Truth is Liberating

I have a friend who has a saying, “When all else fails, try telling the truth. It is freeing.”

Jesus said it this way: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Let’s take a look at these words.

What great counsel this is for the person who says, “If I only knew what was right. It would make life so much easier.” The Word of God clears much of our confusion about what is right and wrong. The Ten Commandments shed a lot of light on this subject, which is of tremendous help in making ethical decisions. Here are a few examples:

“Thou shall have no other gods before me.” Here we are told that God should be first in our life.

“Thou shall not take the name of the Lord, thy God in vain.” God gives us direction in what kind of language to use.

“Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” This commandment gives a partial answer to the question, Tomorrow is Sunday; What shall we do?

“Honor your father and your mother.” Here we receive guidance concerning our need for authority from the cradle to the grave.

We could continue with the other six commandments, but this is enough to show us God’s laws are very specific. We do not need to live in ignorance. It might be that we do not like these commandments, but we cannot in all honesty say we are confused about what is right and wrong. The person who has been taught from childhood what God’s Word says about the holiness of marriage might divorce several times in his or her lifetime, but they cannot wonder what is the right thing to do. They already know. They might be in denial, but they know.

A friend who was raised in the church and then left Christ was later converted. In later years he told me he knew all the time his behavior was wrong. Some of his friends who practiced the same lifestyle didn’t have a clue that what they were doing was wrong; society pretty much accepted their behavior. But coming from a home where God’s Word was read, my friend knew the truth; He just didn’t like to hear it. He felt it was binding him to a narrow type of behavior. After God changed his life, he was amazed to see how sin enslaves a person. Repeat the sin over and over, and it becomes a way of life.

I listened to a man, who holds a very important job, speak to our study group. He made some important points in his message, and we were all appreciative of what the speaker was sharing with us. After he had completed his address, he offered to answer our questions. Now he was not bound to a script, and we learned he was quite profane. There he was, well educated with a nice appearance, but bound to profanity. Leaving the building that evening, another person in the group said, “Isn’t it too bad such an intelligent person cannot use better language?”

The same is true with selfishness. This sin can enslave a person to live in a small world where all that is important is what benefits me and mine. Live that way for a lifetime and you will have lived a very empty life.

Sin enslaves us; but the truth sets us free. (John 8:31, 32, 36) That’s the point Jesus shares with us in this Word. “If you abide in my Word, you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

What is that truth? It is the Gospel. What is the Gospel? Jesus Christ, through His suffering, death, and resurrection, paid the price for our sins. If we will confess our sins and place our faith in Him, we are completely forgiven and restored into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ for now and all eternity.

Think of our sins. How could we ever be forgiven? It would be impossible. But Jesus took all of these sins on Himself and paid the price through the shedding of his blood. Now we are free. This means we are free not to return to our old ways, but to live for Him.

I have used two illustrations in this sermon. One is a man who could not address his audience without using profanity. The other is a man who lived away from God for many years. These two people can not only be forgiven, but they can be changed and made into new people in Jesus Christ. This is also the freedom Christ wants to give to you and me, for how badly we need His grace!

Today is Reformation Sunday. We think of the blessings God has given to us through Martin Luther and the other reformers. Luther was an enslaved monk trying to atone for his sins in order to appease an angry God. Now matter how hard he tried, there was no peace until God spoke to Luther through these words: “For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, ÔThe righteous will live by faith.'” Meeting this God of love and mercy in Jesus Christ, Luther was set free.

There are many mysteries in life we cannot understand. However, God has clearly revealed to us in His Word the truth about our salvation. It is so simple. I am a sinner. Christ Jesus has died for me. If I will receive Him as my Savior and Lord, he will forgive me and I will be his. I will experience this freedom. Humans can teach us this Gospel, but only through experiencing this truth can we know what freedom really is.

My friend is right. When all else fails, why not try a little truth. It will set you free. Why not tell it as it is? Why not admit you’ve been wrong, and you’ve been excusing yourself when there was no excuse. Then bring the sins you’ve been defending to the foot of the cross and know what it is to have them removed. Then you will be free.

Stop Trying to Kid Him

“If you were going to prepare a sermon on this portion of scripture and could only use one basic thought, what would it be?” That was the question I gave to my class this summer at a Bible camp. Here are four answers:

1. “We are citizens of two kingdoms and must support both of them.” This person must have read Martin Luther’s treatise on The Two Kingdoms.

