Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sermon - St. Barnabas

The Encouragement of Pastors

St. Barnabas, Apostle
The 10th Anniversary of Ordination for
Rev. James Alfred Roemke
June 11, 2017

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today we gather to give thanks to God for the ministry of his servant Pastor Jim Roemke these past 10 years. It is good and fitting for the church to honor her ministers, for in doing so we honor the One who sends them to us, even our Lord Jesus Christ. So also, today, even though Pastor Roemke hasn't served here at Messiah all of those 10 years, we recognize also that God has worked through this man here and at his former parish, to forgive sins, administer the sacraments to sinners, and to proclaim the word of God and especially the message of Christ crucified.

It was about 10 years ago, when my good friend here was ordained, that I also had the privilege of preaching for the occasion. And, God willing, perhaps I'll have the honor again many years from now to do the same again. But for today, we agreed it was fitting to observe the commemoration of St. Barnabas, who's day falls on June 11th. Pastor reminds me this was the occasion, also, for the first Sunday he ever served as an actual pastor. But it is fitting for many other reasons, as we'll soon see. First, some background on Barnabas:

His given name was Joseph, but he was called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement). He was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, and he sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. (Acts 4:36-37). Here Scripture makes first mention of Saint Barnabas.

This name given by the Apostles matches what we know of his actions. When Saul of Tarsus (or Paul) came to Jerusalem after his conversion, most of the congregation wanted nothing to do with him. They knew him only as a persecutor and an enemy of Christ's Church. Barnabas, however, willingly gave him a second chance. He sought him out, spoke with him, and brought him to meet the other Christians, vouching for him.

Later, Paul and Barnabas went on a missionary journey together, taking Barnabas's cousin Mark along. Part way, Mark turned back and went home. When Paul and Barnabas were about to set out on another such journey, Barnabas proposed to take Mark along, and Paul was against it, saying that Mark had shown himself undependable. Barnabas wanted to give Mark a second chance, and so he and Mark went off on one journey, while Paul took Silas and went on another. Apparently Mark responded well to the trust given him by the "son of encouragement," since we find that Paul later spoke of him as a valuable assistant (2 Timothy 4:11; see also Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 24).

Barnabas stands for us, today, as an encourager as well. Yet another example of a faithful ministry of the word, he teaches us by example and reminds us of gifts God gives to his church through his appointed servants.

The apostles gave him the name, “Barnabas”, but I also like to call him “Mr. Second Chances” He reminds me, for instance, that it is one aspect of the pastor's office to afford “second chances” to sinners, under the cross of Christ. The cross is the only second chance we have with God, the only escape clause from the punishments due for sin. And a faithful pastor points sinners to that cross, and to this Christ.

Yes, Paul was a great sinner and persecutor of the church, but Baranabas could see through the cross, that Christ had forgiven Paul and would use him for good. Yes, Mark may have chickened out or given up when the going got tough, but Barnabas saw through the cross, that whatever Mark's failing – Christ had it covered, and Mark would go on to continue serving the kingdom.

You, also have a faithful Barnabas, Messiah. Your pastor here, will encourage you with the same cross of Christ, and restore you by the forgiveness Christ speaks through him. It doesn't matter what your sin is, this pastor will hear your confession and pronounce God's holy absolution for the sake of Christ. It doesn't matter how big or how small it is, the Barnabas in this place will remind you of your baptism, where your old Adam drowns and your new Adam arises daily. Were you unkind, or selfish, or angry, or lustful, or negligent, or prideful, or gossipy, or discontent, or hateful, or cowardly, or some combination or all of the above? This faithful Barnabas will feed you with the very Body and Blood of Christ, who was none of those things, but who takes all of those sins and more and wipes them out, giving you a clean slate each and every time.

The Gospel reading for today is also helpful. Why is this chosen for St. Barnabas day? Barnabas wasn't one of the 12 sent out here by Jesus, though Luke refers to him briefly with the same title, “apostle”. Perhaps because, like the 12, Barnabas was also sent out, though at a different time and to different places, in a twosome with St. Paul. And furthermore, this reading from Mark 6 gives some basic contours common to all who serve in the public ministry of the word. Consider:

Jesus sends them out with authority – and so he does for us, and this is good for you, the hearer. To know that the pastor doesn't preach his own word, his own ideas, his own opinions – but always and only the word of Christ. A word that has authority. So when the pastor forgives your sins, it's not his forgiveness, but God's. When the pastor proclaims that in Christ, salvation is sure, eternity is yours, and “it is finished”, you know these are not his words, but the words of him who sends him. And that is an encouraging thought.

Take note, it says Jesus “began to send” them out... This isn't the last time Jesus would send out preachers carrying his message. It may have been that he sent the 12 out on several occasions similar to this, as it seems Matthew and Luke's accounts have some varying details. Jesus would send out the 72 in pairs of proclamation. And some of his final words before his ascension were words of sending, that disciples should be made of all nations by baptizing and teaching everything he has commanded. The same Jesus, by the same Spirit, sent laborers into his harvest fields throughout history, all over the world, and has even sent a young man from Indiana to a congregation in Kenosha for the same purposes.

Jesus also reminds them that some will hear and receive and believe, and others will reject this message. He instructs the disciples to testify against them by the prophetic action of shaking the dust off their feet. A powerful statement that if you won't receive Christ and his word, then you have no part with him or his church. But the flip side is that some will believe and show appreciation for the word, the ministry, and therefore the ministers of this message. Some would even take them into their homes, and show hospitality as long as the preacher was there.

So also, today, not everyone has ears to hear the Gospel. I'll let you in on a little secret about us pastors. One of the hardest things for us, one of the biggest griefs we bear, is when people reject the Gospel of Christ. It happens far too often.

