Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Sermon - 17th Sunday after Pentecost - Luke 17:1-10

Luke 17:1-10
“The Implications of Faith”

Faith is great.  We know that we Christians are saved by grace, through faith in Christ.  Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the certainty of things unseen.  Faith is a gift.  Faith, hope and love – three great Christian virtues.  And faith, even the size of a mustard seed, can move mountains.

Today, as Jesus teaches his disciples on the way to Jerusalem, we hear him delving deeper into just what this faith means for our life together as Christians.  For living in the faith means a different kind of life than outside the faith, with the unbelievers.  If we believe in Jesus, if we follow Jesus, then certain things are to be expected; certain things will follow.  Let’s look at this passage which may seem at first to be an eclectic mix of disjointed ideas – but really has St. Luke, and Jesus, teaching us some of the implications of faith in Christ.

For starters, a warning.  Temptations to sin are sure to come – even to those of us in the faith!  And while we are not enslaved to sin any longer, Jesus concedes that we can still fall into temptation.  So that’s the first warning – to watch not only for sin, but the very temptation to sin. 

Even more sternly, Jesus warns us about being a temptation to others.  Causing others to sin.  Woe to that one!  It’s one thing to sin all by yourself, but sinners love company in their sin.  It may make you feel less culpable.  “Hey, look, everyone else is doing it!  I’m not the only one, it must not be so bad!”  And whether the sin that you’re recruiting others for is gossip or laziness or despising of God’s word or any other sin – don’t be fooled.  Sin is worse when you lead others to it, especially little ones – either children, or those who are weak in the faith.  Watch yourselves!  Jesus warns.  Tempting others to sin is no small matter.  It brings woe.  It would be better to be tied to a millstone and cast into the sea.  It is, truly, damnable.

And if that pokes some holes in your conscience today, well it probably should.  For which of us shouldn’t be lined up for our own millstone?  Who doesn’t, by their sin, deserve their own measure of woes?  But the same Jesus who dishes out the woe came to take it.  The same Jesus who warns of sin’s great consequences is the Jesus who absorbs them into himself.  Woe to the one who causes another to sin.  But thanks be to the One, who by his death, frees us from the woe of sin and judgment.

Next, Jesus talks about forgiving our brothers.  If he sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.  It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  But hard to practice.  Hard to have the courage to speak a word of rebuke.  Rebuking isn’t for polite society.  It’s not good dinner conversation.  But life in the faith is different. Christians march to a different tune than the world.  And so we are called by Jesus to rebuke – though, gently if possible, as Paul encourages Timothy.  And the goal, of course, is not to demean and drive away the sinner, but to elicit repentance and reconciliation.  “If he repents, forgive him”.  That’s the goal.  That’s the desire.  Even seven times in a day – or in other places Jesus says 70x7 – forgiveness is unlimited.  Christians don’t keep score against each other.  For we know how the score stands with ourselves.

How many times, how many sins does God above forgive you each day, dear Christian?  Certainly more than 7.  Certainly without demanding you enumerate and verbally confess each and every sin of thought word and deed.  If we did that, or even tried, we’d never do anything else but confess!  So deep and thorough is our own sin.  But so high and all-encompassing is God’s forgiveness in Christ.  That all our sins are covered – 7, 70x7, 7 trillion zillion.  All washed away in baptism, and in the blood of Christ.  And so how can we not forgive so freely?  How can we hold our brother’s sins over him?

We saw a beautiful example of this in this week’s news – when the brother of a murder victim spoke words of forgiveness in Christ to the woman who killed his brother.  He even embraced her in a hug before she was taken off to serve her sentence.  Now here we see the implications of faith in a most poignant way – forgiving what some would think unforgivable.  But that’s just a shade of Christ’s forgiveness for each of us.

Sounds pretty difficult, though.  Avoiding sin, not tempting others, rebuking and forgiving our brothers who sin.  Jesus sets the bar so high.  And you get the idea that the disciples were feeling the same.  Who can live up to these expectations, Lord?  Who has such a great faith?  And so they pray, “Lord, increase our faith!” Not a bad prayer.   

Much like the prayer of the man whose son was plagued by a demon – the one who prayed, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!”  Friends, it is these kinds of prayers that God always answers with a yes.  For we know his will, he has revealed it to us – and it is just that – that we would have faith, and more of it.

We pray similarly after communion, “…that of your mercy you would strengthen us through the same (that is, through this sacrament), in faith toward you…. And in fervent love toward one another”.  Strengthen our faith, Lord!  And he does!

And to what end?  What does faith do when it grasps on, ever so tightly, to the promises of God?  I does amazing things.  Things you’d never expect.  Jesus here must have been walking by a mulberry bush, and used it as a handy example – “if you had faith – even a little faith – like the grain of a mustard seed - you could say to this bush to be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you!”  Ah, but that’s not what faith is interested in, showing off, doing tricks.  Rather something even more amazing – saving sinners.  Grasping grace.  Making the words and promises of God our own.  Even saving us, to life eternal.

Nor is faith about measuring faith.  Faith trusts not in itself, but in its object, Christ and his word.  Faith doesn’t look inward, but outward.  Faith looks to Christ and him crucified, and there finds its assurance, its hope, its fulfillment.

And finally faith has fruits.  Faith produces works.  Faith prompts and effects in us the fulfillment of our duty as the servants of God.  Of course we are always careful to say, as scripture does, we are not saved by those works, but by grace through faith.  But we also know that faith without works is dead.
But in much the same way that faith doesn’t look inwardly at itself, faith also doesn’t keep score about one’s good works.  It’s like the servants in Jesus’ example.  They do their duty – without care or concern, without thought of gain or reward.  They do all that is asked of them, and then simply say, “look, we’ve only done our duty”. 

In a world of entitlement mentality, what a breath of fresh air are the good works that flow from faith.  In a milieu of “what’s-in-it-for-me?”, the Christian faith asks a radically different, “How can I serve God and my neighbor?”

Consider the story Jesus tells of the sheep and the goats – in which he praises the sheep for their good works – visiting the prisoner, the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, doing all this good to the least of these, and in essence, doing it unto Christ himself.  But the sheep answer in bewilderment, “when did we do all this to you?”  You see they weren’t keeping score.  Their deeds flowed from faith.  Their works weren’t some spectacle for the world to see, but they were simply doing their duty.

So you, dear Christian, go and do likewise.  Live out all the implications of faith – avoiding temptation, and never causing others to stumble.  Confessing your own sins, and receiving Christ’s forgiveness, only to forgive also those who trespass against you.  Grow in your faith, and pray that you would ever more.  And in all you good deeds, simply do your duty, to the glory of God and good of your neighbor.   All for the sake of faith, faith in Christ, that great gift and blessing.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Sermon - St. Michael and All Angels - Matthew 18:1-11

Matthew 18:1-11
“Greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven”

Ask most Christians familiar with the Bible about Matthew 18, and they will tell you it’s the forgiveness chapter.  You know, “When your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two fo you” and “how many times should I forgive my brother, 7?  No, 70x7”.
But we forget there’s a lot more packed in here.  The forgiveness emphasis is in the last part of the chapter.  Here in the beginning the question surrounds what is greatness in the kingdom of God?  And in answer, Jesus discusses the place of children in His kingdom.

Also, today is St. Michael and All Angels day – and so we have that topic to weave in to our proclamation. 

I suppose some might have tried to answer the question, “Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” by answering: the angels!  Yes, the mighty spiritual beings that comprise the heavenly armies of God!  Michael, the Archangel, perhaps, is the greatest!  He threw Satan down from Heaven, so he must be pretty great, right?  And all the other angels.  Powerful and glorious beings. 

You know, angels in the Bible are not the soft and gentle creatures they’ve been depicted as in modern times – precious moments figurines and babies with wings spreading rainbows upon butterflies.  No, angels are the soldiers, the heavenly special forces of God – they wield flaming swords and their voices shake the building.  They are not to be trifled with.  A great prince among the angels, Michael is shown, in Daniel 10 and Revelation 12 – as the general of these forces, who casts Satan down from heaven at God’s command. 

Angels are also the messengers of God, and they appear in Scripture especially when God’s plan of salvation takes a major step forward.  They are particularly associated with Jesus – they sing at his birth, they adorn his empty tomb.  They minister to him in wilderness and garden.

It’s probably a good thing that the angels remain hidden, unseen, for the most part.  Otherwise, we humans might be tempted to accord them the greatness of God, make them into idols, or at the very least a major distraction from the God whom we both serve.  Even St. John, when he saw a mighty angel in his vision, and bowed down to worship – “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” (Rev. 19:10)

And so, in our Gospel reading today, when someone asks about greatness, Jesus doesn’t produce an angel, or make reference to St. Michael.  He plops a child in their midst.  And he talks about humility.  Humility is greatness in his kingdom.

It’s not hard to see how our culture has elevated children in all the wrong ways – placing them on a pedestal of innocence, as if they have no original sin.  Parents letting children run the show, make the decisions, determine their own religion, their own school, even their own gender.  Children are less and less disciplined and more and more idolized and this is not good for the world and it is not good for those children.

But rather, look at what children lack – knowledge.  Strength.  Wisdom.  The means to support themselves.  It is in these humble characteristics Jesus sees the qualities to be admired in his kingdom.  For when we come to him, and to his Father with such humility – admitting our own lack of wisdom and strength, then we can receive him on his own terms.  Then we know the grace and mercy that flow from the truly great one.

Jesus is, of course, the greatest in the kingdom.  He humbles himself most profoundly, even unto death, even death upon a cross.  He makes himself the lowest, the nothing, the servant of all, even of children.

And where the world would alternately esteem children in all the wrong ways and despise children for all the wrong reasons, Jesus holds a special place for children.  He says receiving a child in his name means receiving him.  And woe to the one who would lead a little child to sin – but rather we ought to protect and nurture and teach our children well. 

And then, as a sort of an aside, Jesus discusses temptation.  It is a dangerous thing!  It’s sure to come.  It’s even necessary.  But woe to the one through whom temptation comes! 

Some would say Jesus simply speaks in hyperbole about cutting off hands and feet and poking out eyes that cause us to sin.  That he’s using exaggerated language to make a point.  But I submit here, it’s just the opposite.  If you really could have 100% assurance of eternal salvation, wouldn’t it be worth your hands, your eyes, your feet?  Ah, if it were only that simple.  To take Jesus’ point one step further, it’s our whole nature that causes us to sin.  It’s out of the heart that comes all sorts of evil, he says.  And who can live without a heart?  So would we cut our entire selves off?  Would we, indeed, die – in order to be free of sin?

Yes!  That’s exactly it!  We must die and be reborn.  We must be baptized, and buried with Christ, only to be raised with him.  We must count ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  You see the Christian faith and life is not a matter of refurbishment, refreshment, slap some new paint on that old barn and cover up the wear and tear.  Rather, Christ makes us entirely new through death and resurrection.  Brand new – even like a little child.

And Jesus, for his part, He himself is cut off – cut off from God, and from life – to make this life ours.  He gives himself entirely – eyes, hands, feet, head and heart – all of him goes to the cross for all of us.  All of him is thrown under the wrath of God so we are spared from the hell of fire.  All of him bears the millstone of guilt.  He is cast into the depths.  For all of us, adults and children, sinners alike.

