First Reading: Jeremiah 15:15-21
15O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach. 16Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts. 17I did not sit in the company of revelers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation. 18Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail? 19Therefore thus says the Lord: “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them. 20And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the Lord. 21I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”
1Give judgment for me, O Lord, for I have lived with integrity; I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered. 2Test me, O Lord, and try me; examine my heart and my mind. 3For your love is before my eyes; I have walked faithfully with you. 4I have not sat with the worthless, nor do I consort with the deceitful. 5I have hated the company of evildoers; I will not sit down with the wicked. 6I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord, that I may go in procession round your altar, 7Singing aloud a song of thanksgiving and recounting all your wonderful deeds. 8 Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides. 9Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with those who thirst for blood, 10Whose hands are full of evil plots, and their right hand full of bribes. 11As for me, I will live with integrity; redeem me, O Lord, and have pity on me. 12My foot stands on level ground; in the full assembly I will bless the Lord.
Second Reading: Romans 12:9-21
9Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28
21Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
What the Church Should be
A farmer was chosen by his grange to represent them at a national convention, and thus he found himself, for the first time, in a big city. After checking in at the hotel, he approached an elevator, something he had never seen before. He watched as a very large woman walked into the elevator. The door closed, what appeared to be a single hand on a large clock made a revolution, and the door opened again, this time discharging a very attractive young lady. The astonished farmer ran to the nearest phone, called his wife, and said: “Martha, pack your bag and get here as quick as you can! I found a place where you can get that form we’ve been wantin’ all these years!”
When we’re honest, are any of us ever satisfied with our form? As people always looking to improve, we’re never content with the status quo, and for many, this dissatisfaction even extends to the church. And this desire to become better isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Change can be good; but change for change’s sake isn’t. Chasing after the latest fad can have disastrous results. Many Christians today recognize that if the church is going to survive in this twenty-first century, it must do something different. The church must break away from the rut that it’s in.
One Gallup Poll I found shows that while 94% of Americans say they believe in God, only 44% have confidence in organized religion, and 41% are deliberately unattached to any church. This means that more than 61 million Americans are not members of any church or religious body. Jesus was spot on when He told the disciples that the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few (Matthew 9:37). There are many opportunities for evangelism all around us, and we need to be ready, anytime an opportunity arises, to share God’s Good News in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, dissatisfaction with the church isn’t limited to those outside our walls, even among those who are loyal to a particular denomination, many are often unhappy.
During a conversation I had just before our last national Convocation, one of the attendees told me, “If the NALC doesn’t get some things straightened out soon, the Missouri Synod is going to get another member: ME!” A question many serious Christians grapple with is, “What form of church does God want for the future?” One thing that’s very safe for us to say, is that God definitely does not want the church to act or look like the world around them. We’ve witnessed the devastating results of churches that have conformed to society over the past 15+ years.
St. Paul was absolutely clear in our text when he advised the Roman Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world …” (Romans 12:2). And contrary to what one may think, conforming isn’t a passive activity, to conform means to seek to be identical with that which surrounds you. Why would anyone want to attend a church that’s no different than the world that surrounds it? One of the reasons many young people aren’t interested in attending church is they see too many churches that are too much like the world. They hear far too many arguments about politics and such, and far too few talking about the power of sin, and of Jesus Christ and His Lordship, and of His saving grace. With the political season heating up, there are enough secular concerns being expressed in society, and in our homes, why would anyone want to come to church just to hear them argued again? Yes, we must address the issues from a Biblical perspective, but we need to stay away from politics. Our focus must be on God and of His love shown to us in Jesus Christ.
A college student recently said, “I don’t go to church anymore because it’s too political. Why should I go to church to hear people fight, I get all I want of that at home.” In a certain mental hospital, there was a young man who was able to keep from falling into deep depression by thinking about God’s love. One day he asked a nurse to assure him that God loved him. Thinking the chaplain could do a better job, she asked him to speak to the boy. The next day the youth told the nurse, “Don’t ever send that man to see me again.” “Why not?” she asked. “Didn’t he tell you about God’s love?” He answered, “No, he didn’t. All he wanted to know was whether I would join the choir or attend Sunday school.” People don’t come to church primarily for social programs, no matter how meritorious they may be.
People come to church to have their spiritual needs met, which happens primarily through worship and Christian education. If a church is truly the church, it provides worship and educational services in which people can sense the presence of God amidst the people of God. They come to hear God’s word proclaimed and preached, taught, sung, prayed, and received in the Sacraments. They come to confess their sins, to hear the promise of forgiveness, and to be told that God loves them and is with them. Our worship is meant to be an authentic expression of our appreciation and love for God and to deepen our relationship with Him. Yet, consider the average worshiper in many churches today.
Outside of Sunday morning, how much time is spent in prayer and Bible study compared to many of the other leisure activities in our lives? What kind of shows do we watch, what kind of music is on our radios? Do we spend more time taking about the NFL preseason than we do about what we last read in the Bible? In too many churches, more often than not, the sermon is focused more on social issues or some obscure church doctrine, and does little to relate to our lives as Christians today.
Bishop Gerald Kennedy tells of a little boy who flatly refused to go back to church. His mother asked him why. The lad replied, “I don’t want to go back because the preacher said he was going to preach about, ‘The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up’ – and that scares me!” “Honey,” the mother replied, “you go on back to church and don’t worry.” “There’s not enough zeal in that church to hurt a fly!”
“Do not be conformed to this world,” St. Paul tells us; and J. B. Phillips translates this passage to say, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mold.” If the church of the Lord Jesus Christ has a future, it will not exist in the form of conformity. God will not let the world squeeze His church into its own mold. Nor will Jesus be satisfied with a church that is deformed. When something is deformed, it’s ugly, misshapen, and abnormal.
Paul had to deal with the threat of a deformed church in his day even as we do in ours. That’s why he admonished the Roman Christians, “I bid every one of you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think …” There were those in the Roman church who had exalted opinions of themselves. Some who were prophets thought they were better than those who were teachers. Others assumed that because they gave liberally, they were better than those who encouraged. Paul recognized that the church at Rome was in danger of becoming deformed, twisted out of the shape Christ intended because certain members had lofty opinions of themselves.
One would think that after more than 2,000 years, the problems of a deformed church would no longer be with us, but they are. In fact, the deformation of the church has appeared again and again throughout history. On Reformation Sunday in October, we often recall how deformed the church of the sixteenth century had become. The Pope had replaced Christ, the sale of indulgences had replaced repentance, and church dogma had replaced the Bible. If Martin Luther had not read Paul’s words to the Romans, “The just shall live by faith …” (1:17), who knows how much more deformed the church would have become? Hardly 200 years had passed before the church in England was deformed to an even greater degree.
No effort was made to preach the gospel to the poor or to relieve their poverty, and clergy were more interested in their paychecks than they were in people. The church had become the possession of the state instead of its conscience. Then a man named John Wesley, whose heart had been set on fire by God’s Word, defied that deformed institution and declared, “The whole world is my parish!” He rode the length and breadth of England for more than forty years, preaching the love of God to people of all classes, and England was saved from revolution and the church from permanent deformation. And that same threat of becoming a deformed church is with us today here in America.
Not many years ago, U. S. News and World Report carried a feature article entitled, “Do-It-Yourself Religion Rides a Crest.” The article pointed out that millions of Americans are following preachers who spread their deformed version of the gospel through the medium of Hollywood-style television shows. Instead of giving their money to the organized churches for missions to help the poor, to educate the Biblically illiterate, and to evangelize the lost, more and more Americans are giving to build things like Rex Humbard’s “Cathedral of Tomorrow” and Oral Roberts’ “City of Faith.”
More than a ¼ of a billion dollars was given in a single year, not to advance Jesus Christ and His kingdom – but to advance the televangelists’ kingdoms of Jerry Falwell, Robert Schuller, Herbert W. Armstrong, and Sun Yung Moon. Almost all the money sent in wasn’t given to exalt Jesus, but to enrich and exalt these electronic evangelists. The greatest need of the church today is for the church to be the Body of Christ.
The church was never intended to be focused upon any one preacher, or any one evangelist, or any one gift, but solely upon Jesus Christ. The church has a uniqueness as a spiritual organization only when Jesus Christ is exalted as it’s Savior and Lord, and when it seeks to reveal His kingdom of peace, love, righteousness, and justice. People need more than “Cathedrals of Tomorrow” or “Cities of Faith,” they need something more than rank individualism. They need to know Jesus Christ, virgin-born, God-in-the flesh, crucified, risen from the dead, and alive forevermore at God’s right hand as their Savior and Lord. Anything else is a deformation of what the church should be. St. Paul said, “I resolved to know nothing by Christ crucified (I Corinthians 1:23, 2:2).
We might think that a reformed church is the form of church God wants for the future. A reformed church seems to be what St. Paul is describing when he urges his readers: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good … Never be lazy in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:9, 11, 21). In total, Paul, in our epistle passage, outlines 28 actions we need to take to differentiate ourselves from the world around us. I challenge you to sit down this week and reread our Romans passage and list these attributes out. Look for the action verbs. The people and church Paul is describing, in these verses, are the people and church that is formed in the image of Christ Himself.
However, before we evaluate our congregation, we need to consider the meaning of the word, “reform.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines “reform” as “to improve by alteration, correction of error, or removal of defects; to abolish abuse; to behave better; to give up irresponsible or immoral practices.” These are certainly worthy goals for any church to have, and we can all think of alterations or corrections we would like to see in this congregation. For instance, I’m sure you know that this Saturday we will be opening our doors to the community with our Family Fun Day.
The big reason we’re doing this on Saturday is to advertise Rally Sunday on the 10th, our yearly restart of our Corner Stone Christian education program. We’re all looking for ways to see our Christian Education program improve. Giving our people good, solid, theologically sound information is key to excellence in Christian education. Yet there are many Christians who consider Sunday school a waste of time.