But the comfort, the encouragement for us from Christ is partly, knowing beforehand that some will reject, but also that some, like you will believe. And this is one of the greatest joys of the pastor. Not that his people love him. Not that they give him a nice salary or a Christmas bonus, or a nice parsonage or a 10 year anniversary celebration. But it pleases us most, gives us the most joy, when sinners repent and believe in Jesus Christ. When that happens, there's even a party in heaven as the angels join in great rejoicing.

But yes, that does also mean that those who receive the message and appreciate it will also care and provide for their pastors. And I know that you do so here at Messiah, and have for a very long time. It is a testament to your faith in Christ, and that you do treasure his precious Gospel. And because of that, you care for and treasure your pastor. And so, I encourage you - keep up the good work!

Thanks be to God for the 10 years he has proclaimed the word through this faithful servant. May God continue to bless and keep you and your family, Pastor Roemke, as you encourage these your people with the message of Christ crucified. And we pray that the Lord who has sent us into the harvest will also bless our labors, according to the work of his Spirit, for his good purposes and according to his gracious will. God grant it, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Sermon - Pentecost - Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost, Then and Now
Acts 2:1-21
June 4, 2017

The Day of Pentecost. Another one of these yearly observances in the church that can be a little puzzling. Most of us have heard the story of that day, that original Christian Pentecost, many times. The Holy Spirit was poured out, tongues of flame rested upon the disciples' heads, they spoke in tongues they had never learned, and the pilgrims from all over the world now gathered in Jerusalem – all heard them declaring the wonders of God in their own languages. In fact we probably, many of us, know this story well from the Sunday School lessons of our childhood. Maybe you even had the flannel-gram version, like I did.

But what I've found that has puzzled people over the years is the Holy Spirit himself. We acknowledge even in our hymnody that he is the most mysterious person of the Trinity. And we observe that the doctrine about the Holy Spirit – his person and his work – has been the playground for all sorts of false teachings and confusion. Witness the Pentecostalism which arose at the beginning of the 20th century and is still alive and well in Charismatic theology both here and around the world.

Well, sadly we don't have time this morning to cover everything there is to know and say about the Holy Spirit. But I'd like us to draw some connections and reaffirm some basic points in light of this day, and this reading.

  1. The Holy Spirit works in the Word
  2. The Word testifies to Christ, and so does the Spirit
  3. The work of the Spirit continues, and Pentecost remains, when and wherever the Gospel is preached, and the church believes it

One of our most important confessions of faith as Lutherans is the Augsburg Confession. It's one of those statements that we pastors in the Lutheran Church swear to uphold and teach. And in Article 5, it lays out the distinctly Lutheran understanding of what Scripture teaches about the work of the Spirit:

So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel, that is to say, in those who believe that God, not on account of our own merits but on account of Christ, justifies those who believe that we are received into grace on account of Christ. Galatians 3:14b: “So that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
They condemn the Anabaptists and others who think that the Holy Spirit comes to human beings without the Word through their own preparations.
So, it is through the Word of God that the Holy Spirit works saving faith, and also that word connected to the visible elements in the sacraments. This is where the Holy Spirit works. And while that still doesn't explain everything, it is a great comfort to us – and it also keeps us out of a lot of trouble.

For one, we know not to look for the Spirit apart from the Word. He's not going to bonk you on the head randomly or put some burning in your bosom. The Holy Spirit, apart from the Word, will not “lay it on your heart” or give you a special revelation of God's will.

The confessions say it even more forcefully in the Smalcald Articles:
Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.” – The Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article VIII, 10

This is not to say that God “can't” do as he wills, even work apart from the word. But that he has given us no direction, no indication, no promise of his blessings anywhere but in the word.

So if you want to know the Spirit, know the word. If you want to know where the Spirit works, or how, look to the Word. Even on the Day of Pentecost, those early Christians didn't receive the Spirit in order to prove their second-level faith or to confirm that they were really believers. They received the Spirit in order to proclaim the word of the Gospel. Granted, a miraculous and unusual form of the word – empowering speech in strange languages – but still using the word to tell of Christ.

Which brings us to the next point – The Spirit always testifies to Christ. This follows from our first point. If the Spirit works through the word of God, then we know that the Spirit must testify to Christ, for the word of God testifies to Christ. Jesus makes that plain as day. “You search the Scriptures... these are they that testify to me!” The word of God is the word that points to Christ, tells of Christ, reveals Christ, proclaims Christ. And that is what the Spirit is all about. He's not the Spirit of himself. He's the Spirit of Christ. He's like a bright shining spotlight that wants to point our attention always and only to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. Keep your eyes fixed on him! And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord!” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3)

The Small Catechism describes the Spirit's work with four verbs – He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies. First he calls us... to faith in Christ. We couldn't do it on our own. Just as we can't die for our own sins, and pay the price that's due – we need Jesus – so we can't believe in Jesus on our own – we need the Spirit. The Spirit, for instance, on that first Christian Pentecost, called thousands of Jewish pilgrims to faith – people from all over the world – by a miraculous proclamation of the Gospel.

The Spirit would then use those believers to call and gather others to Christ, even as they returned to their various homelands. Even as he gathers us together in churches throughout the ages and even today – and through the word has called and gathered us all here.

The Spirit enlightens – he sheds light – he reveals and makes known the things of God. Again, primarily and ultimately, this means Christ. It is by the Spirit, that we gain deeper knowledge of the word, and a fuller appreciation of its testimony to Christ.

