Sunday, November 29, 2015

Nativity Stories: The Farmer and the Shepherd

It's hard to believe that Advent is here again! Now that Thanksgiving has passed us by – and hopefully we paused to be thankful, and we're still thankful, “giving thanks in all circumstances” whatever they may be (1 Thessalonians 5:18) – we can set our sights firmly on the next celebration around the corner. Christmas is coming. Get ready! That's called Advent. But why is Advent important? Why don't we just call it Shopping Season? Traditionally, Advent was a lot like Lent: a time of fasting and repentance. That may seem strange to us. We connect Advent with joy, with celebration, with singing Christmas carols before their time's come. But there's something to the idea of Advent as a Nativity Fast. Advent is a time of expectant self-denial. The whole church calendar is meant to help us appreciate the great events of salvation-history as it unfolds in Jesus, and Advent is there to remind us that Jesus didn't just pop into the little town of Bethlehem one day at random. No, for the entire span of thousands of years covered by the Old Testament, the believing world had watched and waited in desperate yearning for the day Jesus would arrive.

But why was it so important for Jesus to come at all? Wasn't the world doing just fine without him? Aren't we just fine without him? The Christian answer is no – obviously no! But why does the Bible's Nativity Story matter so much that such a big chunk of the year is devoted to thinking about it? Why is Christmas such an important holiday? I'd like to suggest that the Bible answers that question in a long and roundabout way. The Bible doesn't have just the Nativity Story. It's littered with nativity stories, in the plural. If we want to appreciate what the Nativity Story means, we might do well to ask what the nativity stories mean. Through that long season of waiting described in the Old Testament, plenty of important babies were born into this dark world. How do their nativity stories explain what's so great about the Nativity Story that's coming?

The start of Genesis really says it all, as to why we need Jesus. The world was meant to go one way, and we chose to take a peek at what's behind Door #2. We were offered paradise, a pure world to build up and make truly perfect in obedience to God, and we gave in to temptation's voice when that old snake suggested God was holding out on us. If we'd listened to the sweet voice of the Father instead of the hissing trickery wrapped around that tree, all the nativity stories in the Bible would be a lot different, wouldn't they? But that isn't how we acted. Instead of God's vision for the world, we substituted our own. It's like God handed us a snow globe, and we dropped it off the roof. The order of God's good creation was shattered on the ground. Instead of being on the track to a world of paradise, it was back to the drawing board. Nothing was left untouched. Nativity has never been the same. God warns that children won't come easily into the world, and they won't be born into sinless families. Childbirth will happen painfully in the midst of painful circumstances – painful children to painful families (Genesis 3:16). Even so, childbirth – nativity – is the gateway to salvation. It's the woman's offspring, the Promised Seed, who, when injured by the serpent, will crush his head once and for all: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). That's the answer to the curse: the Promised Seed. God never tells Adam and Eve how long they'll have to wait.

Now, we could debate 'til the cows come home, and then some after that, how Genesis relates to the biological history of the human race – what it means to call Adam the first human, whether the story is straightforward history or a summary in symbols or something in between. That might make a fun Sunday School class someday, but what's important for right here and now is that the first nativity story that the Bible's sacred history recounts isn't a nativity of Adam. Genesis gives him an origin story, but not a nativity story about entering the world in the vulnerability of infancy. We don't get a nativity story for Eve, either. The first time the Bible actually describes someone being born, it happens east of Eden, in an already thorny land to fairly thorny people. The first nativity is a child being born to parents who squabble, parents who blame each other, parents who live through hard labor and might neglect their kids or make mistakes raising them, parents whose worries keep them up at night. The Bible's first nativity story is a child born onto a painful earth.

The first baby whose nativity is set forth in the Bible gets the name “Cain.” We all know Cain's story and how it turns out. But that name, “Cain” – where does it come from? Remember, names in the Bible have meaning. “Adam” means “human being,” and “Eve” means “living.” So the man Human and the woman Life bring this first baby into the world, remembering God's words spoken right in front of them about the fact that the tables will turn on the serpent because of a child born to the woman. Is this the one, the promised one?

Eve names him “Cain,” which she explains by saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Genesis 4:1). “Cain” sounds like the Hebrew word for “I-have-gotten,” or “I-have-acquired,” “I-have-purchased,” “I-have-possessed.” Eve is still enthralled by what the serpent offered her: to be a god, someone on God's level, one of God's peers, a law and authority unto herself. Eve's statement is all about what Eve does. Sure, God helps, but Eve portrays herself as an equal partner with him. She is Cain's co-creator. Cain is her achievement: something she acquired, something she purchased or achieved, something she manufactured. Eve looks at her little baby with a technological mindset, like she's an inventor whose ingenuity produced her own salvation. The future comes into the world through her labor: she's created it.

And Cain's whole lifestyle was forever afterwards marked by this same mindset of acquisition, wasn't it? He accumulated crops; he wanted to trade some for God's favor. It shouldn't matter which part, as long as it's the right percentage, as long as he's calculated the exchange rate well enough. That's what Cain thinks: that sacrifice is cosmic bribery, a negotiation in the marketplace. Cain refuses to understand that God's favor can't be bought or earned with actions; God's looking at his heart, his attitude, and Cain wants to keep this relationship strictly professional. So when God refuses to give Cain a return on his investments, Cain is furious: he put in the effort, but didn't acquire anything for it, and in his mindset, that's all that matters.

Cain reacts by eliminating the competition – maybe out of pure jealousy, maybe as a human sacrifice, trying to bribe God one last time. Doesn't work, but that won't stop Cain from caring more about what he can get than about his own flesh and blood – unless it can be sold. Cain leaves the presence of the LORD, sent away to live a life where he owns nothing (Genesis 4:16) – but in the very land of wandering itself, he insists on accumulating all he can: wife, kids, a city, builds civilization, founds a dynasty (Genesis 4:17). Cain goes and lives the American Dream. And a lot of the time, we live in imitation of Cain.

Advent is here to remind us that we live in a Cain-world, a world where our natural tendency is to view things in terms of acquiring or possessing. Ever since the Fall, human civilization has been built on the bedrock of getting, grabbing, seizing, owning. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps – that's Cain's motto. Get it while the getting's good! The measure of a man is what he owns, what he does, what he makes, what he leaves behind him. That's Cain's world. Building a better world with smarts, brawn, and elbow grease – that's Cain's vision. He builds the first city; his line runs down to Lamech, whose children are the ancestors of all who play musical instruments or work with metal tools. The ingenuity! But Lamech is Cain on steroids: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Lamech will be avenged seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24). Lamech is the first to treat wives as things to accumulate, to take and seize and collect and own (Genesis 4:19). That's where Cain's mindset leads: everything can be measured in dollar signs; everything is possible with works. What matters is what you own, Cain says. That's what his mama taught him, whether she meant to or not.

That's the world we see around us, isn't it? That's how people behave – sometimes, how we behave. We can't help ourselves from tacking Black Friday on the back of Thanksgiving – can't settle down and give thanks before we're already dreaming of what else we could have, what else we could acquire. We yearn for power, we long for control. We want an orderly world where we can customize what we get out of it by what we put into it. If we want blessings, we pop a token sacrifice into the slot, and out they'll pour – just like clockwork. We want a world where we can manage our own salvation with careful planning, following a step-by-step guide. We want a world where we can protect ourselves from disappointment or danger by following a few simple rules. We want a world we can engineer to our liking, a world whose problems can be solved with the resources we have at hand.

