comes to our understanding of suffering.  Our culture has embraced the epicurean view of suffering. This way of thinking seeks to reduce pain and acquire pleasure. To dull physical and emotional pain, men and women turn to sexual infidelity, illegal drugs, gluttony, and other sinful behaviors believing that “if it feels nice, don’t think twice.”  The stoic view of suffering says that we have no control over what happens to us. All we can do is choose how we will respond to it; the goal here is to let nothing bother us. We should do our best “to keep a stiff upper lip” and to “let nothing get us down.”
9.       Christians have probably been most affected by the stoic view. Unfortunately, we’re often prone to minimize the reality of our grief. But this isn’t the approach of Jesus. The Apostle John recorded that He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus in John 11. It’s not sinful to mourn the death of a loved one or to admit our pain.
10.   God isn’t obligated to give us the reason for our suffering. Still, whether He is disciplining us or not, we know He is always with us in our pain (Ps. 23:4) to use our suffering for good, redemptive ends and to bring glory to Himself (Rom. 8:28).
11.   As Paul preached to the Athenians he basically tells them, We blew it.”  We don’t know who God is, since we have all these ridiculous idols. Paul is preaching the law here, to convict sinners of their sins, before he reveals to them the answer to their sin, namely, Jesus Christ, their Savior.  He goes on to tell them, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
12.   Paul’s basic point is this. What you people did by worshiping everything but the one true God–that was ignorance. But now I’m making known to you the God you missed, the one true God of all mankind. He’s calling you to repent, before it’s too late. Judgment Day is coming. You will be judged. Your only hope is in the one I’m about to tell you about. The one who will be your Judge, this one is also your Savior. It’s this man Jesus Christ I’ve been telling you about, the one who rose from the dead.
13.   Do you know that Judgment Day is coming? On that day you will stand before your Creator, and you will be judged. How will you fare? I can tell you that if you rely on yourself, it won’t go well.  But, if you rely on Jesus as your Savior, you will be saved. This man Jesus, whom God raised from the dead–the reason he died was to save you from your sins, to save you from the judgment and eternal condemnation. That’s why he died, in your place, as the sacrifice for your sins. He did this for all men. Your sins are forgiven, covered, paid for, by the blood of Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world. God raised this man Jesus from the dead, on Easter, to show that life is the result of what Christ has done. Baptized and believing in Christ, we share in His mighty victory over death. This is the good news that God has for all people everywhere.
14.   It’s true.  What we worship in this world as unknown, Christ gives us the chance to know. It is His life, death, and resurrection that proclaims to you that "The God who made the world and everything in it is Lord of heaven and earth…" (Footnote 3: Acts 17:24) He’s worth knowing, and through Jesus we understand everything. That is the answer we desperately need.  Amen.

“Jesus—The Way, the Truth & the Life” John 14.1–14, Easter 5A Sermon May ‘17

1.                    Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.  The message from God’s Word this 5th Sunday of Easter is taken from John 14:1-14 and it’s entitled, “Jesus—The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
2.                   Who does this guy think he is, anyway? If you or I said words like Jesus did, we would either be laughed off the stage or locked up in a padded cell. Where did he get the arrogance to say something like “Trust in God; trust also in me” (v 1)? Where does a no-name carpenter from no-place Nazareth in nowhere Galilee get the gall to make a statement like “I am the way and the truth and the life”? (v 6). Does he really have access to his Father’s house, and can he really take us there?
3.                   In today’s Gospel Jesus makes statements that ought to take your breath away for their boldness, scope, and frankness. Either they are true or Jesus was a liar or lunatic.  For starters, he thinks He’s the Son of His Father, the Son of God. And in the Gospel of John that means God incarnate. Jesus backs up this claim, both here and throughout the Gospel of John, with statements that make a simple point: all that the Father is and does is equally embodied and personified in the Son. 
4.                   In fact, it’s not just in John’s Gospel that Jesus is made equal with God the Father our Creator.  In Matthew 16 the apostle Peter gave what has been called in church history “the great confession.” It happened in Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” They gave Him a report of some of the rumors that were circulating among the people—He was suspected of being John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. Jesus then asked: “Who do you say that I am?” That caused Peter to say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” When Peter made this confession, Jesus congratulated him: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:13–17).
5.                   I mention that account of the great confession to remind us, before we delve into our passage for this chapter from John 14, that the church Christ built and is building must always be a confessing church. When I speak of the church as a confessing church, I’m not simply speaking of the confession of sin that we utter before God, but rather the confession of our faith. Jesus promises redemption to those who not only believe in His resurrection in their hearts but who confess Him with their mouths (Rom. 10:9).
6.                   In John 14:1-14 1[Jesus said:], “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4And you know the way to where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.  12“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”
7.                   It’s crucial that we see that we confess the uniqueness of Christ. Peter said in Matthew 16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Apostles’ Creed echoes this confession of uniqueness when it proclaims, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.…” From the very beginning of the Christian church, the exclusive character of Christ, the uniqueness of the Son of God, has been at the heart of our confession. I stress that because, in this day, in our culture, and even in many areas of the modern church, there’s nothing more politically incorrect than claims of exclusivity given unto Jesus.