And the Spirit sanctifies. He makes holy. He keeps us holy before God, and he works in our lives to make us more Christ-like. He helps us in the daily fight with sin, the daily return to Baptism, the daily death and resurrection of repentance and faith. The life under the cross of the Christian. He sanctifies our vocations, and makes all our work done in faith to be good works pleasing to God.

Yes the Holy Spirit remains active in the world, and especially in the Christian church. Here he “daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers”. He applies the riches of salvation won for us at the cross. He transmits them to us through the means God has provided – words of absolution, sacraments of font and altar. He ever broods over the church like he hovered over the primeval waters of creation. And so, Pentecost continues, in the church, to this day.

Pentecost was a harvest celebration for the ancient Jews. It marked the early harvest of wheat. And you can see why it's no accident that the Spirit is given on this day. Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few”. The Christian church is depicted as a harvest of the faithful. The Gospel seed is sown in soils of all kinds, and when it falls on good soil produces a harvest of even 100-fold. This is the work of the Spirit. This is the establishing of the church. This is the early harvest, looking forward to the final harvest when all the nations are judged, wheat and chaff are separated – the chaff to be burned in unquenchable fire and the wheat to be stored in his garner forevermore.

So for the church, everyday is Pentecost. Every time the Spirit gathers us around the word, speaks to us in our own language and declares the wonders of God. Every time sinners are called to repentance and faith in Christ. Every time your sins are forgiven and you are sent back into the harvest fields. Pentecost continues. The Spirit presses on.

The Holy Spirit works through the word.
That word always testifies to Christ.
When the word is proclaimed and believed, the Spirit is working, and Pentecost continues. The church is established, sustained, and it grows.

Thanks be to Christ, our one and only Savior. Thanks be to the Holy Spirit, the Lord of the Harvest, working for us, on us, and in us. Thanks be to the Father, who with the Son sends this Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Sermon - Easter 6 - Acts 17:16-31

Strange Things”
Acts 17:16-31
Easter 6
May 21, 2017

Perhaps you've noticed that during the Easter Season the Old Testament reading is replaced by reading from the book of Acts. This has tripped up more than one pastor over the years, as we are creatures of habit. And so I'm always wary about announcing “Today's Old Testament Reading is from the New Testament book of Acts”. One way of looking at this is that in these readings from Acts we are seeing the immediate “effects of Easter”, as the early church grew and the message of the Gospel spread. The risen Jesus had sent his apostles to carry that message from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and eventually, to the ends of the earth. Today, we pick up with St. Paul, who certainly traveled to the ends of the earth, on a visit to Athens, Greece.

As was his custom, when Paul entered the city he first preached to the Jews in the synagogue. But he also made time to preach to the pagans of the city, and even the intellectuals who whiled away their days in discussions of philosophy and ideas. Some weren't so impressed with his preaching, and called him a “babbler”. Some seemed to think he was preaching about foreign gods, as pagans often thought of gods as being localized to a certain country.

They took him to a prominent rock outcropping - a place called the Areopagus - “Ares Rock”, named after one of their gods (later the Romans called it “Mars Hill” after their version of the god of war). Here was a sort of a city cultural center, but also a place where trials were held. In a way, they now put St. Paul on trial – and ask him to defend these “new teachings” and “strange things” brought to their ears.

Strange things. I'm sure what Paul was preaching sounded very strange to these Greek intellectuals. Strange, not just because he was a foreigner, a Jew. Paul was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection”! And what could be stranger than that?

For as much as these men, or any men, seek out new ideas and different religions, unique and unheard of systems of belief, all of that is really the same. The religion of man is the religion of works. And while it comes in many different guises, under many names and forms – it always boils down to the same, a religion of law. A religion in which you must do something or not do something in order to get something from some god, or force, or universal principle. Meditate to gain enlightenment. Build up your good karma to get a better spot in reincarnation. Pray the right way, live the right way, think the right way – and blessings will come your way.

And so when critics of religion and shallow observers of these many worldviews claim that all religions are basically the same and aim to teach you to be a good person, there is some truth to it. But there's one major exception – there's one religion, one faith, in which you can't do the right thing, but in which God does all good for you. You earn nothing, but he gives you everything as a pure gift. Not a religion of law, but a religion of grace. Not a religion of man, but the true religion of God. God doesn't need your good works, anyway. He made everything that is.

And to say that there's a lot of truth in these worldly religions – well, even Christians can say that. Most religions teach morality. Many have a creation story. They mostly encourage adherents to do good, and not evil. After all, in building his case, Paul even quoted from their own pagan literature: Epimenides of Crete and Aratus’s poem “Phainomena”. So there is some truth to almost all of these various systems of belief. And yet, they can't all be entirely true. And we know, there is only one way to the Father, one truth, and one life.

And so Paul sees that amongst all their statues and man-made images of man-made gods, there is one unusual idol – dedicated to the unknown god. That is, just in case we missed one. It's a small admission that perhaps they don't know it all or have it all right, so let's cover our bases here. Paul says yes, what you do not know, I am going to make known to you.

Paul starts with where they are, and brings these strange things to their ears – this talk of Jesus. He goes to creation, and shows how the God who created all things is also the God who expects us to follow his law, and honor him. He's patient, overlooking ignorance for a time, but he will also judge all men. He calls all men to repent, and to turn to the one, the only one, who can bring righteousness and make us righteous – the one man that God raised from the dead.

These are strange things. They were strange things to preach to a cluster of Greek philosophers in the first century. And they are strange things to a 21st century world steeped in a relativism and post-modernity. But they would be strange to any man-made, man-centered religion of law. For this is the doctrine of the Gospel – the pure and free grace of God for you, the sinner, on account of Jesus Christ's life and suffering and death and resurrection!

It's strange to your Old Adam, too. Natural man is really a creature of the law, born under the law, living and dying by the law. We have an innate (though twisted) sense of fairness... especially when we are wronged or slighted. As every child has said many times, “that's not fair!” and a frustrated adult would respond, “Life isn't fair”. But we all want life to be fair on our own terms. And we should dread if life was fair on God's perfect terms, for then we'd be lost, judged, condemned. God is fair, and just, but here's what is truly strange: he is also merciful! And in his mercy he has given us a way out of judgment.

And that way is Christ. Here's what's truly strange: That a God who hates sin would send his only son to die in the sinner's place. That by a crucifixion, a most shameful death, he would bring life to one and all. That this Jesus who died in such a way would be raised to life again on just the third day... and that his resurrection paves the way for our resurrection, even guarantees it. Strange as these things may be, this is our faith.

These are other truly strange things. That God forgives sins for the sake of Christ. That he gives men the authority to do so in his stead, on his behalf. That a little water sprinkled and the name of God spoken, Father, Son and Spirit – that a simple baptism – can seal you as God's child for eternity. That bread and wine can be what he says it is - “my body” and “my blood” for the forgiveness of your sins.

Paul says that the cross is a stumbling block, that is, a scandal, to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. And that is often the case. The teachings of Christ, of his Gospel, of his cross and resurrection – are all too strange for so many to receive, and believe.

Strange to the world, but to us who are being saved, the message of the cross is the power of God!

The reading for this morning continues with the results of Paul's preaching. Here's what followed:

32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

So it was then, so it is today. Some hear the Gospel and reject it, and mock. Some hear and believe. For some these strange things are just too strange, too foolish, too unbelievable. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, some believe and are saved.

Today, what is left of all those false gods, statues and altars?  They are gone.  All that's left of the Areopagus is a bare rock.  But the word of the Gospel still stands, and will endure forever.  His Spirit still works through it, making Christ known.

God grant you that same Spirit, in ever more abundance, that you would continue to repent and believe the “strange things” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And with Paul and Dionysus and Damaris, with all the believers of all time, we will join one day in the great resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, with. For what was unknown to us, has been revealed – in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sermon - Easter 5 - John 14:1-6

Easter 5
John 14:1-14
“The One Way Jesus”
(Mother's Day)

Even though it's a secular holiday, we wish to take a moment to recognize Mothers' Day. We Christians give thanks to God for the blessings of motherhood: that God brought us into this world through our mothers. That he raised most of us and nurtured us through the care of a loving mother. That some of us have had the blessing of even becoming mothers and grandmothers ourselves.

Not everyone enjoys all of these blessings, of course, and in this fallen world we recognize that even the mention of a mother reminds some of a mother lost or estranged, or a mother never known, or a mother they wish they could be. Nonetheless, we give thanks for the godly vocation that motherhood is, as we can also see a common mother of us all in the Holy Christian Church.

While the modern, secular version of Mothers' Day dates back to 1914 (at least as a national holiday), there are ancient precedents for it even in the church. A long tradition in the UK and parts of Europe was known as “Mothering Sunday”, observed on the 4th Sunday in Lent. On this day, Christians would return to the church where they were raised (their “mother church”) for a special service. Maybe there are even echoes of that practice today as we often see people observe the day by coming to church with mom.

So today we may rightly thank God for earthly mothers, by whom we are born and fed and loved and nurtured. But also thank him for our mother, the Christian Church. Into which we were re-born by Holy Baptism. In which we are fed by the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood. And it is in this church where the Holy Spirit daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.

Now on to our Gospel text for today from John 14, especially verse 6, “I am the way and the truth and the life” Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father but by me”.

Have you ever heard something like this:
You intolerant Christians! You really believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven? You mean to tell me that if a good Muslim or a good Jew or a good Buddhist or even a good atheist dies, that God won't have mercy on him? Come on! What a narrow-minded, exclusivist thing to believe? No wonder so many wars are fought in the name of religion – with people like you running around. This just proves that you are bigoted self-righteous bible thumpers. Jesus is the only way to heaven. Puh-leez.

Sound familiar? Maybe you've heard even just a part of a rant like this. And it's no fun being on the receiving end of such an attack. Words like these are, frankly, of the devil. It's the oldest trick in his book, to question, “Did God really say...?”

But yes, in fact, Jesus really says it. “No one comes to the Father but by me”. There's no way around it. There's no “yeah, but”. His words are simple and plain, and they demand our acknowledgment. Jesus is the only way to heaven. Christianity is an exclusive religion. Sure there are squishy Christians who want to water down our Lord's plain words, or add asterisks and addenda. Sure there are those whose cultural moorings are stronger than their biblical ones. They want everything in Christianity to be tolerant and inclusive and, well, nice. No bad news. It's too much of a downer. So they explain away or twist or just ignore these simple straightforward words. “No one comes to the Father but by me”.

And you do it too. We all do. There are times when even rock-ribbed, harded-headed Missouri Synod Lutherans, yes even pastors, try to find another way to the Father, but by Jesus Christ. We may not do it intentionally or consciously, but rest assured, we are no better than the critics. Our sin leaves us without excuses.

For example, what about the way we sometimes try to bargain with God. If you do this for me, I'll do this for you? That's coming to the Father apart from Christ, isn't it? It's offering our own good works as some form of spiritual barter. But God's not interested in our filthy rags. Only the precious blood of Christ is valuable enough to purchase what we need. And that we can only receive as a gift.

