Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Call of God Beckons Us

Sermon for Lent 5, Preached Sunday, March 21, 2010.

Well past five years since Katrina, reports have it that New Orleans is still 1/4 smaller in population than it was prior to the storm.  There are thousands of exiles from New Orleans who are living comfortably in other cities across America for a variety of reasons.  Some of them may return down the road, others will be exiles from their home forever.

The same was true of Israel of old.  For a variety of reasons, Israel found many of its people carried or sent off in exile.  Even though Rome brought peace and economic stability to the region, the Jews remained in the homes of their exile rather than returning home.

As I look out on our congregation, I see a lot of people who are like me and my family.  We too are exiles.  We are living far from where we grew up. Whether military or industry or chance has brought you here, you are living as exiles, distant from your home and family.  As hard as it was to uproot yourself and live in exile, it is not easy to go home, either.  We live in the tension of a comfort with where we are and a desire to find our way home.

That is how it is with some who have stopped attending worship, with those whose faith has grown cold, or with those who move into this community yet never seem to connect with a church home.  They live with an exile identity and yet they are comfortable enough with their exilic home to resist the call to come home.  The call to come home is exactly what we hear from the Lord today.  Come, home...

The home that God promises to us is rest from our enemies.  All the battles that we fight in life and all the skirmishes that mar our days – these all find an end in the home that God has prepared for us.  God promises us peace from all the disappointments of our yesterdays.  All the broken promises of others and the failed intentions of our own lives are met finally and fully in Jesus Christ.

The home that God promises to us is grace to answer all the longing of our hearts for peace amid the turmoil and upsets of this life.  He promises joy that will carry us through all the down turns and sorrows of this life.  All the things that would steal away our peace and rob us of contentment and joy, these are met in the God who reveals Himself to us as Savior and Lord in Jesus Christ.

Our God promises restoration of that which was lost to us by sin.  The lives that we must now live in a broken world and under the long dark shadow of death cast over our every day are restored – not simply to the condition of Eden but better.  The loss of our identity and purpose when the gate of Eden was closed to us – these are now restored to us in the baptism.  The people whom God formed for Himself have been restored by Him to their holy calling of declaring His praise to all the ends of the earth.

To be God’s own, to live under Him, to serve Him, and to declare His praise in all that we do and in all that we are – this was stolen from us by sin’s exile.  Because we have grown so comfortable in the misery of a life where death rules and sin compromises our hope, we forget what we have lost and we miss what He has restored in Christ.  He is our hope – not the bringer of hope but He is our hope; our lives rest in Him.

He has become an exile with us and for us.  He has left the marvelous glory of heaven to enter our world.  He has met our enemies of sin, death, the grave, and the devil.  Christ has kept the promise of the Father and fulfilled the promises etched in Scripture’s words over generations.  He has come to bring the exiles home that we might be restored in hope and life as God’s children and serve Him with all that we are.

Christ is our freedom – our freedom from want and desire, from need and pleasure.  He gives us all that is His – all that He won by His suffering and death, all that He earned by His willing obedience, and all that He accomplished by His death that gives us life and His life stronger than death.

He is the one who makes the orphans God’s children once again, who restores to us the possibility of living noble and godly lives, who makes it possible for us to declare the eternal glory of the Father by our witness.

This is the God who makes a way in the wilderness for the exiles to return, who takes from us the fear that would make us choose today over eternity, who breaks down the barriers of fear that would choose to live to fulfill our own selfish desire instead of living to fulfill the glory of Him to whom we belong.

In Jesus’ parable of the tenants in the vineyard, we see what happens when we forget our exile and decide to claim today for ourselves.  It was selfishness that made them choose the things of the moment for eternity.  It was desire that led them to do whatever it took to preserve what they had.  But these were born of fear – the fear and desire of the exile whose heart who has chosen today over eternity, a life to fulfill self instead of serving the Lord, and rejected the beckoning call of God to come home to Him.

Are we like this?  Do we live so comfortably in our exile here and in this life marred by sin that we would reject God’s gift of eternity?  Could it be that we also turn away God’s overtures to us because, like the tenants in the vineyard, we want to possess today more than we desire His eternity?  Have we grown so comfortable living outside of the Lord that we resent returning to Him what is His – I am not speaking of offerings that we steal to pay for our own wants... I am speaking of our very selves, the lives that were born of His creation, redeemed by His love in Christ, and restored to the purpose and place we had in creation of serving the Lord with all that we have and are?  Exiles who have grown so comfortable living away from our home in the Lord have nothing but the moment and their memories.  But God bids us come home to the grace that gives us the present life for which we were created and the eternal life beyond imagination.

The reaction of the tenants is understandable to us.  They had worked the ground and harvested the fruit – why should they not get it all?  Why would they give the owner anything when they labored for the harvest?  That is the language of exiles talking, exiles who have become so comfortable with their home in exile that they no longer desire what home offers.  But the language of faith sees today for what it is, acknowledges our lost condition, and rejoices in what God has done to give us the today in which we live and also the everlasting tomorrow Jesus has prepared for us.

Paul’s words remain a mystery to us as long today looms so large in our hearts that we no longer burn or desire for the eternity God has provided for us... ‘whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ...”  But if we build our life for today and for eternity on the cornerstone which is Jesus Christ, we will have today and forever.  We are exiles in this present life.  We can enjoy what it brings us and we can live in the regret of its brokenness, but we dare not hold on to it too tightly or we will miss what today is supposed to be and the tomorrow that we never dreamed of. We are exiles and our dwelling place is with God for all eternity.  Our purpose here is to tend the Lord’s vineyard and return to Him the fruits that are His.  Only Christ makes this possible.  And the surprise of grace is that God grant us eternal possession of the heavenly vineyard. This is what our focus needs to be to overcome fear, to let go of our regret, and to know peace that passes all understanding and joy even amid sorrow.  Amen

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