8.                   The well-known Pastor & Seminary Professor R.C. Sproul has told the story about how he once took a college class that was taught by a woman who was openly hostile to the Christian faith. She never missed an opportunity to attack Christianity in her classroom. So Dr. Sproul tried to “stay under the radar” in her classroom to escape the arrows of her wrath. But, one day she called on him in front of the class. She said, “Mr. Sproul, do you believe that Jesus is the only way to God?” R.C. knew how she felt about any exclusive claims to Jesus, so he knew he was caught between a rock and a hard place. If he said what he believed, he would experience a great amount of anger from the instructor. But, if he didn’t say what he believed, he would be guilty of nothing less than treason to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, R.C. mumbled an answer, but she said, “What was that?” So he said: “Yes, ma’am. I do believe that Jesus is the only way to God.” She went into a fit of rage that spilled out on R.C. She said, “That’s the most narrow-minded, arrogant, bigoted thing I’ve ever heard a student say.” The rest of the class glared at R.C. as she heaped her scorn on him.  After the class, as R.C. was walking out the door, she stopped him and said: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so hard on you. But I just can’t understand how anybody could be that narrow-minded.” R.C. said to her: “Well, I hope you can understand my problem. I’ve been persuaded that Christ is the Son of God. I am a Christian. There is nothing more foundational to Christianity than the confession that Jesus is the Son of God. Now if I believed that Jesus was the only way to God because He happened to be my way, and the unspoken premise of my logic was that anything that R. C. Sproul believes must, by logical necessity, be the only true way to think, then I would agree with your assessment that that would be unspeakably arrogant, bigoted, and narrow-minded. But I hope you understand why I believe Jesus is the only way. It is because Jesus said that He was the only way, and if I deny that, I deny Him.”
9.                   Let me say that again what R.C. said, “If you deny that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, you deny Him.” There’s probably no greater point of pressure in our society than that very point. Our friends, community, and even many churches tell us that we must deny the uniqueness of Christ. But to do that, we must deny the church’s confession of faith, and more importantly, we must deny Jesus’ own confession about Himself.  When R.C. explained all this to his college professor, she said: “But how could God be so narrow-minded? I thought God was a God of love.” You see, she believed the widely accepted saying in our culture that it doesn’t really matter what you believe, just as long as you’re sincere. But, if the Ephesians were sincere in their devotion to the goddess Diana, if the followers of Baal were sincere in their worship of Baal, or if the Muslims are sincere in their worship of Allah, that’s all that matters. God doesn’t care whether you worship idols just as long as you worship them sincerely. We remember that Satan appeared to Jesus in the wilderness and said: “All this authority I will give You, and their glory.… If You will worship before me, all will be Yours” (Luke 4:6–7). It was as if Satan was saying to Jesus: “It won’t do any harm for You to bow to me for a moment. God won’t mind. Don’t be narrow-minded. There’s room in the mercy of God for a little Satanism.” But Jesus knew better. He said: “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve’ ” (Luke 4:8).
10.               I really can’t think of anything more against biblical Christianity than the idea that it doesn’t matter what you believe, and yet it has been instructed in us from the time we were in kindergarten. I think it is because, here in the United States, all religions are equally tolerated under the law, so we make a leap from equality under the law to equal validity before God. That’s a dangerous place to stand because the Scriptures say there’s a difference between truth and error, between the true Messiah and false messiahs, and between Christ and Antichrist.
11.               So again let’s listen to what Jesus says, in John 14:6 Jesus tells us, “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6b).  As I said before, our politically correct world can’t tolerate such a claim, as the illustration of R.C. Sproul and his college professor shows.  They contend that there must be many paths to glory, that truth is found in all religions, and that eternal life can be obtained through any number of belief systems. 
12.               But, Jesus tells us that He is the way, the only way.  These words of Jesus and this confession by the early Christians placed believers in opposition to both the Jews who had rejected Christ and the Gentiles who worshiped many false-gods.  For all those who claim that there are many ways to heaven, all the other so-called ways are ultimately the way of works and self-centered individualism: Do your best.  Live a good life.  Try your hardest.  Follow these principles.  Obey these commandments.  No matter what the religion or belief system is called, if it’s not Christianity, the way to eternity is always focused on what the individual does or doesn’t do.
13.               And that’s why Christ is the only way.  Trying your hardest is never good enough.  Even your good works are tainted by sin.  That’s why adherents of false religions are never certain if they’ve done enough to be saved.  But, you know that what you could never do, Jesus has done for you.  He lived the perfect life.  He walked the way of the cross, and by His death and resurrection has opened the way for you to the Father.
14.               Jesus is the truth.  Some claim every religion has truth.  Others go to the opposite extreme and say there’s no such thing as absolute truth.  There’s truth, and Jesus embodies that truth.  He can be completely trusted, for His words are truth.  When He promises that He’s preparing a place for you in the Father’s house, you can be certain that there’s a place waiting for you there in heaven.  When He promises you the gift of the Holy Spirit, you can be certain that His Spirit dwells in you.
15.               Jesus is the life.  If Christ is the way, He must also be the life.  Not only does He make this claim, He reveals its validity.  Jesus is your life, because He rose again from the dead on the third day.  Death has no power over Him.  And because Jesus lives, you will live also.  Because He lives, you will see the Father.  Because He lives, you will dwell in the place of life and light prepared for you by Christ Himself. Amen.