Ready, Set, Go! – Sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5 for Septuagesima.

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1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Paul compares the Christian life to a sporting event. They didn’t have the best sport – baseball – in Paul’s day, but they had sporting competitions. The city of Corinth, in particular, hosted a series of games every other year called the Isthmian Games which were the second most famous athletic competition in the world after the Olympics. The events included racing, wrestling, jumping, boxing, javelin, discus, and even poetry. Thousands of athletes would show up to compete in the events, and throngs of people would come to watch. The winners of each competition would end up being famous throughout the Roman Empire and get statues and monuments. isthmean-games-celery-crown.jpg
But the immediate reward, the prize they got right after the competition, wasn’t a gold medal placed around their neck. No, they got a wreath made of dried, withered celery. Yes, celery – that vegetable that is tasteless when you eat it alone but ruins every dish you add it to.

I can just imagine the first guy to win. He ascends the podium while the crowds cheer and receives his celery wreath. He holds it and thinks, “Celery? I get celery? I thought I was competing for a salary.”

To compete in the games, athletes would be required to devote ten months to training. They had to focus their complete attention on their training, give up any bad habits, and even had to give up things that weren’t bad in general but were a hinderance to their training. The competitors had to have the will and self-control to let go of anything that would distract them from winning first place. And when it was time to compete, they had one goal – finishing first.

Paul takes the imagery of those athletes who wholly dedicated themselves to training, running, and winning a perishable wreath of withered celery and says, “You, Christian, should have even more dedication to receive the imperishable prize of forgiveness and eternal life.”

Now, this analogy Paul is using is good and beneficial, but all analogies have their limitations. So, we have to pause for a moment here to make sure everything stays clear.

One limitation comes when Paul says, “all the runners run, but only one receives the prize.” In the Christian race, all believers win the prize. It should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. It isn’t as though only one person will be saved. If that were the case, Jesus wins period and no one else. His perfect life and perfect obedience in thought, word, and deed have never and will never be matched. Not even close.

Another limitation to the analogy is that you aren’t saved because of your work, your training, your dedication, your self-control. This has to be clear – if you don’t get this, you will completely miss the point of this entire text, this sermon, and the whole Bible. Salvation isn’t earned or deserved. You don’t earn eternal life by being better than most people. Getting a “C” in “Morality” doesn’t cut it. You’ve probably heard the joke about two guys (we’ll just say Sven and Ole) who are camping in the forest. Outrun the BearThey see a bear eyeing them and licking its chops. Sven looks over at Ole who is bent over tying his shoelaces. Sven says, “Ole, do you really think you can outrun a bear?” Ole pulls the laces tight, stands up, sniffles and says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.” Salvation is not like that. You aren’t saved because you are better than most people. You are saved by grace alone through faith alone by Christ alone.

But here is the point Paul ismaking in these verses. You can fall away. Salvation can be lost. And if you don’t take salvation seriously, you are like an athlete who shows up for a race but has no plans of actually competing to win. Paul points to Israel’s ancestors (whom we heard about a little bit in the Old Testament text [Ex. 17:1-7]). Of the six-hundred-thousand men plus women and children who were brought out of Egypt by God’s mighty hand, only two of them – only Joshua and Caleb – got to enter the Promised Land. All of them had been given physical deliverance, physical food, physical drink. But they had also been given spiritual deliverance. They had been given a type of Baptism. They were given spiritual food and spiritual drink directly from Christ who gives water that wells up to eternal life (Jn. 4:13-14; 7:37-38). But with most of them, God was not pleased, and they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Because faith and salvation can be lost and because so many were overthrown in the wilderness, you need to run after the prize of eternal life. Discipline yourself. And that doesn’t mean that you give yourself a spanking or something like that if you sin. No, discipline yourself in a way that keeps you from running headfirst into sin.

If you know that you are prone to falling into sin when you go to that certain place, when you hang out with that crowd, when you drink too much, or when you surf the internet late at night, have the discipline to refrain, to stay away, from those things. In other words, don’t get lazy about your sin. Practice self-control. Do all of this so that you aren’t running aimlessly, so that you don’t box as one beating the air, or so that you don’t get disqualified. This text is exhorting, urging, prompting, and prodding us to good works and to live as Christians.

But with all that said, I need to confess something. The more I am told to do a certain thing, the less I want to do it. It is too easy to look back on how I’ve failed in the past. My failures and sins easily haunt me, and it is tempting to give up. Maybe you have the same problem. That is what Paul is addressing in this text. He wants to focus us on the imperishable prize so that we keep working, keep striving, and keep pressing toward it.

