Saturday, January 20, 2007

"Err on the side of the Gospel"

Permit me some more "cliche' busting" (as Petersen called it)....

We often hear in Lutheran circles that people should "err on the side of the Gospel". A couple of things are troubling about this little aphorism.

People often mispronounce the word "err". It isn't really supposed to sound like "air" but instead like, "ur".

But here's my main point:

I believe this soundbyte is used, quite often, as a smokescreen for anti-nomianism. When someone says "err on the side of the Gospel", they are often simply trying to minimize the Law.

Whether this is because we are uncomfortable applying the Law in today's ever-more-"tolerant" world, or because we are uncomfortable being accused by the Law ourselves.... either way, when we minimize the Law, the Gospel also loses.

Perhaps a better approach than "Err on the side of the Gospel" is, "Don't Err."

In other words, keep the Law and the Gospel in proper balance and distinction. Use the Law when it is needed and called for. Use the Gospel appropriately too.

Will we still err? Sure. Is there a proper way to understand "erring on the side of the Gospel"? I'm not so sure. I suppose it's better than "erring on the side of the Law". But our goal should never be to err, but to apply God's Word rightly in all cases.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sermon - Epiphany 2 - John 2:1-11

Epiphany 2
John 2:1-11
“Whatever the Bridegroom Says”

Ever see one of those blooper shows with a segment on wedding disasters? The bride faints, the wedding pavilion collapses, somebody has a wardrobe malfunction… why do people find wedding mishaps so funny? Perhaps because a wedding is a big deal. It’s an important social occasion, and we want everything to be “just right”. I’m sure it was the same in Jesus’ day…

The Wedding at Cana. Jesus goes to this celebration (which could last for days) and in the course of the partying, they run out of wine. The bridegroom was responsible for treating his guests well. For a failure of hospitality such as this – it would have meant a major embarrassment and loss of face. Social disaster was looming, and Jesus comes to the rescue.

In this Epiphany season, one of the themes we will see over and over again is the unveiling of who Jesus is. From his baptism, where God declares, “you are my Son” to the mount of Transfiguration, where we also hear “This is my son…” and all in-between. The question looming in the background: “Who is Jesus?” It’s more than a short answer. Here at Cana we get a glimpse of Jesus through his first miracle – or as John calls it, a “sign”. Here Jesus, by turning water into wine, “manifested his glory”. He gave a hint of who he truly is.

The true bridegroom in the story is not the man who got married that day, but Jesus himself. His first sign is given in the context of celebration – and why not? For he, the bridegroom, has come to his bride, that is, to his people. Throughout the Old Testament, God is described as a husband to his people (though they are often unfaithful). Jesus fulfills such metaphors, as he becomes the true bridegroom. Even in the last chapters of Revelation, we see the church in her glory depicted as a bride – the wife of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.

Likewise, there is more to the story here as we see sacramental overtones. What Lutheran could miss the fact that both water and wine are central to the story. That water came from jars for ceremonial washing (another word for that is “baptism”). And the wine – wine that the savior provides is always a blessing to his people – much like the wine that he gives as his very blood for the forgiveness of our sins in Holy Communion.

And there’s also a hint of the end times here. When Christ returns at the end of time, then will be the great consummation. Then will be the “marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which shall have no end.” But there in Cana, Jesus was announcing the beginning, the ushering in of that kingdom. Even now we live in the “end times” and continually celebrate the wedding – even as we look forward to that final celebration in its heavenly fulfillment.

But like most of John’s Gospel, this passage is almost inexhaustible in the rich fabric of its meaning. There is much more than we can absorb in one sitting, or certainly, in one sermon. So let’s concentrate on just a part of it.

As someone who deals with words “for a living”, I am constantly thinking about and noticing how different words are used. Sometimes, it’s the little words that make all the difference. “You could earn up to $10,000 as month!” (did you catch those two little words, “up to”?). “Qualified buyers pay no interest for 2 years” (“qualified?”). Words, even the little words, matter and mean things. Especially when it comes to God’s Word.

Whenever we read from Scripture, we must pay attention to the words. Sometimes it’s the mundane words which grab our attention – and pack a punch with meaning. Take the words of Mary in the reading, “Do whatever he tells you.” Whatever. Now there’s a word.

Today we use the word “whatever” in so many fun ways. It can be a way to end an argument, “Whatever!”. It can mean you don’t really care about something, “Whatever”. It can even be used in a question, “whatever did I do with my car keys?” It can be an all-encompassing catch-all word.

Mary used the word “whatever” to express her faith. When they ran out of wine, and disaster was looming, Mary knew Jesus could help. She knew enough about her Son to know he was someone special. She knew what the angel had told her. She had been pondering the events of his birth – what the shepherds said about the angel choirs – the unusual visit from the wealthy and generous wise men. Mary had seen Jesus grow in wisdom and stature before God and man. But did Mary expect a miracle here? Or did she simply think Jesus would smooth over the embarrassment with some wise social counsel? Who knows. But what seems clear is that Mary knew Jesus could do something to help. And she trusted him. “Do whatever he tells you” is a confession of faith.

And it’s also good advice for us today. “Do whatever he tells you”
If we do “whatever” he says, what is that?

Well first it means we need to listen to what he says. Read, study, listen, learn. Come to God’s house and hear his word proclaimed and explained. Jesus is still speaking today.

In one sense, if we do whatever he says, we would be without sin. Don’t think for a minute Jesus came to do away with God’s law: “Whatever!” No, he actually raises the bar on what is expected of us. “You’ve heard it said ‘do not murder’ but I tell you anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22)

But instead, we tend to do “whatever” we want. Whatever we think is best, whatever is easiest, whatever makes us feel good, whatever…. “whatever” gets us into trouble. Whatever will we do?

Whatever he says. Because Jesus doesn’t only tell us not to sin. He also knows we need saving from it. So his words are also words of grace and mercy. “whoever is thirsty, let him come…” Jesus says, and not just to drink the best wine at the wedding. Jesus gives, “the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17).

Doing whatever Jesus says means - believing in him. Trusting him to save us from whatever sins we have done, and whatever guilt and shame we’re carrying around. Doing whatever he says means receiving the free gifts he offers – forgiveness, life and salvation – found in the water, and in with and under the bread and wine. Doing whatever he says really means doing nothing whatsoever, but letting him do whatever needs to be done for our salvation.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed that his cup of suffering would pass, but yet, that God’s will would be done. In other words, “Whatever you will, O Lord”. But it was God’s will that Jesus would suffer, that Jesus would die, and that Jesus would bear the punishment for whatever sins we have committed. Whatever you have done – whatever you have failed to do – whatever you’ve thought or said – whoever you’ve hurt – however you’ve failed – whenever you’ve done it – WHATEVER – Jesus takes it all to the cross. And all that sin is gone.

The bridegroom did whatever he had to – and it was a big whatever – to win the bride. “With his own blood he bought her and for her life he died”. For OUR life, he died, and for our resurrection, he arose. And for our eternal rest he prepares a place for us.

And so the Christian lives with a different “whatever” than the world. I like the way Paul says it, “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

May we do the same, as we wait for the bridegroom, Jesus Christ, and in faith, as we seek to do, “whatever he says”. In his Name. Amen.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Sermon - The Baptism of Our Lord - Luke 3:15-22

The Baptism of Our Lord
January 7th, 2006
Luke 3:15-22
“Baptismal Identity”

Permit me a brief personal note as I thank all of you who were so generous and expressed warm wishes at the birth of our third daughter just before Christmas. These few weeks have been memorable as we’ve welcomed a new baby, a new year, and today as we begin using a new hymnal. I pray that we will all find the adjustment bearable, and that these new resources will be a blessing to our life together here at Grace.

With all this “newness” in the air, I find it striking that our readings for today point us to the theology of Holy Baptism. Baptism goes well with new-ness. In baptism God does something new, or makes someone new…

Indeed, today we observe the minor festival, “The Baptism of Our Lord”. We mark Jesus’ arrival at the Jordan River, his baptism there by John, the opening of the heavens, the Spirit’s descent and the approving voice of the Father, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Our Old Testament reading also reminds us of Holy Baptism, as there the Lord speaks through the prophet, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” When else, but in Holy Baptism, does God redeem us so personally – even calling us by name – and making us his own?

And even our Epistle from Romans 6 is a fascinating discourse on Baptism – here seen as participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. We are “dead to sin” and “alive in Christ.”

Yes, there are many ways we could approach and appreciate God’s gift of Holy Baptism. Today, however, a focus on this aspect of the sacrament, “Baptismal Identity”. That is, asking the question, “Who are we? Who am I?” through the lens of this precious gift of God.

Perhaps first it is worth asking who we are apart from God. Who am I, if I stand on my own? Who am I, just me, alone in the universe? I don’t mean the outward characteristics of height, weight and shoe size. I mean who am I by nature? What is my essence?

