Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fear Not, God's Promises Are For You

Reverend William Stratman preached in my stead this past Sunday, as I am on the road.  Below is my Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity from 2013.  pw

First Sunday after Trinity, June 2nd, Year of Our + Lord 2013

St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana

Fear Not, God’s Promises Are for You  Genesis 15:1-6 and Luke 16:19-31

Fear not!  Do not be afraid...    Really?  Can we really live without fear? 

     What are you afraid of?  I find myself fearing the prospect of many things.  I’m not, like many, afraid of public speaking, at least, not if I have some idea of what I am going to say.  And, happily, I’m not fearful of a visit from my District President.  O.K., in the interest of full disclosure, my study is looking a bit neater than it usually does this week.  But really, are any of you going to complain if I try to impress my ecclesiastical supervisor by picking up a little?  My motives may not be pure, but fear driven or not, we can all agree any improvement would be a good thing.  But aside from not wanting Pastor Forke to see just how messy I really am, I actually look forward to his visits, because I know he will come speaking God’s Word.  And what is there to fear from God’s Word? 

     Quite a lot, actually.  As God speaks His truth to His people, and as God takes various actions to provide for the salvation of His people, we may find ourselves fearing any number of things He says and does, just like Abram. 

     After these things the Lord God spoke to Abram in a vision, and the very first words out of His mouth are “Fear not.”  Why?  Why did the Lord tell Abram not to be afraid?  Well, there could be lots of reasons, good reasons.  In the years to come after Abram, many of his descendents would quake whenever God appeared and spoke to them:  Moses, Isaiah, Peter, and Paul, to name a few.  Finding yourself in the presence of God is fearful for any sinner, so this may have been Abram’s reason. 

     Or, Abram’s fear could have something to do with “these things” that had just happened.  For the Lord appears to Abram, “after these things,” literally, “after these words.”  What words?  What things?  A quick check of Genesis chapter 14 reveals that Abram has just encountered Melchizedek, whose name means the King of Righteousness.  Melchizedek was the King of the city of Salem, which translated means “Peace.”  The back story is that Abram had just fought a little war, a battle necessary for Abram to rescue his cousin Lot.  Lot, you’ll remember, had chosen to live in Sodom, and  Sodom had been attacked by King Chedorlaomer, who then took Lot and his family prisoner. 

     When Abram heard that Lot had been taken captive, he pursued Chedorlaomer with 318 men, eventually falling upon  them at night.  War is hell, they say, and certainly always a fearful thing.  Fighting a war with the Lord God on your side is, I believe, even scarier, because if the Lord is on your side, you certainly should be bold and fearless in battle, no ducking allowed, even though the Lord usually asks His warriors to rush into battles that appear unwinnable. 

     We are not told in Genesis 14 how many men were with King Chedorlaomer, but he was allied with three other kings of cities, and Abram’s cohort was only 318 men, most of whom must have been herdsmen, since Abram had flocks and herds, not an army.  So, even though he won, Abram  may have suffered quite a fright, charging into the dark to do battle and rescue Lot. 

     And then there is the victory meal, when Melchizedek, King of Salem, shows up out of nowhere.  As the author of Hebrews notes in his explanation of the similarities between Melchizedek and Jesus, Melchizedek has no lineage; contrary to Biblical custom, we hear nothing of his father.  And,  Melchizedek is a priest of the Most High God.  Leading the prayers and the victory meal, Melchizedek, the King of Righteousness and the King of Peace, takes bread and blesses it, and distributes the cup of wine, celebrating the victory the Most High God has granted them.  Abram certainly recognizes Melchizedek as someone very important, sitting under his leadership of the prayers, hearing his proclamation, breaking bread and drinking wine with him.  Even more, Abram gives him a tithe.  Abram makes an offering to Melchizedek of one-tenth of all the spoils he gained in the battle.  It’s almost like Melchizedek is God, as if Abram understands making an offering to him to be the same as making an offering to God. 

     So, Abram has just fought a battle with God on his side, and he has just worshiped the Most High God, eating and drinking bread and wine with a very special priest of God, a mysterious figure, in whose priestly order, by the way, Jesus Christ serves, according to both the Psalms and Hebrews.  So, lots of reason to be afraid, and yet it could also be that Abram’s fear is more personal, that despite all his earthly rewards, despite his special status, despite the military victory Abram has just won, he is afraid because he has no heir, and he’s getting older day by day, and what he really wants is that son from whom the Lord has told him a great nation would one day come, and from whom also would come a particular Seed, a particular descendent, in whom every nation of the world would be blessed.   

      Whatever the cause of Abram’s fear, the Lord God appeared to him in a vision to dispel it, to drive out Abram’s fear with the perfect love of His promise.  God saves by faith, and so to create that faith, God makes promises for us to trust.  Abram is not finding confidence in the earthly rewards that God had given Him, but rather is looking for the fulfillment of God’s first promise to him.  God comes to drive out Abram’s fear by doubling down on His promises:  I am your shield.  Your reward is very great.  Go look at the stars, Abram.  Count them if you can.  That’s how many descendents you’ll have, descendents who will come from your own body, your own bosom.  Stop doubting and believe, Abram, I will fulfill My promises. 

     Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted his faith as righteousness.  That is, the Lord declared in His heavenly courtroom that Abram, despite his sin and doubt, was righteous, pure, an heir of the heavenly kingdom, simply because Abram believed the Word of the Lord.  And thus the Lord God drives out fear and draws the fearful into His Kingdom.  Abram didn’t trust in his earthly rewards, looking instead for the promise that only comes through a son of his own body, looking toward a particular Heir who would be a blessing to all nations. 