2. “When giving our gifts to the Church, we should pray God would direct us to use this money in the best way possible for the extension of His Kingdom.” This person must have had some dissatisfaction with the way money was being spent in the church.

3. “He calls us out of this world to be His people and sends us back into the world to be salt.” There must have been some thought behind this answer, which I did not catch.

4. “Jesus sees right through us. He sees our hypocrisy. Our own words and thoughts trap us.” This was the thought that caught my attention and that I use in this sermon today.

The Herodians were Herod’s party. They owed their power to Rome. The Pharisees were the religious leaders in Judaism. There was no love lost between these two groups, but they did have one thing in common: they hated Jesus and wanted to have him killed. This was the motive for their joining heads to accomplish their common goal. Perhaps the two groups had spent time together planning how to confront Jesus, so he would be found guilty either by religious orders or the government. The question had to be worded correctly. The person confronting Jesus had to have excellent skills in communication.

When there had been ample preparation, they went to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, tell us, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Their one motive was to trick Jesus in the presence of the crowd. Jesus was in what they thought was a no-win situation. If he should say paying the tax was not right, the government leaders would arrest him. If he answered that they should pay the tax, the religious authorities would say Jesus was supporting false religions and was a heretic.

William Barclay points out that Matthew wrote his gospel between 80 and 90 A.D. The temple was destroyed in 70 AD. While the temple stood, every Jew had been bound to pay the half-shekel temple tax. After the destruction of the temple, the Roman government demanded they should pay the tax to the temple of Jupiter Caitolinus in Rome. How bitter a regulation it was for a Jew to stomach!

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians lays down no law. He gave only a basic principle, which is good for all times. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Beyond answering their petty question, Jesus is teaching, “Be honest in your relationship with me.” Until we are honest with God, He can do little to help us. So much of life is lived on the superficial or dishonest level, we actually believe this is the way life is meant to be lived, including our Christianity.

We see unfaithfulness in marriage. “I never dreamed my spouse would be unfaithful to me. It comes as such a shock!” How often this statement is made in our society.

“I thought we could trust leadership in the church, but not so. The Church writes beautiful statements of faith; the people accept them; and then these principles are set aside as culture becomes the primary influence of determining our behavior.” This is the complaint of many faithful members in the congregation as they express their unhappiness with church leadership trying to decide whether we should ordain practicing homosexuals. “Can’t we at least be honest in the church?” one of my friends asked the other day. “If we cannot fool people, how do we think we can fool God? He sees right through us.”

Why not be honest? It is so refreshing not to live the lie. David said it so well: “You do not delight in sacrifice or I would bring it. You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-19).

Do you remember how relieved we were as kids when the truth came out? At first talking ourselves out of a situation seemed right, even if we did not tell the truth. However, we were finally caught. In spite of the punishment, it was good the truth was known. Yet this is a lesson we never completely learn, even as adults. How stupid to think we could hide the truth in the hope of tricking people. How utterly stupid to think we could fool an all-knowing God.

The Word says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins.” We do not have to lie. We do not have to project our guilt onto another person. We do not have to rationalize our sins. We do not have to be a Pharisee. All we have to do is confess these sinful motives to our Savior, and He will forgive us. How relaxing. Why continue to live all tied up in our hypocrisy?

Listen to these inspired words: “Let the wicked forsake his ways and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will abundantly pardon him.”

That is the Gospel.

Please Don’t Cheat Yourself

We use many names to describe Jesus: names such as God, Savior, Redeemer, Lord, Master, or Friend. There is another name that could be added Ñ namely, Storyteller. Longfellow and Hans Christian Andersen don’t hold a candle to Jesus as storytellers. One of His great stories is our text for today’s sermon. It’s the story of the wedding banquet.

William Barclay tells us that invitations to banquets were sent out months before the event was to take place. However, there was no definite date mentioned in the invitation. When the time of the banquet was definite, the invited person would receive a second invitation, and this one would have a specific time.

In Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet, the invitation had a specific time. These people had known for many weeks that the invitation would be coming. The king, who was the host for this banquet, had given them ample time to clear their calendars. Now he expected them to be there. However, the people’s response was not pleasing to the king. One person simply refused to come. “No, I wouldn’t be interested in the banquet,” was his answer. Others paid no attention to the invitation. One went to his farm, another to his business, and a third went about his work.

