Monday, August 17, 2015

The Good Works Uncertainty Principle

I have a minor interest in physics, and read dumbed-down popular science books and articles aimed at "the layman".

One of the fascinating developments in physics in the last century or so is a greater understanding of "quantum physics", in which scientists are beginning to understand how things work on the smallest of scales.  And what they have found is that on those very small scales, things get quite strange.

There's the famous experiment with the "double slit".  This video explains it.  One of the spookiest discoveries is that when light is not being measured or observed directly, it acts like a wave, but then when it is being observed, it appears as a particle.  It's as if the particle "knows" it's being watched and changes its behavior accordingly.

I've found that quantum mechanics provides some helpful analogies to our life of good works as Christians.  

We know that all Christians have faith, and that faith always produces good works.  But we humans like to measure things, especially our own good works.   And here's where things start to get strange.  Here I think about the double-slit experiment. Our good works are like that photon in this way - when we observe them, things change!  When we start looking at our good works and measuring them, especially against the perfect and holy standard of God's Law, they begin to look not-so-good after all.  They are tainted and corrupted by sin, pride, false motivations, impure motives, etc.  This is the "lex semper accusat", always accusing aspect of the law at work. When we look at our works, they appear as filthy rags - especially the closer we look.

So when the sheep and the goats are separated (Matthew 25), the sheep are quite surprised to hear of their good works.  For they weren't busy looking at them.  "When did we feed you, Lord?  When did we clothe you, visit you?"

Scripture assures us that our faith DOES produce works.  But it would not have us sit around admiring them.  Rather, our focus should be on the cross of Christ (keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith) and on the needs of our neighbor.  

To the extent that we do good works, thanks be to God who gets the credit for them anyway.  To the extent that we do good works, however weak and failingly, thanks be to God who accepts them through Christ nonetheless.

In Christ, we see perfect works - no matter how much of a magnification we put on the scope.  In Christ, there is no uncertainty, but always blessed assurance that what he has done is enough, and is good enough.  The resurrection proves the sufficiency of his life and death for us.

Then there's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which "any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known simultaneously."  

In other words, there's always stuff we not only don't know, but there's stuff we can't know.

But Christ is the certainty principle of God.  He sends his Spirit, who creates faith in us, and that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction (certainty) of things unseen".  Hebrews 11:1  Christ's promises to us about forgiveness today and resurrection on "that day" are surer than any observation.  For though even our eyes may fail us, he never will.  And though what we see may or may not be, he assures us, "before Abraham was, I am".  

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Sermon - John 6:35-51 - Pentecost 11

John 6:35-51
Pentecost 11
August 9th, 2015
“The Bread of Life that Comes to Us”

Today we continue hearing from Jesus in John chapter 6, this great “bread of life” discourse. In John's Gospel there are 8 great “I AM” statements:

I am the bread of life
I am the light of the world
Before Abraham was, I am
I am the door
I am the good shepherd
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the way, the truth, and the life
I am the true vine

This is the first of those statements, and the one that Jesus spends the most time in the Gospel unpacking. These grand statements are far more than simple metaphors, though there are points of comparison to note.

When Jesus uses the image of bread – it's quite intentional. Bread is the staff of life. It is the most basic form of food and sustenance we humans know. We pray for daily bread in the Lord's prayer, meaning, all that we need to support this body and life. We work to put bread on the table, that is, to earn money and pay for all our family's needs.

When Jesus claims for himself the title, “Bread of Life”, he's doing far more than making a simple comparison. In a way, Jesus is more bread than bread itself. He is more universal. He is more basic and necessary. He is more of what we need to be sustained than any earthly bread. Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. And Jesus Christ, the Bread from Heaven is the Word of God made flesh.

And there is contrast here, too. Earthly bread must be earned, but the Bread of Life from Heaven is a gift. Earthly bread may spoil, but this bread endures. Earthly bread may leave you hungry again soon. But the Bread of Life promises – you'll never hunger or thirst again. Earthly bread – you can eat it, and die the next day. But the bread of life – you eat that and you'll live forever, be raised on the last day.

