Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sermon - 3rd Sunday after Pentecost - Mark 4:26-34

“Two Seed Parables”
Sermon – Pentecost 3
June 21, 2015
Mark 4:26-34

What young schoolchild doesn't do that universal project?  You know the one, where you plant a seed in a little container, water it, put it on the classroom windowsill, and by the end of the school year it's sprouted and grown. What a lesson in how things work, and in patience and in how wonderful God has made this creation.

It's also a lesson about the kingdom of God. Jesus uses seeds again to tell us what the kingdom is like. And there's always something to learn from Jesus' teaching. Let's examine these two seed parables from Mark, and think on the kingdom of God as Jesus explains it.

The Parable of the Growing Seed
The first parable is about patience and trust. The farmer learns the same lesson the schoolchild does – after you plant and water, there isn't much to do but wait. We bought some plants to put on the back porch this year – tomatoes and peppers.  And every day I check to see how they're doing.  Nothing seems to change, day to day.  They look about the same. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes trust in knowing that the combination of seed and soil and sun and water will produce results. But when? And how much?

In the kingdom of God, it's the same. God's word is cast onto the soil – and it produces effects. The church does the casting, the planting of the word – but we don't know why or how it works. We simply share what we have received, and watch its effects grow. We don't understand it, but we trust God to make it happen.  That the word will have its effect, according to the promises of God.  It will not return void, but will accomplish what he sends it to do.

Through the Gospel, we come to believe in Jesus Christ. “Faith comes by hearing”. Through the Gospel, the Spirit calls us to faith in Christ. He plants the seed in our heart, and nurtures it to life. And it grows. When we are baptized, the word is spoken over us with the water, and faith is given – a gift and a miracle.  When we hear the message of the law, we are pruned and cut down.  But then by the good news of Christ crucified for sinners, he awakens and enlivens our faith. When we receive the Gospel in physical form – bread and wine that is his Body and Blood – he further nurtures the seed growing within us.

And sometimes (quite often) we don't even see the growth happening. With an earthly seed the change is too gradual to watch it happen. But with the seed of his teaching, and the working of his Spirit, sometimes it's even harder to see, maybe even impossible.  We Lutherans aren't so concerned to pinpoint the very moment of faith, the “hour I first believed”.  We leave that to God, and simply give thanks that he does it.

We can't hurry it along, either. God's timetable is his own. There is no spiritual Miracle-grow. But as the seed gives life, so does the Gospel. And we trust in God's power to bring about that growth, in his time, in his way. This is frustrating for us, as we see friends and family members who aren't where we'd like them to be. We see our children straying from church. We see husbands who sleep in or stay home while mom brings the kids to church. We pray for people that God would touch their hearts, make them see – help them believe or believe more deeply. And we don't see it.

Or, we look in the mirror. And you see the same old sinner that you always wake up to. Same old warts and blemishes. We'd like to be someone else. Someone more Christ-like. But sin breathes down our neck. It's a constant companion. Why can't we grow, grow more, grow more Christ-like? But God promises, “he who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We don't see it, but we believe it. The harvest will come.

It is hard, very hard, for us, though to truly believe and trust that the Word of God will do what God desires, and that we humans don't have anything to add.  That we can't force it.  Indeed, some through history have tried to use force, even violence, to shoe-horn the Word of God into some sinner's heart, to make him believe.  Whole armies have been forced to be baptized by some wrong-headed Christian ruler.  But the word has quite enough power on its own, thank you very much.  And we can't add a thing to it.

Martin Luther knew this, too.  He once wrote:

"For the Word created heaven and earth and all things [Ps. 33:6]; the Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners.... Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philips and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”

So it often happens for the effects of the word in the world, effects that we can see – but sometimes the effects of the word are only seen after death.

In another parable Jesus compares the resurrection to planting a seed (which appears dead and is literally buried). And yet that seed sprouts and grows at the proper time. The seed of God's word is planted in us, and perhaps we don't see any growth. Perhaps we even die. But we trust that seed will produce a harvest, even if it's only seen fully in our resurrection to glory – at the harvest.

And so we are patient through all the ups and downs of life, patiently waiting for God to fulfill all his promises to us in Christ. Patiently waiting for his good gifts, for the fulfillment of his plan, and for him to take us home to himself. Trusting that the seed will grow until the harvest.  If we look to ourselves we will be impatient and frustrated.  If we look to Christ and his cross, we are assured he who spared not his own Son will certainly make good on his promises, in his way, in his time.

The Second Seed Parable
The other seed parable we read today, about the mustard seed, further explains this mysterious gift of faith. Here the reminder – the small things of God can have great and wonderful effects. Just as the mustard seed, one of the tiniest of seeds, becomes a grand shrub where even birds can nest – so does the word of God produce a faith in us that has far-reaching effects.

This is a promise. It's not a command. If we were to sit about measuring and pondering our good works and the effects of our faith on others.... if we compare how much fruit we bear with the next guy, if we count and tally, focusing on ourselves and our accomplishments, we will always fall short.
But trusting in his word, we know our faith is not in vain. It is not for nothing. What seems small to the eye, may have effects we'll never know.

Take Christ himself – born to humble parents, coming as a baby, greeted only by shepherds.  A “regular” childhood, but he grew in the knowledge of God and in stature with man.  Still a simple preacher who called everyday people as disciples.  And who built his church not by the sword but by preaching his word.  Who saved the world not by flashy fireworks and awesome glories, but by laying down his life in humility.  The seed of the woman that crushed the head of the serpent.  The seed that died and was buried.  But the seed that would sprout again to life on the third day.