And so Jesus circles back to the children at the end.  “Don’t despise one of these little ones.  For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”  And this statement is a fascinating claim indeed.

Some have taken this passage as foundation for the idea that people, especially children, have “guardian angels”.  And perhaps that is so – for angels are ministering spirits who serve God by serving us. 

Or maybe in a more general sense, it refers to the fact that the angels serve the people of God, and especially children.  And if you think the children are nothing, or you would despise the lowly children – remember that even they are served by the mighty angels who are so honored to see the face of God the Father – something no human has done or could do.

And this, too, disputes another popular misnomer about angels.  No, we Christians don’t become angels when we die.  Rather, in the resurrection we become the glorified humans we were meant by God to be.  We assume the fullness of the image of God – including the righteousness of Christ.  And we share, also, in a humanity with the very Son of God himself – and who will remain a human forever.  No mere angel can say that.  No angel, in Scripture, ever wears a crown.  But we humans are promised a share in the reign of our king.  So when our time comes, and the angels carry us home to heaven, we don’t become one of them, but rather we remain human and will remain so forever.

There is much more we could say about the angels – these messengers from on high.  And there is much more we could say about children – our role models for humility in the kingdom.  But on this Sunday of St. Michael and All Angels, let us find comfort in the God who appoints angels to our service, and regards even the little children – receiving them in his name.  Let us become always like those little children, humble and lowly before God.  And may we ever be found in Christ, the greatest of the kingdom, who makes himself low that we might be exalted.  Who comes to save us, who were lost. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Sermon - 14th Sunday after Pentecost - Luke 15:1-10

Luke 15:1-10
“Lost and Found”

Luke 15 is sometimes called “The Lost Chapter”, not because it has ever been lost, but because it famously contains the story of the Prodigal Son or the Lost Son, and also these two parables in the first part of the chapter – the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin.

Jesus tells these parables, Luke tells us, as “tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.”  And while that means they were starting to follow him, and they were drawing around him in proximity, there’s also a spiritual reality here, too.  They were coming to faith in him.  They were repenting and believing.

Now perhaps a word against some popular preaching today – who draw the wrong conclusion here.  The fact that Sinners and Tax Collectors were drawing near to Jesus doesn’t mean that Jesus is just fine and ok with all manner of sin.  It doesn’t mean that you can come to Jesus today and remain in your sinful life, clinging to your sinful actions, with no change or modification to your way of life.  But rather, as Jesus receives sinners, he changes them.  They are brought to repentance.  Turned around.   And I should really say WE are brought to repentance, because this is all of us who believe.  Luke mentions that repentance in just a few verses.

But nonetheless, these sinners and tax collectors stand in contrast to the Pharisees and Scribes, who grumbled.  They grumbled that Jesus would receive such filthy vagabonds, which is telling in itself about their own spiritual condition.  Grumbling, like the children of Israel in the wilderness, unappreciative, unfaithful.  They, in their spiritual hubris, who didn’t want to be polluted by these obvious sinners.  They, who thought it inappropriate or unbecoming of Jesus to slum it up with the ne’er do-wells, rather, he should be cozying up to us, the good people, the righteous folk.

“This man welcomes sinners” they complain, and in doing so they unwittingly confess exactly what it is that makes this Jesus so wonderful.  That which is mockery on their lips is praise from all Christians.  Jesus sinners doth receive!

They’ve got it backwards, as people so often do when it comes to Jesus.  And so he tells them these two parables of that which is lost, and that which is found.  And the application is fairly straightforward.

First there is the Lost Sheep.  Jesus asks, “which of you would…?” and the implied answer is, “anyone would” go looking for that lost sheep.  While on the one hand, 1 out of 100 isn’t all that much – 1 % - you might lose that much in the stock market in a day.  But on the other hand, this sheep is his – and it matters to the shepherd. And he’s going to go looking for it. 

Then you have the woman who loses a silver coin – this time 1 out of 10 – and she turns her house upside down looking for it.  Another perspective from everyday life, but something all his hearers could relate to.

A modern day version of these stories might be when you misplace your wallet or keys – and you go retracing your steps until you find them.  If that doesn’t work quick enough, you enlist the aid of your family, and start checking ever more places – the car, under the couch cushions, maybe I left them at work?  Maybe it keeps you awake at night.  Roman Catholics even call on St. Anthony to help him find what was lost. 

And so losing something important to you is a common enough earthly story.  But what is the heavenly meaning here?  What is Jesus teaching us?

For one, that we are lost in sin. And not just the outwardly, obviously sinful people, but all of us.  Not just the tax collectors and women of ill repute, but the Pharisees and Scribes, too.  You and I are the lost sheep.  You and I are the lost coin. 

But in any case, Jesus is all about seeking and saving the lost.  Sure, he’s the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, a shepherd unlike any other.  But here, too, he is just like a regular shepherd who would go looking for a sheep that is lost.  He doesn’t wait for the sheep to come wandering back, to pull itself out of whatever ditch the sheep has gotten bogged down in.  He doesn’t stand there with arms folded until the sheep gets his act together.  He goes.  He seeks.  He finds.  He saves.

Our Good Shepherd comes down to the ditch to pull that lost sheep out of the mud.  He fends off the slobbering beasts who would have that sheep for lunch.  He brings that lost sheep back into the fold, washes him clean, gives him rest, leads him to still waters and green pastures.

