March 18, 2012

Sermon, Fourth Sunday in Lent

The God Who Makes Us New Again
Psalm 147, Galatians 4:21-31, John 6:1-14
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2012

"Grant, O Lord, that by thy holy Word read and preached in this place, and by thy Holy Spirit grafting it inwardly in the heart, the hearers thereof may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and may have power and strength to fulfill the same." In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Our liturgical calendar leads us to spend the first half of the year emphasising what we are to believe about God, nature, and ourselves. So we have been looking at what the Bible says about God as the God of Grace, God our Saviour, God the Law Giver, and God who is Faithful. Today we are looking at "The God Who Makes Us New Again." In the Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Lent we ask God to relieve us by His comfort and grace through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The Collect is an ancient prayer which has carried this petition to the throne of grace for at least 1,700, and, probably for more than 1,900 years. The earliest copies I know of are in the collection of prayers and liturgies known as the Gregorian Sacrametary and are written in Latin. Our English version of it uses the word, "relieve," which means to free, help, and release from an obligation. Its strongest meaning is to raise a person up and out of troubles and sorrows, to elevate him to a new level of life. The Latin word used is respiremus, from which we draw our English word, "respire." And guess what "respire" really means; it means to re-inspire, to breathe life into again, or to make alive again. Picture an ancient caravan traversing a hot, dry desert. After many weary days of travel it finally reaches an oasis rich with palm trees, grass and water. Man and beast rest themselves in the cool shade and drink their fill of the water. They remain at the oasis for several days, and when they leave they are relieved of their weariness and re-inspired for the journey ahead. Or picture a military troop that has been on the front line for many long months of hard battle. The soldiers are weak and tired, but, finally the orders come for them to move to the rear. There, away from the battle, they rest, eat hot meals, take hot showers, and sleep in beds. After a while they begin to regain their strength and courage. They are freed and released from the obligations of the war, and they are helped and elevated to a new level of life and health. It is as though they are re-made and become new people.

Psalm 147 is about God freeing and helping His people by raising us up to a new level of life. Verse 6 tells us the Lord "setteth up" the meek. He elevates them; He raises them up to a new level of life. The Psalm uses the ancient city of Jerusalem as an object lesson, and verses 2 and 3 form a key passage to those who wish to understand the Psalm's meaning and application; "The Lord doth build up Jerusalem, and gather together the outcasts of Israel. He healeth those that are broken in heart, and giveth medicine to heal their sickness."

From the very beginning enemies have besieged and scattered the Israel of God. From the death of Abel to persecutions on this very day we have been attacked and scattered like sheep. In Biblical times, Babylon, Greece, and Rome each attacked and destroyed Jerusalem, and forced the Jews to flee to the ends of the earth. In Psalm 147 God is rebuilding Jerusalem as He did under the leadership of Nehemiah. He is regathering the outcasts of Israel as He did when He brought them back from captivity in Babylon in 536 B.C. It is as though Israel had died like the soldiers in the valley of dry bones. And, just as God raised up and renewed the dry bones, He is raising up and renewing Israel. He is making Israel new again and alive again.

We need to remember that the real emphasis of this Psalm is not what God does for the physical city of Jerusalem. It was nice that God brought the Jews back to Jerusalem, and that He made the gates of the city fast so enemies could not break in, and that He gave them flour and wheat so that, in a land where people often did not have enough to eat, His people had food. Yet these physical blessings were not the heart of what it meant for God to relieve His people. It is the spiritual Jerusalem, the Jerusalem which is from above, which is the mother of us all, as we read a few minutes ago in Galatians 4:26, which is the real focus of this Psalm. This heavenly Jerusalem is the Church, which is the company of all faithful people, the company of those who have trusted in Jesus Christ to forgive their sins and make them fit for the fellowship and love of God. This makes the Church as an institution very important. It is ordained of God. It is He who sent Apostles and pastors to it, and calls ministers to preach and teach the word and calls people to come into His community of faith and worship Him. Yes, the Church as an organisation has its problems, but we are not allowed by God to give up on the organisation. Rather than giving up we are to seek out a church that is a real Church, founded on the Bible and striving to live by the faith and practice revealed in Scripture.

How does God refresh and relieve His people? He does it primarily through the everyday things of prayer, Scripture reading, public and private worship, and the Lord's Supper. Most of the TV and radio preachers teach that God works miracles, according to the measure of your faith, and it is through these miracles that He refreshes and relieves you. But the truth is that such miracles are extremely rare. For example, God seldom comforts and relieves us apart from His teaching and promises revealed in the Scriptures. And He seldom gives great understanding of Scripture's comfort and promises unless we spend time reading and studying them. It is the Scriptures that teach us the things we need to know about God and enable us to grow in grace. In other words, God uses the Scriptures to relieve and refresh us. He also uses the other things I mentioned, prayer, worship, the Lord's Supper, Christian fellowship, and baptism. Through these things God strengthens you and enables you to face the trials and stand fast against the enemies that attempt to scatter and destroy you. Through these things He encourages you, comforts, and relieves you. That's why I am always pestering you about daily prayer and daily Scripture reading, and coming to Church. These things help you, that's why I want you to do them.

But we cannot forget our primary means of relief from God, which is the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ for our sins. If God were to miraculously end war, crime, poverty and sickness, yet allow us to die in our sins He would do us no good. Our sins make us unfit to be in God's presence. Our sins make us fit only to be cast out of His presence forever. And if Jesus had not gone to the cross to pay the price for our sins, we would have to pay that price ourselves. We would have to be cast into that place of outer darkness forever.

But God in mercy sent His Son into the world to save sinners. He came to release you from the power and penalty of sin. He came to raise you up, to elevate you to a new life, a different life, and a better life. And this life is only possible for those who come to Him in faith through Christ.

"Grant, we beseech thee Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen."

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