In our Old Testament reading, Elijah was facing death. He was under threat of death from the wicked queen Jezebel. She called for his death, and fast, for he had beaten the false prophets of her false gods at Mt. Carmel. When their sacrifice was ignored, but Elijah's sacrifice to the true God was consumed in fire from heaven – and Elijah had those 450 false prophets put to death. Queen Jezebel would have her revenge, and put the word out that Elijah was at the top of her list. So he ran into the wilderness. And found his refuge under a broom tree. And he was so exhausted from all this that he prayed to die. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

But the Angel of the Lord appeared and fed him. He provided him with a simple meal, not once but twice, to strengthen and sustain Elijah, whose work was not quite done yet. Nothing fancy, mind you. No army appeared for Elijah to lead into battle with Jezebel. No magical thunderbolt to zap his enemies to smithereens. No more fire from heaven. Just a simple meal. And Elijah was strengthened for his journey.

This Angel of the Lord that appeared to him, appears to be a bit more than a mere created angel. But throughout the Old Testament this particular messenger of God is identified with God himself – and appears to be a pre-incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. The Angel of the Lord who appeared to Moses and Abraham and Hagar and Gideon and so many others. The same Person who in some 800 years would take on human flesh and be born of a virgin. The same one who would proclaim himself the Bread of Life.

The Bread of Life – we need this bread, for we too face death all day long. We try to push death out of the picture, relegate it to hospitals and nursing homes, dress it up with softer words like “passed away”. Or we make a game and joke of death, turn it into a cartoon. You can go on the internet, plug in a few personal details, and the “death clock” will give you an approximation of how long it thinks you have on this earth. This is how we face our enemy?

Or better yet, just live in denial that each of us will one day face our last day. Plod through life like nothing's wrong, everything is puppies and daffodils, and everyone is and will be just fine. Well this just lets death sneak up on you, and smack you while you're not looking. And sooner or later, it will happen. No one is immune.

No, none of these methods deal with death. They only seek to hide from it or make it less terrible. But make no mistake. Death and sin walk hand in hand. No matter what fig leaf we try to use to cover up the wages of our sin. We can't do it. It's too much for us.

We may not have a wicked Jezebel out for our head, but we have a more wicked enemy who would take our life if he could. The devil's schemes are never-ending, his temptations do not let up. Moreover, we have our own sinful nature to contend with – a nature that would eagerly dance to the devil's tune. And the world – if you don't believe the world has embraced a culture of death look no further than the latest weekly video and see the gruesomeness of the violence done to the least of these among us.

Sometimes the journey seems too great for us. This life exhausts us and overwhelms us and even if we sometimes live in denial of death, other days we like Elijah, “Lord, it is enough. Take me now.” And it seems like the only thing to do with death is to give in.

But the same Lord who fed Elijah for his journey is the same Lord who sends the Bread of Life from heaven. And just as Elijah's simple meal was nothing outwardly spectacular, but just what he needed – so does the Bread of Life feed us. He gives his flesh, his body, for the life of the world.

Elijah found his rest under a broom tree. But you and I find our rest under a different tree- the tree of the cross. There, at the cross, Jesus sweeps away all our sin and even death itself.

It is from the cross that Jesus feeds the world just what it needs. Not a savior who brings armies or magic wands, no fireworks or winning lottery tickets. But in the lowly, the humble, the suffering – his power is made perfect in weakness. He sheds his blood, suffers the wrath of God for sin, and gives up his Spirit – thus fulfilling the will of his Father, thus completing his mission from heaven, and winning for you – eternal life.
This is how he, the Bread of Heaven feeds us with the gifts of the Father. This is how he, the Bread of life, brings us eternal life.