The Bible is constantly pushing us forward toward the prize, but we are too often looking back at our past sins and failures. And those sins and failures get us down and discouraged so that we are tempted to give up even trying. We can’t do that.

So, what’s the answer? What will motivate us to do good works and live as Christians? Don’t look back at your failures and sins. Forget them. Know that God has forgiven your sins through Jesus’ cross, death, burial, and resurrection. In Isaiah 43:25, God says, “I am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” Or Jeremiah 31:34 where God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Because God has forgotten your failures, you don’t need to dwell on them either. Paul uses similar language in Philippians 3:13–14. That passage is in your Scripture insert. Listen to this: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Your past failures and sins are just that. They are in the past, and they are forgiven and died for by Christ. You have received the entire forgiveness of all your sins, and you are about to receive the very Body and Blood of Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins. Believer, every promise of Scripture lies before you. The eternal party, the never-ending feast of God lies before you. It is a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. There, God will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces (Is. 25:6-8).Augustine on 1 Corinthians 9_25.JPG

Listen to what Christ Himself says is your goal, your prize from Revelation 2-3: To the one who conquers, God will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. The one who conquerors will not be hurt by the second death. The one who conquerors will be clothed in white garments, and Jesus will never blot his name out of the book of life but will confess his name before God the Father. The one who conquerors will be made a pillar in the temple of God. And the one who conquerors will sit with Jesus on His throne (Rev. 2:7, 11, 3:5, 12, 21).

Christian, this is your goal, your prize, your imperishable wreath. And it is worth running for. Ready? Set. Go! Amen.

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


The Lamp & the Darkness – Sermon on 2 Peter 1:16-21 for the Sunday of the Transfiguration of Our Lord

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2 Peter 1:16-21

transfiguration-icon16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Peter, James, and John saw Jesus do many amazing things. Just think back on the sermons from the last few weeks. They were there when Jesus (according to John), “manifested His glory” by turning water into wine (Jn. 2:11). They saw Jesus touch a leper, and, instead of the disease spreading from the man and infecting Jesus, the cleanness of Jesus spreads to the man and his leprosy was gone (Mt. 8:1-4). They heard Jesus speak a word to heal a centurion’s paralyzed servant (Mt. 8:5-13). They were in a boat that was being swamped by the winds and the waves, and Jesus tells that storm to knock it off resulting in a great calm (Mt. 8:23-27). Peter, James, and John would see Jesus feed the masses, give sight to the blind, and raise the dead.

But, when Peter looks back on everything that Jesus did, and when Peter wants to let people know the truth of the Christian faith, Peter points the people to whom he wrote this letter to the Transfiguration. There on the holy mountain, Peter says he saw the power, the coming, and the majesty of Jesus with his own eyes. The Transfiguration is the greatest manifestation of the deity of Jesus. It is where Jesus’ divine nature, which He always had, shines through His human nature showing that He is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.

The truth that God Himself came down to die and rise again to save all mankind from sin is not some cleverly devised myth. It is rooted in historical fact. Peter was there. He saw with his own eyes. Peter’s own ears heard God the Father preach a very important but very brief sermon, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him” (Mt. 17:5).

So, we could summarize v. 16-18 here as Peter saying, “Listen up. Our preaching of God coming down to rescue us from sin and death is not some myth or fairy tale. We preach Jesus as the Savior of the world because we saw His glory and power and majesty. We preach Jesus because we heard the very voice of God from heaven when we were with Jesus on the holy mountain of Transfiguration.”

And the rest of this text, which is where we are going to focus most of our attention, is the meaning, the take-away, of why the Transfiguration is still important for us today. And the reason might surprise you.

Normally, we think of the Transfiguration as mainly showing us the glory of who Jesus is. The Transfiguration certainly does do that. But listen to Peter’s conclusion: Verse 19, “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention to as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The Transfiguration of Jesus does show the glory of Jesus, but even more so, according to this text, the Transfiguration shows us the glory of the Bible. Peter says here that it is better for you to have the Scriptures than for you to have been there with Jesus, Peter, James, John, Moses, and Elijah. It is better for you because the Scriptures, every last verse, show you of God’s great love for you. The shining face and dazzling clothes of Jesus point us to the shining and dazzling lamp of the Scriptures that shine in a dark place.

So where is this dark place? We might think that the lamp of the Scriptures shines in the darkness of this world. The Bible certainly does talk about the world being full of darkness and sin. In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, John writes that in Jesus was life, and “the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:4-5). That passage of Scripture says that the light of Jesus defeats the darkness of this world. Or consider Psalm 119:105, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” There, the Scriptures give a picture of the light of God’s Word giving us direction in this dark world so that we don’t stumble or go the wrong way.

But Peter seems to be saying something different here. He says to pay careful attention to the Scriptures as “a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises” – now catch this – “the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Dark HeartYou see, it’s not just the world and things outside of you that are a dark place. Your heart also has a darkness that needs the light of God’s Word. Peter doesn’t use the normal word for ‘dark’ here. In fact, the word that gets translated here as ‘dark’ is the only time in all the Scriptures where this word gets used. When I looked Greek the word up, the first definition is ‘squalid’ which is a word I don’t think I’ve ever used in normal conversation. So, I looked up ‘squalid’ and it means this, ‘foul and repulsive from a lack of care; neglected and filthy.’

Here is the picture: Sinner, your heart and my heart is a filthy, murky, dark place. Peter says that we do well to pay attention to the Word of God shining in the filthy, dirty, neglected, dark place of our hearts.

Many celebrities and influential people have been saying for a long time, “Follow your heart.” It sounds nice. It sounds good. But it is totally unscriptural. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Or maybe you have seen the little cartoon, it floats around social media from time to time. The picture is of a small child standing before Jesus and offering Jesus a red heart that looks like a nice valentine saying, “It’s all I have.” And Jesus is reaching out to take it replying, “It’s all I ever wanted.” That isn’t the picture that the Scriptures give us. It would be better if that heart were the color of dung. And Jesus says, “I’ll take that filthy, desperately sick thing from you and give you a new heart” (Ez. 36:26).

But back to Peter’s picture of the Scriptures shining like a lamp in the squalid (there, now I’ve used it), dank, neglected, filthy darkness of our hearts. We need the clear lamp of the Bible to shine through the dark places of our heart.

We walk around in a dark, dirty, and ugly house. We have all sorts of temptations within ourselves to sin. Whether it is more money, a better relationship, an image of something pleasant to look at, a bigger house, or accolades from others, we are tempted to think that those things will bring us happiness. And we are willing to do whatever it takes, whatever sin is necessary, to grab on to those things. But, when we pay attention, the lamp of the Scriptures shines in the darkness of our heart, we see – we clearly see – that those things are filthy. We see that those things are not worth comparing to the greatness of the treasures of God’s promises.

So, pay attention here because I’m going to read a long passage of the Scriptures to shine some of their light in your heart. It comes just a few verses before our text today. 2 Peter 1:3–11 (turn there if it will help you follow along) “[Christ’s] divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so Light shining in darknessnearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

This is what the Scriptures do for you, believer. They shine in your heart to give you faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love.

Dear saints, don’t be blinded by neglecting your Bible. You have been cleansed from your former sins. Grow and abound in the godly qualities that are yours through your God and Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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

Rebuking the Storm – Sermon on Matthew 8:23-27 for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

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Matthew 8:23-27

23 And when [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

After hearing this Gospel lesson, I want you to consider again these words from our call to worship because I think it sheds a beautiful light on this text:

“Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! They saw the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep. For He commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed” (Ps. 107:24-25, 28-29).

Jesus Calms the Storm Asleep in SternImagine Matthew in this storm. Remember, Matthew – unlike Andrew and Peter and James and John – Matthew wasn’t a fisherman. He was a tax collector when Jesus called him to be a disciple (Mk. 2:14). Typically, he had hands stained from handling coins all day not clammy, saltwater-drenched hands. Matthew was used to sitting in a tax booth not on the rail of a boat bailing water so that it doesn’t sink. Matthew had seen Jesus rebuke demons, rebuke sickness, and rebuke the Pharisees and religious elite. But now, in the middle of a storm that threatened Matthew’s life, the Man who had called him saying, “Follow Me,”lay peacefully sleeping and undisturbed in the back of the boat on a cushion (Mk. 4:38).

In this text from Matthew, the disciples cry out to Jesus, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” But in the Gospel of Mark, the disciples collectively ask Jesus, “Don’t You care that we are perishing?” (Mk 4:38). The folk singer Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. One of the lines from that song is, “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” Those are the types of thoughts going through Matthew’s mind and the minds of the other disciples.

Now, hold on to that thought while I change scenes.

