Monday, November 16, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 25 - Mark 13:1-13

Pentecost 24
Mark 13:1-13
“Saved in the End”

You see this fancy temple? It's toast. You see these tall pillars? They're coming down. The Holy Place? Scrap it. The Holy of Holies? First they'll tear it down, then it will become a trash heap, then a shrine to a false god, and then, along with every other once proud and impressive location – everything will be destroyed. Not even one stone left on another.

Are you impressed by the things of this world? The Sistine Chapel? The Great Wall of China? Mt. Rushmore? None of it will last. Even the Pyramids, which have stood perhaps the longest – they'll be gone, too. Your house, your neighborhood, the Taco Bell. Your school, your workplace, even your church building.

It's that time of the year again, the end of the church year, in which the lectionary, for several weeks, sets before us these readings which point to the end. Call it the judgment day, the last day, the second coming of Christ. Or use the fancy term, “eschatology” from the Greek word “eschatos”, which means, simply, “the last things”.

Here in Mark's Gospel, were are again in Holy Week. Jesus is with his disciples in the temple, like so many others who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Jesus has already been welcomed on Palm Sunday and greeted with “hosannas”. He's turned over temple tables, and his teaching is overturning the hopes and expectations for Jewish national glory.

Not only is Jesus not the military messiah so many expected, here to run out the Romans. He's the bearer of bad news: This place is going down. And so it came to pass. In 70 AD, not even 40 years after Jesus speaks these words, Roman general Titus puts down a rebellion in Jerusalem.
And he destroys the temple. Jews still mourn this event every year. Titus would go on to become Roman Emperor, and the arch which tells of his glorious victory in Jerusalem still stands in Rome to this day. But the temple, the temple into which so many Jews put their hopes for the future, has been reduced to one lone exterior wall.

So how can Jesus say “not one stone will be left” if, in fact, a whole wall remains? Because the prophecy isn't finished yet. The destruction of the temple was but a foretaste of the final destruction for which this corrupt world is destined. All of it will pass away. Vanish like smoke. Be rolled up like a scroll. Scripture tells us, and Jesus tells us, of a time to come when he will bring about a new heaven and new earth, and the old will pass away entirely. For us it is a day of victory and celebration.

But before that day comes, he has more bad news. There will be other calamities. And what a list it is! Wars and rumors of wars. Earthquakes. Famines. And maybe worst of all, false teachers.
Do not be led astray! Jesus warns us to watch out, especially, for those who would falsely come in his name. But this isn't just about crackpots who claim to be Jesus in the flesh yet again (though surely there have been quite enough of those!)

This is also about all who would come and teach falsely concerning him. Anyone who teaches against his word. Anyone who points you to yourself for your own salvation. Anyone who teaches you that his grace is not enough, and that you need to add your own work, your own decision, your own acceptance to the mix. Anyone who teaches you to despise his gifts given in water and bread and wine, and not receive them as he intends, for the forgiveness of your sin. Anyone who would teach that Christianity is all about Gospel apart from Law, or vice versa. Anyone who adds the teachings of man to the revealed Word of God. Even those who would cheapen God's grace in Christ by claiming that this sin or that sin doesn't matter, or isn't that sinful, and who call good evil and evil good. Beware! Watch out! Do not be led astray! Many will come, teaching all this and more, but they are not Christ. And it is not yet the end.

He warns the disciples of persecution. That they would be arrested and beaten and delivered over to death. Even families would be torn apart in all of this. And all who are with Christ will be hated for his name's sake. What an uplifting picture of the future Jesus paints for them, and for us.

Church history tells us that all of the 12 Apostles met a martyrs death, except for John – who was also persecuted and imprisoned. Jesus rightly prepares his disciples for the trouble that would follow them, even unto death. But these disciples, too, are but a foretaste of the persecution of the church and the birth pains of creation that would continue from then until the very end.

And we, too, live in those times. Yes, we are in the end times. The times of the birth pains. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. We see earthquakes and famines and false teachers. We see families torn apart and Christians hated for Jesus' name. The church has always faced these things, in one measure or another, in fits and starts, just like a woman in labor. When the birth pains come, then they recede, then they come again in greater force, then recede. We know how this goes. We know that the end is coming, it's on the horizon, it's getting nearer. But we can't say exactly when.

But Jesus doesn't tell us all this to scare us. He knows well enough that we have enough fear living in this fallen world. He's not simply trying to get us to wake up and shape up, and live a good life with the short time we have left. As if threats of the law could do that anyway.

But it should drive us to repentance. Repent of your attachment to the supposedly impressive things of this world, which is passing away. Repent of your adherence to anyone who teaches falsely in Christ's name. Repent of your fears of what may come, of who may oppose you, and your lack of trust in Christ. Repent, and believe in Christ!

And hear that Jesus is also speaking words of comfort to his dear flock, not one of which he means to lose from his hand.

“The one who endures to the end will be saved”. In other words: have faith. Have trust in me. For I have come to save. No matter how bad it gets. No matter what troubles may come. No matter what armies march into your backyard and destroy your homes and burn your churches. No matter what natural disasters befall you. Though the earth shakes it all down and the fields dry up and waste away. I am with you to the end. So endure to the end. You will be saved. I won't let you fall. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies. And he who lives and believes in me will never die.
Jesus endured all of this and worse, for you, on the cross. He knows what it is to suffer all, and to see your world come crashing down before you. He suffered the wrath of God for the sins of the world. Every injustice against every innocent. Every violence, every cruelty, every hatred – this man of sorrows carried it all on that wooden cross. And his sacrifice was for it all. The sins of the world. To save the world.

Though false teachers will come and give false words about him, his word, and his work. Yet he promises that his faithful people will not be without his Spirit. And that Spirit will give us even the words to speak before councils and synagogues and even before governors and kings. That word never changes. That word of the Gospel which shows Jesus Christ crucified for sin, to save the world. And that Gospel must be preached to all nations.

So rather than worrying about when all this will happen, it is enough for us to know that it will. And that Christ knows it, and is still going to save us. No matter how bad it gets, no matter what you must suffer now or in the future – Jesus suffered all, and has gone before you to save. He faced death, but conquered it. And now you share in his victory. He has saved you. And he will save you, even for all eternity. Cling to this word. Even to the end. Believe it for Jesus's sake. Amen.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 24 - Mark 12:38-44

What About Widows?
November 8th, 2015
Mark 12:38-44

Today's Gospel reading comes from Jesus' teachings in the temple during Holy Week.  In those days, he taught many things recorded for us in the Gospels.  But today, we focus on two main ideas – both which set before us the widow.

In the first, Jesus warns against the Scribes, who “devour widow's houses”.  And in the second thought, Jesus commends the widow who offered her mites, or small coins to the temple treasury.

Let's take a closer look at how the widows fit in to Jesus' teaching in today's reading.

For starters, some background on what it means to be a widow.  By definition, a widow is someone who has faced death, up close and personal.  Some of you, even here today, know what this means.  You've lived it.  To be a widow, then, as now, means weeping and mourning.  It is to face sorrow and grief, which may dull over the years but will hardly be forgotten.

The fact that we have husbands and wives who are separated by death after years of life and love together – is another dread reminder of the fallen, sinful world in which we live.  Without the sin of Adam and Eve, which we inherit and perpetuate, there would be no such thing as widows, for there would be no such thing as death.

In ancient times, far more than today, to be a widow also meant financial disaster.  As if the sorrow of losing one's husband wasn't enough, a widow was left without a source of income and support.  She was forced to turn to others for such help.  If she had sons, they would take her in.  But if not, a widow's grief was then compounded by her financial ruin, as she joined the beggars and lived her sad days out in destitution.  Widows and orphans are grouped together, then, as the poorest of the poor, and the most in need of the kindness of strangers.

Our Lord God has a special concern for the widow.  The term is mentioned almost 80 times in Scripture. But not everyone shared such a concern for these vulnerable individuals.  Instead, some, like the Scribes who Jesus warns against, even preyed upon the widows.

These Scribes were a piece of work for many reasons.  Jesus paints them as pretentious showboats who love the attention and adulation of others.  Who make a great show of their grand religious extravagance, fancy robes, long prayers, and the like.  But all of this is window dressing.  It hides the wickedness behind the robes, the evil that they do.  They exploit even the vulnerable widows for their own greedy gain.  Their religion is really a sham.  It is self-serving, not neighbor-serving.  Not only should we watch out for people like this, but we especially should not be anything like them.

But are we?  Isn't there a little scribe or pharisee in every human heart that loves to make a show of our own righteousness?  If not to others, then perhaps to ourselves?  Or even in our own mind, or we imagine, before our God?  Maybe we're not so bold as the scribes, but the temptations to tout our own spiritual achievements abound.  But it's just as much of a show.

Where God would have humility, our hearts are filled with pride.  Where God would have us serve others, we are only too happy to be served.  After all, we tell ourselves, we deserve it.  Where God would have us sacrifice of ourselves for the vulnerable and needy – we find twisted ways to take advantage, and shirk our responsibilities, neglecting those who need our help.

So then Jesus sat and watched all those who came to offer their gifts toward the temple treasury.  And it seems many made quite a show of it.  The rich, especially, who put in large sums for all to see.  Look at me.  Look at my good works.  But Jesus is not impressed.  Until we see the poor widow.  She comes with two small copper coins, worth only a penny.  Who knows if it was even enough to buy a single meal.  But it was all she had.  Her entire net worth.  And she gave it all.

Jesus commends her, and points his disciples to her example.  The others gave out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

Again we are condemned.  Maybe we escaped the accusation of the law, and could make the case that we're not as bad as the scribes, those showboating predators.  But who among us can live up to the standards of this widow?  Who can give all they have?  She puts us all to shame.  Like the rich young man who went away sad because he had great wealth, are we not also condemned in comparison to this widow who gave all she had to live on?  How could she do that, anyway?

The text doesn't spell it out, but the answer must lie in her faith.

Man does not live by bread alone.  And surely this widow didn't have enough, even to buy bread.  But she was rich in faith, for she generous gift confessed her trust in the one who provides for our needs.  The one who cares for us, body and soul.  The one in whom we have life, and have it abundantly.

Jesus doesn't need your treasures, but he desires your heart.  Jesus doesn't need your mites, your dollars, your wealth or inheritance.  But he wants you to belong to him entirely.  And he would even give his all to make it so.  He purchased and won us from sin, death and the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.  That you and I may be his own...

Jesus, a man well acquainted with grief and sorrow.  A man who knew the weaknesses and burdens we carry.  One who knew poverty from his humble birth in Bethlehem, and as a man had no place even to lay his head.  He who was stripped of all belongings, even the clothes on his back which they divided among themselves.  He who was deserted by his friends.  He who was forsaken by his Father.  He who was born of a virgin, and whose death pierced his own mother's heart.  But even in his death he cared for her, a widow, “woman behold your son, John, behold your mother”.  Just as he cares for all widows and orphans and beggars and all the bedraggled masses of sinners that ever looked to him for salvation.  He gives it.  He gives it all.

Elijah, a prophet of God, once cared for a widow and her son at Zarepeth.  She first showed her faith by hospitality, giving the last of what she had to live on to provide a meal for this traveling man of God. “Let's eat the last of it, and then die” she said.  Through a divine miracle, she was given food to eat, daily bread and oil that didn't run out.  So far our Old Testament reading today.

But the very next verses go on to tell how the woman's son died anyway.  Then she turned her anger on this wandering prophet.  But an even greater miracle was afoot.  For now the Lord would raise her dead son through this prophet.  Her weeping would be turned to joy.

Jesus is the greater son of a widow, and the greater prophet than Elijah.  His sustenance never fails or runs out.  Our sins never exhaust the supply of his merits, won a the cross.  He never fails to invite us to his table, giving bread and wine that are the very body and blood of God for poor, grieving sinners to eat and drink, and live.

And he who died for all scribes and widows and orphans and pharisees and even for you – also rose from the dead for you and for all.  He gives hope to all who mourn the wages of sin, to all who have tasted the bitterness of death, to all who are poor.

Therefore love one another.  Give generously to those who need.  Care for the least among you, even the widow.  And give thanks to him who gives hope even to the hopeless, and has comfort for all who mourn, even widows, whose Son died and rose to make it so, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Sermon - All Saints Day - 2015

All Saints' Day
Revelation 7:9-17
November 1st, 2015

Our text this All Saints' Day is from John's vision in Revelation – to be more clear, what Jesus Christ revealed to St. John. Revelation uses these word pictures to show us eternal truths of God's kingdom. Like the angel flying overhead with the eternal Gospel – which we heard about last Sunday. When did that happen? It's always been God's way – to send messengers who bear his message – and it will be that way forever.

Today, we read John's vision of the great multitude clothed in white. It is another anchor of comfort in the sometimes stormy clouds Revelation paints. A moment to exhale and be comforted by a picturesque promise of the blessings that His people enjoy in Christ. Blessings we enjoy now, and will enjoy fully in the age to come.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,

This is the church, of all times and places. It is a grand reunion into one body, now one visible multitude, of the many who on earth were divided by national borders, lines of lineage, and mother tongues.

They are innumerable. Like stars in the sky and sand on the seashore, the multitude cannot be counted by any of us (though certainly God knows its exact number). This is the final fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, for all his children by faith are now gathered into the final family reunion. Here, in glory, the church is one.

Sin, which had divided us in so many ways, is now behind us. No longer is the judgment of Babel enforced, in which the languages were confused and the people scattered – for God knew that if we were united in our sinfulness, no sin would be too great for our human pride to accomplish together. So just as he punished Adam and Eve with exile, for their own good, so they wouldn't eat of the tree of life and live forever in their sin, so he scattered the nations at Babel to prevent us from joining our wickedness as one.

But now, in the church's final glory, all is right again. Any rifts of division are washed away in the blood of the Lamb. All the national distinctions and ethnic tensions melt. And the language becomes one again. Just like it did at Pentecost. When each heard the wonders of God being declared in his own tongue. The Apostles preached the Gospel of Jesus to all people – and all people heard it as the Spirit gave them utterance.

So today, the church speaks and hears the same language – the language of the Gospel. That in Jesus Christ, all are one, all are holy, all are saints.

standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,

Palm Sunday peeks its head out today, too. But this is a far better Palm Procession. For these branch-wavers are no longer crying “Hosanna”, that is, “Save us Now”, but they are singing to the one who HAS saved them. They are are not anticipating the one who rides the donkey just might be the Son of David come to save. They know full well he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The Passover in Egypt pointed to him as a shadow. John the Baptist said it clearly. And Jesus fulfilled it fully, when on the altar of the cross, he made the perfect sacrifice of... himself. He is the perfect and spotless Lamb without blemish, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Lamb who once was slain but now lives forever enthroned in glory.

For they stand in his throne room. They are before him in his place of honor. And he rules there, from his throne, for their benefit. He is their advocate with the Father. He is the one intercessor of God and man. And he, the Lamb that was slain but now lives – is both true God and true man to eternity. He is one of them. He is one of us.

and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

They shout the triumph call. It's worth saying and worth saying LOUDLY. Salvation belongs to the Father and the Son. Our God who sits on his throne, and his Son, the Lamb. The Father sent the Son, and the Son completed the Father's mission. He died for all and rose again for all. He paid the price, fought the good fight, and conquered death once and for all. And the victory – it's ours. He doesn't keep it to himself. We share that in the triumph he won on our behalf. By pure grace, all that He has is ours.

And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,

All creation joins the church in continual worship. Not even the highest ranking angels with all their mysterious might are immune from falling on their faces in the presence of God's almighty glory. The Elders – the 24 who represent the church's spokesmen in both Old and New Testament times – they too, join this heavenly worship. And the four living creatures – with the head of the man, the ox, the lion and the eagle – show that even the wisest and strongest and fiercest and swiftest of all creation defers to the majesty of its Creator. We are not worthy to even come before him. But he makes us worthy. Always and ever.

saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

The content of their praise, a sevenfold (a holy) song:
Blessing – We bless him from whom all blessings flow.
Glory – That mysterious quality of God that shows his surpassing worth
Wisdom – Omniscience – all knowing, all seeing
Thanksgiving – For we are ever-grateful for all his benefits, and he is ever benevolent.
Honor – The highest honor, which no medal can designate and no proclamation exhaust
Power – Dynamic, explosive, thunderous power to destroy and create at will
Might – The Lord of all hosts, or heavenly armies, who serve at his command
He is the superlative of all this and more, forever and ever. But for all the superlatives, we are about to see the most wondrous work he has done. An accomplishment to exceed them all.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

And we have some heavenly catechesis here. “Who is this crowd of exultant worshippers?” John is asked. And like a child too fearful to offer a guess, he demurs, “Sir, you know”. And now the answer.
These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” And let's be clear – this is not some special group of elite believers who've earned a better heaven than you poor schlubs. It's not some particularly faithful and holy subset of Christians who faced trials way harder than yours, and thus deserve a more impressive reward.

We all must face, and daily do face the great tribulation. The great struggles and turmoils of the life of faith lived in a fallen world. Fear and doubt. Temptations of all kinds. Wondering, “how long, oh Lord, until you hear my cry?” Loneliness and sorrow and grief – and all other sorts of cross-bearing that the people of the cross have been given to do. Even the struggles against our own fallen nature – this is all the great tribulation. And we are troubled in various ways at various times. This is the church as a whole. This is the entirety of God's people. So it has always been.

But they are now those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
They have come through the great tribulation. Their robes were soiled – sullied and stained by the stench of sin and death. Torn to shreds and stinking to high heaven, but certainly not fit attire for the very throne room of God. But by God's grace they have come through clean and clear on the other side, through the one who cleanses them, and cleanses us by His blood.

They have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, but with a Good Shepherd to guide them. Some were martyred. Some we cast down by the world. Some were persecuted for righteousness' sake. Some were cut down in youth. Some languished for years in ill health. Some were mourned but the world, but others were forgotten. Some suffered the senseless abuse of strangers, or friends, or even family. But all bear the baptismal seal upon their brow, the seal of him who died. And so they who toiled in Christ's kingdom now have blessed rest from their labors.

They bore crosses, for so did our leader who went before us and paved the way to heaven. But so also will they follow him into glory, and life eternal:

Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs o living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Here we find some of the most precious promises of all Holy Scripture.
These saints, all the saints, and that means you too – will be ever before the throne of God, serving him day and night in his temple. And God will shelter them with his presence.
Friends, there is nothing better than to be in the presence of God, forever. There in perfect communion with our Creator, paradise is restored – and even better. There aren't enough “veries” to tell how very good it will be.

The Elder speaks to John in poetic language of earthly provision: No more hunger, no more thirst. No more scorching heat. In other words, no more physical wants or needs. No more pain or worry about tomorrow. We'll have all that we need and then some. God will shelter us with his very presence. But it gets better.

The Lamb, Jesus, will be our shepherd. And he will guide us, not just to green pastures and still waters, but to the springs of living water. The river of life itself. And so death and all its sorrow become a distant memory for those in his eternal sheepfold.

And this tender promise, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”. Like a loving parent who kisses the child's boo-boo. God will, so very personally, take all hurt and pain away. And can we put on a finer point than that?

Jesus suffered all, endured all pain, cried all his tears for you. He knows your weakness, he knows your pain and then some (and then some!). He has answer to every drop of sadness that wells up and runs down your cheek. And he will wipe every tear from your eye on that blessed day when you re-unite with him and all the saints in glory. This is our hope. This is our future. This is his promise, and what a beautiful promise it is.

Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Sermon - Mark 10:2-16 - Pentecost 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 28, 2015

Movie Review - "Pawn Sacrifice"

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon - Mark 9:38-50 - Pentecost 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sermon - Mark 9:14-23 - Pentecost 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Good Works Uncertainty Principle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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