And it is from the altar, that he feeds you today. It may not seem like much. You have all these sins and troubles and fears and then there's death... and Jesus says take and eat, this little, simple wafer of bread. Take and drink, just a sip of wine – and nothing fancy at that. But in this Holy Sacrament of his body and blood, he feeds you the fruits of his cross – and sustains you with the Bread of Life. And it is enough for the journey. He feeds you and sustains you with exactly what you need. He gives you himself, and that's always enough.

So come and eat and drink. Come bearing your sins. Come with whatever weariness life in a fallen world has laid on you. Come even though your enemies would have your life. Come with your hurts, your hungers, your yearning to do better. Come to Jesus, for he has come from heaven, from the Father, for you. And whoever comes to Jesus, the Father will not cast out. Whoever believes will have eternal life. In Jesus' Name. Amen.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 10 - John 6:22-35

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 2nd, 2015
John 6:22-35
“Work that Is Not Work for Bread that Is Not Bread.”

Maybe somewhere in your life you've seen someone who has fallen on hard times, maybe at a busy intersection or by a Walmart parking lot – holding a sign.  And scrawled on that cardboard sign with magic marker is the phrase, “Will work for food”.  I suppose it's meant to indicate that this person isn't simply looking for a handout.  There might be some pride involved, that even though I'm in a tough spot, I'm not looking for something for free.  I'll earn my keep.  I'll work for my food.

St. Paul told the Thessalonian church that work was important.  And that even though they were expecting Christ to return soon, they should still go about their business, and not stop working. “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”  2 Thess. 3:10  Paul upholds the value of work, and would not have able-bodied Christians act like freeloaders, needlessly living off of the kindness of others, when they, too, can do their part.  God gives us the ability to work for a reason.  And it is good to work for your bread.

But today Jesus says some rather puzzling things about work and food.   “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” and “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Jesus had just miraculously fed the 5000+ who were attentive to his teaching. And in a day and age when one's next meal was often in question, someone who could provide bread for the crowds would certainly get some attention.

Like a flock of hungry birds, feed them once, and they ravenously follow you for more.  But were they hungry for the right things?  What should they have been looking for from Jesus?  What did he really come to give them?

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you”

So a contrast is set between food that perishes, and food that endures to eternal life.

You and I are not only earthy, physical creatures, but we are too often fixated on the things of this earth.  We set our mind on things below, not above.  We think we can live by bread alone.  We are just like our parents, who found the forbidden fruit enticing, and they ate.  So we are drawn to all sorts of fruits of this world.  Whether forbidden pleasures of an earthly nature, or permitted daily bread which we then make into an idol.  We're not much different than the hungry mob following Jesus all around the sea of Galilee.

Nor are we unlike the grumbling, ungrateful Israelite rabble who griped and groaned about their food in the wilderness.  God had miraculously, spectacularly freed them from slavery in Egypt.  He performed 10 plagues, each one worse than the last.  He parted the Red Sea with perfect timing for their escape.  He led them in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.  He couldn't have done more for them.  Yet still, they grumbled against Moses, and against God.

“At least in Egypt we had meat to eat!”  Pining for the good old days of slavery, and despising the good gifts of God who brought them out of it.

Repentance is in order, friends.  Repentance for every ungrateful, unthankful moment in which we take for granted God's gifts of daily bread.  Repentance for coveting the daily bread of the next guy, whose bread seems so much fresher, and whose loaf smells so much better.  Repentance for misusing and abusing the good gifts he gives us.  Repentance for thinking we deserve these things, like God owes us this, and even more!  Repentance for thinking we could do better if we were the one sitting up on that throne, that we know better what our needs are – better than even the one who designed and made us and gives us life.  The audacity of humans.  It's never enough.  It's never good enough.  Our appetites always grumbling for more and more and better and better.

