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Sermon Text for October 20, 2013
"Absolute Grace Creates Absolute Growth Absolutely"#81-07 Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 20, 2013 By Rev. Gregory Seltz, Lutheran Hour Speaker (How Do I Reconcile Christian Cruelty?) Copyright 2013 Lutheran Hour Ministries
Text: 2 Timothy 3:15-4:5
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you in the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth, eldest daughter of President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, was quoted as saying, "I have a simple philosophy: fill what's empty. Empty what's full, and scratch where it itches." And that's exactly what she did. And her lifestyle, she called herself a hedonist, one who just seeks pleasure; her lifestyle created tremendous havoc with the President especially after his wife/her mother died.... to the point where he, President Roosevelt, was said to have said, "I can run the office of the Presidency or I can try to control my daughter, but I can not do both."
Scratch where it itches, itching ears looking for whatever satisfies and soothes for the moment, such a philosophy sounds so good at times, but in the lives of sinful, rebellious people like us, it never succeeds, it always damages, sometimes beyond repair.
So to a world that is more and more a scratch where it itches world, the Apostle Paul proclaims today an absolute word, a word beyond the temporal itches and scratches of the day, a word of absolute grace that creates absolute growth and life, absolutely! He's sharing with us today a word that lasts, a word that holds, a word that saves because it is a word from God Himself. The Bible is "God breathed" he says....full of God's Spirit and power. Jesus Himself even says it more pointedly in John 6, "My words," He said, "are spirit and life."
But we are an itching ears type of people, aren't we? If God's Word doesn't match our expectations at the moment, we look almost immediately for another word to "scratch that itch, to fill what's empty or to empty what's full," always on our terms, from our perspective alone. Some of you listening might be saying, "What's the problem with that, Pastor? If you're empty, whatever fills will do, right? If you're itching, whatever scratches that itch will satisfy, correct?"
Now, I'm going to be brutally honest with you for both our sakes today. I'm not sure that such a philosophy holds even in the mundane things of life, right? Just think for a moment. Have you ever had a mundane, everyday itch that scratching didn't help? I remember as a boy getting poison ivy. Boy, did it itch! I did what almost anyone would do in that situation - I scratched it. Now you tell me, was that a good thing to do? Absolutely not! In fact, it didn't alleviate my condition at all. It made it worse. The oil from that poison ivy spread to other parts of my body until I was a mess. Thank goodness there was a cream that did make the itch go away. And thanks for a mom who knew what to do, who kept saying, "Don't scratch that, you'll make it worse" until I did what she said!
So, while scratching a mundane itch is not always a good thing. Worse, according to St. Paul, is listening to the false, anti-grace teachings of the world! Trendy thinking for itching ears, trying to alleviate core struggles of lostness or meaninglessness outside of God's healing grace; this ultimately only makes one's condition worse.
There's so many ways today that people sooth their itching ears with teachings other than those of Jesus Christ.
It was common only a few years ago for people to say things like "prove it." Of course what they meant was "prove it to my satisfaction" as if we modern people know better than even God Himself. We watch things like "CSI" and "Law and Order" and we get this notion that modern folks have a foolproof notion of right and wrong and, of course, we don't need a Bible to tell us about such things. I used to teach a class at the university called, "Christianity and Contemporary Culture," and one of the starting questions was, "Why do you think that there are certain things that are right and wrong?" I remember one student saying, "DNA," just like that, as if that ended the discussion. I said, "DNA, about right and wrong, how so?" "Well, DNA is objective," this student said. "It tells you objectively who did it." That student was pretty sure that it, and other knowledge like it, told her all that she needed to know about the things that really mattered in life. But did it? I mean DNA can tell you if someone did certain things or whether they were at a particular place or not; but, can it tell you that something is right or wrong? Really, DNA is kind of like a biological speedometer in a car. It can tell that you are going 25mph, 40mph, 60mph or 75mph; but it can't tell you if that is right or wrong. On a freeway, 25mph would be deadly, destructive. In a neighborhood, 60 mph would be catastrophic. So, today, even in the universities of supposed higher learning, people don't say "prove it" as much today as they did before about these important issues that are bigger than merely the facts and figures of sinful people in action. But, unfortunately the new solution may even be worse than the disease. Today, folks are comforted by the notion that if it seems right to them, then that's good enough. Fill what's empty, empty what's full, and scratch where it itches.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that such a life is at best alienated from God for the moment, and at worst, rebelliously, foolishly dispensing with God for eternity. That hellish life is not what God wants for you and me. And into the middle of our muddled way of thinking about what matters in life now and forever, Paul proclaims Jesus Christ as the absolute and only Son of God and the exclusive means of salvation for the world.
