Sermon from 13th Feb 2022 (Epiphany 6)

Luke 6:17-26 (ESV)

17 Jesus went down with the apostles and stood on a level place with a large crowd of his disciples and a large number of people from all Judea and Jerusalem, as well as from the coastal area of Tyre and Sidon. These people came to listen to him and to be healed of their diseases. 18 Those who were troubled by unclean spirits were also cured. 19 The whole crowd kept trying to touch him, because power was going out from him and healing them all.

20 He lifted up his eyes to his disciples and said:

Blessed are you who are poor,
    because yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
    because you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    because you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you whenever people hate you,
and whenever they exclude and insult you
and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man.

23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy because of this: Your reward is great in heaven! The fact is, their fathers constantly did the same things to the prophets.”

24 But woe to you who are rich,
    because you are receiving your comfort now.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
    because you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    because you will be mourning and weeping.
26 Woe to you when all people speak well of you,
    because that is how their fathers constantly treated the
        false prophets.

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that whatever we may be experiencing in our life, we may trust you truly bless us through faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever come across something with the wrong label on it?

For example, have you ever grabbed a jar of what you thought was sugar, and placed it in your tea or coffee or cooking, only to later discover it was in fact, salt?

If you’ve ever done so, you would have discovered your tea, or coffee, or cake, just doesn’t taste like it should!

This teaches us the important lesson that, no matter how many wrong labels you might put on a jar, you can’t change the truth of what’s inside it! You simply can’t make salt into sugar by changing a label or by making out it’s something different than it truly is!

Now, without going into the dangerous topic of debating how people are currently being encouraged to ‘self-identify’ themselves and be whoever they want to be (without being able to actually change the genetic substance of who they truly are), today Jesus challenges us by telling us our labels are often wrong and we’re tempted to believe the false labels.

This ‘changing of the labels’ has been an age-old problem which started in the Garden of Eden.

For instance, God had labelled a certain tree as ‘out of bounds’ and to eat from it would result in death. Every other tree in that Garden was labelled as ‘good for you’ and would sustain humanity if they ate from them.

But the deceiver came along and did what he does best: he started swapping the labels around!

He first questioned the instructions given by God which led them to distrust God’s word. He was effectively suggesting to them God had put the wrong label on this forbidden tree. He then tempted them to see how the fruit from the forbidden tree was in fact ‘good for them.’ They started to believe God had got it wrong and the deceiver was the only one who saw things the correct way. They saw the fruit was pleasing to the eye and good for food.

So, believing this false label, they took, they ate, and they hid from God.

You see, not only had Satan changed the label of the tree, but he had also changed God’s label. Even though God is by nature gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, the first humans now saw God as ungracious, unmerciful, vindictive, and angry. They not only hid from God and each other, but they were also attempting to hide their new labels: the labels of ‘guilty’ and ‘ashamed’.

Unfortunately, the deceiver keeps on labelling worthless and destructive things as valuable and desirable, and valuable and desirable things as worthless or destructive. He calls evil ‘good’ and good ‘evil’. Because our hearts are full of fears and desires which so easily deceive us, we keep believing the false labels, thinking a change of label changes the substance.

We’re also tempted to do this with all our experiences in life. Since our hearts so easily deceive us, we don’t know how to label, interpret, or evaluate whether what we’re going through is to be received as something good for us or not.

For example, when something goes wrong, you might ask such questions as “What did I do to deserve this?” or “Why me, Lord? or even “God, what would you have me do so that you might bless me once again?”

It’s possible you might think a church with financial problems or with small numbers is doing something wrong and we need to do something different so we can be blessed again.

Similarly, when something goes right, you might think God is rightly pleased with you and has blessed you with riches, or success, or a good reputation. You might think a church experiencing growing numbers or budget surpluses are signs God is rewarding the people for their faithfulness.

But if success and good health and growth and popularity are signs of God’s blessing for being faithful or obedient, why were the faithful prophets of the past persecuted and criticised? Why was Jesus crucified, even though he is God’s own dearly beloved Son with whom God was well pleased?

You see, God doesn’t get the labels wrong. We do, and we label many of our experiences differently than Jesus does.

For instance, just because some of you might be labelled ‘poor’ or ‘hungry’ or ‘grieving’ or ‘hated’ doesn’t change who you are. If Jesus calls you blessed, then blessed they are, no matter how you’re labelled by yourself or anyone else!

Similarly, some of you may be labelled ‘rich’ or ‘well fed’ or ‘laughing’ or ‘well-though-of’, but this doesn’t change the fact you might be in danger because these things aren’t always signs of having a right relationship with God. Many people have placed their trust in humans or the ways of the world, and yet God tells us through the prophet Jeremiah that such people, despite their apparent successes, are ‘cursed’ because their hearts have turned away from trusting in God!