Jesus sets the crowd straight, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you”

He's urging them toward the Gospel.  The food that endures to eternal life.  The food that he, himself will give to them.  The food that is, in fact, himself – the very Bread of Life as he will reveal shortly.
There's something strange here already, though.  He's telling them to work for something that he will give.  He's shifting from an earning mentality to a gift mentality.  He's moving from the law-minded, earthbound thinking of the typical human experience, where we must work for our bread and nothing comes for free.  And he's moving them toward the grace of God, the undeserved, the free gift of bread that he himself will give.  But they don't quite see it yet.

They're still stuck on work.  “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Don't you get it people?  You didn't work all day when he fed you and the 5000.  You simply sat and heard his teaching.  You were a recipient of the heavenly bread, and then he gave you earthly bread for good measure.  You didn't deserve it.  You didn't earn it.  The disciples wanted to send you away to go buy your own meal.  But the giver of all good things gave you good things, and still gives good things to sinners who don't earn them.

Christians, what do you think you must do to be doing the works of God?  Do you think you're earning your bread from God by random acts of kindness?  Do you suppose you are working for God by serving on church boards and committees?  Do you think your money in the plate is the thing?  Or that you're actually keeping the 10 commandments, or at least good enough to earn some consideration from the Almighty?  Maybe coming to church today is the real sacrifice you think you're making to show God how much you really do deserve the goods... whatever the bread may be.
Jesus turns all this on its head, too.  None of that is the work of God.  The work of God is this. Believe in him whom he has sent.
And even this, is a gift.

So what we have is work that is not work, for bread that is not bread.

The work of God is simply to trust in Christ who gives salvation freely.  And the Bread of Life that he gives, is no mere bread, but his own self, his own body, broken for you on the cross.
The cross.  That's where the true work of God was accomplished.  There, where Jesus did the only work that ever earned salvation for any sinner.  God accepted this work, and showed his seal of approval by raising Jesus from the dead.

Your part, dear Christian, is to believe it.  And even this faith itself, he has worked in you, and works to sustain by his Spirit.  So you don't even get credit for your own faith as a good work, thanks be to God!  It is his work in you.  You don't get the pride of saying you'll work for food.  He gives it to you for free.  He works it in you, by his grace.  And he who began a good work in you will one day bring it to completion...

In the meantime, that faith does produce works.  This is a great mystery, for when we begin to measure our works they seem to evaporate before us into filthy rags.  But faith doesn't look at our works, it looks to Christ, and it looks to the needs of the neighbor.  How can I, who have received such good bread, serve my neighbor, and maybe even share my bread?  I do it not to earn a thing, for the giver of the Bread of Life feeds me richly and freely.

The Israelites ate manna in the desert.  And as miraculous and heavenly a food as it was, they ate it and still died anyway.  But here is a bread that one may eat and live forever.  Here is a meal that sustains us for eternity.  It is the true body and blood of Christ, the holy sacrament of his altar, in which he gives himself for our forgiveness, life and salvation.  The work of God is to believe... and to believe his words concerning his provision in this meal.  This is my body and blood.  Take and eat.  Take and drink.  And never hunger and thirst again.

We'll spend the next two Sundays in this same chapter, John 6.  And we'll continue to hear from the Bread of Life who gave himself and still gives himself for us.  Thanks be to God for his provision of bread, rained down from heaven on us, in the person of Jesus Christ, his Son our Lord.
So be about the work of God.  That is, receive him.  Believe in him.  And live.   In Jesus' Name.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

5 Ways we Find Christ in the Old Testament

"You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me"  John 5:39

"And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself." Luke 24:27
Jesus makes the bold claim that the Old Testament scriptures testify to him.  We should understand this statement in the richest and deepest way possible.  The Old Testament isn't only tangentially about Jesus.  Jesus is the beating heart of the scriptures, their true core and focal point.

But how?

Here's a hopefully helpful list of 5 ways we find Christ in the Old Testament.  This is not meant to be exhaustive, but gives a framework for seeing Christ as we study the OT.

1) Direct (Rectilnear) Prophecy:
These are the prophecies which we understand speak of the Christ in a way of direct prediction.  