He said in 1 Timothy chapter 1.... Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
There's no one else like this Jesus. There is no other Word like His. There are absolutes of right and wrong that are written in nature itself, but even more vital to life than that is the proclaimed, absolute grace in Christ for all people. That's why the first thing that Paul tells Timothy and us about the Holy Scripture is that they are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (3:15) Scripture reveals to us God's absolute and exclusive grace, it's in action in the person and work of Jesus Christ for you, for me, for all.
But this absolute grace has an absolute effect upon the hearer that no other trendy teaching can. It produces faith which in turn produces God-pleasing lives. God's grace saves us and this absolute grace gives life and produces growth absolutely. As Paul says, (The) Holy Scriptures.... are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus. 3:16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.....(Therefore) 4:2 Preach the word.
But you might be saying, "Ah, Pastor, I think you're being a bit of an alarmist. What's wrong with things being pleasant? Why do we have to think about such weighty topics like sin and grace, life and death, teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness? After all, I'm happy. I'm content for the moment. What's wrong with that?"
Well, nothing on the surface. Paul also says that "godliness with contentment is great gain." But when our momentary happiness begins to mute the important questions of life or to discount clear teaching of God's Word, that can actually destroy the abundant, eternal life that God meant for us to have in Jesus Christ, now and forever.
And complacency in life, even when it's pleasant, well, that's just not how life is. There are things in life that always seem to challenge such complacency.
Father Alfred Delp goes even further when he says, "Life begins when it's shaken!"
Father Alfred Delp was a prisoner of the Nazis during World War II. He was charged with treason for true Christian preaching. From his jail cell he wrote about the meaning of Advent, that important time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas, the coming of Christ. He said this: Advent is a time for rousing. Human beings are shaken to the very depths, so that they may wake up to the truth of themselves. The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender ... a shattering awakening; that is the necessary preliminary. Life begins only when the whole framework is shaken."
Life, shaken to its foundation; life, shaken to its core, shaken so that we understand our humanity, our frailty, our need for God, even our need for a Savior; that's when real life can begin because that's when we begin to look to God for what really matters. Paul is challenging Timothy, he's challenging us all to see that need and to see God's solution for our lives.
If you've been shaken, my friend; if you know that there are things that are right and wrong, but you also want to know the things that really matter, that really hold, then listen up. If your life has been shaken to its core and you wonder if the very ground of your life is giving away forever, listen up!
Our text today doesn't just warn us about itching ears, it invites hurting hearts, struggling minds, and weary souls to a grace, a life that holds!
That is what the Apostle Paul is reminding young Timothy. He is encouraging Timothy to remain faithful to the very Scriptures which made him wise to salvation. The literal words of the Bible save; they give life because they are connected to the Word that became flesh, Jesus Christ, who died on a cross that we might live. Paul writes these words at the end of his life, when age, struggle, suffering, joy in full measure, give weary eyes perspective and clarity. He urges Timothy; he urges you and me, to hold on to God's Word because it is the only thing that holds in this world.
God's Word works because it's God's salvation. It's God's fulfilled promises in a world of empty promises. Christmas and Easter are not celebrations of human potential or mere warm feelings of fuzzy, fraternal favor. No, they are celebrations of the fact that God is at work in this world. In 1 Corinthians 1:23, Paul proclaims it pointedly, "...we preach Christ crucified," he says. We proclaim the fact that God connected Himself to His fallen creation by coming to us as a Baby in Bethlehem. We teach the fact that God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, would go even further and become our sin for us and be crucified. It blows our minds, it challenges our hearts, it is the way, the only way, we are reconciled to God. Crib, cross, and crypt, it may sound odd to itching ears, but these constitute the absolute and exclusive grace of God for you and for me.