Why don’t we get the labels right? Because our eyes don’t see what God tells us to see, our ears don’t hear what God tells us to listen to, and our hearts are deceptive.

The labels we place on ourselves, or the labels given to us by others, are no more real than calling salt ‘sugar’ or sugar ‘salt’. The label doesn’t change who you truly are, but it does affect the way you perceive yourself and your relationship with God.

You see, by labelling yourself poorly might make you look down on yourself and so you criticise yourself. But if you look down on yourself, you look down on a person who has been made in the image of God, who has been made holy in the waters of baptism, who bears the holy name of the Triune God, has been bought with the precious blood of Jesus, has been forgiven of all your sins, and has been promised eternal life in the kingdom of heaven!

This means, by looking down on yourself you don’t recognise and trust in the reality of the glory of God who has created you, redeemed you, and sanctified you through and through.

Similarly, by labelling yourself as being better than you truly are, might fill you with pride. But having pride in yourself might tempt you to limit the glory of God and what he’s done for you. Pride in yourself is a form of trusting in yourself and Jeremiah warns us that those who trust in the strength or the ingenuity or the abilities of humans aren’t always trusting in the Lord.

You see, instead of having pride and hope and faith in the work of Jesus through his faithful obedience, his bitter suffering, his cruel death, and his glorious resurrection, you pride yourself in your own work, or your own cleverness. Even thinking God has blessed you for being a faithful and obedient person takes away from the glory of Christ.

The trouble with labels is you’re tempted to believe them. It’s not only how you label yourself, but you might be tempted to believe the labels other people call you, such as Good-for-nothing, Know-it-all, Trouble-maker, Nosey, Do-Gooder, Rich, Good, Old, A Few Bricks Short of a Wall, or even Blessed, but the label can’t change the substance within. Similarly, you might be tempted to place unfair and critical labels on those around you which would question or deny who God says they are.

But God knows who you truly are, and he sent his Son to remind you who you are and whose you are. In fact, just like a label can’t change the substance of what’s within, neither can any other outward circumstances change who God says you are.

This means, even if you experience old age, or a lack of possessions, or sickness, or injury, and any other negative circumstance or experience (which many people might think indicates God doesn’t favour you), the kingdom of heaven is still yours.

Even if you experience an emptiness of hunger, meaning, or contentment, Jesus promises to satisfy you with his gifts of love, forgiveness, and salvation.

Even if you weep or mourn, you’ll be given reason to laugh and be joyful as you receive the fullness of Christ’s mercy and compassion.

Even when you’re insulted or criticised for your faith in Jesus Christ, your experience is compared to the faithful prophets of the past who continued to believe and trust God’s word despite their experience of ridicule and persecution.

Jesus, the One who became poor for you, who became hungry for you, who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of loved ones for you, and who was unjustly bullied, criticised, tried, and convicted to death for you, calls you blessed. And blessed you are, no matter what any other labels or experiences of life tell you.

Jesus also loves you enough to warn you not to place your trust in those good labels or good experiences which would often be interpreted by many as proof of God’s favour because of your faithfulness, obedience, or goodness.

If you’re placing your hope of God’s love on these things, he reminds you this is what the false prophets experienced. They were praised by humans because they said all the things the people wanted to hear. Unfortunately, all those good experiences, all their apparent success, and all those lovely platitudes spoken to them didn’t save them.

Now, this doesn’t mean if you’re poor or hungry or crying or insulted you’re automatically blessed, and if you’re rich or well fed or laughing or have a good reputation you’re automatically doomed.

Remember, the warning is for you not to believe a false label.

Don’t place your trust in what others say of you. Don’t place your trust in your comfort or success. But on the flip-side, don’t despair because of your bad experiences or because of your poor situation in life. Don’t place your trust in those labels which are trying to lead you away from true faith in your Lord Jesus Christ.

Believe instead that Jesus loves you and nothing anyone can say, and no experience in life, can change that.

Believe your sins are forgiven. Jesus has paid the full price for your sins through his suffering and death for you. Nothing you experience in life is punishment because Jesus paid the full price for your guilt and shame.

Believe you’re a dearly loved child of God because you’ve been baptised into Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. It doesn’t matter what surname you have or what others call you, because you bear the holy name of God. You’re his and no other names or labels can change that.

Believe this life will be full of sorrow and heartache. There will be tears, and suffering, and grief. This is the pain we experience as we learn to let go of the fragile, tenuous, temporary, and transitory things of this fallen world and learn to cling to the eternal kingdom of God with all its beauty, majesty, and splendour.