Some examples might be Genesis 3, where the Seed of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. Or Isaiah 7, in which a virgin will conceive and bear a son, or Micah 5, "You, O Bethlehem" predicting the place of His birth.

2) Typology:
People, events, even animals from the stories of the Old Testament often foreshadow New Testament fulfillments.  The flood prefigures Baptism.  Sarah and Hagaar typify the two covenants.  This is not to say the original stories aren't true, of course.  But they also serve as shadows of other things to follow.

Likewise, much of the Old Testament hints at, points to, or even screams about Christ! Take the Passover for one example - in which the people of God are saved by the blood of the lamb.  Or the Day of Atonement, in which the sins of the people are placed upon the scapegoat, which is then sent off to die.  Or the whole ceremonial and sacrificial system, which in many ways, shows forth a testimony of Christ - who is God With Us in the tent of human flesh.

Some of these are spelled out very clearly by the New Testament.  For instance, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the bronze serpent Moses lifted up pointed to him, "the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him might have eternal life." John 3:14-15.  Or take "the sign of Jonah", by which Jesus compares his death and resurrection with Jonah's 3 days in the belly of the great fish.

3) The "Golden Thread"
Another very straightforward way to see Christ in the Old Testament is to simply trace his lineage.  So the stories of Adam, Seth, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Judah, David and Bathsheba, Solomon, Ruth, and so many others - show how God was bringing about the fulfillment of His messianic promises.

The genealogies of Matthew's and Luke's Gospels are helpful here, as a sort of a road-map for finding the Golden Thread.

4) Theophany
A theophany is a visible manifestation of God.  The Old Testament contains many of these, and I would argue that when they happen, we do better to assume they are the Second Person of the Trinity than automatically thinking it's God the Father.  So for instance, at the burning bush, it was God the Son who spoke to Moses.  God the Son who walked in the garden of Eden and called, "Adam, where are you?". God the Son who appeared to Abraham along with the two angels.  God the Son who manifested as pillar of cloud and pillar of fire.   God the Son who is seated between the cherubim on the Mercy Seat of the Ark.

The various appearances of the Angel of the Lord also seem to be a pre-incarnate manifestation of the Second Person of the Trinity.

5) Christ IS the Word
Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, Christ IS the very living Word of God (John 1).  So every word of Scripture not only testifies to him, but in a way we can't fully grasp - the word is God.. the Son.

For further study:  

Monday, July 20, 2015

Newsletter Series - Lex Semper Accusat

A Brief Latin Glossary
for the Lutheran Armchair Theologian:

Lex semper accusat
Lex orandi, lex credendi
Simul justus et peccator
Ex nihilo
Sola scriptura
Sola gratia
Sola fide
Fides qua, fides quae
Ex opere operato
Quia and quatenus
Oratio, meditatio, tentatio
Soli deo gloria

This month I'd like to start a newsletter series highlighting some of the important and interesting Latin phrases we use from time to time in Lutheran theology. Each month we'll explore one of these terms to help you build a handy “vocab list”.

Let's start with “Lex semper accusat”, which means, “The Law always accuses”.

Perhaps you remember the “three uses of the law” paradigm from Confirmation instruction. First, the Law of God functions like a curb, to keep gross outbreaks of sin in check. This is the function of the Law that is expressed in earthly government, which bears the sword for our good (cf. Romans 13).

Also, the Third Use of the law is compared to a “ruler” or “guide”. This is the distinctly Christian use of the Law, that is, once we have been forgiven we might ask of God's law, “how then shall we live?” (2 Peter 3:11) The Law provides guidance and direction for how to live as we ought, how to do what is right as Christian, etc...

But the Second Use of the Law is sometimes called the “chief” use of the Law, and that's what we are talking about with “Lex semper accusat”. The Law as a mirror. The Law of God which always, always shows us our sin. Whatever comparison we make between our own life of works and the perfect Law of God, we will always find our own works lacking. Even if we haven't committed murder, we've wished harm on our neighbor or failed to help him in his bodily need (Matthew 5:21-22). Even if we've never bowed down to a statue of Zeus, we've placed other created things, or ourselves in the place of God in our lives. The Law says “do” and we can never do enough. We look in the mirror and it accuses us, shows us our sin, and never leaves any escape.

