Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

“Consistently Running the Race of Faith” (January 13, 2008)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today is the first message for our stewardship emphasis called “Maturing as Stewards Through Faith, Love, and Hope.” Now, it might seem a little out of order to talk about stewardship on a day like today, when we remember the Baptism of our Lord. But really, as we consider our Lord’s Baptism, we also remember our Baptism. And because we are baptized into Christ, we are given a new life, a forgiven life, and a life with new priorities. With that in mind, listen to the sermon text from Hebrews 12: 1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”

Here, at the beginning of our year, it’s a good time to refocus. It’s a good time to refocus our attention on Christ, to look to Jesus. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we can make some resolutions that reorder our priorities in our life of stewardship.

We live in a world of instant gratification. You want a book? Order it on Amazon and it’ll be on your doorstep in a day or two. You want a song on your I-Pod? Download it. In a few moments, you can listen to it. But there are still some things in life that cannot be obtained quickly. They have to be obtained consistently over the long run. That’s hard for sinful, self-centered people like us who love and demand instant gratification.

The late Bo Schembechler was a long-time and highly respected football coach of the University of Michigan. After winning a certain game, an interviewer posed a question to Schembechler. The coach was asked if he believed it was his pre-game strategy that was most responsible for the victory. Schembechler’ s answer was that while the pre-game strategy was certainly a factor, the victory was clinched because of the hard work that he and his team did day-by-day, practice-by-practice. He went on to explain that, for over a year, the team learned something each day in practice about their opponents. Also, each time they practiced they learned something new about themselves, and worked on capitalizing on their strengths to overcome their weaknesses. It was this work over the long-haul, not just the pre-game strategy that gained the lasting results.

Our life of faith is not much different, as you and I strive to live our lives as healthy disciples and caretakers of God’s blessings. God-pleasing, sustainable results come from consistent, year-round, and life-long living by Word and Sacrament. Sustainable results do not come by doing “spiritual wind sprints” ... a mad dash to church, a brief time in God’s Word, but then retreating from God’s Means of Grace, trying to live life again on our own power and by our own plans. The “quick, easy approach” does not bring blessing to our lives, to the church, or to the Kingdom of God. The writer of Hebrews presents this truth to us today, reminding us to live by running the race of faith with perseverance and consistency as we rely on Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith.” But how can we do this, with our sinful hearts and our natural propensity to take spiritual short-cuts?

First, we can run this race of faith with consistency and endurance because by the power given to us by the Holy Spirit, we can remember “the great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us. This is that group of believers of old who were examples of consistent living by faith, and whom the author names in the previous chapter of Hebrews...Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and so on. And we can add to this great group the many faithful-departed brothers and sisters of the faith who worshiped and served the Lord with us here at our church and are now in glory. By the confident way they handled life, by their tireless worship and service to the Lord, by the gift of their faith-filled words and actions that we remember, their lives continue to encourage us to persevere in our present time and in our present circumstances. Because we live with these witnesses and their blessed memory surrounding us and still guiding us, we take comfort in the fact that we are not alone. They persevered and gained the victory ... and so shall we. And with the Holy Spirit ever near, we are strengthened as we remember their faithfulness to live consistently for Jesus.

Second, with the power of Christ at work within us, we also run the race consistently by throwing off every obstacle that trips us up and every sin that drags us down and keeps us from running this marathon race of faith. There are obstacles in every believer’s life that need to be avoided. We all have those sins which entangle us. You have yours, I have mine. For the Hebrew believers, one sin that was preventing some from consistent faith-living was fear of persecution. You and I may have some of that, too. Just look at our changing world and you soon realize that we are living in a time that is becoming increasingly hostile to those who worship Jesus as the Christ of God and God in the Flesh. And there are obstacles in life. One obstacle for the Hebrews (and often for us, too) is the temptation to be willing to turn from a life of worshiping Jesus to an easier, safer, earthly existence. It is the kind of living that centers around being served, rather than remembering that we are called like Jesus to be servants of God and others. Honestly, we do NOT always throw off every obstacle and entangling sin which prevents us from persevering. This does not please God, and this does not benefit His Gospel Kingdom. Our sinful disposition toward immediate self-gratification makes it hard for us even to identify with the concept of consistency or endurance. If we have fallen with our world into thinking and expecting that we can have everything our own way, or that we are always going to have “success now” in our lives, or even in our church, then we will NEVER be able to identify with the consistent believers who fought the good fight of faith in the Body of Christ before us, let alone identify with our suffering Savior Jesus Himself. Don’t forget that the examples of consistent believers spoken about in Hebrews chapter 11 died WITHOUT receiving what was promised, and yet they believed! And how can we ever forget that Jesus Himself endured a shameful death for us before entering glory? These examples will never mean anything to us if we are the kind of people who think that the Christian faith is merely about “blessings now,” or “living just for today,” apart from persecution, suffering, and bearing our cross for Jesus.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are daily led to remember our Baptism, and, in this process, God gives us not only the spiritual eyesight, but the insight and the foresight to live confessing our sin to Jesus and to live conscious of the many obstacles that Satan uses to cut short our stewardship, and to work in our congregation and serve in the Kingdom of God.

