Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Choices- A Sermon by Vicar Nieminen

This is a sermon written by and preached by Vicar John Nieminen, who is serving a vicarage in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  John will return to CLTS in St. Catharines next September for his final year as a seminarian before, God willing, he is called into the Office of the Ministry.

Here it is:

Based on Ephesians 4:17 – 5:2
August 12, 2012

            We are used to a life of choices; from day-to-day choices on what to eat and what to wear, to bigger choices on where to live, and where to work.  Some choices are easy, while others are quite difficult.  Often, our choices affect other people, and other peoples’ choices affect us.  In the epistle reading this morning, the Apostle Paul discusses some choices.  He discusses the two ways in which you can choose to live your life.
            On the one hand, he talks about the way of the unbelieving Gentiles: living in deceitful desires, speaking falsehood, stealing, corrupt speech, living in bitterness, clamor, and anger, and slandering others.  On the other hand, he talks of the way you have learned Christ, of putting off the old self and living after the likeness of God: speaking the truth, reconciling with your brothers and sisters in Christ, doing honest work so that you can share with those in need, building up others in the way you speak, and so on.
            It should be noted that Paul addresses this letter to the church in Ephesus; to baptized Christians.  But he goes through painstaking detail to contrast the way of godlessness with the way of Christ.  Do Christians really need to hear Paul’s exhortation to not live in darkness?  Do Christians really need help in making choices on how to live?
            Forgiven in baptism, the Christian nevertheless still has the Old Adam adhering to the flesh, making himself known through passions and desires.  Sin comes quite naturally.  Secondly, we live in a world that continually tempts us in every way imaginable.  Paul mentions sensuality and greed [v.19], certainly two of the more widespread enticements of the world.  Thirdly, as Peter writes in his first epistle, “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” [1 Pt. 5:8]  The devil would love nothing more than to cause you to sin.  He exploits your weaknesses and tempts you with the things of this world that appeal to you most.  He wants to disguise sin as something natural and desirable, so that you do not see it as sin.  Unless you stay in the Word of God, you see lines between the choices begin to blur, and wrong doesn’t seem so wrong anymore.  What society dictates as normal and acceptable seems to make sense in this “progressive” and “advanced” society.
            What does Paul see in the progressive and advanced society of the Ephesians and the Gentiles of the Roman Empire in general?  Paul doesn’t mention the unprecedented peace and prosperity of the time, which existed for the first two centuries of the Roman Empire.  There is no mention of the great expansion of the Empire.  No mention of the developments in language, architecture, philosophy, law, or forms of government.
            Paul only mentions the way the Gentiles walk: “in the futility of their minds.  They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.  They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” [v.17 – 19]  They have become dead to all feeling.  They have given themselves over to licentiousness, insatiably pursuing every kind of uncleanness without restraint, never being satisfied.  They have become callous and hardened so that they do not feel the accusations of conscience.  They have become oblivious to their poor choices.
            This is why Paul warns Christians.  He doesn’t want Christians to end up in the hopeless and godless situation of the unbelievers.  He knows the temptations; he understands the weakness of the Christian.  He warns us that unless we offer resistance, we will fall into sin, and there is even a great danger of losing our faith and the forgiveness of sins.  This happens when one falls into sin and refuses to be corrected by the Word of God.  Luther writes that in this case the end will be even worse than the beginning, as they will begin to despise and persecute the Word of God when corrected by it.  “So strong and tough is that old hide of our sinful flesh.” [Luther in his sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity]
            While Paul warns of the dangers of sin, his main goal is always to point to the solution.  While he writes of what you should and should not do, the real answer is what Christ has already done for you.
            For this reason Paul writes of the new self, which replaces the old self, and is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” [v. 24]  And this is not your doing.  By the washing of your baptism you have been made a new creation.  Paul writes in Titus, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” [3:5]  Paul also writes in 2 Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” [5:17]  In Christ, our choice is made for us.  He made the choice to recreate us.  He gave us the Spirit to live in us and make us His temple [1 Cor. 3:16].  As Paul writes earlier in his letter to the Ephesians, God chose us before the foundation of the world! [1:4]  Thus, our salvation is secure, because it is based on God choosing us.  As we sung just before the sermon:
Lord, ‘tis not that I did choose Thee;
That, I know, could never be;
For this heart would still refuse Thee
Had Thy grace not chosen me.
Thou hast from the sin that stained me
Washed and cleansed and set me free
And unto this end ordained me,
That I ever live to Thee. [LSB 573, st. 1]
            What comfort it is to know that we don’t need to depend on our choices for salvation.  Jesus also explains in the Gospel reading for today, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” [Jn. 6:37]  So God the Father has chosen us, and has given us to Christ, and our Saviour has promised to never cast us out.
            As we inevitably end up making bad choices, failing to do what we should, and doing what we should not do, it is forgiveness that keeps us in Christ.  He will not cast us out.
            Consider Elijah in the Old Testament reading.  Elijah decided to run for his life and hide in the desert upon hearing the threat of the evil woman, Queen Jezebel.  He decided the wilderness would be the only safe place for him.
            Let’s have a quick review of what had taken place so that Jezebel threatened Elijah.  Elijah had been given the power by his word to prevent rain, [1 Ki. 17:1] causing a drought.  He had been miraculously fed by ravens [v. 4 – 6] and by the widow whose flour and oil were never spent. [vv. 14 – 16]  When the widow’s son died, he raised the boy from the dead, [17 – 24] and with all of Israel to witness, he called fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice on Mount Carmel and then had the 450 prophets of Baal killed. [1 Ki. 18]  He then outruns King Ahab’s chariot from Carmel to Jezreel, a distance of 24 kilometres. [18:41 – 46]  This is where a messenger brings him the threat from Jezebel, since she was a worshipper of Baal.  And Elijah gets scared.  Despite everything he had seen God do, including through his own hand, he chooses to run for his life. [19:3]  His human reason tells him that this is the safest course of action, and thus he chooses poorly.
            God responds to Elijah’s poor choice in love.  The angel of the Lord gives him food to eat, which strengthens him to travel for 40 days and 40 nights to Mount Horeb, the mount of God.  There, God comes and talks with him in a low whisper, encouraging him with His Word.  God tells him that he is not alone, and gives the weary Elijah instructions for appointing a successor.  God also encourages him by telling him that there are other faithful believers, and gives hope for the future of Israel. [1 Ki. 19:9 – 18]
            When we make a poor choice, God not only forgives us, but He also strengthens us and teaches us.  As He miraculously fed Elijah, He also miraculously feeds us in order to strengthen us; He gives us His very body and blood.  He gives us the bread of life, to strengthen our faith.
            So even though Paul encourages Christians to make God-pleasing choices in their lives and warns them of the dangers of sin, he knows that the Holy Spirit is working in them, so that God’s commands are not burdensome. [1 Jn. 5:3]  Paul knows that those forgiven by God are not burdened by the Law.  We are free.  We are no longer under the slavery of sin, we have died to sin and thus have been given a new life and are alive in Christ Jesus. [Rom. 6:1 – 11]  And this new life was not our choice, it was Christ’s choice to love us and give Himself up for us, “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” [Eph. 5:2]  It was His choice to ransom us from our futile ways with His precious blood.  [1 Pt. 1:18 – 19 ]  And it is His choice to feed us with His body and blood to strengthen us to life everlasting.  Amen.

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