Thursday, November 13, 2014

Final Week of Capital Campaign (Malachi 3:6-12)

“I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the prophet Malachi. Dear friends in Christ, our world is a world of constant change. Nothing stays the same. Every day is a picture of change, as light fills the darkened sky, only to give way to darkness once again. The cold of winter changes to the heat of summer and back again. You grow and develop from a zygote to an embryo to a fetus to a baby to a child to an adult; you never stay the same. Governments rise and fall, civilizations crumble as quickly as they ascended. People change, and not just physically. We are fickle, we are pushed back and forth by the wind, we spurn old friendships, we give up on former loves, we switch opinions either on the basis of better information or simply because of feelings. The ancients believed that tier gods were as changeable as man, that you couldn’t trust them, only hope to placate them, to earn some favor, with gifts and offerings. But not the God of Israel. In the midst of a raging sea of change, where absolutely nothing stays the same for even a moment, stands the declaration of our Creator: “I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” Everything changes but the One who created it all; He is steadfast, immovable, impervious to change.

And this unchanging God has an accusation to make against His people, to make against you and me. “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.” The unchangeable God accuses us of changing, of rebelling against Him even though we bear His Name upon us. How have we done this? He could certainly come up with quite a list, but God has one specific accusation to make tonight. “You say, ‘How shall we return?’ Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions.” God accuses us of robbing Him, of holding back from Him our tithes and contributions. This has nothing to do with a percentage, with dollar signs or a budget, it has to do with selfishness, with coveting, with idolatry. It has to do with giving God the leftovers, with holding back from serving His Church or our neighbors. It ultimately comes down to trust. We do not trust God’s promises to provide for our every need, and so we hold back, we keep more for ourselves; we give grudgingly, if we give at all. We think that God is like us, changing, fickle, that He might not give tomorrow what He promised to give today.

Repent! Repent, for God does not change; He has promised wrath against sin and rebellion, and His justice will be satisfied. “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.” Greedily holding onto what God has entrusted us with, instead of using it for the good of our neighbor and the good of His Kingdom—God calls this robbery. It is taking what doesn’t belong to us and using it for our own gain. It is misusing what has been given so that it only benefits ourselves. A God of justice cannot simply look away; He cannot pretend that it didn’t happen, or that it doesn’t matter. “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.” A curse is placed upon God’s rebellious people, the curse of His wrath against sin. A God of justice cannot allow sin to remain unpunished; He does not change: His wrath must be poured out—Repent! “Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.”

Everything in this world changes, including sinful man, including you and me; and in the midst of the whirlwind stands God’s Law, steadfast, immovable, declaring a curse upon sinners. But God’s Law is not the only pillar in the storm. Equally steadfast and immovable is God’s love, care, and compassion for His fallen humanity, for you and for me. A God of justice must punish sin with His wrath. A God of love cannot allow His beloved to perish eternally. The easiest solution for us would be to compromise, to change; but God does not change. He does not change His justice; He does not change His love. Instead, His justice and love, the two pillars of His very nature, come together to form a cross. Upon the cross His justice is satisfied, as His wrath is poured out against every sin that has ever been committed, against your every sin. But upon the cross His love is shown, for that wrath falls upon Christ, your substitute, who sheds His holy, precious blood in your place. God does not change; His love doesn’t somehow ‘cancel’ His wrath, but He loves us by pouring that wrath out upon another. Christ Jesus stood in your place, He willingly bore the curse; He was treated as the One who had robbed God, though He had done no wrong. His suffering was for your sin; His death was in your place. And as He died in your place, so He rose in your place, and your resurrection is guaranteed. In love He showers forth His abundant grace upon you; He forgives you for greed, for idolatry, for robbery, His shed blood covers each and every sin. You are forgiven! His love for you stands as a pillar, your solid rock, forever. “I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”

You are not consumed because His love toward you has never changed, and it never will change. You have been changed: into His beloved child, a chosen member of His people, His Church, His flock. His goodness toward you will never change, you can rest secure in His provision, you can even put Him to the test. “Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” This is the only place in the Scriptures where God calls on His people put Him to the test. He challenges His flock to step out in faith, to give freely from their bounty. We are to put our God to the test, giving deliberately, deciding in our hearts beforehand what we are going to give; giving generously, turning over to Him our first-fruits in faith, putting Him to the test that He will provide the rest; and giving cheerfully, in the freedom that comes from His unchanging Gospel. We rest in this stability; He is not fickle, He is not capricious, He is not changing; He is the same today, yesterday, and forever, His abundance has no end, and you have a sure and certain hope in Him. He has set you free, free from the bondage of sin, free to serve your neighbor and free to support the work of the Church. We love our neighbor not according to the bondage of the Law, but in the freedom of the Gospel. You are free, free in Christ, free from greed, from idolatry, from selfishness, free to live in His grace forever, for your God does not change, His Gospel stands forever.