Remember the story of Job? Job was a man who was blameless and upright. Job feared God and turned away from evil. This was what God said about Job (Job. 1:1,8). There was a day when God asked Satan what he thought about Job. And the devil replied, “Does Job fear You for no reason? Haven’t You put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has on every side? Just stretch out Your hand against Job, and he will curse You to Your face.” And God basically says to the devil, “Go for it,” (Job. 1:9-12). Then, one day Job’s servants came one after another to tell him that all his sheep, oxen, donkeys, and camels were all destroyed. Finally, another servant comes and says, “Your seven sons and three daughters were feasting together, and a great wind,” catch that, “a great wind came and struck the corners of the house and killed your children” (Job 1:18-19).

Now, who sent that wind? The devil did. Satan took control of the wind and used it to bring down the house where Job’s children were. But, and you have to remember this, Satan could only do that because God had given the devil permission to do so.

One more scene change. Bear with me.

Think back to our Old Testament lesson (Jon. 1:1-17). Jonah was told to go and preach to Nineveh and call them to repent of their sins. But Jonah turned tail and went the opposite direction. He boards a boat in order to flee from God’s presence. Verse 4 says, “But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.” God sent that wind. God sent the storm. God sent those waves.

So, God can send a wind to come after Jonah, and God can allow the devil to send a wind to do harm. Now, the question is this: who sent the storm in this Gospel text? Was Satan sending this storm to try to drown Jesus or to cause the disciples to doubt Christ? Was God sending this storm to cause the disciples to trust in Jesus more than they had before?

Well, honestly, we don’t know. But that, dear saints, is the point. Either way, whether the devil was behind this storm or God was, God was in control of the whole situation even though it seemed like He didn’t care and was sleeping. At a simple word from Jesus, the winds and waves stopped, and there was a great calm. And this miracle causes the disciples to marvel, “What sort of Man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?”

In the midst oFranticf that storm, in the middle of the wind and the saves and terror, Jesus asked the disciples, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” This question from our Lord’s lips confronts us today. What are you afraid of? The devil may be behind the things you fear. Satan may want you to enter “emergency mode,” “crisis mode,” “God doesn’t care and is sleeping mode.” The devil wants nothing more than to rob you of the peace and security that comes from being a child of God. So repent. The devil is very cunning and dangerous, but he is also totally and completely predictable.

But what is God doing in allowing you to experience those things that you fear? Why is God permitting Satan to do these things to you? That is an unanswered question in the Bible. If there was an answer in Scripture, I’d be more than happy to tell you, but the Bible seems to be more interested in keeping that answer from us. We know why the devil knocked the house onto Job’s children, but we aren’t told in the whole book of Job why God allowed the devil to do it. We might think that God sent the storm upon Jonah in order to get Jonah to Nineveh to preach and call those people to repent, but there may have been even more reasons that we are completely unaware of as well.

We aren’t told what God is doing when we are in the midst of trials and tribulations. But we can know with confidence, that whenever God sends storms and trials our way or when He allows Satan to send us trouble and tribulation, we know that God has nothing but our best interest in mind. We know because Scripture tells us that God works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Ro. 8:28). Scripture says, “Count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Ja. 1:2-3 see also Heb. 12:6-12, 1 Pet. 1:7, Rev. 3:19).

Here’s the main point. When you are faced with trials, temptations, and crosses you are tempted to think that God is sleeping. You are tempted to think that He doesn’t care and is totally apathetic toward you and your plight. Don’t look at your troubles and try to gauge what God thinks about you.

Jesus Cross Heaven & EarthIf you want to know what God thinks about you, you need look no further than the cross. While you were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for you (Ro. 5:6,8). If you are going through a storm of sickness, a storm of family strife, or whatever it might be, look at it through the lens of Christ crucified and risen for you. And know that God is in control and He will never leave you nor forsake you.

The sailors that Jonah was using to flee from God’s presence had to wake Jonah up and throw him overboard to still the storm. Jesus only has to speak, and the waves are stilled and the storm is hushed. And even though Jesus wasn’t thrown out of the boat in this Gospel text, He was thrown overboard in a much more important way.

On the cross, Jesus was thrown into the place of God’s judgement against your sin and the sins of the whole world. Jesus wasn’t swallowed by a great fish, He was swallowed by death in order that He might defeat death for you. As Jonah was in the belly of that fish for three days, Jesus was in the grave for three days. And He is risen again.

Today, you have different storms, different winds, and different waves tempting you to fear. But you have the same Jesus who slept in the boat, who woke up, who rebuked the wind and the waves and they listened to Him.

Whatever storms you face in this life, bring them to your God. Let those trials teach you to pray. And marvel at the wonderful answer of your God and Savior. Cry to Him in your trouble, and he will deliver you from your distress (Ps. 107:28). Amen.

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