   Not so the rich man we hear of from Jesus today.  Consider these two, Lazarus, the poor sore-filled beggar and friend of dogs, and the nameless rich man, dressed in purple and feasting sumptuously.  Both of these very different men were, physically speaking, descendents of Abraham, as Abram was re-named by the Lord.  But the fundamental difference between these  two sons of Abraham had nothing to do with the quality of their lives on earth.  No, the difference was in the promises they believed, the rewards in which they trusted. 

     The rich man believed in the promise of earthly good things.  In his earthly life, he feared only losing his wealth.  The rich man was not afraid of walking by Lazarus without noticing him.  He was not afraid that the God of Israel is jealous for the poor and needy and desires to see them served.  The rich man believed he had it made, and that was all that mattered. 

     Lazarus might have feared his next day of pain, the hunger in his gut, or the shame of begging to survive.  He may have feared these things, or maybe not.  I once spent time in a colonia of Juarez, Mexico, a desperately poor squatters camp filled with Mexican families, hoping to find a way to survive.  They were many things, but I felt far more fear in myself than I observed in them.  Perhaps when you have nothing to lose, you have nothing to fear. 

     I don’t know about the fears of the desperately poor.  But I do know Lazarus, by God’s grace, believed in the same promises Abraham believed, the promises of the Lord God, to prepare a heavenly paradise, and give access to all who trust in the coming Savior.  All the other differences between the rich man and Lazarus, rewards vs. suffering, wealth vs. poverty, health vs. sickliness, fine friends  vs. furry friends, none of these were lasting differences, and none of these either excluded them from God’s Kingdom, nor earned their way in. 

      But as descendents of Abraham, as children of Israel, both the rich man and Lazarus had heard the Word of the Lord, the Law and the Promises of God, spoken to Abram, and Moses, and David, repeated daily and weekly amongst the people of the Jews for centuries.  Both had heard the Word, but the rich man ignored it.  The rich man had better things to do than  to meditate on what God had done and said.  He had sumptuous meals to eat, and great riches to count up in his treasury.  Lazarus, on the other hand,  had nothing but time to meditate on the Word, and nothing else to look to for good.  And while the rewards to be found in earthly goods are pleasant, for a time, it is only faith that saves, only faith in the promises of God that matters, faith in the Coming One, the Priest coming in the order of Melchizedek, the true King of Righteousness and Peace.    So, now that they have died, now that their earthly lives are over, now, and forever and ever, the rich man fears, and Lazarus rejoices. 

    The rich man fears, for himself, for the next moment of suffering that he knows is coming, again and again, forever.  He exists forever in fear, because he rejected the One who came to take his fear from him.  The rich man fears, also for his brothers and everyone who hears the Word of God but trusts in the things of this world.  The rich man’s fears are continually fulfilled, and there’s nothing he can do about it.  They say war is hell, but war is not really hell.  War is very bad, but hell is worse, far worse, and hell never ends. 

    The rich man fears forever, but all of Lazarus fears’ have been driven out by the perfect love of Christ, who, as Lazarus believed, and has now come to know, took all his sores and poverty and loneliness and suffering onto Himself, in order to qualify Lazarus to live with Abraham, and all the saints in light, forever. 

     So, what do you fear?  Do you fear the loss of your earthly comforts?  Do you fear the loss of your money and possessions, more than you fear the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell?  Do you fear losing your stuff more than you fear the shame of failing to help the needy person outside your gate?  Or perhaps you are relatively poor and suffering.  But do you fear your poverty and suffering so much that you too are worshiping the good things of this life, even though you don’t have them?  Pay attention to what you fear, for, just like your willingness, or unwillingness, to love your neighbor, so also the things you fear teach you where your faith is placed.  If you fear earthly poverty and suffering most of all, your fear is a sign of unbelief.  Likewise, if you see your brother in need, and ignore him,  your selfishness is a sign of unbelief.  Repent, turn away from your fear.  Repent, turn away from your selfishness.  Repent, and hear again how God addressed Abram’s fear. 

     The Lord God addressed Abram’s fear with His Word, removing his fear and replacing it with right faith, faith that looks not at the things of this world, good or bad, but rather faith which believes the promises of God.  And we are more blessed than Abram was, for he could only look forward to the promises of God, promises which now for us have been and continue to be fulfilled, in our midst, in the person of Jesus Christ, that Seed of Abram in Whom the whole world is blessed.  All who trust in the forgiveness Jesus won on the Cross are numbered among the stars Abram counted, numbered as descendents of that old man who believed God.  To Abram, and to you, faith in God’s promises is counted by God as righteousness, as worthiness to live before God, today, and forever and ever.      

     So, fear not!  Really.  Do not be afraid, forever.  This is God’s Word to you, for Jesus Christ, crucified for your sin, resurrected for your justification, and ascended on high to prepare a place for you, He is your shield and your very great reward.  In Him, and with all the faithful, you too can sing: 

Lord, let at last Thine angels come, To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home, that I may die unfearing. 

And in its narrow chamber keep, My body safe in peaceful sleep, Until Thy reappearing. 

And then from death, awaken me, That these mine eyes with joy may see,

O Son of God, Thy glorious face, My Savior and my fount of grace. 

Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, may prayer attend,

And I will praise Thee without end, 
in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

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