This world is constantly shifting, constantly moving, constantly changing. Some changes excite, some terrify; some changes build up, some tear down. But in the midst of the changes and chances of life stands your God, the Lord who is your Shepherd. His cross is the pivot on which history turns, it is the one rock in the midst of the raging river. No matter whether you face plenty or hunger, abundance or need, this promise remains firm: “I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soul, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.” This promise is true whether you wallet is full or not, whether you face joy or sorrow, whether you endure disease or enjoy health. Whether you are brought low or abound, all nations will call you blessed, because Jesus does not change, and He has promised to raise you on the Last Day, you have eternal treasure to your name that no joy or sorrow of this world can take away. You are blessed, for your sins are forgiven, you are baptized into His Name, your lips receive His very Body and Blood. Jesus does not change, even if the circumstances of your life do; He remains faithful, and He will be faithful until the end. His cross and its verdict stand for eternity; they will never change, and therefore you, O flock, are not consumed, therefore you, O flock, are free. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Final Sunday of Capital Campaign (Psalm 23)

“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this sixth and final Sunday of our capital campaign comes from the Introit we chanted together at the beginning of our service, Psalm twenty-three. Dear friends in Christ: What kind of God do you have? You live in the wilderness, in the desert, in the wasteland of this sinful world; what kind of God do you have? You are a sheep, harassed and helpless, threatened by enemies on every side; what kind of God do you have? You are on a journey, trying to reach a destination that always seems further ahead; what kind of God do you have? The answer to this question is vitally important; in fact, the answer to this question is literally life or death. The wilderness is unforgiving; it will chew up and spit back out those who are unprepared, those without protection. Sheep in the wilderness are easy prey to the enemies that gather around them. The kind of God that you have will determine whether you journey with confidence or with fear. And make no mistake, the sheep are watching each other, each one seeking the best path through the wilderness, each one asking the other: what kind of God do you have?

How do you answer? What kind of God do you have? What do your eyes see? Your eyes see scarcity, they see lack, they see need. Your eyes see a world where no one has enough, where poverty is quite real. Your eyes see food stamps and soup kitchens, they see dilapidated housing and worn out clothing. Your eyes see the price of everything going up, and they look at your paycheck with hope, only to realize that it has stayed the same. Your eyes look at your own bank account, and they see just barely enough; they look at your budget, and they see far too much red, and then you look in your bulletin and see the same at your church. Your eyes see the reality of the wilderness, the scarcity of the wasteland, and worry and fear is the result. You cling tighter to what you think is your own; your own time, your own possessions, your own money. Fear and worry drive you to hold back when the offering plate comes around, they tighten your fist when your neighbors have needs, they cause congregations to bunker down and think only of themselves. Your eyes see all that is aligned against you, and you live in fear; your life is not lived in confidence, in trust, in hope, but in worry. The wilderness stands against you, and it mocks you, asking, “What kind of God do you have?”

What kind of God do you have? What do your eyes see? Your eyes see the difficulty of your road through this wilderness, they see that it is fraught with dangers each and every step of the way. Your eyes see suffering, suffering everywhere, suffering that you know will someday affect you, suffering that is already affecting you. They see cancer, they see Alzheimer’s and dementia, they see congestive heart failure and auto-immune diseases, they see a whole host of other afflictions and maladies with hundreds of different names. They see loved ones suffering, they see your suffering, they see a world filled with suffering; your eyes watch the evening news and they are overwhelmed by the pain that fills every nook and cranny of the wasteland. And finally, your eyes see death. How can they avoid it? Death is all around us in the wilderness, as the bleached bones of other sheep remind us that no one escapes the wasteland alive.