And notice he did even this by calmly leaving death behind him, and with no great fanfare.  But the word would spread.  That good news would grow, and spread and fan out to all corners of the world, so that even today, even here, you and I come to rest in the branches of the church in this place.  It started small, but through the small, the humble, the lowly, our God does great things.

A Word About “Church Growth”
Today, many are concerned about the growth of the church.  There's even a whole “church growth movement” that wants to use whatever methods possible to win new souls for Christ.  And many of these churches seem to have, outwardly, great success.  We drive by their massive buildings all the time, and are amazed at their grand parking lots brimming with eager worshippers.  It is oh so tempting to simply assume bigger is always better.

But so often these well-meaning churches and individuals simply look past the word of Christ, who says, “I will build my church”.  Some would even trade the clear teachings of scripture for more palatable doctrines, or little doctrine at all, so as not to offend and drive people away.  And some, in an effort to grow, and put more people in the pews, would even exchange the Gospel itself for more “practical” advice for living.

To this we must say, nothing is more practical than the Word of God.  To this we must say, nothing is worth hearing more than the Word of God, the Law in all its severity and the Gospel in all its fullness.  You are a sinner. And your sins are forgiven in Christ. Nothing but the pure and true seed of his teaching will do.

And only the growth that He gives is worth having.  For nothing other than Christ, and him crucified, can save us.  And we have been given to preach only this.  We must ever preach and hear the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ, receive and live by the blessed sacraments.  What growth God gives through these is always good, always enough, and always blesses.

Thank God for the seeds he plants in us and through us. Thank God for the blessings he brings through his word of Law and Gospel – the word which grows in hearts and renews spirits and minds. Which gives life – even when you can't see it. Which always, always has an effect for the good of those who love him.  And that God grows his church, in his time, in his way. God grant each of us the faith and patience to believe it. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Sermon - Mark 3:20-35 - Pentecost 2

“Bullying the Bully”
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 7th, 2015
Messiah Lutheran Church, Keller, Texas
Mark 3:20-35

These scribes had come from Jerusalem, and they were trouble.  Perhaps it was to see what was all the fuss about this country preacher.  Investigating what was surely the latest fad of a self-made prophet type, getting the people all lathered up again.  In any case, they were there, and they didn't like what they saw, and especially didn't like what they heard.  They weren't there to learn from Jesus, to receive his preaching.  They were there to judge him and his teaching – and not too kindly.  But they couldn't deny the miracles he was doing.  They couldn't just brush off the fact that he was casting out demons left and right.  So they lobbed an accusation that he was really casting out demons by the power of the prince of demons himself.  He is possessed, they claim!  This could explain his obvious power, they must have reasoned, without them having to believe what he was saying.  Without them having to believe in him.

And they weren't the only ways to oppose Jesus.  His own family members were calling him crazy.  They said, “he's out of his mind” and they tried to seize him.  This preaching and miracle stuff is getting out of hand Jesus.  

So what answer does Jesus give to all this?  He starts out with some simple logic.  How can Satan cast out Satan?  How can a kingdom divided against itself stand?  How can a house divided stand?  Rhetorical questions which all should be answer:  it doesn't happen that way.  Jesus is not of Satan.  He's Satan's worst nightmare.

Nobody likes a bully.  Most of us have probably been bullied sometime or another in life.  It might have been a schoolyard lunch money extortionist.  Or it may have been a mean old manager at work.  Or maybe even a family member who pummels you emotionally, and leaves wounds far worse than bumps and bruises.  But the classic bully is the strong guy picking on the weak one.  Throwing his weight around to get what he wants, make a point, or just for the fun and sheer cruelty of it.  Nobody likes a bully, especially when you're on the receiving end of the bullying.

And there is no greater bully in this world than the Devil.  We can't stand up to his power alone.  Surely, if he was able to deceive Eve and somehow operate without Adam's intervention – when our first parents were without sin in paradise – then you and I who are conceived and born in sin, we are easy prey.  We fall for his lies so easily.  We are duped and enticed and led astray.  

And in a way we are held captive by not only our own sin, and death, and this fallen world, but also by the ruler of this world – the father of lies.  We may not be possessed in the sense of an unclean spirit controlling our speech and actions – but in our sin we are just as much under the Devil's sway.  Locked down into a solitary confinement of sin and death.  This is our starting point, fellow sinners.  This is where we are stuck without Jesus – bullied by the ultimate bully.

But we are not without Jesus.  So in Jesus' parable, there is the strong man – the Devil.  But someone else comes and subdues him.  Binds him hand and foot.  Someone is here to bully the bully!  And that stronger man is Jesus Christ.  First he defeats our enemy, and then he plunders the house.  And you, dear forgiven sinner, are the plunder!  Jesus comes to steal you away from the jaws of death, the fangs of sin, and the clutches of the Devil.  He comes and divides, destroys, brings ruin to the house of Satan, and all our enemy's power comes crashing down with a breath.  Jesus one, the devil nothing – the eternal score.

But how does he do this?  When does it happen?

Certainly, we must go to the cross.  There we see what appears to be a “not-very-strong-man”, but instead a man of sorrows dying under a curse.  There we see the one stricken, smitten, afflicted.  The one forsaken by God who can count all his bones, surrounded by dogs – pierced hands and feet – tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, strength dried up like a potsherd.  There?  There's your strongman?  There's your defeat of the biggest, baddest meany of all?  Yes.  At the cross.  Where God's power is made perfect in weakness.  Where God's wrath over our sin is satisfied.  Where Jesus wraps it all up with the bow of a perfect declaration.  “It is finished”.

