Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sermon - Lent 3 - Luke 13:1-9

“A Murder, a Calamity, and a Patient Vinedresser”
Luke 13:1-9
Lent 3, March 24, 2019

Lent is a good time to think about things more deeply and seriously, especially those things of the faith.  It is a time to ponder and meditate on deeper truths, perhaps more than we do even the rest of the year as Christians.  There is a serious tone.  A sober awareness of our sins that the Lenten scriptures place before us.  And of course, always, we have an eye on the destination – the Cross of Christ, Holy Week, Good Friday, etc.

Today Jesus discusses the topic of suffering in our reading from Luke.  Suffering is an experience that is common to all human beings, at one time or another, in one form or another.  Living in this fallen and broken world, you simply can’t escape it.  And yet we seem to think otherwise.  It is in times of suffering, it seems, that people tend to either grow deeper and deeper in faith, or else at times suffering becomes a cause for despair, and can even lead people to turn away from God in anger.

And so one point that Jesus raises with his examples here – of the people murdered by Pilate and of the people who were crushed when the tower of Siloam fell – one point is this:  Suffering and Evil come upon all people in various ways – and it’s not necessarily because they’ve done something particular to deserve it.

The people whose blood Pilate mixed with the sacrifices were not greater sinners than anyone else (nor does Jesus say they were less so).  Likewise, the people who died under the tower hadn’t done any particular sin to deserve such a death, though Jesus doesn’t deny they were sinners at all.

When we humans consider the causes for sufferings, however, we often want to imagine a scorecard – as if we can even keep score of our many sins.  And we want to suggest, sometimes at least, that this sinner or that sinner had it coming.  He really got what he deserved.  She really was asking for it, anyway.  And sometimes even with a hint of schadenfreude – that glee at the misfortune of others.  But what’s behind that is an implication:  That don’t deserve the same, or worse.  That I, myself, am a better person, more worthy of God’s favor, more upright and righteous and yeah well maybe I’m a sinner but I’m not as bad as THAT guy.  Chief of sinners though I be, at least I’m not as bad as thee!

But Jesus comes to that sort of thinking, and he knocks it all down.  He says, “No.  They weren’t worse sinners than you.  But unless you repent, you too will perish!”  Wait a minute, Jesus, you can’t do that!  I was busy using someone else’s suffering to make myself comfy in self-righteousness!  You can’t come and pull the rug out from under me!  You can’t point out that I deserve punishment like that, and worse!  And Jesus says, “Oh yeah, just watch me!”

There is no room for dancing on the grave of other sinners in the Christian faith.  There is no cause to revel in the calamities and sufferings of others, even of the most wicked among us.  And the reason is this.  We deserve the same and worse.  If God treated us justly and only justly…. If he gave us what our sins deserve…  If he counted against us everything that is right and fair…. We would have bigger problems than wicked rulers and towers falling upon us.  We say it well when we confess we deserve both eternal but also temporal punishment.  That means, in time, here, now. 

So Jesus says, “Repent!  And unless you repent, you too will perish!” Jesus doesn’t answer the “why” of the question, why some suffered this calamity or that evil.  He tells us, though, to stop looking for the reasons why – and start looking at our own predicament.  Rather than playing judge and marking our scorecard, we have our own house to clean, our own sins to address.  Repent!  Mind your business, Christian!  And your business is always repentance.  Confess your sins.  Turn from them.  And turn to Christ in faith and live.

Why then do so many of the wicked, the outwardly wicked, the unrepentant – why do they get away with it?  Why doesn’t a tower fall on every bad guy?  Why doesn’t God just smite the unbeliever and the enemies of his people?  Why doesn’t he bring the temporal punishment so richly deserved?  Jesus’ next little parable addresses this question, but again, not in the way we might expect:

He tells of a fig tree which isn’t producing figs.  It’s not doing what it’s supposed to do.  It’s useless, and taking up space, for three years not doing anything useful.  So the owner tells the gardener to cut it down, tear it out; burn it up.  But for whatever reason, the gardener begs for patience.  He says, “Give it another year, master, just one more year.  Let me fertilize it, and then let’s see if we get some fruit”.  The assumption is, the master grants such patience.

So the lesson the parable is this:  God is patient;  He’s giving extra time for repentance.  He doesn’t want to destroy anyone he’s created, and patiently, faithfully, calls people to repentance.  But there is a limit to his patience, and so the best time to repent is always today!

And what of the gardener?  Some have suggested this is Christ himself, the one who stands between the sinner and God the Father and begs for mercy, the intercessor, the mediator.  Or, perhaps, and maybe also, Christ’s pastors – who carry the message of Christ forward even in this day, and who spread the fertilizer of the Gospel liberally. 

The point is, that God wants repentance from you, and he gives you multiple opportunities and occasions to turn from your sin, and to turn to him in faith.  And some of those, are even the sufferings of this life.

Martin Luther tells a delightful dialogue about what a vine might say to the gardener if it could speak:

The vine sees the vinedresser, or gardener, coming with his pruning shears and other tools to work around it and says: "What are you doing? That hurts, don't you know that? Now I must wither and decay, for you are removing the soil from around my roots and are tearing away at my branches with those iron teeth. You are tearing and pinching me everywhere, and I will have to stand in the ground bare and seared. You are treating me worse than any tree or plant."

And the gardener would then reply: "You are a fool and do not understand. For even if I do cut a branch from you, it is a totally useless branch; it takes away your strength and your sap. Then the other branches, which should bear fruit, must suffer. Away with it! This is for your own good." Then the vine would say: "But you do not understand! I have a different feeling about it!" The gardener declares: "But I understand it well. I am doing this for your welfare, to keep the foreign and wild branches from sucking out the strength and the sap of the others. Now you will be able to yield more and better fruit and produce good wine."

The same thing is true when the gardener applies the cow manure to the root of the vine; this, too he does for the benefit of the vine even though the vine might complain and say: "What in the world are you doing? Isn't it bad enough for you to hack and cut at me all day long, trimming this and cutting off that branch? Why, now are you putting that foul smelling stuff at my roots?! I am a vine, to yield delicious grapes to make wonderful wine, and you are putting that terrible smelling stuff near me, it will destroy me!" Of course, we know well that the badly smelling manure does well to put fertilizer and nutrients into the soil so that the vine might grow and prosper and produce an even better crop.

What Luther is saying here, indeed, what Christ is saying, is that sometimes life hurts. Sometimes life stinks. But God the patient gardener knows better than we the branches. And he has our best interests in mind, though it may not always seem so to us.  He does his work, in sometimes mysterious ways, always to bring about repentance and faith.

Sometimes the process is unpleasant – stinking like manure. But the fruit of faith is sweet indeed, when the sinner sees the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And the point is not so much, “get busy making fruit” as it is, “wonder at the patience of the gardener”, whose wrath at your fruitless tree is put away in the tree of the Cross, and the one who was there cut down for you.

Repent and believe, for our Lord is patient.  He works even through calamity and sorrow to draw you to himself.  Even as he has done through the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord.  May we take up our little crosses and follow him who bore the cross of Calvary for us.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Midweek Lent 3 - Matthew 26:15 and 27:3-10 - Thirty Pieces of Silver

“The Symbols of Lent”
Thirty Pieces of Silver
Matthew 26:15 and 27:3-10

[Judas said] “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver.

Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus[a] was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, 4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. 6 But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” 7 So they took counsel and bought with them the potter's field as a burial place for strangers. 8 Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, 10 and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me.”

Perhaps no figure represents the bitterness of our Lord’s passion, aside from Jesus himself, as the one who betrayed him, Judas, the man from the town of Carioth, that is, Ish-Carrioth, Iscariot.  His very name, Judas, is a byword, a synonym for betrayal.  You don’t find many children named Judas nowadays, much more than you find many Adolphs or Jezebells running around.  And for good reason.  What’s more bitter and painful than the betrayal of a friend?

Maybe you’ve experienced this in your own life.  Someone who was once close to you, who shared your table, shared your secrets, maybe even a spouse – turns on you in an act of betrayal, stabs the knife in your back, and breaks your trust in a way you never imagined.  It’s one thing to suffer the wrongdoing of an enemy.  That, you pretty much expect.  But when a friend does you wrong.  You not only suffer from the wrong itself, but from the broken trust.  You end up going back and re-thinking your entire relationship.  How long has this person been against me?  Why didn’t I see the signs sooner?  Was it something I did that made them act this way?  And all this doubt and regret rubs into the wound as if it were salt.

Well in the case of Judas, Jesus knew he would do it.  I don’t think that took away any of the bitterness.  Maybe it made it even worse.

Then take the 30 pieces of silver themselves.  This was the traditional price of a slave.  Particularly in Exodus 31:20, it is the price paid to a master for a slave that is accidentally killed, gored by an ox.  So it is the price of a dead slave.  How fitting for Jesus.  He who is greatest among us because he makes himself to be a slave of all. He who is killed, not by accident, and not by an ox, but according to God’s own divine purpose and plan, and pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and crucified for our salvation.

Moreover, there is an unusual prophecy in Zechariah 11, in which wicked rulers paid the prophet 30 pieces of silver for his work of prophesying their doom.  The price was considered an insult, the price of a dead slave, that’s what they thought of him.  Zechariah then says, “so I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter”  Just as Judas later returned the money, throwing it into the temple, and it was used to buy the potter’s field.

That Jesus was sold for this prices is also intended as an insult by his wicked foes.  A further humiliation among all the humiliations and sufferings he endured – both to his body, and to his honor.

And what a great reversal, that he who was sold for mere silver, comes to redeem us from death with a far greater treasure.  He “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death.”

Jesus is betrayed, Jesus is sold, Jesus suffers and Jesus dies…. Precisely for the Judases of the world.  Precisely for all those who would betray him, sell him out, exchange the truth for a lie, and the eternal treasures for the earthly bric-a-brac of sin.

For while you may well identify with Jesus in this case, as someone who has been betrayed, won’t you also consider how you are like the Judas who does the betraying?

Don’t think you have?  Think you’ve always been faithful to God?  Then think again.  For Christian, you betray him every time you sin.  You sell him out every time you decide your own comfort and pleasure is worth more than his holy law.  When you despise preaching and his word, or hurt or harm your neighbor, or rebel against rightful authority, or covet your neighbor’s stuff.  When you speak ill of your neighbor and harm his reputation.  When you put some other thing, some other idea, some other anything before the one true God.  And often the price is not even worth 30 pieces of silver.

We are no better than Judas.  We can’t stand in judgment over him, wagging our fingers, “shame, shame, Judas, how could you betray Jesus?” That finger needs to point back at ourselves.

Judas, for his part, at least felt bad about what he had done.  He repented, in a way.  He got the contrition part.  He tried to take it back, but it was too late.  You can’t take back your sins.  You can’t buy your way out of your debt.  You can’t throw the sins back where they came from, for the evil comes from you!  Judas was right to regret his grievous betrayal, but as the coins clinked down on the temple floor, sadly, his story ended in tragedy.  For he lacked the second part of repentance.  He knew his sin, but he didn’t trust his savior.

Take for a contrast, Peter, who we heard about last week – Peter, who in his own way also betrayed Jesus – denying him three times.  Judas fell into despair, but Peter was restored and forgiven.  Both played a bitter role in Jesus’ passion.  But only Peter would receive redemption in faith.

And so for you, dear Christian.  Consider your own little betrayals of Christ, but do not despair as Judas did.  Hear the comforting and forgiving words of Jesus, words of restoration, like Peter did.  Do you love me?  Feed my sheep.

And look at what happened with those pieces of silver.  The blood money.  Tainted and corrupted by the sin they were used to commit.  Given and received by both the betrayer and the enemies of Jesus.  And yet, from these, God worked even some good.  Besides playing their part in bringing Jesus toward the cross, these coins purchased a field for the burial of foreigners.  It was called, “The field of blood”, in Hebrew, “Akeldama”.  In reference perhaps to the blood of Judas that was spilled when he killed himself there, or perhaps also to the blood of Jesus, who was betrayed with it.  Unclean foreigners, unclean corpses, and unclean blood money.  And then the bloody hanging corpse of Judas as the finishing touch of this picture of betrayal and sin and what it brings – ugly, ugly death.

But the bitter sufferings and death of Jesus lead to something else.  In Jesus’ death, by Jesus blood, there is hope.  Consider also the allusion to Jeremiah, which Matthew mentions.  It references an incident where Jeremiah (at God’s direction) bought a field with some pieces of silver.  For the people of Jeremiah’s day, it was a prophetic action that there was hope for the future – hope beyond the invading armies of Babylon and the troubles of the day – hope that God would remain faithful to his promises, and return the people from their exile, plant them in the land again.

In Jesus there is hope for the future, for you and me.  Even when we suffer, even when we suffer the betrayals of friends, or even if our own flesh should betray us (and it surely does), we have a friend in Jesus who will never double-cross us.  Even when our own betrayals weigh us down, we are not driven to despair, because the cross of Jesus and the blood of Jesus restore us, and bring us even from the grave, to a life in the world to come.

This Lenten season, repent and believe.  Exchange the silver coins of betrayal for the precious blood of Jesus. And rest assured that you are redeemed by him from slavery to sin and death.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sermon - Luke 13:31-35 - Lent 2

Luke 13:31-35
“O, Jerusalem”

In 2007 I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land.  It was a typical sight-seeing trip geared toward Christian pilgrims.  We saw all the usual sites, many of them churches.  One of the sites we stopped at was a church named “Dominus Flevit”, in Latin, “The Lord Wept”.  It was founded in the mid 1950s by the Roman Catholics to mark the location, half-way down the Mount of Olives, where Jesus stopped as he was approaching Jerusalem, the place where he wept over the city that would ultimately reject him.  It is one of the few churches that faces West instead of East, the same direction Jesus faced.  It is shaped like a teardrop, to symbolize Christ’s weeping.  And it also has, prominently featured, a beautiful mosaic of a hen gathering up her chicks, echoing these words of Jesus in our Gospel reading for today. 

It’s a powerful image, a mother hen, brooding over her chicks.  Gathering them up to lead and protect them from harm.  Of all the images that God uses to describe himself – husband, father, king – here is one that is actually a feminine picture.  It speaks of the deep and compassionate love that Jesus has for people, and for this capital of his own nation, his earthly tribe.

It’s all the more powerful, knowing the slaughter that was to come, as Jesus surely did.  Throughout the Gospels he predicts the destruction and desolation of Jerusalem that would come to pass in 70 AD under the Romans.  They finally tired of Jewish rebellions and destroyed the Holy City, even its temple.  Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells the history of those days, describes the horrors, as the Romans laid siege, and built a hill of dirt surrounding the city – and ringed the entire city with crosses.  No wonder Jesus weeps.  No wonder he describes these events and weaves it all in with his description of the end of the world.  For those ancient people, it must have seemed very much like the end of the world.

But the judgment poured out on Jerusalem is just a shadow of the final judgment that is coming to this corrupt world, and to all those who reject their savior.  This is not what Jesus wants.  He weeps over those who have gone astray, who have given up the truth for a lie, and have gone after false gods. 
What a great text this is for the season of Lent!  Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, and so are we.  We are setting our face toward the cross, toward our annual observance of his suffering and death and resurrection – all to take place at Jerusalem.

And as we look toward Jerusalem in this penitential season, look also at the tender heart of Jesus, longing for the repentance and salvation of his people.  Look at his compassion.  He wills to gather them up and protect them, cover them from all harm, and keep them safe.  But he does this without force, without compulsion.  He says, “but you were not willing!”  No, we are not saved, nor do we come to faith of our own will.  But we can willfully reject the gifts he offers and brings.  Even repentance is a gift of God, brought about by the Spirit working in the word, and without any merit or worthiness in me.  But those who refuse to repent have to answer for that themselves.

So, repent!  Turn from your sins, again, even today, and find shelter under the wings of your Lord Jesus.  He will gather you up, keep you from death and devil and judgment.  And there, with Jesus, you can rest safe and secure.

And he laments, weeps, mourns for those who would turn away from him and from his salvation.  Not because his feelings are hurt.  But because he knows the judgment they face.  He’s much like Jeremiah, who shows up through no mere coincidence, in our Old Testament reading today.  Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet”, because he had the bitter calling to preach repentance to Jerusalem, a Jerusalem who would not repent.  A Jerusalem who would not hear.  And Jeremiah would live to see its destruction in 587 B.C., and himself be carried off to exile in Babylon.

Jesus also mentions that Jerusalem is the city that kills the prophets.  And while not every prophet is killed there, Jerusalem in this sense stands for the whole nation of Israel, and really, for all who oppose the Gospel.  Jesus elaborates in the parallel text to this from Matthew 23:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

The fate of a prophet, all too often, in Scripture, and in every day and age, is persecution, and often death.  Jesus even says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12)

And if this is true for the prophets, it is certainly true for the Prophet of all Prophets, Jesus himself.  He knew his destination, and his destiny.  He knew the cup that he must drink.  He knew the betrayal was coming.  He knew his friends would abandon him.  He knew they’d let a murderer go instead of him, an innocent man.  He knew both Jews and Romans would conspire.  And he knew it would be a cross. 

Think of the parable of the wicked tenants, who mistreated servant after servant, until the master sent his own son, saying, “they will respect him”.  But the tenants murdered him.  The master then returned and destroyed them.  Yes, Jesus knew exactly what awaited him at Jerusalem.

And yet he weeps and laments, not for himself, but for Jerusalem.  For his people who would reject him, who send him to the cross.

The cross.  It is the center of gravity in all things for us Christians.  It is the chief aim and focus of Jesus’ earthly work.  It is the culmination of the Old Testament and the foundation stone of the New.  It is the fruition of the first promise, and the basis for all other promises God makes.  The Lamb of God is slain from the foundation of the world, and the people washed in his blood will sing his praises into eternity.  The cross, the death of the prophet of God in the city of God for the people of God. 

The Jews tried to shoo Jesus away from Jerusalem by threatening him with Herod.  “He’s out to get you Jesus!  Run away!”  But Jesus isn’t afraid of Herod or death.  Jesus is not deterred, and calls Herod a “fox”.  A sly and deceitful politician won’t stand in the way of this plain-speaking prophet with a mission. Death is precisely the thing.  And Jerusalem is the place.

And isn’t it interesting that Jesus has “three days” in his mind – he says, “I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.”  Certainly he means that his work of preaching and healing must precede his work of suffering and death.  But this talk of the third day seems an oblique reference to Easter, the resurrection of the third day – the necessary epilogue to his passion and death.  Jesus outfoxes his enemies on earth, and even the devil himself, by turning death into life – both for himself, and for all he gathers up.

If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you – a prophet’s reward, a prophet’s death, and a resurrection that was both prophesied and fulfilled.  So, you, bear your own cross, whatever it may be.  Repent when you sin.  Remain faithful in all things.  Take comfort under his wings of protection.  His cross was not for nothing.  And it is your everything. 

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  He who wept for you has died for you.  Repent and believe.  And take comfort under his wings. 

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Sermon - Ash Wednesday - Genesis 3:19

Ash Wednesday
Symbols of Lent
“Ashes”  Genesis 3:19

This Lenten Season, for our midweek series, we will ponder some of the symbols of Lent.  These are some of the tangible things, the items that we associate with this season of penitence and reflection.  They are taken mostly from the Passion narrative of our Lord – markers in the text that accompany different aspects of his suffering on our behalf.

We will consider the crowing rooster, the 30 pieces of silver, the whip or scourge, the crown of thorns and the seamless coat of Christ.  May these images from the text of our Lord’s passion serve as windows to draw us in and consider the depth and breadth of both his suffering for our sin, but also of his great love for sinners.

Today, however, Ash Wednesday, a slight departure from that.  The image before us is not directly from the Passion account, but rather it is in the name of the day – Ashes.  The symbol that marks the beginning of this season for us.  A symbol that we even wear on our brows in a ceremonial expression of repentance. 

This is from the pages of Scripture.  But as we chase down this symbol and how it has been used, we will see several things:  Yes, ashes were a sign of deep sorrow and repentance.  Ashes were what was left after God’s wrath and judgment are poured out, even with fire. But ashes were also what remained of a sacrifice – a burnt offering.  And that draws us to consider the once-and-for-all sacrifice that Jesus made for us all.

Ashes as mark of repentance:  Consider some of the passages in which ashes are used as an outward expression of a deep inner sorrow over sin:

The people of Nineveh used ashes in their expression of repentance – when the prophet Jonah preached, “40 days and Nineveh will be destroyed”. 

Mordecai and the Jews in Babylon expressed their sorrow and repentance by sackcloth and ashes in the book of Esther.

Likewise Daniel speaks of his use of ashes in Daniel 9; “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” Job also repents in “dust and ashes”.  And Tamar, after she was violated, put ashes on herself, in an expression of deep shame and sorrow.

Time and again, ashes serve as an outward sign of inner sorrow, remorse, shame, guilt, grief and mourning.  While we express our thoughts and feelings with words and now emojis and other various ways, the ancients used these types of symbolic actions in a powerful display, just as they tore garments and donned sackcloth.

Today, as we partake of a similar ritual, and receive ashes on our foreheads – let it not be for show as if to impress other people – but rather as a community of faith to remind ourselves and each other that we are dust – and that because of our sins, to dust we will return.  Death is the wages of sin, and that we have each earned well.  When you see the ashes on your fellow Christians – let it remind you – that you are one of them – and that together we bear the same sin, together we mourn our own shame.  Just as together we make confession of it.

But that same community is also the baptized – so that the filth of sin is daily washed away.  This body is connected to each other and to Christ in a blessed communion, and so we will also come forward to receive the remedy – the blessed Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  The ashes are a temporary reminder.  But the blessings and promises of God are everlasting.

Ashes as leftovers of judgment:
Another use of the image of ashes in Scripture is to show what is left after judgment comes.  And since judgment is often served or at least pictured by fire, ashes are all that remain.  When an invading army conquers a city – they burn it to the ground.  When the hot anger of the Lord breathes from his flaring nostrils, the wicked are burned up like stubble.

Daniel 3:  [the king decreed that any] who speak anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made an ash heap.
One of Isaiah’s more colorful threats is that those who have a deluded heart will feed on ashes (Isaiah 44:20)

2 Peter 2:
[God] condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.

Ashes are a reminder that the judgment of God is fierce and thorough.  His punishment is serious.  This is no slap on the wrist.  For the wicked, no hope remains. 

And this is also a reminder to us when the ashes are applied to our foreheads – remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Adam was formed from the dust, and because of sin Adam returned to the dust, the ashes.  You are a child of Adam, born in sin and continuing to sin.  And so one day your body will return to the ground, return to the dust, ashes to ashes.  (Genesis 3:19)

It’s a sign of repentance but also an acknowledgment of death – we wear it on our foreheads today.  But we wear it in our bodies every day.  The aches and pains, the sniffles and coughs, the conditions and diseases – all are signs of what sin has wrought.  Death is the real problem.  Only Christ has a solution.

And finally, ashes may been seen as the results of a burnt offering, a sacrifice.
Ashes as remnants of a sacrifice:

The burnt offerings of the Old Testament were some of the most important sacrifices.  There, the fires burned upward – as if lifting the sacrifice up to heaven to God himself.  A pleasing aroma to the Lord. Bulls, Lambs, Rams, small birds, all sacrificed for sins.  Abraham almost sacrificed Issac as a burnt offering, until God provided the substitute – a Ram caught in a thicket.

But not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain could give the guilty conscience piece or wash away the stain – of sin.  Not all the burnt offerings we could imagine, not thousands of rams, could satisfy God’s fierce and hot wrath over sin.  Shall I give him my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  Shall I do like Abraham almost did?  Will that suffice?  No, not even that.

But also like with Abraham and Issac, for us, God himself provides the lamb for the offering.  He provides his own Son.  And Jesus willingly offers himself on the altar of the cross.  He is consumed by the wrath of God – he becomes the one sacrifice for sin.  The cross.

Now, normally crucifixion victims were burned, as was the custom of Pagan Romans for disposal of bodies.  It was the Jews who buried their dead.  So when Jesus predicts that he will be buried (and therefore not cremated) it is a notable point about his sacrifice.  Unlike all other sacrifices, which end only in a pile of ashes – Jesus has a different destiny, a burial but also a resurrection.  Not hopelessness, but the source of all hope.  Not sadness and sorrow but joy that springs eternal.  A body that died and was buried but would rise again in glory, appear to many, ascend to heaven, rule at the right hand of the Father, and will one day come again to judge the living and the dead, bodily.

Adam died, and death brought him to ashes.  All of Adam’s children follow in his deadly footsteps.  And dust you are, and to dust you shall return.  But that’s not the end of the story for you. Instead it’s, “Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust… to resurrection.”  Jesus died and conquered death, bringing death and sin and hell and devil to nothing.  And so in him you have a future far beyond the dust of death.  In him you have life, and have it abundantly.

Repent and believe.  For Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Sermon - Epiphany 7 - Luke 6:27-38

“Loving and Judging”
Luke 6:27-38

Last week we heard the beginning of Jesus' famous “Sermon on the Plain”.  Similar to the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew, in which he issued the beloved Beatitudes, last Sunday's Gospel set forth both those who are blessed and those who are cursed, that is to say, believers and unbelievers respectively.  Here, today, we continue with that sermon, and Jesus deals with two topics that help shape the lives of his disciples – loving and judging. Who and how and when are we to love, and to judge our neighbor?

Before we get to that, though, perhaps the Christian does well to consider the basis for our loving of others, and really of everything that we are and do as Christians.  It's all found, first, in the love of Christ.  He who surely practices what he preaches. He certainly loved his own enemies. He gave his cheeks to be struck.  He gave his garments to be divided.  He even prayed, “Father forgive them...” as they nailed him to the cross.  Ah, but those Romans and Jews that put him to death weren't the real enemies.  We were.  Romans 5 teaches us, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”  Yes, Love you enemies, for Jesus has loved you.

Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful, to you!  Do we too easily forget that God didn't HAVE to save us?  That he'd be well within his just rights to mete out punishment for our sins?  But God, instead, loved the world. He sent us the Christ, his own precious Son.  He too loved his enemies, and gave Christ up for us all.

And judgment – we deserve it, of course, but in Christ the judgment is different for us.  The verdict overturned.  The case thrown out.  Christ has born all sin, suffered all punishment, paid the price.  So when he tells you not to judge, he knows a thing or two – he who will judge the nations at his second coming, separating sheep from goats, believers from unbelievers.  He is the righteous judge who was himself condemned to make us righteous who stood condemned under the law.

And so all of what Jesus is about to say is not just a harangue of the law, a lecture in Christian morals that you better follow or else (though it is surely law).  Nor is what follows simply a way to follow him as the perfect example (though he is).  It is, rather instruction in Christian living that is based on the life and death of Christ for us.  We love because he loves us.

The Christian's expression of love, even for his enemies – is solidly rooted in the love Christ has first shown to us.  It is an exercise of the faith the Spirit has worked in us.  It is the natural working of the new man, the believer reconciled to God in his inner being, whose mind is held captive to the word of God and whose spirit is alive in Christ.  All this love – it's simply what we do, according to our faith.

The problem is we are not only new creations – we also have this flesh that clings to us.  And so where the new man would love naturally, without prompting or even encouraging, the old Adam must hear the law, the instruction, the “do this and don't do that”.  Surely this will always expose our sin and failure.  But it also instructs us in the way we ought to be, how and who we ought to love.

This is the life of Christian sanctification.  It is the main topic of both sermons on Mount and Plain, and actually, for much of Jesus' teaching.  We Christians are not anti-nomians.  We don't ignore or despise the law.  The Gospel must predominate, but it doesn't eliminate the law.  Faith saves, but works remain to be done.  Grace alone and faith alone are the way to be saved.  But being saved means doing – living out your faith.  Ephesians 2:8-9 are followed by Ephesians 2:10!

The good works are prepared for us to do – ready and waiting.  The neighbors are there for us to love.  And so there is doing to be done.  And so look at the verbs Jesus uses here.  Imperative verbs, telling us to do stuff:

Love – Do Good – Bless – Pray – Turn – Give – Do not Demand – Likewise do to them – be merciful. Do not judge, do not condemn, forgive, and (again) give.

These things are hard to do!  We have this flesh that wants to do other things!  Hate our enemies.  To do bad things to those who hurt us.  To curse them, not pray for them.  To strike back when they strike us.  To demand our fair and right part.  And to do to them as we think they deserve.

But it's even harder than just simply not doing evil – a sort of a live and let live – Jesus means doing good, even to those who hate you and curse you and harm you – yes, even your enemies!  For even sinners lend to sinners, and love those who love them.  But you Christians who have received my love and mercy – you are to show love and mercy even – even to your enemies!   The bar is higher.  The calling is greater.

Hard to do without failing.  Hard to do without struggling.  So hard, that we can only do these things in Christ, out of faith, and under the grace and mercy he's already shown and continues to show us.

And this word, love – you may have heard the Greek word for it - “Agape”.  It's not the romantic love, or the brotherly love, or even the family love – Greek has different words for all of those.  This is the self-sacrificial love of one for another, the putting another person first, before yourself.  The kind of love that Jesus showed, and showed perfectly in putting the word before himself when he took the world's sin on himself, and suffered the cross for all.  So to show agape is to reflect that Christ-like love to others.  Even to suffer and perhaps to die for them. 

And what about this business of “judging”?  Here's a playground for all sorts of mischief and false teaching.  First we must see this in light of the wider context of Scripture, which tells in other places of “how we ought to judge”.  And so Jesus doesn't mean here, “don't judge, ever, in any way”.  He does seem to be warning us at the very least to not judge harshly or unfairly – for what goes around comes around, and the measure you use will be used on you.  First of all, you'll get your payback from others.  But perhaps even from God.

Martin Luther preached several sermons on this text, and one of the passages he kept close at hand was that of Matthew 18 where we read of the unmerciful servant.  You remember, the servant who owed a great debt, but the master forgave him – and that servant promptly went out and found another servant, who owed him a lesser sum, choked him and threw him in prison for not paying.  What an outlandish story!  But Jesus threatens, “neither will my Father forgive you, if you do not forgive others”.

And likewise, Luther points us to the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7 about straining at the speck in your brother's eye all the while having a log or a plank in your own eye.  It's laughable.  It's ridiculous.  It makes no sense.  But it is just how we are – we who are forgiven much, but fail to forgive others.

So how are we to judge, then?  If you take these words of Jesus in their most literal sense, then no, we are not to judge at all.  But then you have a problem because other places in Scripture teach precisely that we ought to judge.  The words of Jesus in our text speak more to the attitude, toward being judgmental – and unfairly treating our neighbor with harshness rather than mercy. So the real questions are, When is it ok, and on what basis do we judge? 

Well we'd never judge another's heart or his eternal salvation – that surely is for God alone.  And Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Don't take away from him what belongs to him. Oh, but then Paul tells us that on that day we, the believers, will also participate in judging the nations – and even the angels! 

1 Corinthians 6: 1 If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!

Leviticus 19:15 Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.

Proverbs 31:9 Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

And so God does call us to judge in certain times and places – and as with many things for us, the key is really vocation.  Have you been called to judge in this situation, in this way?  Then do so, without fear and hesitation.  But do so justly and fairly.  Do so with an eye toward the mercy that has been shown you in Christ.  Sometimes it's your place to judge – like, if you are, a judge!  Or if you are a parent who is given charge of children to raise.  Or a school teacher or a boss or a pastor or other authority.  Each of these vocations judges, in a sense, in their own sphere, in what is given to them. 

But even more generally, as Christians, we ought to show good judgment that is based on the clear word of God.  We ought to “test the spirits”.  We ought to keep close watch on our doctrine.  Test everything, hold to what is good.  If anyone preaches a different gospel, then let them be anathema!  But always back to the word – never judging on my own opinions, ideas, or wisdom.  Just as a good courtroom judge does his judging based on the law, so the Christian who is given to judge, will only ever do so in accord with the Word of God.

When it is not given to us to judge – let God do the judging.  When it is given to us to judge, let us judge rightly, on the basis of his word – that word of both law and gospel!  Therefore even our rightful judging is informed by a humility that we too are worthy of judgment, and that we who have known mercy might show mercy where possible.

The life of love is hard.  Jesus' words today are a challenge.  We we fail, and often.  Thanks be to God that when we fall, it is always back on his mercy, his love, his forgiveness, his cross... and that in him we are and ever will be judged righteous before God. 

Monday, February 11, 2019

Sermon - Epiphany 6 - Luke 5:1-11

5th Sunday after Epiphany
February 10, 2019
Luke 5:1-11

Things aren't like they used to be, that's fairly obvious. We live in a time of massive and rapid change. It's not just technology that is ever-changing our world, but we are seeing societal and cultural changes at perhaps the most rapid pace of any people in history. The very pillars of western civilization are shaking – and if it started in the 1960s, the readers on the Richter scale are only going up, it seems. If you see the world around us, and are paying attention at all, you have to wonder what kind of world we are leaving for our children.

It shouldn't really surprise us, though. Paul said creation itself is like a woman in labor – and the birth pangs get more intense as the end draws near. Revelation paints all sorts of scary pictures of the chaos that grows and deepens up until the final judgment. Even Genesis helps to explain the situation, showing that the creation under Adam is fallen along with its head, and as the kudzu of the curse sprouts and spreads with each passing generation, far more than thorns and thistles infect the ground – death itself reigns. Christians might seem like we're getting pretty doom-and-gloom as of late, but we've always known the course of history is really a managed decline at best. And so we've always prayed, “come quickly, Lord Jesus”.

But in all of this deterioration and upheaval, cultural, moral and spiritual, some of the changes seem to get lost in the shuffle. And one of those is the loss, for many people, of a sense of reverence. A sense of deep respect or regard for something or someone, and in our context, especially, for the Lord Almighty.

Reverence, respect, regard or even modesty – whatever you call it – it's one of those things that's hard to define and quantify, but you know it when you see it. And you really know it when it's missing. There are simply ways that you act and don't act that communicate and demonstrate your true regard for something. Sure there are shades of it left in our culture, in certain corners – the military, government rituals. Weddings, to some extent, funerals, mostly, although these are changing, too.
Some of the reverence people do maintain is for things that really don't matter all that much, say a famous sports figure or youtube celebrity. And so in all things, confusion reigns. But of course what we are most concerned about is where almighty God fits in all of this.

Isaiah knew reverence. When he saw his vision of the Lord in the temple, he couldn't help but respond as he did. He was not casual about it. He didn't take this lightly. This was not God my good buddy here to share a fist-bump. This is Yahweh Lord of Hosts who shakes the foundations of creation with his breath. This is the one attended by angels, the one whose train fills the temple even as his glory fills creation. There is no more glorious and also more terrifying sight for mortal eyes. Isaiah can only exclaim, “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips...”

Peter knew reverence. He showed it, in part, when he agreed to Jesus' non-sensical seeming instructions on how to catch fish. This professional fisherman must have known better – the fish weren't biting last night, they certainly won't be today. But out of respect for the one he called “Master”, he let down the nets. And then. Then the miracle happened. And Peter had a realization. This was not just a teacher or a master, this one is more appropriately called “Lord.” And Peter has an Isaiah moment. He says much the same, “Woe is me” as Isaiah. He begs Jesus to depart from him, for like Isaiah, he is unclean. He is a sinner.

What about you? Are you properly reverent toward the Holy God, in whose presence you stand, even today? Do you treat this place, this house of God, with a casual attitude, as if what goes on here is just a social club or coffee hour? Get together with some friends and sing some nice songs, make ourselves feel good about God and life, and go on our happy way? Maybe you're not quite so crass as that. But I think we are all tempted to be.

Here is where our liturgy can helps us. When we enter God's presence, and call upon his name, there is a reason one of our first orders of business is to follow in the train of Peter and Isaiah, and to confess: We are sinful and unclean. We are a people of unclean lips. We are not worthy to stand in the presence of Holy God, let alone come to him for blessings. We confess, each of us, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment. We say the same as what God has said about us – that we have fallen short, our best works are filthy rags, there is no one righteous, not one. The commandments convict us. The teachings of Jesus drive the stake further into us. We sin in deed, but also word and thought. We are lost in sin. Woe is me. Woe is you, too.

But then see how the pattern unfolds... The great surprise! The wonder of wonders! God does not smite Isaiah on the spot, as he very well could have. Instead he sends an angel- a messenger, to purge his sin. Your lips are unclean? Well fear not, this has touched your lips. You are now clean.

And Peter, falling down in quaking fear before Jesus in the boat – Jesus doesn't speak harshly, but kindly to him. He says, “fear not”. He doesn't spell it out, but his kind manner shows the forgiveness is already happening. There's no punishment to fear, no wrath of God for your sin. He doesn't argue, “no, Peter, you're not really that bad”. But he shows Peter that in him there is nothing to fear from sin.

And so, you, and so me. When we make our confession of sin, whether here all together or privately to the pastor – the response is the same: fear not. Your sins are forgiven. Your guilt atoned for. Your price paid. You don't need to dread that God will pay you back for what you've done. Instead, he has paid, in Christ, for what you've done. The wages of sin are on him. The chastisement that brought us peace is on him. With his stripes, you are healed. With his cross, his suffering, his death.

Christian reverence – respect, regard, honor – whatever you call it – this kind of reverence moves from fear to love and trust. As Luther said in the meaning to the commandment, “we should fear, love and trust God above all things”. It starts with a recognition of God's holiness and our unholiness, an honest appraisal of what ought to happen to us by rights. But when Christ changes it all for us, when God's grace and mercy become manifest in him, and through the word and the sacraments, now in us. Fear of death is driven away. Fear of judgment is no more. Peace with God becomes our new reality. We can trust him, his grace, his mercy. All is well once again.

But that doesn't end the story. For Isaiah had work to do – he was sent to preach and prophesy. Likewise Peter and the others received a commission - “I will make you fishers of men”.

And so you, also, sins forgiven, are called to work. You, made clean before God are called to serve him and your neighbor. You may not be called to preach or teach. You may not be called to a church board or committee. You may simply be called to show Christian love wherever and however you can, in whatever place God has placed you. You may even be called upon to give answer to the hope that is within you, and witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, or the ends of the earth. You may be called upon to give that confession in the face of opposition. And if this world keeps going its way, that opposition may be out-and-out persecution, and even come with threat of death.

But no matter. You, in whatever way God sees fit, become a part of this great net-casting endeavor, the fishing of men, as the Good News of Christ that you've heard and believed goes forth and spreads on top of all the weeds of the world.

And having moved from fear to faith, and knowing that we are no longer doomed in the presence of God, our reverence takes another turn. We don't become so casual and familiar with God that we forget his holiness. We maintain a reverent posture, but now without fear. More like an honor guard, showing by our words and actions where the foundation of all things begins and ends. In good order, bringing other sinners to come and see and hear what we have seen and heard. With fitting decorum, worshiping the God who has done great things for me, and magnifying him in our song, our prayer, our gifts, and all things. Holding sacred that which is sacred, cherishing these good gifts.

Forgive us, Lord, when we take you lightly, and fail to hold sacred your name and your word. Teach us true reverence. For the sake of your Son, Jesus, cleanse us and drive out our fear, so that we may serve you with a good conscience. And bless our work, in our vocations, that we too may become fishers of men, support the ministry of the Gospel, and bring others to hold sacred the things of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Sermon - Epiphany 4 - Luke 4:16-30

3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 27, 2019
Luke 4:16-30
“A Hometown Epiphany”

Who is this Jesus? We've heard various answers in this Epiphany season. We've heard from the wise men who followed the star: He's the King of the Jews, but also Savior of the Nations. We've heard from John the Baptist: Jesus is the One Greater than John. We've even heard the voice of the Father booming out at Jesus' baptism, “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased.” And then, in a little more subtle way, we see another answer at the wedding of Cana. He's the true Bridegroom who changes water into wine, the one who brings the best, the one we ought to listen to and do whatever he tells you.

Ah, but now, we get to hear from Jesus himself, not just in actions but in words. Who is he? He goes to his little hometown of Nazareth after spending some time in and around big-city Capernaum. His fame had grown. He'd gained disciples. He'd done miracles, healed many, cast out demons.

And now with his stock rising, the hometown synagogue invites their local celebrity to serve as a guest preacher. We want to hear what all the fuss is about. We want to hear from him too, see what everyone's talking about. He's one of us, after all.

And so Jesus reads these words from Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This is his text. Everyone settles in, every eye is on him, every ear waiting to hear what he will say. And I imagine a pregnant pause before Jesus uncorks his main point:

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”

Now, good news for the poor, sight for the blind, liberty for the captives and all that sounds pretty good to the hometown crowd. It sounds like mom and apple pie. It's comforting. They speak well of him and his “gracious words”.

And if this Jesus really is the miracle worker they've heard about, then he's got the actions to back up these words. But they skipped something. They missed something important.

Isaiah isn't talking about any-old miracle worker here. He's talking about the promised One. He's talking about the anointed one. The One, the ONE upon whom is the Spirit of the Lord. Isaiah is promising the Messiah. And for Jesus to say, “this is fulfilled today!” is for him to claim to be the very Christ! We've already seen the Spirit of the Lord anoint him at his baptism. That same Spirit empowers Jesus and is sent by Jesus in all his good news proclamation.

These Nazareth-ians were too focused on the outward signs to hear the word clearly. They wanted some miracles of their own, and so they heard Jesus gladly, at least at first. But soon their marveling would turn to madness, their awe to anger, their welcome turned to wrath.

Jesus anticipates it. He says, “Surely you'll say 'Physician, heal yourself” That is, “Hey we've heard about all your miracles in Capernaum. But now we want some, too. Bring the goods home. What's good for them is good for us! We want to see miracles here, healings, wonders. Enough with all this preaching, blah blah blah. We want action!” He knows their hearts. And their hearts are not right.

And so he compares them to the faithless people in the time of Elijah. During that time, the Israelites didn't get the miracles, the outsiders did! Naaman the leper from Syria was cleansed. The Widow of Zarepheth's son was raised. But Elijah didn't do all that for the hometown crowd. God blessed those you'd least expect, with miracles and signs according to his will and purpose.

But now, here, in Nazareth, they weren't looking for the Christ, the savior from sin. They were looking for a showman, a liberator, or a miracle-dispenser. But a Messiah? Not interested. And that's exactly the problem. The good news isn't that Jesus came to heal a few people here and there, and maybe even me. The good news is that Jesus Christ came to crush the head of the serpent, to rescue the world from the jaws of death, and to proclaim the Lord's favor. He's the Messiah, not some mere magician. He's the savior from sin – not just from whatever you think is ailing you this moment. He's come, not for the symptoms of whatever diseases, but to treat and cure the root of the problem, sin itself.

And so before they can hear this, he has to break down their false expectations. And that's when it gets ugly. When he preaches the law.

And look how easily they are offended when he calls them out. No longer are they hearing him with gladness but they become an angry mob ready to throw him off a cliff. Does this reaction surprise you? It shouldn't. It's simply one species of reaction the sinful nature has to the law. It's the natural rebellion bred into all men rearing its ugly head.

Any time sinners hear the law the response is either despair or pride. You either agree with the law and are brought low, or you push back in anger, indignation, false pride, excuses, blame, or some combination of these.

You didn't do the dishes! “Oh, but you didn't do the laundry.”

You really crossed the line here. “Oh, but you think you're so perfect?”

What you are doing is wrong. “Oh, who are you to judge me?” “How dare you!”

This is against God's will. “Hey, I think I'm pretty good with God now mind your own business.”

Have you done what God has forbidden? “Well, it wasn't really my fault, you see.”

And sometimes, the sinner even meets the law with violence. This is what we see with so many of the prophets. And no less with the greatest prophet himself. Someone noted that even with all his enemies and all his opposition, only here, in Nazareth, did people try to get violent with Jesus, until finally at his arrest and suffering and cross. Only here, in his hometown, do they so dare.

So to avoid the mistake of these people we must first of all simply repent. We must hear the accusations of the law and say, "Amen. I am a sinner."
  And not just in general, but in specific. I've sinned here, and there, and there. In this thought, and that deed. By this action and that inaction. Lord, I've really messed up. I'm helpless and hopeless without you. I need the good news you bring. I'm a captive to this sin. I'm poor and miserable in it. I'm oppressed by my own corruption.

And I don't need a spectacle, some outward sign that you haven't promised. I don't need you to come on my terms and do my bidding. Rather, open my ears to your word. Point me and my faith in the right direction – to where you've promised to be, and be heard. And show me the signs that you HAVE established: Remind me of my baptism – that washing that sets the captives free. Bring me to your altar – that this poor soul may be nourished. Speak to me the absolution, that my oppressed conscience is made clean. And open my eyes to all you would have me see – especially your anointed one, your Messiah, your Christ.

In Luke's Gospel it's not really until chapter 9 that Jesus explicitly reveals the fulfillment of his work – that is, to suffer, die and rise. Even then it was hard for his disciples to believe. Though they weren't as violent as the people of Nazareth, they still couldn't wrap their faith around this reality. That the Messiah has to suffer, die, and rise. And that THAT is how he liberates captives, restores the blind, the sick, even the dead. And the cross is also how Jesus does this for you.

Don't rejoice that you're one of the in-crowd with God because you deserve him, but confess your estrangement in sin that Christ might forgive and restore you. Don't push back against the accusation of his law, but admit where you've failed, look to Christ for forgiveness, and resolve to do better. Don't look for the Jesus that you want – but rejoice that he is the Jesus you need. He teaches you, he washes you, he feeds you. Who is Jesus? He's the Messiah, and he's your Messiah. Amen.