And is Jesus comparing himself to a woman?  Well, he’s compared himself elsewhere to a mother hen gathering up her chicks.  But the point of comparison is what’s important.  Jesus seeks the lost.  He goes to great trouble to do so.  Oh, you Pharisees think these sinners are lost?  Well, I’m going to find them.  I’m not a savior who cuts his losses, and just leaves the lost to wander.  I seek and save the lost.  I go after the sinner.  And I will find him.

He cleans and clears the house, turns everything upside down in his zeal to purify and his fervor to find.  He goes to great lengths, any lengths, even a cross to get the job done, if that’s what it takes!  And that’s what it took.

What the Pharisees and Scribes couldn’t see, is that they too were lost.  What they couldn’t get past was their own self-righteousness.  They counted themselves among the 99 righteous who needed no finding.  But if they could admit their own lost-ness, they’d be glad for a savior that seeks the lost.  And so should we.  And speaking of gladness…

In both parables, when the lost is found, there is great rejoicing.  The shepherd and the woman each throw a party for their friends and neighbors, and express their joy at the lost being found.  Jesus makes the point that the same happens in heaven – the angels throw a party – when even one sinner repents.

Well they must party a lot up there.  Because repentance doesn’t just happen on a one and done basis.  We lost and found sinners get lost and found over and over.  We daily bring our sins to Jesus.  We drown the old Adam in baptism daily, by repentance and faith.  But it’s really the Spirit working in us, and on us.  It’s him who has begun a good work within us and bringing it toward its completion at the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are constantly being found by Christ, saved by Christ, sanctified by the Spirit of Christ. 

Oh what joy there must be in heaven, oh what an angelic grand gala every time sinners confess and are absolved, every time the water and word of baptism do their thing, and every time repentant sinners come to the one who meets them at the table – as both the host and as the feast, himself.  No wonder we couch our liturgy of Holy Communion with the Preface, “therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify..” the holy name of God. 
With Jesus it’s never what the world expects.  The poor are made rich and the rich made poor.  The humble are lifted up and the exalted are made low.  The last are first, the lowly are exalted and vice versa. 

Here, too, those that think they’ve got it all together, who trust their own way, who seek to find themselves - are really the ones that are lost.  And the ones who seem so lost in sin – who despair of themselves and humbly confess their wandering ways – they are sought out and found, by Jesus, through his Gospel. 

May you ever be so lost – and may you always be found, in him.  In Jesus Name.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Sermon - 13th Sunday after Pentecost - Luke 14:15-25

Luke 14:15-25
“Counting the Cost”

Sometimes the teachings of Jesus are hard to swallow. For those with only a shallow view of our Lord, or a twisted understanding of what the Christian faith is about – an honest look at what Jesus actually says could be rather puzzling.  And I think we Christians ought to accept and admit the fact that some of the things the Bible teaches, and some of Jesus’ own teaching is difficult.  It can be difficult to understand, in our minds.  It can be difficult to accept, with our hearts.  We are limited human beings, after all, and sinful on top of that.  We are not God, and should not presume to judge him or what he says, but rather accept even the difficult teachings in faith.

Take his teaching in our Gospel reading today. Hate your family? Renounce your very life? Carry your cross? This is not the self-help guru Jesus that many have come to believe in. This is not the love and peace Jesus that many think he is. “Count the cost of discipleship”, Jesus teaches today. And the cost is high.

It's worth noting, perhaps, that Jesus gave these hard words as his popularity was reaching a fever pitch. “Large crowds followed him”. And perhaps not for the right reasons. Whatever they were looking for, it wasn't what Jesus had come to do and be. I think it's much the same today.
You look at some of the largest churches, the fastest-growing with the big budgets. Their pastors are on TV and they buy old sports stadiums to hold the crowds. But if you listen to the message – it's empty. There is little talk of sin, and therefore no need for a savior. Jesus, if he's mentioned at all, is reduced to a rule maker, an example to follow, or just somebody who wants you to be happy with yourself.

And we can see why the temptation is so strong. Even though we are at a church which takes its doctrine seriously, which is well grounded in the gospel but not afraid to speak the law. Even though Messiah seeks to be faithful to our Lord and his teachings, and to all that we hold dear. Still, we are sinners. And our sinful nature wants success. It wants glory. It wants numbers.

We look at the bulletin and the numbers aren't what we want them to be. And this makes us uncomfortable. Anxious, maybe. Where is our faith that no matter what, the Lord will care for us? Aren't we tempted to measure our success by the outward growth we see here, and not by how faithful we are to the Word? What will happen to our congregation if we don’t change with the times, adapt to the world, get with the program?  Ah, but we can pine for the glory days when things were easier, and people were more involved and when society wasn’t against us and the church wasn’t a pariah.  But nostalgia won’t do us any good either.  Being faithful today, in the context we find ourselves now, is what we are called to do.

The same holds true for our personal lives. Living as a Christian means sometimes we don't have all the goodies, the success, the pleasures of our worldly counterparts. Sometimes it means trouble. It could even mean strife in your family, suffering, shame or loss. You might even have to die for your faith, as so many Christians have.

Jesus says to count the cost. If you want to be his disciple, it means an ordering of priorities that is at odds with the unbelieving world. Seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness. All these other things, good gifts that they may be, come after that.

And so again, it's a matter of Law and Gospel. To those seeking glory and earthly success and worldly things – Jesus throws a roadblock. You better think twice. Being my disciple is no walk in the park. It's like a king going to war – he knows there will be bloodshed and turmoil, even death.
It’s almost as if Jesus doesn’t want disciples!  What a terrible politician he would make.  What a poor salesman.  It’s almost as if he’s talking you out of following him – trying to scare you off!  The cost – it’s just too high.

But friends, these are not the only words of Jesus.

