Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 12 - Matthew 16:21-26


Christian teaching is full of paradox. God is three, yet he is one. Jesus is human, yet divine. This is bread and wine, but also Christ's body and blood. And you, Christian, are sinner yet also saint, wicked and righteous, dead in sin, yet alive in Christ.

Today Jesus says, “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever would lose his life for my sake will find it”. Friends these sorts of mysterious sayings can only be rightly understood through the cross.

Last week, we hear Peter's great confession, his bright shining moment. “You are the Christ!” he declares. And Jesus blesses him for it. He's on top of the mountain, spiritually speaking. It all comes together with this wonderful insight, given by the Father. Everyone's been asking and wondering who Jesus is, and Peter, just a regular guy, a fisherman, is given the answer from heaven above. Wow. What a glorious moment.

And then it all comes crashing down. Because with what seems like the very next breath Jesus is calling Peter the devil. “Get behind me, Satan! For you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of man!” Wha – what?

Friends, have you had this sort of experience in life? You think everything is fine. You've got it all figured out. Life is running on all cylinders. Your health is good, the job pays well, your marriage is solid and your kids behave themselves. You go to church, you pray, you give your offering. Maybe it goes so well that you even take all this for granted. But God blesses you, smiles on you, and life is good. And then, ka-blammy. It all comes crashing down. Maybe it's you that messes up. Maybe it's some senseless tragedy that strikes out of the blue. Your wife leaves you. Your son gets a girl pregnant. You get laid off. The doctor says, “cancer”. And now the God who you thought was your friend, whose lifted up his countenance upon you – seems to be giving anything but peace. Instead he seems like your enemy. God must hate me. How do we make sense of this? Only through the cross.

For Peter, it wasn't enough to know that Jesus was the Christ. Well enough. They had all been wondering. But with that great confession hanging in the air, Jesus tells him just what kind of Christ he means to be. He “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised”. And that is NOT what Peter and the disciples wanted to hear. That's not the kind of Christ they were looking for. They wanted a Jesus without the cross.

They liked all the glorious miracles and crowds following Jesus. They marveled that even the demons submitted to them in Jesus' name. Surely they had plans for what lay ahead – like James and John who wanted thrones on Jesus' left and right in this Kingdom he was preaching about. Peter, too, probably had his own plans laid out for the future – plans which must have given him a cushy job and high honors. Jesus would come into his glory, restore the kingdom to Israel, make everything hunky dory once again on earth. Victory, triumph, glory, finally, was within their grasp. With the Christ here on our side, nothing can go wrong. So they must have thought.

But that all came crashing down. Peter couldn't bask in the glory of his confession for long. Jesus was talking crazy talk about suffering, betrayal and death! And when he tried to quietly set Jesus straight, Jesus loudly and clearly calls him out. “Get behind me Satan.”

You see, a Christ without the cross is a satanic version of Christ. And it is a Christ that is all too common, even among “Christians”.

A Christ of victory apart from defeat, rather than he who defeats death by his death. A Christ of glory apart from humiliation, and not the one whose power is made perfect in weakness. A Jesus who smiles and laughs but never sheds bloody tears, or drinks a cup of wrath, or cries out in forsakenness. A Jesus who you'd never know suffered and died for sins, because, well, let's not talk about sin it's too much of a downer.

If this is your kind of Jesus, I challenge you today to repent, and see Jesus only through the cross. If your Jesus is only smiles and sunshine, then you better get Satan behind you and see Christ as he is – crucified for us sinners. For this is the only Christ that matters, the only Christ he wants to be, the only Christ who can save us from sin and death and the devil. A Jesus who knocks us off our high-horse of self-righteousness and says “I will be your righteousness, and I alone.”

And it is this Christ that we must see in the crosses of our life. For anything a Christian takes up in life, for the sake of Christ, is our cross. Sometimes heavy, sometimes a bit lighter. But always following him who has gone before us, submitting to his Father's will in all things. We don't get to choose our own crosses. Nor do we even always know what they are. But only Christ of the cross is comfort for us in all the twists and turns, ups and downs, crosses large and small of this life.

It is a paradox, isn't it, that when we rest secure – Christ shakes us and cuts us down with his word of rebuking law. And when we are stumbling, fallen, hurting – this is when the Gospel brings hope. We need both. We make the good confession, like Peter, for it is also given to us to say, “You are the Christ”! But we also need that rebuke, that our sinful selves would get behind the child of God, drown under the daily repentance of baptismal renewal, and go the way of Satan – resigned to the irrelevant past.

And this renewal gives us cause once again to confess Christ, and rejoice in his victory. It gives us the faith and strength to carry our daily crosses knowing that his cross is ever before us. His suffering gives our suffering meaning. And his resurrection gives us hope.

Whatever cross you bear this day, know that Christ bore his before you. So take up that cross and follow him – for his cross, his suffering, his death – have already won the victory. So that even in your troubles and sorrows, your faith would look to him – and lay down your life only to find it. That in the Christ of the cross, your soul is not forfeit – but saved – by the one who gave his life for the world. Even Jesus Christ. In his holy name. Amen.





Monday, August 11, 2014

Sermon - The Feast of St. Lawrence

At that time, Jesus spoke unto His disciples
saying: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain
of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains
alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever
loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life
in this world will keep it for eternal life. If
anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and
where I am, there will My servant be also. If
anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.”
John 12:24-26

The Feast of St. Lawrence
A river, a gulf, and a seaway are named in his honor. A number of Christian congregations and almost anyone known as "Larry" likewise owe their names to this martyr of the ancient Christian Church.

Early in the third century A.D., Lawrence (also often known as "Lorenz," "Laurence," or "Lorenzo"), who was most likely born in Spain, made his way to Rome. There he was appointed chief of the seven deacons and was given the responsibility to manage church property and finances.

The emperor at the time, thinking that the church had valuable things worth confiscating, ordered Lorenz to produce the "treasures of the church." Saint Lorenz brought before the emperor the poor whose lives had been touched by Christian charity. He was then jailed and eventually executed in the year 258. Most accounts tell of his being roasted on a gridiron until dead.

His martyrdom left a deep impression on the young church. Almost immediately, the date of His death, 10 August, became a permanent fixture on the early commemorative calendar of the Church.
(Thanks to Aardvark Alley for the background info)

So the story goes, after being roasted for a while he said, “I'm well done now. Turn me over!”

“Where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Hard words from Jesus, today, and a challenging example as we commemorate the saint and martyr, Lawrence.

Like Jesus, the martyrs died – and their lives and deaths would bear great fruit. One ancient church father, Tertullian, famously said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. In other words, when nonbelievers would see Christians dying for their faith, this powerful witness was used by the Holy Spirit to open ears and soften hearts to the word of the Gospel. And rather than stamping out the Christian faith, those who persecute Christians only make the church stronger.

If you follow the news, you know that Christians are persecuted today perhaps even more so than they were in the fourth century. We see news reports (though sadly, too few) of the recent purging of Christians in areas of the middle east. Homes are marked with the arabic letter which stands for “Christian”. Some are beheaded, others are crucified. Some are unfairly taxed, much as they were in St. Lawrence's day.

We may have several reactions when confronted with the example of the martyrs, either from antiquity or the modern day. For starters, their faithfulness calls us to account. What a terrible Christian I am, when I am embarrassed to admit that I think homosexuality is a sin. What a weak witness I give when I can't confess to my politically correct friend that Jesus is the only way to heaven. The martyrs shame us by their bold witness when we are so easily intimidated and cowed by the world we live in – a world which doesn't even threaten us with the sword – at least not yet. It's one thing for us to fail when compared to Christ's example of faith. We can easily let ourselves off the hook by saying, “oh, well, he was perfect – he was God, after all”. But when mere humans can confess Christ even in the face of death, we are left without excuse for our failures under far less threatening circumstances.

On the other hand, the witness of the martyrs can embolden us. We can look to their strong faith as examples to follow. So the government wants to shut down your churches and make your life difficult? Look to St. Lawrence, who stood firm against the heavy Roman hand and would not sacrifice the poor for the sake of peace with the pagan. He loved God and his neighbor more than even his own life, and remained steadfast even in a torturous death. So too, Christian, stand up for your Lord and your neighbor in the face of the enemy. Fight the good fight of faith!

And on yet another hand, we must acknowledge that whatever heroics of faith the martyrs exhibited, whatever bold and brave testimony they gave, whatever courage of conviction they showed even unto death – it is not to their own credit, but to Christ's. Faith itself is a gift. And the one who gives us faith also sustains it, sends his Spirit to strengthen us especially in times of trial. That the martyrs like Lawrence could stand up to violent persecution is a credit to the Lord, not the martyrs themselves. Thanks be to God for their faithful witness. Thanks be to him for all good things.

And finally, we can pray that God strengthen them and grant us this same faith – in the face of death, persecution, trouble, nakedness, danger, or sword. Whatever challenges to our faith may come, from the devil, the sinful world, or our own sinful selves, we pray for the strength to bear up and remain faithful, as were the martyrs, as was Jesus Christ.

When we fail, and we will fail, we rely on the blood of Christ to cover our guilt and shame. When we do stand – we give all honor and glory to Christ for giving us the strength of faith to do so. For without him we are nothing. But with him, we are promised all good things. So that even out of death, comes life, for those who are in Christ.

For Christ's own part, some would say he was the greatest of the martyrs. But I would argue with that. His death was not simply a “witness”, but a once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin It was the basis for all the martyrs who would come. Their death hearkens back to his saving, atoning, world-saving sacrifice. Their blood is precious to him, who shed his precious blood for all. Their deaths are precious to him, who died that they would live eternally.

“Where I am, there will my servant be also” These words go not only for persecution and suffering and death. They go also for what lies beyond. For where Jesus went – to resurrection, we too will go. Where Jesus went – to heaven and glory, we will also go. And where Jesus is, even today, present in his word and in his body and blood at this altar – here we come also, in faith and in witness. To proclaim his death until he comes, and to receive the fruits of his cross, which guarantee us eternal life.

Thanks be to God for St. Lawrence, and all the Christian martyrs. Thanks be to God that each hated his own life, but keeps it for eternal life. And thanks be to God for Christ our grain of wheat, who died and was buried, but who rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven, and who will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end. May the fruits of his work be multiplied here, in your lives, in your church, and in his holy church throughout the world.

In Jesus' Name, Amen.





Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 8 - Matthew 14:13-21

We, in modern America, if anything have too much food. You learn this in a new way when you go to places like Singapore where the portions are smaller – you know, normal sized. But in super-sized America it is hard for us to relate to people who truly live in hunger. We might be tempted to immediately jump to a spiritual application of this miracle – but let's not be so hasty.

The catechism teaches us in the First Article of the Creed, and in the Lord's Prayer petition, “give us this day our daily bread”: we acknowledge that each day, our food comes not from the fridge or the grocery store, but from the giver of all good things. This is one reason we pray before and even after meals – to acknowledge and give thanks for such blessings.

And sin is always there – crouching at our door – tempting us to make the lesser gifts into the greater gifts. To turn wants into needs. To prioritize poorly. To love the treasures of this world over the treasures of the world to come. To love ourselves and despise our neighbor. To make the created, the phyiscal things into gods, and fail to fear, love and trust the Creator.

The people who ate the miraculous fish and loaves that day were no different. If we were to read the parallel account of John 6, we'd see the people chasing Jesus around, trying to make him king by force – a “bread-king” who kept their bellies always filled. But they miss the point. Do we?

Jesus Christ himself is the bread of life. He himself is the only true sustenance for the soul. His bodily death on the cross, his shedding of blood, his atonement for our sins – this alone satisfies the deepest hunger of the human soul. Without such food, there is no life in us anyway. Without the cross you have, ultimately, no need of bread.

But just as there were more leftovers in the baskets than the food they started with, his provision is over-abundant. He gives all that we need and more. He provides for the salvation of our souls, as well as the resurrection of our bodies. And he sustains us with blessings too many for us to gather up in baskets. Blessings physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal. All from Christ, crucified for sinners.

And yet there are still more lessons to draw from this miraculous feeding long ago... Let's consider four:

We are dependent upon him.
Without Christ, we have nothing; we are nothing. We must look to him for all good things. This goes for the mundane food and clothing as well as the salvation itself. It's not as if Jesus gets us started and then it's up to us. We are and we ought to depend on him for daily bread, the air we breathe and the lungs to breathe it in. We have no more reason to expect any of this than the people he fed would expect a full and free meal – except that we know the giver gives abundantly, and loves to provide for our needs.

And it goes for the spiritual, as well. We cannot come to faith without His Spirit who calls us. We cannot make a decision to follow Christ that is of any value, but instead he chooses us. We cannot bring any good works that will wipe out our bad works and tip the balance in our favor – but only Christ's righteousness can suffice. And we cannot pay enough to cover our debt – only the blood of Christ has such value. We depend on him entirely.

And here we have even more reason to depend on him – for we have strong promises of forgiveness, salvation and eternal life with our God. Life in this world may bring trouble and hardship and nakedness and danger or sword, but no one can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ!

He has compassion.
Christ always has compassion on those in need. He never turns a cold shoulder to one who has faith and seeks his aid. This doesn't mean you will always have plenty and will never be in want of bread, or health, or that no sorrow will ever come your way. It doesn't mean the Christians will never suffer. But it does tell us where to go with our suffering, and who has the only and final answer to it, and the inclination to do us good. He knows our suffering, for he suffered it himself – he took it all to the cross . And so he sympathizes with us in our weakness, in all things.

Working through means.
Jesus very well could have hand-fed each of those 5000 plus all on his own, but he appointed the disciples to do it. He made them the go-betweens to distribute, to minister if you will, to the people. So today does he charge pastors, “you give them something to eat”. So do we often feel ill-equipped to do it, but so must we rely on the word and promise of Christ that in him there will always be plenty. As we distribute to you the blessings of salvation in word and sacrament, even greater miracles ensue – Christ's abundance is given freely, sinners are forgiven, and faith is strengthened. We can give only what we receive from Christ.

He taught them first, then fed. Today he teaches, then feeds.
First Jesus preached, taught – proclaimed the kingdom to these thousands. It must have been quite a day, as he had much to say and they stuck around to hear it all. Then he fed them as only he could. And we follow the same pattern today – we gather to Christ – around his word, to hear it, receive it. The word is read and proclaimed, sung and prayed. And then he feeds. We come to the table to feast on the word made flesh – and his body and blood are multiplied to far more than 5000, and stomachs and souls are sustained.

Whatever pangs of suffering you feel in your stomach or pangs of sin in your soul, turn again to the one who provides bread – daily bread for our bodies, and the bread of life for our bodies and souls. He himself is that bread – and he gives himself freely, on the cross, in the word, the water, and the meal of his altar. Come, eat and drink and live. In Jesus Christ, Amen.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 7 - Matthew 13:44-52

Grace, mercy and peace....

Dear friends in Christ, do you love the parables of Jesus like I do? Who can resist these stories which illustrate great truths about the kingdom of God? Some of them are longer – like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. And others are quite short – in fact today our Gospel reading groups four together. The “Hidden Treasure” and “Pearl of Great Value” - these two make the same point. Similar is the “Parable of the Net”, which extends the same point. Then there's the “Parable of New and Old Treasures” takes it in a different direction. Let's briefly examine these this morning.

For the parables of the treasure and pearl, let's first set aside a wrong interpretation. The point of the parable is NOT simply the First Commandment – love God above all things. Nor is it that you have found God and you should therefore put him first in your life. You're not the man who finds God and gives up everything to follow him. You don't sell all your possessions to posses Christ or his kingdom.

Sure, salvation is beyond value. Sure, we SHOULD value our faith and our Lord as more precious than all our worldly wealth. But the problem is, that's not how it works. We are sinful and selfish and dead in our sins. We are unable to come to Christ on our own, of ourselves. We confess in the Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in my Lord Jesus Christ, or come to him... but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel....”

No, to say that the believer is the man who finds the treasure in the field, or the pearl of great value – is to get this parable wrong. Instead, who is the one who gave up everything he had to acquire what he valued the most? Jesus Christ. He gave up his heavenly throne. He gave up his divine power and glory, at least for a time. He gave up being over all things to take the form of a servant, born in humble fashion, submitting to poverty, the derision of man, injustice, suffering and finally death on a cross. He who had no sin became sin for us. He gave up all that he had, why? Again in the words of the Catechism, “that I may be his own...”.

One of my favorite Christian artists, a Lutheran named Ed Riojas has tapped into this understanding of the parable, and painted a scene that expresses it beautifully. I'll show you this more closely on the way out of church. But the picture here is of a cemetery, with a church steeple in the background. And the main figure is Christ, who is doing something amazing. He's pulling a coffin out of a grave with his bare hands. And the banner at the bottom of the scene reads, “For joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field”. Ed writes about his painting as follows:
__
The Parable of the Buried Treasure” painting explanation by Ed Riojas

...This small painting is something I started after pondering the parable of the buried treasure in light of Christ’s love for us.

I couldn’t get around the idea of the field being a cemetery, with its scattered stones, and the man -- Christ Jesus -- coming to claim his hidden treasure. “For joy, he sold all he had and bought that field.”

Holy Scripture sometimes contains the most understated truths. “All he had” was his very life, given for us, “Not with gold or silver,” as we are told, “but with His holy, precious blood.” So that man pulls out a treasure with His pierced hands. The wounds are permanent, but His crucifixion and death are not.

The painting points to Holy Scripture with another finger: It illustrates just how much we contribute to salvation -- nothing. We were dead. Not only were we dead, but we were dead in our trespasses. If that were not enough, we were bound in satan’s chains. We were in a box from which we could not escape.

Yet Christ calls us His treasure. The English language helps us in this scenario -- the words “coffin” and “casket” are derived from the same words that are used for containers of wealth. Furthermore, “vaults” are used to inter this wealth.

What points to Christ’s love for us is not only His payment for our sins through His sacrifice, but also the reality of what He considers valuable. He treasures not gold or silver, but the sinful, the lost, the dregs of humanity, the rotting, the forgotten, the discarded for convenience, the destroyed by design, the consumed by disease, the consumed by conflagration, the consumed by woe. This mess of ugliness He treasures. Not only did Christ Jesus give His all for it, but He also enfolds it in His arms and holds it to His breast.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.


__

Dear friends, there once was a man who found a treasure, and you are that treasure. Though you bring no merit or worthiness of your own, the Triune God, in his grace, has valued you. He has esteemed you worthy of the blood of Jesus Christ.

Then we have the parable of the Fish in the Net. Here again, Christ shows that those who belong to him are valued. But it also shows the separation between us and the unbeliever. Like fishermen separate the fish caught in the net – throwing away those not worth keeping, so the angels with separate the believers from the unbelievers on the last day. And what separates us from the unbelievers, but faith alone. Those who believe in Christ as savior and realize we can't win salvation for ourselves but receive it as free gift from him. He saves us from the weeping and gnashing of teeth, from the punishments we deserve, from being lost forever – and he makes us his treasured possessions. Here is hope for us – when it seems that the wicked prosper and the believers only suffer. When you see Christians persecuted here and abroad. When you feel like the liars and cheaters around you enjoy all the good things in life while your honesty and hard work never pay off. Take heart. For the one who assigns true value to men has esteemed you – and has your future secured.

Finally, Jesus commends the teachers who have learned these things well, that is, the truths of the kingdom. Those who have received from him the treasures of his grace. And those, who then, set these treasures before others. Your pastor is privileged to set these treasures before you week in and week out. To proclaim to you the grace and mercy of Christ, crucified for sinners like you. To show you in new and old ways the unchanging truth that the blood of Christ covers all, renews all, revives all. To set before you the precious gifts of Christ's body and blood, given and shed for you, precious treasures which renew and sustain you, his precious treasures.

And having been so treasured, and having received such treasure, each of us daily sets these treasures before the world by our witness and faith. As we fulfill our callings in life, and as we give answer for the hope within us. All in Christ, and Christ in all of us, until the last day when all true treasures are no longer hidden but revealed.


Got grant us faith to believe all these things, and the Spirit to enlighten us to such treasures, and the will to set them before us always, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
___

You can view and purchase artwork by Ed Riojas here.  Great gift ideas for your favorite pastor!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Sermon - Trinity 5 - Luke 5:1-11

Called and Caught by Jesus

You know, I've been a pastor 15 years now. And in one sense I figure I know what I'm doing. I'm familiar with the liturgy, I can preach a passable sermon. I can give a decent off-the-cuff answer to a Bible question. I've done weddings and funerals, taught confirmation classes for years. I am certainly not perfect, but I know my trade. Just as you probably know yours.

Now imagine if someone tried to tell you how to do your own job. Someone with no experience whatsoever. Someone who didn't know the first thing about doing whatever it is you do day in and day out. And imagine if their unsolicited advice was just crazy. You've learned the hard way not to do it how they're suggesting. But here they are telling you the business. As if they have a clue.

So begins the scene in Luke 5 when a Carpenter tries to tell fishermen what to do. They are washing their nets – packing it in after a hard and disappointing night's labor. Their experience tells them the fish just aren't biting. Come back another time. Get some rest. Cut your losses. But this carpenter turned preacher is giving out fishing advice – and it makes no sense at all.

You or I might be offended at being told how to do our jobs. Especially by this – whoever he is. But he's not just some whoever-he-is. And he knows more about fishing and men that anyone can imagine.

Put out into the deep water. I don't care that you're tired. I pay no mind that the fish aren't biting. Take your nets, which you've just washed and put away, and get back in your boat and cast them there in the deep again.

And for some strange reason, that also makes no human sense, Simon Peter responds in faith. He trusts the word of this carpenter-turned-preacher, he takes the unsolicited fishing advice, and he is not disappointed. In fact, he's terrified.

But why? Shouldn't he be overjoyed at the miraculous catch of fish? Shouldn't his eyes light up with the ch-ching of the money he would make selling these fish? Shouldn't he jump up and hug Jesus, thanks for the miracle, my friend?

No, instead, Peter senses the fearful presence of holiness. He may not be sure exactly who he's dealing with, but he knows that he is a sinner, and not worthy. He says as much, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

It's the same reaction Isaiah the prophet had when he beheld a vision of God's glory filling the temple. “Woe to me, I am ruined!” Isaiah said, “For I am a man of unclean lips...”

And it is the same reaction that you should have, as a sinner yourself, when confronted with the holiness of God. For you and I are also unworthy. You and I are also poor sinners. You and I are of unclean lips and hearts and minds and hands. And we don't deserve the miracles of God either. We think we know better than God's law, and act as if we are our own little gods. We'd so often rather play by our own rules, even though we can't win the game. But only when we admit it, when the law shows us our sin and we confess it, are we ready for the wisdom of God – the foolishness of the Gospel. I said I will confess my transgressions to the Lord...

Peter says, “Oh, I'm too sinful for you to be around me, Lord!” But Jesus hears none of that. He simply encourages, “Fear not.” “Do not be afraid.” And behind the simple “fear not” is much more: I'm not here to smite you. I'm here to save you, and all these others, too. I come not in judgment, but in grace and mercy, preaching a kingdom that is not of this world. I bring rest for the weary, love for the outcasts, healing, blessing, peace. I did not come to condemn the world, but to save it by my blood. I came to die, so that you might live. I came to destroy death, that you need never fear again.

Peter would soon learn all that is behind the “fear not” of Jesus. And even when in that dark hour of Jesus' passion, Peter would show just how big of a sinner he is by denying Jesus three times – still Jesus would return. resurrected, and meet Peter once again on the shores of this sea, and amaze him further with a catch of fish and a restoration. “Peter, do you love me? Then feed my sheep”

First the call to faith, the call to trust in the words of Christ. However crazy may seem and unsolicited they may be. However much it flies in the face of your own sinful self-pity. However much fear and doubt grip you and make your heart want to scream. However tired and weary from laboring all night with nothing to show for it. “Fear not,” he says. “With me, there is nothing to fear.”

And then the call to action. The call to serve. The call to put our faith to work for the love of neighbor. To be fishers of men, not just fishermen anymore.

But here too is a promise! Notice he doesn't say, “You better be good fishers of men.” or “get busy now, fishing for men”. He promises, “I will MAKE you fishers of men”. For even here, Jesus is doing the doing. He builds expands his kingdom. He builds his church.

But that doesn't mean you don't have a part in it. That doesn't mean he leaves you out of the fun. Christ calls us all, in various ways, to take part in the great casting of his Gospel net. Some may tend the nets. Some may cast them out. Others row the boat. And still others haul in the catch.

In other words, some are pastors fishing waters and streams nearby. And some are missionaries, pushing boats out to waters far away, even across oceans. Some are public proclaimers of Christ crucified for sinners. Some support this proclamation with prayers and gifts. But also called to the fishing industry of Christ are teachers and parents, friends and family. Some give their shoulder to cry on, or change diapers and wipe runny noses. Some invite others to come and be caught in the promises of Christ, and all are witnesses of what he has done for us.

You and I have been caught by Christ. Caught out of the deep water of our sin and cleaned, washed in the holy water of baptism. Fed with the body and blood of Christ. We are safely carried in the ark of his church through the dangerous waters of this world, until our ship comes in to the final port of life eternal. And along the way he catches us again and again as we confess with Peter, “I am a sinful man!” and his word of forgiveness answers, “Fear not!”


He who created fish and men and wood for boats and water to float them on – he knows his craft. He knows what you need, and comes to catch and keep you in his net of salvation, by his Spirit in his word of promise. So fear not, forgiven sinner. Fear not, in Christ. Amen.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 4 - Romans 7:14-25

Pentecost 4
Romans 7:14-25
St. John's Lutheran Church, Beloit, WI
Who will rescue me?”

The Christian life is a life of conflict. We are at war. The battle is for the ultimate prize, your eternal soul, and so this is serious business. The Devil is out to get you. The world that hated Christ hates you too, Christian. And if all of that is not enough. You are at war with your very own self. Even St. Paul himself was. And there is only one that can rescue us from this body of death, Jesus Christ! Thanks to him for the victory!

Paul sets up a contrast for us in Romans 7 that is universally instructive. Every Christian should read and mark these words carefully.

On the one hand Paul speaks of his “mind”. By this he means the new man or “new Adam”. The new creation in Christ that began at Holy Baptism. The Christian, the saint, the believer, the child of God. According to this nature, our new nature, we want to please God and follow his commandments. According to this nature we are righteous, holy, and without sin. This is the man that has been crucified with Christ in baptism and raised again with Christ. This is the man that clings to Christ, follows his word, and does good works with the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the man that delights in the law of God. This is our “inner being”

But Paul makes a distinction. As Christians, we are not only “new man”. But we also have this sinful flesh which clings to us. Our “outer being” if you will. The flesh, is that which we see. And not only the outward skin and bones, but that part of us that is still subject to sinful desires and words. “The Flesh” is our old nature, our “Old Adam”, which wants nothing to do with God and his word and his ways. This is the man who rebels against God at every turn. This is the one that still sins, sins daily, and sins much. This is the man apart from God, apart from Christ, and without the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing good that dwells in you, according to the flesh. “Wretched man that I am!” Paul says. Or you and I might just say of ourselves, “what a mess!”

You want to be kind to your family members, but the sinful flesh finds them so downright annoying! You want to listen to the sermon in Church, but the sinful flesh would rather plan your shopping trip. You want to honor your parents, but your sinful flesh convinces you that you always know best. You want to be faithful to your spouse, but your sinful flesh has eyes for anyone else it can fantasize about. You want to be generous, but your sinful flesh is all scrooge. You want to be content with what you have, but your sinful flesh thinks what that guy has is far better, and you deserve it far more. And you want to fear, love and trust God, but your sinful flesh always seems to have other ideas. What a wretched man I am! What a mess we all are.

And so we live in this tension. As Christians, we want to do good, trust God and love our neighbor. But as sinners, we are caught in this “body of death” as Paul calls it, with a war constantly raging inside of us.

Why is this helpful to know?

For one, it helps us understand what otherwise makes no sense. Some, it seems, even some Christians, think that when you come to faith – all sin suddenly stops.

Or that once you come to faith, you should at least be making measurable progress. And that if you stumble and fall along the way, it means you aren't really saved, don't really believe, and are destined for damnation.

Or some would say that God gets you started, gets you to the point of believing, but the rest is up to you, friend. Good luck. Then what happens when your life exhibits more fallenness than faith? Are you a back slider? Are you not an authentic Christian? Do you need to take it to the next level (and how do you know when you get there)?

All this could lead us to despair. Either God's a liar, or I'm a failure. For we do continue to sin, and we can't do it on our own, and our lives never exhibit the holiness and righteousness that God declares upon us.

But do not despair! Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells us otherwise. Sinning doesn't mean you're not a Christian. It means you are still a captive to the law of sin, and will be until this flesh goes into the ground. Your sin is not the ultimate reality about you. It's not what matters in the end. What matters is that you are baptized, you do have Christ's word of promise, you do belong to him, and your future is secure.

Mind you, none of this is an excuse to go on sinning. Paul asks and answers that question in chapter 6, “shall we go on sinning? By no means!” No, the struggle continues as we grapple with our flesh, till death do us part.

Secondly, understanding this distinction lets us know we're not alone in the fight. You think you're the only one who's struggled with sin? No, instead, you are in the good company of all God's people who are of the same flesh, from the same father, Adam. Abraham, the liar and coward. Jacob the schemer. Judah who sold his brother into slavery. Moses, a murderer. Rahab, a prostitute. David, an adulterer and murderer. Jonah, a reluctant prophet. Matthew, a tax collector. Peter, a denier. And even Paul, persecutor of Christians.

But in each and every case, the faithful of God trusted in his salvation, made known and completed by Christ. For all the saints who've gone before us, their laundry list of sin and death was washed in the blood of Christ, and only in Christ. But in him, they – and you – receive the crown of victory. In Him who conquered death, we too look past the grave to a resurrection like his, and the glory yet to be revealed.

Thirdly, all this reminds us that the only salvation is in Christ. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Christ alone. Thanks be to him. You can't do it yourself, nor should you try. If you did try you'd either fall flat on your face, or live in a lie of self righteousness. If you thought you could rescue yourself, you wouldn't need Jesus. The war is too much for Paul, and it's too much for you. Sin is always close at hand. But Jesus is closer. Death is breathing down your neck. But Jesus is the death of death.

And Jesus died for your sins, all of them – before baptism and after. Jesus covers you with his blood, forgives your sins, reconciles you to his Father, and squashes death and the devil under his bruised foot.

Jesus rides to your rescue. He rides on a donkey, he rides the cross to its bitter last stop. He rides to hell and back, through an open grave, to the right hand of God. And he'll ride again on the clouds when he comes to the world's final rescue, all his angels with him. He will rescue us all from death forever.


So any time you struggle with sin, remember your baptism! Remember you are in Christ! All is not lost. He will never leave or forsake you. And he will come again in glory, to bring it all to fulfillment. Thanks be to God, we say with St. Paul and all the other sinners and saints – who are victorious - in Christ alone. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 2 - Matthew 10:5a, 21-33

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. So the childhood saying goes. But I found it to be hollow, when I was teased as a child. Names hurt. The ridicule of man has an effect on man, or else the ridiculer wouldn't do it.

