Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sermon WITH VIDEO - Lent 3 - John 4:5-26

Lent 3
John 4:5-26
“Give me a drink”

“Give me a drink” he says. But Jews don't talk to Samaritans. Men don't talk to strange women. And especially not alone. But here at the well, Jesus has something to give this woman, even as he begins by asking.

“Give me a drink”. It was an historical watering hole, this well. Jacob, forefather of Jew and Samaritan alike, bought this land, and this well after he reconciled with his brother Esau. Now comes the one who would reconcile the world to God, a Jew to save a Samaritan, a man on whom all of history would turn. But these grand ideas begin with a simple request, “Give me a drink”.

There is so much to learn here at Jacob's well, as we listen in on the conversation. We can, perhaps, identify with the woman. She was a sinner, caught off guard by her encounter with the Lord. She was going about her business, when Jesus came on the scene. But Jesus knew all along where this conversation would lead...

Notice, she did not give Jesus what he asked. Instead, she started to pick a fight. It's a fight she probably had many times – Samaritans vs. Jews. Just as you know the arguments you have had time and again, perhaps even with the Lord. But this argument we can never win. Jesus didn't come here to fight anyway. He comes to offer a gift.

“If you knew the gift of God... and who it is that is saying to you, 'give me a drink' you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” But she doesn't know who it is that asks. And she doesn't know what he's come to offer. At least not yet.

There was another time when Jesus asked for a drink. To fulfill scripture, but also surely from a very real thirst in his human nature, Jesus asked for a drink at the cross. “I thirst” he said. There, he would sacrifice his life for ours. There he would give us the gift of God – his very self, even his own life.

And then there is the drink he gives to the woman, and to us all. Living Water. You might think he's talking here about baptism, but really it's much more. Living Water entails all the gifts he gives that quench the spiritual thirst. Living Water is the water that gives true spiritual life. Living Water, really, is Jesus Christ himself, and all the blessings he brings. Like the Rock in the desert which brought forth life-giving water for God's people, Jesus is the source and font of all our blessings as God's children. The water he gives is free, it is abundant, and it gives life.

Sure, he gives it in the waters of baptism. There the water cleanses the stain of original sin, and anoints the child of God with faith and the very Spirit of God.

He gives living water in the bread and wine of his sacrament – his own body and blood – given and shed to forgive but also to sustain our life.

He gives living water in the proclamation of his word, where sins are declared forgiven and the sinner, that's you, is declared righteous.

All these blessings must sound good to her. “Give me this living water” she says. But first Jesus deals with her sin.

Jacob himself met his wife at a well. His romance with Rachel began as he, a weary traveller, met her at the well in Paddan-Aram. And here too, now, with Jesus, marriage is the subject matter. For this woman's sin revolves around marriage – her 5 previous husbands and current live-in might make a modern hollywood celebrity look stable. But Jesus condones neither divorce, nor living as husband and wife without marriage. He calls her on her sin. He has her dead to rights.
All our sin is a form of adultery against the Lord. And how many more than 5 times are we unfaithful to the bridegroom, Christ? And aren't we just as uneasy when our sin is dragged into the light of day?

There are, of course, many ways we try to squirm and squiggle out. We can rationalize. We can blame. We can look for excuses. We can live in denial. Or perhaps we just try to change the subject.

Perhaps her next question is raised from a need to change the subject. Maybe after the uncomforable spotlight on her sin, she would rather get back to arguing religion. But perhaps, her frank acceptance of Jesus' accusation, and her realization that he is a prophet means she is willing to hone up to her sin. Perhaps she asks this question to genuinely know. Where's the true place to worship?

See the Jews are always saying it's the temple, and the Samaritans say it's at Mt. Gerizim. But this woman had a need to find the true worship, and the true God. Jesus had awakened this yearning in her. By speaking of this Living Water, by reminding her of her sin, he brings her to an openness to hear one more astounding reality.