This is also the Jesus who said “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest”.  Who said, “if anyone thirsts let him come to me and drink – for free”.  Or “come and eat this bread from heaven and live forever.  He who believes in me will live even though he dies.  Don’t worry about tomorrow, for your Father knows what you need, and are you not worth more than many sparrows?  Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open.  I am the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.”

You see, for those who are already broken, suffering, and dying... For those who aren't so concerned about offending their earthly family as the offense they've given their heavenly Father... for those of us who bear the weight of our guilt, Jesus speaks a different word – the Gospel. And that is an entirely different way of counting.

In Christ, God does not count our sins against us.  He reckons faith as righteousness. He gives his greatest riches as a gift. He sends his only son not to condemn as we deserve, but to die in our place, to take the punishment we deserve. God becomes man, to save man from our own rebellion.
And certainly God knew the cost – when he sent Jesus to do the work of salvation. And Jesus knew the cost – blood, a cross, a tomb. The cup of God's wrath. A far cry from the glory of the crowds – but the cry of crowds for his blood – crucify him!

The God of mercy who counts even the hairs on your head will certainly care for you in every way, down to the last detail.

So Christianity is both easy and hard, depending how you count it. It's both costly and free.
So now – for you - what really counts? Jesus calls us to count differently. He turns our corrupted wisdom on its head. The first shall be last. The least shall be the greatest. In death there is life. That's how God counts.

If you would cling to the things of this world – your sins and the corrupted creation – even your family or your life – then it seems very costly indeed. Maybe too much so for some people. A burden, a chore, a downer and a drag. Who would want to be a Christian anyway? This is the way of the Law.

But to those who have ears to hear, the Gospel shows the true kingdom is free. Disciples are born, not graduated. We don't earn our way in, we are adopted as sons. And our Lord continues to do the work of discipling us, teaching us, strengthening us. He continues to give freely and without cost, according to this Gospel. Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion, the free and clear proclamation of His grace. All of these come at no cost to you, all for the sake of Jesus.

It's a wise person that knows that nothing in this life is truly free. The bigger the sign and the more exclamation marks, the more closely we should look at the fine print. But it's a wiser person who knows even better. That in Jesus there are no strings attached. In Jesus salvation is truly free for sinners. That in Jesus Christ our Lord, our cost is covered, and it's on him.

The free gifts of his kingdom bring us to count differently, too. By his Spirit we consider ourselves no longer #1, but our neighbor. We consider the things above as more precious than the things below. We even see suffering through the eyes of faith – and rejoice amidst our troubles, all for the sake of Christ. What really counts – he has already counted to us – righteousness in him forever. And we can always count on him.

In Jesus Name, Amen.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Sermon - Luke 14:1-14 - 12th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 14:1–14
“Humbled and Exalted”

Much of today’s reading revolves around the polarity of humiliation and exaltation, being brought low or made low, and being raised up.  It’s a common enough experience in human life, on either end of the scale.  But with Jesus there’s always more to learn – especially as our earthly experiences shed light on spiritual realities.

As he often does, Jesus shows mercy to a man before him suffering from disease, in this case dropsy, an abnormal swelling with fluid – we’d call it today “edema”.  He heals the man, even though it’s a Sabbath day, and even in the midst of the Pharisees at whose home he is dining.

Jesus is often about the business of humbling the self-righteous.  So when the Pharisees get all judgey about Jesus breaking their precious Sabbath laws and healing a man on the Sabbath – he rhetorically humiliates them.  Which of you wouldn’t do the same if you had a son, or even an ox stuck in a ditch on the Sabbath?  Wouldn’t you pull it out of the well?  Wouldn’t you save the poor animal?  And how much more valuable is the man than the beast? And how much less “work” is it for Jesus to say a word of healing than for a farmer to strain and stress to pull a huge animal from a ditch? 

As on so many occasions, Jesus verbally kicks out the pedestal of self-righteousness from under them.  And they are left speechless.  Or the Greek actually says, “They had no strength to answer”.  Well, the law leaves us speechless, too.  Every mouth is stopped, after all.

Then we have the Parable of the Wedding Feast.  Jesus doesn’t stray too far from the occasion for this earthly story with a heavenly meaning.  He was attending this dinner party at the home of a Pharisee.  And he observed the jockeying for position, as the Pharisees sought the best and most honorable places.  The sight must have been almost laughable.  But it’s not too hard to imagine.

We sinners are all too often selfishly concerned about our own place.  We seek the approval and accolades of man.  We want the highest place, if not at the table, then at the office, or in the family, or amongst our friends, etc.  We want to be regarded and respected, and woe unto you if you don’t treat me as I deserve!  Oh the games we play, seeking after our own status in small and big ways.  But what it boils down to is this:  Loving ourselves more than our neighbors.  Even humiliating others in order to exalt ourselves.

And so Jesus warns us – with a parable of both practical and spiritual advice.  Seek the lower place, and be invited upward.  Don’t seek the higher place, and be humbled, brought low.  You can see how it plays out in practical, worldly terms.  But consider also the spiritual meaning:

Humble yourself.  Take the lowest seat.  It’s not Jesus as miss-manners.  This is a spiritual truth we do well to follow.  We need to compare ourselves, our lives, our works - not against others but against the standard of God’s holy law.  Do I love the Lord with all my heart, soul and strength?  Do I love my neighbor as I should?  Do I keep the 10 commandments?  Do I honor God, his name, his word?  Do I care for my neighbor’s possessions and life and good name?  Am I chaste in everything I say and do?  If the law of God doesn’t humble you, sinner, you’re not listening too carefully.  If the commandments of God don’t show you your lowly, sorry, state, then your ears are plugged with rationalizations and lies.