And that absolute grace is not merely a word on a page. It's a proclaimed word that will reignite your heart and mine. It's a proclaimed word that will empower your mind and literally renew your soul.
Notice how in our text the Scriptures are God-breathed. God has a gracious habit of creating life, new life, with His breath. Remember way back in the book of Genesis, the book that talks about how God created the world, how He created us? In that book it says that when God created Adam, He breathed into him the breath of life. And Adam at that moment became a living being. God's breath is like that. Here Paul says that God's Word is like that too. Through His Word He breathes His "breath of life" into those who read, mark, and inwardly digest the Bible.
The Bible, in fact, is God's CPR for humanity! When you open its pages, it will not leave you unchallenged or unchanged. To those of us who believe in Jesus, we can only tell you how incredible it is to know and believe in Him. It's just like that person who was dragged lifeless from the bottom of a pool, only to be brought back to life through the deeds of the one who was there to rescue and breathe new life right back into their lives! That's Jesus, that's the power of His Word in our lives. That's the power of His Word for your life too!
Breathe in deeply God's gracious breath of new life and watch the fears of sin, death, and Satan himself begin to wane!
Breathe in deeply that new breath of His Word and let the power of His Holy Spirit begin to transform your lives to be more and more like Jesus, today, tomorrow, for eternity. It's God's absolute power not only to give us new life, but also to empower us daily to grow in that grace.
Breathe it in....the breath of life words of Scripture are good for teaching. They're good for reproof. This reproof refers to something that is tested and proved. Some would say that Christianity itself has been tested and proven by having stood the test of time. That's true, but all biblical claims ultimately find their proof in the timeless Savior Himself, Christ Jesus.
Breathe it in....because these breath of life words are good for correction and direction. And, who doesn't need a lot of that today? This correction refers to the restoration of life and character. This is actually good news for those who feel that they are lost, out of sync, or unrestorable. There is hope for each one of us. We can be restored by the very Word which resuscitates us and even now can recreate our lives anew.
Breathe it in....because these breath of life words are good for training in righteousness. Here, such training is for the increase of virtue. As I look around, if there is one thing that our communities need today, it's people striving to be more virtuous, right? Many of the great societies of old were built on just such an impulse; from Athens to Rome to Washington D.C., we know names like Aristotle, Mill or Kant, all are decent approaches to doing the right thing, but, they all suggest you're a good person if you do good things. Well, the Biblical life digs deeper; it offers a totally different motivation for such virtue, a different power, a different purpose! A Christian is already declared righteous and credited with Christ's righteousness; people can only be good in Him by grace. And believers then don't strive for virtue to prove anything; God has done it all for us already. Virtue, righteousness, good works, flow from faith in God. We strive for virtue to honor God and to serve others. We want what we do to make people want to get to know the God who loves us and loves them!
Paul entreats us today to hold to this Word, to proclaim this Word, to let nothing move us from it, because it holds, it gives life, it delivers the One who holds us, Jesus Christ. And, Paul would even challenge us, to open our ears for the sake of our eternal destiny, not to miss out on the absolutely great salvation and life that God has for you right now in Jesus Christ!
I know there is a lot of things today that can fill our hearts and minds for the moment. With all the noise in this world, with all the toys in this world, with all the non-essential essentials that fill our days, that empty our wallets and scratch our itches of the moment, it's easy to miss what is really important. So, with the Apostle Paul, I say to you today: please, please, by the power of God's Spirit, listen up. In fact, breathe in this Word of God today for your heart, your mind, your body and soul. The Scriptures can make you wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Breathe them in by studying this Word and it will be profitable for teaching you, for your reproof, for correction, and for training you in righteousness. There is a day coming in all of our lives when all things will be shaken. That day was happening to Paul in our text. He encouraged Timothy; he encourages us to learn and firmly believe in the proclaimed Word of God's grace in Jesus Christ. For God's gift to us again today is His absolute grace in His Son which creates growth absolutely. And that's a life worth living, now and forever! Amen!
