Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sermon - Epiphany 3 - Mark 1:14-20

Mark 1:14-20
“Be a Fish, Cast a Net”

Have you ever heard one of those big fish stories? Someone who went out to catch the big one, but after a mighty struggle, it got away. The “big fish story” has become a handy metaphor for all kinds of exaggerated tales people tell. It's a kind of tall-tale that gets a chuckle, but isn't taken too seriously.

When Jesus speaks of fish and fishing in today's Gospel, it's no tall tale. But it is a big fish story of another sort. Jesus calls fishermen to be among his first disciples, and sees in them a living metaphor to describe his kingdom. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men”, he calls.

And so as we have read this passage over the years, we are told again and again that we too better get out there and start fishing – for Jesus calls us all to be fishers of men, to share the good news, to catch people for his kingdom, to preach the gospel..... but not so fast.

Let's back the metaphor up for a minute. Let's understand its parts. Then maybe we can get a better sense of what Jesus really means, how he calls us, and what he calls us to.

Jesus has the kingdom on his mind. It was the main content of his preaching. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” It's as if he's saying, “All right everyone, I have finally arrived. I am the king, after all. And I am here to establish my reign and rule. But my kingdom is not of this world. So my kingdom is different. I don't rule by force and coercion. I won't even make you pay me taxes. But I do call you to repent, to turn around, turn away from your sins. And turn to me. Trust in me. And the good news is this: I am here for you. I will die for you. I will rise from the dead for you. And believing in me, you will have eternal life.”

This kingdom, this reign and rule of God in the hearts of men, is part and parcel of Jesus himself. And so most of his parables and teaching focused on just what the kingdom was. What it was like, and how we are to get it or be in it.

So now, the fishing story. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men”. If that's the case, then people are fish. And to be “caught” is to come to faith. The net is the very gospel itself. And I would even suggest the boat is the church, where believers are gathered together for safe passage.

Perhaps you've seen a church sign which tries to pick up on this metaphor – the sign that says something like, “Be fishers of men. You catch 'em, he'll clean 'em” And while it may be a clever attention-getter, it's not quite scripturally accurate. Jesus does the cleaning of the fish, that's for sure. Through his word, and in the sacraments, he cleanses us from sin, purifies and makes us holy.

But it's not for us to catch the fish. We simply cast the net. Remember when Jesus met his disciples when they were out all night fishing, and having no luck. Remember how he told them to cast on the side of the boat just one more time. And to humor him, they did so – only to catch a miraculous bounty of fish that even began to burst the net? They could never have caught those fish alone – indeed, they didn't really do anything except follow Christ's instructions. But he made the miracle happen. They simply pulled in the catch.

We don't make people believe. We simply share the gospel. We, the church, that is, share the good news about Jesus, and the Spirit works faith when and where he will. Sometimes people reject the message, the fish that got away, if you will. But nonetheless we follow Christ's instructions, and baptize and teach the word to all nations. We do this in remembrance of him, for the forgiveness of our sins. We forgive sins on earth so that they are forgiven in heaven. We cast the net of the gospel into the sea of sin and the murky depths of this world's foul waters. And he does the miracle. He brings in the catch. He builds his church.

All of us, before we are fishermen, must be fish. We are, without him, lost in the murky depths of our sin. We don't necessarily even know it, since we were born into these dark depths. What fish could know that there's a whole world above, a different life on land and in sky? We must be, and are continually, “caught” in the net of his gospel. We are called to repent and believe, again and again. His kingdom comes to us, through his word, through our faith, by his grace. And so he cleans us. And so he instructs us, and calls us further to serve him and his kingdom.

Now, those first disciples were called to be fishers of men in a very public sense. They were the first pastors of the church. They were called to preach, that is, to cast the net of the gospel. After Jesus' ascension they and their successors established churches throughout the world. Schools of fish were brought into the nets, and into the ark of the Christian church.

And while everyone is called to faith, and while each believer must be continually caught in the net, not all are called to be pastors. You are, however, part of the crew. While it's not your task to preach the gospel, you can share privately the hope that is within you, when given the opportunity.