Far better to confess your sins and bring them, humbly, to the foot of the cross, and be raised up by the restoration of his forgiveness.  Far better than to confess your own righteousness and be exposed at the judgment seat of Christ, after all, for the sinner you are.  Exalting oneself in the sight of the Lord is always a bad idea.  But humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.
And all of this has to do with how we treat our neighbor, as well.  Take the other parable, of the Great Banquet.  Here Jesus instructs us to regard the poor, the lowly, the humble.  And what could be more Christ-like?  Rather than seeking rewards by all our interactions with others, rather than playing quid-pro-quo, I’ll only scratch your back if you scratch mine…. The Christian ethic is one of selfless service.  The Christian humbles himself not only before God, but before others, regards others more highly than himself.

Martin Luther commented on the issue this way:
“be careful and arm yourself against this saying: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” For God will not and cannot tolerate such pride and arrogance. What do you have that you should be so proud? What do you have of yourself? And is not another just as much God’s creature as you are, no matter who he is? He will not have him despised; for he who despises his creature also mocks his Creator, says Solomon [Prov. 14:31; 17:5], and he who scoffs at a station scoffs at the Lord himself.”

For his part, our Lord Jesus knows what it means to humble himself.  Did anyone ever endure such humiliation as Jesus?  So much of his work involved making himself low, we even speak of his work for us – the first part – as his “state of humiliation”.  It begins with him humbling himself to become man, to take on flesh, to be conceived and born into this polluted world.  He knew humility in his life, having no special place like kings and emperors, but a lowly carpenter, a Galilean commoner.  He had no place to even lay his head. Humbled in his suffering, humiliated in his death.  Even his burial didn’t afford him proper honor – a hasty burial in a borrowed tomb. 

And all this humiliation for you, of course.  Brought low in your place.  Enduring the punishments, suffering the condemnation you deserve.  Taking the worst seat, the lowest place, what should have been yours and mine, the place of the cross.

But then… the exaltation would follow.  Christ is exalted, but not for himself, yet also for you.  He was raised from death for you!  To bring you with him from death into life.  He trounced the forces of hell for you – and declared his victory there on the devil’s own home turf, personally.  He ascended into heaven and takes back his throne – for you!  To rule the world, the church, and all things for you and for all his people.  And he will come again in glory, not for himself, but for you – to call your resting bones to life again, to gather you with the sheep into your rest, and to give you the crown of righteousness and a share in his reign.  

His humiliation spares you ultimate humiliation.  And his exaltation brings your exaltation.  Brought low in Christ, lifted up in Christ, he brings you to the highest seat, even a place at his heavenly feast.  Inviting you, the lowly, the outcast, to his Great Banquet.

Ah, but we don’t have to wait until that day, to take our place at his table, his banquet.  He invites you, even now, to his table.  When we gather around the altar, kneel at the rail, and receive the lavish feast of Christ’s body and blood – he has truly invited the lowly, the lame, the outsider, the shameful, the poor, the sinful dregs.  But he also brings us, by himself, from that low place, the highest.  Sins forgiven, we depart in peace – knowing Christ’s righteousness covers us.  Forgiveness, life and salvation are ours.  We are, spiritually, exalted in Christ.  Does it get any better?

So, friends, live a life of humility – in service to God and neighbor. Do not exalt yourselves before others, but humbly serve.  Do not exalt yourself before God, but be honest about your low estate.  Humbly bear your sins to Christ, who takes your low place, and lifts you up.  And live in the hope of the great banquet to come, when the foretaste gives way to the feast in all its fulfillment.  

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Sermon - Christian Education Sunday - Luke 18:15-17

Christian Education Sunday
Luke 18:15-17
“Let the Children Come to Me”

Our Lord Jesus Christ has a special place in his heart for children, and so should we.  Not just because they are cute and cuddly – and frankly, they are not always cute and cuddly.  Not just because they are miniature versions of ourselves (again, that’s not really a selling point).  But, rather, children are the most dependent among us, the most weak, with the most to learn about life.  They are used by Jesus as an example and a paragon of faith.  He tells us to have “faith like a child” and the “kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”. 

And in our reading today, people were bringing little children to Jesus for a blessing.  This is far more than a politician kissing babies to earn favor with the soccer moms.  This is a very profound and beautiful expression of faith.  There is nothing better we can do for our children than to bring them to Jesus for blessing. 

We do that, first, formally, at the font.  What a wonderful treasure is bestowed in Holy Baptism!  And especially for a child, a baby, as helpless and dependent as one can be – there is no clearer picture of the pure grace that God works in our salvation – than to receive such a gift as an infant.  He or she does nothing, not a blessed thing, to receive this washing of renewal and regeneration.  The child doesn’t ask for it.  They don’t bring themselves here.  They don’t dress themselves in that fancy gown.  They don’t even speak, not even to say an “amen”, and yet they receive the blessing.  Baptism now saves you!  And it does so quite apart from YOU having anything to do with it. 

And far from being an ending, baptism is just the beginning of our life in the faith.  When Jesus says, “let the children come to me….” That doesn’t apply only to the gift of baptism, but to the entire life of the Christian.  It means we bring our children to Jesus continually, as we raise them in the fear and nurture of the Lord.  We teach them to pray.  We teach them to sing to the praise of God’s name.  We bring them to church. We train them in all manner of righteousness.  But not just morality – to love God and love their neighbor.  We also teach them the Gospel!  We point them to Jesus. 