Third and foremost, the sacred writer of Hebrews presents the means by which we can run the race of faith consistently and persistently when he tells us: “let us run” ... “looking to Jesus.” I prefer the way the NIV puts it: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.” Jesus is the Model Runner. He is the One in whom our faith is founded and perfected. With sinless perfection, Jesus “ran with endurance” for us who have so much sin clinging to us. Jesus endured death on a cross, ignoring the shame associated with such a death. In this way He was our all-sufficient Priest and our once-for-all Sacrifice for our sin. Calvary’s Cross is the place where Jesus obtained forgiveness for us for all the times we have chosen to live in fear rather than with faith in His Word and His ways. Faith in Christ’s perfect sacrifice obtains forgiveness for the many times we have looked for the “quick fix,” avoiding worship, discipleship, and stewardship, choosing instead a life of ease.

Jesus is the One on whom our faith and our stewardship depend from start to finish. He gives faith by Baptism and His Word. He strengthens our faith through His Word and His body and blood so that we have power to remember the great cloud of witnesses which surround us and the power to cast aside the sin and avoid the obstacles which are so eager to entangle us. In Word and Sacrament, Jesus gives us what we need to live consistently, so that “whatever [we] do, whether in word or deed, [we] do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17), giving Him glory. Only Jesus can give us new minds and new hearts willing to use our resources consistently, over the long-haul, for Him.

Why did Jesus endure a cross? Since His death was part of His role as Priest and Sacrifice, the joy of redeeming us was what was behind His running the race perfectly. He did all of this for you and for me to give us forgiveness and to give us power to be the caretakers of all he gives to us, including the Gospel message we are called to proclaim. The reason you and I live consistently for Him is because faith takes its greatest joy in responding to the One Who loves us so much and considered a joyful thing to save sinners like us!

So, how are we to live? With Jesus, we live for the long-run at home, at church, in the work place, and in the neighborhood, not for the short run like the world around us does. Fixing their eyes on Jesus, mothers and fathers train their children for a lifetime of worship and service, not in a crash course on “spiritual things.” Fixing their eyes on Jesus, congregations suffer shame and loss with faith and trust in God’s forgiveness and His provision for the future, realizing that not everything they do will bring success as success is measured in human terms. Nor will congregations always receive compliments from the world around them. Fixing our eyes on Jesus, we believers live knowing we are not above our Master, and we live expecting to suffer with Jesus, remembering that, by His power, we WILL overcome by faith.

The way of faith and stewardship, dear followers of Jesus, is the way of the spiritual long-haul, not the temporal short run. This was true in the life of our Savior Jesus. This was true in the life of the Old Testament believers. This was true in the lives of those who began this congregation 50 years ago. And this is true for us. The Christian life of discipleship and stewardship is not a short sprint with a retreat to the bleachers. It is a life-long marathon run in Christ’s power. But remember, it is a way that ends in victory! We will follow consistently with the power Jesus gives us, for that power gives us guidance to remember the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us. We will live consistent lives for Jesus by remembering our Baptism and, by Christ’s power in us, throwing off the obstacles which get in our way and the sin which trips us up. All this comes by fixing our eyes on Jesus. This is a life-long process that begins and ends with Jesus and His Holy Spirit.


No comments: