Are You a Stranger Here?

Lent 2C, February 24, 2013
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA

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I guess, before we begin digging into our message this morning, I should explain the title of the sermon, “Are you a stranger here?” You could define the word “here” in two different ways, thus making it two different questions. Let me show you what I mean. 1. Are you stranger here, to the ways of this world? That is, do you feel out of place in a society that is centered on self-gratification and sinful living? Or, 2. Are you a stranger to the church? Is church just a place you go because it is the right thing to do; is it a place you go instead of being something you are a part of and something that is a part of you?

This morning, St. Paul tells us that as Christians, we are foreigners in this world, and as foreigners, we should never feel as though we are completely at home on this earth. We live here for now, but we do not belong here. Our true home is with our Father in His Heavenly Kingdom. So, as foreigners in this world, we should view the ways of this world as also foreign to us.  As citizens of God’s Kingdom by His Grace, we resist the temptations of this world and anxiously await our Savior and our entrance into our eternal Heavenly Homeland.

This morning, St. Paul writes, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” [Philippians 3:17]  Do you find it a little presumptuous, maybe even a little arrogant that Paul invites us to imitate him and other Christians as an example of how to live out our heavenly citizenship?

You might if you were thinking about Paul the Pharisee; Paul who before he met Christ was one that thought he was “holier than thou!”  But this is not the Paul who writes this epistle; no, this morning, the Paul who speaks to us is the one who declares, “I (Paul) see in my body another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells within me.”  [Rom 7:23] This is the great apostle of the gentiles, who admits that he is being held captive to the law; locked away and hopelessly held bondage within a sinful body of death, and if left without help, he would be forever separated from God.

But Paul did receive help; God did finally get through to Paul the sinner, by showing him Jesus suffering and death for the world, even for Paul, so that Paul could be become born again in baptism; a new man whom God would love and Whom he would be able to love in return.  All of this happened for Paul when Christ freed him from his body of death; all of this happened when Paul received God’s forgiving love through the cross of Jesus Christ!

This “born again” Paul had abandoned everything that was in his past; all of his worldly accomplishments, he counted as nothing but filthy rags.  This new and reborn Paul, is the one who was straining forward to the upward call of God, and living each day as a chance to live within and build God’s kingdom of grace by investing in his and others’ eternity (3:14).  So in essence, Paul is asking each of us to follow him each day, in a celebration of God’s forgiving love, and to encourage others to do the same.

Unfortunately, even we Christians can lose sight of the upward call of our true citizenship.  We can be tempted to see our citizenship as being first in the world and second in the kingdom of God.  This is what Paul declares in verses 18–19, when he writes, “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”

When our identity as being Christian takes second place to anything else, well then, our minds and our hearts will start to reset themselves; a kind of reprograming will begin to take place, and we will find ourselves living to obtain earthly things, instead of living to please God.  It is a slow process to be sure; almost undetectable to others, but we know when we have put God in second place.  We know because God’s law begins to convict us and remind us that apart from Him, we can do nothing meaningful; we are sinners.

If we ignore the Word of God and the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, we have as Paul says, made our god our bellies; that is we have traded God’s glory for our shame!  When this happens to citizens of heaven, it is not the fault of God or the church; it is our own grievous fault.

So when some ask us whether it is possible for a Christian to loose their salvation, the answer is yes.  They can slowly become so secure and comfortable in their sins, that they no longer wish to hear the Word of God, which is the only means of remaining a citizen of heaven.  And if they reject God’s means of grace, well then, they will simply fall away and never even care.

They won’t care that they have become enemies of the cross of Jesus Christ.  They won’t care that their end will be their eternal destruction of body and soul, in hell; a place of eternal suffering and separation of all that is good and God pleasing.

So is there any hope for these poor souls who have become so lost?  Yes; they must cease being strangers to God and His church, and instead become strangers once again to this world!  In essence, they must go back to the beginning; back to where they first met God; back to the place where God first saved them.  They must go back to their baptism!

This morning, we have had a wonderful illustration of the beginning of eternal life.  We have witnessed baby Nathan Otten being transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.  We have seen God recreate a child born into the kingdom of this world, into a saint who is a citizen of the Kingdom of God.  Just as Nathan can now say that He is God’s own child through the washing of the water and the world, so can you!  Even if you have been walking apart from God for so many years, it is never to late to return to the Lord your God, for He alone is faithful and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!

In Holy Baptism, God, just as He has done for baby Nathan has made each of us members of His church, the body of Jesus Christ.  In the waters of our baptism, we are reminded, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” [Philippians 3:20, 21]

Do we really understand what it means to be declared citizens of heaven?!  I pray that before we leave this place of worship; before we say grace over our fellowship meal together, each of us by the power of the Holy Spirit would see the mighty work our God has done for us through our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  I pray that we would understand that Jesus has in fact opened heaven to us by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  I pray that we would see baby Nathan’s baptism and our own as God’s means of grace, which He has declared to be the instrument that makes us citizens of His heaven.

But I also pray that this wonderful work of God would make a difference to us; a difference in how we live our lives here in this other kingdom; this kingdom of man.  As heaven’s citizens, as we anxiously await our Savior’s return, I pray that we would occupy our minds with heavenly thoughts (worship, devotion, Bible study, and prayer).  I pray that we would continue to hunger to hear His Word proclaimed and hunger to eat heavenly food at our Lord’s Table.  I pray that we would continue to imitate not just St. Paul, but all the saints who have lived a life of faith trusting in the promises of God.  I pray that we would join in with them always being prepared to give a witness to anyone who asks, declaring: “We’ve come this far by faith leaning on the Lord.  Trusting in His Holy Word, He’s never failed us yet!  And as Christians by God’s grace, we will continue to walk in His forgiving love and be examples of faith-filled Christians for those other citizens of Christ’s kingdom who will come after us.”

Together as heavenly citizens, we endure our time on earth together, and we stand firm to the end, anxiously awaiting the transformation of our bodies to be like his glorious body. Together, we are not ashamed to sing, “I’m just a stranger here; heaven is my home.”  And together, we each long for the day when our heavenly Father will call us home. As foreigners who live for news and a Word from the country we love, we count down the days until we set foot in the land that will always be home and say, “Free at last; free at last.  Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!”

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