Or what about when we ourselves fall for the cultural lies of tolerance and relativism? What about when we, too, explain away the hard words of Scripture? We feel bad about that unbeliever who rejects the Gospel, and so we imagine another way to salvation for him. We may tell our friends, our children, that God is all-loving and all-accepting, and what we really mean is that these words of Jesus are wrong, “No one comes to the Father but by me”. Yes, we buckle to the pressure of our culture far too often.

Or what about when we come to the Father by Jesus, but a Jesus of our own imagination? One who doesn't bother with calling for repentance (even though the real Jesus does). A Jesus who isn't all that concerned about sin (even though that's the main reason the real Jesus came)? A Jesus who is mainly an example to follow, not the real Jesus who is a substitute for us – doing what we can't do even if we try? Or a Jesus who wants to make you feel good – not the real Jesus who wants to declare you righteous (whether you feel it or not!) A Jesus without the cross?? That's no Jesus at all. That's someone else who can't save you.

There are so many false Jesus-es. And there always have been. From the thieves and robbers who came before him, claiming to be the savior... to the false teachers and charlatan preachers of today who try to get your eye off of the cross, and the Crucified one. The devil constantly asks, “did God really say?” And sometimes we believe it. And sometimes we even say it.

So repent, and believe. Believe in the Jesus who is the only way to the Father – but he IS THE WAY! This is good news! You have a way! You are not lost! Your sins are not the death of you. Jesus died for you, and Jesus lives for you, and Jesus, and only Jesus, but yes, Jesus gives you all that you need.

No one has life but by him. He died that the world would not perish. No one is righteous, not one. But he lived righteousness and gives his righteousness to you. No one can rise from the dead, but he did, and through him we do too. No one can save himself, but Christ saves us all!Jesus is the only way, but what a way he is!
If you want to see God, look to Jesus. If you want to be one with God, be one with Jesus. If you want God's blessings, seek Jesus – even as he has already sought you. If you want to hear the wonderful and precious promises of God, just listen to Jesus. He'll fill you in.

He is the way, the truth, the life. Not one among many, but our one and only. And he is yours, even today.

What an amazing miracle that this one, narrow way to salvation comes to so many, and has come to you! What a blessing that his 2000 year old words still speak and have the power to create faith and save and forgive you! That his sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion still endure, and still give us access to his grace and mercy, personally, in time and space.

And this exclusive way of salvation is really quite open to all. There is no sinner Jesus didn't die to save, whose sins aren't paid for in divine blood. There is no race or color or socioeconomic exclusivity. No age limit young or old. No lineage or pedigree with greater claim. Even the Buddhists and Muslims and Atheists are invited to Christ. That means that it's for you, too. Jesus, the only way of salvation, is your way, your truth, and your life. Believe in him, and only him, always. In his name, Amen.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Sermon - Easter 4 - John 10:1-10

The Shepherd or the Thief?

Smack dab in the midst of this Easter season, like every year, we come upon “Good Shepherd Sunday”.  Today we hear from Jesus, who takes this grand scriptural metaphor of Shepherd and Sheep, and he applies it to himself and gives it even deeper meaning.  And while, at least around here, it seems, fewer and fewer people have first hand experience with shepherding, or with sheep, we can still learn from our Lord through this analogy of faith, he the Good Shepherd, we, the trusting sheep.  There are many ways this can teach us about the blessings we have in Christ, but several points this morning we will consider, based on this reading from John 10:

First, some remarks concerning the nature of sheep.
Then contrasting the Shepherd and the Thief or Stranger:
Concerning their legitimacy, their voice, and finally their purpose.

I saw recently on the internet (so it must be true), that the Merriam-Webster dictionary has updated its entries once again, and a new word it has added is the word, “sheeple”.  You can see how this somewhat pejorative portmanteau made from “sheep” and “people” means to compare certain people with sheep who blindly, trustingly, and perhaps foolishly follow their leader.

Martin Luther comment similarly on the foolishness of sheep:

Sheep, you know, are most foolish and stupid animals. When we want to speak of anybody’s stupidity we say, “He is a sheep.” Nevertheless, it has this trait above all other animals, that it soon learns to heed its shepherd’s voice and will follow no one but its shepherd, and though it cannot help and keep and heal itself, nor guard itself against the wolf, but is dependent upon others, yet it always knows enough to keep close to its shepherd and look to him for help. Now, Christ uses this trait or nature of the animal as an illustration in explaining that he is the good shepherd. In this manner he plainly shows what his kingdom is, and wherein it consists, and would say: My kingdom is only to rule the sheep; that is poor, needy wretched men, who well see and realize that there is no other help or counsel for them.
To confess we are sheep, therefore, is to admit our limitations, our need, our weakness.  It is tantamount to confessing our sin, which is what has put us in this predicament of neediness.  Thanks be to God we have, in Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who even lays down his life for the sheep!

But the good part about sheep can also be that they are trusting – if their trust is well placed.  What is foolishness to the world, is wisdom when it comes to God.  And so sheep that follow a Good Shepherd will be well cared for.

So what do we know about this Good Shepherd?  Throughout this passage, Jesus casts a contrast between himself, the Good Shepherd, and the thief and stranger, or in other passages the “hired hand”.  And the first of these contrasts has to do with the way the Good Shepherd enters, or comes to his sheep – as opposed to the way of the thief and robber.

Just who is this thief or robber?  Of course, we first of all think of the original enemy, the Devil himself.  He who slithered into Eden and stole away the holiness of Adam and Eve, who handed it over willingly.  He who would steal away any of the sheep, if he could, from the flock of God's people.  A prowling lion looking for someone to devour.  A ravenous wolf who often comes in sheep's clothing.

But it could also include any false prophet or false teacher who seeks to lead the sheep astray.  Indeed, Jesus indicates that many of these thieves and robbers came before him.  False Messiahs abounded. False gods were worshipped.  False religions led many astray.  And the original thief, the Devil, certainly delighted in it all.

The Devil comes, though he is not invited.  He usurps a role that is not his, like when he offered to give Jesus all the nations of the world if he'd simply bow before him.  For one, the nations aren't his to give. And for two, the worship isn't his to receive.

Likewise, all false preachers and teachers are illegitimate.  They climb over the fence, but do not have the authority to be there.  And even a pastor who is rightly called and ordained exceeds his authority and delegitimizes himself when he preaches a word other than the word of God.  There is only one way into the sheep pen, and it is through the truth – the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners.  No self-help, power of positive thinking, name it and claim it, look within yourself false gospel will do.  Only Jesus born and crucified and risen and ascended for you.

For his part, Jesus comes with the legitimate authority.  The true Shepherd.  The sheep belong to him.  They were created by him.  The sheep owe everything to him, even though he came to his own who did not know him.  He doesn't need to sneak in, for he comes with all the legitimacy and authority there is.

And when Jesus preached he did so publicly, teaching openly in the synagogues and the temple.  His word today is also preached publicly, proclaimed openly.  There are no secrets in the Christian church – no decoder rings or secret handshakes.  His word is plainly set forth for all to see.  The doctrines of the church are public and for all, they are not secret for the select few.

And in the church things are done in good order.  All regard the vocations in which the Lord has placed us.  It all starts with our Good Shepherd, who obeyed his calling perfectly, and “became obedient even unto death, even death on the cross.  Therefore God the Father has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.”

Yes, God the Father accepted His Son's sacrifice, and raised him in glory from death to show just that.  Thus the Good Shepherd bears the ultimate seal of approval, the utmost mark of authority, the all-surpassing legitimacy of one who has power, even over death.

The Good Shepherd has legitimate authority, unlike the thief.  And the Good Shepherd's voice also stands in contrast to the Stranger.  When our Good Shepherd speaks, we, the sheep, know his voice.  Faithful sheep who have been taught the Gospel and believe it can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd through whatever mouthpiece he chooses to speak it.  Faithful sheep know when they're being fed cutes stories, or what their itching ears may desire, and when they are  not hearing the letter that kills and the Spirit that gives life.

It's that voice of Jesus, the voice of his Gospel, that makes us his sheep to being with.  It is the Spirit of Jesus, through the word, that calls and gathers the sheep and sanctifies and keeps the sheep.

I've been talking with our youth over the past few Sundays about how, for example, the simple teachings of the Catechism can help us give answer to almost any question of theology.  These basic teachings reflect the voice of our Good Shepherd, and help us filter out the strange voices which would cry for our attention and trust.  And when it comes time for you, should you move away, to find a new congregation...  are you listening for the true voice of the Good Shepherd?

When you hear the voice of the stranger, what should you do?  Run away!  Flee from false teaching.  Make no room for man-centered doctrine and preaching.  Only the truth can set us free.  Only the voice of the Good Shepherd is worth hearing and obeying.  Jesus is the door, after all, the only way in to safety for his sheep.  He is the WAY, the truth and the life, the only way, that is. Every other way leads to destruction and death.

And finally, a contrast in purpose between the Good Shepherd and the Thief.  Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

The thief, that is the Devil, any of his henchmen, or anyone concerned with his own agenda that is at odds with Christ – is there only to do harm.  They are working against the sheep and for their own selfish purposes.  But Jesus the Good Shepherd comes to do the opposite.  He comes with abundant life in a free offer.  He comes not to take, but to give.  He comes not to steal, but to lay down his everything for you, dear sheep.

So be a sheep.  Trust in the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  He openly and freely gives you all the blessings won by his cross and resurrection.  He speaks to you, even today, with a voice that you know... a voice that forgives sins and therefore brings abundant life.  Tune out the stranger's voice.  And fear not the thief and robber.  You belong to the Good Shepherd, who will lead you to lush valleys and still waters, who will prepare a feast before your enemies, and anoint your head with oil while your cup overflows.  And you, dear sheep, will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31

John 20:19-31 (esp. 30-31)
“What is the Purpose of Scripture?”

“These things are written”, the Apostle John writes, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

What is the purpose of Holy Scripture?  To teach us about God?  To show us how to live our lives?  Morality?  Basic instructions before leaving Earth?  Is the Bible a rule-book to thump over people's heads?  Is it a decoder-ring with all the answers of life, if you just read it the right way?  Or is it just a collection of different writings with no purpose, or at least no central purpose at all?

Setting aside the questions of “is it true?” “did it really happen?” or “is it truly God's word?”, (To all of which we say, “yes”, of course).  What I'm asking is – what is the Bible FOR?  What is the purpose?  What's it supposed to DO, if anything?

If it's simply a rulebook, then it's not a very appealing one.  The God of the Bible, when he gives his law, is not looking for simply “good enough”.  He wants holiness.  And Who can live up to the standards of this law?  No one.  If all Scripture has to offer is morality and virtue, that leaves us in a predicament of despair, with no Savior.  And it certainly does nothing for us when it comes to death, the true wages of our sin.

What is the purpose of the Bible?
The answer is very simple.  John gives it here, at the end of his Gospel.  These things are written with a two-fold purpose:  One, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  And two, that believing, you may have life in his name.  The purpose of this writing is that you One: believe, and Two: have life.  We could say that the first is the content of the faith, and the second is the effect of that faith.

Now, one might say that John is on one level here really only talking about his own Gospel.  But Paul teaches that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”  So it's not that the ONLY possible use or purpose of Scripture is 1. Believe and 2. Have Life.  But these aren't really antithetical.  For the one who believes is trained in righteousness.  After all the righteous shall live by faith.  It's really all the same thing.