The world might tell me I am a pretty good guy, essentially. If you caught the Rose Bowl parade, the theme song they ended the parade emphasized, “our good nature”. And many believe just that, that we humans are basically good-natured. That criminals and wrongdoers are anomalies or accidents of society. But if everyone is true to themselves, true to their nature, if everyone just follows their heart – then our world would really be some sort of utopia.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our identity, our nature, is not so good. No matter what we think of ourselves, we know what the truth is because God tells us so in his word. And that truth may hurt. But we confess it nonetheless. We are by nature sinful and unclean. We are born into sin. In sin did my mother conceive me. There is no one that does good, not one. And on and on… Scripture leaves no doubt about who we are – it tells us quite clearly our identity. Whatever our appearance, our family name, our station and lot in life – we share the same identity – sinner. Sons and daughters of Adam – fruit of the poisoned tree.

And this is more than just a mere acknowledgment that, “O well, nobody’s perfect”. Our sinful nature, our evil identity, means that we are enemies of God. We are on the very wrong side. We deserve his wrath and punishment. We deserve to be exiled from paradise, from life itself, and from God for eternity. Not just because of what we do, but because of who we are! It might not seem fair, but God does hold us responsible even for the sinfulness we are born into, as well as those wrong things we actually see ourselves doing. We all fall under the curse of our forefather Adam. We are a part of him and his sin lives within us. And it deserves punishment. That’s just who we are.

Of course, this is all without Christ. Without Jesus, we are the helpless and the hopeless. But in Christ we receive a new identity. And it’s based in his own identity. That identity of his which comes into focus so clearly at his baptism.

Jesus’ baptism is a pivotal event in his work for us. It is the beginning of his public ministry – those 3 years of preaching and healing and miracle-working. But it’s more than that. Here God declares Jesus’ identity – he says who he is, “You are my beloved Son” and describes what that means, “with you I am well pleased”.

Ok, all well and good. But the burning question Christians often ask is this, “If Jesus is sinless, why is he getting baptized? Isn’t baptism supposed to wash away our sins? What does Jesus need THAT for if he’s sinless?”

John the Baptist must have wondered the same when he objected, “you should be baptizing me instead!” But Jesus answered, “let it be so now” (as in, just this once) “in order to fulfill all righteousness”. See, Jesus’ baptism was part of his work as Savior. And by this event, he shows both his own identity as God’s beloved Son, but he also identifies with sinners – in order to save sinners.

Jesus came to be one of us, born as a human. But he also came to be the one who would stand for all of us – who would take all our sins on himself – who would pay our price at the cross – and who still represents us all before God. At his baptism, Jesus publicly takes on that role as the one who stands for all.
It’s how he fulfills all righteousness. First he fulfills the law of God perfectly for us. One of us - but better than us. Then he fulfills the plan of God by becoming the sacrifice for our sin. One of us - for all of us. He’s Son of God and the Savior of the World. It’s his baptismal identity.

His baptismal identity finds ultimate fulfillment at the cross. In Luke 12, Jesus says, “I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!” Here Jesus doesn’t mean his baptism in the Jordan with water, but his baptism on the cross – bathed in the wrath of God.

There God truly does something new. There all other baptismal fonts find their source. There Jesus cleansed the world of sin, washing it all way in his blood. There water came from Christ’s own pierced side – water which points to the water of our baptism – water which brings us under the cross. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan was the first step, in a way, toward his baptism on Calvary – both baptisms not for his sin but for ours.

Finally, in the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, we see indications of our own baptismal identity. For the elements of this account apply to us, in our baptism.

Heaven is opened to us, in our baptism. The Holy Spirit descends on us, in our baptism. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are active and present, in our baptism. And in our baptism, God accepts and declares, “you are my son, you are my daughter, with you I am well-pleased”.

Our old sinful identity gives way to our new baptismal identity. We are new creations in Christ. The old has gone, the new has come. No longer dead, but alive. No longer enemies of God, but dear children. No longer hell-bound but heaven-bound. No longer slaves to sin, but set free. Baptism changes everything. Jesus Christ changes everything. He takes who we were and makes us who we are. He who was baptized for us, died and rose for us, and lives and reigns to all eternity for us… Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Lutheran Ladies

Lutheran Survivor is back for the New Year... and, of course... Ladies First!

Vote for which Lutheran Actress is escorted off the island first... over at Lutheran Survivor