In today’s Gospel Reading from Luke, the Disciples were, well let’s just say it’s not one of their more shining moments.  They were trying to keep all these eager parents from bringing children to Jesus.  How dare they!  We are told Jesus is “indignant” at this.  It’s one of the stronger negative reactions we see Jesus having about anything.  He says “let the children come to me and DO NOT hinder them!”  How dare you!  How could you?

I’m sure the disciples had their excuses.  Jesus was a busy man, after all.  He had places to see and people to heal, demons to cast out, sermons to give.  The crowds thronged about him everywhere he went.  I’m sure it got a little overwhelming.  Maybe the disciples actually meant well – trying to give Jesus a little bit of relief by running block, keeping these people out of his hair.  Or maybe they considered, since Jesus was such an important preacher, that he had no time for children, who probably didn’t understand his message anyway. and couldn’t contribute anything to the movement.  Whatever their reasons were, we can stand with the perspective of history and, and also seeing Jesus’ own reaction, and clearly see they were being ridiculous.  Who would ever keep children from Jesus?  Who would ever hinder them?

Friends, permit me a gentle word of exhortation here, for those of you who are not making the most of your opportunities.  For those of you who are not bringing your own children to Jesus.  Or for those of you who bring them a little, but hinder them from coming even more.  If you haven’t availed your children, and yourself for that matter, of the opportunities for Christian Education that are offered at Messiah – consider if you aren’t also hindering the little children? 

Do you offer a list of excuses for your choices?  And would your excuses hold up any better than those of the disciples?

“My kids can’t sit still that long.  We have so much other stuff going on.  They already know about Jesus.  It’s not fun for them.  They complain about it too much.  They don’t have any friends there.”  Or “we’re just too busy”.

Let the little children come to Jesus, and do not hinder them – by your action or your inaction.  Do not hinder them with your excuses, your failures, or even your good intentions.  Let the little children come to Jesus.  Even if you don’t literally bind the word of God as a sign on your hand and as frontlets before your eyes, do what you can, and reconsider if you can do more to that end.

Maybe it means bringing your kids to Sunday School if they don’t already attend regularly.  Perhaps you can even teach Sunday School.  Maybe it means establishing a formal time of family devotions, meal prayers, or other healthy spiritual practices in the home.  Talk about the sermon with your kids after church.  Perhaps you’ll consider our Christian day school for your children.  And if you don’t have children or if yours are already grown, how can you support this endeavor for others?  By your prayers, your gifts, your time, you actions?  Engage in some way or another in the care and nurture of children, and in the endeavor of Christian education.  And let the little children come to Jesus.

And while it is always nice to learn, to expand your knowledge and understanding, teaching our children is really more a matter of heart than of head.  It’s more teaching them the love of Christ than the head-knowledge of Christ.  It’s receiving his gifts, just as those children received the blessing of Jesus when he laid his hands upon them.  They probably didn’t understand it, but they received it nonetheless. 

And remember, what’s good for the children is also good for the adults.  What’s good for our littlest ones is also good for all of God’s children of any age.  And just as children need to be instructed in the word, taught the word, and catechized in it, so do we adults, even those of us with formal theology degrees.  So let the big kids come to Jesus, too, and learn at his feet like little children.
He’s the only one who can truly bless us, after all.  As we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest his word, the blessings continue to flow.  As we sit, like Mary, and listen to his teaching, we choose the better part.  As we who have been given ears to hear – hear – faith comes and faith is strengthened, by the power of the Spirit.

I would draw your attention to the painting on the cover of today’s bulletin, “Let the little children come to me”. It’s a work by Lucas Cranach, who was close to Martin Luther and produced many other famous works during the Reformation era.  This may be the first ever painting of Christ with the children – which is notable in and of itself.  But the theology of the painting is also instructive.

Jesus is there, at the center, as is fitting.  He’s always the center of our attention.  He’s receiving this chaotic crowd of children as their mothers bring them to him.  One of the children is holding an apple, a symbol for sin, to confess that even children are sinners and need the forgiveness of Christ.

The clothing everyone is wearing is contemporary to the 1500s, which shows, like many such religious pieces, that these Bible truths are applicable to people in every day and age, they are always relevant.  Also, Cranach often put Luther into his works, and some have suggested that the child on the bottom right in black, just below the woman in red, is supposed to be Luther as a child. Certainly if Luther can be depicted as a child who needs the blessing of Jesus, then so can each of us.

So come, children, to Jesus, even today.  Come and receive the blessing at his continuing invitation.  Come to his table, and there receive the forgiveness of sins by his Body and Blood.  Come, ever to his house, to his waiting arms of his mercy. Hear his absolution.  Listen to his teaching.  Grow in his word.  Receive his benediction. Let his face shine upon you.

This is Jesus who shed his blood for you, after all, who died for you and lives for you.  This is the Jesus in whom you are baptized, into his death, and into his life.  This is the Jesus who bids you, even little old you, to come to him as a child, trusting, receiving, always learning and growing.  You will find no better teacher.  You won’t discover any better content, than Jesus Christ and him crucified.

And so, Christian Education – a broad emphasis, really, as children and adults alike can always be better trained in the word.  Surely we fail in many ways.  But the Jesus who welcomes children, welcomes sinners, welcomes each of us to himself for blessing.  May it ever be so.  In His Name, Amen.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Sermon - 10th Sunday After Pentecost - Luke 12:49-53

"A Fire and a Baptism"
Luke 12:49–53

A pastor friend of mine was looking ahead to these upcoming readings from Luke’s Gospel, and jokingly lamented, “oh great, here comes ‘mean Jesus’!

Certainly there is much in today’s reading from Luke that strikes us as odd, at least goes against our typical conception of who Jesus is. 