“Lex semper accusat” reminds us that even when the Law is functioning to curb sin in the world, or guide the Christian's life, it is still accusing us of sin! There is no time when we can encounter God's law that it doesn't probe us, reveal our failings, uncover the fig leaves we use to try and hide our sin. There's no law that should ever apply only to the “other guy” that doesn't also prove my own guilt. When we read, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) it's not simply a once-upon-a-time-long-ago we sinned. But it's an every-time-I-look-at-the-Law-I-see-my-sin. It's our constant struggle while still in the flesh. And the Law is always ready to shine the light on the dark parts within us.

“Lex semper accusat” is also a good reminder of this: Because the Law is always going to accuse us, we will always need the Gospel! The Law cannot save us. The Letter (the Law) kills, but the Spirit (working through the Gospel) gives life! (2 Corinthians 3:6). Because sin is ever before us, because we cannot fulfill the law and its demands but constantly struggle with sin and temptations, we are even in need of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The Law always accuses, but the Gospel always forgives! The Law always takes and destroys and lays low the proud and self-assured sinner. But the Gospel raises up the humble, gives grace to those in the despair of sin, and brings new life to those dead in trespasses. Thanks be to God that he gives us the Law we need to see our sin, but the Gospel we need even more, to make us righteous and holy in Christ.

Christ has fulfilled the Law for you. Christ has defeated the Law's penalties for you. Christ has even overcome the greatest Accuser, the Serpent, crushing his head, for you. Thanks be to God, in Jesus Christ, that we live not by the Law which always accuses – but by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who always seeks and saves the lost (Luke 19:10).

In Christ, Pastor Chryst

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sermon - Matthew 5:20-26 - Matins

Matthew 5:20-26
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
11     no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny


Well, does your righteousness exceed the scribes and the Pharisees?

The Pharisees were, in the eyes of some, at least, exceedingly righteous:

Josephus said several times that the Pharisees were "experts in the interpretation of the Law"
The Talmud claims the Torah contains 613 laws, 365 negative commands and 248 positive laws. And the Pharisees, no doubt, sought to keep them all.

The tithing of herbs - mint and dill and cumin,
The wearing of phylacteries and tassels,
The careful observance of ritual purity – no touching dead bodies, no going into the house of a gentile like Pilate,
Frequent fasting,
Distinctions in oaths,
And, of course, rigorous observation of the Sabbath Day.
And not only did they seek to follow all these laws themselves, they taught the law. They were the authorities on the law. If “you have heard it said”, there's a good chance it's because the Pharisees taught it. They were the Law of Moses cheerleaders par excellence.

Unless you can do better than that – unless you can hurdle that high bar of law-following, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Unless your righteousness exceeds even the most righteous you can think of – you're already lost.

And I suppose very few of us could go toe-to-toe with the righteousness of the Pharisees and come out looking very good. Tithing? Fasting? Ritual purity?

To an outward observer, an unbiased judge, we'd probably lose the righteousness contest every time.
But Jesus is being a bit facetious here. For he knows well that the righteousness of the Pharisees is a sham. They are hypocrites. Their righteousness is thin and flimsy, and it only hides the rot that lies within. Jesus' words of woe for the Pharisees and their so-called righteousness are recorded later in Matthew's Gospel. Here's just a taste of it:

Matthew 23:  
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do.For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others....
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

You know we're so used to seeing the Pharisees as the bad guys – the opponents of Jesus – the self-important, smug, know-it-all hypocrites. We love looking on from the sidelines and watching Jesus beat them in verbal sparring matches, and we love to watch them fall flat when they try to trip him up and trap him in his words. Go Jesus! Smack those villains. Child of hell, yeah, get 'em! Woe to them, right on!

