Sermon: Judging Others: Are You Sure You Want to Go There?

Today’s message is a companion to last week’s message regarding loving your enemy. We are hard wired to judge others. Maybe we need a software update. Jesus gives us a reason to pause and evaluate. This is not about salvation but an important lesson in living out our faith.

Article: Growing in Faith and Knowledge

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;

            I will counsel you and watch over you.

                                    Do not be like the horse or the mule,

                                    which have no understanding  Psalm 32:8-9

Which part of the week are you spending learning about God outside of sitting in worship on Sunday morning (which isn’t a classroom)?

What is the most recent thing you learned about God?

Are you willing to learn something new about God?

I ask these questions because I am committed to learning something new whenever I can. I can remember a pastor once saying, “You are either growing or dying; there is no in between.” So let me ask you, “Are you growing or dying?”

As a matter of fact, whenever I learn anything new (that on the surface looks like it has nothing to do with God) I put that new thing through the lens of my theology and relationship with God. Why? Because everything is theological.

I don’t think I have arrived or do I believe that I have learned everything there is to know about God and the world He created for us.

The opposite of faith (trust in God) is not doubt… it is certainty. Whenever we wrongly believe we have everything figured out, we stop growing in knowledge, we stop growing spiritually and we quite possibly stop growing emotionally.

The resistance to learn is… well… unwise. (see Proverbs 18:2)

As a pastor and quite possibly your pastor, I bear some responsibility in your faith formation and I take that quite seriously. I want you to learn and then grow in your understanding of God’s love through Jesus Christ. Not only do I want you to comprehend the love of God, I want you to experience it as well. But it doesn’t end there. I want all Christians to know and see that God’s love is not just for a few but for everyone.

Never forget that knowledge should lead us towards God’s love… “knowledge puffeth up, charity edifieth.” Knowledge is a means towards a greater end.

I encourage you to pick up a book or listen to an audiobook. Read your Bible. Come to Sunday morning Bible Study. Do something to grow today.

Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground. Psalm 143:10

Sermon: Love: Not What We Want to Hear

It is the Sunday before Election Day and the divisiveness is at an all time high. We need to hear from Jesus and what he has to say about hate and the practical repsonse to what is ailing us as a nation and as individuals. Click here to see the sermon slides: https://wp.me/a4Hszx-pM

Article: All Saints Day- What Does it Mean?

It is November 1st as I write this and it is a church holiday. It is All Saints Day and tomorrow is All Soul’s Day. How did these commemoration days come about? Well, read on….

In the early years when the Roman Empire persecuted Christians, so many martyrs died for their faith, that the Church set aside special days to honor them. In 607 Emperor Phocas presented to the pope the beautiful Roman Pantheon temple. The pope removed the statues of Jupiter and the pagan gods and consecrated the Pantheon to “all saints” who had died from Roman persecution in the first three hundred years after Christ. Many bones were brought from other graves and placed in the rededicated Pantheon church.

Since there were too many martyrs for each to be given a day, they were lumped together into one day. In the next century, All Saints Day was changed by Pope Gregory III to today’s date–November l. People prepared for their celebration back then with a night of vigil on Hallows’ Eve (Halloween).

In the 10th century, Abbot Odela of the Cluny monastery added the next day–November 2nd–as “All Souls” Day” to honor not just the martyrs, but all Christians who had died.

As a Lutheran, we treat All Saints Day a lot like All Souls Day. It is a day to remember those families and friends who have died in the past year. However, those from other traditions celebrate these two days differently.

When thinking of loved ones who have gone before us, we must trust that God is good and Jesus died to forgive our sins. There is nothing we can do to “help” our loved ones. They are in God’s loving care and we should trust that Jesus truly loves us and our loved ones. I do.

Even Martin Luther talks about this. Remember, he lived in a day when people were praying for the dead continually and having masses (worship services) given in memory of dead loved ones because they believed they could help that person get to heaven. Thankfully we don’t believe that, but here is what Martin Luther says about our stance toward our loved ones who have passed away.

“We do not know whether the soul has been sentenced, it is not a sin to pray for them. However, you should pray in such a way that you let it remain uncertain and say, ‘Dear God, if the soul is still in the state that it can be helped, then I pray that You would be gracious to it.’When you have done that once or twice, then cease and commend the soul to God. God has promised that He will hear what we pray. Therefore, when you have prayed once or three times, you should believe that He has granted your prayer and never again pray it, so that you do not tempt or mistrust God.”

 In other words, Luther is telling us to not worry about our loved ones who are no longer here because God is good and God is loving.

This is good advice and I whole heartedly believe it. I look forward to a large family reunion one day… and it won’t be one day long. It will last forever.