It began in Genesis, when the old serpent began his campaign of lies.  But the Lord calmly walked over there in the cool of the day, and made a promise.  The seed of the woman will crush your head.  And you will only bruise his heel.  Here (the cross) is the bruised heel.  But here, also is the crushed head of Satan.  Here is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world.  Here is the victory.  Here is your victory.  His resurrection proves it and seals it.  Death has no more sting.  And Satan himself is a serpent de-fanged, and roaring lion de-clawed.

Christian author J.R.R. Tolkein depicts this ultimate struggle in his Lord of the Rings novels, which are also popular movies.  In the final battle scene, the good guys are set to storm the gates of Mordor, the stronghold of the enemy.  There, the wicked Sauron – the seeming personification of evil – watches the battle from his dark tower with a creepy all-seeing eye atop it.  The army of men is surrounded by the armies of darkness.  The tension builds to a fever pitch as friends in arms begin to say their farewells.  There looks to be no way out. Hope fades.

But in one dramatic moment, the ring that contains all the enemy's dark power is destroyed.  Sauron's tower crumbles, his eye is snuffed out, and all his hellish armies scatter and flee.  The seemingly incontestable strength of this evil foe comes crashing down in a moment.  
This is what Jesus did at the cross.  And this is what Jesus does every time your sins are forgiven.  This is what happens when a child is baptized.  This is what happens when you “take and eat” and “take and drink” at his table.  The might of Satan is unraveled.  And his house comes crashing down.  When sinners repent and believe in Christ, and sins are forgiven, the angels rejoice, the Devil loses, and Jesus wins YOU.

He says, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”.  

Don't let this part of the passage scare you, friends.  Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is essentially opposing the work of the Spirit.  And since the work of the Spirit is to call sinners to repentance and faith in Christ – this unforgivable sin amounts to, very simply, the rejection of forgiveness in Christ.  Don't pass by the fact that Jesus promises “all sins will be forgiven”.  Even blasphemies!  There is nothing you've done so bad, so wrong, so deep and dark that Jesus can't handle it.  The only eternal sin is turning away from him and his forgiveness.

And this victory that he wins, this forgiveness that he freely gives – it makes you more than just his disciples, or even his friends, it makes you his family.  For when his mother and brothers come looking for him again, presumably to rescue him from himself, Jesus teaches another profound truth.  Those who do the will of God are his family members.  And what is that will of God?  That sinners repent and believe, and have life in his name.  That your sins are forgiven.

Sometimes being a Christian doesn't seem very victorious.  We don't always “win” at the “game of life”.  We have our hurts and our sorrows.  We fall flat on our faces.  And even the devil, whom we know is defeated, still prowls around looking for someone to devour.  He still tempts us, and would see us fall.  And he loves to see you suffer.  He wants you to doubt your forgiveness.  He still asks, “did God really say...?”

More than that, Jesus promises we'll bear crosses, and be persecuted and that the world will even hate us because of him.  It doesn't sound very much like a victory celebration.  

But we walk by faith, not by sight.  Paul reminds us today, “things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”  Even if our earthly tents, these bodies, are destroyed (and unless Christ comes first, they will be...) nevertheless we have a temple – a permanent residence with God in eternity.  And our defeated flesh will rise again in glory to live forever.  This momentary affliction is nothing compared to the eternal weight of glory in store for us.

And so it happens again today, as it always does at his family gatherings.  We confess and are absolved.  The Gospel is proclaimed.  Sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ.  So all Satan's might has come unraveled.  The strong man is defeated by the God-man.  Jesus lives, the victory's won.  And that victory is yours.  Believe it for Jesus' sake.  Amen.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost - John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Messiah Lutheran Church
Keller, Texas
The Day of Pentecost
May 24th, 2015

Grace mercy and peace....

A blessed feast of Pentecost to you, dear Christians.

What a wonderful day to preach my first sermon among you, the people of Messiah. It was on the first Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, that Christ poured out his Holy Spirit on the fledgling church. It was on that first Day of Pentecost that the Spirit empowered the disciples to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the many pilgrims gathered there in Jerusalem – and to do it miraculously, so that each heard it in his own language.

It was on that first Day of Pentecost that Peter preached his first sermon, and the people were cut to the heart, and said, “what then shall we do?” “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And some 3000 believed and were baptized that day.

While we certainly don't want to downplay the blessed events of that first Pentecost, neither should we think that it was an event so much unlike anything else God does. Some call it the “birthday of the Christian church”, but perhaps it's better to see it as just another step in the ongoing unfolding of God's plan for salvation in Jesus Christ. For now that good news of Christ would travel back with these pilgrims, from Jerusalem to their homelands. The Lord of the Church knows exactly what he's doing here.

Now the Spirit would work through the words they had heard, received, and believed... and the same Spirit would continue to convict in regards to sin, and righteousness, and judgment. The same Spirit would point to Christ. The same Spirit would call, gather, enlighten and sanctify. The same Spirit would bring life from the dead. Just like the Spirit always did, just like he always does.

The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. He had a hand in the creation, along with Father and Son. It was the Spirit that was breathed into the nostrils of Adam to bring him life. Indeed, the word “Spirit” in Hebrew – Ruach – means wind or breath. So the Spirit of God is the very breath of God. It's also why Jesus breathed on his disciples in John 20 as he said, “receive the Holy Spirit”.

Now take a walk for a moment back with me through Ezekiel 37, our Old Testament reading, and the Valley of the Dry Bones. There, Ezekiel saw a vision: he was brought by the spirit to this valley where a great battle had been fought, and the casualties were many. Imagine what Ezekiel saw as he pondered the skulls and femurs and ribs scattered about. The scene was terribly hopeless. There were no survivors to be found. None who were only wounded, but might just need some doctoring. None who were only mostly dead. No, there was none left alive. They were so dead, there was not even any rotting flesh left. It had been picked clean by the birds and left to bake in the hot sun. The bones were dry. They were not only merely dead, these bones were most sincerely dead.