Woe to them! And woe to you, too, who aren't even as righteous as they are. If your righteousness needs to exceed theirs, and that's what he says about THEM. Then where does that leave you?

Our text shows one example of how horribly impossible it is for us to keep the law. The 5th Commandment, you shall not murder. Pretty straightforward. What percentage of people do you think suppose they've kept this? Most of us have never taken a human life. But don't imagine that makes you righteous. For Jesus shows the true law behind the law. The inward law, if you will, that covers not just the deed but also the word and thought. Harsh words. Insults. Ridicule of your brother. Even anger in your heart – all of these are grounds for judgment. All of these mean you are not righteous. All of this means you are, and ever will be, outside of the kingdom. All of this means you, too, are liable to judgment.

St. Paul, who knew a thing or two about the righteousness of Pharisees, has this to say (Romans 6):
What then? Are we Jews any better off?No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;

But there is one whose righteousness exceeds the Pharisees. There is only one, in fact, who was ever righteous on his own merits. There is one who never inherited sin from his Father. There is one kept every dot and dash of the law. And that one, of course, is Jesus, the Christ.

He was like us in every way, yet without sin. He was humble and gentle. He returned no man evil for evil. He turned the other cheek. He kept no wealth for himself, but had no place to lay his head. He always put others before himself. He had compassion on so many. He always spoke the truth, and spoke it with love. He was not hot-tempered, or rude, or impatient or unkind. He fulfilled the law. He fulfilled all righteousness. He did all things well.

He did get angry, but justly, unlike so much of our anger. Zeal for the Father's house consumed him. His righteous anger that drove the moneychangers from the temple was but a hint of the righteous anger of the eternal judge who will one day cast all the wicked far away from his eternal presence. But that's a far different kind of anger from you and I, who are indignantly offended when some other sinner wrongs us or disregards us with some minor slight, real or imagined.

But Jesus' righteousness is a perfect righteousness. He submitted to his Father in all things – actively fulfilling the law on our behalf. And passively becoming obedient, even unto death, even death on a cross.

For us. For you. So that his righteousness is yours. So that his law-fulfilling benefits you. So that when God sees you, he sees you through Christ – and says, well done, good and faithful servant. His righteous anger at you and your sin is turned aside – for it was already poured out on Christ.

He is arrested and imprisoned. He stands before the judge in your stead. He answers the accuser for you. And he pays the sentence, covers the debt. His blood pays every last penny you owe for your sin.

So, does your righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees? No. And theirs was nothing to crow about anyway. But your righteousness isn't what counts. You have Christ's righteousness, and that makes all the difference. In Christ, you are righteous. In Christ, the kingdom of heaven is yours. Believe it for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 6 - Mark 6:1-13

“Whether they hear or not...”
Pentecost 6
July 5th, 2015
Mark 6:1-13

Home field advantage – its something sought after by sports teams. One author's research suggested that over ten years, the homefield advantage in the MLB was 53.9%, in the NHL 55.7%, in the NBA 60.5%, and in the NFL 57.3%.

But in today's Gospel reading, our Lord Jesus Christ doesn't fare as well. His home-field, or home-town of Nazareth proves to be a dis-advantageous venue for the preaching of the good news. Their unbelief was so notable that it even amazed him (the only things that ever amazed Jesus were faith and unbelief).

You would think that if anyone would hear him, listen to him, believe in him, it would be the people of his home town. But even for them, it wasn't the case. Even Jesus Christ himself was rejected even in his home town of Nazareth. The took offense at him, Other accounts from the Gospels tell us they tried to push him off a cliff. That's not just disagreement. That's not just finding his sermons boring. This is outright rebellion.

Ezekiel knew something about that too. He was a prophet, called to a rebellious people. And God commanded him to speak to those people whether they would hear him or refuse to hear. And as the history of the prophets shows clearly, many, most – would refuse to hear.