Your eyes see that this journey cannot be completed on your own; the road is too hard, too winding, too dangerous. Your eyes see death and proclaim to you that the journey is futile, for there is no hope. As a natural sheep cannot survive on its own in the desert, so you know that you cannot make it by yourself. The wilderness will grind you up, it will finally destroy you; you will simply wander in the desert until death takes you, until you become another statistic of the wasteland. Your eyes can give you only worry, only fear, only despair. They present to you a picture so bleak it is terrifying, and they can see no hope of escape. You cry out in despair: “What kind of God do I have?”

Don’t trust your eyes. They tell you of a God who has left you to be destroyed by the wilderness, a God who is holding back His goodness, but they are wrong. Don’t trust your eyes; trust your ears. Close your eyes and listen. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” What kind of God do you have? You have a God who is your shepherd, and you shall not want. Your ears hear of a God who walks with you in the wilderness, who leads and guides you through that wilderness to the Promised Land. You have a God who walked this path Himself, who journeyed in the wilderness in your place, even unto death. You have a God who said, “I AM the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” He laid down His life, pouring out His blood, to defeat the wilderness, to deliver lost sheep from the corruption, the scarcity, the death of the wilderness. He paid the price for the sin that makes the wilderness so harsh, that gives the wasteland its power. And when He rose on the third day, He stepped forth from the grave as the Good Shepherd, seeking out lost sheep, finding them in mercy, and guiding them to the Promised Land He has won for His beloved flock, refreshing them on their journey, bearing them to their destination, not by their strength, but only through His.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” He feeds you on the green pastures of His Word, He nourishes you in the still, life-giving waters of Baptism. This sanctuary is an oasis, where you are refreshed on your journey, strengthened for the road ahead. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Your enemies are all around you, but you need not fear; His table, the feast of His Body and Blood gives forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. They cannot take what this feast gives. In this place, your ears hear of His death and resurrection, here “He restores my soul.” He restores your soul by forgiving your sins, by making you holy, righteous in God’s sight by applying His death and resurrection directly to you in the Means of Grace: by grazing you on the green pastures of the Word, by washing you in the still waters of Baptism, and by feeding you at table of His Body and Blood. 

Your ears hear the Good Shepherd’s voice, guiding you through the wilderness. “He leads me in paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Death no longer threatens you, because you belong to the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for the sheep only to take it up again in victory. Your path through the wilderness is carved by the cross, it is watered by His shed blood. This path is His righteousness, given to you, covering you like a robe so that your enemies cannot deter you from your destination. The sheep know their Shepherd’s voice, and it leads them home; neither scarcity nor disaster, neither disease nor any enemy, will be able to keep you from your destination, from the Promised Land that awaits you.

What kind of God do you have? Your ears hear that there is no want, that this God, this Shepherd has given to you all that you need. “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” He who has given up His own life for His sheep, to give to them an eternal treasure that will never fade away, certainly provides all good things out of His bountiful goodness. Goodness and mercy pursue you, they chase after you all of your days, because you have a God of abundance, a God who delights to give. Your ears hear God’s promises, and you live in faith, no longer in fear or worry. 

With Saint Paul, you can face any and all situations with confidence. “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” We, too, can do all things, even sacrificially give of ourselves and our resources for the good of Christ’s kingdom, even serve our neighbor in his every need, even boldly pursue the Lord’s work as a congregation, because the Lord is our Shepherd. We do not live in fear, for the Lord is our Shepherd, and in Him, there is no more want, no more scarcity; He will provide according to His good and gracious will. What do we have to worry about? God takes care of the humblest creatures of this earth; He will surely care for His people in His own way, as Christ Himself says: “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”

What kind of God do you have? Your God is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who took on human flesh, who became one of the sheep, in fact a Lamb without blemish, to give up His life for the sheep. Your eyes see scarcity and need; your ears hear of green pastures and overflowing cups. Your eyes see suffering and death; your ears hear of victory and eternal life, the Promised Land that awaits you. We live by faith, by what our ears hear, not by what our eyes see. And what our ears hear is what David delights to proclaim: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

This is the God you will have for eternity. The Lord is your Shepherd, and He will send goodness and mercy to pursue you for the rest of your days, until you dwell in His house for eternity. As your ears heard last week: “The Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” The wilderness cannot overwhelm you, because it doesn’t have the victory. What kind of God do you have? The God who defeated the wilderness, who leads you through it, who gives you confidence even in the valley of the shadow of death, for His rod has crushed death’s power, His staff will drive away the wolves. The Lord is your Shepherd, you shall not want. Amen.