“The time is coming when it won't matter where you worship, but how. The true worshippers will worship in Spirit and Truth”.

“That sounds good, too, but it's all so confusing” she seems to say, “I just wish that the Messiah would come and sort it all out.”

And then the shocker.... “I who speak to you am he.”

And she is right. The Messiah did come and “tell us all things”. No, he doesn't give the answer to every question, but he certainly does to the ones that matter.

Not where do we, but who and how do we worship? How do we get this living water? What about my sins? All of these find answer in Jesus. All these have the same answer - Jesus!

We're not told for sure, but it seems the woman came to faith in Christ. John tells us she spread the news of their conversation, and many Samaritans did come to believe. Perhaps they too were confronted with their sins, and surely they found living waters in Jesus.

And so it is for us. Jesus comes to us, not at a well, but in a church. He isn't here so much to receive but to give his gifts. And since we know who he is, we ask for the living waters – when we confess our sin, when we kneel at his altar – we receive gratefully what he gives graciously. And by his grace, we too are made alive forevermore. “Give me something to drink” becomes our request to a Lord who has only the best to offer.

Whatever your sin today, whether its 5 husbands plus, a betrayal of trust, or a lie you've convinced yourself is true. Perhaps worry or fear, or doubt, or all three. Perhaps actions or words you wish you could take back. Perhaps a way of thinking you struggle to escape. Whatever your sin, don't try to hide it from the Lord or change the subject. He cannot be fooled.
Instead, confess it, and receive from him the living waters, that blessed flood in Jesus Christ. For the Messiah has come to you, to give you something to drink. Receive it in faith! Amen.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Sermon - Lent 2 - John 3:1-17

Lent 2
John 3:1-17

He just doesn't get it. But that doesn't stop Nicodemus from baring his soul before Jesus. “How can this be?”

As I grow older, I often marvel at how wise I am now compared to how foolish I was then. But then, every year I seem to learn that I really wasn't all that wise last year. (I can't imagine when I have the years of wisdom of Pastor Poppe). But I think for all of us there are times when we have to come humbly before the Lord and admit we don't have it all figured out. We bare our souls like a child, humbly asking how and why and when, Lord?

Nicodemus was a pharisee. Much like a professor of theology in that day. Respected for his age and wisdom. A pillar of the community. Seen as a wise man – certainly no young upstart. But here he was coming at night to find out what made this Jesus tick. He had questions, but the answers, too, would confound him.

Jesus, this country preacher from Galillee, probably 20 or 30 years his junior... with no authority of culture and institution behind him, and no official connection with the temple. But Jesus was doing things that no one could explain. His miracles, signs and wonders... these were the calling cards that got Nicodemus' attention. “We know that you are from God, for no one can do such things without God” Well he knew that much, but there was much more he didn't know.

Today some might call Nicodemus a “seeker”. But he wasn't part of the kingdom, at least not yet. Jesus took the opportunity to instruct the wise teacher, and all of us, in some of the basic truths of the faith. And while we are part of that kingdom, we too have much to learn from this night-time discourse.

Perhaps the most basic truth here is the one that we know the best. The “Gospel-in-a-nutshell” passage, John 3:16. Yes, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is why Jesus has come – for the love of God – for a world that is perishing – for Nicodemus, and for us. This truth, so simple, yet so profound, has made even the wisest men wonder. But there is so much more to the kingdom.

Let's back up. Nicodemus approaches Jesus and begins with flattery, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." Skillful politics here, buttering Jesus up? Or is this an honest admission that he really is impressed with Jesus' works?

Either way, Jesus shrugs off this flattery and gets to the point. He is not really interested in being praised. He is, always, the servant. Nicodemus needs to see the kingdom, and Jesus nudges him toward it. You need to be born again, Nicodemus.

Have you ever had that question? “Are you born again?” Usually asked by a Christian of a certain theological persuasion... what does it mean? Have you had a conversion experience? Have you given your life over to Jesus? Are you not one of those luke-warm nominal believers, but a real, true, on-fire, enthusiastic, honest-to-God Christian?

Our Lutheran sensibilities are often puzzled by such a question. We don't want to squelch our friend's excitement, but, most of us have been Christians, and Lutherans for our whole life. We haven't had that moment of scales falling from our eyes. We haven't had that mountaintop experience. We never decided to ask Jesus into our heart. We're not really born-again. Or are we?

What is Jesus talking about here, “born again”? That's what Nicodemus wants to know. That's what we need to know. For we certainly want to see the kingdom. We want to be a part of God's people.

He tells us more: “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit”. And this can only mean one thing – Holy Baptism.

How many of our “Born Again” friends would be shocked to know that Jesus' words here are in the context of a discussion on Holy Baptism. Not conversion experiences or Pauline moments of blindness turned to sight. Just simple water and a few words (though very special words). Holy Baptism, this precious gift, forgives sins, works faith, and yes, brings you into the kingdom. Oh, and by it, we are born again. Not of the flesh, but of the Spirit.

And yet, I think many of us Lutherans think of and treat Baptism wrongly. Like most of God's gifts which we take for granted, Baptism is often far from our mind. Why is it, that we turn the gift into a requirement, a hoop to jump through, in order to have all our Christian ducks in a row. Why do we think of baptism as something long ago that happened to me, a nice historical event but nothing relevant to my life today? Why is it, that only on their death-beds, do many finally look toward the comfort of baptism?

Speaking of death-beds, Monday the 18th is Martin Luther's death-day. So in honor of the great reformer, maybe we should hear what he says about baptism:

Thus it appears what a great, excellent thing Baptism is, which delivers us from the jaws of the devil and makes us God's own, suppresses and takes away sin, and then daily strengthens the new man, and is and remains ever efficacious
until we pass from this estate of misery to eternal glory.

For this reason let every one esteem his Baptism as a daily dress in which he is to walk constantly, that he may ever be found in the faith and its fruits,that he suppress the old man and grow up in the new.

For if we would be Christians, we must practise the work whereby we are Christians. But if any one fall away from it, let him again come into it. For just as Christ, the Mercy-seat does not recede from us or forbid us to come to Him again, even though we sin, so all His treasure and gifts also remain. If,therefore we have once in Baptism obtained forgiveness of sin, it will remain every day, as long as we live, that is, as long as we carry the old man about our neck. (from Luther's Large Catechism)

So we need the daily gifts of baptism just as much as Nicodemus
did. We need the rebirth from sin just as much as that old pharisee with all his
questions and conflicts. We need not only the answers from the great teacher
Jesus, but we need also the gifts of his kingdom, that he came to bring.

Sin would have us outside of the kingdom, but God's grace in Christ brings us in. The devil, that wiley serpent, would confuse and confound us with his lies, but Jesus comes full of grace and truth. For Jesus was lifted up, like the serpent in the desert, that we might look to his cross, and to him, and believe.

Therefore daily, even this day, let us look to Christ, and receive thankfully his gifts. Let us by repentance and faith drown the Old Man – our sinful nature – there in the font of our baptism, and see the new man arise, to live before God in righteousness and purity, in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Revitalization: Numbers vs. Faithfulness

Permit me a rant.

In our recent letter from the LCMS president's office, the process of congregational "revitalization" was highly touted. I heard a similar case for revitalization at our district office not too long ago.

I have a problem with "Revitalization". It's largely a problem of assumptions.

Both our district presentation and the president's letter begin by uncorking statistics which illustrate the declining numbers - of membership, in worship, and in giving - among us. The not-so-subtle message is, "declining numbers=devitalization".

But the word "vital" means having to do with life. And I challenge the notion that life in the church should be measured by such numbers. In fact, it is possible that even when "numbers are increasing", that life is fading away.

I would much rather see a qualitiative analysis about the health and life of our congregations. How well are we teaching the word of God? How are we receiving it? Are we thankful for the gifts God gives us? Are we anxious and worried about tomorrow? Are we faithful in our administration of word and sacrament?

Granted, these sorts of things are harder to measure. And to the extent that we apply the law (a very Lutheran thing to do) we will always find failure. And to the extent that we apply the Gospel, we will always see God's grace even in the midst of worldy "failures".

That's what's missing from all the talk of revitalization. The true source of vitality and life is the grace of God found in his word and sacraments as promised. Where's all the talk of this? Why all the focus on numbers? Is it just because they are easier to see? Or is it a lack of faith that even when numbers dwindle, God will preserve his remnant, that his word will have its desired effect, and so forth?

To be sure, worship attendance, adult confirmations, Christians sharing their faith, and all the other goals of this "revitalization" are good things. No one, even the most stodgy confessional/conservative pastor revels in seeing declines or stagnation in these numbers.

But some are good works that are the necessary fruits of faith - flowing from a right teaching of the Gospel. And these cannot (or at least SHOULD not) be made to happen by law-based programs and gimmicks.

And some numbers (like number of adult converts) are simply out of our control. How does one "revitalize" a community in population decline, or in economic recession? When the main industry in town shuts down a plant, it can affect your numbers in a way that now well-meaning church consultant can palliate.

Oh the temptation to speak of "success" in terms of numbers. How many people, even pastors who should know better, speak and think this way. I heard it myself at the district office the other day. "Oh, when I was there, that congregation was successful - but now the numbers are declining".

I suppose Jesus wasn't successful when many of his followers deserted him? Maybe he needed to revitalize himself. Palm Sunday, oh that was successful. But Good Friday, the numbers dwindled. Not so successful?

Oh that's right - he did "revitalize"- he rose from the dead.

And that, perhaps, is what I find insulting about all the talk of congregational revitalization. Those who insist it is so necessary are subtly stating that some congregations are not vitalized, are dying, or are dead. But they measure this not by faithfulness to scripture and our confessions and to God, but they measure it by who's in the pews.

As another wise pastor told me, "the times I have seen the most spiritual growth have often been times of declinging numbers".

Numbers vs. Faithfulness. These, I see are the competing values in the LCMS today. If we aim for faithfulness the numbers will follow - IF IT IS GOD'S WILL. But if we aim for numbers, we are in sorry shape, measuring success by a worldly and not godly standard. Let us, instead, be faithful. That's what our Lord desires.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sermon - Lent 1 - Matthew 4:1-11

“Garden and Wildnerness”
Matthew 4:1-11 (Genesis 3:1-21)

Today is the first Sunday in the church season of Lent. It is a penitential time, in which we focus seriously on our Lord as suffering servant, paschal sacrifice, a man of sorrows. It is a time of deep and somber meditation, in which we also reflect on our sinfulness, though not forgetting his mercies in Christ.

This 40 day period of Lent traditionally begins with the Gospel reading about Jesus' 40 day period of temptation in the wilderness. And so we have Matthew's account of it today. And our system of readings also, very purposefully, chooses the Genesis account of man's fall into sin as the Old Testament passage for the day. What a wonderful pairing, as we reflect today on the first Adam and the Second Adam, and on the garden and the wilderness.

So much of what Jesus does is loaded with meaning. We can never underestimate the significance of his actions for us. Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness for a time of fasting and temptation. This is no coffee break. The rugged terrain was not hospitable for human existence. But the spiritual terrain was about to get even rockier.

Jesus is tempted. Satan himself takes the challenge, and in Jesus' moment of weakness, tempts him first with physical food. And the bells should be going off as we read this.

For Satan once tempted another human with food – famously – in the Garden of Eden. The forbidden fruit. From the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There Satan succeeded in his efforts, and woman and man fell into the misery of his company. Ever since, the tempter had been harassing the children of Adam – drawing and enticing them to all kinds of evil.

