Monday, December 03, 2018

Sermon - Luke 19:28-40 - Advent 1

Luke 19:28-40
“The King is Coming! (Palm Sunday in December)”

Did someone print the wrong bulletin for today? Why is Palm Sunday on the cover? Why is our Gospel reading about Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem? Isn't Christmas just around the corner? I do seem to remember just eating turkey and stuffing. What's going on, is this some sort of liturgical time-warp or something? No.

It is the beginning of the new church year, and of the season of Advent. Once again the church flips the calendar, and starts the time of preparation looking forward to that first great festival – the celebration of Christ's birth. For about 4 weeks leading up to it, we prepare. We observe what led up to that blessed event. We hear from the Old Testament prophets. We listen to the forerunner, John the Baptist, his voice crying in the wilderness. We meditate and contemplate, even in a slightly mournful and somber fashion, just why this Savior had to come. Because we wait in exile here. We long for his salvation.

We look back to the first coming, and still we anticipate the second coming. First he came as a babe of Bethlehem. Someday, even soon, he will come again in glory. So for the Christian, every day is Advent, just as we are never far from any other blessed event in Christ's life, and are always mindful of his many promises.

But why Palm Sunday?

In fact it makes perfect sense to observe Palm Sunday in Advent. Because both occasions highlight this simple theme: “The King is Coming”. He is coming to be born in Bethlehem. He is coming in the clouds to judge the nations. He is coming, riding on a lowly donkey, to Jerusalem. And when Jesus comes, he brings with him salvation. Our theme today, therefore is simple. Jesus is coming. The king is coming.

The King is coming: who invited him?
Around this time of year, with all the parties and get-togethers, there will be lots of invitations sent out, and lots of invitations received. Maybe you are having a party and have made your guest list. But imagine what it would be like if someone came who wasn’t on the list. Someone you didn’t invite. It would be strange.

One thing you might notice about most of Jesus’ various arrivals, is that he is not the one being invited. No, it’s just the opposite, he invites himself. No one asked Jesus to come to Jerusalem riding on a donkey. In fact, it was he alone who made the arrangements – down to the last detail.

Just like no one invited him to be born a human child in Bethlehem. No act of human will brought him to our world. It was the work of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary – at the initiative of God alone.

Just like the day and time of his promised return are already appointed, and though we pray, “come quickly, Lord Jesus”, he will come in his time, according to the Father's will.

And though some preach and teach otherwise, we also do not invite Jesus into our hearts. We don’t open the door of our heart, or purify ourselves, or make ourselves worthy of his coming to us, individually. He takes the initiative. He calls us, invites us, by his Gospel. He makes us pure, and worthy, and he enters our hearts by his own divine mercy and grace. An uninvited but welcome guest is our King, Jesus!

Jesus is coming: And so we want to be ready.
Maybe you've see that certain bumper sticker message which seeks to poke fun at this reality, and reads, “Jesus is coming: Look Busy!” As if the boss is away at a meeting, and we his employees have to fool him, when he returns, into thinking we’ve been hard at work. But God cannot be mocked. Jesus is coming. And we haven’t been busy. Jesus warns us himself to be awake, watchful, and ready for his coming. Don't let the master find you sleeping when he returns!

Trouble is, we haven’t been busy doing what we should. But we’ve been plenty busy doing what we shouldn’t. In this busy season of the busy year – stop and ponder how you’ve been using or abusing your time. None of us have perfect priorities. We don’t always balance too well the many demands on our time – so many of which we put on ourselves. Sometimes we are over-burdened with things that matter little, and neglect those that matter most. We may appear busy; we may feel busy; but we are often simply distracted.
No amount of “looking busy” or “trying to get busy” will suffice when our king comes. He knows the truth. He knows our busy-work is for show, a lame attempt to cover the inadequately prepared heart. Our prayers falter. Our love grows cold. We boast of prideful works that are so often filthy rags. The light of faith that ought to shine brightly in us is sometimes a dull glow at best.

Perhaps contrary to our normal way of thinking, to be ready for Christ's coming is not about being busy at all. Rather, it takes time out – times of rest – times to pause and hear and ponder the word of God. And in his word, and by his Spirit, the king who is coming will prepare you to receive him rightly. To receive him as he comes to you. On his terms.

Just as you don't invite him, but he brings you his salvation. So you don't receive only a start toward him that you have to finish. Rather, Christ is both the author and finisher of our faith. As today's epistle reading puts it: “so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” He does the doing of our salvation.

Jesus is coming: Shout Hosanna!
But as we read the Palm Sunday account, it seems people were busy in a godly way. They were busy welcoming the coming king. The disciples followed his instructions – and brought him the donkey. The crowds following him and welcoming him shouted and sang his praises.

Some of the Pharisees told Jesus to have his disciples settle down. “We don’t want to give the Romans a reason to be angry. They might see all this fanfare as a sign of unrest – and people could get hurt, Jesus! make them be quiet. Rebuke them. Tell them to cut it out!”

But Jesus, who accepted the praises rightly due to him, answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out”. The king is coming, you see. And a king deserves praise. If his people didn’t give it, his creation would have. It was inevitable.

And so they shouted, “Hosanna!” which means, “Save us now!” They knew, in some way, that the king had come. It was the miracles, Luke tells us, the mighty works that they had seen, that caused such a reaction. The recent raising of Lazarus, in particular, was still all the talk, and word must have traveled fast. A miracle worker. A maker of wonders. A great king, yes, the king has come to save us!

If they only knew. For he had come to save them – from their sin. He had invited himself, as he always does, for the great Passover feast. He soon told his disciples to go make preparations in that upper room. And for the few days leading up to the Passover, Jesus the King, Jesus the Lamb of God, would stay in his holy city, with his people. Just like the Passover lamb, according to the custom, was to be kept in the home for several days before it got ugly. Before the lamb was slaughtered and sacrificed. So the crowds that sang his praises Sunday would by Friday cry for his blood, as shouts of “hosanna!” became clamoring for crucifixion.