That's all Cain ever wanted, and that's all Cain – and most of us – have ever tried to accomplish. In the end, Cain's story was one of ownership – tragic ownership, not by Cain, but of Cain. God warns Cain that sin is very eager to get him, to own him (Genesis 4:7). Sin anxiously desires to say, “I have gotten this man.” And Cain, in his selfish wrath, in his pity party or temper tantrum or what-have-you, declined to put up a fight against it. Cain, thinking of the world as acquisition, thought it no big deal to let sin acquire him; to sell his soul at a discount price. In Cain's world, everything's for sale, even Cain. That's his bottom line.

But there's more to the story than Cain and all he means. The second nativity – maybe you'd say it's part of the first nativity story, just the second act – is the birth of Cain's younger counterpart, another son, the second one born in sacred history: Abel (Genesis 4:2). “Abel” – can you believe that name? It makes you wonder what went through Eve's mind after Cain's birth, that she and Adam changed their tune so much since then. “Cain” – that was all about self-assertion, accomplishment, the limitless power of human might and ingenuity. But the second boy's name abandons all that pomposity. “Abel” is a familiar word in the Bible, especially in Ecclesiastes: “Abel, Abel, everything is Abel!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Ecclesiastes is all about an Abel-world. Abel, hevel – some Bibles translate it as “meaningless” or “vanity.” More precisely, it's “mist” or “vapor,” the kind you might see early in the morning. It's your visible breath in the winter: there before you for a moment, but don't bother trying to catch it or hold onto it, because it dissipates in moments. It's impermanent. It doesn't last: “Where the name Cain speaks of grasping after divinity, then, the name Abel signifies the transient nature of human existence” (Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters [2014], page 193).

Abel's name is a humble, even pessimistic commentary on the fallen world, now that Adam and Eve have experienced more of it, seen it more truly. It's pointless to be obsessed with acquiring, with getting; pointless to brag about what you've done. Everything is hevel: nothing lasts. “Surely everyone stands as a mere breath” (Psalm 39:5). “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16). “Vapor, vapor, … everything is vapor! What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3) – what good is all the tedious work to scratch out a living, all our vaunted claims to have power to reshape the world on our terms? “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vapor” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23). “A generation goes, and a generation comes” (Ecclesiastes 1:4), and “what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). And all of it “is vapor and a shepherding of the wind,” a fruitless task (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Even kingship, everything we could dream of in this fallen world imagined as a closed system, “also is vapor and a shepherding of the wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:16). “There was nothing to be gained under the sun” from all the luxuries and all the work we could do in an Abel-world (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

And his name proves prophetic, doesn't it? Abel, the Vapor with hands and feet and face, is first of the human race to blow away. One well-placed rock to the back of the head, and Abel is gone, no longer part of this world. That's how fragile human life is. That's mortality. Abel is proof that Cain won't last, that Adam and Eve won't last, that no one and nothing lasts – not anything or anyone they get, not anything they achieve. Words spoken around a fire at night – gone. The fields where Cain tilled the soil and raised his crops – gone. The sheep Abel held in his arms when they first came into the world – gone. Everything is mortal, everything is fragile. Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is certain. That's a fallen world, alright.

And Cain and Abel together – their meanings, I mean – really do encapsulate a fallen world: nothing lasts, everything is falling apart and unstable, yet we can't shake this desperate thirst to acquire. We can't stop grasping, clutching. The more we see that nothing lasts, the more anxious we are to cobble together something to hold on to. We try to brew immortality in a lab; we try to chisel our legacy in stone. The best victory we can dream up in a dreary world of sin is to die with the most toys, as they say: to live it up like Cain until Abel's fate catches up to us all, and we blow away like dust in the wind.

If Cain and Abel were the whole story of our world, we'd have no Advent hope. Advent would be like Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot: standing around, waiting endlessly, and nothing ever shows up, no event of importance ever happens. If Cain and Abel were all the story, there'd be no story, there'd be no plot. But keep reading past the list of all Cain's descendants and their legacy of culture-making triumph. Go further, past the conspicuous gap where you'd read of Abel's faithful sons and grandsons, had Abel lived long enough to have any. And there you'll find the only way out of these doldrums, an avenue that might just complicate the world's story and make it interesting again. You'll read of a third nativity that reminds us there's more to the universe than meaningless drudgery under the sun. There's more than grabbing, more than vapor; there's more to life than pointless misadventures in shepherding the wind.

Eve bears another son, the centerpiece of this third nativity story. And he gets the name “Seth” – why? Let Eve herself explain it: “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, for Cain killed him” (Genesis 4:25). “Seth” sounds like the Hebrew verb for “he-has-appointed.” See, back when Eve named Cain, her thoughts were focused on what she did – on her own power, on her own greed. She was the star, she was the lead role on history's stage, and God was a supporting character there for her own benefit. When Eve named Abel, her thoughts were on the world around her, and how little they looked like a stage at all. There were no stars, no roles, whether lead or supporting – the plot had broken down, and that's all she could see.

But when Eve, with tears in her eyes over Cain and Abel, went on to name Seth, she rediscovered the real plot of the story. And she saw that she wasn't the star. Neither was Seth. The star was God. She doesn't explain Seth's name by saying, “I did this,” or “I did that.” She says, “God has appointed...” Seth's meaning, his purpose and identity, were anchored from birth in something beyond the sun, in the Love that moves that sun and all the other stars, as Dante might say. And notice, Seth wasn't obtained, or acquired, or bought, or owned. Seth has no price. Seth isn't technology. Seth is made in Adam's likeness, which reflects the image of God, the representation of God's continued involvement in our otherwise pointless world (Genesis 5:1-3). Seth was appointed. Seth was a gift. Cain's story was a story of works. Seth's is a story of grace – grace, the only hope beyond greed and beyond vapor, beyond Cain and Abel.

With Seth, Eve had realized something about God's promise. With Cain, she'd thought she could will the Promised Seed into existence – that with her own power, she could reach up to heaven to bring the promise down (Romans 10:6). With Abel, maybe Eve despaired of all hope. But after all that tragic mess, God trusted Adam and Eve – who'd raised one son and found him a killer, and raised the other son to die where they couldn't protect him – with new life, a new baby. And in that moment, Eve realized that the Promised Seed would only come – would certainly come – by grace, by God's appointment in God's time by God's means and method.

Until then, all there is to do is to wait patiently, expectantly and faithfully for the advent of the Promised Seed. Like Seth, the Promised Seed would come by God's appointment. Like Seth, he'd be God's answer to what sin has killed in us and stolen from us. Unlike Cain, he'd be free from the clutches of sin – sin would have no mastery over him. Unlike Cain, he wouldn't grasp or cling. The Promised Seed wouldn't be about acquiring, owning: instead of boasting in his power, he wouldn't see his lofty station to mean a lifestyle of grasping greedily to hoard all he could, but he'd empty himself, humble himself, to a life of exuberant generosity (Philippians 2:6-8). He'd practice his own preaching that giving is grander than getting (Acts 20:35). Like Abel, the Promised Seed would be slain. But instead of crying out for vengeance, his blood would cry out for God to forgive a foolish world (Hebrews 12:24). And unlike Abel, the Promised Seed, even though slain, would be permanent (Hebrews 7:24), for “death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). Even against the backdrop of a Cain-and-Abel world, “whatever God does endures forever” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

The Promised Seed would answer a Cain-world with humble peace, replacing anger with joy and retaliation with love. He would answer an Abel-world by being the Source of a lasting world to come. The Promised Seed would be the solution to all this darkness. But Adam, Eve, and Seth had to wait. If we want to really appreciate the tremendousness of Bethlehem's manger, we'll wait with them – just as we still wait for Advent #2, no longer a Nativity Story, but the return that ends all Cain's violence and greed, pacifies and resolves Abel's outcry for justice, and leaves standing a whole kingdom that can't be shaken (Hebrews 12:28). Maranatha – “even so, come, Lord Jesus! The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Revelation 22:20-21).

