Monday, April 06, 2020

Sermon - Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion - Matthew 27:38-66

And so we come to it, the cross.  This Sunday is not only Palm Sunday, but the Sunday of the Passion.  It is the last Sunday before Easter.  It begins Holy Week.  Our solemn remembrance of Christ’s passion – his suffering, his crucifixion, and his death.  The Gospel reading today from St. Matthew takes us to the cross.  There we stand, virtually, through the Word of God, at the foot of the cross.  There we see Jesus and all that happened to him.  We become witnesses, through the Evangelist, of the darkest day, the day of God’s wrath, the day in which creation itself mourned the death of God’s Son.  But also a very necessary day for our salvation. 

Today I’d like to walk us through this text, and hold up various moments and details, many of which are worthy of a sermon in their own right.  Consider with me, St. Matthew, and all Christians everywhere, as we go to the cross with Jesus.

First, consider that Jesus is crucified between two thieves.  Numbered with transgressors.  Now of course this fulfills the prophecy of Scripture.  But there is more here.  From his very incarnation, the Holy Son of God is numbered with transgressors.  In taking on human flesh, he makes himself one of us, though he himself had no sin.  In his baptism, he does the same, now publicly, baptized to fulfill all righteousness, though he had no sins of his own to wash away.  Now, he hangs on a cross, condemned for crimes he did not commit, and for supposed blasphemy and sedition, and for who knows what trumped up reasons.  But he is numbered with sinners for God’s highest purpose, to take the place of sinners under God’s wrath.  To save sinners from themselves, from death and devil.  That cross is your cross, sinner.  And Jesus takes your place.  So that you, forgiven by his blood, take a new place at his side in life and in glory.

And speaking of blasphemy, that’s another thing that happens here.  But it’s not Jesus – it’s his enemies.  They mock and deride him by their foul words.  Wagging their heads and tongues at him.  Sneering and chiding.  Just look who joins in the jeering:  those who passed by, also the chief priests, the soldiers who stood watch, and even the criminals who hung beside him.  It’s as if the whole world is united in the devlish revelry.  There is no veneer of polite pleasantry.  There is no sham sympathy for a dying man, or even common decency.  The gloves have come off.  The true wicked nature is revealed.  The world is united against the Son of God.  The devil has his day.

But those enemies of Christ stand in for all the enemies of God.  All of us who bear the sin of Adam and the forked tongue of a sinful nature – we have spoken ill.  Our own mouths have mocked and derided the Holy One in various ways.  We are just as guilty.

But Jesus rather offers kind words.  He utters saving words.  He brings promises and forgiveness even to those who ridiculed him then, and speak foul things now.  His word is a better word.  His word of grace has the last word.

And at the sixth hour darkness falls, until the night hour.  From noon to three.  Some churches mark this on Good Friday with a 3 hour service called a Tre Ore.  Jesus marked it by crying out with the words of Psalm 22, acknowledging the sheer agony he faced.  The worst of it wasn’t the nails, the thorns, the mockery or shame.  It was being forsaken by his Father.  This is the true suffering of the cross.  Bearing the sins of the world.  Enduring the scorn of Holy God.  That he who knew no sin was made to be sin for us.  The object of all punishment, wrath, and condemnation.  A spiritual reality we cannot even fathom.  A depth of sorrow, by God’s grace, we will never know.  Oh, dearest, dearest Jesus who did this for us.

They filled a sponge with some sour wine and gave it to him (for he had said, “I thirst”) and he wet his tongue for one final declaration, “it is finished” and then to commended his spirit to the hands of the Father.  And the Lord of life died.

This had no small effect.

The temple, that focal point of Israel, of Jerusalem, really of the world – the place God had promised to dwell in his Holy of Holies – something quite strange happens. The curtain is torn in two.  The curtain – that thick fabric barrier that separated the Holy and gracious presence of God from anyone but the High Priest – and then only once a year – the curtain that stood for the separation between Holy God and his now unholy and fallen people, the curtain is torn in two.  The veil of separation rent asunder.  The priests standing in the temple must have gasped and fainted at the sight.  But to us the meaning is clear. The separation of God and man is no more.  At the death of Jesus, God tears the curtain – it was torn from the top down, you see.  At the death of Jesus, God is accessible to his people again, even heaven itself is re-opened. 

The creation itself also reacts.  The sun had already darkened.  Now the earth quaked and rocks split.  An earth-shattering something had just taken place, and even terra firma gave witness.  This is a foretaste of the final destruction of creation that will happen when Jesus comes at the end of time.  But the cross has now guaranteed it.

Similarly, we get a foretaste of the resurrection with this strange detail – that the graves of many holy people opened up, that their bodies were raised, and that after Christ’s resurrection they also appeared to many in Jerusalem.  Another preview of something greater to come – when all the dead in Christ are one day raised – when all of us will appear before him, as he appears in the flesh before us.  And the cross has now guaranteed it.

The effects of the cross ripple through space and time, forward and back, touching all people of all times and places.  The cross is the crux of all history, the focal point of Divine justice and mercy, the most important, most central event for all and forever – and for you.  He did it for you, dear child of God.

And not all mocked and jeered Christ’s death.  The centurion gave witness, perhaps in spite of himself, that this man truly was the Son of God.  Powerful words from a pagan.  Perhaps even repentant words from one who had a hand in what just happened.  But the cross of Jesus can do that too, bring sinners to repentance.

And not all the Jews mocked Jesus either.  Finally Joseph and Nicodemus came and showed honor to the body of Christ.  They anointed him and buried him with respect.  It took courage so to do.  And these two wise Jewish leaders who brought him gifts of honor, in a way parallel the visit of the wise men, who also brought fragrant gifts to Jesus.  At his birth, and at his death, honored and recognized by the wise.  So we do well to honor Christ, and recognize him by faith, from our own cradle, to our own grave.