Jesus really clears it up, when he says, in John 5, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”   If all the Scriptures testify to Christ, and if they are the Word of the same God, then it bears out that we can expect a consistency of its message, and a continuity of purpose throughout.

Yes, the first point of purpose of John's Gospel, and really of all of Holy Scripture, is that you and I would believe in Jesus.  Scripture is all about Jesus.  The Old Testament is about Jesus.  The New Testament is about Jesus.  It's really “All Jesus, all the time!”  And that's ok with us!

For Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  This is what we Christians believe.  And packed in that little tiny confession is a whole lot more.

That he is the Christ – the anointed one – carries a freight of its own meaning.  He's the one, the special and holy one, set aside from the very foundation of the world – to be the one and only Savior from sin.  That's what it means that he is the Christ.  And so, to confess Jesus as Christ is to implicitly confess sin.  And to confess him as Your savior, Your Christ, is to confess on some level that you have sins and you need saving.  Of course we don't simply stop at confessing this implicitly.  We say it quite clearly and plainly.

So the purpose of John's Gospel, the purpose of all the Gospels, the purpose of all Holy Scripture, is to show your sin and who the savior from that sin is – Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.  The one conceived and born for you, who suffered and was crucified for you.  Who lives and reigns for you, and will come again at the resurrection to judge the living and the dead.

Oh yes, he's the Son of God, too... the only one obedient enough, faithful enough, holy and blameless enough to do the dirty work of saving.  The only one strong enough to make his power perfect in the weakness of the cross, and then tear death's foul chains to smithereens.    The Gospels, the Scriptures, they teach us to believe in him, and they unfold for us in so many ways just what “believing in him” entails.

But Jesus doesn't just want you to believe in him for the sake of belief.  There's a benefit attached to this faith.  And that benefit, that purpose, John writes is this, “that believing, you may have life in his name”.

1. Believe  2.  Have life.  They go hand in hand.  For those who believe in Jesus have life.  He offers it freely.  He gives it by grace.

The life he gives is the fullest, broadest, best sense of life we can imagine or describe.  It's not just life after death, it's life forever.  It's not just life floating around as a spirit or an angelic ghost of sorts.  It's life as he intended it for us humans – body and soul, united and united with him forever.  This is what we Christians confession in the Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”.

And this brings us back to Easter.  Jesus can give life so freely because he has conquered death.  He can bring us with him through the grave and then to life on the other side because that was his course.  He paved the way.  And he can give that life because he has paid the price of sin, so that death has no more hold on is.  It's wages were paid to him instead.

Which is why, when Jesus appears to his disciples on that first Easter, he doesn't waste time with chit-chat.  He doesn't excoriate them for scattering like roaches when he was arrested.  He doesn't thump them for being fraidy-cats and hiding from the Jews.  He says “Peace be with you”.  He breathes the Holy Spirit on them.  And then he gives them the authority to forgive sins.  Wait... what?

Jesus is the Christ, who delivers from sin and death.  He does so by forgiving our sins.  For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.  Where there is forgiveness of sins, death holds no sting, no condemnation for us.  Where there is forgiveness of sins, nothing can harm us, destroy us, or bring us to despair.  For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is Jesus the Christ, giving life!

That he gives that authority to mere men, first to the apostles, to the church as a whole, and to pastors in all places... is how he gives faith and life.  For they, we, speak his word.  We point you to him.  We want what Jesus wants, what John wants, what the Scriptures want – for you to believe and have life in Jesus' name.

The purpose of Scripture is not for you to learn head-knowledge of God, though from it you may.
The purpose of Scripture is not that you follow its laws and rules, though you should.  The purpose of Scripture is not to bring glory to God, though it does.  The purpose of Scripture is not to tell us the history of God's people, though it does that too.  The purpose of Scripture is not to be a how-to-book for getting yourself to heaven.

These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.

And then John also makes this strange offhand remark.  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book”  And the imagination, at least mine, goes wild at that sort of thing, wondering what signs and wonders Jesus showed them.  All we can do is speculate.

But what we do know, however, is that what is written is enough.  The words of Scripture are sufficient for our salvation.  We don't need miracles and signs and wonders in order to believe.

God doesn't need to “prove” all this to us, like Jesus did to Thomas.  Blessed are we, even more, who have not seen and believed.  Who have heard the words that are written and proclaimed, the words that tell of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.

It is through THESE words that the Spirit who was breathed on the disciples is also breathed on us.  It is through these words that the peace Jesus brought on Easter is upon us.  And it is through the sweet words of absolution, forgiveness, from the pastor – that we both believe and have life in his name.  The word and the water of baptism.  The word that consecrates bread and wine as his body and blood.  It all goes together.  Scripture, Spirit, Forgiveness, Sacraments, Faith, Life.  It's all about Jesus, crucified and risen and forgiving and giving life to you, forever.

Thanks be to God, in Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Sermon - Easter Sunday - Matthew 28:1-10

Christ is risen!  (He is risen indeed, Alleluia!)

You are here this morning because Jesus Christ has defeated death.

Easter is not about bunnies and chocolate, duckies and egg hunts.  It's not a celebration of spring and the new life of nature's usual cycle of rebirth.  It's not just a time to put on your best outfit and do a traditional family thing.  Easter is easter, because it is the resurrection of our Lord.  We are here today because Jesus laid down his life, and Jesus took back his life again, leaving sin and death in the dust.  Christ is risen!  (He is risen indeed, Alleluia!)

