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Lutheran Church Canada - What do you believe?

LCC - Lutheran Church Canada

Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church - Winnipeg, Canada
Such A Relief: God Goes First

Such A Relief: God Goes First

Based on John 3:16-17

Preached on March 15, 2015

In the Name of Jesus, dear friends! You want a house? You know what you've got to do: save money for the down payment. Fill out a mortgage application at the bank. Answer all their questions. Qualify properly. You'll end up with a house ... probably. Want to attend an elite university? Work hard at school. Earn top grades. Write really well. Go after grant money. Find a room you can afford in Toronto or Vancouver, if there really is such a place. Outperform your competitors, and you'll get in ... maybe. Looking to make friends? You won't get them sitting at home by yourself! You've got to get out there, join a club, go out for a sports team, get involved at church, be outgoing and friendly. Mingle with the kind of people who appeal to you. That should lead to satisfying friendships ... perhaps. See what makes the world tick, or at least a lot of it? You've got to get going. Do something! You'll never achieve anything if you don't take the first step. By the way, this is not always bad. In many areas, people should be encouraged to take responsibility. I. It's not just human treasures, achievements and privileges that start with you that way. Actually, most religions do, too. The names of such faiths vary widely. So do the lands and nations where they are practiced. But practically every one of them starts with you. People like you are commanded to keep a set of laws, to follow a moral code of some kind. Discipline yourself. Make the sacrifices required. It might be showing homage to an emperor, the way the ancient Romans did. It might involve sacrificing your own children to some angry god; that's how it was in Canaan thousands of years ago when Joshua got there. It could mean reverencing elements of nature like sun or earth or wind. Different as those practices all are, they have this in common: You need to get going and do something. The burden lies clearly on you. It's no wonder a man ran up to Jesus Christ one day and figured this is how things work: "GOOD TEACHER," HE ASKED, "WHAT MUST I DO TO INHERIT ETERNAL LIFE?" I used to picture this in adult instruction classes with my crude artwork on a blackboard. I drew earth down at the bottom, heaven at the top. Then I drew a bunch of little arrows starting at the bottom, all pointing upward. The climbing arrows were meant to represent people and their attempts to bridge the gap between earth and heaven. It is perfectly natural that you and I are tempted to think that's how you get to God. The burden is yours, and you take the first step. After all, this is how it works in nearly every human endeavour. I repeat: It is perfectly natural. It is also perfectly horrible. In relation to the Lord, it's horrible because you can never be sure - never - that you did it right, or that you did it enough, or - even if seems you did it right - that you really meant it sincerely as you should. Back in the days before Martin Luther understood the marvelous grace of God, he felt this agony cut deep. The mixed-up church of those days was always telling him how vital it is to love God. He tried his brains out. Finally, in an honest moment, he blurted out, "Love God? I hated Him! How could I love this God Who was always demanding the impossible from me?" Into this impossible pressure steps Jesus Christ. In today's Gospel He speaks a Word you have heard a hundred times, but perhaps stopped really listening to precisely because you've heard it a hundred times: GOD LOVED THE WORLD THIS MUCH, SO THAT HE GAVE HIS SON, THE ONLY-BEGOTTEN ONE, IN ORDER THAT EVERYBODY BELIEVING IN HIM MIGHT NOT BE DESTROYED, BUT RATHER MIGHT HAVE LIFE ETERNAL. FOR GOD DID NOT SEND HIS SON INTO THE WORLD IN ORDER TO CONDEMN THE WORLD, BUT RATHER THAT HE MIGHT SAVE THE WORLD THROUGH HIM. Let's squeeze the juice out of those sentences. It does not say God liked the world. When you think of how sinful, foul and violent the world can be, you couldn't expect Him to do that. If it were a matter of liking, He'd have had to turn away in disgust. But He could and He did love it, facing every bit of its sin and rottenness straight in the eye. He loved the world in the sense that He really wanted what is truly good for it. And He was willing to bring that good about. He loved the world, that means, everyone in it; loved the world, the way it is, despite its fallen, messed-up condition; loved it even though it's populated by people, most of whom are either ignoring or rebelling against Him; loved it already before anybody anywhere had the sense to take a single step in His direction. You find a snapshot picture of that in the third chapter of Genesis right after Adam and Eve fell into sin. They HEARD THE SOUND OF THE LORD GOD WALKING IN THE GARDEN IN THE COOL OF THE DAY. He took the first step; they didn't. He started seeking and asking, WHERE ARE YOU, while they chose to hide in the bushes. He drew them out with probing questions. He helped them face the problem. He started showing them the way forward. They'd have stayed hiding in the shrubs, if it had been left to them! God went first. You see another snapshot picture of it on Christmas Eve. God did not wait around for human beings to figure out how to save themselves, where to fill out an application form, or how to qualify. He took the first step. He sent His angel to call down from the night sky, I BRING YOU GOOD NEWS OF THE ONE GREAT JOY THAT'S GOING TO BE FOR ALL THE PEOPLE. TODAY IN DAVID'S TOWN A SAVIOUR HAS BEEN BORN TO YOU; HE IS CHRIST THE LORD. People did not launch any of that. The Lord did. Now you've got what you need to pin your personal trust to something that will hold. You don't have to believe in yourself anymore, how well you obeyed God's holy commands, whether you were always 100% sincere, relying on your religious feelings that rise and fall, any of those shaky things. The door is wide open for you to come to God, Who loved the world before you ever did anything, and to flee to His Christ Who died for the fallen men and women of the earth even when many of them - if not most of them - were ignoring Him. Saving faith, the real thing, never