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Whole-Hearted Thanksgiving: Sermon on Psalm 111

Happy Thanksgiving! Or at least, Thanksgiving Day is coming up in a few days. Can you believe it's here again? So many of our holidays in American culture have become watered-down parodies of themselves. To many people, Christmas isn't a celebration of the birth of the King of Kings; it's a time to enrich ourselves with newfound loot, and to mouth clichés about universal love and cozying up with your family through the winter. Easter becomes a celebration of chocolate and rabbits. And what about Thanksgiving? Is Thanksgiving just Turkey Day – a time to stuff ourselves full and then keep eating and finally doze off while relatives bicker over whether the Eagles can beat the Lions?

Or does the name 'Thanksgiving' give us a clue? It's literally a day set apart for giving thanks. But thanks to whom? To each other? That's all well and good, but throughout history, days of special thanksgiving have been set apart to thank God for some blessing or gift that he's given to a people. But which god? People give thanks to plenty of gods – the gods of themselves, the gods of their hard work, the gods of fortune, or simply unnamed generic gods of their own fancy. But the psalm we read is all about thanksgiving, and there's only one God worthy of thanking: the LORD, Jehovah, Yahweh. He's the God who made heaven and earth. He's the God whose works are great, glorious, and majestic (Psalm 111:2-3). This is a tough God, a strong God, a capable God! But he's also “gracious and compassionate” (Psalm 111:4) – not just tough, but good; and not just good, but actually invested in us. This is a God who's active: the whole psalm is about his works, his deeds, things he does. This God doesn't sit around on the sidelines with a bucket of popcorn. This God is involved. He's a glorious, gracious, active God; he's just and dependable (Psalm 111:6); and he's decisive: his deeds are forever (Psalm 111:3, 5, 9). He does them in public for all to see (Psalm 111:6). And there's just no end to all his righteousness, his constant yearning to rescue us and repair us and renew us in true freedom. That's the kind of God the psalmist wants to thank with his “whole heart” (Psalm 111:1).

But why should we give God our whole-hearted thanks? Why does he deserve it? Why is it good for us to give it? The hundred-and-eleventh psalm mentions four reasons. First, “he sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever” (Psalm 111:9). On top of everything else, before anything we might say, is this blessing, this great and immeasurable gift: he sent redemption. And we know that, don't we? The psalmist may have been thinking of the exodus, or maybe God's protection of Judah against the Assyrians, or maybe return from exile in Babylon. But in the light of the new covenant, the one that really does last forever and ever, we know about the Greater Exodus – not the rescue of the Hebrews from Egypt to escape slavery to Pharaoh, but the rescue of Jews and Gentiles like us from the dominion of darkness to escape slavery to sin: “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). We know about the greater deliverance – not shielding Judah from the Assyrians, but shielding us from the fiery darts of the evil one, and even from his own righteous anger at sin by interposing King Jesus on the cross. We know about the greater return from the greater exile: once far from God and dead in sin, once banished from Eden with the flaming sword blocking the way back, in Jesus Christ we've been made alive and brought near to God again (James 4:8), and we've come to the heavenly Mount Zion where the tree of life stands (Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 22:2). Why should we “neglect so great a salvation” as this, which outshines anything the Old Testament saints knew or dreamed (Hebrews 2:3)?

We don't just know about it in the abstract, as if it were something that happened long ago and we read about it in the pages of a history book, or watched it in a documentary. It may have happened at Calvary, but it happened to you and to me. Our lives are created by it, consumed by it, captivated in it. To an undeserving and ungodly mess, the Father sent redemption in the person of his Son, who marched to the cross to fight a battle we couldn't fight, to pay a debt that we couldn't pay and he didn't owe. But he had you in mind; and when you were saved, you were every bit as redeemed as you would've been if you'd bowed the knee to Jesus three seconds after he cried out, “It is finished!” We live this redemption! It's how we became his people. No wonder Martin Luther thought of this as an Easter psalm. Be thankful.

Second, we should give God our whole-hearted thanks because “he provides food for those who fear him” (Psalm 111:5). And that's so true in a few different ways, isn't it? I mean, Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, at its heart. Whenever the early settlers sat down with their native benefactors, relieved that famine was over and God had shown his smiling face again, that's what we think of as the First Thanksgiving in our nation's history. It was all because God provided food, dispelling months of anxiety, months of teetering on the edge of extinction, waiting and wondering whether they'd live to see the flowers of spring.

It's hard to appreciate this if we've never gone through food insecurity like they did, like millions in the world even today still do – genuinely not knowing if they'll starve to death before the seasons turn. But on Thanksgiving, we try to get into that mindset of the Pilgrims, try to be as thankful for the bountiful table spread before us as they were to feast and see the faithfulness of God with their eyes and taste its deliciousness on their own lips. Even today, we can be thankful for a good harvest, for the fresh revelation that God will not abandon us to the pangs within our stomach, the wasting away of our own flesh. It doesn't come to everyone. Millions around the world still face the threat of starvation, still yearn for their daily bread that never seems to come. God wants to make this word, “He provides food,” true for them as well – and he wants to do that through us.

But for Christians, those words have a deeper meaning than turkey and cranberry sauce, deeper even than a holiday pig stomach and a heap of sauerkraut. Delicious as they all are, we can give thanks with our whole heart for an even greater meal. God feeds us, yearns to stuff us full, with two delicacies – his holy Word and his holy Sacrament, with his revelation to fill our souls and with the body and blood of his Son to cure us of our walking death. That's better than any ham and yams you'll see on Thursday. You can feed, strengthen yourself, on the Word of God – he's provided it for you. You can feed on the very bodily presence of Jesus Christ; you can have fellowship with God by eating the holy sacrifice that sealed your redemption. And what did the early Christians call that meal? “Eucharist,” “Thanksgiving.” Don't miss the Thanksgiving that comes more than once a year.

Third, we should give thanks with a whole heart because “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who practice it have a good understanding” (Psalm 111:10). God redeemed us, God gives us what we need to sustain our bodies and souls for the journey we're on, and now the psalmist reminds us that God doesn't set us loose to navigate by our own broken compass. God gives us wisdom, skill at navigating life. And if we put that skill into practice, we won't just sort of understand; we won't just get by, as though we're faking it. We'll actually have good understanding. Life won't mystify us quite so much if we flex wisdom's muscles, if we give wisdom some exercise in our lives. And where would we be without wisdom? Lost! Wisdom is how to figure out which path is the strait and narrow one, which twists and turns to tread, what perils to avoid and how to overcome the ones we can't. God gives the gift of wisdom for the faithful asking (James 1:5). Be thankful.

And fourth, we should give thanks with a whole heart because God “has shown his people the power of his works in giving them the heritage of the nations” (Psalm 111:6). Remember, God hasn't set us loose like a bunch of cockroaches scattering in the harsh light. We are not random. We are not an aggregate of unrelated and disconnected critters scurrying around haphazardly! God redeemed us as a people, as a united and cohesive body. He feeds us as a body so that all the parts can have strength. He gives us wisdom to function as a body, as a people. We are “a holy nation, God's own people” (1 Peter 2:9). And God has settled us and given us a great inheritance.