And if those opportunities seem rare, fear not and guilt not, for you are still part of the crew. You can, and you do, support the preaching and teaching of the word. Through your gifts and service and time and talents, you may not be the one throwing the net, but you are in the boat helping out. You support the ministry of the church. You pray for the gospel to have free course, and for sinners to repent and believe.

But most of all you are a fish, we all are, that needs continual catching and cleaning by the Great Fisherman. If a fish is caught in the everyday sense, his life is over. A fish out of water soon dies from lack of oxygen, and ends up as the restaurant special on Friday. But in the kingdom, things are different. We, his fish, are found safe and secure in his net, and on his boat. We are actually rescued from death in the water, and with him we live forever. He gives himself in the meal, for us to eat and drink. When we are caught by him, our life isn't over, it begins anew.

So repent and believe in him. Be a part of his kingdom, be a fish in his net, and fish for others when and how you can, according to your calling, and to the glory of his name. And with all the faithful, he will catch you and clean you again and again. In His Name, Amen.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

ND District Convention

I just received word from a friend of mine with some updates on the North Dakota District convention. This is the first convention of this cycle, in which all the districts are set to meet. Here's what he reports:


We just heard the presentation on restructuring. They had a nice format and presented 20 proposed changes, each with a basis for the proposed change and the consequences. President Kieschnick and 1st Vice President Diekelman are here, also Matt Harrison and Thomas Zehnder. They then had a Q/A time where we went through each proposal. The proposals were more detailed than what we'd seen before, but not always. The session was video taped and they may be placing it online. I'll check on that.

Of special interest is a proposal that would rename the Synod: The Lutheran Church - USA. They also would like to reduce the number of districts to around 25, with 5 geographic regions. The vice-presidents of Synod would be elected, one from each region. Also, members of the Board of Directors would be elected from each region. They propose that a 2/3 vote would be needed to pass a doctrinal resolution at convention. Also that all the boards of Synod would be replaced with two advisory committees: International Advisory Committee and National Advisory Committee. They would like to end term limits for all synodical and district offices. They would like to have Synod conventions every 4 years, with terms of 4 years for all offices.

One more thing. Concerning representation at district and synod conventions, they would like to allow congregations to send one pastoral delegate and one non-ordained delegate to district conventions. The non-ordained delegate could be a commissioned minister. Also, they would like to give a lay vote for each congregation in a dual or multi-point parish. And for congregations with more than 1000 members, they propose that they would be given 2 additional votes at a district convention.


The entire presentation (powerpoint) is now available on the website. Follow this link to view it:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sermon - Epiphany 2 - 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

1 Corinthians 6:12-20
“Sins of the Body”

We in the church are sometimes accused of preaching too much on some topics and not enough on others. The truth is, we preachers are human, and all too often take the easy way, the old comfortable topics, the well-worn paths. And so was I tempted to do the same today. It would be easy to preach a sermon about following Jesus, like Samuel in the Old Testament, or Phillip and Nathanael in the Gospel reading. But then there's that Epistle. Paul talking to the Corinthians about sexual immorality. What a good topic for the preacher to avoid! We could play it safe today, or we could address that topic which is difficult to speak about, and also hits us very personally.

Sometimes it's the topic that is uncomfortable that needs to be addressed. The hard truths we need to hear. And Scripture pulls no punches, so why should we? Let's consider, carefully, Paul's words to the Corinthians, and to us, concerning sexual immorality, and just how we Christians should consider our bodies – as temples of the Holy Spirit!

The church in Corinth was surrounded by sexual immorality. Corinth was the ancient equivalent of Las Vegas, a sort of “sin city”. The temple to the love goddess Aphrodite was there, and it did a brisk business. The church of Corinth would have been constantly tempted to remain in their old pagan ways. There was also a strain of Greek philosophy that believed only the spirit mattered, and you could do whatever you want with your body. Like a bird in a cage, the “good soul” was freed from the evil body at death, so they taught, therefore bodily degradation was no big deal.

But God who created the soul also created the body. And it is the whole person that Jesus came to redeem. Not just our spirits, but our bodies are his, and are saved by him. So sexual immorality matters to God. It is not just a physical matter, but a spiritual one too.

I don't need to tell you the state of our culture. You know as well as I how prevalent this kind of immorality is. It's on our TV and in our magazines. It's in our neighborhoods. It's even in our own homes. I had this sermon pretty well written when the news about our Mayor broke this week.

But we're not here to point fingers at others. We need to hear what God's word tells us.... what hits close enough to home, we have to admit this kind of sin in our own hearts.

When we apply the 6th commandment, we must recognize that all forms of sexual sin are condemned by God. It's not just wives and husbands cheating on each other, but it's living together outside of marriage. It's homosexual activity and divorce. It's the lust in our hearts and the wandering sinful thoughts of our minds. Pornography. The degradation of women and men, and the failing of husbands and wives to truly love each other. All of this, and any other sexual sin, comes out of our sinful nature, our corrupted flesh.

There is something insidious about this kind of sin. Paul says every other sin is outside of ourselves, but this kind of sin is against our own bodies. The Greeks rationalized it away, saying it didn't matter what you do with your body, it's the spirit inside that counts. And we can rationalize it, you see, by saying, “Oh, it's not hurting anyone else”, and “how can love be wrong?” and “It's no one else's business but mine”, or “It's a biological need”. But none of this will do. Sure, these are sins that come cloaked in the costume of love, but they are not loving. They come soaked in the promise of pleasure, but the pleasure they bring is impure.

God designed us, male and female, for each other, for that love to be expressed in a godly way, in the bounds of marriage. And in our sinfulness we find ways to twist this good thing into all sorts of evil. Male and female, we must confess. Young and old, we must confess. In thought, word, and deed, we must confess our sins. We must repent of these sins of the body, and every other kind of transgression.

For each of these sins, in its own way, is a sin of unfaithfulness. Unfaithfulness to our wedding vows. Unfaithfulness perhaps to our future spouse. Unfaithful to ourselves, and certainly to our Lord. We cheat in so many ways, defiling the body God has given us, all the while excusing and hiding it, hoping not to be exposed.

But like Adam and Eve with their fig leaves, our shabby coverings will not hide these sins, secret as we may think they are. Our conscience knows them, and our Lord knows them. But also like Adam and Eve, who were given animal skin clothes, we too can find a sufficient covering only from our Lord. Only he can deal adequately with these, or any other kinds of sin. We can hide only in his grace and mercy. We can be saved in our bodies of sin, only by him who gave his body and blood for us all.

Jesus' body, given at the cross, cleanses our bodies of sin. His body broken brings wholeness to our brokenness. His purity for our impurity. His body and blood are the price paid for us, to buy us back from our self-inflicted prostitution to all things unlawful. His body and soul for our body and soul. His whole self to save our whole self.

And if your body is a temple, as Paul says, isn't it only Jesus who cleanses the temple? He casts out immorality and sin, renovates the heart, and sets up shop there with his own Holy Spirit. He turns over the tables of our immorality and calls us to live in him, to follow him. Rather than following the desires of the flesh, we flee from them. Rather than indulging in whatever feels good, we seek to glorify God with our bodies.

This, of course, is no easy task. Indeed, on our own it is impossible. Only with and by the Holy Spirit within us can we live in accord with His will. The Spirit who guides us, directs us, works through the Word to strengthen our faith, and to keep us trusting in Christ, and expressing that faith in a life which respects the gifts God gives – love and marriage, soul and body. The spirit, not a bird in a cage, but the one who appeared as a dove dwelling inside us to bring us blessings and strength and holiness even here in this life.

And here's another promise. Jesus joins our bodies with his own, in death and in resurrection. Rather than uniting with a prostitute, we Christians are joined with Christ in a holy union. Indeed, he is the bridegroom, and we the church, are his bride. In this holy matrimony of heaven and earth, the love is pure and perfect. In this spiritual union, we are connected to Christ for eternity. And we look forward to the consummation of this blessed marriage when he comes again in glory, fulfilling all things. The “marriage feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which shall have no end”.

Therefore, honor God with your bodies. Flee sexual immorality. You were bought with a price, you are not your own. Live in accord with who you are – who Christ has made you to be, with the Spirit's guidance, to the Glory of God the Father, Amen.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Sermon - New Year's Eve

Romans 8:31-39
New Year's Eve
December 31, 2008
“On the Making of Lists”

Are you as sick of it as I am? The yearly ritual of new years week – the making of lists. Lists of the top 10 new stories of 2008. The biggest celebrity fashion disasters. The top 100 songs, the best TV moments. Blah blah blah....

But I suppose it's natural for us human beings to take stock once in a while, to look back and count, do an inventory, and then look to the future. We are beings created to live in time, and we couldn't exist without it. So we mark the milestones, the calendars, the passage of days, months, years. It all goes back, in a way, to the 4th day of creation when God set the heavenly bodies up there to mark out our time.

So here we are on a secular holiday, gathered in God's house. It shows that for us Christians, anytime is a good time to hear God's word and meditate on it, and to pray for his future blessings. But now, the end of the year, seems an especially good time to do so.

I'm not sure if 2008 will go down in history as anything special. I don't know what the biggest thing that happened this year was. I suppose it depends on who you ask. But I do know this. 2008 was a year in which God worked wonders for his people, brought people to faith, brought them home in the faith. A year in which sinners came to repentance and in which people were baptized and sealed with the Holy Spirit. A year, just like any other year, in which God has been good to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Romans 8 seems a good passage for us tonight. It's meant to assure of of God's everlasting love for us in Jesus. And if we want to make lists, this is a list-y kind of passage. It starts with a list of rhetorical questions. Let's ask them, and answer them, one by one:

What then shall we say to these things?

What things? All the blessings of salvation Paul has so far described to the Roman Christians. What shall we say in response to those blessings? Paul is about to say it -

If God is for us, who can be against us?
The simple answer to this is, “no one”. Though some would oppose us – in the past or the future – no one can really, ultimately, stand up to us with our God on our side.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

A: He will graciously give us all things. He already gave us his best – his own Son Jesus Christ. And while everything else pales in comparison to that gift, it does show the giving and merciful character of the Father – who wants to give us good things.

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?

A: No one. Not Satan, that's for sure. No sin can be held against us. They are all forgiven in Christ.

It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?

A: Again, no one. We stand holy and righteous and blameless and just before God. In his courtroom, we are not guilty, because our advocate Jesus Christ has served the sentence of death in our place.

Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?

A: Again, no one can. No thing can. With the Lord of All Creation going to God on our behalf – interceding for us, there is nothing to fear. We will never be separated from God's love in Christ.

Shall tribulation?

No, though it may come, and often has come to Christians. In fact, in times of tribulation the church has usually grown. In personal times of tribulation, God tends to grow the individual's faith. Think of the tough times from your past, maybe this year, and how God has carried you through. Nothing can separate you from his love.

What about distress? No.

or persecution? Nope.

or famine? No, we have the bread from heaven.

or nakedness? No, we have the robe of righteousness.

or danger? No, he delivers us from evil.

or sword? No, we have the shield of faith.

But the Romans faced all these things. They were persecuted, tortured, thrown to lions, made a gruesome display to satisfy the cruelty of wicked men. Some of the unspeakable tribulations they faced aren't fit to mention publicly. But Paul assures these people of faith that God loves them, even when all appearances seem to show otherwise. Remember Jesus Christ, and you will remember and know God's love.

There's another list – the list of things that might try and get in the way of that love -

...neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation...
None of it is bigger or stronger than God's love for us in Christ.

As we look back, we Christians can count many things. We could count our sins, which are many. And we would fail to count them all. But we could also count God's blessings, which are even more. And we would fail to count them all. We could count his promises to us, and these in Romans 8 are among the best. And when we're done counting, we can look to the future with a clearer eye, and a stronger faith.

For our God, our help of ages past, is our hope for years to come. We look back to his salvation, accomplished for us at the cross and empty tomb, and we look forward to that future day when he comes again in glory. And for now, we look to his word, to his promises, and to his love, which is always for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.