It doesn’t matter what labels or experiences you’re putting up with. God loves you, and Jesus proves it to you through his death and resurrection. That’s all you need to know and trust in so that…

…the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sermon from 6th Feb 2022 (Epiphany 5)

Isaiah 6:1-13 (EHV)

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each one had six wings. With two they covered their faces. With two they covered their feet. With two they flew. One called to another and said,

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Armies!

The whole earth is full of his glory!

The foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of the one who called, and the temple was filled with smoke.

Then I said, “I am doomed! I am ruined, because I am a man with unclean lips, and I dwell among a people with unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Armies!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, carrying a glowing coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with the coal and said, “Look, this has touched your lips, so your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.”

Then I heard the Lord’s voice, saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”

Then I said, “Here I am. Send me!”

He said:

Go! You are to tell this people,
“Keep listening, but you will never understand.
Keep looking, but you will never get it.”
10 Make the heart of this people calloused.
Make their ears deaf and blind their eyes,
so that they do not see with their eyes,
or hear with their ears,
or understand with their hearts,
and turn again and be healed.

11 Then I said, “Lord, how long?”

He answered:

Until the cities are a wasteland without a single inhabitant,
until the houses are totally deserted,
and the farmland is completely devastated,
12 until the Lord has removed the people far away,
and the abandoned places within the land are many.
13 If there is only a tenth left in it, that too will be burned in its turn.
Like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains when it is cut down,
so the holy seed is its stump.

Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may see with our eyes and hear with our ears that you are holy, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever noticed how often we like to make special and important things into something normal, ordinary, and common?

For example, once upon a time people came to church in their ‘church clothes’. Men would wear suits and ties, while women would wear their best frocks. These clothes were worn only on Sundays because attending worship at church was special. Today we’re likely to turn up in jeans, sneakers, and T-shirts which we’re also likely to wear shopping, or when we go to the pub for lunch. While it’s no sin to dress this way, is it an indication we no longer treat going to church as special as we used to?

You may know that pastors don’t have to wear their white robes and vestments, but some may choose to do so because it marks the pastoral office as something special and worthy of respect. This doesn’t stop some people from wanting their pastor to wear ordinary or common clothes like everyone else. Some people might also unintentionally demean or disparage the holy office he bears whenever they put down or criticise their pastor when he doesn’t meet their expectations.

Many people look up to sports heroes and movie stars, but we also want them to be down to earth and like one of us. We want them to be someone we can relate to and mix with. And if they ever think they’re special, we’ll soon cut them down to size through what we Australians call the ‘tall poppy syndrome’!

It seems we tend to cut people down to size, bring them down to our level, and want them to be just like us. And yet, when we discover they’re just like us, we’re likely to lose respect and honour for them!

Similarly, we seem to wear special clothes on ordinary occasions and ordinary clothes on special occasions. We make special people into someone ordinary, and ordinary people into someone special. It seems we’ve lost or confused our sense of honouring something or someone as special or worthy of respect.

Knowing we do this, how on earth are we to understand what God’s holiness is or how to react when we’re in the presence of something or someone who is holy? If we’ve lost our respect for people or things, and made them common and ordinary, what on earth does it mean to be ‘holy’?

Well, for something or someone to be ‘holy’ means it or he or she is set apart from common use as special and worthy of respect and honour. While it could be because the object or person has special qualities in and of itself, when we hear of someone or something being holy in the Bible, it’s because God himself has sanctified it or made it holy. He’s set it apart and dedicated this object or person as a special part of his plan to bless the world.

As an analogy to understand how we treat something as holy, you’ve probably got your ordinary plates and cutlery you use every day. But, when someone special comes to visit, you might use some of your special China plates or precious cutlery which has been set aside for special occasions only. You may even have them displayed in your China cabinets because they’re special to you – not only because they’re expensive or beautiful, but it could be someone special gave them to you as a gift, and you respect and honour that person by looking after these items. They’ve been set aside from common use and are only used for special occasions.

Now, of course, when we hear God is holy, it’s not that he was once a common god who we’ve chosen to set aside as someone worthy of respect and honour. It’s because he’s supremely holy and is the source of all holiness. Only God is pure, innocent, and holy. In fact, he’s holy, times holy, times holy! This means he’s the measuring line or standard by which we judge our own holiness, purity, innocence, and cleanliness.

Unfortunately, we always fall short. We live too much like the common people of this world to be holy. We’re too selfish and self-seeking to be holy. We’re too judgmental and critical of each other to be holy. We’re too quick tempered when things don’t go our own way to be holy. We’re not gracious and merciful toward those who need our forgiveness to be holy. And we too often neglect to help the vulnerable and helpless to be holy.

We’re people who like to insult, put down, joke about, belittle, and treat each other with disrespect through our criticisms, gossips, and unwholesome talk, which makes our lips unclean. If our lips are unclean, it’s because our hearts are unclean and polluted with selfish and self-centred intentions.