Of course, part of that is an earthly home. While he asks us not to get attached to it, we can be thankful that we have somewhere to rest our heads at night. Most of us have pretty nice homes, large homes, by the standards of most countries. If you've never been in a typical house in a foreign land, let me assure you that even the smaller ones of ours look like palaces. We take up a lot of space here. God gives us a home; but he reminds us that we're “strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

But this verse means more. God didn't just promise his people a little parcel of their own soil. He promises to give us the heritage of the nations – plural. God redeemed us in Jesus Christ, God feeds us along our journey, God gives us wisdom to navigate life, and God pledges himself to prosper what we're here to do, to disciple all the nations of the earth. The difference between the old covenant and the new one is that the new promised land is worldwide. We don't conquer it and seize it through force. But he asks us to disciple the people who live there, all of them, in the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus, and to steward all earth's land to be a lively place, a life-blessed place, a kingdom-of-God place.

And the verse means still more, this promise about the heritage of nations. We may be strangers and foreigners on the earth now, but we're “seeking a homeland,” we “desire a better country,” the home that God is storing up and getting ready (Hebrews 11:14-16). Gap, Intercourse, New Holland, Kinzers – those aren't home. Lancaster County isn't home. Pennsylvania's not home. America's not home. The earth as we know it isn't home. We're looking for an eternal place – fully redeemed earth, the earth where Jesus reigns supreme and has made all things new, that is home! And God promises that. It isn't something we have to daydream about but will never happen. It's a promise, an assurance, one that we will see, when our mission in a fallen world has run its course. Be thankful.

God redeems us in Jesus Christ; God feeds us with physical sustenance and with his holy Word and with the sacrifice of his Son; God gives us wisdom to navigate the journey we're on; God gives us shelter now, and blesses our purpose to disciple the nations, and promises us an eternal homeland to come – if we aren't thankful for all that, if we aren't meditating on that when the turkey's hot and juicy, then we're missing the whole point. But how are we supposed to give whole-hearted thanks for all of this?

First, remember that “the works of the LORD [are] studied by all who delight in them” (Psalm 111:2). If we delight in any of these things he's done for us, we should study them! That's not something we say or do often, though, is it? Do we really believe that studying is a form of thankfulness? But it is. Says so right here. In fact, it's essential to thankfulness. Don't just take a surface-level acceptance of what God has done. Really dig into it, see how it works, explore! Delve deeper into God's works, appreciate them in their full measure. Study the things God has made: the sun, the moon, the starry heavens, the mountains, the trees, the fields and valleys, the plants and animals and the rocks they stand on, and all the things in the rivers and oceans and in you and me. Study the redemption that God gave you: really contemplate the ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus and what it means. Study the Word of God that feeds you. Study the wisdom that God grants you. Study the nations you're called to disciple. That's the first step of whole-hearted thanks.

Second, follow the psalmist's pledge: “I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (Psalm 111:1). Thanksgiving is not a small thing, and it's also not a private thing. The psalmist doesn't say, “I will give thanks to the Lord in a vacant parking lot.” He doesn't say, “I will give thanks to the Lord in my kitchen when I'm home alone.” He intends to thank God for his blessings when other people can hear him and be moved by it! After all, God “shows his people the power of his works” (Psalm 111:6). God is a public God! So if God wants to display his works publicly, why should we get in the way? Thanksgiving is public. It informs, it trains, it moves, it leads others to give thanks! Our thanksgiving is how God sweeps up others in praise.

Third, while the psalm doesn't say this outright, do you think the psalmist would spend so much time talking about what God's works are like if he didn't think those would be good for us to be, too? The third key to whole-hearted thanksgiving is to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). The psalmist knows that God is “gracious and compassionate” (Psalm 111:4). And that's a common theme in the Old Testament: “The LORD, the LORD, God gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). We can thank the gracious God by also being gracious. We can thank the compassionate God by also being compassionate. Be slow to anger, be abounding in love.

If God is always faithful to his covenant (Psalm 111:5), we can be faithful to him. If God provides food for us, we can share that food with others – whether it's the food on our Thanksgiving table or the food of the Word of God. If God is just and trustworthy, if God is steadfast and upright, so should we be (Psalm 111:7-8). He's a God who makes the sun rise on the wicked and the good, who sends soothing rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45), and he asks us to “always seek to do good to one another and to all” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) – do good to Republicans and Democrats, do good to Americans and Syrians, do good to Christians and Muslims and atheists, do good to homeless veterans and to refugees fleeing black-hearted butchers, do good to your annoying neighbor and that one family member who won't stop criticizing you, do good to all. Because that's what God would do in our shoes. That's what God did do when he stood in human shoes on the dirt beneath our feet: he spurned his own safety, he gave himself to welcome us in, homeless and scarred, lost refugees from sin's dire savagery. To give whole-hearted thanks, we need to imitate him – not pretending we could ever equal him, but being entranced by the beauty of his character, so in love with his goodness that we're inspired to let him transform us. Now that's thanksgiving!

And fourth, we can give whole-hearted thanks by doing it forever. The God we're thanking is a God of forever, and his gifts are built to last. “His righteousness endures forever” (Psalm 111:3), he is “forever mindful of his covenant” (Psalm 111:5), “he has commanded his covenant forever” (Psalm 111:9). This isn't a God who changes his mind. This isn't a God who patches up our broken souls with duct tape and Elmer's Glue! This is a God whose actions are forever. They don't fall apart. They don't get revoked. Your redemption will never come unglued by your stumbles. The feast of God's Word will never leave your belly empty. God's wisdom may send you down over rough and rocky terrain, but it will always lead you where you're meant to go, if you follow it with study and understanding and faith. And God's mission will never die; it prevails already against all the gates of hell can muster.

So to God belongs “eternal praise” (Psalm 111:10). Not praise that's for sunny days and clear skies. Not praise with an expiration date. Not praise that comes and goes with the setting of the sun or the shifting of the wind. Eternal praise. What Paul means when he tells us to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing, to give thanks in all circumstances, because that's the will of God in Jesus Christ for each and every one of us (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). We can give thanks in all circumstances because no matter what happens in life – no matter whether we have a job or lose one, no matter whether we're healthy or sick, no matter whether our loved ones are flourishing or being lowered in a casket – no matter what happens, the things the psalmist mentions remain the same.

None of those things can erase our redemption; none of them take away our food for the journey; none can deprive us of godly wisdom; and none of them irrevocably derail our mission or burn down our eternal homeland. None of them make God unrighteous. None of them take God's mind off of his covenantal commitment to us in Jesus Christ. So hard times may come. So will light times. But whole-hearted thanksgiving means that even when the table's empty, even when your uncle shows up drunk and your brother-in-law starts a brawl, give thanks to God even still with all your heart. “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him” (2 Corinthians 2:14). Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Blessed to Bless: Sermon on Genesis 12, 1 Samuel 3, and Zechariah 8

The old man had three jobs – each one a heavy enough burden in its own right. Before the mobs ever cried out for a leader over the nation, he had been a leader within the nation – a judge, leading the people in military victory and then traveling in a constant circuit, seldom resting, until he had sifted out the truth in every dispute, however minor. He poured his God-given wisdom into the lives of those around him. On top of that, he led his people in worship. Raised at a holy shrine, he knew what he was doing. He built altars, he offered sacrifices. He went to God on behalf of the people, bringing a gift; he handed the gift over to God to be consumed by God's holiness; he brought it back to the people as a sacred gift exchange; and so the people were blessed to dine with the divine. That's worship, that's what a priest is all about. And if that weren't enough, he held down a third full-time gig as a prophet, a seer. You want to hear what God has to say, you go to this man. He has the inside scoop. You watch what you say around him, lest you learn more than you bargained for! But he teaches the whole nation. It's plain as the nose on his face that the LORD is with him, that the LORD will “let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Samuel 3:19). And so this prophet's word “came to all Israel” (1 Samuel 4:1). It blesses the entire kingdom because of this one man's obedience, because this one man's attitude was: “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him” (1 Samuel 3:18).

How does a career like that get launched? He's prime minister, he's megachurch pastor with a nation-sized congregation, he's an inspired social critic – how did all that happen? Rewind the clock, turn down the pages of the calendar, retreat into the mists of history – and you'll see a boy, handed over by his parents to the care of an aging priest named Eli. The two of them live in God's presence: the holy box, the ark of God, is there in their midst on this holy ground (1 Samuel 3:3). And though the word of God is rare (1 Samuel 3:1), is it any surprise to hear a voice in the dead of night? Is it a shout? Or is it, more likely, a whisper? “Samuel! Samuel!” The boy hears it once, runs to Eli, mistakes the call of God for one human voice among others. He needs discernment. “Samuel!” He hears it again, makes the same mistake. “Samuel!” The third time is not the charm. Eli pieces together the mystery, knows that something beyond the normal is afoot, traces the footprints of an Intruder who invented the thing we call 'universe' (1 Samuel 3:4-8).

A fourth time the voice calls out – not just calls out, but the LORD actually stands there, right next to the boy's bed as he waits in the pitch-black darkness. “Samuel! Samuel!” And what does the boy say? What are the right words in the face of God's sudden call? What's the answer when God wants our attention, when all is dark but he wants to make his presence known, when he has a destiny stored up for us? “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). In other words: “You're LORD, I'm servant, I'm ready to both learn and obey, please proceed.”

Too often, that's not how we answer. Too often, we're stuck at the first stage: mistaking the LORD's voice for that of Eli – at best! We expect God to stay far away. Or, too often we despair in the dark of the night and think that if it's dark, then God isn't there. Doesn't he dwell in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16)? Wouldn't all things shine if he were near? But here we see what the cross confirms: that amidst the dark night of our souls, God may very well have drawn nearer than we can imagine; that unbeknownst to us, when we weep in our darkness, in our God-forsakenness, he could be within an inch of our soul, poised by our bedside, whether he speaks or whether he waits in the stillness of silence and invites us to rest with him there.

Or, too often we answer by saying, “Don't speak, LORD, for your servant has had enough already!” We aren't ready to receive. We look at ourselves, and we're smugly self-satisfied that we have things quite well enough figured out. We know what we're about, we've jotted down our daily to-do list, we've got a calendar full of appointments and amusements, and life is stable. When the LORD calls, he may well destabilize things: God is disruptive of all our false order, all our managed chaos; he speaks an order we don't recognize, and to hear him call and promise to listen may be an offer of grace too costly for our warped tastes.

Or yet, too often we answer by saying, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is curious.” We'd love to get an audience with God. We have so many questions! We're curious about so many things! Wouldn't it be great to unravel the great mysteries of your life – understand all the whys and all the hows, all the whos and all the whats? Wouldn't it be so wonderful, in other words, if God made himself available to serve our agendas – to confirm our theories and our speculations, to fork over all the trivia we'd like to collect, to download knowledge into our brains, so that we could sit back, prop up our feet, and grin in the delight of information acquisition?

None of those answers belong on Samuel's lips. Again, what does he actually say? “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). In the blackness of the night, when heaven and earth and shrine are gone, when everything joyful lapses into invisibility, Samuel recognizes God there. When God calls out to him, Samuel recognizes that God is offering something good, something that may alter the course of his life but which he nevertheless needs. Samuel doesn't tell God to go away or bid God to keep silent. Samuel pleads with God to do what God wishes – to speak. And when God is offering his word, Samuel isn't merely curious, isn't preparing to treat a divine revelation as a museum showcase to hang on the wall of his mind and admire from time to time. Samuel is ready to listen, to act, to obey; ready to not just let the word of God fall on his ears, but to pass it along to others, to spread it around as God directs. In the words of this morning's hymn: “Lord, speak to me, that I may speak / in living echoes of thy tone.” And so begins a career where “the word of Samuel comes to all Israel” (1 Samuel 4:1), not a syllable falling lifelessly to the dirt (1 Samuel 3:19) – because Samuel first heard that word from God and then shared it. The only reason Samuel could bless his nation with his words was because Samuel first was blessed by God's word at his bedside. And Samuel knew that he'd been blessed with God's word with a purpose of blessing the whole nation with the same message. Samuel had been blessed to bless.

Now turn back the clock again, watch the centuries rewind. Shiloh zooms into the future, the lineage of Samuel and Eli reverses course, until they wind back to one man, standing in the desert with his clan. Called out from house and home, he'd packed his bags and booked a one-way ticket with the destination redacted. Introducing Abraham, or the man who becomes Abraham. Not quite a spring chicken: he's seventy-five years young when his saga even begins unfolding! We like to think of Abraham in his final form, as the perfect example of faith – a man ready to trust God with anything, even the life of the promised heir Isaac. But the truth is that Abraham's story is an epic of the slow development of his faith.

Up until that close call atop Mount Moriah, where the faith of Abraham is proven even in his own eyes, Abram gets encouraged in his faith – and then mistrusts God in some pretty daring ways. No sooner had God called him, asking him to exercise that initial mustard-seed of faith to become an immigrant in a strange and foreign land, than Abram tricked the Egyptians, fearing that God wouldn't protect him there (Genesis 12:11-20). A few chapters later comes that wonderful sentence, the one Paul quotes with glee: “He believed the LORD, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Here's a man with flawless faith... right? Well, God then gives Abram another promise, that his family will own the land – and how does Abram answer? Do we read again that Abram's faith is reckoned as righteousness? Abram promptly asks God, “How can I know for sure?” (cf. Genesis 15:8). In other words, “Convince me, God; you can't just expect me to take your word for this one!” Abram's faith has a long way to go.

The next chapter unfolds, and Abram gives in to his wife's proposal to try to help God's promise along, take some shortcuts, make things easier for God. And so Ishmael comes into the world in an effort to manufacture God's blessing through human ingenuity (Genesis 16:1-12). Next chapter, God's blessing Abram again, renaming him as the Father of Many Nations (Genesis 17:5), reiterating his promise – and the newly minted Abraham laughs in God's face (Genesis 17:17). Two more chapters, and has Abraham learned from a couple decades earlier when he tricked Pharaoh? No, he does the same thing in Gerar that he did in Egypt (Genesis 20:1-7). Not until after Isaac's birth do we eventually see Abraham's faith flourish into full maturity. The Bible is shockingly honest that this kind of faith took a lot of time and a lot of work; it wasn't built in a day.

But alongside the story of Abraham's growth in faith is the story of his struggle to live into his vocation. To our ears, he doesn't come across very well when he tricks Pharaoh and then Abimelech, telling them lies of omission that lead to Abraham getting rich of their backs (Genesis 12:16; 20:14). Abraham gets blessed at their expense. But that isn't what Abraham was called to do, is it? That isn't God's purpose for his life. With what words did God call Abram in the first place? “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). Why did God bless Abraham? Why did Abraham get all these promises from God? God himself spells it out: “So that you will be a blessing!” He wasn't meant to just bless himself. He wasn't meant to prosper at the expense of his neighbors. He was meant – and ultimately did, through the maturity of his faith – to be blessed to bless.