But it was in that very cross that he answered all the hosannas, that he did, in fact, “save us”. That’s why our king came, after all. It’s why he came to Jerusalem. It’s why he came to Bethlehem. He came to save. And because he has died and because is risen, and because he has promised… he will come again to make his salvation complete.

Advent means coming – but here we mean not only his first coming, his coming as a babe in Bethlehem, or even his coming as a humble king on Palm Sunday – but also his second coming which has been promised. The color of Advent is blue – because Jesus will come again from the sky. The tone of Advent is expectant – not because we’re waiting for Christmas – we know when that will be. We wait for the salvation of the Lord to be made complete on that, the last day, whenever it may be.

The king is coming. He doesn’t need an invitation, because it’s his party, after all.

The king is coming. Don’t just look busy – you can’t fool him anyway. But receive him on his terms.

The king is coming. So add your Hosannas to the Palm Sunday crowd, Hosanna to the one, Jesus Christ, who came once, and will come again, to save us. His Advent is at hand.


Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 25 - Hebrews 9:24-28

Hebrews 9:24-28
“A Great High Priest”

Some people seem to think that sin and forgiveness are just words. That they are ideas or concepts which are hopelessly outdated and irrelevant, even if they ever applied. For the unbeliever, God's law doesn't matter – each is a law unto himself. And so forgiveness of sins doesn't matter, because sin's not a problem.

And let's face it, even we Christians sometimes act as if we feel the same way. We act like sin's not something that matters, at least not all that much. Sure nobody's perfect, but no big deal right? We may acknowledge it when pressed, but does this inform our daily lives? Our reading from Hebrews today might make us think differently.

We don't know exactly who wrote the New Testament book of Hebrews. But we do know it was a letter written to Christians of a Jewish background. They would have been familiar with the priesthood of the Levites, the sacrificial system from the time of Moses, and all that went along with it.

Once a year, the High Priest would enter the holiest part of the Tabernacle. Only the High Priest could enter, and only once a year. And as he brought the blood of an animal which had been sacrificed, he would sprinkle some of it on the Ark of the Covenant. All this he did as a representative, on behalf of the people. And all this was according to God's explicit instructions.

So what was the point of all this? And what does this all have to do with you and me, who aren't ancient Israelites? Nor are we Jewish Christians from the first century. But we have one thing in common with them – the need for forgiveness, atonement, someone to make satisfaction for our sin.

None of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was by accident. God was very specific in his instructions on what was to be done, and when, and how. It was, first of all, a way he provided the people to deal with their sins – to have the assurance that their sins were atoned for. Those sacrifices and rituals weren't just for show – they really counted! God so promised.

But they were more. They pointed to more. Hebrews says these earthly holy places are “copies of the true things”. That is to say, they drive us toward a greater and deeper reality. They are earthly copies of heavenly things. In and of themselves, the tabernacle and temple, the rituals and sacrifices, the priests and all the adornments provided – they are nothing. But they are not in and of themselves.

They were a foreshadowing of something and someone greater which was to come. Something more perfect and fulfilled. The priests, the sacrifices, the Tabernacle, the Day of Atonement... all of these were shadows of the salvation of God that came in Jesus Christ. The salvation that God had promised to Adam and Eve. The salvation he had prepared even from the foundation of the world, in his beloved Son Jesus Christ.

The Book of Hebrews goes to great lengths to show us that Christ is the great High Priest. He is the fulfillment and apex of all priesthoods. He makes the best and the most perfect sacrifice. A once-and-for-all-time shedding of his blood, a laying down of his life, for all the sins that ever were or would be. Christ the victim, Christ the priest, as the hymn puts it.

That Day of Atonement was a shadow of what was to come. When the REAL High Priest would enter the true heaven (as Jesus is now ascended there for us). And before God, he makes his case for us – he shows God the basis for our salvation. It's not the blood of a goat or a bull, but his own blood. “A sacrifice of nobler birth and richer blood than they”

No we're not ancient Israelites or early Jewish Christians, but we have the same problem of sin, and the same solution in Jesus. They could no more approach God without a mediator than we can. They needed a go-between, an intercessor. But even the High Priest could only do what he did on the basis of the coming Christ. All the blood of beasts, all the rites of priests, it all pointed forward to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Any forgiveness they enjoyed was won at the cross of Christ, and so too for us.

And Christ is far above the high priest. He is the true, the ultimate high priest. He is not a Levite, following in the footsteps of Aaron. He is a priest of the order of Melchizedek, of an entirely higher order altogether. The earthly high priest conducted his rituals again and again, year in, year out. But Christ died once, for all. Once, to deal with sin and death. Once for the sins of all people – not just the Jews, but the world.

You see, Jesus is the center of all history, of all Holy Scripture, and of God's perfect plan for our salvation. The creation was made through him, redeemed by him, and will one day answer to him. We confess in the creeds that He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

It's why all this business of sin and forgiveness really matters. There will be a final judgment day, and woe to those whose sins are counted against them! God doesn't simply look the other way when it comes to sin. There is blood to be paid in this serious business. And for those that reject the free gift of Christ's blood, they have only their own to pay – eternal punishment and separation from God awaits. God does not mess around with sin, he is deadly serious about it.

But, we read here in Hebrews that, “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” There are no second chances on that judgment day. Jesus has already dealt with sin. But for us who receive his gifts in faith, for the believer, his day of return is a day to eagerly anticipate. There is no fear for us whose debts have been paid, whose sins have been forgiven, for whom only life and victory await.

Sin brings death. And death comes once. For Christ, and for us. He died once for all, and we will die once in him. But just as he lives and reigns to all eternity, so too is our day of resurrection on its way, and our eternal life in him assured.

What a comfort to know that our great High Priest has shed his own blood to make us right before God. What a blessing to know that our Great High Priest has fulfilled all requirements of sacrifice by his own perfect death on Calvary. What a hope we have in his resurrection – that we too will conquer death through him, and live and reign with him for eternity. And what a promise that he will return at the appointed time to make it so, when his day of final salvation arrives, when he comes again in glory, and brings us home.

