Friday, January 25, 2008

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

“Love Prompts Action” (1 Thessalonians 1:3)

In the name of Jesus, our faithful Lord and God. Amen.

Our text for this second message on our stewardship theme “Maturing as Stewards Through Faith, Love, and Hope” is taken from 1 Thessalonians 1:3 which reads: “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ”

God’s love in Christ often prompts people to undertake the most unusual, often irrational, courses of action. For example, Paul wrote to the church at Corinth about the believers in Macedonia. A great affliction creating severe poverty had come upon them. What this affliction was is not clear. Whatever it was, it produced in these believers a most unexpected response. Listen to how Paul described it in 2 Corinthians 8: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” (2 Cor. 8:1-2). That’s a strange, yet amazing equation. An abundance of joy + extreme poverty = A wealth of generosity!

The Macedonian believers “went above and beyond the call of duty” in their generosity to support the poverty-stricken believers in Jerusalem. Paul goes on there to say, “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” (2 Cor. 8:3-4) Get a load of that! They themselves were poor and destitute. But what did Paul say about them. They begged for the opportunity to help. They themselves probably qualified to be on the receiving end of the gift they were collecting for their brothers and sisters in faith. Yet, there were no excuses on their part, no air of obligation; only a passionate, faith-filled love motivated their desire to help. That’s a tremendous example of how God’s love in Christ Jesus has the power to prompt even the most unexpected action.

Love born of faith is the driving force and the only God-pleasing motivation that prompts our actions as people of faith, including the stewardship of our time, talents, and treasures. We’re reminded of this in the apostle’s inspired words of 1 Corinthians 13: “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:1-3) No matter what we do — even as God’s people — if love, first for God and then for our neighbor, isn’t the motivation, then we are nothing, and we gain nothing.

Love is the most excellent way because love is God’s way, for God Himself is Love, (1 John 4:16). That’s the central part of his character. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10). The most pure and holy love prompted God’s saving action on our behalf, as the evangelist writes: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).

Love for lost and condemned sinners prompted Jesus Christ to “[make] himself nothing, taking the very form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:7-8). All this out of love for you and me so that our sins could be forgiven and we could live forever with Him in heaven. All this out of love so that we could “be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (Luther’s Small Catechism, explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed).

In the poverty-stricken Macedonian believers, the Holy Spirit created a love for Christ and His people which prompted them to “[give] themselves first to the Lord” (2 Cor. 8:5). The faith and love that prompted them to give themselves first to the Lord also moved them to excel in other areas of their lives. The same can be true for us today as well. Through the water and Word of Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Holy Spirit has made us His own. Through the power of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us, enables us in faith and love to bring our lives in line with the Lord’s desire for our living.

Yet you and I still fail to live up to the standard of perfect obedience held out by our Lord’s Word, as the Apostle James writes: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” (James 2:10). You and I cannot keep any of God’s holy laws perfectly. If we still stubbornly and sinfully seek to be justified and saved by God on the basis of our works, we would be lost and condemned forever. Paul writes: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23). And the prophet Isaiah declared: “We all have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Is. 64:6). Forgiveness and salvation are never ours on the basis of our good intentions or our best effort at doing good works.

Thanks be to God that in Christ Jesus, He demonstrated an everlasting love and mercy that prompted him to cover over our sins through the shed blood of Christ. Now, along with Luther and all others who have taken these words to heart, you can say that Christ has “redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death,” (Luther’s Small Catechism, explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed).

That same love moves us to reflect with the hymn writer:

What wondrous love is this, 0 my soul, 0 my soul!
What wondrous love is this, 0 my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul? (LSB 543.1)

God’s wondrous love for us in Christ Jesus prompts us as His people today not only to offer Him our praise and thanksgiving, but also to put our faith into loving action, seeking first to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” ... and then to “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matt. 22:37, 39).

• God’s love prompted a half-breed Samaritan to show mercy to a beaten Jew, when a preoccupied priest and a disinterested Levite walked by on the other side.
• Love prompted a shepherd to leave ninety-nine sheep behind and search for the one who was lost.
• Love moved a waiting father to forgive and receive his rebellious and irresponsible son back into the household.
• Love led our Lord to forgive and receive back to Himself one who denied even knowing Jesus, even while our Lord was on trial and headed towards the cross.

God’s gracious love in Christ prompts His people to put God first, before everything else in life. God’s merciful love in Christ spurs us to serve our neighbor without thought of personal gain or delusions of earning forgiveness and salvation. God’s giving love in Christ motivates us to be good and faithful stewards of the abundant and undeserved blessings we receive from His merciful hand. Whatever God’s love in Christ prompts you to do, “do [it] all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31). And on the day of His return, you will be blessed to hear these wonderful and inviting words of Jesus, spoken as a reflection of God’s own perfect love: “Well done, good and faithful servant ... Enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matthew 25:23).


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