The king was enraged! He commanded his servants to go out to the highways and invite anyone they saw to the banquet. It was the king’s intent that the hall would be full.

Israel knew what Jesus was saying, and his parable was offensive to them. In strong language Jesus was telling the Jews that God had first offered them an invitation to His banquet; but now that they had refused this invitation, it would be given to others.

Does the story have a broader message? Does it speak to us as a people? While America is not the chosen people of God like Israel was (for there is no such nation), we are a nation where millions of our citizens have and do confess Christ as Savior and Lord. The Christian Church has its buildings in every town and city.

Is America responding to God’s invitation to the Gospel? The newspapers tell us that mainline Protestantism is declining in number. Are we courageous enough to ask, “Why is this?” But let’s ask the question in a more personal way. Do all those who hear the Gospel and belong to a congregation respond to this invitation, “Come to me”? God invites us to be a part of His Kingdom by receiving Christ as Savior and Lord. It is the individual who must respond to this invitation.

I think of a husband and wife who were committed to the Lord Jesus. Each Sunday morning this couple sat with their five children at worship. Following the service, all of them went to a Sunday school class. Today the mother sits alone at the worship service. Her husband has died and none of the five children attend church unless it is on a special occasion to please their mother. In visiting with one of the sons about his church attendance, he was honest and said that none of the children have any personal relationship with God, and the church has no vital place in their lives. Now one could ask, “What went wrong in that family?” But the fact is that no matter how much those parents wanted a family who trusted Christ as Savior and Lord, each child had his own decision to make. No one can make a decision for another to enter God’s Kingdom. As someone has said, “God has no grandchildren.”

While God’s invitation continues to be extended to us as long as we live, He moves on to others. As one reads about the spiritual awakenings in Africa today, you can only wonder if the focus God once had on America has moved to another continent. Our missionaries tell us that people walk for miles to attend worship service. When they arrive, they desire a service to last several hours. There is a hunger for the Word of God. In America, with our busy schedules, twenty minutes is the limit for a sermonette with a nice thought for the week. It is pretty hard to feed the worshiper with such a limited time. Even the evening news gets thirty minutes. Who has more to say Ñ Brokaw or Jesus?

I walked into our church one day and a woman in her late 30s threw her arms around me and said, “I am so happy to see you. I have some good news for you.” She went on to remind me that, when she was a high school student, her friend brought her to our church on occasion, since her family did not go to church. There she heard about Christ and His love for her. However, there was no great change in her life during those years as a teenager. After graduating from college, she moved to another part of the country, met a man, and married. The good news she wanted to share was to tell me that both she and her husband joined a church, and more than that, she said, “We have a strong, personal relationship with Christ.”

Later I asked about the person from our congregation who brought her to church. “That’s a sad story,” she replied. “She drifted away from both Christ and the Church, and now she has no relationship with Him.” Then there was a smile on her face, and she said, “I pray for her, and, who knows, perhaps God’s Word is still working in her heart. He loves her.”

Again, the point is, while one refuses the invitation Christ offers, another receives it. God extends the invitation to all, but only those who receive it will enjoy the blessings of His Kingdom.

Jesus says the people were invited to a banquet. Banquets are happy places. They are exciting, and we do not want to miss them. In verse four we read, “My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready.” Christ’s banquet is ready. Christ has suffered and died as a payment for our sins. He has been raised from the dead and has won victory over sin, death, and the devil for all who will believe. All is ready. So His servants say, “Come, the Savior invites you.”

As a part of God’s Kingdom, we experience Christ’s presence with us on our earthly journey. We also live with the assurance that, when this life is over, we will enter our heavenly home.

Don’t cheat yourself out of enjoying Christ’s banquet.

Divine Counsel for a Secular People

The years have taught me that a minister could select certain texts, interpret them according to his liking, and make his congregation feel comfortable. With average communicative skills, he could have a large following, be sought after by many, and yet, at the end of his ministry, have failed to communicate the whole counsel of God.

What does a preacher do when people demand a steady diet of sermons that are positive and uplifting but deny some of Jesus’ basic teachings that confront us with reality?