We often think of Jesus from the paintings - welcoming the little children, lovingly caring for the sheep, maybe even smiling and laughing.  Or we think of Jesus humbly dying on the cross, praying the Father to forgive even his tormentors.  Or maybe Jesus all bright and shiny and seated at the right hand of the Father - watching out for us, hearing our prayers.  And of course, this isn’t all bad.  But there’s more to Jesus than all this.  Especially when we come across a reading like this.

It might even seem hard to find much good news in Jesus’ words this morning.  He’s certainly not sugar-coating the hard truths, or painting a rosy picture of what he is about.  “I come to bring not peace, but division.  Fire!  Family strife!”  This is the gospel of the Lord.  Thanks be to God?

But a closer look reveals that yes, even in what sounds harsh, Jesus is about the business of saving and cleansing and promising good things to those who have ears to hear.  And it’s ok for us to bring in other scriptures, to remind us that He is just but also the one that justifies.  He is holy, but he makes us holy.  He brings a fire that destroys but also purifies, a water that washes away the wicked, and also our wickedness.  And he does divide people, even families.  But he promises those who believe in him will never be separated from him, or from the Father.

He begins, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!”
You know, there are different kinds of preachers.  Some tell lots of stories - like from Readers’ Digest.  Some like to share personal anecdotes about their kids.  There are dynamic preachers and expository preachers, and preachers that always seem to be talking right to you.  Some When you hear about someone who is a “fire and brimstone” preacher, it’s usually not a compliment.  It usually means they come off angry, and are harsh and perhaps even cruel, holier than thou - not a real pleasure to listen to. But here comes Jesus, cracking out the fire himself.

Any true student of Scripture knows that Jesus is not all pillows and puppies, but that he can make a whip and overturn tables.  He can call out the Pharisees just as harshly as John the Baptist.  He can preach the fire and brimstone.  But this is no ordinary fire, and certainly not an uncontrolled blaze.  When Jesus speaks in these harsh terms, he brings the fire of God’s wrath, his righteous wrath over sin.

We may want to believe in a God who is always nice, and never says or does anything unpleasant.  A God who is always, only, love, and never scolds or judges.  But the problem is there is no such God.  God is holy and righteous and hates sin and punishes it.  We the creatures don’t get to create a God to our liking.  Nor should we ignore what He says of Himself and imagine Him in a more palatable fashion.

And the thought of the righteous Son of God casting fire on earth should make us quake and tremble, for we are sinners, and deserve to be burnt up like stubble.  We are guilty as sin, and deserve the punishments of sin, death and hell.

But all is not lost.  Yes, our God is a consuming fire, but there is also a baptism.... there is cleansing.... Jesus continues:

“I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”

Jesus had already been baptized by John in the Jordan.  So he’s not talking about that here.  But in that baptism by John, Jesus did do something important.  He identified with us sinners.  He who had no sin of his own, took on our sin, became the stand-in for all sinners.  That Baptism in the Jordan was the first step toward his greater baptism, the one he was about to undergo. 

And the baptism he was about to undergo - would be truly distressing.  It is the baptism of the cross.  The baptism of suffering and death.  The baptism of bearing God’s wrath for all sin, being consumed in his body to pay the debt for us all.

The same Jesus who will one day come to judge the living and the dead, who will destroy this corrupt creation in fire, and cast those who reject him into the eternal lake of fire....  is the same Jesus who stands between you and the fire of God’s wrath.  And instead of you, he is consumed.  He takes the heat, for you.  That’s the cross.

And so there is peace with God.  For in his resurrection from the dead, he proves stronger than death, and paves the way for your resurrection.  So baptized into his death, we are also raised in our baptism - raised to life in Christ who lives.  So our baptism is only distressing to the Old Adam, who there is drowned, and buried.  The New Man in us, the new creation in Christ, lives in Christ forever.
But that doesn’t mean that everything is all a bed of roses for us yet.

On this earth, in this time in-between, as we wait for the return of Christ, the day of judgment and victory...  in these end times, there will be trouble.  Especially for us who are in Christ.  And even, yes, in the family.

“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

For the word of Christ, by which we live, is a dividing word.  It divides truth from falsehood.  And sometimes the truth hurts.  The letter- the law- kills.  But the Spirit gives life.  Those who reject the truth, reject the Spirit, reject the life Christ brings, and are divided from you who receive it in faith.  There are believers, and there are unbelievers.  There are sheep and goats.  Yes, sometimes even in our own family.

That doesn’t mean we don’t love our parents and children (and yes even our in-laws) who are outside the church.  It doesn’t mean we write them off or scream that they are going to hell.  Nor, by the way, does it mean we can adjust the uncomfortable truth of God’s holy word to make us more at peace about the whole situation.

But it does mean we have some praying to do.  That God would call the unbeliever to faith, as he’s called us.  It does mean that we have some loving to do - for if Christ tells us to love even our enemies, then certainly there’s room to love even the unbeliever under our roof, or at our Thanksgiving Day gathering, etc.

And it also means we have an opportunity, so share the hope that is within us.  To point to Christ in our actions and words, when the time is right, with great humility.

Invite ‘em to church.  Pray for them.  Tell them you pray for them.  And be an example of faith yourself.  Maybe even tell them what a big sinner you are, and yet how much bigger is Christ’s forgiveness.

That Christ was baptized into death for you, and raised from death for you, and lives and rules all things for you, and for all.

And he does not promise peace on earth, but does promise peace with God for all who believe.  So trust in him, dear Christians, for that peace is yours.  That peace not as the world gives, he gives to you.  The peace that trusts in him, and in his truth, in spite of all trouble and persecution, in joy and in suffering. A peace that flows only from faith.

And that peace that passes understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, amen.