Jeremiah knew it. He says he was a “laughingstock” and even his close friends denounced him. Christians know it today, too, as even our own family members can mock our faith. Oh, you're not one of THOSE people, are you?

And sometimes, verbal scorn can turn to action. Christians can bear the brunt of persecution that does bring sticks and stones, and breaks your bones. Jewish tradition has Jeremiah stoned to death in Egypt. We know for sure that the first Christian martyr, Stephen was stoned to death. And many Christians, to this day, would die for the faith. It seems we read more of it in the news every day.

We ought to pray for the persecuted church, especially that they remain faithful unto death, and receive the promised crown of life. There but for the grace of God go you and I. Even when we are not persecuted to death, still, there are crosses to bear. Still, your faith doesn't solve all your problems, make your life easy and successful, or chase all the clouds away with bright shiny rainbows. You may well suffer for Christ, for your faith, for the truth – even if you don't suffer unto death.

Do you think you are any better than Jesus? They called him the devil, Beelzebul. They mocked him and treated him shamefully. They stripped and whipped and beat and spit on him. They crowned him with thorns in a sham coronation. They gave him a scepter and royal robe to kneel down in false worship. Sticks and stones? They put him on two sticks to die, and he was buried behind a big stone.

Truly, a servant is not greater than the master. The world hated him. The world hates you, too, Christian. What Jesus got, you will get too, somehow, some way, sooner or later.
I don't mean to be the bearer of bad news, but this is the hard truth the word puts in front of us today. We preach what Luther called a “theology of the cross”, not a “theology of glory”.

I went to a mega- church here last Sunday and heard plenty theology of glory. God wants you to be successful, healthy, wealthy, happy. And if you believe rightly, and think rightly, you will have God's favor. And good things will happen to you. Nevermind the fact that every day faithful Christians are struck down by disaster and disease. Nevermind that the faithful are mocked and persecuted. Or that they die in anonymous poverty. Oh, but this church building won an architectural award, see how God favors us!

Are you better than Jesus? No. Far worse, a sinner. The good news is not that Jesus takes all the suffering away. The good news is that he has taken your sin away. The good news is not that Jesus makes your life better, or even good, now. The good news is that Jesus has swallowed up death in his victory, and brings abundant life. The gospel of Jesus Christ stands in the midst of all that is wrong and broken and perverted and dying in this world – and speaks a contrary word of hope. Even though you die, yet shall you live. “He who lives and believes in me will never die.”

So have no fear. No fear of the persecutor, the oppressor, the enemy. Even the one who can destroy your body. For the Lord knows his people, even the hairs on your head. He who knows every time a sparrow dies, knows and values you far more than a sparrow. He knows your suffering. Jesus knows all suffering. And he will not forsake you in it.

Have no fear, for you already know what is out there: a world that hates Christians and a devil that would like nothing more than to devour us. To see us turn from God in despair, shake our fist at the heavens in anger, and join the true Beelzebul's company of misery. But have no fear, he can harm you none. He's judged, the deed is done. Christ has the victory, even when it looks like we are defeated.

And Jesus will confess you before his Father. He will say, “Father, this one belongs to me. And so this one belongs to you. I have shed my blood for this one. I have conquered death so this one might live. The world hates this one, but this one I love. The world has called this one all sorts of names, but I have called this one by my name. This one is baptized in your name, Father, and mine, and the Spirit's. This one is ours forever.”

No, you are not better than Jesus. But Jesus is far better than you and I, thanks be to God. And what is his, is ours. His suffering, yes, in which we participate. He had his cross, and we have our crosses. But we share in his righteousness, his holiness, his resurrection and his victory. God will not abandon us any more than he would abandon his own Son. And that is true comfort, even in suffering and persecution.

He is coming again, and until that time he has not left us forsaken. He remains among us by his word, and in the blessings of his holy meal. His true body and blood are present for our forgiveness, and to strengthen us in all the trials and crosses we bear.

And even by receiving this sacrament, we proclaim him – and his death, until he comes. As we gather to receive him, we confess him before men. We say, “I, a sinner, am saved by the promise and gift of my Lord Jesus Christ. Who gave his very body and blood on the cross, even to death - and gives his very (resurrected) body and blood- for my salvation, even now. I confess with all these other sinners, that He is the only savior. The way, the truth, the life. That all his words are true. That all his promises are forever. And I look for the fulfillment of these, when this foretaste gives way to the eternal marriage feast of heaven”.