Abraham's descendants often forgot that, every bit as much as we do. The prophets had to consistently remind the people that God wouldn't give up on them ultimately, but also that God was holding them accountable to the same task he gave Abraham. The LORD said through Zechariah that he'd settle his people back in their true home, in the real Zion, where “they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness” (Zechariah 8:8). So far, that sounds great – for them. But he also encourages them – literally, exhorts them to courage – by saying that just as they'd been cursed by the nations, so now they would be saved with a purpose: “I will save you, and you shall be a blessing” (Zechariah 8:13).

And what does that look like? “Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true; and make for peace” (Zechariah 8:16). Be an example that truth, justice, and peace all go together, that they are possible when God is present; and when the nations see that God is present, they can be drawn there for a blessing, they will say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:23). Israel was blessed mightily throughout the whole Old Testament – but their chosenness wasn't something to hoard, something to brag about, something to enjoy in the lap of luxury while everyone else toiled away in valleys of envy. Israel was blessed to bless, to be “a blessing in the midst of the earth” (Isaiah 19:24).

Isn't that how God works? God almost never blesses anyone exclusively for their own sake. There are a few possible minor exceptions, like Paul's trip to the third heaven or like praying in tongues without an interpreter. But you'd be hard-pressed to find many places in the Bible where he blesses an individual or a group for only their own sake, or maybe even primarily their own sake! God doesn't save us just for us. God doesn't glorify us just for us. God doesn't teach us just for us. God doesn't enrich us just for us. Forget that, and everything is just shades of the prosperity gospel. Remember, Paul reminded the Corinthians Christians that they had been enriched to be generous (2 Corinthians 9:11), and his advice to thieves to start working didn't end with, “so that you can feed yourselves honestly,” but, “so as to have something to share with the needy” (Ephesians 4:28). “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance,” but the purpose is that “you may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). God doesn't bless you just for you. All his gifts are meant for gaining-together (1 Corinthians 12:7). And it's a life like that, that makes people cling to us and say, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:23).

Truth be told, churches don't see that often, do they? How many congregations frequently see people clinging to the members, begging to join them? Not many. And we aren't one of them. But why not? Hasn't God blessed this church? Every person who truly belongs to this church has been blessed by being snatched from sin's grasp and raised up from death to life; blessed by being drawn into the life of God's love that existed before the world began; blessed by being seated in high heavenly places on thrones; blessed by being made kings and priests to our God and Father; blessed by being filled with God's life, the Holy Spirit, to live through us; blessed with encouragement, with growth in virtue, with spiritual gifts aplenty. And we've been blessed with a beautiful building, blessed with gainful employment or the lingering benefits of past labor, blessed with homes and food and clothes – blessed with the riches of earth and the riches of heaven. We've been blessed to hear God's word, to learn the truth; we've had the riddle of existence unfolded before our eyes in Jesus Christ. We're blessed to have the ear of the King of Kings, and to dine at his table with him and to eat the sacrifice of praise. We “who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed” (Galatians 3:9).

And yet... And yet we aren't attracting the needy, those who crave the blessings found here. There are more important things than numbers: better to be small and deep than broad but shallow. But the truth is, when we think about what time in our congregation's history was the most blessed, few of us think of right now. Why was that then and not now? Could it be that we've lost sight of why we're here? Could it be that we as a church have a tendency – like so many churches – to consume our resources internally, to cater to our own wants and serve our own needs? Could it be that we act in practice like these blessings are all primarily for our benefit, and so God knows he can't yet trust us with anything more?

We sit here on a Sunday morning, we bid the LORD to speak to us through his word, and we hear what God has to say – but what practical difference does it make on Monday, or Wednesday, or Saturday? Not just, “How does it change us?”, but, “How does it bless them?” – them, those people whose paths we cross, or whose paths we might cross if we were sensitive to God's voice and did as he said? That's what this church is here for. This church does not exist for the benefit of its members. The church exists to glorify God and to bless the world, and our purpose is no exception. If we as a church aren't spreading God's blessings to neighbors near and far, then we're forgetting that we're blessed to bless. If you read our church newsletter, you might recognize this quote from Richard Bauckham, in my opinion one of the greatest living scholars of the New Testament:

God never singles out some for their own sake alone, but always for others. So the church should be the community from which the blessing of Abraham, experienced in Jesus, overflows to others. The church should be the people who have recognized God as he truly is in God's revelation in Jesus, and therefore make that revelation known to others. The church is those people who, so far, acknowledge God's rule as he is implementing it in Jesus and live for others in the light of the coming of his kingdom in all creation.

Operation Christmas Child is the tip of the iceberg, a token of what should be a persistent way of life. As it's been said, the church doesn't so much have a mission, as God's mission has a church to carry it out. We exist for the sake of the mission, and our options are two and only two: either live out our blessed-to-bless mission and make it the measure of all things, or else exist in vain and run on fumes until we break down. I can't promise that Option #1 is an easy thing; but we don't have to bless others in our own unaided power – God will bless us to make it possible.

What does it look like, in our day and in our place, to be blessed to bless? Maybe it means sharing the sermon's lessons with those who didn't hear it. Maybe it means being a patient and proactive listener to those with burdens, and then taking them to the throne of grace through the access wherewith Jesus blessed us in him. Maybe it means giving away half your possessions to people you've never met. Maybe it means opening your spacious home to those with nowhere else to turn or go. Maybe it means seeking out those who frustrate you, who infuriate and exasperate you with all their sins and all their prickliness and all their weaknesses and bad habits, and embracing them as they are, just as God first welcomed us as we were, with all our sins and all our prickliness and all our weaknesses and bad habits. “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).

Maybe, in the wake of the recent abhorrent terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, it means going to our Muslim neighbors in this county, and treating them as we'd want to be treated if wicked men perverted our faith that way, and pledging to use our voice to stand with them for peace against the pervasive politics of fear. Maybe it means actively seeking out the lost, the untouchable, and bringing them love and grace rather than judgment and exclusion. We have a whole community to care for: “By the blessing of the upright, a city is exalted” (Proverbs 11:11). Maybe it means all this and more.

I have a challenge for you as individuals and families and for us as a church. Go home today, and between now and next Sunday, start to write a list of the blessings God has put into your life right now. Your house, your food, your clothes, your car, your family, your friends, your job, your money, your time, your daily decisions, your very body and mind and soul; all the blessings you have in Christ; the skills and gifts God has given you. If you have trouble, ask those who know you to help you. But make an actual list – a literal one on paper. As you do, go through and ask yourself this question: “What did God give me this for? How does he want me to steward it to glorify him and bless others?” Bathe it in prayer, scrutinize it with the word of God. Pray, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” And as you begin getting a sense of the possibilities, commit to actually act on them, as the Spirit blesses you with wisdom for each day.

As a church community, let's pray that same prayer, let's make that same resolution. If we bring our lists all together, if we let Jesus open our eyes to the possibilities of life as parts of one and the same Body with one and the same Spirit, who knows what will happen? Who knows where God will take us, what God will make of us? But it isn't going to happen through our own inertia unless we first make a move to follow Jesus, the one Man who most undeniably lived his whole blessed life to bless us. That's what he was all about. That's how he defined his life. His body was broken for us, his blood was shed for us, his soul bore the burden of sin for us, he rose again for our justification – and he calls us his Body on earth now. Don't let this be another speech to occupy a few hours on a Sunday morning and then forget it. As the New Zion, God has saved us to be a blessing. Let Jesus redefine your life, our life, as a living, walking, breathing blessing. Let his mission have you, have you unreservedly. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:17). “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:18)! So let's obey it and go a-blessin'. Amen.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lessons from a Gospel Veteran: Sermon for the Sunday Before Veterans Day

Close your eyes and picture it. The eleventh hour, eleventh day, eleventh month, ninety-seven years ago. Men and women of every nation were weary and exhausted – and relieved. Less than six hours earlier, eight minutes changed the course of history – eight minutes of men in a train car signing their autographs to seal the end of four years of wasted blood and broken dreams. And now the paper's points would be a reality. Soldiers could let the sun beat down on their unhelmeted heads; they could drop their rifles in the mud, unafraid. The fighting was done. Mothers, wives, sons, daughters had hope to see their long-imprisoned loved ones again. Out of the valley our forefathers climbed, and over that final crest sloped the straight path to sweet peace. President Wilson lauded the heroism of those bold men who strove for “peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” The war that ate all the earth was put to rest. Looking back on that day, Congress approved its anniversary as “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.” And, standing tall and going home that day, bearing the burdens of war's horrors but at last freed to go rebuild the world they'd left behind, went veterans of that well-fought fight.