And while we wait for that day, we are not without help. He leaves us, but he does not. He ascends into heaven, but he promises “I am with you always”. It's true, by his word and Spirit. But it's also true in a very concrete way here today, at his altar.

Here, the sacrifice that was once given at the cross, namely the body and blood of Christ – is now given for you. The blessings were won and procured there, but here they are distributed to you. There, he suffered and died, completed our redemption and declared, “It is finished”. Here, he sustains you with himself, until that day when he returns to bring all things to fulfillment. So, no, this meal is not a sacrifice, as our Roman Catholic friends would say – we offer nothing to God. Jesus has already done it all. But it is a sacrament, a holy and blessed gift – that the Great High Priest keeps on giving, and that we receive according to his words – often, in remembrance of him, and for the forgiveness of our sins.

And now we're full circle. Back to the forgiveness of sins. The chief blessing of God given to his people, from which flows life and salvation. Forgiveness of sins, that great balm for the troubled conscience, that great source of joy and peace. Forgiveness, which we enjoy even as we forgive those who trespass against us. And all of this, from our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. To him be the glory forever and ever, Amen.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Sermon - All Saints Day - Rev. 7:9-17

"Who Are These, Robed in White?"
A blessed All Saints Day to you. Today we celebrate the fact that God's kingdom, here and in eternity, encompasses a great multitude of believers. Sinners who are made clean and holy in the blood of Christ. At that is the definition of a saint – a holy one. Lutherans are fond of the phrase, “sinners and saints” - that is, deriving from the Latin phrase, “simul justus et peccator”, simultaneously sinners and saints. That's here and now, in this fallen world, this vale of tears. We struggle with the flesh. We sin daily, and much. And while God sees us as righteous through Christ, even as holy – as saints – we have a hard time seeing it.
But St. John saw a vision – which he wrote down for us as the book of Revelation. And part of that vision is this scene from chapter 7 – the great multitude in white. As we look at the text closely, we get a beautiful picture of the church in her glory, and really, a glimpse of our own future. Let's ask and answer two main questions then, this morning, concerning the great multitude: Who are they? And what is it like for them?
Who are they? They are Us.
Who are these, robed in white? They are many – from all tribes and peoples and nations and languages: Texans and Yankees. Jews and Palestinians. Nigerians, Indians, Pakistanis, Australian Aborigines. Celts and Romans, Egyptians, Syrians and Singaporeans... and on and on and on. They speak English and Chinese and Pidgin and Swahili and on and on and on. Pentecost was a foreshadowing of this great multi-lingual, multi-national gathering.
You want to talk diversity? You want to talk universality? Equality for all? Here, before the throne of the Lamb, the church in her glory does what no government quotas or human initiatives could do – it brings together people from all these different origins – and makes them one in Christ.
Who are these, robed in white? They are from all times and places – they are the ancients and the moderns, they are the then and the now and those who are not even yet here. Your forefathers in the faith are there in that crowd. And the people who will believe who are yet unborn. And you. Look closely enough into the faces of that crowd and you will see yourself, believer. You'll also see the joyous faces of those you love who have died in the faith. Friends, family, church members. Those for whom the bells toll today, and all who have died in Christ and rest from their labors. On that day, in that great assembly, we are finally reunited. And yet this is only part of the joy.
Who are these, robed in white? They are clothed in Christ – washed in the blood. Their robes are washed because they were once stained and soiled in sin. They carried through life the filthy rags of a fallen flesh. You and I know the stench well. But sin has corrupted not just the outer garments, but our very nature. The heart is a fouled spring, and out of it comes all sorts of wickedness. And it's not just the things you do that add more stench and soil, it's the very nature you are born with. It goes back to Adam and Eve, who tried to cover their sin with fig leaves.
But now they are washed, washed clean, clean in the blood of the Lamb. Normally if you get blood on your clothes that's just another way to soil them. But this blood, this holy precious blood and this innocent suffering and death – they are cleansing of all sin, spot and stain. The blood of Jesus, shed at the cross, washes away sin as nothing else can.
Who are these, robed in white? They also share in the victory of Christ. The Lamb that was slain, but is now alive. The one who wins the day, destroys the forces of evil, and even death itself lies in ruin. Christ, risen from the dead, tramples all his foes and takes his rightful place in glory, seated with the Father. He is the Lamb who once was slain, but is alive forevermore. He is the Lamb who is at the center of the throne of God, there receiving the same praises. But who are they? They are with him. He's their champion. They are his people. He won the victory for them, that they might share in the spoils. And so they wave the palm branches in celebration. This is like the ticker-tape parade after a super bowl winning team comes back to town, or at the end of a world-war with all the soldiers returning home – but only better. For now, eternal peace begins. Now, all is well, forever.
Who are these, robed in white? They are the glorified church in song. They sing God's praises. They sing of the worthiness of the Lamb. They sing of his blessing, honor, glory and might. They sing along with the angels in a never-ending chorus of praises. This is no funeral dirge, it is a song fitting for the occasion – a victory song, a hymn of thanks and praise.
Who are these, robed in white? They are with God, in his presence, before his throne. They are therefore, by definition, in glory.
Who are these, robed in white, and where do they come from? They are those coming out of the great tribulation. That is to say, they are those who have run their course on earth in faith – with all of its ups and downs, all of its challenges and temptations, all of the griefs and pains, sorrows and sickness and persecution. All the trials are now behind them. They have come through it, and now they are here. This is the end of the story. And it is a very happy ending.
Who are these, robed in white? They are the church in her glory. They are the people of God. They are the faithful of the Old Testament. They are the believers of the early church and the middle ages and of modern times. They are your ancestors who believed in Christ, and they are your loved ones who have died in the faith. They are you and me. And they are all believers who will follow us, up until the last day and the fulfillment of all things.
What is it like for them? It is good. Just look at the benefits the church in glory enjoys:
Sheltered – they find their shelter in him who sits on the throne. Can there be any more secure dwelling than the presence of God himself? An earthly shelter protects you from what is outside – wind, rain, and cold. Robber and predator. But this is like no earthly shelter. No big bad wolf can blow it down. No time or termite can deteriorate these walls. No leak in the roof. They are sheltered by the presence of God. He is with them. He protects them. And they shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
No hunger or thirst – The wants of this life, anything that they might lack, even the most basic needs of food and drink – there, in that eternal shelter, the Lord provides eternally. The table is prepared for them, and the feasting never ends. They are always filled. They are never lacking. No needs, no wants, just the perfect provision of the king.
No scorching heat- The scorching noonday sun is here a marker for all that would make us suffer in this life. The toils and troubles of the day. The aches and pains of the body. The heartaches and sorrows of the spirit. The sun is relentless in its scorching heat, and it does not rest when you've had enough. Neither do the woes of this world seem to let up, but each day has enough trouble of its own. But not there. Not in the shelter of the king. Not for this great multitude that have washed their robes. The scorching heat is over. The troubles of life under sin are a distant memory.
Shepherded by the Lamb – they are not lost, they will never wander. They are always, always in the care of the Good Shepherd, who is also the Lamb of God, namely, Jesus. And he who cares for the least of the sheep in his fold, will never let even one be snatched from his hand. He will lead them beside streams of still waters, to green pastures, and they shall not want.
Tears wiped away – and perhaps one of the most tender and dear pictures of the bliss that is heaven, one of the best promises of God for his people, is this intimate picture: that God himself will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Like a loving parent that kisses a child's boo-boo. Like a warm embrace of that good friend who always knows just what to say. Like the comforting and strong presence of your go-to support in this life, but far, far more. That the God who created the earth and sea and all that is in them, that commanded the stars into existence and set them in all their precise and orderly motion. Who designed the multitude of life in all its variety. Who commands all the armies of heaven and knows all things. That this God would regard even you, stoop to comfort you, and wipe that tear, and every tear, from your eye. It is no small comfort.
But remember, this is the same God who sends us Jesus. And the same Jesus who suffers all, even death on a cross, for us. How will God, who spared not his own son, how will he not also do all of this for his people?
For we cannot consider the saints, the holy ones, without the Holy One of God. There would be no saints, no church, no white-robed celebration were it not for the one who was stripped and beaten and crucified for us, who shed his blood to cleanse our robes. Who gave his life over to death, so that death can have no hold on us. Who rose victorious and lives forever, to bring us that same victory, and is even now, preparing a place for us in that great multitude. Thanks be to him, for all the saints, who from their labors rest. And thanks be to him, who will welcome us there, to paradise the blest. Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 21 - Mark 10:17-22