But the Lord asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” What a question! Surely any sane person would say, “not a chance!” But Ezekiel also knows the Lord. He knows this is the Lord and Giver of Life. He knows there's more to the story here, so he leaves the question open: “Lord, you know”. And then Ezekiel is commanded to prophesy, to speak, to preach if you will to these dead bones – the word of the Lord. And well, you know how the song goes and how the story ends. The bones connect, the flesh is restored. And when he preaches again, the Spirit breathes life and they stand on their feet – a mighty army.

“These bones are the house of Israel”, the Lord explains. It is a great lesson Ezekiel, and for Israel, and for us. Though the people were as good as dead and worse, God would restore them. His prophetic word, and his Spirit, would bring life. And this whole account is also a not-so-subtle pointer toward another “Son of Man” who would one day give his life and bring life to the world.

One of my favorite bands, the Counting Crows, has a song lyric that goes something like this: “I got bones beneath my skin, mister. There's a skeleton in every man's house. Beneath the dust and sweat and love that hang on everyone, there's a dead man trying to get out.” It's a poetic reminder of something scripture teaches so clearly.

We are all dead in our sin. Inside of everyone is a dead man trying to get out. You may have a pulse and breathe and walk and talk. But in your natural state, your sinful nature is as dead as a doornail. The wages of sin is death, and you and I sin a lot, and death comes to us in droves. Apart from Christ you and I are just as hopeless and lifeless as a valley of dry bones. Even worse.

And a dead man can't help himself. He can't sit up and take nourishment. He can't scream or even whisper for help. A dead man can't do part of the work of bringing himself back to life. Only a miracle can do it. Only a resurrection.

But the Spirit of God is the Lord and Giver of Life. He works through the word of Christ who overcame death once and for all. The Spirit works to counteract and overcome death for you and me and for all - and to bring life where there was no hope – because the Spirit brings you Christ.

Whatever skeletons are in your closet. Whatever dead man lurks on the inside of you. However death has manifested in your life. There is hope in Christ, and that hope is proclaimed and promised and effected by His Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that brought Ezekiel to the valley. The same Spirit that was poured out on Pentecost. The Spirit of Christ, who comes to you today.

Yes, today, some may be surprised to hear, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit continues. The same God, Father, Son, and Spirit, works in the same ways he always has to call sinners to faith, and to bring life from the dead, yes even for you.

He did it, notably, at your baptism. When the Spirit hovered over the water and brought life to you who were born into sin and death. But buried with Christ and now raised to life again, your baptism is a daily comfort, not simply a one time event. You not only have been baptized, but you ARE baptized. The Spirit is upon you, in you, his living temple.

The Spirit gives you life, today, through God's word. Jesus lays out the work of the Spirit as three-fold: “he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.”

First, he convicts the world with regard to sin. Like the hearer's of Peter's sermon who were cut to the heart. We, too, need the Spirit to convict us by sticking our noses in the mirror of God's law. Have you loved God with your whole heart? Have you loved your neighbor as yourself? Do you rebel, hurt and harm, lust and covet, gossip and complain? Do you put your neighbor ahead of yourself? Do you keep God's word, love his kingdom, obey his will? If the word of God's law doesn't convict you, if you think you can stand up under it, if you think you're a good person who deserves God's favor – then you need to look a little closer.

But if you've seen that image of a dead man, and you've been cut to the heart, and your spirit cries out, “what shall I do?” Then take comfort in the comforter, who would have you see Jesus. Take counsel from the Spirit, who would counsel you to trust in Christ. Be encouraged by the one who breathes again and again the promises of God in Jesus Christ, in whom we have life and have it abundantly. He will not leave you as a corpse or a pile of bones. He's already raised you once in your baptism. And you will rise again, and live with Christ forever.

For the Spirit also convicts us concerning righteousness. That is, he calls us to faith in Christ and keeps us in that faith. He calls us to believe that for the sake of Christ we have been made righteous and holy before God, blameless in his sight. Declared so by the one who declared “it is finished”.

And the Spirit convicts in regard to judgment, for the prince of this world stands condemned. Satan, our adversary, is the real loser in the cosmic courtroom. We've been judged innocent on account of Christ. But the devil and all his forces of evil – they are judged. The deed is done. One little word can fell them – for that Word is the word of God and it is Spirit filled and it is living and active and sharper than any sword.

Finally, Jesus tells us, the spirit he sends is the Spirit of Truth. He guides us into all truth. He takes what belongs to Christ, and gives it to Christ's people. The forgiveness of sins on account of Christ crucified. The Spirit declares it to you. He declares it to all nations, sinners of all tribes and languages. Thus he takes the dead and makes them alive in Christ, alive to live forever.

On this Pentecost Sunday, give thanks for the Helper, the Advocate, the Counselor, the Spirit whom Christ sends. For though he has gone away, he has not left us alone. Though we are dead in our trespasses, he does not leave us to the grave. But the Lord and Giver of life declares Christ to you – and you, dry bones, live again. Hear the word of the Lord. Receive the Holy Spirit. Believe it for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sermon - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31

Old St. John. Grand-daddy of the early church. Last living Apostle. Living out his days in Ephesus, in the late first century. And he writes letters to the church, his “dear children”. We have three of these in the New Testament.