Now, pan to a still older scene. In or beneath the dirty streets of Rome sits a cramped cell where rests a weary veteran of a different sort. It wasn't his first time bound in chains. Four years ago, he'd been in chains in this same city, forced to plead his case to the king. Though no one came to his defense, he escaped the lion's mouth. He made an expedition to Gaul, maybe reached Spain, until word reached him that his life's legacy was put in jeopardy by traitorous men. Exhausted from his labors, he went back – Crete, Macedonia, Nicopolis, Miletus, Troas – and finally set his face like flint and marched on Rome again. Dark days had come. The king had lost his mind, given way to savagery. And so this veteran was arrested again, thrown in a cell, and condemned at last.

Here he sits, awaiting the day scheduled for his head to roll through the streets – the time for his departure is near (2 Timothy 4:6). Here he sits, shackled by chains, under a guard's contemptuous eyes. But Paul doesn't despise the guard. He, too, is a soldier. He calls his colleagues Epaphroditus and Archippus his “fellow-soldiers” (Philippians 2:25; Philemon 1:2). He didn't enlist at his own expense; he was bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20; 9:7). Pressing forward, he fights with divine armor under the kingdom of God's banners against spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:10-18; 2 Corinthians 10:3-4). He's a soldier. And he's a battle-tested veteran: he's already “fought the good fight,” and he's waiting for the laurel-crown of righteousness to be placed on his head, the ancient Purple Heart and Medal of Valor all in one (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

He doesn't fight with sword and shield in hand; he's fought a divine fight by fearlessly preaching the gospel. He's taught about the grace of God that saved us “not because of anything we had done,” a grace “given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Timothy 1:9). But that grace rolled onto the scene in history when God sent down a Deliverer to rescue us from our sins, from all our dead works. And that Deliverer, that Savior, Jesus Christ, won an awesome victory: he “destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). That's the good news. And putting that good news into practice, fighting the good fight to implement Christ's victory, is how this veteran has spent the last thirty years since defecting from the enemy forces.

Christ made him a general, and now look at him. He sits in his cell, “chained like a criminal,” loudly dictating notes to a secretary who'll piece together a rough draft of what Paul's saying. One conviction motivates them: “The word of God is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9). And over the course of weeks, as the clock ticks down, Paul will correct it until it's done: one last letter from the great gospel general to his dearest young captain and the troops under his supervision. Five-star General Paul knows that Captain Timothy has already “proved himself” by consistently serving the cause of Jesus Christ instead of his own interests: “As a son with a father, he has served with me in the work of the gospel” (Philippians 2:22). Now the time is short, and in one last letter, General Paul wants to remind Captain Timothy what it means to “be a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3). But this letter was saved, copied, preserved, handed down through time, because all the troops need to hear what it has to say. So what are the traits of a good good-news soldier?

First, a good soldier is focused on a steadfast mindset. He retains healthy words. Two of the greatest challenges facing our military today are licentiousness and despair. On the one hand, some soldiers may easily imbibe an atmosphere of frat-boy-style partying while off-duty so as to vent the stresses of their lives. It's no wonder that harassment and assault rates are so high, higher even than among civilian populations. And on the other hand, the leading cause of death among actively serving American soldiers today isn't being killed in combat. It's when despair and trauma lead soldiers to take their own lives. Those are the biggest threats our servicemen and servicewomen are facing. And what could take the sting out of both? Healthy words. Healthy words mean healthy attitudes. Healthy words cut through the fog of a licentious culture. Healthy words give comfort and hope to those who've seen what no man or woman was ever made to see. Healthy words are the answer – or, as General Paul calls them, “sound teaching” (2 Timothy 1:13).

The same is true for a soldier of God's kingdom. A soldier of God's kingdom needs to retain all these “healthy words,” the teaching passed down from the apostles, with all the comfort and all the challenge they bring. They are the standard, the measuring rod, that keeps us committed to the cause and on-point with the mission. They bring faith, hope, and love to life (1 Corinthians 13:13). That's our mission, because it's God's mission. He isn't here to serve our agendas. His kingdom come, his will be done, on earth just as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10) – and his will is that we live in glorious love and lead the world in worshipping him, 'til the glory of the LORD covers the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). That's God's vision for a healthy world, the world the healthy words of the gospel set forth. And all the devil's schemes from the gates of hell aren't going to withstand us as we march on in the Spirit's power!

Second, a good soldier is strong and bold. When I think of the military ideal, I don't think about a bunch of men cowering at home under their desks. I don't think about men marching toward a yawning foe. No, a good soldier is strong – that's what all the training is for, to build up the muscles and discipline needed for the job, whatever that may be. And just so, a good-news soldier is “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1). A good-news soldier's strength isn't mustered up from within his internal reserves. Those run dry. But the grace of God, his benevolent, shining grin and hands open with many a gift – that never runs dry. And you'll find that kind of grace every time you go to Jesus Christ. He'll supply you with what you need. We can face any kind of situation – being “well-fed or hungry, living in plenty or in want” – through Christ who gives us strength (Philippians 4:13).

And a good-news soldier is bold. “The righteous are as bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1)! General Paul himself says, “We are very bold” (2 Corinthians 3:12). But like our strength, that doesn't come from ourselves, from our natural personality. Not all of us are outgoing, not all of us are social butterflies – I know I'm neither of those things. But whenever the Acts of the Apostles describes Paul as “speaking boldly,” it's something that the Holy Spirit does in and through him (Acts 4:31; 28:31). And that same Spirit wants to work boldness in us. God didn't give us a Spirit of cowardice, a Spirit of fear, a Spirit of being timid. “Be courageous, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13)! No, “God did not give us a Spirit of cowardice, but rather a Spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). We have power not to hate, but to love; not to wreck, but to build up; not to dominate, but to serve; power to strip away sin with the Spirit's sword (which is the word of God [Ephesians 6:17]) and to set the captives free for healthy life. And we have power to live with self-control.

That's another key trait of a good soldier: self-control, self-discipline, sober-mindedness. That laser-like focus is what the military's all about. More than physical strength, that's what all the training is for: to achieve that kind of discipline and order. A good soldier doesn't live like he's drunk: “a warrior wakes from the stupor of wine” (Psalm 78:65). A good soldier isn't scatterbrained or distracted when he's on duty. A good soldier is all-in for the mission. A good soldier is fully committed: everything he does is fixated on what will lead to that goal of victory. That mission and its objectives are the final measure, and he knows it. We're on duty as good-news soldiers. Are we willing to recognize the kingdom's mission and objectives as the final measure? Are we committed to making our every action serve it? That's what we're enlisted to do. We need to be sober-minded and self-controlled. We need soldierly discipline for Christian living. We need to be perpetually equipped with the full armor and armaments of God, “so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes” (Ephesians 6:10), ready in season or out of season (2 Timothy 2:2), “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground” (Ephesians 6:13). And we need to be forever “alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord's people” (Ephesians 6:18).