Mark 10:17-22
“The Good Teacher's Loving Law”

I was reading something on the internet the other evening about people who've had encounters with celebrities. Sometimes they would find them to be rude, sometimes nice, sometimes just normal people. Oprah didn't leave a tip, but signed a napkin. Will Wheaton wouldn't talk to fans. Someone saw Ed Sheerhan and said, “I don't want to bother you” and he said, “Like you're doing now?”

I wonder if you and I were in the position of this rich young man who had a brief audience with Jesus – how might we act? What might we say? Would we gush over him? Call him “good teacher” or “Lord” or something else? And what would you ask Jesus if you had that one small chance? His autograph? Probably not. A Me-n-Jesus selfie? Hope not. Maybe a question for curiosity or reassurance? Maybe you wouldn't even know what to say.

The rich young man had a burning question, and it is kind of a strange one when you look at it. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Putting aside for a moment the whole thing about him calling Jesus “good teacher”, it's a strange question on its own merits. What must I do to inherit? Under normal circumstances, in a situation of an earthly inheritance, there really is nothing to do to gain an inheritance. You simply wait until your Father dies. You can't change the inheritance – it's not based on how hard you work, what you do or don't do, or anything like that. It's the decision of the person giving you their stuff. At it only happens when that person finally dies.

That's the normal way, anyway. That's why it was so strange – and really scandalous – for the younger son in Jesus' famous parable to ask his father for his inheritance – NOW! It was like an insult, saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead!”. But even stranger is that the father actually gives it to him!

No, this man is using the word “inherit” but what he really means is “earn”. He's looking for a deal, a roadmap, an end-of-the-bargain to hold up and to receive eternal life by his works. He thinks there is something he can do – and though he's done a lot – he knows somehow something is missing. What's that one cherry on the sundae that will seal the deal, Jesus? What's that one above-and-beyond good work you're looking for? What must I do? What a question of law. Not “what can I do to serve my neighbor?” Not “how can I ever repay God's love to me?” No, just crass do the work, get the paycheck salvation.

So Jesus humors him, at least for a bit. For after all, if someone could actually keep the law – well, that is one way to be saved. So he rehearses the commandments for him – the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, the 4th. Notice these are all from the Second Table of the Law – which deal with how we treat our neighbor. And without much thought or reflection, the man nods along and agrees that he's kept all of these – even from his youth! Quite an achievement! If it were only true. But like many today, he must have had a checklist mentality about the commandments, and a very shallow one at that.

Perhaps Jesus was looking for a little self-reflection here, a little more honesty about what the law really demands and how the young man really didn't measure up. And Jesus could have rightly pressed the point on each of these commands and taken the man to task... really? You've really kept them all? But Jesus shows the wisdom of a teacher – he knows how to best make his point.

So rather than argue each point with the man, rather than get sidetracked or bogged down, Jesus knows just what to do.

Of the parallel accounts here, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, only here in Mark do we have this little comment, that Jesus looked at him and “loved him”. He loved him. But the way Jesus showed that love here, was by telling him a hard truth. He told him something the young man didn't want to hear. Sell all your stuff. It was tough love. And love sometimes is just that, as any parent can tell you. Love isn't just an emotion, it's doing what's best for someone else, even if they don't know it, or can't see it. And sometimes love means the tough word of the law, even the law that kills. God speaks that law to you, too. But not to leave you in the law. The love of God speaks that law to prepare you for the love of the Gospel. But the law does its work first...