And he tempts us too. Don't think that he doesn't. If the evil one has the audacity to challenge the Lord Jesus himself, don't think somehow you are off limits. True, we don't know when it's the devil providing the temptation, for it may also be the sinful world or our own sinful self to blame. But nonetheless, our adversary delights in seeing us sin, in trying to fill our bellies and souls with anything that is not good or good for us.

Man cannot live by bread alone, Jesus counters, but man does live by the Word of God. Though we, like Adam and Eve, fall prey to temptations right and left, Jesus was victorious over the Tempter. We can only find victory over temptation through him. And we can only find forgiveness for our failures in him, and we can only live in his word.

Yes, in his word. The forgiving word of absolution. The promising words of the Lord's Supper. The claiming words of his own name placed on us at baptism. This word is the true food of wisdom, for he himself, is the very bread of life. We do not live on bread alone, or really at all. But we are made alive and we do live in each day in Jesus.

There, in the Garden of Eden, the first man and the first woman broke the first command at the first temptation. There, death, spiritual and physical, first came into the world. What a dark day it was. Perhaps the worst day ever. The beginning of all your bad days was there.

But then, there was also hope. For in the midst of the curse, even before he curses man and woman, God makes a promise, that one day the woman's offspring, her descendant, her seed – would crush the head of the serpent.

Here, in the wilderness, the gloves are off, and Satan's first confrontation with the Savior ends decisively. Three times, the tempter is foiled. Three times he is defeated by the word of God, spoken by the Living word. And no small victory this was – the first time a human had ever faced the devil and won. In the reversal of Adam's fall, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, comes to restore what was lost in Eden, to bring life to a land of death, hope to despair, and victory to those lost in sin. Now it was the tempter whose day was ruined.

That victory in the wilderness foretold, of course, of an even greater victory on another dark day. When the serpent's head was truly crushed under the weight of the cross. When Jesus death on the tree erased the sin that came by the tree of knowledge. When the fruits of the forbidden fruit were put away for all.

And then, in the garden where they laid him in a borrowed tomb, Jesus would rise to life again – thus guaranteeing life to all his people. So death, that interloper which came with sin into the garden of Eden is made no more in the garden of the resurrection.

Adam and Eve were banned from paradise, evicted from the garden for their sin. They were made to go outside the domesticated fruit groves of Eden, pleasing to the eye and good to eat – cast out into the wild of thorns and thistles. And an angel with a flaming sword barred the way back.

Jesus goes willingly to the wilderness. Away from food and comfort and he goes alone. He goes there to bring us back from the wilderness of our sins. To rescue Adam and Eve and all their children, restoring us to paradise. No fire-brandishing angel bars the gate for us any longer. Instead they sing at his joyous birth, announce his blessed resurrection, and they will accompany his return in glory.

As our forty day Lenten sojourn begins, the mood is thoughtful, serious, even perhaps tense. We go with him into the wilderness. We come face to face with sin and temptation, and recognize our powerlessness before the old evil foe. But Jesus has won the victory. He defeats the devil in the Judean wilderness, and in the garden of resurrection. He restores paradise and all that was lost in sin. He brings life again. Welcome back from the wilderness. Welcome to the garden, in Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Dubuque Church TLH Stunt

An unnamed Lutheran congregation (apparently ELCA) in Dubuque, Iowa, has what can only be described as a "stunt".

This is truly unbelievable. They are not only going to use the old "red hymnal", they are also going to dress like they did in the 1950's.

What saddens me most is the gross misunderstanding of grace by the author, reflected even in the title. As if grace means endorsing sin.... In fact, grace is meaningless without sin. When you take away all the sins... there is nothing left to forgive.

Let's not do as we feel Jesus would do. Let's read his word (in its entirity) and follow the whole counsel of God - regarding both sin AND grace.