begins with you taking the first step and proving how worthy, how sincere, how committed you are so that God will sit up, take notice and reward that commitment of yours with His love. No, saving faith, the real thing, started when God went first ... loving the world even though it is not very likeable, and sending His Son out of that love to give His life as a ransom for many people. A pastor in Sweden said it's like a man out walking who found a rusty old tin can on a junk heap. The tin can has nothing to recommend itself. But the man had pity on it, stuck his walking stick through that can, and took it home with him. That's how it is. St. Paul thought so, too: WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS, CHRIST DIED FOR US, he said. I told you a minute ago that a familiar Bible passage like John 3:16 gets quoted so often that people hardly listen anymore. You understand how that happens; you and I frequently take for granted treasures we've had the longest. It's a great thing to have this as a part of the Gospel reading for this Fourth Sunday in Lent. These words of Jesus are offering you relief in a way you may not have pondered before! II. It's a relief meant for you very personally. You're no different from me. You've done things in the past, said things, repeatedly thought things that can cause you real shame each time you remember them. That feeling of guilt and shame can haunt you even years after these things took place. The feeling of guilt and shame can still burn your memory even if you "got away with it," in other words, kept other people from finding out. You can begin to imagine that some of those people only love or respect you because they don't know how you really are. Doubt can begin to grow, when you realize the Lord, unlike people, does know you as you really are. Maybe He doesn't really want me. Why should He? I haven't kept my promises and cleaned up my life the way I should have done already long ago. Even if it isn't a matter of specific sins or regrets from the past that haunt you, once in a while it may dawn on you that you have grown careless in your relationship to the Lord, outright negligent; have gone through religious motions, while in reality drifting away from Him gradually and barely even noticing your neglect. In that situation, do you really have a right to believe that the Lord still cares to have you after you perhaps have abused His kindness by taking it for granted like that? The relief is here, dear friend: GOD LOVED THE WORLD SO MUCH ... THAT HE GAVE HIS SON, THE ONLY-BEGOTTEN ONE. God loved Eve and Adam before they got smart and ran back to Him. God loved wayward men like Zacchaeus the cheating tax collector and Saul of Tarsus, the killer of Christians, while they were still killing and cheating. God loved you personally, even before you consciously reached out for Christ. He loved you at the times when you were trampling His commands, loved you even when you were indifferent and careless toward Him. Do not misunderstand: Sin against Him is a serious matter, and if people push Him away permanently, they will perish in every way a person can perish, body and soul. But if you're ever fearful because of the grip of guilt and shame, or because of long-time neglect of the Lord, the relief is right here: GOD LOVED. He went first and still wanted you in spite of it all. GOD LOVED. So GOD GAVE HIS SON. The Son did not have to be squeezed out of Him or unwillingly snatched away. God gave Him. He wanted to do it. He did not keep the Son all to Himself, but let Him go, so you could have Him. The relief God gives here is not only aimed at your struggles and doubts within yourself. There's relief here when you think about other people. You know how it is in relationships. It's fairly easy to care about someone who is kind to you, who helps you out, who makes you laugh, who puts you at ease. It's much harder to really feel for the ones who are argumentative or touchy, who constantly criticize, hurt your feelings, or are ungrateful for the good you've done them. It's easy to see people in a positive light if you like them, and to take a dim view of them if you don't. This simple statement from the mouth of Jesus helps you to start seeing people the way the Lord sees them. They are people God loves, because He loves the world. And they are people for whom Jesus Christ died, because God gave His Son for the world, including those people in your circle of relatives, friends or co-workers. When it comes to the people you really like, do you just like them because they are likeable? Or do you actually pray for their eternal well-being, since you know God loves them and gave His only-begotten Son for them? When it comes to the people you don't like and would just as soon avoid, do you take those people onto your personal prayer list and ask the Lord to get hold of them, since He loves them, too, and gave His Son for them as much as for anyone? When you look at other people all around, you may conclude that certain friends or relatives of yours are not reachable. If they are estranged from Christ, you may feel that your prayers and words will not accomplish anything. But the chances don't just depend on what you think you see. The God Who loved the world loves that impossible person, too. The God Who gave His Son away to the human race has that much invested in this individual also. That means the God Who loves and gives is pulling with you when you speak your prayers for that man or woman or boy or girl. It means He hasn't given up on that beloved child of His, just as He didn't give up on you perhaps in days gone by when you were far from Him also. In a world full of demands on you at work, at school, in your relationships; in a world where your own guilt or shame can press down on you so hard, we all need the relief that comes when burdens are lifted off and you're allowed to breathe free once again. That's something Jesus is doing today with this old familiar Word: GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD ... THAT GOD GAVE HIS SON, THE ONLY-BEGOTTEN ONE. He doesn't order you to believe, as if it were some disagreeable command. He's opening the door to give you something marvelous to believe in, His love and His Son. It's such a relief that God goes first. Take that relief home with you today, because it's His to give ... and it's yours to have. Amen. Rev. Robert Bugbee