Jesus' own disciples met with the same chilly reception at some of the towns where they were sent to preach, and were told to shake the dust of their feet off as a testimony against them. Jesus knew that his messengers, and his message wouldn't always be well received. Nonetheless he sent them out preaching a message of repentance.

And today it is no different. Some hear. Some reject. Some believe, by the power of the Spirit. Some choose not to believe, through no one's fault but their own. Some hear the word of God – are cut to the heart by the law and rejoice in the sweet Gospel of Christ. Some would rather watch paint dry or have a root canal.

We see it in our nation. We see it in our families and workplaces. We even see it in our churches. Some receive, and some reject. Some hear, and some refuse to hear. But the message never changes, and the word is still preached, taught, proclaimed.

And by now many of us are thinking something like this: “Yes, pastor, you're right. Those people who reject your word should repent. They should turn from their wicked ways. They should stop their naughty deeds – both generally and specifically. Especially those people who have or who continue to sin against me. They should repent and hear the word of God. I hope they're listening, pastor, because they really need to hear this today. I wish they were here, so maybe you could knock some sense into them. Those people. Over there. Them. Not me.”

But not so fast. Because as much as other people refuse to hear, so do you and I in our own sin, deafen our ears to the word. We hear what we want to hear, and do what we want to do.

It's easy to hear the word of the law applied to other people's sins. But what about your own? It makes us feel secure to point to the really bad sinners over there, but to ignore the sins of the sinner we know the best, the one we see in the mirror. We may want to beat the drum of the certain commandments, the ones we think we keep or keep better. But the law of God leaves us without any hiding place. It is a light that shines the spotlight on each of us, and leaves no one justified by works.

Hear the word of the commandments: You shall have no other gods. Not your belly nor your wallet nor your own inflated ego. You shall not misuse God's name or forget his Sabbath Day. You shall love your neighbor – and not fail help him, or lust after her, or gossip about them, or scheme to get their stuff. You shall love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live. Have you done this? Do you do this? My answer is no. I'm guessing yours is too.

So hear the word of the Lord – the call to repent – this sermon is not for some other sinner, but for you.

Some of you will perhaps reject this call to repentance. For sinners love to self-justify and foist blame. But if you think the law of God has nothing to say to you this day, you are in a dangerous place indeed. The testimony against such rejection is harsh – Jesus tells his disciples to even shake off the dust from their feet. He wants nothing to do with such unbelief.

Some, on the other hand, will hear it. Some of you will confess with your lips acknowledge in your heart the sin that is ever before you. And if you are cut to the heart and stand face to face with your sin, if your spirit cries out for hope, if you wonder at your own weakness there is another word you need to hear.

My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness”

Hear today this other word of the Lord: The word of the Gospel. Jesus Christ has come for you. He came from his Father, from heaven's high throne, to be born for you in Bethlehem, to be raised in Nazareth, and to die just outside of Jerusalem. He lived a real life, in the real world, and grew up in a real town - and his perfect life fulfilled the law that all of us have broken.

Though he preached the Wisdom of God, and was accredited by mighty works, though he did all of this even without sin, he was rejected by his own. His own family and friends were offended by him, turned away from him. And in the end even his closest disciples fled. He was stripped of his dignity, his clothes, and gave up his life. He was rejected by all – and all this in accord with God's plan and purpose.

He was rejected so that you are received. So that you, sinner, would be forgiven. So that you, forgiven child of God, would never be rejected. So that God will always hear your prayers, and receive them as he receives you: through Christ. That even if your hometown, or your own mother and father, husband or wife, children and friends reject you. You belong to the Father, through the Son.

A prophet, even Jesus, may not be accepted in his hometown. But you, a stranger and enemy to God in your sin – you are accepted through Christ.

Hear the good news of Jesus Christ – who forgives you this day and every day you live by his grace. Hear the word of hope by which we live. Receive not only his word but his body and blood for your forgiveness, life and salvation. Do not reject, but receive, and live.