Third, a good soldier doesn't shrink back from enduring hardship for the sake of the mission. That's what General Paul tells his captain: “Keep your head in all situations, and endure hardship” (2 Timothy 4:5). He says to Timothy, “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). The life of a soldier isn't easy. Plenty of you know that from experience. A soldier doesn't live in the lap of luxury. A soldier doesn't dine on caviar and well-aged cheese. A soldier is down there in the dirt, doing hard labor, sometimes facing bullets or explosions. A soldier suffers, and a soldier doesn't turn back. A good soldier doesn't do what Paul said his former fellow-soldiers did: “All who are in Asia have turned away from me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes” (2 Timothy 1:15). Those soldiers went AWOL – absent without leave. A good soldier doesn't go AWOL. A good soldier toughs it out, endures hardship without complaining about it – not inviting pointless suffering into his life, but facing whatever difficulties the mission calls for and going through them anyway. That's what a good-news soldier does, a good soldier of Jesus Christ: We take our shares in suffering for the sake of the mission we're on. Maybe that means bearing with it when a fallen world steals our loved ones. Maybe that means giving when it hurts to give. Maybe that means going without something we want dearly but which would risk corrupting us and leading us astray. Whatever it is, a good soldier endures hardship. “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” a soldier of Christ (Luke 14:27). But “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12).

Fourth, a good soldier lives a soldier's lifestyle, apart from civilian affairs. A soldier's lifestyle isn't like anyone else's. Civilians don't live with the discipline of a soldier. And soldiers don't meddle in all the frivolities and luxuries of civilian life. Soldiers have to focus, even at the expense of the many agendas and causes a civilian can serve. Just so, General Paul tells good-news soldiers to abstain from civilian affairs – literally, the practices of this life. Too often, we live like civilians, as if we're no different. We ignore our rations of Word and Sacrament and go out to eat at this culture's banquets. We campaign for this or that – things that have nothing to do with our mission, and what's worse, we throw our military clout behind it. We bicker, we get tied down. We weren't made for that. We weren't called to that.

Don't let this world's way of practicing life entangle you. God didn't just save us. He also “called us with a holy calling” (2 Timothy 1:9). A holy calling, a holy life, means a life that's different, a life that's set apart for a mission. We aren't aimless. We aren't drifting through life. We aren't just existing from day to day. It can feel like that sometimes, can't it? That there's no overriding purpose to what we're doing? I've felt that way, when I've been furthest from God. God has a purpose for you. He has a mission for you. Never doubt it. He has a mission for all of us together. And that mission isn't meddling in civilian affairs. It's a holy calling, a separate path, “for God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” (1 Thessalonians 4:7). Live as a good soldier.

And fifth, a good soldier is devoted to serving in these ways to please his Commanding Officer. “The soldier's aim is to please the commanding officer” (2 Timothy 2:4). Just who is our true CO? Am I the CO? Thank God, no! Is the President of the United States our CO, as believers? Same answer. Is our CO Billy Graham or Rick Warren? No. What about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? No. They didn't enlist us in this, and they aren't the ones we have to please. Jesus Christ is our Commanding Officer. And make no mistake, he's the best Soldier there is. He's “the LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8). “The LORD is a man of war” (Exodus 15:3). “The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves” (Zephaniah 3:17). And Revelation gives us a picture of Jesus as the One Faithful and True who “judges with justice and wages war” (Revelation 19:11). He is our Commanding Officer, riding into life's battles for us and with us – so “don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). Just trust your CO and do as he's told you.

The take-away is that we need to please our Commanding Officer. We need to be the “troops willing on his day of battle,” all “arrayed in holy splendor” to serve our Lord and King (Psalm 110:3). We, too, just like General Paul and Captain Timothy before us, are called to “fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:18-19). We, too, are called to “fight the good fight of the faith” and to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12). Because there's a war going on. And the devil has already taken so many people “captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26). Anger and hostility won't set them free. Neither will resentment. They can only come to their senses if they're “gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25). But in that gentle instruction is how we wage war on the devil: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Some of you are both kind of veterans – a soldier of Jesus Christ, and also a soldier of your nation in a time of need. For those of you who've served well in the armed forces, thank you. You know that not everyone out there shows the proper respect for what you've done. Not even in the church. Thanks to some modern theologians like Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and others, “Christian pacifism” movements are on the rise, movements that condemn all military service as evil. In seminary, I personally saw some fellow students sneer at signs thanking veterans. While Yoder and the rest have some merits to their criticisms of American attitudes about war, in reading the Bible I can't accept their extremes.

Paul himself, that great gospel veteran, made clear that the military can serve a valid and God-ordained purpose in this fallen world: “Rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). Even the traditional Anabaptists didn't deny that the military was good; they just thought it was a kind of lesser good off-limits to Christians. And even among the early church leaders who weren't comfortable serving in the pagan Roman army, they all shared the burden of praying for that same army. They knew that not all military force is violent, even if so much even of our own is these days.

But if God trusts us to wield the sword of the word of God, surely he trusts us to hold weaker swords justly and rightly, if we can. One modern theologian wrote that “the aim of a just war is that the unjust enemy will turn from their wicked ways, make amends, and rejoin the community of peace and justice.” That doesn't sound so foreign to the gospel to me. So if that's what was in your heart, if that's what you sincerely sought to do, if you were following St. Augustine's advice to “be a peacemaker even in war” as a soldier, then veterans, don't be discouraged when anyone disparages the honorable service you gave.

And yet our greater fight is fought with otherworldly weapons, and in the kingdom of God's cause we don't wage war as the world does. Paul himself said that: “Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4). They're higher weapons for a greater fight – a struggle “not against flesh and blood” but “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” and within our own hearts (Ephesians 6:12). And (dare I say it) Jesus enlists us as troops in a force even nobler than any army, any navy, any air force that this world has ever seen. “Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). God's Word says that there's something even better, even nobler, even more dignified than a soldier in great victory – and that's a patient person with discipline, a person who “waits upon the LORD” (Psalm 37:9), on “the Mighty Warrior who saves us” (Zephaniah 3:17). And that LORD is Jesus Christ, the only God who so perfectly offers perfect “peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”

Even better than being a veteran soldier is being a person who patiently trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation and is called to a holy calling. Better than a veteran of this world's wars is a veteran of the kingdom's war on the devil. And a soldier of Jesus needs to live with discipline as a disciple. And here's how discipleship gets passed on: “What you have heard from me and from many witnesses, entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others well” (2 Timothy 2:2). That's it, that's what it takes. Avoiding “profane chatter,” we explain the word of truth in the right way (2 Timothy 2:14-15), and we teach others how to be shaped like the kingdom, how to live the life of a kingdom soldier, while we do that very same thing ourselves, trusting in our Commanding Officer every step of the way. That's what it takes. So “proclaim the message. Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable. Convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching. … Always be sober. Endure suffering. Do the work of an evangelist. Carry out your ministry fully” (2 Timothy 4:2, 5). Those aren't my words; they're Paul's. Imitate this veteran gospel general as he imitates our Heavenly Commander-in-Chief (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:16). Be “a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3), of the one who enlisted us before the foundation of the world. Long for Christ's final Victory Day at his glorious appearing, and so earn the Medal of Honor waiting in heaven for you (2 Timothy 4:8). Onward, Christian soldiers!