The two Marys witnessed the burial.  Here is an important detail.  They knew exactly where Jesus was.  They knew the grave.  They saw the stone.  This sets the stage.  For these women will return to the tomb on Sunday to finish the burial customs.  And what a joyous surprise they will find.  They will become witnesses even to the apostles, that the Jesus who died is alive.

To further set up the great cliff-hanger of history, the Jews pay Jesus one final insult.  They ask Pilate for guards to secure the tomb.  They heard Jesus well enough to know the promise of the resurrection, and they feared it.  The bitter irony of their own self-deception that shut their hearts more tightly than that sealed grave.  They rejected who Jesus was and what he said he would do.  It wasn’t that they didn’t hear or understand him, they didn’t believe him.

But you and I know different.  Jesus is who he says he is, and he does what he says he will do.  None of this suffering and crucifixion, nasty business as it was, should have surprised anyone.  For Jesus had told them it was coming.  The gospels say he spoke of it plainly, and repeatedly.  And Jesus also spoke as plainly about his resurrection on the third day, for which we now wait to celebrate with bated breath.

It may be, that for a time, friends, our churches are as locked and sealed to us as that borrowed tomb.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t be with Jesus.  It doesn’t separate us from his cross. It may feel as if the guards are on watch, keeping us at bay.  But Jesus will not be deterred or held back, by a stone, by Roman guards, or even by death itself.  For your life he has destroyed death.  And by his life, he brings life and immortality to light.  So even the crosses of this life, which we bear as we follow him, are only temporary, they are all passing, and there’s life on the horizon for you and me, too.
His words are always true.  And his promise to be with you always, even to the end of the age, transcends the boundaries of time and space and quarantine. 

In the Name of Jesus.  Amen.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Sermon - Lent Midweek 6 - The Lord's Supper

Lent Midweek 6
The Lord's Supper
"Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Savior" (LSB 627)

The final Chief Part of the Catechism, and also of our Lenten Midweek Series, is the Lord’s Supper.  It’s fitting that Luther orders the Supper as the final section of the Catechism, as it is the climax of the Divine Service – when Christians gather regularly, the high point and crescendo of our meeting is the receiving of this precious gift of Christ’s body and blood.  It is a gift we prepare to receive, as unlike Holy Baptism, it requires some instruction and examination.  So it is our tradition to mark the first reception of this Sacrament with a solemn rite – confirmation – and also typically with great celebration and joy.

Luther’s catechism sets forth for us, in a simple yet comprehensive way, what Scripture itself teaches us concerning this gift.  What is it?  What are its benefits?  Where does its power come from?  And who receives it worthily?  At one time or another, we all learn these questions and their answers and explanations from Scripture.  But just that much still doesn’t exhaust the mystery that is the Lord’s Supper, nor does it teach us all we can know of it or fully express what can be said about it.

In many ways, the Lord’s Supper is like a masterpiece painting.  We can know a great deal about it, and yet still our appreciation for it can grow – even over a lifetime.  We can find new meaning and depth in it, new and precious appreciation for the application of this gift in our lives.  What it is doesn’t change.  What it offers stays the same.  But as we grow in our faith, and ever more rooted in the Word of God, we draw ever more strength from it for the living of these days.

And so in addition to the Catechism, Luther also uses hymnody to teach us about the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.  Tonight we consider his hymn, which we sung a few moments ago, “Jesus Christ, our Blessed Savior”.

This hymn actually did not originate with Luther.  It was first written about a hundred years before, by Luther’s predecessor and early reformer John Huss.  Huss taught many of the same teachings as Luther, and objected to much of what Luther found at fault in the Roman Catholic church.  But Huss was burned at the stake as a heretic.  Had some things been different for Luther, he might have faced the same.

But even the words of John Huss, which extolled and adored the sacrament, were not quite up to snuff for Luther.  He revised and improved it, to reflect the fullness of Reformation teaching about the Supper.  For instance, In Huss’s Latin hymn, he speaks only of the bread.  But Luther restores to the hymn the recognition that Jesus gave both bread and wine, body and blood. Luther also include the language about faith as a proper preparation for the Sacrament, and that its effect on the Christian life is sanctified living.

He touches on every major aspect of the Catechism on this topic:

In verse one, we summarize the work of Christ, our blessed Savior.  He turns away God’s wrath and by his bitter grief and woe, that is, the cross, saves us from the evil foe.  The blessings of the Lord’s Supper flow from this, the cross.  Christ’s body and blood that we receive are his body and blood given and shed – at the cross.  They are the fruits of the cross, the new tree of life for our salvation.  You can’t have Holy Communion without the cross.

Verse two simply states what Christ supplies us in this meal – as a pledge of love undying.  His body with the bread, and with the wine the blood he shed.

Verse three reminds us that the most important preparation for the sacrament is faith itself.  Just as we learn in the Catechism, “who receives this sacrament worthily?”  “He is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words:  given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”.  It’s not fasting or some other outward, bodily training.  It’s not any sort of spiritual discipline that makes for proper preparation.  It’s faith, and faith alone.

Someone once remarked to me that they weren’t taking communion today, because they had sinned too much during the week.  Oh, but that’s not the standard.  The real question is this.  Do you believe what Jesus says here:  1, that this is his body and blood, 2, that it’s for you, and 3, that it’s for the forgiveness of your sins?  The do also what he says – take and eat, take and drink.
Verse 4 recognizes the Father’s role in this – chiefly that he sent his Son.  Just as an earthly father provides food for his family, so the Heavenly Father feeds his children with food from heaven – his own dear Son.

Verse 5 reminds us that the Sacrament is for the sick, not the healthy.  It is a balm and medicine for sin, not a reward for the good and holy.  It brings peace and comfort to hearts that long for rest. 
Verse 6 is a warning to stay away if you think you don’t need Jesus – who paid the high cost of this food by his “agony and bitter labor”.  But verse 7 invites those who themselves labor and are sick to come to Jesus – paraphrasing the words of Christ’s own invitation that he came for the sick, not the healthy.

Verse 8 continues in the voice of Jesus, asking rhetorically, “what purpose was my dying, if not for your justifying?  And what use this precious food if you yourself were pure and good?”  An interesting way to challenge the potentially prideful by challenging the common assumption that man can save himself.

Verse 9 reiterates the general promise of blessing for all sinners who come to this banquet.
And verse 10 reminds us that this sacrament has one more added blessing- the strengthening of our faith for Christian living.  That our faith may grow and live in love for neighbor.  That we may carry that love we have received from God into our lives. 

And now permit me a few words about the Sacrament for us, in our current situation.
I think we all long for the end of this pestilence and time of isolation for many reasons.  For one, we are concerned about the health and well being of ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and really all people.  Christians recognize disease and suffering are part of this sinful world, and we long for the day when all of it, including death itself, never worry us again.  But that day won’t come until Christ returns to judge the living and the dead.

We look forward to the ending of our time of separation from work, school, from stores and usual activities.  We want a return to normal routines.  We want our economy to recover.  We want everything to be ok.  And so we pray fervently.

And we also want our church back.  We miss our church family, and the blessing of gathering together to receive the gifts of God.  And we miss the Sacrament.  For we can receive the word in an alternate way, read it on our own, tune in to a live stream service, or sing and pray with the family around the dinner table.  But gathering around the Lord’s table, in his house, with our congregation of saints at Messiah – we must forgo this for a time.

During this time of imposed fasting from the Sacrament, we pray God would draw us nearer to him.  May we grow in our appreciation of the means of grace we do have – our Baptism, and his Word.
One pastor put it this way, "We are learning that we do not live by bread, or even The Bread, alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. God is prodigal with His Word, and He speaks to us in many ways – Baptism, Scripture, preaching, Absolution, Supper, and the conversation of believers. Though we may be without one form, we are never without the Word."

“The Lord sustained Daniel and the Israellites in their seventy years of Babylonian exile, and He will sustain us in the same way – by His Word and the gift of prayer. Even if we never again gather in this life around Word and Supper, we know that our scattering ends in a final great gathering of the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end.”1

And yes, we will return to the feast.  Pray that it may come soon.  For it is a good thing to desire the gifts that God gives.  And perhaps this time away will make us treasure even more deeply the precious body and blood of Christ, our Blessed Savior when we gather to receive him again.   


Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Sermon - Lent 5 - Ezekiel 37:1-14

Lent 5
Ezekiel 37:1-14
“Can these bones live?”

Lent is a good time to think about death. As good a time as any. Especially under the current cloud of Coronavirus news – many of us are closely watching the death counts in every country rise by the day.  It’s an ominous picture.

Death is a reality every man must face sooner or later. A topic we like to put away, out of our sight, far from our minds. Try as we might.  But all the denial in the world won’t stop death from smacking you in the face.  All the doctoring and supplements and diet and exercise.  All the good clean living, good genetics, or whatever someone’s secret to long life might be.  None of it can stop death – we can maybe only delay it for a while.  If that.  Death is universal and unavoidable... like, well, death and taxes. No matter how we try to get out of it.

For us Christians, in some ways it's the same, and in some ways it's different. Death is still an enemy. It still brings tears, even to the eyes of Jesus at the grave of Lazarus. Death is a separation from loved ones. And it is the great leveler of all men – after all, whatever wealth you have in this life, you can't take it with you.  We are not immune to much of death and it’s bitterness.

But death for Christians is not the worst thing that can happen. For Christians, like Lazarus, there is Jesus with the answer to death. For us, death is not the end, nor is it to be feared. “Where, oh death, is thy sting?” we say at the grave of our loved ones. Indeed, it is through death - his own death - that Jesus brings salvation, and through his resurrection that he brings life. And so we grieve death, but not without hope.

Today we have Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones.  And what this vision shows is really hopelessness turned into hope. It shows us the power of the word. And it points us toward the Christ, whose death destroys death and who will resurrect his people to eternal life.

Ezekiel’s role was to preach to a people of Israel who must have felt without hope. They had lost the battle for Jerusalem. They were removed from their homeland, and living in exile. The temple had been destroyed. It must have seemed hopeless. As a nation, they were as good as dead. As God’s chosen people – it seemed pretty hopeless that God would still keep his promises – for them to prosper, and live in that land, and especially that the seed of Abraham would bless all nations.

Ezekiel must have had a hard time preaching and teaching those hopeless people. But as God shows Ezekiel the vision of the dry bones, and Ezekiel retells the story – we see that even the most hopeless situation is not beyond the power of our God in Jesus Christ, who speaks his powerful word, and whose spirit brings life to the dead.

Take a look at that valley with Ezekiel. Imagine in your own mind what it looked like.  A vast army of dead, very dead people. Not freshly slain soldiers, among whom you might find some living but injured survivors. You see that in the movies after a great battle – usually there’s a few moaning and groggy soldiers left on the field, injured, but still clinging to life.  But not on this battlefield.  There are no survivors.  No they are quite dead. Not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. Dead and decayed, just bones left, and dry ones at that. Bones that have been out in the heat of the sun for days, maybe months or years.  Hope has long passed.  They are not even close to alive.

Kind of like you, in your sins. In fact, just like you, in your sins. Sometimes visions like this paint an even truer picture of reality than our eyes do. Just like the Israelites of Ezekiel's day were a hopeless and defeated nation with no life left in them, exiled to Babylon, powerless, hopeless, as good as dead. So are you, and so is every sinner, who may look alive but is very much dead in sin.

That valley of dry bones is the human condition apart from God. Just as dead and hopeless. Just as far from life and breath as anything. Might as well be a rock or some dirt. Your everyday experience tells you you're alive and just fine. But God's word shows the true reality. Sin brings death. It clings to us. It infects every part of us. We are dead men and women walking. Because we are sinners who sin daily and sin much. And no matter how hard the skeleton tries, it can't come to life. No matter how hard, you, the sinner, try, you can't come to life. What we need is a miracle. A divine intervention.
And God is in the business of doing just that. From death he brings life. From the cross, first and foremost. There in the hopeless, helpless, death of Jesus on the cross, he brings help and hope and life to all people. There in the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus dies to bring the light that chases away death forever. And as his dead flesh would rise to life again, so does he bring life to dead sinners who die in him.

Ezekiel's vision wasn't without hope, because he had God's word. The prophet spoke, by God's command and promise, to the wind, that is, the Spirit. Who came and brought life to those lifeless bones. Just as the pastor speaks the word of God to lifeless sinners, and the Spirit works through that word to bring life to you again. The valley of dry bones is a vision of how God works in all times and places, bringing life to the dead, through word and spirit, because of the life from the dead won by his Son at the cross.

As pastors, we could look out on you, the people in our care, and see a pile of bones – sinners who are hopeless and struggling with all their own faults and failings, grieved by the sorrows of living in a world where death reigns. You tell us your troubles, and we listen.  We visit you when we can.  We pray for you.  But usually can't do anything much about it. It's like Ezekiel looking at a femur and a skull. The troubles can be so much. And I am just a man.

But the pastor has one thing for you, and it is enough. Not a man's word, but Christ's. So now hear this, you dried up and dried out dead people: Jesus Christ has died and Jesus Christ lives and Jesus Christ promises you new life. So hear the Gospel, now, and live! Hear the life-giving word of the Spirit, who creates life where there was only death. Hear the life-renewing hope and the sin-forgiving declaration. You are not dead. You are not lost. You are forgiven. You are in Christ, and Christ is alive. So, too, do you live through him!

You are baptized. There you first rose from the death of sin to new life in Christ. And one day your flesh will die, only to rise again because of the promise of Christ, who is the resurrection and the life! The fanciful picture of dry bones coming back together, and breathing the breath of life again – is not so fanciful compared to the promise of the last day. That at the trumpet call of God the dead in Christ will rise and meet him face to face, in a glorified body, and see him as he is, being like him. The same Jesus who raised Lazarus, the same Jesus who himself broke the bonds of death, is the same Jesus who will call you forth from the very dust – to live forever in the kingdom to come.  This is our hope. This is our destiny.

We may not know what tomorrow or next week’s news headlines will bring.  We can’t predict when the quarantine will be lifted and when or if things will get back to normal.  There is so little we actually know, so few questions we can answer with certainty.  But here are few we can:
“Son of man, can these bones live?” Yes. Can Christ conquer death and live? Yes. Can he, does he, promise the same for you? Yes. So believe it, and live in him, who is the resurrection and the life. Amen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Sermon - Lent Midweek 5 - Holy Baptism

Holy Baptism
Matthew 28:16-20
“To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord” (LSB 407)

We’ve been considering, during this midweek series, the Small Catechism of Martin Luther along with some of his “catechism hymns”.  Luther wrote many hymns, hymn texts, hymn tunes and updated old tunes to align their theology with Scripture.  He wrote hymns for his German Mass – to take the place of the Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, etc.  He wrote hymns that were metrical paraphrases of the Psalms.  And he also wrote hymns specifically to teach the doctrine of the Catechism – and this one is one of those.  It bore an original heading, “A spiritual song of our Holy Baptism, which is a fine summary of what it is, who established it, and what its benefits are”  Luther involved many others in his production of hymns, poets, theologians and musicians, and none more prominent than Johan Sebastian Bach. 

This particular hymn was written late in Luther’s career, sometime in 1540 or 1541, in conjunction with a couple of sermons on the topic of Holy Baptism.  But it wasn’t until 1962 that it was translated into English and heard on the radio – as part of the Lutheran Hour program.  Then, in 2004 a new tune was written to go with it – the tune our congregation has become familiar with.  So we have quite a little history wrapped up in this little hymn.

But beyond that, just on its own terms, the hymn is an excellent sermon on the doctrine of Baptism. 
Verse 1 tells us about Christ’s baptism, which Luther then uses as a springboard to teach about our own baptism.  Jesus comes to baptism to do his Father’s will, or pleasure.  In His baptism, Jesus the “Father’s Word” is given us to treasure.  It is, as it were, his ordination as Messiah – God sets him aside as the one appointed to do his will – the one Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.  Luther doesn’t wait till verse two, but immediately connects Jesus’ baptism to the cross.  Of course, Jesus does the same when he tells James and John that he indeed has a cup to drink and a baptism to undergo.  Luther refers to it this way: “And by his blood and agony release from death’s oppression”
You see, Jesus’ baptism is part and parcel of his death on the cross.  They go together.  They may be separated by three years but they are all bound up together and inseparable, indivisible.  But so too is Jesus’ baptism and your baptism.  And so too therefore, Jesus’ cross and your baptism.  Paul says, “we were buried with Christ, by baptism, into death”.  These waters run deep, and drip with blessings.

Verse 2 begins rehearsing the main teachings of the Catechism about Holy Baptism.  Here we have the question, “What is baptism?” which Luther answers, “[it’s] not just plain water, but the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word”  or sung in the hymn, “Our Lord here with His Word endows pure water freely flowing”.  It is the word of God that makes baptism baptism.  It’s not some power of the pastor, or magic incantation.  It’s not some special process our mystical ritual done to the water.  But rather the word takes center stage, and the promises that word holds out to us in baptism.  It is Christ’ own charge to “Go and make disciples of all nations… baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  And here, in baptism, the Holy Spirit our kinship here avows.  That is, baptized into the name of God, we are incorporated into him, made one with him, as close as family.

Verse 3 and 4 return to Jesus’ baptism and the voice of the Father which commands and invites our trust in Christ, and in the word he has spoken.  The Trine God was present that day and on full display – the Father’s voice, the Spirit’s descent, the Son standing in the water.  So, also in our baptism, we receive the name of the Trine God “assuring us with promises compelling”.

Verse 5 re-tells the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28, the chief passage in the New Testament concerning baptism (also my own confirmation verse).  There Jesus commands the 12, as they go, to make disciples of all nations.  And the making of disciples has two verbs – to things to do – baptize and teach.  Here Luther also shows that baptism incorporates repentance – that is that we would “abandon sin and come in true contrition”.  In the catechism he expounds that baptism, for the Christian, is a daily event, drowning the Old Adam by repentance and faith. 

Baptism is, in this way, very much what the Christian life is all about.  A daily renewal, an ongoing cycle of sin and grace, law and gospel, repentance and forgiveness. 

Verse 6 is a stern warning that Baptism is a gift that can be thrown away, cast aside.  Just as faith itself can be.  Apart from the grace of God, the gifts of God – given in Word and Sacrament. People, of course, try to do this – through works (that must fail), through striving, that can’t succeed, and by pious acts that may look very religious on the outside, but have no power to save.  There is no other way of salvation than that comes by the blood of Christ, the gift of God’s free grace, and all that comes to us, through the waters of baptism.  With Christ we have everything.  Apart from Christ we have nothing, and worse.

And verse 7 shows us that Baptism hold far more gifts and blessings than the eye can see.  Only the perception of faith can unfold the power of baptism.  It is the power of Jesus blood – that brings healing to all our ills.  It reveals the love of God, and assures us of pardon. 

We can hardly say enough about the blessed gift of Holy Baptism.  We can scarcely do it justice.  We can sing of it, teach it to our children, confess it, and live it.  We can remember this divine flood of blessings every day. 

And what a better reminder of it than that common everyday thing – water.  Luther said, “when you wash your face, remember your baptism”.  In these days of everyone trying to stay clear of a nasty virus, washing our hands perhaps like never before – what a good time to remember your baptism!  With every squirt of hand sanitizer (if you still have any), why not give thanks for the sanitization of our soul?  With every trip to the sink to wash your hands – why not sing a hymn, say the Lord’s Prayer, and give thanks to the one who has saved us through the waters. 

Dear Christian, you are baptized.  Your baptism connects you with Jesus, who by his baptism united himself with you.  And if we have been united in baptism, then we are also united with him in a death like his, and we will also be united with him in a resurrection like his.  Yes, baptism is the seal that marks you as one destined for resurrection, and life in heaven forever.

All that, packed into a little water and some simple but powerful words. 

As we inch ever closer to Holy Week and Easter, we consider all that Christ has done for us.  How he suffered and died for the sins of the world.  Of course that includes you and me, and all people.  But in Holy Baptism, he gets personal.  He calls you by name, and makes you his own, and bestows a flood of blessings.  Thanks be to God that you and I are baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Sermon - Lent 4 - Ephesians 5:8-14

“Darkness and Light”
Ephesians 5:8-14

All of our readings today deal with, one way or another, the topics of darkness and light.  In the Gospel reading, Jesus heals a man born blind.  In the Old Testament, God speaks of what Israel (as a people) are blind to see.  And Paul’s words to the Ephesians this morning speak of darkness and light – and what is visible and exposed by the light.  This morning, we’ll focus especially on the reading from Ephesians.  But first some broader comments.

Darkness and Light are two of the most important and most universal pictures in Holy Scripture.  They are experiences common to us all.  So much of what God’s Word teaches us uses familiar and everyday examples – things like family, food, water, and agriculture.  They are conditions so much a part of our everyday life that we hardly think much of them.  And yet, even with all our modern science, there are many things about light that are still mysterious.  The speed of light is a barrier that physics says cannot be broken.  Light acts as a wave or as particles, depending on whether it’s being observed.  There’s a host of puzzling properties and questions that quantum physics has raised concerning light – that still remain to be unraveled.  Still, light is something so common and everyday that we all basically understand how it works, and why it’s important.

Darkness is, in a way, the default.  We could see nothing without light.  In the darkness, we’d be lost.  We’d be fumbling around without information about our surroundings.  We couldn’t make use of our eyes, our vision.  Without light, we would be effectively blind – like the man Jesus healed in our Gospel reading. 

For us, especially as children, darkness is a place of fear.  It represents the unknown, and the place where unsavory and fearful things lurk.  Many of us, even lately, have used darkness as a metaphor for the unusual times we are living through – and at least for now, the near future seems a bit clouded in darkness.  How much longer before we can get back to normal?  Just how bad will the disease turn out to be?  Dark times, indeed.  Lord, have mercy.

Darkness and light take us back to the beginning, the very beginning, when in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was formless and void.  It was dark.  And God said, “Let there be light”.  The very first words God spoke are words of creation – and words that created light.  God then went on, during that week to both separate the light and the darkness, and to create great lights to govern the day and the night, and also the stars.  And by the way, what a testament to God’s almighty power, that the creation of the stars – in all their countless numbers and unfathomable variety and order – all God created, and Genesis mentions it with but 4 words – “and also the stars”.

Light continues to be an important gift from God throughout the Scriptures.  Think about the pillar of fire by night – in which God made his presence known among the people.  The golden lampstands of the tabernacle.  The Sun standing still to extend the daylight so the Israelite army could defeat their enemies.  Or in the New Testament – the light from the Star of Bethlehem, or the light that shone from Jesus at the Transfiguration.  We could go on and on.

But more than that, light stands as a symbol and reminder of the true light that God bestows through his Holy Spirit.  The One who calls, gathers and en-LIGHT-ens.  The one who shines the spotlight on Jesus, by setting before us the Gospel light.

Here we pick up St. Paul in the Epistle reading today – who works these metaphors some more.  He says, “at one time you were darkness”.

Not you were sitting in the darkness (though we could say that too).  Not you were under the cloud of darkness.  Not you were alone in the dark of your sins.  You WERE darkness.  It’s emphatic language.  In this one little phrase Paul expresses just how deep our condition of sin really is, or was, rather, before Christ saved us.  Each of us is conceived and born into that darkness, and just as much a part of it as the rest of the sinful fallen world.  Each of us can do no good, claim no righteousness or merit.  Of our own devices we don’t have a glimmer of hope or a ray of light to offer. 

But in the same breath Paul throws open the sash on the gospel.  You were once darkness, but you now are light in the Lord.  The same strong metaphor holds.  If you are in the Lord.  If you are in Christ Jesus.  You are light.  You’re not just en-light-ened.  You’re not just able to see, eyes-wide open. You’re actually light – so closely identified with the Lord himself who is the source of that light.  And for sure, that’s how God sees you – in Christ.

That light dawns on the world in the Son of God made flesh and born in Bethlehem.  The light shines in the darkness, though the darkness has not understood it, John’s Gospel puts it.  But then, on those who sat in darkness, a light dawned.  In the land of darkness, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, a light has dawned.  That’s the region of Galilee.  Jesus made his public appearance, and was hailed by John the Baptist. 

He preached and taught for three years until the time was right, until the hour of the power of darkness, until he was betrayed, arrested, mocked, beaten, tried, convicted, condemned, and crucified.  That dark day was the darkest of them all, as even the sun’s light failed and darkness reigned for a time.  God’s own Son died in bitter agony at the hands of wicked men, alone but for the helpless few onlookers and the criminals condemned beside him.  And Jesus gave up his Spirit.

They hastily buried him in a borrowed tomb and sealed it shut – leaving his cold clay in the darkness of the grave, thinking they’d seen the last of him.  It seemed the darkness had won.

But then the bright beams of Easter dawn burst forth.  Then the Jesus who died broke the bonds of death, as easily as light scatters darkness.  He brought life and immortality to light – for you and me and for all who are in him.  Now our future is bright.  Now our destiny is in glory.  And one day, when we join him in that heavenly kingdom, we will no longer need a lamp or sun, for there will be no night there, and God himself will be in our midst and be our light.

We were darkness, but now we are light in the Lord.  And we have the gospel of Jesus to enlighten us to faith and life in him.  Paul also encourages the Ephesians, and all Christians thereby, to bear the fruit of light.  That is, all that is good and right and true.  Stay away from the darkness – don’t return to it.  That’s the place where sin lurks and hides.  But rather, live in the light, be of the light.  Let the dark deeds of sin be exposed by your confession of it, and God’s absolution will scatter them all away.  Let your fear of death and grave be blasted away by the light of the Gospel which bathes even the darkest corners of fear in the love of Christ Jesus. 

And then this last little encouragement from Paul:

 “Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

We don’t know exactly what he’s quoting here, but it has been suggested it’s perhaps from an early baptismal hymn.  Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead!  That’s just what has happened to us in our baptism.  God rouses us from the sleepy death of sinfulness to the bright morning of faith – even brought to new life in those blessed waters.  This is the first resurrection.  And those same words will apply again, when on the last day, the trumpet call of God and the shout of the archangel accompany Christ’s own command for us to rise from our graves, and join him in life eternal.  This is the second resurrection. This is the shining of Christ on you.

Dear friends, I encourage you again, to fear not in these times of darkness.  Do not fear this disease, for even if the pestilence takes you and your loved ones, we have a hope beyond death.  Do not fear the darkness of uncertainty, for we have all the certainty we need in Jesus Christ.  Do not fear the wrath of God as punishment for your sins, for though he allows troubles to come, he also promises to see us through them and be with us every step of the way.  No matter how dark the days get, the dawn is promised.  The light will come, for it already has, in Christ our Lord.  Now be the light he has made you to be, and bear the fruit of light, in all that is good and right and true. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Sermon - Midweek Lent 4 - The Lord's Prayer

Midweek Lent Vespers
"The Lord's Prayer"

And so we come to the third Chief Part of the Catechism, the Lord’s Prayer.

It’s a good time to talk about prayer.  It seems a very widespread reaction, amongst God’s people, and even in our culture at large – in times of peril and tragedy, uncertainty and crisis – that most people’s impulse is to pray.  Even our president declared last Sunday a national day of prayer, for whatever that is worth.

For Christians, especially, it seems these troubled times are a good excuse to do what we ought to be doing anyway – pray fervently.  And so we have, and so we will continue to do.

But often, people who mean well to pray, express a frustration with it – that we don’t pray as we know we should.  That we don’t pray as often, as fervently, or for the right things.  In times of uncertainty we may not know exactly what the best prayer is.  For instance, a loved one who is suffering greatly with what appears to be a terminal illness.  Christians have asked me, “Is it ok for me to pray that God would take my loved one and end their suffering?  Or should I be praying that they would be healed and stay with us on earth?”  Or how about the person who struggles with anger and hurt at some injustice done to them.  Do they pray for justice, or mercy for the wrongdoer?

We are sinners, after all, and why shouldn’t sin infect every aspect of our life, including our prayer life?  Why should we expect, corrupt as we are, to know how to pray, what to pray for, or really any of what is best for ourselves and others?

What a blessing it is that our Lord Jesus Christ himself teaches us to pray.  What better teacher for our prayers could we have?  What better, more perfect prayer could we think of than one composed by the Son of God himself? Far better than any heart-felt words or well-meaning prayer we could concoct by our own devices, these 7 petitions sum up the entirety of our faith and teach us so much about the God to whom we pray it.

It is a model prayer – showing us “how” to pray, both in its structure and priority and also by its content.  It is a prayer that seeks first the things of God, his Name, his kingdom and his will… before turning to ask for the things we personally need:  daily bread, forgiveness, and protection from evil.  And in this way is very similar in structure to the Ten Commandments – which teach us first to love God, and then on the second table, to love our neighbor.

And even the introduction to this wonderful prayer holds out a precious promise for us – when Jesus tells us to call upon God as our Father!  We should consider ourselves God’s children, and ask him for what we need – just as an earthly child asks an earthly father for his needs.  We might think of Jesus remarks, “if you then, though you are evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more then… will your Father in heaven give you good things?”

I’m reminded of a story an old pastor once told about his son who had a toy truck with a broken wheel.  The son left the truck on his father’s garage work bench with a note, “Dad, can you fis dis?” So the Christian comes in faith to our Father in heaven, not knowing when our how, but trusting the goodness of our Father to hear and answer.  Believing that he knows best, and will do what he knows is for our good.

Luther’s hymn on the Lord’s Prayer is also an excellent instructional tool.  It both paraphrases and expounds on the Lord’s prayer.  Each stanza is built around a single petition, and echoes the teachings of the Small Catechism:

Verse one reminds us that God is “our” Father, and that makes us Christians a family, that we should pray in unity.

Verse two shows that God’s name be kept holy by teaching his Word, and includes the prayer that God keep us safe from false teaching. 

Verse three we pray that the kingdom would come by the work of the Holy Spirit.  As in the catechism, “God’s kingdom comes when he breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature.” For these spiritual enemies are opposed to God and don’t want his name hallowed, or his kingdom to come.  And so also, we pray for the church – where God’s reign on earth through the Gospel is manifest from age to age.

Verse four asks, along with the third petition, that God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Here we see a most important point from the Lord’s prayer that answers many a Christian’s vexation about what to pray for.  When I don’t know what God’s will is – simply pray that it would be done.

Verse 5 may be particularly meaningful for many of us in our current context – praying for daily bread.  Wherein we pray that God would give us what we need and save us from dangers and trials of “hardship, war and strife, in plague and famine spare our life”.  That Jesus who teaches us to pray for daily bread also promises to provide it, and points to the sparrows that God feeds each day, and aren’t you worth more than many sparrows?  Luther also mentions in the hymn the twin dangers of “care and greed” – that God would spare us from worry about tomorrow’s needs, and keep us from greed for more than we need, but to be content with those blessings he provides.

Verse 6 begs God for forgiveness, and for the strength to forgive others who hurt us and sin against us.  While God’s forgiveness of us sinners is not contingent on our forgiving others – as if God’s waiting around for us to forgive everyone else before he will forgive us – yet Jesus often connects our own forgiveness received with the forgiveness we show – as he does in the Lord’s prayer.  So also in parables and sermons, Jesus emphasizes the great need for Christians to forgive others – as a true expression and exercise of our faith, and the forgiveness, love and mercy God first shows to us.

Verse 7 of Luther’s hymn tracks the 6th petition in praying against temptation.  Luther is especially good when it comes to the devil, the Old Evil Foe he calls him in that other famous hymn.  Here, “the grim foe and all his horde would vex our souls on every hand”.  And yet Jesus and Luther both teach us that we cannot stand under temptation alone – but need God the Holy Spirit to lead us, strengthen us, keep us firm in faith in the day of temptation. 

Verse 8 considers the final petition, “Deliver us from evil”.  Luther calls this a summary petition – that God would deliver us from all evils of body and soul.  That he would give us all the things we have just prayed for in the above petitions.  In the hymn we sing, “The times and days are perilous”.  And it’s as true now as it was a month ago, in 1536 when they first sang this hymn, and in Jesus’ day when he first taught and gave us this prayer.  Deliver us from evil, Lord.  The days are evil.  Sin is always with us.  The devil is always prowling.  The world is heaving and churning, corrupt and corrupting.  We need saving, now, as always.

Thanks be to God for our Lord Jesus Christ, the giver and teacher of this prayer, and the one who accomplishes our deliverance from evil.  He does so, himself, by submitting to evil.  By enduring the cross and despising its shame.  He takes his place of isolation – as God the Father turns his back and forsakes his Son unto death.  He made him to be sin, and condemned that sin to die in the flesh of Jesus.  All scorn and sorrow, all grief and shame, all the devil’s seething rage and spite.  Jesus bore it all.  Suffered all.  Died for all. 

So now, when we yield our dying breath, we can do so in the peace of his deliverance from evil – know that death has no hold on us who are in Christ.  For he has defeated it.

Finally, the church adds this little word to so many of our prayers – Amen!  It’s a word of confirmation. A word of faith.  Yes, yes, it shall be so!  We can pray our prayers in confidence, especially the Lord’s Prayer, knowing that the one to whom we pray will hear and answer.  That he means us well.  That our dear Father receives our prayers for the sake of his beloved Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Hear us for the sake of him who has taught us thus to pray.  Amen, that is, so shall it be.  In Jesus Name. Amen!

Monday, March 16, 2020

Sermon - Lent 3 - John 4:5-42

John 4:5-42
“More than Small-Talk”

Smalltalk – commenting on the weather, inquiring about the wife and kids, “how ‘bout them Packers” and such. There have even been books written on the fine art of small-talk. But it’s something most of us do without thinking. But then, sometimes small talk gets bigger.

Most of us have also had a conversation or two, which we might call pretty “deep”. Maybe it was a late night heart-to-heart, or a long car-ride somewhere. Maybe it started with something common enough, but ended up with ultimate questions like, “where is my life going?” “what is really important here?” “what’s the meaning of it all?”

Oh the turns and twists of conversation… as John walks us through Jesus’ dialogue with the Samaritan woman. As we reflect on this important conversation, we might ask what Jesus is also saying to us, this morning.

I suppose you could say, it started out with small-talk. Jesus, the true human that he was – hungry – had sent his disciples to get food. Tired, he sat down to rest, and thirsty, he asked the woman who had come to the well for a simple drink of water. It was an everyday situation, or so it seemed.

What caught the woman off guard is not that a stranger would talk to her, but that he was a man. Men didn’t usually acknowledge women, and especially for a Jewish man to make small talk with a Samaritan woman – well, let’s just say this was a bit of an odd couple. Jews and Samaritans, Men and Women – people who didn’t usually speak at all. But Jesus was full of surprises that day.

Just as intentionally as he opens this unexpected conversation, he directs its course. First asking her for water, he gets her attention by tapping a subject deeper than the well. He offered her “living water”. What did he mean by “living water” – well, simply, quenching the thirst of the soul. He himself, the Savior, is that water – the forgiveness he brings, and the life he gives – the spirit he sends – everything, all of it, is the living water of which Jesus spoke. She didn’t understand it, how could she, but she was intrigued. After all, coming to this well everyday was hard work, and not being thirsty anymore sure sounded good to her.

Jesus intrigues us with the Gospel too. He offers us something. Maybe we don’t understand it at first so well either. But we know we are thirsty, that we have a need. We want to hear more about this “living water” too. But rather than explain it, Jesus applies it. He begins to give her the living water – that is, exactly what she needs. He changes the topic. He goes from the tame topic of water to the uncomfortable topic of sin…

“Go get your husband”. “I have no husband”. “No, you had 5 husbands – but the man you are living with isn’t your husband is he?” Jesus cuts to the chase, cuts through the veil of polite conversation, and gently but firmly and directly points the woman to her sin. He is about to give her the living water, but the first part of this is to lead her to see the need, to remind her of the real thirst – for forgiveness.

When our weekly conversation with Jesus called worship begins, we too are reminded of our sin. The liturgy points us to our own sins just as surely as Jesus exposed the woman at the well. Our sins are many and varied, thought, word, deed, sins done, and sins by leaving things undone.

Perhaps we are beset by a certain sin, a glaring weakness or problem in our life. Perhaps we are caught in a sexual sin – perhaps even the same sin as this Samaritan woman – living in sin with someone who is not our spouse. The sin of fornication.  I’m sure the woman at the well had her justifications for living with this man who was not her husband… but Jesus wasn’t having it.
Whatever our sin, it may seem there is no real way out. Perhaps we make excuses for our sin, or take comfort in the fact that society endorses it. Perhaps we console ourselves with the old argument, “Yeah, but look how much worse the other sinners are…” Maybe we just don’t think it’s such a big deal.

But Jesus would beg to differ. Jesus does not overlook sin, he comes to address it. He calls the sinner to repentance, and applies the forgiveness won by his blood.

Whatever our sin is, it is never comfortable to speak of. Though some don’t even like our very general corporate confession made in worship – not wanting to admit to even being a sinner – most of us have no problem doing so. But if anyone were to ever point to a particular sin, might our reaction be a different story? Might we get defensive? Might we shift the blame, or make excuses? Or might we, like the woman at the well, seek to change the subject?

Now, she wants to talk about worship. “I see you are a prophet!” Let’s argue religion. Now the woman too breaks one of the cardinal rules of polite conversation and brings up religion. Some have suggested she was avoiding talking about her sin. Perhaps. Others have said this is a tacit confession, that yes, Jesus, you are right about my sin. Now let’s talk about how I can be cleansed. What sacrifices do I need to make, to whom, and where – to get this all taken care of. Let’s talk religion.

Whatever the woman’s reason for turning the topic to places of worship, she had certainly opened another can of worms. For Jews and Samaritans disagreed deeply over religion. Jews worshipped God at the temple, where He had promised to dwell. Samaritans set up their own temple, their own places of worship, and thus made for themselves a new religion, really.

The Samaritan religion used only the first 5 books of the Old Testament. Is it any wonder that Jesus said, “you Samaritans worship what you do not know”? But more than just scold her for faulty religion, Jesus moves beyond the Samaritan/Jewish distinction, and announces a new era of religion where worship is not bound to geographical place. Worship in Spirit and Truth – will be coming, and HAS NOW ARRIVED in the Messiah, He, himself, Jesus Christ.

All this sounds good to the woman, and she makes a sort of confession of her faith. She looked forward to the coming Messiah, who would explain it all.

Jesus responds, “I who speak to you am He”, and by doing so, he “opens the floodgates of living waters” The woman comes to faith, and even testifies to her entire town, inviting them to come and hear this man of amazing words. But more amazing than the small-talk, even more amazing than the prophetic wisdom, was the announcement of God’s grace and mercy in the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, who had arrived on the scene with his gift of Living Water.

Jesus takes the question of true religion, right worship, and how to deal with sin –
And he again changes the subject. Now instead of where, or how, or even what – the real question is WHO? And Jesus makes it clear – He is the answer. He is the way, the only way to the Father. He is the Truth, by which we receive the Spirit and know the Father. And He is the Life – the Living, Life-giving Water that he offers is His very self – crucified for the woman at the well, and for the Samaritans, and for the Jews, and for all people, and for you and me. HE is the life that conquered death by rising to life again – and better than a fountain of youth, his resurrection guarantees eternal life for all who believe.

As we, the people of God, gather once again this day around the well of His grace in Jesus Christ, we cherish again the Living Water. We acknowledge the gifts given in the Baptismal waters, in the Holy Meal of his own Body and Blood, and in the very Word of Truth we are blessed to hear. More than mere small-talk, the words of Christ are powerful, precious, eternal, and true. They point out sin, they forgive sin, and they bring life and faith. We, who have heard these words today, confess with the ancient Samaritans of Sychar, “have heard for ourselves… that this man really is the Savior of the world!”