God bless you all,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: Reformation 2018: Cleaning Up Messes

As a Lutheran we remember Martin Luther and the beginning of something called the Protestant Reformation. But there is a deeper issue… messes that need to be cleaned up and a little something called truth. Learn how we can be a part of cleaning up messes in this ugly world. Screen shots found here: https://wp.me/a4Hszx-pC

Article: Reformation Sunday is Coming…

On Sunday we will remember the 501stanniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As you know, the reformation caused a major schism in the Church of Christ and we are still trying to heal those divisions 501 years later. It is quite possible that there will never be reconciliation within the Church until Christ himself returns. This reformation was needed but it did come at the cost of Christian unity.

As a Lutheran, I often think about these verses this time of year…

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—  not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8-9

 This is where we find the source of the often paraphrased  Lutheran saying, “we are saved by grace through faith.”

The Church at the time of Martin Luther (1517) didn’t preach this message. Instead the Church used their power and influence to control, scare and manipulate people into submission for many motivations including financial reasons.

It is Martin Luther who essentially read the Bible and realized that the words and actions of the Church didn’t match the words of scripture and the intentions of the Word of God.

It reminds me of this picture and scene from the Princess Bride.

The only exception is the “word” is the Word of God in this case.

When we look at these verses in Ephesians, we see Saint Paul reminding the church in Ephesus (a church he started) of an essential truth:  Faith in Jesus is a gift from God.

It is hard to believe that faith is a gift… but Paul seems to think so and there is good reason for that. He was an enemy of the Church and an enemy of Christ in a previous career/life. It was Jesus himself that created faith in Saint Paul in a very dramatic way (See Acts 9). Saint Paul knows personally that faith is a gift even if we were raised in the church and never considered ourselves an enemy of Christ!

God is a giver and God is relational. Jesus came to us so that we may receive faith as a gift and then trust in His loving agenda for our lives and for the world.

Saint Paul so believes faith is a gift that he says no one can brag about being a great Christian because the ability to trust God is actually a gift from God.

On Sunday we will remember the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517. More than any other time in my life, I see the importance of reformation. Because it isn’t really a reformation, it was a return to what God intended the Church to be. A return to grace, a return to love and a return to a loving relationship… established and given by God. We need more love in our nation and in our world. Only Christ can help us love more and more deeply.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Article: What about Good Behavior?

Last week, I wrote quite a bit about the differences between God’s covenant with Israel and God’s covenant with those who follow Jesus. (You can catch up here: https://benbergren.com/articles-the-covenants-of-god/) Not only are they different covenants but they are different types of covenants. These agreements established by God are vastly different in substance and nature.

Some of you may have read the article (listed above) and thought, “That is interesting, within the New Covenant there is no requirement for moral living.” And I would reply, “You are absolutely right.” What Jesus offers is a promise of forgiveness without any strings attached.

Does that mean Christians can do what they want? Ummm no. It does mean that the covenant Jesus established for His followers is not conditional upon our behavior like the covenant that God offered the people of Israel.

There is a place for ethics and proper behavior but it is not tied to the covenant of Jesus.  Our salvation is not performance based.

This is dealt with extensively at the very first church council meeting in Jerusalem. (See Acts 15).

A meeting was called because there were two competing ideas about becoming a Christian if you were not born Jewish and it was causing conflict.

  1. One thought was you converted to Judaism and followed the Law of Moses (the Old Covenant) before you could be a part of the New Covenant. Essentially you followed both covenants.
  2. You just joined the church and believed that Jesus is the Son of God and died to forgive your sins.

One of these two choices had a lot of work involved with it. Including following 613 laws found in the Law of Moses.  The other was accepting the gift of faith given by God and that was that.

This caused a fight in the early church and so a church council was called to settle the issue.

After hearing both sides, the head of the church on earth was Jesus’ half-brother James. He issued a ruling and it was this: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” Acts 15:19-20

 Aha! Commands for moral living!  Not quite. Think about this for a second. If James wanted to impose a portion of the Old Covenant on Gentile Christians, why this list and not the 10 Commandments?

If James thought there should be some sort of Jewish law or behavior contained within the Christian community why not just include the 10 Commandments too?

There is a reason for this. This was more about concession than commandment. James gave these specific set of instructions to aid in church unity and not a program of behavior modification for every Gentile Christian. James offered these up as a way for Gentile Christians to ingratiate themselves with the Jewish Christians by following these (outward) instructions.

To put it differently, these instructions were given to bring Gentile and Jewish believers together and not because “God wants all Christians to do these things if they call themselves followers of Jesus.” This was more of a practical concern than it was about personal holiness.

What I want to make sure we understand is that we do not tie our behavior to the covenant that Jesus established for us.

Is there a place for ethical living within Christianity? Absolutely! But it is always in response to God’s gift of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. God’s relationship with us and love for us is not conditional based upon our behavior. Thank God for that.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: Love in the 21st Century

What does sharing God’s love look like in the 21st century? Just ask Rachel (my wife). Seriously. Ask my wife. She exemplifies this in a story I share about her in this message. The slides can be by clicking on this link: https://benbergren.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/John-13-Love-in-the-21st-Century.pdf

Articles: The Covenants of God

I’ve been thinking about the two major covenants that God made with God’s people. There are several covenants found within the Bible but there are two that stand out above the rest. As a matter of fact the two sections of the Bible are named after these covenants. The word testament comes from the Latin word “Testamentum” which translates as covenant.

To be sure we are all on the same page, a covenant is an agreement or a contract made by God. Because it comes from God, God won’t break or cancel any covenant He establishes.

But wait… there’s more!

Did you know that not all covenants are not the same? There are three types of covenants found within the Bible. Not all covenants are alike! (Stick with me, this is going somewhere…)

  1. Parity Covenants— Two equal parties. It is a partnership contract. For example a marriage covenant.
  2. Suzerain Covenants—Not equal and is “top-down.” Imposed by a king to his people or by a king and lesser/defeated king/kingdom. These covenants are conditional, meaning both sides are required to do something. Often they are temporary.
  3. PromissoryCovenants—Also not equal. Not a two way agreement. It is given by the more powerful entity (God) and there is no quid pro quo. It is promise from one party to another with no strings attached. These have no expiration and these covenants continue on in perpetuity.

OK, with that said, let’s talk about the two major covenants of the Bible. The “Old Covenant/Testament” is the covenant God gave Moses and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. In other words, the centerpiece of the Old Covenant is the 10 Commandments (see Exodus 20). However, the Passover Meal (see Exodus 12) reflects the relationship God establishes with the people of Israel that is tied to heart of that relationship: the Law.

The “New Covenant/Testament” is the covenant God gave through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The meaning of this covenant is forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. However, Holy Communion (The Lord’s Supper) reflects themes of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation.

Now here is the test… What type of covenants (old and new) are they?

Give up?

The Old Covenant is a “Suzerain Covenant.” How do I know? The Bible tells us as much. There are many places where God repeats that this covenant is conditional. There are expectations that the Israelites must live up to if the covenant is to remain intact.

For example: “So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in all the waythat the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may liveand prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.” Deuteronomy 5:32-33

 One more example, in case you were doubting me: “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel:  ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.  Now ifyou obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will bemy treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” Exodus 19:3-6

 There are more examples but I will stop with these two.

There are expectations! There are conditions! If the Israelites don’t live up to the directives laid out by God (The 10 Commandments) in the covenant, life won’t go well.

Most of us know enough of the Old Testament to know that God kept his Word. Things did not go well when the people of Israel did not live up to the covenant God made with them.

What about the “New Covenant?” What type of covenant is that?

It is a “Promissory Covenant.” This is good news! It is also great news! There are no conditions! It is a promise for us and there is nothing for us to do but receive: forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. I know it seems too good to be true… but it is not. This covenant is a better deal for humanity, besides the Old Covenant was ONLY for the people of Israel.

That is why the author of Hebrews (a letter in the New Testament) says this… “For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.But God found fault with the people…” Hebrews 8:7-8a.

 And a little bit later… “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” Hebrews 8:13

 The Suzerain nature of the Old Covenant means that is was always destined to be temporary. It was needed, it was good and it has a shelf life. God did not cancel it or break it but God did replace it.

Note: Some of our Jewish brothers and sisters still live under a form of this covenant. Yet we understand that in the fullness of time, this covenant will disappear for the newer covenant which is promissory and eternal.

Saint Paul tells us the purpose of the Old Covenant (historically speaking)… “So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.  Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Galatians 3:24-25

 It served as a legal custodian to take care of us (historically speaking) until Christ arrived and we were emancipated! We are free!

Why did I tell you all of this? First, I want you to understand why the New Covenant is superior to the Old Covenant (see Hebrews 19:6). Second, I want you to know why the covenants are not equal. Third, all Christians have the tendency to revert Old Covenant thinking by adding rules and laws to following Christ in a very Suzerain way that limits God grace. Let us not go backwards!

The New Covenant is promissory in nature. There is no quid pro quo. God does all the heavy lifting and we don’t do any. God understands that we can’t live up to the standards He set for us. Instead of giving up on us, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves… we are made holy.

That is truly good news.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

Sermon: More Than Happy: The Joy of Provision

We finish the series on Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Today we see that expressing our joy at knowing Jesus should have a measure of gentleness too. Why? Listen in and find out. Also, there is a bonus song from The New Life Band from Tanzania at the end of the message.