Jesus hits the young man where it hurts. He moves now to the first table of the law, and really, the First Commandment. He clobbers the young man square in the face of his idolatry. Jesus pulls out his law-laser and zaps the man's main idol, the one he clings to, the place of his ultimate fear, love and trust. He says, “sell all your stuff, and follow me instead”. Ouch.

Now, this is not Jesus telling us to sell all of our stuff. You've got plenty of people in the Bible who are wealthy AND faithful. Oh it's not easy, mind you, tell that to the camel going through the eye of the needle. But with God all things are possible. So it was possible for this man to see his idolatry and repent of it, it was possible that he turned and lived and believed in Christ. But it doesn't seem that was so. He hung his head and went away with a scowl, for he had great possessions. And it didn't seem like he was ready to let them go, or to embrace the true treasure.

But this is Jesus telling you to give up your idols! This is Jesus telling you to put aside your gods, whatever they are, and follow the only one who is Good, the Good Teacher, that is, God alone. Follow his Son, the Savior. The one who brings true treasure. The one who dies for all sins. The one who generously gives of himself, gives his blood, more precious than gold or silver, and his body, a perfect sacrifice. Jesus gave everything – everything – for you. Repent, and believe in Christ!

What's your idol? What's your self-made god? What's your pet sin? What is your particular struggle? Is it lust or anger or pride? Is it covetousness or gossip or gluttony? Is it pride? There's plenty of law to go around. There's plenty of ammunition to blast away any sin you would cling to. Are you going to go away like the young man, head hung low, because you won't, you can't give it up? Or are you willing to sell all, give all, even die to the sin that has you tangled up, and follow Jesus?

Sure I've never physically murdered someone. But I've had plenty of hate in my heart. Sure I've never cheated on my wife – except with my eyes, and in my head. Sure I never lied under oath, but I've dragged my neighbor's good name through the mud and back on a regular basis. And other gods – too many to count, to mention, to know. Christians, I hope you never take a shallow and careless view of God's law. Rather, let its light shine even into the deepest darkest corners of your sin, and as the sins try to scurry away, squash them instead with confession and absolution. Let Christ clean house. And be at peace.

And Jesus gives you an inheritance. That's the wild thing here. You can't earn it or deserve it – you can't even ask for it. You can't decide or will it. You can only receive the inheritance in faith. You can only come by eternal life as a gift – and you only get it when the one who gives it dies. Jesus does just that – all of that – for you. Would that the rich young man could see it, hear it, believe it.

If you keep seeing salvation as something to earn – then you'll never deserve it enough, you'll always doubt – and you should! For an inheritance that depends on you – your worthiness, your merit, your deserving it – is no inheritance at all. That's an imagined IOU. It's worthless. But an inheritance that is a promise. An inheritance that is a guarantee. An inheritance that rests on the sure and certain word of the Good Teacher and the true God. That's worth trusting and believing. That's worth selling everything. That's worth more than your life.

Even if this man did sell everything and follow Jesus – it wouldn't have earned a thing with God. But it would have shown his heart set right. It would have been a very stark outward expression of a deep inward change. A way of confessing his sin, and receiving Christ's forgiveness.

Today, Jesus calls you to receive your inheritance – that is what he gives you by his death. His body and his blood, given and shed for you, so that you may be forgiven and that you will inherit eternal life. Here at his altar, the Good Teacher gives you the goods, which you could never earn or deserve. But that's what makes him so good. He gives his everything to you, for you, for your eternal salvation. It's not a matter of “what must I do” but “what Christ has done”, and what Christ is doing.

The young man went away sorrowful. The Greek suggests he had a look on his face as dark as a storm cloud. It was, for him, a far from a happy ending. But, today, you get to depart in peace, sins forgiven.

The young man went away with a scowl, for he had great possessions, and couldn't let these idols go. You, now, go in joy, for you have the greatest possession in the Gospel, the greatest treasure in Jesus Christ, and an inheritance that will never fade or falter – eternal life with God.

Monday, October 01, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 19 - Mark 9:38-50

Mark 9:38–50
“Hell and Fire and Salt”

A couple of weeks ago we heard Pastor Huebel preach a sermon about demons, and Christ who conquers them.  It's a topic you don't hear much about in many churches nowadays.  Today, we hear from our Lord Jesus Christ on another topic which preachers seem prone to avoid:  the reality of hell.  But he also points us beyond ourselves, to the only hope we have of avoiding such a terrible punishment.  And that hope is, as always, in him.

Hell is real.  It is not some backward superstition of ill-informed religious zealots.  It's not a delusion that Christianity has outgrown.  Nor is it a made-up myth to scare people into behaving, like a mother goose or even brothers grim tale.  It is a place of unspeakable suffering prepared for the devil and his angels.  It is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  And perhaps worst of all, it is a place without God – cut off from Father, Son and Spirit.  Some of the harshest words spoken in all of Scripture are when Jesus tells the goats, “depart from me, I never knew you.”  It should give us chills.

Most of what we know about this comes from the lips of Jesus himself.  In today's reading he uses the picturing of a smoldering garbage heap just outside of Jerusalem – Gehenna – as a picture of hell.  It was there, in the valley of Hinnom, that the ancient people had practiced their pagan worship, sacrificed humans, even their own children to pagan gods.  It was a place of curse.  And so they fittingly turned it into a place of rubbish, a place where the fires were always burning.