In a poll taken among military recruits, a Navy Chaplin found that 77% of the new recruits didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer, 62% didn’t know what happened on Christmas, and 55% couldn’t explain the Easter event. Biblical ignorance is a massive problem among the members of many churches. Our desire to learn of God should be the same as that of Jeremiah in our Old Testament reading; “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and a delight to my heart, for I am called by your name (Jeremiah 15:16).
Sometime ago a pastor sat in on a sixth grade Sunday school class and asked one of the boys, “Who knocked down the walls of Jericho?” The lad answered, “I don’t know, Pastor, but it sure wasn’t me!” Worried, the pastor turned to the teacher who said, “Pastor, if Tommy says he didn’t do it, you can believe him, because he’s a good boy.” The pastor, troubled by the response of both the student and teacher, brought the matter up to the church council. The members of the council listened sympathetically and then told him not to worry; the council would pay for the damage to the walls and try to hush the whole matter up.
I’m sure we’d all like to see our people improve in their Biblical understanding and in the way we reach out to our neighbors to share the good news of Jesus Christ. As significant as the Protestant Reformation was in the sixteenth century and as attractive as reformation may appear to us today, what the church needs today isn’t just reformation, but transformation as well. Reformation is a change that we make; transformation is a change that can be made only by God, and we need both.
We don’t need flashy lights and choreographed shows, we need a change of focus. We don’t need new programs as much as we need to renew our relationship with Christ. We don’t need a change of methods as much as we need a change of heart. The problem in too many churches today is they suffer in the same way as the church in first century Rome, which led St. Paul to say, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” If our church is to be part of the part of the body Christ in the twenty-first century, it cannot be conformed to the world, or deformed, or even reformed. It must be transformed. The church must be reformed, transformed, and conformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
Conformity, reformation, and transformation of the church into the image of Christ will not happen by simply re-writing the rules, or by electing a new bishop, or by revising Sunday school curriculum materials, or by changing pastors. Conformity, reformation, and transformation into the image of Christ is an act of God, and a transformed life – whether in an individual or in a church – is one in which Christ lives and rules and directs. A transformed life isn’t a self-centered life, but a Christ-centered life.
This is why the NALC has as it’s very first core value that we are to be “Christ Centered” – “We confess the apostolic faith in Jesus Christ according to the Holy Scriptures. We affirm the authority of the Scriptures as the authoritative source and norm, “according to which all doctrines should and must be judged” (Formula of Concord). And we accept the ecumenical creeds and the Lutheran Confessions as true witnesses to the Word of God.” Being Christ centered is what led St. Paul to say, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Therefore, if conformity, reformation, and transformation into the image of Christ is the church’s only form for the future, and is entirely an act of God, then what can you and I do to be the instruments God uses to bring this transformation about? St. Paul gives us the answer when he says we’re to “be transformed by the renewal of (our) minds.” The mind of a person is the thinking, cognitive, reasoning part of them, and it can only be changed by the word of God found in the Bible and as revealed in God’s Word made flesh, Jesus. We can be instruments of God by ensuring that all who are members of this church are people who read, hear, obey, and live the Word of God.
To do this, we must restore the primacy of God’s word in our preaching, teaching, administration, social programs, family life, and personal conduct. We must place ourselves willingly and wholeheartedly under the authority of the Word of God as it is revealed in Jesus and from the Scriptures. Long ago, Jesus told His followers, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). St. Paul did this and look at what happened to him.
St. Paul was transformed from Saul, a murderous, hard-hearted Pharisee, into Paul, a loving, warm-hearted Christian apostle. Martin Luther did this, and God enabled him to bring about a change that saved the church of the sixteenth century. You and I can be God’s instruments to conform, reform, and transform the church into the image of Christ in our time – if we, too, are willing to obey Jesus and continue in God’s Word.
Our church will be conformed, reformed, and transformed into the image of Christ because God acts in and through His word as it is implanted in His people. When we continue in God’s word, we find we have power to do that which before seemed to be impossible. The power of God through His word is limitless, it knows no bounds. St. Paul even said the gospel was the power of God unto salvation. If we truly believe this – as St. Paul did – we Christians will find power not only to reform and transform our church, but also the world.
God’s word, through His people, will accomplish the work of the kingdom. God promises His word will not return to Him void (Isaiah 55:11). God’s people, when grounded in His word, can and will have a profound impact on the community around them. God’s people, when grounded in His word, can and will be transformed into one that can change the world until it becomes the kingdom of our God and of His Christ. The call for us is to be conformed, reformed, and transformed into the image of Christ so we can become the instruments of God’s transformative power in the world.
St. Paul lists 28 actions that are counter-cultural, 28 attributes that are different from the world around us. Think of the impact we could have on our community and the world if we incorporated those 28 actions into our everyday lives. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” This is the key to being conformed, reformed, and transformed into the image of Christ, to the glory of God.