Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sermon - Mark 10:2-16 - Pentecost 19

Pentecost 19
October 4th, 2015
Mark 10:2-16
"Christ on Marriage and Children"

Dearly beloved, Jesus speaks to us today of marriage. And while our culture has its own ideas about marriage, our Lord, who created and established it, knows and speaks the truth of it.

For the culture, marriage may be a blessed arrangement, a dream within a dream... romanticized and idealized at times, but also ridiculed as a sad end to the freedom and revelry of single life. An agreement between two people (or maybe more), now of any gender, to “love each other” whatever that means to them. It is meant to be permanent, kind-of. It is meant more for self-fulfillment than self-sacrifice. The wedding day becomes a show of self-expression, where super-hero themed outfits, sports idolatry and scuba diving officiants barely raise an eyebrow. But where, in it all, is the Lord who created and blesses marriage?

And so it shouldn't surprise us that divorce quickly becomes an option. So it was for the ancient Jews, so it is for the modern Americans. Jesus' teaching on marriage could not be more timely for us.

Single people – those not yet married – don't tune out here. For by leading a chaste and decent life you honor your future spouse. And to those who are widowed... you, also, are to keep marriage sacred even though death has parted you from your spouse. You, too, can still honor marriage by hearing Jesus' words today, and by upholding and supporting those around you in their marriages and families.

So we come to our text. The Pharisees can't trip up Jesus. He is the one who puts men to the test, not the other way around. So here, as always, their attempts to trap and trick him fail.

But there's more to this than Jesus besting them in a theological debate. There's instruction on marriage and family. There's teaching on sin and blessing. And there's hints of a deeper reality that comes in the kingdom of God through Christ – where the marriage is forever, and the children are eternally blessed.

Their question about divorce reminds me of my 7th grade confirmation students asking, “Is this a sin? Is that a sin?” It is the little legalist in all of us that wants to know what can we get away with? How far can I push the limits of the law, and still be good to go? Behind that is the assumption that if we simply avoid this or that, we can avoid sin and justify ourselves. If divorce is a sin, then just don't get divorced, and you haven't sinned. But if divorce is permitted, and all you need is a certificate, then get the paperwork and you're free and clear, right?

Wrong, according to Jesus. He takes them, and us, back to the source, the foundation of marriage – he takes them back to Eden. There, God created male and female. There, God instituted the one flesh union of marriage, and blessed it. There, and then, he established for us something that holds great blessing and something that should not be put asunder. So the question begins not with do's and don'ts, but with the free blessing of God for us. Sadly, we don't always receive God's gifts as the blessings he intends.

Jesus pulls no punches, so let's not either.  Yes, divorce is sinful. It is a painful reality in a sinful world. And it is a sin which Christians too often give a pass. “Oh they were just too different”. “They grew apart.”. “They couldn't make it work”. We treat divorce as something that just happens by chance. We say it's nobody's fault. But sinners do sinful things that lead to divorce. Jesus says it is because of hardened hearts.

And other sinners gloss it over, so as not to make anyone feel bad. But providing cover for a sin by acting like it's not a sin, is just as sinful. There's plenty of guilt to go around, and ample reason for all of us to repent. Even for those of us “happily married”, do we honor God's gift of marriage as we should? Do wives submit to and their husbands as to the Lord? Do they respect their husbands as they should?

Do husbands love their wives as their own bodies, nurturing and caring as we should? Do we lay down our lives for our wives? Paul's instructions for marriage in Ephesians could accuse us all. And if our marriage was compared to the scrutiny of our marriage vows, how many of us love, honor, and cherish as we should?

We all stand condemned. We all dishonor the gifts God gives. We all seek to put God's blessings asunder.

Jesus is not in the business of seeing people divided, separated, torn apart. He is about making whole, making one, reuniting and reconciling. Not only sinner to sinner, but sinner to God.

In Christ, God and man are made one – even in the person of Jesus. True God and true man – being of the substance of the Father, but conceived in the flesh of man in the womb of Mary. God and man are “joined together” in the incarnation, a not so subtle indication of his overall mission to bring God and man, once separated by sin, back together forever.

In Christ, God reconciles the world to himself. At the cross, even as his body is broken, Jesus repairs, restores, revives and renews. Even when we were enemies, outsiders, and wanted nothing to do with him, he sought us and made us his own.

We are united to him, buried with him and raised with him in Baptism. We are united with him and each other in the Holy Communion. There, we are together with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. There, we are united in a physical but mysterious way with our Lord, with his Body and Blood.

What God has joined together, in Christ, let man not put asunder. Let man not separate. You see, for a Christian, marriage is much more than just two people who vow to be together until death. Christian marriage is a picture of the very union between Christ and his bride, the church. We are, all together, the bride of Christ. He is the ever-faithful bridegroom. We were the damsel in distress – the distress of sin and death. He is the knight in shining armor, our champion, who rescues from the dragon us and wins us a happily ever after.

And is it an accident that our text about marriage is followed by Jesus' regard for the little children? For one of the great blessings of marriage is that through the one flesh union, God brings forth new life. In the bearing of children, the two, quite literally, become one. Even as much as we are part of his bride, the church, so also are we, through Christ, children of God. And Jesus regards even little children.

I remember as a child of about 8 or 10, being given the great responsibility of ordering some lunch-meat while mom shopped for some other groceries. And so I stood at the deli counter, waiting for my turn. But the people behind the counter didn't seem to notice me, and only waited on the adults. Maybe they didn't think that I was old enough to do my own shopping. Or maybe I was just too short to see.

But Jesus regards the little ones. He has a special place in his heart for them. He touches them and blesses them, blesses even us. He gives us all blessings at the font. He brings us to himself, even when some would say the blessing isn't for children. He calls us his own, calls us by name, and commends us to the Father.

Receiving his kingdom like a little child means to receive him, Jesus, with childlike faith and trust in him to make it all right.

Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks teaches us today about marriage and children. He calls a sin a sin, and points us back to basics when it comes to what is right and true.

But he is also the one who brings forgiveness, for all who sin - for the divorcee and those who dishonor marriage in any way, for all those who are separated from God by our sins. He brings life to those whose lives are torn apart and in tatters. He brings salvation, renewal and reconciliation to all who receive him like a child, and look to the blessings of his cross rather than trusting our own devices. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one put asunder.... in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Movie Review - "Pawn Sacrifice"

Pawn Sacrifice is a new biographical film about U.S. Chess Grandmaster and World Champion Bobby Fischer.  He rose to fame in the late 1960s and dramatically won the World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1973, defeating Russian World Champion Boris Spassky.

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer, the troubled genius whose mental illness vexed and complicated his exceptional chess career.  Much of the dramatic force of the movie explores (even without words) the struggles of his paranoid and delusional mind, and the obstacles his illness presented both to his own goals, but also to those around him.

His lawyer/agent, Paul Marshall, serves as the main spokesman in the film for one of the underlying plot conflicts - that of the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and Soviet Union - which lent far more interest and symbolic value to the event in the eyes of the world.  This aspect of the match should draw the attention of of movie viewers with an interest in history.

As a clergy-type, myself, I particularly appreciated the portrayal of GM Bill Lombardy, a Roman Catholic priest who served as Fischer's "Second" (his chess-training partner).  This character serves well to "interpret" much of the chess "stuff" for the non-chess characters (and the audience).  But I also appreciated the portrayal of a clergyman as a "regular guy", and yet also a man of wisdom.  So often Hollywood portrayals of clergy make us villains or fools.  I appreciated this approach.

Overall I'd recommend "Pawn Sacrifice".  I enjoyed it very much.

Sermon - Mark 9:38-50 - Pentecost 18

Mark 9:38-50
Pentecost 18
“Divine Amputation”

Did you ever use that little phrase, “I'd give an arm and a leg” for something? It means you really, really want something. So bad that you'd even sacrifice an irreplaceable part of the body for it. At least, figuratively. Yogi Berra, who dies this past week, once quipped, “I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous”.

Now, obviously, Jesus doesn't want us to go around cutting of various parts of our body. But his strong words here are meant to jolt us out of a complacency toward sin. He is showing us in strong and certain terms that sin is a deadly serious problem. One that we far too often take far too lightly.

“It's no big deal” we rationalize. “It doesn't hurt anyone else.” “Just this once.” “No one will know.”

Think of the things we say to minimize and justify our sin. Or we try to change the subject or shift the blame. “Who are you to tell me what to do?” “Doesn't the Bible say not to judge?” “Hey, it's not my fault... it's that woman you gave to me.” or “The temptation was too strong. The Devil made me do it.” Maybe your favorite is, “I'm only human” or “Nobody's perfect”. Or if someone harms you, you think you can harm them back – tit for tat – take the law into your own hands.

Jesus would have none of this. For him, sin is a big deal. For the Father, sin is a big deal. He doesn't wink at it or ignore it. He doesn't excuse it or accept your lame excuses. He is a just and fair judge who does what he says, and punishes the guilty. Yes, but that's not the whole story...

Jesus would have us take our sin seriously. Serious as a heart attack. Serious as life and death. For that's what sin always leads to, death, that is its wages. And not just earthly death, but eternal death. Yes, hell is real. Most of what we know about it comes from the lips our Jesus himself. A place of unquenchable fire and everlasting anguish. One way of looking of it is to be “cut off” from God for eternity. And isn't it better to have a hand or foot cut off, than to be cut off from God?
Yes, according to Jesus.

But it doesn't seem like such a good idea to take the advice Jesus gives in our Gospel lesson today, does it? If you hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. And if we did take this word literally we might see a lot of blind and handless and footless people hobbling around. But to extend the principle further, if any part of our body involved in sin is to be destroyed, then there wouldn't be anything left of us. For we are corrupted, thoroughly, through and through.

And sin cuts us off. It cuts us off from God, and it cuts us off from each other. Think about how it is when there's a sin hanging out there between you and a fellow Christian. Instead of peace there's this gulf, a separation, a distance that seems like it cannot be bridged. Sin is what breaks relationships and puts people at enmity with each other. Sin is what creates “us” and “them”. And as Christians, we want no part of that. When your brother sins against you, Jesus says, go show him his fault - with the hopes he will listen and you will be reconciled. When you sin against your brother, confess it, ask for forgiveness, and be reconciled to one another in Christ.

But our real problem, our first problem, is that our sin cuts us off from our God. A holy God is by nature set apart from sin, sinfulness and sinners. We deserve to be cast out from his presence. We deserve to be exiled from paradise like our first parents were from the Garden. Our sinful nature and our own sins cut us off from God.

Our eyes lust and covet. Our hands steal and strike. Our mind is full of twisted thoughts and ideas. Our mouth, as James says, is a wild beast and a raging fire. And even the human heart, which so many hold in such esteem.... follow your heart, do it with all your heart.... Jesus says it is out of the heart that come all sorts of evil desires and thoughts. But who can live without his heart? So are we to die?

Yes. Die with Christ, only to rise with him. Only Christ can save our eyes and hands and feet and hearts. Only Christ can make every unclean, unrighteous member of this fallen human nature clean and holy and righteous.

For his eyes were closed into a death for us. His hands and feet were pierced and pinned to a cross for us. His heart and lips cried out, “Father forgive them”, even as his very life was fleeting. He was cut off by his disciples who ran and scattered like roaches in his hour of darkness. And he himself was cut off entirely – cut off and forsaken by the Father, “O God, why have you forsaken me?” And it was here, in Jesus' moment of deepest suffering that he himself experienced the worm that would not die and the fire that is never quenched. In a mind-bending eternal mystery he suffered hell's torments for all sinners of every place and time. And most importantly, for you.

So by being cut off, he saves us from being cut off. But God would still have the now-forgiven Christian flee from sin. He would still have us take sin seriously, and avoid in all its forms. And when we fail, when we ought to be cut off, to rather bring those sins in confession to the one who cuts them off from us, separates them from us – as far as the east is from the west. A continual cycle of contrition and faith, death and rebirth, repentance and renewal, so that we enter into our eternal rest with him whole and undefiled.

And this happens with salt and fire. Both preserving and purifying agents. Salt and fire here refer to that which God uses, those practical things, to preserve and purify us. It is by his the salt and fire of his Word and Spirit that he does these things. That he calls us and keeps us, that he forgives us and fortifies us.

Paul paints a picture, a grand metaphor of the church – as the body of Christ. Each member has its role to play. Each member needs the other. The eye can't say to the hand, “I don't need you”. The mouth can't do it all by itself. But Christ is the head this body. And by our baptism we are connected to him. If we were cut off from him there would be no life in us. But connected to him we have all the good things we need.

Sin is deathly serious. Its consequences are eternal. But thanks and praise to him who was cut off, so that we are not. For he makes us clean and whole, and connects us to himself and sets us at peace with one another. In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sermon - Mark 9:14-23 - Pentecost 16

Mark 9:14-23
“Help my unbelief”
September 13th, 2015

“You know what your problem is?” Don't you just love it when a conversation starts that way?

It's like, "put up your mental dukes" and get ready for a fight. You're about to be on the receiving end of some criticism, and when it starts that way, it's usually pretty ham-handed and indelicate. You're about to get it from both barrels, guns blazing, no holds barred.

Our Lord Jesus Christ sometimes lets it loose this way, too. When he encountered the boy with the evil spirit, in the midst of an argument between his befuddled disciples, the Jewish scribes and a father at his wit's end. He minces no words.

O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” In other words, “You know what your problem is? You have no faith!”

Today people, even sometimes Christians, speak of faith as if it's a thing in itself. A sort of spiritual quality of people who can remain optimistic under difficult circumstances. When something bad happens to you, we are told, “just have faith”! As if putting on a happy face and thinking it will all be all right means that it will. Faith in nothing is really worth just that... nothing.

If the culture wants us to have faith in anything at all, it's usually in yourself. Believe in yourself. You can do it (whatever it is). How many Barbie movies and Sports motivational posters preach this same idea. But you and I know that we are not worthy of such faith and trust. Maybe when it comes to getting a degree or making the basket you can trust your abilities. But when it comes to spiritual things, it's a different story. If you believe only in yourself, you will soon end up disappointing yourself. For you are not reliable, trustworthy and you can't save yourself from yourself.

But for the Christian, faith has an object, and that object is Jesus Christ. It is the words and promises he speaks to us. It is that to which he directs us, in which he tells us to believe. He is the only one worth trusting because he is the only one with any power at all to help us, forgive us, save us. But his power to do so is not just barely enough, it is far more than all we need.

The Father in this story was exasperated. His poor son was afflicted by the evil spirit since childhood. The problem had gone on for some time. And like many others who came to Jesus for help, he must have tried just about everything else. But even Jesus' disciples, who had been given authority and had even had unclean spirits obey them in Jesus' name – even they hit a brick wall with this evil spirit.

But not Jesus. The father approaches our Lord with his request directly, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

“If you can!” Jesus marvels. “All things are possible for him who believes” And Jesus is back to the faith thing again. Faith is the real issue. Do you believe, or do you not?

And a beautiful prayer follows, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” The prayer of every Christian. The prayer of every imperfect believer who believes in Christ but imperfectly. We do believe, but only by his grace. We do have faith, but only by the working of His Spirit. To the extent that we doubt and struggle, we must repent. To the extent that we fail to trust in Christ for all good things, we are the problem! But the solution isn't just to try harder to believe. The answer isn't the just keep on keepin' on with our doubts and inner turmoil. The prayer of the father shows us well. “I believe, help my unbelief” The solution to unbelief isn't more effort or will on our part. The solution is always Jesus himself. Only he can help.

The evil spirit would throw the boy into water and fire to destroy him. But now he meets the One who baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

The evil spirit who stopped up the ears and paralyzed the tongue would now hear the word spoken by the Son of God, and ears and tongue and sins would be loosed.

The boy's tormentor had left and he fell to the ground as if dead, only to be gently raised up by the One who was tormented to death on a cross and rose from the dead to clear the way to life for us all.

This is not to say that Jesus will personally appear to handle every problem you have in your day-to-day life. This is not to say that he will heal your cancer, make your husband come back, get you a job, or help you find a girlfriend. He doesn't promise to take away your stress or turn enemies into friends or make your children behave, or even your mother-in-law.

But he does better than all of that. He dies for your sins. He rises for your life. He makes you his own, makes you holy and righteous. He goes to prepare a place for you, and someday he'll come back to take you with him. Then he will wipe every tear from your eye. Then you will live free of sin forever.

All this he promises in his word. And all this he sends his Spirit to give you the faith to believe it.

And yet, still we struggle. Still we doubt. Still we find that Christianity isn't easy-peezy lemon-squeezy. And if your Christianity is that way, my friend, you're doing it wrong.

How often does Paul attest to the struggles within himself – and he an apostle with visions and direct revelations from Christ! Yet he couldn't do the good he wanted, and he did the evil he despised. You and I modern Christians are no different. Sin comes so easy, but faithfulness is hard.

This is another aspect of being both sinner and saint simultaneously. We want to do good but don't. We want to stop sinning but we don't. We want to believe, but we still have unbelief. We are both new creation and fallen sinner, New Adam and Old Adam at odds in one person.

Lord I believe, help my unbelief! It acknowledges both the faith that has been given, and the continuing need for the Savior. This truly is the prayer of every Christian.

Yes, we are baptized, and in baptism our old nature was drowned. But as one theologian has quipped, the Old Adam has proven to be a good swimmer. And so Luther would teach that in baptism the Old Adam is daily... daily drowned and dies with all sinful desires. And the new man arises from the waters to live in faith. This is the way it goes for us – repentance and renewal – our very way of life.

Likewise we come in faith to the altar, to receive him who can help us, him for whom all things are possible. We are not worthy in ourselves to receive him, but by faith in these words, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins”. We believe it is even possible for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to be present with us under these humble forms of bread and wine. We believe that he comes to us today with salvation. We believe, Lord, but help our unbelief. And this sacrament is given to strengthen and preserve you, and your faith, to life everlasting.

And then think of another way he helps our unbelief – through the hearing of the Word. Faith comes by hearing. But that doesn't mean faith comes only once. When we hear the word of God – proclaimed, taught, even in our private family devotions – the Spirit is active and faith is strengthened.

The Law cuts us down, and the Gospel raises us up – like the Savior took the hand of the boy freed from the demon – they thought he was dead. Jesus restores sinners, blind, deaf, mute, even dead. And he can certainly restore you. He will certainly help you. All things are possible for those that believe – in him. And he who his faithful will do it.

Hebrews tells us Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. Not only does he establish it, but he also strengthens it, and he brings it to completion. What better reason do we need to fix our eyes upon him and pray, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief”.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Good Works Uncertainty Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Sermon - John 6:35-51 - Pentecost 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 03, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 10 - John 6:22-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

5 Ways we Find Christ in the Old Testament

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

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

But how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For further study: