Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 14 - Luke 13:22-30

Sermon – August 21, 2016
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 13:22-30
“Striving for the Narrow Door”

I saw a statistic this week that said, out of all the high school athletes who compete in swimming, you have a roughly 1 in 5000 or 6000 chance of making it to the olympics.  That's the numbers for men and women's swimming respectively.  That's also just for one sport – it varies of course by the sport, but in any case, to make it that far as an athlete you really have to overcome great odds.  And that's just getting there, whether or not you win a medal.

Today we have a question of statistics posed to Jesus.  He's on his way to Jerusalem, and someone asks him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

And as he often does in these kinds of situations, Jesus seems to dodge the question. Our Lord could have simply answered yes or no.  Or he could have said, “Well, I figure about one out of every five.” or, “it's really about 50-50.”  or “1 in 6000”. But rather than answer the question directly, as he so often does, he responds with what one needs to hear rather than what one may want to hear.  Of course, he always answers well.

And here the answer may well give a clue to the agenda of the questioner.  Why would someone ask, anyway, how few will be saved?  Likely, to comfort himself in his own worthiness.  Hoping to hear, no doubt, that the way is broad and easy and open.  And if that's the case, then I can rest assured for I am certainly better qualified than most people.  I pay my taxes.  I go to church.  I don't abuse my family.  Sure I have some little issues, but not as much as that guy or that guy.  So, I'm good.  I'll get in.  I just know it.

“Strive to enter the narrow door”.  At first this sounds like law-talk, doesn't it?  As if Jesus is saying “try really hard to do lots of good works, and earn your reward”.  Like an athlete who practices day and night, over and over, to get stronger and stronger... is Christianity a sort of spiritual work-out routine?  Sweating to the commandments?  Law-bo?

Is that what he's saying?

It better not be.  For if so, all of us would be automatically, and permanently disqualified.  Scripture is clear, as I ran across Psalm 14:3 again this week, “They have all turned aside;  they have together become corrupt.  There is none that does good, no, not one.”

Lord, will those who are saved be few?  Well, if salvation depends on your works and your merit and your level of qualification before God then the answer is, “NO one will be saved.”  Zero.  Everyone tied for last.  No medals, no trophies, no reward in heaven.  Only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Only being cast out by a God who doesn't know you, and isn't impressed with your weak and corrupt attempts to prove your mettle.  A just God cuts through all the baloney we tell ourselves, and applies his law to us with terrifying results.  Depart from me all you workers of evil!  And SLAM goes the door.

Well that's one scenario.  That's the way it goes if you strive to enter based on your striving.  If you think you can do it, you can't.  You need Jesus.

“Oh, but we know about Jesus!” some might say.  Jesus anticipates this, too.  Some will say, “Hey look, we saw you in the streets and heard you teach in our synagogues.  Some of us even ate with you!  C'mon Jesus don't you remember us?”  But knowing about Jesus means nothing.  It's not the outward acquaintance that counts.  Luther puts it this way:

“For even though you know that He is God's Son, that He died and rose again, and that He sits at the right hand of the Father, you have not yet learned to know Christ aright... until you also believe that He did all this for your sake, in order to help you!” (AE 30:30)

Faith in Christ is that narrow door.  And the door is in the shape of a cross.

Just as the people of Israel were spared from destruction by the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and crossbeam, so are the people of the New Israel, you believers in Christ, saved from destruction by the blood of the lamb shed on the cross of Jesus.

The kind of striving for the narrow door Jesus means is not an exertion of effort, but an exercise of faith – and that faith in him.  “Strive for the narrow door” means, “Have faith in me, Jesus!”

For he is, himself, the gate for the sheep.  He is himself, the stairway to heaven. He is the door.  He is the way, and the only way to the Father.  But what a way he is!

At first this way may seem narrow and hard.  But the mystery is this, when we finally despair of ourselves and trust in him – we find the door has been opened wide.  So if you are weary and burdened, he invites you to come and rest.  “My yoke is easy,” he reassures us, “and my burden is light”.

So how few or many will be saved?  Jesus says “people will come from east and west, and from north and south and recline at table in the kingdom of God”.  And that seems, after all, like quite a few!

Now we also see a few more things here.  One, salvation is for all people from all nations – north, south, east and west.  It's not just for good Jews who have all the right lineage.  Nor is it only for white bread Americans of German descent.  In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.  But he calls people from all nations with his wide-ranging and far-reaching gospel.  So there's even more hope for you, no matter where you come from.  Isaiah already saw this coming, as we heard in our Old Testament reading today.  And it is fulfilled in Christ.

And the second thing is that we find our fellowship in him at the table.  Reclining at table, that is, sharing a meal, in the kingdom of God.  The final celebration of God's people in glory is often pictured as a meal, even a grand feast.  But it is a meal that we have a taste of, even here and now.

Yes, he feeds us that meal – he gives bread that is his body and wine that is his blood - to all of us from the four corners of the earth, and throughout all the generations.  We are united as one in the great company of heaven.  Even those who have gone before us and now rest from their labors join in the great feast with us, transcending time and space and even death itself in Christ.

“And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.”  In other words, some who you think have the least chance of salvation will be there.  But their sins won't be counted against them.  Their dark deeds will stand forgiven.

But others, who seem to have the best credentials will be left out.  Many will even be surprised by this!  What counts is not race, nationality, or social class.  What matters is not how big of a sinner, or how clean your record.  What matters is Christ, and Christ alone.  Faith in him – the narrow door.

That door stands open to you this day, in the absolution, in the proclamation of his word.  The meal is set before you this day, and he invites you to the feast.  The way to heaven, so narrow on our own, is open, always, to you for the sake of Christ.  Repent and believe.  For Jesus' sake.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Sermon - Luke 10:38-42 - Pentecost 9

Pentecost 9
July 17th, 2016
Luke 10:38-42
"Martha and Mary and Vocation and Faith"

Some years ago a psychologist named Abraham Maslow put forward a theory of human needs which was expressed in the form of a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, according to this system, Maslow recognized the most basic human needs – the physiological. Air, Food, Water. Then, above that, on the next level were the needs of safety. Above that, needs for love and belonging. Then self-esteem and confidence, and on the highest level – the needs of “self-actualization”, which is a little more nebulous, but included things like problem-solving, creativity and morality. For Maslow, the more basic concerns in the pyramid always outweighed those above. If you have no food, you aren't so much worried about being loved. If you aren't loved, you won't be able to feel self-esteem. And if you have no self-esteem, then you will never reach the ultimate goals of human morality and self-fulfillment.

I'm no expert in Maslow or in the field of psychology, but I'm pretty sure he would be at odds with what our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us today in the Gospel reading. It's a simple enough story. Two sisters, Mary and Martha, are honored when Jesus comes to their home. Mary sat at Jesus' feet, listening to his teaching. But Martha busied herself with all manner of concerns. “Much serving” as Luke puts it. Jesus gently scolds her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.” And he commends sister Mary for choosing the better part, the good portion.

What are we to make of all of this? Be like Mary and not like Martha? Don't worry? Learning is more important than doing? Shall we all go off and live in a monastery, ignoring the concerns of this world and focusing only on those of the one to come? Is it a stark choice between hearing and “doing”? What does Jesus mean?

For one, Jesus is not condemning Christian acts of service and love, in and of themselves. That would be preposterous. It would also not be in accord with so much else of what Scripture us about loving and serving our neighbor. Caring for the widow and orphan. Doing good to all men, especially to those of the household of faith. Jesus himself commends the sheep for clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, etc... In his parables, he illustrates love for the unlovable – like in last week's about the “Good Samaritan”.

Likewise, we Lutherans especially emphasize the doctrine of vocation. That is, that our service to God is rendered most especially not in pious works of religious holiness, but in the everyday callings of life – where God works through the offices of parent and employer and employee and citizen and friend – to accomplish his good purposes. To feed the hungry and help the helpless. To protect the innocent and uphold justice. And even, yes, to clean houses and serve tables.

Martha had a vocation as a servant herself. It fell to her, it seems, to make sure the household was running in order, and she was very concerned to see it done. I imagine she had that home running like a well-oiled machine, with everything in its place and well-made food ready for the hungry guests. And there were probably many, since the guest of honor was none other than Jesus Christ himself. Martha was quite likely surprised when Jesus called her out. She was doing what she thought she was supposed to be doing. She was “serving the Lord”. Wasn't she?

And I suspect she was also a little resentful of her sister, who wasn't lifting a finger to help. Who simply sat there listening to Jesus. Didn't she know there's work to be done? Does she think the meal is going to cook itself?

Luke, of course, doesn't give us a window into Martha's head, but many of us have been in a similar spot. We become so caught up in the doing of the works we're called to do that we may even become prideful. We may become resentful of those who aren't pulling their weight. Especially in the church. But also at home, and at work, and in general. We grade our own works of service on a bit of a curve, but we tend to be somewhat harsh with others when we think they're not rowing as hard as we are.

Or worse, perhaps Martha fell for that universal temptation that plagues us all from time to time- to think that our good works are worth something before God. To think that we, in some manner or fashion, can earn God's favor, love, or our salvation, by what we do. That if we work hard enough, he will overlook our sins. That if we decide firmly enough, or pray earnestly enough, God will know we really mean it, and we'll pass the test. Or that if we sacrifice the good life, spend our spare time doing church stuff, keep the commandments as best we can, and just generally try and help others and be nice...

But it's hopeless. All Martha's cooking and cleaning, and all your serving and working, no matter how hard or sincere, all of it will fall far short of the perfect standards God demands. There is only one who did it all – and did it well enough. Like us in every way, yet without sin. There is only one whose good work is acceptable to the Father, who was obedient in all things, even unto death, even death on a cross. And only with him, do we have hope.

But it's not a hope based on serving him. It is, rather, in receiving, passively, what he gives. It is by grace we are saved through faith in Christ. And faith comes by hearing.

Mary chose the better part. Not because good works and service are bad. But because hearing the word of Christ is so much better. It is the one thing that is necessary. It is the one thing by which God does what he wants most to do – save poor sinners like you and me. By hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. Faith is planted and watered and nourished. And faith grows in us. Faith in Christ's word is the one thing that is needful.
Jesus himself knew it well. When he was hungry, fasting 40 days in the wilderness, the Devil came to tempt him, first of all, where he thought Jesus was most vulnerable. “Take some stones and turn them into bread, IF you are the Son of God.” But Jesus' answer shows he knows the one thing needful. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Mary was feasting on the bread of life, by simply hearing the Words of Christ. And so you, dear Christians, today, join her at table. As you gather today to hear the word of hope that Jesus brings and proclaims, a word of sins forgiven because of his blood shed. As you hear the absolution from the pastor, recall the promises included in your baptism, and receive the forgiveness given in body and blood under bread and wine. Christ's word is the one thing needful. And he gives it to you freely and fully. Receive it faithfully.

Fred Danker comments on this passage, “Martha made the mistake of thinking she was the host, and Jesus the guest.” Of course, it's the other way around. He's always the host. The meal is his. The work is his. The serving is his. The word is his. And he gives it all... to you.

And it is this word in us, received in faith, worked by the Spirit, that brings about “much serving”. In its proper place, in its right priority, not in worry or anxiety, and never for merit or personal gain, but out of love inspired by the love we've received.

The truth is we Christians are both Marthas and Marys. But let us first be Marys – hearing and receiving the word, the one thing needful, even Christ himself. Let us first and always receive, so that we may be faithful Marthas – fulfilling our vocations, not in worry, but with joy.

For the sake of Christ crucified and risen for us. Amen.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 7 - Luke 10:1-20

Luke 10:1-20
Pentecost 7
July 3rd, 2016
Rejoicing with the 72”

God bless America. Here on this national holiday weekend in which we celebrate America and its birth, we Christians can give thanks for the blessings God has bestowed on our country, even if we recognize its flaws. Even if it seems to many of us that the United States, at least culturally, is moving more and more away from being a “Christian nation” (if, indeed it ever truly was). And as we see America do and condone foolish and sometimes even evil things, we may wonder where this is all going.

It is an interesting coincidence that this Gospel reading tends to fall on the 4th of July weekend. With national pride on the minds of many, Jesus reminds us of how many in this world reject us Christians, and reject him and therefore also the Father who sent him. But it's not all bad news, either, as he also reminds us to look beyond what we see, to consider our ultimate citizenship is not of this world, and to rejoice that our names are written in heaven. Let's take a closer look.

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.

In an orderly fashion, our Lord appoints 36 pairs of disciples to go before him and preach in the towns he would visit. Even then, he entrusted his message to mere men, though the matter was to be confirmed by the two-fold witness. He sent them ahead, like little John the Baptists, to proclaim that in Christ, the kingdom was at hand. They were to prepare the way.

Today, he appoints various tasks to you. It may not be a call to preach, though for some it is. It may be a call to parenthood or friendship, citizenship or as a student or employee. He may call upon you at a given time to give answer for the hope that is within you. Or he may call you to acts of mercy and service for the least of these among you. You are, every Christian, to be mindful of his kingdom and supportive of its work. You are, every Christian, to serve and love one another. You are, every Christian, to support the preaching of the Gospel with your time, your talents and even your treasures.

And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 

Even before they go, Jesus instructs them to pray for help. That these laborers sent into the harvest would be joined by many others, for the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few.
We tend to think the harvest is scarce and the workers are plentiful. Like Elijah, we become discouraged, thinking ourselves the last faithful few in a sea of worldly unbelievers. But God always preserves for himself a remnant. His Spirit will not fail to garner his harvest. He is the Lord of the harvest, after all. We needn't worry that the salvation of the world rests on our shoulders, as if our lack of missionary fervor is keeping God from accomplishing his purposes.

Nevertheless, we must not be lazy in our zeal for the kingdom. And if we are, then we ought to repent. The laborers are few. It is not good for us to sit around and assume someone else will pick up the slack. Ours is to go where he sends us, answer when he calls, and pray that many others will do the same. He does not need us. But he chooses to work through his appointed servants, lowly and unqualified as we are, to accomplish his purposes.

Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.

He's quite up front with them about the dangers of the mission. There will be opposition, perhaps even persecution. The unbelieving world preys upon the church of Christ as ravenous wolves devour helpless lambs. This is not a mission of conquest, a triumphalist endeavor in which God's messengers tout his mighty power, as much as it is a calling of sinners to repentance and faith in Christ.

So, today, the church preaches a message of the cross. The cross, where Jesus the lamb of God was encircled by the dogs who pierced his hands and feet. The Gentiles who had no use for him, and the Jews who wanted him dead but good. A band of wicked men who divided even his garments among them. But this lamb of God opened his mouth not in bleats of protest, but in gracious words of mercy, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

Lambs in the midst of wolves, even today, trust in the true victory won by the Lamb of God. A victory that looked like a defeat. A cross of death turned into our very source of life.

Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road.

They needn't over-prepare for this mission. For when God calls us to action he also prepares us with what we need. There can be no distractions. There should be no delay.

Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’  And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, fit will return to you.

They were also to bring his peace. That is, they were to bring the forgiveness of Christ that brings true peace with God. This is no mere polite greeting of “shalom”. But instead the peace that only Christ gives, as the world cannot give. A “son of peace” is one who receives Christ and his message in faith, and therefore knows the peace that passes understanding.

And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

The kingdom of God and the preaching of the Gospel are not some fly-by-night organization. Jesus means for his people to hear and receive the depth of his message. So he has his disciples stay a while. Get to know the people. And the people support the preachers to do so.

Next, Jesus offers some harsh words of warning – knowing that some will reject the message. He speaks in general terms, of whole towns – those who do not receive the gospel of peace, the proclamation of his kingdom. Woe to you, Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum. For you did not repent and believe.

The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

And here is a principle that still holds for today. When the church and its preachers are rejected by the unbelieving world, we should not be surprised. When the unbelieving world rejects us, we should not take it personally. When they reject us, it is for what we believe – and so they are not really rejecting us, but the one who sent us. The one who died for us. The one who has made us his own. And by rejecting Christ, they also reject the Father, even if they give lipservice to a generic god. Even if they claim the moral high ground. Even if they present themselves as the ones truly loving and good, and us as the evil hypocrites. God will not be mocked. His judgment will be rendered in due time.

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 

Sometimes the church meets with outward success. And that can be very intoxicating. We are even tempted to distraction and idolatry by such things. Look how big that church is! Look how many they've reached! Sometimes the church seems to prosper and grow in spite of our halting and faltering efforts. And when we see it do so, we can rejoice with the 72, and with all faithful Christians who have earnestly prayed to the Lord of the harvest. We rejoice with the angels who celebrate every sinner who comes to repentance and faith in Christ. And we give thanks to God for all his good gifts, and that he even stoops to give them through unworthy servants such as we are.

Jesus tells the disciples this is just the tip of the iceberg. Satan has fallen from heaven. Christ has already won the victory. He will send these disciples to preach not just in Judea and Samaria, but even to the ends of the earth. Their message, his message, would be confirmed by miracles and other signs. And many, people of all tribes and nations and languages would come to believe. All the power of the enemy comes crashing down when God's kingdom comes in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God! Rejoice!

Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

That is, don't rejoice only in the small victories. But see the big picture. And know for yourselves, personally that your names are written in heaven. Your eternal destiny is secure. Your sins are forgiven. You have a place in the mansions of heaven.

On this earth, some will reject, and some will receive. The church will prosper and grow, and there will be times of persecution. We may see missions begun and thrive, and we may see old churches close their doors for lack of faithful worshippers. In all these things rejoice. In all these things give thanks to the Lord of the Harvest. Do not be discouraged. Neither let the mission be neglected. There is an urgency, but there is a comfort and peace, a resting in God's provision.

Is America going down the drain? Is the church here going to last? Will our society and culture crumble to the point where Christians cannot worship and live in peace? Perhaps. Even so. Live a life of repentance and faith in Christ. And remain faithful, work for the good, work for the kingdom, according to your callings.

Or will we turn the corner, experience a renewal, repent as a nation and avoid the fate of the Chorazins and Bethsaidas and Capernaums of the world? Will the church here grow and prosper and see an abundant harvest for the kingdom? Perhaps so. But whether we see outward blessings or are called to bear the cross, nothing can change the source of your joy.

For in Christ, your names are written in heaven. Like the 72 faithful preachers, like the apostles and prophets and martyrs. Like all the faithful who have gone before us – rejoice, for in Christ you are part of that great company. Christ's blood has sealed it. And his resurrection makes it sure. Peace be to you. Rejoice! In Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 3 - Luke 7:11-17

Pentecost 3 – June 5, 2016
Luke 7:11-17
"Jesus Saves Widows, Dead Guys, and You"

If you've ever suffered loss... you probably know how well meaning people can say some of the least helpful things. Things that they intend to help you feel better. But things that might even make you feel worse.

Sometimes it's hard to know exactly what to say to someone grieving, and sometimes it's better just to say nothing at all. A warm embrace, or your mere presence can be of some comfort. Maybe.

But I think most of us would be hesitant to say to a woman who's just lost her only son, “Don't cry”. And someone who does say such a thing surely seems to know little about suffering and grief. Someone who says such a thing seems to have little compassion for what this poor woman is going through. Maybe someone who would say this is insensitive. Maybe he's just mad. Or maybe, just maybe, he's the Lord of Life and Death, and he can actually do something about the cause of all her tears.

Jesus, of course, knows just what he's doing, and what he's saying. He is the Savior of widows, of dead guys, and of you. Let's take each one in turn.

This poor widow. Grief upon grief was added to her. She had lost her dear husband who knows how long ago. And while that is hard today, it was far harder back then and there, when a woman had to rely entirely on the provision of a man. But at least she had a son to care for her. Until just now, when the young man also died, leaving his mother without family, and without worldly support. She might end up begging for her daily bread. She might not make it herself. When Scripture encourages Christians to care for the “widow and the orphan”, we are being directed to some of the neediest of the needy.

Not only did she feel the pain that any mother would feel at such a loss- but this was her only son – and now, she was really all alone.
Even in the crowd of mourners who accompanied her, she was singularly alone in her suffering.

And along with the pure sadness that death makes us feel, there are quite often notes of guilt associated with it. Things I should have said or done for this loved one, and now the chance has passed me by. Perhaps if I would have done something differently, it wouldn't have turned out this way, and he'd still be here, alive and well. Or even, survivor guilt, “why did it have to be him and not me!?”. And all of this is amplified the more with the death of a young person.
Take the widow in our Old Testament reading, when her son dies, she lashes out at Elijah, “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance”. Sin and death go together. So it was in the garden of paradise. So it is in the wilderness of today's fallen world.

So here comes Jesus, crashing into the scene, with no invitation and no plea from the poor woman or anyone else. Not like the centurion in the last chapter who pleaded for his servant. Not like so many others who come on behalf of their loved ones for Jesus' help and mercy. Jesus takes the initiative. He comes first, he breaks in to the conversation and stops the funeral procession cold.

And he says to her, “don't cry”. And in this outrageous little sentence is hidden a promise. Don't cry, because you will soon have joy. Don't cry, because your son will rise. Don't cry, because Jesus brings life to the dead.

This is not a power-of-positive-thinking encouragement. That if you tell yourself everything is ok that it somehow will be. It's not a mind-over-matter manipulation of your emotions. It's not a denial of reality. It's a deeper reality, revealed in this miraculous moment, and revealed more fully on Easter Sunday, and yet to be revealed in its fullness at the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

When Jesus raises her son, he gives her back more than just her son. He gives her hope.

And this hope is also for the young man. The man who isn't named. Cause of death unknown. Well, we know the root cause at least. It's the same disease that affects us all. A self-inflicted, self-perpetuated illness called sin. The law's diagnosis is clear, we are dead-men walking. In our sins, we are already dead, as dead and helpless as the young man in Nain, being carried to his grave. We can't decide to be alive.

But again, there's Jesus, who comes and touches death and speaks to the dead man, “arise”. And it is so. By the power of his word, he commands life to return, and the Lord of Life gets his way. No one asked for this, or decided on this but him, Jesus, the savior.

And then there's you. Are you a victim of suffering, like the widow? At times, to be sure. Maybe yours even seems worse than others. Maybe you are tempted to grieve without hope. Or are you like the young man, if you will admit it, on your way to the grave because of your sins – however hidden or blatant they may be? Like a condemned death-row inmate, guilty as sin, because of your sin, your own most grievous sin?

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. If we say we are alive, we are liars. If we say we are just fine, we're the lunatics. We are lost, helpless, and hopeless – and we deserve everything we get and worse – without Christ.

But Jesus Christ crashes into all that. For the widow, for the dead guy, and even for you. The only Son of the Father, comes to restore the widow's son and all sons and daughters of wrath. The one who suffered and died on Calvary is the man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief. As Mary, another widow, watched her son die under Roman orders, for crimes he didn't commit, the salvation of all was accomplished. He is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one who speaks, “Father, forgive them” and “It is finished”. And he proves without doubt his lordship of life and death, when he leaves death in the dust, stone rolled away, and only the sins of the world left behind.

The one by whom all things were made, who knit you together in your mother's womb, makes all things new, and will raise you on the last day. The one whose voice called the widow's son to rise, has called you to arise already. In the call to faith, proclaimed in the Gospel, your sinful flesh dies, and you live. In the washing of rebirth, your Old Adam is drowned, and your New Creation bursts forth. In the gifts of his table, he brings forgiveness, life, and salvation. His word of promise assures it. And as he would say to the widow, “don't cry”, he would speak words of comfort to you. Your sins are forgiven. Your future is secure. He who lives and believes in me, even though he die, yet shall he live.

We long for that day, when from this vale of tears we depart. We pray for his coming, for the fulfillment of all his promises. We press on toward the eternal hope that is so clear in his word. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. And as we stand in our flesh and see him, with resurrected and glorified eyes, no more harm or pain or suffering or sin or death can assail. And God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Yes, Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend, Lazarus. And so he shows us that death is not to be laughed at. It is no friend, but a sad wage of sin. Yet for those who trust in Christ, the resurrection and the life, we see in death the gate to eternal life. And so Paul says we grieve, but not like other men who have no hope. We cry, but ultimately we rejoice. We suffer, but we know comfort. We face our old enemy with a peace that passes understanding.

For the Lord of Life crashes in to our grief. He speaks words of comfort, even to widows, even to dead men, even to you. Believe it, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost Sunday - Genesis 11

The Day of Pentecost
May 15, 2016

In French, “Bon Jour”.
In Spanish, “Hola”.
In Hebrew, “Shalom”
In Chinese, “Ni How”.
In Swahili, “Habari”.
And in a new language I am still learning, “Howdy, y'all”

I won’t say hello in every one of the more than 775 languages of the world. But if you ever wondered where we got all these languages, Scripture is clear that it all goes back to a tower. And every time we struggle with a translation, we can remember the judgment of God on an arrogant humanity which worked together against him.

Genesis 11 tells of a time when there was only one language, and the people of the world worked together. They got an idea. They would build a tower, all the way up to the sky. They would make a name for themselves. They would ascend to the heavens, perhaps even to God, on their own. They would not disperse and fill the earth, according to God’s earlier command. They had their own ideas, their own plans.

This wasn’t too long after the flood, and they were using pitch or tar for mortar – the same water-proofing material used to cover boats. Perhaps so that the next flood wouldn’t even be able to wash away their grand tower.   But didn't they recall God's promise not to send another flood over all the earth?  Did they believe his word, or not?

The people before the flood were a wicked lot.  But now, the smell of rebellion against God was again in the air. They were out for the sake of themselves and their own name. They showed no concern for the Name above all names.

God saw their little project. And you might think he'd laugh it off.  The idea that they could build a tower to heaven.  But he was concerned. Here was sinful man working together for a sinful purpose. It could have been only the beginning.  God knows what kind of trouble and grief and pain they could have caused, working together toward some evil end. And so, in judgment but also in mercy, God confused their languages, and dispersed them.
Judgment but also mercy. Much like when God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden and put an angel with a fiery sword at the gate. That was not only banishment for sin, but also for their own good – so they wouldn’t eat of the tree of life and live forever in sin. It was mercy even amidst judgment.

So too was the scattering and the confusion of languages at Babel. If God had allowed it to continue, he knew the human capacity for getting into trouble was boundless. Working together as one, a tower would have been only the beginning of the trouble. So in judgment and mercy, he scattered and confused. A consequence of their sin, no doubt, but never the way things were meant to be from the beginning.

The Tower of Babel is not just a story about the sins of other people, but we can find ourselves in it too. We are arrogant and prideful at times, thinking our own magnificent work must impress God and Man alike. We try to make a name for ourselves, often at the expense of the name of others. We find ourselves challenging God and his commands and demands in our life. We don’t build a tower, but we construct all sorts of monuments to our selves with the time and energy we should be devoting to God.

And sin always separates, divides.  Us from God, us from one another.  It brings confusion and discord to our relationships. Sometimes even when we do speak the same language, we talk past each other. We argue and struggle, we bear grudges and hate. It’s not just language that divides us from each other, but also our use of words to hurt and harm. We gossip and besmirch our neighbor's good name often in the name of concern, but really only trying to make our own name look better by comparison.  No, those ancient tower-builders on the plains of Shinnar weren’t the only ones to construct catastrophe for themselves. We sinners are by nature just as rebellious, prideful and wicked.

And just as God dealt with his people of old through both his justice and mercy, so too does he deal with us. His law shows us our sin. But the good news of the Gospel of Jesus – shows our salvation.   First, the commandments knock down our feeble little constructions of self-made righteousness.  The law pokes so many holes in our pride, shows how threadbare our own works really are.  There's no tooting your own horn.  There's no, “look at what a wonderful job I've done following the rules”.  There is only accusation, condemnation.

You've worshipped other gods.  You've misused the true God's name.  You've despised preaching and his word.  You've rebelled against God-given authority.  You've hurt and murdered your neighbor, at least with your thoughts, but also your words and actions.  You've dishonored marriage.  You've taken what isn't yours.  You've failed to guard your neighbor's good name. And you're not content with so many blessings, but you want what the other guy has.  The law takes us down.  It blows over any self-righteous house of cards we try to make, and shows how hopeless it is.

But the Gospel builds us up again, not in ourselves, but in Christ.  He's the cornerstone and capstone of this house of living stones called his Church.  He's the one who builds it – not on our works – but on the confession of his name.  “Upon this rock, I will build my church”.  The Gospel is the only foundation for us, for the houses built on sand by the self-righteous fools are quickly washed away.  But the house built on Christ stands strong forever.  Not a tower, but a temple, like his own torn down in death on a Friday, and rebuilt in three days.  And this construction actually does get us to heaven, for he has already taken his place there, and prepares even now a place for us.

So the Tower of Babel is not some quaint Sunday School tale to amuse children. It is a true account of real events. And it also makes a difference to us today. Especially today, the Day of Pentecost.

You know the story – 50 days after Easter, as the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem with many Jewish pilgrims from all over the world, the Holy Spirit gave the disciples of Jesus a special gift. They spoke in tongues – the native languages of the people gathered there. And they weren’t just talking about the weather, mind you. They were telling the good news of Jesus, the promised Messiah, who fulfilled the scriptures by dying and rising from the dead.

In a way, what happens on Pentecost is the undoing of the judgment of Babel. The languages which were confused because of man’s sin, were now miraculously clarified by the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit. Divisions are healed, unity is restored, and the people who were many are, by the Gospel, made one in Christ.

On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit extends and continues the work of Christ.

Recall how when our Lord was crucified, the charge against him was posted by Pontius Pilate? The sign above the cross read, “This is the King of the Jews”. And that message was written in Latin, Greek and Aramaic. Fitting, in a way, to show how Jesus is King not only of the Jews but also the Greeks and Romans, in fact, of all people. And what happened there at the cross was for all people of every language. He is the world’s Savior. He is your Savior.

Now at Pentecost, Peter preaches his first sermon – and quotes the prophet Joel, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved”. So instead of making a name for ourselves, now we call upon God’s name. We approach God “in Jesus’ name.” We rely on the triune name of God we received at our baptism. For there God’s Spirit was poured out on us, along with forgiveness of our sins and all the promises of Jesus.  You didn't see the flaming tongues or the form of a dove, but the same Spirit is upon you.

In so many ways this Pentecost outpouring of the Spirit is the reversal of everything that went wrong at the tower of Babel. Communication is restored. Unity is established. Confusion is ended.

And God himself builds a new construction – not a tower, but a Church – built by his Spirit. Built on the Chief Cornerstone, Jesus Christ. He is the only way we can, and the certain way that we will reach heaven.

And his Gospel is now the language we all share.  The language of the Christian.  It informs the way we speak, what we say, and to whom.  This is the language of forgiveness in Jesus' name.  It is the language of prayer, “Thy will be done”, “Thy kingdom come”.  It is the tongue that confesses and praises and thanks and speaks truth in love.  It is when we speak what God has spoken.  The church hears, by faith, by the Spirit.  The church speaks, by faith, by the Spirit.  So that what we believe in our hearts we confess with our mouths – that Jesus Christ has died.  Jesus Christ is arisen.  And Jesus Christ will come again.  To him be all power, honor, glory and might, for his name is above every name. And all God's  blessings come to us in that same name.  Amen.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Sermon - Easter 6 - Acts 16:9-15

Easter 6
May 1, 2016
Acts 16:9-15
“The Unexpected Course of the Gospel”

Paul and Silas, Timothy and later, evidently Luke began the travels of Paul's Second Missionary Journey. Immediately before our text, we read of how these men had intended to preach in various places in Asia minor (which is modern day Turkey). But they were frustrated. Something got in the way of it all. Perhaps the circumstances didn't allow it. Perhaps they heard through some direct message from God. We don't really know. Nonetheless, the “Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” to carry on with their own plans.

Instead, Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia, saying, “Come and help us”.

Macedonia, you might recall, is just north of Greece. And so by leaving Asia and going to Macedonia, Paul and company are actually moving from one continent to another. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of salvation goes with them – from Asia to Europe.

And so they go. They go to help. But how?

Paul was a tentmaker, but he didn't go to build them shelters. Luke was a physician, but this wasn't a medical mercy trip. All of these missionaries understood that the help these people really needed was the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He said “help us”, and so they concluded, “God had called us to preach the Gospel to them”.

So one thing we can learn from the Macedonian Call is that the Gospel is the help that God gives us. It is through the preaching of the Gospel, after all, that the Spirit brings us to faith. It is the Gospel that is the power of God for salvation. How can mere words do such great things? Ah, but this is the Word of God. This is the message of Jesus Christ, who has overcome the world by his death and resurrection. There is no greater friend, no greater gift, no greater help we could ask for.

Perhaps you also need help. People have often told me I need help. But all of us, as sinners, need help – and not in the sense that we will do part and need God's mere assistance to finish the job. Nor in the sense that God does 90% or even 99% of the work, an unequal partner, and then leaves us to finish the job. No, the kind of help the Gospel gives is a saving you from death help. It's a snatching you out of the jaws of Satan help. A help with no contribution from you, no you doing-your-part, no you putting a cherry on top. Grace is free and full, but it is from outside of you – and not just from a different continent – but from God's very throne above, for the sake of Jesus Christ who sits at his right hand.

So they set sail. From Troas to Samothrace, then Neapolis and Philippi, the main city in Macedonia. And now another reminder for us. We don't, most of us, know these cities and places. They are foreign sounding names to us, of cities halfway around the world whose inhabitants are long since gone. Their cultures and customs we would no doubt find strange. We don't know their languages. We really have only clues about their daily lives. So why mention the specifics?

Perhaps, partly, because the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes to real people who live in real places. It could just as easily have been Keller, or Denton, Bedford or North Richland Hills, or Fort Worth. And, in fact, it is to all of those places and the people living in them that the Gospel comes today. Could those early disciples, apostles and missionaries have conceived of us, in modern day America, with all of our strange customs, and fast food, and the internet, and what-have-you.... could they have imagined us hearing and believing also in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

But the Gospel, while a net that is cast wide to draw in the nations – is also a laser beam of individual promise to specific people in specific times and places. So you have been baptized. By name. You have been called. You have been forgiven, redeemed, set free. It's very personal. It's very real.

And so it was for a woman named Lydia.

Paul and friends, upon arriving in a new city, would usually seek out a synagogue and preach first to the Jews. You'd need to have 10 Jewish males to form a synagogue, but apparently there were too few in this major city even for that to happen. But there was a place of prayer. And there were some women gathered there on the Sabbath. And so Paul preached to them, and one of them was Lydia. He came because of the vision of the man from Macedonia, but it began with a word embraced by a woman. And she, Lydia, the first recorded Christian conversion on the continent of Europe.

Again we have a real person with a real history and city of origin, she has a real job selling purple goods. And we know that in some sense, perhaps through contact with Judaism, Lydia was a “worshipper of the true God”. Yet, like many of those, she had not yet heard of the fulfillment of the promises that came in the person of Jesus Christ.

So why would a woman from a far-off land, with plenty of business to tend to, listen to these strange men from an even farther land who come to proclaim a message about a man who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven? Well to that we have the clear answer: “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention”. We don't believe of our own accord, you see. Our hearts and minds are closed, locked up tighter than the tomb sealed with a large stone. But the Holy Spirit changes hearts. He creates faith where it wasn't. The Lord and Giver of Life can even bring hearts dead in sin to the glories of eternal life.

And look where it leads next. She and her household are baptized. The Gospel's reach grows. And Lydia's response to all of this is noteworthy, too. She opens her home to Paul and his companions. The offers her hospitality. And thus, she supports the further preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. She does what she can with the resources given to her to further the cause so that more would hear and believe in Christ and live.

You, also, dear Christians, are given to support the preaching of the Gospel. Through your own vocations and stations in life, through your generosity or perhaps hospitality. Through your invitation that others would come and see and hear about Christ. And in acts of service and love, by word and deed, to friends, neighbors, co-workers.

You see, the declaration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is effected by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit moves in mysterious ways. When and where he will he creates faith. He strengthens us, not only in our study of the Word, but also in applying that word in our lives. As you forgive your neighbor who has sinned against you, as you hear the words of absolution for your sins, yes, even that deep dark sin. Perhaps when you least expect it. In fact, often when you least expect it.

For who would expect God to have mercy on sinners? Who would think he would send his own son to save? Who could predict that his mission would take him, not to conquest but to cross? And who could have seen that on the third day he would rise? Did anyone foretell his restoration of those wayward and denying disciples? Or imagine that he would turn his most zealous persecutor into his greatest missionary?

Who would see this rag-tag band of preachers traveling thousands of miles, and now even into Europe, to simply tell people about Jesus? Who would think that their first convert would be a well-off woman from some other land? And who knew that she would show them hospitality, and thus help them help the Macedonians by their preaching?

Ah, the unexpected course of the Gospel. I suspect that even as you look back on your life, you can see many unexpected twists and turns whereby God did great things for you. That he builds whole households on this gospel is even better. And that one day your eyes, closed in death, will be wakened again to glory – well that will be the final surprise.

Nothing about this should really surprise us, though, for God has promised it all. And he has promised it not just to someone, or even to all, but also to individuals, like Lydia, and like you.

No matter what baggage you bring, how sketchy your past, how big your sins. Christ has died for you. No matter where you come from. No matter how unlovable you feel, how ashamed you are, or what this world of pain and death has thrown at you. Jesus is alive, and he is your Savior.

So go in peace. You are baptized. Your sins are forgiven. Serve the Lord with gladness. Amen.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Sermon - Easter 5 - John 16:12-22

John 16:12–22
Easter 5
April 24, 2016
“From Sorrow to Joy”

Because of sin, life is short and full of misery.  The relative innocence of your childhood is quickly shattered, and the world keeps on hitting you with disappointments and troubles.  It never really lets up.  Every stage of life has its unique sorrows to offer.  Stress and depression, loneliness and conflict, anxiety, physical aches and pains, emotional gunk of all kinds.  And death is always bearing down on us, it's just that sometimes we feel its hot breath on our neck a little more closely.  In many ways the movie quote has it right, “Life is pain, highness.  Anyone who tells you differently is selling something."

Or as Jesus says, “you will have sorrow.”  But that's not the end of the story.  Grief turns to joy.  And no one knows this better than the one who trusts in Christ.  Let's look at Jesus' words in our Gospel reading this morning and consider how he alone moves us from sorrow to joy.

In the first few verses Jesus is preparing his disciples for the sorrow of his departure.  But he doesn't mean to just leave them high and dry.

 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Jesus would like to spend more time with his disciples, it seems, and share even more of his words with them.  He had much more to say, things they needed to hear.  But he also realized his time was short and they couldn't bear it all right now anyway.  They weren't ready.  So he promises them The Spirit of Truth.

And this Spirit, the Holy Spirit, will declare the things to come.  He will also glorify Christ by taking what is Christ's and declaring it to us.  He is the one who brings us to Christ, teaches us about Christ, shows us Christ.  Like the operator of a giant high wattage spotlight, the Holy Spirit directs our attention not to himself, but to Christ, our Savior, and his words.

These words of Christ were fulfilled, in part, as the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostles to write the New Testament.  Through the epistles, especially, the meaning of Christ's work on earth is expounded, and we are also given all we need to know about what the future holds for us.  For instance, Paul expounds on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.  John's Revelation gives us a beautiful picture of the church in glory – the New Jerusalem, adorned as the Bride of Christ.  And in so many other words the Spirit of Truth unfolds the truth of Christ for us, his people.

And he does so to comfort us.  Because life is full of sorrow.

If Jesus hadn't warned us, repeatedly, about the sorrows of this life, we might conclude that our sufferings mean he is displeased with us, or has forsaken us, or that he is powerless to overcome evil.  But he helps us make sense of sorrow but warning us that it will come.  There will be persecutions, natural disasters, wars and rumors of wars.  There will be false prophets who lead many astray.  All of this is to be expected.  None of it means things are out of his control.
Instead, he comforts us in our sorrows.  He works good from all things, even out of evil, for those who belong to him.  His rod and staff comfort us as he walks along side us in the valley of the shadow of death.  He even tells us “blessed are the poor in spirit, and those who mourn, and those who suffer for righteousness sake.”

Jesus can comfort us in our sorrow because he knows sorrow so well.  He is the Man of Sorrows as Isaiah prophesied, and “well acquainted with grief”.  It's why he had to go away from them for “a little while”.  It began with his arrest in Gethsemane.  It was the hour of the power of darkness. The shepherd was struck, and the sheep scattered.  Then the kangaroo court trial, the bloodthirsty crowd, and the cowardly Pilate who handed him over to death.   Nails, thorns, mocking, humiliation.  All manner of sorrow and then some.  Finally, forsaken by God, he gave even his very life.  And the wicked world rejoiced at all of it.

But the God who turns grief into joy would not abandon his own Son to the grave.  After a little while, they would see them again.  And they would see him alive!  The tears of the women at the tomb, the bewildered fears of the disciples locked in their room – all would be turned to joy.  Even Peter who wept bitterly when he denied the Lord, would be restored.

This is the joy that Easter brings even to us, who live “a little while” after all of that.  The God who turns sorrow to joy will neither abandon you to the grave, dear Christian.  He will never leave you or forsake you.  Even if you don't see him.  But in “a little while”, you too will see him again.

Jesus did appear to his disciples and even as many as 500 followers on one occasion, and gave “many convincing proofs” of his resurrection.  The scriptural and apostolic witness of this historical fact far exceeds any other ancient event in the quantity and quality of its evidence.  And the Spirit of Truth confirms, even in us who have not seen but yet believe, that Christ is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity.

But there is another “little while”.  Not just the 40 days after his resurrection, for then he was taken from them into heaven.  But now, the age of the church, is another “little while” in which we do not see him.  Sure, we have his presence in the word, and in the sacraments.  And what a comfort that is!  But still, there are promises yet to be fulfilled, a greater hope and glory yet to come.
“Behold, I am coming soon!” Jesus says in the last few words of the last book of our Bible.  A little while, and you will see him, when he comes again in glory.  When he comes with his holy angels and with the trumpet call of God.  When all sorrows are washed away.  When all corruption is burned in fire.  And when he ushers in the New Heaven and New Earth.  There we will live in resurrected, glorified bodies, in perfect communion with Father, Son and Spirit, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

Grief to gladness.  Sorrow turned to joy.  It is the way of God.  It was the path of Christ.  And it is the road we too, are on.  Taking up our crosses and following him who bore the cross for all.  Considering the sufferings of this world not worth comparing to the glory yet to be revealed.  Pressing on, never despairing, always in hope, resting secure in Christ.

And this universal picture of a woman in labor.  Perhaps there is no greater earthly pain (you moms would have to fill us in).  But when the new life arrives, when that precious babe is born, the labor pains are forgotten and the celebration begins.  And how many would say that the birth of a child is the greatest day of their life?  How much more will it be for us, who labor in this world of sorrows, who shuffle through this vale of tears, who fumble through a life wracked with one trouble and the next....  but who have a hope on the horizon.

So cling to this promise, Christian.  Live in that security, that though this life is pain, and troubles are sure to come.  Jesus Christ is alive.  His sorrow and pain, his suffering and death bring you the promise of joy eternal.  Death only had him for a little while.  But no more.  And in a little while, you too will see him.  And no one will be able to take away your joy in him, forever and ever.  Amen.