And he writes his Gospel. A Gospel which is different than the first three. It gives a very different perspective than Matthew, Mark and Luke, which we call the “syn-optics”. John's optics, his view, is different. Complementary, of course.

For instance, you have the Great High Priestly Prayer of Jesus in John 17, the longest recorded prayer of our Lord. You have an extended description of the events in the upper room. You also have the great “I Am” passages. And familiar favorites like John 3:16 and John 14:1-6 (I go to prepare a place for you).

Today's Gospel reading from John gives us three chunks of Gospel goodness, each a sermon's worth in itself. So we'll the first two briefly, and the third in some more depth this morning.

First, the appearance of Jesus to the 12, er, 11 – take away Judas, er 10 – take away Thomas. Jesus miraculously appears without any action on their part, without any merit or worthiness. Jesus comes, and brings peace. He declares it, “peace be with you”, he doesn't ask them if they want it, if they deserve it. He knows they need it, and so he gives it.

He gives them His Spirit, too. Not that they didn't already have it. Anytime the Word is preached or proclaimed, the Spirit is at work. Even today, here and now. We are continual recipients of the Spirit, who brings us also the good gifts of Christ.

And Jesus gets right to the point of what he wants these Apostles, these first public servants of the Word to be about. The forgiveness of sins. The forgiveness that brings the only real peace. “If you forgive anyone his sins they are forgiven”. What an authority and power, and what a responsibility also to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant. So does he charge pastors even today. We call it the “Office of the Keys” because by such forgiveness, heaven itself is unlocked. Thanks be to God we have heard this forgiveness proclaimed, even today. In the stead and by the command of Christ. And that command to forgive comes from right here, in John 20.

Section two deals with Thomas. Poor Thomas who goes down in history as “Doubting Thomas”, even though he eventually came to believe and confess beautifully, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas, whose doubts anticipate the doubts of many who would follow, and through whom Jesus encourages us all, “stop doubting, and believe!” The resurrection is real. Jesus is alive, in the flesh. We may not get to touch him like Thomas did, but that only makes us more blessed. For faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.

Which leads us to the third section, John's purpose statement for his Gospel:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name.”

The mind races at the thought of all the wonders and signs the resurrected Jesus might have done. What miracles did they see? What divine powers did he show them? Perhaps when we meet the Lord he'll fill in the gaps for us, but for now it is enough. The Holy Spirit inspired St. John to write these words, to record these things, for a very specific purpose. That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that believing, you may have life in His name.

There are a lot of people who want to use the Bible for a lot of different things. Sometimes it makes for entertainment, like the new show on NBC: “A.D.” Some would use the Bible as a secret decoder ring for the latest fad diet or personal wealth building scheme. Most of us laugh at these sorts of things, though.

But then there are those who would make the Bible a rulebook for living. A how-to of the law that shows us which way to go. A sort of expanded version of the 10 commandments that teaches us “what would Jesus do”. This is a pretty shallow understanding, too. Those who take this approach aren't usually that familiar with what Scripture actually teaches when it comes to the law.

You and I know that the laws and rules of the Bible are full well impossible to follow. We can't love God with all our heart, soul and strength. We don't love our neighbor as ourselves. We worship other gods. We take his name in vain. We kill and lie and steal and gossip and covet and lust. We do it in our heads and hearts at least, and often in word and deed as well. The Law of God stands in constant accusation of sinners like you and me, who are never good enough. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. We must repent!

But these things were not written that you would be instructed in how to be good. These things were not written that you would know right from wrong. These things were not written that you would simply be crushed and brought to despair that you'll never be good enough for God. These things were written that you might believe and have life in Jesus Christ.

This is a Gospel, after all. Good news. The law kills, but the Spirit gives life. The work of Jesus, his life, his death, and his resurrection. These things are written, that we would believe.

His life – all that he did and said that are recorded for us in Holy Scripture. All that we confess in the creeds – that he was conceived of the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit. That he suffered in accord with the scriptures. That he fulfilled all prophecies, right down to the last moments of his life. He did all things well. He healed the blind and deaf and lame. He cast out demons. He commanded nature. He even raised the dead. He did all this for us, that we might believe and have life.

And his preaching – a new teaching, and with authority! That he himself was the content of the message. That in him, the kingdom of God has arrived. That in him is rest, healing, peace, forgiveness and life! He who believes in me will live, even though he dies. And he who lives and believes in me will never die.

And his death. The cross- we preach Christ Crucified, Paul says... nothing more or less. Oh sure, the whole counsel of God. But the whole counsel of God always leads to and stems from the cross. The lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world, is the one who bears his nail scars and pierced side into his resurrection and eternity – the cross should never be far from our hearts, minds, lips.

And his resurrection. We rejoice not only a week after Easter but every sunday, every “little Easter”, the Lord's day because he renews all creation on Sunday – the day of his own resurrection – this eighth day of creation as some have called it. The cross and empty tomb go together – two sides of a coin, if you will, the death he died and the life he now lives for us forever. These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and believing have life in his name.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Sermon - The Resurrection of Our Lord - Easter Sunday - Mark 16

Easter Sunday
April 5, 2015
Grace Lutheran Church, Racine, WI

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Death lies in shambles. But Jesus is alive!

Your sins are distant memory. Jesus has paid the price!

The devil has been brought to ruin. And Jesus has won the victory!

Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Easter is the great surprise of history. Oh, battles have been won before. Enemies have been defeated, even at the last moment, even when little hope remained. Last-second, shot-made at the final buzzer triumphs do happen from time to time. But this victory is different.

This man was the God-man. He was the Christ, the son of the living God. And for him to die... it was the darkest hour of the darkest day. It was the great injustice of all history. It was the ripping away of all hope. If even one so pure as Jesus couldn't escape the jaws of foul death, then what hope is there for someone like you or me?

We had hoped he would be the one. We had hoped he would deliver Israel. We had hoped he would bring comfort and peace, but it seemed, all that Friday brought was violence and humiliation. Darkness. Sorrow. Death. The disciples were scattered and hiding in fear. The women who stayed behind could only wail and cry. At least they got to bury his body hastily. Then the stone shut the tomb with a loud thud.... and... silence.

And then bright Easter morn breaks through! And all of that is forgotten! The nails, the spear, the flogging, the bleeding, the shame.... gone... because... because Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

It is the great surprise of history. But it shouldn't be. He had predicted it, many times. He promised them the sign of Jonah – who was in the belly of the whale three days and nightsHe spoke to his disciples plainly – the Son of Man must be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and he will suffer, and he will die, but on the third day he will rise again!

How much plainer could he be? But they tried to rebuke him. Or it went in one ear and out the other. They just couldn't wrap their minds, their hearts, their faith around it. The Christ must suffer, die, and rise again.

Let us wrap our minds and hearts and faith around it as best we can today. By faith in God's word, rejoice with me that Jesus has won the victory over our sins. That his death satisfies God's righteous wrath. That the devil can go fly a kite, but he has no claim on you or me. For Jesus is alive, never to die again. Jesus is the victor, our champion in the fight. And through him, we too share the victory!

Let's start with the women at the tomb. The first to hear the news of his resurrection. They were flabbergasted. They had come in grief, to finish up a hastily prepared burial. Their grief was such that they didn't think about all the details – they forgot about that stone that sealed the grave. How would they roll it away? Just another disappointment to add to their list of miseries. But still, somehow, they came to the tomb.

And imagine their surprise to see the stone rolled away! What were they to do now? Obviously something wasn't right.

But there was a messenger, a young man, an angel – sitting in the tomb (who sits around in tombs dressed in white anyway?) and he had a message for them. It was a surprise to them, too, but it shouldn't have been.

Don't be alarmed. You seek Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here. He has arisen! See the place where they laid him. Now, go tell Peter and the disciples that he'll meet you in Galilee, just as he told you.”

And friends, this angelic message is for us, also, on this Easter Sunday.

Don't be alarmed!” No don't you be alarmed either! With Jesus there is nothing to fear. With Jesus there is nothing that can harm you – ultimately, for even though you die, yet shall you live! Don't let your own sins alarm you. They've been buried with Christ. Don't let the accuser accuse you. All his might has come unraveled. Don't fear the one who would ridicule or shun you, discriminate against you or even behead you.... for Christ is Risen.... and that makes all the difference in the world.

You seek Jesus, who was crucified.” Yes, friends, you too seek Jesus who was crucified. You seek him, not of your own reason or strength, but because the Holy Spirit has called you to faith in baptism, and by his mysterious working in the word. And you seek a Jesus who was crucified. For without the cross none of this matters. Without the payment for sin, there is no saving from sin. And Jesus' crucifixion is the only thing that could do it. Without Easter, the cross is a big question mark, and our faith is in vain. But without the cross, Easter matters even less.

He is not here. He is risen” the angel said. He has risen from death. He's passed through it, and come out on the other side. Who does that? What a miracle! A precious few had been raised from death before – the widow's son raised by Elijah. And then those raised by Jesus – Jairus' daughter, the widow's son at Nain, and Jesus' friend Lazarus. But never before had one called his own resurrection ahead of time, and delivered the good. He is risen, just as he said.

And not just for him, friends, this is also for you. The reason Jesus' resurrection is so great is that it's not just for him, it's for you, too! He goes before you – to death, and to resurrection, and to eternal glory with the Father.

See the place where they laid him” The place. A real, historical place, where his real, historical body was laid. The place, a borrowed grave, belonging to a rich man, Joseph. But it wasn't his place for long. Long enough to take his rest on the Sabbath. Long enough to prove he was really, truly, dead. But not forever. He lives, now, forever. His place, now, is his rightful place in heaven. And he prepares a place for you there (John 14) – where you will live, resurrected body and soul together. A place with him forever.

Now, go tell the disciples he'll meet you in Galilee, just as he told you”
Yes, everything is always just as he told you. He was arrested and suffered, just as he told them. He was crucified and died, just as he told them. He even rose from the dead, just as he told them. And now he would see them again soon, just as he told them.

Everything is just as he tells you, too, Christian. He forgives your sins, just as he told you when you were baptized in his name. He gives you his body and blood in Holy Communion, just as he told you – that's what it is - given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins. And here, he meets you, just as personally as he met those fearful disciples in the upper room and in Galilee. His mysterious but very real presence, to bring you peace.
And just as he told them, so does his forgiveness tell you, “fear not”.

And so today's Gospel ends with this cliffhanger – the women leaving the tomb afraid, confused, not knowing what to make of it all. But we know their grief would soon be turned around, as Jesus' resurrection sunk in. As they and the other early Christians came to see just what it meant that Jesus had lived and died for them, and rose again for them and for all. This good news has to be shared, proclaimed, preached even to the ends of the earth.

And so it was. And so it still is today. That Christ Crucified for sinners and raised again in glory is preached – and that all the promises of Christ are fulfilled – just as he has told us. They are proclaimed in far off places like Singapore, and Texas. The same Christ is proclaimed here at 3700 Washington Avenue. The word of his law and gospel, the forgiveness delivered in the mystery of the sacraments. All the gifts of God for the people of God. And for you. And the victory that he wins – is ours. Just as he said. There and here. Now and forever. So do not be afraid.

For Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Sermon - Mark 1:21-28 - Epiphany 4

Christ the King and Redeemer Lutheran Churches, Racine, WI
Mark 1:21-28
“Fides Qua and Fides Quae”
There are some handy Latin phrases that every good Lutheran pastor and theologian needs to know, and which can also be helpful to laypeople. One of those phrases, which pastor Carlson suggested to me for this week, was “Fides Qua and Fides Quae”.

But rather than rely on my own explanation I thought I'd start by sharing with you yet another fine pastor's explanation of this phrase:

The expression fides qua means “the faith which believes.” Here faith is saving faith which receives and holds the riches of Christ’s atonement. He has won for us the favor of God through the merits of Christ. He gives this salvation to us through the word and sacrament and we grab it and hold it by faith. This faith is what the theologians call fides qua – the faith which believes. It’s the fides qua which makes you a Christian.

The fides quae is a short-hand way which theologians use to talk about, “the faith which is believed.” Here the word faith is like when the pastor says, “let us confess the faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.” The faith which is believed does not so much refer to the grasping quality of saving faith but to that which faith clings. Fides quae is THE faith. So we could say that Christians have faith in the faith. Although it is usually a bit less confusing to say that we have faith in the gospel.
Fides qua without fides quae is emotionalism with all sorts of heartfelt sentiments but no understanding of precisely what Jesus is all about. Fides quae without fides qua is heartless theological abstractions.
(Rev. Klemet Preus+)

So what does Fides Qua and Fides Quae have to do with our Gospel reading from Mark, where Jesus casts out a demon? And just as important, what does all of this have to do with you and me? Bear with me and we'll get there...

Our Gospel reading takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum. This is actually one of the historical sites we are pretty sure we've uncovered. I was there in 2007, and they found the old synagogue that Jesus visited there. On the top level are the imported white stone foundations of the 4th century synagogue. But underneath, the black volcanic rock from the local area that built the synagogue of Jesus' day.

The contrast between Jesus and the teachers of his day could also be described as black and white. They spoke with appeals to the Rabbis who taught before them. Gamaliel quotes Simeon quoting Eleazer, etc... But Jesus spoke with authority. He taught something different, and taught it differently. “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” The teachers of men relied on the teachings of men. But he didn't need any other word to rely on, because he, Jesus, is the living Word of God, with God from the beginning but now made flesh and walking and talking among them.

And then something strange happened. An evil spirit spoke out. Which is strange enough. But even stranger is that the demon both knew who Jesus was, and even said so! “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” This demon, who works for the Father of Lies, is telling the truth! He has confessed rightly who Jesus is, and why he has come – to destroy the forces of evil.

And yet, no one would accuse the demons, or the devil, of being a Christian. And here we come back to the Fides Quae understanding. The devil knows the Bible, friends, better than any of us do. Luther called the devil a master theologian. He is an expert in what God's word says. As Scripture says, “even the demons believe – and shudder” You might even say the devil has a “Fides Quae” faith in God. He knows the truth, knows it to be true, and believes it. But he has no “Fides Qua”, no trust in Christ as his savior.

Sometimes we might even be the same. The danger for us, the temptation for some, is to make the faith an intellectual exercise. To be more concerned about getting it right, than that what is right is “for me”. We pastors are often susceptible to this problem, especially because we've been called to oversee the public teaching of the church. But just because you have all the right confessions and all the right doctrines and all the right theological proclamations, even in Latin, doesn't make you a Christian. If even a demon can rightly confess Christ, in a synagogue, (to his face!) - then simply getting the teachings right isn't enough, is it? The Fides Quae without the Fides Qua.

But there is also the opposite error. And here is where many laypeople are tempted. When we think that believing in Jesus is all that is important, and it doesn't really matter what you believe. The Fides Qua without the Fides Quae. This can lead to all sorts of trouble too. These are the people who think they've already learned all there is to learn about the faith. “I went to confirmation class 50 years ago, pastor!” This is the temptation to put the catechism aside, rather than to continue using it like Luther intended. The temptation to believe in Jesus, but know little of what Jesus actually said or taught.

This is the kind of emotionalism that is all too common in the church. The idea that it's all about the heart. That we don't need any of these objective truths or these doctrines which divide. Let's just love Jesus and that's good enough. But it's a shallow and ultimately a false faith that pays no attention to what Jesus teaches in his word. If you're looking to believe in a Jesus who doesn't teach anything of substance, then you're looking for a false Jesus. If your kind of Jesus is one who doesn't care about whether you baptize babies, or whether you receive his true body and blood in the sacrament, or whether you think your good works get you into heaven... well, then you have the wrong Jesus, my friends.

There's plenty of guilt to go around when it comes to the Fides Qua and the Fides Quae. We are sinners, after all, and we will get things wrong. Maybe we'll focus too much on the doctrine, or we'll focus too little. We'll think to much of our own personal faith, or we will think to much of our own right doctrine. We will break the 1st commandment by turning our teaching itself into a god to be worshipped. Or we will break the 2nd by claiming to love God but despising preaching and his word.
There's only one way out of the Fides Qua/Fides Quae Quandry for sinners, and that way is Jesus himself.

Jesus who died on the cross, and by it destroyed the powers of darkness. Jesus the Holy One of God who makes us holy by his blood. Jesus the one with authority over the demons, and authority to forgive sins. Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith – and of our Fides Qua and our Fides Quae.

He gives his spirit, who works through his word, to create saving faith where there was none. Whenever we try to measure and examine our faith we will find it lacking. But whenever we look to Christ for forgiveness, life and salvation – it is always enough. Faith in Christ, trust in Christ, is a gift from him. Even the smallest faith, of a mustard seed, if that faith is in Christ, can move the mountain of sin from us.