I've noticed that at funerals, there's usually a story.  The story that the mourners tell, sometimes over and over, about what led up to the loved one's death.  “We were eating dinner, and he was having chest pains...” or “We had just come to the hospital when mom suddenly took a turn for the worse.”  It seems to be part of the grieving process, to walk through it all, how we got to this point, standing at the funeral home with the other mourners.

I wonder if the women were doing the same on their way to Jesus' tomb that morning.... rehearsing the events of his death.  How he was arrested in the garden Thursday evening.  A quick trial before the Jews and then the Romans, and suddenly they were taking him outside of the city to crucify him. How he suffered.  His poigniant words, “Father forgive them”, “Woman, behold your son”, “It is finished”.  Most of it probably didn't make much sense to them.  And it all happened so fast.

There was no time for a proper burial, but at least they owed him that much. Who knows what they would have done if that nice rich man didn't donate a new tomb for Jesus – what was his name?  Oh yes, Joseph.
Now that the Sabbath was over, they'd take some spices and do all the customary things they do at Jewish burials.  Jesus certainly deserved that much.  It was the least they could do.

And as they approached the place, strange things happened.  The very ground shook.  But this was no ordinary earthquake.  This was an emissary from Heaven sent down with an important assignment of his own.  He beat the women to the tomb.

The guards were still there, but the very sight of this heavenly herald – as bright as lightning and white as snow – well, they trembled in such fear at the sight and fell over as good as dead.  Yes, the living became as dead men because a dead man was about to come to life.

And this angel - this powerful and spectacular being had a mission.  He rolled the stone away.  Like rolling out the red carpet for an even more noble guest, this stone couldn't stand in the way anymore than death itself could.  And then, as if to show further disdain for the grave that now lay defeated, he sat on the stone as you'd flop down on a comfy sofa.  Death has no more fear.  Death has no more sting.

But the angel also has a story – a message – he's got a word to proclaim to these sad and confused and no doubt amazed women now before him.  “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here, for he has risen, as he said.”  For good measure, he even shows them the place they laid the body, now quite empty.

Just like he said!  See, Jesus knew this would happen.  He intended for it.  This was the plan, always, even from the foundation of the world.  He spoke plainly about all this to his disciples, who simply didn't want to hear it, and couldn't seem to believe it.  Neither did these women, or they wouldn't have expected to come see a dead body, but a living Jesus.

“Just as he said.”  Things are always just like Jesus says, whether we believe them or not.  Even when they seem as unbelievable as rising from the dead.  In fact Christ's resurrection is a sign that shows you can always trust his word, believe in him, for things are always just as he says.

When he says “your sins are forgiven”, they are, even if you don't feel like they are.  When he says, “I am with you always”, he is, even when it seems like he's abandoned you.  When he says, “He who believes in me will live, even though he die.”  - those are words we can take to heart.  Those are words to hang your hat on, no, to put your very life on.  They are words more powerful than death, because he is more powerful than death.

And yet he still has time for his people.  He's defeated the greatest enemy ever, and he's not going to Disneyland.  He's greeting the women.  He's planning to see the brothers.  That he even calls them brothers after they by and large abandoned him...  And he tells them, “Do not be afraid”.

Do not be afraid.  You can see why they might be afraid.  They'd just experienced an earthquake.  They've seen an angel from heaven.  They've been told that someone dead has come back to life.  And now they see him, and he is – alive!  None of this comports with everyday experience.  None of this is what they had planned on their day's agenda.  But here they are, and Jesus meets and greets them, alive, in the flesh.  And he too says, “Do not be afraid”.

He would say the same to us.  Do not be afraid, for your sins are forgiven.  Do not be afraid, for sin's wages are paid in full.  Do not be afraid, for death is lain waste.  He looked it in the eye, and didn't even blink.  He set forth, headlong into death's dark valley.  There he faced and grappled with all the dark demons of fear and uncertainty, grief and shame, sorrow and loss that ever were or ever would be.  There, in that knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred contest to end all contests, Jesus was willing destroyed, and in do doing, destroyed the foe.

He took on the final force that swallows up all men, even the grave itself, and he, Jesus swallowed it instead.  His victory is so complete, so thorough, so perfect – that death has nothing more to say.  Not only for him, but for all who are in him.  Jesus is victorious over death.  And his victory, dear Christian, is yours.

Easter, then, is a sort of an anti-funeral.  Rather than telling the story of how a loved one departed, we get to bask in the glory of his restoration.  We won't shed any tears over death's undoing, but maybe a few tears of joy at Christ's triumph over it.  Here is not the end, the goodbye, the farewell.  Here is the new beginning, the new life, the eighth day of creation – that is ours in Christ.  And this resurrection changes our funerals from pure grief, to grief that has hope.  No shallow and schmalzy “celebration of life” for us, rather a Christian departs under the proclamation of victory and life in Christ, who is our life.

And yet, here we are, still surrounded by a world of death.  Wars still rage.  Enemies seethe.  Innocents are slaughtered.  Pain lingers.  Sorrows still remain.  Even we, the people of Christ, are not immune to the sufferings of life in this sin-scarred world.  Even we, Christians, are not exempt from that day when we too must face the final foe of death.  Some of you here today will probably not be here next Easter.  And that's only a bearable thought because of Christ's resurrection.  Do not be afraid.  Jesus has won the victory.

His resurrection is also your resurrection.  We are united with him in a death like his, and united with him in a resurrection like his.  Buried and raised with him in Baptism.  Death can't touch him.  And death can't have you, because you belong to him.  Oh, your body may die, and your loved ones will miss you.  But the Living One has made you a promise.  And what he says is always true, “just as he said.”  You will live.

Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed, Alleluia!)

It is just as he said.  It's always just as he says.