LUTHERAN HOUR MAILBOX (Questions & Answers) for October 20, 2013 Topic: How Do I Reconcile Christian Cruelty?
ANNOUNCER: Now, Pastor Gregory Seltz responds to questions from listeners. I'm Mark Eischer. When we celebrate historical figures and events, there are times when the people involved did some terrible things in the name of Christianity. How do we reconcile the cruelty of history with the Christian faith?
SELTZ: Well, our listener's question may be referencing Columbus Day, just celebrated this last Monday. Christopher Columbus was an innovative explorer; he did some great things and some questionable things in the name of Christianity.
ANNOUNCER: We could also mention other historical episodes like that from church history. Does that sort of behavior negate the Christian faith?
SELTZ: No, it doesn't negate the faith because such actions are actually being done in conflict with the Bible's teachings. But when Christians publically act in ways unbecoming to Christ and His Word, it sure hurts the sharing of that faith to others. It doesn't negate God's standards, His Word, or Jesus' witness and work of salvation, but it does give Christianity a black eye.
ANNOUNCER: And we could also cite modern day events that have caused hurt and disillusionment.
SELTZ: Right; and these have got to be taken very seriously. But, honestly, Mark, I don't think there is a time in history when people, sinners like all of us, haven't misrepresented God's holiness and righteousness. Even in the Bible, we hear about how God's people at times have caused others harm.
ANNOUNCER: What are we to do?
SELTZ: First, Christians, we need to confess our own sinfulness and imperfection--to God and to others where we might have personally participated or allowed such things to happen. But when it comes to things like this, there's a lot of blame to go around in all philosophies, theologies, and worldviews. There's no hiding behind excuses or institutions, and the Christian worldview won't let you. But more than that, what's needed most of all is for believers in Jesus to live lives that glorify God and give a faithful witness to the world about who Jesus really is. Peter told believers in the first century: "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Peter 2:12 NIV).
ANNOUNCER: God calls us to be His faithful representatives. But what do you say to people who deny Christ because of the hurt and harm caused by Christians throughout the years?
SELTZ: I've heard people say that the Church has caused more damage to people throughout history than good. If people really believe that, it may be that they have experienced real hurt from the church today. So, first, we need to listen, to try to understand where the question is coming from, especially if what is needed is compassion and restoration for that person with love and safety that comes in knowing Jesus Christ. But, if it's one of those oft handed criticisms, I would say we have to debunk that because true servants of Christ across history; unselfish people who have emulated Jesus' sacrifice for others; have actually caused a tremendous amount of good.
ANNOUNCER: Could you cite some examples?
SELTZ: There really are so many. Education for all was a uniquely Christian way of thinking. Mercy ministries for all, hospitals for the poor, orphanages; they all flowed from faith in the grace and love of Christ for all. Even the value of the individual, that's something that flowed from the teachings of Jesus. Things like the sanctity of life, the sanctity of the bond of marriage before God, all these things have truly blessed societies where they're practiced. One of my favorite books called, "What If Christ Were Never Born," by D. James Kennedy, it speaks about these historical positives which far outweigh the negatives of Christianity, even as they're practiced by forgiven sinners.
ANNOUNCER: I understand as you look through history, when there were times of disaster or plague, it was often the Christians who stayed in place to minister, and maybe even ran toward the trouble in order to offer help.
SELTZ: That has really been true in so many cases, Mark. But overall, though, it's even more important to remember that the Good News of salvation does not ultimately rest on a temporal institution or even on a person who claims to be a follower of Christ. The Christian message rests only upon Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior. And while many followers may fail and others succeed, we always need to look to Him alone for the truth of what faith is about, what our witness to the world should be, and what our eternal hope really is.
ANNOUNCER: Thank you Pastor Seltz. And we thank the listener for that question. This has been a presentation of Lutheran Hour Ministries.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
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