Jesus speaks of the eternal hell as a place of unquenchable fire.  A place where rotting flesh is forever being consumed by a worm that does not die.  A place of misery.  It's so bad, that you would rather have your hands and feet cut off, or your eye poked out, than to go there.  It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a large weight around your neck to sink you to the bottom.  There's no hope of swimming your way out of this one.  There's no floating back to the surface.  This judgment is final. This sentences is eternal. This is a stern warning.  These are hard words.  And they are not words spoken primarily to pagans, mind you, but first of all to God's people.  And even, to you and me.
Sin is insidious.  Temptations are subtle.  And the devil would have you minimize sin, think of it as innocuous, no real danger.  People don't even use the word sin as often as we used to – instead we speak of “mistakes”, or “challenges” or “growth areas”.  The world wants us to think people are basically good, or at least morally neutral – and that the idea that we have a sinful nature, entirely corrupted, and deserving of death – well who believes THAT anymore?  But to also say that even just one sin makes you guilty of the fire of hell?  Why yes, Jesus says that very thing.

Sin cuts things off.  It cuts us off, first, from God.  Separates us.  Divides.  The original oneness of will and spirit which Adam and Eve enjoyed with God was ripped apart when they sided with Satan and disobeyed God's only command.  But sin also separates us from each other – think of how it is when there's a sin hanging out there between you and someone – like an open sore.  It breaks the relationship.  It drives you apart.  Communication is cut off, kindness is cut off, friendship is cut off.  All of this is poisoned fruit of our sin.

And so our Lord impressed upon us just how dangerous sin is, how serious a matter it is, and how terrible the punishments of hell.  God is a just God.  He means what he says.  He cannot be mocked.  And hell is where the wicked are cut off from God forever – the ultimate consequence of sin.

So how do we escape such a fate?  Jesus says, “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.”  And of course he's not speaking literally here.  If he were, and it were that easy, then we'd all be going through life with no hands, and breathing a big sigh of relief.  Likewise, feet and eyes, and any member that causes us to sin.  Cut it off!  The judgment is so serious, we would do anything – even radical amputation – to avoid God's wrath.  But upon deeper reflection, not even this will do.  For it is out of the heart that comes all sorts of evil.  It is the very soul that is corrupted by sin.  We can't amputate our entire being!  We'd never stop cutting.  We'd have nothing left.  We'd be long dead long before.

But isn't that exactly it?  Jesus calls us not to simply “do better”, but rather, to die.  Die to sin.  Put to death the old flesh.  Cut off all wickedness and ungodliness.  And the only way this is done, is not through extra or extreme effort or force of will.  Only repentance.  Only confession will do.  For if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

But why?  How?  Isn't this the God who is just and hates sin, and promises punishment and death and hell?  How can he just turn on a dime and forgive me?  Well he doesn't turn on a dime, he turns on a cross.

The cross is the difference, for us, between heaven and hell, life and death, between being cut off from God forever and resting forever in his arms where he wipes every tear from our eyes.  Only the cross of Jesus will do.  Only Jesus can do what needs to be done for our salvation.
At the cross, Jesus' own body - and the members of his body suffer – hands and feet pierced, head crowned with thorns, back scourged, side pierced.  But even more, he is entirely cut off from his Father, forsaken, as he endures the wrath and punishment and the very pangs of hell you and I deserve.  Consumed in the fires of God's justice, he gives his body into death.  He fulfills Isaiah 53:8, and is “cut off out of the land of the living”.  And Jesus declares, “It is finished”.

Ah, but Jesus was not finished.  He descended into hell.  Not to suffer, mind you – that was done at the cross.  Now he storms the gates of hell itself, shatters its power and chokehold on the children of Adam.  He declares death's undoing, announces the undoing of sin's power, and stomps on the devil's might just as he crushes the serpent's very head.  Jesus is victorious!  Death has no hold on him, and so he rises, he lives, he reigns.

And now what about all this talk of salt and fire? We see throughout Scripture that fire is a purifying agent even as it consumes what is impure.  That's why hell is an unquenchable fire – because there we see what is never made pure, but is always being consumed. 

But being “salted with fire” is different.  Here Jesus turns to talk of promise. For us, that is, the people of Christ, this world includes various fiery trials, through which God purifies us – like a precious metal which emerges as the dross is melted away. 

He purifies us through his word and Spirit.  The Holy Spirit himself appears as a fire, tongues of fire, and brings the Baptism of Jesus also with Spirit and fire.  The word of law shows our sin, burns down any hope of our own righteousness, leaves us with only the ashes of repentance.  But the Gospel brings us through that fire, a new creation, holy and righteous in Christ.  And so fire, for the believer, even the fire of God's presence, brings good, makes us pure, even refined.  For the believer in Christ, fire holds no fear.

Likewise Jesus speaks of salt – also a purifying and cleansing agent, but even more for preservation.  Salt was also used in the ancient world in covenants of peace.  It symbolically “sealed the deal”.  Jesus uses the picture of salt here, to point us to all these things.  “Have salt in yourselves”.  Again, who purifies and preserves us but the Spirit of God through the word?  Who brings us to peace with each other, but the Spirit, through the word?  Who brings us to faith in Christ, preserves us in Christ, enlightens and sanctifies us in Christ, but the Spirit?  How can we have peace with God and one another, apart from the Spirit?  How can we come to faith and remain in the faith, apart from the Spirit?  And the Spirit works through the word.

Only Christ, by his Spirit, can rescue from the seriousness of sin and the very fires of hell.  Only Christ, by his fire and salt, can keep you from being cut off.  Only Christ rescues us, hand and foot, eye and ear, head and heart, and makes us members of his body, the Church. Only in Christ, do we have the peace with God and peace with one another that passes all understanding.  May that peace guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 18 - Mark 9:30-37


Mark 9:30-37
It's for the Children”

And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them,“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (36-37)

The Christian faith is full of surprises. God does things and says things that are exactly opposite of how we would do - or say they should be.

Our reading from James today is full of these contrasts – between the wisdom of the world, and the “wisdom from heaven”. Jesus knew such wisdom well. And it's perhaps one of the most striking aspects of his teaching. He honestly shocked people when he said, “turn the other cheek”, and “wash each other's feet” and “the first shall be last – whoever would be great among you must be slave of all”.