And Christ gives us his word, the content of our faith. We don't develop our doctrine, but like all things of God, we receive it as a gift. We are the recipients of the Bible, and the creeds which summarize it, the catechism which teaches it, and the confessions which – confess it.

That he calls you to believe in him is good news! That he tells you what to believe about him is good news! That despite your lack of faith, weak faith, failing faith – he still saves, is good news! For he died for all your sins. He covers all your unholiness with his holiness. He silences all your enemies with his authoritative word.

Thank God, for the Fides Quae, the “what” of our faith. And thank God for the Qua, the “in whom” of our faith, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Sermon - John 1:43-51 - Epiphany 2

Gloria Dei Lutheran Church
Chicago, IL
January 18th, 2014
Epiphany 2
John 1:43-51

The Epiphany Season gives us a chance to delve deep into the revelation of who Jesus Christ really is. This Christmas, we celebrated his birth, and wondered, “What child is this?” Now in Epiphany, the questions (and answers) keep on coming. Who do men say that I am? You are the Christ. Who does God say that he is? This is my beloved Son.

Well, what would these would-be-disciples say that Jesus is? Phillip tells Nathanael about him. He seems to not know exactly what to call him, but he knows Jesus is someone special. He doesn't use the word Messiah, but the idea wasn't too far from his mind. Phillip knows Jesus is some kind of leader, for he answers his call to follow him. And he tells Nathanael he should follow too. Because this is “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

How did he know? What did he really know about Jesus? And yet, somehow, faith had taken root. He had heard, to some extent, the word of God concerning this Jesus. And he had heard the call to faith, and the call to follow. Phillip didn't come to this through superior study, through extreme spirituality, or some other exertion of effort. Like you and I, called to faith by the Spirit, through the word.

Then there's Nathanael. Not at the same point in his faith as Phillip. When he hears of Jesus, he is skeptical. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth!?” A rhetorical question, but a good theological question. We could change the names and places and ask the same question. Chicago! Can anything good come from Chicago?! Wisconsin! Certainly nothing good can come from there. Baltimore? New York? Fargo? Singapore? Take your pick, throw out your own rhetorical question. The answer will be the same. No.

Nothing good can come from any of these places, because the men and women that come from these places are sinners. You and I are sinners. You and I have nothing good to bring. Even our best works are as filthy rags, and who would be interested in that?

No, by nature, Nathanael isn't all that impressed with the idea of this messiah from Nazareth. And by nature, neither are we. A humble Jesus who suffers and dies for our sins just doesn't impress our Old Adams very much.

So Nathanael comments on Jesus, and he gives him far less credit than he should. But then Jesus comments on Nathanael, and he gives him far more credit than you'd expect. “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deception!” Wait just a minute, now, Jesus.

Are you saying that Nathanael is free of deception? That he's never lied to his parents, to his friends, to himself? That he's somehow immune to this form (or any form) of sin? Is he the fabled George Washington of the disciples, who “cannot tell a lie?” Or is Jesus here just trying to ingratiate himself to Nathanael, because, you know, he needs disciples and compliments are one way to win friends and influence people?

Or is Jesus simply recognizing that Nathanael is already a man of faith? That he knew Moses and the Prophets had been pointing forward to the messiah, and Nathanael trusted in those words of God. And Jesus knew that Nathanael would also belong to him, be one of his own, that Christ's true nature would be revealed to him along with the other apostles and so many other disciples.

Beyond all that, Jesus would take away all deceit, lies, slander, gossip and every false witness – through his saving work, his death on the cross. This is why Jesus can look at you, too, sinner though you are, liar though you are, and see nothing false. Because he has made it so. And what Jesus says about you is far more important than what you or the world or the devil say about yourself.

Can anything good come from Jerusalem? No. But Jesus doesn't come, ultimately, from Jerusalem. He comes from heaven's high through, a noble guest indeed. Can anything good come from man, let alone a man from a backwater place like Nazareth? No, but here is no mere man, but the God-man, like us in every way yet without sin.

But also with a divine nature – so that he knows all and can do all. He saw Nathanael under the fig tree long before Nathanael was in sight. The divine eye knows no limits. He knew Nathanael's heart, and he accepted him despite the fact that he was a sinner after all.

And he promised Nathanael he would see even greater things yet. What's he talking about, “angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man”?

Well assuming Nathanael, this true Israelite, knew his Old Testament Scriptures, he'd have caught the reference to “Jacob's Ladder”. In Genesis 28, Jacob (the one whose name was changed to Israel) had a dream – in which he saw a stairway or ladder, reaching from heaven to earth, and angels “ascending and descending on it”. God was making a connection between sinful man and the holiness of his heaven. The eternal separation of sin would be bridged.

And that ladder is Christ. One day, Nathanael would see it so clearly. That Jesus is the bridge, the touchstone, the very stairway between earth and heaven. He's the only point of connection, the only way (and truth and life). He, and only he, can and does transport us from the miseries below to the eternal joys above.

And he does it, suspended between heaven and earth on a cross. Nathanael who once sat under a fig tree, would come to live under the tree of Christ's cross. There this true Israelite would find God's ultimate truth – that Christ is crucified for sinners like you and me.

Today we too confess with Nathanael that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the King of Israel. He is the stairway to heaven, and the one Israelite who takes our falsehood away. The truth of his word endures, and his calling to follow is for you, too. Receive him with joy today as he comes in his body and blood. For nothing good can come out of you, but everything good comes from him, for you.