Today’s text is a good example. How does a preacher expound on Jesus’ words when, spoken in the vernacular, tell us, “Shape up, you rebels, or I will give your inheritance to strangers”?

Are those positive words? Do they lift your spirit? How does one present this thought and still comfort disturbed people who want the preacher to refrain from using a text like this? Do you skip over this verse and preach on Psalm 23? Jesus’ words can often be quite unpleasant to people who are not always ready to face the truth.

The parable of the tenants, which is our text today, was very offensive to the Jewish leaders. In the story, Jesus tells of a landowner who planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers, and went away on a trip. When it was time, the owner sent his servants to collect the rent. However, the renters killed the servants. The owner was angry, but he sent another group to collect his money; they were also murdered. Then the owner sent his son feeling they would respect him; but he was also killed.

Jesus asked his listeners, “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to these murderers?” They replied, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end; and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at the harvest time.”

Using this story, Jesus made His point, “I tell you that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” These words, “taken away from you and given to another people,” were too much for the Pharisees. They looked for a way to arrest Jesus, but they feared the crowds of people who believed Jesus was a prophet.

The religious leaders knew well what Jesus was teaching in this parable. God created humankind for fellowship, but they had fallen in sin. God, being holy, could have nothing to do with a sinful people. So He set up a plan of redemption by which people’s sins could be forgiven and they could be restored into fellowship with God. Israel was God’s chosen people, and from this nation would come the Savior who would take away the sins of all humankind Ð Himself. This sacrifice would atone for people’s sinfulness. Through faith in this Savior, all believers could be restored into fellowship with God forever. This made Israel God’s special people.

Now Jesus is telling them that God would take this blessing from them and give it to others. In essence, Jesus was saying, “I have worked with you as God’s chosen people. Nevertheless, because you rejected my Father’s way of salvation, I will move on to the Gentile world.” Wow! Those were fighting words. This was not the way to win friends and influence people. However, it was divine counsel for a secular people. This counsel was not what the Pharisees and High Priests wanted to hear. Therefore, Jesus had to be silenced.

Isn’t this the way we sometimes respond to the teachings of God’s Word? Jesus’ teaching is not always positive and uplifting. He may not always boost our spirits for the time being, but our Lord presents us with divine truths that deal with our eternal relationship with God. In summary, Jesus says, “He that believes and is baptized will be saved. He who does not believe will be lost.” To talk about being lost is not a popular teaching. Our way of dealing with Jesus’ offensive statements is to set them aside, but then we do not have the full counsel of God.

God tells us that He loves us, but that does not mean He will overlook our sins. They must be confessed, and then, through trusting Jesus, they are forgiven. God will not condone our sins, but He is anxious and willing to forgive them. The message is summarized by the inspired words of St. Paul, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) This is divine truth spoken to a secular people.

The question is, what do we do with this truth?

Israel’s religious leaders would not listen to the prophets as they pointed out their sins. They beat, stoned, and killed them. Then Christ came revealing God’s love, but warning them of their sin, and they nailed him to the cross.

What will we do as a nation? Will we continue to turn our backs on Christ? Will we silence His message by saying it is not relevant in our day? “It is just not rational, nor does it make sense that Christ, dying for the sins of the world and our trusting Him, will restore us into fellowship with a Holy God.”

The humanists tell us that we make too much of people’s sinfulness. “Sure, we make mistakes, but basically we are good people. See all the good that we have done.” They imply that we are God’s gift to the world.

The nihilists seek to silence the Christian message by saying, “Who is Jesus to tell us what is right and wrong. Truth is relative. Truth for you might not be truth for me.” If there is no truth, then there is no sin, and no need of a Savior.

Some universalists counsel that, in order to win the favor of people, we must develop the belief that all people will be saved. That is very appealing, but the problem is it is not divine counsel.

What about our individual lives? This parable speaks not only to nations but also to individuals Ð you and me. With the troubles of life more than we can sometimes bear, we may be tempted to tone down these tough teachings of Jesus and turn to those who can best help us in our times of need. That is our way of silencing the divine counsel that is needed. Don’t let it happen. Divine counsel always leads to joy. Truth always wins out. Remember, His Word says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins.” Through this forgiveness, we live with our Lord forever.

The counsel of our physician cannot be ignored if we want to be healthy. The divine counsel of our Lord cannot be ignored if we want the abundant and eternal life that only He can give.