Today our reading from Mark unfolds these surprises even more. In a great reversal, Jesus takes these disciples who were increasingly impressed with their own rock-star status and he teaches them a lesson in humility. That true greatness is found in lowliness, and last-ness. 

Remember, these disciples were witness to many amazing things. The fame and glory Jesus was generating must have rubbed off on them, at least in their own minds. They themselves had been given authority to heal and cast out demons. They saw the crowds thronging around Jesus, and surely felt a little puffed up themselves by all the attention. So one day on the road they began to discuss their own greatness – and even argue which of them was the greatest. “I'm better than you are. I'm the most important. I'm the best”

Maybe Peter had the best claim, “I walked on water. Jesus calls me 'the Rock!” or maybe it was Judas, “hey he trusts me to carry the money”. Or John, “I'm the disciple Jesus loves”. Or Nathanel, “He called me a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false”. Or Phillip, “Yeah but I brought you to him.” Or whatever.

Sounds pretty childish, doesn't it? And when Jesus asks what they were arguing about, he surely knew. But they kept silent. No one wanted to admit to what they were doing – they too must have known it was wrong.

Yes, the guilty silence. It reminds me of the way a child acts when they are caught being naughty. “What were you doing that was naughty?” The parent asks. “I don't want to say” the child replies. The disciples were acting like children.... rebellious and bickering children who were caught in the act of sin.

We are no better. We are just the same. We argue amongst ourselves. We get puffed up with pride in ourselves. We set ourselves against each other. Oh we think we're good at hiding it all – and for the most part we do hide our petulant hearts from each other. But the guard comes down, and the teeth come out here and there. We are selfish and willful and petulant and full of all the same sins that made the disciples act like children. Let's be honest with ourselves.

Funny then, that Jesus takes a child to teach the disciples a lesson in humility. Receiving children – regarding them, acknowledging them, well it wasn't considered a top priority for adults. Especially for self-important disciples of the great Rabbi! The disciples thought Jesus had no time for insignificant children. They tried to shoo children away. But Jesus shows special care and concern for children. He says, “let them come to me and do not hinder them”. He touches them. He blesses them. He commends their faith.

Perhaps this is a key – there's a difference between being childish and child-like. In sin, our actions are childish. Everything that we adults try to correct in our children – all that misbehavior that comes naturally to them – is also in us. The childishness, selfishness, and obstinate rebellion – all the worst things we see in them, God could say the same and worse of us.

But Jesus commends those whose faith is child-like. All the best characteristics of children, like trustfulness, humility, openness to being taught. Through Jesus we become children – children of God and heirs of eternal life. And it is these sorts of qualities the Spirit works in us, as the New Man daily emerges from baptismal waters.

To receive a child, we must stoop down from our pedestal of pride. And only in such humility can we receive Christ. Only confessing our sins do we receive his forgiveness. Only in denying our own powers do we rely on his power, his Spirit. Only in lowliness are we exalted. The first shall be last, and the last, first, indeed.

And now back to the first part of this reading, and to another surprise, another reversal, another opposite-of-how-we-think-it-should-be. The disciples were too caught up in their petty squabbling and childish pride to hear and digest what Jesus had just said – that he would be betrayed, die, and rise again.

This is the second time Mark records Jesus telling what his future holds. The first time, Peter tried to rebuke Jesus for all that suffering and dying talk. Jesus even called him Satan. Well now Jesus is bringing it up again and rather than rebuke him they just ignore it all. They've got better things to talk about, like which of them is best.

But there is no better thing to talk about than the work Jesus does for us. His suffering, death and resurrection. There is no more childlike faith than the one who says, “Jesus died for me, to forgive my sins, and rose from the dead for me, so that I get to go to heaven”. 

Such child-like faith receives the Christ joyfully. And in receiving Christ, we receive the Father. And if we receive the Father, that makes us his children. It's that simple.

And we express our faith in God by serving our neighbor, yes, even children. Our own children, first of all – those whom God has placed in our care. Our nearest “neighbors”. We serve them, love them, not just because they are cute and lovable. Any parent can tell you about the times their children are NOT so cute and lovable. But we serve them because they are ours. They belong to us. They are our own flesh and blood. And God has given us charge of them.

Sure, we feed and clothe them. Sure, we provide them with love and affection. We save for them to go to college. We put them in good schools and activities and always want the best for them. But a Christian parent knows the best we can do is this: we bring them to the font to receive their Savior in the Water and the Word of promise. We bring them to His house to hear his word, and learn and grow.

And we care for all God's children – young and old – as we show our love in acts of mercy and kindness. And whatsoever we do to the least of these, even for the children, we do it for Christ.

It's for the children”. Jesus could have said that on his way to the cross. It's for the children – the children of God's creation who had become children of destruction in their sin. What a great reversal – what a great surprise. That by his lowly suffering and humble service, even his death on the cross – he makes us children of God once again – restored, renewed, and one day resurrected to eternity.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sermon - Pentecost 16 - Mark 7:31-37

Mark 7:31-37
“He Does All Things Well”

Perhaps you know someone who is what they call a “Jack of all trades”. Maybe you are that someone. It certainly isn't me. The “master of none” part fits me just fine. For most of us, we can do some things pretty well, some things ok, and many things we just have no clue about. I can change a tire, but not spark plugs. I can change a light bulb, but A/C repair is beyond me. I can re-format a hard drive, but don't ask me to build a computer. And usually, we have that one skill or set of skills that helps us pay the bills. And good for you if you also enjoy that activity.

But look at what they say about Jesus in Mark 7. He heals the deaf and mute man, and the people who witness declare, “He has done all things well...” Jesus is no “Jack-of-all-trades, but master-of-none”. He is Master of all. Lord of all. King of creation. And so it shouldn't surprise them that he can do this miracle, or any miracle, really, if they believed in him. He has done all things well. That's really quite an understatement!