We don’t just speak such unwholesome talk to people we consider below us, but we also do it to those who reckon they’re above us. We cut them down to size and attempt to make people who are made in God’s image into unclean and unworthy people. We tell anyone who’s willing to listen to us as we mouth off at how bad and unworthy some people are. We show disrespect toward those made in God’s image when we show how little we value them and their opinions.

We’re not holy in and of ourselves, and the more we’re aware of God’s holiness, the more we become aware of our own unholiness and impurity, like Isaiah did in our Old Testament reading, and like Peter did as he became aware of his sinfulness in Jesus’ presence.

On the other hand, our Triune God, the Holy One of Israel, is holy, holy, holy. He’s absolutely perfect, pure, and sinless. His absolute righteousness can’t tolerate the slightest error or blemish, even if it’s unintentional. This means we can’t do anything wrong at all, say anything wrong at all, or even think anything wrong at all without placing ourselves in danger of his eternal wrath and damnation.

The good news is that, because God is holy, he makes you and I holy in the waters of baptism. God’s holy name was spoken over you and claimed you as children of a holy God. You’ve been washed clean and made innocent and pure through faith when you believe God’s promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

You’re also washed clean and pure by the forgiving words of God’s authorised servant who declares your sins forgiven and removed from you for the sake of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. As your sin and guilt is pardoned and removed from you, you become holy and pure and innocent through faith.

Not only this, but because your mouths defile yourselves again and again, and other people’s mouths defile you (as some of the mud thrown at you sticks), you humbly come to receive God’s holiness as you receive the holy body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Aware of your sinfulness and unworthiness, you come forward thinking ‘Woe is me because I’m a lost and condemned person because of my impure thoughts, words, and actions!’ But God touches your lips with Christ’s holy body and pardons your sin. Christ’s holy and innocent blood enters your bloodstream to wash your guilt from your hearts and transform your selfish will into an obedient will which submits to God’s words and ways.

In this way, you never possess God’s holiness, but you receive it from him as a gift. But like all gifts from God, it’s not just for your own personal benefit, but in order that you may serve as God’s instrument of blessing to those around you.

He’s called you to be his holy people who share the goodness and holiness of God with others. You do this when you proclaim and enact the gospel of Jesus Christ in your daily lives.

For example, when you confess your sins before God, and in the presence of those you’ve sinned against, God makes you holy through the forgiveness of your sins. People can see the holiness of God at work among you when you humbly admit your need for God’s grace and mercy and cleansing. As you let God’s Word expose your sin and you receive God’s cleansing through the gospel, people will see the changes in your words and actions as you repent of those harmful ways and now faithfully let God’s Word direct you on how to live holy and humble lives as God has made you holy.

Similarly, when you forgive as you’ve been forgiven, that is, when you share the holiness and innocence of God with those around you as you’ve been made holy and innocent through Christ’s forgiveness, the people you’ve previously judged and criticised become special to you once more. You not only see them as people made in God’s image, but as you forgive their sins for Christ’s sake, you consider them as people who have been made holy and innocent by God once more. Your reconciliation with fellow sinners is the way you get to share God’s holiness with those around you!

This is how Jesus taught his disciples to be fishers of men. He didn’t teach them to be perfect or expect everyone else’s perfection, but he taught them to forgive, to be merciful, and compassionate. He taught them to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Of course, like Isaiah would discover, this holy gift of forgiveness and cleansing won’t always well received. People would see him and listen to him, but they wouldn’t comprehend what he was saying to them because their ears were blocked to the good news, their eyes were blinkered to the truth, and their hearts were calloused and no longer sensitive to the hope God was offering them. Many won’t respond very well to God’s Word and ways, including God’s own people.

But this was never to stop the servant of God from preaching the fullness of God’s Word to those whom God had sent him to. God remains holy even if his people don’t live according to his holy ways. His holy Word won’t remain empty and ineffective, but that doesn’t mean it will always work in the ears and eyes and hearts of the people around us in the time we want it to.

God can’t become any more holy than he is, and he can’t become less holy than he is (no matter what we wear to church), but we may learn to treat God as holy. We may learn to listen to his holy Word rightly, see him working in our life as he cleanses us from sin and changes us to be more like him in word and deed, and he may guide our forgiven and forgiving hearts so that our will is submissive and obedient to God’s own holy will.

We, the people of God, are made holy by God through his holy Word and Sacraments. Because we recognise God’s holiness, we honour and respect him as our holy God. We also learn to share the holiness of God with those around us, not because they deserve it, but because God is holy, and he’s made us holy so that we may share the blessings of his holiness through forgiveness and reconciliation.

And in this way, may the peace and holiness of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.