Jesus has been busy. He has, already in 6 chapters of Mark, been baptized and tempted, driven out evil spirits and healed many of various diseases. He has preached good news to the poor, cleansed a leper, healed a paralytic and a man with a withered hand. He calmed a storm, cast out a legion of demons, healed a woman with a flow of blood and raised a little girl from the dead. He fed the 5000 and cast out a demon from a little girl without even seeing her in person. And now he heals the deaf and mute man. And of course, all along the way he'd been teaching them in sermons and parables. You can see why the people were impressed. You can see why they said, “He has done all things well”.
But more than the spectacle of it all, more than the wonder at these mighty works, is the fulfillment of prophecy.
He has done all things well – in terms of all those things that are marks of the Messiah. Here, he fulfills the Old Testament reading, Isaiah 35:5:
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;”
He has done all things well. This is one of those unwitting prophetic sayings that happen from time to time in Scripture. Like the crowd that cried out, “his blood be upon us and on our children” - yes, it was to be upon them, but not in the way they meant. Or Caiaphas, who advised the Jews that “it is better that one man die for the people”. While they perhaps meant, “He has done all things well” as a general sort of atta-boy, an adulation of praise, even, we could apply it much more deeply and broadly to Jesus.

Jesus' attention to detail in fulfilling the scriptures even shows as he hung, suffering, on the cross. “In order to fulfill the scripture, he said, 'I thirst'.”
Yes, he did it all – was born of a virgin – Isaiah 7 check! Was born in Bethlehem Micah 5 – check! Was a suffering servant – check many places in Isaiah. Was forsaken by God – check Psalm 22! Gave the sign of Jonah and rose again – Check – Jonah 3! And we could go on and on and on. Even the whole Old Testament speaks of him, foreshows him, points to him the Messiah, the Christ, the long-promised savior.

More than that, he has done all things well – in procuring our salvation. He keeps the law perfectly, down to the smallest detail. He offers the perfect sacrifice – a lamb of God without spot or blemish – a lamb that is slain for the people, whose blood washes over us, and washes us clean. He does what no one else could, what no one else can, what no one else would, or could even imagine. He bears the sins of the world. All of them. He has done all things well. He even conquered death, snapping its strong bands to tatters as he arose in glory. He has done all things well.

And then there's you. You and I, who have not done all things well. Hold us to the same standard, in fact hold us to almost any standard, and we don't come out looking so good. The Ten Commandments strip down any supposed good works we could hope to offer. We can't even get past the first one – have no other gods. In spiritual terms, the only thing we can do well is sin – pervert and abuse God's good gifts, turn away from him and in on ourselves. We can't love God or our neighbor as we should. We don't. The Old Adam doesn't really even want to. We sin in thought, word, and deed. We have well earned sin's wage of death.

And like the deaf man who cannot hear - we are so deaf to God, so dead in our trespasses, that we cannot even hear his word, let alone speak it. Of our own devices we are spiritually blind and deaf and mute and dead. I cannot by my own reason or strength. Helpless and hopeless until Jesus comes along. But he does. He takes our bad works and gives us his good. He takes our death and gives us his life. He opens our eyes and ears and loosens our tongues to faith – a faith we could never have without him, and his Spirit.

Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. And even though we are spiritually deaf by nature - the word of God itself creates what it demands. The Gospel itself is the power of salvation. It cleanses hearts, gives life, opens ears to hear.

And so Jesus speaks to a deaf man – and think of that – speaks to his deaf ears and commands them to hear. He brings into being, by the power of his word, that which was not. And it is so.

He speaks also to you. His word reaches the cold, dead ears of your sinful nature, and whispers “Ephatha”. And faith comes. Suddenly you can hear. And hearing you believe. And believing, you also speak.
For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. And all your not-so-well is covered by his everything-well.

The word, “well” in the Greek “kalos” is the same word, “good” (Adverb, Adjective), that Greek uses for the Genesis account, when God made everything and declared it “very good”. And just think of that. That God the Son, by whom all things were made, and who made everything good, and with man, even very good – this God become flesh in the person of Jesus – has done all things well, and for your good. And to restore you to the good, even the very good he meant for you to be. It's no accident that the book of Revelation pictures our eternal home as a restoration of that ancient paradise – complete with the reappearance of the tree of life – and its fruit year-round and leaves for the healing of the nations.

Of course, you don't see this right away. Your ears of faith hear it and believe it – but faith is the assurance of things unseen. Your heart still stammers and stutters to believe the words and promises of Jesus. Your mind doubts like Thomas, and says, “show me”. An outward healing is hard to deny. But inward healing, a declaration of forgiveness, a promise of a resurrection... is harder. And so we waiver. We doubt. We say, “I believe Lord, but help my unbelief.” And so it bears repeating. We must hear the word, the law and the gospel, over and over. Let our ears be drenched with this word of God, until that day when death comes and the flesh can no longer struggle against the Spirit.

Jesus doesn't just heal the ears – he also fixes the tongue. He cures the man's speech impediment, and we hear him speaking plain as day. So too does this gift of faith he gives to you – loosen your tongue to confess Christ, freely, faithfully, and boldly.

You confess him formally, in creeds and catechisms, and as the very words of Scripture roll off your tongues. You confess him informally, giving answer to the hope that is within you. Your faith speaks in actions – as you love your neighbor, show mercy to the weakest and least among us. You even proclaim his death until he comes again when you kneel to receive this cup and this bread, which are his Body and Blood. Your participation is your “amen, yes, it is so!” to his gift and promise.

So, forgiven sinners, read and meditate on that word of life every day. Gather around the word of God each week, humbly confessing and begging forgiveness, as Christ speaks that word of life to us again. Hear the Gospel read, and preached, as the Spirit works to convict and console you, to accuse and pardon you. Hear Christ say, “here's my body and blood for you, to forgive your sins.” and come forward saying, “I'm a sinner. I need what Jesus is giving!” And once again your ears and heart are opened, healed, revived in him. Come this day. In Jesus Christ, Amen.